Sunday, 1 February 2015

Reads of 2014

In order to prove I am still alive and am still writing, I have decided to perform the relatively simple act of Writing About Things I Have Read. I set myself two rules when constructing this list: I can't count books I've not finished, including anthologies (meaning I have to ignore One Hundred Years of Solitude, Fanged Noumena and House of Leaves). Blogs don't count, but individual pieces on blogs do. The absolute best book I read last year was The Kindly Ones, which I've already written about.

These aren't in any particular order.

Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood



Disturbing, shocking, moving, DEFINITELY NOT SCIENCE FICTION, and only the second Atwood novel I've read, Oryx & Crake was a superb read. A frightening vision of the future as it very well could turn out, and an equally frightening reflection on the uncomfortable contingency of human domination of the world, and even on the need for something that at least does the job of religion, I cannot recommend this book enough.

The book follows the same character along two narrative lines, one set after the (initially nameless) apocalypse, the other winding its way to the events that leave humanity virtually extinct. As such, we know from the beginning that things aren't going to turn out exactly happily ever after. Depressing, yes, but also oddly, though quietly, hopeful. Not read the sequels yet, though I think I'll make them my next read.


The Rediscovery of Man by Cordwainer Smith


A potent reminder of how imaginative science fiction can be, the criminally under-appreciated Cordwainer Smith (seriously, check out the Wiki. His godfather was Sun Yat-Sen, he was an advisor to President Kennedy and he literally wrote the book on psychological warfare) was a force to be reckoned with. Combining prose that borders on the mythic with an almost uncomfortably heart-felt moral conviction, rooted in his adopted Anglican Christianity, Smith's science fiction is unlike anything I've come across before.

An anthology all set in the same universe, The Rediscovery of Man is reminiscent of Dune with its far-future humanity wracked with decadence and ennui, reliant on the life-extending Santaclara drug, also called 'Stroon', which is found on only one planet in the known universe. The comparisons more or less end there. Humanity is governed by the Instrumentality of Mankind, almost God-like human beings that guard and guide the destiny of the species, defending it from threats that the rest of humanity do not even know exist. There are also the Underpeople, animals radically altered to resemble and think like humans who are used as slaves; the plight of the Underpeople and their struggle for civil rights is one of the major moral, religious and political themes of Smith's stories.

It is very difficult to put in to words how imaginative Smith was. The first story, 'Scanners Live in Vain,' features a caste of modified human beings designed to pilot the great space craft of the Instrumentality, but at the cost of having no sensory perceptions other than sight, meaning they can only communicate by lip-reading and semaphore, and can only tell if they've been damaged by checking the instruments implanted in their chest.

Another story also has a psychic death-ray powered by psychopathic kittens.

Smith was weird, glorious and deserves your attention.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I wasn't expecting to enjoy Neuromancer quite as much as I did. It gets a lot of bad press for being badly written, though conceptually brilliant. I just really liked it. I approached it with a sense of duty, of having to read this book in order to appreciate its impact, and realised that...it's actually quite well written. Yeah, it's a pulp novel at heart, but it's on the better end of the pulp spectrum. Better than a lot of Lovecraft, even. Some of it isn't as well executed as it could have been, but a lot of it really is.

Creepy, uncomfortable, clever. One of the most accurate (thematically at least) predictions of the future in science fiction to date, forgiving him the absence of mobile phones. Powerful and important, its biggest problem for the modern reader is the fact of its impact. So much of it seems utterly clich├ęd now that it only becomes bearable when one remembers that this was the first example in fiction of so much that is now genre convention.

There's little else to say: read it, but don't bother with the sequels.




I remember...I remember that once there was...sunshine...and bird song...and laughter...during the...before the...
*inhuman shrieking*











The Difference Engine by William Gibson & Bruce Sterling


Suffering from a similar fate as Neuromancer in that the scope of its influence somewhat overshadows its own merits as a novel, the saving grace of The Difference Engine is that, on its own, it is much, much better than Neuromancer. A seminal work of alternative history in general, and steampunk generally, depicting a Victorian Britain were Babbage's clockwork computers have brought about sweeping social change. Neither substance nor style overshadow one another, nor do we have to wade through clumsy exposition. The world that Gibson and Sterling have created is one that they only show us glimpses of, hinting at a wider picture without offering us too many details. Frustrating, yes, but the right kind of frustrating.

Forgiving it the narrative laziness of relying on a MacGuffin (the pay off isn't quite worth it, but the coda that follows certainly is), the book's greatest strengths lie in the ideas being presented to the reader. How culture and contingency effects ideology; the relationship between technology, environment and human development; the question of whether or not technology has really made us any more free or simply locked us into a more subtle slavery. The imagery is evocative, the characters a little lacking, perhaps, but the style, concepts and language are excellent, truly excellent throughout.

*

Bringing this to a close, a few other great books I read last year were: The Children of Men by the late Baroness James, The Sadean Woman by the even-later Angela Carter, Accelerando by Charles Stross (number 6 on Noah's list) and the provincial, apocalyptic joy that is John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. 

I will happily accept recommendations for further reading in the comments.

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