Anthony Gottlieb, Arthur C Clarke, Becky Chambers, Benjamin Black, books of the year, Bruce Sterling, C.J. Sansom, China Mieville, Christopher Priest, Colin Greenland, Dave Hutchinson, Edmund Crispin, Emma Chambers, Emma Newman, Gerry Canavan, Gwyneth Jones, Helen MacInnes, Iain Banks, Iain R. MacLeod, Joanna Kavenna, John Banville, John Crowley, John Kessel, John Le Carre, Judith A. Barter, Kim Stanley Robinson, Laurent Binet, Laurie Penny, Lavie Tidhar, Lily Brooks-Dalton, m john harrison, Margery Allingham, Mark Fisher, Matt Ruff, Michael Chabon, nina allan, Octavia Butler, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paul Auster, Paul Nash, Rick Wilber, Rob Latham, Steve Erickson, Stuart Jeffries, Tade Thompson, Tricia Sullivan, Ursula K. Le Guin, Yoon Ha Lee
It’s that time of year again, when I dust off this oft-forgotten blog and post a list of my reading through the year, along with other odd comments.
2017 has been, in some respects, a very good year. My first full-length book not composed of previously published material, appeared in May. Iain M. Banks appeared in the series Modern Masters of Science Fiction from Illinois University Press, and has received some generally positive reviews, much to my relief.
Also this year I signed a contract with Gylphi to write a book about Christopher Priest, which is likely to take most if not all of the next year. In addition, I’ve put in a proposal for another volume in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction; the initial response has been quite good so I’m hoping I’ll have more to report in the new year. So, in work terms, it looks like the next couple of years are pretty much taken care of.
In terms of reading, even though I’ve cut down on the amount I’m reviewing, I’m not getting through anywhere near as many books as I used to do when I was commuting. Here’s the list. Not quite 60 titles is one of the lowest totals in more years than I can recall, even though I have omitted an awful lot of other books read as award submissions or some such, where I did not conscientiously read every word. As usual, the books I rate highest are in bold.
1: Sovereign by C.J. Sansom – For the last couple of years I’ve been reading through Sansom’s Shardlake novels. The series as a whole is giving me great pleasure, though I do seem to be getting ever closer to the end.
2: Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke – I don’t normally do this (and when I start I usually don’t manage to follow through), but in honour of Clarke’s 100th birthday I thought I’d re-read a number of his books during the year. This one was better than I remember.
3: The Last Days of New Paris by China Mieville – I so wanted this to be better than it was. But it came across to me as lots of obscure surrealist artists being namechecked within a mess of a story.
4: Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny – It’s a neat idea, about longevity treatment creating a new class division, time-rich vs time-poor. But it’s not developed as fully as I’d hoped, we get no real sense of the reality of life for the time-poor. And Penny gets distracted by the idea of undercover cops having sexual relationships with the people they are spying on, something of a scandal in the UK not so long ago, and she makes too much of it so that it tends to overwhelm the book.
5: The Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin – I’ve been reading the Earthsea books aloud to Maureen on car journeys, they work well read aloud.
6: Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson – I wrote about this for the Shadow Clarke jury.
7: Dashing for the Post by Patrick Leigh Fermor – I wrote about this on the blog.
8: A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – More of my re-read.
9: The Dream of Enlightenment by Anthony Gottlieb – It is more years than I care to remember since I last studied philosophy. A lot of the stuff I learned then has stayed with me, but I haven’t really kept up. So I thought I would give Gottlieb’s books a try, particularly since they seem to have received good reviews. This one covers my introductory course, from Descartes to Hume. It reads like an updating of Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy: gobbets of biography, a taste of their thought, and some commentary on it. Though I think Gottlieb is rather less generous than Russell, since he clearly doesn’t like most of his subjects and is very eager to show how they are all wrong (the exception being, perhaps inevitably, Hume, whose robust common sense seems to have survived better than most of his contemporaries).
10: Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling – Set in Fiume over several months at the height of D’Annunzio’s take-over of the city. From what I can gather, the account of what was
going on in the city at this time is pretty accurate (though Sterling has a habit of making D’Annunzio’s politics sound more communist than fascist). The only alternate history elements of the book occur on the fringes: Hitler has been killed, Mussolini has been incapacitated, and, most intriguing of all, Harry Houdini, H.P. Lovecraft and Robert
E. Howard are American secret service agents. But he doesn’t say what brought about these changes in history (they don’t seem to be in any way a consequence of D’Annunzio’s takeover of Fiume), nor does he show any interest in exploring the consequences of these historical changes. The only way I could get near to deciding there was any point in the book was when I noticed that he consistently uses “pirate” as a term
of high praise, if we substitute “hacker” for “pirate” we see exactly where he’s coming from. A fun book, but pointless.
11: Paul Nash edited by Emma Chambers – The catalogue of the Paul Nash exhibition I wrote about here.
12: Occupy Me by Tricia Sullivan – Which I wrote about for the Shadow Clarke jury.
13: The Sands of Mars by Arthur C. Clarke – Which surprisingly turned out on re-reading to be one of my favourites of his novels.
14: Buried for Pleasure by Edmund Crispin
15: Frequent Hearses by Edmund Crispin – Around the end of March/beginning of April I was ill for a while, and these are perfect reading for such an occasion.
16: New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson – In my review for Interzone I wrote that this “is probably the best novel Kim Stanley Robinson has written in a good few years, but that doesn’t mean it is free of the besetting sins (and virtues) that have become all too typical of his work. Names are often clunky: one poor character is saddled with the impossible name Muttchopf, just so he and his partner can be referred to as Mutt and Jeff throughout. The police inspector, a large black woman, is called Octaviasdottir, a knowing but unconvincing reference to Octavia Butler. Then again, there are peculiar literary references all through the novel, “pynchonpoetry” to describe a vista, “melvillemood” to describe an evening, that ring false every time they appear. There’s the all too familiar tendency to send his characters off on a scenic tour every now and again, as if we can’t be relied upon to visualise the scene unless he rhapsodizes about it. And there’s the now obligatory structural experimentation, in this instance a modification of the straight lift from John Dos Passos he employed in 2312: an extensive selection of quotations, real or fictional, between each chapter; and occasional chapters headed “a citizen” or “that citizen” or even “the city” in which Robinson editorialises about how the world got to be in the state it is, chapters that become more knowing, more self-referential and more irritating as the novel progresses.” As often with Robinson, it’s a novel that seems to diminish in retrospect.
17: Red Snow by Iain R. MacLeod – Which I reviewed for Locus, where I wrote: “It’s a fragmentary novel, not quite a fix-up (though the story of Ezekial has appeared previously), but not entirely coherent as a novel either. It is only in the last third, when Harry takes over from Haupmann as the central character, that the novel really manages to engage emotionally as well as intellectually. One of the side-effects of vampirism is that its victims become cold, and that is too often the emotional affect of the characters as well. And yet, despite these doubts, this remains one of the richer and more rewarding literary investigations of the idea of vampirism.”
18: The Moon and the Other by John Kessel – I reviewed this for BullSpec, though I’ve no idea if the review ever appeared. My review concluded: “This is an extraordinarily subtle novel. Characters act wrong-headedly for the best of reasons, or act sensibly for the worst of reasons. Our sympathies are directed towards the Society of Cousins only because its innumerable faults and flaws are clearly displayed. No individual or group acts according to a simple, straightforward motivation. Those whose desires and actions place them most firmly on one side or another, actually want nothing to do with either side. Violence does not work, except that violence may be the only way to end an impasse. It is a novel filled with contradictions, because it is a novel about the other, and everyone is the other.”
19: Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones – I reviewed this novella for Strange Horizons.
20: Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton – Another book I reviewed for the Shadow Clarke jury.
21: Alien Morning by Rick Wilber – I found this very disappointing. It is so clearly the first volume in a trilogy that absolutely nothing in the plot is resolved. And the writing is pedestrian.
22: Rosewater by Tade Thompson – On the other hand, this is superb. It really should have picked up a handful of awards as the best novel of 2016.
23: Grand Hotel Abyss by Stuart Jeffries – I read this mostly out of ignorance: I knew who the Frankfurt School were, but I knew practically nothing about what they did. This book fills in some of the detail, but rather less than I’d hoped. The book is interesting, but ultimately frustrating. (And while I was reading it I kept thinking to myself that someone should produce a similar work on the Vienna Circle, and lo, I saw such a book reviewed just the other week, though so damningly that I’m not sure I’ll pursue it.)
24: Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – Yes, it is as good as I remember.
25: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar – This won the Campbell, and I wouldn’t have objected if it won the Clarke. I reviewed it for the Shadow Clarke jury.
26: A Field Guide to Reality by Joanna Kavenna – I liked this a lot. There were a few places where I felt it could do with more substance (the overall McGuffin of the plot feels pretty flabby for a start), but the portrait of an alternate Oxford is distinctly appealing.
27: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers – I continue to be totally mystified by the esteem in which this book and its predecessor are held. This seems to me to be poorly written, poorly conceived, poorly structured, and appallingly condescending in the way it treats otherness of any sort. I described it somewhere as “rising to the searing intellectual level of pink fluffy bedsocks.”
28: America After the Fall edited by Judith A. Barter – The catalogue for an exhibition of American art primarily from the 1930s.
29: The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke – Another one that holds up after all the years.
30: After Atlas by Emma Newman – I wrote about this for the Shadow Clarke jury.
31: The Weird and the Eerie by Mark Fisher – I read this in part because of the attention he received after he died, and in part because one chapter deals with Christopher Priest. But the treatment of Priest is superficial, at best, and the book as a whole feels like a sketch rather than a finished work.
32: Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson – I reviewed this for Strange Horizons.
33: The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet – I liked the idea of this: the death of Barthes investigated as if it were a murder, and various structuralists and deconstructionists appearing as suspects. And in the main it worked well as an entertainment, but there was often a superficiality about it, a preference for playing the philosophy for laughs rather than taking it seriously.
34: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee – I reviewed this for the Shadow Clarke jury.
35: Moonglow by Michael Chabon – I’m a big fan of Chabon’s work which, at its best, is written with an easy style and a fluent imagination that carries the reader along effortlessly. So I was disappointed in his last novel, Telegraph Avenue, not because it was bad but because it was trying too hard. This new novel, a tender exploration of the relationship between Michael and his dying grandfather, a story that covers the last half-century and more and particularly the American moon programme, is a return to form, a delight from start to finish.
36: Octavia E. Butler by Gerry Canavan – Another of the Modern Masters of Science Fiction, and a wonderful account of a writer who seems to have had more than her fair share of troubles. I’ve never had the affection for Butler’s work that others have, but this book convinced me that she deserves the attention.
37: The Rift by Nina Allan – My book of the year.
38: 2001, ASpace Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – Probably one of his biggest sellers, and to my mind one of his worst books.
39: Coroner’s Pidgin by Margery Allingham – I try to read at least one Allingham a year, and this is well up to snuff. I still have no idea what “coroner’s pidgin” might be, but it makes for a complex and engaging story.
40: The Entropy Exhibition by Colin Greenland – I’ve been meaning to read this for 30-odd years, and finally got around to it. An interesting account of the new wave in Britain, though I suspect it has now been superceded.
41: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff – I don’t know why it is: every time I read a Matt Ruff novel I love it, yet he is not one of the writers I automatically pick up. I really must correct that, because on form, as he is here, he uses fantasy to stunning effect.
42: 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Actually better than its predecessor.
43: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin – These books really do suit being read aloud.
44: A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carre – Everyone fell on this book with glee: Smiley returns, what’s not to like. And yet … Look, the chronology does not work; Smiley and Guillam would be much older than they are portrayed here (the Circus seems to have specialized in employing people who would live into impossible old age). Guillam himself behaves like someone considerably younger than his age in the book. And the scenes with the improbably named “Bunny” (these days? Really!) are cringe-makingly bad. But then the story shifts into the past, and all is forgiven, because here is the detailed and convincing spycraft, the oppressive political atmosphere, that first made us delight in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.
45: Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – Great idea, terrible novel.
46: Message from Malaga by Helen MacInnes – I was addicted to MacInnes’s spy novels in my late-teens, early 20s. I rediscovered them a few years ago, and I’m finding them every bit as addictive. This one is relatively late, and her right-wing politics are rather more in evidence than usual, but the storytelling is still high octane stuff.
47: Revelation by C.J. Sansom – How do you write a serial killer novel set in an age when there was no concept of a serial killer? This is a neat intellectual puzzle.
48: Science Fiction Criticism edited by Rob Latham – I reviewed this for Foundation; actually I wrote a 5,000-word essay arguing with it. A fascinating book to argue with.
49: The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke – A surprisingly good novel this late in his career.
50: Totalitopia by John Crowley – I reviewed this at Strange Horizons.
51: Ersatz Wines by Christopher Priest
52: Real-Time World + 2 by Christopher Priest – The research begins.
53: The Hammer of God by Arthur C. Clarke – Lord, this is terrible.
54: You Should Come With Me Now by M. John Harrison – An essential collection.
55: An American Story by Christopher Priest – This isn’t published until next September, but I got a sneak preview. It is a change of pace (note the title), it is also very good.
56: Prague Nights by Benjamin Black – This novel (which the author refers to as an historical fantasy, though there is nothing fantastic in the novel) is almost a sequel to John Banville’s Kepler from a good many years ago: there are continuing characters, and the setting, of course, is the same. Banville has also written non-fiction about Prague, so even if it doesn’t have the atmosphere of Dublin in the Quirke novels, there is still a great sense of reality to the setting. I do like Banville’s Benjamin Black novels.
57: Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruins of Ymr by John Crowley – A beautiful novel about death that is the only rival to The Rift as my novel of the year. The prose is as exquisite as anything Crowley has done to date. And I can understand why Crowley has said it will be the last thing he writes: after this story of repeated journeys into different versions of what we have imagined the afterlife to be, what is there left to write.
58: 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster – I’m thinking I might write a post for this blog about why this novel is several times too long for what it needs to be, and why it does not fulfil its promise. A disappointing end to the year.
And finally there is the question of this blog. I really haven’t kept up with it over the last year; I haven’t even been able to maintain it as an archive of the reviews I’ve had published elsewhere. Is that going to change? I make no promises, because I just don’t know. But I would like to get back to the blog. All we can do is wait and see.
Reblogged this on Paper Knife and commented:
Paul Kincaid being rather more efficient about summarising his year’s reading than I ever manage.
John Kessel said:
Paul: I did not see your review of THE MOON AND THE OTHER but your excerpt here gets at something that I worked hard at imbedding into the story and characters, and it gratifies me immensely that you see it that way. Thanks, and best wishes for the new year.
Chris Priest said:
I’ve only just caught up with your long post about the film of The Pres — dated two years ago. I wasn’t paying attention, and now I see comments are ‘off’. Well, all I wanted to say is that I think you are the first and perhaps only commentator to note the duplicity in the novel of the first word in Borden’s notes. I wondered at the time if that was a clue too many, and thought maybe I shouldn’t make things so obvious so soon! Giving away Nolan’s Big Secret in a single word, at the beginning. and in capital letters too …
However, although I assume many ordinary readers picked up the clue, as far as I can recall no one apart from you has actually pointed it out in print (or whatever it’s called in a blog post).
Speaking of The Pres I am currently engaged in what I could call pre-thinking about a sort of sequel. This is a bit dodgy for all sorts of reasons. I mention it partly because of what you wrote about the film, but also because of your blog post today about sequels and prequels. There is for me an additional factor, which is that I am effectively forbidden by Warner Bros from writing a sequel — as I read and understand the MAMMOTH contract I had to sign with them (or in fact with Newmarket, who transferred the contract to Warner) I would be free to write a sequel, but should I do so it would belong, lock stock and barrel, to them.
That’s an effective way of stopping writers bringing out sequels! Why don’t book publishers put a similar clause in their contracts, so that every book is a standalone? An end at last to “TITLE — the first novel in the thrilling saga of the Mage of Northampton!!” (or whatever).
Anyway, what I’m pre-thinking about is a way of writing a thematic sequel to The Pres, with new characters, new setting, new plot. Partly to avoid any run-in with my masters in Hollywood, but also because I can’t think of anything more dull than retreading a book I wrote nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s not just readers who need a challenge from fiction — writers need being kept awake too.
You can gather from this that I probably agree with you completely about this subject. I always get a bit irritated if someone refers to one of my Dream Arch books as a sequel to one that went before. A large part of the purpose of the DA is to undermine many of the falsities that underlie books that appear in series or sequences or sequels. One is, of course, a total ban on maps (although people have tried), which I oppose in fantasy or SF novels as a matter of principle. Also I try practically to undermine efforts on behalf of the archipelago. One of the stories within The Islanders deals explicitly with a cartographic project in the islands, which is failing and is likely never to succeed. Also, I deliberately move the topography around a bit every time: so that Island X, said in one story to be close to Island Y, is on the other side of the world in the next. Also, major plot elements (e.g. the gravitational anomalies in The Gradual) simply don’t have any relevance in other stories. The very first DA story (‘Whores’, in I think the 1970s) was all about the crippling effect in the islands of synaesthesia, but that doesn’t exist in anything that followed.
I know publishers often request writers to put a map in (“the readers expect it”), but most fantasy writers are all too keen to get one in. You see eager panel discussions at conventions about map-drawing, for instance. I always argue that a properly imagined and well written fantasy (or sf novel) simply doesn’t need a map. A work of literature, deeply imagined, will create its own mental maps in the minds of the readers.
I think there’s a close parallel between fantasy maps and smoking cigarettes! Fantasy maps are a guilty pleasure, but everyone who does them knows it’s bad habit that will kill them one day. Just because it was once socially invisible (e.g. in the Tolkien stuff) doesn’t mean it was safe or attractive even then, and doesn’t make any excuse in the present day for social misfits who insist on carrying on with the disgusting habit. I suggest any novelist who draws, or expects, or allows a map into his/her work should be made to stand outside in the cold and rain, stubbing out their appalling maps with others of their ilk.
You have just seen a bee and a bonnet. (And a tongue and a cheek, perhaps …)
Paul Kincaid said:
That thing about the first word of The Prestige is something I only noticed on re-reading, but then it jumped out at me so dramatically. I must have made essentially the same comment about that opening in two or three different places, and as far as I am aware nobody else has picked up on it. But it was that opening, that first word, that made me pay very close attention to the first page of every one of your novels. Practically the whole of The Gradual is contained within the first page, but nobody seems to notice.
Was “Whores” the first Dream Archipelago story? I’d always assumed that the first one was “The Negation”. This changes my thinking a little.
And for the rest of it: wow, a rethinking of The Prestige would be a very interesting exercise. But I wonder: would we even recognise that one grew out of the other?
Chris Priest said:
According to my ancient records, ‘Whores’ was written in December 1975. ‘The Watched’ was next, October 1976. ‘The Negation’ in January 1977. ‘The Cremation’ in November 1977. ‘The Miraculous Cairn’ (the last of the first tranche) in August 78.
They might have been published in a different order, but I can’t remember.
Most of these stories are more than 40 years old! The sort of realization that makes you sit down suddenly, then as you try to get up you sit down a second time.
Paul Kincaid said:
From reading them, that is not the sequence I would have guessed (although ‘The Miraculous Cairn’, for some reason, always felt like it should come at the end. And that means it’s 40 years since I first read them. Can we stop this chronology thing right now.
‘Also, I deliberately move the topography around a bit every time: so that Island X, said in one story to be close to Island Y, is on the other side of the world in the next. Also, major plot elements (e.g. the gravitational anomalies in The Gradual) simply don’t have any relevance in other stories.’
As someone who occasionally enjoys fictional maps (which I think is more of a reflection of a lifelong fascination with maps than anything else – I’m in 100% agreement with ‘A work of literature, deeply imagined, will create its own mental maps in the minds of the readers.’) I find this profoundly, hilariously brilliant. Although I feel compelled to point out that you’re setting yourself up for reams of bad academic criticism on this topic. The titles practically write themselves: “Heisenberg’s Archipelago: Spatiotemporal Migration in Priest’s Dream Stories”.
Paul Kincaid said:
Hush, that was going to be the title of my book!
But this is par for the course with Priest. Remember that somewhere in Fugue for a Darkening Island there is one little twist, so if you were to cut the book up and arrange the passages in chronological order, it wouldn’t work. He just likes to mess with the minds of his readers.
Max Cairnduff said:
I think your summary of Rendesvouz with Rama is absolutely on the nail. Wonderful concept; terrible writing.
Agreed on 2001 and 2010 too.
Very disappointed to see your views on the Mieville which was among my Christmas presents and which I’m rather looking forward to. I do hope I take to it more than you did.
The Tidhar is very much on my reading list for this year, as is the Kavenna, both (along with Arrival of Missives which made my own end of year list) due to the Shadow Clarke.
Loved Midnight, which came very close to being on my own end of year list. I have the impression Hutchinson is writing a fourth, though it felt to me that he’d ended things in a convincing fashion (and it seems in keeping with the work that some ends remain loose).
Not hugely surprised by the Pennie. She’s a journalist and it’s her first foray into fiction. The flaws you mention seem to be those I’d probably expect.
I got about fifty pages into the Chambers before abandoning it. I think if anything you’re very kind to it.
Re Robinson, I gave up on him a while back due to a sense of being lectured by well-meaning extras from The West Wing. Not sure I’ll be back.
Anyway, all very interesting. I hope you repeat the Shadow Clarke thing – that was gold for me as someone who only reads SF fairly intermittently.
Max Cairnduff said:
Rendezvous. I am an illiterate.