It has been a stressful year. Stressful on a national level – watching your own government wilfully commit national suicide with Brexit is something that gets to you in a surprisingly visceral way; and stressful on a personal level – we had builders in to completely remake the kitchen, and though they were wonderfully considerate and did a brilliant job it still meant four months of being constantly on call, constantly aware of other people in the house, constantly living in a building site. Stressful, also, in that the book I’m currently writing on Christopher Priest is proving much more complex than anticipated, so I’m well behind schedule on it. So by Christmas I was exhausted, and looking back it was hard to think if anything good had actually happened during the year.
But of course it had. For a start, my monograph on Iain M. Banks won the BSFA Award, and was shortlisted for the Hugo and Locus Awards. And I signed a contract for a new book on Brian Aldiss, which I will be starting the moment that the Priest book is out of the way. And while the Priest book is proving more recalcitrant than I expected (or at least hoped), it is also proving very satisfying.
And somehow, in the middle of all that, I still managed to read more books than has been my norm of late. As is always the case when I list my reading at the end of each year, I’m only including those books I read carefully all the way through. Those I skimmed or dipped into or started and could not finish, for award reading or research or what have you, don’t make it onto the list. The titles in bold are those that particularly stood out for me, though I haven’t put any of the Priest titles in bold because, well, that would be redundant, wouldn’t it.
Anyway, this is my reading from 2018:
1: Assignment in Brittany by Helen MacInnes, which I wrote about here.
2: Indoctrinaire by Christopher Priest – the research begins …
3: Journey into Fear by Eric Ambler, which I wrote about here.
4: Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest
5: Heartstone by C.J. Sansom, another of the excellent Shardlake novels.
6: The Space Machine by Christopher Priest
7: The Dreams of Bethany Melmoth by William Boyd; I wrote here about why I tend to find Boyd’s short stories so disappointing.
8: Loose Canon by Ian Shircore; not a particularly good book, but it’s about the ever-wonderful songwriting partnership of Pete Atkin and Clive James, and I wrote about it here.
9: The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt: a rather old-fashioned action-adventure story that still rather caught my attention. There are some nice little touches, the casual way it deals with issues of gender and what is normal, the aliens who are liars and tell no consistent story about anything, the “goldilocks” ship that suddenly turns up 500 years later on the edge of the solar system and with only one crew member in place. But too much else is formulaic for the book to really work as well as it should have done.
10: The Stargazer’s Embassy by Eleanor Lerman, which I reviewed at Strange Horizons.
11: Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: I was enchanted by the novel. It really is beautifully written and vivid in the way it describes pregnancy being made progressively more horrible by means of government interference. A satire on the Republican interference on the (literal) female body politic, of course, but then an awful lot of the best sf is satire.
12: The Genius Plague by David Walton. This was the novel that won the Campbell Award this year. It wasn’t my top choice, though it did make my shortlist. I found it a slick, smooth thriller that goes down easily. The characters are attractive, the writing is unexceptional, the story is well-paced. The central conceit, about an Amazonian fungi forming a symbiotic relationship with the human brain, is maybe not totally convincing, but it provides for a vivid enough story. Though I must confess that I found the bits about the workings of the NSA more interesting than the science fictional bits.
13: Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald. A much better novel than its predecessor, but for me it’s still not McDonald at his absolute best.
14: Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown. It is a wonderfully detailed portrait of America in the grip of a dictatorship. Indeed, in some ways it feels like a companion piece to the Louise Erdrich. And yes, we’ve seen this sort of near-future political sf many times before, but it is written with a freshness and an attention to detail that I find both refreshing and convincing. The downside is that it is probably 100 pages longer than it needs to be, as if he is trying to put too much into the novel. And the central character, Sig, does seem to have an ability to get out of the tightest situation with the greatest of ease, which isn’t always convincing. But the sorts of situations he finds himself in, and in particular the way that there are not two sides but many sides in the conflict, and the different alliances are often uneasy and unwelcome, is something that I do find convincing.
15: The Smoke by Simon Ings. I didn’t think this was quite as good as Wolves, which is a pity. I reviewed it for Vector.
16: Grant by Ron Chernow: a massive biography that I wrote about here.
17: Science Fiction Rebels by Mike Ashley. The latest in his seemingly interminable and unfailingly pedestrian history of science fiction magazines, which I reviewed for Science Fiction Studies.
18: Inverted World by Christopher Priest: back to the research …
19: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I came late to this, but boy is it good!
20: An Infinite Summer by Christopher Priest
21: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I continue my efforts to read at least one of Spark’s novels every year, and I wrote about this one here.
22: A Dream of Wessex by Christopher Priest
23: The Glamour by Christopher Priest
24: Shelter by Dave Hutchinson, which I reviewed for Locus.
25: Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor edited by Evita Arapoglou. A catalogue to accompany a most wonderful exhibition of paintings by Nikos Ghika and John Craxton, along with bits and pieces by the inevitable Patrick Leigh Fermor. Craxton’s work in particular, most of which I’d never seen before, absolutely blew me away. I wrote about the exhibition here, and this is a model of how a good catalogue should be, detailed, informative and discursive.
26: The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest
27: Cargo of Eagles by Margery Allingham, which I wrote about here.
28: The Prestige by Christopher Priest
29: The Mind Readers by Margery Allingham
30: The Beckoning Lady by Margery Allingham. More of her satisfying crime stories set in her fascinatingly contained little world.
31: The Extremes by Christopher Priest
32: The Book on the Edge of Forever by Christopher Priest
33: The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor edited by Ian Collins and Olivia Stewart, which I wrote about here.
34: Victorious Century by David Cannadine, which I wrote about here.
35: “IT” Came from Outer Space by Christopher Priest
36: Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? By Lev Parikian. Maureen pressed this book on me, and I’m glad she did. A funny, self-deprecating, revealing and at times moving account of a year spent bird watching, if only all nature writing could be this engaging.
37: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Much as I like Kate Atkinson’s writing, I’d never tried any of her Jackson Brodie novels. I think I was put off by catching a bit of one of the TV adaptations once, and not liking it. But on the page, this one at least if every bit as good, and as convoluted, as you’d expect.
38: The Separation by Christopher Priest
39: Haven by Adam Roberts, a companion to Hutchinson’s Shelter, which I reviewed for Locus.
40: The Real-Town Murders by Adam Roberts, a better book, though I always think Roberts is at his very best when he lets his literary interests take flight (see later).
41: North From Rome by Helen MacInnes. One of her twisted little spy thrillers is perfect holiday reading.
42: Lamentation by C.J. Sansom, the last Shardlake until I can get hold of the one that has just been published; such good historical writing.
43: Austral by Paul McAuley. Better than his last couple of novels, but I still didn’t enjoy it as much as most people seem to have done, mostly because I found the back story far far more interesting than the plot being played out in the foreground.
44: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan. Another book I seem to have caught up with long after everyone else. The story of a peculiar home for children told in a crude and vivacious demotic, the sort of book you feel you need to read aloud just to capture the flavour of the words.
45: Unicorns, Almost by Owen Sheers. I love the work of the Welsh poet, novelist and playwright, and I wrote about this one-man play here.
46: White Tears by Hari Kunzru. All the time I was reading this I kept thinking that I’ve encountered the basic plot somewhere before: a couple of young white kids manufacture a blues record from something they taped in the street, ascribe it to a made-up name then find that name and their fictional recording are actually real. I still don’t know if I have met it before, and if so, where, but it nagged away. Meanwhile the white kids venturing into the segregated south is great stuff.
47: An American Story by Christopher Priest, which I reviewed for Locus.
48: Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson. Is there anyone writing more politically relevant science fiction in Britain at the moment? I reviewed this for Locus.
49: Ravilious & Co: The Pattern of Friendship by Andy Friend, which I wrote about here, and I do wish there was an exhibition to accompany the book.
50: Literary Criticism: A Concise Political History by Joseph North, which I complained about here.
51: The Dream Archipelago by Christopher Priest
52: Christopher Priest by Nicholas Ruddick, more research.
53: Electric Eden by Rob Young, which I wrote about here.
54: The Affirmation by Christopher Priest
55: Holy Disorders by Edmund Crispin, I don’t think any of Crispin’s delicious little crime stories ever bear any connection with real life, but they always feel as if they should.
56: The Islanders by Christopher Priest
57: The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
58: Transcription by Kate Atkinson, which I wrote about here.
59: eXistenZ by John Luther Novak, more Priestly research.
60: The Gradual by Cristopher Priest
61: Prelude to Terror by Helen MacInnes, one of her later novels, that I’d not previously encountered.
62: The Written World by Martin Puchner. I’d meant to write about this here, but didn’t because I was so dissatisfied. It should be an interesting book, studies in the way that changes in writing and print technology and so forth have led to real-world changes. And there are, indeed, fascinating chapters on, for instance, “Ezra and the Creation of Holy Scripture” and on “Gutenberg, Luther, and the New Public of Print”. But other chapters have a flaccid journalistic style, he intrudes personally into too many of the stories (why does he need to go travelling around Sicily in order to write about Goethe?), and the chapter on Derek Walcott is embarrassingly self-indulgent.
63: Episodes by Christopher Priest. Priest let me see the manuscript of this forthcoming short story collection due, I suspect, sometime late in 2019.
64: Love is Blind by William Boyd. This is the sort of thing that Boyd does best, a story of a consumptive piano tuner at the start of the 20th century that takes us from Edinburgh to Paris to Russia and the Pacific. Confident storytelling, vivid characterization, and a remarkably solid sense of place, what more could you want.
65: The Black Prince by Adam Roberts. This is, by far and without doubt, the best book of the year. An unconventional and yet somehow true picture of the middle ages, a prismatic narrative structure stolen wholesale from John Dos Passos, a restless shifting between the real and the fantastic. This is the sort of literary pizzazz that shows Roberts at his absolute best!
66: Cloak of Darkness by Helen MacInnes, another of her late novels.
67: Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee. Reviewed for Science Fiction Studies. Everyone seems to be adoring this book because of the way it takes us back to the Golden Age of SF; what nobody seems to take on board is that it is all about how the so-called Golden Age was built on lies, and led by a bunch of deeply unpleasant men. It’s a great book, but it’s not what so many people seem to think they are reading.
68: Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard. An exquisite little alternate history in which Michelangelo visits Constantinople during one of his periodic spats with the Pope, and is commissioned by the Sultan to design a bridge to cross the Golden Horn. The clash of cultures, in particular Michelangelo’s growing fascination with a sexually ambiguous singer while failing to notice that the poet who is his companion is falling in love with him, is all handled with wonderful delicacy.
69: The Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler. How did it take me so long to discover Ambler? This is just about perfect as a tight little meditation on the crime story and real crime.
70: Arkady by Patrick Langley, which I’ll be reviewing for Strange Horizons.
71: Hell by Alasdair Gray. The first part of his “Englishing” of Dante’s Divine Comedy; typically robust, crude and engaging.
72: Murmur by Will Eaves. This is based on the final days of Alan Turing, but there are significant differences between Turing and the novel’s hero. The whole thing shifts constantly in a dreamlike way, so that the story recalls the protagonist’s schooldays or career or private life without ever distinguishing between what is real, what is misremembered, and what is pure dream. There is a spellbinding moment in which a visit to see his mother and brother turns imperceptibly into a variation on Snow White that is a masterclass in how to handle such ambiguous storytelling.
73: Science Fiction: A Literary History edited by Roger Luckhurst. The chapters by Arthur Evans on early science fiction and by Sheryl Vint on sf between the New Wave and the new century are particularly good. Others tend to vary in quality, one or two had me arguing vehemently with them.