I haven’t worked since February and yet I did not manage to read 100 books this year. Not even close! A book a week is the meager average of what I managed. However, unlike last year, I read a lot of great books. It was difficult to cut it down to ten and I’ve left some great books off.
As always, these are books that I read this year not necessarily that were published this year. (In fact, none were published this year and many are 50+ years old.)
10. Field Notes on Democracy
This is a bit of weird inclusion on a list that mostly is spec fic. I’m trying to read more non-fiction and it wouldn’t be a surprise if next year’s list had many more non-fiction selections.Also it’s pretty detailed on Indian politics of the last thirty years and thus a little over my head. But Roy’s writing is so good and so important that I really have to include it on my list. In condemning the neo-liberal paradigm, especially as swaddled in the ragged remnants of democracy, Roy has written a book that transcends country.
Quote: Truth, in Kashmir, is probably more dangerous than anything else.
9. Three Body Problem
A lot of my friends really loved this book. I quite liked it too, but for some reason never loved it. It felt like a more interesting version of Ender’s Game. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in SF.
Quote: “It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.”
Samuel R. Delany
My (belated) first Delany. This would be quite a bit higher on my list, save for the second half of the book let down the strong opening. From the strong characterization and world-building and insight that built this story, it kind of slipped into predictable melodrama. Still a fantastic read.
Quote: “Sometimes you want to say things, and you’re missing an idea to make them with, and missing a word to make the idea with. In the beginning was the word. That’s how somebody tried to explain it once. Until something is named, it doesn’t exist.”
7. City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennet
A surreal adventure set in a fantasy world where “Europe” was colonized by “India,” there are a couple layers here. The overt detective story is a fine framework, but the brilliance of this book, apart from the memorable characters, is the imperial inversion, which make the politics subtly and irresistibly more intriguing.
Quote: “Forgetting… is a beautiful thing. When you forget, you remake yourself… For a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must forget it was a caterpillar at all. Then it will be as if the caterpillar never was & there was only ever a butterfly.”
Jorge Luis Borges
This is one of those books that if I were smarter, I’d have enjoyed it more. But the bit I did glean was fascinating. The labyrinth (despite its repeated inclusion) isn’t the inevitable metaphor for this collection; more apt might be a prism; something reflecting ever-so-slightly and non-ending versions of a thing. The Immortal is in particular a stunning story.
Example: “The metaphysicians of Tlon do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.”
5. Dinner at Deviant’s Palace
I’m a Tim Powers fanboy, but until this year I hadn’t tracked this book down. Set in a convincing post-apocalyptic LA, Dinner at Deviant’s Palace is the tale of a musician who infiltrates cults and rescues people. In other words, Powers has slyly inserted a Bard as his protagonist and no one even objected. There’s all the clever world-building you’d expect in a Powers novel and emotions feel real and earned.
Quote: “To sing?” he demanded, his voice shrill with incredulous scorn. “You’d stop saving lives–souls!–to sit in a bar and sing? Oh, but you only did it while you needed the money, isn’t that right? And now that you can fiddle for it, everybody else can… can be gutted and skinned, and it won’t disturb your self-satisfaction even as much as a wrinkle in your precious costume would, huh? It must be nice to be the only person worthy of your concern.”
4. Red Mars
Kim Stanley Robinson
I inevitably find outer space boring so I was hesitant to pick this up. But from the first page Robinson makes it clear that this is a human story. With a varied cast of characters, weird shifts in time that somehow work, and an alluring image of forests and rivers covering the surface of mars, I’d rank this as one of my very favorite sci-fi books ever.
Quote: “Historical analogy is the last refuge of people who can’t grasp the current situation.”
3. This Census Taker
It’s a weird year when my favorite author can only get to third place. But it’s not China Mieville’s fault I read so many classics this year. I liked almost everything about this book, including the changes from 1st to 2nd to 3 person, the decision to keep it novella length, and the low key presenting of vital information. I even liked that there weren’t many classic Mieville touches, apart from a hint at magic keys and the gun of the Census-Taker.
The only thing the that didn’t wow me was the framing story with the writing. In such a slight book, it felt extra unnecessary. That said, there’s a good chance I didn’t quite grok what was going on there. Census Taker is spooky and cool and weird and Weird.
Quote: “You can tell it any way you want, he said, you can be I or he or she or we or they or you and you won’t be lying, though you might be telling two stories at once.”
2. Lud in the Mist
This semi-obscure classic is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read. Written at a time when even the bankers in England were legendary wordsmiths, Lud-in-the-Mist is over-stuffed, bursting with gorgeous prose.
The moon was on the wane, but still sufficiently full to give a good light. She was, indeed, an orchard thief, for no fruit being left to rob, she had robbed the leaves of all their colour.
The language alone is reason enough to give it a look, but all the elements really come together. The main character is a useless bureaucrat, the women have agency, the villains have motive. There is a mystery and the pacing is surprisingly fast. In addition, there is one of the best ‘dreamland’ sequences I’ve ever read.
Lud-in-the-Mist is well deserving of its position as a classic and something that genre fans should relish.
(Another )Quote: “And the nymph whom all travellers pursue and none has ever yet caught – the white high-road, glimmered and beckoned to them through the dusk.”
1. Left Hand of Darkness
Ursula K. LeGuin
I like that Le Guin pretty much dispenses with plot, and mixes in some Solzhenitsyn and travelogue and taoism and politics and epistolary and just presents us with this melange of everything. The characters aren’t super interesting but the world building is supreme and the prose is of course oft times beautiful. It’s a thought-provoking book and it might even be her best.
Quote: “My business is unlearning, not learning.”