Wrapping up my belated 2015 highlights, we come to books. I didn’t read as much in 2015 as I do some years, but a bunch of what I did was excellent. These are the top highlights, following on from my movie and music entries. As usual, these are by no means necessarily new in 2015, just new to me.
The Wind-Up Girl
First honorable mention goes to The Wind-Up Girl by Bacigalupi. This is a compelling, quick read. It did not at all work out how I thought it would, which is great. None of the story is amazingly novel or super memorable. It’s largely a plot driven book without an especially distinctive plot. But it is a fun read for all that, and it is great to have a sci-fi book intrinsically set in a culture outside western European and Japanese lineage.
Light I’m admittedly at best lukewarm on. It’s super trippy and very stylish, but I think very forgettable despite its forced uniqueness. Tons of the usual post-singularity claptrap of augmented bodies, physical algorithms, changing sexual conventions, and so. Very little actual plot. The story has a whole bunch of new, interesting characters, but none of their development goes anywhere conclusive.
However, that setup pays off a bit in Nova Swing. It follows from and addresses many of the issues of Light by actually having a plot that goes somewhere reasonably concrete. That grounding makes it a lot more interesting, and a number of characters actually start to exist as characters, with an actual rememberable story and at least some depth. The setting here, including post-singularity punk rock pirate mercenaries traipsing off into the unknowable afflicted zone trying to map it out and steal treasures, is compelling and enjoyable to read. Just don’t expect much of that setting to be explained or to make a lot of real world sense.
The Explorer, by Smythe, is followed by The Echo, and I gather two other books making up “The Anomaly Quartet” but I have not seen those. These short novels are flawed, but surprisingly good, particularly The Explorer. Don’t read anything about it before giving it a shot! There’s a substantial twist about halfway through. The overall plot didn’t go where I thought it was going, and definitely took a more unique direction than expected. Following that shift are a number of smaller but no less critical, unexpected reveals.
It’s worth noting that these books are considerably flawed. A major problem is that the physics seem to make no sense, and I’m not talking about weird anomaly physics. Just the everyday basic science is often very incorrect, like a spaceship frequently coming to “All stop,” or gross inconsistencies in simple notions of how far away is the anomaly. These kinds of errors are obvious enough to lightly break suspension of disbelief and detract from the story. In The Explorer these can be maybe explained by the narrator being untrained (he’s a journalist) and unreliable, but The Echo is narrated by a highly trained engineer so that rationale doesn’t fly. In addition, both books end on very ambiguous terms. They’re not especially unsatisfying, but you’ll know little more about the surface plot than you did at the start.
All that said, they’re well worthwhile. The Explorer features a solid sci-fi premise that spins into a horror story in the telling. It’s worth giving a chance if you’re interested in some claustrophobic outer space psychological horror with a compelling main character. The Echo is a little less eventful, but features a character with a more interesting backstory and relationships to actual other people. The Explorer especially has stuck in my mind surprisingly well despite its flaws, so I recommend it.
Oryx and Crake
Arguably more meaty, and certainly well known among sci-fi readers, is the Oryx & Crake or MadAddam trilogy by Atwood, comprised of the titular Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAdam. The first novel is dystopian flashbacks and post-apocalyptic current day in a near-future driven by corporations and biology. Given the hype it’s unsurprising, but this is a great novel. It’s framed well to drive you forward with the basic mysteries of the plot. There’s really only two characters, only one of which has any substantive depth at all until the very end when suddenly there’s a lot of questions to be had about the other. Women in particular are non-existent except as props. Much of the world building is also fairly standard. But the story works well and is not belabored. It’s an excellent read.
The second book parallels that story from another perspective, and the third backs up to fill in important history while also wrapping up the conclusion. There are more characters in these and all three storylines intertwine well, though these books are understandably a bit less memorable than the debut novel. However, they are also good reads and the trilogy as a whole very good science fiction with a biology bent.
The final fiction entry for 2015 is the incredible Lonesome Dove by McMurtry. I note that I have never seen the small collection of TV miniseries and movies based on and extending this novel that are well known though probably mostly by the generation just before mine. It is interesting though that the book started life as a screenplay treatment for a Stewart, Wayne, Fonda blockbuster that never got made. The author eventually bought the screenplay back, turned it into a novel, and then when that became very successful it was re-converted back into several shows. I have also not read the couple related books which lead up to and follow Lonesome Dove chronologically, although it was the first authored by some years.
All of the characterizations here are really distinct, the conversations and dialogue appropriately Postbellum, and the plot pretty good. A number of the characters and their interactions are really interesting and illuminating. The story also breaks from cliches and predictable plot line in several key places. It meanders and wanders and doesn’t really ever wind up where you might reasonably expect it would. Great read for fans of a good Western, I didn’t want it to end. There’s just so much going on with the characters, and so much between them all. The book also ends on several softly heartbreaking notes. It’s solidly in that class of Westerns and related stories that come to an end where and how life drives them, and that typically doesn’t line up with how a Hollywood blockbuster would end. True Grit is another example of this. Not all heroes make it, not every couple pulling at fans’ heartstrings gets together, and after all the drama, if you made it through, somehow life has to just keep going on.
This is a somewhat long, fairly dense novel, but Lonesome Dove is well worth luxuriating in for as long as you can.
My final reading highlight for 2015 is the non-fiction Postwar by Judt. It’s a thorough factual recounting of Europe from the end of World War II to just about the end of the 20th century. Refreshingly, much attention is paid to the Eastern European nations. This is both a history of Europe, and a history of “Europe,” the concept. A good amount of time is therefore spent on the question of dividing lines and Western Europe and Eastern Europe and what is “Europe.”
This is far and away the best writing I have come across as an American to really start to understand “Europe” and the European Union and a lot of the dynamics in play in that sphere of the world. Having spent a non-trivial amount of time in Europe (including one summer traveling there, another living in the Czech Republic, and a number of other trips), this was an extremely informative read to fill in both a lot of the surface history and the meaning behind it. I can’t recommend the book enough if you’re going to spend any time in some of the critical locations. It’s one (great) thing to go or have been to Prague. It’s another to stand in Wenceslas Square and know the history large and small. The experience becomes deeply meaningful.
To that, finally finishing this review in late 2016, knowing that history and dynamics is both more important as we enter squarely into what seems to promise to be a very perilous age, and more tragic as so much of what was built over the course of this history now seems so near to unraveling. Closely related, these were my thoughts immediately following the UK referendum to reject EU membership:
Of course it could play out a lot of ways from here, and there is even a plausible argument that today’s events will counter-intuitively foster the opposite outcome, but the unraveling of the EU would be deeply sad beyond even the immediate, considerable additional human misery likely to result.
I don’t live there and don’t have to deal first hand with the many flaws and shortcomings it absolutely has. One of the bits of personal mental imagery even I associate with the EU is a collection of Magritte-esque bureaucrats in bowlers striding furiously in circles every which way. But I also find its plain, ugly little flag surprisingly cheery and encouraging. There are three or four artifacts that I value as the most inspiring and hopeful examples of modern human invention and imagination. The EU is actually one of them.
I mean that in exactly the same fashion I would list the space shuttle, which was a deeply dubious idea in practical terms that was questionably implemented, never met expectations, and should have been canceled long before it was. But what the space shuttle fundamentally represented was the simple idea that spaceflight should be an everyday occurrence, a bus into orbit. And that was a beautiful, worthwhile dream to follow—not only despite the failings, but even beside the many actual accomplishments.
The EU has innumerable shortcomings. But it explicitly represents the basic idea that Europe had been in a near constant state of direct warfare for millenia, that entire generations were lost in the past two open conflicts, that the next one is quite likely to lead to the literal end of humanity, and, critically, not only the recognition that we should do something to prevent that, but the belief that we can. There’s Europe the continent, Europe the organizations, and “Europe” the concept, a colossal communal exercise in striving to rise above our history and our worst selves.
Unfortunately it increasingly seems that these are not the kinds of ideals most people hold important. We’ve come so low that it’s not just that most people don’t believe in a better future, but that they aren’t even prioritizing safeguarding that we have any future at all. Sadly it is all too likely that America as well will soon coronate and enshrine this same nihilism.
Five months later it would indeed turn out that an empowered minority in America would choose for it to embrace ugliness and a lack of vision.
Much of my understanding of what the EU means and what it represents, why and how it is so much more than bureaucrats in Brussels driving up gas prices, comes from reading Postwar. It’s important to recognize that the title is a play on words: It’s a history of postwar Europe, but also a history of the dream and the attempt to make the world truly post-war. This is to a very large extent the history of the greater project of enlightened Western civilization, of which so so many people seem to have lost sight or never knew. The book is dense, there are several less important digressions, but I emphatically recommend that everyone make the effort.