2013 Reading List Results

2013 Reading List Results

My reading is pretty much charted out for the balance of the year and various holiday stresses are preventing any sort of serious book writeup, so it is time to assess my 2013 Reading List. Below are quotes from the original Reading List, followed by my updates. I will include links where available, though I only reviewed about half of what I read this year. Maybe less.

Tad Williams – Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
Got to this one early in the year. The round-up, with links to individual posts, is here.

Peter F. Hamilton – Night’s Dawn Trilogy
Sorry Peter, this is too much to handle for more than one volume at a time. I reviewed the first here, and will get to the next book sometime soon.

Iain M. Banks – At least one novel, probably Excession.
Excession was the one. I am now debating whether to plow through his other books as quickly as possible, or draw it out over many years. A tough choice, now that there won’t be any more.

Steven Erikson – Whatever is next in the Malazan books.
That would be Midnight Tides, which I read just before Thanksgiving. One of these days I will write about Malazan, but it’s hard to start now that I’m halfway done.

Eric Brown – Anything
I ended up reading Bengal Station over the summer and totally meaning to review it. I also picked up Helix at a book sale, so now debating whether to read that or the Bengal Station sequel.

Bradley Beaulieu – The Winds of Khalakovo
Here. Not only that, but I have ebooks of the next two that I will start up any day now.

CJ Cherryh – Finish Cyteen. Probably read something else.
Cyteen complete! That took a long time, but was fun to write about. I also read Merchanter’s Luck and will start the Morgaine Saga next.

Haruki Murakami – IQ84
This turned into an epic read-a-thon. A round-up of posts from me and this is how she fight start is here.

Charlie Stross – Iron Sunrise, Rapture of the Nerds
Read the first, not the second.

China Mieville – The next Bas Lag books.
The Scar is here. For now, one Mieville tome per year is about right.

Something by Walter Jon Williams.
I read Aristoi last month. It was engaging and challenging, but unfortunately got lost in a mess of really great stuff and no time to write.

More LE Modesitt Jr., Stephen Baxter
I did manage Archform: Beauty but didn’t get to any Baxter.

Something in Japanese.
I read two after posting the list, but will save details for a separate article.

Mike Resnick – I should really finish the Starship series.
Struck out on this one.

Some classics.
Hmm. I read a couple, but not what I was planning on and not very many. There may be a redemption effort during Little Red Reviewer’s Vintage SF Month.

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Ten Books that Stay With Me

Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me

I was recently tagged in a Facebook post that seems to be going around, inviting me to record ten books that have “stayed with me.” Beyond that vague parameter, the only direction was to “not think too hard about it.” The impossibility of constructing such an obtusely described selection led me to blow it off, until the tagging friend claimed to be “dying to see your list.” I can’t say no to that, but I have failed utterly to “not think too hard.” This blog has been filled with lists and other miscellany lately, so I feel bad posting yet another one. On the other hand, just putting the list up on Facebook without lengthy explanations and excuses is thoroughly distasteful. After all, I’m going to bare my soul a bit here; I need a chance to defend it.

A few things this list is not: it is not a list of favorite books, nor is it the best that I have read. It is not necessarily SFF. It is not balanced in any way, by any metric. It is not a list of recommended reading. It is merely the titles of books that, for one reason or another, have exercised undue influence on me, or that I find myself going back to when thinking about things. They are what bubbled to the surface with a minimum of thinking too hard. They may be good or bad, may be distasteful to some, and may very well be by a bunch of white dudes. I may not be proud of some of them. Ten years from now, I expect a healthy amount of turnover and I hope that it is not so aggressively patriarchal and Anglo-Saxon. For now, this is what I have, in no particular order.

1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
My parents started reading Tolkien aloud to me when I was, I think, three. I took down the whole trilogy on my own, plus The Hobbit, in either third or fourth grade, likely understanding almost none of it. These books got me in the door and remain, flaws and all, the most reread and most important in my bookish development.

2. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
I’m not going to say that Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect changed my life or anything, but it must mean something that I still remember all of the gags, lo these many years later. I will also confess to trying very hard for many years to cop Adams’ writing style.

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert Pirsig
Not sure what to say about this that hasn’t already been said. I’m sure it helps that much of the book takes place not far from my home town, while also going on at length about aesthetics and philosophy. (Not things one normally associates with the state of Montana.)

4. Reflections of a Scientist – Henry Eyring
5. Dialogues With Myself: Personal Essays on Mormon Experience – Eugene England
Though I am neither devout nor orthodox, my upbringing in the Mormon Church forms a huge part of my identity. These two books remain foundational to my (thorny) relationship with my religion. Why and how is beyond the scope of this post (and really of this blog), but I am willing to engage the curious.

6. The Dragonlance Chronicles – Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman
Tolkien got me in the door, but Dragonlance slammed it shut behind me. (Larry Niven turned the lock.) I, uh, kind of wish that I could forget how thoroughly this series dominated my early adolescence, but I guess we all have dark secrets. David Eddings is also on this list. We should probably just move on before I say anything to embarrass myself further.

7. The Hyperion Cantos – Dan Simmons
Now we are back on firmer ground. I won’t say that this is one of the “best” SF series, but it leaves an impact crater. There are some scenes I will never forget.

8. 2312 Kim Stanley Robinson
Last year’s Nebula winner might be the most complete extrapolation of our semi-near future that I have ever read. Robinson covers everything from the expansion into space, environmental degradation on Earth, and politico-economic development to the future of music, gender, and human evolution. This stands out as everything science fiction is supposed to be and is very near the top of my Best Ever list.

9. 3.11: Disaster and Change in Japan – Richard Samuels
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan is a charged and emotional event for me. It’s probably better to just read my post about it, since pithy summation escapes me.

10. Japan – Lonely Planet
As a young missionary in the smelly fish port of Ishinomaki, I somehow acquired a a mid-90s edition of Lonely Planet’s Japan travel guide. For several years, this was my primary source for information on Japan’s geography, demographics, food, and culture. I suppose there are worse places to learn this sort of thing.

Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ann Leckie

In a year somewhat lacking in prominent SF titles (at least to my eyes), Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seems to have made the biggest splash. I’m probably missing several other exciting developments, but so far the press for Leckie has far outshone any other release that I have seen. (I admit that this could be more of a reflection on me than the state of the genre, but last year seemed to have one huge book after another coming out. This year, not so much.) As the reviews piled up, I quickly moved Ancillary Justice to the front of the line, knowing that this is a book I could not afford to miss out on.

If this is the very first review of Ancillary that the gentle reader has found, said reader would be better served starting off elsewhere. I’m going to give a quick assessment of the book, followed by a deeper look at random topics that appealed to me. I have no plans of summarizing the plot or giving any other such de riguer information; this essay is a mostly spoiler-free investigation of the meta-textual questions Leckie raises, rather than a proper “book review.” The fact that I’m going to devote the rest of the word count to this sort of thing should signal my overall rating of the book. In short, I am not yet ready to crown Ancillary as the best book of the year, but I do believe that it’s the best 2013 book that I’ve read so far.

The first thing that jumps out, and the first thing that almost everyone talks about, is Leckie’s oddball way of playing with gender. I have seen a few different interpretations of this, with corresponding reactions. Most of these cluster around a LeGuin-ian statement of gender ideals, ala The Left Hand of Darkness, or some sort of clarion call for gender blindness and/or equality. As one might imagine, not everyone is totally cool with this approach, though it’s not always those I expect that were put off by the perceived ax-grinding. I saw things a bit differently. From the very first pages, Breq is clearly unable to process gender and makes constant errors. Breq (and I can’t use a pronoun here, because I have no idea which is appropriate) bemoans these mix-ups in the narrative and is all to aware of her (his?) mistakes. I enjoyed watching the mess, especially when characters take offense at being mistaken for the other gender. Breq’s ongoing frustration amused me greatly. (“This person seemed to have both biological features and apparel choices denoting ‘female,’ but I may have been wrong.”)

I haven’t read, or even looked for, a definitive answer from Leckie. I suspect that the intentional blurring of lines is meant to break down the reader’s perceptions of gender stereotypes and cause a small ruckus. It works – in many cases I have no idea if someone is male or female. The point is, I suppose, that it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter. There is more to it in my view though. Breq is not “human,” Breq is a ship. Further, Breq is a ship that was created by a society, the Radchaai, that uses gender neutral language. Of course, these are all choices made by the author with full awareness of what is going on, but I see the perpetual confusion as a reminder that Breq is not like us. The first person narration naturally leads the reader to identify with Breq, but the fact remains, Breq is a wholly alien creation. Without jarring reminders to the contrary, like someone being unable to correctly say “he” and “she,” I think we become too sympathetic, forgetting that Breq is a thoroughly unreliable narrator.

This is also key to what I think is the central focus of the book: identity. More specifically, identity in a post-human, post-Singularity world. Leckie never jumps out and says what side she’s on, but I see Ancillary as yet another brick in the wall of post-human extrapolation. (Stross, Egan, Vinge, Schroeder, etc.) Breq is easy to like, with her (his?) righteously indignant quest, super-human coolness, love of music, and strangely altruistic mindset, but (s)he is not us. Breq used to be a gigantic ship, with her (his?) consciousness potentially spread through hundreds of “ancillaries,” human bodies whose brains are wholly inhabited by her. Breq has been a part of the ongoing Radchaai expansion, party to atrocities that would likely drive us mad with PTST. She also, and this may only appeal to me, uses the ancillaries to sing in antiphonal choirs. I would totally do this, if I were a sentient starship with a few hundred corpsicles are my disposal. I digress.

Breq’s erstwhile antagonist is the Lord of the Radch, who also has a plethora of bodies at his/her disposal. At the heart of the plot is the question of these bodies’ identities. Never mind pointing out that, even with endearing quirks, Breq is not very much like anyone we know; how are all of these bodies supposed to remain the same person, when they are all out there having different experiences, occasionally getting cut off from the main hive mind, having to form opinions and take initiative, and other such crises that will never bedevil us single-consciousness types. Indeed, the phrase “I’ve half a mind to…” takes on a whole new meaning when half of one’s mind is literally an independent entity.

This is just scratching the surface. Even the characters that are a neat match of one brain – one body have their own identity questions, be it waking up after a 1000 year sleep, or just taking sides in convoluted political questions. I am having a hard enough time summarizing this in a way that makes a scant minimum of sense; I can barely imagine Leckie creating, plotting, and writing the whole thing. It is borderline miraculous that it works, and works so well. Yes, Ancillary demands a certain amount of faith and effort from the reader, but the dividends more than compensate.

The other main vector of Ancillary Justice is colonialism. Breq is not coy with the side effects of the Radch’s perpetual expansion, both on the conquered and the conqueror. She is open about the cost paid by the subjugated planets, but does offer the usual “benefits of civilization” defense that colonialists use. (To be completely fair, there are sometimes technological, political, and economic benefits in colonialism, especially when the stronger side is nominally benevolent. It probably isn’t the dominant society’s right to determine the final cost-benefit analysis, though that is what usually happens.) At the same time, Breq is a window into an increasingly fractured empire, one where some of the leadership is concerned about the economic and emotional addiction to expansion. The conflict underlying the main plot line is the political maneuvering between these camps, with all of the fallout through a spectrum of empire-wide policies.

So this is a book that takes a crack at serious psychological and political issues, attempts a new way of dealing with post-humans and story telling, and puts it all in a New Space Opera setting that will please lovers of galactic empires everywhere. The comparison might seem odd (or elitist), but as I read the book, Carl Vine’s First Piano Sonata played in my head. Like Ancillary, the sonata appeared almost out of nowhere and set its genre on fire with the uncanny way it summed up the major threads of contemporary classical music, fusing them into a bright path leading into the future. If the others out there excited about Ancillary are anything like me, they see Ann Leckie hinting at where SF might go next. The book reminds me, more in its position in the discourse than the details of the story, of Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief, which also emerged rather suddenly and turned science fiction on its head for a time. Exhilarating stuff.

That, in a large nutshell, is my basic reaction. Not everyone likes Ancillary Justice, just like not everyone likes Carl Vine. I do though, and will push it on everyone I meet.

Gateway SF Part 2

Gateway SF Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I banged out a quick post with some suggestions for My First Sony Science Fiction. I hadn’t given it a huge amount of thought, but did want to get something up in reaction to a couple of other thought provoking lists. I had planned it to be a bit of filler in between meatier essays. To my surprise, the list generated more hits and a longer discussion than most of my other recent posts. (Thanks for the signal boost, Leanne!) The resulting conversation has pushed me to embellish the original list a bit.

While a couple of the questions wondered about my lack of classic SF or stealth books that might ease a reader in gently and covertly, I consider these to be valid (and intentional) editorial decisions and stand by them. Less forgivable, and by this I mean hopelessly derelict, was the complete exclusion of female writers from my list. I made a token nod towards non-Anglos, but nary a woman crossed my mind. I owe a thank you to the esteemed Joachim Boaz for calling me to task; somehow I failed utterly to notice. What this says about the state of gender balance in SF is neither positive, nor within the scope of this post, but I am determined to right the wrong somewhat. Thus, some additions to my Gateway SF List.

I will say that there are two immediate reasons for my oversight. First is that I am woefully under-read in female-produced SF. This is something I have started to take concrete steps to remedy, but I am behind the times. It was not an intentional slight (like most, I think), but it was real and I am on a quest to discover books I might have overlooked. (To my benefit, I might add. I’ve read some great stuff lately.) The second reason is that many of the women I have read do not, to my mind, qualify as gateway books. CJ Cherryh, for example, is one of my favorite writers, but I haven’t read anything by her that I would give to a neophyte. I considered Catherine Asaro’s first Skolian Empire book, but then remembered the insane physics taking turns with the romance. Pat Cadigan is amazing, but also a bit like starting one’s recreation drug use with a double hit of LSD.

My brain continues to churn, but for now, here are some suggestions:

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
I just barely finished this (one reason this post is later than I had hoped) and think it might be worthy. It’s a Hugo and Locus winner, so the establishment likes it, it has clones and a post-Apocalypse setting, so it’s real live SF, but the book is mostly about people. There is science, but it is quiet science, and the focus remains always on the characters. Look for more about this in January.

Earthsea – Ursula LeGuin
My LeGuin knowledge is sadly lacking, but I really like the Earthsea books. It’s more fantasy, though they might get readers in the back door. All three of the trilogy deal elegantly with race, growing up, confronting one’s demons and/or impending death, the responsibilities of power, and other such literary stuff.

Vorkosigan Saga – Lois McMaster Bujold
This is one of the most popular series in modern SF, so I assume that they would appeal to more than just the usual dorks. I’ve read a few. I mentioned it in passing on the first list, but wasn’t sure which book to recommend first. I still don’t, but I’m sure somebody out there has an opinion.

Dragonflight – Anne McCaffery
I had my issues with this, but seem to be in the minority. The Pern books also have to rate as one of SFF’s most popular. (They seem fantasy, but the author always maintained that they are pure SF.)

Scattered Along the River of Heaven – Aliette de Bodard
This is a short story, not a novel, but it’s a fantastic introduction to de Bodard. (Her novels are more on the fantasy tip, while much of her short story output is SF.) This too is about people, families, nations in turmoil, and poetry. Can’t say enough about it. This could be set in 1950s China, or in outer space, which is why I give it a nod for El Gateway.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Haven’t actually read this, but two people recommended it in the comments for two different reasons. I’ll trust their opinions (they are smarter than I) and list it here.

Beggars in Spain – Nancy Kress
I really want to get Kress on this list, and not just because she also lives in the Northwest, but nothing I’ve read so far struck me as introductory. Beggars is her most famous work, so on the list it goes, despite me not having read it yet.

Other worthy writers present themselves: Connie Willis, Karen Traviss, Elizabeth Bear, but I haven’t read enough yet. Maybe I will update this a year from now. As it stands, I hope that this mea culpa will suffice. Sorry women of SF! I won’t be a clod again!

Upcoming Events

Upcoming Events

There are several blogosphere events coming up that Two Dudes will be joining, so it seems like a good time to warn all uninvolved readers of the posts ahead. Many regulars are probably already aware of these, since we’re all part of the same wide circle of geekdom, but for those who aren’t, here is the lowdown. These events are a great time to meet new people, learn about new books, and maybe even influence the opinions of others.

The 2014 Sci-Fi Experience – Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings runs this giant SF event each year. He’s starting a month early this time around, so it will run from Dec. 1 through the end of Jan. Carl’s Experience brings together a gaggle of book fans, with blogs covering the whole spectrum of literary entertainment. This is a great chance to get to know writers and readers from all genres, as we jointly celebrate SF in all its finery.

Vintage Science Fiction Month – Little Red Reviewer hosts this annual extravaganza every January. All and sundry investigate pre-1979 SF and write about it. There will be all sorts of Easter eggs on this one, and it looks like I will be writing a guest post. (Of course there will be articles here and elsewhere about the era.) Notable this year is the announcement of a retro Hugo award for 1938, so intrepid readers will be digging into whatever came out then as well.

The Book of Apex Blog Tour – No page yet for this, but Little Red is also producing a blog tour for the soon-to-be-released 4th volume of Apex Magazine short stories. These are award winning stories from an award winning magazine and Two Dudes is one of the lucky participants. More details will follow.

N.K. Jemisin Read Along – A read along of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms appears to kick off this week as well. It’s being hosted across several blogs. I am knee-deep in other stuff at the moment, but may be able to jump in towards the end. I had planned on checking out Jemisin sometime anyway. (I may not make it though, with a pile of hefty non-fiction in the pipeline, as well as advanced reading for Vintage SF breathing down my neck. We shall see.)

All of this comes just as Rinn Reads SF Month has ended. I was too late to join in on this one, and too busy to appreciate it while it was on, but I have met some charming people and had fun discussions. I have also left many parties aghast with my utter Dr. Who ignorance. Something like 50 blogs were involved, so the archives are a treasure trove of SF writing. Highly recommended.

Finally, with the end of the year coming, people are going to start up their annual round ups. Those more current than I will pick their best books of the year. Others will dig into their reading choices and assess the gender and/or ethnic balance. I will put up few lists and statistics, possibly even a chart or two, and a look back at the 2013 Must Read list. My Published-in-2013 reads are a bit scarce, but I am looking forward to crunching numbers on everything else. I’ll push these posts out once I set the remaining book schedules in stone.