Favorite Books of 2014

Favorite Books of 2014

It’s that time again, when we all gather round and report on the loot we scored during the most recent solar year. Nothing like below freezing weather to coax a Best Of post from me. (I shouldn’t complain – we’re bottoming out in the mid-20s here while my hometown deals with -40 wind chill.) I waited until the very last second to make this list, mostly because I wanted to make sure that William Gibson made it in time. As always, these are my favorites that I read during the year, not necessarily the best that were published in 2014, and of course in no particular order.

The Peripheral – William Gibson
I assumed that this would make the list, thus my wait until I finished it last Sunday. Expect a more detailed post soon, but suffice to say for now that this is everything awesome about Gibson.

Causal AngelHannu Rajaniemi
Maybe not for everyone, but I consider it a landmark release in 2014. This is a must read for anyone serious about Hard SF and where the subgenre is going.

City of Stairs Robert Jackson Bennett
I went on at length about this one, so there should be no surprises when it makes the list.

The Cusanus Game Wolfgang Jeschke
I’m not sure what the rules are on translations, but this would have been on my 2013 Hugo ballot had I read it in time. Complex and unforgiving look at both our future and the realities of time travel.

In the Garden of IdenKage Baker
Baker makes the list for the second year running. I suspect this isn’t the last time we’ll see her here.

The Future is JapaneseEd. Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington
I ran low on Japanese SF this year, to my shame, but this long awaited collection lived up to my every expectation.

The BarrowMark Smylie
I did not expect to like this book, but lo and behold, here it sits on my Favorites list. Subversive, brash, unapologetic, and huge amounts of fun. This is grimdark with an agenda, brains beneath all the blood and swearing, and surprisingly memorable. I’m lining up for part two.

The Hostile Takeover TrilogyAndrew Swann
Another surprise. Operatic pathos, desert cyberpunk, and economic treatise do not often go together, but here we are. This is a courageous and daringly intelligent trilogy that deserves wider recognition.

The Time Roads – Beth Bernobich
I’m seeing a trend here with the politico-economic SFF. Also the mind benders that drive off casual fans.

Ancillary Sword – Ann Leckie
I didn’t love this like I loved the first book, but it’s still one of the best out there. More than covers in grace and wit what it passes up in audacious mindstorms.

Honorable mention this year goes to God’s War, Gemsigns, Queen City Jazz, Cibola Burn, Shipstar, The Thousand Names, and Inversions. We won’t even think about everything I missed out on.

The Time Roads

The Time Roads
Beth Bernobich

I have read, quite inadvertently, a number of polarizing novels lately. Some of them are with aforethought (hello, Joe Abercrombie), but most have seemed innocuous going in. Tor sent me an invitation to download an ARC of The Time Roads a couple of months ago. I don’t normally go for either time travel or steampunk, but the blurb hintedat just enough science fictional nuggets to make it worth checking out. I downloaded accordingly. Then I read a review over at Fantasy Review Barn that made it sound amazing. Then I read some other reviews that made it sound horrible. There’s quite a split in opinions with this one. Not a range, mind you, but a split. I have seen almost no lukewarm reactions.

I suppose in hindsight, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Looking down the list of Stuff Two Dudes Likes, The Time Roads ticks most of the boxes. Science front and center? Check. Needlessly convoluted politics? Check. Challenging narrative structure? Check. Everything just a bit more complex than was probably necessary? Check. There is definitely a certain section of the community that isn’t going to go for this, not when half-insane characters are roaming about and muttering about prime numbers, or the whole point of the book is to maintain the delicate balance of power that, in our continuum, crumbled into World War I. For me? Hypnotic.

Part of the fun is Bernobich’s alternate history. The narrative centers on the kingdom of Eire, which apparently overthrew British rule some time in the past and claimed its place as one of the great world powers. (Anglia was then reduced to the level of rabble rousing possession, one which maintains a steady if muted presence throughout the book.) This is the one of the two biggest divergences that we see, the other of course being time travel. The “time roads” are presented in typical steampunk fashion, with lots of brass knobs, smoke, and men in (I assume) top hats peering through monocles and uttering things like “I say,” or “Zounds!” (It’s a bit more serious than this, with serious repercussions, but we can still have fun with it.) The story itself is told in four interlocking novellas, as the reader watches the science of time travel slowly develop in tandem with Eire’s maneuvering to maintain its position in Age of Empires Europe.

I will confess that I got more out of the politics than the time travel. The latter is, mercifully, strictly science-based and mostly devoid of Marty McFly almost seducing his mom type situations. The former is a brilliant evocation of the age, a period that seems to get glossed over in most history studies. I never really learned much about the Age of Empire in class; we always kind of skipped straight from the American Civil War to WWI, with possibly a mention of railroads or Rutherford B. Hayes along the way. It wasn’t until I got deep into International Relations as a grad student that I really learned about the world of the late 1800s. IR types love the era, since it is the cleanest testing ground for their theories: several countries of more or less equal composition, culture, and strength vying in a closed, zero sum system for superiority. Bernobich doesn’t get too deeply into this sort of thing, but I suspect that she is at least a closet dabbler in IR. Her outlines of the global political situation are dead on, particularly as an Irish (Eire-ish?) protagonist is mucking around in Bosnia trying to prevent an assassination of a certain Eastern European Archduke that we might remember from high school history class.

Mileage, as they say, will vary. I tore through The Time Roads in the first few hours of a trans-Pacific plane ride without pause. It handles the whole time travel thing in a way that is both as confusing as time travel would have to be, but as graceful as possible. I am easily irked by the paradoxes and impossibilities inherent in time travel plots, but Bernobich managed to dodge them. It might be too convoluted for some, but I enjoy books that don’t just assume my intelligence, but actively challenge it. Recommended for those who want their steampunk with a bit more crunch.

Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie

While of course I envy new SF sensation Ann Leckie, in a few ways, I kinda don’t. When one’s debut novel drops, lights the community on fire, and sweeps the awards, there is a certain pressure for an equally amazing follow up. I would be very nervous writing under those conditions. Leckie holds up however, and delivers a second book that is either one step better than the first, or just a step behind, depending on one’s taste in SF. What’s different and why does it matter? Read on.

I am not the first to point out that Ancillary Sword is a more restrained, quiet novel than Ancillary Justice. I won’t be the last either, so we’ll hopefully move past that quickly to something more interesting. It is true though, and must be said, or nothing that follows will seem at all relevant. Breq and crew are confined to a single system, most of it on a space station, with no galactic gadding about. There is an explosion and a gun shot, but it is almost entirely a character and societal study. It is, I suppose, an archetypal middle book: Leckie is giving more depth to the people and places in her universe and setting up bigger conflicts, but saving the fireworks for later. Sword is just as “good” as Justice, but is far more sedate and introverted.

What else is different? The biggest change besides the action is the thematic focus. While it seems that Leckie didn’t intend for gender and pronouns to take over the conversation surrounding Justice, the decision to make “she” and “her” the defaults, while giving Breq all sorts of trouble figuring out which is which combined to overwhelm anything else the book examined. Not so in Sword. Part of this is because we know it’s coming and won’t be shocked a second time, but there are narrative reasons as well. Breq is surrounded this time by Radchaai for whom gender is a non-issue, so they’re all glossing over it together. Everyone is still a she, but this fact doesn’t really call attention to itself. I know several readers who never got past the gender thing in Justice who might enjoy Sword more, simply for this reason.

I may be in the minority, but I stopped noticing all the she’s during Justice, distracted as I was with other shiny things that come to the fore now, as gender fades a bit into the background. I think it is these other ideas that Leckie really meant to explore with the series. Sword looks deeper into empire and its effects on a society, both the conquering and conquered. The central arguments driving the galactic conflict are whether or not the Radch should continue to expand and what to do with the conquered planets. Frequent readers will know how this sort of debate warms the deepest cockles of my cold, political science heart.

As an added bonus, the Radch is a brilliant creation. Somehow avoiding infodumps and “as you know Bob,” Leckie paints a galactic empire with stunning subtlety. A highly ritualized culture, polytheistic with an undercurrent of Confucianism, the Radch echoes East Asia, while its militarism and treatment of the conquered bring to mind a galaxy-spanning Rome. Breq navigates the complicated social hierarchies, exposes the political fault lines, and participates in the day to day observances of the empire to a degree that it feels like I have read textbooks about everything. At the same time, Breq gives an unflinching window into her own life experience as a ship AI trapped in a human body. Leckie’s characters are sympathetic, but they never let us forget how totally alien this universe is. The Radch amazes on almost every page as a future history worthy of many more stories than I imagine Leckie will write in it.

For me, and I doubt I’m the only one, the first book was more engaging. Sword is one of the best books of the year, but I gravitate naturally towards the balls to the wall, dangling over the cutting edge, pushing the boundaries whirlwind of Justice more than the stately character piece that is Sword. Most of the reviews I have seen say exactly the opposite, that the measured pace and deep characterization attracted them more to the second book. I suspect that the community will split neatly down the middle on this question, with opinions saying more about the reader than the novel. I do think that readers who bounced off the first, especially with the gender bits, would find it worth the time to try out the second book. If the wild audacity of Justice doesn’t wind one’s personal clock like it did mine, the people and places in Sword may instead. The Radch is setting up to be one of the great future histories in the genre anyway, so it’s no doubt advised to keep oneself aware of its goings on.

By now, I’m convinced that Leckie can do no wrong, and I can’t wait for the next story.

The Causal Angel

The Causal Angel
Hannu Rajaniemi

Science Fiction has shifted ground in the past few years. Not long ago, a certain group of writers was in the ascendant, preaching a gospel of Singularity. Egan, Stross, Vinge, and others explored the combinations of strong AI and the digitization of the mind, pointing to futures where our meaty bodies are at best an affectation, at worst a hindrance. Their ideas were so persuasive that the Singularity became a kind of stand in for FTL during the somber, Mundane SF era – a topic that had to be addressed in all serious SF either by its mechanism or absence. Before long though, a backlash began to build, with other writers taking up the cross for physical bodies, positing the unbreakable connection between our physical, emotional, and intellectual selves. Of late, I think that the humanist side is beating back the post-humanists. Even Stross himself has backpedaled a bit from his heady Accelerando positions. I wonder if this affects the reception to each new Hannu Rajaniemi book, as he pushes further into a post-humanist future in spite of the efforts of humanists.

The Quantum Thief was the talk of 2011, winning fans and adulation for its mind-bending science, carefully crafted mystery, and the sophisticated and elegant protagonist, Jean le Flambeur. One year later, The Fractal Prince was released, but to more muted acclaim. Not everyone enjoyed a book that was admittedly more obtuse and seemed to lack some of the flair of the first. Now, with The Causal Angel available and Rajaniemi’s trilogy at an end, I haven’t seen much buzz. Even assuming that a certain amount of people never made it through The Quantum Thief, and that a certain percentage of the finishers didn’t enjoy The Fractal Prince enough to continue, I would still think that The Causal Angel is enough to stir up the community. Rajaniemi is one of the boldest new writers and his trilogy is a major statement of intent; I think it deserves to be talked over a bit more by serious genre readers.

Several reasons why people might not go for this stuff occur to me. The books are indeed difficult, and not just for the science. It’s easy to get lost in the q-dots and branes, but also pretty hard to figure out what is going on in the plot. The Causal Angel is easier on the head than the first two, but there is a definite learning curve that can turn off less determined consumers. I’ve also seen comments that Rajaniemi’s books are ornate and convoluted, but ultimately small and dispassionate. This can be true for the first book in the series, less so for the second, and not at all for the newest. The Causal Angel is still stuffed with filigree and decorative language, but there are planets blowing up, space battles, demi-gods in conflict, and deep matters of the heart. The author is (finally?) taking his stories to the big time. Finally, I suspect that Rajaniemi forces many readers out of their comfort zones. This is not your father’s science fiction, but more on that later. In short, the entire Jean le Flambeur trilogy is a bit like a cycle of Scarlatti or Telemann sonatas. Baroque to be sure, complex and emotionally restrained, and requiring a certain effort to enjoy, but worth the investment.

Now that we have dispensed with the criticisms, I want to dig in to why Rajamiemi could become one of the most important Hard SF writers. In a past episode of the Coode Street Podcast (my usual touchstone for the academic side of SF), the hosts debated the greatest challenges to SF right now. The consensus was not the pace of technological change, publishing industry upheaval, the way we seem to live in the future already, or any of the other usual vectors of attack. They concluded that the challenge today is instead quantum physics. Books about rockets or engineering projects are easy compared to authentic looks at all the crazy quantum stuff going on; how many readers understand it anyway? (I certainly don’t.) Writing about real science now is brain meltingly complex and does not necessarily make for good stories. Much easier to rehash epic space battles or transpose the 1990s into the coming centuries.

Enter Hannu Rajaniemi. He hits quantum theory head on, then goes one further by pairing it with the inevitable future of dialed up augmented reality. He deals with uploaded personalities, a Solar System-wide information network, parallel worlds of the physical and virtual, and practical applications of all of the quantum theory stuff that I have no grasp of whatsoever. Physical spaceships move through orbits and Lagrange points, past servers and routers that power the digital worlds overlaying everything, while characters flit in and out of various bodies and frames of reference. Power in the Solar System is split more or less evenly between the Sobornost, which is run by multiple immortal clones of its Founders and is engaged in manually processing randomness out of the universe, and the Zoku, loose affiliations that have taken as a name the Japanese word for “tribe” and treat everything as a game to level up in. The conflict between the two rages between physical and virtual dimensions and at different levels of time compression, over ideological questions of such hot topics as causality.

Yes, this is meaty stuff and certainly not escapist fare. But Rajaniemi has planted his flag on the twin peaks of quantum theory and post-humanism and seems more than willing to give battle there. The latter is still up for debate to be sure, and Rajaniemi’s position is in decline, if my reading of the current state of the genre is correct. The former, however, is a topic that must be dealt with. All that wacky quantum stuff isn’t going anywhere; it can’t be avoided if Hard SF is to be honest with itself. This too, though, sees Rajaniemi in a minority position. The current trend in SF seems to be a return to the earthier SF of the 70s and 80s, as typified by the blockbuster Expanse series or Scalzi’s Old Man’s War books. I read The Causal Angel as a broadside from the author, a gauntlet thrown down as an invitation to glorious single combat in the name of quantum physics. This must become the future of Hard SF, if Hard SF is going to maintain its devotion to The Way Things Really Work.

In many ways, I can trace a line directly from Neuromancer to The Causal Angel. Both offer hallucinogenic views of a confusing technological future. Both borrow the faux-futurism of Japan. Both bid to overthrow the orthodoxy of the genre with cutting edge technology. I have no idea if Jean le Flambeur will leave the same firestorm in his wake that Case did (I suspect not), but I have popcorn on hand in case things get amusing.

As a final nugget, I must express my joy that Rajaniemi’s Bad Guy is drawn from the pages of one of my favorite books on game theory: Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation. The All Defector is an actual participant in Axelrod’s competition who, appropriately enough, never actually wins the game. I may be more excited about this than is healthy, but it’s a brilliant touch. (Everyone should enjoy game theory and everyone should read Axelrod.)

My own enthusiasm for Jean le Flambeur should be apparent by now. I will be following the conversation surrounding his story, looking for greater meaning and some indication of whether it is a turning point in the genre, just a monumental but ultimately overlooked statement, or the beginning of an iconoclastic career. Or who knows – maybe Rajaniemi’s next book will be about a farm boy who slowly learns his true destiny and saves a vaguely European kingdom from the darkest of lords, and my grandiose pronouncements here will prove completely overblown.

Kamo and Pep Together at Last – Pt. 3

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And so we come to the final round of this “meating” of the minds. We’d like to thank our sponsors, the audience watching at home, and all of the voters who have kept Kamo and Pep in through rounds one and two. Phone lines will open after the competition for viewers to submit their requests for the next pageant to be held.

Round Seven – Sexytimes (AKA: The Dance OF LOVE)

Kamo: There are five genders. What have you got?

Pep: While it would be amazing if The Spy and The Secretary had a magical moment, especially as The Spy is a mousy, female historian and The Secretary is a one-eyed savage, no such luck. There is a relationship shown in flashback that is torn apart by patriotism, but it won’t hold a candle to five genders.

Kamo: I dunno. It’s only the one culture with that wide a spread of standard roles (though most others have three), and while the Dhai are well down with the polyamory, as a whole the book is an unexpectedly sexless thing. There are a couple of narrowly avoided rapes, and that dysfunctional married couple get interrupted in flagrante (though that’s arguably marital rape as well), but aside from that the only instance of actual consensual sex is a soft-soap PG-13 tilt shot of entwined hands and rumpled bedsheets, followed by a jump cut to coffee and awkward small talk the next morning. Do we get to count this as a theme? There must be no fucking unless it’s awful?

Pep: May I recommend The Barrow for that sort of thing? You’d love it. Nothing but hateful sexytimes. Aside from a bit of human-affirmation-through-naughty-words at the end, we mostly get kind of a censored recollection in City of Stairs. Saypur does, to its credit, have the sort of progressive marriage ideas usually relegated to SF (gender equality, term contracts, hetero- and homo- options, etc), while Bukilov is typically repressive in the way we expect religious communities to be.

Kamo: I should probably clarify at this point that I am in no way clamouring for hateful sex, fictional or otherwise. Though on the plus side this is starting to crystalise for me how for all the novelty of ME’s world it is in many ways quite traditional. Screwing isn’t something that fantasy has usually done all that well, and we’re following that formula here. Gender (and to a certain extend ethnicity) switches aside most of this is your traditional Epic Fantasy pushed to the limits of complexity and then some. EF with a new bass riff and the volume turned up to eleven. I think we can all agree that that’s generally a good thing.

Round Eight – Disco

Kamo: That said, if I’m being perfectly honest the first half of this book just doesn’t work like it should. I’ll try to diagnose it more accurately, because a work with this many obvious and significant strengths deserves better than such cursory dismissal, but it may well prove beyond me. The Mirror Empire took me almost a month to read and, even allowing for its length and a whole host of untimely distractions in my personal life, it’s incredibly rare that a work of fiction I genuinely like (and I should emphasize again that I really do like this book a lot) will ever take me that long; not six seven eight so many weeks ago I disposed of the similarly sized Matter in the course of a long weekend. I keep vacillating on the exact reasons for this, but ultimately I think it’s a perfect storm of little misfires we might usefully group together under the heading ‘Tension Management’.

For example, the chapters feel fairly short which means you can read at a fair old clip, but also means that you don’t spend much time with any one individual, exacerbating that ‘slow-burn’ characterization. This is where those generic expectations start to matter, because two of the key tropes present are the now standard Massive Epic Fantasy Cast of POV Characters and the sprawling, byzantine political interplay of factions, nations, empires, and entire worlds. This is a lot to keep straight in your head and is, perhaps, one of the more comfortable/convenient excuses for why so much EF defaults to a mediaeval European setting; it’s nice and familiar and lets you devote more mental space to the characters and plot. When you’re trying to create meanings for scores of unfamiliar proper nouns, having to make further mental room for homicidal perambulatory trees and quintipartite gender constructions and cometary magic systems is a touch overwhelming. On the upside, none of the swords had fucking names, which is always a relief.

For all that innominate weaponry though, the first half of this book is also unexpectedly placid. You get a rip-roarer of a prologue and then I think I counted about two more fight scenes in the next 200 pages. This is obviously a pretty crude metric but is indicative of the lack of what, in this Post-Ned Stark era, I like to call* the Flick Factor – when a character’s chapter ends in suspenseful irresolution and you find yourself quickly leafing forward in order to confirm that they reappear, if not hale and hearty, then at least alive and in possession of most of their major body parts. To be fair, this improves as the book progresses and includes an almost joyfully literal cliffhanger, but early on there’s a lot of talk and treaties and positioning and most chapters are wrapped up a little too neatly. Too many natural breaks, which meant that once the book was put down I was under much less compulsion to pick it up again. But pick it up I did, because most of what I’ve just described is par for the Epic Fantasy course. The label implies making a certain commitment for the long-haul, though if I hadn’t been primed for that there‘s a small but real chance this book might still be on the bedside table.

Pep: I had no such difficulty with City of Stairs. The first section roused my semi-dormant love of spy fiction and I stayed right with Bennett as the story switched gears into politico-historic fantasy. Much of this can be credited to Bukilov’s compelling magnetism, but Shara is also the sort of character that many SFF readers will naturally gravitate towards. Reviewer bias should be noted here; if there’s anyone out there who wants to read politically and religiously charged stories about imaginary worlds that are narrated by nerdy history professors, it’s me. I should probably try to pick nits about Bennett’s craft or technique, but it’s kind of beyond me right now. Book Two is apparently in the works; I’ll be waiting in line for a copy.

Kamo: The absence of nits and the picking thereof is to be applauded, I think, but unfortunately not something I’m temperamentally inclined towards. It’s a personal failing, I know. Despite all that however, you (singular and plural) should read The Mirror Empire, as its weaknesses are nothing genre readers haven’t learned to deal with and are amply compensated for by its strengths, which are important in needful ways. Hurley’s last trilogy definitely got tighter as it progressed and I have every confidence that’ll happen here too; frankly she’s set up such a glorious playground for her characters that cool stuff can’t not happen. Now all we have to do is think up another tortured metaphor for our joint post about the sequels…

Pep: I am all for torturing metaphors, especially if we are doing it in tandem. Beauty pageants are no fun when it’s just me. All the more when I lose. Speaking of beauty pageants, this whole thing just reminded me of that one story in the Apex book we both read, about gladiatorial Miss Universe. I digress. Mirror Empire is on my list, though I may wrap up the Nyx-and-bugs books first. I suspect our tastes are close enough that you (and many of the Royal You out there) will dig City of Stairs. Until next time!

[Go on, embed a video of You Can’t Touch This at the end. If not now, then when? 😉 ]
[I … can’t. Some sort of reaction to parachute pants and high top fades.]

 

*By which I mean, “Here’s a pleasingly alliterative phrase I’ve just made up.”