Favorites of 2015

Favorite Books of 2015

Obligatory beginning/end of year posting time! As reading cratered to an all-time low this year, I’ve slashed the numbers on my year-end list to reflect that. No sense choosing a top twenty and only having to exclude a few. These aren’t really “best” or even “favorite” so much as, “books that stuck in my brain.” I read several things that I really enjoyed, but they kind of flowed through me like a warm river, leaving only the vaguest memories. The following have taken up residence in my SFF memory banks, even if I may not fight and die for them..

1. Ancillary Mercy – Ann Leckie
No surprises here! Everyone around me knows how much I love these books. Leckie finished things off brilliantly.

2. The House of Shattered Wings – Aliette de Bodard
Gothic urban fantasy about fallen angels wouldn’t normally be in my wheelhouse. Aliette de Bodard, on the other hand, turns everything she touches to gold. Who wins? Find out when I get around to reviewing this one.

3. Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson
KSR is probably my favorite SF author right now, and arguably the greatest living. Best to just refer everyone to my post about Aurora, or I will natter on for hours.

4. Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
Here’s another surprise. Steampunk Western is also not my thing, but this is hilarious, archly political, and set in the best city in the world not named Kyoto.

5. The Goblin Emperor – Katherine Addison
Addison’s book barely makes the cut, as it was one of the first couple I read in 2015. It’s lovely, charming, hopeful, and a bunch of other things I don’t normally read.

6. The Three-Body Problem – Liu Cixin
I owe myself dinner for correctly predicting Liu’s Hugo victory. Thanks, Puppies! If they are good for nothing else in this world (and they probably aren’t), they at least bollixed things up enough that we got to give the Hugo to a sprawling Chinese Hard SF novel. Spoiler alert – volume two is even better.

Runners up: The Bonehunters (Steven Erikson), In Conquest Born (C.S. Friedman), Nemesis Games (James S.A. Corey), Thirteen (Richard Morgan), The Red: First Light (Linda Nagata)

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We Who Are About To

We Who Are About To
Joanna Russ

I natter on quite a bit these days about gender stuff and other equality-based issues, hoping (fruitlessly?) that I don’t maroon myself in The Land of White Mansplaining. It was hardly my intent when I started the blog, but somewhere along the way this became part of the Two Dudes Party Line. Now, under the tyranny of my own editing, I am forced to meekly toe said line. Anyway, with Vintage SF Month in full swing, it is time to remedy a major hole in my SFF experience: foundational works of gender and cultural activism. I decided to grab either James Tiptree, Jr. or Joanna Russ for this, choosing We Who Are About To because I became convinced somehow that it was a military SF story with a pro-woman perspective. I may be confusing the book with something else.

Disclaimers first. There are many more lucid deconstructions of this book out there, written by people a) smarter than me b) more involved in activism or c) both. I am going to skate lightly across the surface in a bid to introduce and/or showcase the work, leaving the literary heavy lifting to those more qualified and less tired than I am. If this sort of thing tickles the Gentle Reader’s fancy, please use this post as a jumping off point. Engagement in the comments is also welcome; I shall endeavor to keep up.

As I said, my expectations when picking up We Who Are About To involved some combination of MilSF and feminism. I have no idea why I thought this, because, while there is feminism a-plenty, I found nary a mention of power armor or space battles. Oh well. Instead, transgressive trope busting ahoy. Russ takes on a popular story from days gone by: plucky humans crash land on an uninhabited but strangely livable planet and make a go of it. However, instead of having her people rise to the challenge, tap hitherto unknown reservoirs of creativity and talent, and beat back the frontier ala Little House on the Prairie, Russ decides to unleash The Lord of the Flies and basic laws of planetary biology. We have two choices at this point: read on and be shocked by the bracing, unforgiving story, or laugh at all the poor dorks as everything unravels. Regular readers can probably guess where I went when these two paths diverged in the yellow wood.

Russ has a lot to say about how close we are to savagery, how many men reflexively treat women, what defines a life worth having, and the limits of personal freedom. Our narrator prefers to have her right to die peacefully pried from her cold, dead hand, and doesn’t play well with others. Russ’ chosen protagonist is, shall we say, of the unreliable persuasion, but we automatically cheer for her because she’s the viewpoint character and the others are fools. Her fellow castaways are ready to start up a human breeding program before luxuries like a food supply are settled, basically becoming caricatures of Campbellian Boys Be Ambitious types. The narrator is suspicious not just because she opposes a baby boom, but is also some sort of religious weirdo, probably a drug addict, and is an all around disagreeable type. Still, it is decided that she must bear children, by force if necessary.

If all of this stuff is taken completely seriously, We Who is a bracing and cynical look at humanity. It’s also really hilarious, if one’s humor turns toward the darkness a bit. I fear the author would not be amused watching me chuckle my way through the mayhem. That’s fine though, she was apparently a University of Washington Husky at some point, so we are family, and family forgives these sorts of trespasses and indignities.

I should probably wrap up this inappropriately irreverent look at a classic of New Wave SF. My advice concerning it: Definitely read We Who Are About To. It is an exquisitely crafted jewel of a story, where every word is packed with dense meaning that leaves a much heavier impact than one would expect from such a slim volume. Readers in the right frame of mind will have their view of SF altered, likely as not to emerge from the experience with everything around them tilted a bit into a new perspective. It’s also very short, so even people who will just end up puzzled and/or angry won’t have put too much time into the effort. I’m glad I picked it up and fully plan to read more of Russ and her contemporaries. One word to the wise: skip the Samuel Delaney forward until after reading the book. He spoils everything.

Interstellar Patrol

Interstellar Patrol I-II
Christopher Anvil

Baen Books is mostly known as a purveyor of right-wing military SF, and with good reason, but this reputation obscures a much broader menu of genre offerings. Among Baen’s saving graces are the reprints they churn out of yesteryear’s mid-list, often with Eric Flint at the editorial helm. Thanks to Baen and Flint, intrepid readers can easily acquire near complete bibliographies of authors like Keith Laumer, Murray Leinster, James Schmitz, etc. In this case, I’ve finally plowed through the entirety of the Interstellar Patrol series, all 1500+ pages. Vintage SF Month seems like the best time to talk about it.

Anvil is the consummate Campbellian, with compact stories about competent Anglo-Saxons solving problems. The Interstellar Patrol defends freedom and right across the galaxy by outwitting dastardly villains, generally by being smarter and/or technically superior to the bad guys. Violence is rarely the answer for Anvil’s heroes; victory goes to those who can reason, not blast, their way to a solution. The Patrol in this series recruits a group of resourceful con-men, subverting their wiles and using them for good. The results are usually logically convoluted, lightly funny, and always entertaining. For my money, Anvil is one of the best places to start with Golden Age SF, warts and all.

There are flaws there for the picking of course. The future is nothing but white dudes named John or Harold, the women are suitably obedient (but at least they are there, unlike colored folk), and various governments are basically the 1950s transported into space. This is pretty much a given with Campbell however, so I guess it is up to us as readers to resolve our own attitudes to the era. With Anvil however, glimmers of hope do emerge. The women are not always completely hopeless, and he keeps up a wry, self-aware meta-commentary suggesting that, deep down, he’s fully cognizant of some of the absurdity. I could be projecting, but to me much of the humor in these books stems from Anvil poking fun at SF conventions. He never rises fully above them though, more’s the pity. There’s a line at the end of Anvil’s SF Encyclopedia entry briefly mourning the author’s seeming contentment at Campbell’s restrictions, since he seems capable of much more. I agree whole-heartedly.

The last couple hundred pages of book two are stories set in the same universe, but not involving the Interstellar Patrol. All follow the usual pattern of smart men solving problems, and many deal with the challenges of colonizing hostile planets. In these, another Campbellian trope rises from the deep like be-tentacled Cthulhu. Invariably, the heroes of these stories are rugged individualists who have thrown off the effeminate shackles of civilization and stride boldly through the landscape, chopping their own wood and whatnot. This self-actualization through mortal danger and/or physical labor isn’t exactly dead now, but I have to think it’s a dated way of visualizing planetary colonization. Or maybe not, considering the mad success of The Martian. At least he is dealing more or less realistically with the environment though, rather than romping about in shorts and a t-shirt while battling with man-eating creatures. The stories are entertaining though, since Anvil maintains a sardonic distance throughout and many a stupid person earns his deserved demise.

I would tell the curious reader to start his or her Anvil exploration with Pandora’s Legions, then pick up the first volume of Interstellar Patrol stories. Volume Two is more for completists, as I find the stories to have a diminishing rate of return. They’re all of consistent quality though, so no loss for the reading, even if ambition is somewhat lacking.