People have already started posting their nominations for the BSFAs. I’m not nominating, but I’ve been working on this 2014 blurb monster for a while now, so here it goes…
Around mid-December, we were all ambushed by a bunch of “Best of 2014” lists. I was mostly taken by the Coode Street Podcast year-end special, Adam Roberts’ Best Science Fiction of 2014 list in (shudder) The Guardian, and a few author blogs here and there. So I caught the buzzies again.
Here’s my summary of books everybody is talking about and where I think they belong in the grand scheme of things:
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson: Despite the really, truly, horrible cover art (who hates you at Solaris, Mr. Hutchinson?), M. John Harrison considers this a “criminally” underbuzzed novel. Near-future Europe has become even more fragmented, with new nations being declared almost daily. The convoluted border laws make travel and commerce difficult, so the underground (read: criminal) Coureur network blossoms, but all this fragmentation may be covering up the darkest and strangest secret of all. With its stiff protagonist and a stiff, noir-ish tone, it’s often compared to the novels of le Carre, but I most enjoyed gallivanting around a re-imagined Europe. If Lonely Planet had a baby with The City & the City, this would be that baby.
The Race by Nina Allan: More like a series of loosely-related novelettes, bookended by the more SF of the tales, but injected with an intimate, but slanted, realism. It’s an uncomfortable read, with a setting and characters that feel too slippery to grasp, but an entirely unique experience for readers bored with same old SF drudge. Jesse at Speculiction calls it “gluey,” (I’m paraphrasing a bit), and there is no better descriptor for this tale. (As rich and reflective as it is, there is that sci-fi part of me that just wants to read more about the smartdogs.)
Wolves by Simon Ings: My favorite of 2014, a future-tomorrow to future-decades tale that feels so familiar at first, it’s hard to identify the SF. But two-thirds in, the tale rockets forward into a decaying future where people overlay the pre-apocalyptic future with Alternate Reality scenery. At first, the tale might seem standard with its feckless, post-modern male protagonist, but Wolves is really about the transformative nature of space: landscape space, memory space, relational space. Ings is often called “Ballard-esque,” and his thematic magic is pulled through every layer. Even sex gets the SF treatment in this tale. It’s okay if this novel goes largely ignored today, because it will be deemed a classic a couple of decades from now.
Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor: Aliens arrive in Lagos, Nigeria because “We can work with you people.” No doubt. I’ll buy that premise. It’s obvious that Okorafor is having fun with this novel, and readers may not get out of it what they expect, as this is less about First Contact, and more about the idiosyncrasies of Nigerian culture. Expect to laugh and learn. Not available in the U.S. until July, readers can obtain the audiobook format, which is highly recommended. The actors are insanely talented and keep the tale alive when things stall midway as Okorafor switches gears from standard SF tale to social lampoon. Fun and fresh.
You’ve seen the covers. We’ve all seen the covers.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Another fresh take on the post-apocalypse tale, from the vantage of the arts. Troubadours, Shakespeare, and a comic book frame this character-driven tale. Critics love the symbolism and readers love the character development, but I thought it was the same story already told: people die, unlikely people forge on together, danger happens, a creepy kid, a crazy cult, the Oh Nos, and ends with the disquieting feels. Plus, for some reason, brown-skinned men seem to be crappy and/or unsuccessful boyfriends to the white female protags in this novel (an unconscious detail, seeing as Mandel strives for diversity, but I noticed it.)
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu: The only novel of the overbuzzed category that deserves its overbuzzed status, this tale reads like classic Hard SF: rigid prose, paragraphs devoted to mechanics and scientific theory, and dialogue-driven exposition (although, just when it gets tiresome, Liu offers some creative ways of bypassing this with flashbacks). It begins with a bang in the middle of the turbulent Cultural Revolution, then jumps ahead to modern times, where it slows down a bit (and I almost ditched it here because it was starting to feel like a Robert Sawyer/Robert Charles Wilson “let’s take a scientific pseudo-theory and run with it!” plot), but it actually gets really interesting, if stretched, with its quantum theoretical technology and I might actually read the sequel.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: The problem with this book is that the majority of it is so enjoyable with its decade-jumping, perspective-hopping sections, everyone will find something they like, but they won’t like everything. In my case, I enjoyed nearly all of it, with its little bit of vague magical warfare coursing through the background of the lives of these intriguingly mundane characters. BUT THEN. MAGIC FANTASY HAPPENS. AND ALL IS EXPLAINED. IN A CONVERSATION. OVER TEA. AND THEN A MAGICAL WAR HAPPENS. IN ANOTHER REALM. IT LASTS ABOUT FIVE MINUTES. AND GOOD WINS. I would normally chalk this up to an author subverting tropes, but I just didn’t get that feeling with this one. I talk about it more here.
The Southern Reach (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance, A lot of books to buy) by Jeff VanderMeer: It’s all about atmosphere with this one. Dripping with tone and mood, readers who savor the experience of impending dread will enjoy this series in which prolonged scientific and bureaucratic curiosity about a mysterious environmental catastrophe results in anxiety and weird imagery. The most unique of all the 2014s listed here, it was not my favorite, but perhaps most deserving of any SF awards due to its experimental nature and potential to define our generation. That said, the three-books-in-one-year publishing format is both marketing brilliance and disrespectful to readers. And many readers will stall on the second book. I kind of, sort of parody it here.
City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett: The most mainstream and reader-friendly on this list, CoS cashes in on the latest genre trends with a secondary world that feels familiarly Eastern, and is stuffed with a tough-as-nails female protag, her deadly, but loyal sidekick, magic rooted in history and religion, overt moralizing, and godly interactions. Total book candy, it’s a fun read that most people will enjoy. SF readers needing more depth will find it cartoony and wanting. The portrayal of a homosexual supporting character struck me as well-intentioned, but problematic, tokenism.
The Peripheral by William Gibson: Ahhhh, sciii-fiiii… Time-travel byway of uploading oneself into a mindless clone body in the future, or uploading oneself into a children’s monitor toy in the past— it depends on the tech available during the era being visited, obviously. Also includes murder by nanotech, space-shifting tattoos, cardboard automobiles, and a nebulous national security force that the cool kids call “Homes.” Also, lots of that tasty, truncated Gibsonian dialogue. My fondness for this novel grows more just thinking about it. If that doesn’t convince you, here’s more.
The Not Sure Buzzed
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North: Quite shocked by how good this novel is. A man suffers from redundant reincarnation by living his life over and over again. On one of his deathbeds, he learns that world is ending more rapidly, and he thinks he knows why. Delicious protagonist/antagonist tension and game-playing with premature technological advances against a WWII and post-WWII backdrop make this a fascinating read. North is an expert at character study. I can’t tell if this was underbuzzed or overbuzzed, but I’m surprised this isn’t a best-seller.
Books that have been left off (but not for want of trying):
Bête by Adam Roberts: Oh my goodness, look at that gorgeous cover. It’s about talking animals, some people are saying it’s his best so far, and it’s not available in the U.S. yet.
A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar: Something about the Holocaust and a dude who writes comics about Hitler to process his trauma? Maybe? Tidhar has been on my need to read list for some time and this one has been getting good reviews. I have Osama in the ereader queue because this is another that is not yet available in the U.S.
Son of the Morning by Mark Adler: I have no earthly idea what this is about, but Adam Roberts called it a “masterpiece.” *googling* Hundred Years’ War, angels, demons… hmm. HMMM. Also not yet released in the U.S. (Seriously thinking about purchasing a co.uk ereader because this is bullshit.)
Books that have been left off (but not for try of wanting):
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: It sounds very religiousy, so I can’t say I’m very eager to read this novel about a preacher who goes to another world to proselytize to aliens he knows nothing about. Apparently the people in Faber’s universe don’t ask questions before getting on a spaceship to travel light years away.
If I were to do a shortlist right now, it would probably look something like this: Wolves, The Peripheral, The Race, Three Body Problem, Southern Reach. But I’m not done reading.
I’ll make this a sidebar page and update it as I read more 2014s.