Of the 2014 Books I Read, I Read, I Read…

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:

The Underbuzzed

europeinautumn

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.

therace

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.)

wolves1

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

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.

The Overbuzzed:

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):

Bete

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.

The Shortlist

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.

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32 thoughts on “Of the 2014 Books I Read, I Read, I Read…

  1. thebookgator says:

    Hmm, I might have to check out Wolves. Your review sounds interesting.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I loved Wolves. You’ll read half of it and think i’m crazy for making it my number one. But then… BLAM! It all ties together into beautiful bleakness.

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  2. Jay Dee says:

    Damn it. Goodreads has problems. I wanted to add some of these to my to be read list. Europe in Autumn seems interesting to me.

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  3. Lagoon has only three reviews on Amazon, so underbuzzed may be putting it mildly—but dat cover! Same with Wolves, great covers got me to read the blurbs, which made me want to read them; will probably speed that up since they got the patented Couch to Moon bump. Ian Sales just plugged Hutchison as well, so that’s going on the list. VanderMeer I just bought on a Kindle daily deal, but I did like his Ambergis stuff. I’ll have to keep the rest in mind. (Your snark at City of Stairs make me glad I skipped it, since everyone else has been so gushy about it this award season.)

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think one of those Lagoon reviews is Okorafor herself, lol! She’s funny!

      I think you will LOVE Wolves.

      Ian Sales is part of the reason I decided to post today instead of next week. Give Hutchinson that deserved extra bump.

      I have since learned that I am not the only tepid reviewer of City of Stairs. RBJ even guested on Coode Street, and yet his book was not even slightly mentioned on their year-end review (and they did discuss 50% fantasy), and I think Wolfe has quietly downplayed its buzz in another epi. Hate to mention Roberts again (no I don’t), but his review also highlights the fun-but-what-else quality.

      Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      And yes, the Wolves and Lagoon covers are gorg. Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings highlighted them in his big cover post recently.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’ve pretty much sold me on Wolves when it wasn’t even on my radar. Does sound pretty fantastic. I’m a sucker for Joey Hi-Fi covers so Lagoon has been on my want list ever since I saw that cover on SF Signal or io9 or someplace—African-based SF is a pretty unique viewpoint, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Rabindranauth says:

    I picked up Wolves after your review, and Lagoon I have to wait for it to hit the U.S. before I can buy it apparently. Son of the Morning, I’ve heard as many good as bad things about, so if you get around to it will probably wait for your take to decide.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Son of the Morning is a tome. 800 pp. I might do more research before I commit. (I do love me some 800 pp historical fiction, though.)

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  5. Jesse says:

    Jealous of your books-published-in-2014 reading experience. It seems I chose poorly, as those I did read, save The Three-Body Problem and Paul Park’s All Those Vanished Engines, failed to leave a strong impression. For all their buzz-buzz-buzz, I’m glad to see books like Peter Watts’ Echopraxia and Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire absent from the best-of lists by readers/reviewers who have some perspective, including yours. Echopraxia is simply average and The Mirror Empire is just more of the same-old grimdark epic fantasy with some p.c. gender crap sprinkled on top that amounts to nothing.

    Along with the World Fantasy, I think the BSFA is the best award going, so good to see you in support. British science fiction readers seemingly possessing higher standards than American, there is a noticeable difference in the quality of works awarded in comparison to the Hugo, Locus, Campbell, and the other US based awards. There is no award set up to recognize the literary side of the genre (the Kitschies would like to be, but I think Roberts, Coode Street, Nina Allan, Sales, you and a few others do a much better job of locating books with real integrity), which makes the BSFA the best we have for science fiction. So again, bravo for supporting a worthy award.

    And lastly, ŻÓŁWIK (that’s a Polish fist bump, actually a little turtle, but figuratively equivalent) for the link to The Race.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The BSFA seems to best align with my reading interests (although last year was kind of weird) and I wish I had known that 10 years ago when I was fresh out of grad school and blindly clawing the SF shelves for decent fiction. The Kitschies have also caught my attention, but whenever I go to Pornokitsch it seems like they cover the same mid-grade stuff as everyone else.

      Thanks for the warning on Watts. I haven’t gotten around to him, but I will one day.

      I’m glad you mention Hurley. I got Mirror Empire on sale, but I just can’t bring myself to read it. My ears pricked again when Nina Allan complimented her writing, and she was enjoyable on Coode Street, but then you say “grimdark epic fantasy.” Well, that’s just a recipe for “How to deter Megan from reading a book.”

      “PC gender crap”– them’s fightin’ words. HE’S SAYING SUPERFICIAL FEMINIST SPRINKLES ARE BAD. NOT FEMINISM. (It’s not cool to know the difference nowadays.)

      And your Polish turtle sounds a lot cooler than a tough Texan handshake, so back at ya. 🙂

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  6. Great post! Wolves has dropped off my radar but is now firmly back on. Son of Morning, I’d not heard of but I think I’m going to have to pick it up at some point. Europe in Autumn sounds like it might be a book I enjoy the idea of rather than the reality of reading it. Lagoon, I’ve shied away from, but you sell it well. There are however too many books in the world and far too little time (and money!)

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think you’ll really like Europe in Autumn and Wolves. I’m not trying to sell Lagoon (that YA comment wasn’t a compliment), but it is underbuzzed and people who like that kind of writing need know about it. I’m not done yet, but so far it’s cute, but average, although the Nigerian perspective a breath of fresh air.

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  7. Yeah, you’re right it’s the audio book you waxed lyrical about. I was trying comment on my phone, and it was too much of a pain to go back to the main post and double check. I’d already done so four times, because I completely failed to retain the title of Europe in Autumn!

    For EiA your comparison with City and the City put me off a little, I don’t manage Mieville very well. Couple of other reviews I found said the narrative is fragmented. I’ve discovered I like experimental narratives a lot less than I think I do! Nevertheless I’ll add it to the wishlist.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Hmmm, I didn’t find Europe in Autumn at all experimental. It’s a pretty straightforward, linear narrative, although it may seem fragmented because the narrative jumps to a new Coureur adventure every 50 pages or so. This is just to highlight the changes that the protagonist (and Europe) goes through.

      If anyone has any complaints, I think they would complain about the strange and abrupt ending. And this is not a book for people who want to read about character relationships and such.

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  8. […] Previous post: 2014 SF Review Blurbs for Yur Nominatin’ Pleasure […]

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  9. Simon Ings for all the wins!

    I am really into the Bete cover as well.

    I am shocked and appalled at how many things are not currently available in the US.

    I very much appreciate your commentary on the overhyped books. Glad somebody said it. Not that I have read many of them. But I feel like I should.

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    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yes, Simon Ings! I do think he’ll be an author that people will continue to talk about decades from now. That’s just based on my reading of one book, but you seem pretty satisfied with his entire oeuvre.

      I just get so tired of the mainstream publications calling books “Amazing!” and “Brilliant!” and then I read them and they’re nothing special.

      And what is the deal with international publishing? I know nothing about it, but why should it take a year for an e-book to become available on the other side? I wonder if the publishers just want to the give the book time to grow before they decide to take the plunge in the US market. Or is this an award manipulation thing, to give the books a chance to appear on ballots two years in a row? I could purchase them from the used book market, but the authors don’t profit from that.

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  10. […] My 2014 reading rundown has been updated to include my final thoughts on Okorafor’s Lagoon, which I ended up really enjoying. I will also add my thoughts on my current read, Claire North’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, which is surprisingly absent from the Locus list. […]

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  11. […] posting their nomination ballots for the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) awards, so I shared my own blurby comments about the 2014 novels I read, with the promise that I would add more. This is just spectator fun for me. The BSFA tends to catch […]

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  12. […] of my picks on my shifting, fleeting, oft-reshuffled 2014 best novel shortlist were nominated. My reading overlap ratio isn’t nearly as uncanny as it was with […]

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  13. Jesse says:

    I just finished Station Eleven and was blown away. I can’t recall reading a novel that forces the reader to be so aware of what we have–family, technology, civilization,etc.–and cherish it. I thought I remember you writing a mini-review in the run up to the BSFA, but a search of your blog turns up only this post…

    Now that you’ve had several months to think about the novel, do you still have the same feelings as above?

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  14. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Actually, I was just thinking about Station Eleven yesterday (we must have a psychic book connection) and my opinion of it has gotten worse. It is well-written. Beautifully written. Full of compelling characters. Mood and tone are on point, although I question the purpose of that tone in the later part of the timeline. I think humans are much too resourceful and capable to deserve that elegiac tone twenty years afterward. She made so many assumptions that don’t make sense: assumptions about people, technology, civilization that just don’t fit humanity as I know it.

    I was gripped by those first chapters and then she lost me when Jeevan took to the road when he has everything he needs within reach. Go find a house. Go raid Home Depot. Start a garden. Find some books on electricity. Find other survivors and help them. Then the airport people: Why did they choose to commune at the airport? Go start a little community by the lake. Follow above. Pandemic apocalypse happens and the surviving population automatically goes feral, wandering the countryside, sleeping on the ground? Grouping together in a hot airport building where the plumbing has backed up? Really? This is humanity? Even in shock, I think humans are more resourceful than that.

    One thing I didn’t catch at the time, but the Strange Horizons review pointed out, the numbers don’t make sense. Was it 1% of the population that survives? Would that population really be able to ransack every house in the entire country in 20 years? Why are people living on the streets when houses are everywhere? Gasoline has gone bad, okay, but other resources should be abundant, even 20 years later. And it’s cute that there might be a roving band of performers, but the rest of it…?

    And then the weird cultish kid who grows up to be a weird cultish kidnapping rapist. Such a tired dytopian cliche, and I don’t think a person like that would survive that long if he and his merry followers are wandering the country. The first community he encounters would put a stop to that shit.

    I’ve started calling Station Eleven the fine arts version of The Stand because I think she took all of those common dystopian elements, and then inserted Shakespeare and Star Trek and Doctor Who, which serve more as pop culture references rather than as a metaphorical structure. And she wrote it really, really well. Basically pummeled Stephen King with it, so good on her for that.

    I thought the strongest element was the pre-story about the actor and his wife, but now that time has gone by, I view that strand as an interjected piece that’s not quite meshed with the overall tale.

    I thought about this book yesterday because I just finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and, although the books seem to have nothing in common, I think his characterization of human civilization in strife is much more realistic.

    WOW, look at that rant. Sorry about that. It was a good book to read, though. I couldn’t put it down, but I just can’t grasp the logic of the tale.

    Like

    • Jesse says:

      I’m with you on the post-ap puzzle pieces that just don’t seem to fit actual reality. I would point out, however–and very funny to me, at least–that it’s only the sf crowd critiquing Mandel for the inadequacies of her setting and assumptions regarding humanity’s behavior in Earth-spanning crises. The counting of people, for me, is very, very nerdy. 🙂 I can picture the classic geek, thick glasses, plaid shirt, high-waisted khakis, saying: “And it would require 28.2 years to reach the critical mass necessary to achieve the technological horizon similar to the modern electrical grid, that is, , if the virus doesn’t mutate again, , dropping humanity’s chances of survival at least 85.3%, leading to…”

      I’m willing to forgive Mandel. Regardless of whether there was some stereotypical religious fanatic to make drama or incongruous assumptions about what people would do in the most extreme circumstances, her message would still hit home: we need to appreciate the social and technical aspects of modern civilization more. If indeed, as Gibson says, the future is now, that’s about as powerful and relevant a science fiction theme as I can think of. But who knows, perhaps in time my impression will also fade…

      (cue theremin noises) Inspired by (jealous, actually) of your ability to participate in 2014’s genre discussion, I’m reading (listening, actually) to Aurora at the moment in the hopes of participating in 2015’s… dee-doo, dee-doo, dee-doo… See you on the other side.

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      • Jesse says:

        I’m disappointed. In the comment I just left I included some sound effects tucked inside < symbols, and wordpress deleted them. So, in the nerd quote, between the doubled commas, , you'll have to imagine snorting…

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      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        I am minus the high-waisted khakis and I normally leave my thick glasses at home, but yeah, you are absolutely right that this book has divided readers along very distinct scifi/literary lines. And while I normally roll my eyes at splitting hairs over splitting atoms (or whatever science or military principle is being questioned), Station Eleven seriously provoked in me that (insert whiny nasal voice , if you must) “INTRUDER ALERT” response.

        I just finished Aurora and I loved it so much. My review should post Thursday/Friday and it’s rather incomplete and open-ended. I can’t wait to see what you think about Aurora, and whether you punch holes in such masterpiece. I’m not used to reviewing something just out of the oven and found it hard to comment on things without spoiling it. I usually don’t care about that, but the surprises (stylistic and otherwise) are just so pleasurable.

        We may have to have a 2015 review-off in January 🙂

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  15. […] shortlist was determined by me, based on an unscientific selection of novels I neglected during my 2014-novel reading extravaganza but remained implanted in my memory for whatever […]

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