Year's reading, 2016

Some weeks since my last post, mostly because I've been busy with a rush load of book doctoring work pre-Christmas, along with some more agent-suggested edits on what I'm hoping will be my next book: but I do hate to let a year go without giving at least some recommendations, and especially if you're a working writer, book recommendations are the main way by which you can pay it forward, so to speak.

So, a little analysis of my reading over the last year first.

I read 52 books in 2016. Of these, perhaps just five or six were published in 2016: I rarely read books in the year they’re published.

All of the books were read on my Kindle Paperwhite, and occasionally on my iPad Air, which makes for an excellent e-reader in its own right.

Of those 52, about 22 were non-fiction. Nearly ten of the fiction books I had read before (bit more than I realised, actually), but it had been so long since I last read them it felt like coming to them for the first time; either they’d turned up cheap on Kindle, or I'd bought them in e-format years before and just hadn’t got around to reading them until now.

I re-read Joe Haldeman's Forever War, partly because I've had a vague notion for an anti-war story floating around in my head for some time now. I've been looking for years for a way to write some kind of military sf that doesn't require me to throw my personal morals out the window, and the only way it could possibly work is if it came from a strongly anti- perspective.

With that in mind, I recently read Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers for the first time, and was thoroughly appalled. It made sense to follow that up with the Haldeman, since many people see it a direct response to the Heinlein.

I also re-read Neal Stephenson's Zodiac soon after finishing his Seveneves this summer, for reasons below.

I re-read another ageing classic, Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley, mainly because I wanted to explore any potential similarities it bore to a story I’ve been working on. Fun, but light.

I re-read Lev Grossman's much more recent - and excellent - The Magicians, in order to finally read the other two books in the trilogy.

I re-read City of the Iron Fish by Simon Ings, partly because the first time I read it, back in the 90s, I’d been impressed by the way it subverted certain fantasy tropes.

The most significant re-read of the year for me, however, was Jack Womack's hugely, gigantically impressive Random Acts of Senseless Violence, of which I only retained vague memories of reading, again in the mid-90s. Less a post-apocalypse, more of a pre-apocalypse, it charts the crumbling of society under economic and political pressures in an America ruled by a President who bears some very, very unfortunate similarities to Donald Trump.

The story is seen through the eyes of a young girl, trapped in the failing city with her parents, and as the city crumbles and distorts, so does she, her language and mind shifting and changing with each passing page. One of those books that very deservedly can be regarded as a genuine classic.

I didn't exactly re-read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon, but instead picked it up again after having bought it, started it and then abandoned it a few years back. That's a very typical pattern for me where Pynchon is concerned; read a few chapters and then put it down, baffled. Indeed, the only reason I picked up Inherent Vice was I'd heard it was a little more…accessible than his other works.

Weirdly enough, it was the recent film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, that brought me back to the book. I figured if I couldn't make sense of the book, maybe I could make sense of that. And I could: after watching it, on a whim I found the book and glanced again at its opening lines - and suddenly, the dialogue made sense in a way it hadn't before. I finally finished the book in less than a week.

What did I think of it? Well, with some books, it feels like going on an enjoyable ride, but there's no there, there, if you follow me: it's like you heard about this great place I ought to go to, except I turn up and there's nothing there but an empty lot.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes the journey is more important than the destination. But for all that, the book felt like a slightly hollow experience. If there was a theme in there or a message or some particular thought the author wanted to impart, I clearly missed it.

On the non-fiction front, the ones that stood out for me were The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century, a biography of Nikola Tesla by Robert Lomas; Debt by David Graeber; Backroom Boys by Francis Spufford; and Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall.

The Marshall is particularly fascinating because it delineates clearly the relationship between borders, geography and the wealth of nations. It seeks to explain the geopolitical underpinnings of modern conflicts and the ways in which geography influences the relationship between nations and why some are rich and some will always be poor. It’s in light of that latter point that the meaning of the title, Prisoners of Geography, becomes particularly apposite. It details the genuinely fascinating relationship between the USSR's expansion into Eastern Europe and its lack of any year-round naval ports due to its geography, and the ways in which the types of terrain to be found in Africa and South America have affected the economic development of nations there.

Economics is a subject about which I feel I should have a grasp, but it's a slippery subject, I find. Still, I try, and I've read enough David Graeber in The Guardian to know I like the cut of his anarchist jib. It's long, and complex, but Debt is ultimately worth it. Certain key concepts such as fractional reserve banking are clearly and succinctly explained, and if ever you wanted a more expert understanding of the true horror of austerity, it’s a good place to start.

I don’t usually talk about books I didn’t like too much, because being a writer, I know just how much hard and difficult work goes into writing one. So it is with some trepidation I find myself forced to admit I felt a little…disappointed with Neal Stephenson's Seveneves this summer.

I've loved every other single thing Stephenson’s done until now, consider myself a major Stephenson fanboy, ever since I stumbled across a review of Snow Crash in the back pages of Mondo 2000 (no, really) a loooong time ago. I recall I spent the next two years demanding everyone I knew read the book so I could monologue at them about its inherent joys. Seveneves ultimately proved to be just too heavy and frustrating and overly didactic, determined to cross every t and identify, name, tag and describe every nut and every bolt. God knows it's a massive achievement, as every one of his books are, but that's the last time I want to read a hundred page description of how someone's flying suit works.

And what perhaps also gives me pause is that the plot is based on the moon exploding for no good reason (no spoilers, it’s right there in the first paragraph), something that is, quite literally, impossible. Really, he could have written 'a giant space rat ate it' and it would probably have made as much sense. Granted, it allowed him to describe how the human race might just save itself from an apparently inescapable doom using almost-current levels of technology, but at the cost, metaphorically and story-wise, of having an ant dance on the head of a pin swivelling on a toothpick gripped by an angel on a unicycle.

All this prompted me to re-read Zodiac, a much earlier work about environmentalists battling Big Industry. It feels almost sparse compared to his later work, but for all that, ultimately it felt more satisfying.

I finally, at last, got around to reading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin and found it...okay. A common reaction I have on encountering, or re-encountering, the 'classics' of science fiction.

I was aware, going in, that much of its reputation revolves around its depiction of an essentially bisexual society, almost but not quite standard-human and able to change sex effectively at will. This, however, proved to have really not much impact on the story, so far as I could see, and the only time it was clearly addressed was in a kind of epilogue which, unfortunately, I gave up on quite quickly. It felt less like fiction and more like the author showing her homework.

I finally got around to reading some David Mitchell. Well, I had read something before, except I can't remember one damn thing about it, except it was set in Japan. And now I think about it, I can't remember the title either: that's how much it stuck in my head.

So I approached David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I must admit, with a hint of trepidation, especially given the reputation it seems to have as a beloved work. It proved to be enjoyable, and more memorable, certainly, than that other, less memorable book...but like the Pynchon, I came away with the distinct sense that there's no there, there.

I thought the structure of the interlinked novellas was all very nice, but I could see no real purpose to it, or at least none that in any way enhanced either my enjoyment or understanding of the story. Indeed, I watched an interview in which Mitchell mentioned he can't really write books, and instead writes novellas and essentially glues them together. If that's not proving my point that there's no there, there, then I don't know what is.

I also read Cixin Liu's The Three-Body Problem, partly because it's massive in China and partly because, living in Taipei just across the Formosa Straits from the Chinese mainland, I sort of feel like I ought to. And God knows I do like my hard sf.

The results were...variable? I was perhaps less than enthused by the prose, but I don't know whether that's down to the original text or Ken Liu's translation. There was also some, let's be frank, slightly dodgy characterisation, including a, I suspect, unintentionally hilarious world-weary detective whose dialogue sounded like it had been ripped straight from some straight-to-video production sometime in the mid-80s.

But for all that, there were some fascinating moments, most especially the glimpse of life during the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. There were some nicely eye-popping scenes with some full-on sensawunda, and it's clear there's a great deal of intelligence going on here. But for all that, I can't feel any great enthusiasm for reading the subsequent volumes.

But what about books you actually liked, Gary?

I thought very highly of Experimental Film by Gemma Files, a kind-of-fantasy/weird fiction take revolving around the world of Canadian arthouse cinema of all things, and which was filled with fascinating detail by an author with a great deal of inside knowledge. It feels almost like a companion piece to that other work of fantasy organised around the history of the film industry, Flicker by Theodore Roszak.

I also thought a lot of Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn, first published a few years back. I thought it might make the top of my list, but the reason it doesn’t is simply the way it ends. I don’t think this qualifies as a spoiler, but essentially rather than having an actual ending, we instead get a kind of cliffhanger and a ‘to be continued’ in books two and three.

I’ve got no problem with trilogies, but I believe it’s quite possible to write a complete novel with a beginning, middle and end and still have sequels. I’ve certainly always tried to write complete novels, even when I know there are further volumes coming. Outside of that, however, it’s a terrific piece of writing.

In all honesty, I’d avoided it until now, mainly because the idea of a near-future Europe broken up into tiny warring statelets struck me as faintly ridiculous. But it was (again) on sale cheap on Kindle, so I took a chance. I’m glad I did, and it turned out the explanation for Europe winding up this way made legitimate sense.

In the end, I had a hard time deciding which would be my recommended book of the year, but in the end I've decided to give that honour to two books: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and The Peripheral by William Gibson.

I’ve read a few of Gibson’s post-Sprawl novels such as Spook Country and generally found them disappointing, enough so I stopped buying his books. The Peripheral is, however, both a return to science fiction and a superb piece of writing, which suggests to me Gibson works best within the genre that birthed him.

Lovecraft Country was a supremely clever and modern take both on Lovecraftian fiction, while also addressing the racism of Lovecraft himself, from the perspective of a black family in the US in the early sixties for whom occult threats sometimes aren’t nearly so scary as the white authorities they sometimes encounter in those pre-civil march days.

Close runner-ups include The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, an author I have a lot of time for. Also excellent was Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson, a kinda/sorta space opera about a contemporary games programmer who, in the days after first contact with a whole panoply of alien civilisations, finds himself blogging about alien video games, some of which are tens of millions of years old. Silly, intriguing, involving and extremely worth your time and money.

And that’s it! I’d go into more detail, but that’s just how busy I’ve been in the run-up to the end of this year. And before I forget, fuck you, 2016! Here’s to a hopefully better year next year.