In 2010, I kept a log of the books I read, and ended with a “Books of the Year” post. This was remarkable fun, so I did it again this year, and once again I have some recommendations and some anti-recommendations.
First, the obligatory lump of statistics: Only 61 books read this year, down from 101, but many more partially read but abandoned. Of the ones fully read, 18 were science fiction, 15 fantasy, 6 lit fic, one thriller, 14 non-fiction, 5 YA, 6 middle-grade. (The ones not fully read were, alas, mostly low-grade) Three were re-reads, and (a different) three were anthologies of short fiction. Out of this, I found 18 that I can recommend, about the same fraction as last year, and one (of the ones I finished) that deserves an anti-recommendation. Fortunately this one is merely unexpectedly bad, rather than something which ought to be set on fire at the soonest opportunity.
The recommended list is much more non-fiction–heavy this year, including two extraordinary books about the United States which I think every American should read as soon as they can get their hands on them.
For the “writers to read everything by them the moment it is available” list, I’ve got one addition, or rather the removal of a caveat – I think that I can safely recommend the entire corpus of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work without hesitation, at this point.
So now, to the details!
Lots of good fiction this year. I’ll start off with science fiction, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book Galileo’s Dream. This is the story of how Galileo was secretly and repeatedly kidnapped by time travelers; but far from a romp, it’s a beautiful, complex, and serious book, mostly a (very historically based) life of Galileo, deeply meditating on faith and reason, science and religion, and the balance between the emotional and intellectual life. One quote from it which particularly struck me, and which I think illustrates the style and tone:
“We all have seven secret lives. The life of excretion; the world of inappropriate sexual fantasies; our real hopes; our terror of death; our experience of shame; the world of pain; and our dreams. No one else ever knows these lives.”
Highly recommended. Equally good was Félix J. Palma’s The Map of Time, the first of his novels to be translated into English. This book attempts to explore, as far as I can tell, every single major approach in literature to time travel, as well as the meaning of story and writer, and does so with such wit and passion that you can’t stop reading it. H. G. Wells is one of the main protagonists; elaborate Victorian frauds are a major plot element. If this doesn’t grab your attention, I don’t know what will.
Another extraordinary book I read this year was an older one, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Sarantine Mosaic. (Warning to readers: This was published in two volumes, “Sailing to Sarantium” and “Lord of Emperors.” The covers will not warn you that these are a single book, not a book and a sequel; there is no ending point between the two. Publishers do this sometimes and it annoys the piss out of me.) Following his tradition of writing quasi-historical fantasy (he has an interesting essay on why he writes this, rather than straight histories) this book covers the later years of the reign of Justinian and Theodora in Byzantium, told through the eyes of a Roman mosaicist commissioned to cover the ceiling of the great cathedral, rebuilt after the Nike Riots nearly destroyed the city. I don’t know if I can do justice to this book in a paragraph; he manages to make a chariot race seem like the most exciting thing in all creation, he brings the glory of this world and of its infamous politics so much to life that you are seeing gold before your eyes for a week afterwards, and you will feel that you know the protagonist like a brother by the time the story is out.
A different take on the ancient world comes from Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. This is postmodernism at its best: each chapter retells some part of the Odyssey, but changed in some way: perhaps from a monster’s perspective, perhaps with the story mutated. You walk through a garden of delights, realizing only partway through that it is actually a maze, and that you will never be able to know exactly which story is true. (Fair warning: This book is a lot better if you know the Odyssey well. [If you don't, my favorite translation is Fitzgerald's] This is also definitely a lit-fic experience, so if that isn’t your thing, this book might not be, either.)
And now for something completely different: Habibi, by Craig Thompson, is perhaps the most important new graphic novel of the year. It tells the story of two child slaves somewhere in the Middle East (perhaps North Africa?), bound to each other by what little love they have known as circumstance tears their life apart. This book succeeds on many levels: as a novel, it tells a compelling story; as a graphic novel, Thompson’s use of visual metaphor and structure is really stunning. Islam plays a very deep role in the story, and the ways in which stories and prayers from the Qu’ran mix in with the text (and with the art! Always, with the art!) are subtle and will leave you pondering connections for hours. This book made me wish I read Arabic, so that I could understand all of the subtleties. (And incidentally, Thompson is neither Arab nor Muslim; his previous major work, Blankets, was rooted in his own fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Now I’m waiting for him to write a book about Judaism in the same way; if it’s half as good as these, it would be splendid)
And following up on the religious theme, I picked up and re-read one of Heinlein’s later works, Job: A Comedy of Justice. This book was surprisingly good, and survived a re-read many years later far better than I would ever have guessed. It’s a parable about a rigidly fundamentalist preacher from a rigidly fundamentalist world, who finds himself unexpectedly transported into a completely different world – and then another, and another – until he suspects himself to be a modern-day Job. The book is a sharply pointed satire of hypocrisy of many sorts, and I actually suspect it to be one of his best-written works. (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is better, but a very different kettle of fish) In retrospect I’m surprised that this book isn’t better-known, and that it isn’t considered one of the most controversial things about his career; his satire is not gentle at all, and by the end of it Satan himself is one of the protagonists. If you are up for such a thing, it’s quite a good use of your time.
More science fiction: Robert Charles Wilson has a new book out, The Chronoliths, which is simply first-rate science fiction, on a par with his earlier Spin. One day in Thailand, an enormous monolith celebrating a military victory sixteen years in the future suddenly appears; soon more start to come. The question is how the world is to cope with the knowledge of an incomprehensible war in its near future.
Genevieve Valentine’s debut novel Méchanique is a strong step onto the literary stage; it follows a travelling circus in a post-apocalyptic world, whose ringmaster has modified most of her members mechanically. The strains between the troupe are balanced by the conflict with the “government man,” who wants this technology for military purposes. Science fiction with a steampunky feel.
I finally got a chance to read Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, and I think that it’s a very worthwhile piece of serious SF. (Especially alongside Ted Chiang’s The Lifecycle of Software Objects, one of my recommendations from last year; it’s almost impossible not to read these books as being in dialogue with one another) Plot synopsis: Humans have gone extinct, but the robots they created have colonized the Solar System. Some robots, though, are now permanently out of place; e.g. our protagonist, created to be a sexbot, and now trapped in political intrigue. What could be a light romp instead takes on subtle meaning, because the book takes a classically Asimovian premise (the humanoid robots have succeeded us and improved on our works), and adds the same insight Chiang discusses, that the only way to make a robot which thinks like a human is to raise it like one; but then it mixes in the harsh reminder that “robot” comes from the word for “slave,” and if we are creating robots to be our tools, and these robots have sentience, then we are raising and training slaves, with all the moral consequences which that entails. (Like many of Stross’ novels, the worldbuilding and the ideas are superb, the plot is well-fashioned, but the character development is somewhat weaker; YMMV)
Another book by Charles Stross, or rather a series, are his Laundry novels: The Atrocity Archives, The Fuller Memorandum, and The Jennifer Morgue. These are not serious fiction at all. They are the stories of the civil service agency which is in charge of dealing with Lovecraftian horrors, and it is often hard to tell which is more alarming: the mind-shattering things with tentacles, or the office politics. (These often interact) I read these while sick and have to say that they make excellent mindless reading. (You’ll want at least a passing familiarity with Lovecraft if you read these)
And these make an excellent intro to the light reading section of our recommendations.
Michael Swanwick finally published a Darger & Surplus novel, Dancing with Bears; for those unfamiliar with the characters, they are a pair of con men (well, strictly speaking Surplus is a bioengineered, uplifted con-dog) travelling a world which has long since rebuilt itself after the apocalypse. Their short stories are great fun, and apparently they handle the transition to novel-length with ease.
Lavie Tidhar has a very enjoyable book out this year called Camera Obscura. Sure, it’s got the lizard royalty of England battling against the secret council of men and automata which rule France over control over an alien artifact with the power to animate the dead and open gateways between worlds, but at its heart, this is really a Wu Xia novel, and it’s kung fu (and the occasional Gatling gun) which saves the day. This makes for something surprisingly awesome.
And finally, one thing which is not like the others: I read L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables this year. While the target audience for this book may have been ten-year-old girls, something which I have never been, I can’t help but thinking that this is one of the most extraordinary books ever written for children. It radiates an outlook on life which is fundamentally so hopeful, and so passionate, that you can’t help feeling better about the world after reading it. So if you’ve never read this book, go do it.
The first two books I would like to recommend are about the US, and will really be of interest only to those who live in the US or who are passionately interested in it. But I’m going to give them an unusually strong recommendation: If you do live in the US, these are books that you should read. Neither of them is something you would obviously pick up in a bookstore.
The first is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell. This book is a deep analysis of how religion shapes, and is shaped by, our society. It is based on a number of large-scale studies (the General Social Survey, the Pew Religious Landscape Survey, Gallup data, and several other sources) and was written by people who understand statistics deeply and who know how to draw every last valid inference out of data; but this is not a book of statistics and has no math outside the footnotes. What it does have is a wealth of surprising insights into how our country works. Some examples:
- Starting in the late 1970’s, American politics, and particularly partisan affiliation, started to become tied to religion. The leading driver of this was a reaction to the sexual revolution, and the key determinant of people’s politics was their attitude towards sex. More recently, politics has begun to determine religion; people started to choose their churches based on their political views, rather than the other way round. This in turn led to a significant rise in the religiously unaffiliated; people who generally have faith, most of whom believe in the existence of God, but who do not associate themselves with any particular religion. (And yes, they provide convincing evidence for the causal arrows)
- People in the US orient themselves by their friends first, by their politics second, and by their religion third; that is, they choose their politics based on what their friends think, and their religion based on the church which matches their politics.
- Some social changes have deeply pervaded society: for example, the graphs of attitudes about women’s rights over time look shockingly similar (apart from starting from different points) across all religions and levels of religiosity, and notions of gender equality are actually widely accepted by all but the most religious few percent. Other changes fractionated sharply along denominational lines, e.g. attitudes about abortion. Interestingly, attitudes about the rights of gays and lesbians are following the first curve: acceptance is spreading uniformly across denominations.
These are just a few snippets. This book has almost 700 pages of this sort of stuff.
The other book you wouldn’t expect to read is John R. Vile’s Essential Supreme Court Decisions. (Now in its 15th edition) Unless you’re as much of a geek as I am, this book won’t seem so appealing at first: it simply goes through the most important decisions of the U. S. Supreme Court (several hundred of them), divided up by subject matter and then by chronology, giving for each a summary of the question at hand, the decision and reasoning of the court, and any noteworthy dissents.
What’s really extraordinary about this book is the way that the subject-matter grouping shows you how the country has evolved and what the real distinctions it sees are. For example: You read through the famous school segregation cases; then you read through the gender segregation cases; and then you encounter very similar cases about social class, and the court treats it very differently. Suddenly you see how Americans view this as so different from all other distinctions, and a lot of our current politics makes a new kind of sense.
(There’s a third essential book for Americans to read, which I didn’t read this year and so is technically not part of this list – but it’s Amar’s America’s Constitution: A Biography, which studies how each part of the Constitution evolved over time. I have never learned so much about the underlying nature of our country as while reading this book; two particular gems were the evolution of the understanding of the second amendment during the Civil War, and finally understanding why the 3/5 compromise and the Electoral College were really insidious.*)
So long as we’re on the subject of politics, another fascinating book I read this year was Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. Fukuyama studies a range of civilizations and studies how political orders emerged. I don’t agree with everything he says,** but he has a number of interesting arguments. A key one is on how the rule of law emerges: “True freedom tends to emerge in the interstices of a balance of power among a society’s elite actors.” It’s worth reading and pondering if questions like these at all interest you.
But maybe they don’t. Maybe you want to read something short and to the point; if so, I suggest John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English. It tackles things which I didn’t realize were considered controversial, like the influence of Celtic languages and the Viking invasions on English; and it is one of those rare books whose brevity feels more like a lack than a mercy. It’s fun, it’s not technical, and can be a very nice introduction to modern comparative linguistics.
And perhaps you want something lighter still. Well, this year Larry Gonick finally published the last volume of his history of everything, The Cartoon History of the Modern World, volume 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad. I’ve been reading these books for more than half of my life at this point, and it’s sad to think of them finally being over (as his history finally reached the modern day); they’re charming, and fun, and generally fairly good history. (NB that the first part of the series is titled The Cartoon History of the Universe, v. 1-3)
* The 3/5 rule wasn’t evil because it counted blacks as 3/5 of a person instead of one; it was evil because it counted them as 3/5 of a person instead of zero. Article 1 section 2 doesn’t give slaves 3/5 of a vote; it gives them zero votes, and gives slaveowners an additional 3/5 of a vote for each slave they own. (Technically this was just at the representation level, but many slaveholding states actually propagated this down to individual votes) This was meant to give the South a guaranteed permanent majority in Congress; the Electoral College was meant to transfer this compromise to also give them control of the Presidency. Not, as is commonly supposed, to protect the power of small states – that was expected to be an issue, but as Monroe’s letters show, it pretty quickly became clear that this wasn’t turning out to be important, and the far bigger threat was that the South wouldn’t sign on to the new Constitution. By his estimate, if the South didn’t sign on, and two separate countries with a large land border were to form, war would be inevitable and the entire American experiment would go down in flames. He may have been right, but this set the stage for a century of spiraling tension as the South saw that it was gradually losing its guaranteed majority to population shifts. It is not a coincidence that the Civil War broke out just as the South finally lost this majority, and a clearly Northern president was elected.
** For example, I think he grossly overstates the significance of Brahminism as an independent cause of India’s development of the rule of law; from his own evidence, I think that the early emergence of the jatis as independent sources of power, balanced against one another, was far more important. But my concerns are at this sort of level of detail, not at the larger scale.
No year would be complete without at least one utter stinker. This year, the “award” goes to Arthur C. Clarke and Frederick Pohl’s The Last Theorem. This is a bit surprising, since Clarke and Pohl are both extremely respected writers and experienced collaborators, but this book is an unmitigated disaster. It has a generally straightforward and predictable plot, and the characters are shallow, but the real problem is how characters don’t make sense from page to page. The worst example: At one point, the (male) protagonist meets, falls in love with, and marries a woman. She is promptly happily (and without any conflict) ensconced as a full-time housewife and mother, and is asking her oh-so-brilliant husband to explain to her some basic concepts of computer science, so that we have an excuse for a multi-page expositional dump.* The problem? Two pages before, she was a postdoc in CS at Caltech, and one of the most promising researchers in the field. Did she simply forget her entire life’s work the day she got married? Apparently so. The whole book is like this.
So if you were waiting anxiously to read Clarke’s final work… save yourself the pain. Go re-read Childhood’s End instead.
* Note: You do not want a multi-page expositional dump. No, really, you don’t.