This is what I did in 2011

This is my end of year review. This is not the top 10 books released in 2011. Mostly because I suspect I have yet to read some of the better books released last year. I tend to not read hardbacks where possible and I always seem to be playing catch up, as I read older novels and a lot of non-fiction too. This, then, is a roundup of the best fiction I read in 2011, regardless of when they were released.

So, in no particular order…

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is the story of a group of teenagers in San Francisco who are caught up in a terrorist attack. The city is turned into a police state and the protagonists are embroiled in civil liberties, online networks based on Xbox and Linex and, of course, teen love. Doctorow’s usual themes of creative license (indeed the novel is available free on his website under a Creative Commons license), collaboration and community are all on show, but I think this is his best work. It is tight, well plotted and with interesting characters with genuine motivations. It speaks to me, even though I’m 20 years older than the lead characters.

You can read what I think about Hyperion by Dan Simmons, The Islanders by Christopher Priest, Neon Court by Kate Griffin, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, Dervish House by Ian McDonald and Generosity by Richard Powers elsewhere. Of the bunch, Beukes’ Arthur C Clarke Award winner was the most original piece I’ve read this year. Super Sad True Love Story is a story that rings very true with modern society, or rather where it’s heading. I actually enjoyed Hyperion the most, in terms of not wanting to put it down, closely followed by the third title of Griffin’s Matthew Swift series. In my opinion (with the caveat that I have lived in London), Neon Court and its predecessors are the best examples of urban fantasy I’ve read. I admire the depth of Dervish House, the imagination of The Islanders and concept of Generosity.

The last two books on my list for 2011 are both very different types of zombie novel. Of course, zombies are the new vampires, blah blah blah, but both these are excellent variations on the standard tale. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the only romantic zombie novel I’ve read, and the only one from the zombie’s perspective. It features a zombie who, after biting into the brains of a young man, begins to have very un-zombie-like feelings towards Julie, the man’s girlfriend. There is plenty of zombie apocalypse action and gives an excellent rational for the zombie attraction to human brains. It is a very ‘warm’ piece of fiction. Mira Grant’s Deadline is less of a zombie novel and more of a science fiction tale of how media has changed and of government control. The second book in the Newsflesh trilogy follows Shaun Mason, who is the reluctant head of a news blogging organisation following the death of his sister, Georgia, in the previous episode. However, a CDC researcher fakes her own death and with the zombie apocalypse seemingly in its second wave, Shaun suddenly has reasons to lead his team again, despite the odd relationship he has with Georgia. The back story of why zombie’s are prowling around is intricately detailed and thoroughly believable. The writing is eminently readable. The whole novel is simply great.

I’ve read some great books this year and fortunately, not many stinkers. Mostly because there are some great books around and I’ve not got time or inclination to read anything that hasn’t had a decent review somewhere. So, some honourable mentions include The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers (one of the few genre titles to make a Booker Long List in recent years), The Restoration Game by Ken MacLeod (it was a shame I guessed the ending early on), The Silent Land by Graham Joyce and Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite (old school vampire story). I was most disappointed my Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter (meh) and Thomas More’s Utopia (less of a story, more of a rant).

Under the same argument, but without any detail, the graphic novels I’ve most enjoyed this year are Walking Dead 1, 1985, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Hellboy. Conqueror worm, The dead boy detectives, Arkham Asylum : a serious house on serious earth, The Authority : relentless, Marvels, Bloody carnations, Akira 6. I liked them. Isn’t that enough? I also thoroughly enjoyed The Strange Talent of Luthor Strode and managed to completely avoid DC’s New52.

In the spirit of the season, although technically outside the remit of this blog, the films I’ve particularly enjoyed this year include Splice, Rec 2, Captain America, Last Night, Thor, Summer Wars, Paul, Wake Wood, Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec, The Troll Hunter, Frailty, Toy Story 3, Source Code, Hanna, Black Swan, Attack the Block, Super 8, X Men First Class and Never Let Me Go. I think I enjoyed The Troll Hunter, X-Men, and Never Let Me Go the most. I also thoroughly enjoyed BBC3’s The Fades. I was mostly disappointed with this year’s Dr Who, although I did love Neil Gaimen’s The Doctor’s Wife.

So, what am I looking forward to in 2012. Don’t know. I like to see what reveals itself as and when. Clearly, there are some great superhero films coming out this year. I’m looking forward to visiting a couple of conventions too. As for books: Mieville’s Embassytown, Ready Player One by Cline, By Light Alone by Roberts, The Radleys by Haig, Allison Hewitt Is Trapped by Roux and Zone One by Whitehead. I will of course, read the Clarke award shortlist titles if I haven’t already, whatever they may be.

 

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Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy enjoyed by non-Geeks

We all know what science fiction is right? Aliens, spaceships, laser guns? Something about the future where the science is a bit hokey, but consistent within the specified universe. Okay, so warp drive is impossible, but in Star Trek, they can’t cross the universe in a by just thinking about it.

We all know what fantasy is, right? Right? Wizards and elves and magic. Or maybe ghosts and demons. Although most fantasy follows its own internal logic, there’s no limits to what might happen. After all, in Supernatural, they are arguing with God!

Wrong.  Dead wrong. So, here is a list of fiction that might be described as literary fiction? Contemporary fiction? American fiction? Science fiction and fantasy fiction, every one of them. So, in no particular order, as all the best TV competitions say:

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy – post apocalyptic

A father and son journey in a post-apocalyptic America, trying to survive the winter.

Why it’s SF – it follows that if it is post apocalyptic, something must have happened to cause the apocalypse. Not hint is given of anything magical or supernatural. No demons or zombies are walking the earth. The theme is of survival in an altered environment, common in many SF novels.

Awards – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Believer Book Award

Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart – dystopian

A middle class man and a young woman pursue love while America falls apart around them.

Why it’s SF – the technology used in this near-future speculation is just beyond our current capacities, while the political and cultural situation is a dystopian vision of what might be around the corner. It is a warning regarding the path we are currently on.

Awards – Salon Book Award; New York Times Notable Book of the Year

A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) by Haruki Murakami – supernatural surrealism

A man begins an adventure hunting for a particular sheep that hasn’t been seen in years.

Why it’s fantasy – there are elements of this fiction that cannot be described with regards to any given reality. A woman appears to have magical ears that seduce the protagonist. It is a tale superbly told in which the absurd is believable.

Award – Noma Literary Newcomers Prize

Blindness (1995) by Jose Saramago – apocalyptic dystopia

An unexplained mass epidemic of blindness affects an unnamed city and society crumbles.

Why it’s SF – while there is no explanation of the cause of the blindness, it is described as if it were a pathogen, rather than something fantastic such as a curse, although it could well be…Unusually, this describes the apocalypse and ensuing dystopia as the rules of society rapidly disintegrate. It is showing us how fragile our values are.

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro – dystopian

Three friends grow up in a boarding school with a dark secret. As they grow older, complex relationships develop and they are introduced to the chilling outside word.

Why it’s SF – the children are products of a technology that doesn’t quite exist yet. They are supposed to make the world a better place, but in truth it is a bleak and soulless place. Our hopes and dreams have not made a utopia, but the opposite

Award – ALA Alex Award

The Unconsoled (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro – surreal fantasy

A famous pianist arrives in an unnamed European city to perform the concert of his life, but fate continually intervenes

Why it’s fantasy – Ryder, the protagonist, is prevented from his purpose by characters that appear to have the power to manipulate reality. The result is a dreamscape where you can turn the corner of a street and be somewhere else or a person becomes someone else in the blink of an eye.

 

Far North (2009) by Marcel Theroux – post-apocalyptic

Civilisation has returned to a more primitive way of life, but when Makepeace sees a plane above the Siberian sky she sets out looking for something more, finding something horrific on the way

Why it’s SF – Similar to The Road, as in it’s a post-apocalyptic road novel, it is the story of the after events of society’s decline. In this case, global warming is the global villain, while man is still the monster. The fragility of morality is again they key.

Shortlisted – Clarke Award

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood – post-apocalyptic

Once again, human folly has brought about an unspecified event resulting in the collapse of civilisation. A hermit wanders among hybrid creatures while flashbacks tell of his pre-apocalypse life.

Why it’s SF – Despite Atwood’s protestations, this is as much SF as any alien adventure. Genetic engineering beyond what is currently possible is the main plot driver, while in flashbacks, multi-nationals have separated society into privileged and not-so-much. It even has a mad scientist cf. Victor Frankenstein. It is a tale of potential moral bankruptcy, as most post-apocalyptic novels are.

Shortlisted – Man Booker

On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute – apocalyptic

Shute describes the end of the world following World War III from the perspective of the last survivors in Australia, as the deadly radiation drifts their way.

Why it’s SF – Well, WWIII never happened and there was no nuclear war. It was set in the future from the point of the date of writing. The Australian government provides its citizens with a suicide solution. All good end-of-the-world science fiction.

In the Country of Last Things (1987) by Paul Auster – dystopian

Anna searches a chaotic city for her lost brother, hoping to discover her family heritage, while making a living as an object hunter; a scavenger

Why it’s SF – Government and industry have collapsed and people survive as best they can in a disordered society. Morals have been forgotten and cannibalism is common. This is a world we can recognise if we remove authority and self-worth.

So, my friends. 10 examples of fiction that is really science fiction, but is enjoyed by the non-geek literati. There are other examples such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y which are clearly fantasy or science fiction, and yet have been embraced by literary snobs and reading groups as genre fiction it is okay to like. Maybe they should be forced to read fiction with space ships just so they realise it’s no different to the above examples.

Free your inner geek!

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

A friend – a non-geek friend (and yes, we’re allowed to have them) – recommended this title to me. I hadn’t come across it, even though I work in a library and I read review sections in newspapers and science fiction magazines, and I am very happy that he did.

Super Sad True Love Story is the best kind of science fiction, a social satire set just around the corner. A few duff choices by politicians, a new invention and the logical progression of current attitudes and we’re living in this self-obsessed dystopia.

I wouldn’t go as far as describing it as a May to December love story (May to August at best), but the plot revolves around the love affair between Lenny, a middle class son of immigrants coming to terms with impending middle-age, and Eunice, a young Korean-American trying to deal with traditional Asian family loyalties and getting ahead in the modern world. The generation gap is highlighted by the diary conceit of the fiction employed by Lenny, and Eunice’s email-like online correspondence with a messaging based account called ‘GlobalTeens’, which alternate the chapters. What makes this pure science fiction is the world Lenny and Eunice are living in. Everyone exists to rank and rate everyone else using their version of the iPhone or smartphone known as apperatii. Everything in culture is reliant on retail and media, and of course, sex. Everything is about image, superficiality perceptions. It is the logical conclusion of the theory of mind, where every thought and action is governed by how it is perceived by friends and strangers alike.

The US is now spiralling into chaos due to being indebted to China and is governed by a single bipartisan party (with overtones to 1984’s Big Brother). The economy is collapsing and there’s rioting and death in the streets. The politicians attempt to eliminate the politically disaffected while encouraging even more consumerism in a misguided attempt to kick-start the economy.

Now, let me address the diary conceit…I’ve never really liked the idea of a diary as fiction, although I understand it is clearly a tool of the author and not meant to represent real life. So, what’s my problem? Well, two things really…The first is the time it should take. These fictional diarists are living lives that are so involved and complex that they think we are interested in their lives, and yet they have time to sit around spending hours writing their diaries. This review is a few hundred words and took about 45 minutes in total (including editing, etc). Where do these characters get the time to write thousands of words? The second item on the agenda is the recall. I can barely recall conversation topics, especially if I’ve had an off glass of wine, yet we’re meant to accept that these people, while living these exciting lives have total event, and worse, conversation recall. So. I ignore all diary conceits, with the exception of the plot point highlighting the generation gap between Lenny and Eunice (note: I have no problem with the email/messenger idea as that is a. much shorter and b. appears to be lifted verbatim from the email records).

So, did I actually like the book? Loved it. Oh, is that not enough?

The version of tomorrow is entirely believable, extrapolating today’s world. China will soon become the biggest economy and dominant global power. Our obsession with image and celebrity will surely lead to disaster. Reliance on gadgets to achieve high social status is already with us. Politicians ignoring the people for their own power is easily demonstrable and the ensuing civil unrest is becoming commonplace.

Lenny and Eunice, along with their friends and family are well drawn characters who react to events and each other in authentic ways. They have well-round and distinctive personalities and struggle with both their relationships and the life events that affect them directly and indirectly. They are not simply set up with a series of barriers to over-come, but are simply doing the best they can as relationships, both grand and insignificant, crumble around them.

However, it is the writing and the imagination which really sell the book for me. It is why the characters and the setting work. Possibly because it is in dairy form, the writing flows and you are easily swept along with Lenny’s life. The satire is biting, especially as we watch loser Lenny’s sexual ratings increase thanks to people’s perception of him when he’s out with Eunice. I also enjoyed the comic touch of the Big Brother style government represented by a friendly otter in a cowboy hat. I am a fan of gadgets and social media, but have an intense dislike of celebrity culture and surface politics, so the tone and story of the novel speaks to me perfectly.

And once I finished I told my friend via Twitter that I loved the book and he DMed me back by saying “Its prescience is proven by the fact that we are discussing it on twitter via our apperatii no”. Yes.