"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

Jan 5, 2011

Frivolous Littetantism

Last year,* books which could have been better:

The Quiet War, Gardens of the Sun, Paul McCauley

Great story. Good possibilities. Good research. Excellent premises. Intemperate abuse of the third person omnipotent. Characters make choices which don't fit their build up. Inscrutable deus ex Molina (a baddie who over-evils like Molina hamfisted Dr. Octopus in Spiderman 2).

CUSP, Robert Metzger

My brain bled. The denouement spent fifty pages pissing on the previous four hundred fifty.The godling singularity creature makes monstrous choices, which works as a grotesque, but not as a completion to the story.

City of Dreams and Nightmare, Ian Whates

Tolkien should be exhumed, chopped up into little pieces and fed to alligators with Orc names. Not everyone is good or evil. Good environment, a bit reminiscent of New Crobuzon but with the city reduced to a set piece, completely tossed in the dumps by one dimensional characters who think too much for all that their choices are really fucking predictable.

The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel

The Maitreya better learn how to piece together an argument, soon. That is all.

The Fresco, Sherri Tepper
Regenesis, CJ Cherryh

The last two pain me. Two of my favorite writers. Regenesis is just boring. It's a crime procedural, without the crime. A manual for how not to end an excellent career. I cannot finish it. It neuters and neutralizes the impact of the original story. The Fresco is a departure from Tepper's decades of high caliber work. It's predictable, silly, poorly written. It has its moments (anti-abortion politicians impregnated with alien spawn, and a good lead in Benita) but it's also, for lack of a better word, petty. Which hurts to write, about the author of Grass, Raising the Stones and The Family Tree.

Last year, books very much worth reading:

Edge, Thomas Blackthorne

If I did a minimum of research, I'd probably find out which larger house owns Angry Robot as an imprint. But, I don't care. They're putting out good, inexpensive books.

Market Forces, Richard T. Morgan

Jeebus, six hours to read a book. That good.

The Monsters, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

I love a book which gives me a dozen new reasons to loathe Byron. Plus, Mary Shelley got a bum deal. Authors do a bang up shaping how the reader sees Godwin, Mary Shelley, Percy and Byron. Bang. Up.

The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Matter, Iain M. Banks

Talent. Awe. I'm not really a fan of literary awards, but sometimes you encounter books and authors who write so well that begrudging them the award seems, I don't know, mean-spirited.

Books which I would recommend, no matter what, no matter when:

Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts

This book has its critics. I'm not one of them. Sometimes, the florid style works. Roberts works it. Also, Prabaker. Prabaker.

Q, Luther Blissett

Also a love or hate it novel, by the artists now known as the Wu Ming Collective. Love it.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen (series), Steven Erikson

Killing Tolkien's ghost one glorious page at a time.

Vellum, Hal Duncan

The Iron Council, China Mieville

Or how Jack came to realize that he could never actually write a good novel, having read actually good novels...

* - when read, not published


Landru said...

Morgan is way awesome, and Market Forces was incredibly innovative.

Ethan said...

I tried to read Consider Phlebas this year as my introduction to Banks, but I found myself bouncing off of it within twenty pages. My personal aesthetics don't respond much to most fantasy, and that extends to sci-fi that feels too much like fantasy to me--usually space opera, with all of its made up names and places and near-magical powers, etc. I had a similar problem with, for example, Delany's Stars In My Pockets Like Grains of Sand and Gene Wolf's Nightside the Long Sun.

If I'm told it's worth trying harder, though, I'll try harder. Should I try harder?

Mieville, I loved the concept, liked the book, of The City & The City, bounced off of Perdido Street Station for the above discussed reasons. Will definitely be trying him again.

Jack Crow said...


I have no patience for Wolfe. I'm told, by fans, to slog through it - but I started with "Litany..." and I have never made it past one hundred pages. I don't hate it. It just bores me.

As for sci-fi and fantasy, in general - I think they're hard genres to embrace, as an adult. My Dad had a box of Burroughs' John Carter series. Hooked, early. Same, with Heinlein. Now, I don't have the naked, innocent eagerness for swashbuckling space opera that I had when I was ten, so I probably wouldn't invite my kids to start with either. Also, the jingoism, silly sexist tropes, and bald racism. It's as hard to read Burroughs, now, as Kipling.

The big sell, for me, was "Dune." I think that's where to start. Herbert preserves all the core elements of a good non-spec novel, wedded to a brilliant story. Plus, the allegory is just obvious enough - and still relevant - to give a decent reader a share of "ahah" moments.

There's more, in Frank Herbert, than in half the sci-fi canon without him.

As for fantasy - if you have no patience for Tolkien, capital Good versus capital Evil, dark forces from the East, dragons, elves and the more predictable tropes (paladin sociopaths, stranded princesses who are clever enough to know they're in a bad way, but too stupid to get out without a man-savior, pagan Gods with Christian attitudes, etc) - avoid that shit like the plague.

Unless you can handle some trope topplers and subverters like Erikson, Glen Cook or Mary Gentle.

Or authors who are good enough to use the usual story lines because their narrative capacity exceeds the limitations of the genre: GRR Martin, Brent Weeks, Brian Ruckley, Michelle Sagara, Emma Bull, Daniel Abraham or LE Modesitt.

All and all, if I were recommending sci-fi for starters, I'd go with perhaps a few unusual choices, because they challenge the reader without the necessity of long experience with the genre itself. If I'd started reading Mieville, Harrison, Banks, Duncan, Baxter, Reynolds, Stephenson or the steampunkers, I'd have been lost. Because I wouldn't have had experience with the genre tropes, to know how deftly there were being turned on their heads.

So, to make shit longer (these are series, so...):

Dune, Herbert
Jaran, Kate Elliot
Crystal Rain, Tobias Buckell
Red Mars, KS Robinson
Hyperion, Dan Simmons (there are those who might disagree)
Foreigner, CJ Cherryh

And, standing alone:

Becoming Human, by Valerie Freireich

An Alien Light, by the ridiculously good Nancy Kress

Hope that's some sort of offputting overload, or something...



Jack Crow said...


I've only read Market Forces. The Kovacs novels are sitting on my shelf, at the bottom of a read pile.

MF was facepunchingly good. I cannot recommend it effusively enough. And I avoided it, for a while, because I thought it was some sort of rad-capper Randian screed. (Jack is Teh Stoopid.)



fish said...

I just discovered Morgan when I bought Altered Carbon in an airport. Finished it before we landed. Loved it. Will be buying more.

If you like clever concepts, Charles Stross' The Atrocity Archives mixes string theory, HP Lovecraft, and mind-crushing government bureaucracy into a funny and terrific read.

Landru said...

Yeah, the Kovacs novels are also gripping and thought-provoking. Sasha turned me on to those a few years ago. It's the kind of stuff that makes me feel smarter than I like to be.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

Also, the jingoism, silly sexist tropes, and bald racism. It's as hard to read Burroughs, now, as Kipling.

Some of Burroughs' female characters are a lot better than their fictional contemporaries, and his portrayal of a beautiful, brilliant "mixed race" population was downright progressive. Of course, I haven't read much Burroughs beyond his "Barsoom" books. I wouldn't keep Burroughs from the kids, but I would have a good long talk about the books' historical context beforehand. Would you really want the kids to grow up not knowing Tars Tarkas?

I have always loved Jack Vance, so I really, really avoid learning about his politics.

Jack Crow said...


I don't think we've read the same Barsoom. Or Tarzan, for that matter.

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I guess the gauzy haze of nostalgia is making Burroughs seem softer to me... never did get beyond the first Tarzan book.

Richard said...

I don't circulate in this universe of literature very much, but permit me to mention a few books that I enjoyed this year:

(1) the reissue of Terry Bisson's Fire on the Mountain, a creative reimagining of John Brown's attack upon Harper's Ferry as the beginning of a successful African American revolution in the South, a pure delight

(2) Tariq Ali's Night of the Golden Butterfly, his astringent, yet uncharacteristically wistful fictionalization of the Pakistani diaspora of which he was such a publicly visible part

(3) Roberta Rossanda's autobiography through 1969: The Comrade from Milan, her recollections of her participation in the Italian resistance, he inability to open up the culture of dialogue within the post-war PCI, and her ultimately failed effort, along with many others, to induce the PCI to embrace the radical social movements of the 1960s

(4) the reissue of Ngo Van's In the Crossfire, the forgotten Trotskyite history of pre-World War II resistanc to both colonialism and Stalinism in Vietnam

(5) We Are An Image from the Future: the Greek Revolt of December 2008

(6) the English translation of Tomoyuki Hoshino's novel, Lonely Hearts Killer

almostinfamous said...

@ethan - Iron Council is a better book to read than either PSS or The Scar, and may make reading the earlier books easier. If you want a glimpse of the style without the steampunk glasses needed to get into the New Crobuzon series, King Rat is worth a read as well.

@Jack Crow - count me one of the critics of Shantaram. the flowers are past their prime, sir!

but i've been reading a mix of paperback thrillers cause that's what keeps arriving(thanks dad!), and project gutenberg titles(finally read me some Kafka).

also, i think some of you may appreciate Machine of Death

Anonymous said...

Jack, have you ever read any of the Maqroll stories by Alvaro Mutis?