The Books of 2016: Fiction

I read more non-fiction than fiction, but the books that have stuck me most strongly this year tended to be from the latter category. To wit, here are my favorite fiction reads of 2016 (note: doesn’t mean they came out in 2016, just that that’s when I read ’em):


The Dog Starsby Peter Heller

I love me some apocalyptic fiction, and The Dog Stars is one of the finest examples of the genre, particularly those focused on the impact of a global catastrophe on a very small group of people. If you like this genre mostly for the disaster-porn aspect of reading about society collapsing and all the bad shit that attends that, this isn’t the book for you (not judging you for that; I love that shit, too, but that’s just not what this book is about).

If, rather, you’re cool with picking up the story of how basically one man, his dog, and the less than a dozen folks he’ll interact with for the rest of his life post-apocalypse get on in the face of such sorrow, this IS the book for you. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but this book gives the reader at least a smidge of hope that, even if everything were to crumble, if you can survive that, there are ways to hold on to your humanity and even perhaps find happiness even given everything you had grown to love and live with being destroyed.


The Nix: A novel, by Nathan Hill

I’m an admitted sucker for the classic Iowa MFA-style of “Big Books About Families”. If this debut is any indication, Mr. Hill is going to be an author on my auto-buy list for years to come. Imagine a Franzen novel where you didn’t loathe every major character and wish them harm. Where the author didn’t revel in their misery. Where bad shit happens, because bad shit happens to everyone, but there may actually be reasons and redemptions along the way.

That’s how The Nix read to me. Spanning generations of a family, from Norway in the 40’s to Chicago in the late 60’s to modern suburbia and even the Internet itself as a place where people form relationships, The Nix explores the many ways the urge to conform to the mores of a time and place can affect people, from outright rebelling against them to taking comfort in such boundaries, if at a cost that will be paid tenfold later in life.

If you at all like the sort of fiction that NPR can’t shut up about, embrace that about yourself and pick this book up. It was wonderful.

Tomorrow, we’ll hit some books that didn’t quite make the cut as my personal Best Of for last year, but are still totally worth reading.

 

The Books of 2016, #8: The Desert and The Blade (A Novel of The Change), by S. M. Stirling

desert_and_blade*does some quick Googling…*

Jesus Christ. It’s been twelve freaking years since this series debuted. We’re also twelve books into it (plus one collection of short stories by mostly-other authors set in this universe). Annnd, as my review of _last_ year’s entry, The Golden Princess, showed, I struggle with why I’m still reading this series.

So I’m not going to spend much time on this save to say: it’s better than the last book was. We get action, the plot moves forward quite a bit, we get to find out what happened to the greater LA area after The Change… it’s a decent entry in a series that probably should have been put to bed two arcs ago.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m still reading it save for the fact that Stirling _can_ knit a yarn pretty goddamned well, and I’m juuuuust enough of a sucker for “oh, we get to find out what happened to THAT part of the world after the Big Disaster?” that I’ll put aside my inherent disdain for the increasing magical elements of this tale and bull through just for that.

Stirling is very, very good at creating and writing about alternate versions of our world (his Draka books remain my second-favorite type of this genre, juuuust barely beat-out by the downright depressing and therefore all-too-believable agonies of John Barnes’ Century Next Door series…), and injects just enough of that into these books at this point to keep me grimly reading along, regardless of how many orbits my eyes have to do in their sockets at times when the fuckin’ McClintocks and McKenzie’s have to argue over the trivial differences between their fake-ass dipshit clans for the 79th time…

Fortunately, The Desert and the Blade is a lot better than The Golden Princess was, given that Things Actually Happen in this entry. The High Princess’ Quest is in full flower, and they get through a good chunk of it. Stirling seems to have realized that part of the draw of this series was finding out what’s going on elsewhere on our post-Change globe, so he introduces some characters who have had reason to travel that globe, and therefore can spend entire chapters describing what happened elsewhere. It’s a fun, showy example of just how good Stirling is at world-building, and I appreciate the appearances here.

I can’t give much more detail without giving away reasons to actually read this thing, and I assume anyone even considering it is already familiar with the world because good fuckin’ luck jumping in on Vol. 12 if you aren’t. In a world where this type of book has been almost entirely taken over by Young Adult tropes (bleaugh), I appreciate that Stirling is still writing somewhat more adult tales of the apocalypse, his staunch advocacy of Renn Faire nonsense aside. It’s far from his best book, but certainly the best this series has seen for a while, and further sets up the next entry to be pretty far-ranging and interesting to my particular tastes.

So, if you’re into this series already, you’ll probably like this. If you’re not, this book will probably just confuse you. If you like to spend your weekends m’ladying your way through Society for Creative Anachronism meetings, who are we kidding, you’ve probably already written erotic fanfic based on this world.

The Books of 2016, #6: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

station_elevenI read this book in one night.

Something about this one just grabbed me. It hit all of the right notes with me on a cold, wintry weeknight in Chicago, and I stayed up in bed ’til like 2am to finish it even though my alarm goes off at 5. Been a LONG time since a book got those kind of hooks into me.

I stumbled across this book entirely by accident, too. Somebody raved about it on their Facebook feed, and their lavish recommendation was sprinkled with just enough of the words and phrases that will always grab my attention when talking about new fiction. You know, shit like: “superflu”, “civilization collapses”, “everybody dies”.

That said, this is NOT strictly an apocalypse novel. It’s got some things in common with classics of that genre like, say, Stephen King’s “The Stand”, but it has MORE in common, if you ask me, with the giants of the “family story” archetype, like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”.

Yes, the book kicks off with a flu. A bad one. The kind authors love, because it’s 99% contagious, 99% fatal and basically scrubs the Earth raw to provide a clean slate upon which to tell the story they actually want to tell. Which is NOT the story of everyone dying.

Rather, Station Eleven is effectively about one family, that of Hollywood Superstar Actor Currently on the Downside of His Career, Arthur Leander (who I immediately, for reasons I’m not entirely certain of, pictured as current-day Harrison Ford) . We’re using “family” loosely here, since Arthur is the typical Hollywood guy in that he’s got a passel of ex-wives he doesn’t have particularly great relationships with, a son he adores but who has been whisked away to Israel by one of those ex-wives so he hardly sees him, etc…

As the novel opens, Arthur is leading a stage performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in Toronto, doing the typical end-career thing of trying to add some gravitas back into his resume by performing one of the classic roles of all time. At the same time as the performance is going on, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow lands in Toronto with some passengers already dead and most of the rest of them, and the crew, getting increasingly ill. These folks are immediately whisked to local area hospitals, where they come into contact with exponentially more people. Who then go home and come into contact with…

…you can probably guess where things go with the superflu from there.

The contrast between life pre-flu and post-flu is one of the things I most enjoy about this book; most The End Of the World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) novels spend a few intro chapters about life before The End, and then the rest of the book is just what happens after The End. Station Eleven deftly flits back and forth chapter by chapter between:

  • The End, by which I mean the timeframe in which the flu develops, expands, and wipes out humanity. The book makes it clear that the reader is to picture this flu breaking out in basically our current time, 2016.
  • The Past, which is examined via flashbacks to various points in the life of Arthur that show how he develops as a person and forms these relationships with the folks we’re going to be following through the superflu and into the terrible times beyond.
  • The Future, when the book flashes about twenty or so years past the flu’s rages, to show us how things have shaken out for the people introduced into the other two time periods.

The contrast between Life Before and Life After is stark, as it must be. And Mandel writes about both sides with authority. One is immediately struck by the ease of our world when compared to what its collapsed version would inevitably be like; the chapters covering Arthur’s rise as a Hollywood superstar is full of people traveling across the globe at the drop of a hat, an absolute lack of material want, and the vicious focus of too many people on Shit That Does Not Fucking Matter. In the Present Day chapters, she shows us how easily this would all fall apart. In the After Chapters, she provides a great sense of a world circumscribed, where the average person never travels more than a few miles from their homes in their entire life, where death comes often, randomly, for the young and old alike, in ways that just do NOT happen in our sanitized, softened, kinda ridiculous existence of today.

Indeed, the main characters of these chapters are notable for the fact that they belong to a theater troupe that travels around the Great Lakes performing Shakespeare (if you can’t see the tie here to what Arthur was doing himself when the flu hit, this book is not for you). They travel farther and wider than almost anyone alive at that point, and even they haven’t gone a distance in their entire lives that a current American would consider more than a middling weekend road trip, at best.

I don’t want to get too much into the detail of things here, because what I enjoyed most about this book was the slow and constant reveal of connections between all three eras and all of the characters that, at the start, seem to have absolutely no relation to each other, as well as what happens to everyone.

While the actual process of the flu expanding across the globe and society collapsing is covered well, Mandel doesn’t REVEL in it like too many authors do. We find out how it’s progressing via its localized impact on the key characters of the novel, or in background info THEY absorb via the Internet or news (well… while those two avenues of information are still functioning. SPOILER ALERT: CNN and Facebook don’t last too long). She’s VERY good at dropping the perfect one sentence of detail that almost catches your breath with the depth of horror it manages to convey about what’s happening to the world.

The biggest difference between Station Eleven and most novels of the dystopian genre is that the violence that can safely be assumed to be unavoidable in such scenarios is present, but not lavishly glorified and slavered over, descriptively. Most of the violence is assumed and/or hinted at; the few action set-pieces are absolutely necessary instead of gratuitous. The single most-affecting act of violence that obviously shaped one of the key character’s entire life is never even described; you don’t need the gory details of what happened, you just need to know THAT it happened. I like Mandel’s unwillingness to glorify and linger over the violence, to indulge the genre’s usual trope of good guy vs. bad guy and capable ultra-violent hero vs. total bad dude… I find all of that just so goddamned tired at this point. MOST people are bad or good situationally; I don’t know how I’m going to respond if society collapses and all of a sudden, say, a medication my wife needs to live is only available if I use force to take it from someone who has done me absolutely no wrong. I like to think I’m a good, moral person who wouldn’t cause pain unduly, but how you define “unduly” is gonna shift when the chips are down.

In the end, Mandel weaves not just one, but a number of gripping plots that, in lesser hands, either would’ve each been its own book or, more likely, have been turned into one big unreadable, unfollowable mess. I could not put this damned book down, because there were so many things I needed to know the resolution to, and her writing just pulls you through page after page, compulsively.

For all of the negativity that this kind of setting and genre must involve, there is a surprising amount of lightness and hope in this novel, too. While acknowledging that a lot or even most people are going to be revealed as willing to do terrible things in the extremis of our entire comfy modern civilization collapsing, I think she’s correct in also surmising that a lot of people will be able to realize that working together is going to be the only way for _anyone_ to survive; that raw, brittlely-defended individuality may buy you a brief period of kinghood over the wasteland, but, if you want a world worth living in instead of merely surviving, you’ll need to find ways to work with, care about and, eventually, love other people.

That’s the sort of message I need to read more often, and I can’t recommend this book enough because of it. It’s just a great read.

The Books of 2016, #5: Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie

ancillary_mercySee my previous thoughts on this series to date here.

This goddamned series… I am trying, and failing, to think of a series I’ve read in my life that started out so promising and then disappointed me so greatly. I’ll be honest: I straight-up didn’t finish this fucker.

To briefly recap: first book, YAY! Grand in scope, a galactic emperor at war with herself! The concept of gender does not exist for the main race wowzers, that’s got some weird and interesting implications! Ships are people! Action takes place across multiple worlds and many decades!

Phew! THAT’S how you start a goddamned space opera!

Book Two! You’ve got… um… well, a LOT of talk about the class implications of tea pottery? Ship person is sad and distant. 90% of the action takes place on a space station that might as well be any current modern city on Earth, for all of how alien and space-y it is (isn’t). The rest of the action takes place on what might as well be a 19th Century Indian tea plantation. There’s literally not a single thing that happens on that fucking plantation or station that implies “SPAAAACE OPERA!!!!”.

The brilliant removal of gender as a language concept that helped make everybody in the first book actually seem _alien_? Now just an annoyance, one that is literally tossed aside at the one point in the plot where gender actually would matter. So why fucking have bothered in the first place?

That crazy mad space-empress at war with her own self? I dunno, she was absent almost entirely in book two and hadn’t shown up in the first 120 pages of book three and I punted at that point.

So, then Ancillary Mercy picks up right where Ancillary Sword left off, with Breq, our putative protagonist, recovering from “her” boring injuries incurred in the boring conclusion to the boring second book. The Mad Emperor Mianaai may or may not have shown back up in the system, I dunno, they mention her ships possibly coming through a gate but they’re a few weeks out from actually being able to interact with anyone and I didn’t read the book long enough to find out if she ever actually shows the fuck up.

While we’re waiting for the Space Lord to arrive and theoretically start some semblance of action, we must first read through another hundred pages of Thinly-Veiled Future Space Analogy To Current Day Racism and Classism That a Goddamned First-Year English Major Would Have the Decency To Be Embarrassed About.

That’s where I gave up.

To be clear: I’m not opposed to Sci-Fi As Social Analogy for Current Events AT ALL; that’s one of the strengths of the genre, its ability to cast current events into an interesting alien future in a way that possibly seeds some thoughts on how to deal with said problems now. And Lord knows there have been many very interesting takes on oppression, classism, racism, etc., done by many, many authors in the genre.

I just don’t find Leckie’s take on this interesting at ALL. She was going someplace wonderful in that first novel, but then scoped it down to something that hardly needs to be sci-fi in the next two, and then fails to do anything with the interesting premises setup in that first novel.

And that REALLY bums me out.

Leckie is still a pretty “new” author, this series started with her actual debut novel, and I wonder if she just ran out of steam on it. I can see having added a bigger conflict between Breq and Mianaai to the end of the first novel and just having ended the whole story _there_. Shifting to a whole new location for books two and three that, as of ~120 pages into the third, served NO purpose to highlight or advance the conflict between the various sides of the Lord of the Radch’s personal meltdown war, just makes no sense. Particularly since that conflict was setup in Book One as the Primary Plot, the pivotal event around which all other events should be viewed in relation to.

I dunno. Maybe I’ll finish the book someday, I can’t have more than an hour or two left in it. But I am just so disappointed in where this series has gone; it’s quite obvious that Leckie has got some stellar ideas in her head, she can do some solid if, so far, monochromatic world-building, but seems to struggle with fleshing out good base ideas into an entire series of books worth reading. I’ll keep an eye out for what she does in the future, but for right now, I’m setting this aside.

 

The Books of 2016, #2: Ancillary Sword, by Anne Leckie

ancillary_mercy

What was Book #1, you might be asking? Purity, by Jonathan Franzen. Enough ink has been spilled on that book already to where I see no need to add to it. If you like Franzen, you’ll probably like Purity, tho’ I didn’t find it quite as good as either The Corrections or Freedom. I hated every character, but loved reading about them getting their various comeuppances. It’s a book generally about well-off, hateful white assholes designed to be appreciated and enjoyed by well-off, hateful white assholes. It succeeds miserably and completely on that front. The End.

So, Book # 2 on the year is, uncomfortably, the middle volume of a three-book sci-fi romp that has garnered all the praise and awards (seriously, the first book took home the Hugo, Nebula, Clarke AND Locus. And it was Leckie’s debut novel. That’s some achievement right there), and the first book, Ancillary Justice, sure deserved them. I enjoyed that volume tremendously and was looking forward to this sequel.

Unfortunately, a lot of what I liked about the first entry is missing in the second. Breq, again our protagonist, was rather fascinating as a ship. Not so much as a human. Anaander Mianaai, a wonderful villain and concept (Near-Immortal Emperor of the big human empire who also happens to be at war with herself), is relegated to a brief appearance at the very start and some background mentions in passing otherwise. The completely alien and beyond-powerful Presger? Also almost entirely absent, except for a short stint as a Plot Device spent by the wonderful character of Dlique, their human-born but otherwise completely alien translator. Frankly, even the use of “she” for all genders (the Radch do not recognize gender in their speech, so the characters generally refer to everyone using female pronouns), which was a neat trick in the first novel, is more of a nuisance here, and actually set aside entirely in one scene where it would’ve muddled things up too much.

What we do get is a thinly-(very)-veiled morality play about Why Imperialism And Colonialism Are Bad. Most of the action takes place on Athoek Station and its namesake planet, both of which feature a colonial overlord class that lords it over the other races and keeps them oppressed. On the station, they live in the “Undergarden”, which is heavily and brutally policed, and completely unserved by the social and health services that exist for everyone else on the station. On the planet, the non-Radch are either plantation masters or the actual not-slaves-but-totally-slaves that harvest the tea that is the source of the planet’s wealth. Yes, really. A sci-fi book that centers on tea plantations.

I’m seriously hoping we just had a bad case of Middle Book Syndrome here, because I’ll be getting to the closing volume of the trilogy after a quick palette cleanse, but for now I am as disappointed in this book as I was impressed with the first.