I’ve seen a number of “Best of 2007” posts here and there, so I thought, after my last, rather depressing, post, I’d put something up about what I really jazzed on in 2007.
Top of the list has to be a few books. What else could you expect?
I didn’t read as much science fiction in 2007 as in the past. A great deal of my time is taken up, more and more, with research for whatever project occupies me, so I’ve spent a lot of hours reading early American history. Among a few favorites, that I would have been glad to have read at any time, are Michael Stephenson’s Patriot Battles; William Hogeland’s The Whiskey Rebellion; and Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground. The first and last concern periods during the Revolution, the last two overlap for the period just after.
Patriot Battles is an honest, bare bones look at how the Revolutionary War got fought—the tools, the people, what it cost, the logistics, and the endless headaches. War, apart from its violent aspects, is a massive pain to undertake. Expensive, mind-bogglingly complex, frustrating…why anyone would want to bother with it, just for the bureaucratic aspects, is beyond me. But all wars tend to acquire a gloss of glamour and glory over time, our own most of all, and the Revolution probably eclipses only by WWII in flag-waving hagiographic excess of praise. Stephenson did a brave thing stripping away the myth and examining the actualities. It was valuable to me in the details of battle field mechanics and the parts about quartermastering. Plus, well written and occasionally funny.
The Whiskey Rebellion relates the tale of our nation’s first major act of repression. There are one or two aspects of the economics Hogeland seems to have overlooked (for instance, that Western Pennsylvania was denied actual currency by Congress during this period, which made what Hamilton was doing all the more criminal), but by and large he makes sensible the incomprehensible, namely why George Washington saw fit to send a massive army to Pittsburgh to crush a local rebellion that was founded on exactly the principles of unrepresented taxation he had led his country to war nearly two decades earlier.
The Divided Ground is about the process by which the native American nations got royally and thoroughly screwed by the United States. This is an account of the immediate post Revolution period, and concentrates mainly on the Iroquios Confederation in New York and Pennsylvania, and it is worthwhile perhaps to read this just after another book I very thoroughly enjoyed, which is Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, which deals with the very beginnings of this unfortunate process.
(I have to admit that while I deplore what happened to the American Indian, I do not feel personally responsible for any of it, and I do not think anything could have been done to stop it. Nor do I find it remarkable. The conquest and displacement of people from land goes back to prehistory, I’m sure–the Hebrews tossing the poor Canaanites out of the so-called Promised Land is an early example, amounting to one event in an endless line of neighbor pillaging neighbor. It’s what people do. That’s not an excuse, not forgiveness, not, heaven forbid, vindication. But I tire of people indulging self-castigation over something like this as if it were somehow unique and “we” should be thoroughly ashamed in some special way. Nonsense. We shouldn’t have done it. But then, neither should any group do it to any other group. I—me, myself, alone, in this skin—didn’t do it.)
I spent a good deal of time reading Laurie R. King’s really great Mary Russell novels. The conceit here is simple and radical—Mary Russell meets Sherlock Holmes during his semi retirement, becomes his apprentice, and by the end of the second novel is his wife.
Heresy! you say. But she sells it so well and she is such a good writer, they are an immense joy. There are eight of them so far and I have read all but the last one. I’m saving it till I know a ninth is coming out. Anyone who likes Holmes (who isn’t fanatical about canonical purity) will love these.
I also started an ambitious program of reading Thomas Pynchon. The man was such an influence in 20th Century letters, and the only thing I’d ever read before was Gravity’s Rainbow and that at a time when I really couldn’t comprehend it. That is not to say I comprehend it now, but…
Anyway, I started dutifully with V and continued on through The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, and just finished Vineland. I’d thought I might make it through Mason & Dixon and Against The Day, but alas I did not. Those two tomes I’ll deal with this year.
But I have read enough now to know that Pynchon’s entire interest is in conspiracy, the nature and permutation thereof. All his books revolve around layers of intersecting, colliding, cross-purposed conspiracy, both real and imagined. He understands that people have the capacity to sense conspiracy, but usually do not have the equipment to figure out what exactly it is—so, people being what they are, they make something up to satisfy their innate need to understand. The result is a new branching of conspiracy.
What we get is what could be termed “conspiracy of effect”, only far more entertaining than such a mundane concept suggests. Pynchon is a comedian as well as a highly literate observer. The tangles may not be to everyone’s taste (I doubt I’ll reread any of these) but just seeing where he goes with them is a Lewis Carrol-on-a-roller-coaster adventure.
I want to recommend again Julie Phillips’ biography of James Tiptree, jr. Superb. Excellent. Amazing, tragic, and extremely well-written and perceptive.
Nicola Griffith published the third Aud Torvingen novel in 2007, Always. She’s a friend, so what? If you can’t brag on your friends, what good is the internet? I’m really liking what Nicola is doing with this character. She has created a unique kind of outsider—Aud is, I have come to realize, a sexy, competent nerd. She does not understand so much of what she passes through effortlessly, but her own profoundly centered Self, instead of stuttering, stumbling, and screwing up like any other nerd/geek, is like a force of nature. People just assume she’s disinterested rather than clueless. And she’s really not clueless. Don’t get me wrong—she understands a lot about human nature, especially the dark side, but she seems utterly innocent of what it means to be “normal.” In this novel, that gap in knowledge and experience leads to some truly amusing, occasionally hilarious moments. Aside from being a first rate thriller, Always is genuinely insightful.
Which leads to the other friend who published this year. Kelley Eskridge wrote one of the best near-future SF novels in the last decade, Solitaire. It’s being developed into a film and I can’t wait. Kelley herself is working on the screenplay.
But Kelley is also a damn good short story writer. Her first collection came out in 2007, Dangerous Space, and I urge you all to go get it. The title novella is one of the best music stories I’ve ever read. I posted a review of it on my blog on MySpace, so go there for more, but I repeat, this is great stuff.
Another friend of mine published a novel in 2007. Allen Steele’s Spindrift is a first-rate SF thriller in the tradition of…
Well, Allen spent a lot of his career being called the Next Heinlein. That’s an overworked comparison and I actually think it’s inaccurate in Allen’s case. He’s much closer to Gordon R. Dickson than Heinlein, but even closer, I think, to Mack Reynolds. (I’d even say he’s closer still to Poul Anderson except he doesn’t indulge Anderson flare for Errol Flynn-type characters and improbable plot twists, but take something like Anderson’s Star Fox or The Enemy Stars or Tales of the Flying Mountains and the comparison makes sense.) People, however, will know who Gordie Dickson was quicker than they will Mack, and I hasten to add that I mean Mack Reynolds at his best.
Spindrift is a slice of his Coyote universe, which is shaping up into a nice body of work for Allen. It’s more faceted with more possibilities, the kind of Swiss Army Knife concept writers envy. It’s a first contact novel and has at its core a couple of variations on the idea that provide a nice fresh sensation.
Music-wise this past year, I’m not sure how to characterize it. My favorite new discovery is the East Village Opera Company. I hate opera. I love this. It is tremendous, over-the-top, pompous, and musically ambitious. But otherwise, it’s hard to say what I found that’s new. I haven’t been buying much new music, and what I’ve gotten has been given to me. There’s a vendor that shows up every year at the local convention who sells small-label electronica. He has the works broken down into comparisons with various periods of Tangerine Dream and I have only ever bought one disc from him I didn’t like, but I use it as wall paper for when I’m working. I can’t write to vocals, so it’s jazz, classical, or this. A smattering of titles includes the artists Roedelius, Navigator, Max van Richter, Under the Dome, Steve Joliffe, Lightwave, and Anon.
Movies, similar problem. We don’t go to the movies anymore. Habit born out of long stretches of poverty. But we’ve been borrowing dvds like crazy. Among the television shows I’m most impressed with, we’ve found Bones, House, Battlestar Galactica and I have fallen in love with the new Doctor Who and especially the spin-off Torchwood. The latter is like MIB meets the X-Files. But it’s like British, y’know, but the star is an American, but the main female lead is…hmm…uh….yes, well, I think she’s just amazing.
What impresses me most about both these shows is the level of writing. It’s rarely less than Good, often Damn Good, and occasionally Great.
Biggest disappointment has to be the SciFi Channel’s lame attempt at retooling Flash Gordon. Look, folks, a word. If you’re gonna do something from the 30s, either take a page from Tim Burton’s playbook, or be bloody faithful to the original. Trying to make it contemporary and current and somehow more “plausible” (in this context I’m not even sure what that means) usually leads to boring if not embarrassing. I feel sorry for the woman playing Dale Arden—she’s got some talent and boy is she hot, but this is not something for her resume.
The biggest surprise movie-wise for me in the past year has been Casino Royale. Yes, the new Bond—Daniel Craig—is very good, and this movie is very good, and it leads me to hope that they will continue in this vein, relying on good storytelling and genuine emotional truth, rather than gimmicks and gadgets. It’s hard to see that this came out of the same production company, it’s so different. (Maybe this movie didn’t come out in ’07, but I didn’t see it till this year.)
I am certainly missing a few things. When I remember them, I’ll mention them. But this is a fairly full list of what I found worth doing in the arts this past year. I’m looking forward to seeing what 2008 has to offer.
Back now to your regularly scheduled programming.