I should be writing fiction instead of writing about it, but I must continue my year-end summations. I’m off tomorrow, so I intend to get down to serious stuff.
Anyway, I read some pretty good novels this past year. Much as I admire, respect, and feel a duty to read broadly in nonfiction, when it gets down to it, fiction is what I live for. (Well, Donna comes first, sure, but as we’ve been writing a novel with our lives…ahem) Fiction takes me away. It opens things up, offers newness in a way nothing else does.
As I get older I find myself reading more slowly, soaking in the sentences. This has the consequence of making me impatient with poorly-written material. Or material that is well enough written but really has little to say. Not that I’ve always got my nose in weighty tomes or Significant Prose and Important Literature, but there’s gotta be some meat on them bones, know what I mean?
That said, I caught up with what I consider “snack” reading in the form of Margaret Maron’s “Deborah Knott” series. A new one just came out, otherwise I could claim to have read all of these. I don’t know why I’m so taken with these. They fall into the crime fiction category of “cozies”, a term I learned only in the last couple of years. It’s about solving the crime and shows little gore. Not thrillers. More personal, character-driven excursions. PG-13 (although Deborah herself…well, you need to read a couple of these). I like the characters, the setting is a small community in North Carolina, and Maron tilts at obviously long-favored windmills. She has a separate series set in New York, the Sigrid Harald series, and in the last Knott book—Three Day Town—the two meet. They are evidently related and from what I’ve seen of the new one, this is a trend that will continue. The difference in style and approach between the two series is striking.
I also did some “catching up” with older SF that I never read—or, if I had, I’ve forgotten. In that vein, I read a pair of Doris Piserchia novels—Star Rider and A Billion Days of Earth. Piserchia could be a good representative of the waning days of New Wave science fiction. Her skill was in novelty of idea and velocity, whipping you through the story so fast there is no time to notice any flaws. Both these novels were part of Bantam’s Frederik Pohl Selection series from the early to mid-1970s, a line that included Delany’s Dhalgren and Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey. According to Pohl, Dhalgren was the only one of these that actually made money for the publisher, which is unfortunate if true—he published some very good novels.
Also, because I was involved in an event with him at the St. Louis Science Center, I read David Gerrold’s Yesterday’s Children, which is basically a science fiction take on Run Silent, Run Deep, and really demonstrates Gerrold’s skill with psychology. I also read his Space Skimmer. Gerrold is most famous for his Star Trek episode, The Trouble With Tribbles—and deservedly so—but he is a really fine novelist and ranges across a wide spectrum of subject and form.
After that event, I was asked to introduce the screening at the Science Center of the movie Fantastic Voyage, which I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. To prepare, I read both Asimov’s original novelization and his second version, Fantastic Voyage II, which he published in 1987—because he really wanted to address some of the problems inherent in the original premise. I was amused at his “solution” to the key problem of miniaturization and mass. I still possess my original paperback of Fantastic Voyage (a bit worse for wear after 44 years) and enjoyed the return visit.
I also read a couple of Mack Reynolds novels from the Sixties—Commune 2000 A.D. and The Towers of Utopia. I say “from the Sixties” and my ghod can you tell! There is a charming-if-maddening naïvete in these novels that make them read like something for children (if not for the almost innocent obsession with sex). Both are set in the same world, a time when the planet has come under the thrall of a single government. Everything is fine, needs are met, but of course there are Those Who Don’t Fit In—Libertarians, basically—and revolution is in the offing. It’s not so much that the premise is bad, but the execution…so Sixties.
Also from that time, though, was The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd, who had a steady if not stellar career and published some interesting novels. This one, though—his first—remains the one everyone seems to remember (if they remember him at all). This is one I think I read when it came out (1968) but I couldn’t remember, so I reread it. Again, there was that delightful, nostalgic naïvete, the flavor of Something Lost. But Boyd was not quite so innocent as Reynolds in his understanding of human psychology and the problems of political solidarity (of any kind!) and while the end becomes almost absurdly optimistic and playful, I found the novel to be a fun trip through some really interesting ideas. It’s an alternate history, but you can’t tell for a good part of the book. Only toward the end, when time travel becomes a factor in “restoring” history, do the variations make a larger sense.
Some of these novels suffer from compression. Today, it’s nothing for a science fiction novel to run 300 to 500 pages, which allows for a full examination of premise and ramification, but Back Then there were constraints, and most of these books were usually only 200 pages, sometimes (often) less, and a great deal got crammed in. The practiced reader could fill in the gaps, so to speak, but this was one reason so many readers coming late to SF found them ridiculous and indecipherable.
That said, many others seemed to have no trouble with the length given. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Ursula Le Guin’s early work—none of it felt particular “slight” by virtue of such compression. The difference between a fine writer and a merely good one?
Roger Zelazny was one who had no difficulty working within the confines of 60 to 80 thousand words. I’ve been making my way through his oeuvre for some years now, and he is a gem in the tapestry of SF. This year, I read Creatures of Light and Darkness, Doorways In The Sand, and My Name Is Legion. The last was a bit of a clunker, but the other two are classic Zelazny. (I am not much taken with his most famous series, Amber. Don’t know why—they’re fun reads, but they leave me flat.)
Another “vintage” writer I’ve been catching up on is James Blish. Most folks remember him for the series of Star Trek collections he wrote based on the original series. Blish was a prolific writer who did some solid work in the 50s and 60s, including his other “most famous” work, Cities In Flight. He was also one of the first serious critics in the field, publishing still-relevant essays as by William Atheling. His novels, though short, are studies in the efficient telling of idea-centered stories. This year’s reads were The Star Dwellers, its sequel Mission To The Heart Stars, and Titan’s Daughter. The last is particularly interesting, being a eugenics-and-bigotry story, told very much with the 50s civil rights movement in mind. Blish, unlike Boyd and Reynolds, was not naïve.
Moving briefly away from SF, I read Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, the first in his epochal series Dance to the Music of Time. Some have claimed this is a British Proust. Frankly, I found it dull and uninteresting. The kind of thing I have no patience for in so-called “mainstream” literature. Minute studies of people with whom I have no connection nor, through the instrument of the novel, desire any. Very well-written, but navel-gazing at its refined best.
On the other hand, I read Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal, which is also a minute study of character, but one I rank comparable to Gaddis, Pynchon, Bolano. The difference between this and the Powell is in its innate ability to twist your sensibilities and take you through An Experience. Powell’s novel hinted at such, but really came down to just a cataloque of what these people ate and where they went. The Genet puts you Somewhere Else. (Which is one of the chief pleasures of science fiction, by the way.)
Which brings me to Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, the first of his epic Aubrey/Maturin series. I’ve tried to read this a few times before. This year, sitting at home recovering from appendicitis, nothing else to do but eat soup, sleep, and read, I took another crack at it and got through. I’m a Hornblower fan from long ago. This is very different from the Forester. The detail is fit for a historian and, for my money, drags the story, which by the end of the book had me. I’m told the subsequent books get better and that, really, it is all one long novel interrupted by covers. I’m not sure I’ll continue it, but I’m glad I finally read it.
I reread Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and once more felt carried away by the sheer ebullience of his language.
I then read Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, written in the 50s, but with none of the sentimentality of the usual SFnal doomsday fare. This is a well-reasoned study of a changed society and Brackett never flinched from looking human fear and prejudice squarely in the face. This one should be talked about on par with A Canticle For Liebowitz, On The Beach, Fail Safe…Brackett, if she is remembered at all anymore, co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back. She was a first-rate writer and did some great SF, but this one is her masterpiece.
There was a handful of newer works I read that I want to recommend. Embassytown by China Miéville I have written about already. I have also written something about Jo Walton’s Among Others. I may have inadvertently and certainly unintentionally given offense there, but I want to stress just how good a book that is.
But my friend Carolyn Ives Gilman published her epic novel (in two parts) over the last year-and-a-half, the second volume of which is Ison of the Isles. (The first part is Isles of the Forsaken.) Go. Buy. Read. Great stuff.
I also read the new Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel, Garment of Shadows, by Laurie R. King. She continues to delight in this ongoing series about (and ostensibly by) Holmes’ wife.
Our reading group completed Dante’s Commedia finally, after seven years of canto-by-canto reading and analysis. I intend to do a post or two dedicated solely to that, but I’m still mulling it over.
I haven’t mentioned a number of books which I read and enjoyed. No slight intended to any of them, but this has gone on long enough and I hit all the points I intended to make and recommended what I wanted to recommend. I may cover a few of them in a separate post (in fact, I’m looking at my list and seeing a couple that deserve longer treatment) but for now I can wrap this up.
Naturally, I think everyone should go out and buy some of my recommendations. If you do, do so at Left Bank Books.
Good reading to you.