Tag Archives: sf

Booklist 2012

Here are the books I read in 2012.

  • 11 Nov 2012:  The Passage, by Justin Cronin.
  • 31 Oct 2012:  Too Good To Be True, Benjamin Anastas.
  • 22 Oct 2012:  vN, Madeline Ashby.
  • 13 Oct 2012:  Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky.
  • 6 Oct 2012:  11/22/63, Stephen King.
  • 15 Sep 2012:  The Signal and the NoiseNate Silver.
  • 26 Aug 2012:  Mr. Smartypants, Michael Showalter.
  • 24 Aug 2012: Immobility, Brian Evenson.
  • 11 Aug 2012:  Permanent Emergency, Kip Hawley.
  • 10 Aug 2012:  Against Security, Harvey Molotch.
  • 6 Aug 2012:  Liars and Outliers, Bruce Schneier.
  • 25 Jul 2012:  The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg.
  • 14 Jul 2012:  The Pale King, David Foster Wallace.
  • 5 Jun 2012:  The Red Book, Deborah Copaken Kogan.
  • 20 May 2012:  The Outsourced Self, Arlie Russell Hochschild.
  • 13 May 2012:  Laughing Man, T.M. Wright.
  • 11 May 2012:  Strange Seed, T. M. Wright.
  • 6 May 2012:  The Scarlet Plague, Jack London.
  • 2 May 2012:  The Nephew, James Purdy.
  • 24 Apr 2012:  Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House, Meghan Daum.
  • 1 Apr 2012:  The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins.
  • 26 Mar 2012: 1001, Jason Grote.
  • 13 Mar 2012: The Chicagoan 1.
  • 3 Feb 2012:  Simon: The Genius in my Basement, Alexander Masters.
  • 28 Jan 2012: Malcolm, James Purdy.
  • 22 Jan 2012:  In Pursuit of the Traveling Salesman, William J. Cook.
  • 18 Jan 2012:  Freedom, Jonathan Franzen.

Links go to blogposts about the linked book.

So:  27 books.  Of these, 6 were books I was reviewing.  21 pleasure books is a pretty slim total for a year’s work!   There’s a list, too, of books that I read substantial chunks of in 2012 and which I still expect to finish:  Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers, Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus, Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (a re-read),… probably others I’ve forgotten.

This was the year I started occasionally reading books on a device; 5 of these were read on some combination of iPhone and iPad.  Included among these were four of the last five books I finished (along with two I haven’t finished, the Ford Madox Ford and the Julavits.)  This might mean that it’s easier to finish books on the device, or it might mean that I differentially tend to buy SF on the phone, and SF is (in general!  in general!) easy to read very quickly.

Actually, this was a very heavy SF year for me:  9 out of the 27 books, if you count expansively.  My relationship with science fiction is very strange.  I grew up reading it and think of myself as liking it.  But I have not yet found the place in contemporary SF I really like to sit.  Of the 9 SF books I read this year, the two that I really liked were the ones from the 20th century : The Scarlet Plague and The Man in the Maze.  The former is a forgotten book that Joshua Glenn wisely released in his Radium Age series, the latter a forgotten book that Johan de Jong wisely made me borrow.

Best book I read:  The Pale King, no surprise.  And it wasn’t close.  Malcolm is the runner-up.

Worst book I read:  The Passage, I think, even though on average this book was not bad.  The first 300 pages were kind of great, centered on the question:  how would it feel to watch the world be destroyed if the world were already kind of destroyed to start with?  But then after that there are 700 pages of “old West in the future” and people riding around shooting at monsters.  I felt betrayed.  This is my quarrel with contemporary SF.  So many ideas, so much promise, and then the last 500 pages are always people riding around and shooting at monsters!  Sometimes they’re running or flying instead of riding, but always the shooting, always the monsters.

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Make no mistake

Choire Sicha in Slate, in the course of correctly praising Ursula K. LeGuin, remarks:

The literary novel is, make no mistake, as much a pileup of inherited conventions as the worst werewolf cash-in. There are now thousands of young, MFA-toting writers, so many of them aping the weak generation of literary male novelists now in their 50s: pallid and insufferable teachers and idols, in light of the strong and inventive generation before them.

When you find yourself inserting “make no mistake” into an assertion, you should consider the possibility that you’re doing so because you subconsciously recognize that your assertion is not sufficiently well-justified.

Also:  Sicha packs an amazingly dense tangle of sexual politics into just a few sentences!  Literary fiction is stultifying because it’s tied to the cultural practices of men in their 50s.  But they aren’t real men like their forbears, they are instead weak and pallid!  (Katie Roiphe called and she wants her tendentious generalizations back.  But then while she was on the phone Camille Paglia cut in on call-waiting and then things got really ugly.)

And the people with MFAs don’t just have MFAs — they tote them!  Probably in a tote bag!  Probably while drinking some insufferable kind of coffee drink!

Literary fiction — even literary fiction written by MFA-toters — is a big, rich, complicated zone.  At the moment I am reading Peter Carey’s crazy Illywhacker – Carey is indeed a male of the old persuasion, but pallid he is not – and Heidi Julavits’s new book The Vanishers, which is unquestionably literary fiction but which has lots of psychic phenomena and astral travel in it.  It’s a delight.  And I started Justin Cronin’s vampire-apocalypse book The Passage, whose more “literary” parts are better than the other parts.  I was promised it would be as good as The Stand, a great book whose status as literature is an interesting thing to think about.

I keep meaning to write a post about the ways in which Stephen King and Jonathan Franzen have converged on each other as writers, and how this fact helped me think about what “literary” means w/r/t novels.  But there is no time to do it today, only time to snark about something I read in Slate.  There is a lesson here.

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The Scarlet Plague

I really like world-destroyed-by-disease novels and I really like Jack London and I was really happy to learn that Jack London wrote a world-destroyed-by-disease novel, The Scarlet Plague, which you can buy here.  It’s a quick, really enjoyable read, but not without heft.

London is really interested in the tension between the cultivated and the uncultivated.  The narrator, a former professor of English literature at Berkeley, longs for the civilized life of the past, but recognizes that cultivation and refinement breed weakness, while the oppression visited on the impoverished masses of pre-plague America had generated a cruel strength.  Here’s the vegetal version:

“With my horse and dogs and pony, I set out. Again I crossed the San Joaquin Valley, the mountains beyond, and came down into Livermore Valley. The change in those three years was amazing. All the land had been splendidly tilled, and now I could scarcely recognize it, ‘such was the sea of rank vegetation that had overrun the agricultural handiwork of man. You see, the wheat, the vegetables, and orchard trees had always been cared for and nursed by man, so that they were soft and tender. The weeds and wild bushes and such things, on the contrary, had always been fought by man, so that they were tough and resistant. As a result, when the hand of man was removed, the wild vegetation smothered and destroyed practically all the domesticated vegetation.”

And the human version, which comes a little earlier in the book:

“In the midst of our civilization, down in our slums and labor-ghettos, we had bred a race of barbarians, of savages; and now, in the time of our calamity, they turned upon us like the wild beasts they were and destroyed us.”

But London complicates this story.  In a typical apocalypse book, the reader would be invited to reflect on the personal qualities of the narrator that led him to be among the few survivors.  London insists we do no such thing:

“In the morning I was alone in the world. Canfield and Parsons, my last companions, were dead of the plague. Of the four hundred that sought shelter in the Chemistry Building, and of the forty-seven that began the march, I alone remained—I and the Shetland pony. Why this should be so there is no explaining. I did not catch the plague, that is all. I was immune. I was merely the one lucky man in a million—just as every survivor was one in a million, or, rather, in several millions, for the proportion was at least that.”

I think this makes the book more interesting.  All the narrator’s learning and culture doesn’t help him — but it doesn’t hurt him either.  He is no braver, no cleverer, no wiser, and no stronger than his fallen companions.   London’s plague isn’t a cleansing flood that kills a sick society and reduces the species to its ablest core.  It’s a random sample.  And the civilization that humans will build after the plague won’t be any better than what came before.  Or worse.  It will be the same:

“The gunpowder will come. Nothing can stop it—the same old story over and over. Man will increase, and men will fight. The gunpowder will enable men to kill millions of men, and in this way only, by fire and blood, will a new civilization, in some remote day, be evolved. And of what profit will it be? Just as the old civilization passed, so will the new. It may take fifty thousand years to build, but it will pass. All things pass. Only remain cosmic force and matter, ever in flux, ever acting and reacting and realizing the eternal types—the priest, the soldier, and the king. Out of the mouths of babes comes the wisdom of all the ages. Some will fight, some will rule, some will pray; and all the rest will toil and suffer sore while on their bleeding carcasses is reared again, and yet again, without end, the amazing beauty and surpassing wonder of the civilized state.”

We are the plague, and the plagued.

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Sandkings

Someone mentioned the George R.R. Martin short story “Sandkings” on MetaFilter.  I read this as a kid and it scared the hell out of me.  To my surprise, I still think it’s kind of great.  And my thirty-year-old memory of the last sentence was word-for-word correct.

I read this in the August 1979 issue of OMNI, a subscription my parents bought me because it sounded educational.  In fact what I got out of it was nightmares about sandkings and the understanding that you could sharpen a razor blade by leaving it under a pyramid overnight.

The other really frightening story I remember from OMNI was “Fat Farm,” which according to Wikipedia was by Orson Scott Card and appeared in the January 1980 issue. Remember when Orson Scott Card was good?  Looking at the first page of this story on Google Books, it seems he wasn’t as good as George R.R. Martin was, back when I was eight years old and easy to frighten.

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Paragraphs: Zadie Smith and Raymond Chandler

As mentioned, I’m reading Zadie Smith’s first novelWhite Teeth; it’s excellent, though I liked On Beauty better. But nothing in On Beauty really approaches the sustained uproariousness of the Chalfen section of White Teeth, which I’ve just now gotten to. The Chalfens are an idealized secular-liberal “modern” British family of the 1980s, a sort of updated version of the family Jane wishes herself half-into at the end of Half Magic. Through a bit of business involving a mishandled joint, the two working-class teens at the center of the book end up spending every Tuesday afternoon in the Chalfens’ enthusiastic company.

Oh, to have the pitch control to write this:

“You’ll stay for dinner, won’t you?” pleaded Joyce. “Oscar really wants you to stay. Oscar loves having strangers in the house, he finds it really stimulating. Especially brown strangers! Don’t you, Oscar?”

“No, I don’t,” confided Oscar, spitting in Irie’s ear. “I hate brown strangers.”

“He finds brown strangers really stimulating,” whispered Joyce.

Also, via MetaFilter commenter George_Spiggott, Raymond Chandler in 1953 does his impression of science fiction:

“I checked out with K 19 on Aldebaran III, and stepped out through the crummalite hatch on my 22 Model Sirus Hardtop. I cocked the timejector in secondary and waded through the bright blue manda grass. My breath froze into pink pretzels. I flicked on the heat bars and the Brylls ran swiftly on five legs using their other two to send out crylon vibrations. The pressure was almost unbearable, but I caught the range on my wrist computer through the transparent cysicites. I pressed the trigger. The thin violet glow was ice cold against the rust-colored mountains. The Brylls shrank to half an inch long and I worked fast stepping on them with the poltex. But it wasn’t enough. The sudden brightness swung me around and the Fourth Moon had already risen. I had exactly four seconds to hot up the disintegrator and Google had told me it wasn’t enough. He was right.”

Classic.

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The Plot Against America

Talking about the alternate-history Orioles reminded me that I should say something about The Plot Against America, the Philip Roth novel about a beleaguered Jewish family in Newark during the Second World War — a war which the United States is sitting out, because fascist-friendly Charles Lindbergh unseated FDR in 1940 on a bipartisan isolationist platform.

The tough thing about alternate history is that you have to spend a certain amount of time explaining what’s alternate about it. Roth never figures out how to do this gracefully, and the book ends up with a lot of this stuff:

At press conferences, Roosevelt no longer bothered to make a derisive quip when questioned by newsmen about the unorthodox Lindbergh campaign, but simply moved on to discuss Churchill’s fear of an imminent German invasion of Britain or to announce that he would be asking Congress to fund the first American peacetime draft or to remind Hitler that the United States would not tolerate any interference with the transatlantic aid our merchant vessels were supplying to the British war effort. It was clear from the start that the president’s campaign was to consist of remaining in the White House, where, in contrast to what Secretary Ickes labeled Lindbergh’s “carnival antics,” he planned to address the hazards of the international situation with all the authority at his command, working around the clock if necessary.

This is slack stuff coming from a master like Roth. The quotation from Ickes seems particularly wedged in and strange. One naturally thinks of The Man in the High Castle, which presents a much more radically different America (one occupied by Germany and Japan) but without a lot of talk — the reader experiences occupation the way the characters do, as a largely unremarked feature of everyday life.

This is still a Philip Roth book, so most of it concerns not Roosevelt but a little kid named Philip Roth and his unarticulated battles with his family and the Jewish people, and all that stuff is just fine. There’s nothing to match the really searing parts of American Pastoral — the potential is there when the protagonist’s older brother tilts towards Lindbergh after an invigorating summer among the Gentiles in Kentucky, but Roth pulls back from this instead of heightening the contradictions.

What I thought was most charming about the book requires revealing the end, so I’ll put it after the break.

Continue reading

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