2017 Faves: Sci-Fi Novels

As my Scottish Hogmanay vacation comes to an end, it seems like a good time to make another list of my favorite reads of 2017.  This time it’s science fiction novels.  Remember, these are books I actually read in 2017, not necessarily published in that year, but I’ll try to include publication information for each.

  1. Planetfall, by Emma Newman (Nov 2015)

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Though this came out in late 2015, it took me till December of 2016 to pick it up, and was one of my first reads of 2017.  It took my by surprise, really, as I knew little about it except the title and that I’d been hearing about it for a while.  The level of Newman’s writing is equaled by few in this milieu; the suspense wasn’t contrived and the science fictional elements really evoked a lot of classic science fiction while not feeling outdated. It was, in fact, a very sensitively written book, and the motivations of the main character in particular were a visceral gut-punch as they unfolded throughout the story.  It’s a very forward-looking novel with both hope and despair, and that’s the kind of science fiction I like.

2. The Raven Strategem, by Yoon Ha Lee (June 2017)

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I love science fiction that challenges me, and Lee’s work always does.  This is the second in The machineries of Empire and it had just as many twists and turns, just as many hints and secrets as the first.  I’ve always felt that much of good world building is in deciding what not to explain, and this series really satisfies in that way.  I want to wonder, I want to use my imagination–as in horror, sometimes what gets left unsaid is the best catalyst for creativity–and The Raven Strategem really pushed me to engage with the world and the story it was telling.

3. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey (March 2017)

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This novel sort of came out of nowhere for me.  It requested it through NetGalley, probably forgot about it for a while, then picked it up one day when I was looking for something to read.  It really reads as more of a thought experiment, or series of short story sketches all woven together into a big I Wonder.  As much as it is interested in the science of space travel, it really probes the psychology of space travel and how we engage with something so completely alien to us–namely the vacuum itself.

4. An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon (October 2017)

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I’m always fascinated by fiction that explores what it’s like to live on a ship traveling through space, rather than just telling an adventure story that happens to happen in space, so this novel really grabbed me right from the first page.  It took me two or three tries before I checked it out of the library, but I’m glad I did.  It’s in many ways an own-voices story of the people often forgotten in mainstream science fiction–those who are not white, hetero, cis, male–and proof, if it were ever needed, that all stories can be compelling, complete, and contain multitudes with which to identify.  Again, in addition to being beautifully written it challenges with all that’s left untold.

5. Ancillary Sword, by Ann Leckie (October 2014)

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A person that’s a ship, a ship that’s a person.  A person who’s a mind graft of a thousand-times cloned person hundreds of years old.  An old menace, a new threat, connections made and broken.  Sometimes it seems that Ann Leckie’s fiction was made just for me.  I’ll never tire of a universe in which male isn’t the default, in which the definition of human is more than just meat and emotion.  This time it’s not a story of revenge, but one of putting things back together, looking for a way to move on, and it’s just as compelling as Ancillary Justice.

2017 Faves: Fantasy Novels

Alright, I’m going to do a “best of” kind of post, though nearly everything I read could be included on a best of, as I tend to be pretty picky about what I read.  So I’ll break it down into a few categories, instead of just one big amalgam of reading.

Today it’s fantasy novels.  Here are some of my faves from 2017.  Remember, if you’re looking for awards recs, these are books I read in 2017, but I’ll include pub dates for stuff that’s from earlier.

  1. The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig (Feb 2016)

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2. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Aug 2015)

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3. The Black Tides of Heaven, by J.Y. Yang (Sept 2017)

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4. The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden (Jan 2017)

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5. Horizon, by Fran Wilde (Sept 2017)

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Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.