2017 Book Report

Every year I get through a stack of books, and never remember them as clearly as I’d like. Working theory: the act of documenting my reading will somehow tether it in my memory. So this was my good intention for 2017: review everything I read. A project for the ages. The future will thank me.

Image credit: Juan Frito

1. Walter Miller – A Canticle For Leibowitz

A monastery ekes out an existence in the desert of the post-apocalyptic U.S.A. We follow multiple generations of monks as they preserve and rediscover the knowledge of our fallen civilisation.

A bleak view of humanity doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Do we deserve to spread to the stars? (Answer: no, but we probably will anyway and we’ll take human nature and all of its problems with us.)

2. Ann Leckie – Ancillary Justice

Breq is a human soldier, or at least she fits the standard human form-factor. However, she used to be an AI in control of a starship and legions of human drones, until something happened to change that.

What is a self? How would it respond to occupying a radically different body? How would it respond to it being duplicated and separated, stretched over huge distances and spans of time? This is a deserving multi-award winner and is easy to devour in just a few sittings. When you’re done, read up on the ridiculous ‘Sad Puppies’ fiasco to get an idea of what one female scifi writer was up against.

3. Batman: The Killing Joke

Necessary reading, short and sweet.

4. Roald Dahl – Madness

Easily digestible; pretty disturbing. Roald Dahl: what happened to you, man? Something dark for sure.

5. Mind MGMT Book 1

Meru is a gumshoe/journalist and determined to find out what happened to a missing airliner. Along the way she discovers a bunch of MK Ultra-style super spies and psychic hitmen.

It’s not my normal taste in art but it works. The plot points are original and intriguing and kept me reading. Thanks for the birthday gift Pierce!

6. Alastair Reynolds – Beyond The Aquila Rift

Can he dethrone Banks from my top spot? Maybe. These stories are many, varied, light and dark. He’s a master of that chill down the spine ‘sense of awe’ type of sci-fi. I especially love the Rogue Moon references in Diamond Dogs, and want to hear much more from The Gentian Line. Keep it coming please.

7. The Strain Graphic Novel, Book 1

Whoops, someone has released a plague that threatens to bring on the apocalpse. What kind of plague? Zombies! Except the zombies are also vampires! Vampire zombies!

Not exactly I Am Legend and not exactly The Passage. The plot is derivative for sure, but the art is incredible and the whole package is trashily addictive. I’ll bet this is much more satisfying than the novel on which it’s based (sorry Guillermo).

8. Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory

Frank is sixteen and living on a lonely Scottish island. He’s an odd child who has developed the make-believe games of his childhood into a routine of dark, strange rituals. Also he’s killed at least three people so far, but that’s OK because apparently he’s done murdering.

How did Banks come across as nice as he did in interviews when this stuff was knocking around in his head? What happens to Frank’s brother in the hospital basement… *shudder*. There’s an odd tinge of misogyny here, which is confusing at first. It is resolved, but I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

9. Watchmen

So, so good. Rorschach and Doctor Manhattan are joining Dream, Death and of course V in my Hall Of Fame. This is how to do an ensemble story, I don’t know how I’ve managed to get this far without reading it.

10. Fables Book 1

Yaaawn. The art is uninteresting and seems oddly old-fashioned. Worse, I just don’t care about these characters or what happens to them. For a better imagining of mythological figures surving in modern day New York, try American Gods.

11. Stephen King – Doctor Sleep

It’s a Stephen King book. You can tell it’s a Stephen King book because it features: New England; a fundamentally good man with a troubled past; brilliantly written creepy-as-fuck moments; a strong-willed child with special powers; New England some more.

Being the sequel to The Shining, I’m sure it sold well. It’s an entertaining enough read, but I haven’t thought about it at all since finishing it.

12. Margaret Drabble – The Dark Flood Rises

Florid. Boring. The dark flood might rise, but I won’t be there to read about it.

13. Will Storr – The Heretics

Initially, the Ronson/Theroux-esque ‘floppy-haired British liberal journeys into the weird’ seems like nothing new. It’s the self-examination and the exploration of what constitues belief that make this stand out. Storr takes a look at the people who believe in the weird and the distasteful, but ends up examining his own beliefs and why he has them.

14. Preacher, Book 1

The art is cool, and there are some great ideas here. Some plot points seem only included to shock though, and surely the evil hillbilly trope has been done enough, right? I’m hoping for more of the former and less of the latter from Book 2.

(Note: I’ve since been informed that, while some of Preacher seemed derivative to me, I actually needed to do my homework and check out when this was published: turns out that Preacher created these tropes which were subsequently adopted by others. My bad.)

15. Alaistair Reynolds – House Of Suns

Abigail Gentian shatters her genome and her psyche into 1,000 pieces, each a non-aging individual ‘shatterling’ with its own personality, gender and sexuality. Her aim: to experience the epic timespans of the grand cycles of the cosmos and the rise and fall of galactic civilisations. Every 200,000 years, the shatterlings come back together for a reunion where they exchange their memories. This reunion, though, will be a little different: someone’s out to destroy the Gentian line.

The limits of the human mind, memory, and identity. This book deals beautifully with issues of STL travel through a vast galaxy, the turnover of civilisations in a populated universe, and human-machine intersection. An overall more positive view of the fractured self than explored in Ancillary Judgement but no less entertaining. One of my favourites of the year, and one that has lodged itself firmly in my mind.

16. The Strain Graphic Novel, Book 2

The incredible, visceral, in places very unsettling, art continues. As does the derivative plot, but I don’t care, I’m still reading Book 3.

17. Cixin Liu – The Three Body Problem

Was this written by two people? One constructs a philosophical, atmospheric mystery, with plenty of historical context and texture. The other is a hack who can’t write characters or construct plots, and appears to be rushing to meet a publishing deadline.

18. Pinker, Ridley, De Botton, Gladwell – Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?

This is why I shouldn’t buy books without thumbing through them. My expectation: a series of essays on the title. Reality: a transcript of an unilluminating Munk debate between Pinker and Ridley arguing for, and De Botton and Gladwell against. The debate is more about audience-appealing rhetoric and personal attacks than it is against making compelling arguments. It makes me dislike all of speakers.

19. Iain M. Banks – The Hydrogen Sonata

The Gzilt are preparing to depart our reality and to follow the many civilizations before them into The Sublime. The Culture is on hand to supervise the transition of old mates the Gzilt’s wordly possessions into the hands of their chosen inheritors, when the Gzilt Regimental High Command are wiped out.

This Culture story contains all the right ingredients for me: it’s darkly funny, the ship Minds are on strong form, the concepts are original and brilliantly realised. For some reason though, this one just didn’t stick in the mind as much for me as previous Culture outings.

20. Derf Backderf – My Friend Dahmer

Derf Backderf was mates with notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer back in high school, and paints a sad and empathetic portrait of a fucked up child with a horrible upbringing. It doesn’t seek to excuse Dahmer’s later actions, but does offer a compelling explanation of how he became what he became. The art is great, it’s narrated brilliantly. Highly recommended.

21. Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, Fast and Slow

This book and the conclusions it contains focus a lifetime of research and a wealth of experience into why we do the things we do and make the decisions we make. There’s so much in here which tallies with intuitions I already had, but also much which surprises.

22. George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois (ed.) – Rogues

It’s another anthology of stories from a bunch of leading genre (and otherwise) authors! As you’d expect, some are first class and others were definitely phoned in between more lucrative engagements. The first story in the book is probably the best, with Joe Abercrombie trying out an experimental form I’ve not seen before (and which could risk coming across as a soulless writing exercise) and succeeding in making the result both clever and highly entertaining.

23. Drew Ford (ed.) – Grave Predictions

A collection of short stories by the likes of Phillip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury and Stephen King, imagining post-apocalyptic or dystopian futures? This is literally my ideal book. Drew Ford must have been very short of either cash or foresight when he was putting this together, though, because it’s hard to believe that these stories came from the list of writing heavyweights on the front. Bargain basement stuff that’s best skipped.

24. Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky – Sex Criminals Vol. 1

A recommendation from Ale, and a brilliant one. Suzie and Jon are enjoying some excellent first sex when they discover that they share the same secret: when they orgasm, time slows down and the world stops. What do they do with this time outside-of-time? They rob banks. Also Jon takes a daily shit in his boss’s office pot plant.

On the face of it, it’s surreal, saucy and very funny. It’s also a very well observed look at relationships and their complications. I’m looking forward to the next volumes.

25. Mark Balaguer – Free Will

I have strong opinions about free will, and whether we really have it or whether it’s just an illusion (spoiler alert: pretty sure we don’t), but I realise that my opinions aren’t really based in anything intellectually defensible. I mean, I have arguments to support my intuitions, but how much can you really argue about a subject which has strong philosphical components, without understanding that philosophy? It turns out that (surprise surprise), there’s a lot of literature out there, so this year I decided to read at least two books on the subject; one for and one against.

Balaguer takes the position for free will, first laying out the case against it, then attempting to refute those arguments. The assumption is that most of humanity’s stong intuitions in favour of having free will will then be unopposed, and therefore not much is done to argue for free will. Unlike the second book in this list, this is definitely not aimed at an academic audience, and I would say goes too far in the other direction. It’s definitely accessible, but the author seems pretty keen on seeming ‘cool’ and ‘hip’ and ‘funny’. He is none of those things and comes across as a bit arrogant. While this is a good primer on the subject, some of his arguments seem pretty obviously flawed, and one in particular (intended as a coup de grace for Free Will) relies on a linguistic trick which is profoundly unsatisfying.

26. Sarah Perry – The Essex Serpent

It’s the 1890’s and Cora’s abusive husband just died. She’s out to retake control of her life and moves to the misty eastern tip of Essex, where she hears of a Serpent which has been terrorising the coastal villages around the Blackwater estuary. She’s sure her interest in the natural sciences will help her uncover the mysteries behind these seemingly supernatural happenings. In Essex she meets the Reverend William Ransome and strikes up a unique relationship.

This wouldn’t be the first book I’d pick up in the bookshop, and it’s thanks to a recommendation from Pierce that I did. I’m so glad I did, because this had me hooked. It’s evocative and surprising. The characters are wonderfully realised and none of these relationships fall into the cliches which irritate me in some similar books. In particular the relationship between Cora and Will (and Will’s wife) is incredibly well written.

27. Bertrand Russell – Marriage and Morals

Russell wrote this in 1929, and its startling both in the clarity and accessibility of its writing, but also in how ahead-of-their-time his opinions were. Some things he talks about in this book:

  • How sex work should be legalised and normalised
  • How sex-phobic the church has made us
  • How people should live together and work out how sexually compatible they are before they make a life-long commitment to each other
  • How that aforementioned life-long commitment exists only to raise children anyway, so we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be trapped in loveless partnerships

Although much of what he writes about has dated or, in many cases, has already come to pass, there’s a lot in here which we can learn from.

28. China Mieville – The City & The City

Tyador Borlu is a detective in the city of Besźel’s Extreme Crime Squad, and he’s got a murder to investigate. The problem: it looks like the murder took place in Ul Qoma, a city in another reality, which occupies much of the same geographical space as Besźel. He’ll have to cross the border between the two cities and contend with the forces of Breach, the shadowy supra-governmental agency which enforces the separation between the city and the (other) city.

Many people like China Mieville, and I can see why. This is a massively original, very well plotted noirish thriller. The concepts are well though out and the exposition is done in a light-touch sort of way which kept me turning the pages, wanting to find out more about The City. Which is just as well, because the characters were definitely not going to make me do that: I just didn’t really care about anyone in the story. Noone had that spark of life which makes a character seem real and vital. Overall a disappointment.

29. Malachi Nicolle, Ethan Nicolle – Axe Cop Vol 3.

It’s written by an 8 year old and drawn by his older brother! You can tell, because it’s completely ridiculous. Hilarious fun.

30. Caleb Scharf – The Zoomable Universe

Scharf acknowledges in the preface that this form is not exactly new: each chapter deals with the universe at a scale ten times smaller than its predecessor. The journey starts at the multiverse, and proceeds into the observable universe, down to the scale of our solar system, our planet, our bodies and finally down to the level of the subatomic and the quantum foam.

While you might have seen something like this before, this exploration was written this year and informed with cutting-edge science. I read a lot of this sort of stuff, and there was plenty here that was new to me. Well written, and accompanied with a bunch of excellent infographics.

31. Kelly and Zach Weinersmith – Soonish

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoonist Zach and his parasitologist wife Kelly identify some technologies which we’re soon(ish) to receive, and which promise to change the way we live.

I really wanted this to be better. I love SMBC and Kickstarted the project for this book as soon as it was announced. This translation of the Weinersmith brand of humour and very well informed geekery into the long form unfortunately just doesn’t work that well. The authors try to cover too much ground in the number of future technologies they cover. In my opinion they needed to either make more surprising choices, or cover those choices in much more depth. It’s also too clear that the chapters were first written as straight pop-sci essays before jokes and comic strips were shoehorned in at the end.

32. Christopher Hitchens – Mortality and 33. Oliver Sacks – Gratitude

A pair of books (collections of essays, really) which I read back to back, both written by respected thinkers at the ends of their lives and facing their deaths. Both give moving insights into the personality of the author and an idea of what it feels like when your future shrinks and you’re left to look back on a lifetime’s achievements.

34. Norman Ohler – Blitzed

Recommended by the excellent Jim Jam, and an excellent recommendation it was too. How did the Wermacht blitzkreig their way across France and into Paris so quickly, confounding the British and French armies? CRYSTAL METH. How did Hitler combat stress and painful flatulence? HEROIN. Both helped in the short term, but not so much after that. The author leaves us to make conclusions about just how much the German armies dependence on meth affected the outcome of the war, and how much of a part his dependence on a daily cocktail of drugs had to play in Hitler’s increasingly erractic and irrational decisions. Ohler makes a strong case.

35. Arthur C Clarke – The Collected Stories of

Every story shorter than a novella ever published by possibly the most influential sci-fi author of the 20th century. There’s a lot to cover in this pretty massive collection, and not all of it is great. Much, however, shines.

36. William Seighart – The Poetry Pharmacy

This lovely collection identifies conditions which ail the modern soul, breaks them down and prescribes poems to alleviate the pain, or at least to bring it into better perspective. One I will dip into in the years to come.

37. Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky – Sex Criminals Vol. 2

Suzie and Jon aren’t the only ones who can stop time by fucking, and the Sex Police are onto them.

The ridiculous entertainment continues but so, fortunately, does the examination of Suzie and Jon’s relationship as it becomes more serious. I love the newly introduced characters and the exploration of how their sexual uniquenesses came to be.

38. Joseph Kiem Campbell – Free Will

The second of my two Free Will philosophy primers, and one which takes a much more analytic approach than Balaguer’s. Campbell has written an academic primer which presents both the plain language and logically-notated version of all of the leading pro and anti Free Will arguments.

Much harder work than Balaguer, but rewarding. This is the book which I’ll be going back to in order to relate my future reading to the existing literature.

Still in progress:

Montaigne – The Complete Essays

Douglas R. Hofstadter – Godel, Escher, Bach

Jeff Noon – A Man of Shadows

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