by Nancy Jane Moore
a list of the five best works of fiction from 2013 and I learned – to my surprise – that I’d read two of them: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.
It’s an interesting list: four of the five books are by women, and two would fit comfortably in science fiction or fantasy – at least, I assume the George Saunders collection Tenth of December includes some sf/f, since that’s what he usually writes (I’m sure his publisher denies it). Life After Life is certainly sf/f, though I imagine Atkinson’s publisher denies it, too.
In the past I have rarely been interested in the books crowned by the Times as the best of the year. However, I have put the Saunders collection on hold at the library (I’ve been intending to read more of his work) and am now reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
More and more these days I find myself reading books regardless of their genre label. This isn’t because I’ve finally grown up and stopped reading “juvenile” genres like science fiction and fantasy; rather, it’s because a lot of writers pegged as literary are now writing books that incorporate imagination and ideas. Which is to say that “serious” fiction has improved greatly since the late 1970s, when I gave it up and ran off to read science fiction.
However, neither of the two “top five” books that I have already read are among my favorites of the year. I just didn’t enjoy Life After Life, though I thought the device of ending one chapter with the main character’s death and opening the next with her having survived the crisis that caused her to die was very effective.
I was extremely disappointed by The Flamethrowers, which started so promisingly with a young woman riding a large motorcycle across the country and planning to participate in land speed trials as “land art” en route. At last, I thought, a book about a young woman artist from the 1970s that’s about her, not about her sexual relationship with an older mentor. Alas, the book turned out to be about her sexual relationship with an older mentor. Even when the main character – known only as “Reno” for her hometown – gets involved with Italian revolutionaries, she is still just a pawn in the world around her. I’ve read that story before, all too many times.
But this is supposed to be a post on the pleasures of reading, not the disappointments, and I did read some great books this year. At the top of my list: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves. Since I knew I was going to get the book the minute it came out – if Karen Joy Fowler composed copy for the back of cereal boxes I’d buy those even if hated the cereal – I did not bother to read reviews, which allowed me to be surprised where I was supposed to be surprised. I read a recent interview with Fowler in which she addressed the issue of whether or not she’s a science fiction writer by saying, “I don't know if I write science fiction or fantasy, but I'm writing for science fiction and fantasy readers.” Yep.
Nicola Griffith’s Hild is also one of my favorite books of the year. Like Fowler, Griffith does not confine herself to any one genre, though also like Fowler, I think her books will interest sf/f readers regardless of whether she is writing sf, thrillers, or – as with this one – historical fiction. This book pulled me into 7th Century Britain, making the dirt and menace of the times very real and yet allowing me to live fully in another world – one of the real pleasures I get out of fine sf/f. I can hardly wait for the sequel, because – in time-honored fashion – I want to know what happened next.
An sf favorite of mine from this year is Therese Pieczynski’s novelette “Strange Attraction,” which was published in a two-fer book called New Under the Sun along with Nancy Kress’s novella “Annabel Lee.” I should confess that I read this story while it was in progress and loved it even in the beginning when it still needed work. It incorporates a very imaginative take on physics with a core story of female friendship. This work not only passes the Bechdal Test, it upends it.
I was disturbed by Deb Taber’s Necessary Ill, which I think is the proper response to that book. Of course, I’m an sf/f reader: I like being disturbed by what I read.
I also liked Susan Nussbaum’s Good Kings Bad Kings, which tells the story of a nursing home for kids with disabilities from multiple points of view. This is a good example of how fiction can make a more compelling case for social change than factual reports. When you’re identifying with a character, it’s a lot harder to think you should relegate that person to a warehouse.
I have been making my way through Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January mystery series and have enjoyed the books a great deal. These books, set in New Orleans in the 1830s, are about a “free man of color” dealing in a world defined by slavery. January is something of a superhero – a gifted musician, a well-trained surgeon, and a large man with good fighting skills who speaks several languages and can change his mode of communication depending on who he is addressing – but that allows him to end up in a variety of adventures, giving the stories structure. Meanwhile, Hambly is telling us some of the real history of that period. As with Griffith’s Hild, I find myself enjoying spending time in this world while being grateful I don’t have to live in it.
Earlier this year I finished Tana French’s series of police procedurals set in modern Ireland: In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place, and Broken Harbor. These books will destroy any romantic notions you may cherish about Ireland, since most of them take place after the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger. Dublin, like most major cities, is unaffordable, and police work puts people in the path of the dark and ugly side of life.
On the non-fiction side, I liked Annalee Newitz’s Scatter, Adapt and Remember. I worry about climate change, but I tend to have faith in the ability of human beings to muddle through disasters, and I enjoyed this look at the possible ways we’ll do that muddling.
Jaron Lanier’s Who
Owns the Future? addresses the economic problems posed by the growth of
digital technology. Pointing out that the technology was designed for give and
take, he argues, among other things, that we should all be paid for that data
that corporations harvest from our online activities. Lanier is a digital tech
insider whose criticism of the field is not driven by Luddite thinking but
rather by an understanding of how it can and should work.
But my favorite non-fiction book of the year was Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing. I re-read it to prepare for a WisCon panel and found it as powerful as ever.
I seem to be reading a lot of fiction these days. That may be because I’m not watching much TV – nothing I’ve seen lately comes up to the standard of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and there are only so many times I can re-watch it – and am annoyed and bored by almost every movie I see (which isn’t many because the ones that aren’t bad adaptations of old TV or wowie-zowie special effects extravaganzas sound too depressing to see). I did like Fruitvale Station, which I saw in Oakland a few blocks away from where the real story happened. It was, of course, depressing.
Nancy Jane Moore’s latest novella is Ardent Forest, a retelling of As You Like It set in a post-apocalyptic Central Texas, available from Book View Café. In 2013 she had short stories in PS Publishing’s Memoryville Blues and five other anthologies.