Actually that sounds entirely wrong now I think about it.
Anyway, it’s that season when we look back on the year with a sense of vague unease and disappointment and then Tezcatlipoca buries us under a mound of flaming jaguars (1).
So: enough of me, but I thought it was would be worth looking at some other books that have struck me this year. Feel free to suggest your own.
Five Remarkable Reads of 2012 (in no particular order)
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett.
Chris is a just starting to become one of the SF authors that everyone is talking about. His other work (Another novel, The Holy Machine, a collection of shorts, The Turing Test, and another collection due out from Newcon shortly) is well worth a look, but Dark Eden was the book I read this year that most affected me, and on two quite separate levels. It’s a good old SF book, set on a vividly imagined sunless alien world with an ecosystem derived from geothermal energy (the implications of which are thought through meticulously) and at the same time it’s a story about the development, for better but mostly for worse, of human societies. Both sides of the equation are profound and thought-provoking.
Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo shot to fame with The Windup Girl, which would be on this list had I read it this year. He writes about bitter near-future dystopias, often with an emphasis on environmental catastrophe, and recently his target audience has shifted to the “young adult” end of the market, possibly because they’re going to be closer to ground zero when all this horribly plausible stuff hits. Drowned Cities is a semi-sequel to his earlier Ship Breakers but treads far darker paths: it’s set in the US after flooding and disaster have turned a large area of the States into a humanitarian crisis zone now effectively controlled by feuding militias who rape, murder and pillage at will, and forcibly recruit child soldiers to swell their ranks. It is a bleak, vicious and utterly convincing story.
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie
I came late to this, and heard a great deal of hype about it from a number of sources – not least the “Fantasy Clarkes” panel at Eastercon this year. This was a rare case of the book matching the hype, though. Joe writes some of the most proficient heroic fantasy out there, and his First Law series is justly feted, but The Heroes is a genuinely exceptional novel, the story of a war seen from every level from generals down to foot soldiers, over causes none of the actual protagonists much understands or cares about, and with neither side set up as right or wrong. The characterisation is second to none, the fights brutal and chaotic, bathetic and tragic in equal measure. It is a book about war that is at the same time as far from glorifying the topic (as fantasy is sometimes apt to do) as you can get.
Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge
I’ve been a fan of Frances’s work since I read her first novel, Fly-by-Night (also, in the interests of full disclosure, I am a friend of hers, but that shouldn’t taint the excellence of her writing). Again, a book written for the young adult market – but it’s remarkable to note how much of the truly original fantasy is under that banner these days. Frances is one of a relatively short list of writers of whose sheer prose I am maddeningly envious. She has the same kind of joy with words as Mervyn Peake shows in Gormenghast, and she uses it to produce some truly unique characters and settings. Face Like Glass is perhaps her best yet (and her Twilight Robbery was up against Joe’s Heroes in the aforementioned Fantasy Clarkes), the story of a weird subterranean world of people without spontaneous expression, into whose intrigue-laden and Byzantine halls is dropped a girl with the titular face like glass, because her every thought shows on it. It’s funny, and it’s heart-rending, and it’s exceedingly clever.
Last and First Contacts by Stephen Baxter
This is an anthology of short stories in Newcon Press’s Imaginings series, all of which have been exceptional collections, but Baxter’s in particular struck me. Mostly it struck me with a terrible realization of how fragile everything is – not just life or even Earth, but the universe entire, which Baxter does away with in a variety of ways. Because the man very much knows his stuff, the collection demonstrates why SF can be scarier than anything that actually intends to jump out at you from behind a hedge. It’s not the scare of what might happen to you in the dark alley or the shadowy old house, but the utter bleakness of the inevitable, heedless end that will come for all space and time, whether heat death or dissipation. So, you know, not jolly, so to speak.
(1) The whole “Mayan Apocalypse”, whilst a sterling example of how people are always far more motivated to build castles in the air when those castles are on fire, is the sort of ludicrous nonsense that should have died a death with Atlantis, Chariots of the Gods and [insert your own political or celebrity joke here]. I’m currently holding a sweekstake for the new doomsday date that this crowd will pick come morning 22nd December, whilst the Mayans and I look on with disbelief (2).
(2) It’s a safe bet. If the world does end, it’s not as if anyone gets to say “I told you so.