2016: A Book Odyssey

Okay, so I posted a while ago that I had only read eleven books this year. I was so disappointed with myself. Well, after playing around with Goodreads, entering books for days, I realized that was a bit of an understatement. At this point I’ve managed to crank that number up to fifteen novels, plus a year’s worth of Analog magazines, which means something like a hundred pieces of short fiction. Damn, do I love Analog.
It turned out I didn’t do as badly as I thought. I certainly didn’t beat my personal record of books read in a year, but I didn’t actually do that bad. On top of that, the books I read this year were huge. Huge books with huge ideas. That is totally my jam.

Snuff  – Chuck Palahniuk

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon

Redshirts – John Scalzi

Old Man’s War – John Scalzi

Atrocity Archives – Charles Stross

Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

Caliban’s War – James S.A. Corey

Abaddon’s Gate – James S.A. Corey

The Reality Dysfunction: Night’s Dawn Trilogy, Book 1 – Peter F. Hamilton

Poseidon’s Wake – Alastair Reynolds

Buffering  – Hannah Hart

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly – Anthony Bourdain

Analog Magazine (x10)

The Three Body Problem – Cixin Liu

The Dark Forest – Cixin Liu

Death’s End – Cixin Liu

I already posted my thoughts on The Three Body Problem books, so I don’t think I need to say too much more about them (though I can, and will, talk for hours about these masterpieces). For the sake of completeness, though, I will say that Death’s End, the final book in the trilogy, managed to cram more big ideas into a book than I have ever seen. The speed of light in a vacuum is a constant, right? The universe we interact with has three spacial dimensions, right? Time only moves along one axis, right? Well, sure, it does. Now. But what if someone else has already been messing around with physics? If we can change the climate of our single, tiny planet in only a few hundred years, what can we expect from a universe teeming with life that’s been churning for thirteen billion years?

I also read a couple of John Scalzi books this year. The most obvious one to talk about would be the newer (and award winning) Redshirts. While Redshirts was an incredible deconstruction of the science fiction genre and a thoughtful analysis of Star Trek, I am also a big fan of more serious military science fiction. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (not the Verhoeven abomination) and Haldeman’s The Forever War are some of my favourites in that diverse and bizarre genre that is war in space. Old Man’s War felt like an earnest and well conceived update of those classics. The premise is simple: citizens of Earth can sign up for interstellar military service on their sixtieth birthday. They then have ten years to back out if they change their mind. On their seventieth birthday all they have to do is walk into any recruitment office and they will be inducted. Everyone has their own theory on what miraculous life extension technology might make these septuagenarians into useful soldiers. Everyone is wrong. I had my theories. My original speculation was wrong, but there are enough hints dropped that I wasn’t completely blindsided by what happened next. Suffice it to say, the other ninety percent of the book is even more amazing.

The last book I want to talk about is quite different from my usual fare. Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain, is extremely interesting as someone who loves to cook, but has very little contact with the restaurant industry. The anecdotes are as bawdy and crude as you would expect, the techniques and recipes as pretentious. If I hadn’t watched Bourdain’s television shows No Reservations and Parts Unknown, I would never have believed any human being spoke or wrote like this. But he really does, and I would swear this whole book must have simply been dictated in one continuous monologue. The linguistic and culinary flourishes are ubiquitous, but the insight is simple and human. Hire good, hard working people. Train them well. Maintain high standards. You may still fail, but you will have made a noble effort, and next time you may go further. Bourdain’s love for the hard working immigrants to America is unabashed. Watching Mexican or Dominican or Ecuadorian dish washers become chefs, earn their citizenship, start a business, own a home is clearly something he takes tremendous pride in. In the truest sense, Bourdain works to forward the so-called ‘American Dream’ on a day to day basis. It is inspiring. But he doesn’t want that praise, he wants to remind you again and again that he’s just some guy who used to be a coked out lunatic, high on his own ambition and whatever he could get his hands on. It’s a really good book.

A lot of shitty things have happened in 2016. Enough people have blamed the calendar year for the terrible events, and I don’t feel like adding myself to that list. People continue to be the problem, not the particular year. For me, though, 2016 has been a good year for reading and a great year for my own writing. I may not have read as many books as I would like to, but the books I did read were pretty great. Of the books listed above, I only disliked one, The Reality Dysfunction, and even it had a ton of interesting ideas that could potentially make sequels worth reading. That’s a pretty good year, in my opinion. So bring it on 2017, I’m ready.