Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009, A Year in Reading: Worst Books of the Year

As if my lack of enthusiasm for even the year's best books weren't bad enough, 2009 was also a year in which, unlike 2008, I was very much not stumped for choice when the time came to choose the year's worst reads.  Looking at this list, which contains two Hugo nominees and one of the most talked-about genre books of the fall, it's hard not to draw conclusions about at least some of the reasons for my reading malaise.  A lot of my reading this year was motivated by a desire to keep with the conversation and with SF fandom in general, and that has turned out to be a mistake.  I need to listen to my instincts.  The ability to trash the Hugo nominees from an informed position is surely not worth the heartache of such a lackluster year's reading.

As usual, these books are presented in ascending order of their stinkiness.
  • Saturn's Children by Charles Stross (review)

    This was one of the three books I read in preparation for my review of the Hugo-nominated novels.  I wasn't hopeful about this endeavor, but Saturn's Children, a parody of Heinlein's Friday in which a sexbot tries to find a reason for her existence after humanity's demise, still managed to sucker-punch me.  This is an unholy mess of a book, bloated well past the point of being even vaguely recognizable as a novel by a relentless litany of information that lacks even the elegance of a common infodump and drowns out its plot and characters.  Either an unfunny comedy or an absurd and unbelievable straight-faced story, Saturn's Children squats in the uncanny valley between these two modes, making for a punishing, seemingly interminable, and utterly inert reading experience.

  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (review)

    I expected to dislike Little Brother on the grounds of its well-publicized didacticism, but found to my surprise that it actually holds together as a work of fiction, and that though Doctorow lacks Neal Stephenson's skill of making infodumps interesting, he has at least made the ones in Little Brother easily skippable.  No, what makes Little Brother one of the worst books I've read this year is its appalling message.  The book's premise--teenager Marcus Yallow is imprisoned and tortured by Homeland Security for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and vows revenge--comes off like a self-satisfied, self-congratulatory fantasy of suffering in the name of a good cause, but it's Doctorow's choice to use that premise, and the very real abuses it riffs off, as the means of achieving the self-actualization of a privileged, middle class white kid that truly rankles, and it's Marcus's obvious prioritization of revenge on the people who have humiliated him over the well-being of the friend whom they still hold in custody that turns Little Brother into a morally bankrupt novel.  It is mind-boggling to me that anyone thinks this book has a valuable message for children.

  • The Magicians by Lev Grossman (review)

    It's interesting to note that the further we go down this list, the better written the books on it become.  On a technical level, The Magicians is quite readable, and in its first half even enjoyable.  I confess that had Grossman not leveraged the book's publication into a series of statements and essays about literature and genre that made him sound like a pompous ass, I might not have named The Magicians the year's very worst book.  But it still would have ended up on this list, on the strength of its complete and total lack of strength.  The Magicians is a novel that rests on the shoulders of giants and pretends to have climbed Everest.  Whether he's mimicking C.S. Lewis in his creation of a Narnia analogue with which the book's characters become obsessed (and leaving out that series's religious component, which is essentially to render it meaningless) or writing a Harry Potter pastiche when he describes the magical school at which they live (and ignores even the flawed and partial gestures towards social realism that peppered Rowling's novels) or following in the footsteps of authors like Susanna Clarke, China Miéville, and most of all M. John Harrison when he tries to imagine the meeting of the magical and the mundane (which he parlays into an excuse for his characters to feel sorry for themselves despite the fact that they are young, beautiful, powerful and rich) Grossman seems blissfully oblivious of how far short he's falling of the works he's chosen to emulate.  That obliviousness permeates the novel itself, which is so smugly satisfied with itself for positing a meeting between Harry Potter and the drugs-and-sex college experience that it fails to notice that nothing comes of that meeting.  The novel's cowardly ending, which sells out what little gravitas it had accumulated by introducing a consolatory escape hatch from reality, is the final twist of the knife that makes The Magicians a complete waste of the reader's time and energy.
Dishonorable Mentions:
  • Benighted by Kit Whitfield
  • Just After Sunset by Stephen King
  • The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

9 comments:

Ouranosaurus said...

I think you're being unduly harsh towards Little Brother. Marcus has plenty of reasons to be angry against Homeland Security on his own behalf, and on behalf of his society, to justify revenge. If he can't find his friend, should he take no action in the meantime?

Little Brother is one of Doctorow's blunter books (both Makers and Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town begin with clear lines and pure relationships, and end messily, in a good way) but it's villains are quite real. Frankly, the character of Marcus is far subtler and less of a jackass than most of the 15 and 16 year olds I went to school with.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

If he can't find his friend, should he take no action in the meantime?

No, he should take exactly the action he takes at the end of the novel, and which he defers throughout it for reasons that are entirely selfish - tell his friend's parents the truth and go to the press with his story.

the character of Marcus is far subtler and less of a jackass than most of the 15 and 16 year olds I went to school with

Yes, but how many of them were lauded as national heroes?

Gareth Rees said...

a parody of Heinlein's Friday

Can you say more about this? I can see that Stross makes many references to Friday (the protagonist, her name, being employed as a courier by a mysterious employer, the ending) but is it really a parody?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I confess, I haven't read Friday, and am relying on the reactions of other reviewers, but from what I know of its plot and those twists Saturn's Children makes on it - Freya's original design being a sexbot, the extinction of humanity - I do think parody was Stross's aim. Bear in mind, this is a novel that clearly thinks it's funny even if the end result is completely leaden.

Jakob said...

I tend to avoid Stross and Doctorow simply because of their blandness, so I guess that hasn't gotten any better.
However, I would really be interested to know what's so bad about "The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart" - I bought it because it looked kind of nice, but haven't read it yet.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I'm working on a review of The Brothers Grossbart, so look for that some time in the future. Honestly, it's a novel that I think people are either going to love or hate, and probably for the same reasons in both cases - its success depends on the reader's ability to connect to the characters and the novel's tone, and I really didn't. I'd be interested to hear a German's take on it, though. It's steeped in European history and folklore (to a certain extent it's immitating the latter, though not as strongly as the premise and design would have you believe) and I'm wondering whether the American Bullington has really gotten either.

Jakob said...

Thanks - sounds like I might give the book a try!

Martin Sommerfeld said...

After reading this I once more realize why I like blog entries of you slamming something more than the ones praising it. Well done. :-)
And: Those poor writers.

arilou-skiff said...

I always though the pointlessness of The Magicians was, kind of, the point. That these are horrible people who despite living in a world of wonders are just too self-absorbed to be happy about it. (a not-so-subtle hint to the privilegied of the world I suppose) I'd hardly call it a great, or even good, book, but I felt it's obvious malice towards the characters to be rather refreshing.

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