I'm not sure if it's related, but this has also been one of the most up-to-date reading years in my life. Nearly half the books I read in 2018 were published this year, and another third in 2017. This didn't use to be the case for me, but as ebooks have made immediate access to a book a reality for me, and as my writing projects--my New Scientist column last year, my Political History of the Future series this year--have made staying current more of a priority, I've found myself reading more and more recent books. That's not always a bad thing--I read quite deeply into this year's Booker longlist, for example, and found the experience extremely (and unexpectedly) rewarding. But I wonder if I'd have more satisfying results overall if I made reading more widely a priority in 2019.
Nevertheless, there are always great reads to report, and this year was no exception. Here are my selections, in alphabetical order.
- Milkman by Anna Burns
Burns's novel, about a young girl trying to avoid the unwanted attentions of a paramilitary leader at the height of the Troubles, sounds like a garden variety "issue" novel. In reality, it's a perfect illustration of the adage that a work of art is always about the "how" of it, far more than the "what". Through a stream-of-consciousness style that swoops from past to present and delves into the most minute detail of the disputes and tensions that rule the heroine's violent, repressive, conformist neighborhood, Burns decisively makes the point that these two things--the Troubles and the paramilitary groups behind them; and the sexual commodification and abuse of women--are rooted in the same evil. In a landscape that too often treats the problems of women as ancillary to politics as a whole, Milkman is an essential counterpoint.
- Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
I took a while to get to Franklin's 2016 biography of Jackson, and now I regret every moment I lived without reading it. Organizing Jackson's life according to the houses she lived in and the books she wrote in each one, Franklin offers not just insight into this perennially overlooked author, but a compelling argument that her fiction was always about the tension between wanting a home, and fearing the power that the community can have over an individual. Her descriptions of the dysfunctional, fraught marriage between Jackson and Stanley Hyman are extremely effective outrage fodder for everyone who knew Hyman was an ass but had no idea just how much. But most importantly, the image she paints of Jackson herself--brilliant, warm, prickly, and self-doubting--is at once familiar and revelatory. A must for any Jackson fan.
- When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
A memoir so lightly disguised as a novel that you might easily miss it. A book-length prose poem. An exhilarating act of literary vengeance. Kandasamy's first-person narrative of an abusive marriage is read almost in a single breath, at turns heartbreaking, horrifying, and hilarious. It creates a template for writing about abuse that should be memorized and taken in by anyone hoping to approach the topic. By centering the victim, refusing the perpetrator's repeated attempts to make her ordeal into his own story, and ridiculing him without ignoring the profound danger he--and the system designed to enable and excuse him--pose to the heroine, Kandasamy allows us to see the techniques used to bring power to bear against women, without ever depriving those women of their full humanity.
- Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim
Lim is far from the first writer to try to plumb the political weight of the superhero stories, but after him, I wonder if there's any point in anyone else trying it. Not that Dear Cyborgs is about superheroes, exactly. Rather, it's about the pop culture landscape from which superheroes and other heroic, comic-book narratives emerge, and the tension between stories about saving the world, and a the capitalist system that churns them out and makes money off them. More broadly, Dear Cyborgs is about the meaning of art, protest, and political action in a world that tries to co-opt and monetize all of these things. All of which is to make the book sound cerebral and dry, when really it's one of the most thrilling, enjoyable reading experiences I've had in ages, a furiously intelligent, funny, angry novel that leaves you feeling both energized and thoughtful.
- The Overstory by Richard Powers
Despite a turn towards the genre late in the book, The Overstory isn't strictly a work of science fiction. But it feels profoundly SFnal, in its determination to describe an alien world that just happens to exist alongside our own, and an alien lifeform that just happens to be so common that we walk past it every day, giving it barely a thought. In his argument that trees are our equal partners on this planet, that they engage in the same life-cycle as us, only slower, and that they have the same right to survive and thrive, Powers engages in an act of worldbuilding that makes us see the world in a different way. He also offers a vision for a better future that, while obviously fantastic, feels worth working towards. (For more of my thoughts on the book, see this write-up at Lawyers, Guns & Money.)
- Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories by Vandana Singh
I liked Singh's second short story collection a great deal when I read it early in the year, but it's only grown on me since. It's yet another great argument for the short story being science fiction's most vibrant form, and yet another example of how story collections can be some of the most essential work in the genre. Singh naturally draws a lot on Indian mythology and folklore in her stories, marrying them to modern and futuristic settings. But the collection is much more about the anxiety of the Global South as it faces the lingering after-effects of colonization, and the increasingly destructive effects of climate change. As such, it feels entirely modern--of a piece with Singh's essential 2017 essay, "On the Unthinkability of Climate Change". That unthinkability is nowhere to be found in these stories, which face up to problems both old and new with remarkable clarity and originality.
- The Breath of the Sun by Isaac R. Fellman - A secondary world fantasy about mountain climbing and religion that is like no other book I've read in years. Pushes brilliantly against the boundaries of what the genre is capable of, and sets the bar for authors to follow.
- Everything Under by Daisy Johnson - What initially seems like a common tale of family dysfunction grows increasingly weirder by the page, incorporating mythology, magic, and supernatural menace without losing its grounding in the mundane.
- An American Marriage by Tayari Jones - A romantic melodrama whose inciting crisis is the American justice system's brutality towards black people, this book effortlessly combines the personal and the political into a tangled knot that its characters, for all their best intentions, struggle to untie.
- Iain M. Banks by Paul Kincaid - Essential for any fan of Banks. Kincaid offers both an overview of Banks's life and an analysis of his writing, and goes further than most SF-focused critics of his work by examining his literary fiction, and making an argument that both oeuvres were rooted in similar concerns.