"A book is a vehicle to another world. I love those that can transport me, that can immerse me in some combination of dark and absurd, gritty and fantastical, insightful and mind-bending. But I also prize the economical use of language and the purity of a clean sentence. I firmly believe that a good thought is ruined by poor prose."
This is the best fantasy/sci-fi story ever published. Wolfe likes to set stereotypes and tropes on their head, and he writes a complex and densely layered story about a torturer’s apprentice in a beautiful, dying Earth. But as complicated and fantastical as the story gets, Wolfe doesn’t bother explaining anything. Was that guy a robot? Is that lady his sister? What’s up with that giant anyway? Part of the beauty of Wolfe’s writing is that he doesn’t make up words for his fantasy world. Instead, he uses antiquated terminology that approximates what he’s trying to describe, giving his world a very real sense of age and familiarity.
Howley’s mixed martial masterpiece expose is one of the best overlooked books of 2014. The narrator, Kit, is a strange non-existent entity, and one of the most sublime commentators on the sport phenomenon. Through Kit, Howley succeeds in satirizing and skewering not only a spectator culture that glorifies violence, nor the driven men who willingly throw themselves into such a brutal meat-grinder, but the entire consumer society that feeds off such willing sacrifices. Kit is a Nabokovian narrator, unreliable and pompous, lying to herself even more than to you, justifying her blood-thirst with the guise of philosophical inquiry. And yet, this book isn’t critiquing from afar. Howley got her hands dirty, spending more than 2 years following around two actual fighters -- one an early thirties perpetual loser, the other a young, promising up-and-comer -- space-taking, as the narrator calls it. If you’re interested you can look these two fighters up on the Youtube. Even if you don’t, pick this up and read a masterful and subtle book.
I discovered this book by pure happenstance a couple of years ago and it rocketed to the top of my all-time-favorites-must-read-no-seriously-put-down-whatever-else-you’re-reading-and-read-this list. The layers of this tale of lucky Orm, the red-haired Viking, surprise me every time I read this book. On the surface, it reads like a history book, a little dry, eschewing dialogue in favor of summary. But then you realize that this is very much a men-gone-adventuring yarn and damn good, bloody fun: Viking raids and feasting brawls; berserks and thanes and kings and jarls. But then the droll wit comes through, the commentary on art and power, on wooing and religion, on the very nature of human beings, human beings who may have lived hundreds of years ago but really aren’t so very different from us now. It’s one of the few that I can pick up, open to any random page, and immediately find myself grinning.
Reading Borges’ stories makes me feel like a newborn discovering the world for the first time. The Argentine great packs more ideas into a couple of pages than most authors will have in the entirety of their works. He plays with mythology and memory, with perception and time and identity and the very nature of the universe, and reading one of his stories is like stepping into the labyrinths of his mind.
Speaking of the dying Earth… In the 1950’s, Jack Vance wrote a series of stories set in a very, very far future, when the dying sun’s last rays illuminate a doomed but still very much populated world. Technology has once again entered the realm of magic, and charlatan wizards horde whatever relics of power they can get their hands on. Survival is about cut-throat resourcefulness, callous opportunism, and pure luck. Yet somehow, in such a desolate setting, Vance has managed to create a story that affords an almost fairy-tale like pleasure. Cugel, the hero of The Eyes of the Overwold (Book 2) and the eponymous Cugel’s Saga (Book 3) is a scoundrel and a rogue, and you can’t help but root for him.
Published posthumously after Bolano’s untimely death in 2003, 2666 is an event more than a book. Centered on the city of Santa Teresa (in the real world, Ciudad Juarez) and the ongoing murders, this book is brutal, mesmerizing, beautiful, and unfinished. It’s a heady combination, and the abrupt end will leave you with a bittersweet vacancy in your heart, wanting more, but pleased too with what you’ve been given. I think Bolano himself summed it up perfectly through the musings of one his characters, a mentally unstable philosophy professor named Amalfitano: “Now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” 2666 is a great, imperfect, torrential work.
A typical hotel murder mystery (a detective trying to take a long-overdue vacation; a grabbag of odd guests; a remote resort easily cut off from the outside world) in the hands of the Strugatsky brothers quickly becomes the launching point for an entire host of different genre standards: ghosts, aliens, robots, magicians, gangsters, a doomsday device, a preternaturally sentient dog, and a creepy physicist serve as an incomplete list. What might easily become mired in its own ambitiousness is, however, for the Soviet-era duo a perfect vehicle for the sort of cutting social commentary that usually get their works censored. Good thing no one takes sci-fi seriously!
When the aliens finally come knocking, they do so not as desperate refugees, lost E.T.’s, or even marauding world-destroyers, but as intelligent, advanced beings who find Earth primitive but beautiful, and see humans as backwards, self-destructive, savages. In fact, we have practically nothing to offer to the various races who are stronger, smarter, more beautiful, or simply far, far, wealthier. Nothing except ourselves. Earth is a prime tourist destination, and the concept of “sex sells” is unsurprisingly a universal concept. Kept in strict quarantine, humans turn to widespread prostitution as our only commodity: sexual, of course, but also artistic, cultural, and even putting our minds up for sale so that alien tourists unable to survive in Earth’s ecosystem, or who simply want the full human “immersion” experience, can take our bodies for a spin.
Yoss, a Cuban metal rocker, imagines a grim future, but writes with a fittingly energetic, imaginative, brashness. His stories are somehow wild and fun, even as hope is repeatedly shown to be a fool’s errand.
Science fiction is a genre where all too often the expectations of social commentary either fall short of being insightful or profound, or where instead the moral burden is completely eschewed in favor of pure escapism. How welcome then this classic gem, which, through the story of a space crew trying to make it home, crystallizes the societal pressures of life in Communist Cuba. From the enshrined ideals of a selfless, socialist culture to the shortcomings of those same notions in the all-too-grim reality of their practice, this book is packed with commentary, and yet it avoids being preachy or pontificating. de Rojas starts with a bang and he never lets up. This a story of survival, a race against time, and a weighing of individual desires against collective good.
As much an exploration of themes as it a science-fiction heist romp, DSDS surprised me repeatedly. First, it’s gorgeously written, with a cinematic quality that calls to mind 60s Parisian noir films like Le Samourai. Second, it’s wildly imaginative. Inception, the inevitable comparison, quite simply has nothing on the oneiric world of the dream-diver, David: its “reality” is slippery, apt to change without warning, indistinct but for the details immediately focused on, and influenced strongly and wildly by errant thoughts. To top all this off, beyond being a mere thriller, Brussolo holds a lens up to the value of art, the real vs. the ideal, the loneliness of existence, and happiness as an end to justify any means.
This unusual Parisian noir is gritty and relentless, but what makes Eyes Full of Empty stand out is the protagonist, Idir, an amateur private eye tasked with finding the missing son of a media mogul. Idir is a constant outsider. As the son of an immigrant he’ll never be French enough for his friends, never Algerian enough for his parents. For the elite, he’s a tie to the criminal underworld, but on the streets he’s lowest on the totem pole. He inhabits a liminal zone, cruising through the levels Parisian society with the ease of someone who, because he doesn’t fit anywhere, is free to go everywhere. And go everywhere he will in his relentless pursuit of the truth, because Idir has something to prove, if to himself above all: that he has a place in this world, a place that won't be dictated by anyone else.
As a vehicle for a slowly unfolding, creeping sense of horror, Rombes’ choice of a multi-day interview of an eccentric film critic recalling a series of underground films he destroyed because they depicted too brazenly ‘the undiluted truth’ as conducted by an unreliable narrator may seem...counter-intuitive. With each level of removal from the too-horrific films, the distance is increased, and thus, one would think, their potency diminished, but it’s a testament to Rombes’ writing that just the opposite is true. The films, a visual art, lose none of their power through description, and as the book unfolds, one has the sense of being caught in a nightmare. The story is a metaphysical layered cake, and all the ingredients are dark and unsettling. Yet, though the unease grows viscerally, there is little outright horror to this book. The supernatural elements are implied, hinted at, seen only peripherally before disappearing when confronted head on, but the sense lingers that something was there, something that persists still.
If a book is a product of its times, this one is a brave, hopeful cry from the heart. Written in the years before the rise of the Nazi party, it’s a portrait of a side of Berlin that author Ernst Haffner would have been well-acquainted with as a journalist and social worker. Its characters are orphans and vagrants, young men ostracized by society and trapped in the bureaucratic apparati of correctional institutions and youth homes. Freedom and family for these boys lie in street gangs and together they search daily for shelter and food, or failing that, at least cigarettes and schnapps.
Throughout this story of life on the fringe is a strong note of compassion, and a sense of optimism, oddly enough, underlines this depiction of misery and squalor. In a society increasingly intent on sweeping its social ills out of sight and mind, Haffner calls direct attention to those living beneath “normal” citizens’ feet, literally hiding under the train carriages, sleeping in warehouses and brothels, barely scraping by day to day. It is society itself that is to to blame for the Blood Brothers, trapping them in an endless, inescapable cycle. Of course there are villains, even among the Brothers, but Haffner seems intent on showing that people, given the chance, are inherently good. They watch out for each other, give selflessly of themselves, are willing to work for a place in a society that rewards their efforts.
Maybe it’s this hope, this willingness -- in the face of a growing movement towards racial homogeneity -- to believe that we’re not all that different from one another, that doomed him. Blood Brothers was banned by the Nazis in 1933 and Haffner himself disappeared without a trace in the 40s.