John Scalzi reminds me that there are only 10 days left before Hugo nominations close. Three recommendations (one the subject of a recent CT seminar; another the subject of a forthcoming one), and more about other 2012 f/sf books that I liked below the fold. People should obviously feel free to add other recommendations in comments.
Karin Tidbeck, Jagannath (Powells, Amazon). A lovely and original collection of stories by a Swedish author, most published for the first time in English. It’s hard to pick an individual story, but “Brita’s Holiday Village” is as good as any and available online. Tidbeck writes in the afterword about the profound influence of H.P. Lovecraft. However, the affect of her work is very different. Her stories are not motivated by self-loathing or disgust with the human race, but by a kind of wary affection. The monsters in her stories are our faintly embarrassing relations, and acknowledged as such.
Felix Gilman, The Rise of Ransom City (Powells, Amazon). Up for discussion soon at Crooked Timber, along with its sort-of-prequel, The Half-Made World. Like its predecessor, it’s an oblique take on the American Dream, albeit a different version of it – one which perhaps owes less to the mythologies of the West than to Mark Twain, and perhaps O.Henry’s Jeff Peters stories. It’s funny and self-aware in a way that few f/sf books are (another excellent example is Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock).
Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty (Powells, Amazon). All you could want to know here, and, arguably one of the best science fiction novels written in the last several decades. I say ‘arguably’ only because one might claim that it isn’t, and shouldn’t count as part of the genre. The underlying question is whether you think about science fiction as a genre consisting of books about the future, or as a particular method of fictional inquiry. If the former, it plausibly should not be included (although the fact that it is haunted by science fiction, as both Gilman and Holbo suggested in their essays for our seminar, explains some of its power). If the latter, it should be, and should indeed be taken as a model for how you do ambitious sociological science fiction, while retaining an interest in individual human beings.
Other books I (1) liked, (2) found interesting (I read much too much mind-candy to even begin to list it) and (3) haven’t mentioned before at CT:
Kij Johnson, At the Mouth of the River of Bees ( Amazon). I liked it quite a bit, but not as much as many other readers (many critics cited it as the standout collection of the year). Some of the stories seemed slight (e.g. the title story, which has a lovely metaphor, which was spoiled for me by the sentimental ending); the two pieces that I thought were genuinely exceptional were the most awkward and uncomfortable ones (‘Story Kit’ and ‘Spar’). I liked the first of these in particular – a metafictional account of the relationship between writing fantasy and a love-affair gone sour (a kind of short story version of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’, but much less self-important).
M. John Harrison, Empty Space: A Haunting ( Powells, Amazon). The third (and, I think, final) book in Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract sequence. Two of Harrison’s books, his ambiguously fantastic The Course of the Heart and his ambiguously realist Climbers are core texts for me. I’ve never warmed as much to his more recent books, although they’ve been more successful (the chair of this year’s Booker panel has been talking up Empty Space as one of the best books of last year. The parts of this book set in something roughly resembling the present day, focusing on Anna Kearney are wonderful, and imo the best thing he’s ever done – the skill with which he depicts the contrast between an aging woman’s rich interior life and how she is perceived by a world towards which she deploys vagueness as a defence is extraordinary. The parts which are more science fictional I didn’t find nearly as interesting, although given the general reaction this is likely a product of my personal idiosyncrasies.
Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (Powells, Amazon). Classic Robinson. A beautifully described utopia (based on Spuffordized quantum minds), literary grace notes (not the least utopian and delightful aspect of his future is that John Crowley is so well known that people refer to him by his last name only, like Dickens), and sympathetic characters. The plot is less a driving force for the narrative than an excuse for a travelogue of Robinson’s imagined solar system, but the travelogue is wonderful.
Ysabeau Wilce, Flora’s Fury (Powells, Amazon) (but you should probably start with Flora Segunda (Powells, Amazon). A book of the class usually described as ‘Young Adult,’ set in a skewed and fantasticated California, the third in a series that shows no immediate sign of ending. What I like about these books is that in addition to being enormous fun, they become increasingly sophisticated and complicated as the heroine grows up. Characters that seem cliches at the beginning become more complicated and ambiguous. People on the side of ‘good’ turn out to have nasty motives.
Madeleine Robins, The Sleeping Partner ( Powells, Amazon). A detective novel, whose main character is a Fallen Woman in an ever-so-slightly-skewed version of Regency London. Sharply intelligent and beautifully written. It isn’t quite as good as the first two novels in the series, Petty Treason (Powells, Amazon) and Point of Honor, but those two are among the best popular novels of the last last several years; Robins’ ear for language is wonderful. These books haven’t gotten nearly as much attention as they deserve – when Robins began writing them, they fell between several genres (crime, alternative history, a very carefully measured out soupcon of romance), and are too spiky and discomforting to fit easily into the genre of urban fantasy that has emerged in the meantime. Their feminism is served straight.
So those are the ones I liked – feel free to disagree, or to talk about what you liked instead in comments.