Best of 2009

by Henry Farrell on January 11, 2010

Two very different things that impressed me in 2009:

(1) The “Livescribe pen”: This really is the most brilliant gadget I’ve seen in years (nb that it has been around for a while – but I encountered it first late last year). None of its functions are extraordinary on their own – it’s a combination pen, scanner and voice recorder. But when you put them together, you get a technology that will genuinely transform your worklife if you regularly conduct qualitative interviews, attend lectures that you need to take notes on or whatever. You use yer Livescribe pen together to take notes on special paper that you can buy or print out with a colour laser printer – and then upload what you have written as a file to your computer. Once you’ve done this, you can then click on the relevant bit of your written notes – and hear what you were listening to when you took the notes. This is going to make keeping track of interesting interview material ever so much easier than it used to be.

Robert Charles Wilson, _Julian Comstock – A Story of 22nd Century America_ (Powells, Amazon. I’ve liked Robert Charles Wilson for many years – and I _will_ get around to writing my extended ‘why ‘Spin’ is the modern culmination of an important strain of science fiction’ essay one of these days. But “Julian Comstock” is an important departure for him. ‘Warm’ and ‘funny’ are words that I don’t usually apply to Wilson’s work, the best of which usually has a chilly Stapledonian austerity, a sense of gazing at human beings through a reducing glass. But they are words that apply to _Julian Comstock_, which is a kind of tragicomedy with (despite some nasty wars) more comedy than tragedy. Wilson gives us a 22nd century America ruled by a version of the religious right. But despite some cracks at the modern right (there is a very funny ‘they hate us for our values’ bit), it isn’t the jeremiad that you might expect from a left-of-center Canadian. Much of the fun comes from your gradual understanding of how neither the religious Dominion, nor the evolutionary science with which the eponymous Julian Comstock seeks to replace it, work exactly as you might expect.

DNA isn’t changeless. It struggles to remember itself but it never remembers itself perfectly. Remembering a fish it imagines a lizard. Remembering a horse, it imagines a hippopotamus. Remembering an ape, it imagines a man

The joke being, of course, that this isn’t Darwinist theory as such, but that it perfectly describes how human beings draw on cock-eyed versions of the past for their present political purposes – including, in the book, a skewed version of nineteenth century society and of Darwinist theory. Wilson’s brief description of the moving picture version of _The Life and Adventures of the Great Naturalist Charles Darwin_ – with songs! pirates! a villain! a beetle-collecting competition against the young Archbishop Wilberforce! – is utterly delightful and worth the price of the book on its own.

I probably have more ‘bests’ that I can throw into the comments section if warranted (although to my shame, my consumption of difficult long form fiction was negligible, due to two small children, lack of sleep and accompanying problems of concentration), but that’s probably enough to be going on with. So what did you all like?



bianca steele 01.12.10 at 1:39 am

I was more impressed with Wicked than I’d intended to be, though it isn’t new.


bianca steele 01.12.10 at 1:40 am

“intended” sb “expected”


JW Mason (lemuel pitkin) 01.12.10 at 1:52 am

‘Spin’ is the modern culmination of an important strain of science fiction

Yes, Spin was all that. Axis, on the other hand, is up there with Tehanu and Star Wars episode 1 on the list of genre sequels that seriously diminish the original work.


Russell Arben Fox 01.12.10 at 3:07 am

I only finally saw Wicked this year myself, Bianca, and I agree: I didn’t enjoy it completely, but I enjoyed a lot more than expected to.


Kenny Easwaran 01.12.10 at 3:30 am

I guess I saw Wicked a year and a half ago. I agree that the story and characters and such were interesting and memorable and it was a thought-provoking reinterpretation of the Wizard of Oz backstory – but the music just can’t support the story. Only two songs are the least bit memorable (I believe the last song in each act), and the rest of them seem to be there just to fill out the rest of the musical.

I’m not sure how it would have worked without the music though – would Wicked be a good non-musical film? (Just do the opposite of the adaptation of “The Producers” and so on.)


Donald A. Coffin 01.12.10 at 3:58 am

I suppose what impressed me most in my (fiction) reading were Charles Stross’s “merchant family” and “singularity” books. Mostly not written or published in 2009, but that’s when I found them. Stunning, stunning stuff.


Henry 01.12.10 at 4:23 am

JW Mason – I didn’t react quite as strongly, but I agree that Axis was much weaker, and I am not holding out enormous hopes for the third volume. Having a standard sfnal _explanation_ seems utterly redundant.

Donald – the sixth and final of the Merchant Princes books is memorably grim – not least, in my case, because my office gets nuked (I don’t think this is a spoiler for anyone who has read to the end of Book Five).


Timothy Scriven 01.12.10 at 4:33 am

“I’m not sure how it would have worked without the music though – would Wicked be a good non-musical film? (Just do the opposite of the adaptation of “The Producers” and so on.)”

It was originally a sucessful novel so I think it would do fine.


Tom T. 01.12.10 at 4:47 am

If you’re going to have a (1), shouldn’t you have a (2)?


Phil 01.12.10 at 9:03 am

In June I downloaded the late Tony Rose’s first four albums (all of which are now, sadly, unavailable). I’ve been playing them ever since (I’m on to the fourth one now) and have sung five of his arrangements in public. Perhaps Tony Rose hasn’t changed my life, but he’s certainly changed the way I think of “Blackwaterside”, which is no small thing.

(No links; those who want to will Google.)


JoB 01.12.10 at 9:21 am

2666 Bolano – the come-back of the magnum opus, the high point of late XXth century cultural pessimism. But I obviously just happened to read it in 2009 thanks to not working for 3 months.


Zamfir 01.12.10 at 12:36 pm

Tom T. 01.12.10 at 4:47 am

If you’re going to have a (1), shouldn’t you have a (2)?

No, not necessarily. A (2) however would imply the existence of a (1)


Ginger Yellow 01.12.10 at 12:44 pm

That LiveScribe sounds like it could be pretty useful for journos as well. Only problem: I lose about two pens a day, so I’m not sure dropping £100 on one of these would be a good uinvestment.


bianca steele 01.12.10 at 1:53 pm

@4, @5: To clarify, I meant the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire. The musical numbers from the show that I’ve heard make me think the play’s characters are probably more likeable than anyone in the book, if there are n0 other differences.


rm 01.12.10 at 4:47 pm

I didn’t know about the Livescribe, but in some universe where I am richer, I have it and love it. I thought something like this was coming when my kids, as toddlers, got the Leapfrog interactive books. It’s banal to say, but one more time I think, wow, literacy is really a different thing now. I think before too long, if industrial civilization survives, writing devices like this will be standard.


Doug 01.12.10 at 6:47 pm

The best fantasy that I read in 2009 was the Princess of Roumania series, of which only the last volume was published (in paperback) in 2009. Best SF, Brasyl by Ian McDonald. Best large Russian book, Tolstoy’s big one; best small Russian book Moscow to the End of the Line by Venedikt Erofeev. Best non-fiction, The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. Best surprises, The Final Reflection by John M. Ford and Bleachers by John Grisham. Most overrated, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Most off-putting but finished anyway, Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming.


roac 01.12.10 at 6:58 pm

I found myself increasingly put off by the Merchant Princes series and gave up before finishing the third volume. Trying to figure out why, I finally realized that the protagonist was similar in her omnicompetence to Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo, on whom I similarly quit.

(Henry’s comment makes it unlikely that I will give it another try, since to nuke his office is to nuke mine.)


Henry 01.12.10 at 7:03 pm

roac – this is actually a bit of a set-up on Stross’s part, I think. The protagonist is competent, but in the later volumes it becomes increasingly clear that her nice-but-annoying ‘a dose of American liberalism will see you all sorted nicely’ approach to life makes her woefully unsuited to understand the actual dynamics of the society that she finds herself in (she wises up eventually – but it is not a fun process).


Doug 01.12.10 at 7:28 pm

Hunh. I nearly quit in the first book of Merchant Princes for exactly the opposite reason. The whole plot gets started because of a journalist (in the late 20th century) losing the only extant copy of significant data. Even more implausible than the working multiverse of the stories. Four books later (I haven’t read the final installment), it still grates.


Henry 01.12.10 at 7:40 pm

And roac – who would you be that your office is so close to mine (feel free to communicate by email if needs be, and apologies if I _should_ know who you are).


roac 01.12.10 at 7:57 pm

I think my hangup is that if I found myself in her situation, I would . . . I don’t know what. Probably go see somebody at MIT, dump the package on his desk, change my name, move to the other side of the country, and drink nonstop until I killed enough brain cells to forget the whole thing. “Figure out a way to cash in while spreading enlightenment among the heathen” would not show up on my list of options. So there was a fundamental failure of empathy on my part — it was like reading about an extraterrestrial.

The Stross I like is the funny Stross. The Atrocity Archives cracked me up.


Martin 01.12.10 at 7:59 pm

JW Mason: Re Tehanu as diminishing earlier works in genre series–I think Tehanu, on the whole, is not very good and ultimately rather distasteful. However, I thought it was really cool how the first few pages effectively feministically dismissed one on the greatest modern fantasy series (the earlier Earthsea books) as just another example of macho posturing. In other words, the only good thing about Tehanu was the way it diminished the earlier works in the series.


roac 01.12.10 at 8:03 pm

#20: No, no. Geographically close (couple of blocks), not in the same line of work. Just a government lawyer. Looked you up in the faculty directory once and was struck by the proximity.


Phil 01.13.10 at 12:23 am

Martin – de gustibus, but I’d argue that the only good bits of Tehanu (and there were some) were the bits that weren’t dedicated to taking Earthsea apart brick by brick.


Dave Maier 01.13.10 at 12:25 am

I was impressed by the music (mostly but not nec. released in ’09) of Peter Wright, Chihei Hatekeyama, David Tagg, Mark McGuire/Emeralds, Akira Rabelais, Andrew Chalk, Fabio Orsi, Lähtö, Matt Shoemaker, Rafael Anton Irisarri, Entia Non, Eluder, Robert Davies, Adam Pacione, the glorious new Jon Hassell disc Last Night the Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street, and much else besides (good year that way).


rm 01.13.10 at 5:14 am

I have to agree that Tehanu isn’t that great, but it seems to me it was necessary for Le Guin to write it. She wrote somewhere that in the Earthsea books she challenged the whiteness and Northern European character of fantasy, and deliberately chose not to deal with gender issues too at that time. Seems like she regretted the choice. The trilogy of Gifts, Voices, and Powers is much, much better. Very impressive, feminist, as good at mythology as Earthsea, and very classical, like fantasy where the buildings have Roman architecture.

The one thing that sticks with me from Tehanu is my least favorite part, where the dead souls are released from the underworld to dissolve. It’s pretty much exactly the harrowing-of-hell scene in the last book of Pullman’s Dark Materials series. The mythology loses its internal logic because the author wants to do something new with it, but since the change doesn’t arise from the fictional world, it just comes across as authorial intervention to make a point. I am strongly annoyed by the preachiness of atheists who imagine they aren’t being preachy just because they are atheists. That also happens at the end of Terry Pratchett’s Nation, which was delightful in many other ways.


rm 01.13.10 at 5:19 am

Wait, I think I’m confusing Tehanu (1990, but I read it in the last year or so) with The Other Wind (2001, bIriitlyos). In my defense, I think some of you were too. T was not so bad, in my opinion. Making Sparrowhawk live without magic was interesting. In the short stories and the very last novel that are more recent, that’s where Le Guin really retcons her universe, and I think that’s what we are complaining about.


JW Mason (lemuel pitkin) 01.13.10 at 7:47 am

Here’s the thing about Axis: Wilson has written a bunch of novels with the formula (1) something bizarre happens in a basically normal world, (2) people react in various ways — go nuts, look for personal advantage, etc. (this part is where Wilson really shines) and then (3) the bizarre thing is revealed to be basically a benevolent deity.

I probably prefer Wilson to any one else writing science fiction right now. I especially appreciate the fact that acts of violence in his books are invariably a sign of moral failure — with some minor exceptions, none of his protagonists ever uses a weapon. But it has the same problem as in so much of sf — a genre that’s supposed to be about imagination and alternate worlds ends up so resolutely conventional. In almost all Wilsons’s recent books — Bios; Blind Lake; Darwinia — the aliens don’t end up being alien at all, they’re our long-lost parent who just wants what’s best for everyone. What sets Spin apart is he had the courage of his initial vision and didn’t shy away from asking how people would behave in a world governed by genuinely unknowable beings that don’t care about us at all.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that in Axis he chickened out and decided that no, the aliens are just here to give us (at least the elect) eternal life after all. That’s why, even tho it’s a pretty good book on its own, I resent it: It negates what was so great about Spin.


Mrs Tilton 01.13.10 at 7:12 pm

1) Rediscovering Donostia-San Sebastian (and especially its cuisine) after 27 years’ absence.

2) Blindsight by Peter Watts. As in Henry’s parenthetical re: the Livescribe pen, this isn’t so much a 2009 thing as a thing I experienced in 2009. When I finished this novel, I asked it, “So where have you been all my life?” (And I don’t even much like sci-fi!) Blindsight is (among other things) an extended metaphor for evolution; a wonderfully therapeutic metaphor for those who keep getting tripped up by the more traditional evolutionary metaphor of intentionality (selfish or otherwise). Watts’s aliens are, far more than any others I have ever encountered in literature or film, alien. And yet they are, in important ways, much less strange than we are.


4jkb4ia 01.13.10 at 8:59 pm

rm is correct. “The Other Wind” and “Tales From Earthsea” is really where the underlying Earthsea mythology is deconstructed. I believe that the Le Guin view of the world of the dead came before Philip Pullman took thought to scribbling.


4jkb4ia 01.13.10 at 9:06 pm

I was happy to read “Tehanu” as a feminist book when it came out. “Tehanu” explicitly raises the issue of what a woman’s power is in general, and it explores what a woman’s power is once the formal world of magic has been closed to her, which Le Guin was not willing to do before this. But since we have all this through Tenar’s POV and Tenar has every right to be skeptical about elaborate formal magical power structures, “Tales From Earthsea” is much more destructive to the setup of the first three books.

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