I read 42 novels this year – not so bad, given that I now get through books at roughly half the speed I did when I was a student, and that two of those novels (Richard House’s The Kills and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries) were each around the 1,000pp mark. I still find myself vaguely dissatisfied though, not at the quantity but the quality. Looking down that list, I can’t help feeling – as I do most years, actually – that the books I picked out to read were mainly the wrong stuff. There’s no cohesion to my choices, no structure, no theme. It’s more of a random scattering, with a few stunning hits (the Catton and the House, both masterpieces, Nicholas Royle’s beautifully conciseFirst Novel, Helen Marshall’s deliciously accomplished debut collection Hair Side, Flesh Side, Caitlin R. Kiernan’s sublime The Drowning Girl, also a masterpiece) but with a far larger number of so-whats and not-quite-theres.
One of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life was the six months I spent immersed in the work of Vladimir Nabokov in preparation for writing my postgraduate thesis. I started by reading his complete fiction – twice – and, once I’d done that, I went on to assimilate the majority of the critical commentary that was then (1989) available on it. I found this period of intensive concentration on one writer profoundly fulfilling, not just because Nabokov is arguably the most achieved writer – certainly the most achieved stylist – of the 20th century, but equally because I gained a sense that I knew this writer’s work, properly and completely, in a way that allowed me a genuine insight into the story arc, if you like, of Nabokov’s career.
I was reminded of just how great this feels when I had a Roberto Bolano binge a couple of years ago, reading 2666, The Savage Detectives, Last Evenings on Earth, Amulet, Nazi Literature of the Americas and Distant Star all within a period of a few months. What you get when you undertake a project like that is a sense of being grounded and propelled at the same time, the feeling of constructing an edifice against which you might pit yourself.
That’s what I’ve been missing this year, and that’s what I know I need more of. I’m making an early New Year’s resolution to read in a more considered way next year, to fill in some gaps in my back catalogue, as it were (Lanark, Dhalgren), to read fewer writers, but in greater depth.
I know I’ll benefit from this, and that my writing will, too.
It’s been another weird year for SFF. There have been some highly promising debuts (Matt Hill’s The Folded Man, for example, really won my heart with its honesty and vigour, its flawlessly evoked sense of place) and new works from younger writers (James Smythe’s The Machine is a fine piece of work and solidly confirms Smythe’s status as a writer to watch) but aside from Chris Priest’s The Adjacent, where are the big beasts? As Adam Roberts notes in his insightful and fascinatingly interrogative review for Strange Horizons, Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam is just too frustratingly, well, insane in its future-world sections to be wholeheartedly recommendable. I suppose what I’m yearning for is for someone to write a beautiful whopping genius monster of a novel like The Luminaries, but with a driving speculative element at its core.
I’ll keep searching, and hoping. In the meantime, just to add that there are only four weeks left now for all you BSFA members out there to place your nominations for the BSFA Awards. The list of noms so far is here – but do remember that the appearance of a title on this list does not by any means guarantee that it is ‘safe’. The shortlist is decided on the number of nominations per item, so whether you see your favourite here or not, get nominating! You can nominate as many works per category as you like.
And while we’re on the subject, I would like to mention two ‘late tackles’ on my 2013 reading slate, both of which have raised my spirits and my optimism about SF considerably. The first is Kameron Hurley’s novel God’s War. This was originally published in the States two years ago, but its UK release by Del Rey earlier this year makes it eligible for BSFA nomination right now. I was aware of the great press this book received when it first came out, but I somehow never got round to reading it. I was therefore very pleased to receive a free copy in my goodie bag at WFC in October. I started reading it at the back end of last week and was impressed from the very first page. I adore the writing – that uniquely satisfying combination of sharp-edged and lyrical – and both the world and the characters Hurley creates have my intellect and my emotions fizzing with pleasure. What a wonderful book! This is exactly the kind of SF I want to be reading – humming with ideas yet character-led – and if the rest of God’s War is as good as what I’ve read so far I shall be devouring the rest of the series asap and drawing copious inspiration from it as I go. Nominate! Nominate now!
My second lucky discovery is in the short fiction category, China Mieville’s ‘The 9th Technique’, which he wrote as an ‘apology’ for not being able to MC World Fantasy as he’d been scheduled to do, and made available to the WFC membership in the form of a chapbook.
I read this story just an hour or two ago, and it is stunning. I’m fascinated to note a certain shift in Mieville’s use of language, away from the baroque word-building we are used to from him and towards a slightly more pared-down, harder-edged style, which I like enormously. There’s a rigour to this story, an edge of bleakness that suits the subject matter (weird – very weird – goings-on in the temporal and moral hinterland of the Iraq war) perfectly. It’s impossible not to start wondering if Mieville might perhaps be planning something of this kind at novel-length..? All I know is that if he were, I’d be standing in line to read it.
For now, I just hope that this story will soon be made available to a wider readership, because this is the kind of work that reminds us what great SF writing is all about – that drive, that assured technique, that punch-to-the-gut excitement – and it deserves to be read.