Post-academia depression hits hard…. While completing my PhD (defended in the summer of 2017), reading SF and writing about SF was the way I kept sane. After multiple mostly unsuccessful years on the academic market, I have changed gears career-wise (although I’m still affiliated with a university and teaching college-level history courses but without the research component) and it has been a liberating experience. My history obsessions remain, even stronger in many ways, and academic monographs on all the topics that I wanted to read about but never could—Hellenistic successor states to Alexander, Early Islam, Late Antique and Medieval Persia, etc.–have dominated my time and pocketbook 2018 (don’t ask how much I’ve spent). I have included a “Best Academic History Reads of 2018” section for the curious.
At the beginning of November, I was moments from announcing that I was on hiatus for the foreseeable future. However, I have fallen back in love with SF and writing about SF and the new year beckons!
All of this is to say, I read little SF this year–until last month. However, there were a handful of stand-out SF novels and short stories that I managed to squeeze in.
And please list your favorite vintage (or non-vintage) SF reads of the year. I look forward to reading your comments.
…and read lots of good books in 2019. I will.
Best SF Novels
1. Killerbowl, Gary K. Wolf (1975): Killerbowl succeeds as an exemplar of sports SF, and inventive 70s SF more broadly. Wolf manages to be experimental yet readable, direct in prose yet lyrical. New Wave SF distilled into a shot glass, a punch to the gut filled with intensity and mood.
2. A Time of Changes, Robert Silverberg (1971): unreviewed
Last spring I started listening to audiobook versions of many of the classics I have yet to read. And I chose Silverberg….
Kinnall sits in a shack, as the forces hunting him down narrow in, recounting his life story in the form of an autobiography (itself an act of rebellion). In this society, words such as “I” or “me” are forbidden. We slowly learn why he broke free from the mores of his society. Silverberg’s masterfully evokes the character of Kinnall, propelled to greater and greater acts of self assertion. A Time of Changes is a moving character piece from the author of Dying Inside (1972). If you’re a fan of 70s SF, find this one.
A proper review of the book can be found here.
3. Magic Time, Kit Reed (1980): unreviewed
After I learned about Kit Reed’s passing, I decided to read one of her novels but never got around to writing a complete review. Magic Time is a whimsical (in a good way!) and metafictional romp through a theme park, which you can’t escape. Filled with film directions, and illogically converging story lines, Magic Time pokes fun Disney movies, and all our own desires to escape.
4. Tower of Glass, Robert Silverberg (1970): unreviewed
Simeon Krug designs androids, living simulacra whose skin sets them apart from other men. The androids have developed a religion and various rituals distinct and hidden from their creators. Krug spends his billions creating a vast interstellar communications tower in the Artic desert…. He desires to reach outward, rather than inward to his own created people. And there is unease, and possibly rebellion, brewing. I would not place Tower of Glass among Silverberg’s absolute best–Downward to the Earth (1970), Dying Inside (1972), Hawksbill Station (1968), The Man in the Maze (1969), The World Inside (1971)–but, it is a quick and ambitious read.
Also, one of the final scenes…. Malzberg before Malzberg…. Won’t give away spoilers.
A proper review of the book can be found here.
Best SF Short Stories
1. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” James Tiptree, Jr. (1973): A physically disabled woman is sucked into the world of clandestine advertising. She, in a web of machinery in a cubicle deep underground, manipulates a beautiful young woman’s body aboveground. A disturbing speculation on commercialism and gender….
2. Cancerqueen,” Tommaso Landolfi (1950): Early Italian SF in translation! Redolent with gothic overtones, “Cancerqueen” tells the transfixing tale of a possibly insane narrator relating his voyage into space, and into the womb of a manipulative spaceship.
3. “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin (1973): A haunting parable on the nature and moral landscape of utopia. I loved the simplicity of the premise: a narrator describing a city that might not exist, and introducing, via the city, a serious discussion of morality.
4. “Roller Ball Murder,” William Harrison (1973): I’m a proponent of sports as a SF vehicle for social commentary on commercialism, trauma, alienation, and violence. Harrison ticks off all these boxes as he charts to life and games of Jonathan E, as the rules of the game change, and the violence grows and grows…
5. “The Last Lonely Man,” John Brunner (1964): unreviewed
At some point in the near future, mankind gains the ability (“contact”) to transfer one’s consciousness at death to a living body (for example, a spouse or best friend). Contact transform’s society’s conception of death–“dying became like a change of vehicle” (112). Before Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), his best moments came in short fiction. “The Last Lonely Man” is an evocative vehicle for speculating on the effects of immortality—a theme I keep on returning to….
Best Academic History Book
1. Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, Touraj Daryaee (2009): The Sassanian Empire is usually studied via the lens of Imperial Rome (its main adversary). It is marvelous and illuminating to finally have a monograph (in English at a relatively low price — for an academic book) on this Zoroastrian state (the first victims of Islamic expansion out of Arabia). Narrative histories from the Sasanian perspective are lost or fragmentary, however, Daryaee gathers an incredible range of numismatic, religious, and archaeological sources.
2. The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire, Paul J. Kosmin (2014): Study of the Seleucid Empire, one of the Hellenistic successor states to Alexander the Great’s Empire, has exploded in the last decade. Kosmin’s brilliant study explores the ways the Seleucids ruled over multi-ethnic lands they had no claim to (their homeland was Macedonia). Most fascinating is Kosmin’s analysis of how the possible return to Macedonia was portrayed by successive Seleucid rulers–from an invasion presented as “homeward journey of a sick king” to a forbidden land to be avoided…. And it’s simply hard to not be interested in a civilization who placed great value on the elephant!
3. Empires of Ancient Eurasia: The First Silk Roads Era, 100 BCE-250 CE, Craig Benjamin (2018): Continuing my theme of lesser known topics…. the Silk Road might ring a bell, but what about the Kushan Empire? Benjamin’s monograph explores the ways in which the “unity” was established that allowed a vast trade network to exist that stretched from China to the Mediterranean. This is an impressive study that explores the Silk Road’s effects including the spread of human ideas, pathogens, technologies….
4. The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in Late Shange China (ca. 1200-1045 B.C.), David N. Keightley (2002): The ancient Chinese state, the Shang, produced the first surviving Chinese writing. And it wasn’t to count the number or animals or grain or the quantity of tribute…. rather, Shang kings wrote the outcomes of divination, via cracking turtle plastrons and cattle clavicles, on oracle bones. Historians have more than forty thousand of these oracles. The Shang did not use writing for any other purpose — the oracles are our only written window into their society. Keightley’s text is a difficult read as it is dense and filled with translated oracle texts. However, I found his insights on how the Shang configured the cosmos and inscribed the landscape by ritualistic divination compelling.
5. The Middle East in the Middle Ages: The Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382, Robert Irwin (1986): The Mamluks, based in Egypt, are responsible not only for stalling Mongol expansion into Islamic Africa, but also, defeating the remaining crusaders in the Holy Land. The Mamluks were ruled by Turkic slaves, who were groomed high office from a young age. Irwin’s monograph explores the broad political strokes of the Early Mamluk state, with special focus on the often shrouded lives of the sultans. Irwin promised a second volume, but left academia before it was published….
Goals for 2019
1. I have no grand goals or plans other than to post regularly. I want three book reviews a month, to continue my series on Map and Diagrams in SF, and a handful of either acquisition or art posts each month. This this goes as planned, only then will I resurrect some of my promised goals…
As always, thank you for visiting. I’d love to know your favorite vintage reads of 2018!
For SF art posts consult the INDEX
For SF book reviews consult the INDEX