Updates: My 2018 in Review (Best SF Novels, Best SF Short Fiction, and Bonus Catagories)

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.

Enjoy!

…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 

If you want additional recommendations just ask!

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

34 thoughts on “Updates: My 2018 in Review (Best SF Novels, Best SF Short Fiction, and Bonus Catagories)”

    1. That’s a good question! And the answer is, there aren’t monographs (at least in English) specifically on the topic. Rather, you have to go hunting in books on related topics…… edit: see below. I found some.

      The Kushans took over from the Greco-Bactrians (and their descendants) so you might be interested in them! Two really good books on the Kushans include Benjamin’s on the Silk Road I listed above and Khodadad Rezakhani’s Reorienting the Sasanians: East Iran in Late Antiquity (2017) (which I haven’t finished reading but tries to look at how the Sasanians interacted with their eastern neighbors — instead of the Roman lens I indicated above).

      Also, as the Greco-Bactrians rebelled against the Seleucids, books on the Seleucids often have relevant information and bibliographies. Kosmin’s The Land of the Elephant Kings (see above) includes discussion of Ai Khanoum (an important Greco-Bactrian) and lengthy passages describing Antiochus III’s attempt to reconquer the breakaway satrapy….

      My biggest frustration with a lot of the “The Hellenistic World After Alexander” type monographs and edited collections, is the lack of material on the Greco-Bactrians and other societies on the eastern border. And one reason unfortunately, is the lack of surviving historiography about them — we know a lot about the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms due to surviving Roman accounts…. i.e. the further away from the Mediterranean world (the domain of Greek and Roman writers), the less we know.

    2. I should point out, there is one monograph in English on the both societies — but it’s from 1966 and hard to track down…. and, considering how our knowledge of the Hellenistic world has blossomed recently, it really is a shame that there isn’t an updated monograph on the topic.

    3. There is a MONOGRAPH!

      F. L. Holt’s Thundering Zeus: The Making
      of Hellenistic Bactria (1999). Not cheap…. $65+ on Amazon.

      And one more that probably has tons of fascinating material…..

      R. Mairs’ The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek central Asia (2014) — only $17 bucks on amazon right now, buying a copy.

      And, one in French — F. Widemann’s Les successeurs d’Alexandre en Asie centrale et leur heritage culturel (2nd ed. 2009)

        1. Unfortunately, due to the complete lack of narrative primary sources from the period (and thus difficulty even identifying who ruled when yet along any details about their lives), an academic monograph on the topic is probably the only way to go as surviving sources (material + textual) have to be analyzed in extreme detail to glean any information about these fascinating people…. What a tough topic to write a popular history about!

    1. Happy new year as well!

      I’ll browse and see that that series includes (I tend to like my old battered paperbacks and seldom purchase reprints — but it’s always fascinating seeing what the editors select for the series).

      What is your #1 “I want to read this SF book in 2019” pick?

      I’ll have to think of mine….

  1. Lovely news to hear that you are going to be around for the foreseeable future, Joachim! Best of luck with your change in direction – and as for my favourite SF reads of 2018 – Emma Newman’s ‘Before Mars’, Christopher Nuttall’s ‘Hyperspace Trap’ and ‘Windhaven’ by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle – to name but a few… Happy Holidays:)

  2. Hi

    Happy New Year. I was pondering my 2018 reading and purchases. As always i have trouble picking favourites but after some consideration I settled on Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer as the best novel I read. I know you enjoyed it. I have a number of books I “need” to read, Ubik by Dick, Diaspora by Egan and The Languages of Pao by Vance has been on my desk for ages, but VanderMeer’s Borne is probably creeping up the TBR pile.

    All the best for 2019
    Guy

    1. Annihilation was at the top of my list last year (or maybe that was 2016….). Incredible book.

      I’m off Vance for a bit — even after the relatively positive reading experience that was Emphyrio a month ago. But yeah, I have a very nice original paperback edition of Languages.

      Happy reading in 2019.

  3. I have been listening to Mindwebs rebroadcast on old time radio and I fell in love with a story called The Hall of Machines. So I looked it up, and of course-you had a post on the Langdon Jones collection!!! Thanks so much for this blog. Best to you in the New Year!

  4. I went on a kick of Military SF and read through The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Armor by John Steakley, and several of the short stories in The Complete Hammer’s Slammers, Vol. 1, by David Drake. I intend to finish up the Slammers volume before moving on to The Mote in God’s Eye or perhaps tracking down a copy of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.

    1. Thanks for stopping by (and the comment)!

      Unless military SF has an overtly satirical element, I find the subgenre hard going — in part, because it (often) promotes jingoism and a view of the “other” (in this case, the evil alien) as some monolithic entity that must be destroyed… The Forever War and Forever Peace did manage to hold my interest.

      1. Hey, I’m happy to visit!

        Most of my family is military, so the jingoism tends to be background noise. I usually prefer the stories of friendship and understanding developing between soldiers while they’re stuck in a meat grinder. Camaraderie, fear, boredom, and finding the tiniest thing to appreciate in a bleak landscape are the sorts of things that attract me to the genre. It can be gut wrenching when someone dies in a single sentence, and that’s it; no fanfare, no nothing, the survivors just have to move on. At least in the best written of the genre. There’s tons of schlock too, and finding the best can be tough when everybody seems to want to write 10-novel epic series that I’m never gonna get through.

        1. The relationships between soldiers, the fear, all of that is fascinating… I am more bothered by science fiction in general that perpetuates monolithic experiences or characteristics of people and/or aliens. And I find it prevalent in the military SF I’ve read. Again, this is a general preference, and well-written stories often change my mind.

          If you’re interested in why I read and review what I read and review — check out my recent post on the topic! https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2018/06/15/fragment-s-why-i-read-and-review-50s-70s-science-fiction/

  5. Happy New Year to you, Joachim! Glad to hear you’ve rediscovered your love of reading and writing about vintage SF. This year was a slow reading year for me. I often found it hard to finish the book(s) I was reading. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I hardly read any vintage SF. My favourite vintage title last year was a re-read of Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed.’ Honourable mentions go to Brackett’s pulpy ‘The Ginger Star’ and Wells’s ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau.’

    I’m determined to read more vintage titles this year and am starting with Fritz Leiber’s ‘The Big Time.’ Good luck with your change in career and other suspect ruminations!

    1. I’m a fan of The Big Time — I find it so strange for a 50s novel…. More like a one-act play. It’s been quite a while since I read it — long before I had my site.

  6. Joachim

    Happy New Year! Probably best “vintage” SF read last year:

    Novels: The Aluminium Man by G. C. Edmondson.
    The Day Star by Mark S. Geston.
    Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock.

    Stories: re-read of collection “Casey Agonistes” by Richard McKenna.
    “Adventures of Alyx” and “Extra(ordinary) People” by Joanna Russ.
    The Science Fiction of Kris Neville edited by Barry N. Malzberg and Martin H. Greenberg.

    Best regards
    Dave

    1. Hello Dave,

      Thanks for stopping by! I’ve read a novel by Geston and Holdstock each respectively but not those two novels… I’m curious why you enjoyed The Aluminum Man? The reason I ask is that it’s often presented as an homage to pulp adventure etc.

      I’ve read a few Richard McKenna stories here and am a HUGE fan of Russ.

      Have you come across my review of Neville’s fix-up novel (containing a few of his 50s short stories) Bettyann (1970)? I was really surprised by how enjoyable it was!

      https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2015/04/20/book-review-bettyann-kris-neville-1970/

      I hope your 2019 is equally filled with good SF.

      Joachim

      1. Joachim

        I think Edmondson possibly an under-rated writer, and certainly The Aluminium Man is under-read; it may have its origins in pulp SF tropes, but it’s a very funny satire and the characters are just larger than life enough to be realistic! Always a pleasure when you enjoy a book more than you thought you would.

        I had also read Geston’s Lords of the Starship before picking up The Day Star, and that didn’t disappoint either. A short book, but very intense.

        Two of the stories in The SF of Kris Neville are in fact the original novellas that he later adapted into Betty Ann, though the fix-up novel may differ considerably from those original stories because I haven’t read it yet, though did see your review of it.

        I recommend the McKenna collection, it’s basically all the SF he wrote apart from one or two others, that are in I think some of the Orbit anthologies, and it’s all of a high standard.

        Yes, agree about Russ, anything she wrote is well worth reading!

        All the best for 2019.

        Dave

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