(Chis Foss’ cover for the 1976 French edition of The Inverted World (1974), Christopher Priest)
2019, the tenth year of my site, proved to be a renaissance of sorts. While I managed to read a lot in 2018, I wrote few posts—mostly acquisition and art posts (which take the least effort and time). I have returned, almost, to my earlier levels of productivity and I hope that continues into 2020. Thank you all for reading and commenting be it on the site or on twitter. It’s greatly appreciated.
And here are my favorite novels and short stories I read in 2019!
And please list your favorite vintage (or non-vintage) SF reads of the year. I look forward to reading your comments.
My Top Eight Science Fiction Novels
1. The Inverted World, Christopher Priest (1972) (unreviewed) 5/5 (Masterpiece): It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t review my absolute favorite novel of 2019. I selected it for my SF reading group I’ve started in my current home city (Indianapolis, IN). Hopefully a reread and discussion will spur a review.
Priest’s mind-expanding vision of a city that inches across the horizon transfixes from the first sentence. Not only does Priest construct a fascinating world within the city but suggests, in a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes, an external existence far different from what those inside perceive. This juxtaposition highlights Priest’s pet theme: a data-driven “scientific” viewpoint is still open to interpretation and is no more trustworthy than another viewpoint. Context must anchor experience. In a more preliminary manner, he explored these interpretive axes in his novelette “Real-Time World” (1971).
Track this one down. Even if you’ve learned accidentally the general narrative, it is worth the read! 100%
In the meantime, check out Megan AM’s brilliant review of the book: here.
2. Seconds, David Ely (1962) 5/5 (Masterpiece): Midlife crisis. Alternate identities. Sinister schemes. Ely’s masterpiece is a disquieting and sparse thriller that posits a near future where a shadow organization can grant the wealthy new identities via plastic surgery and staged deaths. It is a careful novel. A well-crafted nightmare….
3. Secret Rendezvous (1977, trans. 1979), Kobe Abe 5/5 (Masterpiece): Japanese SF in translation. A harrowing, existential, and surreal Freudian mystery unfolds within an architecturally undefined hospital. A man sets off to find his wife, taken into its depths in the middle of the night. Check out my review—it might be among best I’ve written.
4. The Alien Light, (1987), Nancy Kress 4.5/5 (Very Good): A bleak and powerful rumination on violence. She explores, in unrelenting fashion, how miscommunication and inability to understand “the other” leads to violence. How our passions lead to violence. How rigid social structures lead to violence. How our quest to understand the unknown leads to violence.
An new alien architectures stretches across the horizon on a lost human colony. As humans voluntarily enter its perimeters, they are participating in an experiment run by the Ged. The Ged cannot comprehend why humans fight each other. They have no intra-species conflict. As a human armada approaches their home fleet, the answer to the human enigma might be their salvation.
5. The Word for World is Forest (1972), Ursula Le Guin 4.5/5 (Very Good): Le Guin’s Vietnam War novel! Le Guin’s novella tells the harrowing tale of the native inhabitants of planet Athshe (“New Tahiti”), derisively called “creechie” by their human occupiers. As the novella shifts between both human and humanoid alien perspectives, the full effects of contact are revealed.
Short, direct, powerful. Worth the read.
6. Moonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold (1977) 4.5/5 (Very Good) is a careful and introspective reflection on identity and gender set in a fascinating world made habitable by terraforming. The novel is a bildungsroman that follows the self-realization of a precocious child named Jobe. The dominate struggle that forms the core of the novel is “The Choice”–the moment in a young person’s life when they chose to move from their androgynous state to either to either male or female.
A quiet yet radical vision. I’m shocked it isn’t better known.
7. Freezing Down, Anders Bodelsen (1969, trans. 1971) 4.5/5 (Very Good) is a harrowing collision of SF tropes and the emotional landscape of Scandinavian noir. I’m all for icy and complex speculations on the promise of immortality.
The find of the year. I knew about the other authors. Unfortunately, this was Bodelsen’s only SF novel.
8. Mindbridge, Joe Haldeman (1976), 4.5/5 (Very Good): Instantaneous travel. Telepathic aliens. CONFLICT! Yet Haldeman weaves a Dos Passos inspired tapestry of a novel that incorporates an immense range of textual fragments. All the while, the novel maintains a readable and engaging narrative. I found Mindbridge a compelling example of New Wave experimentation at its most approachable.
(Tadanori Yokoo’s cover for the 1979 edition of Secret Rendezvous (1977), Kobo Abe)
(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1972 edition of Freezing Down (1971), Anders Bodelsen)
My Top Eight Science Fiction Short Stories
1. “Appearance of Life” (1977), Brian Aldiss, 5/5 (Masterpiece): Strange alien architectures. Society losing the ability to connect. Memories of estranged lovers in a forgotten war on loop. Aldiss at the height of his powers!
2. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1977), James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), 5/5 (Masterpiece): An uncomfortable and hallucinatory condemnation of male impulses and misogyny…. Despite the controversy surrounding the story, it’s a hypnotic and fevered reworking of standard SF tropes to devastating effect.
3. “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1961), J. G. Ballard, 5/5 (Masterpiece): A dark meta-commentary on generation ships, Ballard highlights the ethical implications of both the generation ship as a thought experiment and a reality. Who is manipulating who?
4. “The Bicentennial Man” (1977), Isaac Asimov, 5/5 (Masterpiece) chronicles the quest for android rights over the longue durée. A call to action—even symbolic victories are important. They can lead to greater change.
5. “Fin de siècle” (1971), Jacques Sternberg, 5/5 (Masterpiece). Prepare yourself for a journey into a nightmare, a dystopia where all the places (real and imaginary) the we can attach anchors to conceive of ourselves as individuals with desires and pasts are shorn away…. In a vast metropolis, where the features of the buildings are erased by layers of pollution (a product of a deliberately encouraged cult of the automobile), the “year” 2000 approaches.
6. “Lungfish” (1957), John Brunner, 4.75/5 (Near Masterpiece): Brunner spins a psychology-inspired take on the generation ship theme. Shockingly radical in its depiction of future gender roles, “Lungfish” explores why later generations might not want to leave at trip’s end.
7. “Overdrawn at the Memory Bank” (1977), John Varley, 4.75/5 (Very Good): Weird environments proliferate, and proliferate…. Fingal, fresh off a vacation at the Kenya disneyland underneath the surface of Mars—where he hunted prey and got his food stolen as a female lion low on the lion hierarchy—accidentally gets his mind stuck in computer after the vacation company loses his body.
Varley’s mind-stuck-in-a-computer premise is not the most original scenario—but he tells it with such vigor, off-handed horror, and touches of comedy that I couldn’t help but be pulled in. Highly recommended.
8. “My Boat” (1977) Joanna Russ, 4.5/5 (Very Good): “My Boat” is a dreamlike tale, reworking elements from H. P. Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, of a cynical Hollywood agent telling the story of his youth–desegregation in an all-white high school theater department. The placement of Lovecraftian dreams into the realm of America’s racial tensions is genius.
Mysterious. Distant. Restrained.
(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1977 edition)
I’ve had immense fun overseeing a vintage generation ship short story read-through. All the short stories are available online (see each post below for a link). The level of discussion and interaction between reviewers really inspires me to keep reading and writing. Feel free to join at any stage in this ongoing series.
Up next: A. E. van Vogt’s “Centaurus II” in the June 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (story link).
I won’t provide story blurbs here but feel free to explore the posts below. This project will continue into 2020. Join the fun and discussion!
Short Stories Stories Covered
1. “The Wind Blows Free,” Chad Oliver (1957) 4.5/5 (Very Good)
3. “Wish Upon a Star,” Judith Merril (1958) 4.25/5 (Good)
4. “Lungfish,” John Brunner (1957) 4.75/5 (Very Good)
5. “Thirteen to Centaurus,” J. G. Ballard (1962) 5/5 (Masterpiece)
Bonus Generation Ship Novels
1. The Space-Born, E. C. Tubb (1956) 2.5/5 (Bad)
2. Captive Universe, Harry Harrison (1969) 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good)
(Tom O’Reilly’s interior art for the Science-Fiction Plus, August 1953)
Goals for 2020
1. Keep reading and writing.
2. Perhaps start a podcast?
3. Perhaps start a patreon? (many conflicting thoughts here. We shall see).
For SF art posts consult the INDEX
For SF book reviews consult the INDEX