I’ll start this year-in-review post with some highlights of the year in fiction, noting the larger than usual amount of science fiction I read — a mistake I will hopefully not make again — and then write about non-fiction, graphic novels, and movies. (Past years’ lists: 2017, 2016, and 2015.)
My two favorites of the year were The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989) and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012). The Remains of the Day is well known — Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 — but I hadn’t read it before. It manages to be both entertaining and deep, a meditation on failure.
The Orphan Master’s Son is a gripping novel about the intense adventures of a young man who becomes entwined in the totalitarian machinery of North Korea. The first half is excellent; it describes, for example, the protagonist’s job as a kidnapper for the government, stalking Japanese beaches to whisk away opera singers and other objects of desire. The second half is great, but rather contrived. Like everything I read about North Korea, the book is fascinating as well as horrifying; though fictional, it’s apparently very well researched.
It’s again the case that some of my favorite books of the past year have been children’s books, in many cases read aloud to my nine-year-old. (My thirteen year old certainly wouldn’t suffer my reading to him…) These included the classic The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (1967), about kids growing up in late 19th century Utah. I read it when I was a kid but it’s even better than I remembered, historically fascinating, with an excellent story, and involving deep issues such as integrating an outsider into the community, suicidal thoughts, and more. It’s also very funny.
The more recent Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce (2008) is excellent and unusual. It’s funny, poignant, and creative novel about a twelve-year-old boy who looks much older, the Willy-Wonka-esque selection of children for the inaugural spaceflight of a Chinese rocket, being stranded and alone in space, and the importance of being a dad. Cosmic manages to be zany and thoughtful, and has a style that’s refreshingly unique — neither magically fantastical nor grittily realistic.
Science Fiction & Fantasy
I read much more science fiction & fantasy this year than usual, more than I have since high school.
- The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin (2007/2014). A clunky novel about contact with aliens, with an ending full of silly god-like magical plot devices. I don’t know why this book has become so popular, other than for the novelty of it being written in China.
- The Futurological Congress (1971) and His Master’s Voice (1967) by Stanislaw Lem. The first is surreal; the second is detailed and realistic; neither are good. I read these because I hadn’t read anything by Stanislaw Lem, and Solaris was checked out from the library.
- The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemesin (2015). Sci-Fi / Fantasy about a world that repeatedly collapses. It won a Hugo Award for Best Novel, but I found the writing painfully overwrought and I couldn’t bring myself to read more than a few chapters.
- Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer (2014). About an expedition to a contained section of the Southeast invaded by mysterious alien creatures. It’s nicely atmospheric, but the characters are wooden. It’s a bit like an X-files episode but without any chemistry.
- I read four of Iain M. Banks Culture books, which involve a highly advanced, interstellar, post-scarcity civilization known as “Culture:” The Player of Games (1988), The State of the Art (1991), Consider Phlebas (1987), and Use of Weapons (1990). Having infinite energy and resources and a social structure that seems free of conflict isn’t conducive to interesting stories, so the plots tend to involve interactions with non-Culture worlds. Overall, the books are pretty good. The Player of Games is the best of the ones I read, about an exceptional game player (what else does one do in a post-scarcity society?) who is forced to go to an “uncivilized” world to take part in a complex game that defines its culture and hierarchy. Consider Phlebas is an entertaining but frustrating space opera involving a lost super-human computer, space pirates, a galactic war, a shape-shifting alien, cannibals, and more — far too much for one novel. The Use of Weapons is a long and convoluted story full of magical plot devices, interspersed with segments that describe (perhaps unintentionally) how boring the Culture is. Overall, these were entertaining books, and the background question of what a post-scarcity society looks like is an interesting and relevant one.
- The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers, by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937-1955). I read The Hobbit to my 9 year old, who loved it so much, he read The Fellowship of the Ring on his own (and dressed as Gandalf for Halloween). I then read The Two Towers to him, and we’re presently in the middle of The Return of the King. I had read all these before, long ago, and I’m reminded of how good they are: atmospheric, suspenseful, grand in scope yet not forgetful of the minutiae of describing long walks and sore feet.
The most enjoyable non-fiction I read in the past year was The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels by Freya Stark (1934). Nearly a century ago, Stark traveled the mountainous, remote lands around the present day Iran-iraw border, and wrote about her explorations and adventures. It’s beautifully written, with descriptions of exotic places and people, especially in isolated villages. Unusually, one also gets a glimpse of the logistics of getting food and lodging from typically quite hospitable locals, and insights into how extremely difficult pre-modern life was.
The most important (and also enjoyable) non-fiction book was Brian Caplan’s The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (2018). I read it last summer, took 12 pages of notes, and intended to write a blog post on the book, but that hasn’t happened yet. In brief, Caplan argues, with abundant and cleverly gleaned data, that much of our education system isn’t actually about students gaining skills, but rather is simply signaling — students conveying to society or future employers that they’re the type who can finish school. As such, much of it is a waste of time, money, and valuable years of young peoples’ lives. There are parts I disagree with, especially about K-12 education, but its critiques of college education are largely correct. The book is at times overzealous and is needlessly long, but it’s well worth reading. I’ll try to write more someday…
Honorable mention goes to Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons (2016), a sarcastic and often hilarious account of working at an internet marketing startup, which the author joins after being fired from a journalism job at Newsweek. The new company is populated by clueless, enthusiastic, young people, almost all about half the age of the author, who eagerly swallow the vapid instructions from the higher-ups to be “awesome” and transform the world. The author is at times a jerk (especially near the end of the book), but a lot of his complaints are thoughtful. Also, the book provides excellent contrasts between the marketing driven, get-rich-quick approach of companies like this and the actual technological substance and worker-driven culture of earlier, pioneering tech companies.
I just finished The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs (2014), which has a good chance of making it onto the 2019 list.
Continuing last year’s results, the best graphic novel/nonfiction I read is The Arab of the Future, Volume 3: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1985-1987 by Riad Sattouf (2015). This is the third volume of the author’s amazing graphic memoir, set mostly in Syria, and again gripping, fascinating, horrifying, and funny. There’s less thoughtless cruelty than in earlier volumes, but now we (and Riad) encounter more corruption and deceit, and also more overt discussion of religion. I was happy to learn that there is to be a fourth volume, and this one ends with a tantalizing hint that more strange but true adventures await.
Also notable: I finished Neil Gaiman and co.’s Sandman books, which are hit-or-miss individually but amazing as a whole, and read The Flintstones, in which the cartoon series is reborn as a comic book satire of consumer culture.
I’ll briefly note a few movies I saw in 2018:
Free Solo, the documentary about about the first free climber (i.e. without ropes or safety gear) to scale Yosemite’s El Capitan was fantastic — suspenseful, beautiful, and insightful. I’m glad I saw it in a theater, though I had to remind myself to breathe a few times.
Dunkirk, The Shape of Water, and The Death of Stalin were all great, and when watching Elevator to the Gallows, I was happy to find that I hadn’t exhausted Netflix’s supply of 1950s-60s French crime dramas.
The main lesson from this year is to resume my avoidance of science fiction and fantasy. I doubt works of science fiction are on average any worse than any other genre. However, if one reads a bad non-fiction or realistic fiction book, one at least encounters some aspect of real people or real places. With bad science fiction or fantasy, one doesn’t even get that. I’ll try to keep this in mind for 2019!
A painting that took me quite a while to finish. It’s based on a photo I took near Aspen this past summer: