Saturday, January 2, 2016

2015 Books: Favorites and Oddities

In addition to watching a lot of movies, I read a lot of good books in 2015.  I finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and Iain M. Banks’s Culture series.  I read classics from some of my favorites, like Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Ursula Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven.  
Some of the new books I read (or started reading) in 2015

If you care to check out my Goodreads Year in Books, you might notice that I read mostly older books.  The main reason for this is that I tend to get books from libraries and used book stores.  I also read almost exclusively paper books rather than e-books (see "In Praise of Paper Books.")

Nonetheless, I’m trying to read more new books, both to stay hip and because reviews of new books tend to generate more interest. It also gives me material for a Favorites of 2015 list limited to books that were published in 2015. But because I can't help it, I'll discuss a few older books and oddities after the Favorites list. Without further ado...

My Favorite Books of 2015

1. Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

This was a divisive book in the realm of science fiction in 2015. Some hated it. Others, like me, loved it. I suspect that if you dig below the surface of critics' complaints about alleged scientific inaccuracies or supposed plot holes, the main impetus for the hatred comes simply from the fact that Robinson questions one of science fiction's most hallowed tropes: interstellar colonization. In effect, Robinson wrote a space opera about why space opera is ill-advised.

But the genius of this book goes beyond its contrarian nature. Robinson is one of the most philosophical science fiction authors working today, so there's plenty to think about concerning consciousness, human nature, motivations for interstellar travel, and more.

This is also one of Robinson's most beautifully written novels, constructed in a mode of heartbreaking melancholy.

And then there's ship, the amalgamated consciousness of the generation ship's AI systems. It's no hyperbole to say that ship is one of my favorite fictional characters of all time. With praise like that, this had to get the #1 spot. See my review: "Melancholy Among the Stars."

2. Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

With a blurb from Le Guin on the cover and some favorable coverage, I had to check this out.  I'm glad I did.  The story takes place in a really cool far future setting where interstellar travel happens by light beam (sort of like Star Trek's transporter) and there have been several human diasporas.  The novel centers on the discovery of a planet inhabited by humans who live in total darkness.

The philosophical focus in on knowledge, which makes this one of the most epistemological novels I've ever read.  The inhabitants of the planet Iris lack vision, but they seem to have other ways of knowing the universe that go beyond vision and standard empirical scientific knowledge.  They seem to have some kind of direct non-empirical knowledge (it's no surprise that Plato is mentioned a few times!).

The book isn't perfect (some plot threads didn't add much) and Gilman is no Le Guin when it come to her prose, but I can forgive a few issues in the type of book that makes you think on every page.  I've never read Gilman before.  I will be doing so again.

3. Todd by Adam J. Nicolai

Nicolai is one of the few authors for whom I am willing to override my dislike of e-books (although you can get paper versions of his books).  Part of this is because he's a good friend of mine (let that information do what it will to your assessment of my review), but it's also because he writes some pretty damn good books.

Todd begins in suburban Minnesota with the mysterious and abrupt disappearance of all humans and animals, except for Alan and his son Todd.  What begins as something that looks like a run-of-the-mill dystopian survival story becomes a deep meditation on the importance of relationships and one's reaction to the fact of death.  There's also a Lovecraftian element.

It's heavy stuff.  In the midst of all this, you get some superb, Stephen King-style character development through Alan's inner monologues.

4.  The Just City and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton

I'm giving these two books one spot because the second is a direct sequel of the first and they were both released in 2015.  

As a science fiction fan and philosophy professor who regularly teaches Plato, these books are right up my alley.  The time-traveling goddess, Pallas Athene, tries to set up Plato's Republic in the distant past with people from throughout history.  And robots!  And Socrates!  Socrates even has dialogues with the robots, which warms my philosophical and science fictional heart!  

It would probably help to have read Plato's Republic to get the most out of these books, or, failing that, you could also have a philosophy student explain it to you!

The books bring up all sorts of intriguing philosophical issues concerning gender, family, utopia, consciousness, freedom and determinism, and so forth.  The second book focuses more on the long-term stability for a city run by philosophers -- something that, as someone who knows philosophers pretty well, always seemed dubious to me!

5. The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

This is a prequel to Okorafor's Who Fears Death, a "magical futurist" story of post-apocalyptic East Africa.  The prequel, however, begins in the United States in the relatively near future and strikes a more science fictional tone.

Our protagonist is a young girl named Phoenix who has, through genetic engineering on the part of the shadowy Big Eye organization, aged rapidly (she's two, but looks 40).  She also has the ability to generate intense heat.  Phoenix and friends break out of their compound and ... well, you'll have to read it.

One of the coolest things about this is Okorafor's creative use of mythology from various African cultures in a science fictional setting with a little fantastic blending.  Is this really "magic" or it is advanced technology?  What is the Big Eye up to?  Did Phoenix and friends do the right thing?  What does the surprising way this connects with Who Fears Death tell us about the power of narrative and interpretation?  These are just some of the questions to consider in The Book of Phoenix!  See my full review.

6. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

Some readers may be surprised to see this so far down my list.  Stephenson has a huge following, but I can't shake the feeling that, obviously brilliant as he is, Stephenson is a tad overrated.

I did like this book.  It wouldn't be on the list otherwise.  But, contrary to almost every review I've read, I liked the last third of the book a great deal more than the first two thirds.  That part made the book for me.

The first two parts of this 861 page tome focus on the mysterious explosion of the moon in the near future and the dystopian realization that this will have apocalyptic consequences.  Then a thousand or two humans end up in space to survive.  And there's plenty of orbital mechanics lest you think that Stephenson didn't do his homework (I don't mind scientific detail, but in this case it was a bit much for my tastes).  So far it's all more-or-less standard hard SF fare, but it's enjoyable and decently done.  Part two ends with the first really interesting question of whether and how we might give humanity a reboot.

The third part of the book begins in the far future (5,000 years to be precise) with the descendants of the surviving humans from the first two parts.  Here's where I started to really have some fun with the description of the society that survived in space after splitting into seven different kinds of humans.  Along with plenty of cool space tech, there's an intriguing story of humanity's return to Earth.   See my review: "Rebooting Humanity."

7. Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha

I'm a huge Octavia Butler fan, so this grabbed my attention.  Some of the stories are by people who haven't written fiction before, which makes the stories uneven.  The first third of the book is especially rocky, but the volume shapes up nicely as it goes on with some really fun and interesting stories.  

There are also some essays, such as one by Mumia Abu-Jamal on Star Wars and an excellent essay by Tananarive Due on change in the work of Octavia Butler.  The volume is bookended with essays by the editors explaining their concept of "visionary fiction" and the idea that imagining a more just world is itself a kind of science fiction.

See my review: "Visionary Fiction."

Unfinished 2015 Books and a Few Oddities

She Walks in Shadows, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles

Anthologies of Lovecraftian fiction are all the rage these days (two of my favorites are Black Wings and Future Lovecraft).  She Walks in Shadows is a new Lovecraftian anthology, probably the first of its kind, with stories and illustrations all by women.

I'm a big fan of Lovecraft's work (see "Weird Knowledge: Lovecraft as Science Fiction and Philosophy"), but it's no secret that the man himself was a xenophobic racist bigot who didn't like women very much, either.  That's why an anthology like this is so interesting.  Some of the stories give voices to women characters from Lovecraft's canon, while others create new eldritch spaces free from Lovecraft's personal foibles.  The illustrations are also great.

I didn't rank this one because I didn't finish it in time to get on the list.  I like to take my time with anthologies.  I'm about a third of the way through, and I've been loving it.  So far my favorite story has been Jilly Dreadful's "De Deabus Minoribus Extorioris Theomagicae," which out-Lovecrafts Lovecraft when it comes to creating a fictional noisome tome on lesser outer goddesses.

Greek Buddha: Pyrrho's Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia by Christopher I. Beckwith

Although the primary motif of this blog has been uncovering philosophical themes in science fiction, I have occasionally covered philosophy books (something I hope to do more in the future).  Given my philosophical interests in ancient skepticism in Greece and India, I was keen to read this.  I've also reviewed one of Beckwith's earlier books, Warriors of the Cloisters, in which Beckwith argues, more cleverly than entirely convincingly, that the scientific method originated in central Asia.

As with anthologies, I like to take my time with academic books.  I've only read the first few chapters so far.  I'm looking forward to Beckwith's arguments for his more controversial claims about early Buddhism and possible Buddhist sources for early Daoism in China, but the main subject of the book is the historical contact between Greek and Indian philosophers around the time of Alexander the Great.  Beckwith isn't the first person to suggest this juncture of ancient cross-cultural interaction.  Most studies like this, such as Thomas McEvilley's, tend to lack much in the way concrete historical evidence that could rule out the possibility of philosophical coincidences or, as I like to call it, "convergent evolution" (see my review of McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought).

My attitude about all this is that, while it excites the historical imagination to consider the hypothesis, we should, appropriately enough when thinking about skepticism, suspend judgment on the question of whether ancient Greek Pyrrhonian skepticism is based on Indian Buddhist thought.  But I will eagerly finish Beckwith's book to see whether I might change my mind.  Whether he does so or not, I'm expecting this to be one of the oddest philosophy books I've read in awhile.


I've also read a few other interesting things lately that weren't published in 2015.  Cleveland Amory's The Cat and the Curmudgeon is neither particularly science fictional nor philosophical, but it consists of some fun stories about a clever curmudgeon and his famous cat that ought to amuse most people like me who enjoy reading clever things about cats.  To expand my horizons a bit, I try to read a little bit of "classic Literature" every summer; this year I read Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.  I felt compelled to read Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heartthe basis for the Hellraiser movies, after I watched a bunch of Hellraiser movies around Halloween.  I read some good urban fantasy set in Japan with Steve Bein's Daughter of the Sword.  Dan Simmons's Olympos, a saga of ancient Greek gods/post-humans fighting across the future with quantum weirdness, helped me finish what I started with Ilium (as discussed in, "Science Fiction with Ancient Themes").  N. K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms introduced me to an intriguing and diverse fantasy world (as discussed in "Fantasy for Science Fiction Fans").

Let me end this excessively long post by mentioning the winner for the oddest book I read this year: Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light -- far future post-humans take up the identities of gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, and that's almost the most normal thing that happens in this book!  See a short review in "Science Fiction with Ancient Themes").

I'm hoping for a reading year of new favorites and new oddities in 2016!


  1. Great post! I've got Aurora, The Book of Phoenix, and Seveneves on my to-read list already. It's great to hear about Dark Orbit. I'll definitely be picking that one up, as well as Jo Walton's books. Those caught my eye at a store once, but I didn't end up getting them. I'll definitely check them out now based on your recommendation.

    1. Thanks! I'd be interested to hear what you think about all these. Did you have other favorites this year?

    2. I'm still playing catch up. Here's a list of everything I read up to November: The Weave, Martian Time-Slip, Rocannon's World, Planetfall, and Eden should be added to that list.

      My favorite was Cloud Atlas. I also highly recommend We, The Scar, and Elysium. If you haven't read Squaring the Circle, I highly recommend that, too, especially from a philosophical perspective. It was translated into English by Ursula K Le Guin.

    3. Cool, thanks! I'll have to check some of those out, especially Squaring the Circle.

      I also read Cloud Atlas this year. I loved it! I forgot to mention it in the "Etc." section, but my main list was just including books published in 2015.