My Best Reads of 2014

There’s something about the Australian summer that encourages a kind of languor, an apathy towards work that escalates alongside the temperature. The sky reaches the deepest shade of blue, beckoning me away from the computer, and I can smell the ocean on the evening breeze. Paradoxically, this idleness begins right during the frenetic Yuletide period, and between the demands of Christmas and the wanton allure of the Australian summer, I find it’s been a few weeks since my last post. Basically, I’ve been lazy. And loving it. No apologies here.

"Ahh, it's too hot today."
“Ahh, it’s too hot today.”

But those endless days of lassitude did give me the chance to reflect on the books I read in 2014. It’s worth revisiting some of them, just to take a look at which ones have left a lasting impression. In no particular order…

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

This is one of those novels that I should’ve read years ago, but never quite got around to it. The tale of Offred, whose sole purpose is to bear children, is, without any trace of hyperbole, one of the truly great dystopian novels of the twentieth century. Like all good science fiction books, it forces us to examine our own society and the roles we are expected to play.

I was so impressed with The Handmaid’s Tale, with its seamless blend of science-fictional tropes into what was marketed as a mainstream literary novel, that I even included it on my list of 5 books for the first-time SF reader.

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Shining – Stephen King

I’ve seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie adaptation a dozen times, yet I still felt abject horror while reading this novel. Well done, Stephen King. Jack Torrance’s battle with alcoholism, his history of child abuse, and the way that the hotel preys on his weaknesses are all explored here in a way that Kubrick excluded from the film.

There’s no denying that King is a master of prose, and I was delighted by his references to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” It’s a credit to this novel that one of the most vivid characters is actually an abandoned hotel.

A few years ago, I stayed in an aging hotel in Engelberg, Switzerland, which was nearly empty of guests. Walking down those deserted corridors and dining alone in a cavernous ballroom made me think of Kubrick’s film. I am sincerely glad, for the sake of my sanity, that I hadn’t read the novel before having that experience.

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller – Italo Calvino

I’ve already written about this novel, but even several months later, it is still rolling around in my thoughts. It was the structure of the novel that impressed me most – a frame narrative that contains ten opening chapters to different novels. Each of these novels is never completed, but they are all reflected in the subsequent journey of the protagonists. It may sound complicated, but Calvino manages to tie it all together.

The best part is the statement it makes about reading and writing. The whole novel could be understood as a metaphor for the creative process; Calvino investigates why we love to read, and how narrative – and unresolved conflicts – drives our lives.

The Void Trilogy – Peter F. Hamilton

I’d been looking forward to finishing this trilogy for a long time. I’d read the first two books a few years ago, but decided to re-read them before tackling the final installment. It was worth it.

Hamilton writes good old-fashioned space opera. Rollicking battles. Epic heroes. Amazing technology. He’s one of my guilty pleasures. I would recommend any of his novels, but the Void Trilogy was particularly enjoyable. There are some tragic moments in the third novel, as some of my favourite characters were made to suffer. But there were also some great battles. Hamilton’s style of writing lends itself to kinetic fight scenes, and the Void Trilogy is him in his prime.

The Void Trilogy - Peter F. Hamilton
The Void Trilogy – Peter F. Hamilton

The Violent Century – Lavie Tidhar

I approached this novel after hearing that it was a mixture between Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Ian Tregillis’s Milkweed triptych. Yet that description doesn’t do justice to Tidhar’s novel. It stands on its own as a serious contemplation of superheroes and heroism in general.

The blurb sets the tone:

For seventy years they guarded the British Empire. Oblivion and Fogg, inseparable friends, bound together by a shared fate. Until one night in Berlin, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and a secret that tore them apart. But there must always be an account…and the past has a habit of catching up to the present. Now, recalled to the Retirement Bureau from which no one can retire, Fogg and Oblivion must face up to a past of terrible war and unacknowledged heroism – a life of dusty corridors and secret rooms, of furtive meetings and blood-stained fields – to answer one last, impossible question: What makes a hero?

Above all, this novel is fun. The battle scenes are as vivid and fast-paced as any superhero film. And Tidhar’s alternative version of twentieth century history, populated with superheroes, remains disturbingly similar to our own.

Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea – Adam Roberts

When I first heard that Adam Roberts’s new novel would be a reimagining of the Jules Verne classic, I knew I would be reading this book the moment I could get my hands on it. Roberts writes some of the best contemporary science fiction – a bold mixture of social commentary, satire, and a complex understanding of how technosocial developments impact our society.

Twenty Trillion follows the French nuclear submarine Plongeur as an accident causes it to dive down… and down… and down… long past the point where the pressure should’ve crushed the hull. As the submarine keeps sinking, the crew realize that they’ve left Earthly waters behind, and that’s when the madness sets in.

Roberts is an academic who has written extensively about the history of science fiction, and I love how he incorporates the history of the genre into his novels. Twenty Trillion isn’t just a reimagining of Verne’s novel – it is an examination of the Nemo mythos and how it has influenced subsequent speculative literature.

The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

I’ve always admired the matryoshka-like structure of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, so I came to The Bone Clocks with high expectations. I wrote a review of this novel a few months ago, which captures everything that I want to say. This really was one of the best novels that I read in 2014.

The Bone Clocks - David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell

Swastika Night – Katharine Burdekin

Published in 1937 under the pseudonym of Murray Constantine, Burdekin’s novel imagines a world 700 years after Hitler and Germany conquered Europe, a world where women are reduced to breeding stock.

The idea of Hitler winning the Second World War is a popular theme in alternative histories. But Burdekin’s novel was written two years before the war, a reaction to a political ideology that was threatening Europe. Her far-future dystopia has some truly bleak moments, and the real fear that runs through this text is still palpable today. When Burdekin was writing this novel, her dystopian future was still a possibility.

The novel has often been described as an outstanding feminist critique of fascism. It’s the second novel on this list which portrays a dystopian world where women are deprived of basic rights, and, in many ways, The Handmaid’s Tale feels like a thematic sequel to this novel. It might be easy to ascribe atrocities to Nazi Germany, as if society is no longer capable of making the same mistakes, but Atwood’s novel demonstrates that the oppression of women is not something that only happens in “other” societies. Reading these two books underlines the fragility of society.

Time and Time Again – Ben Elton

It’s not often that a mainstream author can dabble with science-fictional elements and write a successful novel. The product is usually terribly derivative, with clunky use of genre tropes, or a muddling of themes. And, to be honest, the first half of Ben Elton’s Time and Time Again felt like a fairly standard time travel story. His prose style may be succinct, witty, and engaging, which elevated the novel above some of its kin, but I felt that he was retreading old ground. However, the story gains some serious traction in the second half, and watching events unfold is like watching the proverbial train crash – I certainly didn’t want to look away.

The simple premise – a man goes back in time to prevent the Great War – may be one of the standard plots of time travel stories, but Elton has a wonderful (and gut-wrenching) twist. It’s in this twist that his novel becomes interesting, offering a critique of time travel narratives, an attempt to deconstruct the genre and examine the consequences of moving through time. There’s also some wonderful historical detail (especially about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand), and a likeable protagonist who feels like he’s straight out of a H. Rider Haggard novel. Elton proves that he’s just as adept handling science-fictional tropes as he is with comedy and social commentary.

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