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Best Books 2016

Spiotta.jpgIt’s that time of year, so because what the world needs is yet another best of the year list (surely it’s time we all went meta and started producing lists of the best best of lists?) I thought I’d pull together a quick roundup of some of the books I loved this year (if I get the time I’ll also put together a few music picks).

If you’d like to get a head start you can check out the Best Books features in The Weekend Australian (Part One and Part Two) and Australian Book Review, both of which include some of my selections as well as those of many other smart, interesting people, or indeed the features in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, which I’m not part of but are terrific. And you can also hear me in conversation with Jonathan Strahan, Gary Wolfe and Ian Mond about our favourite science fiction and fantasy books of the year on The Coode Street Podcast’s Year in Review episode.

As I say in The Weekend Australian, my favourite book of the year was Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others, the follow-up to her fabulous Stone Arabia. I’m a huge fan of Spiotta, and like all her books Innocents and Others is just thrilling as a piece of literary art: beautifully written, strikingly intelligent about the questions of friendship and art at its core, wonderfully oblique in its approach to narrative. If you haven’t read it I recommend it very much (in fact I recommend all her books).

Barkskins.jpgI also hugely admired Annie Proulx’s monumental Barkskins, a book that forces the reader to confront the scale of the destruction humans are visiting on the world around us, and which, in its final, wrenching sections, embodies more than a little of the incoherent grief so many of us feel. It’s also a book that makes a useful companion piece to three of the best non-fiction books I read this year, Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable and Horatio Clare’s slim but often profound search for a vanished bird, Orison for a Curlew.

I was also deeply impressed by Colson Whitehead’s speculative reworking of the history of slavery, The Underground Railroad, Frances Spufford’s gloriously poised and entirely delightful riff on the eighteenth century novel, Golden Hill (a book that deserved much more attention than it received), Ann Patchett’s characteristically smart and expansive Commonwealth, Paul Beatty’s Man Booker-winning The Sellout, and the fifth volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, Some Rain Must Fall (like many people I’m torn between being unable to wait for the sixth and regret that it will be the final volume).

Amsterdam.jpgI’m not sure it would be correct to say I loved Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, but other than the Proulx I’m not sure any book affected me more this year: I found its portrait of grief and mental illness and their generational legacy deeply distressing and extremely powerful. Something similar is true of Han Kang’s intense and deeply disquieting The Vegetarian, while Elizabeth Strout’s hugely impressive My Name is Lucy Barton is distinguished by the pain that lurks in its silences. And although Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out approaches its subject with a real lightness of touch, its exploration of the ways in which assisted suicide affects those who must facilitate it is hugely intelligent and very moving.

Other novels I enjoyed very much include David Dyer’s wonderful Titanic novel, The Midnight Watch, Sarah Perry’s exuberant The Essex Serpent, Mike McCormack’s novel in a single sentence, Solar Bones, Ali Smith’s Autumn, J.M. Coetzee’s delightfully strange and darkly witty The Schooldays of Jesus and Kirsten Tranter’s beautifully pitched study of grief, Hold. And while I came to them late (and I don’t think the stories are necessarily best served by being presented in collected form) I was hugely impressed by Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Dark Emu.jpgIn terms of non-fiction, my pick of the year is Bruce Pascoe’s brilliant study of pre-contact Aboriginal agriculture and technology, Dark Emu. There aren’t many books I think every Australian should read but Pascoe’s is definitely one of them. I also very much admired Amy Liptrot’s Wainwright Prize winner, The Outrun, Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?, Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and Kate Summerscale’s brilliant The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer. I also hugely enjoyed Bruce Springsteen’s foray into memoir, Born to Run, and although I read it under sad conditions, Simon Critchley’s wonderful Bowie, a book that along with Hugo Wilcken’s study of Low is, for my money, the best of the small library of Bowie books I’ve read in the past couple of years (if you’re interested you can check out my essay about Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which is also in this year’s Best Australian Essays).

I’m biased, obviously, but of the science fiction and fantasy I read my favourite was the first instalment in my partner Mardi McConnochie’s new series for middle grade readers, Escape to the Moon Islands. Like all her books it’s warm and funny and wonderfully original and I can’t recommend it enough (it also has a talking parrot).

In second place was Garth Nix’s Goldenhand, which saw Nix return to the Old Kingdom with triumphant results, but it was a close-run thing with Guy Gavriel Kay’s wonderfully expansive sort-of sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, Children of Earth and Sky, and I also very much enjoyed the conclusion to Paul McAuley’s Jackaroo duology, Into Everywhere, Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station and Charlie Jane Anders’ exuberant Anthropocene fantasy/sci fi mash-up, All The Birds in the Sky. And while it isn’t strictly speculative, I also hugely admired Nike Sulway’s Dying in the First Person.

There’s not really any competition for comic of the year as far as I’m concerned: that crown goes to Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s stunning Vision, but I also loved Adrian Tomine’s short graphic stories, Killing and Dying.

Wolf and a Dog.jpegAnd finally, although my experience of it was tinged with great sadness, I loved my friend Georgia Blain’s final novel, Between a Wolf and a Dog. Georgia’s death a fortnight ago from brain cancer leaves a huge hole in so many people’s lives, but it has also robbed us of one of the most important voices in contemporary Australian literature: Georgia’s writing, both fictional and non-fictional, was always distinguished by her preparedness to speak plainly and truthfully about her own experience, the lives of women and the demands and contradictions of family and love, and to my mind at least she was one of the bravest writers I have ever known. Worse yet, it came at a time when Georgia’s work seemed to have found a new freedom and expansiveness, qualities that are very much on display in Between a Wolf and a Dog, and which I am certain will be everywhere in the book she completed in her final months, The Museum of Words, which will be published next year. I wrote a short piece about Georgia and her work for the Fairfax press, but there have also been beautiful tributes to her from Charlotte WoodSophie Cunningham and Jane Gleeson-White, and a terrific piece about her and her mother, Anne Deveson (who died only three days after Georgia) by Anne Summers. As Sophie says, she was magnificent.

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Locus Recommended Reading List

LocusJust a quick post to say how delighted I am to discover Clade is one of the titles selected for Locus Magazine’s Recommended Reading List for 2015. You can check out the full list over at Locus, but needless to say I’m completely thrilled to be on a list that features books by Ann Leckie, Kim Stanley Robinson, Adam Roberts and Dave Hutchinson, and by the incredibly generous comments about the book in the issue itself. My sincere thanks to all concerned.

And just a reminder that if you’re in Australia Clade is available from any good bookstore, your favourite online retailer or as a ebook, and worldwide through Book Depository.

 

 

The End of Nature and Post-Naturalism: Fiction and the Anthropocene

One of the most interesting things about watching a novel go into the world is discovering what other people think it’s about. Sometimes that can be illuminating, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s always fascinating, not least because the book people seem to read is never quite the book you thought you were writing.

In Clade’s case this process was complicated by the fact a lot of people didn’t seem to know quite how to categorise it. For my part I tended to say it was science fiction, simply because that’s easy and relatively uncontroversial. A number of reviewers, especially in literary outlets, called it dystopian, which it isn’t, or not quite, while a couple of reviewers with an interest in science fiction described it a slow apocalypse or breakdown novel, which I suspect it is, at least in one sense. Others have called it cli fi, or climate fiction, a term that has some utility as a marketing category but seems to occlude more than it reveals when deployed as a critical tool; elsewhere some people have called it Anthropocene fiction.

Interestingly though, several reviewers registered the inadequacies of the terminology, and went on to ask about how exactly we should be describing the growing number of books engaged directly or indirectly with climate change and environmental transformation.

The most substantial of these discussions was in Niall Harrison’s characteristically thoughtful and perceptive review at Strange Horizons, a review that ended with what he described as “a coda about categories”. Noting first that Clade was only one of a number of recent novels “that to varying degrees explore the personal and social effects of environmental crisis”, he went on to note that while many such novels are “kinds of science fiction … there is a sound political logic for discussing them as a group unto themselves”.

Like others, Harrison thinks it’s possible to distinguish such novels from other kinds of science fiction because “climate change is already happening, which means it is in a different class of speculation and social relevance to, say, a pandemic: writing about it is a question of degree and perspective, not whether or not it will happen at all, and the degrees and perspectives that writers choose can be usefully compared” (a point Dan Bloom has also made). But he also – rightly – points out that acknowledging this distinction then demands we recognise the existence of novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which are engaged with these questions but are not science fiction in any meaningful sense.

Like me Harrison is unconvinced of the utility of the notion of “cli fi” in this context (as I have also done he notes its troubling tendency to elide the long history of environmental science fiction), and similarly sceptical of trying to group such books together as dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, even though many books in this area deploy tropes and strategies associated with these traditions, before acknowledging that while he doesn’t have a solution to the question he believes it deserves further attention, if only because “this is a vital literary area, and … we need to get better at describing and discussing it”.

For what it’s worth I agree with Harrison that this is an area in which our conventional terminology fails us, and that none of the options on offer seem to be able to make sense of the work that is being produced, its relationship to traditional genre categories like science fiction (and indeed non-fictional and essayistic forms such as nature writing), or the various strategies it deploys to open up the realist novel in ways that let it embrace and engage with environmental questions.

That’s partly because of the sheer diversity of such books, and their tendency to elide traditional genre boundaries: certainly there’s almost no meaningful family resemblance between a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the affinities between the two means they can (and should) be usefully discussed together.

At one level this diversity reflects the many and complex ways in which writers and artists are engaging with these questions, and more deeply their ongoing attempts to map out an imaginative language with which to make sense of what’s happening to our world (and indeed ourselves) in the 21st century, a point I’ve made elsewhere in the context of what might be best described as the new nature writing. Certainly it’s not accidental so many writers fall back on stories about lost parents and missing children when they seek to articulate their feelings about climate change, devices that capture something of the rupture and grief which suffuses the contemporary condition (something that has prompted the writer M. John Harrison to talk about “loss lit”, and which is also present in articles like this, or this). Nor is it a coincidence that so many of these books employ fractured structures, and borrow devices from science fiction and elsewhere to talk about time and deep time (I suspect all the lost parents and children are another way of getting at these questions as well), or that questions of landscape, and our solastalgic sense of loss about its erasure intrude over and over again (in an excellent piece earlier this year Robert MacFarlane made a similar point about the rise of the eerie in contemporary British culture).

More importantly though, this diversity suggests why thinking of these books in terms of genres or categories is to miss the wood for the trees. Because these books aren’t a genre, they’re expressions of the deeper and more pervasive transformation of the world and ourselves we have taken to calling the Anthropocene in exactly the same way novels like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses reflected and embodied the transformative effects of modernity upon our culture and our selves. As Mckenzie Wark quipped on Facebook earlier this year, all fiction is anthropocene fiction, some of it just doesn’t realise it yet.

To my mind the benefits of thinking about the question in this way are considerable. Not only does it allow us to step away from fruitless arguments about generic definition, but it allows us to see climate change as simply one (if still a very considerable) part of a larger process of transformation, one that embraces, amongst other things, genetic engineering, virtuality, over-population, species loss, habitat destruction and the broader disruption of natural and social systems by environmental change and capitalism.

And, perhaps more deeply, it recognises that we inhabit a world in which we ourselves are being altered, not just by technology and social transformation, but by the shifting terms of our engagement with what we would once have called the natural world. If one wanted to define when this change became apparent perhaps you might point to the floods and fires that tore through Australia over the summer of 2010/11, or the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or the droughts in the Middle East in 2008, or any one of the flooding events or hurricanes or droughts or heatwaves that have struck countries around the world in recent years, but perhaps the really significant moment was earlier this year, when average CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400ppm for the first time since the Pliocene. As Virginia Woolf might have put it, on or about March 2015, human character changed.

What we call the literary expressions of this condition is an open question. The obvious choice is Anthropocene fiction, although I’m resistant to that term, both because like cli fi it suggests a set of generic boundaries, instead of emphasising the degree to which this transformation leaches into everything, and because it emphasises human agency when, to my mind at least, what many of the books and stories we wish to discuss are attempting to find ways to talk about the non-human in fictional terms (I also think it’s worth making the point that while the idea of the Anthropocene is usually assumed to embrace the effect upon the natural world by human activity, but it also – and importantly – embraces a different and more interstitial kind of ecological awareness, one that recognises the presence of wildness and the natural world within the fabric of the human world).

Yet still, given that this idea of the transformation of the natural world, and of the end of a particular idea of nature is central, I wonder whether it mightn’t be simplest to begin to speak of the post-natural, or post-naturalism, and to begin to think of it not as a fad or a fashion or a genre, but as a tangible condition, something shaped and defined by the transformation of the natural world by human agency that is going on around us, and which helps determine the nature of the way we see the world, the questions we ask, and perhaps most importantly, the stories we tell.

 

Literary Consolation Prizes

In the words of the immortal Homer J. Simpson, “it’s funny because it’s true”.

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For more (or to order a poster) check out Grant Snider’s wonderful Incidental Comics.

Best Books 2012

Empty SpaceI mentioned the other day I was leaving this year’s roundup of my best books until the last minute because The Weekend Australian wasn’t running its selections until today, and I didn’t want to preempt what I’d written for them.

That piece is now available, as are the selections I contributed to the lists compiled by The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age and Faber’s excellent Thought Fox, and I really do recommend you take the time to check them out: there are fascinating selections from people such as J.M. Coetzee, Delia Falconer and Richard T. Kelly.

My lists are possibly a bit truncated because six weeks of my year was devoted to reading all 5000 pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a task that not only never felt onerous (except perhaps during the endless sequences in the East in A Feast for Crows) but left me howling with rage that the next part, Winds of Winter, isn’t due until 2014 at the very earliest (and let me just say that if ol’ George dies before he finishes the final book I will personally dig him up and kill him again).

I want to write something more substantial about the series at some point; for the moment I’d just say that I think they’re a pretty remarkable achievement. Martin gets praised for the skill with which he controls his incredibly complex narrative, and for the richness of his characters, but in a way I think the real achievement of the books is their capacity to make you admire characters you may not particularly like (the obvious example is Stannis, but the transformation of Jaime into a sympathetic and even admirable character is one of the real achievements of the series, as is the manner in which the reader comes to sympathise with Cersei by the end of A Feast for Crows). It’s a quality that’s made even more effective by the skill with which Martin frustrates the reader’s narrative expectations, changing the rules by killing characters you assume can’t die and demonstrating the way the actions of minor characters can throw even the best-made plans into chaos (in a way the series is really about the sheer unpredictability of political and military outcomes).

I’m not sure how much crossover there is between Martin’s readership and Hilary Mantel’s, but there are more than a few similarities between A Song of Ice and Fire and Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Both share a fascination with the  exercise of power, and with the complex and often subtle ways in which characters overreach. And while Mantel’s vision is darker  than Martin’s (as books like Beyond Black demonstrate, she’s long had a fascination with cruelty and evil, in particular female cruelty and cupidity) there are enough resonances to make me wish that even half the people who’d read Martin would read Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and vice versa.

I don’t think there’s any question Bring Up The Bodies deserved to win the Booker: electrically written, superbly assured, coolly subversive in a whole series of ways, it is, quite simply, a brilliant book. And I think the Booker judges this year did a good job of producing a shortlist that suggested they actually had some kind of project in mind and knew what they were looking for. But I also think it’s a pity the award’s definition of quality remains so incredibly narrow, not least because if it didn’t there would already be one standout contender for next year’s award, and that’s M. John Harrison’s terrifying Empty Space, a book that walks you to the edge of the void and forces you to look out into it until it begins to look back at you.

On the other side of the Atlantic I was hugely impressed by A.M. Homes’ May We Be Forgiven. It’s uneven and occasionally sentimental (although I suspect the sentimentality is part of the point) but it’s also ferocious and funny and quite brilliant (I’m also reviewing it so I don’t want to say too much before the review runs).

Aside from a few notable misfires, in particular the new ones from Michael Chabon, Ian McEwan and Richard Ford (a novel whose overwritten prose and deadening narrative structure seems to embody all the anxieties of the contemporary literary novel in one (very long) volume), it was a fantastic year for fiction of all kinds. I loved Lauren Groff’s vision of a failing utopia, Arcadia, Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (a book filled with images such as the tide of zombies moving like a river through the streets that continue to haunt me, even a year after I finished it) and John Green’s slightly slick but incredibly moving story of two teenagers with terminal cancer, The Fault In Our Stars.

I also very much enjoyed Patrick Flanery’s imaginary exploration of the lingering effects of trauma, Absolution, Adam Johnson’s North Korean political satire, The Orphan Master’s Son and James Meek’s The Heart Broke In.

On the Australian front I’ve read a lot less than I should, but I loved Margo Lanagan’s selkie novel, Sea Hearts (or The Brides of RollRock Island as it’s known in the UK) and Chris Flynn’s effortless and energetic debut, A Tiger in Eden.

I also read a lot (and I mean a lot) of short fiction, a lot of which was extraordinarily good. The four real highlights were Kij Johnson’s stunning At the mouth of the river of the bees (if you haven’t read its World Fantasy Award-winning opener, ‘26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss’, I suggest you do so immediately), Elizabeth Hand’s Errantry (the opening story of which, ‘The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon‘ is available on Hand’s website), Karin Tidbeck’s strange and quite brilliant Jagannath and Alice Munro’s new collection, Dear Life (the remarkable ‘Gravel’, a story that seems to be one kind of story until, quite suddenly, you realise it’s a quite different kind is a textbook example of Munro’s talent for misdirection). I also loved Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, a book of stories sustained by an internal architecture that only reveals itself in the final pages.

Two other books I loved but which seem to me to elide the usual definitions of novel or short story collection are Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child and Alan Garner’s Boneland. Hawthorn and Child isn’t quite a novel in stories, and lacks the unifying architecture of a collection like Diaz’s, but nor is it simply a series of interconnected stories. Either way it’s terrific: tautly written, funny and whip smart both politically and personally. Likewise, Boneland, the final part of the trilogy Garner began 40 years ago with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, is only a novel in a nominal sense, often seeming more like a journey into the disturbed psyche of its author and the landscape that has inspired so much of his work, but it’s no less powerful for it.

If there was one book of non-fiction I wish was on the Christmas reading lists of politicians around the world it would be Callum Roberts’ account of the crisis confronting our oceans, Ocean of Life: although a lot of the material in it will be familiar to anybody with an interest in the subject seeing it laid out in detail in on place is deeply, deeply confronting. Elsewhere on the non-fiction front I very much enjoyed D.T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story, which provided an interestingly unconventional and mercifully unhagiographic account of a troubled life (and the title of which, interestingly, seems to have been inspired by a line of Christina Stead’s), Robert MacFarlane’s stunningly written The Old Ways and Sean Howe’s smart and superbly entertaining Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

Locally I loved Jane Gleeson-White’s Double Entry (despite the title it’s about accounting, and despite that it’s fascinating and provocative about the significance of accounting) and Geordie Williamson’s passionate tour through the backblocks of Australian literature, The Burning Library.

On which note I might stop. I had been planning to pull together a list of my favourite music over the past twelve months, something I now suspect won’t happen, so in lieu of a post I’ve pasted in three songs I’ve been playing to death in recent weeks: Nada Surf’s impossibly joyous ‘Jules and Jim’, Band of Horses’ ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ and The Lumineers’ ‘Ho Hey’. And I’d love to hear from all of you about the books you enjoyed this year.

Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth (and some other reviewy stuff)

Some of you may have noticed I had a review of Ian McEwan’s new novel, Sweet Tooth in Saturday’s Weekend Australian.

I’ve reproduced the review over the fold in case you’d like to read it, but before you do I thought I might point you toward my reviews of Karen Walker’s vastly overhyped The Age of Miracles and Lauren Groff’s wonderful Arcadia, both of which appeard a few weeks ago, and both of which are books I want to fold into a longer piece I’m working on about the current fashion for dystopia, and what it tells us about the state of science fiction and our imagining of the future more generally.

And while you’re there you might want to check out my reviews of G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, both of which I’ve now posted on the site.

Morris Lessmore and the cult of literary nostalgia

Some of you may have seen The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, which yesterday won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, or if you haven’t you may have encountered the iPad app based on the film.

With its nods to The Wizard of Oz and other works it’s pleasingly smart and literate, and while the iPad app is a bit cutesy for my taste, it’s a nice example of the things the medium can achieve (and my five year-old daughter loves it, so what do I know).

More interesting to me is the way the film embodies the growing vogue for literary nostalgia. Like the endless films featuring dancing books and films such as Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (which is interestingly engaged with the ways in which technology affects the imagination), it’s part of a growing tendency to sentimentalise and fetishise the physical book and the material culture surrounding it.

I don’t think the reasons for this sort of nostalgia are particularly difficult to discern. Literary culture in all its forms is in the midst of a series of changes that are fundamentally altering what we read, how we read it and the ways we access and trade in words and ideas. Unsurprisingly this process generates intense cultural anxiety, at least some of which is expressed in a desire for the certainties of the past.

It’s possible to see these effusions as harmless. Certainly the idea of an iPad app celebrating the magic and mystery of the physical book in the way Morris Lessmore does is so absurd it’s almost funny. But it’s difficult not to wonder whether this nostalgia is at least a little unhealthy.

Part of this stems from the way this culture of nostalgia focusses on celebrating books from the past. Its makers might be reading Franzen and Egan and Bolano but the books they namecheck are Dickens and Melville and Poe. Obviously I’m not averse to people celebrating the classics (hell, I think half our problem is we don’t celebrate them enough) but as the choice of them indicates (A Tale of Two Cities over Copperfield? ‘The Raven’ over Emily Dickinson?) they’re mostly celebrating books people (or at least Americans) are likely to have read at High School and College.

Again this wouldn’t be a problem if what was being celebrated was the books themselves, but I suspect what’s actually being celebrated is the idea of the books themselves. Nobody’s suggesting we actually engage with Poe or Dickens or Melville, they’re just suggesting we feel a quick inner glow at the thought of them.

Coupled with the fetishisation of the technology of the physical book and the library it’s a strangely pernicious brew. Because if we want books and reading to survive and continue to thrive the single worst thing we can do is turn them into Hallmark card symbols of past certainty. What we need to be doing is emphasising the energy and ambition of contemporary writers, and developing new cultures of reading. And call me cranky, but I find it difficult to see how sentimentalising the past does that.