Mar 082013


“The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ‘em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ‘em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool. The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.” — Steven Brust

This is why a lot of critics and reviewers are useless – they don’t have the same taste as you. And that’s why we need so many, it’s hard to find someone who you share a significant amount of taste with. I realized that I do SF/F Reviews, but I haven’t really introduced my taste yet. I hope this is ameliorated somewhat because I try to rate books for book clubs by whether they give the readers things to talk about or not, but obviously my taste will still make a big difference, and I do comment on the general enjoyability of the book itself as well. So, in an effort to help potential review-readers gauge how much my reviews are relevant to them, I present my Top 5 Books and why I like them. May this help with your calibrations.

(this list is occasionally updated as my Top Five changes. When it does, previous Top Five entries are moved to Honorable Mentions)

1. Vellum, by Hal Duncan

In Vellum, something happened, but the enormity of the event can never be put into words. So instead the event is repeated and re-examined, over and over, from countless different angles. Every story is a separate story, not a continuing narrative, with separate characters. But every story is the same story, and the characters are always the same – in essence if not in flesh.

It isn’t written linearly, because its story isn’t a linear story. It is a mosaic which you can only see small pieces of at a time, and once you’ve read the whole thing you have all the pieces and you can hold them in your mind and mentally take several large steps backwards and finally see the actual picture.

Importantly, all the parts that make up the whole are themselves awesome. Like a mosaic, the various pieces may be different colors or shapes – there’s cyberpunk, there’s modern Lovecraftian horror (which is the best piece of modern Lovecraft I’ve read, but I am biased), there’s steampunk, there’s angels destroying each other in holy wars. But despite the differences, each piece is made of the same material as all the others, and the differences mainly serve to point this out.

And the overall picture, the theme that all the different pieces keep circling around and coming back to, is extremely relevant to me. It’s a simple theme, and if the sparking event of the novel could be put into words, it would be a simple two-word story: people die.

2. Worth The Candle, by Alexander Wales

Worth The Candle is a story about a storyteller trapped inside someone else’s story, who knows that this is what’s happening. Between all the killing of zombies and daring escapes through sewers and rescuing of princesses, there is also a continuous commentary on the nature of story telling. What it means to be inside a story, and how this can be used to your advantage if you are the main character. What the purpose of a story is, and how that is reflected in the monsters/challenges he is being faced with.

And of course hanging over all this is the knowledge that we ourselves are reading a novel, and all such commentary reflects on the text we are reading as well. It’s not just exhilarating and funny, it’s also intellectual and meta as hell. It prompted me to create a 100+ hour podcast analyzing it. Great stuff.

3. Harry Potter And The Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky

A well-written fanfic that created the Rationalist Fiction genre. An alternate universe story, where Petunia married a scientist. Harry enters the wizarding world armed with Enlightenment ideals and the experimental spirit. This is a romp, and is perfection for a particular kind of nerd. I am this kind of nerd. I loved it so much I spent several years making it into an audiobook. If you were a bit of a child prodigy, and a nerd, without many friends, but with a love of living that made you obnoxious to others, you might just love this forever.

4. The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

I love angry characters. I love when their anger is justified, and I love seeing what it drives them to do. I love it even more when those who are abusing our characters actually have a damn good reason to do so! (“We don’t want you to explode the world, tyvm”) This book is an exploration of slavery, and systemic oppression, sure. But it’s not about that, per se. It is about what drives a person(s) to extremes, and it immerses you completely in that journey.

I know not everyone will have the same reaction I did, because this novel is for exactly the sort of person I am. Our protagonists are broken in the same way that I am broken. Do you know how good it feels to see that sort of broken portrayed? To see your rage, and hurt, and doubt, mirrored by an author you’ve never met, but who obviously feels all those things too? This story reached directly into my soul, grabbed hold, and squeezed.

5. Watchmen, by Alan Moore

Both for its conceptual density, and for its amazing characters. Rorschach is like many characters I love – the world is broken and he must fix it. He is unrelenting and uncompromising. I find the book particularly fascinating because Rorschach and Veidt are basically the same character, except Rorschach focuses on the trees and Vedit focuses on the forest. You can tell it’s a very well done book because I still can’t bring myself to say which one was in the right. They both have incredibly compelling arguments. Rorschach is certainly more inspirational, but it’s hard to argue with Veidt’s results. And neither one can exist in the same world with the other.

It’s also one of the first works I read that seriously explored the idea of what it would be like to be God, with Jon. Once you already know everything that will happen, you stop becoming a person and turn into nothing more than a force of nature. It’s a great examination, and emotionally compelling to boot.


Honorable Mentions:

Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
The Wind-up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie
Too Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer
Permutation City/Diaspora, by Greg Egan
Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan


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