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.


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. 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.


3. Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan

This book delivers the hedons! Takeshi Kovacs is an idealist in a world that doesn’t give a fuck, and he’s not satisfied to let that slide. He is a bad-ass motherfucker. In one of my favorite scenes a man working as a tech at a torture center (that previously imprisoned and tortured him) tries to tell him “Hey man, it was just business, nothing personal” and Takeshi tells him “It was personal for me, so I’m making it personal for you” and goes on to wipe out every fucker there. That should be the universal reply of anyone who gets raped by a system and is then told it’s “nothing personal”.

Richard Morgan identifies as a feminist (like me, yay!) and IMHO it comes through. You might not think that would work, with the protagonist being a bad-ass ex-military guy who sexes up one of the fine ladies in the book, but it does. This isn’t stupid stereotypical military SF. I don’t like mil SF. I know some people think it’s cool, but I consider it boring and over played. Who needs more dumb space marines blowing shit up and growling? Morgan writes for people who like some intelligence in their story along with the awesome bad-ass gun fights and the gratuitous sex scenes. :)

4. Permutation City/Diaspora, by Greg Egan

OK, I know those are two books. Maybe it’s cheating to put them together, but they are both awesome and stylistically very similar, so they’re a single entry. Not only are they very well written and very heady, they introduce several concepts that will blow your brain if you haven’t thought about them in depth before. These should be required reading for transhumanists. They really explore the problems with self-identity for immortal persons. What does it mean to fulfill your utility function? How dangerous is value-drift? Is stagnation as bad a fate as death? And so on and so forth. One of my favorite scenes from Permutation City makes one worry about having edit-at-will memory & consciousness:

“Peer seemed to be making love with Kate, but he had his doubts. […] She hadn’t actually made love to him for months and he couldn’t rule out the possibility that he’d merely decided to fool himself into believing that she’d finally relented.”

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


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