Alfvaen's Top & Bottom Books of 1996

It's time again for Alfvaen's Top & Bottom Books of The Year--the year, in this case, being 1996. (Well, technically, the year is now 1997, but the year whose books I'm judging, or, rather, the year during which I read the books judged here, is 1996. I hope this is clear, because I won't say it again.)

Continuing with last year's tradition, I'm not limiting myself to a Top(or Bottom)Ten list, though the Bottom list happens to contain ten books anyway, through sheer coincidence. So, to save the worst for list, here are the Top Fourteen Books I read in 1996...

Top:

  1. Neal Stephenson: The Diamond Age. I didn't manage to find all the Hugo nominees this year, but this one I did. And this time, my choice happened to concur with that of the Academy--I mean, the Worldcon voting membership. Stephenson's Snow Crash was pretty damn good, but this book is absolutely stunning. I've heard it called "post-cyberpunk", which is not too bad a name. The book has an incredible epic sweep to it, and the best extrapolation of nanotechnology I've seen yet. Furthermore, this book confirms what I've been suspecting for a few years now: "Japan: Tired, China: Wired". This book has to be read to be believed, so just go read it now.
  2. Guy Gavriel Kay: The Lions of Al-Rassan. Better than his preceding book, A Song For Arbonne, and while still not as good as his phenomenal Tigana, it's still well worth reading. The three books form a loose conceptual trilogy of "fantasy" books set in alternate Europe; this one is entirely bereft of magic, though, so "alternate history" or "alternate world history" might be a better description. It takes place in an alternate Spain during the Moslem conquest, and explores the relationships of a Spaniard, a Moslem and a Jew(I won't confuse you with the names of this world's analogues, which are clear enough), and the nature of loyalty, love and patriotism. Kay seems to be the master of the scene, and this book is an engaging succession of them.
  3. Elinor Lipman: Then She Found Me. It didn't sound like the kind of book I'd want to read. A woman is reunited with her mother, who gave her up for adoption long ago, and is now a daytime talk show host. But the characters are engaging, even the mother(someone you wouldn't think you'd like), and while the plot isn't a thriller, it's warm and human. We may not be able to choose our family, but they mean something to us nonetheless.
  4. Raphael Carter: The Fortunate Fall. The author's first novel, and it could be said that it suffers from the usual first-novelist "kitchen sink" syndrome, of tossing in all the ideas they've accumulated over their unpublished years. But this novel goes far beyond that. There are a lot of ideas in here, and it takes a while to catch up, but it could be said that this book is one of the few that depicts a future of comparable complexity to the one we're really going to have. It has resonances with other "post-cyberpunk"(gosh, that's a useful label)like Diamond Age and Mother of Storms, and takes place mostly in Russia(which is, these days, also Wired). I predict this guy will go places.
  5. Tanya Huff: Fifth Quarter. I was recently boggled to discover that this book won some kind of "romantic fantasy" award, because that's certainly not how I would have described it. A brother-and-sister assassin team's assignment is complicated when their target's soul leaps into the brother's body, and the brother is displaced into his sister's...and they all have to rethink the way they look at the world. This is the second of Huff's "Quarter" series, and there are some plot threads left unfinished for the third, No Quarter, but nonetheless this book can stand alone.
  6. Stephen R. Donaldson: The Gap Into Ruin:This Day All Gods Die. I've been raving about this series for a while now, and I'm happy to say that Donaldson didn't choke on the ending. (Of course, he had the Nibelungenlied as a plot framework, or so he claims...) This book most emphatically does not stand alone, but consider this my official authorization to those of you who were waiting for the entire series to be out(and to hear whether or not the ending sucked)to rush out and buy the thing, since it's all now in print(and in paperback).
  7. Melissa Scott: Silence In Solitude. A title almost as good as its prequel, Five-Twelfths of Heaven, and the book is at least as good, too. (The third, The Empress of Earth, isn't quite...) This book, set in a science-fantasy world where magic and alchemy are used to power starships(as well as more conventional usages), avoids the second-book lulls. Silence Leigh, pilot and wizard-in-training, is forced to go undercover to rescue a noble's daughter being held hostage, a straightforward adventure enlivened by Scott's unique milieu.
  8. Sean Stewart: Resurrection Man. From the opening scene of a man performing his own autopsy, this book is highly different. "Magic works in the modern world" is an old and timeworn idea, but you'll hardly recognize it once Stewart is through with it. Worth reading for the sheer audacity of his vision.
  9. Charles Sheffield: Summertide. This is an author I've obviously been neglecting. Summertide(the first book of a series, which doesn't daunt me)is an intriguing tale of a universe littered with bizarre alien artifacts of planetary size, and the unusual group who converge to a double-planet pair at its time of greatest instability. Combines the best adrenaline-charged excitement with the highest sensawunda. I'm looking forward to the rest of the series...
  10. Iain Banks: The Wasp Factory. Now this guy is twisted. (I had heard that already, of course...) Don't you dare flip to the last page!
  11. Talbot Mundy: The Devil's Guard. A bit old-fashioned, but this is more than what it seems at first. It starts out as a more or less straightforward British-chaps-in-Asia adventure, with two fellows going off to rescue an erstwhile companion, but it turns into a spiritual adventure into deepest Tibet. (And anyone who watched second-season "Twin Peaks"--this is where the "White Lodge" really comes from...)
  12. Terry Pratchett: Reaper Man. Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is sometimes uneven, but Pratchett can usually be relied upon for several guffaws and a few thoughtful moments. This one is a bit more thoughtful than some, which I found rather pleasant. Death has always been one of Pratchett's best characters, and his attempt to turn his back on his responsibilities(which causes all sorts of chaos, of course)forms the framework for this book. Resonates(pleasantly)with Piers Anthony's On A Pale Horse, as Death come to terms with what his job is really about...
  13. Gregory Maguire: Wicked:The Life & Times of The Wicked Witch of The West. This book is flawed in many ways, but it's still audacious enough to be worth a look. Maguire makes Oz into a real world, with real politics, real racism, and real characters. Where the book fails, perhaps, is when it tries to adhere too closely to L. Frank Baum's original framework, because there are just a few too many inconsistencies. But if you've ever wondered if the Wicked Witch was more than a caricature of evil, this is the book for you.
  14. Patricia Anthony: Conscience of The Beagle. This one makes it onto the list mostly because of the audacity of its ending, which I wouldn't dream of spoiling for you here. On the whole, it's about the enforcers of Earth colonialism and, as the title implies, the conscience they suffer from. Anthony is definitely an author to watch, and don't get her confused with the other P. Anthony who takes up so much more shelf space...

In my nonfiction category, the only book I can recall which really struck me this year was The Spin Magazine Alternative Record Guide. It's a very nice guide to that very nebulous category of music(and, after looking through it, you might get a bit of an inkling as to the real meaning of "alternative"). I didn't agree with all of their opinions by any means, but it gave me lots to think about, and lots to look for.


Bottom:

  1. John Barth: The Tidewater Tales. This book prompted me to codify a new rule for myself: If I'm not halfway through a book after a week, I give up on it. With this one, I wasn't even close. It seemed needlessly bloated, and self-referential to the point where I already felt like I'd read the plot of the book twice over. One story from the book(written by one of the main characters), called "The Olive", was nothing more than its title, based on the old recipe for chicken: "Wrap a piece of bacon around an olive. Stuff it in a chicken; stuff that inside a pig; stuff that inside a cow. Cook until done. Discard the cow; discard the pig; discard the chicken; discard the bacon; eat the olive." This book felt like the cow, and there may have been a delicious little olive inside it trying to get out. (Read the Table of Contents instead, but beware of going further, no matter how much it intrigues you. It's not worth it.)
  2. Robert Frezza: A Small Colonial War. I don't read much military SF, and this book only confirms me in that resolution. Leaden characters(I kept having to refer to the little listing by rank at the beginning to remember who was who), a who-cares plot (probably analogous to the Boer War or something, but, as I said, who cares)...this book almost fell under that one-week rule mentioned above, but I managed to slog through to the end. I'm here to save you from doing the same.
  3. Sara Jeannette Duncan: The Imperialist. This is what I get for venturing into Canadian Literature again. The main plot had something to do with a young fellow's promising career in politics turning out badly because of his pro-British(i.e. Imperialist)tendencies. Some of the subplots were a bit more interesting, but they couldn't support the whole book, unfortunately.
  4. Stephen King: Pet Sematary. I don't have a real grasp on this "horror" thing. Very few books I've read, even those that have the word on their cover, fit into that category. I've tended to enjoy the other King books I've read, but this one was a bit too bleak for me, and my sympathy with the main character dwindled progressively until, by the end, I didn't care in the slightest about his fate. If this is "horror", I don't see the need to subject myself to it... I'll stick to dark fantasy, thank you very much.
  5. Arthur C. Clarke: The Fountains of Paradise. This book doesn't really have a plot; it showed some promising signs of developing one at a few points, but the author cleverly solved the complications before they could amount to anything exciting. So what's left is just a story about people doing an engineering project, mostly, and while I'd doubtless find it quite interesting if it were a true story(heck, I'd settle for some two-dimensional characters), as it is it left me cold. I've seen the same topic("beanstalks", or whatever you want to call them) dealt with better in later books, so this might have been a groundbreaking idea at the time, but now it's just a postscript to more interesting books.
  6. C.J. Cherryh: Hestia. There just wasn't a lot new in this book. Offworld engineer comes to colony, and finds himself sympathizing more with the native inhabitants than the colonists (who, of course, persecute the natives); the natives, of course, eventually win out. Cherryh's style was still developing at this point; the book lacks the character and plot skills of her later work. Read it for completeness if you must(as I did), but don't expect much of it. Read her newer work first.
  7. Harlan Ellison: Stalking The Nightmare. I know that Harlan can write fabulous stuff. I've read a lot of it. But this anthology seems an almost purposeful attempt to take all his mediocre stuff and put it in one place so it won't contaminate the other anthologies. From the opening introduction(which, instead of the more-or-less straightforward soul- and gut-baring personal prose that I much prefer, is a pretentious piece of crap about the writer's duty to "stalk the nightmare", or something), I kept waiting to find the good stuff, but it never really came. The best is almost certainly the nonfiction(especially the story of how "The Starlost" got screwed up by the TV industry), but Harlan's best work is elsewhere.
  8. John Irving: The 158-Pound Marriage. Two couples decide to have affairs with each other's spouses. There you have it, the main premise of this book. There are signs of Irving's more usual quirkiness, but they are mostly in the past of the main characters, and the "present" storyline is never a reservoir of excitement. Okay, maybe I'm reading this book at the wrong level, but I didn't enjoy it as much as the other Irving work that I've read.
  9. Philip K. Dick: The Penultimate Truth. Dick may be brilliant, but he is certainly uneven. A few interesting ideas here, but a few silly ones, and a few plot implausibilities, and the resulting mishmash is ultimately unsatisfying.
  10. R.U. Sirius & St. Jude: How To Mutate And Take Over The World. Actually, I was considering coming up with a "Most Ambivalent" category, mostly because of this one book. I knew that it would be nearly impossible for it to live up to its title, but it was doing pretty good at the beginning, until it decided to try to have a plot. It's got some interesting ideas--it's rife with self-referentiality tricks, and large portions of it are sort of like a "novel of email"(the Victorian "novel of letters" for the 1990's, I guess), but it doesn't go anywhere interesting, just into a world of stereotyped "Decency" types(where the Communications Decency Act, admittedly predicted by the authors before its actual appearance, was passed)who take over the Net and their beleaguered net- and media-guerrilla opponents. Someone should have taken these folks aside and explained the dangers of straight-line extrapolation. Very seriously flawed, but with some bright spots nonetheless. Maybe, since it's supposed to be an "exploded post-novel", I was just reading it wrong. Maybe I should have run it through a travesty generator first.

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The Den of Ubiquity / Aaron V. Humphrey / alfvaen@gmail.com