Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ten Worst Novels Read in 2011

Ten Worst Novels Read in 2011

The flip side of the other list, based on structural and aesthetic assessment, on personal assessment. Not much here I’ll spend that much time on, it wasn’t a year that produced a lot of books I hated enough to go into with great detail. Mostly books that because of the author or specific hook thoroughly failed to connect effectively, and I had a good enough reading year that even this list is better than my worst of previous years.

1. Streaking by Brian Stableford (2006)
2. Software by Rudy Rucker (1982)
3. All Clear by Connie Willis (2010)
4. All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl (2011)
5. Skylark Three by E. E. Smith (1930)
6. Prelandra by C. S. Lewis (1944)
7. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin (2011)
8. Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville (2009)
9. Among Others by Joe Walton (2011)
10. The Solarians by Norman Spinrad (1966)

1. Streaking by Brian Stableford
There are a few interesting patterns that become clear when looking at this list as a whole, most notably that it’s 90% speculative fiction, while the best list has only 40%, and that’s if you stretch definitions. Perhaps I should consider shifting my reading tastes, while speculative fiction done excellently can build things that no other genre can, so often what’s produced isn’t, looked at as a whole "mainstream" fiction probably delivered more pleasure and insight than speculative fiction, even beyond judging through the worst. In this case, the bizarrely Clarke-nominated work of hereditary luck is as bad as all the reviewers said, terrible prose, contrived plot, atrociously unsympathetic characters and a deep absence of any point. There was almost a buffering effect going into this book, as I expected it to be as awkward and unpersuasive as it turned out to be, I never felt I was being unduly robbed of my time. Still, that’s no reason to give it a pass. Whether through incompetence or some bizarre stylistic experiment this book falls flat on every level.

2. Software by Rudy Rucker
This one was largely self-inflicted. Last year Hylozoic was the worst novel I read by a considerable margin, a book I encountered out of nowhere that I loathed for its smug, incoherent, pointless twists and for playing everything about its setting and characters as a joke that fell flat. My reaction was strong enough that I sought out one of Rucker’s earlier works to see if he was the Worst Author Ever or if a combination of factors made Hylozoic uniquely bad. It appears to be a little of both. Software was much better and seemed to almost have something of a point, but it sabotages itself by the same incoherent, inept surrealism. These factors were much reduced in Software, but it’s a tone-dead failure in its adventure elements and even more so in the way it tries to examine drug use through a science fiction twist. The structural incompetence of the book would guarantee it a place on this list, what makes it so high up is the ill-focused misanthropism that make encountering Rucker’s worldview actively unpleasant.

3. All Clear by Connie Willis
Last year Blackout by the same author made my worst list, here the continuation of the novel gets a similar, although slightly less severe, assessment. It has basically the same faults as Blackout and most of Connie Willis over the past several decades--failed humor, excess of flaky sentimentality, generic and interchangeable characterization. It’s somewhat better than Blackout in that a unifying plot finally materializes, but it’s still the dullest reading experience I had this year, one that proves to have very little of any substance to say about the past. Most personally annoying is that it’s a story of time-traveling historians that fails in its presentation of historical detail and in having the whole plot rest on the bumbling ineptitude of the historians. That’s just as plausible as the plot-critical contrivances of having Oxford in 2060 rely on cord phones for communication, but the historical ineptitude of the presumed professionals is particularly annoying, from my trade and because Willis appears to think she’s being insightful and humanistic in the process. That this book won a Hugo is inexcusable.

4. All the Lives He Led by Frederik Pohl
The plot comes together not at all, and the book can’t decide whether it wants to say anything of substance about terrorism, or just be a collection of action and noise. The protagonist is deliberately written as being appallingly dense, but the worldbuilding isn’t any smarter, particularly in the conceit that kilo-level casualties from terrorism can become a weekly occurrence without major institutional change. Pohl has had a long career and some great books in his corpus, it’s distressing to see the present Pohl make something so incoherent.

5. Skylark Three by E. E. Smith
Classic pulpy science fiction, which means that the setting hangs together not at all, the plot is an exercise in masculinized triumph without serious drama, and the style of prose is pathologically flawed. Taken in itself it doesn’t commit many sins that weren’t common in this era for this style of sci-fi, but it doesn’t have the energy to disguise these effectively. Particularly damaging is the unrelenting hype towards militarism and misogynist gender roles, common traits for Smith and much science fiction then and now, but here emerging in a particularly concentrated form.

6. Prelandra by C. S. Lewis
All of Lewis’ usual preaching and heavy-handed efforts at evangelism through narrative, without any of the skill he’s elsewhere employed. In attempting to build a close meaningful connection to spiritual truth Lewis hollows out his invented universe, creating an intense anti-worldbuilding that undermines trust for anyone not embracing his type of transcendental meditation. The essence of what’s wrong here emerges in a brief and off-topic speech delivered in the text, to the effect of claiming that biological sex roles are not objectively valid or of religious obligation, but gender roles are. Moments like that make the book intriguing as a historical datapoint, but compromised to the point of uselessness as a story. It’s possible to wed a strong religious standpoint outside my own to an effective narrative--look at Chesterston’s The Man Who Was Thursday and to an extent Lewis’ own Narnia books--but it thoroughly fails to work here.

7. A Dance With Dragons by George R. R. Martin
The fifth installment in a now apparently endless series. This is the point where the increasingly bloated fantasy series has its plot terminate almost entirely, there’s a lot of travel and a minimum of action across these eight hundred pages. A high proportion of the overall length ends up being almost having key characters meet, making decisions that prove to be irrelevant and, most frustratingly, avoiding making crucial decisions to further delay any sense of resolution. As well, going back to this series after a six year gap, it’s increasingly clear how hollow the worldbuilding and sense of moral ambiguity is, how much Martin indulges in cartoonishly evil antagonists, and how problematic his political analysis is.

8. Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville
A cliched, low-energy thriller where tension is continually deflated. The book relies for its punches on feeling invested in the story of a depressed former-IRA turned vigilante against his murderous comrades, but it never comes off satisfactorily. Partly because the psychology is muddled and one-note, partly because the politics are even more uneven. By the end much of the book felt like ill-informed rants against factions within northern Ireland, and the opportunity to make a meaningful statement about the corrosive effects of violence have long since vanished.

9. Among Others by Joe Walton
The book has some whit to it, and largely succeeds at what it’s trying to do. I still view it as problematic because that ambition involves making a far too insular world, a system where science fiction fandom grants superior empathy and intellect to everything else. In particular much of the book breaks down even as a novel, instead going through and commenting on past SF reading in extensive but shallow detail. It’s an exercise in the utmost self-congratulatory arrogance, written to flatter SF fans rather than do anything useful with the themes and texts described. In the process the characterization necessary for this bildungsroman becomes strained to the point of shattering entirely.

10. The Solarians by Norman Spinrad
Spinrad’s a strong author, and he’s written some outstanding works at different points. This effort is him early on, when he’s not seeking to challenge anything, and is so plainly going through the numbers, using a set of worldbuilding and political musing that were cliched even for 1966 SF. Most of the items on this list involve some degree of contrast with the author, them exploring a project that I find flawed and objectionable, something that I could argue against. Here Spinrad was so plainly going through the motions that it’s frustrating, producing stale pulp in what I hope was a very short time, making a story so tedious that it’s frustrating.

Most Underrated Novel: The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua
A Clarke-nominated science fiction novel, but reviewed rather harshly at the time, and doesn’t seem to have gotten much continuing praise or interest. The book is by no means perfect but it has a lot of interesting concepts that mostly cohere, particularly the link between time travel, self-propelled artificial intelligence, virtual reality and contemporary capitalism. I’d say it deserves more praise and a lot more attention than the book seems likely to get.

Most Disappointing Novel: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
It’s a perfectly fine book, that deftly manages an under-depicted historical climate, with effective characterization and a well handled prose. However it’s far short of what Mitchell has managed in some of his earlier explorations of the past, particularly BlackSwanGreen and Cloud Atlas. That raised hopes such that very good ends up being rather underwhelming, the sort of lower-tier best of the year work that will be forgotten in five years. Mitchell is capable of a lot better, and I hope he delivers it again.