Book Highlights of 2013

I feel obliged to post something about the year as it comes to a close, so I chose a quick roundup of the books I read this year that left me feeling refreshed, challenged, stirred up, confused, and touched.

Consider Phlebas, Iain M. Banks

This one makes me sad. I had known for years that Iain M. Banks was a major figure in science fiction, but I hadn’t read any of his books. I remember passing by Matter with its mysterious yellow cover at the Borders where I used to work years ago, but for whatever reason I didn’t pick it up.

So when I learned that Iain M. Banks was dying, it served to push me to finally see what all the fuss was about–and I was blown away. Trying to start at the beginning, I got Consider Phlebas and dove in and was hooked immediately and didn’t really pay full attention to anything else until I had finished.

I could go on and on about the worldbuilding, the deft handling of interweaving viewpoints, the way every character came alive. There were parts I loved less–the cult on the island–but it still stays with me more than the other Culture books I subsequently gorged myself on. I am the Bora Horza Gobuchul.

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin

Unlike with Iain M. Banks, I was familiar with Le Guin. I read The Left Hand of Darkness and Lathe of Heaven years ago and read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the Earthsea books even more years ago. But The Dispossessed was new.

And while I loved all of it, the part that meant the most was when Shevek, after embarrassing himself thoroughly, drunk, at a party, wakes up the following morning and comes to terms with who he is, what he is doing, and what Urras is doing to him. The low point of the character is so revealing and yet so simple and captures in a crystal that moment when Shevek can choose who to be.

We, Evgeny Zamyatin

I found this book on a list of suggested readings from China Mieville. And it was fascinating. Part of my fascination was meta-textual–seeing how the really existing circumstances of the author’s world (We having been written before most of the totalitarian hellscape type Soviet stuff happened) left a wide open field for speculating. Contrast with The Dispossessed, for example, where the political situation on Urras reflects on some levels the political situation of its time. We felt crazy, wide open, strange, beautiful, and unhinged.

I loved the narration of a totalitarian cog becoming self-aware, learning to dream, learning to love things as an individual despite all his instincts and training. And of course the ending is powerfully miserable.