2011 Reading Census

This year has been an interesting reading year for me, fluctuating between a bunch of really, really good books, and a couple that really sucked out any interest that I had in reading at that time, with a number of books in-between that I thought were fun reads. Here’s what I got through in 2011:

1- Grey, Jon Armstrong (1-8)
2- The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (1-21)
3 – Hull Zero Three, Greg Bear (1-23)
4 – Hunger Games, Suzanne Clarke (2-1)
5 – The Lifecycle of Software Objects, Ted Chiang (2-4)
6 – At The Queen’s Command, Michael A. Stackpole (2-19)
7 – Mossflower, Brian Jacques (2-20)
8 – Embedded, Dan Abnett (3-7)
9 – Kraken, China Mieville (3-9)
10 – Leviathan Wakes, James A Corey (3-17)
11 – Little Fuzzy, H Beam Piper (3-28)
12 – Fahrenheit 451 Graphic Novel, Ray Bradbury (4-13)
13 – Yarn, Jon Armstrong (4-13)
14 – Welcome to the Greenhouse, Gordon Van Gelder (4-19)
15 – Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi (4-25)
16 – Spectyr, Philippa Ballentine (4-26)
17 – Soft Apocalypse, Will McIntosh (4-27)
18 – Blackout, Connie Willis (4-30)
19 – Locke & Key, Joe Hill (5-8)
20 – Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins, (5-22)
21 – Deathless, Catherynne Valente (5-27)
22 – Embassytown, China Mieville (6-18)
23 – Hex, Allen M. Steele (7-2)
24 – The Gravity Pilot, MM Buckner (7-4)
25 – A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (7-15)
26 – The Big Roads, Earl Swift (7-19)
27 – Spellbound, Blake Charlton (8-2)
28 – The Magician King, Lev Grossman (8-4)
29 – Bright’s Passage, Josh Ritter (8-5)
30 – Grave Peril, Jim Butcher (8-13)
31 – Spook Country, William Gibson (9-6)
32 – Machine Man, Max Barry (9-10)
33 – Crisis in Zefra, Karl Schroeder (9-15)
34 – Halo: The Fall Of Reach, Eric Nylund (10-1)
35 – Germline, TC McCarty (10-5)
36 – The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (10-16) Audio
37 – Halo: Glasslands, Karen Traviss (10-29)
38 – Red Herring, Archer Mayor (10-20)
39 – Ganymede, Cherie Priest (11-11)
40 – Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (11-20)
41 – Ready Player One, Ernie Cline (11-26)
42 – Open Season, Archer Mayor (12-5)
43 – Seed, Rob Zeigler (12-11)
44 – Rule 34, Charles Stross (12-??)

In the pipeline: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron, by Michael A. Stackpole, All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl and The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education by Craig M. Mullaney. Rogue Squadron is something I’m going to finish up sometime this weekend, and All You Need is Kill is somewhere behind that. The other two are a bit denser, and while they’re interesting, they’re taxing to get through.

Interestingly, this was the first year where I really read books electronically. I’ve dabbled with it in the past, ever since I bought an iPad, but this year, I made the jump and read a small percentage digitally: 7 in all: Grey, Lifecycle of Software Objects, Embedded, Little Fuzzy, Crisis in Zephra, Ender’s Game and Open Season. Add in Game of Thrones, with which I alternated between my paperback and ecopy, and that’s 19%, or just under a fifth of my book pile existed on a hard drive somewhere, rather than a bookshelf.

An interesting thing about eBooks: there’s really only a single novel that I read in which I felt really took advantage of the book’s digital nature: Crisis at Zephra. This novel, a short novella, really, was published by the Canadian Military, and incorporated a lot of data about new and upcoming technologies, and trends in said technology. I was limited in that I was reading on a wifi only iPad when I was away from the internet, which left me unable to click on the links scattered throughout the text, with explanations as to what the terms, technology and theory meant. This, I think, is where eBooks will eventually head: less reading experiences, and more immersive and interactive ones.

I’ve also been doing a bit more with book reviews, on a number of different sites: SF Signal, The Functional Nerds, Kirkus Reviews, and my own blog, with a total of 15 books (34%) read for a review. In this instance, I’ve written reviews for a number, but these are books that were given to me by either the website that I wrote the review for, or sent by an author or publicist for my own purposes, even if a review wasn’t necessarily expected or promised. Just under a full third of my reading this year was subsidized by someone else, for review purposes. Of those books, I had a bit of fun, although my reviews weren’t universally positive. The caveat to this, of course, is that a majority of my reading, (29 books in all – 65%) are for my own pleasure, and a minor attempt to whittle down my own to-read list. I’ve got a feeling that I’ll never destroy the growing pile.

I’ve always described myself as a science fiction fan, rather than a fantasy one, and in years past, I’ve typically read more fantasy than science fiction. This year? I read 27 Science Fiction books (61%), 11 fantasy books (25%), 2 mystery novels (4.5%), 2 YA novels (4.5%), and 1 each of history and steampunk (2%). This year was certainly more science fictional than years past, which I’m happy about.

Interestingly, while I describe this year as being up and down, when looking over the list as a whole, there’s only four books that I really didn’t like. I thought just under half (20) were good, while just under a quarter (10%), were okay – decent, but nothing that really wowed me. 10 books in all really blew me away (22%). Of the books that I read this year, the more memorable were the really great ones, and of those, three really stood out for me: The Magician King, by Lev Grossman, Soft Apocalypse, by Will McIntosh, and The Dervish House, by Ian MacDonald. (See my top 10 list for the full number of ones that impressed me this year.) These books are astonishing reads, and I really hope that we’ll see The Magician King and Soft Apocalypse get the attention they deserve: Grossman has gained a considerable amount of acclaim, but McIntosh’s first novel feels like it’s under the radar a bit, the underdog of the year. If you haven’t read it: I can’t recommend it highly enough. The Dervish House was nominated for a Hugo, but somehow ended up at the bottom of the polls. Still, it’s nice to see it nominated.

Of the really bad books, these all stand out as ones that I had the most trouble getting through: Seed, by Rob Zeigler, The Gravity Pilot by M.M. Buckner, Deathless, by Catherynne Valente and Hex, by Allen M. Steele. I believe that the reason why they stand out so much is because they were all books that I had high hopes for: Seed was lauded as the successor to Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and utterly failed at that, The Gravity Pilot looked interesting, and didn’t work, Deathless was wonderfully written, but was a book that I simply couldn’t get into, and Hex was part of Steele’s Coyote universe, which started off so well, and has fallen so far with this book. There were some others, like Jack Campbell’s Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught, which was so abysmally written that I couldn’t even get through the first chapter, and Sarah Hall’s Daughters of the North that I had a lot of trouble getting into and didn’t finish.

Everything else in the middle was entertaining, and some excellent novels: Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games was an excellent read, although the sequel was a bit too much of the same for my liking. I haven’t reached #3, Mockingjay, and I’m awaiting that one’s release in paperback. China Mieville’s Embassytown was interesting, a little flawed, but brilliant all the same, although I have to say that I liked Kraken quite a bit more. Leviathan Wakes was a lot of fun to read, and a promising start to a new series, while John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation was something I tore through in just a couple of hours on a plane. I finally got in on A Game of Thrones, and it lives up to the hype, somewhat. I even broke out of the SF/F genres, and picked up the fantastic The Big Roads, by Earl Swift, which was a fascinating look at the construction of roadways in the US. Karen Traviss’s entry into the Halo universe was also a fantastic one, and it’s dragged me in to that particular expanded world, as I picked up several other Halo novels, which will likely get read next time I’m on a Halo kick. I re-read Mossflower after Brian Jaqcues passed away, as well as Ender’s Game, and found both books really lived up to my memories of them. Ernie Cline’s Reader Player One was a fun, entertaining book, but it was lacking in other departments. Finally, I had a chance to go back and revisit Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which lives up to my first impressions wonderfully.

So, why quantify my enjoyment? I’ve generally been accused from people of taking things like this too seriously, in reviewing films or books that should be ‘just for fun’. I’ve never subscribed to the ‘turn your brain off while you read/watch/listen’ train of thought, because I think that does a disservice to the author. Certainly, there’s books or films that I’ve done that with, enjoying them because they were written to be enjoyed. But, distilling a year’s worth of reading down into some easy statistics?

A couple of reasons: one, it helps me better understand my own interests by grounding them in reality. As mentioned, I firmly describe myself in the science fiction camp, but over the past couple of years, I’ve generally been surprised when I’ve read more fantasy than science fiction. My interests are all over the place, and I don’t generally remember at a glance what I’ve read as a whole. I was a little surprised that I hadn’t finished more than a single history book this year, despite the intense work that I did on various history projects: I’ve read portions of numerous historical texts, mainly about World War II and military history (including a couple that are still technically on the reading list), but never finished them, or needed to finish them. This might also be me forgetting to stick a book onto the ‘Read’ List.

Reading is an important part of what I do. I typically read at night, before I go to bed (increasingly, if I’m using my iPad, or at the beginning of the day, when I can get through 10-15 pages while I’m waiting for my computer to load up at work. Weekends usually mean a lot of time to blow through something, and when I was on public transportation for two trips earlier this year to Washington D.C. and Belgium, I read a lot: three books for each trip (for the DC trip, that was one book for the airplane, one for the second day on the train, and the third for the flight home, all in a couple of days.) Better understanding my own reading habits help me to read more, I think, and while it’s not quantity over quality, I’ve got a massive backlog of books that I’ve bought. Looking over my list from this year, I had a total of 6 books – 13%! – came off of that list, which currently numbers around 100. These are all books that I’ve owned for more than a year, while a huge number of books that I picked up this year were released this year, and this also comes as a bit of a surprise.

My thoughts going into 2012 is that I’ll be whittling down the to-read list. There’s a lot of books that I do want to get to in the near future. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number that are edging up the list: George R.R. Martin’s second entry in the Song of Ice and Fire, Clash of Kings is most certainly going to make it onto the list when the next season hits, the entire X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston will get re-read prior to the next novel in the series, Mercy Kill. I also want to revisit Timothy Zahn’s Icarus Hunt. I’ve also been wanting to begin David Louis Edelman’s Infoquake, finish out William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy with Zero History and get into Neal Stephenson, Iain M. Banks, and generally blow through a bunch of paperbacks and history books that I’ve had for a couple of years. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get through a portion of that, and hopefully, I’ll slow down the growth of my own library – we’re running out of shelf space (again).

It’s been a fun year, with a lot of good stories all around. It looks like 2012 will be just as much fun.

Ready Player One

Ernie Cline is no stranger to nostalgia. His 2008 film, Fanboys, looks at the enthusiasm of Star Wars fans as the clock towards the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace slowly counts down. Cline is now back with a novel, Ready Player One, which taps into the same enthusiasm with a much broader range of geek culture, feels like Fanboys with an exponential injection of energy. The best description of the novel comes from John Scalzi, who described the book as a ‘nerdgasm’, which sums up the entire package quite nicely, and there’s rarely a page without some affirmation or reference towards 1980s Geek culture. If ever there was a primer on what constitutes a Geek, this book is it.

At the same time though, I found Ready Player One to be a considerable letdown. It’s got almost all of the ingredients to make for an excellent story: there’s plenty of nostalgic love wrapped up in it, but the book falls flat when it comes to the actual path of the story. The book also name-checks just about every obvious author, film, television show and comic book to make any fan giddy, and while it’s fun to see everything in a great mashup, it ultimately serves little purpose for much of the plot.

Cline sets up a fairly plausible story that takes shape in 2044, where the world has taken a turn for the worst climate change and the decline of governments mean most people spend a lot of time in an online system known as OASIS, a technological mixup of virtual and augmented reality, social networking and a little bit of the Matrix thrown in there. People meet, fall in love, get educated, go to work, play and all of the other things that the internet currently does, and it’s a pretty compelling place, until the founder, James Halliday, dies, leaving his entire fortune and control of OASIS to whomever can locate and solve three puzzles, all centered around his childhood and formative influences. Overnight, an entire class of people searching for the clues – Gunters – are born, ranging from the freelancers to the stereotypically evil corporation, IOI (known as the Sixers). Our protagonist, Wade Watts, joins in the fun just like everyone else, obsessing over Halliday’s life and interests, and finds himself a world-wide celebrity when he uncovers the first key. The race is on, and he finds himself on an adventure that’s more dangerous than he expected.

It’s a fun, quick read, on par with what one might expect from a summertime movie (and this book is already optioned for film treatment – I’ll be interested to see how they handle every franchise name-checked in it.) with about the same amount of depth. It’s not a bad read: far from it, but in the couple of days since I finished it, I’ve had a bit of an off feeling coming from the story.

The central part of the problem isn’t the packaging or concept of the story: it’s what the characters do, and a lot of it comes down to the writing and execution of the story itself. Watts is the idealized geek: encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s popular culture history, and frequently, the prose comes down to Watts explaining that he’s downloaded, consumed and memorized just about all of it: it stretches the imagination a bit, which might be the idea, but it rubs me the wrong way. For one thing, the impressions of anything that I’ve come across isn’t static. Recently, I re-read Ender’s Game, and came away after a decade long break with a totally new understanding of the text and plot. Here, the materials that is so lovingly listed is treated as a mere object.

This leads me to my next issue with the story: the characters really don’t learn much from their efforts. Watts and his band of friends memorize everything, but there’s not a whole lot that they seem to get out of it, aside from some of the really big concepts, which makes their eventual successes a bit underwhelming: the lessons that they learned in finding the first key to the second to the third essentially only exist in that they’re waypoints for the next movement forward, rather than yielding some form of knowledge and understanding of life and the world around us as the whole purpose of the exercise would be. Even the character’s interactions with one another feel predictable, foretold, rather than allowing events to drive them. While IOI is looking to gain the keys for wealth and profit, that feels like it would be their weak point, where Watts & Co. succeed by learning something while moving forward. It’s alluded to towards the end, but no more than lip service.

One of the major issues that acts as an umbrella for the entire book is that it’s easy to list and incorporate everything into a giant mix of one’s favorite franchises: it helps to provide some of the more exciting scenes in the book, but after reading the story, I found myself wondering what about the stuff that happened in between 2003 (the latest reference that I caught was Firefly), and 2044, a time that’s more than double the period of popular culture influences? The book is intended as a nostalgic exercise, but popular culture is popular for far more reasons than mere nostalgia, it’s the continued imagination that drives it forward. Far too frequently, it feels like the sudden popularity of geek culture is a blip in the ether, something that will slowly fade as our memories of our collective childhoods becomes just that much more hazy. There’s a gap between the imagination and innovation of consumers and our tendency to fall back on what’s familiar. While Ready Player One is a fun, exciting and page turning read, it heavily embodies the derivative nature of our culture, and runs with it. It’s not a legacy that I really like.

To be sure, Ready Player One is a fantastic primer, one that sums up the check list of essential geek things to look in on. But it misses some of the key points of the heart of the subject. It’s a good effort though, and if anything, it’s well worth the entertainment and trip back in time.

Currently Reading

It’s been a while since I’ve stepped back and taken stock of what I’ve been reading, and with the end of the year rapidly approaching, there’s a whole handful of books that I’m currently in the middle of or about to start up. Hopefully, I’ll get through this short list by the end of the year, and begin building a list of anticipated books for 2012. (Although, like last year’s list, it was only somewhat helpful.)

Currently Reading:

Ganymede, Cherie Priest. The 4th book in Priest’s Clockwork Century series, we’re dropped into the Louisiana area, slowly working our way across the US south east. Already, I like this book quite a bit more than Dreadnought, and while it’s not quite as interesting or as much fun as Boneshaker was, I’m enjoying it when I have time to read. It’s a good addition to the series, and I’m interested in how characters from several of the stories have begun to appear, making me wonder if the series isn’t so open-ended as I first thought.

All You Need Is Kill, Hiroshi Sakurazaka. Earlier this fall, I was looking for some international military science fiction stories (i.e., not stories written from a perspective outside of the United States’), and seem to have found a good entry for modern-day Japan in this one. A bit like Groundhog Day with power armor and aliens, it’s entertaining, and it’s helping to confirm a couple of ideas that I’ve been working on in my head. Exciting stuff with this one, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Learning to Eat Soup With A Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, John Nagl. My first non-Science Fiction / Fantasy / Fiction book in a little while, Nagl’s book is a case study in counterinsurgency docrine and military pedagogy as it relates to military readiness and tactical continuity. Comparing the US experience in Vietnam and the UK experience in Malaya, it’s a book that I wish that I’d read a while ago, while taking my Master’s. It’s short, but very dense, and very important for anyone who wants to understand how the modern military works.

Coming Up:

Ready Player One, Ernie Cline. A friend and classmate of mine turned me to this one. Written by Fanboys writer / director Ernie Cline, this book is absolutely loaded with geeky references throughout. The first couple of chapters were up for free a while ago, and when I had a spare moment last month, I’d downloaded the PDF and read it on my iPad in a single sitting, and have been wanting more ever since. I’m restraining myself from having this one jump the line, but it might very well do that soon.

Seed, Rob Zeigler. Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut novel The Windup Girl is quite possibly one of the more pivotal books that I’ve picked up recently that’s defined my view of science fiction. Seed looks to be in a similar vein of a near future of ecological destruction. I don’t know that it’ll be better, but it certainly looks as interesting.

Rule 34, Charles Stross. I really enjoyed Charles Stross’s Halting State, and this loose sequel is something that I’ve been looking forward to picking up. Stross has a great understanding of how science fiction and the future work: it’s not the technology, but the people and systems that they construct, and I think Halting State was a good example of this line of thinking. Hopefully, this one will be just as interesting.

I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet, Bill McKibbon. McKibbon is a fellow Vermont resident, and has been very active lately in protesting a major pipeline that’s under consideration. This anthology of short stories looks at what happens if he fails. I’m very interested in the current and growing trend of eco-fiction that’s coming to bear, and this looks to be a good addition.

How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle, Gideon Rose. Megan’s stolen this one from me and is enjoying it, and it’s a topic that’s ever more relevant as we approach the troop-withdrawal deadline at the end of the year.

Who Fears Death?, Nnedi Okorafor. This is the last book on an ever-long list, but it’s one that I’ve had my eyes on for ages now. I’ve heard literally nothing but good things about this story, and it’s good to see more non-US perspective stories coming out.