Sunday, December 20, 2015

Eugene Fairfield's Best Books of 2015

As last year, a book is considered "2015" if I read it in 2015. As such, the competition is highly random, pitting Adam Rex against Jerome K. Jerome. Here they are:

Best Children's Book: 

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

(See below for the many reasons this won)

Best Science Fiction:

A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias

Excellent depiction of First Contact, with all the cultural misunderstanding, a compelling alien world, and dramatic plot.

Best Epic Fantasy:

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Original, at once epic and human-scale, with a compelling heroine, well-developed and original magic system, dramatic climax, and flawless submersion in the culture.

Runner-up: Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johanssen

Queen Kelsey pulls along this tale of a teen who must assume her throne through multiple assassination plots, with a compulsion to justice that drives her to make dangerous choices.

Best Political Theme in Story Form: 


12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup

Plainly and powerfully told. Should be required reading in high school.

Runners-up: (tie) The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi & The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Bacigalupi's no-holds-barred indictment of the corporate spin machine is powerful and timely, but Rex's allegory of the Euro-american conquest of North America is more subtle and less preachy.

Funniest Book: 

(tie) The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

 and Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

 How can you rank one over the other? Both hilarious and brilliantly written, yet so completely different in tone and, well, everything. On the one hand, there are eternally quotable lines from Rex: "I was told to come to the obnoxiously-colored building where people who are bad at math give away their money" "'Do you know why we've pulled you over, Miss?' 'Uh... because I'm only twelve and my car is floating?'"  On the other you've got the pinnacle of British humor.

Most Heart-Wrenching: 

(tie) Landline by Rainbow Rowell

and The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

Rainbow Rowell is a powerhouse of real life, flawed characters, and heart-wrenching scenes. But it is hard to beat the poignancy of Adam Rex's Tip, trying to drag her mother to the doctor, or standing in the snow on Christmas Eve, staring at the place where her mother was just sucked up by an alien ship.

Most Haunting: 

We Were Liars by E. Lockheart

A powerfully told story of PTSD, family drama, wealth, and, of course, lies.

Best Sequel: 

Smek for President by Adam Rex

Nearly as good as the original. Expands and builds on the previous while staying true to the story.

Continued -->

Eugene Fairfield's Best Books of 2015, continued

Most Magical: 

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Bleak and beautiful. Suffused with awe and wonder.

Best Scientific Grounding: 

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman

This tale of a sightless people combines the most recent neuroscience and a keen sense of culture to create great science fiction.

Best Magical System: 

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Simple yet fully developed, original, evocative, and wholly self-consistent. What more could a fantasist ask?

Best Protagonist: 

Gratuity Tucci (True Meaning of Smekday)

Smart, sassy, bold, introspective, literate, and still needs her mommy. She's  one heck of an African-Italian-American 12 year-old. 

PS. Do you know how hard it is to find an image from a book after Hollywood has made a movie out of it?

Best Villain: 

(tie) the captain (Challenger Deep) (no image available)

He's crazy. He's cruel. He's incomprehensible. And he hates that parrot.

the Gorg (True Meaning of Smekday)

All Gorg are left-handed. All Gorg like musical theater. If you were to take all the Gorg in the world, and stack them one on top of the other, the Gorg would kill you. Those who do not cooperate will be severely punched.

Best Audio Performance: 

(tie) Michael Curran-Dorsano (Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman)

Every character comes alive, you forget there is only one man reading. Total immersion in the book.

Bahni Turpin (True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex)

Not only was her Gratuity Tucci fantastic and heartfelt, but her J-Lo was definitive. The perfect voice for the alien that was at once meek, out-of-it, and yet superior to human foolishness. She'd have first place all to herself, if I could have shaken the image that the residents of Roswell were black. This could be subconscious racism--I doubt if I would be as bothered if a white reader didn't make black characters sound black--although of course some black people do sound white, while rednecks never sound black. It probably wouldn't have mattered as much to me in another context, but race mattered in this story, and in this scene the fact that the characters were white mattered, so the accent distracted me.  But, mm, (sheep noise--bubble rap--bubble rap), maybe, her J-Lo was the amazing. [that's an inside joke if you haven't read it]

Author of the Year:

Paolo Bacigalupi (The Doubt Factory, The Water Knife)

He writes for young adult, he writes for adult. He explores the future of climate change in dramatic, intelligent stories. He is bold enough to smear dozens of major corporations, accusing them of real criminal activity around real events (such as the warnings of Reyes Syndrome on aspirin, that Bayer fought to suppress or delay). He vividly displays the horror of modern warlords. And he hasn't dropped the ball once.

Runner-up: Adam Rex (The True Meaning of Smekday, Smek for President, and Fat Vampire)

The author of the Smekday toure de force ought to be the hands-down winner. But his Fat Vampire didn't hold a candle to his masterpiece. So I gave top honors to the man who never disappointed. Still. If Adam Rex never writes a good book again, he belongs in the hall of fame.

Book of the Year:

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex

What else could it be? What other book can place in Funniest, Most Heart-Wrenching, and Best Political Theme? When I read this at the beginning of the year, I predicted no book would top it. I was right. I further predict it will be among the best books of the decade. If it can stand the test of time, which it may, it has a shot at placing among the best children's books of all time.

NOTE: Unless it is cold and raining and you need a campfire lit or freeze to death, do not ask me what I thought of the Hollywood movie using characters with the same names, a rough similarity to a few plot structures, and some quotes (I would not stoop to call it an "adaptation"). I will flame.

Brief Reflection

It bears noting that I get most of my literature these days (Sabriel excepted) through  audio books, and further that the best stories coincidentally have the best narrators. The opposite also tends to be true, as I disliked the narrator of Invasion of the Tearling, a disappointing sequel. Despite reading the books (very nearly) word-for-word, I think audio books are a distinct art form. It becomes impossible to separate the performance from the story. A talented reader can elevate a book high above others that might be its peers in written form. Conversely, A poor reader can ruin a book of any quality. It is rare, but I have encountered audiobooks that were simply unlistenable. It makes me wonder how I would view these stories on the page, Still, no skill in narration can push a poor story into the ranks of the great.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Carolyn Ives Gilman and Me

I just started listening to Carolyn Ives Gilman's Dark Orbit. I was immediately struck how her set up parallels the SF saga I've been working on for years: Mischief's World (working title). Both stories feature a female protagonist with a science background in alien life who has a reputation for holding authority and official conventions at arms length. Both protagonists are compelled by a difficult circumstance, skillfully exploited, to accept a job. Both jobs put her on a journey to an unknown alien world, and both alien worlds were discovered by a message from an ancient exploratory vehicle that people had given up expecting to hear from. Both alien worlds also give a previously unseen look at alien life--the first-ever non-terrestrial life in Gilman's, the first compatible with terrestrial life (i.e. human) in mine.

The parallels end there. Dark Orbit goes off into mysterious deaths and fractal space, Mischief into mysterious passengers, a romance, power and domination, and [SPOILER DELETED]. But that's an awful lot of overlap. Although Mischief might be more light-hearted and temperamental than Gilman's Sara, they would certainly be friends if they met.

I met Carolyn once, at Readercon, years ago. I'd had the great privilege to have her read one of my short stories and offer insightful feedback, and I was pleased she remembered it some months later. At that point, Halfway Human was her only title, and she wasn't accustomed to strangers looking up at her and saying, "Oh, Carolyn's here!" At that point in time, I only had one completed novel manuscript, and, curiously, like Halfway Human it was a "Gender SF" story. Hers shook up gender roles by creating a world where exists a third, neuter gender, mine by reversing the power dynamic by eliminating 90% of the male population (on a continuing basis).  The parallel would be truly astonishing if Mischief's World were my current project, but I confess it is stalled. It has an epic scale akin to The Fellowship of the Unloved, and epic scale means an epic undertaking for me.

When I tried to look her up online, I discovered that Carolyn's better-paying job is Historian, and my paycheck is for teaching High School Social Studies (and other subjects, but that's my favorite). I've always felt a kinship with Carolyn. A little envy, too, of course. But I like it that she sent a little of the spirit of Mischief O'Malley out into the published world. She was feeling a little cramped, stuck on my hard drive all these years. I hope we will meet again some day. I wonder how she would react if she got to see the opening for my story.