Best Books of 2018

I know this title is a bit misleading, but this is the same as I’ve done for the past ten years. These are my favorite books I read in 2018. Most of them were not published in 2018.

Best Literary Fiction:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.

The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Runner up:

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

This was quite good. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking, but it’s a theme well worth revisiting. A life is more than the sum of its parts.

We all feel guiltier than we are. We all think we play a bigger role in other lives than we do. We can never know another self fully. Some things will forever be a mystery, and that’s okay. Secrets almost always cause more problems than you think they will. People are cruel. People are unbelievably kind.

The most interesting aspect was how the novel kept circling back to a few key events from different points of view to reveal more and more.

Best Mystery:

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

Best Book on Writing:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

I’ve always thought of books like The Story Grid to be the gold standard on macroscopic elements of story. I’ve reconsidered my opinion.

This is the book all people should use in constructing an organic and compelling story. This teaches the essential elements without using a strict formula like other methods that follow the hero’s journey a bit closer.

Truby’s method is the way to go for original construction of a story with a character-centric focus.

Best Sci-Fi:

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (full trilogy) by Liu Cixin

The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).

When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.

You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. Like I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi.

Best Fantasy:

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

This is a tough one. There were times I couldn’t put it down; there were times I couldn’t pick it up.

Overall, Erikson is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. This universe is richly detailed, the characters well-drawn, and so much about it is completely original (none of the standard copying Tolkien but then change a few things to pretend like you didn’t).

The best novels take effort to read, but this has so many characters, many of whom don’t intersect the first book in the series.

But I’ve put it on this list for a reason. I think it’s worth the effort now that I’ve spent several months away from it. I will definitely be reading the third book in the series next year.

Runner up:

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

I read at least three in this series this year. They somehow keep getting better. The formula has become a bit predictable: take traditional story monster like zombies or vampires or necromancers or whatever.

Each novel has a different one. Place this in modern-day Chicago. Hilarious chaos ensues.

What makes them so compelling is the premise of a modern-day wizard detective with all the hard-boiled tropes. Magical occurrences cause deaths in the real world. Most people don’t believe the magical part. The tension and fascinating worldbuilding Butcher creates to keep this alive is great.

They are also genuinely funny with recurring gags. They are light, fast reads. This makes you want to keep going from one to the next.

Certainly, the first few weren’t great, but all of the ones I read this year deserve a mention on this list.

 

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The Three-Body Problem is Awesome

If you’ve been around this blog this year, then you know I fell into a bit of a slump. I was reading things, but nothing seemed to connect. In fact, it all seemed derivative, flat, and downright bad.

I’ve gotten out of that somehow, and I seem to have hit a period where most things I read (or movies I see) draw me in immediately and seem imaginative and fresh. I’m not planning on making a bunch of “…is Awesome” posts, but that’s where I’m at right now.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).

When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.

You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. Like I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.

The books are also filled with lots of neat ideas (even if not scientific). I can describe one that happens in the first book that won’t ruin any plot points.

The first idea is to notice what happens if you “unfold” a two-dimensional object into one dimension. Here’s an example of a solid square being pulled into a string:


Now, convince yourself this is the case whenever you take a higher dimensional object and “unfold” it into lower dimensions. You’ll always get an arbitrarily large new thing.

Next, he takes the concept of string theory seriously and says: what if a proton is actually a six-dimensional string curled up into compactified dimensions? Well, with super good technology and a full understanding of the physics, maybe the proton could be unfolded into an arbitrarily large three dimensional object.

In that case, we could store infinite amounts of information in it. We could even make it the best supercomputer AI ever made. Then we could fold it back up, and it would be roughly the size of a proton again. Just imagine what that could do!

The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.

To me, this book was essentially the opposite of Seveneves. Seveneves was a bunch of cool ideas that got tedious to read, because none of them served the plot. They were just Neal Stephenson spewing every idea he ever had into a plotless mess.

In contrast, every single cool idea in The Three-Body Problem series advances the plot in a meaningful way, and wow, there’s a ton of them.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi (and my warning about character/dragging plot doesn’t turn completely alienate you).

Year of Giant Novels Part 6: Seveneves

Seveneves is a giant sci-fi novel by Neal Stephenson. I use the term novel loosely here. It isn’t so much a novel as a history textbook about an event that didn’t happen: the moon exploded. I say this because there isn’t really story or characters in the traditional sense.

The sense in which these elements exist is the same as a history textbook. The facts are presented in sterile, detached fashion. The main characters exist in the same way that the Founding Fathers of the U.S. are “characters” in a history textbook. History texts don’t really have character development, but the figures still go around doing things.

Another parallel is that the story often completely stops for huge, in-depth descriptions of important inanimate objects. I think of this as similar to how a U.S. history text might go into great depth on how a cotton gin, or some machine from the industrial revolution, worked. These might be important in preserving certain historical moments, but it is a terrible way to write a novel.

There was a time in my life where I would have praised this type of thing. I would have talked about how brilliant it was for him to break with standard novel writing conventions to record this alternate history of Earth in history textbook form. I would have actually considered this harder to do than to write a more traditional novel. Oh. The pretentiousness of my youth.

Nowadays this novel strikes me as a huge ego trip by the author (or laziness; I’m not sure which is worse). He’s written the first step of an SF novel and now expects everyone to read it just because he’s famous enough to get away with it. Every great SF writer produces 250,000 words worth of material about their world and story as the first step. It is such a common thing to do that it even has a name: worldbuilding.

What Stephenson doesn’t seem to realize is that when he reads a 90,000-word novel that doesn’t contain all 250,000 words of excessive detail about every little thing, it isn’t because the author didn’t think of it, it’s because that author actually did the hard step of writing and producing a novel from their worldbuilding notes. You don’t publish the notes to the novel just because you wrote them.

The reason I say this is ego rather than just laziness or confusion about what writing an SF novel entails is that he breaks other golden rules of SF “just because he can.” (I don’t know why I put quotes there. He didn’t actually say this.)

If you go to any of the famous print SF magazines, you’ll usually find a list of terrible things that will get you an automatic rejection. One thing that appears on all of these lists is basing a story on a random, major, unexplained event. In this case, the moon explodes. And what caused this? Eh. He seemed to want to write the book, needed this to happen, but couldn’t come up with a reason, so he left it out.

The reason this golden rule exists isn’t arbitrary. Stephenson is writing hard SF. To put some mysterious event in like this turns the genre into paranormal or supernatural or worse. You may as well use as your starting sentence: And Sauron came out from hiding and told the inhabitants of Earth that he would, in two-years time, bombard the surface of the Earth with fireball spells for thousands of years.

Then write a hard SF novel after that. It is deeply unsatisfying and lazy. The Sauron start would change absolutely nothing. It is effectively equivalent to the opening we actually get, except more honest. To use the moon exploding feels like a shady trick in an attempt to pull one over on the reader into thinking it is an explainable event.

For some reason, he thought he was above this (hence ego) and went ahead and wrote a book that wouldn’t have any chance at being published if by a lesser name. I can almost see the board meeting where the publishers are talking about this.

“Should we tell him this isn’t okay?”

“No. He might go with someone else. This book will make us tons of money. Who cares if it violates standards we’ve set for other writers.”

“Okay. I guess you’re right.”

Ugh.

I didn’t mean to bash the book this hard, but while I’m at it, I may as well continue to air my complaints. The second most important event is also weakly justified. The moon fragments keep colliding until there are millions (billions? irrelevant to this discussion) of them. At some point, their orbits will decay and start pummeling the Earth, killing everyone on it.

So much of this is left a mystery, despite the fact that smart minds in the book have all worked out these calculations. This is hard SF. I want this explained better. I couldn’t care less about a several page description of how treadmills work on the International Space Station.

The fact that anyone predicted this is astonishing. The insane accuracy with which their models predict it takes this out of the realm of SF for me (they were within a few days). It was only a model. First rule of science: all models are wrong. Surely some of the parameters they thought they had nailed down were really wrong. I actually kept expecting a major twist of the book to be that the hard rain never came. That would have been cool. But it did come, just like the models predicted.

To go into more detail about what I would have like explained, why did these billions of chunks of moon orbiting Earth mysteriously start to fall to Earth? How small are the chunks at this point? Clearly they aren’t so small that they burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, but they’ve crossed some critical size that they lose orbit. This, again, just strikes me as something Stephenson wanted to happen, couldn’t figure out why it would happen, and so just left it a mystery.

I think what’s frustrating about this is that if Stephenson had just written a 90,000 word novel that drew out the story, it would be a much more compelling read and simultaneously fix every one of these complaints. As I pointed out in my previous post, tonal consistency is important in SF. Stephenson goes into painful depths of science on some things, but then glosses over highly improbable other events. This inconsistency would be fixed if he let go of all the excessive description and focused on the story.

Now that the above 1,000-word rant is over, I will say that the book isn’t that bad. It’s an interesting thought experiment that goes on way too long. Prepare to be bored to tears by some excessive, irrelevant descriptions. Prepare to be frustrated to tears by other things that have no (or implausible) explanations.

You won’t connect to any characters. It isn’t really a novel. Once you get over all that stuff, you can start enjoying it. I never felt like quitting for any of the reasons I’ve given, and that’s better than some books I’ve read recently *cough* Ulysses *cough*.

Table some issues

Now that I’m done with undergrad, I’ve decided to throw out there some of the things I’ve attempted to have answered, but people always seemed to beat around the bush. Maybe my readers (which I’ve calculated to be somewhere between three and five readers) can help.

1. Setting: Sophomore year: Eastern religions. My prof is amazing and a devout Buddhist. He claims that the religion is one of the few perfectly internally consistent religions. So I ask, how can it be consistent that the principle teaching is that the world is an illusion, and another primary teaching is that you shouldn’t harm another living being? If you truly believe the world is an illusion, then harming someone is an illusion, thus cannot be bad. I was given some mumbo-jumbo about karma, but I replied that this assumes you are putting negativity out while you harm this living thing. This went on, but I’m convinced that it is possible to harm something without feeling hatred etc, he claims that this is still against the teachings. Is this a contradiction? (I think yes).

2. Setting: Recurrent throughout all four years. Would independent art still be considered good if a large mainstream audience started taking interest? So I should elaborate, I guess. Often times it seems like small independent artists that create extremely challenging art are considered “true artists” while mainstream people are considered “pop artists” or “money makers.” It seems to me that even if the art doesn’t change, a sudden burst into fame can cause the art-lovers to despise this artist. As if it is the struggling artist that is the cause of good art and not the art itself that is under consideration. I guess a good comparison would be the filmmakers David Lynch vs Spielberg (although Lynch has had some commercial success).

3. Setting: Senior year: 20th Century philosophy. Is empathy or language epistemically primary? (I won’t even go there). Okay. Yes I will. Suppose we find a “savage” that has been in the woods on their own since birth (i.e. they have no language and have never encountered another human being). I claim that if they saw someone crying, they would remember when they cried and understand what that meant (i.e. the empathy transcends language and is thus epistemically primary). My prof claims that without language the “savage” wouldn’t have memories, or at least wouldn’t be able to access memories of when they cried (i.e. language is epistemically primary). This seems to be a question more directed at cognitive scientists than philosophers though, since it seems as if this could be empirically tested quite easily.

4. Setting: Probably junior year conversation with brother. Why is science fiction as a genre not considered serious as an artistic genre when there are so many examples that show that it is? E.g. Dhalgren, Slaughter-House Five, The Fountain, The Ender Quartet, etc.

5. Setting: Trying to get into grad school (also came up in an ethics class discussion). Is there any fair way to measure ability other than a standardized test? The GRE is a horrid measure of ability, but I just can’t think of any other way to do it that would be more fair (does the concept of “more fair” exist?).

I actually had more when I decided to write this (and some of these weren’t on my list), but once I got through the first one, I couldn’t remember any of the ones that I originally thought of. Maybe I’ll add more later.