21 in 10, Part I: Fiction

It wasn’t a banner year for fiction reads for me. For whatever reason, a lot of what I tried just didn’t quite click, and I didn’t find as many trending/hot novels that I loved. With that being said, I haven’t gotten to many of the critic’s choice reads of the year, and still found plenty I loved.

Project Hail Mary (2021)

Andy Weir’s (The Martian) latest is a fun page-turner, full stop. Although many of the broad strokes may feel familiar (problem-solving! in space!), it doesn’t feel derivative. The flashbacks blend effortlessly into the action, and the lovable dynamic with Rocky (*jazz hands*) really livens things up and lifts some of the comedic burdens. 

In addition to The Martian, I found myself comparing the book to Claire Holroyde’s The Effort, where a multinational science initiative also must create a spacecraft on short notice to avert a catastrophe. Weir pays lip service to the bad things that could happen in such a situation, but they never really feel like an immediate danger, whereas Holroyde’s book really stays with the notion of what the end of the world would mean and the kinds of things this sort of scientific mission would entail. I certainly understand Weir was going for a different tone and the heart of the action is onboard with Grace, but I found Holroyde’s depiction more grounded and realistic.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2019)

An aristocrat ends up locked in house arrest in a Moscow hotel by the sudden onset of the revolution. What ensues is charming and, at times, quite witty and insightful. Count Rostov was a deeply endearing character in a way that few are. Just a splendid read. In some respects, it felt like a more upbeat version of The Remains of the Day.

The World Gives Way (2021)

Marissa Levien’s debut book grew on me more and more as it reached that bittersweet ending. The World Gives Way is a strong read with very well-realized protagonists and some climate change metaphors that it doesn’t necessarily bonk you over the head with. The worldbuilding was a slightly mixed bag for me, being both both entirely complete yet sometimes incongruous in the minor details of the oddly anachronistic technologies.

The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest is a fascinating book, almost more about vibes than plot. That’s not to say there’s a lack of plot, but this book really conveys a feeling that although it’s incredibly difficult, and it will never be perfect, we can, right now, start repairing the grievous damage wrought by both climate change and neoliberalism. 

There’s a palpable battered, hard-fought optimism to this book that is oddly rousing. The worldbuilding is impeccable, and it’s both inspiring and all the more galling when you consider that most of the interventions Robinson describes are within the grasp of today’s technology and economics, but out of reach thanks to today’s politics. 

The use of ecoterrorism, or climate change Black Ops at best, was quite striking. The book envisions a world where drones have essentially democratized and anonymized assassination and sabotage, and it seems to posit “Ecoterrorism: it’s good, actually!” if aimed at the 1% and sufficiently dirty infrastructure. I found a followup interview with Robinson clarifying, in which he points out that several of these segments are presented through the characters’ own biased perspective, and he also asks a sticky question. Revolutionary acts and violence are often judged to be fair or acceptable with the benefit of hindsight. If the various dirty industries and oligarchs are already committing large-scale crimes against today’s populace and ruining the planet for generations to come, is violence against them terrorism, justice, or proactive self-defence? 

I found the book slightly overstayed its welcome, yet I’m not sure what I would have suggested to excise. I found that the collage-like mix of poetry, meeting notes, prose, etc. was interesting, but sometimes the meeting transcripts in particular read like very transparent info dumps.

Day Zero (2021)

What a fun and at times harrowing read. C. Robert Cargill’s Sea of Rust prequel falls a little shy of its predecessor, but I’m not at all disappointed. 

To pompously quote myself, “Are there tropes and plotlines you’ve seen before in Sea of Rust? Absolutely. Did I care? No.” I felt much the same way with Day Zero, Cargill’s prequel to that post-apocalypse robot western. There are pieces here that are familiar, there are pieces that are maybe a bit hokey (I mean, we’re talking about a robot stuffed animal nanny wielding heavy weaponry), but it’s still darn good and surprisingly gritty.

One of the things that I loved about Sea of Rust was a fantastic audiobook narration by Eva Kaminsky, and Vikas Adam at least matches her skill. This is an absolutely all-in audiobook performance, with a repertoire of women’s and children’s voices that are effectively differentiated and, most importantly, a perfect narrator/lead character voice for Pounce. Adam crafts this kind of vaguely Tony the Tiger/Smokey the Bear voice that sounds exactly like what a children’s tiger robot nanny would probably sound like. He wields it to great effect, striking surprisingly maudlin and sober tones when called upon.