- We Who Are About To… (1976) by Joanna Russ
An accident occurs on an interstellar transport ship; a small group of passengers are marooned on an inimical planet. They lack the skills to survive. Blithely, they imagine that they can Robinson Crusoe the shit out of things until help arrives. Only the unnamed female narrator understands the truth: they are all going to die. In the short period before the narrator is proved correct, the poisonous divisions that have bedeviled human society throughout recorded history recur. We Who Are About To… is at once a feminist parable, a work of revisionist SF, and a satire of human nature. It was reissued in 2016 as part of the Penguin Worlds series, with a beautiful cover (above). It’s 119 pages long and completely unforgettable. You should check it out.
2. Mating (1991) by Norman Rush
Intimidated by the size of Mating – 496 pages of densely worked prose – I started off, a couple of years ago, with Rush’s Subtle Bodies (2013), which turned out to be a strange little masterpiece. Describing the plot of Subtle Bodies (some college friends, former 60s radicals, reconvene for the funeral of their ultrawealthy former ringleader) does hardly anything to prepare you for how rich a book it is – how much it packs into its 236 speedy pages. Rush is one of those writers who has evolved a prose idiolect of remarkable originality – a way of representing consciousness that feels genuinely new, without being remotely arduous to read. He does the same thing in Mating, which I read while the Mrs. & myself were in New York in January (leading our fancy jet-set lifestyle, as we do). Mating is incredible: an unnamed female graduate student (her subject is anthropology) treks alone into the Botswana desert to find a commune founded by the charismatic reformer Nelson Denoon; inevitably, they fall in love. There is a description of Victoria Falls in this book that is one of the greatest pieces of English prose I’ve ever read. I’m saving Rush’s only other novel, the enormous Mortals, for 2018, a year during which I suspect I will need a certain amount of cheering up.
3. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) by Philip K. Dick
I’m late to the Dick party (oh do grow up) but am now doing my best to get around to his most important books (Ubik is up next). The Three Stigmata is a genuinely visionary novel – a kind of gnostic horror story about the demiurge Palmer Eldritch, who comes back from Proxima Centauri with a new drug, Chew-Z, that allows him to manipulate reality itself – or does it? Dick understood, better than anyone has since, what it means to live in a tech-drowned, politically incoherent world – how slippery your grasp on reality can get, when everything’s gone hypernormal and there seems to be no end in sight.
4. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin
Late to the party with this one too – I finally read it for a Gender & Sexuality course I was teaching this semester, having had a copy on my shelf for years – but it turns out, of course, to be the real right thing: a beautifully compassionate vision of human possibilities written in immaculate storyteller’s prose (by which I mean prose that doesn’t get all up in your face about how written it is). It made me feel nostalgic for a time (and there was, surely, such a time) when SF used to assume that the future would be better than the past. No more of that.
5. Haunted Castles: The Complete Gothic Stories (2016) by Ray Russell
This was, unexpectedly, one of the most fun books I read this year. Russell was a New York writer and magazine editor who worked for Playboy in the 1950s (and who kept up his connection with the magazine after he’d left, editing The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy  and The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural ). Russell’s first novel, The Case Against Satan (hell of a title) appeared in 1963; but before that he had published the three novellas that went to make up Unholy Trinity (1964): “Sardonicus,” “Sagittarius,” and “Sanguinarius.” All three of these are included in Haunted Castles, a Penguin Classics omnibus of Russell’s short gothic fiction. Tonally speaking, the stories are a bit like Hammer horror movies, with an added dose of Schopenhauerian irony. The plots sound bonkers – “Sardonicus” is about a doctor’s attempts to cure a wealthy lunatic who suffers from an extreme case of risus sardonicus; “Sagittarius” resurrects Gilles de Rais as an actor at the Theatre du Grand Guignol – but the stories are preposterously gripping and the prose is a wonderful pastiche of the old Victorian high style. Hat tip: I was first put on to Russell’s work by Will Errickson’s excellent Too Much Horror Fiction blog.
6. In Viriconium (1982) by M. John Harrison
At some point I’m going to have to do a proper essay on the work of M. John Harrison – he isn’t like anyone else – but I’m still working my way through his back catalogue, so watch this space. In Viriconium is the third volume of the Viriconium trilogy, following The Pastel City (1971) and A Storm of Wings (1980). Viriconium is a kind of parody of the Dying Earth venue patented by Jack Vance – it’s a fantasy city designed to destroy the very idea of fantasy cities. In Viriconium is set during Viriconium’s decadent phase – all wilting artists and syphilitic dandies. A strange plague is encroaching on the city. Gradually we realise that this plague is not a disease but entropy itself: the fictional is losing energy to the real. Harrison should, I think, properly be regarded as one of the major British writers of his generation. He hasn’t had the attention he deserves, though this seems to be changing: no less an eminence than John Gray has written about Harrison’s work for the New Statesman, and the piece is very much worth reading. Gray calls Harrison’s work the “supreme achievement” in the “modern hermetic tradition.” And if that doesn’t sell you on it, I don’t know what will!
7. Metaphor and Memory (1991) by Cynthia Ozick
I picked this up secondhand in the world’s greatest bookshop (the Strand in New York). Ozick is one of those literary essayists who is dangerous to read, if you happen to be in the business of writing literary essays yourself. She is a consummate stylist, and alarmingly erudite. Her pieces, here, on William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and Saul Bellow’s Him With his Foot in his Mouth (1984) are fantastically dense and illuminating. I haven’t been able to get on with Ozick’s fiction: I also read her novel The Messiah of Stockholm this year, and I thought it was just a pallid imitation of Henry James. But I keep picking up Metaphor and Memory and going back to it. And every time I do, I think: Must write better. Must read more.
8. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen
…speaking of which: I finally got around to reading Pride and Prejudice this year (aged 36). Yes, yes, I know, disgraceful. For a long time this was my entry in David Lodge’s game Humiliation, in which you name the most famous book you haven’t read. Obviously I can’t use P&P for this purpose any longer. But it’s ok: I still haven’t read War and Peace (though I had lunch with a group of academics the other day – English PhDs, all – and none of them had read it either). Not to worry: I can spend all of 2018 putting off War and Peace (I have gotten very good at putting off War and Peace).
Quick Thoughts on the List
Looking at this list, I’m surprised by how much SF/horror appears – though perhaps I shouldn’t be. SF and horror have always been a big part of my reading diet, though there’s a tendency – don’t you find? – to pat yourself on the back for reading “literary” fiction and to justify your reading of genre stuff by dismissing it as a “guilty pleasure.” One of the things I want to do in 2018 is review more SF and horror (and perhaps even write some myself – though I have a non-SF/horror novel I want to get around to final-drafting first). And that means I have to keep reading it (what a shame).
A couple of days ago I drafted the opening paragraphs of a blog post about how nowadays I only read contemporary literary fiction if I’m being paid to review it – largely because (I groused) so many of the literary novels that get published every month aren’t worth the trees that died to make their physical existence possible. But I gave up on that: it was just a temporary case of reviewer’s jaundice (a serious disease, this, coming soon to a DSM near you). Complaining is easy. Celebrating is hard. Hence, a celebration of 8 books I read in 2017 that gave me joy, and that made me feel better about the world. Reading good books and talking about them isn’t just an adjunct to civilised life; it’s civilisation itself. In a dark time, reading good books reminds you that human beings have lived through dark times before, and that they have salvaged something from the wreckage. We can do the same. Over to you.