I finished four novels this month, all of them highly engaging.
• The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi — I finally got around to reading the most celebrated SF novel of last year. I was already a fan of Paolo’s short stories, and this novel shares a future with two of his best, “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” Indeed, stories a Calorie Man and a Yellow Card Man comprise about half of the plot of the novel. What I found most notable about this book was that it draws a world too complicated for even the most competent and well-connected characters to be able to meaningfully plan for. Subtle and considered machinations are again and again rendered irrelevant by circumstance and randomness. In the end, the character who seems to escape the novel with the most personal agency is a fully amoral and decrepit geneticist who takes hedonistic delight in being a conduit for change, just because he can. It’s a rich, compelling, and pessimistic book. Easily recommended, though I think I agree with Abigail Nussbaum when she says that the whole feels less completely successful than the short stories that inspired it. (Link to her far more comprehensive review.)
• Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks — The latest of Banks’s Culture novels, which I generally love. The novel follows the stories of various individuals in some way connected to a “confliction,” that is, a virtual war, over the propriety of societies creating simulated versions of their mythological hells to house the consciousnesses of the dead. The Culture, naturally, is opposed to the practice of consigning conscious entities to eternal simulated torture, but there are equivalently powerful societies in favor of the practice, and so a virtual war is waged with the various actors contractually obligated to abide by its conclusion. But as the confliction draws to a close, there is increasing likelihood of the war spilling over into the Real. This was an exciting novel, though not one that will ever enter the eternal conversation over which Culture novel is the best jumping-on point for new readers. There are too many references to things that have gone before for a newcomer to the universe to get as much out of it as a reader already familiar with this milieu. I have some minor quibbles with the believability of two elements of the climax, but there’s no way to discuss them without being more spoiler-y than I care to in a capsule review.
• Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi — I found that I enjoyed Paolo’s YA novel even more than I enjoyed The Windup Girl. I really have nothing negative to say about this book; the characters are deep and believable, and the world is as rich as any he’s written. It follows Nailer, a child laborer who works stripping beached tankers and lives in a coastal slum. (The coast in question is the Gulf Coast of a depleted and flooded future USA) He has no prospects for any kind of upward social mobility until a storm causes a ship of a very different kind to wreck near his beach. The book has several nuanced explorations of class, family, and violence. It was a deserving winner of the Printz award.
• China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh — My favorite of the four novels I read this month. This book was published in 1992, but it feels perfectly in touch with the zeitgeist of today. It is set in a 22nd century where China is the primary world power and the US has had a socialist revolution in the wake of an early 21st centure collapse of the US bond market. The main character is a mixed-race Hispanic and Chinese gay man who has undergone gene splicing to hide his mixed heritage. There are no world changing events in this novel, no great heroics or eyeball kicks. This is a quiet, first person novel that dips in and out of the lives of several characters as it charts the different ways people fail and succeed and love in a very believable future.