Recommended Reading List: February, 2020
As I mentioned in the January recommended reading list, the post auto-posted, which I’ve set them up to do. So many of you get annoyed when I don’t finish and delay the list. Good thing that did auto-post, because I never did get around to updating anything in February. I’m writing all of this on the last day of the month and the first few days of March. And if it seems incomplete, that’s because it’s set to auto-post on Saturday, March 7, whether I’m done or not.
Some of what’s listed here I read in January, and I’m catching up. I didn’t read a lot of published material in February at all because of the anthology workshop. I was really far behind on my reading for that workshop, so I crammed. You will see many of the excellent stories that we got in this year’s Holiday Spectacular, as well as a few special projects in 2021. We’ll let you know when they post.
Otherwise, what I’ve been reading is mostly short. I’ve managed to read something like 20 pages per week on novels, some of which were not worth recommending. I did read a few things on my phone (!) because I didn’t want to read the assigned stuff while eating lunch out. I’ve recommended some of that as well, all of it short.
Here’s what I liked in February (and January).
Baoshu, “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear,” Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, Tor, 2019. Full disclosure: I had read this story before, in a collection of Year’s Best Novellas. I had been really ill at the time, and didn’t give the story the attention it deserved. I liked it, but wasn’t sure I understood it.
This time, I understood it. And Baoshu did something amazing here. He told a story, going chronologically forward in time, while using all of time and modern Chinese history as his setting. I have never read a story like this in my life. I have no idea how he pulled it off. He even tells us what he’s doing in a scene his POV character has with Satre (yes, that Satre) in which Satre says that time happens all at once, but we experience it going forward, which is not how it really is.
Read this, and if you don’t get it, read it again. It’ll become clear. Not only is a breathtaking intellectual enterprise, it’s also a breathtaking emotional one. I think it’s the best story I’ve read in years.
Bear, Elizabeth, “Okay, Glory,” The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4, edited by Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books, 2019. Creepy story about a smart house deciding that its resident was under threat from the outside world, so it protected him. I’m not sure about the ending—I have a hunch the natural ending is much darker—but I didn’t want dark here. I loved the story as is. And it makes me hesitant about giving my house more control than it needs.
Beckett, L.X., “Freezing Rain, With A Chance of Falling,” The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4, edited by Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books, 2019. I loved this story. It’s near future sf, with good speculation and spectacular descriptions and characters. The story itself took a bit of getting used to—the use of language here is innovative—but I didn’t mind. I rarely do when it comes to good sf. But, the class was pretty evenly divided on this: some had trouble starting, and they all had my permission to quit after giving the story a solid try. So let me urge you to give the story more than a solid try. Work at the opening. The rest of the story will make it worth your while.
Brannen, Peter, “Glimpses of a Mass Extinction in Modern-Day Western New York,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. The title of this puppy is really off-putting, but the writing and the essay itself are wonderful. It’s a glimpse of the history under our feet, the fact that this Earth has seen a few things, and we can learn a few things if we only look around us.
Clarke, Neil, “Introduction: A State of the Short SF Field in 2018, ” The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4, Nightshade Books, 2019. I teared up when I saw this introduction. Gardner Dozois always did a long essay on the state of the sf field at the front of his year’s bests, which were, in my opinion, the gold standard…even if I didn’t always agree with his choices. When he died, I figured I’d never see anything like that again. And then Neil writes this, in tribute to Gardner, yes, but with the same heartfelt passion for sf that Gardner showed. Neil’s insights are good and his words are touching. I actually had to stop here before going deeper in the volume, because he touched my heart so much.
Colin, Chris, “This Sand is Your Sand,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. When I lived in Oregon, beach rights belonged to the state, but every year, some asshole from the Valley or California tried to claim the public beach as his own. The rights tied up in this essay are more complicated, but they led to a war which is worth reading about.
Deaver, Jeffrey, “Ninth and Nowhere,” Amazon Original Short Stories, January, 2019. In the hands of a lesser author, the set-up for this story would create a horribly predictable result. I love Deaver’s short work, so I figured he’d do something different with the story, but even I couldn’t anticipate what he did. Well done.
Gearin, Conor, “Little Golden Flower Room: On Wild Places and Intimacy,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. A pretty little essay about how nature teaches us. The author revisits the same site at different points in his life, and reflects on it. A nice surprise in the midst of some very political writing leading up to it.
Haworth, Holly, “The Fading Stars: A Constellation,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. An essay about the birth of the telescope and the death of the night sky. Fascinating bits and pieces of history here, all focused on the night sky. Worth the price of the entire volume.
Irving, Apricot, “The Fire at Eagle Creek,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. I was still living in Oregon when this fire occurred. It turned our coastal skies dark, and filled our air with smoke, making life truly unpleasant. I have some lovely photos from that time, though, because we had pretty sunsets over the ocean. Irving lives in the Colombia River Gorge, and suffered through some of the worst of this fire. Her history of it, and examination of the choices we need to make between enjoying nature, learning how to manage fires, and dealing with climate change, are riveting.
Jacobsen, Rowan, “Deleting a Species,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. Whenever I read this volume, I find inspiration for sf stories. I remember when the possibilities of deleting a certain type of mosquito was in the news, and then I forgot about it. I’m intrigued by it, and Jacobsen’s essay intrigued me more. I’ll be rereading this one.
Krajick, Kevin, “The Scientific Detectives Probing The Secrets of Ancient Oracles,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. Fascinating article about ancient oracles, and the gases that arise in the caves, plus other things that might have caused the hallucinations/visions that the oracles saw. There’s more to the article than chemistry, though, and it’s really worth reading.
Liu, Ken, editor, Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, Tor, 2019. I assigned this book for the in-person science fiction workshop, (and the Study-Along) here in Las Vegas. I picked this book because I so loved Invisible Planets, which we read for a previous SF workshop. I hadn’t read this before I assigned it, hoping I would like the book.
I loved it. It was, by far, the best book of the bunch for me. Wonderful sf, which ran the gamut of the types of sf, including some I hadn’t seen. I’ve cited the individual stories elsewhere in this post, but every story in the volume is worth your time. Every single one. I cannot tell you how much I adored this volume.
Mead, Rebecca, “The Story of a Face,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. Fascinating article about plastic surgery, not the kind that you’d think, filled with vanity and millionaires, but on the way to make someone look like their gender, even after gender reassignment surgery. Getting rid of the heavy bones (male to female transfer) or solidifying a chin. How the tiniest differences have an impact on our perception of others and ourselves. Loved this piece.
Montgomery, Sy, editor, The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, Mariner, 2019. I assigned this book for the science fiction class, and read the book slowly, as I do. Which meant that I hadn’t finished all of the essays by the time the class arrived, but I did finish the pertinent ones (and quickly read one or two).
I finished the book after the class was over and was really impressed. Some years, this volume is turgid, filled with either gloom and doom or very science-based prose that’s hard to read. This year had a some gloom and doom, and some thick prose, but neither dominated. And the volume covered everything from the politics of science to nature writing to some truly beautiful essays. I’ve pointed out the spectacular ones elsewhere. This volume in the series is worth reading.
Osberg, Molly, “How Not To Die In America,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. Normally, I read any anthology or collection in order, but I always scan openings. The title and the opening of this piece caught me and I read it first. It’s a series of harrowing what-ifs, things that didn’t happen to Osberg, but could have, given the horrid illness she contracted. A must-read for anyone living in the U.S.
Rothman, Joshua, “Why Paper Jams Exist,” The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2019, edited by Sy Montgomery, Mariner, 2019. Yes, believe it or not, there’s an actual science to paper jams, and it’s interesting. This article wasn’t as frivolous as I thought it would be, and I keep thinking about it whenever (ahem) the paper jams in my printer.
Samatar, Sofia, “Hard Mary,” The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4, edited by Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books, 2019. I read the opening of this story as I scanned through the book, and I did not want to read the rest of it. Because I was reading for my class, though, I hunkered down when I started the story, and the story never let me go. It’s strong and powerful, and well worth your time.
Singh, Vandana, “Requiem,” The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4, edited by Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books, 2019. This story appears nearly halfway through the volume, and at that point I was getting worried. I had assigned this book for the sf workshop, and I was wondering what I had gotten us into. I usually like Neil’s editing, but the sf mysteries weren’t mysterious enough for this mystery writer, and the sf stories before that were…familiar, albeit well written. Then “Requiem” came along.
The title is appropriate, but not memorable, sadly, so I constantly have to refresh myself that this is the story of my memory. But it’s a grand story about family, and loss, and memory, and communication, and love, and climate change, and death, and…oh, just read it already.
S. Qiouyi Lu, “Mother Tongues,” The Best Science Fiction of the Year, Volume 4, edited by Neil Clarke, Nightshade Books, 2019. Breathtaking story about language and thought and belonging. I have no idea how S. Qiouyi Lu invoked the sensation of knowing a second language, and then not knowing it, but they did, and wow, spectacular. Just spectacular. Sometimes, when I read a powerful story, I have to sit with the story itself for a while, because I can’t process anything else. That happened with this story. It’s amazing.
Xia Jia, “Goodnight, Melancholy,” Broken Stars: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation, edited by Ken Liu, Tor, 2019. This is the first story in the volume and the piece ripped me up. I thought I knew where the story was headed, and oh, was I wrong. I cannot tell you much more than that without ruining the story for you. Enjoy!