This time last year I was sitting in my room in Whitechapel, knowing it doesn’t snow in London very often but still stubbornly expecting it to. Now I’m back in Melbourne again, and it feels as though I’ve never left. I associate books with certain times and feelings and places in my life, whether the book itself left any lasting impression on me or not. It feels like just yesterday I was reading Asimov’s Foundation (a terrible book) in Kings Domain across from my office during the blisteringly hot Christmas season four years ago; on the other hand, it seems like a lifetime ago that I was sheltering from the rain and reading Susannah Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu (not bad at all) in the warmth of the Draper’s Arms in Ealing, but it was really just 365 days ago. Funny old world.
Anyway, these are the ten best books I read in 2015.
10. Goodbye To All That
England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war madness that ran about everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language, and it was newspaper language.
World War I was the epitome of pointless wars. It was a snowballing squabble over alliances and military power which, before anybody could stop it, turned into a brutal industrialised killing machine which robbed the world of half a generation of young men. (That is always worth repeating, because it has become a cliche: World War I, for no gain whatsoever, literally exterminated millions of would-be leaders, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists.) Neither side was in the right or the wrong. It is absolutely incredible how many people, even today, refuse to acknowledge this; how many people still demand to shove this war alongside its younger brother into the box marked “fighting for freedom.”
Few of those people, I suspect, have actually read much about it. As far as WWI memoirs go it’s hard to top that of Robert Graves, who later became a renowned poet and historical novelist. The curious thing is how dispassionately he relates most of it; as though he knows all too well that the war is far bigger than any of them, that nothing he or his fellow officers ever did or said could affect things one speck. All he could do was observe and report. The result, despite its detached tone, is one of the most detailed and grisly war memoirs of all time.
9. Slade House
Grief is an amputation, but hope is incurable haemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.
Time was David Mitchell could publish a book and it would inevitably be my number one for the year, but I’m sure one of the world’s most feted contemporary writers won’t be losing sleep at his gradual slide down my annual list at a blog where I’m still too cheap to shell out for a dedicated domain name. Slade House is probably his worst book, but that’s a bit like saying the Wire’s fifth season was its worst: even when Mitchell’s not on form, he’s still great. Slade House is a B-side to last year’s The Bone Clocks: a short and creepy haunted house mystery, with an eerie mansion appearing in the trackless suburban wasteland of Greater London every nine years to claim an unsuspecting victim. Whatever its flaws, Mitchell retains his ability to make you care about characters – even unsavoury ones – within a few dozen pages. In the case of Slade House, that generally has heartbreaking results.
8. Mother of Eden
Men still fear women’s power. No-one ever forgets their mother’s power to give them nourishment or withhold it. And men specially don’t forget it, because they never grow into women themselves, and never lose a child’s craving for the comfort of women’s bodies.
I thought Dark Eden was an excellent sci-fi novel, the really creative kind that we tend not to see a lot of these days; yet I had no interest in reading the sequel, because I thought Chris Beckett had already said everything that needed to be said about an inbred tribe of humans descended from a pair of astronauts stranded on a distant planet of eternal night. I was wrong. Mother of Eden jumps many generations into the future of this strange world, when the descendants of the schism between David and John have spread far across the surface of the planet, creating new societies locked in a sort of extraterrestrial religious Cold War against each other. With a larger and more complex world to juggle, Mother of Eden doesn’t quite hit the same heights as its predecessor, but it’s still fascinating to see Beckett expand one of the most unique and imaginative worlds in contemporary science fiction. I’m disappointed that according to what I’ve read, the third novel in the series won’t take a similar leap into Eden’s future, but I look forward to it nonetheless. (I’m still holding out for a Lord of the Flies or Apocalypto style ending.)
7. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.
Harry August is born, he lives, he dies – and he is born again, back where he started in 1919 in the women’s bathroom at Berwick-upon-Tweed train station, with all his memories and experience but with the slate of history wiped clean. His life is an Escher staircase, an ouroboros; and so, armed with a foreknowledge of what the 20th century will hold, he sets out to discover his purpose in this world.
It’s always refreshing to find a sci-fi or fantasy author who can write – not Pulitzer-level stuff, but somebody who can actually craft their sentences well and make a plot work properly, people like George R.R. Martin or Glen Duncan or (see above) Chris Beckett. Claire North is one of these authors, and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is an absolute corker of a novel: fun, fast, and the perfect kind of engaging sci-fi mystery to read on a long flight, which I was lucky enough to do so. It engages in the obligatory questions about the meaning of life which one would expect from a story about immortals, but, more importantly, gives us plenty of fun with the mechanics and possibilities of ever-lasting life, knowledge of the future and a permanent reset button.
6. Under The Skin
She and they were all the same under the skin, weren’t they?
On the face of it – if I were to describe it to you right now, assuming you know nothing about it – Michel Faber’s Under the Skin is a completely batshit novel with a crazy premise and a moralistic purpose. And yet somehow it manages to become so much more than that. It begins with the weirdly attractive yet oddly creepy woman named Isserley driving around Scotland picking up hitchhikers for what we soon gather are nefarious purposes. Is she a sex addict? A serial killer? The truth, as we discover, is far more horrifying than that.
Under The Skin is fundamentally an allegorical work, for an aspect of our society which makes me uncomfortable even if I enjoy it too much to actually give it up. But it’s the mark of great science fiction that it makes you consider and re-evaluate something you take for granted as part of everyday life. It’s also a compelling, readable story – and a fantastic accomplishment for a first novel.
Just before a train went through a K-gate there was a moment of quiet, so short that only railheads caught it, as the wheels moved from the normal K-bahn track to the strange, ancient, frictionless rails which ran through the gate itself. That was what it felt like to Zen when he recognized the girl: a heartbeat’s silence, and then he was in a new world.
Philip Reeve returns explosively to form with Railhead, his first novel for teenage readers in some time – and the first, in my opinion, that comes close to matching the Mortal Engines series for that trifecta of story, spectacle and emotional heft. A richly-layered, deeply imagined sci-fi universe in which travel between planets takes place on sentient teleporting trains, a pantheon of inhuman AIs dwelling in the “data sea,” a rag-tag street thief recruited for a daring heist – what’s not to like?
I can stack the compliments up all day. But most importantly, Reeve still manages an ineffable sense of epic adventure; cliffhanger moments; turns of phrase and character decisions and powerful climaxes. All the reasons we read this kind of fiction, all the reasons we go to the movies, all the reasons we tell stories around campfires. I can’t quite articulate it, but whatever it is, Reeve has it in his bones.
4. Death Comes for the Archbishop
In New Mexico he always awoke a young man. Not until he arose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older. His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one’s body feel light and one’s heart cry “Today, today”’ like a child’s.
This is one of the TIME 100, and in that article Richard Lacayo compares the book to a tapestry. I keep coming back to that description because it’s so perfectly apt. Father Latour’s life is nothing more than a series of scenes, encounters and experiences, none of them any more important than the others; nor can his own life be viewed in isolation, because it’s inextricably part of a richer and broader web, comprising all the people who have been part of his lived experience, and he a part of theirs. Willa Cather’s prose is unsympathetic, unempathic; in that sense she reminded me of a more serious and poetic Larry McMurtry. There are certainly beautiful turns of phrase here, marvellous descriptions and passages, and yet I found that a few weeks after reading this book, most of them had filtered out of my head. What remained was what felt like the solid reality of this man’s rich and beautiful life.
Wherever you go, there you are.
Science fiction, in its purest form, has the purpose of making us think about what’s possible. Science fiction is about the exploration of concepts and ideas. Science fiction is about challenging orthodoxies and upending conventional viewpoints.
Yet science fiction itself, with its associate fandoms, geekery and nerdhood, has developed orthodoxies of its own. One of these is the near-universal opinion that it is humanity’s manifest destiny to colonise the galaxy. It’s an opinion I share, and I have to say that it’s an extremely powerful book which makes you legitimately and respectfully question your own beliefs – or at least question the reasons you hold them, and the outrigger opinions you’ve come to associate with them. Kim Stanley Robinson has always been a deeply moral, political and environmental writer, and in Aurora – although I might dispute some of his facts and conclusions – he makes every sci-fi nerd take a good, long look at why they believe what they believe. This isn’t just a cause-du-jour 2015 novel about climate change and Malthusian catastrophes and environmental stewardship; it’s a novel about what we’re trying to run from, why we’re so keen to leave, and what we think we’re going to find.
That alone would have been enough to give it a spot high on this list. But it’s also a novel with one of the best narrator characters I’ve read in a very long time, and a near-conclusion passage which is one of the most affecting pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. I hesitate to say this after the sheer amount of time and paper that went into Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy, but I think Aurora might be his best novel. It’s certainly one of the best science fiction novels of the past 30 years.
2. The Remains of the Day
“Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”
Stevens must have a first name, but we don’t know what it is, and perhaps even he has forgotten it. He lives a life of pure dedication to his position as butler of Darlington Hall: a man living his life not only in servitude to others, but in servitude to the very idea of servitude; to his own obsession with the profession of butlering. He lets other pleasures and opportunities slide on past because of his single-minded dedication to what he thinks he’s supposed to be doing.
Kazuo Ishiguro lays metaphor upon metaphor in a deceptively simple book which has an iceberg of deeper meaning beneath it, and an emotional sucker punch to match that of his more recent (and perhaps more famous) Never Let Me Go. In theme, those two novels reflect each other perfectly. Never Let Me Go is about the cages society builds for us; The Remains of the Day is about the cages we build for ourselves. It’s a sad and beautiful novel which everybody should read.
He is climbing the spiral staircase of the soul of Gormenghast, bound for some pinnacle of the itching fancy – some wild, invulnerable eyrie best known to himself; where he can watch the world spread out below him, and shake exultantly his clotted wings.
From a book which I think everybody should read to a book which is, to put it lightly, not everybody’s cup of tea. How to explain Gormenghast to the uninitiated? How to describe its pleasures, its tedium, its weight, its importance?
I can’t. It simply has to be read. It’s not even one book at all, although I’m counting it as one – it’s two excellent novels, one semi-finished third novel written by an author who was losing his mind, and then a collection of scribbled notes, extrapolated intentions and inevitable musings on the reader’s part about where Mervyn Peake intended to take his epic saga. This all combines to create a single work of art, a single place, a single experience with a single title: GORMENGHAST.
This is a collection of writing so vivid and intense that it almost feels real. It’s a Gothic labyrinth as complex and fascinating as the huge, rambling, decaying castle of Gormenghast itself. The main character is not the lordling Titus Groan who flinches from his hereditary responsibilities, nor the cunning and ruthless Steerpike who plots to climb the ladder and rule the castle; it’s not even the setting of Gormenghast itself, that legendary semi-derelict universe of stone and masonry, in the sense that so many great works have settings indispensable to the tone of the story. No, the main character is Peake’s prose: Gothic in tone, baroque in style, florid and detailed and endlessly compelling. Writing the likes of which I’ve never seen before. Writing like a man composing a symphony; or painting a canvas – one of those great, detailed, fifteen-foot high paintings that hang in the National Gallery. Writing so bizarre and yet so accomplished that it makes the castle city of Gormenghast feel like a real place full of real people, and yet at the same time like an impossible daydream; a memory of a place we once were, which we can no longer reach.
People who’ve read Gormenghast are nodding their heads and agreeing; people who haven’t read Gormenghast have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about. All I can say is that you really must read these books. They’re like nothing else I’ve ever encountered.