DeFlip Side #121: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2011


Welcome everyone, I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Clear your stacks, because it’s time once again for our annual Best Reads show, where I pick the best and worst Science Fiction and Fantasy books I read in the last year.

And what a difference a year makes. In 2010, I was barely able to scrape together five titles to build my list. This year, I read so many good books that it was hard to decide on just five. So my 2011 picks win out for being completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. My usual yearly caveats apply: the books on this list weren’t necessarily published in 2011, hence the title “Best Reads” instead of “Best Books;” and some of the titles have been featured in previous DeFlip Side episodes. So if some sound familiar, it’s because they are.

Now, on with the list for 2011.

Book 5) (TIE) The Philosopher’s Apprentice by James Morrow

When philosophy dropout Mason Ambrose gets hired to go to an exotic private island in the Florida Keys to imbue an eccentric genius’s cloned daughter with a moral center, he sets events in motion that shake the entire world. Morrow’s humorous and erudite novel is, at heart, a modern-day Scientific Romance, providing a scathing satire on the controversies over abortion and cloning; I especially like that science isn’t presented as a panacea, but rather a tool that can be perverted like any other, according to the philosophy of the person wielding it.

Book 5) (TIE) A Tangle in Slops by Jeffrey E. Barlough

The bleakest of bleak midsummers has descended on the Shire of Slops, bringing events strange and tragic to the Village of Plumley. A rogue mylodon has snatched Mr. Magnus Trefoil out of his study at Orkney Farm, which superstitious townfolk blame on his having unearthed a cache of mystical items belonging to his late ancestress, the legendary sorceress Tronda Quickensbog. And as the eldritch occurrences escalate, it becomes clear that Barlough is having far too much fun with A Tangle in Slops, the humorous and character-rich sixth volume of his Western Lights series–which also scores for bringing some much-needed darkness into Barlough’s fantastic, pseudo-Victorian world.

Read my Full Review of A Tangle in Slops

The only reason Tangle and Philosopher’s Apprentice didn’t score higher on this year’s list is because they’re perfect examples of the kind of wonderful work I’ve come to expect from both of these authors–the likes of which I have seen before, with neither providing the more unique reading experiences represented by the rest of my 2011 choices. So, yes, irony, since my devoted fandom actually works against Barlough and Morrow. But is it my fault that they set the bar so high with their previous books?

Book 4) Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler

And if you want to talk unique, look no further than Wild Seed’s main character Anyanwu, an apparently immortal, shape-shifting African woman, who travels to 17th Century New York with a body-swapping entity named Doro who has been cultivating his own human “seed” populations for millennia. In the ensuing centuries, Anyanwu and Doro forge an increasingly twisted and harmful relationship. And though they manifest a slew of odd powers, the fantastic elements never overwhelm the human story.

It’s a fine line that Butler walks masterfully–which is no wonder, since Wild Seed is the last of five books in Butler’s Patternist saga, a prequel to the rest of the series. I have no doubt that some of those titles will be turning up on future “Best Reads” shows.

Book 3) Palimpsest by Charles Stross

Stross is just about a yearly fixture on this list, and he’s at it again with this time travel novella that breaks all the unofficially established rules of the genre, beginning by turning the Grandfather Paradox on its ear.

Junior agent Pierce has recently been recruited by the Stasis, an organization that uses timegates to preserve and record human history. But the timeline is riddled with palimpsests–events overwritten to maximize the Stasis’s effectiveness. And when Pierce is caught in a palimpsest event engineered to kill him, he must figure out who wants him erased from history.

The tale that follows embraces the inherent complexities of time travel and revels in the resulting incongruities and paradoxes, ultimately culminating in a brilliant narrative Mobius strip. Best of all, Palimpsest is uncluttered by needless handholding for mundane minds. Not only is it the best time travel story I read in 2011, but the best one I’ve ever read.

Read my Full Review of Palimpsest

Time displacement also figures prominently in:

Book 2) Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Spin follows the lives of three friends who grow up in the aftermath of “The October Event,” a night in which the moon and stars disappear from the sky. In their quest for answers, they eventually learn that some unknown power has placed the Earth in a kind of stasis envelope, and that for every Earth year, millions of years are passing in the outside universe.

Wilson uses this unique premise to journey down some very creative speculative roads, including the terraforming of Mars and the development of artificial life. But these high concepts are grounded firmly by believable and sympathetic main characters, making Spin the most engaging hard Science Fiction novel I’ve ever read.

But one novel still managed to edge it out and nab this year’s top spot. My number one read in 2011 was:

Book 1) The City & The City by China Mieville

This police procedural is set in a pair of fictional Eastern European cities that occupy the same physical space, and where opposing citizens have learned to “unsee” one another for fear of invoking the penalty of Breach (an all-seeing power wielding swift retribution). Inspector Tyador Borlu has caught a murder case involving a victim who willfully Breached in search of a third hidden city co-existing with the others.

Mieville takes this uniquely bizarre concept and uses it to craft his best book, evocative of Le Guin’s classic social Science Fiction and Orwell’s 1984. I don’t know how to give higher praise than that.

But wait! There’s more! Because while The City & The City was the best genre book I read in 2011, another non-genre book was equally as good. So I must give a hearty Honorable Mention to:

HM) The Book of Bunk: A Fairy Tale of the Federal Writers’ Project by Glen Hirshberg

It’s the late 1930s, and Dust Bowl refugee Paul Dent is all but shanghaied into the Federal Writers’ Project, tasked with writing about a small mountain town in South Carolina, where he uncovers many competing versions of the elusive and mythical American Dream.

It will take reviewers far more versed than I in modern mainstream literature to determine if The Book of Bunk is the next Great American Novel, but I can declare with certainly that it’s a powerful literary gem in the tradition of Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, and is the most emotionally resonant and viscerally satisfying book I’ve read in recent memory. Thank you, Mr. Hirshberg.

Okay, enough of this gushy lovefest. Let’s get to the bashing!

Worst Read) Floater by Lucius Shepard

After shooting and killing an unarmed immigrant, NYPD Detective William Dempsey gets a floater in his eye that spurs hallucinations of an alternate, darkly magical New York. Toss in healthy doses of vengeance and voodoo, and this book should have been a winner.

Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I was born and raised in the Bronx, so I can tell you with some authority: people from the city and the outer boroughs don’t speak like TV cops on NYPD Blue. And when not assaulting you with his terrible dialog, Shepard is bludgeoning you with over-written pseudo-mystical flights of fancy. There’s a good bit at the end, but it’s not enough to save the aptly-named Floater–and if you don’t understand that reference, look up the word Floater in the Urban Dictionary.

And while you’re here, you’ll also find links to more extensive reviews of many of the books featured on tonight’s show, as well as Amazon links so you can get copies of your own.

As always, if you read any of these books based on my recommendation I’d love to know what you think. Drop me a comment. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more!