DeFlip Side #7: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2001

DS07.mp3

Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

Read any good books lately? Well I have, and since we seem to get a little bit review happy on Destinies this time of year, what with the Graphic Detail year-end special and the annual movie review, I’d like to start another January reviewing tradition, devoted to my favorite medium: books!

So welcome to the first annual DeFlip Side Best—and Worst!—Reads of the Year, a top five list counting down the top genre-related books I happened to read in the previous year, with a couple of turkeys thrown in for good measure.

Now, on with the list for 2001.

Book 5: Otherland Volume Four: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams.

Tad Williams has a lot to offer as an author, and this fourth and final volume of his massive Otherland series lives up to the level of storytelling fans like me have come to expect. Set in the not too distant future, Otherland is the story of Renee Sulaweyo, whose brother has been trapped online in an impossibly realistic Virtual Reality network known as Otherland, run by a mysterious group known as the Grail Brotherhood.  But when Renee and a band of companions infiltrate the system, they too become trapped online, and must travel through a seemingly endless number of simulated worlds, striving to stay one step ahead of the Brotherhood while unlocking the secrets of the Otherland network.

The Otherland series is sprawling and engrossing, with an intricately woven plot and several well drawn, diverse and compelling characters. At heart, Williams has taken the story elements of quest Fantasy and transposed them onto a hard Science Fiction framework. The transplant is a success. His simulated worlds are twisted and original, and filled with enough detail to make each spring to life.

The book might have ranked higher but for two things: first, are those sim-worlds I just mentioned. I didn’t really like some of them and found myself wishing the characters would just get through them already and move on to the next. The second thing that kept the novel low on the list is my hesitation to recommend the final book in an ongoing series, since it can’t be appreciated for itself, but must be taken as part of a whole. That being said, I highly recommend the entire Otherland series.

Book 4: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.

This book won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for fiction with good reason. Chabon tells the story of Josef Kavalier, a Jew who escapes from Prague at the onset of the Nazi occupation, and immigrates to New York City to live with his cousin Sammy Clay. Together, they create a wildly popular comic book superhero named The Escapist. In chronicling the lives of these cousins and their meta-human creations, Chabon weaves a subtle yet complex story that tackles broad themes like love, loss, hope and acceptance, all set against the backdrop of the golden age of comic books.

It’s another book that probably would have ranked higher on the list, but for the fact that it was only marginally genre-related. It’s that rarest of rarities, a mainstream novel that’s actually exceptionally good. I’d recommend it to anyone, Sci-Fi fan or not. And if you’re a comic book buff, you’ll be able to appreciate it on a deeper level.

Book 3: The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells.

Some of you may be wondering how the heck a book published in 1901 can make a top five list compiled a century later. It’s simple: Wells is a hell of a writer.

Put simply, the story is about a British scientist who creates an anti-gravitational metal, builds a sphere with it, and takes off with a friend for the moon. Upon arriving, they learn that the moon is inhabited by intelligent life, and the story goes from there.

And given the stiff-upper-lip, British imperialistic mindset prevalent in Wells’ era, I thought I knew exactly where the story was going and had no doubt how it would end. But Wells completely defied my expectations, bringing the narrative to an unexpected and extremely satisfying conclusion.

Of course, most of the science Wells based his story on has since been disproved, and there are many instances where his conjecture is just plain wrong. But despite this, it’s easy to see that he was extremely well-versed in the leading scientific theory of his day, and had a genuine talent for believingly incorporating it into intriguing tales. Wells also shows his ever-bizarre views of social science in his portrayal of the moon men’s utopian, yet highly segregated society.

Social science also plays a central role in the second book on the list.

Book 2: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

It’s not a book you’re likely to breeze through, but Le Guin’s story about one man’s attempts to establish formal relations with an alien planet is probably one of the most interesting and realistic ever written. So much so that it won the Hugo and Nebula awards when it was released in 1969.

Genly Ai is the Terran ambassador to the icy planet Gethan, where he is trying to convince the inhabitants to join an interplanetary federation of worlds. But he finds himself increasingly entangled in the plots of rival political factions, a pawn to the obscure motivations of a people he is struggling to understand.

With this book, Le Guin has created a diverse and believable alien society. Too often in today’s Science Fiction, we are presented with planets filled with beings that seemingly adhere to a single belief system and culture. It’s refreshing to find a cerebral book that presents multiple and conflicting points of view, and forces you to really think, and follow details very carefully. Even then, the book doesn’t offer any cut and dry conclusions. And it’s all the more satisfying because of that. It’s the kind of book that you’ll dwell on long after you’ve finished reading it.

And now, for the number one book. The best read of 2001 is….

Book 1: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

Mieville takes us to the fantastic city of New Crobuzon, inhabited by humans, bug-headed beings known as kephri, living cacti and a seemingly endless assortment of odd and fantastical creatures that form the backdrop of this rich and gripping tale.

When renegade human scientist Issac Dan der Grimnebulin tries to restore the power of flight to Yagharek, a garuda birdman whose wings have been chopped off, his researches unleash a deadly creature that poses a threat to all life in New Crobuzon. Issac’s quest to stop the creature follows, and the story unfolds in several creative, unforeseen and highly entertaining directions.

You might classify Perdido Street Station as steampunk, but it’s more like steampunk on acid. Mieville has an ability with words seldom seen. His writing is atmospheric, compelling and greatly entertaining. I look forward to his next book.

Biggest Disappointment: Dune by Frank Herbert

Like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Dune was another book released in the 1960s that won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. I greatly anticipated reading this venerated SF classic, which had come highly recommended from all quarters. But where Left Hand was an exercise in symbolic storytelling with depth and subtlety, Dune was symbolic storytelling that just fell flat.

It’s the story of Paul Atreides, a duke’s son who becomes the savior of the desert planet Arrakis, or Dune. While there should have been much to like, I found the characters to be rather one-dimensional, almost allegorical, and the story to be a bit plodding. There’s no denying Herbert’s creativity, and Dune was probably groundbreaking for its time, but I don’t think it holds up very well for the modern reader. Of course, I’m in an extreme minority here, but I had much higher hopes.

Now for my favorite part of the list.

Worst Read of the Year: Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain by Michael Paterniti.

I can’t for the life of me figure out how this book got published, much less the high praise it received from reviewers, even in The New York Times.

The premise is intriguing: Paterniti, a struggling writer, somehow discovers the pathologist who took Einstein’s brain home with him after the autopsy and has kept it since. Striking up a friendship with the strange old man, he agrees to drive him across country to return the brain to one of Einstein’s relatives. Hence the title.

But despite it’s promise, the story falls flat in Paterniti’s clumsy hands, degenerating into a plotless ramble in which the author is just as likely to ruminate on his failing relationship with his girlfriend or how much he misses his dog, as he is to tell us about Einstein’s brain and its circumstances.

After about 50 pages, I was asking why I should care. After finishing the book, I was glad to be done with the overwritten, falsely sentimental prose that couldn’t become relevant no matter how hard the author tried. A poorly written, pointless book that is nothing more than a waste of innocent trees.

So there they are, my good and not-so-good forays into the written word for the year 2001. And while this is only one man’s opinion of the works listed, I’d love for it to be more. If you have your own takes on the books listed—or even a book you’d like to recommend for consideration on next year’s list—please e-mail me at cdeflip@yahoo.com.

Suggestions. Differing views. Any constructive dialog that promotes the cause and longevity of reading is welcome. And if you’ve tried any of these books based on my recommendation, please tell me what you think.

Now go read a book! After the show of course…

-30-