December 30, 2010

The Year In Books 2010: Best of the Cutting-Edge

CCLaP: The Year In Books, 2010

(For all the essays in this four-part "Year In Books 2010" series, please click here.)

One of the things about CCLaP I'm proudest of is the center's commitment to reviewing and promoting works of an experimental or cutting-edge nature; here then are my ten favorite such titles from 2010, listed as always in alphabetical order.

Almaty-Transit, by Sarah Pickering

Almaty-Transit, by Dana Mazur

This New Weird mystery novel from Kazakhstan native and MTV Russia co-founder Dana Mazur is perhaps best compared to one of those great old Neil Gaiman Sandman tales, where characters flit back and forth between the physical world and the afterlife, a cross-continental story encompassing everything from LA adult-contemporary jazz artists to the ancient superstitions of central Asia, and that veers between social realism and urban fantasy with the subtle touch of a master like Tim Powers. A hybrid of a book in the best sense of the word, and a nice reflection of the genre-hopping post-"Lost" times we live in.

Cursed, by Jeremy Shipp

Cursed, by Jeremy Shipp

Every year, it seems, we see another book by alt-horror veteran Jeremy Shipp make these best-of lists here at CCLaP; and this year it's his inventive and highly entertaining expectation-twister Cursed, which takes a fairly standard trope of the genre (um, dude is cursed) but tells it in a unique, highly intelligent way, playing out both its discovery and the fight to get rid of it for all it's worth, and even using this curse to comment astutely on character-based issues like family, romance and the like. Any horror writer who can combine Chomskian philosophy and slapstick humor is all right in my book, and this becomes Shipp's fourth book in as many years to get a big thumbs-up from me.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer

The Dream of Perpetual Motion, by Dexter Palmer

If there's one thing that ties together all the titles in this list, it's perhaps that none of them fit easily into just one genre or tradition; and this fever-dream of a novel by Dexter Palmer is a great example, a story that's been described by many as science-fiction but is actually both less and more than that. Grounded in academic excellence and as much a prose-poem as a genre story, it's essentially a fairytale set within a vaguely steampunkish Early Modernist alt-universe New York, the plot itself taking on the same kind of grand metaphorical element that made Steven Spielberg's A.I. so intriguing as well. It's a book perfect for those who like their writing so obtuse to be nearly incomprehensible, or in other words all those James Joyce fans who have always wondered what it would've been like if he had taken on a pulpy sci-fi story while alive.

Generation A, by Douglas Coupland

Generation A, by Douglas Coupland

The more that pop-culture expert and "Generation X" phrase-coiner Douglas Coupland's career expands and matures, the more obvious it's becoming that his true forte is in wildly experimental projects, in which he takes already ludicrous concepts then spins them out into unheard-of extremes; take his latest, for example, full of flaws but that I still find my brain returning to again and again at quiet moments, which starts with the idea of five strangers getting stung by supposedly extinct bees in an ecologically disastrous near-future, then just keeps tumbling and stumbling in the strangest directions with each passing chapter. All of Coupland's recent books have seemed to have big problems, yet they all seem to be so engaging anyway, and this one is no exception, a title that will leave you thinking about corporate consumerism and other weighty issues long after the head-scratching manuscript itself is over.

Grundish and Askew, by Lance Carbuncle

Grundish and Askew, by Lance Carbuncle

Oh, overly sensitive self-promoting funny gonzo authors, where would we be without you? I have to admit, one of my favorite guilty pleasures of CCLaP is the unending collection of hustling bizarro writers at Goodreads.com, hawking their latest grown-up versions of angry adolescent scat-humor comic books; and one of my favorite of such titles in 2010 was this cartoonishly noir romp by gonzite veteran Lance Carbuncle, the inept adventures of two former prison cellmates that will have you laughing and reaching for the barf bag in equal measures. Not for the faint of heart, and it helps if you're 35 and still find yourself chuckling regularly to your MAD magazine subscription; but this book's unapologetic fans are out there, and they know who they are.

The People Who Watched Her Pass By, by Scott Bradfield

The People Who Watched Her Pass By, by Scott Bradfield

Yesterday I mentioned how all three of the books sent to me this year by small-press startup Two Dollar Radio ended up making these best-of lists this week; and here's the third of these three titles to be featured, which like the others was obviously signed mostly for the beautiful, poetic writing style being featured, although without any of them sacrificing a great premise or fast plot to do so. In this case, in fact, the premise is one that could've turned into a trainwreck if handled by a less deft author -- it's essentially the story of a five-year-old girl who gets kidnapped by a skeevy neighbor, then eventually becomes a vagabond solitary traveler who sleeps in the abandoned warehouses of a crumbling rural America, but with the whole thing treated by the author as a grand adventure instead of the pedophilic nightmare it'd be in real life. Some will find this book morally disturbing or even exploitative for this reason; but if you can get into the fairytale spirit meant by the author, you'll find here a grandly metaphorical comment on the forgotten back roads and decaying ethical state of post-9/11 America.

Second Acts, by Tim W. Brown

Second Acts, by Tim W. Brown

And speaking of grandly metaphorical tales, that's the main point of Tim W. Brown's latest time-traveling comedic thriller as well, even though it might seem at first like a straightforward genre story with touches of Pratchettesque absurdist humor; for while it's ostensibly about a group of modern creative-class douchebags who get the chance one day to travel back to the 1830s, the novel's really about what these people do once they're there and know they're never coming back, part morality tale and part historical fiction that never takes itself too terribly seriously, a rollicking actioner that counts transvestite Indian guides and a music-hall version of Oprah among its many quirky details. A fun and fairly short read, and one of the more accessible titles in this list.

Urbis Morpheos, by Stephen Palmer

Urbis Morpheos, by Stephen Palmer

And then here's possibly the least accessible title in today's list, a true brain-messer-upper that takes place literally one million years in the future, featuring a sentient race so bizarrely advanced that we can barely even keep up with what's going on, set in a nearly unrecognizable Earth where hundreds of generations of machine-intelligence evolution has created a "smart atmosphere" hostile to biological life, and where societal knowledge is stored in five-sense form inside giant organic creatures that swim in primordial electrical seas. Have a headache yet? If not, definitely check out this Frankensteinian love-child of Robert Anton Wilson, Stephen Hawking, and that shirtless homeless guy on the corner who's always ranting about how the giant bugs will someday kill us all.

The Wind-Up Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi

Although it was the co-winner of this year's Hugo Award, don't let its mainstream embrace fool you; Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl is in fact one of the most startling visions of the future the sci-fi industry has seen in a long time, even more fantastic when realizing it's an extrapolation of today's real global politics, a "third-world cyberpunk" tale set in a glittering but slum-filled post-oil Bangkok, in which a superpower Southeast Asia has split into a series of new alliances, all of which weathered the Peak Oil Disasters in differing ways, and where a devastated US and Western Europe is barely even heard from by the rest of the world anymore. Chock-full of stunning mental images on every page, this is a perfect companion to Ian McDonald's The Dervish House mentioned two days ago, and may in the future signify the official start of a brand-new "Global Age" in science-fiction history.

Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

Technically a companion piece to her 2003 novel Oryx & Cake, like me you do not necessarily have to read that first title to enjoy this second one, a timely if not science-fictiony cautionary tale in which the Tea Party and Halliburton have wrested permanent control of the government and the military, and where people literally have to form secret illegal monklike communities to have even a chance at a life not ruled by empty consumerism, celebrity worship, behavior-controlling drugs and inherently misogynistic, dogmatically pious platitudes. Long a pioneer in feminist-friendly, politically astute genre tales, Year of the Flood sees Atwood at the top of her game, the very first book I read this year and which has turned out to still be one of my favorites.

And that's it for today's list; but make sure to stop by again tomorrow for what is always my favorite write-up of everything I do here all year, the annual "CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Awards" denoting excellence in the fields of goofy steampunk, trashy melodrama, perverted erotica and more.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:22 PM, December 30, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Profiles | Reviews |