Adrienne Martini: Let’s Call It Take 4

During the decade that I worked in the newspaper business, there were two seasons I learned to loathe. The first season was the run up to the annual “Best-Of” special section, which was a vaguely organized, blurb-filled pain in the arse that served no editorial function whatsoever other than making sure we kept our advertisers happy. The second season hit during the last couple of weeks of the year, when everyone and his or her dog had to compile a best-of list…

I’ve been assured that readers love lists. I’ve decided to take that on faith in lieu of hard evidence. (And, as a nod to the most excellent Locus editorial staff, this assertion about readers and lists has not ever come from them. And, since I joined the Locus reviewing team late in the year, I wasn’t pressed too hard to provide one for 2008. Creek don’t rise, etc., I’m planning to assemble one for 2009, however.)

The problem with year-end round-ups is mine: I just don’t see the point of them.

Near as I can tell, if the point of these essays is to spot trends, a year isn’t long enough to see what they are. Given how the publishing industry works, titles that are being released now have been in the pipeline for anywhere for just a few months to a couple of years. It’s hard to know what time period these annual snapshots are taking a picture of.

Trends, especially in a fairly slow business like the book industry (compared to, say, the technology sector), take years to develop. Perhaps it would be more helpful to do a round-up review at the end of each decade. From that fixed point, it might be easier to see what has changed.

If the point of these essays is to recap what was published in any given year, then I am not the one you want to have writing for you. I can just barely manage to read a small handful books published in any given month and I have significant motivation to stay as on top of current titles as I can. If there are hundreds of SF/F titles alone published in a year, the odds of my having read more than a single digit percentage of them quickly approach zero.

Sometimes, when I’m feeling especially kicky or don’t have a deadline approaching, I’ll even go back and read books that were published in previous years that I missed the first time around. And, sometimes, when the mood strikes, I’ll even go back and re-read a book that I love. In fact, I just finished another go ’round with RAH’s Job: A Comedy of Justice, which I hadn’t read since high school. (My short review: I’d forgotten how clean Heinlein’s prose, plotting and pace is — but I’m even more squicked out by the hints of incest now that I have kids.) Should that go on my round-up for 2009? After all, that’s when I read it.

My largest problem with these year-end essays is that they are even more arbitrary than a standard review. While there is a certain amount of reasoned argument and historical perspective that goes into them, the piece itself is even more of a judgment call that an opinion on a single book. The critic is electing a couple of titles to represent an entire year.

Sadly, the tendency is to lose track of the titles that don’t make it onto a list — or, more irritatingly, compile these lauded titles into an uber-best-of list. It’s hard then to not turn it into a competition, where you set the top book of 2008 against the top book of 2007 in order to see which title is the “best.” Books aren’t horses.

I’d prefer to just wait and let time (and readers, natch) sort out which titles come to represent any given span of days. Yes, it takes longer that way. So be it.

Having said all of that, I will now mention that I’m not above pressing titles into the hands of those I can, in the hopes that they’ll discover how wonderful that book is. My motives are selfish. If that reader loves the book, they’ll pass it on. Eventually, that book might just get into enough hands to keep it around long enough to keep it alive.

In 2008, there were two titles that I did this with: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem and Terry Pratchett’s Nation. Part of what compels me to pass these along is that each could only have been written by their authors, which sounds silly, I know. But Anathem, with all of its math geekery and distinct characters and imposing size, could only have sprung from the same head that created The Baroque Cycle and (the underrated) The Diamond Age. I also have to echo what Gary K. wrote about Anathem. Stephenson has flipped some of the genre’s standard tropes inside-out in fascinating ways that make for mind-bending and rewarding read. With Anathem, Stephenson finally seems to trust himself to follow each path that his mind takes him on and has the confidence to make it all come together in a glorious, unified whole.

No one else could have written Nation, either. Pratchett’s voice has long been his hallmark, certainly, and is difficult to confuse with any other writer’s, no matter how many try to ape it. Nation is like a pure distillation of all of the best parts of the Discworld books. In here is all of the wit. Pratchett’s love of the language is in Nation as is his ability to mix skipping whimsy with bleak reality. But what Nation does best is provide a primer on how to cope when life goes very, very wrong while telling a story whose weight you don’t feel until the very end.

Are these the “best” books of the year? Do they illustrate a major trend of 2008? I have no idea—but I hope they manage to stick around.

Adrienne Martini

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