The books I was most surprised by this year—Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Secret Confessions of a Justified Sinner—are8 and 188 years old, respectively. But here are some of my favorites from the last year (and a half, sorry).
Ernest Cline – Ready Player One
The future sucks. So people stay inside, create avatars, and log into OASIS, an enormous virtual world—think Second Life if it was fun. The simulation’s eccentric, dead creator James Halliday has hidden a number of easter eggs inside, and so those with the requisite time, resources, and encyclopedic knowledge of the 1980’s pop culture Halliday loved search for them. These ‘gunters’ compete or cooperate in their quest to win the game, billions of dollars, and control of OASIS itself, now threatened by a corporate takeover. The plot follows Parzival, a high school kid from one of the teetering ‘stacks’ of trailer homes inhabited by the residents of 2044 Oklahoma City, and his online friends/rivals (frivals?) Aech and Art3mis. Together they obsess over the minutiae and meanings of the Duran Duran lyrics, Dungeons & Dragons modules, and John Hughes movies presumably also loved by first time author Cline (and many of his readers, including this one). Ready Player One was certainly the most joyous book I’ve picked up this year, even if I couldn’t shake the feeling that on some level it was always pandering to me. When it works—and it does more often than not—it’s because Cline makes an unabashed claim for the value—nay necessity—ofhit records and bad television. Artifacts of pop culture, like OASIS itself, provide an escape from our problems and those of the big bad world outside. But their playful scribbles, adorning our inner landscapes, also make us: building us up and breaking us down and giving each other things to share and argue about and just overall making life, well, livable.
Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder – Halloween Eve
I have already written a little about DC Comics’ 52 relaunch and some of its representations, so now I’ll shovel out some coal for their increasingly puzzling relationship with their female creators. It’s already been something of a dark December, with the great Gail Simone relieved of her duties as writer of Batgirl, and the killer Karen Berger—arguably the most important comics editor of the past 25 years—has announced her departure from the Vertigo imprint that she created and ran. Earlier in the year, the amazing Amy Reeder was forced off of Batwoman apparently at the behest of its new writer, J.H. Williams [alliterative deleted].
Shortly afterwards, Reeder (art) and Brandon Montclare (words) financed Halloween Eve through Kickstarter, and had it published by creator-owned Image Comics just in time for the holiday. The comic is a retelling of A Christmas Carol, with the titular Eve as the Scrooge of Samhain: she works in a popular costume shop but hates Halloween, dressing up, and unseriousness generally. Forced to work late the night before the big night, she is startled to find that the costumes are coming to life. They whisk her away to Halloween Land where Eve discovers the real reason for the season… which after a couple of reads is still somewhat unclear: at 40 pages, Halloween Eve is long for a single issue of an ongoing, but rather short for a self-contained work, and so the character relationships and development has to occur very quickly. Montclare’s script works within these limitations, but the book largely relies on Reeder’s art and layouts to tell its story. Luckily, while Halloween Eve is not as strong as the best issues of their collaboration on Madame Xanadu, it is neverthelesss a fantastic showcase for Reeder. Eve herself is a wonderfully realized character, and the monsters and demons that populate the other realm are perfect subjects for her (somewhat-manga influenced) art style: does anyone draw more expressive, almost three-dimensional eyes?
I should also say that there are depressingly few mainstream comics with black women as protagonists, so let’s hope that Halloween Eve’s success can help address this inbalance. Finally, at $3.99 this was the value of the year, pick up a few for next year’s All Hallow’s Read.
John Scalzi – Redshirts
Sci-fi author Scalzi probably received more attention for his blog than for his novels in 2012. His piece “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” –which used the form and rhetoric of video games to explain privilege and how it operates without actually using the p-word—generated thousands of comments, shares, tweets, reblogs, hatEmails, and academic attention. In July he initiated a minor war with CNN contributor Joe Peacock over an opinion piece about how cosplayers—primarily women—weren’t ‘real’ geeks. Comic book artist Tony Harris made a similar post later in the year, which Scalzi also obliterated. (A brief aside for those unfamiliar with one of 2012’s most irritating trends, the best response to the ‘fake geek girl’ manplaint is still albinwonderland’s video, also a response to Harris).
So, Redshirts. Scalzi’s latest novel is a loving satire of Star Trek, in which three new junior crewmembers of the U.U. Intrepid discover that lower-ranked officers are dying off with alarming frequency: disintegrated by weapons fire, mauled by killer robots, eaten by space oozes, etc. Meanwhile, the bridge crew seem to live charmed lives, healing from devastating injuries overnight and surviving attacks that would emulsify ensigns and liquefy second lieutenants. Naturally, there is a conspiracy afoot, but not the kind that the characters and most readers expect. There is a highly metafictional plot twist about halfway through, after which much of the gallows humor fades and the book becomes something else entirely. Some readers will likely not follow the leap that Scalzi makes here, his attempt to go for bigger emotions in the book’s “three codas.” I’m of course a super sappy emo kid, but a couple of the endings made me cry. If Frankenstein asked us what responsibility the creator has for their created; Redshirts raises (or perhaps lowers) the stakes by suggesting that even fictional creations deserve our respect and care: these literary lives, too, are worthwhile, and we should not be so quick to discard them (or subject them to lazily-written transporter accidents).
Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.