The Books I Can’t Shake: Speculative Fiction

You read a little of this, a little of that. The celebrated prizewinners deliver as expected, but the majority of their books fall away from memory. Those that stick aren’t the technical best, oddly. Maybe technical prowess is only a superficial concern when it comes to lasting art. Maybe this is how Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” for all its timeshifting narrative skill, can still be a snooze.

Maybe it says more about me than it does the state of literary fiction that the books I can’t shake twist science fiction, or fanstay. Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant” is an odd, haunting deconstruction of Arthurian legend, complete with knights and swordplay. Yet it meditates on love, time, memory, and pre-recorded history itself. It’s more than a bit reminiscent of Jim Crace’s “The Gift of Stones” and “Harvest,” but Ishiguro has always genre-hopped, from Victorian upper crust to cloning. This one might warrant a sequel.

G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen,” unlike any book I’ve read, conjures a make-believe middle-eastern dystopia where hackers and demons battle in cyberspace as well as hand-to-hand. It’s bloated in the middle, like many first novels, but Wilson’s storytelling skills have been honed by comics (she’s the mind behind Ms. Marvel) and the images pile on, stunner after stunner.  This better be a movie. I’m in line, spiritually.

Atop my heap stands Michael Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things.” Hired by corporate miners, a pastor with an addiction history travels via inter-dimensional jump to a distant planet quietly inhabited by odd wildlife and eerie, cloaked humanoids. who yearn for a conversion to Christianity begun by a previous missionary who has disappeared. Our alien-curious pastor meanwhile exchanges messages with his wife on Earth, only to helplessly witness, through her messages back, the beginnings of a global apocalypse back home.

I simply can’t shake it. Faber’s swift, suggestive descriptions of his alien planet, a flat, featureless steppe as storm-swept as it is brutally hot, transmit an atmospheric loneliness. Even the wildlife – a migrating herd of poisonous, flightless duck-like animals –in their seemingly infinite march, are unfairly despairing. The book may not even resolve itself properly. His aliens speak in an undecipherable language rendered untranslated throughout, and I couldn’t crack it. There’s no real ending for any of the characters. I suppose that’s the gist of religion.