2022 Roundup

It’s been a pretty good reading year for me, by the number of books I pulled out as favourites from my 2022 reading log. My top ten feels notably topical, much more so than last year: environmentalism, colonialism, capitalism, the rise of the far right all stand out to me as common themes. I guess, like many of us, I’ve been drawn to fiction that works to make sense of our current moment, a moment when we seem to be standing vertiginously on the brink of apocalypse. Perhaps paradoxically, I don’t think this is a particularly downbeat list; there are moments of hope as well as more sombre notes, reminders of the great gift that life is, and of what we stand to lose if we carry on down this path.

So, here they are: my top ten reads of 2022.

  1. Ventriloquism – Catherynne M. Valente (2010). Of course, having just discussed how topical this list is, I start with possibly the least topical book on it. Not that the stories collected in Ventriloquism do not often feel urgent and searching: in particular, there is a strong feminist sensibility running through them. But the best and most playful stories – “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time”, which mashes up advanced physics with creation tales from around the world; “A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica”, a catalogue of maps which also explores the rivalry between two cartographers; “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew”, the precursor to Valente’s Art Deco space opera novel Radiance – are more personal than political. Valente’s long been a favourite author of mine, thanks to her resonant uses of myth and fairytale and her lush, ornate prose; Ventriloquism collects some of her best work.
  2. Notes from the Burning Age – Claire North (2021). This novel, on the other hand, is thoroughly of the moment: set in a future in which humanity has learned to live more sustainably, it tells the story of the rise of an anti-environmentalist movement whose proponents believe that humanity should have dominion over the earth. I place it so high on this list because it was so utterly unexpected: I went in expecting an SF thriller along the lines of North’s earlier Touch and got instead a novel that expresses near-perfectly my own ideas about what a sustainable society might look like and what our relationship to our planet should be. There is a thriller element, which sometimes drives the book in a pulpier direction than I’d like, but its core ideas have stayed with me and will do for a long time.
  3. Ammonite – Nicola Griffith (1992). Setting aside the problematic nature of the novel’s central premise – it’s set on a planet where only women can survive, which indicates that there’s some rather reductionist thinking about gender going on somewhere – this is another delightfully quiet story about living in harmony with one’s environment, building community through mutual aid and complex chains of allegiance. Again, Ammonite was a book that came as a surprise to me: an ostensibly science-fictional text that reads in some respects more like fantasy.
  4. BabelR.F. Kuang (2022). I will be very surprised if this is not one of this year’s Hugo nominees. I’m not convinced that Kuang’s magic system, which runs off the losses and shifts of meaning involved in translating texts from one language to another, harmonises perfectly with what she has to say about colonialism and appropriation; but she captures so exactly what it feels like to be at Oxford, the heady golden days of intellectual pursuit coupled with the uneasy knowledge of the damage the institution has done and is still doing, that I can forgive her that. Her ending, too, is impeccably pitched; the kind of ending that feels, with hindsight, inevitable. Big, ambitious, exciting.
  5. Downbelow Station – C.J. Cherryh (1981). A classic work of SF, and one I’ve been meaning to read for a while. There are things that…are not great about it (I doubt we’d see anything like the hisa in published SF today, or at least one would hope not), but for the most part it’s a satisfyingly dense and chunky novel, broad in scope and more grittily realist in approach than I was expecting. I’ll be interested to read other books in the series, if I can find them in hard copy.
  6. In Other Lands – Sarah Rees Brennan (2017). Originally published online, this is a heartfelt coming-of-age novel that isn’t trying to be anything more than that. I’ve wept more at the utter teenage despair of its snarky, socially awkward protagonist Elliot than I have at any other work of art for a long time. Like Notes from a Burning Age and Babel, it’s a novel that just seems to get a part of me that I’ve barely been able to explain to myself.
  7. The Past is Red – Catherynne M. Valente (2021). Again, it’s Valente’s prose that wins this one for me; that, and its heroine’s conviction, in the face of all available evidence, that she lives in the best of all possible worlds. Valente’s critique of overconsumption and the heedlessness of the super-rich feels a little too on the nose; but the book’s last page is perfection.
  8. Market Forces – Richard Morgan (2004). I’m not a fan of Morgan’s depictions of characters who are not white men, but I always find his ideas, and the dynamic cyberpunky prose he uses to express them, invigorating. Here, he literalises capitalism’s metaphor of competition, making his City financiers and consultants fight to the death as a matter of course. It’s a compelling study of complicity and guilt that chimed in interesting ways with a lot of my reading this year.
  9. Red Pill – Hari Kunzru (2020). The experience of reading this novel encapsulates in miniature the experience of existing as a liberal in this present moment: the sense of disorientation and confusion as what appeared to be the long arc of progress collapses into reactionary conservatism; as what seemed to be the basic facts of the world are unmoored and overturned. Its protagonist’s inability to find answers to the far-right discourse he sees erupting around him feels deeply and terrifyingly relatable.
  10. Bewilderment – Richard Powers (2021). I’m not terribly satisfied with this novel’s treatment of the protagonist’s autistic child, who is used more as a plot device than as a character with agency of his own. But Powers is very good at describing the miracle of the world we see all about us: the complexity of something so simple as a fallen leaf, for example. And his melding of the science-fictional with the realistic is skillful and resonant.

Spreadsheet stats

  • I read 88 books in 2022; one fewer than last year.
  • The longest book I read was Donna Tartt’s sprawling The Goldfinch, at 864 pages; the shortest was Michael Bockemühl’s study of J.M.W. Turner, at just 96. In all I read 33,641 pages this year, down from last year’s 35,787. (I’ve obviously been reading shorter books.)
  • The oldest book I read in 2022 was Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, first published in 1848. The average age of the books I read in 2022 was 16, down from 19 last year. (I’ve obviously been reading newer books, too.)
  • Genre: genre distinctions are of course fuzzy and contested, but by my rather idiosyncratic rubric 36% of the books I read in 2022 were science fiction (up from 19% last year); 26% were fantasy (down from 43% last year); 22% were litfic, the same as last year. I wonder if the switchover between SF and fantasy as my favoured genre has something to do with my seeking out more topical fiction. (I should note, as well, that my “litfic” category includes several novels with speculative elements that didn’t feel solidly genre.) I’ve also read five novels that I classified as “contemporary” (mostly romances), four non-fiction books, a “classic” (the aforesaid Tenant of Wildfell Hall), a crime novel (Un-Su Kim’s The Plotters), a horror novel (Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians) and a mystery (Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land).
  • Just 7% of the books I read in 2022 were re-reads (down from last year’s 29%; that figure was only so high because the libraries were closed for a good proportion of 2021). Incidentally, all of those re-reads were by J.R.R. Tolkien, except for Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments, which I had forgotten I’d already read.
  • 58% of the books I read in 2022 were by people who are not men, slightly down from last year’s 60%.
  • 28% of the books I read in 2022 were by people of colour, up from last year’s 19%.
  • And 22% of the books I read in 2022 were by queer authors – up from last year’s 19%.

Review: The City of Woven Streets

The City of Woven StreetsI haven’t read Emmi Itäranta’s debut novel Memory of Water, the English-language version of which was shortlisted for a slew of speculative fiction awards when it came out in 2014, but what I have heard of it seems to indicate that she’s dealing with similar themes in her sophomore effort, 2016’s The City of Woven Streets. Both novels are set in a dystopian society whose people are deprived of access to some basic human resource – water in the earlier novel, dreams in the later one – and both take a slightly allegorical approach to their subject matter. By the latter I mean that neither novel is strictly realistic in its worldbuilding, even taking into account the rules of their imagined settings; instead, they rely on metaphorical and emotional resonance to create meaning.

The City of Woven Streets, then, is the story of Eliana, a young woman who lives and works in the House of Weavers, on a remote and storm-washed island ruled over by the autocratic Council. Eliana has a dangerous secret: unlike her Weaver colleagues, she dreams. Should her secret be discovered, she’ll be whisked off to the House of the Tainted, never to be seen again. Her precarious position is complicated further when a woman named Valeria washes up in a storm, tongue cut out and with Eliana’s name written upon her hand. Eliana’s attempts to decipher her connection to Valeria, as she gradually falls in love with her, lead her to momentous truths about the island, the Council, and why nobody dreams.

The society in which Eliana lives is as much fantasy-medieval as it is anything else, albeit with a touch of steampunk: literacy rates are low, there’s little in the way of machinery or automation (save for the air gondolas that shuttle between the island’s various key buildings on cables), and women’s rights in particular are limited. Yet there’s a lot here that speaks to thoroughly contemporary concerns about environmental degradation and exploitation, in a way that directly connects these issues to the exploitation and oppression of indigenous peoples and the working classes. For instance, fairly early on in the novel, Eliana hears reports of masses of dead medusae – the jellyfish the people of the island use for pain relief – washing up on the shores; eventually, she discovers that the die-off was caused by a chemical that the Council uses to suppress dreaming in the island’s citizens. Later, Eliana is sent to the House of the Tainted herself, and finds out that the people imprisoned there are being used as forced labour to carry out the difficult and dangerous work of harvesting the red coral that is the island’s main export – and that the task is made more difficult and dangerous by the fact that the coral is becoming rarer and harder to reach as a direct result of this overexploitation of the sea’s resources. Finally, at the novel’s denouement, Eliana meets a sentient being below the House of the Weavers whose people were driven from the island by the Council and forgotten, and who possesses important knowledge about an impending cataclysm that’s about to strike the island – something that neither the Council nor the island’s human inhabitants know anything about.

It’s a novel, in short, that’s partly about the costs – environmental, social and economic – of treating both people and the environment as resources to be exploited for the benefit of a powerful elite. Itäranta’s transplantation of these concerns into a low-tech fantasy setting helps to bring them into sharp emotional contrast; shorn of the complexities of modern globalism, they can be seen more clearly, and confronted more directly. Her dreamy, flowing prose, verging on stream of consciousness in some places, contributes to this effect: it brings the tale into sharp emotional resonance, a resonance that more obviously “realistic” climate fiction (I’m thinking here of works like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora) struggles to achieve.

This is something that surprisingly few speculative fiction novels are trying to do, actually – I can’t, offhand, think of any fantasy-inflected novels that are interested in environmental exploitation in a way that relates so closely to the real world (I suppose Kristin Cashore’s new novel Winterkeep does have environmental themes, but they feel secondary to the personal drama her characters are dealing with), and certainly none that take this fabulist, metaphorical approach to it. It’s quite an effective one here, the deceptively simple surface of the text concealing some sophisticated thinking about structural oppression, and it’s something I’d like to see more of.