Well, first off: what a terrible year for my reading habits. I read the sum grand total of 9 novels this year, which is pathetic. It’s the fewest in 5 years, and while it’s felt as though I’m getting more serious about reading again, it’s the third straight year of decline in books-read – so really I’ve just been getting more serious about being annoyed at not having read more books… I don’t expect to ever go back to full book-obsessive mode, since I’ve got too much other stuff to do, but I would like to be back at one-a-fortnight-ish levels (26 novels in 2014, for instance), which I think is a respectable non-fanatic level.
I think one issue may be that reviewing, which for a while spurred me to read more, is sort of getting in the way now – I don’t want to read the next one ’till I review the last, and as my reviews are back in a ‘stupidly long’ phase, that can take a while. Then again, I reviewed my last book nearly 2 weeks ago and haven’t started the next (to be fair, it’s a season of distractions), so this is in part just an excuse.
A bigger issue is simply that while I love reading, I psychologically struggle to make the commitment to set aside time for it – it’s so much easier to settle down and watch an hour of something good on TV, rather than girding my mental loins to start a new book. As a result, even relatively small changes in my schedule can have a big impact on my reading habits. I should probably try harder to actively manage my schedule in some way that promotes, or at least doesn’t deter, reading. I should also note that a big factor is that I’ve just been knocking off the last few books in my Discworld reread – a few years ago I was racing through one or more Pratchetts a months, due to his unique ability to always appeal (he’s one of the few novelists who, on form, can deliver more immediate pleasure than almost any other activity).
On the plus side? Well, for a start, seven of the nine novels I read were first-time reads, which is good. But I also snuck in a nostalgic reread from my childhood, and that’s good too. As in the last few years, I read some old things – Cabell’s Figures of Earth, and my first Doc Smith, The Skylark, both of which are under-read (criminally so in the case of Cabell) founding fathers of SF&F – and, for the first time in a long time, I got around to reading one of those bona fide Classics You’re Meant To Have Read, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. I read an old-school pulp fantasy that wasn’t a nostalgic re-read (Green’s The God Killer). And hooray, I finally got around to reading the first volume of one of those Fashionable Modern Novels All Genre Fans Have Apparently Read Now, Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself. And I read the pleasingly frustrating culmination of perhaps my favourite series, by my favourite living author, Hobb’s Assassin’s Fate.
And, you know what? I enjoyed every single novel I read this year. I may have been frustrated by some, underwhelmed by others… but most were good, the ones that just weren’t bad were broadly to my taste, and the only novel that clear was bad, the understandably amateurish The Skylark, was so (both intentionally and unintentionally) riotously fun that it was the kind of bad book I not only enjoyed reading, but made a mental note to buy the sequel to. A couple of the books (the Dumas and the Cabell) will probably become little landmarks in my mental literary terrain. So in terms of the content of my reading habits this year, I’m actually pretty satisfied. It’s just the quantum that needs to be improved.
I’ll also say in my defence: two of these 9 were absolute monstrosities in word count. Assassin’s Fate is the appropriate knee-breaking length for an Epic Fantasy Finale (or ‘four or five separate novels combined’ if you’re a literary fiction fan), and The Count of Monte Cristo is the kind of insane 1000-pages-in-small-print goliath that even epic fantasy authors are rarely allowed to get away with. I think it’s either the 2nd or 3rd longest novel I’ve ever read, behind Gentle’s Ash: A Secret History (published in 4 volumes in the US) and possibly (it’s very close) Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (published in 3 volumes in many editions). [A few genre authors, like Tad Williams, Alan Moore and Diana Gabaldon, have published longer books, but only a few]. So, while I read only 75% as many novels as in 2016, I read 86% as many pages, and probably (given the print in the Dumas) over 90% as many words, or even perhaps more words than last year (when the longest book in page count that I read was Watership Down, with a very child-friendly text density). Which makes me feel a little better!
Also positive: I began reading through an anthology of English poetry, and was even inspired to go buy anthologies by Donne and (which I’ve actually read some of) Fulke Greville. I’ve been meaning to get into reading poetry again for a long time, and although I got bored and wandered off from that project (sometime in the 17th century, iirc), I’m pleased to have gotten as far as I did and I hope to come back to it in the new year.
Outside of literature, much of my entertainment this year has come from TV. I can’t remember exactly what I read this year, and what was last year, but it’s really remarkable how much great (or at least acceptible) American TV there is now, and I don’t feel too bad about watching it. Perhaps last year was better – The People vs OJ Simpson was brilliant (although it may have taken me until the beginning of this year to watch it? Can’t remember), and I was disappointed by the final season of Fargo. I’m barely watching the various superhero things that once seemed so promising. I wandered away from The 100 and Orphan Black, which were once challenging and innovative but ran out of ideas and became melodramatic and repetitive (though I may watch the first few episodes of the former in the new year, and see whether the next season seems any better – it is at least willing to change up its situations in a way that means recovery is always possible). I may have reached breaking point with Killjoys too, and Dark Matter (less flashy, but much more narrative potential) was bizarrely cancelled. Even so, this year has delivered some really great TV – my highlights being the 5th season of The Americans (slower and less incredibly amazing than the 4th, but still intense and rewarding), the 4th and final season of Halt and Catch Fire (maybe, emotionally, my favourite fiction of the year, and a genuine all-time classic, with a particular resonance for me personally*), and the 3rd season of iZombie (which made some infuriatingly stupid plot mistakes and some more subtle mistakes of tone, but which still managed to be funny, fun, interesting, likeable, unexpectedly clever, occasionally thrilling, and with an intensely refreshing willingness to let big changes happen even when it means totally changing the nature of the show). The Expanse was good too, if somewhat too slow. Oh, and Stranger Things 2 – there was so much potential for that to go terribly wrong, and it mostly didn’t. Over Christmas, I enjoyed watching Feud – the writing and directing aren’t as good as people think (it’s really heavy-handed and obvious), but it’s elevated by a really brilliant cast. Something similar could be said of Big Little Lies, too – a clunky, soap opera melodrama with a stunningly pointless and cliché murder mystery tacked on (seriously, those ‘flashforwards’ often just recited exactly what you’d just seen or were just about to see – it was like watching the show at a cinema next to an annoying superfan who keeps saying the lines a second too early), but turned into something very good by the incredible acting (particularly Kidman and Skarsgaard elevating their otherwise routine subplot).
*my father’s of the right generation, personality and subculture (if not nationality) to fit comfortably into the Halt cast – they’re basically more succesful versions of him – and as they moved into the early 1990s and the birth of the Web, they moved from “historical interest” into heart-hitting “personal nostalgia”. [owh, that dialtone!]
Less zeitgeisty, I also caught up on some old shows I missed – though nothing as notable as the Deep Space Nine that I (skipping a bunch of episodes) watched in 2016. On the pulpy genre side: I binge-watched Continuum, which wasn’t great but was better than you might think, particularly in its bravery in actually taking its own premises seriously (the heroine is, while a good woman, also basically a Nazi stormtrooper from a dystopian future), and in having a cast of really decent actors (many of whom have gone on to better-known things) who really committed to their performances when they didn’t have to. In particular, I hope we get to see Erik Knudson in more things, because he took a boring cliché of a character (the teenage supergenius hacker) and gave probably the definitive version of it, with intelligence, wit, and just the right amount of distracted, irritated intensity. In any case, Continuum is never going to be considered an absolute classic of the genre – not even a cult classic like Farscape. But if you’re into this sort of thing (police procedural (don’t worry, that element fades over time), time travel, shades of dystopia), and have some free time, it’s worth checking out!
On the prestige side, I finally watched one of the forgotten pillars of HBO’s Golden Age – Big Love. If you haven’t seen it – it’s much better than you think it is. At times, it gets soapy, but at its best it’s as good as any of HBO’s classic shows – Chloe Sevigny’s performance in particular creates a character who is continually infuriating, yet sympathetic, and frustratingly complicated. The irony of the show is that it depicts a tyrannical, polygamous zealot… yet the bad part of that actually comes from the fact that he’s really the average, conservative American husband, not from the fact that he’s a polygamous religious fanatic. It was a bit odd watching a show that clearly feels that “polyamory isn’t always evil” and “hey, maybe traditional American Family Values aren’t perfect” are subversive and unexpected messages that the audience needs to be gently lead toward, rather than things that are obvious right from the start. But as a liberal, it’s also great to be able to watch a TV show that’s willing to take conservatives seriously – as sincere, good-hearted people who sometimes have a point, rather than as caricatures or dishonest moustache-twirlers. It’s a show that I think both conservatives and liberals, and both those who see polygamy as liberating and those who see it as oppressive, could watch approvingly, if not without some concerns on both sides, and its willing to take its characters as they are*. At the same time, it avoids either demonising polygamy or fetishising it. In the end, it’s easy to see why it’s overlooked – it’s no The Wire or In Treatment or Six Feet Under. But it’s a genuinely interesting and impressive prestige drama that I’m glad to have found. There aren’t many shows around today that are clearly better than it.
*what I mean by that is: a lot of fiction, when tasked with depicting the Morally Impure, immediately Saves them by saying “hey, this culture is wrong and worthless and needs to be changed entirely” – which may be satisfyingly choir-preaching but doesn’t challenge or inform, and betrays its characters by seeing them as fundamentally either stupid or insane (before they see the errors of their ways). Better fiction accepts the worldview of its characters, shows us why they think the way they do, shows how things that may be wrong overall may still be helpful or even necessary in the moment given a certain situation, and shows how ‘lets sweep away our society and culture and just be Morally Pure now!’ is not usually a viable means of escape for people in bad situations. That doesn’t mean not critiquing the nature of the culture, but it does mean doing it from within the perspective of the characters themselves, and in a way that respects the many obstacles to escape that people face. I think that, while it’s not perfect, Big Love does generally try to do that – it tries to show how even tyrants can be trapped, even the oppressed can find forms of power, how liberty is always limited by our need for relationships (romantic, friendly and familial) and even terrible circumstances can provide a form of safety and comfort for those who are familiar with them.
On the larger screen, I didn’t get to the cinema as much as I’d wanted – I didn’t get to see either Bladerunner or Thor – but I still saw some good films, including on the big screen. Guardians of the Galaxy 2 was really fun – I think maybe better than the original (I think people were disappointed because the original was unexpected and new, and this one wasn’t – but I think that disappointment will fade with hindsight). Dunkirk was badly written, and sometimes unnecessarily badly directed, and way, way too twee and cliché and predictable… but it was visually and aurally absolutely stunning (thanks, Edward Elgar! As always with classical music in film, I’m half irritated that modern composers don’t bother writing something new that can compete with the classics, and half smugly satisfied that they admit that they can’t and don’t even try…). It’s a fine addition to the canon of war films. And The Death of Stalin wasn’t as funny as it should have been, or as dramatic as it should have been (and the ending is far too rushed), but was more than enough of both and something I’m sure I’ll rewatch many times in the future.
On the productivity side: hmm.
I thought I was going to do a lot on Rawàng Ata this year, and on another conlang I have. I didn’t. Instead, I made a Germanic conlang, Øynduyska – and I’m actually quite pleased with it. Many times I’ve put it down, and found myself drawn back to it. I’ve even made a new blog just to display it! Now I have to stop revising the damn thing long enough to let me actually put something on that blog that isn’t obsolete five minutes later… I’ve also spent way too much time on little cultural things to accompany it. So, for example, I have thousands of words in brief paragraphs summarising every single Speaker of the Wenthish Lywymoad since independence. Which may or may not ever see the light of day.
I wrote a lot of words for several nonfiction posts/series for this blog, and never finished them. This is par for the course. I might finish some of them one day, though. Besides, I think I write them mostly for the benefits of my own thinking. Oh, and although my attempt to write an intro to classical music for the forums rather failed, it did at least lead me to shore up my own awareness of pre-classical European music, so that’s something at least.
I picked up some stories I’d worked on recently, realised ‘recently’ was frighteningly long ago, and worked on them some more but then got distracted. Writing for me, for me, is like reading but more so – a wonderful experience when you’re doing it, but almost scary, something I can only do when conditions are mentally Just Right, which they never are. Well. Next year.