There’s a very good chance that historians will remember 2016 as the year we tipped the flusher on the toilet, leading to a long spiral into oblivion. Between Brexit, the Great Celebrity Die-off and the recent American election we have plenty of reasons to cast worrying gazes at the future. I did not want to see the re-emergence of fascism in Europe, and now a party founded by Nazi sympathizers who looked with longing at the Vichy regime is considered a viable option to lead in France. Based on demographics, I can’t help but feel like the previous generation has decided to stomp on mine with a giant boot to the face one last time before letting go of the reins, but with the added sting that there might not be a planet to piece together again after this latest experiment in pursuing ideology over practical concerns.
Couple that with a quarter-life crisis and you have quite the anxious mix.
However, 2016 was a pretty good year for creative endeavours. I had two short stories come out in two separate anthologies by Exile Editions: Clockwork Canada: Steampunk Fiction and Those Who Make Us: Canadian Monsters, Creatures and Myths. Both anthologies have been very well received, getting shout-outs from both Tor.com and Publisher’s Weekly. I also made another major sale that I’m not allowed to announce yet, but I’ll give a hint: there’s a reason I set a certain other blog I run to “private.” While those stories make me happy, I can’t say I did all that much writing this year until very recently. Instead, my focus has turned to sketching and drawing, which has fallen by the wayside for the last little while. I don’t regret that shift. Re-discovering my love of drawing has opened up my perspective, I think. Buying a Wacom drawing tablet was also one of the best choices I’ve made, letting me try my hand at painting when I didn’t really have the space or equipment to do so. Digital art is fun, and has an added benefit: making me go back to drawing and painting out of my imagination instead of solely relying on references.
2016 also had some real highlights for this blog. This was the first year I went ahead and requested review copies of certain books, thus making me feel that much more professional. The real highlight, however, was for the podcast: episode 28, a rundown of favourite web series, got compliments on Twitter from actors and staff on LARPs after we named it the best example of the form. I’m not sure Twitter will ever get the same surprised “whoop” out of me again.
For a short while, I was beating myself up over my perceived slide towards explicitly escapist books and comics. Now that I’m looking back over all I’ve read this year, I’m not sure the shame was warranted. The books that affected me the most dealt with themes of loneliness and isolation. (Suprirse?) Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore (2002) fits in that niche, a contemplative work about the teenager Kafka Timura escaping home and school on a spiritual journey that descends into weirdness. The descriptions of the small library where Kafka eventually takes up residence will always stay with me as one of the great pieces of literary geography; places I wish I could live in. Kafka was the last volume in the haul of Murakami books I got from the used bookstore, and is also the one I liked the most.
Far more explicit in confronting the way the modern world can disconnect people from others is Welcome to the NHK! (2002). I’ve written at length about this book as a generation-defining work, and I stand by that assessment. It’s a raw, painful novel, but one that dazzles with its honesty and ends with a message of redemption through empathy. I feel like I needed to read NHK at this time in my life.
Even on the side of escapist entertainment, the books I read still had some value for trying things that were fresh and different. The Bloody Chamber by no means goes into this category, but you can trace just about all the urban fantasy and 90s escapist twisted-fairytale genre that I love so much directly back to this slim collection of stories. Many of the tales aren’t “reinterpretations” or “subversions” of fairy tales so much as thematic distillations. Carter wrote the best vampire story I’ve read, among other tales, and mapping Carter’s influence on subsequent fantasy would fill up a world of its own. That mark ends up clearly on Marie Marshall’s From My Cold, Undead Hand (2015), a teen vampire-hunter story with an unexpected focus that seems of a piece.
Moving out of Carter’s shadow, I also read all seventeen volumes of Spice and Wolf by Isuna Hasekura, a secondary-world fantasy about trade and commerce in the high Middle Ages. I was so sad to see this series end; I sank fully into the meandering adventures of Lawrence and Holo and didn’t quite want to leave, resulting in a bad case of book hangover afterwards. Fortunately, it was recently announced that the author is writing a new series set in the same world a decade-and-some later. I’m looking forward to it.
Finally for fiction, there is Jorge Luis Borges, whose fantasy rests on trying to evoke the wonder inherent in certain medieval and renaissance works. The Aleph and Other Stories was an ideal introduction to his short stories, and I can see why he’s so highly praised—each is a finely crafted work, perfectly engineered and perfectly written. His command of the form was immaculate.
A huge swing from that for non-fiction: I’ve been enjoying The Digital Antiquarian, a blog about early computing that mainly discusses gaming but also detours into hardware and business stories. You can download the archive as ebooks. Jimmy Maher’s enthusiasm for the topic is undeniable and the depths of his research impeccable. My only quibble is when he turns his attention to critiquing fantasy, science fiction and horror literature, which often falls short when compared to his understanding of computing. Unfortunately, that clash is inevitable considering that the first crop of game-makers plundered liberally from books and movies in those genres.
Lastly, I haven’t just been reading novels out of Japan this year, I also wasted countless hours catching up on reading all the manga and watching all the anime I missed up until now that likely would have destroyed my life had I discovered them as a teenager. I am still keeping up with Attack on Titan, a comic presenting a nightmare alternate history where giant man-eating monsters besiege the seeming last remnants of humanity. I took a dive into Inuyasha and Ranma 1/2, and now know why Rumiko Takeshi is one of the most popular comic book artists in Japan. These are fun, quippy, humorous stories married to a breezy art style, well-paced panelling, and solid characterization. The only issue is that they go on forever. I doubt I’ll read the entirety of either of them.
While Crunchyroll stopped offering Canadian viewers free access to their back catalogue this year, I was able to get my anime fix through Funimation, Daisuki, Crackle, YouTube, Viewster and the public library. Trigger is far and away my favourite animation studio at the moment, formed by a group of talented animators who left Studio Gainax after making Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2007), itself a mesmerizing exercise in childlike innocence and passion. Little Witch Academia (available on Netflix) is, just on a technical level, one of the best pieces of animation ever made; the loveable story and characters are just a bonus. And of course, Kill la Kill is a piece of animated insanity that surpasses even Gurren Lagann in its sheer audacity. Kill la Kill strikes that strange balance of being an incredibly silly show that manages to say something important by the end of it. Add perhaps my favourite villain, Lady Satsuki, in with all the frenetic action, bright, colourful character and scene design, and an impressive soundtrack, and you have something special by the end of it. It’s definitely not for everyone; I was able to get past the revealing clothing and gross-out humour because the characters are so stylized I hardly associate them with real-life people, but I’m well aware not everyone can do that.
Other standouts include Black Lagoon (2006), which is a great comic, but even better when you get to see the action set pieces in motion. It’s also unique in that all the most dangerous figures in the criminal underworld are capable women who are equally ruthless; the men throughout Black Lagoon are often just minions or supporters. While the main attraction is the guns-and-more-guns nature of the show to start, it transitions into an oddly serious crime drama in the end, and I respect the creator for imbuing real pathos and serious flaws in the characters in what otherwise would be a dumb homage to Hollywood action movies of the 1980s. The Vision of Escaflowne (1996) is a formative element in Canadian anime fandom, a regular staple of YTV, and I’m glad I gave it a shot; say what you will about the characters or story, the setting of an alternate world that shares a distant history with Earth but has otherwise developed according to completely different patterns is inherently appealing to me, a real triumph in world building. Far from the fantastic, Toradora! (2008) is the high school romantic comedy for people who don’t like high school romantic comedies. The toss-up of strange personalities makes for excellent character-based comedy, and even the unlikable characters eventually make you root for them.
Last of all: I was hesitant to get into Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) because the discourse around Evangelion on the internet had the whiff of religious fanaticism, unthinking devotion with a dash of taking-things-way-to-seriously. That was a shame, because once I watched through Evangelion I ended up with a story hangover comparable to Spice and Wolf and haven’t been able to really engage with another anime series ever since. Evangelion is remarkable, but not for the reasons that led to the epic flame-wars on message boards that I remember from high school—it’s a case of a series being drained of money halfway through production due to outside circumstances, and becoming a much more personal vehicle for artistic expression because of it. The last ten episodes manage to completely turn the show on its head and say something that most shows never would.
That was my year in books and shows. I hope you discovered some meaningful bits of culture in 2016, and happy new year to all.