Year-End Booklist 2018

too many books

Reality unraveled at an even faster rate than usual throughout 2018, and its disintegration brought a corresponding uptick in anxiety, confusion, and general not-goodness. Luckily, books were here, doing what they always do: transforming chaos into meaning, helping humanity impose order on the universe through the exercise of words, words, words. I read sixty-four books and enjoyed most of them. Some of my reading preferences have changed (I’m getting more and more of a yen for nonfiction and enjoy less and less SF written before 1973) and some have stayed the same (I still cannot stand the let’s-focus-on-a-succession-of-trivial-details style of “Literary Fiction” storytelling — if you’re doing lit fic, every word better be beautiful or something weird better be happening (good job, Jesmyn Ward!)). At bottom is a full list of what I read in 2018, but following are some recommendations based on that list.

Top 5 Recommended Fiction Books

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

Picture of a Le Guin novel collection
Left Hand is good, but honestly just get this and read her entire Hainish series.

Always and forever, everyone should read this. An envoy of a galactic civilization undertakes first contact on a winter-locked world where gender does not exist. It perfectly melds mysticism, future history, clear prose, thriller tension, and sheer beauty. I am not overstating the matter when I say this book changed Science Fiction forever. The audiobook version is wonderful, read by George Guidall.

The Murderbot Diaries, Martha Wells (4-novella series)

murderbot computer shelf
Ebooks are great until you need to take a picture. Ah well. Murderbot is still incredible.

I was surprised by this one. I bought the first entry, “All Systems Red,” because I couldn’t resist the title. I expected a fun book about a badass far-future killer robot, and that’s what I got, but I also got a tightly-written thriller about personal accountability and the dangers of the economics of exploitation, with an incredibly empathetic protagonist thrown in as a bonus. The Murderbot of the title calls itself that. It’s a SecUnit, a cyborg loaned out to space expeditions to protect humans. The protagonist hacks its “governor module” and gains the ability to do whatever it wants. Mostly, what it wants is to curl up in the corner, not interact with anyone, and watch massive amounts of illegally-downloaded space TV because, as it turns out, non-governor-moduled SecUnits have crippling social anxiety (no social skills + constant pressure to appear normal so as to avoid getting scrapped as defective). Problem is, the humans it is contracted to protect stumble into the middle of a lethal conspiracy, and Murderbot has to get to work. The mix of the SecUnit’s extreme competence melded with its crushing social anxiety builds a character that’s fun to watch as it kicks ass but easy to relate to as it complains about what it has to do.

The Odyssey, Homer/Emily Wilson

Odyssey fagles on a bookshelf
So, this is not the Wilson translation, but I mean, close enough

Along with The Iliad, the oldest story in the Western canon (Gilgamesh beats it out by a millennium, but it’s Sumerian). It fascinates me because Odysseus’ concerns are so close to our concerns (returning home, vengeance, atonement), and Homer’s narrative techniques are so close to what we use (metaphor, story-within-a-story, thrilling action scenes). I also love Odysseus, the clever bastard who lies with the ease of Huckleberry Finn, executes complex strategy more smoothly than Napoleon, and murders enemies as easily as the man with the hammer in a 19th-century Chicago slaughterhouse. It’s also just a real swashbuckler — Odysseus is basically a pirate, reaving his way around the Aegean, sneaking in and out of kingdoms under assumed identities, outsmarting enemies. It’s great stuff. I read Emily Wilson’s new translation, which I enjoyed. My go-to is Robert Fagles, but Wilson used more down-to-Earth, modernized language and a tripping rhythm. It also called a spade a spade — all the people serving wine and drawing baths weren’t called “serving girls” — they were called slaves.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf 

nice rich lady, fears death
On the surface, just rich people running around. whiling away the time. Inside, so much more.

I barely remember what happened in this book because I was so deeply engaged with the people of this book. Joyce gets a lot of buzz for his stream of consciousness technique, but Woolf is the undisputed master. So smoothly, so effortlessly does she slip the reader inside a character that you don’t feel sad or happy or heartstring-tugged, external to the character. You are brought into their sensorium, you experience as they experience all the emotional complexity of humanity — a woman’s simultaneous dissatisfaction with and love of her life, a soldier’s slowly increasing PTSD, the soft regret of a wistful lover — you don’t watch these emotions, you are in them, entirely thanks to Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest talents of the 20th century.

Le Chien Jaune (The Yellow Dog)Georges Simenon

Ceci n'est pas un chien
Yellow Dog. What a weird book title.

This book isn’t as must-read or upending/impressive as some of the others on this list, but I loved it because it was my first Simenon. Georges Simenon wrote dozens of detective novels starring Inspector Jules Maigret, a down-to-earth detective who waits and sees, who asks around, who lets the solution develop without any outlandish cerebrational tricks. The language is clear and direct, the pacing is good, the characterization exists in that perfect detective-novel style in which the author puts a splash of paint on each character, just enough to vividly identify them and give them clear motivations, and then sets them loose, light and free, into the plot.

Top 5 Recommended Nonfiction Books

1491, Charles C. Mann

1491, Charles C. Mann's Masterpiece
If you read nothing else in 2019, read this. Most impactful book I read in 2018, and possibly the best nonfiction book I’ve ever read.

Amazing, life-changing. Everyone should read this book because it explores an American history that high school textbooks leave pretty fuzzy or outright misleading. Indian societies were larger, were more culturally complex, and had more of an effect on their environment than we’re taught. Most Europeans observed Indian settlements after what was basically a zombie apocalypse (some estimates of the indigenous death rate from European diseases is 90%+), so our conception of American Indians has about as much to do with their pre-contact society as The Walking Dead has with ours. It’s written in a clear, engaging style, and literally every single fact Mann offers up is fascinating. For example, ancient Indians in the Yucatan bio-engineered a type of prairie grass into maize, one of the most important crops in the history of Earth. It’s mind-blowing that anyone could achieve this without modern gene-splicing technology. This scientific achievement, to hear 1491 tell it, is just a few steps behind Victor Frankenstein’s.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

HeLa saves lives, give her credit
Great job balancing the science with the human story.

Multilayered history of the most famous cell line in the history of science, HeLa. HeLa cells are immortal — the line will keep dividing and dividing, infinitely, and those identical cells can be used to test vaccines, cancer treatments, basically anything having to do with medicine’s effect on the human body. Problem is, the cells were harvested from Henrietta Lacks, a black woman living in Baltimore, at a time when the phrase “medical ethics” got, at best, an apologetic shrug from doctors. Lacks had terminal cervical cancer, and a scraping of her cells ended up being immortal and incredibly useful (and expensive, at $250 a vial) to science. Problem is, Henrietta’s descendants are still living in poverty in Baltimore. A beautifully interwoven tale of the scientific feats made possible by HeLa, the bioethical problems arising from them, and a biography of the Lacks family and their concerns. Both an exploration of towering scientific achievements and of the people whom Science™ marginalized to make it happen.

Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

A delightful autobiography, read delightfully by Trevor Noah himself. It seems half of audiobooks are recorded with this weird, half-breathless, simultaneously melodramatic but solemn style that just puts me to sleep. Trevor reads this lightly, with real humor and feeling, and his engagement with the text translates to our enjoyment of it. The subject matter is his childhood in South Africa, where he was born a crime — the son of a white man and a black woman, relations between whom were illegal under apartheid. It ranges from his Mom’s attempts to build a good life for him, to his time (briefly) in a private school, to his teenage career as an off-the-books DJ and black market CD seller. It is infused with love and humor, and while it is mostly the story of the lives of two people — Trevor Noah and his mother — you can’t tell the story of a person’s life without telling the story of the place they live, so it gives insight into South African society. More than anything else, this is a work dedicated to his mother, her determination, her quirks, and her love for him.

Pale Rider, Laura Spinney

The book that warns you about ducks
This book contains a lot of duck-based warnings.

A history of the Spanish Flu that reads almost like a thriller as the disease tears across the globe, devastating a pre-CDC world. The origin point of the Spanish Flu is not entirely clear (other than it didn’t start in Spain), but it was a global pandemic once it really got going, fueled by the demobilization of WWI soldiers. The book alternates between interesting factoids and visceral, atmospheric descriptions of what humans in the middle of outbreaks experienced — the most surreal were the excerpts from the journal of a young doctor in Rio de Janeiro as that vibrant city slowly went quiet, to the point that the government couldn’t keep up with the deaths and “[p]eople would prop the feet of the dead up on the window ledges so that public assistance agencies would come to take them away.” One important fact — the most common natural reservoirs of influenza are waterfowl, and a little shift in the protein coat (allowing the disease to attack humans instead of birds) of any given virus is all that’s needed to set off an outbreak. So stay the hell away from ducks. Or surround yourself with ducks and develop immunity before the next pandemic.

I Contain Multitudes, Ed Yong

A wonderful hard-science read. Yong, with a deft and clear pen, explores the science of what’s inside us, mostly our guts. In every person, human cells are outnumbered by microbes that achieve all manner of vital tasks, ranging from digestion to the regulation of brain chemistry. Humanity is not Yong’s sole focus — he takes us through the microbiome of multiple other species. Not a lot of forward momentum other than “Oh man that’s so cool to know!” but the facts used are so well-selected and -explained that the book develops a kind of propulsive intellectual excitement.

The End

So that’s it. Ten books I read last year that I think everyone should read, and that I hope everyone will enjoy. Books that expanded my emotional landscape, that scratched my itch for adventure, that tickled my intellectual fancy, that filled me with facts that are good to know, that made my world more complete, less shattered by the constant informational onslaught from the global trashfire that was 2018.

If you care to skim the sixty-four books I read last year, my finishing a book at all is a soft recommendation. So go for it.

List of Every Book I Read in 2018

To the Lighthouse — Virginia Woolf
Murder on the Orient Express — Agatha Christie
All Systems Red — Martha Wells
Night Watch — Terry Pratchett
Le Petit Prince — Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe — Kij Johnson
Kalpa Imperial — Angélica Gorodischer
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — Rebecca Skloot (nonfiction)
Six Wakes — Mur Lafferty
The Traitor Baru Cormorant — Seth Dickinson
I Contain Multitudes — Ed Yong (nonfiction)
Les Misérables Tome 3 – Marius — Victor Hugo
Lords and Ladies — Terry Pratchett
Sing, Unburied, Sing — Jesmyn Ward
Life, the Universe, and Everything — Douglas Adams
The Collapsing Empire — John Scalzi
The King of Elfland’s Daughter — Lord Dunsany
Artificial Condition — Martha Wells
War on Peace — Ronan Farrow (nonfiction)
Rocannons World — Ursula K. Le Guin
Planet of Exile — Ursula K. Le Guin
City of Illusions — Ursula K. Le Guin
The Metamorphoses — Ovid
No Time to Spare — Ursula K. Le Guin (nonfiction)
Diplomatic Immunity — Lois McMaster Bujold
Le scaphandre et le papillon — Jean-Dominique Bauby (nonfiction)
The Hidden Life of Trees — Peter Wohlleben (nonfiction)
Proven Guilty — Jim Butcher
Fear — Bob Woodward
Trail of Lightning — Rebecca Roanhorse
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance — Lois McMaster Bujold
Emma — Jane Austen
Exit Strategy — Martha Wells
Monstress vol. 1 — Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda
Grant — Ron Chernow (nonfiction)
Lud-in-the-Mist — Hope Mirrlees
A Darker Shade of Magic — V.E. Schwab
A Gathering of Shadows — V.E. Schwab
A Conjuring of Light — V.E. Schwab
Monstress vol. 2 — Marjorie Liu, Sana Takeda
The Communist Manifesto — Karl Marx (nonfiction)
The Conquest of Bread — Peter Kropotkin (nonfiction)
Hunger — Roxane Gay (nonfiction)
The Illustrated Man — Ray Bradbury
Born a Crime — Trevor Noah
Thief of Time — Terry Pratchett
The Genius of Birds — Jennifer Ackerman (nonfiction)
The Odyssey — Homer, Emily Wilson
Exit Strategy — Martha Wells
Pale Rider — Laura Spinney (nonfiction)
Frankenstein — Mary Shelley
The Snowman —Jo Nesbø
Mrs. Dalloway — Virginia Woolf
Roughing It — Mark Twain (nonfiction? ish?)
1491 — Charles C. Mann (nonfiction)
The Left Hand of Darkness — Ursula K. Le Guin
Carpe Jugulum — Terry Pratchett
A Study in Scarlet — Arthur Conan Doyle
The Maltese Falcon — Dashiell Hammett
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain
The Consuming Fire — John Scalzi
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry — Neil deGrasse Tyson (nonfiction)
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? — N.K. Jemisin
Three Men in a Boat — Jerome K. Jerome
Le Chien Jaune — Georges Simenon
The Wizard and the Prophet — Charles C. Mann (nonfiction)

Hulu’s Sci-Fi Comedy Future Man is a refreshing surprise

Original and fearless, it answers the question “What would happen if we mixed Terminator with Pineapple Express?”

Future Man is, without a doubt, the greatest janitor-centered time travel comedy of 2017. The concept is straightforward: Josh Futterman, a custodial worker at a biolab, lives with his parents and spends his free time playing Biotic Wars under the moniker Future Man. When he beats the game (the first person to do so), he discovers that it’s actually a recruitment/training simulation. Two future warriors straight out of an 80s B-movie materialize in his bedroom and tell him the Biotic Wars are real and he’s humanity’s savior.

Here it is: https://www.hulu.com/grid/future-man. It’s unfortunately only available with a Hulu account, but you need to be watching A Handmaid’s Tale anyway, so it shouldn’t be that painful.

The show takes a little time to get off the ground. The first couple of episodes are rough because it’s so clearly wish fulfillment — the loser with a dead-end job gets to hang out with Time Marines. As it becomes more and more clear that any easy tropes Future Man uses are there to be subverted, the narrative becomes more interesting. By episode 5, the rightness of the war against the Biotics is called into question, and what was a goofy, fun sci-fi romp becomes a goofy, fun, sci-fi romp filled with moral ambiguity and existential doubt. It’s an amazing turn — one minute you’re laughing at Rogenesque (Seth is a producer) dick jokes, and the next you’re asking what reality is. The skeleton of this show is a time-travel comedy, but it’s fleshed out with writing that trusts the audience, true character development, and really careful attention to plot.

Entertainment is the defining feature of each episode — every one is laugh-out-loud funny. This ranges from dumb, crude jokes (the instant the soldiers materialize in Josh’s bedroom, he’s masturbating) to extremely complex and rewarding long-arc humor — grizzled warrior Wolf discovers a hidden talent for cuisine and spends the rest of the show conflicted between his persona as a Michelin-level talent and a man who can rip someone’s head off with his bare hands.

Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is to become a super soldier or die

The attention to character is a big part of what gives the show real substance. Tiger and Wolf are parodies of 80s action heroes, and they absolutely are everything you’d expect as a result: trained killers, strong, direct, and unversed in 21st century niceties. Unlike the 80s movies that inspired these two, Future Man actually shows how deeply crippling it is to grow up in a world where the only choice is become a super soldier or die. At one point, Josh attempts to kiss Tiger, and she almost throws up. She asks why he would want to put “ratholes” together (“What else would you call the hole you stuff rats into?”), revealing the deep intimacy issues created in a kill-or-be-killed world. In addition to a realistic portrayal of the dark side of being a badass future soldier, the show shepherds each of the leading characters through personal development. Josh becomes more dedicated, more confident, and more able to work towards his goals. Tiger becomes more willing to express emotions, and Wolf (in what is possibly the best episode of the series) moves from being an unquestioning grunt into pursuing personal fulfillment to the hilt. It’s a goofy comedy, but its serious attention to true human emotion keeps it from being only that.

[E]ach change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results

The time travel in Future Man is the most painstaking exploration of the concept to make it to any type of screen in the last few years. The central conflict involves going back in time to assassinate the inventor of the super serum that creates the genocidal Biotics. The show is mainly a catalogue of how the multiple attempts and failures of the main trio shred the timeline more and more irreparably. Actions have consequences, and that is such an important quality of good narrative. For example, the most disappointing thing about Doctor Who’s decline in the post-Tennant years is its creeping but inexorable movement away from time travel having rules. In Doctor Who, if something is broken beyond repair, the Doctor can literally just scream I’M THE DOCTOR, completely ignore all rules of internal narrative consistency, and change everything to suit him. The writers make no reference to previously unbreakable rules, to commonly accepted time travel tropes, or even a decent explanation of exactly what it is the Doctor is doing. The absolute lack of consequences has transformed Doctor Who from a show written with kids in mind to a kids’ show. Future Man is on the other end of the spectrum — each change they make in the past has unpredictable, upsetting, and permanent results (the funniest and most trivial of which is Josh accidentally making his parents name him “Joosh”). The explanations for how time travel works don’t necessarily make sense because time travel itself doesn’t make sense, but the writers never insult the audience with hand-waving — they stick to their internally-consistent guns and explore consequences rationally.

While the show doesn’t get its feet under it until about episode four, it is impressive once it gets going. The writers chose what they wanted this show to be with no consideration for who would want to follow, no focus-group simplification — they just went for it, and the resulting joy of creation translates into a palpable energy in every scene. The contrast at the center of the show is constantly stimulating — it’s very much a goofy bro sci-fi show, but it explores its morals and characters with the utmost seriousness. Even if this show had no other saving graces, the montage where Wolf falls in love with the 80s is, by itself, worth the Hulu subscription.

Lincoln in the Bardo Redux: Still Weird, Still Great

Most weeks, this blog is about a different book. Lincoln in the Bardo is so important that it gets two posts. It’s seriously good. It’s hard to call this stuff, but it might be the next big thing people look back at in a century and think “Whoa, there was a forking path in the history of art.” One of the areas in which Saunders was most inventive was how he constructed 166 completely distinct characters in a single book, so I asked him about that.

I was lucky enough to go see Saunders speak about his book. The event took place in a church, because the demand was so heavy that the nearby bookstore couldn’t accommodate it. High ceilings, arches, stained glass, and a guy from Chicago standing at the pulpit talking about art. It was a really great night, and I got to ask him a question about what his process was for making all those different voices sound so very different. What follows is an inexpertly copied transcript, with changes made for the various uncertainties of human speech (ums, ahs, you knows). My question was about how different each character sounded, but the answer I got was about his entire philosophy of writing. It was extremely gratifying. Thanks, George!

img_20170304_004759
He drew me a ghost and a Lincoln inside his signature. I mean, he drew that for everyone, but he also drew it for me.

Anyway, here it is:

Q: When I was reading, what I was most impressed with was how sharply distinct each voice was, and doing that with 160-odd characters, even the ones that are just there for like, half a page, hello-goodbye, I was just wondering what went into making those voices so clear and distinct.

A: Oh thank you, yeah. You know, in my short fiction, it’s always in a contemporary voice; I’ll often have two or three characters, and I really try hard to distinguish them in voice, and that means going really overboard on two or three voices. In this book as soon as I realized how many people there were going to be, there’s a hundred-sixty-six, I thought, I have to maybe scale it down just a bit so I can sort of make that many versions. And the approach really was, I mean, my whole thing on writing is, it’s based on a three-part mantra. Donald Barthelme said, ‘The writer is a person who, embarking on her task, does not know what to do.’ Gerald Stern, in a slightly different register, and I’ll clean this up because we’re in church, ‘If you set out to write a poem about two dogs making love, and you write a poem about two dogs making love, then you wrote a poem about two dogs making love.’ And then Einstein, taking it up another level, as he always did, said, ‘No worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its original conception,’ which for artists is a real deep thing. If the thing only is what you thought it was gonna be, then you’ve disappointed. So, in my process, I’m always just kind of proceeding at speed, trying to have as few notions about it as I can, almost imagining like there’s a meter in my head with ‘P’ over here for positive, ‘N’ over here for negative, and the job is just to read, and revise, and watch that needle, without any sort of attachment to where you wanted to be. So, it’s up in the positive, if it goes in the negative, you don’t do that thing where you say, ‘Oh no it didn’t,’ and you also don’t do the thing that says, ‘I suck. I have to go back to law school.’ You just say, what you kinda do is, and my thing is you sorta turn to the story and you say, ‘Hey, I notice you’re down in the negative here,’ and the story will go, ‘No I’m not,’ and you say, ‘Well, I kinda think you are, it’s okay, I still love you,’ and it says, ‘Ah yeah, well,’ and you say, ‘Well, what’s the problem, what’s the problem with the story?’ And it goes, ‘I’m boring.’

‘You are boring, you poor thing. Can you tell me, where are you boring?’

‘Page six.’

‘Ok, I agree. Where exactly?’

‘Third line.’

And you go to the third line, and it says like, ‘Bill sat at the empty table, the black planar expanse, the dark flatness,’ and you go ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’

So it’s a very intuitive approach, and it’s kinda based on the idea that when we’re reading, something crazy’s going on in the mind; it’s so intelligent, and it’s picking up so many signals off the text that are kinda subverbal, you couldn’t articulate them. So in that heightened beautiful state, reader and writer together kind of reach this communion, basically. So, when I’m writing I’m trying to make the voices (to come back, finally, to your question), I think what I do is I try to be as deep in the text as I can, and then I turn over and say OK I need a ghost over here, and then, this is the scary part, I just trust the verbal overflow. You know at that point, a voice will appear, as you’re typing, bom bom bom. So, the trick is to not say, ‘I don’t want that ghost,’ or ‘What does that ghost mean?’ but just like, ‘Go ahead, tell me,’ you know. And so it’s sort of a sustained improvisation, and even with that number of characters you kinda remember what you’ve done before, and your subconscious is moving you away from those, so it’s kind of a crazy process of believing there’s a part of your mind that’s smarter than the surface part, and then sort of allowing that to come through.

So there’s a small piece of George Saunders’ writing process, which I was super excited to hear. Whether he’s the greatest living American writer is a matter of opinion, but he’s doubtlessly in the running. Part of why he’s where he is, and part of what his answer makes clear, is he takes his writing as seriously as a heart surgeon takes his work. He’s not just, you know, telling some story or whatever. He’s telling the perfect story, the only story that could grow in the space in which he’s working. If you haven’t checked out his entire opus, you really should.

Rick and Morty is what happens when Dan Harmon gets carte blanche

I am extraordinarily late to this party, but Rick and Morty is the best currently-running cartoon on television. It’s also currently available for free on the Adult Swim website. It is endlessly inventive, does not shy away from complexity, and does a surprisingly good job on exploring character traits for a 23-minute show. It’s the baby of Dan Harmon, so if you liked the absolute absurdity of some of Community’s plotlines, you’ll appreciate the same style. The absurdity coupled with the effectively limitless conceptual space of the SF setting results in a show that is constantly entertaining because it’s constantly new. Think about all the times Community got ridiculous — the Halloween zombie episode, the paintball episode, etc. — and then think about what would happen if you moved that aesthetic from a show about community college to a show about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass. I’m getting ahead of myself. This show is about a dimension-jumping intergalactic mad scientist with no moral compass, a cynical, alcoholic 60-year-old who is probably the smartest being in existence. He’s a man who built a robot at the breakfast table because he needed something to pass him the butter. He built a butter-passing robot in like two minutes because he was lazy.

The eponymous pair of the show is this super-genius, Rick and his rather stupid grandson, Morty. Rick has returned to the family after years of absence, and his daughter Beth has abandonment issues and is terrified he’ll leave again. This creates tension with her husband, Jerry, who does not like Rick because he makes him feel stupid (he is) and has a bad influence on his son. There’s also Morty’s sister, Summer, who is mostly interesting because she’s a normal teenage girl — she’s the only character who is not dysfunctional. The relationship of these characters is one hint of the greatness of this show. It’s a zany sci-fi hijinks cartoon that also addresses the reality of human interaction. For example, the failing marriage between Morty’s mom and dad, two deeply hurt and codependent people, is an ongoing topic across all episodes.

The main draw of the show is its sheer inventiveness. In one episode, Jerry is annoyed that the family dog is so stupid. He pesters Rick until he solves the problem by putting an intelligence helmet on the dog. The dog spends a little while fetching slippers, using the toilet, etc. Then he achieves self-awareness, modifies his helmet to bestow super-intelligence, enslaves the family, and starts building an enhanced dog army. In another episode, Rick gives the family a Mr. Meeseeks box. The box is alien tech. When the user hits a button, a humanoid Mr. Meeseeks pops into existence, solves a problem you set for it, and then de-manifests. The dad, Jerry, asks for help getting two strokes off his golf game, but he’s so bad at everything that the Meeseeks can’t help him, gets distraught, and hits the Meeseeks button itself, asking a second Meeseeks to help it help Jerry. This process repeats until there are dozens of Mr. Meeseeks all experiencing an existential crisis. The only way to stop a homicidal rampage is for Jerry to actually improve his golf game. There’s the one where aliens place Rick and Morty (and accidentally Jerry) in a simulation of their normal lives, hoping to trick Rick into giving them one of his technological secrets. The problem is, the simulation is really low-rent, and the only person dumb enough not to notice anything wrong (people walking through trees, his wife responding to him robotically and using the exact same words, seeing the same three people over and over again throughout the town due to the limits of the simulation’s processing power) is Jerry, and as a result, the poor guy has the best day of his life. Every episode has some high-concept core around which all the wackiness happens. The cardinal sin of bad art in any medium is to be boring, and this constant renewal of ideas puts Rick and Morty on the opposite side of that spectrum.

The interactions between Rick and Morty also add to the show’s appeal. On one side, you have a sociopathic genius who once built an entire pocket universe, filled with beings to whom he was a god, just to use as a car battery. On the other, there’s a kid who isn’t that smart, but also thinks that maybe doing whatever you want with no regard for destruction, mayhem, or morals maybe isn’t the best path. For example:

This is a pretty good encapsulation of what the show is all about. Rick sells a gun to an assassin to get enough money to go to a galactic Dave and Buster’s. Morty, horrified at his callous disregard for life, refuses to have a good time. This has all the other elements of a Rick and Morty show: the weirdness of them going to a galactic arcade, the variety of all the background aliens there, the high-concept of one of the arcade games taking the player through an entire life from childhood through death, the cynicism of Rick saying “55 years, not bad!” while Morty, still confused from the virtual reality, desperately asks “Where’s my wife?!”

The key element that ties everything else together is Rick himself. The character is so compelling because of the dynamic tension between wanting to root for the smartest guy in the room and being horrified by what a complete sociopath he is. He can out-think anyone, build the coolest machines, and take his grandson on eye-opening adventures of breathtaking scope. On the other hand, he abandoned his daughter, is a galactic criminal, and seems literally not to care about anyone’s life, human, alien, or otherwise. He embodies the Darth Vader/Walter White effect, in which individuals of extraordinary competence, no matter how morally repugnant, appeal to audiences. Also, although he is completely unrepentant, he does have one single redeeming factor that the show buries deep: whenever he has to choose between the safety of his family and himself, he sacrifices himself. That one tiny spot of humanity colors the rest of his character and elevates him (just barely) to good-guy status. Well, not a “good” guy, but you get the picture.

The last episode of this show came out a year and a half ago, after a hell of a cliffhanger. Legions of fans have been painfully awaiting its return, and now I join their ranks. However long it takes for season three to premiere, it will be worth the wait. I’ll leave you with one more clip that will probably serve as a better indication of whether you should invest in this show than anything I’ve said. It’s the cold open for one of the episodes. If it makes you laugh, watch the show. If it’s too weird and off-putting for you, don’t watch the show.