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)

Naomi Novik’s new fantasy novel Spinning Silver is a perfectly-constructed wintry escape from July

I mean, what you’re escaping to is death and fear and destruction and love, but the worldbuilding is particularly impressive.

One of the benefits of growing older is that you collect authors as you go. Instead of slumping through an inexhaustible backlog great authors compiled before I was born, I now have a handful whose product I can pick up fresh, confident that the prose is clear, the characters well-developed, and the story twisty and powerful. Naomi Novik is one of those authors.

Spinning Silver Book Cover Rumpelstiltskin
Oh, also the main character turns silver to gold. Left that out.

 

I read Uprooted in one cold January day and fell deeply in love with its expert tension-building, its magic-for-a-steep-price, and the strange, pleasing depth of the world Novik builds out of scraps of folktales. Her talents are on display in the not-really-sequel out now, Spinning Silver. She draws from Rumpelstiltskin (a tiny folktale you should definitely read first), but it’s not a fairytale retelling — classifying it as such takes away from Novik’s creativity. She uses Rumpelstiltskin as the spiritual base of the book, but the folktale only gives to the novel what onions give to a beef stew — a great stock, an important savor permeating the whole, but most of the nutritive value is added by Novik herself. It’s not a sly retelling but a brand new story, influenced by but not indebted to its source.

Spinning Silver centers on three women who are very similar, but are in very different circumstances. All three are marginalized, and the book is the story of how all three found themselves in an intolerable situation and refused to continue tolerating it. It’s a story of how they got angry. It’s a story of how they got revenge. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, Irina is the daughter of a Duke, and Wanda is the poor daughter of an abusive drunk. Their paths intertwine throughout the story, and I don’t want to get bogged down on plot here (it’s Naomi Novik — the plot is good, trust), but I do want to look at her worldbuilding.

I’m not even sure it’s named for the first part of the book, but Lithvas is a vaguely Slavic non-place, a land where the winters have been growing worse and worse, a land where sometimes a strange silver road can be glimpsed through the trees, the road of the Staryk, people of ice and hardness who come off the road to hunt treasure, to hunt gold, to hunt people. The first 100 pages of the book, there’s not even a whole lot of magic. It’s Miryem collecting debts and logging them in her book, Irina preparing to be married off to the tsar, and Wanda trying to protect her small raw nub of a family from any further depredations of her drunk, greedy father (she most especially does not want to be sold in marriage for a few goats). The first fourth of the book is filled with the concerns of a vaguely post-Medieval Renaissance town, with weirdness peeping out here and there through the pages like the Staryk road through the trees. It’s people worrying about their crops, worrying about their futures, trading in the market, cooking food for dinner. Novik builds her character’s lives on a broad, heavy base of normalcy so that when Miryem gets whisked away by the Staryk king to his glass mountain in the middle of a timeless frozen waste, it doesn’t feel fanciful. The description of fishing in the ice pools for silver fish and of gathering sweet fruit from snowtrees in the mountain’s core mirrors the more mundane growing of rye and boiling of kasha already described earlier. Novik’s attention to the “factual” underpinning of her world gives the fantastic aspects a better foundation to fly from. If one of the characters needed a weapon (they don’t, at least not a conventional one) they might get a magic sword, but they wouldn’t have just plucked it out of a stone. They would have saved for it, brought the strange metal to an accomplished smith, and spent hours honing and oiling the blade. Novik shows the work that goes into achievement, even in a fantasy setting.

This book is great. It has strong, swift prose, appealing characters, and a plot so quick and twisty that, at the end of it, I’m worried that I cheated myself by reading too fast, like scarfing down a particularly amazing sandwich. What really stands out to me though is Novik’s skill with detail. She supplies not too much, and not too little, and equally when describing workaday and fantastical events. She goes into the nuts and bolts of it, and this attention gives a reality and weight to her work that is one of its chiefest pleasures.

Dread Nation: The Civil War Zombie Novel You’ve Been Waiting For

Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation is the story of Jane McKeene, a seventeen-year-old who attends the premiere ladies’ school in all of Maryland, Miss Preston’s School of Combat for Negro Girls. Young women go there to learn proper tea service and the most efficient way to separate a zombie’s head from its body. It is set in the decades after the Civil War, which ended in a very different way in this alternate history. At Gettysburg, slain soldiers rose up and began eating the living, so both sides banded together to repel the zombie threat. Humanity lives in a handful of fortified cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. The West is wild and open, but dangerously unprotected. The Lost States of the South are, well, lost. The only way to live there is in a bunker. Congress signed the Native and Negro Reeducation Act, which made it mandatory for Native and African Americans to attend zombie-slaying schools and hold the line against the undead, continuing America’s history of forcing marginalized groups to perform vital nation-building services. I read it because N.K. Jemisin (who wrote the best epic fantasy of the decade) recommended it repeatedly, and because I have a weakness for postbellum alt-history zombie yarns.

If that’s all the description you need to pick up the book, you can get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Dread-Nation-Justina-Ireland-ebook/dp/B071RQX7W9/

seriously a good sci-fi book y'all
She kills zombies with sickles. With sickles! Get this book.

Slow* Zombies, Fast Pacing

Ireland’s pacing is top-notch. There’s nothing on this story but lean muscle. Each location, each character is described with only the words necessary to generate clear, vivid immersion. The narratives moves forward smoothly, impelled by alternating between the type of emotional involvement that YA does particularly well — the character you love is in a bad spot, is facing injustice or danger and you won’t be satisfied until you see how she gets out of it — and spare, bright action scenes like this one:

By the time I get to the girls I have a stitch in my side and my feet are screaming, but I push it all aside. I pick my way down the wall, jumping too early and dropping a sickle, nearly losing my balance when I hit the bottom. I grab my fallen weapon and pick my first target, a Negro girl wearing clothing that looks eerily like mine, and leap, sickle swinging to take the thing down.

Here’s the thing. If these were my sickles, my beloved, sharp, well-weighted combat sickles, they would’ve gone through the shambler’s neck like a hot knife through lard. But these are not my sickles. So the blade gets stuck halfway, the beast snapping its teeth at me and clawing at my arms as it tries to get free.

I place my foot behind the shambler’s and use my sickle to push it backward. Once it’s down I use a mule kick against the curved edge to force the blade through. The head goes rolling off down into the culvert and the body goes still.

Ireland somehow avoids breaking the sense of urgency and peril in the scene, even as the viewpoint character takes a paragraph to talk to herself about her sickles. Not quite sure how that magic works, but it does. The action is always satisfying, and each of Jane’s actions builds who she is.

* the relative speed of a zombie depends on how recently they turned — the newer, the faster

The Wind-Up Theory of Character Creation

Ireland builds her characters using minimal description. She gives an introductory sliver and then sets the character going. The clockwork engine of the narrative itself gives depth to the characters as they interact with each other. There’s the main character, Jane, who just wants to get home to protect her family. There’s her beautiful frenemy, Katherine, a fellow student at Miss Preston’s, whose dream is completing her education and becoming an Attendant (lady’s maid/zombie killer for the rich). There’s Jackson, the smuggler and once-sweetheart of Jane, who just wants to find out why his sister disappeared. There’s Gideon, the head scientist of a Midwest enclave who wants to use his knowledge to help humanity survive. Ireland introduces a character, gives a light description and an overriding motivation, and then, through interaction with each other and the narrative, who they are deepens, grows and changes. An example is the description of the white supremacist pastor who serves as the main antagonist of the book:

“The old man still smiles, thin red lips stretched garishly over large front teeth. His eyes are watery, the brown washed out to the color of a penny, his hair completely snow white and thinning. He looks like a walking skeleton, sun bleached and pale…”

There’s not a lot of description after this first introduction, but his actions throughout the book build every noxious layer of him.

It’s good to see Katherine and Jane, who start out as enemies, grow closer as they deal with the same difficulties. What’s great though is the book’s treatment of that required emotional geometry of the YA novel, the Love Triangle. It’s hilariously underplayed here. Jane basically looks at Jackson and Gideon every once in a while, thinks “they look good…” and then gets on with her life. She’s interested, and both boys are nice in their own way, but she’s got things to do. Very healthy approach compared to the general “OK sure, I have to save the world, but does he like me though?”

Original Sin

The moral shape of the book is impressive. It does not shy away from the founding sins of our nation, i.e. that most people who wrote the Constitution to ensure their own freedom thought owning people was acceptable. Even post-slavery, America is still built on the exploitation of marginalized groups. Ireland puts these concerns front and center, with “scientific” discussions from certain characters about polygenesis (the idea, current in the 1800s, that different races had different species of origin, a way to promote Othering and justify white supremacy). The main antagonist is a virulent racist. The two-tier racial system of zombie fighting, in which POCs are legally obligated to kill zombies to keep everyone else safe is most troubling, because it wouldn’t take much modification to make it work today. All it would take is a.) a zombie uprising, b.) the racial bias inherent in our legal system, and c.) a “Fight the Dead” program for convicted felons, because the 13th amendment has a hell of a loophole:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Fun, Not Fluff

Dread Nation has all the explosive, page-turning action inherent in a zombie novel, a spare but powerful style, and realistic interactions between vivid characters. It’s a great book — fun without being fluff. The foundation of its world and the stakes of its narrative are too heavy for that.

The problem with J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring sitting on a shelf
So great, and so unopened.

Tolkien is the single most influential fantasy writer in history, but I’m struggling with my re-read of Lord of the Rings

Few authors are as impressive as J.R.R. Tolkien, and few literary feats are as influential as The Lord of the Rings and its extensive legendarium. In the first half of the 20th century, Tolkien built a cohesive, powerful lore that would determine the shape of fantasy writing for decades. Fantasy without Tolkien is like astronomy without the solar system. There are other stars, like Dunsany, the Brothers Grimm, and the Arabian Nights, but the foundation and vantage point of modern fantasy would be annihilated. That being said, there are definite problems in LOTR that are keeping me from completing a successful reread.

Hobbits and MacGuffins

First off, everything in LOTR is subjugated to the Quest, to taking a MacGuffin of Power to a Place of Significance (credit for that phrasing to N.K. Jemisin). It’s a great quest, a beautiful quest. No quest greater. The problem is, once the ultimate outcome of the singular driving force of the books is known (they melt the One Ring, hooray!), a lot of the page-turning juice evaporates from the story. As Frodo evades Nazgûl, orcs, and barrow-wights, the certainty of his mission’s ultimate success makes the prospect of him becoming an abrupt damp spot somewhere in Eregion much less concerning, especially when I can remember every betrayal and obstacle along the way. No future readthrough of LOTR will ever be as exciting as the journey I took in 7th grade.

Right, Wrong, and Nothing in Between

Also, the morality of the world is so stark it’s barren. The characters range from demonic malefactor to angelic savior. Anyone between those two extremes is either an upstanding and respectable servant of good or a servile and contemptible thrall to evil — no one has complex motivations. For comparison, Voldemort is one of the most cartoonishly villainous antagonists in the history of the written word, but even Harry Potter had people like Snape and Draco. The first repents and becomes a double agent, and the second is just a particularly virulent bully who gets in way over his head. Neither is a gleeful servant of evil. LOTR’s absence of moral nuance leads to an empathic flatness — it’s hard to gain purchase on anything emotionally interesting. Not to mention this all-or-nothing black-or-white approach to right and wrong facilitates orcing, the problematic classification of a race as less-than-human and deserving of genocide. N.K. Jemisin discusses it succinctly here (she is the current apex fantasy writer, and fingers crossed that The Stone Sky wins her a third Hugo in a row). The presence of an entire underclass that deserves to be murdered in LOTR sours the whole narrative.

Who Run the World?

Finally, there are almost no women of significance. Margaret Atwood sums up the third problem well:

In Tolkien, there are hardly any women at all, only two, but three if you count the spider, which I do. With a name like Shelob you really can’t miss it.

If your first impulse is to say “But there are four women — you’re forgetting Éowyn!” you’re missing the point. The principal cast of characters is overwhelmingly male, so much so that their quest becomes kind of a stag party, which leaves the book with all the interpersonal depth of Hot Tub Time Machine. One of the major beauties of literature is how it explores the struggles and complexities of being human, and that’s hard to access fully if the main narrative is basically a bunch of dudes on a camping trip.

The good outweighs the bad, but not for me, not right now

Lord of the Rings is glorious, and always will be. I can still see, clear and entire, Fangorn Forest, the Mines of Moria, and the white towers of Gondor. I can smell the ale spilled on the floor of the Green Dragon at Bree and feel the bite of the cold wind on Weathertop. Middle-earth has been paying rent in my brain since I was in middle school. It smashed its way in through the sheer weight of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, the thick, heavy bones that support everything he wrote. Tolkien’s masterpiece is a wonder. It is irreplaceable and irreplicable, but the MacGuffin-based plot, the simplistic morality, and the lack of interpersonal texture are all making my 3rd readthrough difficult.

 

Five Bite-Sized Suggestions on Where to Get Started Reading Ursula K. Le Guin

You should read everything Le Guin ever wrote, but here are some quick options

My literary hero, Ursula K. Le Guin, creator of worlds, challenger of the pompous and complacent, inspirer of generations of writers from Salman Rushdie to Neil Gaiman to N.K. Jemisin, died. I never met her, never saw her read, never wrote her an email, but she changed my life. No other author can be as lyrical without becoming enamored of their own lyricism, as straightforward and clear without being blunt and empty. If you are lucky enough to read her, she will change your brain. Bite-sized options to follow, but here are her most important books:

  • The Dispossessed, set on two moons stuck in mutual orbit — one lush capitalist, the other desert-anarchist. It is an honest exploration of anarcho-syndicalism and capitalism, both their flaws and benefits.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness explores a world where gender doesn’t exist — the entire population is androgynous, going into kemmer (basically “heat”) once a month, with an equal chance of becoming male or female before reverting back to androgynes unless, of course, there’s a pregnancy. It’s taken for granted today that gender is a fluid, mostly societally-determined construct, but a half-century ago, Le Guin was already writing lines like “[t]he king was pregnant.”
  • A Wizard of Earthsea, aside from having the most satisfying approach to magic across all modern fantasy, is a beautiful fable on the importance of accepting change and seeking balance. Anyone who dismisses it as a children’s book (or at least only a children’s book) does themselves a grave disservice.

Four of Ursula Le Guin's books, across time
I love how Le Guin’s book covers track the changing perceptions of the wider literary world — from ultra-pulpy to super-artsy

These three are her heavy-hitters, the books that redefined what two genres and literature as a whole could do, and if you want to immediately dive into the deep waters of this literary Titan, you should get those first. However, the good news about a writer with a 60-year long career is that she wrote a lot. There are multiple smaller works for those who want to spend half an hour getting their toes wet instead. The five suggestions that follow will take between 10 and 30 minutes of your time.

Read everything, but start here

  1. “The Word of Unbinding” https://www.amazon.com/Word-Unbinding-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01N6G07B8/
    Here is the first glimmer of the Earthsea stories that would later reshape fantasy. It’s an incredibly simple, incredibly deep tale. It is the story of a wizard trapped by the minions of a dark, magic-wielding warlord, and his multiple attempts at escape, until he sees there is only one way to end the conflict. I write about it in more detail here.
  2. “Semley’s Necklace” https://www.amazon.com/Semleys-Necklace-Story-Twelve-Quarters-ebook/dp/B01NCJ1O13/
    This is the first entry in the Hainish cycle, a loosely connected series of short stories and novels that share a universe in which the ancient, highly advanced humanoid inhabitants of the planet Hain-Davenant seed multiple colony worlds (including Earth) with genetically modified versions of themselves. Their galactic Empire collapses and leaves their client worlds to evolve on their own for millennia, before a new, more democratic “League of Worlds” rises from the ashes of the fallen Hainish people. It solves the Star Trek problem (wherein every alien species is actually just a human in funny makeup) by giving all different planets common ancestry. “Semley’s Necklace” concerns the inhabitant of one of these now-backwards planets seeking to recover an important heirloom from a museum in which a League anthropologist has placed it. It follows so perfectly the fantasy convention of leaving home, changing yourself, and coming back to a changed world, but the setting is science fiction, with spaceships, lightspeed, and galactic governance. The melding of science fiction with a fantasy feel is made possible by Clarke’s Third Law, which states that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This interplay between the fantasy perspective (for the main character, a rube princess from a backwater world) and the science-fiction perspective (for the reader, who recognizes all the technology and conventions of SF) is delicious, and is a good example of how Le Guin uses the conventions of the field in which she works, but also reshapes them. To give a hint of this dynamic, here’s the opening paragraph:

    How can you tell the legend from the fact on these worlds that lie so many years away?–planets without names, called by their people simply The World, planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god. Unreason darkens that gap of time bridged by our lightspeed ships, and in the darkness uncertainty and disproportion grow like weeds.

  3. “The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas” https://www.amazon.com/Ones-Who-Walk-Away-Omelas-ebook/dp/B01N0PZ35J/
    This story, also known as “The One You Read in High School,” is a perfect little allegory. Le Guin describes in broad strokes the happy city of Omelas in her characteristic bright and shining prose, but also explores, in prose no less evocative, the dark bargain at the center of this perfect place. It is a wonderful answer to the moral absurdity of Utilitarianism, and an important story for everyone who lives in our current society, where most of us enjoy cheap shoes and laptops (like the one I’m currently typing on) but try as hard as we can not to think of who’s making the shoes and circuit boards.
  1. Book Reviews

    Ursula Le Guin at rostrum
    She stopped writing fiction later in life, but stayed active in other ways. Credit: Photos © 2014 Jack Liu

    Le Guin stopped writing books later in life, but she didn’t stop writing about them. If you only want to spend a few minutes getting acquainted with her analytical flair, she wrote a lot of reviews. There’s Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology (not effusively positive, but he said he’d rather be chided by Le Guin than worshipped by another reviewer), China Mieville’s Three Moments of an Explosion, and Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights, just to get you started. Her opinion of these works, informed by decades of reading and writing, are some of the best examples of modern book reviews. They aren’t simple vehicles for front-cover blurbs — they fairly weigh the good and the bad of each with a clarity of prose and depth of understanding that is a trademark of everything Le Guin did.

  2. Commentary
    Ursula K. Le Guin was a lot of things, but she was never silent or out of touch. Throughout her life, she wrote about art, about politics, about people. Her fiction is the biggest gift she left behind, but it’s not the only one. My favorite is when she took umbrage at a book review that was dismissive of genre fiction and wrote a short pulp pastiche, “On Serious Literature.” Another in the same vein is when Important Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro worried that readers of his most recent novel, which uses the tropes of fantasy other authors spent decades refining, would “be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?” Her response is a delightful, bristling defence of genre. Even after the National Book Awards honored her for lifetime achievement, even after the Library of America printed her books while she was still alive (an honor shared by only one other author, Philip Roth), she was still going to bat for SFF. Her perception of the book was not kind — as fantasy, it was a failure. Her last line throws shade as only an 80+ year old grandma could, enough to blot out the sun:

    I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”

    She also commented on current events. In one letter to the editor at The Oregonian (imagine receiving a letter to the editor and realizing it’s from Le Guin), she attacked the concept of Trumpian “alternative facts.” In another, she took issue with the newspaper’s sympathetic coverage of the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Her comments apply to the equally confusing sympathetic coverage outlets like The New York Times keep giving to white nationalists:

    “Instead of parroting the meaningless rants of a flock of Right-Winged Loonybirds infesting the refuge, why doesn’t The Oregonian talk to the people who live there?”

Finally, there’s her National Book Awards Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech. Maybe some people there expected a little old lady to deliver gratitude-filled pablum, but that’s not what they got. At an event partially sponsored by Amazon, with Amazon representatives in the audience, she unleashed a Jeremiad against “letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish, what to write.” She said, “[w]e live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” You should really watch the whole thing below:

Now cracks a noble heart

Le Guin is the greatest American writer of the last century. In these five suggestions, sadly too meager to get a full idea of the colossus that was Ursula K. Le Guin, there are hints of her vivid, crystalline prose and depth of feeling, of her incisive intellect, and of her unerring morality. She was a gift, a node of sanity in a world of increasing confusion, and she is irreplaceable.

If you want to go deeper, I suggest (in addition to The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and A Wizard of Earthsea) her short story collections, The Found and the Lost and The Unreal and the Real. Myself, I will soon be enjoying her definitive Library of America collection of science-fiction, The Hainish Novels and Stories.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an incredible movie. But…

Led by Mark Hamill, the latest entry in the Star Wars franchise delivers science fiction fun and excitement, but there are some problems

Despite everything that will follow this first paragraph, you should go see Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson understands what fun is — he effortlessly recaptures the excitement and wonder of the original trilogy. The opening space battle in particular is gripping. In contrast to prequels infested with bad CGI, every shot is visually stunning, well-constructed, and immediately evokes a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. If you go see The Last Jedi, you will enjoy it, because it is a good, fun movie. If you think about it too much, you might not, since it’s also a lazy one.

General Badness. No spoilers.

 

The Last Jedi’s biggest problem is one it shares with most other modern blockbuster entertainment: everything is constantly hectic and exciting, so there’s almost no space for anything to grow organically. A lack of originality is still apparent in this film. It’s not nearly as bad as in Episode VII, but there are still scenes and beats lifted from the original trilogy with only a slight twist or a different color scheme to set them off. The dominant plot thread is an unbelievably boring framing device (more details later), and it takes up about a third of the total screentime. There’s also a 30-minute side jaunt that could have been cut completely from the film without it losing anything at all (again, more later).

General Goodness. Getting slightly more spoilery.

 

I would watch Old Man Luke on an island for its own spinoff trilogy. Mark Hamill is hands-down the best thing in this movie: the tension created by an old, jaded Master Skywalker playing counterpoint to everyone’s memories of the naive and exceedingly optimistic young Luke is delicious, and Hamill’s gravelly, tired voice really sells it. Everything we learn about the island, why Luke’s there, and what his current philosophy on the Force is is wonderful — Star Wars’ focus on mythos is what sets it apart from more straight-up sci-fi like Star Trek (another movie series that is extremely entertaining but, like this trilogy, suffering from actionitis). Every shot in the movie is well-put-together — it does a lot for a film when each frame is just fun to look at, regardless of what’s happening in it. Finally, the space battles, when they happen, create the exact same lift and thrill as the originals did. Rian Johnson understands action and how to make sure viewers have a good time. The choreography is a huge improvement over the original trilogy, in which people with vast supernatural powers and laser swords made the same four strikes over and over again, and over the prequels, in which everything was insanely baroque (seriously — in Revenge of the Sith, there was a two-second period in the final fight where all they did was twirl lightsabers in the other’s general direction). The problem is not with any individual scene, but the slapdash quality of the overarching narrative itself.

Specific Badness. Definite spoilers.

 

Grand Admiral Thrawn is so good
If Disney is going to slaughter the entire Expanded Universe by corporate fiat, they need to be able to produce stories at least as good as those they’ve nuked

The two main plot threads are Rey on the island with Luke and the Resistance fleeing a New Order fleet attempting to wipe them out. The first one is fine, but the flight for survival among the Resistance? It’s not an assault, it’s not a pitched battle — literally all that happens for the majority of the movies’ central narrative is that three Resistance cruisers fly slightly faster than their New Order pursuers. It’s an absurd way to spend movie time. There’s a 30-minute sidequest in which Finn and Rose (new generic engineer character) go to a casino planet to get a “master codebreaker” to infiltrate and disable the tracking system of the main enemy ship. Since they basically just walked into the New Order’s top-secret superweapon in the previous film, this looks and feels like narrative padding, or at best a cheap solution to past criticism. The film would have lost nothing had it been completely removed. The movie still struggles with originality. The final battle is of the rebels holed up in a cave base on a desert salt planet as AT-ATs close in. Salt looks a lot like snow. A conflicted but mostly evil Ren brings Rey to his master. After watching her fight ineffectually against him for a bit, Kylo Ren kills the Emperor. I mean the Supreme Leader, sorry.

The biggest creative sin of the movie, however, is that no one involved has any patience to build anything. Two and a half hours of instant gratification leaves a movie that feels cheap, whose slick look and explosive action are stretched over a hollow core. The writing behind the characters and love stories, the training and development of Force powers, and the direction of the trilogy itself is a rushed afterthought, always taking a backseat to (very well done) action and (less well done) comradely quips.

  1. Han/Leia vs. Rey/Finn — in the original trilogy, Han and Leia cordially dislike each other in Ep IV, have a snarky and increasingly sexually tense relationship in Ep V, ending with the immortal “I know,” and even in Ep. VI, until Leia sets him straight, Han thinks she’s pining for Luke. Their relationship unfurls slowly, and the result is solid and believable because it has been built over the course of years. In the new movies, Finn and Rey become buds after an initial misunderstanding, and now are yearning for each other throughout because hey, the male and female leads love each other because it’s a movie. 
  2. Jedi Training — Luke received a few days of training from Obi-Wan and could barely even access the force. Rey has a three-minute conversation with Luke about the Force (and maybe a few days, few weeks of training?) and is suddenly the equal of Kylo Ren. She didn’t work for it. It’s not as fun watching her use those powers because she didn’t earn them — Luke sweated in Dagobah, went into self-training exile between Eps V and VI, and finally, after four years of in-movie time, is kinda-sorta-halfway prepared to face Vader. “She’s just that powerful” doesn’t excuse it. First off, that doesn’t keep it from being bad narrative. Secondly, it doesn’t matter if you are the strongest, fastest human on the planet — if you’ve never seen a basketball before in your life, you are not going to be schooling LeBron in a week. Also, an undertrained, overpowered Force sensitive is, throughout the entire history of Star Wars, the single biggest threat to the balance of the universe. So that’s just being ignored now, since she’s so incredibly powerful? That just makes her more dangerous. 
  3. The Overall Trilogy — Where are these movies going? What is their point? In the originals, there was a clearly delineated if simple hero’s quest: farmboy discovers inner strength, develops it, suffers setbacks, but eventually rises to defeat the Empire. In contrast, the new trilogy goes back and forth so often it becomes muddled — we’re the Resistance but actually we’re funded by the New Republic but oh whoops the splinter terrorist group the New Order killed the entire Republic in two minutes and now they’re the Empire and we’re the Rebels lol! This is happening because no one on this project cares about delivering consistency as much as they care about delivering thrills.

 

Specific Good. Still spoilers.

 

One of the greatest moments in all of Star Wars is when Kylo and Rey defeat Snoke, Rey is ecstatic about having saved “Ben” from the Dark Side, and then he’s all like, “Join me, we’ll rule together. Have you not been listening this whole time? I’m evil!” A+ Rian, great job.

Also, because it can’t be said enough, angry Luke wandering around an island. Would watch forever. His entire redemption arc is the best thing in the movie.

 

On sandwiches.

 

Does nostalgia play a role in my higher estimation of the original trilogy? Absolutely. I can’t deny that Ewoks happened. Neither can I defend a desert planet rube being cleared as a fighter pilot for an assault on the most advanced battle station in the Galaxy. The difference is that the original trilogy took its time and actually paid attention to narrative structure and character development. The trilogy-long arc of Luke’s struggle to become savior of the galaxy is believable. I cared what happened to Han, Luke, and Leia. I knew them well. The main character traits of this new crop are how powerful they are, how good they are at flying X-wings, or how quippy they are — they don’t have time to be anything else. The new trilogy has done so much so well. If they slowed down and actually put in the writing work to get the story to where they needed it to be (instead of just declaring THINGS ARE LIKE THIS NOW and expecting the audience to follow along), they could be truly great.

I do not have a monopoly on movie opinions (unlike Disney now has on movie making). Feel free to tell me how I’m wrong and I might even agree with you. The only problematic take I see is the idea that those who didn’t love The Last Jedi are hidebound purists, clinging to their original trilogy with gnarled fingers, terrified of change. Look, I didn’t dislike The Last Jedi because it was different. Hell, I didn’t even dislike The Last Jedi. I’m not mad. I’m disappointed in how much better the film could have been. If I’m eating a pulled pork sandwich and you replace it with bologna, I’m not disappointed because I fear change. I’m disappointed because now I have to eat a fucking bologna sandwich.

Oathbringer is the best action fantasy of the year

The latest entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series cements his reputation as the king of high-octane fantasy

There are three reasons to read Brandon Sanderson: the size and originality of the worlds he builds, the scientific rigor of his magic systems, and the river-in-flood irresistibility of his action sequences. The Stormlight Archive, his projected ten-volume magnum opus, is magnificently ambitious (ten volumes, ~1200 words each, should be done when I’m in my 50s), and coming later in his career than his wildly popular Mistborn series, it’s more sophisticated. The writing is smoother, the action is tighter, and the actionless parts are more interesting. He’s better at making characters you really care about, and the mythology of the world they live in approaches many actual religions in complexity.

In Oathbringer, the ancient evil that has haunted Roshar for millennia returns. The Everstorm has raged across the continent, transforming parshmen, an enslaved humanoid species, into a standing army bent on the eradication of humanity. The Knights Radiant, an ancient order gifted with magical powers for the defense of human civilization, have begun to return. Normal people manifest powers seemingly at random, and the ex-general Dalinar, the former soldier Kaladin, and the noblewoman Shallan Davar are frantically trying to collect these new Knights and to forge the countries and kingdoms of the world into an organization that can resist annihilation.

Oathbringer is a glorious mess. Glorious is a well-earned adjective, and mess might be unfair. It’s got all the goodies people expect from Sanderson, but it does stumble a bit. It’s so much slower than the previous entries. Many sections are overdescribed (not to Robert Jordan levels). For example, there’s an entire chapter about a soldier making soup. His comrades are training in the background, and the frame serves as a window into the bonds among the group. At the end of the chapter, you know more about the characters and the world. It’s worthwhile, but it’s really hard to forget that you just read an entire chapter about making soup. There’s also only one mega-climax at the very end of the book (instead of a series of smaller, but still epic, conflicts throughout the book, like midseason cliffhangers). There is action, and there are fights, but they feel more like skirmishes, scraps unworthy of the explosive finale. Finally, the amazing powers Kaladin and the other Knights Radiant began to master at the end of Vol 2, Words of Radiance, are used for mundane tasks for a lot of the book. There are exceptions, but Kaladin mainly uses his powers to fly from point A to point B. Compared to the very first pages of the very first book, where the Assassin in White uses his powers to engage in one of the most impressive fight scenes in all of fantasy literature, it pales. The finale more than makes up for it, but that doesn’t change that for most of the book, Kaladin’s Windrunner powers were basically a supernatural Greyhound bus.

This book is still great, and you should buy it now. Sanderson deepens the mythos he set out in the first two books, and each new facet adds more beauty and interest to the gem-like clarity of what he’s built. Sanderson has such an innate sense of place that what he describes is tangible. Mystical mountain keeps, overcrowded markets, barren wastes, all of it is there as a solid presence, not just a series of descriptions. Also, when the hundred-page climax comes, it is jaw-droppingly good.

This review ended up being more negative than I expected — I loved this book. I read it in three days. I guess the bad is sticking out here because Sanderson so reliably delivers greatness that it’s become background — invisible because it’s expected — and the less-great stands out because it’s so rare. I think Sanderson’s ambition is behind a lot of the issues I had with the book, but it’s also what makes it the greatest action-centered fantasy currently being written. There’s so much happening that sheer inertia makes the story hard to steer — it takes a lot to get anything moving in a different direction. Sanderson is a man dragging a boulder uphill. He might stumble, he might be a little red in the face, but he still gets it to the top, and when it rolls down the other side, it crushes everything in its path. The final battle of this book is mind-blowing. Everything that felt a bit awkward as it was moved into place throughout the rest of the narrative is exactly where it needs to be by the end, and it’s amazing because there is so much dovetailing so perfectly.