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)

The simple greatness of Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Science Fiction Novels

Her early work (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) contains all the pulpy goodness of 60s SF but is still distinctly Le Guin.

Science Fiction is beautiful. It can transport you to a planet of endless winter, make you feel the cold air prickle your lungs, see the strange clear emptiness of the sky. Science Fiction is powerful. It can make you question the foundations of human identity. Sturgeon’s Law, posited by Theodore Sturgeon in response to attacks on the quality of SF, states that 90% of everything is crap (including the High Literature from whose peaks some critics scold speculative fiction). He’s not wrong. In my early 20s I was under a different impression — almost all the SF I read at that point was steeped in beauty and shot through with clarity, because I was reading mostly Le Guin. Science Fiction, as practiced by Ursula K. Le Guin, is perfection, even in her early days when she was still finding her footing.

I picked up the Library of America 2-volume Hainish Novels and Stories a while back. It is a breathtaking example of just how beautiful physical books can be, and it contains most of Le Guin’s SF novels and many of her stories. After a few months just staring at the talismanic presence above my desk, I actually opened vol. I and read the first three novels of her Hainish cycle — Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions.

le guin science fiction books
Library of America does good work — these are beautiful.

A Summary

The three books are a loosely related trilogy chronicling the efforts of the League of All Worlds to prepare for the oncoming Enemy, their subsequent failure, and what happens next. The books don’t bother with the actual war, fiery space battles, or high statecraft. The collapse of galactic society happens almost in the background, and Le Guin focuses on the small, human stories of those who have to live through it.

In Rocannon’s World, the title ethnologist is sent to further study Fomalhaut II, an unadvanced planet whose people the League is attempting to train up for use in the coming War. His ship is destroyed by rebel elements, and the novel is him journeying across the strange planet to find a way to notify the League and retaliate.

In Planet of Exile, Terran colonists came to the planet Werel to bring the inhabitants into the League, again in an attempt to build their strength for the coming War with the Enemy. The war starts right after they land, and some of them take the ship and go back to help. The book starts 600 years later and follows the interactions between the native Tevar, a semi-nomadic culture whose major variance from Terran-standard is catlike eyes, and the colonial remnants, who call themselves Alterrans. Distrust becomes grudging respect becomes unity as both cultures work together to prepare for the dual threat of the oncoming (15-year-long) winter and barbarians who are marauding their way south.

In City of Illusions, the victory of the Enemy and the dissolution of the League is an established fact. The Shing control Earth and have made it fallow — the population is sparse, great forests and prairies are reclaiming forgotten cities, and humanity lives in small enclaves scattered throughout the wilderness. If they attempt to build anything of greatness (advanced science, a spaceship, a true civilization) the Shing wipe them out. Enter Falk, a man with cat’s eyes who wakes with no memory in the middle of the Eastern Forest. He spends five years with the kindly House who nursed him back to health, and then he goes on a mission to the Shing city of Es Toch (apparently in Colorado) to find out who he was.

The greatness of these novels isn’t so much their plot — the outline for 1 and 3 are fairly basic journey narratives, and book 2 is a forbidden love Romeo/Juliet thing with barbarians thrown in. It’s not the plot, though, it’s what you do with it. Shakespeare stole the plot of Hamlet outright from Thomas Kyd, a guy whose name no one knows. The framework, the general structure of the story is not what’s important here. It’s what Ursula Le Guin does with it. Steak is a basic foodstuff, but there’s a huge difference between well-done with ketchup and medium-rare with béarnaise sauce. The greatness of these early novels lies in Ursula’s knack for invention and cognitive estrangement, her descriptive power, and her anthropological depth.

Games of Perception

Cognitive estrangement is the gap between the reader’s reality and the alternate reality presented by Science Fiction — that rubber-band snap of “oh, that’s not how things are here” that serves as a jumping-off point for further reflection. Le Guin is a master of it. Throughout these books, there is a shifting of perspective, both between the “what is” of reality and the “what is not” of fiction, and between our perception of basic objects and how an alien or far-future society might see those items. That second part, where the characters in the story don’t recognize futuristic objects, isn’t technically cognitive estrangement, it’s more dramatic irony, but the effect is still intriguing.

  • Erkar — In City of Exile, Rolery, a member of the nomadic Tevar tribe, has married into the Terran colonist society and sees a picture that confuses her. She asks what it is.

“And that?” [asked Rolery]

“An erkar.”

“I listen again,” Rolery said politely — she was on her best manners at every moment now — but when Seiko Esmit seemed not to understand the formality, she asked, “What is an erkar?”

The farborn woman pushed out her lips a little and said indifferently, “A…thing to ride in, like a…well, you don’t even use wheels, how can I tell you? You’ve seen our wheeled carts? Yes? Well, this was a cart to ride in, but it flew in the sky.

An aircar — the way Le Guin constructed this exchange, the reader’s realization of what the erkar is hits at the same moment that Rolery’s does. It’s a wonderful piece of narrative.

  • The entire United States — In City of Illusions, Terran society fell over a millennium ago. Everything the main character sees on his journey is after centuries of degradation. When he crosses the Mississippi from a tributary river on a glider, he sees it as we never could:

“The days and the river went on, flowing with him, until on one still gray afternoon the world opened slowly out and out into an awesome breadth, an immense plain of muddy waters under an immense sky: the confluence of the forest river with the Inland River. It was no wonder they had heard of the Inland River even in the deep ignorance of their isolation hundreds of miles back east in the Houses: it was so huge even the Shing could not hide it. A vast and shining desolation of yellow-gray waters spread from the last crowns and islets of the flooded forest on and on west to a far shore of hills. Falk soared like one of the river’s low-flying blue herons over the meeting-place of the waters. He landed on the western bank and was, for the first time in his memory, out of the forest.”

The Mighty Mississippi
Yep, it’s big.

In the far future of humanity, after the collapse, even something as well-known as the Mississippi River is shrouded in rumor and darkness, an unexpected glory to behold. On a barbarian planet, a local woman is completely unfamiliar with the concept of a flying vehicle. This dissociation between how things are and how things could be and the tension between the two is vastly pleasurable, and instances of this happen again and again throughout Le Guin’s work.

Exploding Starships and the Mississippi River

Other authors bring you to another world. Le Guin plants that world right inside you — she has such a strong conception of place and such power of description that she can make whatever she’s describing part of you. The passage about the Mississippi River above is one example. Another is the very beginning of Rocannon’s World, in which Rocannon’s ship is destroyed right off:

“A high tree of blinding white grew quickly, soundlessly up the sky from behind South Ridge. Guards on the towers of Hallan Castle cried out, striking bronze on bronze. Their small voices and clangor of warning were swallowed by the roar of sound, the hammerstroke of wind, the staggering of the forest.”

She could have just written, “Rocannon’s ship exploded.” Instead, she takes a few extra sentences to describe the harsh light of the explosion, the reaction of the indigenous people, the wash of sound and wind, the shaking of the trees — Le Guin anchors the reader so solidly in the world she builds that the only comparable talent I can think of is Tolkien.

Le Guin and Leakey

The sheer depth of the alternate societies in Le Guin’s work sets her apart from lesser SF writers, and that talent is on display here. The rules, structure, and mores of every place that Le Guin writes about are clear and intricate, and indicate an attention to detail lacking in a lot of other speculative fiction. All three books are filled with multiple societies, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll focus on fragments of two of them:

  • Rocannon’s World is inhabited by a stratified, medieval-level society. The dark-skinned, light-haired Angyar rule over the light-skinned, dark-haired Olgyior in a feudal system filled with castles, blood-oaths, forays, and marriage pacts. When all of Rocannon’s friends and colleagues are murdered, Mogien, the Angyar lord he’s been staying with and studying, pledges his sword to the defense of the League (against interstellar bombers). As Mogien drinks in sympathy with Rocannon, he states, “May our enemy die without sons,” which is a perfect, jewel-bright encapsulation of their society — what greater curse in a rigid patriarchy than to die without sons?
  • Planet of Exile  has the Tevar, the indigenous semi-nomadic people who spend the long summer in tents in the Summerlands, and only come together as one in the Winter City, an underground warren where their grain stores are buried. In order to start clan meetings, everyone bangs on rocks in the stone circle in a cacophony until the chief comes and starts banging his own rock. Those to the right and left of him match his rhythm until everyone is hitting in unison. Any meeting starts with a mystical invocation of its ultimate goal — unity and agreement.

Le Guin builds societies of such complexity and detail that it feels like they would exist even if we weren’t there to watch. Their foundations are stone-solid and deep.

The Late Pulpalignean Era

These three books are early, not as polished, from the “Late Pulpalignean Era” as Le Guin calls it. The pulpiness is part of what I love about these though — the laser guns and barbarians. As Le Guin advanced through her career, she moved more away from violence and pulp (in her two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, I don’t think the protagonist kills anyone at all. In fact, the latter is mostly an alien physicist talking to other alien physicists), but in these, people burn down castles, stab each other, burn peoples’ heads off with laser guns, and just generally treat the reader to a smorgasbord of aggression. These books are still distinctly Le Guin, with their tight prose, strong sense of place, and anthropological depth, but they have a pleasant roughness to them, like a chunk of amethyst pulled straight from the living Earth.

Avengers: Infinity War delivers a lot of incredible action, but skimps on the other stuff

It’s here. One of the most impressive cinematic feats in the history of film — the capstone of a ten-year cycle of eighteen interrelated films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has built such a gallery of heroes that they can pick and choose whomever they want for this party. The MCU also has an impressive track record when it comes to set-piece action scenes. Does Infinity War bring together all the threads of the series into the greatest sweater ever knit, a flawless action extravaganza to satisfy even the most rabid fan? Well, kinda.

Mild spoilers follow. Massive spoilers at the end of this thing, but there’ll be a big warning.


There’s a lot of running in this movie

 

The action itself is peerless. I won’t analyze each action scene, mostly because I lost track, but after a decade of practice the people behind the MCU really know how to put superhero powers on display. There’s a particular scene in which War Machine hovers above the combat, every doodad and whatsit on that over-soldered monstrosity deployed, raining hellfire — an apotheosis of violence and spectacle so pure that it becomes art. Dr. Strange is also impressive — of all the heroes, he seems the one most able to go toe to toe with Thanos with an inventive mystic arsenal. Iron Man has built himself some type of nano-suit (that suit has got to be his midlife-crisis Camaro, the way he won’t stop tinkering with it) whose flexibility and cache of new weaponry lends a pleasant variety to any Iron Man scenes.

Too Much of a Great Thing

The film doesn’t take long to run into a problem anyone who has made the mistake of eating a pizza by themselves is intimately familiar with — two slices are amazing, five is folly, and the whole pie is just exhaustion and regret. The film creates action exhaustion after about forty-five minutes. Each fight is amazing, the culmination of ten years of careful buildup, but like, all at once? Right now? For Christ’s sake, put some in the fridge for breakfast tomorrow. The high-stakes action-adventure explosionism almost completely shoves out any part of the movie that might be described as character-driven. Sure, it’s there, each marquee hero gets five minutes with the person s/he cares about to build narrative tension, but then they just run off to punch things. Punch things in an innovative, entertaining, incredible way, but still just punch things. The directors are aware of this — they insert a bit of comedy when, in the ultimate battle, Captain America sees Thor for the first time in years and they exchange a rushed hey-how-you-doing bro greeting before they have to get back to punching (again, amazing punching. Tremendous punching. Punching like you wouldn’t believe…but still, just punching). Take Black Panther for comparison. That film had the same great punch choreography, but it was also primarily character-driven. T’Challa was driven by the loss of a father and doubt of the legacy of his family and his country, and Killmonger was driven by a rage and pain beaten into him over decades. When the two of them meet, it’s about more than their fists. It’s really not in Infinity War. It’s about Thanos.

Never Trust a Man with a Big Magic Glove

Well, it’s not so much about Thanos as it is about stopping Thanos. He gets a few shreds of backstory like everyone else, but the problem is that while the other characters have ten years of worldbuilding stiffening them, Thanos is just that guy who wants to kill half of the universe, because trauma. There was a planet or something, who cares. Hey, did you see his Big Magic Glove?

Fighting Thanos is only a couple steps above fighting the literal abstract concept of death, which isn’t such a popcorn-eating dynamic. The best movies have antagonists who are as fully developed as the heroes (cf. Black Panther). Thanos is none of that. He’s “oh god oh god we’re all gonna die!” poured into a purple CGI suit. Come on, even his name — Thanatos is the Greek god of death.

Anyway, Thanos sucks as a villain, but again, it’s still a lot of fun to watch people punch him. Tony Stark and Dr. Strange banter a bit, then punch Thanos. Tony and Spider-Man banter, and then they both punch Thanos. It’s all great summer blockbuster fare, but it feels formulaic, and it’s a shame because the very best of the MCU movies manage to rise above that.

I’ll use my infinite power to remake the universe, but first could you open this jar of pickles for me?

Not only is Thanos a hollow character, but his main weapon makes no sense. The Infinity Gauntlet is a great concept — it harnesses the power of the Infinity Stones, giving the bearer ultimate power over every aspect of existence so long as they have all the stones. The problem is, even without the gauntlet being complete, having just a few stones (which Thanos has for most of the movie) should make him unbeatable. One example: the Reality Stone gives the bearer the power to alter reality. When all the assembled heroes are wailing on him in the climax, why doesn’t he just change the reality to one where he’s not repeatedly getting punched in his big purple face? When he used the Power Stone to throw a moon at Iron Man, why didn’t he just hit Iron Man directly with enough force to liquefy his bones? Oh? Because there’d be no movie then? Fair enough, but whenever that’s the excuse it takes something away from the narrative.

Massive Spoilers Follow — View Movie Before Proceeding

Also, the way the ending shakes out means the stakes are meaningless. Thanos succeeds and uses his Big Magic Glove to wipe half of the people in the universe out of existence. They just disintegrate into nothingness, including half of the assembled superheroes. If Captain America and Iron Man died, there would be actual concern about whether they’d come back or not. The people who died though already have other movies slated for release. Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, each of whom have just one solo entry in the MCU? T’Challa, the lead for one of the most wildly successful movies in the entire series? No. Their dust hadn’t even hit the ground before it was obvious they would be resurrected, which will be a pretty cheap way to start the next movie, right up there with “it was all a dream!”

The movie is definitely an achievement, and if you’re not a sourpuss you’ll enjoy it. The sheer scope of the film — tying together the disparate threads of eighteen other movies — is impressive, but the frame holding everything together starts creaking by the end. The lack of human, character-driven action at the center of the movie makes it feel so clearly like a constructed thing, a work of artifice. The unrelatable villain who wields a power with no rules and whose ultimate success exists just to give superheroes something to undo in the sequel doesn’t help the situation. It’s not the best sweater ever made, but it’ll still keep you warm. It’s just one arm is shorter than the other, and the bottom hem is unraveling. Ah well. It was a well-done action blockbuster, and seeing Captain America run around with a beard and long hair is, by itself, worth the ticket price.

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.

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.