Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty’s Spaceship Murder Mystery Book, Is Incredible

This Nebula Award nominee disorients and terrifies from the start and only tightens the screws from there

Your eyes pop open, and you’re locked in a pod with no memory of having entered it. You don’t know how to get out. You start remembering — you’re a member of a small crew on an interstellar ship. Your last memory is moving into your quarters and attending the pre-launch festivities. When you finally struggle free of the synth-amneo fluid cradling you in your pod (no small feat in zero-g), you see your corpse floating in front of you, among the rest of your slaughtered crew. And your (dead) body is decades older than you remember it being.

Body floating in space
It’s not clear from the cover exactly what happened, but it’s safe to assume it’s pretty bad

That’s how Six Wakes starts, bombarding the reader with particle after particle of WTF until the narrative splits entirely from the mundane world. It’s the story of six clones selected to tend an interstellar ship carrying thousands of frozen people to an Earth-like planet. Cryo-sleep is fine for the humans, but clones (which are, legally, a different species) can just regenerate themselves endlessly and run maintenance for the hundreds of years it will take their less durable counterparts to get from point A to point B. Once you legally become a clone, you can maintain a “mind map,” basically a terabytes-big thumb drive that holds an imprint of everything you know and are. When you die, your mind map is loaded into your new brain, and you wake up as a 20-year-old. Of course, you are sterilized by law, as you are considered your own offspring. You have to maintain a mind map, which is subject to search and seizure by the authorities at any time. If you kill yourself, you’ll never be resurrected, so even if you’re practically immortal, you still have to deal with your 80s every time.

The problem in Six Wakes is that the crew wakes up to see their old bodies strewn gruesomely across the cloning bay, with no memory of how it happened. The terror is deep and weird from page 1 — the crew knows they were murdered, but have no idea how it happened.

A ship whose habitable space is fairly small, the grimness that comes from being a fresh murder scene, and the fear of not knowing what happened aren’t even the main source of dread. The big problem, the terrifying problem, is that you’re certain one of the people you’re looking at killed you.

As the characters attempt to figure out what happened, they start learning more about each other. The most interesting part of the book, aside from the high concept of cloning, is this narrative trick of having the primary action happen in the most claustrophobic place, trapped on a ship with [a] murderer[s], but having each of the six main characters’ backgrounds happen all over a wide-open far future world, ranging from a jail cell in Asia to a hacking lab on the Luna colony.

In the primary “oh no we’re trapped on a murdership” narrative, the story terrifies and creates constant pressure. The secondary narrative, the six backstories that are key to figuring out what happened, expands and deepens the world by exploring how each multi-century old clone became who they are.

As more facts about each clone are slotted into place, the shape of their predicament becomes more and more clear — the deep dive into the psyche of each character builds the map of what happened directly prior to their emergency resurrection. Each step in the spare, high-tension environment of the ship propels the story forward, and each revelation of a character’s past lends the narrative a depth and majesty. It’s a welcome contrast, like rich cream poured over an acidic key lime pie — both are good alone, but together they’re perfect.

This is a murder mystery action thriller, with a heaping helping of “look at all this cool tech” thrown in. The magic of it is that the very basis of the mystery (oh no we died we better find out who killed us) brings up such profound questions of identity, of personhood, that the glorious pulpiness of fleeing a murderer is layered over the granite bedrock of serious philosophical enquiry — when I say “I”, who do I mean? What makes a person a person, and what can unmake them?

The novel is so good from the very start. I flipped through the first few pages in a bookstore months ago and immediately put it back, thinking it had to be a trick — no way can the rest of the book maintain that level of greatness. I picked it up when I saw it was nominated for a Nebula — it does deliver on the promise of the first five pages. There are a few things to nitpick (one specific part of the resolution, involving saliva, broke suspension of disbelief for me), but Mur Lafferty is a powerful, imaginative author. Any writer who can build worlds as deep and rich as she can, who can craft a story that delights with its inventiveness and terrifies with its revelations, is one who deserves rapt attention. I am definitely snapping up whatever book she puts out next.

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”
    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”
    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”
    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.

Is Black Mirror Actually Good Now?

For years, I’ve held an unpopular opinion about this Science Fiction show. With “USS Callister,” maybe that’s over

 

I’ve disliked Black Mirror since season 1, but there’s so much positive buzz around it each time a new season rolls around that I’m dragged back in to watching an episode or two and being disappointed all over again. The problem is that it casts itself as a serious show filled with original ideas that like, really make you think, maaaan, but it’s more boring than thought-provoking. “Fifteen Million Merits” (S01E02) is the episode where most of society is basically enslaved and a gameshow with absurdly high stakes is used as a method of control. That is not very original at all. There’s also “Nosedive” (S03E01), where your social standing is entirely based on other peoples’ Yelp-like reviews of you, personally. Not as big a sin as the gameshow thing, but still a concept I found about as interesting as yet another “Are iPhones ruining Millennials?” thinkpiece. And then there’s “San Junipero,” whose central concept was uploading your mind after death. This is such a tired and well-tread SF concept that it’s easier to direct you to the TV Tropes page about it instead of giving examples.

There’s nothing wrong with using what came before. There’s nothing new under the sun, and the cultural chiasmata that results from widespread borrowing is part of the fun of Science Fiction. There are two main issues though with Black Mirror‘s lifting of ideas from the ether: one, many reviewers praise it specifically for its imagination, and two, it’s marketed as one hour of self-contained, high-concept television. When you build a show specifically to explore ideas, and people praise your show for how fresh and new those ideas are, the originality of your concepts is important. Season 5 of Agents of  S.H.I.E.L.D. had a great brain-upload virtual universe storyline, and it didn’t land as hackneyed because it was just one element of a character-driven action drama that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Black Mirror‘s multiple in-episode rants about the State of Society, its completely on-the-nose moralizing, and its self-seriousness disqualify it from the relaxed critical standards that something like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. enjoys. Also, much of the dialogue is flabby, a lot of the episodes are either under- or over-acted, and the actual execution of each show is boring. It’s like eating at a white-tie restaurant where the waiter judges you, except all they serve is Quaker Peaches and Cream oatmeal. It does not live up to its mystique. Nothing wrong with oatmeal, it’s just not an interesting food.

 

The first episode of season 4 is good though, I promise

 

OK. Wow. Got carried away there, because it’s easier to talk about hating something than it is to talk about something being good. With all the preceding off of my chest, I can cover how “USS Callister” gives me hope for the new season.

The concept, in which the boss makes virtual, fully sentient copies of his underlings to do his bidding, may have been directly lifted from Vernor Vinge’s 2003 Hugo-award-winning novella. Again, unoriginal concepts are only show-ruining if they’re the only leg on your stool. What this episode does, in contrast to the handful of previous ones I’ve watched, is take that concept as a foundation and build something on it aside from self-important moralizing.

The CTO of a virtual gaming company runs a bootleg, offline version of his game, in which he’s trapped sentient copies of people he feels have wronged him. They know who and where they are, but they are forced to participate smilingly in a game-universe Star Trek retread, and they face terrible consequences if they don’t play along.

The Star Trek retread is entertaining. The actors involved in this one are more interesting (especially Jimmi Simpson, whom I love in everything he does). I felt real horror while watching the antagonist exercise absolute control over the people he’d trapped in his own personal world. While watching “USS Callister,” I enjoyed an engrossing TV show. During every previous episode of Black Mirror, I was constantly aware that Art was being Practiced Upon Me for my Edification, obviously and tiresomely.

I have high hopes for the rest of Season 4 if this trend continues. Sorry this ended up being mostly about me hating previous seasons of Black Mirror — you can leave a comment with your favorite episodes if you feel I need to educate myself.

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 bologna sandwich.