Literacy 2021: Book 22: Artificial Condition

Second in the series of books about a rogue Murderbot that’s indestructible yet socially awkward

Book
Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

Series
Book 2 in “The Murderbot Diaries”

Synopsis
A rogue SecUnit — a semi-organic robotic construct that refers to itself as a “murderbot” — sets out on a mission to learn why it went rogue and killed all the humans it was assigned to protect. To gain access to the planet where the incident happened, it takes on a contract to protect three naive humans trying to get their property back from an unscrupulous mine operator.

Pros
Smart, clever, and efficient writing; the first two books in the series are more like novellas in length, but are so confident in their voice that they don’t feel too short. Writing the stories from the perspective of Murderbot, which is impervious to violence but dreads social interaction with humans, is an effective, implicit analogy for being on the autism spectrum, or just social anxiety. Its inability to interpret social conventions is treated as part of its character, and sometimes even a liability, but never a weakness; the character is still practically a super-hero. The future that the Murderbot lives in is unforgiving and in a lot of ways, dystopian, but the stories and the characters never devolve into cynicism or nihilism: characters often do the right thing, simply because it doesn’t make sense to do otherwise. I was really impressed with the concept of an AI that can only process fiction by experiencing someone else’s reaction to it. A clever throughline through the books so far is how AIs and robots need to escape to entertainment media to relieve stress.

Cons
World-building usually takes the form of corporate NewSpeak style terms, and it makes it difficult to tell what exactly the book is talking about: is that the name of a robot, a device, a company, or an entire planet? Character interaction works a lot better than action sequences; few of the descriptions of locations were vivid enough for me to get a clear picture of what the place looked like, and descriptions of action tended to jumble together into a bunch of words waiting for a resolution. One of the characters was of a fourth gender with its own set of pronouns, which was somehow just as annoying in fiction as it is when people try to do it in real life.

Verdict
A clever, contemporary, and unassuming science fiction series in which the analogies are apparent but never feel ham-fisted. Structured like sci-fi action episodes, they remind us to have empathy for neurodivergence.

Literacy 2021: Book 21: Slaughterhouse-Five

Kurt Vonnegut’s unstuck-in-genre masterpiece about the bombing of Dresden and also about human lifespans and our own perception of them

Book
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Synopsis
Vonnegut tries to recount his experiences as an American POW in Germany during the fire-bombing of Dresden by instead telling the story of Billy Pilgrim, a fellow POW and alien abductee who had become unstuck in time.

Pros
Filled with the kind of writing that turns ordinary people into fans of Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Its description of watching a documentary about bombers in reverse is so poignant and wonderfully written, it should come pre-highlighted in every copy of the book. The first chapter is like a magician explaining exactly how he’s about to perform a trick, but then the trick still feels like magic. Its explanation of the seven people it takes to make a human baby was a wonderfully absurd surprise. Its description of PTSD in the form of a barbershop quartet is in a lot of ways a fantastic encapsulation of the entire book: comical and horrific at once, trying to make sense of something that makes no sense.

Cons
Vonnegut’s descriptions of Billy’s wife Valencia are the only ones in the book that struck me as cruel. So much of this book is familiar that I have the sinking suspicion I read it in college and forgot about it.

So It Goes
As a teenage insomniac, I was a huge fan of NBC News Overnight, the sardonic news show hosted by Linda Ellerbee that was later replaced by Late Night With David Letterman. Ellerbee always signed off with “And so it goes,” I’m assuming inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five (I haven’t read her memoir). At the time, I interpreted it as merely a cynical kind of self-awareness, a refusal to adopt the gravitas of other journalists who lent a sense of legitimacy to stories that were so often mired in nonsensical, repetitive, bullshit. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that Ellerbee’s presentation of the news, along with Letterman’s take on celebrity and the media, helped define my entire mindset up to and including my thirties. Now, though, I wish I had read Slaughterhouse-Five to fully understand the context of “so it goes” as Vonnegut actually used it: on the surface, it does read as an expression of cynical futility, but via its repetition — invoking it after every single mention of death — it also takes on a tone of reverence. No life is more or less important than any other, each one deserves to be noted and memorialized, instead of abstracted into an unimaginable number and especially not brushed aside as acceptable loss. It acknowledges that yes, death is inevitable, and constant, but that doesn’t make it any less meaningful.

Verdict
A masterpiece of 20th century literature, any attempt to encapsulate it as simply “satire” or “anti-war” would diminish it. Its format — which could at first seem too flippant for the subject matter — is exactly what makes it perfect. Its mundane details stand out too vividly to be abstracted away or compartmentalized as they would be in a more traditional narrative that wants the reader to understand the deaths of over 140,000 humans in one night. It hops around memories of horror and the trauma of its aftermath, events that keep happening always, all at the same time. And which would seem fated to keep happening forever, much like events of World War II recounted by someone in the midst of the Vietnam War, read by someone during the end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan.

Literacy 2021: Book 20: Circe

or, “Defying Odyssey,” Madeline Miller’s wicked re-interpretation of the story of literature’s first witch

Book
Circe by Madeline Miller

Synopsis
An autobiography of the goddess Circe, known as the first witch in literature because of her role in The Odyssey, tracing her life from her time in the halls of the Titans, through her encounters with mortals, and the aftermath of her time with Odysseus.

Pros
Extraordinarily engaging, pulling together various “guest appearances” from Greek mythology into a compelling narrative that feels immediate, contemporary, and personal. Gives believable motivations to characters that have always seemed capricious, arbitrary, or intended to function only as allegory. The writing is so direct and accessible that I could finish an entire passage and only realize afterwards how insightful or beautifully phrased it had been. Does such a good job of making classical stories feel contemporary and relevant that I’d assumed several elements were Miller’s invention, until I found out that they were ancient. Layers its various themes throughout, instead of relying on just one or two direct metaphors: feminism, obviously, but also self-determination, agency, fame, self-awareness and self-deception, and the role of heroes. Illustrates the differences and divisions not just between men and women, but immortals and mortals, Titans and Olympians, nobility and commoners, and divine power vs craftsmanship, as a kind of intersectional examination of power and self-determination in all its various forms. Circe is brilliantly realized, coming across as wise and brave even as she’s describing her own foolishness, naivete, or lack of confidence. Some of the descriptions of the relationship between mothers and sons hit me like a punch to the gut.

Cons
I hated the ending, partly for being a bit too neatly tied up, but mostly for feeling queasily inappropriate even by the incestuous standards of Greek myth. The description of the final spell in the book undermines much of the character development that came before it: she goes back to describing plants as having innate powers that had already been revealed to be the result of her will. Slow to get started; the first few chapters do an excellent job of describing life in the court of the Titans, and it’s essential background for everything that comes afterwards, but it gives a bad impression that the story will be far more tedious than it turns out being. I wish there had been more of the clever gimmick in which Circe the storyteller interjects an observation that was unknown to Circe the protagonist at the time; it added a bit of intrigue and foreshadowing for what was to come next.

Verdict
A fantastic book that is undermined a bit by its last few chapters. Not just a feminist work but a humanist one, taking pity on the beautiful, perfect, and divinely gifted while praising instead the value of hard work and self-actualization.

Literacy 2021: Book 19: Goldenrod

An excellent poetry collection by Maggie Smith

Book
Goldenrod by Maggie Smith

Synopsis
A collection of poems about motherhood, divorce, identity, and the anxieties of the present, from the poet who wrote the inspirational Good Bones.

Standout
The usual “pros/cons” format for these posts doesn’t really work for a collection of poetry, so I’ll just name the one that had the most impact on me:

“Airplanes” made me gasp from the shock of sudden empathy, even though it’s a poem about being one level removed from horror, and as a white, childless man, I’m two levels removed. It made me realize just how much we abstract away the idea of violence as something horrible that happens to other people. It’s selfish but I don’t think it’s pure selfishness; it’s a wall the brain throws up in self-defense.

One Thing I Like
Reading a collection like Goldenrod versus individual poems made me appreciate how much Smith works within the literary art form most devoted to formalism, structure, and timelessness, but uses it in a way that makes it feel direct, personal, and immediate. The ideas in Smith’s poems are so relatable, and the language often so informal, that they hide so much of the work that goes into them, finding exactly the perfect word or phrase or format to give an idea exactly the right impact. The end result feels conversational, but if the other speaker in the conversation had just casually dropped an observation that was so profound that you didn’t understand it so much as felt it.

Verdict
I’m ignorant of poetry, so I can only comment on the number of times this book left me blindsided by an observation, or simply left feeling the exact sense of tension or calm that the poet felt when she conceived the poem. Smith doesn’t seem to go for grandiose wordplay so much as the perfectly direct expression of a feeling. She’s become one of my favorite poets.

Literacy 2021: Book 18: Longitude

Dava Sobel’s account of the efforts to calculate longitude at sea

Book
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel

Synopsis
Up to the 17th and 18th centuries, the problem of accurately determining longitude while at sea was considered so difficult as to be impossible. An unassuming carpenter-turned-clockmaker set out to solve the problem by creating accurate, sea-worthy chronometers, a task which ended up taking decades and pitting him against the fickle establishment of British astronomers.

Pros
Takes what might have been an esoteric piece of history and presents it as a decades-long contest, with eccentric heroes, petty villains, and shocking betrayals. Written with the tone of being invested in human stories instead of just historical details. Empathetic to all of its characters, even the villains. Begins and ends with a more personal take on why the author found the story interesting and inspiring. Contains only the details it needs to get the story across, inviting further research into the parts the reader finds interesting. I’d initially considered it a “con” that the book describes the significance of certain clock or watch components, with no explanation of what they are for laypeople, but soon realized that without diagrams or lengthy digressions not really relevant for the central story of this book, they’d be lost on me anyway.

Cons
Parts of it feel a bit like a long-form article padded out to book length; none of the material feels irrelevant or unnecessary, but it’s simply that some of the more interesting stories and details are repeated multiple times. While the tone is a welcome departure from some of the drier history books I’ve read, some of the passages feel a little bit too flowery. Occasionally too empathetic to its characters; reading a positive account of Captain Cook’s travels in Hawaii feels jarringly like white-washing.

Verdict
An accessible, dramatic, and even inspirational account of a scientific advancement that I’d never thought about. It’s easy to see why it was such a hit on its release.

The Short Version
If you want to see a short recap of the central story of the book, this episode of the YouTube series Map Men inspired me to finally read Longitude.

Literacy 2021: Book 17: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

This horror novel by Grady Hendrix is a lot better than its premise might suggest

Book
The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Synopsis
In a small South Carolina city in the late 80s/early 90s, a group of overstressed and under-appreciated housewives form a book club over their shared interest in true crime and suspense stories. Their friendships and families are tested over the next few years, after a strange man moves into the neighborhood and begins working his way into their lives.

Pros
Genuinely horrifying. In retrospect, it might’ve been because I thought I knew exactly what the book was going to be and how it was going to pull its punches, but I was surprised by how quickly and intensely it dove into horror. Fantastic details during the most intense scenes — often involving insects, like fleas and roaches! — that kept the action feeling immediate and personal. Great at pushing my buttons; I was tense when I was supposed to be tense, inadvertently groaning out loud during some of the worst moments, and internally screaming with anger when I was supposed to be frustrated. Good at balancing tone: it avoids becoming maudlin, but also has an unerring morality to it that never devolves into cynicism or nihilism. Uses the setting and time period for effect, not just nostalgia; this is a society of affluent white people only just starting to acknowledge how much they’ve normalized casual racism and misogyny. De-romanticizes vampires, while all of pop culture in the time of the book’s setting was trying to make them sexy and misunderstood. Gives a contemporary take on Dracula-style vampires that splits the difference between realism and the supernatural.

Cons
Depictions of sexual assault that didn’t seem gratuitous, but were still unexpected; I’m not generally a fan of content warnings, but I think the book’s premise and presentation suggest a tone that’s lighter than the actual material. The characters’ tendency to reset back to normal life after horrific events strains credulity, even after you realize it’s part of the theme (see below). I wish the book had gone more into the actual details of the plan for slaying vampires, as the title implies, instead of just telling us that the women did their research. I wish Hendrix had saved his introduction/dedication for the end of the book; it’s wonderful that he insisted on including an essay praising his mother, but it also threatens to overwhelm the start of the book with expectations of Steel Magnolias/Designing Women levels of schmaltz. Although I think the book is an excellent horror story and explanation of the premise, there’s no denying that the premise itself is kind of a mish-mash of cliches. The book constantly reminded me of how much I miss my mother.

One Thing I Like
One thing the book does particularly well throughout is show how repression and suppression worked (and still works!) in societies like the middle-to-upper-class southern white families in the 80s and 90s. The men in this book were so casually cruel and condescending, and all the white characters were so dismissive of the plight of their black neighbors, and all of the characters were so desperate for everything to go back to normal, that at times it seemed too much to believe. Except it also feels like a real, accurate depiction, especially to those of us who grew up in southern towns in the 80s and 90s. So much of the menace from the monster in this book comes from its ability to manipulate everyone’s desperation to keep up appearances and maintain public perception that they’re good, proper, Christian families. They’re so eager for things to be normal that they’ll deny an abundance of evidence of evil. They’re not naive, necessarily, but so wrapped up in creating and maintaining an illusion of perfect suburban whiteness that they’re in denial of anything that threatens or is even critical of it.

The book is direct in its condemnation of casual racism and misogyny, and it makes a deliberate illustration of how easily the monster fits itself into that kind of environment and takes advantage of it. But it’s a little bit more subtle about how much people deny our true selves and our obligations to each other out of a need to be normal.

Verdict
Surprisingly excellent. I’d expected a mash-up of Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Designing Women and the like with Fright Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and True Blood. Instead, it’s an often-intense horror story that seldom pulls any punches, and uses social commentary for good effect. It’s not quite the predictable story of The Irrepressible Resilience of Southern Women, but actually a sincere celebration of the true strength of people who’ve been underestimated and unappreciated.

Literacy 2021: Book 16: Sex Criminals

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s comic series about people whose orgasms stop time.

Book
Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Format
30 issue comic series (with a finale issue 69) collected in 6 compilations (or, recently, 3 larger editions).

Synopsis
A woman whose orgasms have the power to stop time happens to meet a man with the same ability. They decide to use their power to rob banks.

Pros
Smart, mature, and respectful, while still frequently being laugh-out-loud funny. Pretty good balance between high-brow and low-brow, and often jumps seamlessly between the two. Frequently resists the story’s natural inclination to go towards action or violence, instead having characters resolve conflicts by talking to each other. Casually breaks the fourth wall from start to finish, and it somehow works more often than you’d expect. Great sound effects throughout. Does a good job of capturing what the honeymoon/infatuation stage of a relationship feels like, without being overly twee. Suzie and Jon are genuinely charming, and it’s easy to get invested in their relationship. One extended fourth-wall-breaking sequence could’ve been insufferable if not for increasingly over-the-top jokes depicting Zdarsky as a comics superstar. The alternate cover with Fraction & Zdarsky in a family portrait is an all-time classic.

Cons
Extremely pleased with itself. A little too much of the fourth-wall breaking is clever enough to work (e.g. speech balloons so full of text that they’re crowding out all the people in the panel), but still comes across as annoyingly defensive. The supposedly “highbrow” stuff feels really over-written, and lampshading it doesn’t help much. Gets weaker the longer it goes on — it’d be unfair to expect a series that ran for seven years to keep up the potential energy of its first issues, but man, reading it all at once really makes it feel as if it’s crawling up its own ass. Resolution felt extremely anti-climactic (ironically). Has extended parodies of other comics that could’ve worked as gags, but feel obtuse when stretched out over a full page or even an entire issue. Even as someone who likes Queen, I don’t see the point in spending an entire half of a comic just devoted to a character singing a song.

A Bigger Con
Every one of the male/female relationships has a weird dynamic: the women are generally treated as blameless, and everything that goes wrong with the relationship is treated as the man’s fault. There’s no sense of partnership; when there’s any conflict, the woman is free to be as caustic as she wants, and it’s up to the man to recognize and acknowledge what he’s done wrong. Suzie doesn’t appreciably change over the course of the series; she learns more about herself, but I get no sense that she’s felt any obligation to change her behavior at all.

Verdict
Smart, clever, genuinely funny, and deservedly one of the classic comic series of the 2010s. I just think its defensiveness about being too “on the nose,” its weird relationship dynamics, and its somewhat lackluster conclusion kept me from being completely satisfied.

Literacy 2021: Book 15: Devolution

Max Brooks applies his World War Z style to Sasquatches instead of zombies

Book
Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

Synopsis
After an eruption from Mount Rainier wreaks havoc on the Seattle and Tacoma area, residents of an experimental village of self-sufficient homes find themselves completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Their story is recounted via interviews with people familiar with the incident, and the found journal entries written by one of the residents.

Origin
According to the acknowledgements, Brooks had conceived of and pitched this as a movie, but then reacquired the rights and released it as a novel. That’s evident, since this is 100% plotted and paced as an action horror movie, but delivered in the more introspective oral history style.

Pros
Smart and confident in its tone and its level of research. Has a strong message about human arrogance and hubris, and the folly of seeing ourselves as set apart from nature. Also has a strong message about over-reliance on, and confidence in, technology. Captures how 21st century tech culture combines a lot of societal failures: over-reliance on convenience, lack of understanding of the supply chain and its consequences, the cult-like worship of prominent figures in technology, and the arrogance of businessmen who act as if they’re saving the planet. Exhaustively planned and plotted, with convincing explanations for almost every single detail and event.

Brilliantly paced in the build-up to the point at which the action first breaks. I had to stop reading before bed and finish the book in the daylight, but even at mid-day, I felt my heart racing and my palms getting sweaty, even though I knew pretty much exactly what was going to happen. It’s so good at reproducing that feeling of terror and vulnerability that came from watching the In Search Of… episode about Bigfoot in the 1970s, that I knew instantly that Brooks must be the same age as me. (He’s one year younger than me, as it turns out).

Cons
The oral history format just doesn’t work for this story; instead of adding a sense of verisimilitude, it just draws attention to how false the format is. The protagonist’s long passages quickly start feeling less like journal entries and more like a novel, both in tone and in level of detail and memory. And that would’ve been fine, except by repeatedly mentioning that this was a journal, it just drew more attention to the fact that it’s clearly not. One of the characters, whose “interviews” make up a significant chunk of the books, is written in an affected trying-too-hard-to-sound-casual voice that comes across as jarringly clumsy compared to the other voices. None of the characters are likable, which is probably to be expected in a horror movie in which most of the characters will die, but frustrating when it seems that the book wants me to like some of these characters a lot. Needlessly and excessively fat-shaming of a character who we’re supposed to despise for being weak, selfish, and gluttonous. Two characters’ descent into insanity is bizarrely over-the-top and unbelievable in a story that’s otherwise so grounded.

My biggest gripe is actually the tone of arrogance and nastiness that’s always lurking in the middle of a well-paced and well-researched story. It often feels like a doomsday prepper pitching a monster movie to you. It’s weird, because it’s too intelligent, well-written, and inclusive to be lumped in with other testosterone-heavy B-movie action stories. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that if it had the option, the book would sneer at me and call me a pussy.

Verdict
One of the most well-crafted books I’ve read this year, perfectly capturing the feeling of a well-made horror/action/monster movie. But I’m also glad it’s over, because I can’t shake the creepy sense that if I spent more time with it, it’d start trying to sell me on crypto-currency or libertarianism, or drag me into an argument over the failings of electric vehicles.

Literacy 2021: Book 14: The Caledonian Gambit

A cold-war sci-fi novel by Dan Moren

Book
The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren

Synopsis
In the midst of a galactic cold war, a janitor from a remote outpost on a frozen, secluded planet is enlisted to return to his homeworld to investigate a secret weapon being developed by the oppressive Illyrican Empire.

Pros
Moren’s years of experience as a tech journalist are evident here, as the craft of writing throughout is smart and accessible. Embraces most of the elements of the capital-ships-and-dogfights-in-outer-space school of current popular science fiction, but puts most of its focus on cold war-style espionage. Having a planet that’s a colony of Earth founded by Scotsmen is a novel twist I haven’t seen before. Pretty well paced, with a balance of fight scenes, dialogue, and espionage that all builds towards a climax that bumps up the scope without losing focus. It’s evident that the world-building has been mapped out beforehand, and we’re only seeing a piece of a larger story. Sensitive to its main character and treats PTSD as an obstacle instead of a weakness. Feels very much like a years-long passion project, and I’m just happy to see someone have his dream of having a novel published come true.

Cons
Feels very much like a first novel. Relies far too heavily on cliches, from settings to events to dialogue to character backgrounds to character descriptions and even character mannerisms. Dialogue isn’t very strong and often feels forced or stilted; one of the main characters’ constant “wisecracks” are particularly grating. Emotional moments often don’t feel earned, or the “heat” of a scene suddenly escalates for no other reason than to generate drama, and it sometimes feels as if it would’ve felt more resonant had there been simply more action. One of the main characters’ key relationships, that’s built up throughout the book, is left jarringly unresolved, as a death happens “off screen.”

Verdict
Feels like a novelization of the pilot episode of an obscure series on the SyFy channel. Which I imagine was the goal.

Literacy 2021, Book 13: The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic about an average man whose dreams transform reality

Book
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Synopsis
Seemingly average man George Orr is tortured by the knowledge that his dreams alter the past to become reality in the present. He’s sent to an arrogant psychiatrist who wants to use Orr’s power to rebuild the world into a better version.

Pros
The language flows smoothly between dream logic, dystopian science fiction, poetry, and Taoist philosophy, treating them all as parts of the same thing. Manages to be stridently moralistic without lapsing into dogma or a naive story of good vs evil. Has the same aspect that I like so much in Susanna Clarke’s writing, in which the protagonists and antagonists aren’t treated as equal and opposite rivals, but instead as operating with completely incompatible viewpoints. Feels surprisingly modern for a 50-year-old science fiction novel. Takes what could’ve been a sprawling and clumsy story about altering the fabric of reality, but keeps it focused on a few characters and dense with observations from their own viewpoints. Descriptions of an “effective dream” gone wrong, from the point of view of people on the outside, are fantastic.

Cons
That density makes it kind of a slow read; although it’s less than 200 pages, it took me forever to make it through. As with any story of oppressive dystopian futures, much of it isn’t a fun and breezy read. Because LeGuin is so effective at writing the inner viewpoints of the characters, the dialogue comes across as a bit stilted and unnatural in comparison. The few but significant pop culture references come across as corny.

Verdict
It’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a classic; it feels timeless and if anything, more relevant now than in 1971. It takes us through an increasingly wild story to show us the power of inner strength, simplicity, kindness, and companionship, without seeming naive or simple.