The Fifth Season.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the 2016 Hugo Prize for the best science-fiction novel of the year, and while I have had a lot of issues with Hugo winners, this one absolutely deserved the honor. Jemisin constructs a world that is thoroughly integrated with the plot, one that incorporates the theme of environmental degradation into its story, and uses a brilliant tripartite narrative that gradually comes together as the novel reaches the end, with a clever twist that I didn’t really see coming.

The Fifth Season is set on Earth of the very distant future, on a planet that experiences frequent seismic disruptions that cause “seasons” that threaten mass extinctions, like the way the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused the so-called year without a summer. These seasons last years, decades, occasionally even a century, and wipe out most of civilization each time, although humanity attempts to learn and improve its survival chances with every change. There’s only one (known) continent, the Stillness, sort-of ruled by the remnants of an empire, with people organized into autonomous communities called “comms.”

People have evolved in the interim as well, with some people born with a special power called “orogeny” that allows them to draw strength from the earth itself and move stone or even tectonic plates. These orogenes, known colloquially by the pejorative term “roggas,” are often used to quell minor earthquakes, but can also move mountains, literally. Most orogenes are brought to the main comm and trained to use their powers, but some never learn and are a danger to themselves and others, leading to widespread prejudice and even violence. There’s also a third type of human running around, the stone-eaters, although their role isn’t clear till very late in the story.

Jemisin gives us those three intertwined narratives, all truly centered around orogeny – their roles in society and the way they’re simultaneously valued and feared by others. One is told in the second person, and “you” are the orogene mother of two, and when the story starts, you find that your non-orogenic husband has beaten your son to death, probably because he figured out the boy also had this power. The second follows a young girl, Damaya, who’s discovered to have the same power and is brought by a Guardian to the central comm for training in a special academy for orogenes, which isn’t exactly Hogwarts. The third follows Syenite, an adult orogene who is forced to join up with Alabaster, who’s implied to be the most powerful orogene in the Stillness, for the purposes of breeding and giving birth to lots of orogenic babies. When they’re also asked to visit a coastal comm and help them with a problem in their harbor, things start to go very wrong, a series of events that precipitates the union of the three storylines as the book reaches its conclusion.

Outside of Ursula K. Leguin’s work, The Fifth Season is probably the most outright feminist sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – but not in an overt way at all. The characters aren’t feminists; it’s not clear such a designation would have any meaning in this society. The entire story explores the role of women in society, the possibility of them having power equal to or exceeding that of men, and the timeless questions of a woman’s agency in matters like having children. Environmental degradation does underpin the overall story – Jemisin’s Earth often appears to be trying to kill people, and the humans’ pagan religion treats the planet as an angry god – but it’s the women themselves who are the stars of the novel, and their challenges drive the plot forward.

I could have done without some of Jemisin’s explicit descriptions of sex – they just don’t add anything at all to the story – and some of the cruelty inflicted on children in the book, while more relevant to the plot, was tough to read too. Jemisin’s biggest strength as a writer is the pure storytelling; she’s conceived a world unlike any I’ve seen, remaking the post-apocalyptic earth into something less nightmarish, a testament to the human desire to live and to keep something of civilization going. The dialogue can be clunky, especially when any of the characters is forced to confront something unpleasant or makes a sudden realization. Alabaster is the only well-drawn male character (although that’s kind of a welcome change from novels that don’t have a single three-dimensional female character in sight). It’s such an incredibly compelling story, however, intricate yet internally consistent, around three women you will want to follow to the story’s end … and the sequel, since it turns out this is the start of a new trilogy, with the second book, The Obelisk Gate, already out.

Next up: One of the early Pulitzer winners, the out-of-print Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, which I picked up used because there isn’t even a library copy in the entire state of Delaware.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

Stranger in a Strange Land.

Continuing my roll through Hugo winners, I finally got around to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land right before Christmas. It’s long been on my to-read list, but I figured I’d eventually find a copy in a used bookstore and waited until that happened to read it, even though I’ve read a few other Heinlein works (Double Star and Starship Troopers, both Hugo winners) and enjoyed them. Stranger is something else entirely, however – a deeply philosophical work, a new version of the Christ figure in literature, and a book with just a veneer of science fiction about it. Heinlein’s views on religion, morality, and human nature may not be yours or mine, but this novel gives you plenty to consider and reconsider on these subjects and more, simply because he sets off the correct bomb in the middle of the metaphorical town square.

That bomb is the person of Valentine Michael Smith, a man who was born on Mars and raised by Martians, an alien race, apparently much older than ours, that evolved quite differently from our own and possesses physical powers well beyond anything humans have acquired. When “Mike” returns to Earth with a second spacecraft, he’s suddenly the most sought-after person on our planet, with the government hiding him, multiple authorities trying to steal from him, and the media chasing him, and, eventually, one reporter and his nurse friend choosing to free him, sneaking him out of the hospital where he’s a de facto prisoner. Mike and the nurse end up at the estate of Jubal Harshaw, a polymath, hack author, and attorney who takes an immediate interest in Mike’s case and becomes his mentor and cicerone and protector all in one, negotiating for Mike’s freedom under the guise of the latter being the leader of humanity on Mars.

Mike ends up exploring human religion and philosophy, including the megachurch/cult of the Fosterites, and selects pieces of that he finds worthwhile in building his own Church of All Worlds, where members advance through various levels of enlightenment towards an inner circle, learning the Martian language and acquiring some of the same psychokinetic abilities Mike has. The Church of All Worlds becomes a counterculture haven, preaching free love and naturalism, eschewing modern capitalism, and living in a commune-like structure each time they set up shop in a new town. Their popularity threatens many existing forces, from the government to traditional religions, who whip up enmity towards its members and Mike in particular, leading to an entirely predictable ending that completes his Christ-like journey through the novel.

The novel’s title comes from one possible translation of a phrase in Exodus 2:22, “And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Smith comes here as ignorant of human customs as a baby, and even has to learn to use his body properly in our higher gravity. He brings Martian concepts of dualism and an afterlife, of war, commerce, and, of course, of water, which is revered through the practice of “sharing water” with someone, after which you are “water brothers,” a sort of blood oath that bonds you to each other for life. He adopts some trivial aspects of human culture, at least temporarily, such as wearing clothes, but takes on a mystical role to those around him – first Jubal’s employees, then gradually more and more who take to his own message of free love, spiritual enlightenment, and … uh … being nice to everyone.

That’s where the book goes a bit off the rails for me, at least, although Heinlein is aiming for something very big here and probably gets as close to his goal as most authors could. Smith’s religion is cultlike too, and it’s not very clear what he’s preaching or promising – people see that he can move stuff with his mind, and he’s offering a sort of spiritual salvation without stigmatizing or forbidding sex the way the Catholic Church and many evangelical Protestant groups do, so of course they’re flocking to him. And there’s certainly something Christ-like in his messages of love, tolerance, and nonviolence, as well as his willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone around him. But Smith’s transition from ingenue to wiseman/Pied Piper is wildly abrupt and unexplained; in one chapter, he’s still confused by common human norms, and in the next, he and Jill, the nurse who got him out of the hospital, have run off to join a traveling carnival. (I read the version of the novel that was first published; Heinlein later restored material cut by his publishers in a separate edition that’s about 30% longer.)

Where Heinlein succeeds, however, is in crafting a sci-fi story that’s powered by the plot, not by the scientific details. None of the action in the book takes place on Mars; we meet Smith on earth, and for a time it’s unclear whether there’s anything different about him beyond his experience. He has psychokinetic powers learned from the Martians, and some very different ideas on death, but Heinlein uses that to drive the story – how would Earthborn humans respond to the appearance of a man with these abilities? It’s a twist on the Second Coming, but rather than playing it straight, Heinlein adds the interplanetary twist. There’s also an ancillary subplot, never fleshed out, about what the Martians might do to earth, having previously destroyed a nameless planet and civilization between Mars and Jupiter, but it feels unnecessary and unfinished, especially since the novel stands just fine on its own without that attempt to justify Mike’s return to earth.

Stranger in a Strange Land is a big novel of ideas – or perhaps a novel of big ideas – and whether it works may depend on your acceptance of some of the more mundane aspects of the philosophy Mike preaches to his followers. And it is preachy – there’s no question that Heinlein is advocating something here, which I thought caused the last of the novel’s five sections to drag until the last few pages. The real power in Heinlein’s concepts here, as voiced by Smith, is how absurd human conflicts, from war to prejudice, would appear to someone who fell in from the sky and wasn’t raised among the rest of us. If there’s a lasting message to take from this novel, that should be it.

EDIT: Oh, I forgot to mention the one absolute nails-on-chalkboard line in the book, where one character (Jill?) says that nine times out of ten, a rape is at least partly the woman’s fault. I know it was written a half-century ago, but it’s absolutely cringeworthy, and knocked the book down a full grade for me.

Next up: I knocked out Thomas Hager’s non-fiction book The Alchemy of Air, about the invention of the Haber-Bosch process, and have just started Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction that year.

A Fire Upon the Deep.

Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep shared the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1993 with the vastly superior The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, a “tie” that beggars belief if you’ve read both books. Willis’s ranks among the best novels I’ve ever read, period, and comparing Vinge’s to it is unfair to the latter book, which is certainly ambitious and epic in scope and theme. Where A Fire Upon the Deep falls short of the greatest sci-fi novels I’ve read is in the stuff that makes a novel a good one: Vinge can’t give us compelling, well-drawn characters, despite his imagination and remarkable ability to create a complex, textured universe within his book.

Set millions of years into the future, A Fire Upon the Deep finds the Milky Way populated with numerous races, including humans, who can travel faster than light – but only if they’re in a zone sufficiently far from the galaxy’s center. These “zones of thought” affect everything from technological and philosophical progress to speed of travel, so a spaceship that moves from the Beyond down into the Slowness (nearer the black hole at our galaxy’s core) can go from traveling at several times the speed of light to a mere fraction thereof.

The story opens in confusing fashion, but after a hundred pages or so it becomes clear that the main plot thread revolves around an ‘ancient’ threat unleashed by the humans of a planet known as Straum, who appear to have found a dormant AI routine, implemented it, and opened Pandora’s Box on a “perversion” that attempts to take over huge swaths of the galaxy. One ship survived the apocalypse at Straum to jump to the Slowness, where the ship lands on an earthlike planet that, it turns out, is populated by a race of wolves, later called the Tines, who have the ability to think in groups: an ‘individual’ Tine is a pack of four to eight wolves who operate with one mind. The Tines attack the ship’s denizens, a family of four, killing the parents and taking the two kids as captives, one to each of the Tines’ two warring camps. These two plot strands are connected in a way that isn’t immediately obvious, spurring a cross-galaxy space chase, an exploration of predetermination, and a story of the intrusion of modern combat technology on a primitive society.

This is a space opera, with shifting timelines, multiple perspectives, intersections between several alien races, and even a pit stop that might as well be the book’s Mos Eisley, with no shortage of sci-fi wizardry. Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, which foresaw the era of wearable technology, was bogged down by his need to give us extraneous details, and A Fire Upon the Deep isn’t much different, especially when it comes to details of the operations of various spaceships – we don’t need any of this, and it brings everything to a crawl (like we’re stuck in the Slowness). Here, this problem is compounded by a plot that can only have one ending: there is no question that the people working to stop the ravenous “perversion,” known as the Blight, are going to win out in the end. The story would just end abruptly if there were any other resolution, and if I tell you one or more heroes will die in the effort, you can probably pick them out before the halfway point.

The other core problem here is that Vinge expends so much effort on crafting this brilliant, imaginative universe that the characters are all far too thinly drawn to create any emotional investment on the reader’s part. The kids are actually both kind of annoying, even though they’re orphans on a strange planet with no other humans around, and for almost the entire book each thinks the other is dead. If you can’t generate any empathy for those characters, you have a serious problem. Another character finds out her home planet has been basically blown up and her whole family annihilated; it’s a ho-hum moment that passes without any real emotion in the text or, obviously, off it.

I didn’t actually hate this book, although it may sound that way; I just wouldn’t recommend it that highly. It’s an achievement in scope and vision, but not as a work of cohesive fiction. I assumed that the Blight would lose the race, and that certain characters would survive, but I can’t say I particularly cared about any of the characters, and there was nothing specific to their individual story arcs beyond mere survival. The mark of great fiction, genre or otherwise, is more than mere plot; without strong characters or good prose, it’s just a story, and that’s all A Fire Upon the Deep was for me.

Next up: I’m halfway through another Hugo winner, Robert Heinlein’s classic Stranger in a Strange Land.

Mildred Pierce.

I loved James Cain’s noir thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the film adaptation of his novel Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies of all time, so when I saw his novel Mildred Pierce on sale at Changing Hands in October I picked it up knowing nothing about it other than that HBO had adapted it into a miniseries. It’s a complete departure from those other Cain novels, in theme and in prose style, and in this case the villain isn’t a protagonist but the main character’s narcissist daughter, who contrives to get whatever she wants even if she has to ruin her own mother to get it.

The novel opens with Mildred and her husband, Bert, separating as she kicks him out because of his refusal to stop seeing his mistress, who lives in the same development of Pierce Homes. Bert had been flying high financially until the 1929 crash, losing almost everything because of his decision to invest all of his cash in AT&T stock, but since he was ruined he’s refused to get any sort of job, exacerbating Mildred’s dissatisfaction with him. After he leaves, she tries to support herself and their two daughters, Veda and Ray, by baking and selling pies, but eventually has to get a waitressing job that she considers a little beneath her and has to hide from Veda, her older daughter, a budding sociopath who loathes her mother and the working-class life she’s been handed.

Mildred eventually rises to the point where she opens her own restaurant, then turns it into a small chain of restaurants around greater Los Angeles, but still can’t satisfy Veda and ends up in a couple of disastrous dalliances of her own. Mildred is a strong central character, a feminist in her time who doesn’t need a man to support her and who’s willing to use men to suit her own purposes, but who’s attracted to feckless men who drag her down. She has initiative and a strong work ethic, but lacks the kind of high breeding that Veda, for reasons never explained, believes she herself possesses. Ultimately, Mildred’s choices in men and her subversion of her own priorities to please Veda are her undoing, and the successful post-marriage life she’s created for herself collapses of her own bad decisions.

I found Mildred Pierce a tougher read even than contemporary novels that involve a murder, because there’s such a clear sense that Mildred is heading for catastrophe, one in large part of her own making. Her need for Veda to love her is itself pathological, and she lacks any capacity to see that her own daughter cares nothing at all for her, only for herself. Mildred builds a small business empire, and loses it in a futile effort to make Veda love her. Cain seems to have some empathy for his main character for the first two-thirds of the book, but when she launches her last scheme to gain her daughter’s love and respect, the tone shifts and the admiring language around Mildred’s business savvy (and good fortune) disappears. If Pierce has a real flaw, however, it’s that she’s not quite smart enough for what she wants to achieve, and I can’t see looking down on a character for a lack of intelligence the way we might for a character who’s greedy or heartless, like Veda.

Cain’s prose in Postman is descriptive but stark, and it works for a dark novel about murder and betrayal. Here, his descriptive prose still serves him well – I give the man credit, he knew something about food – but the sparse, almost emotionless writing doesn’t match what’s happening on the page. This isn’t a noir novel, but the writing has too much noir in it for the subject matter, and the lack of a second strongly-developed character besides Mildred (Veda is true to life but very one-note) made the book a slower read than it should have been. If you’re interested in Cain’s writing, go with The Postman Always Rings Twice instead.

Next up: Rachel Joyce’s 2012 novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a recommendation from my friend Adnan Virk.

Way Station.

Clifford Simak’s Way Station was an early Hugo winner, a mixture of the soft science fiction with some more technical details than most of its contemporaries would include, but still focusing primarily on the core story and grand themes of cultural and racial understanding. It probably felt more progressive at the time that Simak published it, and today appears a product of its era (published in 1963) even if some of its themes of tolerance are timeless.

Way Station‘s protagonist is Enoch Wallace, a Civil War veteran who now operates an interstellar way station in the backwoods of Wisconsin, where alien races from across the galaxy pass through en route to other destinations outside of our solar system. Wallace is the only human aware of these other races’ existence, and he does not age while he’s inside the station, so he’s well over 100 years old at the time of the story even though he appears to be about 30. While this has elicited some gossip from his few neighbors, he’s reclusive and far enough away from any kind of town that he’s been able to exist merely on the fringes of civilization, instead spending much of his time reading science journals and occasionally communing with some of the aliens who pass through his station.

That alone would likely have made for a solid novel, a sort of slice of galactic life where Wallace meets a cast of eccentrics and tells a few tall tales to keep the neighbors from denouncing him as some spawn of Satan and burning down his house. (As it turns out, they couldn’t do so if they tried.) Simak instead creates a pair of crises – one from the human world, one from the alien – while also exploring what Wallace has had to give up to take on this life and responsibility, including the entirely fictional friends he’s created using a software tool given him by one of the travelers. (Apparently, when passing through an interstellar way station, it’s polite to bring a gift.) The world is teetering on the brink of catastrophic war in this novel as it was in Simak’s life, while the treaty that holds the galaxy’s various races in peaceful coexistence is also on the verge of breaking down, and one reason is something that happened on earth that Wallace finds himself forced to try to fix.

The narrative jumps around a bit, especially early in the book, which made it a slow title to grab my attention; it starts with a government agent, presumably CIA, who’s caught wind of Wallace’s strange existence and wants to investigate it further, whatever it might mean. Simak then shifts perspective to Wallace’s present and some of his past, mixing accounts of his quotidian duties as station manager with flashbacks to how he got the gig in the first place. These threads come together by mid-book as Simak crafts the twin-crisis plot that drives the finish – with one of the most obvious plot twists you’ll ever see – which ties up all of the various strands with a bit more hope for the future of our species than I can usually muster.

I think Simak was going for some pretty grand themes here, from racial tolerance to man’s alienation from the world, but gets a little sidetracked by some of the details, including the imaginary friends Wallace cooks up with the help of one of the gifts he’s received. The strongest part wasn’t the big stuff, but Wallace’s friendship with Ulysses, the alien who first appeared to Wallace and offered him the post as station master, a bridging of an impossible gap made possible through small gestures and handfuls of words. I found that kind of hope, that any two individuals can find some common ground or kinship, much easier to believe.

Next up: I’m nearly through Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz’s TV: The Book, where they incorrectly rank the top 100 shows in TV history.

Doomsday Book.

Connie Willis is one of the most decorated science fiction writers ever, with eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards, as well as induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her 1998 novel To Say Nothing of the Dog, a Hugo winner, is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, a tight mash-up of a comedy of manners and a time travel story along with a send-up of a classic Brit Lit novel. That book was set in the same universe as her 1992 novel Doomsday Book, which won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best sci-fi novel, and explores much darker subject matter: how we respond to unthinkable disaster and human suffering.

Willis has crafted rules around her fictional time travel that manage to give it sufficient plausibility so that suspending your disbelief isn’t really an issue. Her time travelers are historians heading into the past for research purposes (usually), and do so under tightly controlled conditions. Heading into the past to alter history isn’t permitted by spacetime itself; anyone heading through to create such a paradox simply won’t be allowed to enter the “net” of time travel. And there’s “slippage” in time, the difference between when you arrive and when you were trying to arrive, which the researchers attribute to spacetime’s attempts to avoid even minor incidents like having you appear out of nowhere in the middle of a crowd of people who’d think you were an alien or a witch.

In Doomsday Book, a young woman in Oxford’s history department named Kivrin is heading back to 1320 England to examine village life of the time and as a prelude to a future research trip back to the Black Death, which began in England in 1348. Unfortunately, as soon as she steps through the net into the past, the main technician who organized the drop, Badri, falls horribly ill with a new strain of influenza, touching off an epidemic in modern-day Oxford … with Kivrin unfortunately falling sick as she arrives in the past. Something has gone wrong with the drop, but Badri is near death and unable to tell anyone why or to explain how they will retrieve Kivrin at the scheduled rendezvous time and place. Kivrin, meanwhile, ends up involved in a separate epidemic, as the plague arrives in the village where she’s staying, and since she’s been vaccinated she is the only person there with immunity to the disease. Her response, as the only person in her time and place who understands the nature of the plague, and the responses of those in the modern time are the real focus of the book, from those thinking first and foremost about the victims to those stuck in the mindset of adhering to policy or those unable to give up their own goals even when it puts others at grave risk.

Willis is an outstanding writer in every aspect of the term, from plot to pacing to character development, but two things particularly stand out in Doomsday Book. One is her ability to still weave humor into a story that is incredibly dark and full of tragedy, with many deaths of named characters in both timelines. William Gaddson, an undergraduate who is rather successful with the young ladies but whose overbearing mother thinks he’s a fragile, innocent boy who studies too hard, provides regular comic relief and even plays a real role in the plot. The American bell choir stuck inside the quarantine zone is almost absurd in its zeal to put on a show regardless of conditions. The assistant Finch’s obsession with “lavatory paper” is similar in its “oh my God is he still on about that” nature.

One of the first symptoms of this influenza strain is mental confusion, and Willis manages to impart that to the reader without actually confusing the reader about what’s happening. That is, when the character at the center of the action gets sick and begins to suffer the confusion, Willis gets that across in ways that don’t cause the reader to lose understanding of what’s happening. I found I realized some things weren’t making sense, so the character’s confusion was tangible, but I also could follow what was happening as an observer (since it’s written entirely in the third person) rather than just getting lost myself. That balance is a neat trick and takes a skilled writer to pull off.

Doomsday Book touches on some significant themes, notably some of the characters’ difficulty in reconciling their belief in God with the horrors of the epidemics before them and the deaths of friends and family members. Some fall to disbelief, others to superstition or belief that it’s God’s vengeance. Those who remain after the epidemics have ended, however, seem to all have come to some appreciation of the kindness and mercy of others, even those facing their own deaths, in the face of unimaginable fear and difficulty. Kivrin’s final encounter with a dying plague victim provides the most moving, insightful scene of the book, even though both characters see the situation from almost perfectly opposed perspectives.

As with To Say Nothing of the Dog and Willis’ shorter novel Bellwether, which I read in June and loved but never had time to review, I couldn’t put Doomsday Book down, reading its nearly 600 pages in just over a week. I’ll have to get to her most recent novel in the Oxford universe, the 2010 two-part novel Blackout/All Clear, which also swept the major awards and runs over 1,000 pages in total.

Next up: I read Philip José Farmer’s Hugo winner To Your Scattered Bodies Go this week and hated just about everything about it. I’m about to start Laurent Binet’s World War II novel HHhH today, which has to be better.

Clockers.

All of my GenCon wrap-up pieces for Paste are now up, including the top ten new games I saw, the summary of every other interesting title, and an essay on the experience of attending for the first time.

Richard Price is back in the news these days with the critical acclaim for the HBO limited series The Night Of, an adaptation of a British series, with Price as lead writer on the U.S. version. (I’m only through episode three, but it’s excellent.) Price isn’t new to HBO, writing five episodes of The Wire, and gritty urban stories are his milieu in literature as well, with his 2008 novel Lush Life one of the best novels of the century so far. I just tore through his 1992 novel Clockers, later adapted by Spike Lee into a film that also featured The Night Of‘s John Turturro, an unsparing, compelling portrait of both sides of the pointless battle in the war on drugs.

Set in Price’s fictional Dempsey, New Jersey, Clockers focuses on two primary characters, the low-level drug dealer Ronald Dunham, known as “Strike,” and the homicide detective Rocco Klein, who end up on a collision course when another dealer who works for the same person as Strike is shot and killed execution-style, and Strike’s clean-cut brother Victor surprises everyone by confessing to the crime. Klein doesn’t buy the confession, and Strike is certain Victor is covering for him (even though Strike was assigned to make the kill, he wasn’t able to follow through), so each is, in his own way, trying to get Victor off the hook without knowing who actually committed the murder.

Price’s gift in his work is his ability to create entire universes populated with a variety of realistic, distinct characters from the kids known as “clockers” working the street for Strike and his boss to the mixture of homicide and drug cops, some of whom are incredibly bigoted, to the handful of extras whose lives intersect with Strike’s and Rocco’s. There’s substantial balance in all of his portraits, avoiding the cliched cops-good-clockers-bad mentality without losing sight of the murder that set the entire story in motion, so that the reader feels empathy for the “bad” guys and plenty of antipathy for some of the “good” ones. While Klein and his partner are flawed, they’re relatively well-behaved compared to the street cops responsible for policing the drug trade at the housing project where Strike works, and Price gives us racist cops, cops on the take, drunk cops, and okay maybe the cops don’t come off too well in Clockers, perhaps worse in a lot of ways than the majority of the clockers, most of whom are kids, come off.

If there’s a message in the novel at all, and I could see Price arguing there isn’t one, it’s that the drug trade exists because of the lack of other opportunities for poor urban youth. There’s a constant dialogue among the clockers, including Strike, his boss Rodney, Strike’s brother Victor, Strike’s intended protege Tyrone, Tyrone’s surrogate dad Andre the Giant, and so on, about the limited alternatives to dealing. School is barely mentioned, and only with disdain. Young black men who work regular jobs, like Victor, are respected, but Strike et al see the brighter financial outlook from dealing and decline to take the difficult, legal route. Andre, a cop who tries to mentor some of the at-risk kids in the projects, especially Tyrone, is respected and feared, and is known to use violence to make his will known because that’s the language that works. He might be the closest thing Clockers has to a “good guy,” except that he’ll use extrajudicial means to protect the kids he’s trying to help, and the other kids are terrified of him, so if that’s your good guy … well, then you get the gist.

Price doesn’t moralize much anywhere in the book, though; this is dispassionate, plot-driven writing, and even an easy target like the wastefulness of the War on Drugs doesn’t get a whiff. (The book was published in 1992, when drug decriminalization was only far-left hippie talk.) The only time he goes astray is in the scenes of Klein’s home life; he’s an older first-time father, struggling to balance the amorphous time demands of his job with the desire to be a father and a wife who may or may not understand how his job works (he thinks she doesn’t, but we don’t really get her side of this). It’s thinly drawn, especially the characterization of the wife, but also because we don’t see enough of his family relationships to get more out of it than that he loves his daughter and is thinking about the future after his career as a detective. That’s the difference between this novel and the superior Lush Life, by which point Price had honed his plot development skills so that the scenes off the streets were every bit as compelling as the scenes on them.

Next up: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first novel in her Neapolitan Novels tetralogy.

The Sellout.

My updated ranking of the top five farm systems right now is up for Insiders.

I first heard about Paul Beatty’s farcical novel The Sellout when looking at predictions of nominees for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which also led me to Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew … neither of which ended up a finalist for the prize, won by Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. It did win the National Book Critics Circle award for Fiction, and ended up on several top ten lists for 2015. I’d already picked up Beatty’s book at Changing Hands during one of my trips to Arizona, however, and am glad I found it, because it is absolutely hilarious – offensive by design, taking Zadie Smith’s brand of hysterical realism and distilling it through a filter of American racism to produce a unique work of indignant comedy.

The narrator of Beatty’s book, known only as “Me” in one of many examples of absurdist wordplay in the novel, grows up in the Los Angeles-area town of Dickens, so poor that cartographers prefer to ignore its existence. It’s a segregated, neighborhood originally filled with farms, but the only farm remaining is the one the narrator runs, having inherited it from his militant black atheist sociologist father, who had some rather interesting ideas on child-rearing. (The novel’s satirical strain runs deep; the narrator is raised by a single father, and has no idea who his mother is, eventually finding the woman his father claims gave birth to him only to learn she had no idea what he was talking about.)

After his father is killed by a white policeman – prescient, or merely evergreen? – the narrator embarks on a bizarre quest to reestablish Dickens on the map and improve its lot by reinstating segregation, first on the local bus route and then in the local schools. He even takes a man as a “slave,” although the slave sort of volunteers for the role, doesn’t work, and loves to rant about the lost Little Rascals films in which he appeared. He erects new road signs and paints a literal border on the ground around Dickens, all of which has intended and unintended consequences. Of course, he can only get so far in this effort without running afoul of white authorities, and he ends up facing the Supreme Court – getting high on one of his hilariously named strains of marijuana while waiting in the corridor.

The novel’s best character, however, is Foy Cheshire, the would-be intellectual whose ambition outstrips his abilities, and whose brand of liberation theology involves quixotic endeavors like rewriting classics to improve or star African-American characters, such as The Great Blacksby, Uncle Tom’s CondoThe Point Guard in the Rye. By turns fatuous and pathetic, Foy is part con man, part demagogue, representative of a brand of empty black intellectualism for which Beatty appears to have no use whatsoever.

Beatty doesn’t spare anyone or anything in The Sellout, and that includes many jokes at every race’s expense that, if we’re all being honest here, wouldn’t see the light of day if they came from a white writer. I have no problem with this; if anything, the parody is far more effective coming from a writer of color, lampooning many of the people and institutions that purport to help black and Latino Americans but are primarily there just to help themselves. Charles Dickens was known for social commentary in his work, some of it veering into satire; Beatty draws on that tradition of criticism, marrying it with realism run amok – what critic James Wood termed “hysterical realism” in an essay on Zadie Smith’s White Teeth – for a sendup that scorches the very earth Me uses to grow his prize satsumas, watermelons, and weed.

I’m sure there are allusions and subtexts in The Sellout that I missed or simply couldn’t appreciate as a white man who grew up in a very white town and knew racism because I read about it once, but I still found the book by turns funny and thought-provoking. It’s one of the most laugh-out-loud books I’ve read in the last few years, and pushes the boundaries of what modern realism in literature can include. There may simply be more here that I didn’t catch.

Next up: Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal, on how the Jesuits did everything they could to stamp out the mathematical concept that gave rise to the calculus.

The Stories of John Cheever.

John Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for the compendium The Stories of John Cheever, which contains his complete output other than a few pieces of juvenilia. I’d only read Cheever in novel form, the outstanding Falconer (on the TIME 100) and the middling The Wapshot Chronicle (on the Modern Library 100), but his short stories nearly all cover the same old ground: Failing marriages and alienation in suburban America, with the settings and times changing but the themes and the drinks remaining the same.

Cheever himself was bisexual, alcoholic, and depressed, and these factors inform nearly all of his stories. His characters all drink; spouses rage and cheat; children suffer emotionally; marriages falter, but in many stories they hold together for the sake of appearances. He makes frequent half-joking references to sumptuary laws and his women (and many men) gossip excessively. Whereas Richard Russo’s output shows that author’s clear affection for his wounded suburbanites and their dying towns, Cheever seems to disdain everything about modern suburban life, which is especially evident in the stories he wrote after World War II, in the first stages of urban flight. His husbands become, if anything more faithless, and more drunk, while his wives increasingly show the desire for independence or at least some greater standing in their own homes.

The sixty-one stories in the collection include some variation, with Cheever even showing a charitable take on human decency (as in “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor”), and even delving into the occasional bit of what we might now think of as magical realism. A few of my favorites from the collection:

* An Enormous Radio: When a couple in a New York apartment building replaces their radio with a large, expensive new model, it allows them to tune in to the conversations of all of their neighbors. At first, of course, it’s salaciously amusing, but eventually the wife starts to hear things from other apartments she wishes she hadn’t.

* The Angel of the Bridge: A story about what we’d now call panic attacks, although at the time I doubt the disorder even had such a name. The narrator can’t drive over a bridge without suffering from one, until an “angel” appears to distract him as he’s struggling to complete such a trip.

* Reunion: The narrator is meeting his father during a 90-minute stopover in New York, a lunch that turns increasingly disastrous as the father, an alcoholic with a haughty, condescending air, gets them thrown out of four restaurants as he abuses staff and becomes more drunk and belligerent with each stop. I wondered if this was Cheever’s swipe at his own father, who was also an alcoholic and a financial failure.

* An Educated American Woman: Jill and George are a married couple with one child, Bibber, living in suburbia, of course, but Cheever flips the script by making Jill the intellectual half of the couple (George is just a Yalie) and the ambitious half as well, where George seems to resent her drive and perspicacity, while she feels unappreciated by her husband and stifled by suburban mom life.

* The Geometry of Love: An engineer decides to apply mathematical principles to some decidedly unmathematical problems in his life, including problems in his own marriage. Hilarity and tragedy ensue.

* The Swimmer: Cheever’s most famous story – one turned into a somewhat obscure movie starring Burt Lancaster that had to play like a horror film – involves a suburban husband and father, drunk at a party where everyone else has also had too much to drink, who then decides to swim his way home across the various pools and lawns of his tony neighborhood. Partway through, however, his memory starts to fail him, and it appears that time is passing at an abnormal rate, enough that when he arrives at his house he doesn’t find what he expects to.

Where Cheever lost me was in the stories he set in Italy, which frequently touched on dated themes like the declining aristocracy or life as an American expat. As much as I adore Italy and Italian culture, the country he depicts doesn’t resemble the bits of Italy I’ve seen or what I know of the country from my cousins there. While his paintings of American suburban life after World War II or even marriage and infidelity between the wars don’t apply directly to any of my experiences, in those stories he managed to capture more universal themes that make those stories the timeless entries in this collection.

For more on Cheever’s mastery of the short story, the Telegraph ran a great profile of him and his works last October, doing a better job with this collection than I could.

Next up: I’ve already finished Paul Beatty’s madcap farce The Sellout and begun Amir Alexander’s Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World.