The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

Mister Monkey.

I was unfamiliar with American author Francine Prose’s work before stumbling on some glowing reviews in the fall for Mister Monkey, her 22nd book of fiction, a brilliant and funny book about the participants in and around the staging of a really terrible musical for children. Prose, whose work outside of writing has created some significant controversy, manages to touch on so many ideas and develop many fascinating characters in under 300 pages of high and low comedy, from the 12-year-old actor in the monkey suit who is growing up too fast to the Yale-educated actress at the end of her rope who has the worst part in the play.

The play is called Mister Monkey, and is based on a not-very-good children’s book by the character Ray Ortiz, whom we’ll meet over the course of Prose’s novel. Ortiz is a Vietnam War veteran who tried to write a book about his experiences there, but it ended up, through the wringer of publishing, a weird children’s book that was subsequently adapted into a bad musical that has become a perennial production, in the way so many mediocre works aimed at children do. This off-off-Broadway staging has more than its share of tragicomic characters and elements, and Prose manages to spin them off into a circle of stories that touch on everything from existential doubt to the fear of romantic rejection. It’s like Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Good Squad, except that it’s good.

The musical itself is all background – we get hints of why it’s so bad, of course, but that’s about all we get, which is probably a small mercy from Prose, who definitely enjoyed making up this artistic monstrosity. Instead it’s the spark that gives us Adam, the child actor who is twelve but looks eight, already knows his stage-mom is not well, and is struggling with the onset of puberty and, among other things, the fact that he has a crush on one of his adult co-stars. And gives us Mario, the server at a Rao’s-like restaurant who always waits on Ray, who goes there every time there’s a new production of Mister Monkey and gives Mario a couple of tickets to the play, because it turns out Mario just loves the theater … and he too develops a crush on the same actress who is the literal and figurative target of Adam’s affections. Everyone’s flawed, but they’re all flawed in entirely credible ways – shy, confused, frustrated, manic, resigned. Only Lakshmi, the costume designer who also plays the police officer in the musical, comes off as less than fully-realized, in part because her story has a bizarre twist that is a forced laugh and doesn’t fit with the rest of who she is.

That laugh stands out because it’s one of the only attempts at humor here that doesn’t land. Mister Monkey is very funny due to Prose’s wry, observational style that lampoons life but usually doesn’t mock its characters. Shifting focus with each long chapter means we get one character’s thoughts on everyone else, only to learn later on that we only had a fraction of the story, and often someone’s difficult or hostile behavior was merely a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s Gibby Haynes’ line, “you never know just how you look through other people’s eyes,” in prose form. (No pun intended, but how can you avoid it with an author named Prose?)

Prose also gives us an unconventional “here’s what happened to all the characters” section at the end that I thought elevated that gambit over the standard epilogue format without becoming excessively sentimental; such sections are always a little bit sappy, because the author obviously cares about her creations and knows the readers will too. In this case, however, she leaves a few of their fates open-ended, hinting at new beginnings as much as she does at new opportunities for disappointment.

And if there’s an overarching theme to all of the interwoven stories of Mister Monkey, that’s it. Everyone in the book is dealing with some sort of disappointment. The realization that the acting career isn’t coming. The loneliness of a lifetime of bachelorhood. The sadness of a widower whose family doesn’t have much time for him. The pathetic acceptance of the unloving boyfriend. They’re all disappointed in life by different things, but their disappointment is what ties them all together – that and a very stupid children’s musical about a monkey who is falsely accused of stealing someone’s wallet.

Next up: I just finished Michael Chabon’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the flight home from Arizona last night.

The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.

Author: The JT Leroy Story.

I’ll be doing a Facebook Live event on Monday at 11 am ET as part of our buildup to the April 25th release of my book Smart Baseball. I also have a new boardgame review up at Paste, covering the cooperative game for kids Mole Rats in Space, from the designer of Pandemic.

Author: The JT Leroy Story is an unusual documentary because its subject, Laura Albert, recorded many of the phone calls she made during the time period where she was posing as the bestselling author who, it turned out, wasn’t real. Albert herself does most of the talking in the film, which makes it so much more compelling than many documentaries (but raises reasonable questions about the reliability of what we’re hearing), and makes the film’s revelation at the end that much more effective of a stomach-punch and an explanation for so much of what came before. The film was nominated for a Writers’ Guild award for Best Documentary Screenplay and is free on amazon prime.

JT Leroy was a fictional author who wrote real books, an HIV-positive teenager/young adult who had worked as a truck-stop prostitute and been pimped out by his drug-addicted prostitute mother, and who expressed genderfluid feelings before that was part of the common vernacular. He was either the creation of Albert, a woman in her mid-30s at the time of Leroy’s ascension, or a separate ‘avatar’ who expressed himself through her; Albert seems to vacillate between explanations, but is clear that this isn’t dissociative identity disorder, at least. She ‘became’ Leroy to write, and wrote fictional stories about what were supposedly his real-life experiences. Leroy’s first two novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, were critically acclaimed and became best-sellers, earning the author a cult following that extended to the celebrity world, only some of whom appear to have been aware that Albert was the actual writer behind the works.

In 2005, a New York article outed Albert as the writer behind Leroy and her sister-in-law as the person acting as Leroy in public, with the New York Times later corroborating the story. Painted as a grand hoax, Albert’s authorship of Leroy’s works doesn’t seem analogous to hoaxers like James Frey or plagiarists like Q.R. Markham; Leroy’s novels were original works of fiction, and never presented to anyone as fact. At most, they were said to be based on fact, or inspired by it, which is false but shouldn’t alter anyone’s perceptions of the quality of the content. (I haven’t read any of Albert’s works under any name and thus have no opinion on whether any of it is good.)

Author attempts to answer two questions about the scandal. One is simply to tell everyone what happened, because the story was major news for a few weeks in 2005-06, and then faded away as such controversies do, especially since in this case the only harm done to anyone was to the film company that eventually sued Albert for fraud. (She signed the option contract as JT Leroy, rather than under her own name.) The documentary gives us the story from Albert’s perspective, punctuated by dozens recordings of phone calls with her publisher, her therapist, her friends, and celebrities who befriended Leroy or Albert (including Billy Corgan and Courtney Love), plus a few others who appear on camera to discuss their roles in helping bring Leroy to the reading public.

The second question is always the toughest for any documentary to answer – the reason(s) why – although in this case, Author at least gives us the central figure’s own explanation with some supporting evidence. The filmmakers here chose to leave the biggest revelation until the end of the film, a gimmick that I found extremely effective, because instead of essentially absolving Albert up front for everything that comes afterwards, Author tells you everything that happened (through Albert’s lens) and then finishes up by giving us a clue on what spark may have started the conflagration.

Author lacks the completeness that a thorough documentary requires; Savannah Knoop, who posed as Leroy in public, appears just once near the end of the film, and Geoff Knoop, Albert’s husband at the time, is nowhere to be found. All we’re getting is Albert’s retelling of the story, in which she takes some responsibility but also depicts herself as someone wronged by media coverage of Leroy as a “hoax” rather than an avatar of a pseudonymous writer. I admit to finding hoaxes fascinating, largely for the motivations of the perpetrators and their general belief that they won’t get caught, and Albert has a reasonable complaint that she’s been treated unfairly. If you thought the novel had literary merit, is that merit diminished at all just because the author wasn’t actually male, young, genderfluid, or HIV-positive?

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.