Recent Reading Roundup 60

The first recent reading roundup of the year reflects the reading preoccupations of the first few months of the year. Which is to say, catching up with all the books I mean to get to last year and either didn't have the time, or the access to. Only one of the books discussed here is a 2024 publication (and even that is a reprint from 1844), and there is still quite a lot published last year that I'd like to get to.

  • Orbital by Samantha Harvey - More a prose poem than a novel, Harvey's slim, evocative volume is a minutely detailed description of one day aboard the International Space Station. Divided into chapters according to the station's orbits around the Earth (sixteen in one day), the novel delves into both the personal and the mechanical with equal degrees of sensitivity and emotional remove. We learn about the station's routines, the compromises and indignities of life in zero gravity, and the mechanics of maintaining the station and caring for the—far from pristine, in fact practically messy—space around it. Back on Earth, a mega-typhoon is forming, which the astronauts observe with dismay. Meanwhile, passing by and beyond the station, a just-launched rocket bids to deliver the first manned lunar mission in decades.

    Orbital shifts between the points of view of the station's six astronauts—two Russians, and four American-backed from various countries. We learn about their lives—Japanese Chie has recently been rocked by the news of her mother's death, and is musing about her parents' history and how it inspired her to go into space; Englishwoman Nell exchanges emails with her husband even as she acknowledges that she has no idea what his life looks like, having spent only a few months together during the four years of her training. As they conduct experiments, perform repairs, collect garbage, and observe the aging station's messiness and disrepair, they frequently muse about the contrast between the grandeur of space travel in the abstract, and its mundane realities. Their days are spent careening between awe at the sights they've seen and the experiences they've gotten to have, resigned frustration at the cramped, smelly quarters and physical discomfort of life aboard the station, and recognition of the tremendous costs they've accepted for this rare opportunity—separation from their families, long-term physical effects of low gravity and radiation. All of them are aware that they are doing something objectively absurd, but also can't shake their belief that it is profoundly meaningful. Their intense disconnect from the Earth and the rest of humanity causes them to muse about their place in both, about humanity's conflicting impulses towards destruction and sublime achievement, and about their own inherent contradictions—as soon as they've achieved the thing they've been working towards for decades, they immediately turn back and think about what they've left behind. (All of this makes Orbital an interesting companion piece to Martin MacInnes's recently-discussed In Ascension.)

    Orbital, however, is not purely a novel of character. The narrative slips into the astronauts' minds with ease, but it just as easily leaves them behind. It lets us see them as individuals, but just as often regards them as a singular whole, ultimately no different from any of the people who preceded them on the station, or who will follow them in the future—people who have probably had the same observations about how annoying it is to go to the bathroom in zero gravity, or the mingled freedom and terror of EVA. Just as frequently, the novel pulls back from character entirely, telling us about the workings of the station, the movement of the typhoon, or simply cataloguing the progression of those sixteen orbits and the parts of the planet they overfly. With a god's-eye view of the planet, Harvey muses poetically, and yet also with dry precision, about the image of the Earth from space, its shifting colors as the sun sets and rises, the landmasses that emerge and drift away, the typhoon as it forms and heads towards land. The narrative is full of geographical, technical, and historical detail, which creates a somewhat documentary effect, so dry and factual that readers will be expecting something dramatic to happen—for something to go wrong with the lunar mission, for the typhoon to have even more catastrophic effects than anticipated, or something even worse and more unexpected. There is a sense here of a calm before the storm. Eventually, however, one realizes that it is that calm—which is, of course, deceptive, concealing as it does ordinary human ferment and frustration—that is the point. As the station sails around and around the Earth, as its inhabitants are caught between wonder and tedium, and as the whole project of human spaceflight—of human endeavor, really—carries on, Orbital carries us confidently towards its conclusion, which is really just the beginning of another day.

  • A Traveller in Time: The Critical Practice of Maureen Kincaid Speller, edited by Nina Allan - Maureen Kincaid Speller, blogger, reviewer, editor, and so much more, died in the fall of 2022 after several months of illness. In a podcast interview for Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons reviews department podcast, Maureen's widower Paul Kincaid expressed the belief that, though she often spoke about collecting her reviews in a book, she probably never would have gotten around to doing it herself. That view is echoed in several of the perspectives on Maureen offered in this volume, a posthumous selection edited by Nina Allan with Paul's assistance. It tracks with my own impression of her, and perhaps most importantly, it dovetails with the impression formed by the reviews themselves. There is no false modesty in Maureen's writing. She is forthright, confident in her opinions, and not afraid of going against the flow or saying something harshly critical. But there is also no self-seriousness here either. It's the work under discussion that matters: the latest novel in a much-beloved author's oeuvre, and how it reflects on those that came before; a new adaptation of a classic story, and what can be read into the choices it makes; a movie that continues a classic science fiction series, and how it exposes the changes in one's own once-youthful, now-adult attitude towards it.

    The reviews collected in A Traveller in Time span more than twenty years. They were published in paper fanzines, online venues (including, of course, Strange Horizons, where Maureen was senior reviews editor until her death), and Maureen's own blog. Allan has subtly and sensitively grouped them not by publication date but by loose themes, which allows one to appreciate the depth and breadth of Maureen's understanding, interests, and keen analytical ability. They find her discussing the state of science fiction and the mainstream reaction to it, while also chiding science fiction awards shortlists for parochialism, for failing to recognize worthwhile work when it comes from the mainstream and from people—women, POC—who are not the expected sort of science fiction author. Several analyses of anthologies meant to celebrate the contributions to the genre of under-recognized groups showcase Maureen's own profound knowledge in these fields, as well as her willingness to learn more. The longest section in the book includes reviews of some of the authors nearest and dearest to Maureen's heart, mid-century English fantasists deeply rooted in landscape and rural folklore—mostly Alan Garner but also several others—all of which are characterized by Maureen's own fascination with the same landscape, and her willingness to interrogate the work in question deeply and from a place of great knowledge. Other sections discuss YA fiction, some of the key science fiction works of the previous decade, and even popular films and TV—those of us who remember with fondness Maureen's ruthless evisceration of the later installments of Steven Moffat's Sherlock will not be disappointed to find them represented here.

    The impression one forms, when reading this collection, is of great, almost impossible to credit knowledge. Maureen is always ready with facts about English landscape and history; when discussing a BBC miniseries adaptation, she will have at her fingertips comparisons to older versions; when assessing a new YA novel, she will never fail to situate it in the context of the genre stretching back decades. But at the same time, there is always a willingness to learn more, a willingness to be surprised and delighted. There is nothing stuffy or prescriptive about Maureen's writing (though she is entertainingly short-tempered with those who are). On the contrary, what most clearly emerges from reading some fifty of her reviews in a single volume is, as Jonathan McCalmont observes in his afterword, the incredible energy and humanity of her voice. Reading Maureen's reviews is like talking to a friend who is knowledgeable, and opinionated, about many different fascinating things, and genuinely eager to share them with you. For those of us lucky enough to have known her, it is a reminder of how much fun she was to talk to, and how much we have lost with her death. For those who didn't, this collection will be an introduction to a remarkable, essential critic, one that I hope more and more people will discover.

  • The Maroons by Louis Timagène Houat, translated by Aqiil Gopee with Jeffrey Diteman - Houat, a free mixed-race man from what is today Réunion Island, published this abolitionist novella in 1844 while exiled in France. It was suppressed and lost, then rediscovered in the 1970s, and has only now received an English translation. As such, it is a fascinating historical artifact that is unusual in several respects—as early Réunionese literature, as anti-slavery literature from the French-controlled colonies in the Indian Ocean, as a work seeking to make the anti-slavery argument through fiction rather than biography or memoir, and perhaps most intriguingly, as a work told from the perspective of the enslaved, who rather than suffering passively are actively engaged in seeking to better their condition. The story begins with four men escaping from a plantation. One of them decides to become a Maroon, the name given to slaves who flee to the mountainous regions in the north of the island, eking out a hardscrabble existence in a treacherous wilderness while constantly on the lookout for slave-catchers. There he meets a mixed-race couple, Marie and Frême, who were driven into the wilderness by persecution. Their encounter ends up kicking off a major upheaval among the island's slave population.

    There's a polemical quality to The Maroons that a modern reader will have to take into consideration going in, and in addition there are preoccupations typical to its era that may seem quaint or beside the point to us—Houat is bold enough to present his audience with a mixed-race couple, but also hastens to assure us that Marie and Frême have had the benefit of clergy. But what nevertheless feels shocking—and entirely modern—about this novella is the way that its enslaved characters think about and discuss their situation. Over the course of the story, various strategies for escaping slavery are considered—fleeing into the mountains, stealing a boat in the hopes of returning home, fomenting rebellion among the slaves of the island, and even waiting for emancipation to come. Though The Maroons is clear about the difficulties and dangers of each approach, what's remarkable is how it depicts the enslaved as actively directing their own lives even under conditions of extreme dehumanization, making choices even when the options on offer are all bad, and thinking deeply about the causes of their situation. A particularly powerful section sees the characters debating the psychology of white people and wondering whether they can be trusted to recognize the humanity of black people—Frême, in a startlingly incisive observation, argues that whites will sooner act to protect plants and animals than black people. Though the novella is, perhaps, too idealistic about the leveling potential of mixed-race relationships like Marie and Frême—one character has a vision of a future where no one is white or black, and racial harmony abounds—this, too, feels shockingly modern and even radical. The Maroons is a reminder that people were always thinking about and arguing with slavery, and always imagining a better future, even if they wouldn't live to see it.

  • Flux by Jinwoo Chong - If I say that Chong's debut novel reads like a cross between Charles Yu's Interior Chinatown, Ling Ma's Severance (and maybe also the Apple TV+ show of the same name), and John Carreyrou's Bad Blood, I run the risk of making it sound like little more than a remix of other artists' material. But, as well as weaving these disparate elements together in a way that is startlingly effective, Flux is very much its own thing—a touching character drama, and a stealthy science fiction story that grows increasingly effective as the novel progresses. The novel proceeds in three storylines. In the main one, a nameless narrator is fired from his job at a dying magazine, and immediately recruited to work for Flux, a buzzy but secretive technology company which has promised to create a perpetual energy source. In the near future, a man named Blue is preparing for an interview about his time at Flux, and particularly his acquaintance with its celebrity CEO Io Emsworth, currently serving a long jail sentence for her involvement in the deaths of several employees. In the past, a boy named Bo is struggling to grasp the recent death of his mother. Readers will quickly guess that all three characters are the same person, but one major clue towards this is that they are all obsessed with the 80s cop show Raider, a dark, gritty series that has been both lauded for groundbreaking Asian representation and decried for being full of Asian stereotypes. All three characters feel a profound identification with its title character, the hardboiled, taciturn Thomas Raider. The narrator in the present storyline even addresses himself to Raider, whom he considers distinct from the actor who portrayed him, Antonin Haubert, who has recently been revealed as a domestic abuser.

    Flux is characterized by a deceptively withholding quality. The narrative voice is crisp and has an easy flow, and precisely for this reason it's easy to miss all the things the novel hints at but doesn't openly say—that Bo, Blue, and the present-day narrator are one and the same, for example; or that the reason that all three are obsessed with Thomas Raider, and have trouble accepting the revelations about Haubert, is that he, like them, is a mixed-race Asian man (that all three men have Western names—Bo is short for Brandon—feels like a deliberately wrongfooting choice). The emotional haze that wafts over the novel also makes it difficult to determine where reality and dream part ways—an early scene in which Brandon falls into an open elevator shaft and walks away with only minor injuries is deeply disorienting. It's for this reason that it takes a while to realize that something is very wrong about Brandon's experiences at Flux. To begin with they read almost like a parody of teens startup culture, the company throwing vast amounts of money at the glass-and-exposed-concrete design of its impeccably cool headquarters, lavishing insane perks on its employees, and treating its CEO like a superstar whose job is to give interviews and land magazine covers, all while the actual work remains opaque and possibly nonexistent. But eventually it becomes clear that something else is at work. Brandon is losing time. His workdays are not merely samey but blank. Whatever he is doing at Flux—which despite the buzzwords that are constantly thrown at him doesn't seem to involve any actual work—is having strange, otherwordly effects on his life. He begins flashing to the past in ways that feel too real, and receiving anonymous messages that send him deeper into the company's mysteries.

    At the core of the novel, however, is not this SFnal McGuffin—which experienced science fiction readers will probably recognize quickly, and which Chong handles with impressive assuredness—but its main character's emotional crisis. Guiltstricken over his mother's death, he has cut himself off from all emotional connections. His obsession with Thomas Raider is a way of displacing his guilt over that choice—if Raider can go through life forming no emotional bonds and still be rewarded by the narrative, still be granted love and connection by writerly fiat, then surely he can do the same? The Flux technology reflects and intensifies this obsession—in one amusing exchange, Blue is shocked to learn that other users experienced flashes of the future, realizing that his solipsistic focus on the past is not a limitation of the technology but of his own psyche. Like a lot of similar stories, Flux eventually uses its SFnal tropes to discuss regret and whether the mistakes of the past can be repaired, in a way that evokes the reader's sympathy, but also our frustration—the more time we spend with Bo, Brandon, and Blue, the more we want to shake them into the realization that their isolation is a choice that they are continually making, and that there are better ways of fixing it than time travel. By the time the novel reaches its climax, however—in which it unravels the threads of past, present, and future that have been tangling together throughout its story in an extremely satisfying way—it's clear that going back to Flux, and then further back through its technology, is the only path forward for its protagonist. The novel ends ambiguously, but on a note of hope.

  • The Future by Naomi Alderman - Eight years ago, Alderman took the literary world by storm with The Power, a crunchy science fiction novel with a wide canvas whose topic was no less than the rewriting of human civilization. The fact that her follow-up novel has a similar title, and opens with several characters receiving news that the apocalypse is nigh, creates the impression of a similarly broad scope. This is only one of the ways in which The Future seeks to wrongfoot its readers. Set in a world very similar to our own, its opening chapters introduce us to the CEOs of the world's biggest companies: Lenk Sketlish, a short-tempered megalomaniac whose conglomerate Fantail has fingers in social media, electric cars, and rapid transit tunnels; Zimri Nommick, an embittered nerd who has revolutionized the worldwide transportation of goods with Anvil; and patrician patron of the arts Ellen Bywater, who ousted the founder of technology company Medlar, which continues to make sleek, paradigm-shifting products. All three are keenly aware of the mess—economic, environmental, political—that the world is in, and of the role that their own products and companies have played in increasing political polarization, encouraging deforestation and destructive resource extraction, and producing waste and greenhouse gas emissions. Their solution is to build lavish bunkers with elaborate security systems in which they can ride out the end of the world, and they also have systems in place to secretly abscond as soon as they believe the balloon has gone up. As the novel opens, this appears to have happened, and the evacuation occurs.

    Immediately, however, the story moves backwards in time, introducing us to Lai Zhen, a popular vlogger in the survivalist community, and to Martha Einkorn, Lenk's personal assistant. The two women meet and feel an immediate physical and romantic connection, without fully realizing how similar they are. Zhen has survived war and spent time in refugee camps; Martha fled the compound of her doomsday preacher father as a teen; both have spent time wondering what survival actually means, and more broadly, what the meaning and purpose of human civilization is. Martha's father believed that humans lost their way when they gave up hunting and gathering, a life of self-sufficiency and communion with one's environment, for settled agricultural living, whose hardships must constantly be distracted from with meaningless baubles. But Martha sees the value of these baubles—of art and culture and science—even as she recognizes how much of the sickness her father diagnosed in modern society does exist. Zhen's followers are obsessed with finding the latest gadget that can assure their survival, looking for certainty in increasingly uncertain times. As someone who has had to flee for her life (and who ends up doing so again early in the novel) Zhen sympathizes with that need. But she also tries to instill in them the recognition that survival is not a solitary pursuit, and that the most important thing they'll need after the end of the world is people they can trust, and a community run on rational, compassionate terms.

    As The Future moves further and further into the past, its plot seems to decohere, or rather to become something quite different than what its early chapters led us to expect. Martha forges relationships with other people in Lenk, Zimri, and Ellen's orbits, commiserating over their shared frustration at being yoked to people with tremendous power who seem determined to use it in the most destructive ways. In a second timeline, Zhen discovers that Martha installed a survival AI on her phone, meant to protect her in dangerous situations. In her pursuit of this technology, she discovers the bunker plan and learns of the CEOs' belief that the apocalypse is already in train. Eventually it becomes clear that there is a story beneath the story, and that The Future is less a post-apocalypse novel as a heist story, an attempt to wrest power from people who will never give it up on their own, in a world that seems entranced by it.

    Plotwise, this doesn't entirely work—the novel's revelations are a lot easier to anticipate than Alderman perhaps intended, and a long final segment in which Zhen discovers what became of the CEOs can end up feeling repetitive and solipsistic. Plus, there's a bit of wishful thinking in The Future's implicit belief that the world's problems begin and end with a few billionaires, and that all it will take to put us on a path to a better future is for better people to take their place. But at its best, the novel offers many intriguing riffs—including some that are rooted in mythology and religion—on some of the fundamental questions of human civilization, on the constant struggle between individualism and community, between simple living and the dazzling complexity of our culture. The question that Lenk, Zimri, and Ellen keep asking—when is it time to go?—is, the novel ultimately concludes, the question of despair. When do you give up on humanity, on civilization, on your own community, on a life that has just been shattered by war and catastrophe? And what happens after you walk away? To her credit, Alderman recognizes that simple triumphalism is too easy a response to such questions, that some communities do need to collapse, and sometimes it is necessary to walk (or run) away. But what this thought-provoking novel persuasively argues is that whatever answer you give, it must be made in the understanding that you are not alone.

  • The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor - As stunning and overwhelming as I found Taylor's debut novel, Real Life, I nevertheless found myself a bit hesitant to pick up his follow-up. Its description—a loose friend group of students and townies in a liberal arts college in Iowa—sounded like quintessential plotless litfic fodder, without the strong hook that I tend to require to enjoy that genre. When I finally read it, however, The Late Americans turned out to be just as sharp and gutting as Taylor's previous work, largely due to the power of Taylor's narrative voice. With merciless precision and sly wit, he analyzes a circuitous argument in a relationship that probably should have ended long ago, conveys the agony of a poetry seminar whose members seem more interested in scoring personal points than improving their work, and describes incidents of sudden, shocking violence—a cup of coffee thrown in someone's face, a man crowding a woman against a wall—with an immediacy that captures both their visceral horror, and the way that the outside world will usually try to smooth them away and pretend that nothing has happened.

    Arranged as a set of linked stories, the novel dips in and out of the lives of a large cast of characters. Seamus is a poetry MFA who can't keep from deriding his fellow students' tendency to mine their own trauma for material—that's not poetry, he insists, it's social work—but who is paralyzed by the need to show vulnerability in his own work. Fyodor and Timo are a couple on the outs, partly due to vegetarian Timo's disgust at Fyodor's work at a meatpacking plant. Ivan is a former dancer whose career was cut short by injury, who is now pursuing an MBA, to the dismay of his musician partner Goran. Noah, another dancer, supplements his income doing manual labor for his landlord and sometimes-lover Bert, who is prone to violent outbursts. Class tensions run through all these relationships, pitting townies against students, scholarship kids against those with family money, and artists against those who are pursuing more practical degrees. But these divisions are rarely clear-cut. Seamus looks down on his classmates for not having to work, but overhearing his colleagues at an institutional kitchen, he learns that they view him as stuck-up and out of touch. Bert likes to rail at Noah and his fellow students, decrying their softness and uselessness; but he's the one with inherited property all over town.

    It's a preoccupation that produces a certain sameyness among the characters, one that Taylor's keen precision obscures but doesn't entirely ameliorate. The fact that so many of these young American men have Russian names may be a literary reference (Fyodor, in an attempt to impress Timo, reads a story collection by Garshin). But they also seem to have very similar attitudes and preoccupations. Incidents of domestic violence—Goran throwing a glass at Ivan's head, Bert putting a cigarette out on Seamus's face—are brushed off with almost exactly the same determination not to acknowledge their meaning. Sex is always utilitarian, nihilistic, and vaguely unsatisfying even when it's good. Late in the novel Noah's fellow dancer Fatima has an observation about the difference between real, felt anger and an aesthetic kind that is rooted in internet buzzwords, that seems to have been pulled out of Seamus's head—or, more accurately, out of Taylor's (now defunct) twitter feed and substack. Many of the ideas in The Late Americans will feel familiar if you've been following Taylor online, chiefly his distrust of the proliferation of social justice terms as a substitute for empathy. Seamus's classmates dissect each poem in their seminar in search of the correct anti-colonial, anti-racist opinions. But when he tries to work through his encounter with Bert, only one of them understands what he's shown them. Timo decries Fyodor's work as murder, but can't extend the same sympathy to human beings.

    The more we learn about the characters in The Late Americans, in fact, the more we realize how essential empathy is, and how little of it any of them have received. Again and again, people who are outwardly privileged are shown to be suffering from some secret pain. Fyodor muses that although he and Timo are both mixed-race, Timo's middle class background makes him incapable of understanding Fyodor's struggles and choices. But later we learn that blackness has made Timo's affluence conditional and precarious, and that he is attending school on the last dregs of his family money. One of the richest characters in the novel reveals, near its end, that his family is still riven by the unexplained disappearance of his sister decades earlier. The point here isn't that everyone is struggling with something, but that in focusing so myopically on individual privilege, on judging each other's financial situation and decisions (Fatima's classmates look down on her for holding down a job, seeing it as a lack of dedication to her craft), the characters in the novel are missing the bigger picture. The fact that in this late stage of the American experiment, everyone is being squeezed out. Education is increasingly out of reach for even the middle class, art has become the playground of the rich, and even doing the "right" thing and pursuing a lucrative profession only means you'll end up scrambling for internships and jobs (even with his MBA, Ivan makes more money by posting erotic videos online). It's a point that none of the novel's characters quite realize, even as we, the readers, close the novel wondering if they are in fact too late.

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