A Definitive Ranking of the Novels of Ursula K. Le Guin

Note: I wrote this for the B&N SciFi & Fantasy blog in 2018 and it was one of my favorite pieces I wrote for them. They’ve inexplicably taken it down, so I’m putting it back up.

I’ve long referred to Ursula K. Le Guin my literary grandmother, a polestar of my understanding of fiction, fantasy, and the world itself. When I learned of her death earlier this year, I sat down and cried. Even though she passed at the respectable age of 88, I cried long, wracking tears. She is the writer I found at that specific age when I wasn’t so young that I barnacled and burnished her fiction with the obscuring mist of nostalgia, nor was I too weary and worldly to be above young adult books like A Wizard of Earthsea. Indeed, her work has kept me from succumbing to the fallacy that I will ever be too important to read books about that terrifying time between childhood and the adult world.

If you have read an Ursula K. Le Guin novel, likely it is A Wizard of Earthsea, or perhaps The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed. But she wrote so many more books than those. She wasn’t as prolific as some science fiction and fantasy authors, but she filled a career of five decades with remarkable works that will long outlive her. Though weighing one book against another is always a personal process—and so many of Le Guin’s books are so, so personal to me—still I have endeavored below to place them in an order that makes a kind of emotional sense. It does to me, anyway. Hopefully to you too. Regardless, Le Guin’s body of work is a well that will sustain you, if you only drink from it. So drink. Drink long, and drink deep.

And so, from merely worthwhile to the most essential: a ranking of the novels of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Very Far Away From Anywhere Else
This slender young adult novel, written in 1976, doesn’t have anything wrong with it exactly, but it sure hasn’t aged well in the intervening 40-odd years. Owen Griffiths is a misunderstood teen—too smart, too weird, too short. He’s made peace with his differences, much to the chagrin and disappointment of his crushingly normal parents, and is working doggedly toward attending either Cal Tech or MIT. He’s going to get out of this town, this life, this normalcy. But he’s still a teenage boy, and when he strikes up a friendship, and then something more than friendship with his neighbor, Natalie Fields, he’s got to deal with the both completely usual and totally disordering effects of young love. Very Far Away from Anywhere Else is a very sweet novel, with some bright patches of keen observation. Unfortunately, it feels so dated now as to read like a period piece, something like the (pun so intended) menstrual belts in Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret? but without the more relatable aspects of that novel.

Rocannon’s World
I have a fair amount of affection for this, Le Guin’s first published novel, but even I can admit it’s a mess. It was written as a postscript to the short story, “Semley’s Necklace,” which detailed and dispatched a fairly simple SFnal scenario involving both first contact and the time dilation effects of interstellar travel. After the events of “Semley’s Necklace,” the Hainish ethnologist Rocannon returns to her planet, and meets no less than four sentient species in his quest. There are flying mounts who must look like lions with wings, bestial creatures who look like angels, people who live underground like trolls, medieval-ish societies, and so, so much more packed into this short novel. Like I said, a mess. But it’s here Le Guin coined the term ansible—a device capable of instantaneous communication across the galactic void—and introduced us to the Hainish, the far-ranging culture we encounter in many of her novels. The ansible will become the lynch pin in her Hainish books, one of her broadest and most important canvasses.

City of Illusions
Another early Hainish novel, City of Illusions is the third published in that series. Its main character is a descendant of the people of Planet of Exile, but generations hence, on an Earth (or Terra, if you will) taken over and controlled by an alien protagonist called the Shing. Falk wakes up with no memories in a small, rural community of occupied Terra. Through his questing, his memories of his other self, Agad Ramarren, are recovered, and his Falk-self subsumed, until both can come to an equilibrium. Like Rocannon’s World, City of Illusions is pretty messy, with philosophy of the mind wrestling with the precepts of Taoism in a classic dystopia. The Lathe of Heaven ended up exploring these themes much more adroitly. That said, the descriptions of an earth re-growing after an apocalypse in a distant past are beautiful in their strange way, a post-apocalyptic pastoral.

The Beginning Place
The Beginning Place is another early oddment, about two young people somewhere in that liminal period between childhood and adulthood. Irene Pannis and Hugh Rogers both have small, mean lives in an unnamed American city. Both begin escaping to idyllic Tembreabrezi, a Narnian fantasy land. Irene has been coming to Tembreabrezi long enough to learn the language and culture, and initially views Hugh as an interloper. When a sickness of fear strikes the simple folk of this other land, Hugh and Irene set out together on an old-fashioned quest to kill the beast, which stands in harsh contrast with the intractable problems of their real lives; if only rent could be slain like a dragon. Sometimes people read escapist fiction because they have something to escape from. Le Guin twists escapism and realism in The Beginning Place, which is an uncomfortable thing to do.

Planet of Exile
During my research, I learned that Planet of Exile was often published together in something called the tête-bêche format with a Thomas A. Disch novel. (Now that’s something you know!) Planet of Exile follows Terran settlers on a planet called Werel. Werel has an orbital period of 60 Earth years, which means its winter lasts something like 15 of our years. (George Martin, eat your heart out.) We’re introduced to our Terran colonists at the beginning of this long winter, as they try semi-successfully to integrate into the indigenous population. While both the Werelians and Terrans appear to be descendants of Hainish settlers, there’s been too much genetic deviation, and the two populations can’t intermingle successfully. Planet of Exile both critiques and props up the anthropological model of contact with indigenous people. Because of Le Guin’s upbringing as the child of famous anthropologists, this is a concern that resonates through much of her work.

The Telling
I feel like a jerk for listing so many of Le Guin’s Hainish novels in the bottom dozen of this list, but the Hainish novels constitute a huge part of her catalog, so maybe it’s just statistics. Despite the tenuous threads linking one Hainish novel to another, most of them feel standalone, and Le Guin never did much fuss with strict continuity. That said, The Telling feels apart from the the other Hainish novels, off in an eddy. Sutty, an Anglo-Indian Ekumen observer, is sent to the planet of Aka. Aka’s indigenous cultural expression is called the Telling, which, like the Tao or Confucianism, is a practice more than a religion, a folklore more than a mythology, but nevertheless deeply ingrained. The autocracy of Aka has outlawed the Telling, and Sutty dodges her government minder while trying to immerse herself in this forbidden lore.

Voices
Voices is the second novel in The Annals of the Western Shore, one of Le Guin’s young adult series. The novel follows Memer, who lives in the city Ansul. Ansul is an occupied city, and Memer herself is a “siege brat,” the daughter of an Ald soldier who raped her mother early in the Ald’s conquest of the city. Like all of the Western Shore novels, Voices takes on very serious issues, especially for a book ostensibly aimed at the young adult. (But then Le Guin never viewed writing for the young as a lesser form of writing, or watered down writing for adults.) Le Guin does not vilify the occupying Ald, nor romanticize the people of Ansul overmuch; this is not a simple tale of overlords and resistance written in black and white. She deals quite seriously with the conflict between a monotheistic society and a polytheistic one, and the inequities of a society both broken and built by violence. Still, there is something arm’s length about Voices. I feel like it is better considered than felt, more structural than emotional. Certainly, a reader with other predilections might sort this novel higher, but for me, I feel like the other novels in the series strike a better balance between heart and head.

The Word for World Is Forest
The Word for World Is Forest is the closest thing to a polemic Le Guin ever wrote. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, it is set on forest world of Athshe, which has been colonized by the resource-hungry Terra. (Terra is Earth; this is another Hainish novel.) The indigenous people of Athshe have been enslaved to help the Terrans deforest their world. Athsheans practice something like lucid dreaming, but on a collective scale: they all dream together. When the Athshean Selver’s wife is raped and murdered by a colonial commander named Davidson, he wakes up, in a sense, learning to resist the Terran conquerors, sometimes by violence. He tells Davidson at one point that Davidson has given him the gift of murder. (When James Cameron’s Avatar was released, the comparisons with The Word for World is Forest were inescapable.) In this novel, Le Guin’s anger is very close to the surface: for the cruelty of colonization, the pillaging of the natural world, the treatment of people as resources.

The Eye of the Heron
The Eye of the Heron follows the conflict between two groups of Terran settlers on an otherwise unpeopled world. One group is the descendants of a penal colony, and the other the children of pacifist political dissenters. The pacifists, who are largely farmers, are planning on starting another farming community further inland. The other group, who see themselves as the oligarchical rulers of the planet, are unwilling to let people they see as subject go. The Eye of the Heron feels very shocking because (spoiler) halfway through, the pacifists’ hero figure is dead in the street, killed by oligarchs. Le Guin wrote later about this death:

“While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in 1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book. “Hey,” I said, “you can’t do that, you’re the hero. Where’s my book?” I stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn’t know how to write about women. […] It taught me that I didn’t have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write like a woman, and feel liberated in doing so.”

Le Guin is rightly lauded as a feminist writer who wrote sensitively about gender, but her career started way back when; her early novels were written back before women were invented (to use Le Guin’s own comic phrasing on the matter). The Eye of the Heron is a turning point for her, opening up the narrative possibilities of writing about the concerns of women. It also touches on themes, like the practice of non-violence, that will come to full fruition in her most influential works, novels like The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Searoad
Searoad is one of three short story collections I’ve included in this ranking, as I believe they constitute a novel-in-stories: shorter narratives tied so tightly thematically or geographically (or both) that they read like a novel. Like Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which is an early exemplar of this form, Searoad takes place in a single locale: the fictional seaside town of Klatsand, Oregon. The stories largely focus on the lives of women in this tourist economy, and involve multiple generations of the town’s citizens over decades. Though Le Guin is primarily known as an SFF writer, Searoad is one of many of her fictions that defy that label. My favorite story here is about the proprietor of a run-down motel who naps in the unoccupied rooms, sleeping away the time she always means to use improving the property. Her inadvertent eavesdropping on a young man sobbing out an unknown grief in an adjoining room completely slayed me. This may give you an indication of how melancholic and glancing these stories are, focused so keenly on the everyday, but dreaming larger.

Powers
Even though Powers was awarded the Nebula (which is, along with the Hugo, one of the two most prestigious SFF awards in the States) for best novel in 2009, I don’t think it’s the best of the three novels in The Annals of the Western Shore. (That was a weird year for the Nebula; despite the establishment of the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult novels two years prior, two of the six nominated works for best novel were young adult novels: Powers, and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother.) Powers follows Gavir, a young man and slave who is trained to be teacher and tutor to the noble family who owns him. His upbringing is quiet and insulated, almost bucolic; his owners are “the good kind” (never mind that there is no good kind of slaver). It is only after the brutal murder of one of his fellow slaves that he understands the true parameters of his inequity. He escapes to a hard wandering in the wilderness. Powers tackles necessary and vital themes, and Le Guin is as the height of her powers as a wordsmith.

The Farthest Shore
The Farthest Shore is the third in the original trilogy of Earthsea novels Le Guin wrote, one after the other, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. They are all set on an archipelago of islands in a vast, uncharted sea, in a place with magic, dragons, and wizards. Each novel at least touches on the life of Ged, who becomes the arch-mage of all of Earthsea, though he’s not always the protagonist. Earthsea is a place with a word-magic, where if you can speak the true name of a thing, you can influence that thing. At the beginning of The Farthest Shore, there’s a malaise on Earthsea: not only is magic faltering, but even non-magical crafts are suddenly forgotten, even by the most adept. The archmage Ged leaves his seat of power on Roke Island, and travels with a minor prince, Arren, who came to Roke first to plead for his people in these devastating times. Magic in Earthsea is dying because a sorcerer has sought to kill death and become immortal. This throws off the entire equilibrium of islands, one Ged and the boy who will be king must reestablish. The Farthest Shore is a beautiful and fitting conclusion of the original Earthsea trilogy. It is also so, so sad.

Lavinia
Lavinia is something of an oddity in Le Guin’s career. It can’t rightly be called fantasy or science fiction. It’s not one of her Orsinian Tales either, set in a central European country of her own devising, but nevertheless in a recognizable European history. Lavinia is fairy tale, of sorts, but grounded in the prosaic; a story of a simple life lived in the margins of epic poetry and the national founding myth. Lavinia is the story of Aeneas’ second wife, a princess of Latinum, with whom he was prophesied to start an empire. In Virgil’s Aeneid, she doesn’t utter a word. In that lacuna, Le Guin tells the story of a devout daughter of her homeland, married off to a warlord. But Lavinia’s marriage to the scarred Aeneas, hero of the Trojan war, is strangely soft and tender, and so much more sweet for its brevity. I’m not ashamed to admit I burst into tears at the end of this novel, though I couldn’t tell you rightly why. There’s a slip there, in the end, from the lived life to the mythic, and so much is both lost and gained in that transmutation. Lavinia is a strange novel, to be sure, with a sense of day to day life that’s often missing from myth, even while it stretches its dark wings and soars into the mythopoeic.

Malafrena
Malafrena is the only novel-length narrative in Le Guin’s Orsinian stories, which take place in an invented central European country over the last century and a half. (The name of the country, Orsinia, is something of a joke: Le Guin’s first name, Ursula, means bear, and Orsinia takes its name from the same word roots; it is Le Guin’s own country.) Malafrena follows Itale Sorde from his bucolic beginnings on the eponymous lake Malafrena, out into revolutionary politics of the capital, and then back again to his humble beginnings. “True journey is return,” she wrote in contemporaneous journals. When the Library of America sought to publish Le Guin’s works—a serious literary honor—they began with her Orsinian stories, at her behest. To me, Malafrena feels old school, like an expert ventriloquism of late 19th Century and early Modernist novels, from its concerns to its historical situation. It’s good, but it’s not good in the ways Le Guin is good when she’s writing in the worlds she creates herself. It’s funny that a country she named for herself doesn’t feel quite like it’s written in her voice.

Gifts
Gifts is the first of The Annals of the Western Shore. The novel follows two young people, Gry and Orrec, who live in an insular and somewhat backward region, the kind of place where grudges are nursed for generations against neighbors. The family groups in the area also have hereditary powers, which are exulted. Orrec is blindfolded at the fairly late adolescent discovery of his gift, forced to live without his sight, due to his father’s insistence that his wild gift of “unmaking” is simply too lethal to allow. That this wild gift coincidentally aligns with his father’s petty concerns that Orrec has dangerous gifts (or is known to have dangerous gifts) is well more important than Orrec’s sight. Gry is the daughter of a neighboring hold with which Orrec’s family is often violently feuding; her gifts involve a communication with animals, one she refuses to use for hunting, to the irritation of her people. Orrec and Gry come of age in a small, mean, vituperative community, and struggle to live with gifts that seem like anything but. Their relationship is tense and sweet, both difficult and easy, and their rough world is richly drawn.

Four Ways to Forgiveness
Four Ways to Forgiveness is written as four interlinking novellas that concern the planets of Werel and Yeowe. (The planet that is the setting for Planet of Exile and City of Illusion is also called Werel, but they are not the same place; Le Guin simply forgot she’d already used the name in novels written decades previous.) The largest government on Werel, Voe Deo, practices a form of chattel slavery, even into an industrial revolution where the slaves become known as “assets”, leased out to the factories. Voe Deo also uses its slave population to colonize the otherwise uninhabited planet of Yeowe. The stories in Four Ways to Forgiveness largely center on the period when Yeowe began its fight for independence (and the larger abolition of slavery) and the period directly after, when the people of both Werel and Yeowe have to learn how to live without slavery. Though there’s something hopeful about these narratives—they are “ways to forgiveness” in the end—these are uneasy stories about deeply traumatized people. It’s a way to forgiveness, but not the end.

The Other Wind
The Other Wind is the last of the Earthsea stories. The first three, written altogether in the late ’60s and early ’70s, share a certain narrative unity. Le Guin returned to Earthsea in the 1990s with Tehanu, which she called, at the time, the “last book of Earthsea.” As it turns out, Earthsea wasn’t done with her, and she wrote two more books in the world: Tales from Earthsea, a collection of short stories that deepens the lore of the history of magic, and The Other Wind. The Other Wind comes to terms with and explodes a number of fantasy conventions. A simple man named Alder, who is adept at mending, is visited by his late wife in dream. She seeks to tear down the wall between the living and the dead in his dreams, but in ways that seem to alter his living life. He seeks out the former archmage, Ged, who poured out his power in The Farthest Shore, and is now just a man, and Lebannen, who is now king. Like most of the Earthsea stories, The Other Wind is story of a journey, both on the water, and into the self.

Guardian review written at the time of its publication said it best: “Gradually, in a masterpiece of chilling narration, the whole living world becomes unable to sleep. And to fix that, the world has to become like our own, to become like our un-magical selves: to grow up.” The Other Wind is a strange, sad, melancholic narrative about childhood’s end, and the exhilarating possibilities of death’s revival. It’s a young adult novel that drops the young, which hurts an exhilarates as much as that always does.

Changing Planes
Changing Planes is another novel-in-stories, where a collection of shorter stories feels like a novel. Changing Planes feels especially novel-esque because it’s a frame narrative, where an introductory story is told to set the stage for other stories that exist somehow within that framing device. (A widely known frame narrative, one that many of us encountered in middle school, is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: the folk on a pilgrimage in 14th C. England tell each other stories.) The frame in Changing Planes is based on a pun in the story “Sita Dulip’s Method.” Sita discovers that the boredom, discomfort, and low grade anxiety produced by the forced inactivity when you’re changing planes (or otherwise stuck in waiting rooms) can cause a person to change planes of reality. A myriad of other worlds open up to the casual traveler. Some of the stories about these other worlds are in the vein of ethnographic studies; others are deeper dives into lives lived. Every world Le Guin details in this collection could easily be a stage for an entire novel, or series of novels. Instead, she gives us this this almost casually masterful collection of thought experiments and cool ideas, a waiting room that opens to a larger world of imagination.

Always Coming Home
It’s generally true that when an author writes about their hometown, what they end up saying has a strange, hard to define depth. Though Le Guin is strongly associated, as a writer, with the Pacific Northwest—she made her home both fictionally and in reality in the temperate rainforests of Oregon—she’s a California girl, born and raised. (Fun fact: Le Guin and Philip K. Dick both graduated from Berkeley high school in 1947, though they never interacted.) The setting of Always Coming Home is a California peopled by the peaceable Kesh, who “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.” The first half follows Stone Telling, a daughter of a Kesh mother and a father from the more rigid, expansionist Dayao. The second half is the field journal of an ethnographer called Pandora who describes the culture of the Kesh through poems, stories, recipes, site maps, and even music. (Some early editions included a cassette tape of this music in a box set.) As befits the strange future/past tense of the novel, this California feels like a post-apocalyptic pastoral, taking place generations past modernity in a place aware of such a thing, but not beholden to it; modern America is just another set of folk stories.

Many years ago I had a conversation with a fellow Ursine devotee, and he called Always Coming Home her most deeply felt work. I was surprised by that at the time; this is not a novel one sinks into. I have since come to understand what he meant, and wholeheartedly agree. The sense of retrospective—the way both halves of the novel turn back to consider a childhood (in Stone Telling’s narrative) and the larger cultural milieu (in Pandora’s notes)—feels like Le Guin considering her own childhood using the cultural tools she learned during that childhood. Her parents were both well-regarded anthropologists, and there are strong similarities between the Kesh and the Native American myths and history recorded by her parents. Her childhood, and its Northern California setting, therefore exist in a half-place, something like a mythic past that that nonetheless tells tales of contemporary America. It is considered at something closer than arm’s length, and further than memoir. Always Coming Home doesn’t hew to anything like a traditional narrative structure; it is more like the cultural detritus we all haul with us out of our home towns, laid out with the most careful hand.

Tehanu
The three original Earthsea novels are the kind of young adult stories at which fantasy literature excels, set in a pre-industrial place where people have all the trouble of growing up, without all the ornament of modern life to molder and grow dated as the fiction ages. Two decades later, Le Guin returned to Earthsea, and found it changed, as she had changed as a writer. Tehanu finds Tenar, the once child priestess from The Tombs of Atuan, now living a quiet life as a solitary grandmother on Gont, the childhood home of the archmage Ged. Tenar has taken in the child Therru, who was sexually assaulted and nearly burned to death by her father and the vagabond band she was born into. Therru is treated as bad luck and bad omen: the lore of Gont maintains that the damaged deserve their bad luck; that is how they came to be damaged. Worse, bad luck can be catching.

Tenar and Therru travel to see the wizard Ogion on his deathbed, and there intersect with Ged, once archmage, who has poured his power out to seal the breach between life and death in The Farthest Shore. Ged and Tenar renew their acquaintance, which was begun so, so long ago, and deepens to something more. Ged is deeply traumatized by the loss of his powers, and Tenar gives him room to grieve. All of the principle characters of Tehanu are hurt in some way, struggling to rebuild lives that have been burnt to ashes. The ending, where Tenar, Ged, and the child Therru must confront the violence that has so changed their lives, is exultant: a beautiful, burning awaking of Therru’s true nature. Tehanu doesn’t feel much like a young adult novel—it’s too grim, and too violent in places—but its earnest, heartfelt, and soaring portraiture of a burned child coming into her fiery power feels like a necessary tale for both the young and the old.

The Left Hand of Darkness
Published first in 1969, The Left Hand of Darkness was a stunning novel at the time. Genly Ai, an envoy for a loose galactic confederation called the Ekumen, is sent to the icy planet of Gethen as something between an ambassador and an anthropologist. The people on Gethen are ambisexual: at their times of sexual fertility, their bodies shift to one sex or the other, but otherwise they have no fixed sex. They are unique in the known worlds in this way. Genly Ai’s primary relationship is with Estraven, the prime minister of the constitutional monarchy of Karhide, the country that Genly is embedded within. Interstellar travel and the concept of extra-Gethenian humans seem unbelievable to the Gethenians; Genly is seen as either a slightly mad curiosity or a dangerous disruption. Due to to Genly’s Terran ideas of masculinity, his distrust of Estraven’s mercurial sexuality, and his misunderstanding of the cultural practice of shifgrethor (which is something like a code of conduct more instinctual than codified), his sojourn in Karhide is near-disastrous. Estraven makes very real sacrifices for Genly in their halting, political, and personal relationship, one colored by both the conflict of empires and the simple mis/understanding of two people. Ultimately, the other envoys from the Ekumen kept in stasis above the planet are allowed to awaken and speak for the Ekumen’s goals.

In the intervening decades, aspects of The Left Hand of Darkness have become antiquated or essentialist—Le Guin herself first somewhat defensively justified her use of the default pronoun “he” for all Gethenians, but later acknowledged that “he” need not be the default. Overall, the ways the novel grounds itself in character study keeps it from being a period piece, read for its important contribution to SFF, and not because it’s a relatable novel. When the members of the Ekumenical team touch down on Gethen, their binary sexuality seems so remarkable to Genly, who has spend the whole novel struggling with Gethenian ambisexuality. Le Guin does such a good job of immersing you (and Genly) in fluid sexuality of the Gethenians that the intrusion, at the end, of people who embody a sexual binary seems truly strange.

The Dispossessed
Le Guin’s Hainish novels are all bound together by a specific technology (a plot device, if you will): the ansible, an invention that allows instantaneous communication across interstellar distance. The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia tells the story of the ansible’s invention, by the physicist Shevek. The novel also, as its subtitle indicates, takes on the interactions of various political systems. The setting is the planet Urras and its colonized moon, Anarres. The people of Annares are anarcho-syndicalist dissenters from one of the countries of Urras, having colonized the moon two centuries previous. They are largely perceived as naive dreamers by the various political factions and countries of their planet of origin, which is belied by the incredibly harsh conditions on Anarres. You have to be tough to survive life on the colonized moon.

In chapters that shift back and forth in time, the novel follows Shevek through his childhood and education on Anarres. When he runs afoul of political dogma in his scientific work on Anarres, Shevek travels to a university on Urras to further his study. His experience of the traditionalist, capitalist society he encounters on Urras is tragicomic at times—there’s a depiction of a faculty party where Shevek is several leagues out of his depth which would not be out of place in a campus novel. Although the university on Urras allows him to complete his General Temporal Theory (which provides the theoretical framework for the invention of the ansible) the political structure and society of Urras is repellent to Shevek. The novel is a story in ironies and dialectics: the scientist who could only be produced by this society, but could only complete his life’s work in that. The interactions between the various countries, societies, factions, and parties of the populations on Urras and Anarres are a direct refutation of the skiffy trope of The Planet of Hats, where fictional worlds resolve to the most simplistic economies; I find it difficult to encapsulate all the political maneuvering in the story of Shevek’s great invention. But The Dispossessed is also the story of a single person. Like The Left Hand of Darkness, the focus on the personal grounds a novel of ideas into bedrock.

The Lathe of Heaven
The Lathe of Heaven tells the story of George Orr, a young man who is plagued by what he calls “effective dreams,” or dreams that change the nature of reality itself to conform to the dreamscape. George is the only one who is aware of these changes. He’s remanded to the psychiatrist and sleep researcher William Haber, due to his abuse of drugs to try to stave off the effective dreams. Haber begins tinkering with Orr’s effective dreams, trying to improve reality through his manipulations of Orr’s dreamscape. This results in escalating dystopias. When Haber pushes Orr to dream of a solution to world overpopulation, a plague kills billions. When he tries for a world without racial strife, everyone turns grey, and Orr’s social worker, friend, and sometimes paramour, Heather, who is biracial, ceases to exist. Like a series of wishes in folklore, each effective dream seeks to solve the problem of the last wish, but then creates another.

The Lathe of Heaven is a beautifully written novel, an almost perfect example of Le Guin’s compact and insightful prose. She never much went in for poetic prose or the extended metaphor —her observations tend to be grounded very closely in material culture. The Lathe of Heaven opens with the metaphor of a jellyfish: “Hanging, swaying, pulsing, the most vulnerable and insubstantial creature, it has for its defense the violence and power of the whole ocean, to which it has entrusted its being, its going, and its will.” This image pops up again and again, a metaphor for her conception of the Tao, for the tides of dream, for the eddies of history. (The name of the novel was taken from a line by Taoist writer Chuang Tzu, though, amusingly, Le Guin discovered later that this expression is a mistranslation.) The intensity of the relationships in The Lathe of Heaven—George and Haber and Heather in almost claustrophobic proximity, set against the changing canvass of history—and the beauty of the language Le Guin uses to tell their stories set this novel apart.

A Wizard of Earthsea / The Tombs of Atuan
I’m going to cheat and place both A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequel, The Tombs of Atuan, as Le Guin’s best. A Wizard of Earthsea is regularly (and rightly) called out as one of Le Guin’s most important and influential novels; less so The Tombs of Atuan. But I feel like, considered together, the two books form a vital dialectic, a duology that is greater than each individual novel. A Wizard of Earthsea tells the story of a boy’s growing up, an almost perfect iteration of the Western fantasy monomyth slash bildugsroman. This sort of story—one of a boy growing into a man—is a mainstay of fantasy literature (sometimes frustratingly so). Le Guin tells it so sharply, with such an important twist, that alone it would be her best.

“The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.”

So begins A Wizard of Earthsea, a slender young adult novel with a most common theme: a talented boy’s journey to becoming a great man. The talented boy in this telling is Sparrowhawk, born in obscurity on Gont, an island on a archipelago known for wizards and pirates and not much else. The magic of Earthsea is word-magic, a language of making and unmaking that can be learned by people, but is native to the dragons of the world. (Dragons can lie in this true language; humans can’t.) During his education on Roke Island, Sparrowhawk attempts forbidden magic (like many matriculating heroes, Sparrowhawk is something of an arrogant jerk) which backfires, conjuring a gebbeth, a shadow creature that is tied to Sparrowhawk. The archmage gives up his life to repel the shadow, and Sparrowhawk is scarred and grievously injured.

Nonetheless, Sparrowhawk, whose true name in the language of magic is Ged, eventually receives his wizard’s staff, takes a position as wizard on a neighboring island, and does battle (largely through language) with the dragons of Pendor. These are the events that will make him famous, the things he will be remembered for in song. But the shadow still haunts him, and Ged leaves his posting in order to either find or escape his shadow. At this point, the novel becomes a picaresque, traveling almost haphazardly through the waters and island of the archipelago of Earthsea. In the end, Ged and his dear friend Vetch sail clear off the map, onto shifting near-material sands, and he and his shadow name one another. Like the confrontation with the dragon, Ged’s final conflict with his shadow isn’t one of brute strength or some blinkered concept of “goodness,” but one of balance and equilibrium, of empathy and understanding. I name you; I know you.

Le Guin’s simple tale of matriculation stands out in its simplicity. She packs in a wizard’s mean upbringing, his boarding school days, his exhilarating successes and embarrassing failures, into a novel that never feels rushed, even while it tells a tightly constructed tale. And the twist: Le Guin reveals, after the getting-to-know-yous of Ged’s important life, that he has black skin. In fact, most of the people of the archipelago range from red-brown to blue-black. Early covers elide this important detail; even a miniseries produced in 2004 got it horribly wrong, much to Le Guin’s irritation. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the skin color of fantasy characters is, but if it really doesn’t matter, then why are they always white?

The Tombs of Atuan is set in the Kargish empire, where people indeed have white skin. Though part of the larger archipelago of Earthsea, the Kargs set themselves apart from the Hardic people (who are Ged’s people.) Where the rest of Earthsea hews to something like a Taoist appreciation of balance in magic, the Kargs are beholden to the Old Powers. Their society is based on a theocracy of squabbling god-kings. Tenar is taken as a young child to be a priestess of one of these Old Powers, in a cloister built on a labyrinth. She’s referred to as Arha, the Eaten One, and is raised in a suffocating convent peopled by women and eunuchs as a god-child (or goddess-child), the reincarnation of the previous Eaten One. Her experience is one of frustrating enclosure, hemmed in by the parameters of duty and expectation, in addition the the physical constraints of her isolated cloister; there’s literally nowhere to go.

She finds freedom, ironically, in exploring the undertomb, the underground labyrinth, a place only she, as Arha, may enter. It is there she finds Sparrowhawk, the archmage Ged, injured and diminished by the effects of the Old Powers. He’s come to retrieve (or steal) an artifact, but he’s failed and failing. Ged’s intrusion into Arha’s structured and bounded life is a shock; he puts everything about her life into question. They enact a series of conversations in the dark of the undertomb, conversations which feel dangerous to Arha.

While A Wizard of Earthsea gives us an almost comforting coming of age story, The Tombs of Atuan sails right off the map, giving us a monomyth scrambled by the vital and necessary aspects of race and gender. Ged is a surprise to Arha; The Tombs of Atuan is a surprise to the reader. A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan function as a dialectic, as call and response about gender and power, race and culture. They are beautiful, careful books that tell essential stories in Le Guin’s quick, clear prose, and are filled with the themes most vital to her storytelling. They are everything I love best about the writer I love best.

What is your favorite Ursula K. Le Guin novel?

Review: Storm Echo by Nalini Singh

Just recently, I learned there was a Psy-Changeling book by Nalini Singh — and another one coming this summer — that I hadn’t read. I tell you, I checked that shit out of the library with a swiftness. Coming off the high of Last Guard — which addressed some of my key criticisms of this series, on a meta level — I was hoping Storm Echo would sustain that peak. And while Singh does address some of my issues in this novel, the whole situation felt somewhat tired, like she was just going through the motions a bit. Singh has made use of this exact situation — uptight character, often Psy, faces inevitable death, until someone with a zest for life fucks them out of it — in more than a couple books in this series, e.g. Shield of Winter, Ocean Light. Also, the main characters met at some point in the past, forged an instant connection in some horrific trauma, and then lost each other again, e.g. Heart of Obsidian, Last Guard.

And look, I get it. Even with opening another island, so to speak, when Singh branched out to the Mercant family and the wolf and bear clans in Moscow, she’s written 20-odd full ass novels and myriad novellas, short stories, and epilogues set in this world. Recycling is inevitable, especially with the sort of themes Singh seems drawn to over and again, such as recovery from horrific trauma, both physical and psychic, and acceptance of the imperfectly healed self as worthy of both love and acceptance. Themes which are the reason I keep coming back, I might add, especially when paired with her focus on simple, physical pleasures like the heat of a cup of tea, or the soft fit of clothes that make you feel good to wear. Maybe that’s a weird thing to say, but I just love that beautiful life philosophy mixed with an unflinching acknowledgement that shit’s sometimes fucked.

We’ve seen Ivan Mercant before, most notably in Silver Silence and Last Guard, which both focus on members of the Mercant family, all of whom are the grandchildren of Ena Mercant. Silver is the heir apparent; Arwen is the clothes-horsey gay; Canto is the grouchy disabled guy; and Ivan is the assassin, question mark? Sometime just before the fall of Silence — notably, when the Psy were going nutso and murder-spreeing due to rot in the PsyNet — Ivan was training at some lunatic survivalist center run by wolf Changelings, when he ran across a woman called Leilei (a nickname for Soleil) in the woods. He’s all messed up from the insane training, and because she is a Changeling healer, she orders him to sit down and let her patch him up. He’s clearly smitten from the first, but doesn’t exactly understand what motivates him to keep seeking her out. They enact a quietly adorable courtship until some massively bad shit goes down, and he loses track of her. Most of the novel then catches up to them seven or so years later. Also some bullshit with the Scarabs is happening, but I’ll address that later.

Now, usually, I am not that into characters who fall into insta-love, but don’t know they’ve fallen into insta-love; what are these feelings I’m feeling; what agony; &c. But somehow it worked for me here. It’s funny to think of those early Psy-Changeling books and how clumsy and bizarre some of those courtships were — Lucas Hunter was a straight up stalker, for example — and compare it to the fragile, tenuous connection Ivan and Soleil forge in Storm Echo. Singh doesn’t put too much weight on their connection at first, but lets it build slowly as they circle closer and closer to one another. It’s aching. Frankly, I haven’t ever thought of Singh as adept at pining before — there’s usually at least one of a pairing who’s a big dumb dominant who’s going to big dumb dominate the other — but Storm Echo shows she’s added it to her repertoire. (Or maybe expanded it? You could probably argue that Aden and Zaira from Shards of Hope have some successful pining too.) After their meet-cute and nascent courtship, Soleil is grievously and almost mortally injured in one of those Psy attacks that were happening when the PsyNet was rotting. Because of some football-hiding, Ivan didn’t know her legal name, and assumed she didn’t come to meet him because she just wasn’t that into him. When he learns about the attack, he tries to track her down, but in the ensuing chaos, a lot of records were incomplete or lost.

Which brings me to something I love to see in Psy-Changeling novels: a shitty predatory Changeling pack. Soleil is part of the SkyElm pack, which was originally run by her asshole of a grandfather. He was mad her mom ran off with a human, and only accepted Soleil back into SkyElm when her parents were killed in a car accident. Despite Soleil being a healer — which is a structurally important part of the pack — her grandfather was a huge dick to her, a cruelty which is continued by Monroe, the pack alpha after her grandfather. After the Psy massacre — which only Monroe, Soleil, and a handful of other pack members survive — Monroe throws her out of the pack. Not long after this, Monroe makes the strategically fatal blunder of fucking around with Lucas Hunter, leader of DarkRiver and all around badass, after which he fatally finds out. The remaining SkyElm members are folded into DarkRiver, but because Soleil was packless and drifting, she doesn’t know that they’re still alive. She thinks Hunter has killed them all.

I’ve said this before, but I’m going to hum a few bars because I believe it: Both mate-bonding and pack-bonding are emotional mechanisms which often cast Changelings as incapable of hurting children or bullying others, which can make them hard to relate to and more than a little high-handed. One could argue — and I have — the duality of the Psy and Changelings coming together is the ultimate thrust of the series: the Psy, who are all too capable of horrific abuse and sociopathy must learn from the Changelings, who are almost constitutionally incapable of it. Packs like SkyElm show us Changelings can be just a venal, small-minded, and racist as the rest of us fumblers. For instance, Soleil’s grandfather limited the pack to ocelot Changelings only, something Monroe continued, which lead to structural insufficiency, i.e. not enough dominants. I think this explanation is kind of garbage, but this is explicitly the in-world argument for why SkyElm sucked and got itself wiped out of existence: there weren’t enough cop-types around when shit went down, so everyone got murdered.

I have some trouble with this, a little because it allows DarkRiver to get up on a high horse and ride around on it foreverrrr, and a lot because ultimately SkyElm didn’t get all murdered because of bad leadership, but because a bunch of Psy randomly started killing folk. The outbreak of Psy violence and its horrific effects were not natural consequences of SkyElm’s bad leadership, except obliquely. Be that as it may, I still appreciate examples of the benevolent Changelings not being so benevolent. The trajectory of much of the book is about both Soleil and Ivan — who have been loners either by choice or circumstance for much of their adult lives — coming to accept the love and affection of their families — found or otherwise. I continue to enjoy how the Mercants kept an emotional core to their family, even under Silence, and I completely loved how Ivan was folded into the Mercant family after the death of his mother. (There’s a spoiler here involving his mother’s parentage, so I’m not going to get into it, but suffice it to say: Ena Mercant is a GOAT.)

I found Ivan’s backstory particularly moving, partially because I don’t feel like Singh has been especially kind to addicts in this series. I recently reread Caressed by Ice, which is only the third in the series, and the sneering dismissal of addicts as “weak” really stood out for me. Ivan’s mother was a hot mess and did unforgivable things — such as taking the Psy drug Jax why she was pregnant — but she is afforded a little compassion and understanding, even if it goes almost completely unsaid. Many, many of the Psy protagonists in this series are subject to just horrific abuse, either by parents or people acting in loco parentis. Ivan certainly suffered under his mother’s indifferent care. I even think the way Singh shows how the good times — when Ivan’s mom is on a good high and telling tales about how they’re going to live in a nice apartment and she’s going to have a job, etc — are sometimes worse than the hungry, dark moments, because it’s the hope that gets you.

Eventually, we learn who Ivan’s mother’s mother is, and, while it’s never dramatized, that had to have been a truly traumatic childhood. I think we can understand why she decided to check out, even if obviously that’s not a great thing to do, and with a child, worse. I’m not entirely sanguine about Ivan deciding not to extra-judicially murder dealers because it makes Soleil have a sad, because he shouldn’t have been extra-judicially murdering dealers in the first place, but baby steps on accepting that addiction is an illness, and literally, by definition, outside of someone’s control. So. The things I enjoyed about Storm Echo ended up being more meta than specific, more about the texture of the world than this specific pairing. Both Ivan and Soleil are a little basic, with basic problems. And you know what? I’m mostly fine with it. With a series this long, I’m ok with installments that just edge the mythology forward.

Which reminds me! I was going to talk about the Scarabs. The Scarabs, and the Scarab Queen (or Architect) have been the antagonist for most, if not all, of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books (which is kind of Psy-Changeling, Season 2, starting at the fall of Silence.) Tbh, none of the Scarab mythology has interested me at all, so I have only the most tenuous grasp on what even is going on. Maybe some Psy have their powers go nuts and then their heads explode? I have zero idea why they’re even called Scarabs. This evolving mythology gets a lot of page time in Storm Echo, enough that it made me want to either wiki wtf is happening, or figure out the last book with a major mythology dump and reread. I’m definitely going to reread Last Guard, because I know I freaking loved that one, and I never wrote about it at all. If I measured success solely by how engaged I am with a series, all other considerations be damned, Psy-Changeling is crazy successful. It’s a decent metric in the end, because I love how into this series I am, and I love how Singh just keeps sinking the hook, again and again.

The Year in Reading: 2022

I rounded up the books I’d read for the year a couple years back, which I hoped to make into something of a tradition. Alas, I’ve never done well when I assign myself homework, so last year went by without a roundup. But I guess I’m back! We’ll see how this goes. I’m still pretty focused on lighter fare, like I was at the start of the pandemic, but I’ve managed to slip in some horror here and there, mostly stuff I’d read already. In fact, I did a lot of rereading this year; I’m just not interested in surprises. So, without further ado:

Stuff I read for class:

The Collected Works of T.S. Eliot. If you weren’t aware, I finally finished up the English degree I started eleventy million years ago. The class itself was a senior seminar style class — where your grade is based on a single, bigass paper — and the class was called “T. S. Eliot and War.” We started with the WWI poets — Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, &c — and then worked our way into Prufrock, The Wasteland, and the Four Quartets. It’s been a hot minute since I seriously read poetry, so it was very rewarding to get hip deep in the one of the most important poets of the 20th Century. I’m not sure who this is attributed to, but one pithy take on Eliot goes: Modernism begins between the second and third lines of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham. A small town gets knocked out by an unidentified force, after which it turns out all the women of childrearing age are knocked up. A comedy of manners that ends on a bang.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. This novel defies the wisdom that you shouldn’t have too much weird stuff going on in a novel, because first up, almost everyone on earth is blinded by a celestial event, and then, while society is breaking down and everything is a mess, giant, ambulatory, carnivorous plants start preying on the survivors. Fun fact: Alex Garland lifted the opening of Triffids, which follows a patient who was convalescing in hospital & who doesn’t know about the recent cataclysm, for 28 Days Later.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. O.G. alien invasion narrative, which reads really weird now. Published in 1897, it pre-dates both world wars, and it shows. My paper ended up being on what Wyndham took from Wells when he wrote his own alien invasion narrative, fifty years and two world wars later.

Hidden Wyndham by Amy Binns. As far as I know, the only biography of Wyndham available, published in the last few years. I feel like Wyndham is experiencing a little bitty renaissance, because he is so much more interesting than many of his peers. Hidden Wyndham publishes just scads of his letters to the love of his life while they were separated by the war, and I admit I cried.

The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts. I also read a lot of academical stuff for the paper, but I’m not going to bore you with psychoanalytic takes on mid-century scifi or whatnot. I mention The History of Science Fiction because I read around for sections which dealt with my specific topics, and hit a three page analysis of The Midwich Cuckoos which was better than every other bit of criticism I’d read about that novel by a country mile. I made a mental note to get back to his fiction when I remember; Roberts is also a science fiction writer himself. I recommend following his twitter if you’re into extremely erudite dad jokes and multi-lingual puns.

Zombies!

Most of my zombie reads were rereads, so we’ll start with the new stuff.

Love, Lust, and Zombies: Short Stories edited by Mitzi Szereto. Short story collection about people banging the undead. Look, I know. Would you believe I read it for the articles? I do think it’s notable, given the burgeoning subgenre of monsterotica, that zombies almost never are portrayed as fuckable, a paradox of the zombie’s curious detachment and their voraciousness. Something something, quip about the little death and the big one.

The Down Home Zombie Blues by Linnea Sinclair. Turns out, not actually about zombies, which I found incredibly disappointing. Buddy-cop alien-invasion narrative with hive-mind space chthulu, set in Florida. Make of that what you will.

Everything Dies by T. W. Malpass. I read the first “season”; this is apparently some kind of serial. Decent, but it’s got the wordiness of serials and the tendency to jump around in a way that works when you’re consuming something episodically, but not so much in a binge. I’m on the fence about whether to continue.

The First Thirty Days by Lora Powell. Self-pub with the requisite typos and infelicities, but stronger than most. Kinda not into the fact that a vaccine is responsible for the zombie apocalypse. Given the pub date, this isn’t Covid vaccine denialism, just the regular kind, but it still rankles. I liked the slow collection of survivors; I didn’t like the cartoony bad guys in the third act. I also enjoyed that these zombies were fast zombies initially, but as they decomposed, they got more like the shamblers of yore. Not that physics exists in zombie stories, but I liked that these zombies decomposed like bodies would.

This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers. YA novel about a young woman who is suicidal when the zombie apocalypse hits, and ends up riding it out in the high school with a collection of frenemies. There’s a real thing that depressed people tend to do better in crisis situations, because they’ve been catastrophizing the whole time so sure, why not zombies. Beautifully written and worth the reread.

Severance by Ling Ma. Legit, I reread this almost exclusively because I watched the AppleTV series, Severance (no relation). This novel definitely cemented my opinion that zombie novels more accurately capture the experience of living through a pandemic than fiction about pandemics. This lappingly memoirish novel follows a post-college millennial through a global outbreak of Shen fever, which strips its victims down to one rote action until they die of exposure or malnutrition. She keeps working her publishing job as New York empties, masked and Zooming with a smaller and smaller group of people.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead. This is maybe the third time I’ve read this, second time I’ve listened to the audio, which is very good. Once you get past the 50c words and the complex syntax — not to mention how aggressively deadpan the narrative voice is — Zone One is seriously freaking funny. It’s honestly become one of my favorite novels. Zone One is also elegiac about a lost New York, like Severance, and is probably best understood as a 9/11 novel, of sorts.

The Dark Earth by John Hornor Jacobs. Another super rewarding reread. Jacobs isn’t reinventing the zombie wheel here — they’re pretty standard shamblers — but this book really cemented a lot of my early ponderings about the American instinct towards fascism, what zombie stories tend to say about domesticity, etc. The way the story is told through interlocking perspectives is absolutely aces, and there’s a sequence with a steam train which rules.

Seanan McGuire

The InCryptid Series. McGuire is seriously seriously prolific, so if you’re looking for three dozen novels or so because you’ve got a long weekend, look no further. I read the first four InCryptid books — Discount Armageddon, Midnight Blue-Light Special, Half-Off Ragnarok, and Pocket Apocalypse (I was today years old when I got the pun the title; the novel takes place in Australia), but I bounced off the fifth, Chaos Choreography. This is notable, because it usually takes me two books to run out steam with a series and have to take a break. InCryptid features a sprawling family of cryptozoologists (some of whom happen to be cryptids themselves). The first was published in 2012, and it isn’t so different from the glut of urban fantasy published in the 2010s, but they get weirder and more McGuire-like as they go on, which is cool to watch happen.

Wayward Children. I continued my read of Wayward Children with Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Beneath the Sugar Sky, and In an Absent Dream. I can’t recommend this series enough. It’s a sort of meta-portal fantasy, and the plots have the logic of dreams and nightmares. In an Absent Dream is absolutely gutting so I had to take a break, but I’ll be back.

Mira Grant. I also read a couple of her novels published under the Mira Grant name, which I think largely she uses for her more science horror stuff, but who even knows. Alien Echo is a YA novel set in the Alien universe. Olivia and Viola are the twin daughters of xenobiologists whose colony gets overrun with xenomorphs. Totally decent tie-in novel. Kingdom of Needle and Bone has a similar vibe to the Newsflesh books, which I enjoyed greatly despite my often loud bitching. Unfortunately, the book is about a pandemic, and I am not capable of reading about pandemics right now. I suspect this was supposed to be the start of a series, but Covid put an end to that, along with so much else. Oh, and speaking of that, I am absolutely dying for another killer mermaids book, like Into the Drowning Deep, but I think there might be some fuckery with the publisher? I really hope they get that nonsense worked out.

Ann Aguirre

Galactic Love. I’ve found my way working through Aguirre’s back catalogue because she’s a rock solid journeyman writer who is often quietly subversive as hell, especially when it comes to toxic genre tropes. Like in the first of her Galactic Love series, Strange Love, Aguirre takes on alien abduction romance, a sub-genre which is often a trash fire of dub-con and dudes with weird dicks. Strange Love is instead a charming, funny story with a talking dog and a Eurovision-ish contest, and the alien doesn’t even have a dick. This year I read the third, Renegade Love, which isn’t as great as Strange Love, but is still pretty great. It’s about a froggy dude in a murder suit, what more could you possibly need to know?

Mirror, Mirror. Mirror, Mirror is the second in her Gothic Fairytales series, after Bitterburn. I really enjoyed the Beauty & the Best retelling in Bitterburn, even if the end fizzled a bit, but I feel like Mirror, Mirror, which takes on Sleeping Beauty (sort of), was a misfire. The novel’s protagonist is the step-mother, and while I appreciated the attempt at inverting the tropes — it’s the mother that’s evil, not the step-mother — I don’t think the novel really gets under the hood of what those tropes say about motherhood, etc. The novel instead just relabels the good mom and the bad one.

Grimspace. The first in the Sirantha Jax novels about an FTL pilot who gets pinned as the patsy in some galactic political fuckery. Peripatetic space opera which moves pretty fast. The main character sometimes annoyed me with the gormlessly naïve thing that is common to this kind of protagonist, but still a totally decent novel.

Witch Please. Bounced off this hard, but then I have close to zero patience for contemporary romance, which this is. Just including it because Aguirre writes in a lot of different genres, which I think is nifty, even if they’re not to my taste.

Jessie Mihalik

I discovered Mihalik some time in October, and I’ve been tearing through her books. Incredibly fast-moving space operas, often with labyrinthine galactic court drama and some light kissing. The Consortium Rebellion series — Polaris Rising, Aurora Blazing and Chaos Reigning — just keep getting better, partially because I think she stops relying on tropes and types so hard. (Like one of the characters in Polaris Rising is 100% Riddick with the serial numbers filed off). Too be clear: tropes and types are what makes a genre, so I’m not slagging this, just observing. The first two of the Starlight’s Shadow series, Hunt the Stars and Eclipse the Moon, have a Vulcan-y psychic race which I am totally into, but I think the books are occasionally hamstrung by their first person narrators, especially the first. I’m reading The Queen’s Advantage, the second of the Rogue Queen series right now. The first, The Queen’s Gambit, has an Amadala-type elected queen, which is silly, but then mostly she’s queen so the title works, which is whatever. They’re all superfun books, and if you’re looking to while away an attack of insomnia, don’t pick these up because you will never go back to sleep. Just one more chapter.

Various Series I Continued Reading

Kiss of the Spindle by Nancy Campbell Allen. Steampunky take on Sleeping Beauty, and the second in a series begun with Beauty and the Clockwork Beast. The previous novel had a really cool protagonist, but the mystery plot was almost offensively stupid. Kiss of the Spindle improves on this by having a cool protagonist, and then also the whole locked room mystery was fun to watch play out. The antagonist ended up being the most compelling character by far, and I was bummed to see the next novel in the series wasn’t about him.

Raven Unveiled by Grace Draven. The last (?) of the Fallen Empire series didn’t quite work for me. We’ve met both main characters before — Gharek of Cabast and Siora — and the novel is supposed to be a redemption arc for the former. Alas, I felt like he was too much of a jerk to be redeemed, so I was ambivalent about the novel. I will always love Draven’s prose style, but I just can’t love Gharek. (I also reread all of the Wraith Kings series, of course.)

Irin Chronicles by Elizabeth Hunter. I read the first three of the Irin Chronicles series ages ago, when PNR was in its angel phase. I loved how Hunter dealt with the concept of a mate bond. Hunter addresses a specific fucked up situation which would inevitably happen if indeed the mate bond existed in book 2 or 3 of the Irin books — can’t remember exactly. I’ve only seen one other writer address this situation (but not this well). I never continued on with the series because of my aforementioned need for series breaks, but I finally got around to reading books 6, 7 & 8, The Silent, The Storm, and The Seeker. (I skipped #4, The Staff and the Blade, because I find Damien and Sari kind of annoying.) They were all enjoyable in their own ways, but The Seeker rises to a crescendo which could serve as a series ender, if she decides not to go on.

Ruby Fever by Ilona Andrews. Perfectly cromulent conclusion to Catalina’s arc in the Hidden Legacy series. The husband and wife team behind the pen name have this tendency to rely on eugenics in their magic systems, which can flower into full-on magical fascism. (The Kate Daniels books especially are guilty of this, most egregiously in Blood Heir, which I also read this year. I did not like Blood Heir.) Fortunately, in Ruby Fever they seem to be aware of how screwed up a system based on heritable magic would be, and there’s some direct critique in the novel. Ruby Fever also showcases their trademark ability to begin a novel with three totally screwed up but seemingly unrelated situations, and then have them escalate and entwine into a massive disaster. Even if I’m not into a book of theirs, they are very, very good at what they do. (Oh also, apparently I read Fated Blades, their most recent novella in the Kinsmen Universe, a series which they started and abandoned over a decade ago. I didn’t love it, but it was fine.)

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells. The sixth Murderbot Diaries book, Fugitive Telemetry takes place before book 5, so the timeline was a little confusing at points. I thought we were going to get a road trip with ART after the last? Anyway, fun little locked room (locked space station?) mystery, full of Murderbot’s trademark kvetching. For a series based on a bot what murders, the Murderbot Diaries are surprisingly cozy reads. Murderbot just wants to get back to its stories when other peoples’ horseshit gets in the way. Big same, Murderbot.

Last Guard by Nalini Singh. I reread a few Psy-Changeling novels this year, to better and worse results. I invariably enjoy the books which focus on two Psy as the romantic leads, because all the growling and posturing of the changelings gets real old fast. The Psy are dealing with massive trauma, on a society-wide level, and Singh never defaults to the love of a good woman (or shape-shifter, whatever) to heal the damage. Her characters are going to have to work for it. Anyway, Last Gaurd has for its protagonists two Psy with disabilities — one physical and one mental. This is notable, because the Psy have practiced an incredibly nasty form of eugenics for last 100 years. We also get a closer look at the first gay couple I’ve ever seen in the Psy-Changeling novels. I think this is probably the best of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books to date.

Dukes are Forever and From London with Love by Bec McMaster. Dukes are Forever is the conclusion to McMaster’s London Steampunk series, and it absolutely sticks the landing. The series takes place in an alt-Victorian England where the upper classes have turned into literal blood-sucking parasites due to a communicable disease which is basically vampirism. It’s not a particularly careful alt-history — if you want that from your steampunk, read Meljean Brook’s Iron Seas series instead — but it is incredibly pulpy and energetic. From London with Love is an epilogue novella, which isn’t required reading or anything, but it was a nice denouement to a series I followed for whatever dozen books.

Various One-Offs

A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Two novellas in a cosmic horror vein. While I liked The Sea Dreams It Is the Sky, a post-traumatic wig-out set in a South American country’s slide into dictatorship and its horrific aftermath, it didn’t quite get me like My Heart Struck Sorrow, about some librarians collecting the textured horror, sorrow, and folklore of the American south. There’s an alt-history where I became a folklorist, and I deeply appreciate the porousness of the collector and the collected. Also, while there’s some eldritch stuff going on in the center of both novels, the real horror is other godamn people.

Half a Soul and Ten Thousand Stitches by Olivia Atwater. Gaslamp fantasies set in the Regency period, and really very good. Atwater has a delightful way of shifting the perspective just enough so that somewhat tired tropes become interesting again. The main character in Half a Soul reads to me as non-neurotypical, and the protagonist in Ten Thousand Stitches is a servant, of all things. Both act as pretty furious indictments of the class system — far beyond the more anodyne “it sucks to be a penniless relation” kind one can find in this sort of thing.

Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree. Baldree pinned the coziness slider all the way up on Legends & Lattes, a fantasy novel about an orc mercenary putting up her sword and opening a coffeeshop. If you’re looking for a comfort read with a focus on simple, sensual pleasures, this is the book for you. Also, there’s a huge, adorable dire cat.

Titus Groan by Melvyn Peake. Technically finished this in ’21, but I never did a round up last year, so. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is almost always invoked alongside the Gormenghast trilogy, and I can see why that is to a degree: they are both essentially English in a way I can identify but not define, and both describe a world on the knife’s edge. Both Gormenghast and Middle Earth are close to, if not wholly, a fantasy of manners, describing worlds circumscribed by the weight and the import of tradition and legend. Both end with this tightening sense of change introduced into a system which has been essentially (purportedly, nominally) changeless. Peake uses the language of apostasy to describe this coming cataclysm: the concepts of both heresy and blasphemy permeate those last chapters which detail the young Titus’s earling: the world of Gormenghast is as rule-bound as any horror novel, and often more obscene. It’s completely legible to me that someone born at the burnt end of the Edwardian era and who lived through the second world war would produce something as strange as Gormenghast — born as the old world falls away and the new one burns. All hail Titus, the 77th Earl of Gormenghast. God save us all.

Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk. Probably the best read-alike to Midnight Bargain would be Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal: the setting is Regency-ish, but the situation is complicated by a tiny bit of magic. Beatrice Clayborn comes to Bargaining Season with her family mortgaged to the hilt to fund whatever alliance can be made through her marriage. She’s also practicing magic in secret, a magic which will be severed and suppressed by a marital collar. The metaphors at play could absolutely be too on the nose, but Polk has a Regency-level restraint and never overplays the obvious gendered (and class) dynamics. 

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I could probably put this in the “books I read for class” category, because I peer reviewed a paper about this, Brave New World and 1984. I’d already read the other two, so I thought, what the hell. And I’m glad I did, because this book ended up being an absolute banger. Written in the Soviet Union in 1920-ish, We is THE classic dystopia; both Huxley and Orwell cribbed from Zamyatin. D-503 is an engineer in a city made of glass and organized by scare quote “rational principles” un-scare-quote. The novel itself is an epistolary, of sorts: the One State is building a generation ship to colonize and proselytize aliens, when they find them; he is writing to the as yet undiscovered aliens. He kinda reminded me of the narrator in “The Horla,” a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the way he gets more and more unhinged as the narrative progressive, the difference being that We is a satirical comedy and “The Horla” is not.

So that’s it! I probably read some other stuff I can’t remember, but this is definitely the high notes. Another year, another teetering TBR.

An Incomplete List of Oddball Zombie Movies I’ve Enjoyed

I finally caught the companion film to South Korea’s Train to Busan, the animated Seoul Station. It wasn’t nearly as affecting as its live action antecedent, but I completely appreciated how Seoul Station went in unexpected directions, and focused on relationships not normally detailed in either zombie movies or, like, regular cinema. This got me thinking about more obscure zombie movies I have known and loved, stuff that either goes straight to video, or only hits a theater or two in LA or New York. Many of these movies hail from other countries and cultures, which lends grist to my pet theory about zombie movies being largely about national character, much more so than other monsters.

The vast majority of zombie movies, high or low budget (but mostly low budget), are produced in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for this: the US produces many more films, in general, than the rest of the West. Also, the United States (and Pennsylvania more specifically) is where the modern zombie was created in Romero’s game-changer, The Night of the Living Dead. I know there were zombie films before this, but Romero so utterly changed the landscape that they’re as different as chalk and cheese. In the same tradition, yes, but it’s like comparing the ghouls in the 1932 film Vampyr to modern vampires: similar in name only.

The ways zombie fictions ruminate on class, race, consumerism, and the nuclear family was set within an American film tradition, and not always or often in a good way. So much of the long tail of American zombie movies — the sort of thing found in deep dives into “if you like this, then” on your streaming platform of choice — is fucking trash. Americans can’t help but America, cinematically speaking, so the instinct to fascism, spectacle as unearned catharsis, and violence as morality pervades a lot of American zombie movies, regardless of budget. TL;DR: many American zombie movies are Libertarian (if not outright fascist) garbage fires, with a sideline in diseased gender roles. (This is somewhat ironic, given how Romero’s zombie films were always brutal social commentary against exactly that.)

Apocalypses in general are local affairs, once the lights dim and the communication systems blink out. The world narrows to the distance you can travel on foot — at least once the gas runs out, and you leave the car behind — the skyline streaked with the smudges of burning urbanity. But zombie narratives go a step further, reanimating strangers, neighbors, family, and friends in the subtle tweaks and twists of national character gone feral: slow or fast, cunning or mindless, diurnal or nocturnal, contagious or endemic. These monsters show what we become in the 24 hours and three meals from the end of it all.

Warning: possible spoilers in the film descriptions.

USA:

Maggie

What makes Maggie notable in the context of American zombie movies, a film that collects together Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, and Joely Richardson, is its taunt, Gothic rumination on the parent-child bond. It opens with Arnold traveling into a disease-ravaged LA to collect his daughter, Maggie. She’s infected with a zombie-ish plague, half-dying and half-alive in some overrun city hospital. All the small cues tell you she left because they were estranged — hard to say whether it was the normal estrangement that finds children growing into adults, or a deeper one. When they return home to the family farm, it’s clear it’s both: she’s a normal teenager fed up with her Boomer father, and then also he’s got a new wife and small children who have supplanted her in some ways. I have some autobiographical reasons for why this resonated hard. Anyway. 

Maggie muses in a sometimes overly self-serious way about coming home. Maggie, the character, does a retrospective of her adolescent relationships — complete with teen party with a bonfire on the beach — just short years, or long months, after she leaves home. When her step-mom leaves with her half-siblings, it leaves her alone in the house with a dad who can’t even begin to understand, but is turning himself inside out trying. The ways they never quite connect, right up to the bitter end, are shattering, the kind of thing that set me sobbing, an outsized emotional response to what is largely an understated and grayed out emotional landscape. This the best, most finely detailed work Schwarzenegger has put to film in his latter day career. 

UK:

The Girl with All the Gifts

When I first learned they changed the race of Miss Justineau, the living teacher of an undead classroom in The Girl with All the Gifts, from black to white, I was worried. In the novel by M.R. Carey (aka Mike Carey, for all you Hellblazer heads), Miss Justineau was black, and the undead child who cleaves to her white. The film reverses this, and it actually works really well, almost better in places. Making Helen Justineau a non-malignant version of the Nice White Lady ministering to children whose humanity is completely denied, and who are black [same/same] says something very different from the reverse, especially with how it shakes out in the end. (And unrelated aside: it’s notable to me how many of the films on this list started life — or undeath muahaha — on the page, and how successful their adaptation. Not everything is World War Z: The Less Said the Better.)

The Girl With All the Gifts is one of a teeny tiny trend of fungalpunk horror, of which maybe the most successful was the Area X trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Carey’s story found inspiration in the nightmarish real world story of zombie ants infected by a fungus which drove them to uncharacteristic behavior, after which the fungus would fruit out of their ant heads. The images of ants with fungi protruding from their head carapaces legitimately freaks me out, and I don’t necessarily empathize with insects all that often. The film hews closely to the plot of the novel, a road trippy rumination on a ruined Britain. The girl who plays Melanie is wonderful, playing her smitten child with a sense of resigned sobriety that gives her an out-sized presence. Glenn Close delivers a quietly seething version of the amoral scientist, which is an interesting twist on a trope that tends to oily bombast (e.g. Stanley Tucci in The Core, which is hands down the best version of this ever put to film.) I love both iterations.

Canada:

Ravenous (or Les Affamés)

Sometimes I find the cultural context of specific foreign films so baffling as to render the “meaning” — insofar as that’s a thing — quite opaque. The French-Canadian Les Affamés falls into this category for me, but in a still strangely satisfying kind of way. Much of Ravenous falls into the mode of the zombie road trip, stopping occasionally to eavesdrop on the dead and their inscrutable machinations, or to enact the living’s more visceral conflicts. (And the dead in Les Affamés are truly strange, piling up teetering obelisks of domestic stuff in a clearing in the woods, or here, or there.) There’s this old saw for writers that “dialogue is action” and that almost reductive aphorism maps onto zombie narratives in this weird way. The drama in Ravenous is all in its dialogue and tense standoffs between survivors; the zombie attacks are almost a relief.

Pontypool

The source material for the film Pontypool, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, is both typical and an exemplar of his work. Burgess excels at either elevating pulp to high art, or elevating high art to pulp — because he somehow manages to write deeply philosophical works using absolutely sick imagery, while not prioritizing either. (See also: The Life and Death of Schneider Wrack by Nate Crowley.) This is not an easy thing to do! In fact, I can only think of a couple writers who successfully use the vernacular of both highfalutin literature and pulp styling without denigrating either.

Anyway! Point being: Pontypool is somewhat loosely adapted from the source novel, and in the very best ways. I can’t imagine a film version that somehow cut that impossible middle distance between high and low art that the book does; this will not translate to the screen. Instead the film is a taunt, almost stagy locked-room drama which focuses tight on a couple few characters. Some aspects of the film have become quaint — the whole concept of a “shock jock” has been superseded by media twisted into propaganda by authoritarianism — which takes a little sting out of the proceedings. It’s still an excellent film.

Denmark:

What We Become (or Sorgenfri)

Many of these movies — at least before they are translated into English — have locations in their titles, like the aforementioned Train to Busan. The Danish zombie film Sorgenfri — named after a Copenhagen suburb — was retitled in English What We Become. Sorgenfri means “free of sorrow”, in an almost obnoxious irony, but we will give writers some latitude to be obnoxious when place names are this on-the-nose. I fully expect places like Minneapolis suburb Eden Prairie to become hellish pit stops on the way to apocalypse because come on.

Anyway, What We Become makes full use of its suburban locale, which I don’t necessarily see all that often, Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding. There’s some hot-neighbor-next-door, community-cookout action before the infection locks the suburb down. Each McMansion is swathed with plastic, (almost like in the quick-and-dirty Spanish film series [rec] — more on this later), and if they try to push back against the impersonal authorities in their gas masks and machine guns, quick and brutal violence ensues. If this was an American film, I’d accuse it of 2A essentialism: we need guns to fight teh gumment!!!! But … it’s Danish, so that can’t be what it’s about. Or … not entirely anyway.

Much as Americans like to paint Denmark as some sort of socialist utopia (and don’t get me wrong: America’s fucked), there’s the same cultural, social, and economic stresses like any other part of the EU. I have Danish cousins, and the amount of chauvinism I’ve seen expressed about, say, Turkish immigrants is notable. And that’s not even getting into what they say about straight up Muslims, Turks or no. What We Become taps into a very (white) middle class, very (white) suburban fear of intrusion by the other, and also the fear that the other is already there, hidden within. These kind of insular communities are always predicated on fear: on the other, on themselves — what have you got, I’m afraid of it. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero murdered what should be the romantic survivors, in addition to the nuclear family. What We Become lets some of its characters survive, but only after putting you through some brutal familial self-annihilation.

France:

The Horde (or La Horde)

When I first saw The Horde not much after its 2010 release date, I thought to myself, there is going to be a real and bloody reckoning in France about how the treatment of France’s immigrant population. I knew just a very little about the French attempts to legislate the bodies of Muslim women — for their own good, natch — and it was years before the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But the bloody spectacle on display in The Horde was enough to make me prognosticate doom. Pulp fiction tends to tap into the societal hindbrain, and The Horde was doing that in the goriest, most bloody way possible.

The Horde follows a group of corrupt French police on a vendetta into what reads to me like the projects — low income housing that warehouses the poor and undesirable (same/same). There’s some back story about some drug dealer or whatever killing a cop, but none of this really matters. The fight is between two rival gangs, one of which wears badges and speaks “good French”, and the other have accents and dark skin. There’s a racist old codger (I think maybe even a veteran, but it’s been a while) and a couple other residents to round out the group. The combatants end up trapped in a old apartment building while the horde presses against doors and windows. And of course, several end up bitten, turning at the worst possible moment.

The Horde‘s zombies are faster than Romero zombies, and often a lot fresher, the blood still red and the zombie vigorously intact. As we approach the endgame, one of the cops is given a lovingly detailed last stand, and even more intimate horrific death: standing on the top of a car in a basement parking lot, he shoots and hacks until he’s overwhelmed by hundreds of zombies, and boy howdy do they not pan away. I know this was shot later, but the framing of this sequence reminds me of the season three ender of Game of Thrones, which found Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfing a horde of anonymous browns. It’s notable to me that the image of a white lady receiving adoration for liberating brown people and a white guy heroically hacking at a mob until he’s overwhelmed are shot virtually identically. I’m sure something like The Pedagogy of the Oppressed has something to say about this, but it’s been some years since my theory-reading days.

The Night Eats the World (or La nuit a dévoré le monde)

The Night Eats the World begins with a musician dude, Sam, coming to his ex-girlfriend’s flat to retrieve some cassette tapes he left after the breakup. The sequence at the party with its byplay and character development between the people marked as protagonist and the inevitably disposable partygoers reminds me of the opening to Cloverfield (and, weirdly, the Netflix series Russian Doll.) Sam crashes out; when he awakes, there’s blood on the walls and everyone is either gone or a zombie.

The Night Eats the World is light on zombie kill thrills, if you’re into that sort of thing, much more focused on Sam’s solitary existence and worsening metal state as he holes up in his ex-girlfriend’s for months. The film manages to find some unexplored corners in the zombie apocalypse: this portrait of fearful loneliness in a teeming city. When I first saw The Night Eats the World, I have to say it didn’t affect me much. My enjoyment was largely intellectual: oh, huh, this is almost a silent film; who even does that? But almost two weeks into my family deciding to shelter in place, the detailing of Sam’s mental state as he rattles around the same couple hundred square feet and considers the death just outside the door: well, this is suddenly, horribly relevant.

Germany:

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Like The Night Eats the World, Rammbock opens with a dude going to his ex’s apartment to transfer some stuff, and also maybe sorta to rekindle their relationship. She’s not there, but two plumbers are; when a zombie outbreak overtakes the neighborhood, ex-boyfriend and the plumber’s apprentice ride out the zombie apocalypse in the apartment. With other monsters, writers can get a little schematic. This is especially true with vampires. You often see complex list of rules about what a vampire can and cannot do, and then, of course, inevitably how to break those rules. (The most recent Dracula limited series, first from the BBC and now on Netflix, exemplifies this sort of thing.)

Zombies, though, they don’t tend to go this way. The rules are simple: a person dies, they reanimate, then they hunger for the flesh of the living. Oh, I suppose there are some other conditions that may or may not come to bear: does killing the brain kill the zombie? are we all infected or is it contagious through a bite? fast or slow? But these are more set-dressing than, like, necessary for the storytelling. Rammbock‘s zombies, by contrast, are photosensitive, a detail it takes the principles some time to work out. Then when they do, they work towards exploiting this detail in order to save their own lives. Rammock is, again, maybe not the most exciting zombie film ever made, but the location, relationships, and the weird taxonomy of zombies make it worthwhile.

Spain:

[REC]

This scrappy Spanish found footage horror film was so successful it spawned a movie series and an English language remake (which was retitled as Quarantine.) (The Spanish series has diminishing returns: the second relocates to an airport, which is fine, while the third goes eschatological in a way I did not appreciate at all. Oh, and there’s apparently a fourth I never saw, REC 3: Apocalypse which is by the filmmaker of the first two, but not the third, which is promising. ) REC follows a Bridget Jonesy reporter on a ridealong with some firefighters. They head out to a call in an old apartment building with six or eight units. One of the residents has gone murderously feral; they contain her, but not before one of their number is bit; when they panic-run to the exit it turns out the building’s on some sort of horrible lockdown.

The film ends up being a locked room horror show as various people get infected and infect others. There’s also apparently a plot where it turns out the authorities are evil, but who even cares. It’s obvious they were evil when they locked an entire apartment in to die. Again, this film had certain meanings back when I watched it whenever, but in the middle of a global pandemic, things read a little differently. The willingness to sacrifice first responders stands out, as does the bickering in the doomed apartment building about the motives of those that locked them in. That the outbreak is legible, with known origins and therefore, potentially, a cure is another fun aspect of fiction. It turns out that real life is much more bleak, which is saying something, given the end of REC.

Japan:

One Cut of the Dead

Frankly, One Cut of the Dead is the best godamn zombedy produced since Shaun of the Dead, and in some ways it exceeds Edgar Wright’s most excellent film. Filmed on a budget of $25,000 (JFC), the film relies on what could be a gimmick, but ends up being just a beautifully written script. The first half hour or so of the movie is one continuous take, telling the story of a low budget zombie movie lorded over by a tyrannical director which is then attacked by real zombies. (Not dissimilar in setup to Romero’s 5th outing into his formative zombieverse, Diary of the Dead, but that reads pretty Boomer-y these days.) After this impressive feat of film-making is a crazy bananas twist that had me all-capsing to my viewing partner, the indomitable sj, for at least the next half hour. It’s just … the whole thing is so well done it makes me tear up a little.

The trouble with talking about One Cut of the Dead is the several spoilers in serial that happen in the second act. All that aside, I can say that the shifts in tone in One Cut are masterful, running from comedy to terror and back again without even a blink.

Review: Last Ones Left Alive by Sarah Davis-Goff

I think it’s generally true — though of course there are exceptions — that mystery novels tend to be about a city. The murder is a wound on the body politic, a blister where something imperfect about the social system rubs. The detectives then move through the various socioeconomic layers of the community, and often find submerged and surprising connections between this sub-culture and that, between families, between the powerful and the powerless. The city can be a small town, or a farming community, or a section of a larger metropolis, but mysteries move through a tight geography, the social layers stirred up like blood in water. The old saw is that the personal is political, and the mystery turns this inside out, in the very oldest senses of the words.

The apocalyptic novel, by contrast, tends to be about something bigger than a city: the nation, or, if that schema is too vague and high-level, the region or country. (I mean this last not to mean nation, but more broad area: north country, back country.) The Road is a Western. The Reapers are the Angels and This Dark Earth are both Southern Gothics. Station Eleven details my Northern Midwest. Parable of the Sower moves through California, and also Black America, a region that is not defined by geography, but nonetheless exists. There are dozens of apocalypses that detail that vast region of America — both the cityest of American cities, and a whole microcosm unto itself — New York: the elegiac Zone One, the chilly millennial Severance, the trash poetry of Monster Island. The writer destroys everything they know, and then sets to scrying the bones, throwing them down to see the immutable characteristics in the cant of ash. The apocalypse strips everything down to essentials: Rick Grimes clings imperfectly to his notions of family and the constabulary; Candace Chen hides behind a camera documenting it all for an Internet that’s blinking out; Mark Spitz relies on the law of averages; some found religions; for others, the play’s the thing. Each acts out their most basic instinct, culturally speaking, as they do the needful of water and food and safety.

One of the most pervasive modes of the apocalyptic novel is that of the road trip: if you’re going to get the pulse of the country, you have to cover some ground. During the road trip, the protagonist finds all the signposts marred and twisted, the roads empty and menacing, snarled with cars, overgrown, rotting. During the road trip, the destination is an illusion; worse, in the apocalypse, so is the road. It is here we first meet Orpen of Sarah Davis-Goff’s Last Ones Left Alive: rolling a wheelbarrow through a quietly destroyed Ireland, with a dog called Danger at her side. (This name is occasionally unintentionally comedic.) One of her more uncomfortable parents — her Mam’s Maeve — is in the wheelbarrow, shaking out with sweats and so silent you mistake her for dead. Maybe Orpen talks to her like a superego, like Job’s unhelpful friends in his blackest hour. But she’s not dead: Maeve has been bitten, about to turn into one of the skrake Orpen has been trained to kill her whole life. Orpen holds onto her childhood by keeping Maeve alive; when Maeve turns, something like Orpen’s childhood will have to die.

When I read The Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, it seemed to me that when the Irish kill their homeland, the result in fiction is more autopsy than spectacle, a long landscape pan instead of a detonation. Ní Dhuibhne nukes Ireland to a hard nuclear crust, and then lays out the debris with a cold hand. (Lord, but her main character is chilly.) The cataclysm in Last Ones Left Alive is similarly remote in time from the events unspooling, and much of the novel is spent detailing an Ireland in a green dishevelment. The events of the novel move forward and back in time from Orpen and her wheelbarrow, moving from her upbringing on the secluded island of Slanbeg off the west coast of Ireland, out onto the mainland and into Orpen’s matriculation. Though there are some interactions with the skrake — zombies in everything but name — it seemed notable to me how quiet this novel was for a zombie novel. In her youth, Orpen — named after the Irish painter best known for his depictions of WWI soldiers — often ditches her mothers to scratch about in the ephemera of that lost world in their island enclave. (She’s especially take by the graffiti and old newspapers referencing the Banshee: a fighting troupe comprised of women only.) Orpen has been raised in a safe kind of danger, drilled fairly mercilessly (especially by Maeve) but still protected from the real dangers of her world. There are no skrake on Slanbeg.

On the mainland, Orpen is pushing east toward the semi-mythical Phoenix City, where maybe her Mam and Maeve were from. (She doesn’t know much more than that; Mam and Maeve were always very closed mouth about where they were from, and why they left. She’s not Maeve’s biological child either way, and both Orpen’s parents drill her in the dangers of men.) She’s got the hyper-vigilance of the traumatized, spooking at every movement and worrying about the sound of the barrow’s squeaking wheel despite her enclosed upbringing. It’s an interesting mix: her safe upbringing that is nonetheless steeped in so much terror that she exhibits the earmarks of post-traumatic stress.

This reminded me of Colson Whitehead’s coinage of PASD — pronounced past — post-apocalyptic stress disorder. This neologism made me smile when I encountered it in Zone One — how clever — but I’m beginning to think it might be a real thing. Last week my son asked me to come out for a “porch talk” — he does this because he can find me smoking and I’m captive — and he burst into tears about the burning Amazon rain forests, the burning arctic, the geologically fast moving apocalypse we can find on the planet right now. I’m not going to be able to grow up and have children, he said to me, as he wept. I tried to soothe him, but I don’t like lying too much: There’s no reason it’s going to be “okay”, that blandest of reassurances, and the global environmental situation is well out of my control. I’d almost welcome just having to drill him in how to kill a reanimated corpse, because that is a concrete and discrete problem in the world: Either you kill or you die, but you don’t linger on in a worsening world, watching your possibilities narrow to ugly survival.

I was always irritated by religious fictions that brought down the conflict between good and evil into a fist fight. (I’m slagging, here, on C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy.) It always seemed like a cop out, even though I get the structural satisfaction of just punching evil into the floor. I’m a huge fan of punching Nazis — they fucking deserve it — but no country defeats them by individuals punching them one at a time. But I’m beginning to get why, beyond mere narrative catharsis, we write the apocalypse this way: half a generation past the panic, in a regrowing world swallowing up the vestiges of modernity.

The apocalyptic novel is about a country, not a city. In a city, your interactions with strangers might be colored by ties of consanguinity. I know I play the Name Game whenever I meet someone in Duluth, and though I wasn’t even raised here — my father was — it only takes minutes to find a connection. But the in the country, this won’t work. You’re going to rely on the broader cultural playbook between strangers, the one full up with the subtle gestures only the acculturated will understand. (Of course, those gestures are still going to fail as often as not. The Ireland she was raised in was right there off the coast, but she has never quite lived there. ) So yeah, it’s a fistfight, the kind we find between Orpen and people she finds on the road. It can come down to a fistfight once all the other fights have been lost. There’s something almost comforting about pushing past the world where children despair of a future bleaker than their past into one where everyday survival is a victory.

Davis-Goff is maybe a little too light in her allusions to the larger Ireland Orpen is moving though and into. I wasn’t quite clear how exactly the Banshees fit with both Maeve and Mam, and the ersatz family she encounters on the road. Is Phoenix City a Handmaid’s Tale style nightmare, or its opposite in sensibilities, if not particulars? But whatever, this is fine. Last Ones Left Alive is a credible sounding of the Irish apocalypse. It’s nowhere near as brutal as Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s, but then that’s an impossible standard. The horror of Last Ones Left Alive ends up being a comfort; Orpen abides, like Ireland always has, and in Ireland’s particular way.

Origin Stories: The Day After

This is going to be one of those deep dives into my own bullshit. Fair warned.

A while ago I had a slightly wine-five conversation with a friend of mine (hi sj!) where we tried to parse the origins of our zombie obsessions. I know I have roughly eleventy million reasons why I keep seeking out zombie narratives – from a love of horror/comic gore that no doubt has roots in the body trauma I experienced birthing babies, to a static-shock kind of irritation I have with common, even prevalent, constructions of domesticity I find when the dead rise – but the reasons why I started picking up fictions of the undead are maybe a little murkier. I believe there are two formative experiences. I’ll start with the most recent.

There’s this half-joking definition of Gen-X that posits that it is the generation just too late for atomic bomb drills, but too early for Code Red. When we hit the school basement, our heads down and our fingers interlaced over our necks, it was because of the most prosaic tornado. (Or at least in the Midwest, where we had such a thing.) At a family function recently that put together my Boomer parents with my Gen-whatever kids, I was keenly aware of this divide. The Boomers and the kids rightly bonded over the trauma of the drills they are subjected to, whereas Richard and I just shrugged. This was not a part of our experience, this exact civic trauma baked into our primary educations. But we were still on the tailing edge of the Red Scare, even if the civic authorities had kenned to the ridiculousness of the bomb drill. My go-to nightmare before the zombie shambled into my psyche – and after, often in a confusing jumble – was one of nuclear devastation.

The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, just days after my 12th birthday. I’ve been watching the HBO series about the disaster, and kind of freaking myself out with how clear my memories of the event were, even though I was just a tween in the 80s. I remember Sweden sounding the alarms: where in the fuck is this radiation coming from? I remember all the Russian dissembling, and the slow leak of information. I remember once the disaster was contained, the propaganda they released about the brave and noble workers who sacrificed themselves to encase the reactor in concrete; as if. Seeing how close they were to meltdown — to the poisoning of Central Europe for the next several millennia – retroactively validates my schoolgirl fears. I had a fallout dream a week ago; I haven’t had one in years. Add in the fact that I spent a month in Minsk five years later – 400ish kms from Chernobyl, very roughly the distance from New York to Boston – and my schoolgirl fears look awfully credible. It’s completely crazy we didn’t quite clock the reality of that danger. But then, the whole goram Soviet Union was shuddering apart, so dying of wasting cancer seemed very fucking remote compared to possibly having to yeet off to Poland once all the unrest started in earnest. We were there in April. By August, the Soviet Union had shattered.

But I think the event that caused my zombie thing happened three years earlier.

This is the scene, as I remember it (which is a fairly huge caveat, because I’m regularly interrupted by family members telling me that’s Not How It Happened): I was at my grandparents’ house in Munhall, PA, a post-War suburb outside of Homestead, PA, birthplace of Carnegie Steel. Everyone was gathered round the television to watch “The Day After“,* which was a Television Event of the kind that my kids won’t ever experience: 100 million people watched that broadcast. The internet tells me there were 224 million people in the country at the time, which means that Jesus Christ that was a lot of people. (I think maybe Game of Thrones may be the last big tv event, but even that was a series – not a Big Deal TV Movie event. “Bird Box” this was not.) Or not everyone was gathered round; I’m fairly sure my five year old sister was already abed. We slept in the same room — which used to be our mother’s — in 30 year old twin beds. There were mourning doves who roosted in the eaves and woke us up in the gloaming with their sadly loud laments. Grandpa Ed was in His Chair, my parents and Grandma Fran were on the couch, and I was fists on chin on the plush carpeting. I was allowed to stay up because I was a worldly nine.

The first whatever hour of “The Day After” is just interpersonal bullshit as it plays out in Laurence, Kansas. Nothing about it is particularly memorable or interesting: it is just a day in the life. Some of the actors involved had established film careers, like JoBeth Williams, who had just starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill”, or Jason Robards, who had a pretty storied career at this point. John Lithgow had been nominated for an Oscar already, for “The World According to Garp” – which, gah, that movie is due for some reassessment – and would pick up another shortly for “Terms of Endearment”. (Steve Guttenberg wouldn’t make it big until a year or two later.) This wouldn’t be notable today – things are pretty porous between the big and the small screen – but back then actors tended to be relegated to one or another. I mean, maybe some second tier movie actor would cameo on Happy Days when they were deep in the junket, but that was about it.

Once the bombs fall, though, that’s when it happens. Or maybe that’s when it doesn’t happen, because the absolute worst thing about “The Day After” is how matter of fact it is about the fallout, both emotionally and physically. A couple of characters just simply vanish, never to be heard from again. Most try to carry on the only way they know how – like Jason Robards’ character, who continues doctoring despite the death of his family, his neighborhood, and his city. When the inevitability of his radiation poisoning becomes clear, he returns home, to find a bleak and blasted landscape with people picking the bones. He breaks down when he’s offered the barest kindness, weeping in the arms of a stranger. He presumably dies in the rubble. It’s a lot of people dying watching other people dying, at least until some of the dying start to kill. A woman delivers a godamn baby. They are all going to die.

I didn’t see this ending in 1983 because I freaked the fuck out so hard my parents carried me bodily to bed, where I presume I eventually slept. As a parent now, I can just see my parents’ slowly dawning awareness of my freakout: glued into the narrative, until my brain starts screaming with momservation, and I turn and see that look on my kid’s face. Sitting in the darkened bedroom and shushing quietly why I rub a back, trying to quiet the tears. I watched “The Day After” all the way to the end much later, and it was zero to the bone how closely the post-nuclear landscape aligned to my nuclear dreams, how the visual language of my nightmares is cribbed from just the barest glimpse of the end of this film. My mind goes to rubble, to the shadows on the wall, in the cold sweat of nightmare. The zombie shambles out of this landscape, its ataxia like radiation burns.

In retrospect, my viewing not much later of “Night of the Living Dead” at a slumber party would only act as cement on my personal horror landscape, setting the bleak nuclear winter as my discontent. My dreams tend to redress the houses I have lived in as the set for both the tedious and the terrifying, so my terrors tend to be the familiar turned strange: a sink full of blood, a doorway half-shattered but holding, a hatch in the floor above me raining down debris as someone – something – treads the boards.

*This is stupid and doesn’t matter, but I’m having a hard time deciding how exactly to deal with television/movie/episode names. AP and Chicago style are at odds, so I’m going with Chicago because they actually say what to do with series television names vs. episode names.

Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

There my be something about the experience of writing in Ireland that drives writers into exile. For every Yeats who holes up in a castle in County Sligo at the end of his days, there’s a Joyce or Beckett or Shaw or Wilde who leaves Ireland and doesn’t so much not look back as look back with love and pride and revulsion and irritation, look back compulsively and minutely. (Although, arguably, Yeats didn’t really live in Ireland either. He lived in a magical place called Yeatsland.) The Irelands of these writers are mirages of the retreating horizon, full of equal measures of hate and longing. Like the bragging protagonist in “Playboy of the Western World,” Irish writers conjure and murder their Irish father again and again, but the joke’s on them when Ireland continues to plug along in its Irish way, spitting out more exile-artists from the fertile ground of lost and sublimated languages, religion, peat smoke, and god knows what all. 

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is not just Irish, but the kind of Irish that has an unpronounceable Irish name with the little thingy over some of the vowels. When she looks back, she doesn’t turn into a pillar of salt, Ireland does. She nukes it to a hard uninhabitable crust of ash and loss, and then catalogs its innards with the fine and almost-loving hands of an anthropologist scrying meaning from a collection of everyday objects and unfinished lives. Set in an ecologically devastated future, The Bray House is the first-person account of a Swedish academic, Robin, who organizes a expedition to return to Ireland and excavate one house out of the nuclear wasteland that is now Ireland. (When I said Ní Dhuibhne nuked Ireland, I wasn’t being funny; a series of nuclear accidents some time before the events of the book utterly destroyed the British Isles.)

It seems very rare to me that writers create truly horrible, unlikeable characters. Now that I say that, I realize that statement needs some clarification. There are plenty of unlikeable sorts in lit, but they’re usually shot through with some kind of redemptive humanity, some moment where they stand below the prostitute’s window and realize she’s a better person, and has been all along. (Having read Lolita, I understand that HH can bring the serious lulz, even while where his soul should be is radioactive sludge.) I can see why authors wouldn’t want to do this. Not because they shy from the unlikable and dishonest, but because who really wants to bring a creature like that into being, think like them, craft words they’d use? Blech. It was bad enough listening to Robin spin her entirely untrustworthy narrative of what happened on the expedition, what things she lost and found, what the events meant. I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to craft her voice, construct her guts and her lies. 

I don’t care much about plot, and I get the impression that the author didn’t either, but someone told her she should. This is too bad, because there are some things that happen that felt unnecessary or overly metaphoric, simply for the sake of having some events. The ending shows a restraint that many authors can’t muster though, although I won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers. The part that absolutely killed me was the little anthropological whaling section in the middle, written in dry academicese, that details the contents of the house they excavated, divines the characters of its inhabitants, and conjures the culture of Ireland in the moments before it vanished. It’s like the cast of the lovers from Pompeii, encased in ash and burned away, found later when archaeologists poured plaster into the voids. Robin isn’t a plaster person; she’s worse than this. She’s real and talking back at us from the void. It’s not a plaster Ireland, it’s sadder than this. 

When Americans annihilate our home country in fiction, we get Jerry Bruckheimer to direct, pack the White House with gasoline and a timer, and hire Charleton Heston and Will Smith to pose heroically in the foreground. It’s not a conflagration so much as a cook-out, a chance for neighbors to gab while the neighbor’s house burns to the ground. Such a pity! I envy the way the Irish return to their Irelands, a concrete and shifting mirage of conditional statements: might have been, was possible once, could be soon. As a nation of immigrants, we Americans are always arriving, finding new Americas when we cast off the old. Ireland is written by a nation of artists in exile, who keep trying to set the plaster while the dust shifts.

Dearly, Departed

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Now, I admit my upbringing was in some ways unorthodox (and in other ways completely not), but this was a favorite aphorism of my mother’s. It comes from the climax of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by St Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit has just murdered an entire family while they were on a road trip, ending in the death of the grandma. She’s a horrible old bitty who doesn’t deserve to be gunned down on the side of the road, but maybe it’s also not the biggest tragedy ever either. But, you know, violence is cathartic and purifying, at least in St Flannery’s brutal theologies, so the horrid grandma has a humanistic epiphany at the barrel of a gun. Baptism by drowning, the last moments as your lungs constrict and your eyelids flash and flutter, reborn as your best self right before you die.

I think of this quote every time I encounter something that has all this incredible potential — this heat of possibility — and then it spins out into something more dreary and obvious. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel has a shitton of potential, for me anyway, being as it is a steampunk zombie novel. Steampunk is maybe more problematic for me, in that I have undertaken its perusal because of my husband’s interests more than my own, but I am all over zombies all day. Both zombie and steampunk narratives often deal in social stratification, though obviously to very different ends. Smooshing them together could be fruitful in examining a rigidly class based society, but I know well enough not to expect such a thing, especially after Deck Z.

Occasionally this novel hits a mild frisson of this cultural examination, but mostly it opts for the spunky heroine and glaring infodumps over, like, insight. I was okay with the spunky heroine — she is a creature too ubiquitous to truly criticize — but the infodumps killed me. Apparently (and I use this adverb when I’m being an asshole), peak oil and maybe a nuclear devastation and probably the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone lead to everyone heading south to central America, where some folk recreated the Victorians, and some other folk did not. I just…this was one of many situations where the explanations for the universe killed me, even if the universe did not. I’m going to accept your fictional world if you don’t overexplain, because the minute you do, I’m like, hold the phone. No, no, no. The world-building needed to be shot every day of its life.

This aside, Habel did get into some interesting stuff about the ways the lower classes are used against themselves, and as fodder for border warfare as a stand in for class warfare. The set up is that there is a border skirmish between the Vickies and the Punks, and a zombie outbreak has been bubbling in this DMZ, alternately used as biological warfare and “shock and awe”. The zombies in this universe go rabid, but after a time they resettle with their former personalities intact. The zombie soldiers were well realized, suffering both from the trauma of warfare, and from the guilt of their actions while rabid.

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

The problem is sartorial, in the end. Steampunk, maybe at its most basic, must dress a certain way to be steampunk. There will be corsets and umbrellas and bustles, and there must be the cruel social architecture to justify such a costume (cf. the museum exhibit Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.) Habel does a fair amount of pushback against the social stratification — more than the usual, well, duh, of course a rigidly stratified society is unfair kind you see in steampunk — but I think trips over the skirts of gender politics. Her heroines are the usual spunky middle class ladies who behave almost entirely like modern girls, but there’s all this hand-waving to gender norms that just couldn’t produce such a creature. They put on the clothes, but it didn’t do more than touch their skin.

I’ve been burbling along with all my socioeconomic whatnot, and I feel like I should say I totally get that this is a steampunk romance zombie novel written for teens. My bitch isn’t that this book isn’t more than it is. It is what it is, and moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns and twists. All this aside, my real problem is the romance between a living girl and a walking decomposing corpse. (Admittedly, these zombies are more desiccated than rotting; still.) Habel honestly gave it the college try, and their courtship — taking place, as it does, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through a wall — was honestly sweet. But it’s like the ultimate catfish to find out that dude’s a corpse who doesn’t have the requisite blood flow to, you know.

Tons of women lost their damn minds over Edward Cullen’s cold, lifeless body, so I think there’s probably something to say about the sexualization of undead flesh, especially in teen fiction. (Warm Bodies tried too; ugh.) There could be something here, probably, about love and sexual desire and the death wish in adolescence, etc, but I felt like Habel was too busy selling it as not-gross and self-evidently kinda racist to think this pairing might be squicky. I guess I’m not buying it on those terms, and I can’t get past my shudder at the thought of making out with cold, blue lips. Maybe this could have been twisted in such a way to turn my revulsion back on me, but it wasn’t. I’d pay good money to see such a thing though.

And then shoot it every day of its life.

So that you would know it was a lady.

My Nebula Predictions (2014)

I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.

I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010’s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.)  Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.

I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.

Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.

The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.

There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary JusticeFire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.

When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light — but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.

I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)

Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.

I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.

I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.

I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.

Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.

So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.

Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.

 

Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.

 

 

Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger

I’ve read four novellas out of DarkFuse‘s novella series now, and that this is the first that didn’t really do it for me is a pretty great track record. All signs pointed to Marrow’s Pit by Keith Deininger being in my wheelhouse: big, steampunky habitation called the Machine, an authoritarian dystopia with religious overtones, a planet-wide storm called the Maelstrom, a big freaking chthonic Pit of Doom. I mean, look at that gorgeous cover, for crying out loud. Unfortunately, I felt like the all that very cool stuff ended up being used as little more than ornament on a fairly perfunctory infidelity plot.

The horror novella seems to be a perfect thing, in a way: long enough to get some good grist, short enough not to exhaust the spooky possibilities. Here, I don’t know, this seemed to fall in a fallow area. I can imagine this story being relocated to an apartment complex in the Soviet Union – or any other society with a harsh cultural ideology and dense industrial landscapes – without too much tweaking. Some gross and crazy things happen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you whether they were intended to be dream sequences or not, or if that would matter.

While I freely admit that my disappointment is based on false perceptions of the book, I think I could have liked Marrow’s Pit despite my disappointment if the main character held any kind of resonance for me. There’s something clever about creating a character who has these gauzy and indistinct fantasies about revolution getting sidelined so thoroughly by domestic drama. However, schlubby cuckolds with no particular energy don’t turn my crank. Also I straight up do not get that ending. While I can see that it should slash does have meaning, I just can’t access it.

I don’t know. I always feel bad about disliking this sort of thing. It’s not doing anything wrong and I can see how the whole cabbage-redolent dread of the Marrow’s Pit might work for someone else. Better luck next time, I guess.

 

 

I received my copy from the fine folks at DarkFuse and Netgalley. Thanks.