The Slough House Novels

Slow Horses; Dead Lions; Real Tigers; Spook Street; London Rules; Joe Country; Slough House

By Mick Herron


I wanted to write about each of these novels individually. That was my intention: to read one, write about it, and then read the next one. I had planned to get at least three, maybe five, posts out of my Slough House box set (which ends at ‘Slough House’; another novel, ‘Bad Actors’, has been published since but I have not read it).

That is not what happened. What happened was, I read ‘Slow Horses’, and then, instead of writing about it, I immediately (as in right away, instantly, without taking a break or getting a drink of water or peeing) got up off my couch, went and retrieved the next novel in the series, sat back down on my couch, and went back to reading.

I’m not really exaggerating: I started reading ‘Slow Horses’ last Monday – I finished ‘Slough House’ yesterday. That’s basically a book per day, and, no, I am not unemployed and, no, I do not live alone and, yes, I did happen to have a friend staying with me this weekend.

The Slough House novels have been adapted into a television show, which is how I heard of them. Aside from that, I don’t actually know how famous they are. Mick Herron’s Wikipedia page has a daunting list of awards and nominations, but no one I’ve talked to about them has ever heard of these books.

Which is a shame, because they’re incredible. For those who aren’t familiar with the premise: Slough House is a rundown London row house which serves as a punishment detail for MI5 operatives who have fucked up too seriously to be trusted but who cannot, for whatever reason, be fired. The unit, which is run by an abusive ex-Cold Warrior named Jackson Lamb, is designed to slowly grind down the spirits of the disgraced operatives until they quit of their own volition. Despite the fact that they aren’t actually allowed to do fieldwork, the slow horses (as they are known to the rest of the service) nevertheless manage to involve themselves in nefarious goings-on at least once per book.

If it sounds light-hearted and whimsical, it’s not. The Slough House books are dark, violent, and cynical. I’ll warn you upfront: at least one slow horse dies per novel, and it’s not always the ones you’d expect (or hope). The plots are legit: Slough House isn’t the Jeeves and Wooster of spy novels, no low-stakes kitten-in-a-tree plots here. Each novel is propelled forward by a complicated and dangerous conspiracy; the stories are intricate, surprising, and always just plausible enough to be absorbing.

So whimsical, no. Funny, yes. ‘Laugh out loud’ has become an unfortunate cliche, but I’m going to use it in its technical sense here: I laughed, out loud, multiple times during each and every Slough House novel. Most (but not all) of the heavy lifting in the humor regard is done by Jackson Lamb, who is the beating heart of the series and who’s particular brand of flagrant, inventive cruelty is, unfortunately, hilarious.

In my opinion, most genre works are lopsided. The good ones tend to have significant strengths but also (very) significant deficiencies. Usually, genre novels are plot-heavy: great stories with mediocre writing and flimsy characters. Sometimes, less commonly, it’s the characters that are really wonderful and the plots are weaker. But even among the Greats, there are very few novels that are well-plotted, well-written, and well-charactered (‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’? ‘The Third Man’?).

Well, add Mick Herron to the short list. Most reviews I’ve seen of Herron’s work focus on the excellent premise and captivating plots, but Herron is a good writer. His prose is versatile: he can move easily from snappy dialogue to suspenseful action sequences to cinematic melancholy rapidly and convincingly (one of my favorite parts of the series, one which particularly stands out if you read them all at once, is Herron’s High Literary framing of each story: he opens and closes each novel with a semi-poetic tour of Slough House itself).

There’s a lot to love about these novels; it would have been nice to be able to write about them in several installments in order to do them justice. For example, Herron does a beautiful job balancing between internal and external enemies. Yes, sure, there are the usual bad guys of spy dramas in here: extremists and Russians absolutely make their presence felt. On the other hand, the most salient villains are usually British: white nationalists, corrupt politicians, and unscrupulous Service bureaucrats do more damage than any extra-nationalist.

Or there is the very clever pseudonymous weaving into the text of current events: Brexit occurs partway through the novels, and several populist buffoons are featured largely (one with thatchy blond hair). The plot of one novel involves a conspiracy to hide the bad behavior of a certain unnamed royal, a son of the Queen with a penchant for young prostitutes – sound like anyone we know?

Mick Herron

And then there is Jackson Lamb himself. Lamb is something of a masterpiece. He is a monument of perverse charisma: too brilliant to be thoroughly repellant, but too repellant to be heroic. He’s unwashed, flatulent, performatively racist, and alcoholic but he nevertheless manages to keep a tight grip on the reader’s…not sympathy, exactly, but good will. He gives the distinct impression of having a good heart, but since he never actually shows it, the reader must take it on faith. If Lamb had tilted by even the slightest degree toward either sympathy or villainy, the Slough Houses novels wouldn’t have worked. As it is, the series runs along fueled in no small part by the readers’ love for Jackson Lamb and by his stalwart refusal to deserve it.

In fact, almost all of the slow horses share with Lamb this winning ambivalence as protagonists. Herron did something really smart with his cast of fuck-ups: he made them actual fuck-ups. Yes, the Slough House novels have a rooting-for-the-underdogs quality to them, but these aren’t the feel-good antics of, say, a youth hockey team full of misfits. Some of the slow horses are, in fact, victims of misfortune, but they are all handicapped in some way by their own behaviors: none of them is a stellar super spy in the wrong place. Nevertheless, while each in some sense deserves the opprobrium they have earned (yes, even River Cartwright, who lands in Slough House through the deceptive malice of a friend but who will then spend the rest of the series dashing off impulsively at every opportunity and who cannot work functionally with anyone else), each is also somehow sympathetic to the reader. To paraphrase Jackson Lamb, they are all fuck ups, but they are our fuck ups, and it’s impossible not to root for them.

It is possible, I believe, to love a book as truly as you might love a person. And when you fall in love, with book or person, there is always a moment of stunned dazzlement, when love and the knowledge of love arrive at once and knock you upside the head. I write now from that state: I loved these books. I loved them. I’m crazy about them – I think everyone should read them, right now. I loved them so much I don’t want to watch the series, because Slough House is perfect to me the way it is, and I don’t want anything to contaminate it in my mind. And I don’t want to read anything else, not yet. I just want to sit a little longer, here, in Slough House, in love.

The Terror

By Dan Simmons


Sometimes, when I’m reading a book, I become convinced that I know exactly why it was written. It’s totally unprovable, of course, but sometimes a notion catches that me that sounds so right that I instantly believe it. ‘The Terror’ is Dan Simmon’s historical horror novel based on the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition.  The expedition, which was real, took place relatively late in Franklin’s career, and used the same two ships as his earlier Antarctic expedition, The Erebus and The Terror. And I am 100% convinced that Simmons decided to write this book because writing a horror novel about a ship named ‘The Terror’ was frankly irresistible to him. I believe that with such confidence because it was irresistible to me – ‘The Terror’ was a book I picked up because of title alone.

Franklin was himself captain of the flagship, Erebus; Captain Francis Crozier led Terror.  The expedition was the fourth and last of Franklin’s attempts to find the Northwest Passage, and, despite the loss of every one of the 128 men, Franklin is even now credited as its discoverer.

‘The Terror’, which is told from multiple points of view, begins in 1846, when the ships have become locked in pack ice off King William’s Island.  Despite their provisioning, they are about to spend their third winter on the ice.  Constant cold and darkness are taking their toll, the men are beginning to be plagued by scurvy and discontent, and there is no clear way for their two ships to make it out of the ice.  The most immediate and ghastly concern, however, is that there is something terrible and unidentifiable, something animal and intelligent, out on the ice, stalking and killing them one by one.

Trying to provide an assessment of ‘The Terror’ presents me with a problem of literary classification: to what does this book aspire?  Put another way, this is either a totally mediocre ‘good book’, or a fantastic ‘bad book’.  Why might this distinction matter, you might rightly ask?  Because, I would answer, the success or failure of a book, like any other endeavor, ought to be measured in part against its goal.  Did Dan Simmons sit down to write a work of ‘literature’, designed to impress the sort of highfalutin people who subscribe to the London Review of Books?  Or would he be happier to see his books next to, say, Stephen King’s, or Michael Creighton’s, selling like hotcakes to people who plan to read them on a beach?  These are two very different measures of success, and I feel I owe it to the author to at least try and place him where he would want to be.

The problem is that Dan Simmons makes this difficult.  ‘The Terror’ is well researched; the plot is complicated, and the characters (fairly) well developed.  This does not necessarily make a work of literature, but it certainly suggests a level of investment.  The very difficulty of making the determination suggests that Simmons intended the book to be taken seriously: he put a lot of effort and love into this story, and did a lot of research on both the expedition itself and on the Inuit people of the Artic.  If Simmons did indeed mean this to be in any way a contribution to the American literary canon, then it is an unspectacular contribution at best.  Simmons is not the best writer ever to hit the planet, and his story is a story alone: apart from a brief sop to global warming, it is merely a good tale.

Dan Simmons

However, I object to the very idea of ‘merely a good tale’, and that is why I would rather approach ‘The Terror’ as a work of Low Art.  ‘The Terror’ is a great tale: a scary story of adventure, romance, betrayal, death, and prolonged and terrible suffering.  It’s totally absorbing, and I write this as someone who normally finds nautical books less than fascinating.  I would much rather enthuse about ‘The Terror’ as a thriller than malign it as a literary contribution. 

In fact, the only real complaint that I have with ‘The Terror’ as thriller is the ending: like many of that genre, it unravels a little at its conclusion.  It’s hard to write a tight horror ending, and most authors fail most of the time, including the greats.  I think that this is because so many novels rely on the unseen to build suspense: very few things are scarier when looked right in the eye.  Hence the near-ubiquitous format of horror stories, the unknown entity creeping around the edges.  When it comes time to see the thing, explain him, many stories lose their tension.  ‘The Terror’ is no exception, but while it gives up its mystery, it at least attempts to make the reveal interesting.

‘The Terror’ also avails itself of another villain, a despicable human one.  In fact, it avails itself of three villains, the last being the terrible environment, and the cold and disease that it brings.  The urgency of the men on the ship, the frantic need for supplies and relief, the search for an escape, the impotence in the face of nature, these plot elements are probably more effectively scary than the creature on the ice, and are more artfully drawn out of the story.

‘The Terror’ is definitely worth its failings, if you’re looking for a thriller.  It isn’t a great work, but, having finished it, I am unperturbed by that.  I really enjoyed it; to employ an old cliché, I had trouble putting it down.  It’s a long read, clocking in at around eight hundred pages, and keeping my attention trapped in the ice for that duration was no mean feat.  Recommended.


By Timothy Snyder


It’s difficult to think of a topic more written about than World War II. It was the single largest and deadliest conflict humankind has ever fought, and, despite being over, it still looms over contemporary life. Thousands of books have been written about it, and that’s not counting fictional works in which it features. Even now, Barnes and Nobles awards WWII its own shelves, distinct from History (this from a store that considers Fiction and Literature equivalent).  Any author attempting to enlarge this body of work must be hard pressed to contribute something novel.

Most of the extant non-fiction about WWII focuses on nations or regimes, or on the conflict itself.  ‘Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin’ is Timothy Snyder’s attempt to examine the combined effect of the Nazis and the Soviets on the region where they did the most damage: Eastern Europe, occupied by both the Nazis and the Soviets during the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, from 1939 – 1941, then by the Nazis during Operation Barbossa and the German advance into Soviet Russia, and then by the Soviets as they pushed the Nazis back into Germany and built the greater USSR.  

There are advantages to taking a geographical perspective: because World War II was a struggle of nations, often dominated by personalities, it is usually related narratively, with emphasis on active protagonists. In popular imagination, WWII is a battle between Great Men and Evil Men, Churchill and Roosevelt against Hitler and Mussolini.  This focus de-emphasizes the local experience of a single place or people, what it must have been like for someone who occupied a single town, a single country for the entirety of the conflict.  We are used to following men and armies from place to place, not at watching them march past us.  By holding attention in the brutalized lands of Poland, Latvia, Ukraine, the Baltic States and the rest of Eastern Europe, Snyder refuses to let our minds wander from the constant barrage of violence to which the occupants of these countries were subjected.

This constancy makes for extremely grim reading.  It was a horrifying ordeal which was experienced by the population, Jewish and otherwise, of Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1953.  Snyder lays before us the mass starvation in the Ukraine, the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war by the Germans, the Holocaust, the decapitation of the intellectual elite in the Eastern Bloc, the “relocations” of any number of Soviet, European, and German national minorities, and even the later (and somehow especially heart-rending) turning of the Soviet leadership on Soviet Jewry after the formation of Israel.  The sadness, loss, destruction, and horror is unrelenting.  Nevertheless, it is real, it did happen, and I would argue that everyone has an obligation to read this book, or a book very much like it, to trouble themselves to see, as best they are able, what happened.

Timothy Snyder

Snyder’s presentation is clear, well-researched, and extremely thorough.  He assumes almost no familiarity with the history of the war, or of the protagonists.  Those with little background will be able to pick up ‘Bloodlands’ and not be confused, as long as they are willing to wade through dense and, at times, dry historical prose.  I don’t fault Snyder for this, though: military history is almost always dry, and his intention is clearly to present an objective and balanced account.  There is some anecdote, but his emphasis is on the greater movements of troops and people.  The book will leave anyone who reads it with a strong and relatively complete understanding of the experience of the inhabitants of the Eastern Front.

But I’d like to be clear: that experience, the subject of ‘Bloodlands’, is brutal. At times, ‘Bloodlands’ becomes almost nightmarish for the reader, as massacre follows massacre, and the unending parade of human cruelty continues. It’s saturating; it begins to beggar belief. Synder adopts a scholarly, dispassionate tone though out – I got the distinct impression that he needed to, in order to continue. This tone, while dry, is never disrespectful, and the lack of embellishment helped me get through the material, which might otherwise have become overwhelming.

Despite the salve of Snyder’s tone, though, ‘Bloodlands’ isn’t for the squeamish, or for empaths.  Snyder isn’t prurient, and doesn’t revel in the gore, torture, and destruction that characterized the treatment of the people of Eastern Europe; nevertheless, their stories would not be complete without mention of the stomach-turning excesses of violence that took place there.  Readers with vivid imaginations, or well-developed senses of empathy, may have trouble reading accounts of the rapes and killings, of mothers having husbands and sons torn from them to be shot.  I have a strong stomach, blunted empathy, and long experience with emotionally brutal history, and I still found this book enormously difficult to read.  Put another way: if it were a novel, I would avoid it: it’s too much suffering, too hard. If it were fiction, it would be gratuitous.

But it’s not. It’s true, and truth should be witnessed, even it’s difficult. And, ultimately, the grinding sense of despair which ‘Bloodlands’ might elicit in the reader is an inevitable outcome of the very narrative perspective Snyder has chosen here. Because he has chosen a location rather than a protagonist, Snyder has denied readers any of the normal relief of protagonist-driven narrative. In wars, someone wins and someone loses. Strongmen rise and they fall. A place, though, endures, and because the suffering of the people of Eastern Europe didn’t end when WWII did, because they were caught behind the Iron Curtain and spent further decades under the yoke of totalitarianism, ‘Bloodlands’ is unable to offer its readers any of the comforts of narrative resolution. The book end with our sure knowledge that terrible things still await. True things, but terrible nonetheless.

The Honjin Murders

By Seishi Yokomizo


I heard about Seishi Yokomizo for the first time last year.

Apparently, this represented a significant gap in my knowledge of the mystery genre. Yokomizo is a very famous Japanese mystery writer; he is the creator of the detective Kosuke Kindaichi. Yokomizo would write 77 novels featuring Kindaichi; ‘The Honjin Murders’ is the first.

In my defense, ‘The Honjin Murders’ was only published in English for the first time in 2019. From what I can tell, the translation series which I read, put out by Pushkin Press, has only published five of his works into English. I’ve ordered them all.

‘The Honjin Murders’ introduces the character Kosuke Kindaichi. Published for the first time in 1946, it is what’s called a “locked room” murder mystery. On their wedding night in 1937, Kenzo Ichiyanagi and his new bride Katsuko Kubo are murdered on the Ichiyanagi estate. The other inhabitants of the estate are woken by screams and, eerily, by the frenzied playing of a koto. When they rush into the annex building, they discover the newlyweds stabbed to death with a katana. There is no chance that the crime is a suicide; however, all the doors and windows were locked from the inside and there are no footprints in the snow outside.

Ginzo Kubo, Katsuko’s uncle, is infuriated and devastated by the death of his niece. Born a tenant farmer, he does not trust the aristocratic Ichiyanagi family. After Katsuko’s death, he becomes convinced that they are lying about the night of the murders, and he calls a young man he once rescued from drug addiction, Kosuke Kindaichi. Kindaichi, now a detective, is initially bored by the case, agreeing to come only to return Ginzo’s kindness. However, as the impossibilities and the complexities of the case begin to make themselves known, he will be drawn further and further in.

‘The Honjin Murders’ has a lot going for it. First off all, Kindaichi is a great addition to the pantheon of literary detectives. Sure, much of his character hews to genre norms: his imperturbable logic, superhuman insight. These are cliches, yes, but they are also necessary. The murders committed in novels are abstruse and convoluted, they need detectives with brilliance to match. Realism isn’t the goal.

But, as literary detectives go, Kindaichi is also a little unusual. First of all, he’s totally unpolished. He wanders around with holes in his shoes and dirty hair. This isn’t totally unheard of, but literary detectives tend to be unkempt, not slobs. Kindaichi is a slob, forever startling the people around him by shaking his long, filthy hair.

He’s also ghoulish. As the crime is revealed, each fact stranger than the last, Kindaichi’s pleasure grows. Despite the fact that he is close to the dead girl’s uncle, that he is staying in the home where the crime took place, with the grieving family, Kindaichi grins through the entire investigation. Ever since Sherlock Holmes, literary detectives who take intellectual enjoyment from the solving of ingenious crimes is a mystery trope, but Kindaichi is positively delighted by the complexity of the murder he is solving. It’s a little shocking, and adds a fun layer of tension to the book.

Secondly, there is a brilliant misdirect. I won’t spoil it, but the novel spends a lot of time setting up a very creepy and effective red herring. In fact, the entire novel is very satisfyingly creepy, particularly the punctuation of most dramatic moments by the spooky playing of a kuto.

The best part of the book, though, is the reveal of the motive. This isn’t usually the case, by the way: most murder mysteries save their emotional punch for the who, not the why. ‘The Honjin Murders’, though, loads all the horror of the murder not onto the murderer, but on the motive for the crime. It involves an un-anticipatable reveal, and lands like a bomb.

It is difficult to discuss much further without spoiling, and I am reluctant to do that. I will only say that the ending of ‘The Honjin Murders’ is dark and sad and surprisingly emotionally honest for a murder mystery. It is sophisticated and infuriating, and, despite its grimness, it was my favorite part of the book.

Seishi Yokomizo

The motive is grim it is, though. It’s really grim, and it adds a nice cynical undertone to the book. It made me realize something that I had never really thought about before. Most of the classical murder mysteries (and ‘The Honjin Murders’ is absolutely classical in structure and tone) have cartoonish motives. I don’t mean that they are silly, but there is something about the context and the format which protects the reader from confronting the actual darkness of murder, from whatever fucked-upedness it takes to get one person to kill another.

Think about it: most classical murder mysteries feel quite divorced from actual death, from true human ugliness. They aren’t scary, they aren’t grim. Some of the best ones feel lightly humorous, like Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories, or Dorothy Sayer’s Peter Whimsey stories. They may be about murder, but they aren’t grisly or dark.

‘The Honjin Murders’ reveals this darkness in the motive for the deaths. More than any other murder mystery I can remember, the motive for the crime at the center of this novel felt true and upsetting, and, in the end, I think it makes the book a lot stronger. It feels like a sudden swerve into verisimilitude when you, the reader, were expecting only genre. It’s almost a twist, and I love that about it.

I also think it demonstrates how sophisticated a mystery writer Yokomizo is. It takes skill to play with a genre as well as he has here, to exist both within and without its conventions. And I absolutely believe that he is playing intentionally, that ‘The Honjin Murders’ is meta-aware, so to speak. Mystery novels, their forms and conventions, are mentioned multiple times throughout the book, and the murders in the novel are described using terms from literary mysteries.

All of which leads me to believe that Yokomizo meant the motive to feel like a sudden ice bath for a readership complacently expecting a “normal” genre resolution. To remind his readers that murder, while we might find it entertaining in certain formats, is actually a terrible thing, done for terrible reasons. And while it might seem perverse and hypocritical, a murder mystery writer reminding people that murder isn’t entertaining, it doesn’t come across as preachy or like Yokomizo is trying to have it all. It is, in my opinion, basically completely successful.

I loved this book. I recommend it highly, and I personally will be reading everything of Yokomizo’s I can get my hands on.

Project Hail Mary

By Andy Weir


What makes a book good?

I’ve wrestled so hard with this question, and never answered it to my own satisfaction. I’ve never even come close to answering it, frankly, which is pretty dismal given how much time I’ve spent thinking about it. I’ve spent my life with my nose buried in book after book; I have thought about nothing else in my life so much and so hard as I have about books, but I can’t produce a standard, a single useful universal criterion, for what makes a book ‘good’.

Surely, some of it is in the eye of the beholder – people value different things, and that’s valid. But there must be some set of guidelines, if not universal and objective then at least reasonable and majoritarian, which can help guide us as we think about literary quality.

Historically, I think, what is good and what isn’t has been largely a matter of critical consensus: the knowing pronounce for the unknowing what they should and should not like. The problems with this system are myriad and obvious, but not least of them is, ‘Who is knowing?’ Who gets to decide what is and isn’t a good book?

I am not a proponent of Ivory Tower literary judgement. I don’t think you need a PhD in Literature to tell whether a book is good or not, and I have always been suspicious that the judgement of the cognoscenti tend to favor hard books, books which are dense or unintelligible, over lighter-hearted or plot-driven books. It is not that I don’t love hard books – often, I do – but I do not believe that ease (or fun) of reading is anti-literary, or that a highfalutin language necessarily makes a book “better”.

And while I think about this all the time, I don’t actually worry about it very much. I read for pleasure or for learning, not for literary bragging rights, and I leave questions of abstract merit to needier people. However, sometimes I find myself snagged on a certain kind of book and, during those times, this question becomes a sort of obsession for me.

The books that snag me this way are, to speak plainly, bad ones. These periodic crises of literary judgment afflict me when I have just read a bad book, but of a specific kind: bad books that just entertain the fuck out of me.

‘Project Hail Mary’ is a science fiction book by Andy Weir, who is most famous for writing ‘The Martian’ (which I have not read). The protagonist of ‘Project Hail Mary’ is Ryland Grace, a high school biology teacher who left academia years before after postulating that life was possible without water. When the sun starts to dim inexplicably, the new world-government team tasked with saving…all life on earth calls on Ryland to help solve the mystery. And when high school biology teacher Ryland does solve the mystery (before any of the highly sophisticated professional research organizations in the world), and discovers that the sun’s energy is being consumed by alien micro-organisms, it is Ryland Grace who is sent on a three-person suicide mission into space to…save all life on earth.

The entire book takes place in space or in flashbacks. The book opens with Ryland waking from a three-year coma, alone, in space, remembering nothing about himself or his mission but somehow remembering all of the physics, chemistry, and biology that humankind has hitherto discovered. And it is, of course, Ryland Grace who, alone and hopeless, will happen upon an alien, make best friends with it, and save both our world and theirs.

‘Project Hail Mary’ is a bad book. I feel pretty confident about this, and I don’t think I’m being unfair: I’m pretty sure it’s a bad book. At the very least, it’s definitely not a good book. It’s not well-written, it strains credulity (even for science fiction), and the plot is so full of holes that it’s frankly hilarious. It’s not good.

First of all, it’s wildly implausible. I know that this is a weak argument to make about plotty novels in general and about science fiction in particular, I know: plausibility isn’t the point. ‘Project Hail Mary’ is not meant to be an exercise in verisimilitude; it’s meant to be a fun what-if caper in space. But it’s really, really implausible, and that implausibility becomes a problem. The book is essentially the story of a bromantic relationship between Ryland Grace, the high school biology teacher who knows ALL science, and Rocky the Alien, who knows ALL structural engineering and lives in pure ammonia: it’s just not how things work!

Second, it’s a little too casual. Because the novel is the first-person perspective of a man alone is space, Weir tells the story in a sort of highly vernacular internal monologue. Which monologue becomes annoying quickly. And, yes, I know that this sounds like another nitpicky, beside-the-point complaint, but the language starts to grate on the nerves over time. It doesn’t help that Ryland is sort of annoying; for a man who knows all the science, he’s kind of an idiot.

Andy Weir

“I set the cylinder on the lab table. Where do I begin? Everywhere!

I check to see if it’s radioactive with a Geiger counter. It’s not. That’s ice.

I poke it with various things to get a feel for its hardness. It’s hard.

It looks like metal but doesn’t feel quite like metal. I use a multimeter to see if it’s conductive. It isn’t. Interesting.” (p. 146)

The whole book is like this.

Great, fine, it’s a bad book. So why am I all messed up about it? Because it’s fun to read! It’s really fun to read; in fact, it’s as fun as it is bad, that is to say: very. I blew through ‘Project Hail Mary’ – I devoured it (and on vacation, no less). And, despite the fact that he’s an idiot who absolutely vaporized my ability to willingly suspend disbelief, I really cared about what happened to Ryland (actually, I cared what happened to Rocky the Alien, but that’s a whole other essay).

How does this work? How can a book be so irritatingly bad and yet so interesting? If I ruin a whole day of my vacation worrying about the fates of Ryland and Rocky, how can I say in good faith that the book is bad? By what possible rationale can I defend saying that a book is unsuccessful when it literally makes me tear up?

As usual, I don’t have an answer to this question. Badness, yet again, appears to be besides the point: ‘Project Hail Mary’ is entertaining, and perhaps that’s all that matters. But its badness lurks at the edge of my mind: maybe it’s OK for this book to be bad, but would it have been better if it were actually good?

I don’t know, and as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to stop thinking about it. I know I won’t solve this problem, not today, not ever. What I will probably do, though, is go read ‘The Martian’.


Re: Colonized Planet 5

By Doris Lessing


I hated this book.

I only learned about ‘Shikasta’ recently. It is apparently something of cult-classic in the sci-fi community, though its critical reception has always been mixed (to put it mildly). It is a semi-epistolary sci-fi novel, first published in 1979. It takes the form of a collection of documents related to the colonization of the planet Shikasta by the benevolent civilization of Canopus.

The Canopians, who live a life of apparently perfect pacifist communism, have a habit of wandering around the universe seeding appropriate planets with alien intelligence. The M.O., I gather from the documents, is that they find a planet with suitably complex life, and they introduce a more “evolved” species into the ecosystem. This introduced species is responsible for teaching Canopian principles to the most socially complex species on their new planet, co-evolving with them into a hybrid species capable of staying in a sort of energetic-psychic connection with the Canopian mothership.

Shikasta (understood almost immediately to be Earth) is one of these seeded planets. However, the Canopian colonization of Shikasta doesn’t go according to plan: Shammut, a dark and corrupting enemy civilization, has infiltrated the planet, and manages to disrupt the connection between Shikasta and Canopus. The consequences for Shikasta are dire: several millenia of chaos must ensue, generations of suffering on the part of the Shikastans. Under the influence of Shammut, the Shikastans will succumb to baseness and greed. Unable to connect with Canopus, they will descend into warfare and factionalism which the Canopians will be powerless to stop.

Most of ‘Shikasta’ consists of reports back to Canopus from their emissary Johor. Johor visits Shikasta several times over its millennia of darkness, and, in the planet’s darkest hour (the 21st century), he will incarnate as a Shikastan in a desperate attempt to help save the planet.

This is a bad book. The writing isn’t technically bad, but, narratively, it’s a slog: boring, repetitive, and humorless. There is no plot, really – the entire book is just a string of dispatches from Canopian emissaries and the journal entries of one human, the sister of an incarnated emissary, who reads as more of a plot mechanism than a person.

And it is self-righteous in the extreme. ‘Shikasta’ is high-handed and morally absolutist, and even though I agree with many of its values, I do not appreciate being lectured to ad nauseum about my spiritual atrophy as though I were a cretin.

And that is exactly what ‘Shikasta’ does. It gives its readers absolutely no credit, either morally or intellectually. We are trusted to infer nothing, trusted to bring nothing to the table in the way of self-analysis or cultural criticism. Our spiritual squalor is spelled out for us with insulting obviousness; one feels as though Lessing imagined people would read this book and then, overwhelmed with astonishment, realize that their entire lives had been lies.

A few examples:

“But the extreme riches of the northern hemisphere were not distributed evenly among their own populations, and the less favored classes were increasingly in rebellion. The Isolated Northern Continent [North American] and the Northwest Fringe [Western Europe] also included large numbers of dark-skinned people brought in originally as cheap labor to do jobs disdained by the whites – and while these did gain, to an extent, some of the general affluence, it could be said that looking at Shikasta as a whole, it was the white-skinned that did well, the dark-skinned poorly…Inside each national area everywhere, north and south, east and west, discontent grew. This was not only because of the gap between the well off and the poor, but because their way of life, where augmenting consumption was the only criterion, increasingly saddened and depressed their real selves, their hidden selves, which were unfed, were ignored, were starved, were lied to, by almost every agency around them, by every authority they had been taught to, but could not, respect.” (p. 90)

“The religions of Shikasta are no less, even though they have lost their power to tyrannise: new religious sects proliferate, and ecstatogenous sects most of all. But what has happened is that the skies of Shikasta have been lifted: they have sent men to their moon, and machines to their fellow planets, and most people believe that Shikasta is visited by spacecraft from other planets. The words, the languages. of religion – and all religions rely on emotional, image-breeding words – have become weightier and more portentous: yet at the same time transparent and slippery…A certainty has gone, a solidity. Religion, always the most powerful of the reality-blunters, has lost its certainties.” (p.196)

Doris Lessing

Look, I’m sure, at the time it was published, it’s highly anti-colonialist, anti-racist message was a lot more progressive than it is now. I am not arguing, per se, with the message – I am arguing with the messenger. ‘Shikasta’ reads like socialism’s answer to Ayn Rand: it shares with Rand’s work a complete lack of irony, of levity, or of perspective. Like Rand’s writing, it is so worried that readers will miss the moral righteousness of the argument that it absolutely refuses to trust them; it always tells, never shows. As in Rand’s work, there are no characters worth mentioning, only vehicles for pedantry. Like Rand, Lessing’s tone is shrill and indignant, and, like Rand, she villainises everyone who does not agree with her. There is no complexity, no ambiguity in her worldview; the forces of religion, nationalism, capitalism, scientific secularism, are unredeemed and unredeemable. They are evil, so evil in fact that she ascribes them to the predatory machinations of a civilization devoted to evil and chaos. It’s fucking cartoonish.

And it’s boring! That’s really the worst part – ‘Shikasta’ is boring. Not content to lecture you on the inherent corruption of human civilization succinctly, Lessing goes around and around on this stuff. Nary a chapter goes by without a short essay on how unnatural Earth civilization is, how much happier we would all be if we lived in cities shaped in harmony with the cosmos or whatever. Surely some of that energy could have been devoted to coming up with an actual story, but no: ‘Shikasta’ is less a novel than it is propaganda.

I’m going to stop now. I could go on – I really didn’t like this book – but I’ll spare you. To sum up: ‘Shikasta’ is bad. It’s a bad book.

Double Blind

By Edward St. Aubyn


Science novels are tough. I don’t mean science fiction – science fiction is great – I mean novels about science. Novels where scientists are major characters and where their thoughts and feelings about science are major parts of the plot. They just don’t work very well, in my experience.

It’s a shame, really. I understand why people feel called to do this: science is so beautiful and so complicated and so important. It’s majestic – it feels, in its scope, like something that could be meaningfully explored in literature. But, somehow, science in novels never quite comes off.

Edward St. Aubyn is a magnificent novelist, in my opinion. He’s most famous for his Patrick Melrose novels, but has written a number of other things. He’s a phenomenal writer, with beautiful, sharp prose. The Melrose novels are devastating and excellent; the other novel of his that I have read, ‘Lost for Words’ was extremely witty.

‘Double Blind’ is his latest. The back-blurb says it “follows three friends and their circle through a year of extraordinary transformation”, but that isn’t quite right. At the heart of the plot are two friends, Olivia and Lucy. Olivia is a biologist who is finishing her first book. She has just met Francis, who lives on an English estate which he is helping to wild. Lucy, on the other hand, has just left her consulting firm to join up with a new venture fund run by Hunter Sterling, a tech billionaire. Hunter’s fund specializes in science-driven tech, like a company that scans the brains of monks in deep prayer and then uses trans-cranial electrical stimulation to induce those brain states in customers. St. Aubyn follows these four characters, as well as the people around them, when Lucy is diagnosed with brain cancer.

As I said, St. Aubyn is a marvelous writer, and a lot about ‘Double Blind’ really works. The language is perfect; the characterizations are vivid and believable. There are moments of real beauty; the emotional project feels real. But the science, the science is problematic.

It’s not that the project is invalid. On the contrary, I think I see what St. Aubyn was trying to accomplish with his science and I can see why it appealed to him. The particular piece of science that St. Aubyn is interested in here is called ‘epigenetics’, a field of biology that deals with structural changes to DNA which affect phenotype. It is usefully contrasted with something like a genetic mutation, which changes the actual sequence of the DNA; epigenetic changes modify the shape and accessibility of DNA, making it more or less likely that any particular gene will be translated into protein.

The reason this is interesting to St. Aubyn is that epigenetic changes can be acquired during an individual’s lifetime and passed on to their children. For example, people who have undergone starvation can pass epigenetic modifications onto their offspring and their offspring’s offspring, a sort of inheritance of lived experience which was not thought possible fifty years ago. The discovery of this form of genetic transmission threw an enormous wrench into the nature/nurture debate, and it is this aspect of the biology that St. Aubyn is trying to strong-arm into metaphor.

He gets the science right – no easy feat – and it makes sense, as a metaphor. Each of his characters is wrestling with the tension between the innate and the contingent. Each has a specific inheritance (one was adopted out of hideous abuse; one has a brain tumor; one was neglected as a child) and each has since a lived a life, a life which has offered them the chance to grow, to become someone new. Each is trying to figure out how bound they are to the innate, or whether they can, through lived experience, change.

It’s really not a bad metaphorical set-up. The challenge is giving the reader enough scientific education that they can approach your metaphor, and this, this is the problem with science novels. Because the science involved is specific and slightly esoteric, the only way to give the reader the info that they need is by brute force. Usually, this takes the form of sciency characters walking around and thinking elaborately complete science thoughts, thoughts in which they both laboriously explain the requisite science to themselves and then expound on the implications.

Edward St. Aubyn

An example:

“It was amazing that a journal which stood for the highest standards of scientific rigour would publish such an incompetently devious sentence. A more honest version would have been, ‘After decades of research, we’ve found almost nothing, but we’ve devoted our careers to this fruitless field, so please give us more money.’ Of course, some evidence might turn up in the future by but one of the most valuable contributions made by genetic studies was to show that so far there was no purely genetic influence on the formation of all but rare monogenic diseases, like Tay-Sachs, haemophilia and Huntington’s, known to be caused by a mutation in a single gene; and there was the extra copy of chromosome twenty-one that produced Down’s syndrome, but after these simple certainties, ‘polygenic scores’ and ‘multifactorial’ explanations had to be brought in to prop up the plausibility of the genetically determined story.” (p. 21)

As a professionally sciency person myself, I can say with confidence that we don’t do this. We don’t think like this. No one thinks like this: people don’t review basic knowledge for themselves in survey format. This kind of forced exposition is almost always stupid. We can tolerate it in science fiction – it is basically a genre prerequisite – but in realist, literary novels, it spoils the effect.

But it’s not like St. Aubyn has a choice – if he wants a broad readership to know that haemophilia is a monogenic illness, he has to tell them. Yes, it’s narratively unrealistic and it pulls you out of the flow of the story, but better you have what you need to understand the metaphor; you would be lost otherwise.

There isn’t a good solution to this problem, and I don’t blame St. Aubyn. Science in fiction is a little bit of a siren-song: it seems like it’s going to add an important and meaningful layer to a story, but usually the application sort of ruins the effect. And St. Aubyn has done as good a job as I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t work perfectly – the scientific soliloquies are kludgy for sure – but it could have been way worse. And the rest of the novel is engaging and complicated and difficult, just what you hope for from one of his novels. It’s a good book – it would have been entirely worth reading, even without the science.

Fairy Tale

By Stephen King

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Stephen King baffles me.

To be fully transparent, I kind of love Stephen King. I’ve been reading his books since I was a kid; I’ve read at least a dozen over the years, including some of his real stinkers (‘Cell’), and I have always (always!) enjoyed them. However, I have also always been left with a nagging inability to say what, exactly, it was about them that I was enjoying.

King is usually thought of as a master of plot, but he isn’t. Some of his books are very well plotted, yes, but he’s not at all reliable in this space. Think about a book like, say, ‘Tommyknockers’, which goes totally off the rails, or the Dark Tower series, with its weird introduction of Stepthen King, the Author, as a character in the middle (I actually loved it, but it was weird). Really, when people say that King is a master of plot, I think that what they actually mean is that he is an amazing generator of premises, which is true, but a premise can only you take so far.

And it’s certainly not the quality of his prose. I don’t mean to imply that King is a bad writer – he’s not. He leans a little too hard on a conversational tone (especially in his later career), and he’s repetitive, but I would challenge anyone to publish the millions of words he has published and not repeat themselves sometimes. Let’s just say his prose is utilitarian: no one has ever accused him of writing poetry.

But, as I said, I have enjoyed every book of his I’ve ever read, and his success is undeniable. He’s doing something right, I’ve just never really known precisely what it was.

I just finished ‘Fairy Tale’, his latest, and, unfortunately, I am not closer to figuring it out. ‘Fairy Tale’ is less horror, more fantasy, better in line with books like ‘The Stand’ and the Dark Tower books than, say, ‘Salem’s Lot’ or ‘Pet Semetary’.

‘Fairy Tale’ is the story of Charlie, an American high schooler. Charlie seems typical, but isn’t: he lost his mother in an accident when he was quite young, and his father descended, for a time, into alcoholism. Now, his father is sober and rebuilding his life, and Charlie is doing well: an excellent student, a varsity athlete, a well-liked and kind boy. One day, though, as Charlie is heading home from practice, he hears the frantic barking of a dog from the spooky old house down the street from where he lives. When Charlie goes to investigate, he discovers Mr. Bowditch, the owner of the house, fallen, with a badly broken leg, and guarded by an ancient German Shepard named Radar. Almost immediately, Charlie falls completely in love with Radar, and this attachment draws him further and further into Mr. Bowditch’s life. As Mr. Bowditch begins to heal from his accident, Radar begins to fail. And as Mr. Bowditch comes to trust Charlie, he lets him in on the secret that Bowditch has guarded his entire life: in the shed in his backyard, there is a doorway into another world, a world full of all the fairy tale creatures we have glimpsed in stories. And, in that world, there is machine that can save Radar’s life.

I felt reading ‘Fairy Tale’ what I usually feel when reading a King novel: mildly contemptuous and yet totally absorbed. So much of what he writes seems obvious, simplistic, or even stupid, yet I could not put the book down. Parts of ‘Fairy Tale’ are downright corny, but it did not stop me from caring what happened. And not because I didn’t know what was going to happen – on the contrary, ‘Fairy Tale’ is very predictable. I cared only because the book was fun to read.

‘Fairy Tale’ is a classic Hero’s Quest, and it has the feel of a book that has been kicking around in someone’s head for a while. If I had to bet, I would guesss that King has been stewing on fairy tales for years, thinking about the darkness of the original stories, the ways in which we moderns have sanitized them, the themes and tropes which are worn so smooth at this point that they are functionally universal. I suspect he has wanted to answer those stories for a long time now, to explicate and pull the darkness back into the fore.

Stephen King

It’s not hard to see why, and, though it has been the project of many authors before him, it’s obvious why King would consider himself the man for the job. He is a man with a skill for re-imagining old stories, for layering darkness onto familiar scenes. And, certainly, he has applied himself to fairy tales with aplomb.

I wondered while reading “Fairy Tale’ whether what King brings to the table is less any specific writerly skill than his un-self-conscious enthusiasm. King throws his whole self at his stories: though they are always outlandish, he never hides behind irony or sarcasm (or even metaphor.) He keeps no emotional distance from his content – whatever comes pouring out of his pen, he gives it as much life as he can. Maybe there is something infectious about that kind of sincerity.

‘Fairy Tale’ often gave me the sense that I was along for an eccentric journey with an enthusiast. It wasn’t the itinerary I would have picked, if I were traveling alone, but my guide was so into it that it had an unexpected pleasure.

King’s enthusiasm (for his topics, his characters, and his authorial predecessors) protects his readers from feeling stupid. I’m not sure that I can think of many other authors who could write about, say, the old woman who lived in a shoe without making their readers feel like complete idiots. King is creative, certainly, but I don’t think that’s enough. I think his books work (insofar as they do) because he is also totally confident. King loves stories and he doesn’t see any reason why he should be embarrassed about telling any of them.

He might be on to something there. Maybe the point of stories isn’t that they are new, or surprising, or instructive. Maybe the point of stories is merely that they transport and entertain. Maybe the secret of King’s success is that he’s not worrying about being “good”, he’s just enjoying himself, and his enjoyment spills over onto us. It doesn’t matter if the ground is well worn or not; what matters is whether the ground is fun to walk on.

And King has an unsurpassed sense of where the fun ground is. Perhaps this, more than anything, is the secret to his success: he has a tremendous instinct for fun. He’s never let me down on this: he has never sacrificed his fun in order to be literary. Even when his plots are bizarre (‘Cell’), they are fun.

And ‘Fairy Tale’ is fun. It’s fun to read. Like all King’s books, it’s easy and weird and fun. No one else could have written it. Probably, no one else would have tried, but certainly no one else could have succeeded.

Beyond Black

By Hilary Mantel


‘Beyond Black’ was first published in 2005, four years before ‘Wolf Hall’, the first of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels. The Cromwell trilogy is, of course, the work that made Mantel stratospherically famous: the first two installments each won the Booker Prize, and they are widely considered to be a masterpiece. I certainly think that they are – I have been captivated by the Cromwell trilogy since I read ‘Wolf Hall’; I think it is one of the best works of fiction I have ever read, full stop.

But I’ve never read anything else Mantel has written (my failure, I know). I wasn’t even super aware of the fact that she had written things besides the Cromwell Trilogy – I had her slated in my mind as a sort of one-hit-wonder (ignorant and idiotic, I know). However, her other works have been often mentioned in the coverage after her death; in particular, one called ‘Beyond Black’ was repeatedly singled out for praise.

However, the praise was always tinged with a sort of emotional ambivalence that I didn’t understand, as though the reviewers were made to feel vulnerable while reading it. Slate’s Laura Miller, for example, wrote, “The best and most acerbically Mantellian of these pre-Cromwell novels is 2005’s ‘Beyond Black’.” When Fay Weldon reviewed it in The Guardian, she wrote, “[Mantel is] witty, ironic, intelligent and, I suspect, haunted. This is a book out of the unconscious, where the best novels come from.” Everyone loved it, but everyone was also slightly afraid of it, too.

I was confused by this at first, until I asked some people who had read it. Everyone said the same thing: “This is one of the best trauma novels I’ve ever read.” That’s the crux of it, of course: ‘Beyond Black’ is a trauma novel. Trauma novels are tricky. To be successful, the author must convince the reader of the trauma itself: they must effectively communicate pain. However, too much focus on the pain and the characters get lost. The novel risks becoming alienatingly grim, or, worse, torture-pornographic. It’s a hard line to walk.

‘Beyond Black’s’ pain belongs to Al. Al (short for Alison) is a medium. She can communicate with the dead; in fact, she can’t escape them. They crowd her, speaking to her, messing with her electronics, tripping her and taking her things. Some of the dead are benign, lost souls that only need attention and guidance. But the dead are merely the living, on the other side. And just as some of us aren’t kind, some of them aren’t either. The dead who crowd Alison, they aren’t kind. They taunt and torment her; they move her things, hide or break them. They interfere with the functioning of machines in her home. They assault her friends and drive them away. Worst of all, they remind her of something, something terrible which has happened to her but which she cannot quite remember.

And it’s not just the dead: Alison is surrounded by unkindness from the living, too. Even her business partner Colette (the person closest to her in the world), is almost sadistically mean to Al, especially about her weight. Al works constantly, touring the country and putting on shows, working for private clients, all in an attempt to keep ahead of the memories pursuing her. But it’s not working: the spirits are crowding in, and Al is starting to drown.

If I’m making ‘Beyond Black’ sound trite or formulaic, that is my failing, not the book’s. In fact, ‘Beyond Black’ is strikingly non-trite; on the contrary, it is bleak, almost numbingly dark. As someone (a fan) warned me when I started it, “Try reading it quickly, so you don’t get bogged down in the gloom.” Al is like a woman struggling in quicksand: desperate to keep her head above water, the most she struggles, the faster she sinks.

In the hands of a writer as good as Mantel, Al’s fear and despair are claustrophobic, stifling. This effect is accentuated by Al’s own refusal to remember why she’s traumatized – she is in full flight from something she won’t turn and face.

Hilary Mantel

Mantel’s decision to use spirits as metaphor emerges here as a particularly canny one. Spirits, unlike trauma, pursue – Al is literally followed by the dead that cling to her, the malicious dead. Like trauma, however, the spirits are invisible to most people. Thus, Al is tormented by forces only she can see. This turns out to be a pretty magnificent metaphor for trauma itself. Mantel has literalized traumatic suffering: it is the ghost of our past pain pursuing us. Normal grief dies a healthy death, moves on; trauma dogs our steps, invisible to others, tripping us up and disordering our lives.

I understand better now the emotionally cautious admiration for ‘Beyond Black’. I loved it, but it was hard to read it. Al elicited empathy from me. I felt defeated by her pain; I wanted to help her stay afloat but, of course, I couldn’t. I particularly longed to defend her against the living, the people around her who sensed her vulnerability and responded with cruelty.

This is Mantel’s great gift, I think: writing characters who feel real to her readers. It was, of course, the most striking aspect of her Cromwell trilogy: the salience of Cromwell himself. When I finished ‘The Mirror and the Light’, I felt like someone I loved had died. I had lost all sense that I was reading a work of fiction – the story had become emotionally real for me. I had a milder but similar reaction to ‘Beyond Black’: I was absorbed, connected to Al, worried for her. Her pain had been effectively communicated to me.

I don’t know exactly how Mantel accomplishes this. It feels like a magic trick, every time. I pick up a book she’s written, and then immediately forget it’s a book. It’s something in the quality of her writing, how plain and perfect it is. I’m so happy to discover that there is more Mantel to read. I had associated her so strongly with her most famous protagonist, and it’s a pleasure to learn that there are other protagonists to care about. ‘Beyond Black’ will not have the same magnitude of effect for me as the Cromwell Trilogy, but, frankly, that is not a reasonable standard to which to hold any book. I did love it, and I respected it enormously. I thought it was subtle, sad and lovely and brutal all at the same time, but in a good way. In the best way.