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.

Zone One: Part Two

The Part About the Book

By Colson Whitehead


It was probably clear last week that I’m really excited about zombies. And the book that prompted my enthusiastic screed was ‘Zone One’, by Colson Whitehead.

I love Colson Whitehead. Whitehead is doing what I would want to do, if I were a novelist: using fantastical premises to ask moral questions. He loves alternative histories, weird metaphors (racism explored via elevator repair philosophies), apolocalypse dramas. And he’s incredibly smart – his novels are fast-paced and unsparing. He revels in complexity, never reducing or simplifying the problem or the prose. You need to pay attention, because Whitehead isn’t going to do you any favors.

If you had asked me to pick a writer to write a zombie-apocalypse novel, Whitehead would have been in the top five easily. He’s an author who marries a very vivid novelist imagination with a love for moral exploration. So, when I learned that he actually had already written a zombie novel, I jumped on it.

‘Zone One’ lived up to my expectations, all of them. It is exactly what I wanted a zombie novel to be: vivid, bleak, brutal, hopeless, specific, convincing. It’s the kind of book you want to read all the way through in one go, but you have to take breaks because you keep getting upset.

‘Zone One’ takes place in New York City several years after the zombie apocalypse. After a near-total collapse of civilization, survivors have begun to rebuild. There are emerging population centers, headed by a new capital in Buffalo. Now, the new American authorities have decided to clear New York City of all the undead. To do this, survivors have established Zone One,at the southern-most tip of Manhattan as a jumping-off point for the clean-up operations. The marines have already been through; now it is up to small, three-man crews to go in and take care of any straggler zombies. Mark Spitz is on one of these crews, working his way, block by block, through the dead city, finding and tagging bodies, and putting down any zombies missed in the first pass.

Most zombie stories take place up close. The drama of zombie stories usually lies in devastating choices forced on the individual: Dad has been exposed – do I kill him now, as he is begging me to, or wait, and risk his turning and killing us all? Most zombie stories are intimate – they dwell on personal love, familial bonds.

‘Zone One’ doesn’t really dwell in this space (or, very little). Rather, it takes that intimacy for granted, and then widens the scope. I loved ‘Zone One’ so much because it exploited the full brutality of the zombie story on a societal level. It is a novel not about the impossible decisions of individuals, but about the effect of the total collapse of civilization on the human psyche.

There are moments of individual poignancy, of course, but Whitehead deploys them not for direct emotional effect, but rather to show how, in the case of total social destruction, such choices are commonplace. All survivors will have a horror story; trauma no longer makes you special. In fact, the ubiquity of trauma, the fatigue of it, is one of the most affecting parts of ‘Zone One’: how can you build a civilization when everyone in it has experienced the stuff of nightmares? When the nightmares are reality?

Every person still alive at the time of ‘Zone One’ has watched unthinkable things happen to someone they love. Mark Spitz, for example, came home one night to find his mother eating his father. However, instead of leaning into this kind of personal tragedy in the normal, zombie-story mode, Whitehead imagines this sort of pain on a large scale. He imagines what it would be like if everyone felt the same pain – personal, but the same.

OK, you might be asking, but how is that any different from normal post-apocalyptica? I’ve read ‘The Road’ – does ‘Zone One’ have anything to add?

The answer is: yes, two things.

First of all, unlike other apocalypses (plagues, nuclear blasts), zombies are active. Not only do they destroy civilization, they literally chase you around afterwards. You may survive the initial event, but you will never be able to let down your guard. You will never be really safe again.

Colson Whitehead

Whitehead is less interested in communicating the relentlessness of the threat than in showing its effect, but he does this extremely well. ‘Zone One’ isn’t about the initial panic – it’s about the debilitating effect of constant panic over years. The characters in ‘Zone One’ aren’t scared to die. On the contrary, they have been scared to die for so long that they almost welcome it. The tone is more of defeat, of irreparable loss, of how chronic fear can shrink a human spirit into dull nothingness.

Second of all, Whitehead is a better, funnier writer than most people attracted to the genre of civilizational-collapse. He’s exactly who you want thinking about zombies. One of Whitehead’s strengths has always been his attachment to specifics. He is a wildly inventive writer, and he imagines not just on the grand, moral scale, but also in the details.

‘Zone One’ is rich in detail, dense and complicated without ever feeling like a slog. And it’s scary, but not the way zombie stories normally are. It doesn’t elicit the fear of pursuit, the sort of fear you might feel if you were being chased by an actual zombie. Rather, ‘Zone One’ caused me to feel a vague panic, a general feeling that everything I love in this world is vulnerable. While I was reading ‘Zone One’, I kept imagining how I would feel, wandering this empty landscape alone, my family destroyed, my loved ones eaten (or worse).

Now, I am not a particularly imaginative or empathic reader – it is not normal for me to suffer emotional discomfort while reading about the suffering of fictional characters. That I did in this case is entirely a testament to Whitehead’s skill as a world builder, to how convincing his imagination is. I loved ‘Zone One’, but, more than that, I was badly rattled by ‘Zone One’. It made me feel small and overwhelmed and unsteady. It gave me a taste of loss on a scale I hope never to experience. It scared me.

Zone One: Part One

The Part About Zombies in General

By Colson Whitehead


I spend a lot of time thinking about monsters.

It’s probably not difficult to understand why: 1) they are so cool and 2) they are everywhere these days. We have a monster glut. We’ve always been obsessed with them, I think, but monsters are particularly culturally abundant right now: vampires, sexy vampires, vampires fighting werewolves, sexy werewolves, werewolves playing sports, vampires in love with people, vampires in love with vampire slayers, vampires in the American South, zombies in the American South, zombies in love, zombies fighting Mila Jovovich. It’s a lot.

It’s market-driven, clearly; people love monsters. I love monsters (always have), so I’m fine with it, but certain aspects of the monster ecosystem confuse me. To be specific, I am puzzled by the relative super-abundance of vampires.

All monsters are metaphors: they are scenarios dreamed up to interrogate existential problems. They are one of the ways that we ask certain questions, about life, death, humanity, brutality.

Vampires are absurdly popular, which is confusing to me because vampires are so shallow, metaphorically speaking. They are about immortality: what would you give up to live forever? Would you give up your very humanity if you could avoid death?

It’s not a bad question, but it is simplistic. First of all, it supposes that everyone wants to live forever, which, of course, we don’t. Second, it can be answered simply: yes or no. There is no philosophical meat. Either you would, or you would not, depending on how scared you are to die. There’s not a lot more there.

(I’m being a little reductive here, I know: there is actually a slightly interesting wrinkle in the vampire mythos: in order to live forever, you have to literally drain the life out of other people – is that worth it? But, of course, even that question assumes you want to live forever, which, again, isn’t universal.)

I’m not just shitting on vampires and their fans: werewolves are barely more interesting. They’re just a heavy-handed metaphor for human savagery, asking, “Are we responsible for our own capacity for violence if it’s innate?” It could be interesting question, but it does not deserve the creation of entire monster-type to address it.

Zombies, though, zombies are different. Zombies are deep. They are complex, multi-faceted, the most metaphorically rich of all the major monsters. Zombies are powerful.

Werewolves and vampires ask questions which make assumptions about what people want. They assume that everyone longs for immortality, that everyone has a brutal streak which can be interrogated in canine metaphor. I don’t think that this is true, actually – I think there are plenty of non-brutal people who prefer a natural lifespan – but, either way, these questions only address facets of ourselves.

Zombies, though, ask universal questions, questions with global scope: what makes us who we are? Are we our bodies, or are we our minds? If you had to choose between your life and the lives of your loved ones, which would you choose? Would you kill them to survive?

There comes a moment in every zombie story when a protagonist sees their loved one infected. It might be a parent, a child, a spouse, a sibling, the story is the same. The loved one is infected, but change isn’t instant: they will suffer a period of doomed lucidity, waiting to turn.

Zombie protocol is clear: once bitten, a person must be destroyed, lest they turn and spread the infection. This is the one inviolable Zombie Law, universal and non-negotiable. Our protagonist knows it, but, at this, the crucial moment, as they stare into the eyes of their most cherished person, they will falter.

This is what zombies are about: could you stare into the face of the ones you love and destroy them for the betterment of all? Even if you knew they were doomed, even if they begged you to put them out of their misery, could you?

(As an aside, this is why I think zombies canonically require headshots. This killing, this destruction of the loved one, must be brutal. You cannot ease them into a painless death, put them gently to sleep: violence is required. A bullet to the brain, head chopped off, a knife to the top of the spinal column – there will be no mistaking that you killed them)

This is the kind of metaphor I can get behind. This is a wrenching, terrible question that speaks to one of the few truly universal human experiences: the love of another.

Vampires and werewolves are narcissistic creations: they are about what we want (immortality, the ability to vent our rage without consequence). Zombies, on the other hand, are about what we are, especially in relation to other people. They ask us whether or not it is possible to be truly safe while loving someone else.

This problem, known in real life to everyone who has ever been scared of rejection, is made literal in all zombie stories: is being alone the only way to be safe? The instinct of our zombie-story protagonists (as with humans in general) is to band together, to forms tribes and then colonies of survivors, to huddle for protection. But more people means more risk: more chances to get bitten, more vectors to bring the contagion home. Someone will eventually fail to latch the door tightly, forget to close the blackout curtain, will sneeze at the wrong moment: the more people, the more likely this becomes. More than that, if you love someone, your judgment may be compromised – you are more likely to make bad, emotionally-driven decisions if you are attached to your fellow travelers. Is the comfort and help of other human beings worth it? Or are you better off alone?

Zombies are brainless on only the most literal level; metaphorically, they are complex, and literarily, they are far and away the most emotionally effective monster. The vampire story has not yet been written which can compare to the visceral impact of imagining your loved one – your child, your spouse, your sibling – changing, becoming less and less human, and wondering if you will have to kill them to save yourself. Would you be capable? How could you ever convince yourself, sufficiently and truly, that you could never have cured them, that they were truly lost? It is the impossible choice.

Why am I talking about this?

I’m talking about this because I just finished reading the zombie novel I’ve been waiting for my whole life and got really excited about the whole topic. I originally meant this to be a one paragraph intro, but I got carried away. I’ll talk about the book next week.


By Kurt Vonnegut


I went through a big Vonnegut phase when I was a teenager.

I think that’s pretty normal, actually, for bookish teenagers: a Vonnegut phase. There are a suite of authors (all male) that seem to appeal to adolescent brains: Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac, Tom Robbins, Hunter. S Thompson, &c. They all share a worldview: anti-authoritarian, irreverent, nonconformist (not coincidentally, all traits to which teenagers often aspire). These authors have made their careers pointing out the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of bourgeois American lives and values, and American teenagers, longing to be different than their parents, tend to encounter them with gratitude and enthusiasm.

Not all teenagers, of course, and not everyone loves all of them – I, for example, despise Jack Kerouac, and rank him among the most-overrated authors of all time (number two with a bullet, right under Henry David Thoreau). But a lot of us have spent formative years embracing an author like this, discovering that the world is bigger than we thought.

Vonnegut was my guy during that phase. He is funnier than most of the other authors on that list, and he had an offbeatness to him, a quirkiness, that the more Kerouacian and self-serious authors lacked. I took a shine to him and read everything I could. While I admired ‘Slaughterhouse Five’, I loved his more apocalyptic visions, ‘Cat’s Cradle’, ‘Sirens of Titan’, and ‘Galapagos’, which was my favorite. Over the years, my Vonnegut collection has dwindled, but I have always kept my copy of ‘Galapagos’, moving it from apartment to apartment. I have nurtured a nostalgia for it, an attachment to this book whose plot I can barely remember.

I have always intended to reread it, but have felt a certain trepidation. I am twenty years older now than I was when I read it the first time. Books cherished in our adolescence don’t always make it unscathed past our adult judgement and it’s demoralizing to pick up a once-loved book and discover that it’s actually kind of crappy. It changes the value of your own remembered world. I didn’t want that to happen to ‘Galápagos’, and I had a suspicion it would. I had vague memory of a tone, a general contempt for humanity, that doesn’t feel as admirable to me now as it did when I was 15 and angry.

Well, I finally reread ‘Galápagos’ yesterday, and I have found that my suspicions were both right and wrong.

‘Galápagos’ has an iterative, rambling narrative style that makes it almost impossible to spoil. I’ve been playing around, trying to sum up the plot in a sentence or two, but I wasn’t super successful. Here are some of my attempts:

‘Galápagos’ is the story of the survival and evolution of the last few members of the human race after they are stranded on the Galápagos islands during the ‘Nature Cruise of the Century’.

‘Galápagos’ is an apocalypse novel about a group of misfits who are accidentally stranded on the Galápagos Islands as a disease slowly renders mankind infertile.

‘Galápagos’ is an entire novel written to justify the idea that human beings would be better off with smaller brains and flippers.

‘Galápagos’ is a moral treatise whose thesis is that human brain power has evolved to the point that it is antithetical to our survival. It is narrated by a ghost.

These are all equally accurate, and yet totally inadequate, descriptions. None of them capture how charming ‘Galápagos’ is. ‘Galápagos’ feels like the apocalypse novel that Carl Hiaasen might have written if he had a major moral ax to grind: it is zany and weird and frivolous and yet somehow deadly serious about the point it’s making. Which point really, seriously, is that our brains are too big and that humanity, as a species, has become so smart that we are now stupid.

Despite the fact that the book is undeniably preachy, Vonnegut takes such delight in the obliteration of his characters that ‘Galápagos’ feels light-hearted. It is funny, though perhaps not as funny as I remembered. Vonnegut has a distinctive wittiness, not subtle but nimble. He has a taste for the absurd, but he almost never goes too far. In general, he keeps his prose skipping over plot and resists getting bogged down in a single point for long.

Which is not to say that ‘Galápagos’ is quite as good as I remember. It is highly, highly repetitive – when Vonnegut finds a phrase or image he likes, he deploys it over and over again, and eventually it becomes exhausting.

Let’s take, as an example, the phrase “big brains”, Vonnegut’s absolute obsession. Here are all the instances of that theme from just the first five pages:

“Human beings had much bigger brains back then than they do today, and so they could be beguiled by mysteries.”

“Many people were able to satisfy their big brains with this answer: They came on natural rafts.”

“But scientists using their big brains and cunning instruments had by 1986 made maps of the ocean floor.”

“Other people back in that era of big brains and fancy thinking asserted that the islands had once been part of the mainland, and had been split off by some stupendous catastrophe.”

See what I mean: repetitive.

Kurt Vonnegut

And Vonnegut has a number of tropes which he repeats with as much assiduousness as his big brains: flippers and mouths, for example. We learn in the opening chapters that humans one million years in the future only have their mouths and their flippers, which features (flippers and mouths) will appear only about a thousand more times in the book.

“It is hard to imagine anybody’s torturing anybody nowadays. How could you even capture somebody you wanted to torture with just your flippers and your mouth?”

“Even if they found a grenade or a machine gun or a knife or whatever left over from olden times, how could they ever make use of it with just their flippers and their mouths?”

“Now, there is a big-brain idea I haven’t heard much about lately: human slavery. How could you ever hold somebody in bondage with nothing but your flippers and your mouth?”

“As for human beings making a comeback, of starting to use tools and build houses and play musical instruments and so on again: They would have to do it with their beaks this time. Their arms have become flippers in which the hand bones are almost entirely imprisoned and immobilized.”

You get the idea.

The endless repetitions are often amusing and often annoying. The entire book, actually, can be described that way: often amusing, often annoying. It has a highly original and winning voice, but it leans too much on it, and it thinks it’s cleverer than it really is.

Nevertheless, it is clever and I really enjoyed it, and that was a tremendous relief. I was worried, when I revisited this adored book, that I would fail to understand what I had once loved, and that’s not the case. I doubt, if I had just read it for the first time, that I would love it quite so much as I did then, but I would have liked it, chuckled at it, and found it worthwhile. I would have respected it and what it was trying to do.

I’m going to put ‘Galápagos’ back on my shelf, and I’m going to get another copy of ‘Cat’s Cradle’. I think it’s time to spend a little more time with Kurt Vonnegut.

The Shining Girls

By Lauren Beukes


This book wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

I’ll admit, I only read it because it’s been made into a TV show. When I see a new show (or movie) that has been adapted from a book, I feel peculiarly guilty about watching it if I have not first read the source material. I have a prejudice that, since the book was first, it is the “real one” and anyway it’s probably better. So, as soon as I heard about the TV show for ‘The Shining Girls’, I dashed out and bought the book.

Now, of course, genuinely shitty books do occasionally get made into better movies (ahem, ‘The Godfather’, ahem). And just because someone was willing to make a TV show of it does not necessarily mean the book was worth reading in the first place. But it does mean that someone took a look at the plot and thought it was interesting or cinematic enough to hold the attention of a TV audience. More, it means that someone thought it was interesting enough to put their money where their mouth is and make it.

And I was intrigued by the plot of this one. ‘The Shining Girls’ is a murder mystery about a time-traveling serial killer, and it sounded like it might just be crazy enough to work.

It’s a real thing, the Just So Crazy It Works Plot, but it’s rare. It needs beautiful execution: control, balance. It’s much more likely to work on screen, I think, but there are books that are completely captivating despite being impossibly outlandish: ‘And Then There Were None’ by Agatha Christie, for example (best murder mystery every written, in my opinion). Or, say, ‘The Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel. Or anything by Thomas Pynchon or Carl Hiaasen (a guilty pleasure writer of mine). Just because a plot is ludicrous doesn’t mean that the book will be bad.

And the plot of ‘The Shining Girls’ is ludicrous. As plots go, this one will not benefit from a synopsis, but I will provide one anyway. One day in 1931, Harper Curtis discovers a House. Though it appears derelict from the outside, the inside of the House is richly decorated, and upstairs, written on the walls, are the names of girls. Girls that shine, though with what, we will never quite learn: potential, life, energy. The House, Harper discovers, will allow him to travel to any time of his choosing (between 1929 and 1993, anyway). In exchange, all Harper has to do is kill the Shining Girls: to find them, whenever they live, and disembowel them.

Kirby is one of the girls. When Harper comes for her, in 1989, her dog manages to chase him off before he can finish the job, leaving her with horrible scars and a determination to find Harper, and to stop him.

My expectations were pretty low, going in. I expected the writing to be bad, and the plot to be stupid. I was wrong about the writing – Beukes only distracted me with clunky writing a few times, and it was usually in an attempt to do period-appropriate dialog that fell flat. Mostly, the prose held up: not annoying, not alienating, not confusing.

But the plot, the plot is another thing altogether.

Here’s the thing about wacky plots, I think: to pull them off, you really need to commit to them. If they rely on a crazy mechanic (time-traveling, a house that compels you to murder young women), you can’t flinch from it. You need to show it to the reader, let them look on it in full and at leisure. If you try to gesture at it and then move on, it will perversely only draw their attention to the fact that it makes absolutely no sense.

Beukes, I think, makes this mistake. The House, the girls, the time-traveling: none are explained, none are even well-described. Harper feels compelled to kill specific girls; he knows psychically where they are. He opens doors and finds himself in different decades. Bodies appear and disappear and reappear again – people who have been killed come back. Everything, we are told, is a circle, but we are never told what the hell that means. The entirety of this eccentric plot rests on a mechanic – a time-traveling murder house – that we do not understand at all. And, ultimately, that isn’t good enough.

It’s strange to complain, of a murder mystery, that there isn’t enough about the time-traveling house, but that’s what I’m saying. I suspended all my disbelief to read about a serial killer whose House makes him travel through the 20th century to murder certain young women, and if I’m going to suspend my disbelief that far, I want all the unbelievable info in return. And I was not satisfied.

I wish there had been more detail. I wish there had been more information. Beukes takes the entire novel at a sprint and it feels rushed. The chapters are too short. The perspective skips between multiple characters, and, because the chapters are so brief, the switching feels chaotic. You can’t settle into anything. Nothing was clear – nothing is resolved.

We never learn what the House is, how it travels through time, or why it does. We don’t know where it came from, who built it. We don’t learn what is special about the girls, whether it is something real or a delusion of Harper’s. We never learn why the House requires their deaths; we never really even learn if it actually does, or whether Harper simply wants it to.

Lauren Beukes

And it’s not that every single question needed to be answered in full. I get that there is a place in literature for mystery. There is a way to do magic without explaining magic, and sometimes that is the better option. In fact, it often is. We were all better off, for example, when the Force was just the Force, and no one had ever heard of midichlorians.

And there might have been a way to do ‘The Shining Girls’ without jilting the reader and without explaining the House. I don’t think it was just the lack of explanation that ended up being problematic for me; I think it was the combination of the lack of mechanistic insight, and the too-brisk pace that did it. It felt as though Beukes knew that the premise (time-traveling murder house) wouldn’t bear up to sustained examination. It felt as though she wanted to write this story, this plot, but she also felt insecure about it, so she rushed to get it over with. It felt like she didn’t believe in it, and that’s the kiss of death for a wacky plot.

You can’t write the time-traveling murder house and then flinch from the time-traveling murder house. You have to lean in to it, to own it, glory in it. I think, to make it really work, you need to be proud of the time-traveling murder house. It would have been difficult, I’ll grant you: it would have taken HUGE authorial balls. But I think she could have carried it off, though. She’s capable enough as a writer, and certainly doesn’t lack for imagination. I wish she had tried.


By George Orwell


In general, I’m not a huge fan of banning books. I think that people should get to read pretty much anything they want. Books can contain ideas or information, and we should have the right to encounter both. Be they counter-productive, perverse, even wrong, the right to consume them or not should lie with the individual. And, again in general, I believe that this is a universal right: if you can read about an idea, I don’t think anyone should have the power to stop you.

However (and perhaps this is breathtaking hypocrisy, I don’t care), I don’t think teenagers should read ‘1984’. And I definitely don’t think it should required of them.

Unfortunately, it often is. ‘1984’ is required reading in many high school curricula – it certainly was in mine. I read it the first time years ago, as a ninth grader, and I believed that I understood it. I thought it was about the natural culmination of the authoritarian state, about surveillance and propaganda, Big Brother and Thought Crime and 2 + 2 = 5. I dismissed the human story as irrelevant. I thought Winston and Julia and their love story were merely props upon which Orwell was resting his polemic; I thought those set-pieces of authoritarianism were the point of the novel.

And because I thought it was merely about those set-pieces, because I ignored the human story entirely, I thought ‘1984’ was very simple, and I wasn’t at all impressed by it. I thought it was obvious. 2 + 2 does not = 5, clearly, I already knew that; Big Brother is sinister, duh. It seemed like an awful lot of words to make an unoriginal point: Authoritarianism is bad – yes, thank you, I know all about the Nazis, I get it*.

*I was such an asshole.

Many years later, I reread ‘1984’. I didn’t want to, by the way – that’s how alienated I had been from the text when I was a kid. But my father gave me Orwell’s collected non-fictions, and I decided to reread a few of his most famous works as prep. That was when I discovered that I had completely missed the real point of the novel. And I had missed it because I was a teenager, and there are certain things that most teenagers can’t understand yet.

The surveillance state isn’t the point of ‘1984’ – it’s the premise. When Winston is taken into custody, and tortured for months, as his will breaks, he begins to believe the lies Big Brother tells him. He tells his torturers, swears to them, that 2 + 2 = 5, and he really believes it, and I thought that that was the moral of the book: that eventually, under enough duress, we can believe anything.

But the important part actually comes next. As he is being tortured, even as his sanity breaks down, as he begins spouting Big Brother’s propaganda back at him, Winston keeps something back.

“For what was there that they had not screwed out of him under the torture? He had told them everything he knew about her [Julia], her habits, her character, her past life; he had confessed in the most trivial detail everything that had happened at their meetings, all that he had said to her and she to him, their black-market meals, their adulteries, their vague plottings against the party – everything. And yet, in the sense in which he intended the word, he had not betrayed her. He had not stopped loving her; his feelings toward her remained the same.”

And for this last reluctance, he is taken to Room 101. Room 101 reveals, of course, the real purpose of the surveillance state. Because They have been watching you every moment of your life, They know your every hope, your every fear. They know what scares you the most. And in Room 101, They can inflict it on you.

Winston’s worst fear is rats, and in Room 101, the state has devised an apparatus that will allow rats to eat off his face while he is still alive (as a side note, this is one of the very few choices that Orwell made in ‘1984’ I don’t agree with – it’s a little too outlandish, too dramatic, for me). That moment, as Winston is facing down the rats, is the real point of the book:

“The mask was closing on his face. The wire brushed his cheek. And then – no, it was not relief, only hope, a tiny fragment of hope. Too late, perhaps too late. But he had suddenly understood that in the whole world there was just one person to whom he could transfer his punishment – one body that he could thrust between himself and the rats. And he was shouting frantically, over and over.

‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I don’t care what you to do to her. Tear her face off, strip her to the bones. Not me! Julia! Not me!'”

The rats are stopped, and Winston is released. He is allowed back into the outside world; he is not even monitored. Because he has sacrificed his love to the torture, because the state has destroyed his capacity to love, and the state knows that people who cannot love are not a threat to anyone.

The power of this moment can only really be understood by someone who has loved another person more than they love themselves. That’s the only way to feel what it would mean, in a moment of danger, to offer up that loved person in your place, to want them to suffer instead of you. If you have not cherished someone else’s happiness and safety more dearly than your own, it is impossible to imagine what would be required to wish them harm of that magnitude. If you have, this moment is horrifying, because you know that it would require the denaturation of your very self, your entire being.

That is the point that Orwell was trying to make, I believe. That terror, sustained terror, deprives us of our ability to love other people. And that the ability to love other people is a necessary part of our humanity. Without it, we are not fully human.

And the State, the modern, industrial state, is one of the few entities able to exert the force you need to instill that level of terror, that loveless, dehumanizing terror, in a large population of people (the Church being another). The ultimate tragedy of the terror state is not that it tortures and kills – it isn’t even that it warps reality for the purpose of control – it’s that it deprives its citizens of their ability to truly love each other. It reduces them to crouching and fearful animals, capable of caring about nothing besides their own survival.

Teenagers, with some exceptions, have not had the opportunity to love something else more than themselves. They are incubating the personalities they will roll out as adults, and that requires most, if not all, of their attention. They are the center of their own worlds, and perhaps rightly so. But that means that the visceral horror of Winston’s capitulation – the fear you feel as an adult imagining what it would take to make you turn on your own – that is probably not accessible to most teenagers.

George Orwell

It certainly wasn’t accessible to me as a teenager. And while I obviously don’t think people should be kept from reading books simply because they might misunderstand them (I think now that perhaps I have never really understood any book the first time I read it), it does hurt my heart to think about all those teenagers walking around believing that they have read and understood ‘1984’, when in fact they missed it completely. If it were not required reading, some of them might have found their way to it, as adults, understood it then and been moved by it, but they don’t, because they think, as I did, that they’ve already it.

It’s too good a work to be missed in this way. It’s too good to be forced onto an audience who cannot really grasp it. ‘1984’ is one of the most powerful, brutal, prescient novels ever written. When I read it as an adult, it devastated me, and my respect for it became the foundation of my relationship with George Orwell, the writer I love most in the world. I admire ‘1984’ deeply, and I regret bitterly all those years that I misunderstood it.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil

By George Saunders


“”I’ll tell you something else about which I’ve been lately thinking!” he bellowed in a suddenly stentorian voice. “I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of his own. It is not my place start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why he gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!”

Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used to many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?” (p. 10)

In 2005, George Saunders published a thin little novella called ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘. At the time, I thought its plot was charmingly weird:

The nation of Inner Horner is so small that it can only hold one of the six inhabitants of Inner Horner at a time. While they wait for their turn to occupy their nation, the citizens of Inner Horner occupy the Short Term Residency Zone of Outer Horner, the nation which total surrounds theirs. One day, however, a piece of Inner Horner crumbles, sending the momentary occupant of Inner Horner tumbling across the border into Outer Horner.

Unfortunately for the Inner Hornerites, this incursion is witnessed by Phil, a citizen of Outer Horner. Phil was once madly in love with a citizen of Inner Horner, Carol, and her rejection has made him bitter. Phil uses the sudden toppling of an inner Hornerite into his country to whip his fellow citizens into a nationalistic frenzy. He will co-opt the Outer Horner Militia and use them to terrorize, extort, and eventually disassemble the Inner Hornerites.

When I read ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ for the first time, in 2006 or 2007, I thought it was strange and dismal and funny. I love George Saunders, I love his whole vibe. I love his worldview, his dark, sad humanity. I love his sense of humor. I’ve loved George Saunders since the first short story of his I’ve ever read.

And I loved ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’, when I read it in 2006 or 2007. I thought it was the best thing he’d ever written.

But I read it again the other day, now, this year, 2016, not 2006 or 2007, and it isn’t funny now.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ is about the damage that a sadistic, brittle demagogue can do to a vulnerable population. It’s about how a cowardly population will cow-tow and appease that demagogue as long as he tells them that they are the best people on earth. About how they will overlook and excuse any cruelty towards people that they believe are different from them.

It’s not funny anymore.

This is yet another way that books are like people: you can lose them. Sometimes they turn into jerks as they age; sometimes you just grow apart. Things that you thought were hilarious when you were younger, stop being funny. Things that blew your mind the first time you heard them, turn out to commonplace. That’s pretty normal.

But that isn’t what happened here. ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ didn’t age badly – we didn’t outgrow each other. The world changed between 2006 and 2016: specifically, the line between ‘plausible’ and ‘absurd’ moved dramatically. And so my relationship with fiction premised on the absurd changed as well.

What I realized when I reread it this week is that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was only absurd in its details; its emotional message is completely realistic. People are small-minded, provincial, and cruel. We do display a near-total lack of empathy when we are confronted of the suffering of someone we have decided isn’t like us. It is possible to build a cultural movement premised on the degradation of other people. It is possible for that movement to gain traction in your country. It is possible for that movement to take over the government.

I think I assumed that, because some of ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ was fiction, all of it was. That assumption was stupid and totally unwarranted on my part, but nevertheless: I think that I relaxed into the surrealist detail, allowed the weirdness to give me emotional distance.

George Saunders

I understood that ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ was a parable, I understood that there was a moral point being made. I just figured, I think, that it was an exaggerated moral point. I assumed it was hyperbolic, satirical.

It isn’t though, not in 2016. It’s a deadly serious moral point wrapped in silliness. It’s not funny.

It makes me sad, either way. There aren’t so many beloved, brilliant, absurdist little parables that I can afford to lose one. It’s sort of awful to have ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil‘ ruined for me by the changing of the world.

I wonder how Saunders himself feels about ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ now. I wonder whether he has startled himself with how prescient he was. I wonder whether he knew he was writing an almost literal prophesy, the future of my country and his.

I bet he isn’t surprised at all.

Stations of the Tide

By Michael Swanwick


I read Joyce’s ‘Ulysses‘ in college, for a course on the epic novel. Much of the classroom time spent on “Ulysses’ was merely explication: what has happened, who is who, what do these words actually mean, to what does this refer? And I remember, very clearly, that at some point in these discussions my professor said something which I have come to regard as the single smartest thing that I heard in college on the subject of literature.

It was during a discussion of works of criticism about ‘Ulysses’ that my professor said, ‘Of course, most critics of ‘Ulysses’ spend their time just proving that they understand the book, rather than assessing its literary merits. As you might imagine, that isn’t the critically healthiest situation.”

What he meant, I think, is that if, as you read a book, you must exert constantly just to understand it, you will lack the attention necessary to assess it. If you’re barely treading water, you don’t waste energy admiring the beauty of the ocean.

I thought about this a lot as I read ‘Stations of the Tide‘ because, frankly, I spent much of this book struggling just to understand what on earth was going on, and so I don’t really know whether or not the book is any good.

Stations of the Tide‘ is about an outer world. Humanity’s elite now lives in space cities, from which they control the access of the outer worlds to “controlled” technologies, the technologies which have allowed the survival and spread of humankind after the demise of Earth.

The spread of these technologies is controlled by the bureaucrats of the Puzzle Palace, and illegal possession of controlled technologies is investigated by the Division of Technology Transfer. One of these bureaucrats, called only the Bureaucrat, has come down to the planet Miranda on just such an investigation.

Miranda is an unusual planet. Every two hundred years, the normally verdant Miranda is flooded by the Jubilee Tides – almost the entire surface of the planet will be underwater for a generation. Most of the native animals on Miranda have evolved two lifecycles for this reason: a terrestrial one, and an aquatic one. But humans are not native to Miranda, and they must either flee the coming floods, or drown.

Miranda is a backwater planet, the people kept technologically poor, and subject to the predations of magicians. The bureaucrat has come to interrogate one such magician, Gregorian, who has been accused of stealing a piece of controlled technology, and who is claiming to be able, with the stolen technology, to transform the humans of Miranda into semi-aquatic beings who may survive the Jubilee Tides. And so the Bureaucrat must find the magician, and the tides are coming.

Stations of the Tide‘ is a science fiction-fantasy-Southern Gothic–surrealist-mystery novel, and it’s either brilliant, or it’s a mess. Perhaps it is both. I honestly cannot say, but I didn’t like it.

I’m sure that this is my own failing, but I have never warmed to surrealism. I know that, in some obscure way, I am marking myself out as possessing a pedestrian mind, but I like knowing what’s happening in the books I’m reading. I have caught glimmers, over the years, of what surrealism might offer us: the chance to engage with the idea that knowable, linear “reality” is, in fact, an illusion, a construct of our minds, but in the safety of literature, or film.

But I still hate it: my plodding mind loves plot, likes to grind itself against mechanism of action, and cannot relax into the sophistication of non-linearity.

There is a decided surrealist tint to ‘Stations of the Tide‘. There are multiple dream and hallucination sequences, and the pervasive sense of unreality is heightened by the fact that consciousness can be beamed from body to body, even to machines called ‘surrogates’, and duplicated, which allows characters to have conversations with themselves, or with multiple versions of the same person without being able to tell them apart. Also confusing is the fact that one of the main characters is a briefcase.

Thus, I spent much of ‘Stations of the Tide‘ unsure of what, exactly, was happening, rereading paragraphs and pages in order to get a clearer glimpse of the action, usually in vain.

And as my English professor said so long ago, this is not the ideal position from which to make critical judgements. The truth is, the fact that I did not understand a book does not mean that the book is not good. A book may be excellent and still exceed my cognitive grasp, but, because it has exceeded me, I am not able to say whether it is good or not. So it is with ‘Stations of the Tide’: it is perhaps good, perhaps very good, but I am not the right person to ask.

I can only speak to whether or not I enjoyed it, and I think I can answer with more confidence here: I did not. It’s difficult to enjoy a book which isn’t making any sense to you: I think that prose that is incomprehensible is almost always boring, because it’s essentially gibberish. There is nothing to hold your attention, no coordinates of plot on which to anchor yourself, and so the reading essentially becomes an exercise of dragging your eyes over words. It isn’t especially fun.

Michael Swanwick

In fairness, much which had been mysterious to me in ‘Stations of the Tide‘ was made clear in the end: the last two or so chapters are somewhat more lucid than the rest of the book and are purposefully explanatory, the sci-fi equivalent of that part of any Sherlock Holmes story where Holmes explains to poor Watson what has just happened. The clarity of hindsight allowed me to relax enough to see that ‘Stations of the Tide’ was, at least, highly original and often beautifully written. There is enormous skill and deliberate vision behind even the most obscure aspects of ‘Stations of the Tide’

Hence my inability to state with any confidence whether or not ‘Stations of the Tide‘ is a good book. At the end of the day, it doesn’t even really matter: I admired it but didn’t enjoy it. I’m glad I read it, but I can’t say with any certainly I understood it. It’s broad points, sure, but I’d be willing to bet complexities eluded me, and I have nothing brilliant to say about it.

When you don’t really understand a book, it can never belong to you. It can’t become the property of your heart, the way loved books do. In order to love a book, you must feel you can grasp it, in its entirety; without this ability to get your arms around it, it won’t ever be yours. On some level, you and the book will always be strangers. Just because someone is a stranger doesn’t make them a bad person – it just means you don’t know them.

So, ‘Stations of the Tide‘ and I are strangers. I admire it, from a distance, I think, but at a distance I remain.