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Reading list, 2022

HEADS UP! There may be spoilers in my notes. Consider yourself warned.

Notes on Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

What if you fell in love with a really really really nice attack drone with an abusive mom.

Notes on A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

Pulpy — makes me wanna re-read Dinotopia. Not nearly as focused on dragons as I anticipated it would be. Treads all over colonial themes/issues. Fun, mostly harmless, but not great. I would enjoy the exact same story from the perspective of the protagonist’s lady maid.

Notes on The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

Said with the utmost respect: this is the most anime-ass book I’ve ever read.

It ended as it was — an anime-ass book, that I really enjoyed. It is light, and simple, and shallowly sumptuous with some fun world building. World building that I was nervous would fall into the pitfalls of so many steampunk settings (embracing colonialism, or ignoring it as inevitable) but Katherine Addison deftly skirted the more treacherous bits of steampunk to build a world more of language than history.

Notes on The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

A seemingly clear-eyed meditation on the future of our imperiled planet that reads like something between a stage play and a text book. It uses PTSD as a structuring locus around which much of the stories narrative hinges — PTSD is presented at many different scales, but I don’t think ever really explored itself, it is always a tool of means for a narrative end goal.

The fact that the book uses ptsd as a framing device is…perhaps a little on the nose…because I think it sort of inflicts a sort of Pre-TSD on readers.

Something I’ll carry forward from having read this book is thinking of everything, action and purchase, as having an associated carbon burn cost and cost for the future.

From a thread I posted on Mastodon:

[…]hand wavy is an excellent way to describe the book. I lost the thread somewhere along the way. At the start the book was drawing a parallel between PTSD happening on multiple scales; individual, societal, cultural, global, environmental, but then that fizzled out and I found myself in sort of a crypto-neoliberal fever dream, where the solution to every problem is an elite cabal of folks fiddling with financial knobs.

I find the book’s implication and use of violence very strange, too, because it is a) always effective, and b) pretty much faceless. The actors of violence aren’t embodied, so violence is a deus ex machina in place of something like community organizing, or mutual aid. The book hints at some things happening from the bottom up, but ultimately seats power with an elite neoliberal class of bureaucrats and bankers

so, while sort of presenting solutions as ways to undermine neoliberalism it is doing so by ways of…I don’t know…crypt-neoliberalism? Neoliberalism but very quietly?

one useful framing I think the book presents and that I’ve found myself thinking about a lot is that it clearly spells out that just about every action has a carbon burn cost, either positive or negative (or a little of both). While the book mostly focuses on the fiscal ramifications of that cost, it does quietly float the idea that the cost is also ethical.

finally (sorry), I found it interesting that the book frequently outlines community resilience and mutual aid solutions to problems that it then sort of ignores, or glosses over in favor of almost magical neoliberal bureaucratic solutions. It offers so many lens-characters but throws the one that isn’t a bureaucrat into the carceral system.

okay, actually the last point, the book also can’t help but to slip in some white savior bullshit every now and again, and you can always feel it creeping in a few pages before it pops off like it carries some sort of energy that just has to ooze out like Flubber’s ugliest cousin while screaming we couldn’t let the brown man’s origin story not involve a merciful white dude who decided not to punish them for crime”

Notes on The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for this from growing up around and as a diaspora Yid. The book is stylish and fun, if not a weeee bit over-the_top and cliche (but that lends to the charm, if you ask me). My biggest worry is that if/when this is made into a movie they give it to the Cohen Brothers who’ll turn it into a thing of straight lines and pastiche, with stiff legs and stony faces.

Notes on The Golden Age, by Roxanne Moreil and Cyrl Pedrosa

A seemingly straightforward fantasy story gorgeously rendered. The use of sheets of color to convey scene as well as tone/time is magnificent. Totally sumptuous and delightful.

Notes on Rosewater Series, by Tade Thompson

Rosewater is part X-files, part exploration of the repercussions of colonialism and a subtle exploration of human apathy in the face of overwhelming, but also mostly quiet catastrophe (e.g. alien invasion as stand in for climate collapse). My only complaint is that nearly every woman is described as being unspeakably perfect, but with an edge to them…an edge from being too successful, or too smart, too powerful. Women are always presented on a pedestal. Not necessarily bad, but a common trope throughout the book. The narrative flips back and forth, covering about a decade’s worth of time, centralized around a location and the book’s protagonist, spiraling in and out. The book toes the line between descriptive and erotic, with the entire story carrying a physical tension throughout. The narrator works to clearly embody the landscapes of the work — personal, psychic, and natural.

Rosewater Insurrection, a distant exploration of a slow-moving disaster, so big as to be nearly invisible. Hyper-object. The narrative starts, circling this gigantic disaster as it cascades further into chaos — exploring the surface — romance, horror, and spy thriller come war-time survival story. I found it slow, at first, but it caught me by the middle and I finished it all in one big spurt, excited to see where the narrative would lead. The book sets up some big stakes, but I never felt that they really paid off.

Rosewater Redemption, while the first in the series was X-Files meets colonialism, this is full-on Matrix come story of revolution. The entire series has been violent, but this book seems to up the ante, grounding the violence in viscera and the damage wrought against those who survive. I’ve been struck by the embodiedness of the storytelling across the entire series. This 3rd and final book rounds the series out, tying up most loose ends in the way that an ending book often does, but tightening focus on some characters that haven’t necessarily been the primary lenses until now.

Notes on This is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I love an epistolary novel. I love a time traveling romance. The combo here is perfection. The tone and cadence of this work is sumptuous and gory. Like a Lady Lamb song. I found it hard to distinguish the voices of the protagonists as the book went on, but, ho ho, meta mo! Low and behold as the book progresses there is a reason for this blending and blurring and merging and grafting of voice!

Notes on the Wayfarer series, by Beck Chambers

When I think of hard” sci-fi I think of stories that explore what a reality with some tweaked variables would look like — typically these variables are technological, e.g. “what if humans with faster than light travel,” etc. The Wayfarer series exists within this realm of hard” sci-fi, but the technological variables are more or less background and set dressing. The important variables that are tweaked are all cultural. All of the books orbit around themes of inter-species relations — politically, socially, economically, sexually. All kinds.

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the one that hooked me! Breezy, engaging and simple — not in a bad way, but a straight forward book with a plot. Characters can lean into the cliche, but I still loved them each, and the world building setup a solid foundation for the continuation of the series.

A Closed and Common Orbit, the previous book me hooked enough on its characters that I was initially jarred to be following a new, but relational, set of folks. This book explores more emotional spaces, but is a bit heavy handed at times…that said, heavy handed is useful, and the book was still wicked emotionally effective.

Record of a Spaceborn Few, this book was the high-point of the series for me (so far). It had an interesting, interlaced structure, that, while sometimes a bit repetitive, was nicely cohesive at the end.

The Galaxy and the Ground Within, the overall premise of this one is very much Agatha Christie in vibe, to the point that I was surprised that there wasn’t a mystery element ever. Throughout all the books in the series you can tell that the author is deeply interested in world building, particularly around themes of social and cultural relativism. This book is essentially just a continuous thread of exposition exploring these concepts within the space. This book also includes a passage that makes it clear just how gross cheese is.