Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.

Watching

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On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?

Thinking

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After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

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The Translated Literature Book Tag

Thanks to Rachel at pace, amore, libri for tagging me for this!

1. A translated novel you would recommend to everyone.

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Having just had a lively book group discussion about Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, it has to be this one. Not everyone loved this story of Keiko, a thirty-six-year-old woman who is totally devoted to a convenience store, but it made us ask really interesting questions about what is ‘normal’ and who gets to judge. Personally, this is one of the best novels I’ve read so far this year, particularly good on capitalism and its myths of individual fulfilment. I enjoyed this interview with the translator.

2. A recently read ‘old’ translated novel you enjoyed.

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I didn’t read this recently AT ALL, but I did enjoy Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, translated from the Italian by William Weaver. This unashamedly slow medieval mystery set in a Benedictine monastery culminates in the horrific murder of a lost manuscript (following the murders of some actual monks).

3. A translated novel you could not get into.

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This has happened to me with a disproportionate number of translated novels and is one of the reasons I tend to avoid fiction in translation unless it’s specifically recommended to me. The first example that comes to mind is Michel Deon’s The Foundling Boy, which I found dully written and derivative; it was first published in France in 1975 but translated into English by Julian Evans in 2013, so it unfortunately combined my aversion to novels published between c.1918 to c.1980 with my aversion to a number of novels translated from French around that time (Suite Francaise etc.)

4. Your most anticipated translated novel release.

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Not a novel as such, but I’m looking forward to Humiliation by Paulina Flores, a collection of short stories set in Chile and translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell. As part of the research for my new novel, I’m specifically seeking out recent fiction by Chilean writers, and I liked the sound of these stories. Humiliation is out in the UK on November 7th.

5. A ‘foreign-language’ author you would love to read more of.

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I was fascinated by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and The White Book, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith, so I’d now like to read Human Actswhich focuses on a violent student uprising in South Korea.

6. A translated novel which you consider to be better than the film.

I’ve tried very hard to find something for this category, but I can’t find any films based on a translated novel where I’ve both read the book and seen the film…

7. A translated ‘philosophical’ fiction book you recommend.

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Jostein Gaarder is best known for his novel Sophie’s World, a whistle-stop tour through the history of Western philosophy, but my favourite of his books is The Ringmaster’s Daughterwhich centres on an unnaturally brilliant man and his facility for making up stories, which leads to him selling plots to authors. It’s not as overtly ‘about’ philosophy as Sophie’s World, but the narrator’s musings on fiction are fascinating. It was translated from the Norwegian by James Anderson.

8. A translated fiction book that has been on your TBR for far too long.

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The book in translation that’s been on my Goodreads TBR the longest is Carole Maurel’s Luisa: Now and Then, a graphic novel translated from the French by Nanette McGuinness and adapted by Mariko Tamaki. Luisa, thirty-two, meets her fifteen-year-old self and confronts questions about her sexuality. I really ought to read this while I’m still thirty-two!

9. A popular translated fiction book you have not yet read.

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Using the list ‘Popular Translated Fiction Books‘ on Goodreads, there are a LOT, but I’ll pick Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin. Unfortunately I am unlikely to read this as I didn’t enjoy either Norwegian Wood or Kafka on the Shore.

10. A translated fiction book you have heard a lot about and would like to find more about or read.

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Returning to my Goodreads TBR, I’d like to read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; I’ve been hearing about this everywhere, and it has a great title. It’s set in a remote Polish village where people start turning up dead in strange circumstances.

If anyone else wants to have a go at this tag, please do – I’d love to see your answers.

Some of My Favourite Short Stories

I read a lot of short stories, but I feel like they rarely get the recognition from me that they deserve because it’s unusual that a whole collection is so good as to, say, make it into my top ten books of the year (Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades and Runaway, George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove are honourable exceptions). They also aren’t eligible for the Women’s Prize, which is the book prize I follow most consistently. Therefore, I thought I would highlight some of my favourite short stories. If I can find online links to the stories, I’ll include them, so you can read along!

General/Literary Fiction

  • Alice Munro: ‘Red Dress – 1946’ from Dance of the Happy Shades. This might seem like an odd choice; it’s one of Munro’s earliest stories and probably feels slight next to some of her later work. But it so perfectly inhabits adolescence, and the last line is both determinedly low-key and unforgettable. You can read the opening of this story here.
  • Nafissa Thompson-Spires, ‘Suicide, Watch’ from Heads of the Colored PeoplePretty much the only story I’ve ever read that has managed an effective satire about excessive use of social media. Read it here.
  • Matthew Kneale, ‘Powder’ in Small Crimes in an Age of AbundanceStarts with a middle-ranking lawyer who feels he has been overlooked for promotion since achieving the rank of salaried partner and goes to some bizarre places. Many of the other stories in this collection are also worth reading.
  • Lionel Shriver, ‘The Standing Chandelier’ in Property [also published as a stand-alone]. Shriver at her worst is unreadable; Shriver at her best is unforgettable. I also liked ‘Kilifi Creek’ in the same collection, which is thematically remiscient of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am.
  • Michel Faber, ‘Vanilla Bright Like Eminem’ from The Fahrenheit Twins. I’ve never forgotten this simple story, in which a man unknowingly experiences the best moment of his life. Read it here.
  • Sarah Hall, ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from The Beautiful Indifference. Again, pretty much everything in this collection is amazing, but I loved this evocation of a small and brutal Cumbrian town.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ from The Thing Around Your Neck. In an otherwise undistinguished collection, this story about writing your own life as a Nigerian woman stood out, prefiguring Adichie’s magnificent Americanah. Read it here.
  • Curtis Sittenfeld, ‘The Nominee’ from You Think It, I’ll Say ItI loved this short story about Hillary Clinton, and can’t wait for the novel-length version. Read it here.
  • Lauren Groff, ‘Ghosts and Empties’ from Florida. Such an evocative collection, and this story, about a woman walking the streets of her neighbourhood, has stayed with me. Read it here.
  • Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, ‘The Lion and the Spider’ from Friday BlackThis isn’t really representative of Adjei-Brenyah’s speculative satire, but it’s such a moving story.

Speculative and Science Fiction

  • Ted Chiang, ‘Story of Your Life’ from Stories of Your Life and OthersMade famous by its film adaptation, Arrival, ‘Story of Your Life’ pulls off what I thought was an impossible plot-line (I saw the film first, and thought the twist was ridiculous) in Chiang’s characteristically cerebral style. Read it here.
  • George Saunders, ‘The Semplica-Girl Diaries’ from Tenth of DecemberBrilliantly surreal and utterly horrifying, like many of Saunders’ imaginings. Read it here. I also loved ‘Sticks’ from the same collection, which is so short it’s almost flash fiction, and yet so powerful.
  • Karen Russell, ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ from Vampires in the Lemon GroveLet’s face it, I could have chosen any story from this wonderful collection (apart from that weird one where the presidents are all horses). The titular story is both deliciously weird and so grounded. I mean, how can you not like a story where a vampire feeding from a lemon describes it as ‘bracingly sour, with a delicate hint of ocean salt’?
  • Alice Sola Kim, ‘Now Wait For This Week’ from LaValle et al ed., A People’s Future of the United StatesI’ve been raving about this already, but it’s just so good, cleverly inverting the Groundhog Day conceit, and you can read it here.
  • Ted Chiang, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ from ExhalationNo apologies for putting Chiang on the list twice; he just writes such good SF short stories. This one made me sad, because I will never write time travel as well as Chiang does, and happy, because he gets it so right. His ‘Story Notes’ on this story also perfectly sum up the time travel genre in a paragraph. Basically, he’s a genius. Read it here.
  • Daisy Johnson, ‘Starver’ from Fen. A girl turns into an eel against the backdrop of an eerie fenland landscape.
  • Lesley Nneka Arimah, ‘Who Will Greet You At Home’ from What It Means When A Man Falls From the Skyin which a mother’s yarn baby starts to unravel; read it here. I also loved the titular short story from this collection, about ‘grief collectors’ during a time of war, but thought it would have been even better expanded into a novel.
  • Kirsty Logan, ‘The Rental Heart’ from The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales. Many of the stories in this folklore-inspired collection felt a bit insubstantial to me, but I loved this tale of clockwork hearts that get passed around and broken. Read it here.
  • Jen Campbell, ‘Bright White Hearts’ from The Beginning of the World In The Middle of the NightAgain, most of the pieces in this collection didn’t quite work for me, for similar reasons to Logan’s, but this story about a woman working at an aquarium was poetic and memorable. Read it here.
  • Carmen Maria Machado, ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, from Her Body and Other Parties. I haven’t read the rest of the collection yet but I loved this story, which imagines a world where women are gradually becoming insubstantial.

Ghost and Horror

  • M.R. James, ‘Casting the Runes’, from Collected Ghost Stories. And now for something completely different. I’m not a massive fan of M.R. James, but I love this terrifying story of demonic pursuit, which you can read here. I also like his ‘The Tractate Middoth’, set in the stacks of Cambridge University Library, which are just crying out for ghost stories.
  • T.E.D. Klein, ‘The Events on Poroth Farm’ which I encountered in American Supernatural Tales. Technically, this is a novella, but I’m having it anyway because it is one of the scariest things I’ve ever read. It also provides a crash course in American supernatural fiction.
  • Garth Nix, ‘The Creature in the Case’, published as a stand-alone for World Book Day in the UK. To throw in a bit of YA, this is another frightening story of supernatural pursuit (I’m sensing a theme here) that takes place in the same universe as Nix’s Old Kingdom novels.

This got LONG – apologies! What this indicates to me is, although I also read a lot of speculative and science fiction in novel form, I especially enjoy speculative and SF short stories; this isn’t surprising, given the history of this genre. Ghost and horror stories also tend to work better for me in short form. The favourite stories that don’t fall into these categories tend to be slices of life that say something about power structures, either societal or within a particular friendship group or family, or which are especially evocative on landscape. Historical fiction is, perhaps unsurprisingly, totally absent.

What are your favourite short stories or short story collections? Do you tend to have different genre preferences when you read short stories?

20 Books of Summer, #18, #19 and #20: Friday Black, All Is Song and Free Food for Millionaires

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Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of short stories, Friday Black, feels both memorable and familiar. In full satirical mode, Adjei-Brenyah’s writing recalls both Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and, perhaps most strongly, some of the stories in Narissa Thompson-Spires’s recent collection, Heads of the Colored People, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer. These stories dial up the violence to eleven to produce vicious vignettes of racism and consumerism in the contemporary United States. ‘Zimmer Land’, in particular, could have made a great addition to Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited anthology of speculative fiction, A People’s Future of the United States. It recalls the Black Mirror episode ‘White Bear’ in its depiction of a young black man working in a simulation where he has to pretend to be a robber and have white people pretend to murder him every day. While, technically, this story does the same thing as some of the more pedestrian stories from the LaValle anthology, imagining a dystopian future where white supremacy is even more dominant than it is today, it’s saved by its sheer weirdness. Similarly, ‘The Finkelstein 5’, which picks up on the same themes by having a white man claim that he needed to behead five black children with his chainsaw to defend his own family, works because of how it forces us to revisit the only slightly less horrific things that happen in our own world.

Three stories deal with retail: ‘Friday Black’, ‘How to Sell A Jacket as Told by IceKing’ and ‘In Retail’. The first two, which take place in the same savage world where customers literally murder each other to get to goods on Black Friday, could perhaps usefully have been combined into one long piece; together, they’re unforgettable. ‘In Retail’ feels a little repetitive after these two, but I liked the opportunity it allowed for Adjei-Brenyah to show a softer side. ‘The Lion and the Spider’, about a father who keeps abandoning his son and the vivid fantasy worlds the son creates in his head, is also a stand-out, but in a totally different mode from most of the collection; more realist, and more optimistic. However, despite its strengths, this collection felt uneven as a whole because there were a number of stories that I felt didn’t work at all: ‘Lark Street’, ‘The Hospital Where’ and ‘Light Splitter’ were all too absurd and jumbled for my tastes, and ‘Through the Flash’ was only redeemed by its ending. Adjei-Brenyah may not be a consistently good writer yet, but I’ll still be watching out for more work from him.

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Samantha Harvey’s second novel, All Is Song, tries to imagine what might happen if Socrates was teaching in this day and age. It’s told from the point of view of the Socrates-figure’s brother, Leonard, who has come to stay with his older brother William after the collapse of a relationship. Leonard witnesses William’s extraordinary hold over some local students, which will eventually lead him into trouble, and closely studies his brother’s ways and motives. I barely made it through a quarter of this novel, which is a bit of a shocker, as I absolutely adored Harvey’s Dear Thief and The Western WindHaving read a number of reviews and interviews about this book, I think that Harvey was trying to pull off something incredibly difficult here; to produce a novel as luminous and moving as Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, but centred around a character who is extraordinary, rather than relatively ordinary in the way that John Ames could be said to be. I admire her ambition, but it doesn’t work; William doesn’t seem special in the ways she needs him to be, and rather than achieving Gilead‘s timeless simplicity, the novel feels both chronologically and geographically adrift. However, failing to write as well as Marilynne Robinson is hardly a condemnation of Harvey, and I’m still a huge fan of her later books.

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Free Food for Millionaires, Min Jin Lee’s debut novel, took her a very long time to write, as she explains in the foreword. And it’s a very long book: following Casey Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants who disapprove of her fecklessness after graduating from Princeton, it expands to encompass the destinies of a number of Casey’s social circle, especially her best friend Ella, who has managed to meet her own Korean parents’ expectations but becomes desperately unhappy. Compared to PachinkoLee’s second novel, which considered the oppression of Korean immigrants in Japan across several generations, this is basically soapy fun. Given its length – 650 pages – I’d expected this to become more of a multi-generational saga as well, delving back into the past of Casey’s parents, but instead it aims for breadth rather than depth. I liked some of the details of Casey’s characterisation, such as her frustration that her most natural talents – sizing people up for clothes at a glance, making elaborate hats from scratch – don’t help her with what she thinks she ought to be doing in life. But on the whole, Lee relies too much on telling us what her characters are thinking and feeling, and the head-hopping is frequently awkward. I’m not sure this was worth sticking with for the amount of time it took me to read; I’d recommend Pachinko instead, despite its also occasionally clunky writing.

For the first time, I read all 20! I’ll be writing a retrospective on my 20 Books of Summer before the challenge ends on September 3rd. If you were also doing this challenge, how did it go?

20 Books of Summer, #17: Exhalation

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Exhalation, Ted Chiang’s second collection of short stories, is even better than his exhilarating Stories of Your Life and Others (although I’m sad about the UK cover; why can’t we have this beautiful US one, as well as a decently produced hardback?) For me, more of the stories in Exhalation than in Stories of Your Life managed to blend Chiang’s incredible intelligence with a solid emotional core, and when Chiang does this, he’s unbeatable. The opening story, ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’ was, for me, the most satisfying: Chiang effortlessly handles complicated single-timeline time travel and its emotional consequences, while packaging it in a literary form – the nested stories of The Arabian Nights – to which it is absolutely suited. Although, [spoiler] I couldn’t help speculating that the narrator, by travelling back to intercept the comforting news being brought to his former self, had inadvertently condemned his former self to a lifetime of guilt, motivating him to travel back in the first place, which he doesn’t seem to register! [spoilers end]. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to write time travel this elegantly, and I can only applaud (and envy) Chiang.

The two novellas included in the collection are also both fantastic, although for me, not quite as perfect as ‘The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate’. ‘The Lifecycle of Software Objects’ imagines a world where ‘digients’, virtual, teachable pets who seem to operate on the level of a chimp with language skills, have been created, and the ethical issues that this throws up. Humans swiftly get bored with their digients and move onto the next thing, except for a group of hardcore owners, our narrator among them, who’ve formed real emotional bonds with their virtual creatures and are trying to find a way for them to live better lives. As ever, Chiang thinks about the details: one obstacle the owners face is the obsolescence of the digital platform on which the digients were living their social lives, and the need for new coding to allow them to continue to interact with digients who run on other servers. However, this story is particularly notable for the potential parallels it draws. The analogy with human children is somewhat imperfect (digients seem much less capable than children, even when the number of years they’ve been alive is factored in) but works when we start thinking about why we have children: can it ever be right to create something just so we can love it?

‘Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom’ (the title is taken from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety) also dissects a familiar time-travel trope, although it’s not a time travel story: in this novella, humans are able to converse with their ‘paraselves’ who are living in alternative timelines that have split off from the timeline they are living in following quantum events. A lot of time travel novels (including mine…) use this trope, drawn from  Hugh Everett’s many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, to allow time travel between parallel timelines rather than within a single timeline. Chiang stresses that new timelines, in this story, don’t break off whenever anyone makes a decision but only in certain circumstances; however, it is often possible to converse with a paraself in a timeline where a significant decision has turned out differently, whether that’s leaving a marriage, taking a new job, or admitting to a crime. Chiang glosses this story most succinctly in his own ‘Story Notes’ (I could happily read a volume of Chiang’s ‘Story Notes’): ‘Some have pointed out that when Martin Luther defended his actions to the church in 1521, he reportedly said, “Here I stand, I can do no other,” i.e. he couldn’t have done anything else. But does that mean we shouldn’t give Luther credit for his actions? Surely we don’t think he would be worthier of praise if he had said, “I could have gone either way.”… If you could somehow examine a multitude of Martin Luthers across many worlds, I think you’d have to go far afield to find one that didn’t defy the church, and that would say something about the kind of person he was.’

These kinds of themes – our relationship with our former or alternative selves, our moral responsibility for the choices we make that could have ‘gone either way’, and whether we are the sum of our choices or our circumstances – are prominent in all of my own fiction, so unsurprisingly, I found the story fascinating, although the ending was a little unsatisfying. Chiang is rightly concerned to demonstrate that the many-worlds interpretation does not mean our choices are meaningless (because there is an alternative universe where we made the opposite choice) and I agree with his take on it; parallel timelines can surely be separated from our own world by various degrees of difference, and some situations are not so neatly reducible to a single individual’s choice.  However, in a particular incident that dogs one character, it seems to be suggested that a choice she regrets made no difference because the friend she betrayed would have taken the same path in life anyway. I would like Chiang to have delved a little deeper into this theme (which he does address in a parallel plotline): how does making selfish choices hurt us and our future selves, even if they have no actual impact? (Coincidentally, while reading background material on Samantha Harvey’s All Is Song, another of my 20 Books of Summer, I came across this interview where she discusses exactly that.)

There are other excellent stories in this collection, such as ‘Omphalos’, which considers what would have happened if God had created the world, and humanity realised we were not at the centre of his universe – but a few of the others fell into the trap I wrote about in my review of Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others, lacking emotional commitment and taking place in a blank void: ‘Exhalation’, ‘What’s Expected Of Us’, ‘The Great Silence’ and ‘The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling’. Chiang always gives you lots to think about, but he doesn’t always make you feel. Meanwhile, ‘Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny’, which postulates that interwar American behaviourist child psychologists such as John F. Watson and B.F. Skinner went a step further by designing a mechanical automaton to see to a child’s needs, made me smile, but didn’t feel terribly fresh to me (probably because I’ve written on behaviourism in my historical research, and thought this was a bit of a simplistic take on how childrearing advice developed in the first half of the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this collection is stunning, the percentage of hits is higher than in Stories of Your Life, and it’s got to be one of my favourite books of the year so far.

20 Books of Summer, #14: A People’s Future of the United States

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Victor LaValle’s and John Joseph Adams’s edited collection of speculative fiction, A People’s History of the United States, has a brilliant premise. As LaValle explains in his introduction, the title riffs on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980), which, in the words of the jacket copy, was the first book ‘to tell America’s story from the point of view of – and in the words of – America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers.’ Whether or not this historiographical claim is true, LaValle and Adams used this famous text as a jumping-off point for this collection. They, LaValle writes, ‘decided to ask a gang of incredible writers to imagine the years, decades, even the centuries, to come. And to have tales told by those, and/or about those, who history often sees fit to forget.’ The jacket copy of this book doubles down on LaValle’s framing, suggesting that: ‘Knowing that imagining a brighter tomorrow has always been an act of resistance, [the editors] asked for narratives that would challenge oppressive American myths, release us from the chokehold of our history, and give us new futures to believe in.’

My disappointment with the majority of this collection, therefore, stems both from the fact that most of the stories here don’t do this, and the fact that the stories that do are almost always head and shoulders above their predictable dystopian counterparts. While many of the snatches of misery here are well-written, do we really need another set of futures that envisage the bureaucratic oppression of trans and non-binary people (A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Our Aim Is Not to Die’), imagine high-tech gay conversion therapy (Violet Allen’s ‘The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves’), allow no access to contraception or abortion (Justina Ireland’s ‘Calendar Girls’) or predict the reinstatement of enslavement (Lesley Nneka Arimah’s ‘The Referendum’*)? Not only are these stories pessimistic, they are usually unimaginative; it doesn’t take much to think of a future where things are uniformly worse. But history doesn’t usually march towards progress or slide towards despair; realistic futures will be a mix of both. Moreover, these stories usually have very little to say about identity other than that we shouldn’t oppress others; to me, the diversity, especially around LGBT+ identities, often feels tick-box rather than significant (for example, in Seanan MacGuire’s ‘Harmony’).

*I still love Arimah’s writing, though: for better work by her, both realistic and speculative, check out her collection, What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky.

These stories, however, still work on some level; for me, the absolute failures in this collection – which were in the minority, but still all too frequent – were the stories where the writer seemed to have misunderstood how fiction functions. These stories spelt out their messages so simplistically that they left no space for creativity. By far the worst was Ashok K. Banker’s ‘By His Bootstraps’, which imagines a future where a president who strongly resembles Donald Trump has used a bioweapon meant to return America to its original genetic purity. In case you can’t guess where this is going, Banker has one of the characters tell you: ‘Mr President, you gave the order to deploy Operation Clean Sweep because you thought – we all did – that it would be a clean sweep of our country’s racial diversity, restoring America to the white Christian nation we all believed it once had been. But that was a myth. America has always been an ethnically diverse myth, a melting pot of races and cultures.’ Not only is this terrible writing, it also seems strikingly naive about how white supremacy functions; as if white supremacists would realise the error of their ways if they attended more history lessons.

Amongst all this, however, are some absolute stars. Malka Older’s ‘Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity (Excerpted)’ is simply brilliant, recalling Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’ in how it plays with tenses to deploy its central concept. Readers may have different interpretations of this story, which is written in the style of an academic monograph, but for me, it seemed to come from a future where time travel has become an accepted research method for historians, leading to this kind of baffling but glorious analysis by ‘futurists’:

“Civil society” will become, in the absence of strong political institutions, just “society”, while without coherent corporations “social media” will become just “media”. While we can describe these transitions, from a distance, as neutral changes or even positive outcomes of creative destruction, it is important to remember that for people living in that time, such drastic shifts are disorienting and frightening.

I loved the idea of getting away from teleological narratives of ‘everything got better’ or ‘everything got worse’ by imagining historians as observers of a range of past and future time periods, able to pity or admire the future as much as the past. Older takes the challenge posed by the editor head on, and her story seems to frame the whole collection.

Similarly, I appreciated Omar El Akkad’s ‘Riverbed’, which envisages a future US making reparations for the forced displacement and internment of its Muslim citizens, because of El Akkad’s willingness to imagine a scenario that isn’t wholly negative or positive. The assertiveness of its main character, Khadija, at the airport and with her taxi driver, subtly makes the point that she’s operating in very different circumstances than Muslim women do today, but the horrors of her past show how easily we could tip into this kind of atrocity. El Akkad’s American War, which I read for last year’s 20 Books of Summer, didn’t really work for me, but this story underlined what a promising writer he is. Daniel H. Wilson’s ‘A History of Barbed Wire’, which imagines a reservation built by the Cherokee Nation with a wall to keep refugees out, also strikes an interesting balance.

Finally, the editors irritatingly group a number of the best stories near the end of the collection. Charles Yu’s ‘Good News Bad News’ and N.K. Jemisin’s ‘Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death’ both use humour to great effect; Yu’s story, in particular, slips between satire and chilling realism as he quotes from invented news stories about racist robots, sentient trees and an automated Congress. Jemisin has fun with a more fantastic tale of dragons who are persuaded not to feed on the populace by being given various spicy vegetable dishes instead. G. Willow Wilson’s ‘ROME’, though not as original as other offerings, tells an enticingly human story about a group of people trying to finish their automated English tests while the street burns around them because voters didn’t want to pay taxes for firefighters.

However, the stand-out entry in A People’s Future of the United States is probably the very last one. Alice Sola Kim’s ‘Now Wait For This Week’ (read it here) flips the familiar Groundhog Day trope to tell the repeating week from the perspective of the time traveller’s perplexed friends. This both works brilliantly on a story level and helps Kim illuminate wider narratives about the endless ‘Me Too’ media cycle that lacks real justice, because it doesn’t tackle the structural causes of men’s behaviour. Kim also trusts her readers to join the dots without having everything spelt out for them, both structurally and thematically. Speculative fiction writers, this is how it’s done: more like this, please?

2019 Reading Plans

2018 started better than it went on, but has still been a pretty good year for me. After a number of full MS requests and revise-and-resubmits, my time-travel novel is now out with another batch of literary agents, and I’ve (just!) started my Antarctic-set novel after finishing Tim Clare’s incredibly helpful Couch to 80k podcast series. I bought my first flat, in Newcastle, and started my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at Queen Mary University of London. I finished the manuscript of my first academic monograph, A Progressive Education?and have received the final set of edits, which are very constructive and useful. I travelled to France and also finally fulfilled a long-held dream by returning to the US, where I spent five years of my childhood, travelling to Providence, New York, Boston and my old home city, DC.

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In less impressive but personally satisfying goals, I have learnt how to bleed radiators, put together many pieces of flatpack furniture, and how some bits of Newcastle connect together. I have watched 32 new films this year (my goal was 50, but never mind), trying to address my habit of rewatching the same things over and over. I’ve pretty much kept my New Year’s resolution of exercising four times a week, focusing on swimming and yoga (my other New Year’s resolutions didn’t turn out quite so well).

I’ve made a list of 30 books I want to read in 2019, and am going to highlight a few 2019 releases I’m particularly excited about:

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Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams ed., A People’s Future of the United States (February 2019). This collection of short speculative fiction, riffing off the title of Howard Zinn’s 1980 A People’s History of the United Stateswhich attacked glorified ‘manifest destiny’ interpretations of American history, showcases stories that ‘challenge oppressive American myths’. With contributions from N.K. Jemisin, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Charlie Jane Anders, Omar El Akkad and more, it sounds fantastic.

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Lisa See: The Island of Sea Women (March 2019). I’ve enjoyed a number of See’s earlier novels, which tend to foreground close female friendships (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is set in nineteenth-century China, China Dolls in WWII America). The Island of Sea Women focuses on two Korean female divers, Mi-ja and Young-sook, over several decades, beginning in the 1930s.

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Nell Freudenberger: Lost and Wanted (April 2019). I’ve actually never read anything by Freudenberger, but her latest sounds irresistible. The protagonist is a theoretical physicist, Helen, who starts receiving calls and texts from a friend who’s just died.

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Ted Chiang: Exhalation (May 2019). Chiang’s previous collection of SF short stories, Stories of Your Life and Otherswas incredibly imaginative and intellectually engaging, so I’m expecting no less from this new collection. Highlights include a fabric seller in ancient Baghdad encountering a portal through time, and an alien scientist making a startling discovery.

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Chia-Chia Lin: The Unpassing (May 2019). I’m intrigued by this debut, which follows an immigrant family of six struggling to make ends meet on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska. Lin has already published a number of short stories.

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Colson Whitehead: The Nickel Boys (July 2019). After the success of The Underground Railroad, Whitehead’s next novel will be eagerly anticipated by many. I was disappointed by one of his earlier books, Zone One, but am still keen to read this, which follows two boys sentenced to a reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

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Téa Obreht: Inland (August 2019). I loved Obreht’s debut, The Tiger’s Wife, so much; it’s my favourite of all the Orange/Baileys/Women’s Prize for Fiction winners that I’ve read. But it’s been so long since 2011, and I was delighted to hear that she finally has another book coming. Inland sounds EPIC; it’s set in the Arizona Territory in 1893, focusing on the collision between a frontierswoman, Nora, and an outlaw, Lurie. Obreht, according to her publishers, ‘subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely – and unforgettably – her own.’

I hope you’ve all had a lovely New Year!

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The Rest of the List

Leftover from 2018

George Sandison ed.: 2084

Nina Allen: The Rift

Meg Wolitzer: The Female Persuasion

Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds

New Entries

Jeff Vandermeer: Annihilation

Rebecca Loncraine: Skybound

Sally Rooney: Normal People

Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room

Anna Burns: Milkman

Allegra Goodman: The Chalk Artist

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: Friday Black

Robin Talley: Pulp

Marie Lu: Warcross

Tayari Jones: The Untelling

Joseph Camara: The House of Impossible Beauties

Uzodinma Iweala: Beasts of No Nation

Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock (September 2019)

Ellen Feldman: Terrible Virtue

Robin Oliveira: Winter Sisters

Emily Bernard: Black Is The Body (January 2019)

Samantha Harvey: All Is Song

Richard Powers: The Echo Maker

Lisa Ko: The Leavers