In the new millennium’s parlous second decade, many countries could compete -- should they care to -- for the status of world’s most troubled place. The collapse of the Cold War’s nuclear-bracketed stalemates and the spread of destabilizing force multipliers like social media and religious extremism birthed this new reality of ever-simmering conflict and anxiety. It isn’t just outright warfare of the internal brand being waged from Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine that threatens stability. It’s also corruption and chaos potentially knocking out the underpinnings of societies like the Philippines and Venezuela. Millions of people around the world could justifiably say they fear what the coming years will bring. Even so, Iraqis have a powerful claim on a horrendous past and frighteningly unclear near future. Since 1980, Iraq has spent more than 20 of the intervening years at war, whether the grinding and savage stalemate with Iran, a poorly picked fight with President George H.W. Bush and a devastating invasion by President George W. Bush, being ripped apart by the bloody Sunni-Shia civil war, or the current fight against ISIS. The end result of all these battles, ethnic cleansings, suicide bombings, and massacres is a people traumatized. It makes for a wretched reality but unfortunately rich topography for speculative fiction. Unlike almost every other book you will find out there about Iraq right now, the ambitious new short story collection Iraq + 100 has little to say directly about all the nation’s recent wars. This is somewhat remarkable. As noted in the introduction by the book’s editor, author Hassan Blasim (The Iraqi Christ), “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Still, any opportunity for Iraqi writers to get together and write about something besides the wars, even if that trauma shadows each word in this book to some degree, must be seen as a kind of victory. That is not because there’s nothing more to say about the wars; it will be years, if ever, before that is the case. But with few exceptions, books published in English about Iraq -- novels and nonfiction -- have been about the horrors wrought there and the outsiders who wrought them. But for the odd refugee, interpreter, Baghdad politico, Shiite warlord, or Sunni chieftain popping in as secondary characters, the focus is usually on the foreigners. Iraqis themselves rarely have a voice. When they do, they’re often confined to whatever war or atrocity is then being waged. The guiding principle behind Iraq + 100 was for the assembled authors to write stories set in Iraq 100 years in the future. The tradition of science fiction in Arabic is relatively thin; Blasim blames this on “inflexible religious discourse” and an overemphasis on the Arabic poetic tradition, which has “weakened the force and freedom of narration.” To some degree, the stories in Iraq + 100 illuminate Blasim’s critique. With few exceptions, there isn’t much in the way of driving narrative to be found here, no pulp fiction adventures. But given that space opera or dystopic tales in the Star Wars or Mad Max vein have been so widely disseminated at this point, it’s a relief that what appears to be the first collection of Iraqi science fiction in English is filled with so many non-derivative voices. Blasim’s story is a case in point. “The Gardens of Babylon” creates a world where the old certainties no longer apply. In his future, clean energy has swept the globe, leaving “Babylon” a comparatively carefree technopolis run by the Chinese and rife with decadent entertainments. Like a Middle East take on Logan’s Run, Babylon is protected by great domes from the outside, which is all sandstorms and ruins: “a desiccated relic of a bloody past, a past that was steeped in religious fanaticism and dominated by classical capitalism.” Blasim spins his narrative off into increasingly surreal tangents after that which don’t quite cohere but leave a burnt sensation, as of a collective imagination trying to respark an entire artistic tradition. Although Blasim’s piece notes a desolate outer land, it has an optimistic angle in that at least religious extremism and fossil fuels (and fighting over both) seem to be a thing of the past. Most of the other stories here also steer clear of any fashionable dystopian scenarios. Zhraa Alhaboby’s “Baghdad Syndrome” is a magic realist piece festooned with florid storytelling and details like a weeping statue that directly draws on Scheherazade. It also makes for a powerful statement about the strength of Iraq’s horrific past, with its future society’s cheery sloganeering about erasing history: “Leave behind your names and live!” That cheery admonition is given a darker tinge in Khalid Kaki’s short and tart “Operation Daniel,” in which a Memory Office is there to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Anyone caught speaking in an old, prohibited language was duly arrested and incinerated. But still, ancient artifacts and old songs litter the characters’ lives, reminders of the joys they lost in the safe-seeking abandonment of their legacies. Some stories bound more carelessly about, like Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Kuszib,” with its disposable “solar blade” transport, “terror-proof” trashcans, Soylent Green wine, and goofy security “robotic puppies” that seem like a Jeff Koons installation reimagined by a security contractor. Others have a quasi-utopian atmosphere, like Ibrahim al-Marashi’s “Najufa,” which imagine terrors from the deep past -- like that of the dreaded terrorist group CAKA, “the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas” -- now swept away in a peaceful and technologically advanced Iraq. Ali Bader’s “The Corporal” is a thoughtful, acerbic, Ted Chiang-like piece about an Iraqi soldier killed by an American who spends his waiting time in limbo in the peaceful city of Kut one century hence. Religion is no more, everybody lives in harmony, and the soldier watches in astonishment as the Iraqi president gives a speech about the war against religious extremism in America. Blasim writes that he coaxed the contributors into the project by telling them that “writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality.” There is indeed room to breathe in Iraq + 100, occupying as it does such a generally hope-filled and forward-looking universe. Given the reality of today’s Iraq, with its sectarian feuds and threats ranging from ISIS to the potential catastrophic collapse of the Mosul dam, conjuring up other, freer, less hunted lives -- realistic or not -- feels less like a writerly exercise and more like an exercise in survival.
The single best joke in Woody Allen’s canon can be found in 1980’s Stardust Memories, in which the fans coming up to his director character to say how much liked his “early, funny” movies. The joke was Allen’s way of not just jabbing at his own pretensions, but also to signal his frustration with the limitations of the creative box he had put himself into and that his appreciators seemed intent to sit heavily on the lid of. The joke was ultimately on those imagined fans because even though it was no fun to sit through Allen’s earlier Ingmar Bergman/Federico Fellini-aping work, eventually he broke out into a richer idiom that allowed him to toggle between satire, drama, and gags. There’s no Crimes and Misdemeanors without Allen getting through Interiors first. If the end result was a similar creative chrysalis, it would be easier to take Neal Stephenson’s stiff-necked pre- and post-apocalyptic imaginarium of a novel Seveneves. It’s not that this novel doesn’t have scope or ambition. That wouldn’t be a fair assessment of a nearly 900-page work that starts with the line “The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason” and ends several millennia later when the human race has been reconstituted along seven distinctly unique genetic strains battling amongst themselves while figuring out how to recolonize Earth. But what it doesn’t have is humor. This is especially disappointing when talking about a novelist like Stephenson, who unlike Allen (whose works tend to come out stamped “serious” or “funny” with no in-between) could always use comedy of a particularly deadpan vibe to grease the wheels of his data-heavy plots. We are now over 30 years away from Stephenson’s first stab at alternate world-building, The Big U. But it seems even further. That messy splat of a sophomoric freshman novel hurled terrorist splinter cells and nuclear waste into a madcap satire on university life that included ruminations on Julian Jaynes and pitch-perfect renderings of the role-gamer mentality. Rough-hewn and self-impressed, it isn’t a book that aged well. One can see why the author was okay with it being out of print for awhile, particularly after he published novels that still showboated but were more confident about it. In the 1990s, Stephenson looked like the best thing to happen to science fiction since William Gibson blew things open with Neuromancer the previous decade. Snow Crash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995) tangled with big ideas like the onset of the Web and nanotechnology years before they entered the popular nomenclature and knocked them into dramatic shape with humor and pop-culture savvy. Here’s the famous opening of Snow Crash, establishing the character of one Hiro Protagonist, a master of samurai sword usage, hacking, and near-future high-speed pizza delivery: The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books. It’s all there, particularly Stephenson’s sinuous interweaving of technospeak (gleaned, unlike so many current-era genre writers, from actual technical know-how) into his slashing slacker-era snark patter. Sure, the book gets high on its own supply of over-oxygenated wordplay well before the conclusion. The Diamond Age, albeit a more mature book that decanted a similarly smart-ass vintage into finer china, is much the same. Take this passages that describes what happens after the establishment of Feed, a worldwide nanotech system that can create just about anything anybody wants, anytime: The company was thinking hard about things Chinese, trying to one-up the Nipponese, who had already figured out a way to generate passable rice (five different varieties, yet!) direct from Feed, bypassing the whole paddy/coolie rat race, enabling two billion peasants to hang up their conical hats and get into some serious leisure time -- and don’t think for one moment that the Nipponese didn’t already have some suggestions for what they might do with it. Too self-aware by half, perhaps. But damn if you don’t go back to those books again and again, paging through those high-wire riffs, laughing and awestruck by not just the humor, but Stephenson’s ability to channel the gestalt of a time and place that hasn’t even occurred yet. That gonzo energy courses through even his lesser earlier works, like Zodiac, a goofy eco-warrior suspense novel, and the technothrillers he published under his Stephen Bury pen name. As for the Baroque Cycle -- that elephantine historical trilogy set in late-17th- and early-18th-century Europe -- it was punishingly dense stuff that pulled back on literary pyrotechnics and doesn’t lend itself as much to re-readings. But still, threaded as it was with fascinating sidebars on an fraught collisions of religion, politics, and science, and haunted with conspiratorial darkness, it reads almost like a less-gossipy precursor to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books. All of this roundabout summing-up is a means of avoiding the stubborn truth about Seveneves. After a welcome semi-return to form with Stephenson’s overlong but still larkish thriller Reamde in 2011, Stephenson’s first big science fiction effort since 2008’s Anathem is a joyless heap of jargon. Its astounding leaps of imagination and eagerness to ignore most of the narrative conventions of the genres it’s toying with ultimately come to naught. There are few if any laughs, less than zero memorable characters, and not much high-altitude wordplay. What the book has in spades is great big slabs of idea-mongering and world-building of the sort that Stephenson normally leavens with sprightly characters and wiseacre dialogue. At first, it’s actually not much of a problem. Stephenson begins things in classic time-zone-jumping disaster-novel mode. After the moon is smashed into a cloud of fragments by an unknown entity, the scientific community comes together in record time to inform its leaders that very shortly that debris will descend on the Earth in a fiery cloud. They call it “the Hard Rain” and say that it will destroy everything. So in the manner of classic, can-do hard sci-fi, everyone gets busy figuring out how to get as many humans up into a semi-sustainable orbit before the surface is turned into a Hieronymus Bosch-ian hell. It’s a good start, somewhere between the hard sci-fi typified by Greg Bear and the grittier disaster sci-fi of Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer (without the quasi-white supremacism), tinged with the occasional hint of killer-comet narratives like Deep Impact; only there’s no Téa Leoni tearfully awaiting death by tsunami. The scientists race to figure out how to build out the already-manned space station into a kind of Earth 2 and to surround it with as many jury-rigged “arklet” capsules for fleeing humans, while the politicians try to break the bad news to the people of the Earth. The closest thing to a hero in the book is Stephenson’s Neil deGrasse Tyson stand-in, charming, popular TV scientist Dubois Jerome Xavier Harris (aka “Doob”), who muses how he would break the news: Look, everybody dies. Of the seven billion people now living on Earth, basically all will be dead a hundred years from now -- most a lot sooner. No one wants to die, but most calmly accept that it’s going to happen. That strain of no-chaser non-emotionalism runs throughout the book, particularly once the story gets narrowed down to the astronauts and selected non-astronaut smart people busy putting together their post-Hard Rain plan in orbit. At that point, the Earth-bound action recedes quickly (as it will when seen from space) and we’re left with white-boarding and bickering amongst a bunch of engineers. There isn’t anything wrong with all this, of course. Certain corners of sci-fi have long been reserved for those comfortable (as they must be to read Seveneves) wading through pages and pages of flat dialogue about controlled burns, orbital arcs, “bolides,” ham radio frequencies, Lagrange points, and the finer points of genetic engineering. It can feel at times like the sort of thing engineers might like to read when sitting in the break room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in between grouching about how the goobers at NASA always miscalculate their parabolas. The sad thing here is that once Stephenson’s idea factory truly takes off in the last quarter or so of the novel, most readers will have given up. The characters, bland when not just plain unpleasant, will have long since blurred together. Even then, after Seveneves takes its bold leap millennia into the future when humanity has reformed itself along more quasi-scientific and Isaac Asimovian lines, Stephenson can’t ever kick his narrative into high gear. More critically, he never engages with the deeper philosophical entanglements of the fascinating scenarios he keeps uncorking: ringworlds, designer races, the impossibility of humanity ever leaving the near-orbit of Earth no matter how advanced our technology. Too much sci-fi has been ground down into series work these days. We need big thinkers, bold ideas, brave writers. This should have been it. A heavier editorial hand might have done the trick. But, per Allen, maybe this is a necessary step in Stephenson’s writerly arc. Seveneves might be what had to be written before he could embark on another kind of writing. Maybe his Match Point is still to come.
Football is the most popular sport in America. Baseball, basketball, hockey, and even sometimes that suspect endeavor known as soccer all have their adherents. But when it comes to true rallying power, no other athletic contest outside of the Olympics can reliably achieve critical mass like professional and college football. This is a truth rarely acknowledged. Football knocked baseball, that lazy and pastoral game of grass diamonds and poetic sinkers, off the perch sometime after the Second World War. Baseball is still referred to as the national game. But a glance at how the country comes to a nacho-sated halt on Super Bowl Sunday but barely misses a beat during the World Series tells the true story. Maybe that’s because Americans know there is something intrinsically negative about the institution of football itself. Maybe we as a country would rather think of ourselves as fans of baseball than football. Spectators at the Roman Coliseum, after all, knew there was something untoward about watching one gladiator sever another’s limbs, no matter how lustily they egged him on. Ken Burns will never make an 11-part PBS documentary on football. If popular sports constitute a feedback loop with society, each reflecting and influencing the other, it’s difficult to argue that football’s dominance is a positive thing. With the steady drip of grim news about crooked stadium deals, domestic violence, and the ever-mutating and worsening concussion scandals -- and that’s without even getting into college players who read at a 5th-grade level and the various high school team mass-rape outrages -- what’s a football lover supposed to do? How much should they care? What’s the ethical thing to do? Is it possible to simply watch and yet not be complicit? What, if any, are a fan’s responsibilities? Steve Almond wrestles with a swarm of similar quandaries in his short, lacerating new bar-argument of a book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. It isn’t an argument he was itching to have. Almond is a bone-deep fan of the game: “I am one of you.” This is a crucial bona fide for somebody churning up this kind of imbroglio. To describe with any authority what is truly awful about football, it helps to love it and to know it. In the first place, for all its seeming simplicity of quadrilateral lines and battle formations, football is a wildly complicated game studded with arcane rules that take some time to appreciate. Secondly, since football discourse’s tenor trends toward tribal defensiveness and instantaneous fury, any negative opinion about the game from a non-fan is dismissed even quicker than if said by a true believer. Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray. In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny:” I assumed, in other words, a posture of ironic distance, which is what we Americans do to avoid the corruption of our spiritual entanglements. Ironic distance allows us to separate ourselves from the big, complicated moral systems around us (political, religious, familial), to sit in judgment of others rather than ourselves. It’s the reason, as we zoom into the twilight years of our imperial reign, that Reality TV has become our designated guilty pleasure. But here’s the thing. You can run from your own subtext for only so long. Those spray-tanned lunatics we happily revile are merely turned-out versions of our private selves. The whores we hide from public view. Almond is disturbed by what he sees as a pernicious blend of unthinking brutality and fooling-ourselves mass consumption. There is the hypocrisy that leads thousands of fans in stadiums and TV rooms to first shout at their guy to take the other guy’s head off, then sit quietly once the poleaxed player is crumpled comatose on the turf, and then applaud in self-congratulatory fashion when he limps off the field. Wisely, Almond doesn’t spend much time on proving the concussion crisis; which is less a new crisis than an inherent part of the game that is only now considered a crisis because it is being recognized. After years of long-form newspaper investigations to Frontline's damning “League of Denial” excoriation from last year, there is little left to argue about, even as the National Football League’s minions fold, mutilate, and spin the truth like those Big Tobacco lawyers and lobbyists of old. The evidence gathered points to the average football player being, because they spend so much of their time slamming into large powerful men (who, thanks to specialized training and all those drugs the teams don’t know anything about, get larger and more powerful every year), more likely to die younger and have some kind of brain damage than the average citizen. Suicides, mental illness, depression, violence; it’s all the legacy of that slam-bang contest we fans cheer for. This barbarousness is allowed to continue in a civilized society, Almond argues, because of how the NFL has stage-managed the sport. Having the help of a lamprey-like “bloated media cult” certainly helps. To Almond, the spectacle of modern football means watching “aggression granted a coherent, even heroic, context.” That line will ring true to anybody enthralled as a child by the exploits of those gigantic, larger-than-life combatants. We are not meant to see mere athletes out there, but warriors. This sleight of hand is helped along by a few factors: the sport’s militaristic nature (coordinated units, tactics, maneuvers, lines of assault, blitzkriegs); those gorgeously snow-speckled and slow-motion Homeric epics churned out by the league’s “ministry of propaganda,” NFL Films; and actual military involvement. Fewer football games today are absent a visit from one branch of the armed services, not to mention the fluttering of flags on the giant display screens and even flyovers. Some games are so thick with patriotic militarism that it wouldn’t shock to see a procession of portable missile launchers being saluted, Soviet premier-like, by the good commissioner Roger Goodell. For an illustrative example of what Almond terms our “imperial decadence,” witness the scene from the 2010 de Tocqueville-lite BBC series Stephen Fry in America. The British wit is happily taking in the Iron Bowl (Auburn University vs. University of Alabama), only to drop in fright at the sound of jets screaming overhead. Being British, Fry didn’t understand that an American college sporting event couldn’t be properly enjoyed without a display of military might. Almond threads his critique of the Pentagon-NFL axis into a broader appraisal of how the American citizenry simultaneously valorizes and dehumanizes its heroes, whether on the football field or the field of battle: The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We off-load the moral burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body and mind. It is a paradoxical dynamic. After all, part of what it means to be a football fan is that we have a sophisticated appreciation for the game, and a deep respect for the players who compete at the highest level...But it turns out that our adulation...is highly conditional. As soon they no longer excel on the field, they become expendable. Almond stalks through his arguments against the modern state of football at a pace that is both clipped and highly personal. There is a lot of shame here, a discomfort with being complicit in that “system” lying at the root of his angry screed. Like many a blue-state fan, his liberal nature is offended by being complicit in the advertorial-spewing, money-mad agglomeration of celebrity and cruelty that is the NFL and its media courtiers. Some of Almond’s arguments tip toward a to-hell-with-all-that disgust. That sense is heightened in his vitriol against the league’s anti-labor practices and corporate welfare-piggery, which makes it all the more difficult to ever enjoy sitting in a stadium mostly built by public funds but the profits of which mostly go to whichever billionaire owns the local franchise. He doesn’t quite take it to the level of Noam Chomsky arguing in Manufacturing Consent that professional sports being just another way of “building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion...it’s training in irrational jingoism.” But he’s not far off. The book’s tenor becomes so heated, in fact, that when Almond executes a deft spin into a “what do we do with football?” epilogue that tries to address what fans can do to humanize the corporate monster of football, the whiplash is severe. There is something rushed in this book, as though it were powered out in a few heated marathon sessions. It leaves some of the book feeling thin. But this is a manifesto. It’s a broadsheet in book form meant to be powered by heat and what Almond refers to as his “obnoxious opinions.” As such, Against Football doesn’t have a strong and satisfying conclusion. No such piece written by a true fan likely could. Short of calling for abolition, there’s no easy way to resolve the issues raised here. Football is wired too deep into the national identity for it to be yanked out or wholly reworked without some pain. In 1947, E.B. White published a playfully predictive New Yorker two-pager called “The Decline of Sport.” He imagined a future in which “sport gripped the nation in an ever-tightening grip” and the workweek was reduced to three days, “to give everyone a better chance to memorize the scores.” The mania builds and builds until, at a game with 954,000 spectators, a deranged man shoots one of his team’s receivers dead after the player dropped a scoring pass. The bubble bursts: From that day on, sport waned. Through long, noncompetitive Saturday afternoons, the stadia slumbered...the parkways fell into disuse as motorists rediscovered the charms of old, twisty roads that led through main streets and past barnyards, with their mild congestions and pleasant smells. Against Football is a book that kicks and prods and fights with itself and ourselves. Almond is asking himself and us to drop the ironic distance, open our eyes, and truly look at the dangerous, vile, beautiful, fun, highly corrupted, and horrifically corrupting corporate behemoth we spend so much of our money and leisure time enraptured by, and know what it is that we are doing, and what we are supporting. Part of that process might be just taking a couple steps back, shaking off the spell. Maybe a few more drives down old, twisty roads would do us all some good.
Societies are problematic things. Empires, too. They never seem capable of locating that moment of stolid clarity, when all is good on God’s earth and everyone can get about his or her business without being inordinately harassed by barbarians or the taxman. Either they’re on the ascent and nervous about keeping up appearances, or the downward slide has set in and everybody’s yelling to hang on. Civilizations, by definition saddled with a commentariat that likes to opine about such things, can be like patients eternally on the analyst’s couch. Things aren’t going well, they might say. It all seemed fine a few years ago. And then...things just changed. I’m not sure when it happened, or how. This colors how we look to the past. Most analyses of the Roman Empire skip past the glory days and settle in for a good long Gibbon-quoting look at how things fell apart. That’s the good stuff, it would seem. The United States is thrashing through a rough bout of self-analysis, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the doom-saturated 1970s. Most of today’s agita stems from a legislative and executive branch whose dysfunctionality could make Italian politicians sigh in relief at for once not being the worst on the scene. Faux-libertarian partisans scamper over each other to tear down every institution or rule that impinges on their narrowly-defined “freedom” while fatally indecisive progressives bleat from the sidelines. Both sides withdraw into self-selected ideological ghettoes. A miserable economy, terrorism, and a sense of the inevitability of environmental collapse don’t help matters. Why else the flood of apocalypse fiction and films? A sign of just how bleak the country’s sense of the future is can be found in Max Brooks’s World War Z. Although the speculative novel -- which rather cleverly reimagines Studs Terkel’s The Good War as an oral history of a world-spanning zombie onslaught -- spends much of its time in rather bleak scenery, it also contains a clear trumpeting of hope. Because after Brooks gets done reporting how different nations respond to the assault of the undead, the interviewees (particularly the Americans) talk about how they fought back. Not only do they restructure a shattered nation, they recapture the concept of purpose, of collective action, of citizenship. It’s a kind of hope that is almost nowhere to be found in George Packer’s awe-inspiring X-Ray of the modern American soul, The Unwinding. It’s a big and unwieldy book with outsize aims and somewhat foggy construction. The book -- a couple sections of which have appeared previously in The New Yorker -- tries to grasp at the ineffable, to get the patient on the couch to dig deep into their subconscious and say how that makes them feel. By the end of everything, the book may not have achieved one great breakthrough in the manner of cinematic shrinks, but it has illuminated a lot of dark corners and diagnosed a host of concerns. The cure, that’s something else. Packer takes a similarly broadminded view of his subject as he did in 2005’s The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, his last substantial work of nonfiction. There, his reportage covered everything from the corridors of power and ineptitude in the Pentagon and the Green Zone to the dust- and shrapnel-littered streets of Baghdad. Here, the sweep is just as big, but with potentially broader implications: the unraveling of American society: If you were born around 1960 or afterward, you spent your adult life in the vertigo of that unwinding. You watched structures that had been in place before your birth collapse like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape...When the norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts, the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone. The void was filled by the default force in American life: organized money. The structure of The Unwinding is a curious one. Instead of taking the literal approach of the journalist who has logged the miles and filled notebooks with impressions and quotes, Packer decants his theory into an episodic string of personal narratives of ordinary citizens. They live the days and nights of a country where bulwarks against rapacious greed and antisocial behavior have been steadily dismantled by forces on all sides of the ideological divide. Those alternating narratives are then interspersed with several thumbnail portraits of celebrity Americans (politicians, rappers, TV stars) whose collective grandeur provides something of a chilling and distant counterpoint. Packer’s people make a lively mix, and one that doesn’t feel mechanically plotted. He delivers as lyrical oral history the lives of a factory worker from Ohio, a North Carolina entrepreneur, a tech billionaire libertarian, and a number of Tampa residents just trying to keep their lives from unraveling after the bursting of the real estate bubble. The writing attempts to catch each one of their voices without aiming for mimicry. There is clipped data delivery in the chapters on Peter Thiel (the PayPal billionaire who began using his monies for libertarian causes), a richer flow from Dean Price (the North Carolinian progeny of nails-tough tobacco farmers), and an evenhanded, slightly depressed viewpoint from former Democratic political operative Jeff Connaughton. Again, Packer doesn’t come at the subject directly. One imagines a multi-volume corpus, each one spilling over with appendices, if that were the desire. He comes at it laterally, with a multitude of viewpoints from inside the collapse. The wearied but iron-backed voice of Tammy Thomas details the twinned collapse of the industrial backbone of the Ohio River Valley and the norms of working- and middle-class society that stitched its formerly proud neighborhoods together, black and white. The silence of the factories (dismantled by faraway executives in leveraged buyouts far removed from practical matters of mere profitability) is mirrored by the collapsing, ghostly blocks of once-tidy homes. “She was still amazed by the gaps and silence where there had once been so much life,” Packer writes. “Where had it all gone?” That keen sense of loss and cloudy chaos rings chime-like through The Unwinding. Packer starts each chapter with a cacophony of voices plucked from a particular year’s media stream. Then the oral histories themselves show people thrashing about as they always have -- for careers, for love, for purpose, for the damn rent -- only increasingly without any help from a larger society. Unions decline, families fall apart, executives break the company apart for a stock dividend, and politicians cower in terror of the almighty bond market. Set against the fears and dreams of those trying to hang on to the ladder, or just find out where the rungs have gone, Packer’s vignettes of the powerful come with more of a bite. The Colin Powell shown here is a sympathetic and flailing figure, a striving child of striving immigrants who can’t grasp how much the system he has mastered could fail him so: “He needed structure to thrive, but the structures that had held up the postwar order had eroded.” As a non-dogmatically progressive writer, Packer’s profile of Newt Gingrich as an opportunistic and cynical blimp of self-aggrandizement is to be expected. A few short paragraphs sum up the corrosive contributions of the helmet-haired flamethrower and lover of total war to the body politic (“Whether he ever truly believed his own rhetoric, the generation he brought to power fervently did. He gave them mustard gas and they used it on every conceivable enemy, including him”). But less expected is Packer’s stinging critique of the unforgiving nature of fanatic self-improvement cultists like Alice Waters and Oprah Winfrey: But being instructed in Oprah’s magical thinking (vaccinations cause autism, positive thoughts lead to wealth, love, and success), and watching Oprah always doing more, owning more, not all of her viewers began to live their best life. They didn’t have nine houses, or maybe any house...they were not always attuned to their divine self; they were never all that they could be. And since there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse. In Packer’s view, Americans in the age of institutional failure and social nullity are particularly vulnerable to this special, new gilded age breed of manic preachers. After all, where else are they to turn? One line of description about an Indian immigrant to Florida, Usha Patel (who elsewhere gripes about the laziness of her adopted countrymen) sums it up best: “Usha Patel was not a native-born American, which is to say, she wasn’t alone.” That solitude is one of the book’s uniting factors, whether it’s the emptied and distrustful neighborhoods of Youngstown where Tammy Thomas becomes a community organizer or the cheap, Ponzi-scheme Florida suburbs where everybody is broke, overmedicated, underemployed, and barely aware who their neighbors are. Solitude isn’t a problem for the likes of Thiel, whom Packer seems to regard as a particularly perfect creature of the age. An innovator with less patience for society than even most of the technically-minded, Thiel embraced libertarianism early in life (partly rooted in his selective reading of science fiction, much like Gingrich and his love of Isaac Asimov) and spent his riches on trying to make those techno-fantasies come true. At the same time, he covered himself in ostentatious displays of wealth, like some latter-day Gatsby miserably inhabiting the corners of his own parties. That splashing-out of previously obscene monies receives Packer’s most vituperative treatment in his capsule biography of Robert Rubin. While flitting as fiscal “wise man” from Wall Street to the Clinton administration through the 1990s and 2000s, Rubin preached the new gospel of deregulation. He amassed a vast fortune for his advice ($126 million between 1999 and 2009) and when the economy collapsed under the weight of toxic deals he did not want regulated, no apology or reconsideration was forthcoming. Throughout, Packer is channeling not just his subjects but the writers from that last epoch of vast class divisions in America, the 1930s. His writing echoes both the determined corps of WPA oral historians and the novels of John Dos Passos (the latter of which he explicitly credits). The book draws heavily on the land itself, at least what can be seen of it through the crush of worry about debts, chaos, security. Packer begins and ends things with Price’s dream of a house on ancestral acreage. Packer’s last line is a hopeful one, but one charged with struggle: “He would get the land back.” The tone of The Unwinding is that of long and anxious conversations unspooling into the night, on a breeze-strafed porch in a foreclosure 'burb or in a living room where the TV yammers on mutely. There is a lot of passion in the book, forlorn frustration, and anger to spare. Most thankfully, the book doesn’t end with that dread affliction of the modern issue text: the “What Can I Do?” epilogue packaged with an easy 10-point plan to restore America, and some social media links. The societal decline that Packer illuminates is deeper and broader than can be helped by some Facebook likes. But the book keeps the wider perspective. Though there’s anger here, fury even, hysteria doesn’t make an appearance. After all, as Packer notes, “There have been unwindings every generation or two...Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.” All the country can hope for is a good old-fashioned zombie apocalypse to help everyone remember the appeal of community...also that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.
There was something in the air during the 1950s in America that bred an especially grand strain of science fiction whose like was never witnessed before and hasn’t been since. It was a heady concoction: postwar triumph and trauma, unprecedented technological advances, the true advent of mass media swamping the atmosphere, that psuedo-fascistic hum of nationalistic propaganda and blacklisting, and the incessant reminder that a mushroom cloud could end it all... like that. Because our national memory consigns the decade to a cultural-studies netherworld of Eisenhower conformity whose only pinpricks of creative greatness could be found in the Beats’ scrappy secondhand Whitmanisms, the science fiction of the 1950s is somewhat neglected. Many anthologies and studies that cover the genre’s supposed “Golden Age” content themselves with the 1930s and 1940s, when the pulps were churning out stiff-jawed space operas and riffs on gleaming cities of the future. The science fiction of the 1960s, with its narrative-busting experimentations is seen as being more daringly au courant and thus worthier of critical attention. Somewhere between the spacesuited squares like E.E. Doc Smith and countercultural innovators like Harlan Ellison, though, lies a golden seam that contains some of the century’s most thoughtful, jazzy, and dazzling literature. The new Library of America two-volume collection, American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s, edited by Gary K. Wolfe, dusts off nine lesser-known novels that illustrate the breadth and depth of what was happening in science fiction during that decade. With its crisply typeset cloth volumes totaling almost 3,000 pages, the sturdy box is a welcome reminder of past joys for some readers and a striking introduction to fresh futuristic wonders and Cold War chills for others. What American Science Fiction first does right is tacking immediately to lesser-known waters. Note that the collection’s title and subtitle say nothing about the “Greatest” and just calls its material “Classic.” By removing himself from the need to quantify the cream of the era’s crop (like the Library’s near-definitive 2009 Jonathan Lethem-edited set of Philip K. Dick novels), Wolfe avoids putting together a decade’s greatest-hits package that would have made for phenomenal reading — Fahrenheit 451, Foundation, Time Out of Joint, Childhood’s End, and Canticle for Leibowitz, would be a few obvious inclusions — but held fewer surprises. This makes for a less-than-perfect set, with at least two of the nine novels (Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Algis Burdys’s Who?) not quite deserving classic status, fun as they are. Many of the others, though, are long-overdue for reappraisal. The opening novel is Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953). It’s a spry satire on consumerist manias, groupthink, and advertising, in which an ad man working on the account to convince the people of Earth to emigrate to faraway Venus gets caught up in a plot that sees him stripped of his wealth and identity and plunged down the socioeconomic ladder (much more slippery in this starkly Malthusian future). The sly jabs at the inner workings of Madison Avenue feel spot-on due to Pohl’s work as an ad man after the war and could have been easily used in a non-genre novel of the time. But more ingeniously subversive is the book’s scabrous view of that unholy nexus of propaganda where consumerism almost becomes equated with patriotism; a dark shadow of the modern era that Pohl and Kornbluth could well see growing already in postwar America. The only woman among these nine authors, Leigh Brackett was an anomaly in her field for other reasons. The classic image of the twentieth century science fiction writer is one barely removed from the Parisian garret, a writer churning out stories and novels that quickly disappear from print for extremely meager rewards. Brackett, however, was a respected Hollywood institution who knocked out scripts like Rio Bravo and The Long Goodbye when she wasn’t writing for the pulps. (The wit that she honed on films like The Big Sleep also showed up in her late-career work on The Empire Strikes Back.) The characters in Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) are far removed from her fast-talking smartass movie stars, though it contains many elements familiar from her Westerns. Interestingly the only post-apocalyptic novel in the collection, it’s set a couple generations after a nuclear war has decimated America and left behind a bone-deep aversion to technology. Her teenage protagonist Esau lives in a straight-laced Ohio village of the so-called New Mennonites, whose quasi-Amish ways had once been thought “quaint and queer because they held to the old simple handcraft ways” but proved an evolutionary success after the destruction. Because of fears that any technological progress or urbanization will put humanity back on the ladder to nuclear war, settlements over a certain size are prohibited. Young Esau is, of course, curious about the outside world, particularly the long-rumored Bartorstown, a secret city where pre-war technology is supposedly still used. Brackett uses Esau’s Western-style adventures away from his little village (complete with torch-wielding mobs, wagon trains, and threatening bands of wanderers on the high plains) as a kind of cautionary tale of a cautionary tale. Fear loops back in on itself in her story where dreams are systematically dashed and a perfectly logical cautionary principle turns quickly into stifling conformity and lynch-prone crowds. Society’s inherently contradictory impulses have rarely been more stark. While Brackett put her humor on hold for more serious things, for the quick-witted Double Star (1956) Robert Heinlein shelved the half-baked philosophical ponderings that can make works like Stranger in a Strange Land such strenuous undertakings. The novel is a brisk adventure about a jumped-up actor (“The Great” Lorenzo Smythe) who gets hired by some mysterious operatives to pretend to be a famous politician. It’s all told from Smythe’s preening point-of-view, which veers from arrogance (“If a man walks in dressed like a hick and acting as if he owned the place, he’s a spaceman”) to the prideful reflections of a man who considers himself the next coming of John Barrymore. Although the story is set in a future where the solar system is ruled by a Moon-based parliament presided over by a ceremonial Emperor and includes a race of curious, Ent-like Martians, Heinlein’s more interested in snap-crackle-pop political comedy and thespian satire. Like most of the best science-fiction, he keeps the futurisms working in the background and lets his characters move the story. According to the editor’s notes, Heinlein had actually hoped the novel (originally titled Star Role) would “finally crack Collier’s, the Post, or some other adult and not-SF-specialized market.” It’s a sign of how cut off from mainstream literature science fiction was at the time that even a swift-paced story like this with such a rousing the-show-must-go-on vibe couldn’t vault the genre barrier. A book that was more successful at breaking through into the mainstream market was Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956). Later made into the film The Incredible Shrinking Man, and sometimes republished under that title, it takes a stupendously simple premise — a man named Scott starts shrinking one day; nothing the doctors do can stop it — and investigates all of its physical and emotional effects with precise and empathic acuity. Like many of the novels in this set, Matheson’s story focuses on people trying to adapt to impossible circumstances. Most of the novel is set in the basement of Scott’s house, where he has been lost ever since shrinking down to a few inches in height. While he battles each day to survive — trying to avoid drowning in tiny drops of water, nibbling on giant cracker crumbs, evading a monstrous spider — Matheson weaves in flashbacks about his descent from husband and father to curiosity, annoyance, and finally mystery. Matheson’s best work, like I Am Legend, has always had a depressive, existential quality to it, and this is no different. There’s very little of that stereotypical gee-whiz factor here that one would associate with science fiction of the era, and quite a bit more horror about losing one’s humanity. The what-is-human? question gets gnawed over in a couple other novels here. The lesser of the two is Algis Burdys’s Who?. It’s a comparatively straightforward Cold War-styled story that translates Le Carre’s Smiley / Karla dialectic into a slightly futuristic setting where the worldwide conflict of stasis is being waged between the Allied Nations Government and Soviet Socialist Sphere. An Allied scientist, Lucas Martino, who was horribly wounded in a lab explosion and somehow ended up in Soviet hands, is returned to the Allies as a heavily metalized cyborg creation. Theoretically he’s Martino, but nobody quite buys it. There are plentiful possibilities for exploration here, but they’re hampered by some square-jawed dialogue (“Aren’t we all human beings?”) and a less-than-thrilling plot. Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953) also digs into this investigative conundrum, but with many novels’ worth of imagination. With the care of the true master and the audacity of a magician, Sturgeon weaves together the stories of several young people who discover they have some form of telekinetic abilities and then merge into a unit that’s part-family and part post-homo sapiens multi-unit being. Together, the near-silent idiot savant, the developmentally disabled baby who can’t speak but mentally communicates like a genius, and the teleporting twins must both fight to survive in a threatening world and also understand the limits of their awesome powers. What thrills in the novel isn’t the wow factor of what they can do (teleportation and the like), it’s the dark chill of Sturgeon’s prose. It careens from gothic, Shelley-esque views of the monster-at-loose to the anguished Steinbeck-ian trauma of the outsider, cockeyed humor, fairytale wonder, and some potent examinations of morality (it’s easy here to see the influence the book must have had on Thomas Disch’s work), this is very simply a marvelously resonant and haunting work that can stand easily among the other great novels of the decade. In A Case of Conscience (1958), James Blish also tackles themes as weighty as Sturgeon, but with much less impact. One of the few books here that spends any substantial time off-Earth, Blish’s novel has a scientific commission studying whether the distant planet of Lithia is good for colonization and whether its twelve-foot reptilian natives are safe for human contact. A potentially dynamic plot about the first Lithian coming to a crowded Earth — moved mostly underground after pollution and war — and fomenting revolution gets lost in knotty theological arguments put forward by a Jesuit member of the commission. It all ends in an anarchic and potentially xenocidic muddle, but Blish at least keeps his prose passionately engaged throughout. More of a muddle is Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (serialized 1958, published as novel 1961). One of his “Change War” stories about an epic conflict being waged across all time periods by two vaguely delineated groups (the Spiders and the Snakes), it takes place in a so-called “Recuperation Station” for soldiers returning from their hopscotch missions. Narrated by Greta, a former Chicago girl who works there as an entertainer, the novel begins with high promise: Our Soldiers fight by going back to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long killing business, believe me. Leiber brings the fast-talking brio of his Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales to this high-concept piece, using Greta to give it a raggedly funny and sad voice. But as the story progresses, with concerns rising over the increasingly shredded fabric of time and the possibility of deeply cynical manipulations behind the scenes, Leiber’s volleying dialogue tends to spiral out of control and blur his already tangled narrative. There’s almost more vision here than Leiber know what to do with; there are worse problems. The jewel of this collection is Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956). A rocketing fantasia alight with apocalyptic Blakean visions and flights of fancy (it was published in England as Tiger! Tiger!), it’s the “vengeful history” of one Gulliver Foyle. Sole survivor of an attack on his spaceship, he is spotted and then left for dead by another ship that happens to come by. Burning with supernova rage, he becomes a singleminded machine for revenge, a spaceshifting precursor to Donald E. Westlake’s Parker. Tearing through Bester’s kaleidoscopic vision of a future where now-commonplace teleporting, or “jaunting,” has fundamentally altered society (in one instance: nobody bothers building fences anymore), Foyle is one of the great science-fiction antiheros. Around him, Bester crafts one of science fiction’s most memorable worlds, a gilded time of corporate clans (Sherwin-Williams, Esso, Greyhound), disappearing racial differences (again, jaunting), and outlawed religion. It’s a baroque style unusual for science fiction of the time, but instead of weighing down the story, Bester’s decorative lines help it sing. His opening lines seem just as fresh now as then: This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying... but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice … but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks, but nobody loved it. At its best, science fiction is always considering history, where we stand in it, where it’s taking us, how we’re mangling or ignoring it. This is a collection that does all of that, and delivers some of the American century’s most sparkling fiction, to boot.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is a curious group, though given that they’re a writers’ guild, curious is par for the course. Gathering together scribblers from two related but nevertheless distinct disciplines under one umbrella seems like a holdover from a less genre-friendly time, when artists like these needed to band together for strength and comfort. After all, when the Edgar Awards come out every year, it’s under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America; that’s it, just mystery. But the SFWA are a welcoming bunch, nevertheless, handing out their Nebula Award in recent years to everyone from crackerjack dreamweavers like Neil Gaiman (the mainstream dark fantasy American Gods in 2002 and the fey nightmare Coraline in 2003) to once-mainstream writers gone gleefully genre like Michael Chabon (his brilliantly imagined counterfactual-cum-detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in 2007). Time will tell if the last decade’s batch of winners will hold up to scrutiny like those in its first decade, when the Nebula was passed out to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, three foundational works in 20th century science fiction. There are six novels nominated for this year’s Nebula Award, which will be announced May 19th. They cover the future, the present, and the indefinable. They feature shy faeries, magicians who wield bugs like weapons, and a postapocalyptic steampunk traveling circus. What they don’t do much of is splash about in that shallow, mucky pool of vampire/alien/cop/erotica/fallen angel serial potboilers (new variations ever-spinning off as though generated by some genre virus) being snapped up by ever more readers. Only two of the six Nebula nominees are series books, the rest are novel-novels – left to live or die on their own, no cliffhangers to entice you back. Firebird by Jack McDevitt: McDevitt is one of those increasingly rare practitioners of the far-future space opera; unfortunately, Firebird is not exactly an advertisement for the subgenre. The sixth of a series, it’s narrated by Chase Kolpath, dutiful assistant to the series’ star, Jack Benedict, a kind of archaeologist-cum-rare antiquities dealer (an earlier Benedict novel, Seeker, took the Nebula in 2006). Chase and Jack meander their way into a mystery linking a disappeared physicist named Christopher Robin and a series of spaceships that have disappeared. The prose has the monotone feel of a constant hum, only slightly upticking even when Chase and Jack are besieged by a band of malevolent AIs rampaging about like more advanced versions of the human-hating machines in Stephen King’s “Trucks.” Alex’s God-like sagacity turns less Sherlockian as the story bumps on, Chase’s dully Watson-like dependability is slightly tweaked, but the lack of dimensionality to the characters is nearly complete. It’s true that McDevitt ratchets up the cross-dimensional drama once more is discovered about the disappeared ships and stirs some embers of an intriguing debate over the souls of AIs. Sadly, though, he sets aside any attempt to portray a cross-galaxy human society many centuries in the future as truly any different from today’s. The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin is a rising talent with a couple of Hugo and Nebula nominations to her credit and a sharp voice — check out her quasi-manifesto: “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.” Like half of this year’s nominees, her novel is more fantasy than science fiction, but as previously discussed, all are welcome here. The final entry in her “Inheritance Trilogy,” The Kingdom of Gods is set in the same magic-plagued world as the previous two, but with different characters. The narrator Sieh, is a “godling” who still winces at the memory of his long imprisonment by the Arameri, a tyrannical human dynasty (whose Vatican-sized palace is built in a “World Tree” the size of a mountain range) which has lost the power to enslave gods. Sieh’s a bratty and bloody-minded Loki-esque trickster figure who thinks nothing of slaughtering dozens in a fit of pique, but nevertheless steals the hearts of a pair of Arameri royal siblings. Jemisin paces her book fast and knotty (the glossary at back helps), downgrading Sieh to mortal status and setting him adrift in the roiling dramas of this hyperbolic, violent, and power-crazed world. It’s overripe and overplotted, but rich with detail and emotion; she channels the darker fratricidal and genocidal themes of Greek mythology like few other writers can. Jemisin doesn’t make the mistake of ascribing human morality to her godly characters just because they have recognizably human emotions. Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine: Valentine’s short fictions have been anthologized many times — everywhere from various Year’s Best collections to more themed-works like War and Space — but this is her first novel. The easiest definition of Mechanique’s loosely-threaded story would be “steampunk circus.” No airships and not a pair of goggles to be seen, but still, there’s enough fascination with clanking machinery and low-tech bioware, as well as a fuzzy disinterest in time-period specificity. Call it steampunk-adjacent. The Circus Tresaulti, as described by the young and romantic narrator George, is a fabulist’s dream of patched-together tents and critically wounded performers reborn as pre-digital cyborgs with metallic limbs, surgically attached wings, and lighter-than-air bones (the latter very handy for the aerialists). Their female Ahab is known only as the Boss (whose skill with the performers’ mechanized add-ons seems more than a little Faustian), the circus trundles through a vaguely-described and war-blasted landscape of ruined cities and feral audiences. The whole affair is tied together far too late in the game with a climax that feels too familiar by half. Valentine has imagination, but only to a point. Her characters take too long to come into focus, and her writing just doesn’t have the strength to carry such a lightly-plotted piece to fruition. God’s War by Kameron Hurley: First-timer Hurley has a sensibility not too far removed from Jemisin’s. Both have a fine feel for action and have no compunctions about burying readers up to their necks in conspiracies and bloody intrigue. Where Jemisin works in a vein of mythological overkill, Hurley has a grittier cyberpunk feel to her writing. Her fascinating God’s War is another far-future story set on a planet far from Earth in terms of light years, but quite neighborly in the similarity of its politics and problems. Two vaguely Muslim nations, Nasheen and Chenjan, have been locked in a grinding war for longer than living memory. The planet is ridden with disease and toxic with religious orthodoxy and terrorism-inspired paranoia. What high technology there exists seems to come entirely from the specific manipulations of the planet’s native bug species. With entire generations of men sacrificed to the front, women comprise nearly all of civilian society. Hurley’s antiheroine, Nyx, is a former Nasheenian bel dame, or court-appointed assassin, who now plies her trade (bringing a bounty’s severed head back to whoever can pay) freelance. When Nyx is hired for a particularly onerous job, she takes on a larger crew, including Rhys, a Chenjan magician who is not particularly good at bug magic but will do for now. Hurley is a gut-punch kind of writer, with harsh characters in a harsh world doing whatever they think is necessary to survive — even if survival frequently seems little better than the alternative. Embassytown by China Miéville: The newest, frequently baffling novel by the never-rote Miéville is the most welcome entry in this list, most particularly because it is the novel that most truly immerses readers into a world well beyond their ken. On the planet of Arieki, humans live in tenuous coexistence with an alien race known as the Hosts. A delicate balancing act keeps most humans in circumscribed boundaries, the only dialogue capable via human ambassadors who work in pairs. (The Hosts speak via two mouths, resulting in twinned streams of communication, a fascinating concept that Miéville runs wild with.) The book’s narrator is Avice, an Arieki woman who works as an immernaut, piloting the great depths of space between systems. She is wrangled into helping manage the crisis that erupts after a verbal virus begins to spread in the Hosts, leading to the collapse of the planet’s social order and the threat of all-out war. Miéville’s world is an immersive one, with few roadsigns to assist the beleaguered. But the novel’s all-encompassing alien nature is like a lexicographical blanket, enveloping the reader in abstruse, world-changing theories and riddle-wrapped drama. It’s all less dense than it sounds, for all Miéville’s language-mad word wizardry, there’s a thread of story here that makes it as thrilling and readable as any work of science fiction in recent memory. Among Others by Jo Walton: You could consider Walton more a fan of science fiction than a practitioner of it, but that isn’t to do disservice to her writing, it’s to give credit to the potency and sharpness of her fandom. Among Others is a rainy, moody thing where the story is little more than a whisper. The narrator, Morwenna Phelps, is a Welsh girl (like Walton) who’s sent off to boarding school in England after a mishap with magic cost the life of her sister but just may have saved the world from the evil powers of their witch mother. Now Morwenna walks with a cane and tries not to let her magic show around the posher schoolgirls (her ability to see and speak to fairies might throw them), all the while trying to reconnect with her daffy father and figure out what to do if her mother returns. That’s all background atmosphere, though. Walton’s real story is Morwenna’s love of science fiction. The novel is told in diary form, and nearly every entry includes some finely argued notation on the joys and merits of what she’s reading. Her list is heavy with dark transgressors like Samuel R. Delany and John Brunner, as befitting Walton’s late-1970s setting. There’s a gripping, deeply-learned love here that goes beyond mere fandom, delivering one of the most intelligently impassioned odes to science fiction, and reading in general, ever put to paper. As Morwenna says on entering her father’s study: “I actually relaxed in his presence, because if there are books perhaps it won’t be all that bad.” Anybody who has felt the glow and tug of mind-warping joy that comes with devouring a stack of broken-spined sci-fi paperbacks will know exactly what she means.
If the average person who cares about such things were asked to choose a greatest American film critic, but for some outliers stumping for Andrew Sarris, Roger Ebert, or (if particularly nettlesome) James Agee, they would generally go with Pauline Kael. She wielded criticism like a weapon and praise like a benediction. She flouted the received wisdoms of the day and demanded that while the great arthouse auteurs receive their due, so too should those skilled practitioners of the lower orders of cinema. Kael won the National Book Award and inspired a mini-legion of fellow movie-crazed critics who came of age during the great flowering of that American art form and tried to keep its flames burning, even when the culture as a whole moved on to other loves. The Library of America’s sturdy, wondrous compilation The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael makes a solid argument for Kael being this great American critic. If nothing else, the volume contains an improbably rich trove of not just her loves and hates, but also those ill-advised championings, which any decent critic must take a flyer on from time to time (how did anyone ever think Brian De Palma was that good?). Spanning 1965 to 1990, the volume holds many sparkling radio essays she delivered over the East Bay airwaves and had reprinted in places like Film Quarterly before heading east, and a wealth of reviews from magazines, especially from her residency at The New Yorker, where she opined from 1967 to 1991. The full range of Kael’s smarts, vision, wit, prejudices, and downright cruelty are on full, wicked display. Kael’s writing holds up so many years later -- even if the films she’s writing about have not -- in part because of her zest for the fight, for the engagement. In an age like our own, critics of note have in the main been exiled to media’s fringes, where they can safely carry on schismatic battles of choice about Wong Kar-Wai or Terrence Malick on specialist blogs. Those writers still holding the bully pulpit in the Arts section of major newspapers or magazines can get worn down by the need to not annoy their readers and just deliver a few zingers, a plot synopsis, and a star rating. Kael’s ability to bridge the high and the low, to write about the grungiest of genre flicks with the same acuity she brought to an art-house extravagance and being equally merciless to both, is one that’s in sadly short supply today. There is her humor, an area in which only possibly The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane can be currently seen as a competitor. It’s hard to imagine a better put-down than her response to Raging Bull (and this coming from a critic who had cheered the greatness of Mean Streets): I know I’m supposed to be responding to a powerful, ironic realism, but I just feel trapped. Jake says, “You dumb f—k,” and Joey says, “You dumb f—k,” and they repeat it and repeat it. And I think, What am I doing here watching these two dumb f—ks? What also makes Kael’s writings still sting and sing today is something even more basic, nestled like a germ inside her barbs. She was, more often than not, just plain right, particularly when sparring with fellow reviewers who fell in awe before the latest manufactured classic. In his introduction to The Age of Movies, editor Sanford Schwartz notes that as memorable as her jokes were “Kael’s little torpedoes of common sense, perceptions that could lodge in a reader’s mind.” This was generally truer of her slash-and-burn pieces than her arias of praise. Oh, the things she did to West Side Story. It is difficult to describe what a clean and refreshing breath of air it is (even for a fan of the film) to read a critic like Kael coming at that work in 1961 when it was just another movie on the marquee, before it had been encrusted in decades of accolades and revivals. But in her West Side Story broadside (like many of the better pieces here, collected in her 1965 whipcrack of a book, I Lost it at the Movies), she shoots hole after hole in its pretentions of realism and its jazzy insistence of modern relevance. From the basic story (“first you take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and remove all that cumbersome poetry”) to the dancing (“it’s trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good”) and the heroine (“[Metropolis's robot] named the false Maria … had more spontaneity than Natalie Wood’s Maria”). On the flip side of this is the joy that comes with reading Kael’s delighted take on Jules and Jim, also before it had been safely sanctioned as a classic. The idea of a moviegoer like her just coming across a sweet ray of cinematic sunshine at random in between all her other screenings is hard to comprehend. Here, like in many of her writings from the 1960s, Kael spends as much time jousting with other critics as she does with the film itself. Knocking The New Republic’s staid Stanley Kauffmann (a favorite target) for saying that François Roland Truffaut had no purpose for making the film, she fires back: “Truffaut, the most youthfully alive and abundant of all the major film directors, needs a reason for making movies about as much as Picasso needs a reason for picking up a brush or a lump of clay.” Like most of those who end up embodying a particular establishment, Kael started out as an outsider. Born in 1919, she was a San Francisco area native who ran a Berkeley repertory house in the later 1950s while raising a daughter as a single mother. The voice that enabled her to collect her writings into I Lost It At the Movies and get her a sinecure at The New Yorker was fierce in its cinephilic distrust of what goodie-goodies thought people should see. She could be swept away but generally preferred light to meaningful. Nothing irritated her more than portentousness or lesson-giving. But she could be just as dismissive of brutally cynical downers like The French Connection as she was of airy and ponderous uplifting epics like Dances with Wolves. When Schwartz writes about reading Kael “clearing the air of academic systems of grading movies,” he’s vividly depicting the insouciant air of rebelliousness that allowed her to write a classic long-form piece like “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” In this 1969 Harper’s essay, Kael lays down one of the greatest definitions of true movie-love: The romance of movies is not just in those stories and those people on the screen but in the adolescent dream of meeting others who feel as you do about what you’ve seen. You do meet them, of course, and you know each other at once because you talk less about good movies than about what you love in bad movies. This idea of movie-love being a community of talkers and arguers is lost in Kael’s later writing. Some would argue that the falling-off that comes in the latter chapters of The Age of Movies might have something to do with the decline in American film. It has to be said that concluding with reviews of 1989’s Casualties of War (while not nearly as bad as its detractors would have it, the film doesn’t deserve Kael’s hosannas of praise) and 1990’s The Grifters (a middling film, at best) is a letdown. What is really missing in Kael’s leaner pieces from the 1980s is her connection with the society as a whole. So often in her writings of the 1960s and '70s was the feeling that that weren’t just reviews but larger pulse-takings of society and culture. She lost that knack of the great statement, like her indelible line from “Trash…” which defines movies as “a tawdry corrupt art for a tawdry, corrupt world.” Possibly that had to do with film losing its place at the center of American society. Films of today like The Tree of Life or Black Swan that would have once sent cinephiles into the aisles to duke it out with brass knuckles now barely rate a peep from the larger culture. When Kael stopped writing with that great sweep, her work was no less good, but it was certainly less necessary -- perhaps the same could be said of film, especially American film, as a whole. The Age of Movies isn’t the definitive Pauline Kael collection, that honor must still go to 1996’s For Keeps, the 1300-page doorstopper whose great length allows it to include a long selection from her magnificent book on Citizen Kane. At 864 pages, this new collection will serve just fine, but when it comes to Pauline Kael, the great American film critic, quantity just brings more quality.