Book – What do Sokrates, the god Apollo, a nineteenth-century spinster, Marcus Tullius Cicero, a ninth-century Libyan slave, Giovanni Mirandola, and an array of twenty-first century robots have in common? They’re all inhabitants of The Just City, Plato’s thought experiment made manifest. Oh, and less than half of them are there of their own free will.
After being spurned by Daphne, Apollo decides to spend some time as a human in an attempt to understand “volition and equal significance,” and his sister Athene suggests that the best place to do so would be in her city. She’s creating Plato’s Republic and filling it with people who prayed to her and wished to live there. Like any utopia, the problems start piling up quickly. Plato thought you could build a civilization starting with ten-year-old children, so they buy more than ten thousand of them out of slavery, even though some of the Masters of the City worry that buying from slavers will make their city unjust before it even begins. Their hard labor is done by robots brought by Athene out of the future, but when Sokrates strikes up a conversation with one it begins to look as though the City has been relying on slavery after all. And of course everyone comes with the flaws of their own histories as well, because Plato was wrong, and a ten-year-old child is not a blank slate.
Fair warning: this book is in large part about consent, and there are several scenes depicting consent and its absence in sexual contexts. But it’s a careful, detailed exploration, tying together many different ideas about free will, virtue, and good intentions. Anyone who’s ever wished for a life dedicated to the pursuit of excellence should find this book fascinating.
Graphic Novel – Agatha Clay is a favorite student of Professor Beetle, the Spark (or Mad Scientist) who runs Beetleburg on behalf of the Baron Klaus Wolfenbach. Agatha is pretty sure she’s no Spark herself – until the day Professor Beetle is accidentally killed when he throws a bomb at the Baron’s son Gilgamesh. Agatha’s life is thrown into chaos when she’s held captive on the Baron’s airship Castle Wolfenbach, a hostage against the good behavior of Moloch von Zinzer, who everyone but Gil believes is the Spark behind the devices Agatha has been building in her sleep. And then there’s the infectious Slaver Wasps, the odd behavior of the Jägermonsters, Gilgamesh’s inconvenient crush, and the bossy and imperious Emperor of All Cats…
Girl Genius is a long-running webcomic, also available in print volumes, whose tagline is “Adventure, Romance, MAD SCIENCE!” And there’s certainly plenty of all three. Agatha is the best kind of adventure hero – she always runs toward the sound of gunfire. She’s smarter and more capable than she thinks she is, but she gains confidence as the series goes on. My favorite characters, though, are the Jägermonsters, half-human monsters with ridiculous German accents who like fighting, pretty girls, and hats. (“You know how dose plans alvays end. The dirigible is in flames, everybody’s dead, an’ you’ve lost your hat.”) It’s a never-ending series of wacky fun, not to be taken too seriously at all. The Library owns the first ten volumes in print – start with Agatha Heterodyne and the Beetleburg Clank.
Book – No one quite knows what happens in Area X. Cameras don’t work, modern technology breaks down, and all remnants of human civilization are slowly disappearing into the local biosphere. The first expedition reported a pristine Eden; the members of the second expedition all killed themselves; the members of the third expedition all killed each other. The members of the eleventh expedition all died of cancer. One of those was the biologist’s husband, and she’s going to go into Area X as part of the twelfth expedition. Maybe they’ll find some answers.
If you ever watched Lost and thought that the island just wasn’t creepy and weird enough, Annihilation, book one of VanderMeer’s award-winning Southern Reach Trilogy, is for you. The narrator never gives her name, only a biologist’s fascination with the flora and fauna of Area X and a scientist’s dispassionate narration of some extremely weird events. Later books in the trilogy offer some answers, but rest assured – there’s no disappointing explanation lurking in the back of this series.
Music – Dessa is a 33-year-old rapper and writer from Minneapolis, a part of the cerebral indie hip-hop collective Doomtree. Her style is much more musical than most rappers, but her skill with words is outstanding. (And fair enough – she graduated from the University of Minnesota with a philosophy degree at age 20.) She and the rest of Doomtree appear regularly on “most-underrated” lists of modern artists, but despite all this critical acclaim, she hasn’t yet made it big. It’ll happen one of these days, because Dessa is just too fantastic to ignore.
Castor, the Twin is a remix album of many of her more highly-produced tracks from earlier albums, False Hopes and A Badly Broken Code. What that means is that this is a hip-hop album with a singer-songwriter feel. If Joni Mitchell did hip-hop beats, she might sound like Dessa. There’s not a bad track on the album, but my favorites are “Dixon’s Girl,” a sympathetic shout-out to under-appreciated and abused women in the music industry, and “The Crow,” which borrows the symbol of Edgar Allan Poe’s avian nemesis for a soul-baring song about loss and survival.
Book – Henghis Hapthorn is a creature of logic. He uses his skills and talents to solve puzzles for the elite of the Archonate, the vast empire of human colonies spread throughout known space. Recently, though, he’s suffered a few setbacks. A dangerous encounter with a rogue magician – rare in this age of science and reason – has transformed Hapthorn’s computer assistant into an animal familiar, which now needs to sleep and eat, and has developed a personality of its own. Worse, the intuitive part of his mind has become its own person, and Hapthorn finds himself having increasingly bitter disagreements with himself. And now the Archon himself has hired Hapthorn to investigate a mystery that goes back to the origins of the Archonate, deep within the last age of magic, which may cause the foundations of the world to turn, leaving Hapthorn’s valued logic entirely useless.
Hughes’s prose is elaborate and ornate, making this relatively short book a somewhat denser read than I was planning on, but I loved it anyway. Hapthorn is a Sherlock Holmes type, but with problems Holmes never had (Watson never passed out in the middle of the action, or refused to work without regular deliveries of exotic fruit). The mystery is well-constructed, but the real joy is in exploring the universe Hughes has created, one based on science but where magic is real and increasingly important in the most important events of the universe.
Book – King’s most recent novel has been hailed as a return to classic form, closer to a real horror novel than he’s written in a while. If you go into it looking for that, you might be disappointed, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. The story follows two men, narrator Jamie Morton and the man he refers to as his “fifth business,” the catalyst to all the really important events of his life, Reverend Charles Jacobs. Charlie (as he prefers to be called) is fascinated by “special electricity” all his life, but his interest takes a darker turn when his wife and son are killed in a car crash. After that – well, a horror novel called Revival with a lightning bolt on the cover does evoke a certain famous Doctor F., after all.
Revival isn’t as focused as the classic King novel it most evokes, Pet Sematary, and dealing as it does with similar themes and ideas, it suffers by the comparison. Where the plot meanders, though, the characters pick up the slack, and a few genuinely creepy moments (Jamie’s birthday-party nightmare sticks in the mind) carry you through rapidly to the end. The ending is, at least, classic Stephen King – sprawling, grotesque, and a little out of left field.
Book – Raised atheist by her upwardly-mobile, blue- and then white-collar parents, Barbara Ehrenreich set out on a quest when she was a teenager: to discover the meaning of life. She studied science and philosophy, but mostly she worked through the tough problems on her own, without any assumptions that the answers were already out there waiting for her. And then, when she was sixteen, she had an episode which she thought of then as a bout of schizophrenia, but which she now refers to as a mystical experience, a contact with an intelligence profoundly and completely other than herself.
Most famous for Nickel and Dimed, her analysis of the working poor in America in the late 90s, this book is a little outside Ehrenreich’s usual subject matter, but just as fascinating. She deconstructs her childhood journal entries and her present-day thinking ruthlessly, and she still never assumes that the answers are out there waiting for her, only that it’s important to look for them anyway, and to keep looking, even when what we find is different from what we expect.
I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I can’t recommend it – she reads like an academic presenting a paper at a conference. I loved the book despite the dry narration, however, and I think anyone interested in the intersection of science, religion, atheism, and spirituality would enjoy this as well.
Book – Sophie Diehl is a criminal attorney. She doesn’t want anything to do with her firm’s divorce cases, but when a senior partner asks her to step in to lend a hand, she can’t say no. And the client – Mrs. Mia Durkheim, nee Mia Mieklejohn, from one of the oldest families in New England – thinks Sophie is great and won’t have anyone else for her lawyer. The story unfolds through a collection of memos, letters, notes, and legal documents as the divorce gets longer and longer, messier and messier.
It sounds a little traumatizing, but most of the time it’s hilarious. Sophie and Mia are both smart, clever women, at two very different points in their lives: Sophie trying to get a handle on the beginning of her career, and Mia trying to get out of a marriage that’s grown stifling. The insults fly fast and heavy, usually in the direction of Mia’s soon-to-be-ex-husband, Daniel. Rieger puts her years of experience as a law professor to good use in this witty first novel. (I particularly liked the way she invented a whole New England state so that she could invent her own legal precedents.)
Book – Hossien is looking for someplace to live. Vesta has never lived anywhere else at all. Cher shouldn’t be living here. And Collette, according to her former boss, shouldn’t be living at all. Everyone at 23 Beula Grove, a run-down boarding house in South London, has a secret, from the scummy landlord to the quiet man who lives upstairs and never tries to make friends, but some of their secrets are more dangerous than others.
The Killer Next Door isn’t much of a mystery; although there’s some ambiguity over who the killer is, the possible suspects are narrowed down pretty quickly. That isn’t the focus of the book, though, which is instead concerned with how all these very different people make a life for themselves in something less than the best of circumstances, how they help each other out when help is needed, and how they betray each other without ever meaning to. I enjoyed spending time with these characters, and I’ll be making time to read Marwood’s first novel, The Wicked Girls.
Book – I didn’t love every story in this collection, but I loved the collection as a whole. There’s an art to putting together a short story collection, and most collections just don’t quite make it. 20th Century Ghosts flows smoothly from one story to the next, sometimes featuring a kind of free-association logic that’s downright humorous in effect. A mention of Kafka in the end of “Pop Art” ties into “And You Will Hear the Locust Sing,” a story about a boy who wakes up one morning having turned into a giant insect, and the Biblical overtones in that story give you completely the wrong impression of “Abraham’s Boys” until you finally learn the good doctor’s surname. It’s a little thing, a fun trick, but I enjoyed it.
I’m having a hard time picking a favorite story, to be honest. The opener, “Best New Horror,” is a fairly predictable sort of “but it was all really true!” story about a horror writer and an editor, but the self-awareness of the story raises it to a new level. “The Black Phone” is a terrific anti-serial-killer story (as opposed to all the stories in which the serial killer is the star of the show), “The Cape” features a very convincing creeper of the sort you’d hate to meet on a dark sidewalk but probably already have, and “Voluntary Committal” is both the scariest and the most heartwarming story in the book (and won a well-deserved World Fantasy Award).