Lively and entertaining, the discussion considered whether cats or goats are lords of the meme world (depends where you’re at), the ways Chinese citizens use memes to work around the country’s internet restrictions, decoding memes and the importance of translation for a deeper understanding of culture, and how spreading misinformation isn’t that different from digital marketing. I’m excited for the chance to read this book and to dive more deeply into memes and the power they have in the world.
It was a great reading year for me. The vast majority of the 63 books I read in 2018 were excellent, beautifully written, and/or just plain fun — and this could potentially be a much longer list, if I were to include every book that I enjoyed reading last year.
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emzi
Connected to gods and spirit, Ada navigates her life with a sense of fractured self. Emzi’s debut novel is stunning from top to bottom. Ada’s story is heart wrenching. The writing is lush, vivid, and lyrical. It’s the kind of writing to sink into and get lost in. This book haunts me in the best of ways. (Full review.)
The Murderbot Series by Martha Wells
Technically, this is a cheat, since this series constitutes four books — All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy — but I’m counting them as one, since they are all just too good. All Murderbot (as it has dubbed itself) wants is to be left alone and watch hours of vids in peace. But as a security robot assigned to protect a team of scientists surveying a new planet, it has to spend a significant amount of its time preventing humans from doing stupid things that could get them killed and then saving those humans when they do those stupid things anyway. This becomes even more difficult when it becomes clear his clients are under threat of being murdered by outside sources. I loved Murderbot and all its depressed sass from page one, and each of the novellas in which it appears is full of thrilling action and humor.
Provenance by Ann Leckie
Driven by the need to impress her politically motivated mother, Ingray embarked on a dangerous and desperate scheme with unexpected consequences. Leckie is a master of world building, and the planet Hwe on which Ingray resides is a fascinating world of political intrigue. The intercultural confusion that occurs when alien ambassadors and rogue ship captains get mixed up in her scheming makes for an entertaining twists and turns and Ingray stumbles through dramatic conflicts she accidentally sets in motion. Another great book from one of my favorite authors. (Full review.)
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
In order to escape her past, Rosemary joins up with a motley crew of space farers who are tasked with opening the wormholes that enable long distance space travel. The relationships between these lovable goofballs (comprised of a mix of backgrounds and species) is at the center of this novel. Presented in episodic chapters, the novel feels a bit more like a sitcom than an epic space opera — and if you like humor, found families, and stories about compassion, then that’s totally in its favor. (Full review.)
Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
Believing it can bring her a balm to her trauma and anger from the violence she witnessed on her way to Oomza University, Binti has returned home only to unveil strange new family secrets. While deep in the desert contemplating this new knowledge, she learns that the presence of her friend Okwu (the first of the Meduse species to journey to Earth in peace) has stirred up violent repercussions from the Khoush, putting her family in danger. Can she rush home in time to protect them? The Binti Trilogy is an imaginative and thrilling space opera, with beautiful layers of culture and character woven throughout. The Night Masquerade makes for a wonderful and satisfying conclusion that left me in tears.
Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand
The island of Sawkill Rock is a idyllic place, where the the ocean crashes against rocky shores, prize horses graze in green pastures, and where the people are lithe and prosperous and unconcerned. Yet the Rock carries a dark secret — girls have been disappearing there for decades and urban legends abound about a monster in the woods. No on has braved out the truth about the missing girls, not until three girls come together to peer into the secrets hidden on the island. I love the way this book puts female relationships at its center, providing the power to root out evil only when three girls come together to fight it. (Full review.)
The Changeling by Victor LaValle
Apollo Kagwa is a book man, tracking down rare first editions to make his living. When he falls in love with Emma and they have a son together, he is determined to be a better father than the man who abandoned him when he was young. But Emma begins acting in strange and unsettling ways, building to a terrible act before vanishing — sending Apollo’s world spinning out of control. The Changeling by Victor LaValle is a powerful novel, presenting a variety of horror, both mundane and supernatural, a mix of folklore and familial love and violence.
The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy
Looking for answers following her friend’s death,Danielle Cain (a “queer punk rock traveller”) finds herself in Freedom, Iowa — a squatter town professing to be a utopia. However, something’s wrong about the place, and it’s not just the heartless animal life wandering around as though they aren’t really dead. I freaking love The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion — which I grabbed off the shelf because of its amazing title and strange eerie cover. The story is beautiful, unsettling and surprising with a multitude of interesting, believable characters. When I finished reading, I just sort of clutched it to my chest, wanting so much more of these people and this world.
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Aster is an adept healer living in the slums of the generation starship, HSS Matilda. The class inequalities between the upper and lower classes are dramatic, with those in the lower decks struggling to survive under the dominance of the police force. Aster is a fascinating character — brilliant, obsessive, curious, and solitary — who pushes back against the strict oppression in what small ways she can, uncovering truths about her mother and the ship in the process. (Full review.)
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Stories of Your Life and Others presents a collection of short stories with characters who are driven by the pursuit of knowledge. The science at the core of these tales is not the flash bang of laser guns or space ships or explosions, but in the contemplation and study of our world through linguistics, mathematics, architecture, and beauty. As I read Chiang’s stories, I was continually impressed by his skill as a writer. (Full review.)
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar
If They Come for Us is a stunning collection of poetry that ” captures the experiences of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in America by braiding together personal and marginalized people’s histories.” These poems are lyrical and powerful and moving. I love the creativity offered, from the way Asghar addresses the political through the personal to the ways she plays with language and uses humor to emphasize the messages within many of these pieces. (Full review.)
R E D by Chase Berggrun
In R E D, Berggrun presents a series of erasures of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The poems transform the text from a storyline in which women have little to no agency to a stunning exploration of abuse, violence, power dynamics, and femininity.
I Am Not Your Final Girl by Claire C. Holland
I Am Not Your Final Girl is a collection of horror-themed poetry draws on the female characters of horror cinema — the survivors, victims, villains, and monsters — who prowl through dark worlds, facing oppression, persecution, violence, and death. The women in this collection channel their pain and rage into a galvanizing force. They fight. They claim power over their own bodies. They take their power back. They do not relent. (Full review.)
Bonus: A couple of amazing chapbooks I read this year include Basement Gemini by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar (interview) and No God In This Room by Athena Dixon (interview) — both of which I highly recommend.
Comics & Graphic Novels
My Favorite Thing is Monsters, written and illustrated by Emil Ferris
Set in 1960s Chicago, My Favorite Thing is Monsters is told by Karen Reyes a young girl with a passion for pulp horror stories. In her spiral bound journals, she draws out her life in a mix of sketches, journal entries, and comic panels — presenting the interconnected stories of her mother, brother, and the people who live in her community. The use of color and crosshatching makes for some of the most beautiful artwork I’ve seen in any graphic novel, and the story itself is wonderfully complex and layered. (Full review.)
Uzumaki: Spiral Into Horror, written and illustrated by Junji Ito
I’ve read a multitude of works by Ito in the past year, going into my own spiral of exploring his graphic works of horror. If I had to choose just one of this books to recommend, however, I’ll go with the classic Uzumaki, in which a town is threatened by the looming presence of a simple geometric shape. The image of a spiral fills the town, infusing and consuming the people. The black and white artwork manages to be both beautiful and horrifying at the same time.
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer
Aimed at writers of speculative fiction (but valuable just about any writer), Wonderbook covers the full range of the writing process, from structural story elements to world building to revision, providing a theory and practice of writing. What sets this above the average writing advice book is the multitude of prompts, writing exercises, and essays from a variety of authors. (Full review.)
The 2016 movie Arrival — in which aliens come to Earth and a linguist works with a team of scientists in order to communicate with them — is one of my all-time favorite science fiction flicks of all time. The skillful way in which writer and director were able to weave together events from multiple times in the Louise’s life in order to build a beautiful emotional arch is stunning to watch.
Since seeing the movie, I’ve listened to a couple of podcastinterviews with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, in which is describes falling in love with Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” and his long journey of adapting the complex story into a screenplay and then spending years seeking someone to make it into a film. Hearing his passion for this story and his descriptions of what had to change and what did not in order to make the film possible, I knew I needed to read the original novella.
Just as with the movie, “Story of Your Life” involves first contact with aliens and humanities attempts to work together in order to be able to communicate with and understand them. It’s also centered around Louise, who is relating the story of her daughter’s life. It’s also about linguistics and science and love and the functioning of time. It’s a beautiful story — one that is both intimately similar and vastly different from the movie adaptation of it, both story and movie being beautiful in their own right, allowing me to love them independently of each other.
Reading the rest of Stories of Your Life and Others, I continued to be impressed by Chiang’s skill as a writer. Science is at the core of his work — not in the flash bang of laser guns or space ships or explosions, but in the contemplation and study of our world through linguistics, mathematics, architecture, and beauty.
Many of these stories are driven by humanities pursuit of knowledge. In “Tower of Babylon,” a builder is brought to work on an enormous tower, which is being constructed in an attempt to reach heaven. It’s massive undertaking of generations. To reach the top takes months, some people are born, live, and die on the tower without knowing any other life. As it grows ever taller, the tower reveals the secret of the world in a beautifully surprising way.
While in “Understand” this pursuit of knowledge is driven in a different direction. Rather than building an external tower, a man who wakes from coma begins to developed dramatically increased intelligence, reaching a point of even understanding his own mind and being able to manipulate its function to improve his mental operations. It’s fascinating to see him reach a point beyond human understanding and then to see how our perspective of him shifts toward the end.
“Seventy-Two Letters” dives deep into exploring the power of language by imagining a world in which many of the scientific principles of the world are determined by nomenclature. This is not only the writing of names upon machinery in order to create automatons, but also the biological principles of life. I was surprised to realize that this was a story I had read before (in an anthology, I think). I was fascinated by it was the time because it was such an odd concept and it has stuck with me over the years. Rereading it, I was struck all over again by the strength of this story.
The power of personal perception and how it influences prejudice is explored in “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” a story in which a university group presents that idea of requiring all students to implement Calli, a non-invasive brain modification that prevents the user from “seeing” or understanding beauty (or lack thereof) in another person. By presenting a series of personal accounts of people from variety of backgrounds, the story is able to provide a nuanced examination of the power of beauty and associated issues surrounding media manipulation.
This collection of stories is beautiful — one I would highly recommend for anyone interested in science fiction of a more contemplative nature.
I fell in love with Fatimah Asghar’s writing as soon as I heard her fantastic slam piece, “Pluto Shits on the Universe,” in which she gives Pluto voice and the power of chaos. So, when I learned that her collection, If They Come for Us, was available, I knew it was a book I had to own.
As described by Goodreads, “In this powerful and imaginative debut poetry collection, Fatimah Asghar nakedly captures the experiences of being a young Pakistani Muslim woman in America by braiding together personal and marginalized people’s histories. After being orphaned as a young girl, Asghar grapples with coming-of-age as a woman without the guidance of a mother, questions of sexuality and race, and navigating a world that put a target on her back.”
If They Come for Us is a stunning collection of poetry, lyrical and powerful and moving. There are many things I love about this book, from the way Asghar addresses the political through the personal to the ways she plays with language and uses humor to drive home meaning.
Among the things I adore is the beautiful physicality found in many of these poems, in which the body is sketched out in vivid detail — and not just the pretty bits, but the full reality of a body that makes up a human being. A body is where “mosquito bites bloom” or where exist “hairs crawling out.” In “Oil,” she writes, “The walk to school makes the oil pool on my forehead / a lake spilling under my armpits.” The specifics of existing in a human body in these poems feel as though the speaker is declaring their existence in a world that doesn’t always want them. It’s a lovely way to claim space.
Asghar is inventive with the poetic form, not only presenting poems in free verse, but using words in unusual ways whether it’s putting a stanza upside down so that the book has to be flipped over to be read, or whether it’s situating her words within the constructs of a “games” in the form of a bingo card, mad libs, map, or cross word puzzle. The poems in this collection in their beauty and variety offer continual surprises and wisdom each time I read them.
Hi, lovelies. Here’s my month in books, movies, television, and games. 🙂
It’s been a phenomenal month of reading. In addition to Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (discussed here and here), I read Artificial Condition, the second book in Martha Wells’s Murderbot Diaries. After the events of All Systems Red, Murderbot goes looking into its dark past in an attempt to remember just what happened on the day when a number of humans were killed. Of course, there are problems along the way. I read this novella all in one sitting. I love Murderbot and all his anxieties and the way he somehow tries to do what’s right by people, even when all he wants to do is hide away somewhere and watch vids. So far, there are two more books in this series and I’m looking forward to reading them.