Book Update: Jan-Feb 2021

The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson

I had heard Kim Stanley Robinson’s name for years but never picked up any of his work. I’m very picky about science fiction. I don’t really go in for space opera stuff or anything too hardcore when it comes to technical things or machinery. I’m more a fan of the type of science fiction you find with Phillip K. Dick or Ursula K. LeGuin. This article in Jacobin piqued my interest and had me put this short story collection on the To Be Read list. I have to say I was extremely surprised by what I got in this book. I had to look up an interview with Robinson to get a sense of where he was coming from, and it made a lot of sense. He explained that his approach to science fiction is that the genre is about imagined future history, and that meant you could imagine a new past history, and that could also be a part of science fiction.

As with all collections, not every story is going to please every reader. But the ones that worked for me were outstanding. “The Lucky Strike” reimagines the atomic bombing of Japan. Captain Frank January is the soldier responsible for pressing the button that drops the first bomb, and as he comes to the realization of what will happen to the people below when that bomb hits, he just cannot do it. January intentionally messes up the launch creating an alternate history. He is, of course, court-martialed and executed but dies knowing he was a savior to so many people. This is immediately followed by a fictional history piece called “A Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions” that outlines the ripple through history January’s actions would have had, a whole anti-nuclear movement rising up and change the tide of peace in the world. 

You have a story like “Arthur Sternbach Brings the Curveball to Mars” that is like a slice of life about people living on a developed Mars colony, physiology changed over generations, just playing baseball. There’s the madcap adventure story “Escape from Kathmandu” about a man becoming part of a clandestine operation to save a Yeti while having to navigate Jimmy Carter’s arrival and his entourage in the area. “The Lunatics” broke my heart with its subterranean moon-mining slaves creating mythologies and monsters to try and keep their minds intact. Robinson will challenge your notions of what qualifies as “science fiction” and hopefully hook readers that might otherwise shy away from the genre.


The Books of Blood Volume 1 by Clive Barker

I haven’t read too much Clive Barker in my life. I remember reading Nightbreed when I was in high school and few stories here and there. I decided I’d like to work my way through the Books of Blood because I’ve enjoyed the pieces I’ve read. He’s definitely not afraid to touch on different horror tones, which is very apparent in this book. The opening story is fine, a framing device for the series. For me, there were two stand-outs in this slim collection.

“The Midnight Meat Train” is a pretty fantastic grim & gruesome urban horror tale, something Barker excels at. Leon Kaufman is a faceless office worker in New York City who falls asleep while taking a subway train home late at night. When he wakes up, he finds the car is a bloodbath done by Mahogany, a butcher working in tandem with the train’s engineer. Kaufman eventually learns of a conspiracy surrounding ghouls living beneath the city, worshiping a Lovecraftian elder god. They are fed by Mahogany, who goes after people on the trains late at night.

The second story I deeply enjoyed was “Pig Blood Blues.” Redman is a former cop who gets a job working at a youth detention center in the rural U.K. He quickly learns that a boy named Lacey is being targeted by older youths and tries to defend Lacey as best he can. Redman discovers that a resident named Hennessey is reported dead by the people running this facility, but Lacey is adamant that Hennessey lives and directs the attacks on him. Then Redman discovers the unsettling pig farm across the field from the building and a large sow that seems to emanate a dark presence. Barker knows horror exceptionally well and has made this series of short story collections a sort of playground to dip his toe in all kinds of sub-genres.


Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Leave the World Behind has a pretty great premise and some incredibly chilling moments, but I’m not sure if it adds up to something wholly complete. I was pretty distracted by some clunky writing; it can get a little unnecessarily flowery with some genuinely awkward descriptions. At its core, the story it is telling has fantastic potential and felt incredibly resonate during this period of COVID and mass uncertainty. The author’s choice of perspective will either win readers over, or they will immediately hate it. The story is told from a third-person omniscient point of view that will zoom out at specific points and drop quick information on what is going on that the main characters may never know.

The story is about Amanda and Clay, two Millennial professionals going out to a corner of Long Island with their teenage son and daughter for a weekend at the beach. They want to get the most out of their summer before everyone goes back to the grind. Their first night at their AirBnB rental, they receive a knock at the door. It is Ruth and G.H., an older Black couple who are the owners of the house. They claim they were in the city when the power went off and cellphones stopped working. They fled to the beach house and want to stay in the basement bedroom until the next day when they can figure out what is going on. Amanda is uneasy about this, but Clay wants to be friendly and lets them in. As the next day winds on, it becomes clear that something terrible is happening globally, and these people are powerless to do anything about it.

Leave the World Behind leans into the growing paranoia that so many have about the state of the world. Because of the pending climate collapse, pandemics, civil unrest, and global strife, I have felt particularly on edge for the last year. I would expect to see more literature like this coming out in the following years because these things are so on our minds at all times. I don’t think Leave the World Behind will stand out as one of the best, but it does offer some really suspenseful moments. The author does a great job of getting across the sense of disorientation and heightened emotions in moments of profound uncertainty.


The Vegetarian by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

I had initially heard of this book described as a horror novel, and it certainly fits the bill but isn’t going to present supernatural elements. It’s a psychological story about a possibly disturbed woman and her family’s reaction to her behavior. The book’s most disturbing behavior comes from these family members who seem to hate the main character so much for silently choosing to live as she chooses.

Yeong-hye is a quiet, plain woman who lives with her husband in Seoul. He becomes increasingly annoyed when she suddenly announced she’s become a vegetarian and won’t be preparing him food with meat anymore. This change comes about when her mind is suddenly overcome with violent, bloody images that nauseate her. In the latter part of the book, she describes a sinister face in her stomach that she is trying to suppress. Yeong-hye’s husband loses it and contacts her family, who promptly set up a dinner with the purpose of shaming her into eating meat again.

As the story spirals out of control, the perspective shifts. There are three parts, first her husband’s pov, then her brother-in-law, and finally, her sister. With each piece, Yeong-hye is further ostracized, having fewer people there to support her. I don’t know a lot about Korean food culture, but I know that the sharing of a dish is relatively standard. Yeong-hye’s choice to separate herself during meals, not taking what is shared with her, seems to set off her family. She’s violating core pieces of their social code, and they become brutal in trying to get her to submit.

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