This week: a stellar anthology of Chinese science fiction, plus Janet Malcolm's new collection.
A blistering and heartbreaking satire in which president Trump brings about a nuclear apocalypse, Doten’s second novel (after The Infernal) is by turns a dystopian nightmare, a cyber thriller, a spot-on treatise on memes, and a tragic tale of love and loss. After the president, aboard his “ultraluxury zeppelin” named Trump Sky Alpha, executes a nuclear strike that kills a majority of the world’s population, Rachel, a tech journalist, receives an assignment for the reformation of the New York Times Magazine on “internet humor at the end of the world.” Though she finds the idea of the piece irrelevant, Rachel accepts with the condition that she be able to travel to the field where the bodies of her wife and daughter were taken. She’s led to “the room with what was left of the internet” to investigate the jokes, memes, and witticisms that were shared and posted as the global catastrophe took place, but she uncovers, instead, a possible explanation as to who was behind the cyber attacks that precipitated what becomes known as “1/28”— i.e., the day of the mass destruction. A group known as the Aviary, who were inspired by a 2015 novel called The Subversive, took credit for the four-day shutdown of the internet, and Rachel seems to have stumbled on some clues about their identities. Featuring a disturbing not-so-distant future, Doten’s novel is haunting, incisive, and surprisingly touching.
Frohock’s intriguing first Los Nefilim novel (after her novella trilogy of the same name), set in the years around the Spanish Civil War, takes Diago Alvarez behind enemy lines. Nefilim are descendents of angels or daimons, able to craft sigils and empower them with their voices and songs. Born of both angel and daimon, Diago is unique among Los Nefilim, the group of Nefilim who monitor daimonic activity for the angels; he has the daimon ability to hear and the angelic ability to sing. Enlisting the aid of Lorelei Fischer—an agent of the equivalent French group, Les Nephilim—Diago slips across the Rhine and onto the debilitated property of the Grier brothers in search of the the source of the song haunting his dreams. Meanwhile, in Spain, Nefilim leader Don Guillermo and Miquel, Diago’s husband, uncover spies within their own ranks. Following various leads, they find an unexpected villain who has devastating plans for the Nefilim. Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy.
Det. Insp. Adam Fawley, the self-deprecating, ironic narrator of British author Hunter’s arresting, unnerving sequel to 2018’s Close to Home, leads the investigation into the case of a young woman and a toddler, presumably her son, found imprisoned in the cellar of an old Oxford mansion. The police arrest the house’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted owner, retired professor William Harper, but he claims he knows nothing about them. The unidentified mother and son are taken to a local hospital, where a psychiatrist thinks the mother, who screams when questioned, is suffering from PTSD. The subsequent discovery of a body buried in Harper’s garden raises the ante. The painstaking work of Fawley’s highly diverse team emerges in transcripts of interrogations, emails, witness interviews, BBC scripts, and other documents that enhance authenticity. Hunter exposes human frailties such as social and governmental missteps and policemen’s personal mess-ups while celebrating the essential humanity of those sworn to serve and protect. Readers will eagerly await Fawley’s next outing.
Historian Immerwahr argues in this substantial work that the U.S. is more than the 50 states its name references, and that, despite its identification with anti-imperialism, for more than two centuries the U.S. has been “a partitioned country, divided into two sections, with different laws applying in each”—in short, a kind of empire. The second section is made up of territories, many of which were once called colonies, and which are now barely acknowledged in popular conceptions of the country: first, native lands near the “frontier” of the nascent country; then for a time Hawaii, Alaska, and the Philippines; and to this day places including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands. (And, Immerwahr goes on, the U.S. engages in other kinds of empire-building, through, for example, its massive network of overseas military bases and economic globalization.) Present-day residents of territories “have no representation in Congress... cannot vote for president... [their] rights and citizenship remain a gift from Washington,” and their status as U.S. citizens is unknown by almost half of the states’ population. This insightful, excellent book, with its new perspective on an element of American history that is almost totally excluded from mainstream education and knowledge, should be required reading for those on the mainland.
This masterful continuation of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga breathes new life into Scott Free, aka brilliant escape artist Mister Miracle. The book opens with his attempted suicide, and it’s clear that a history of struggle has made its mark on Scott. While he recovers with help from his beloved wife, Big Barda, Scott learns that his father—ruler of the planet New Genesis—has died. While fighting his half-brother, Orion, for the throne, Scott becomes a father himself. Balancing rulership, fatherhood, and war, Scott is forced to question whether he is willing to sacrifice what is most important to him in order to end a cycle of pain. Though there is no shortage of action, the story’s script expertly tackles intense issues of trauma without pandering or offering any easy answers, instead extending a sense of empathy. The writing’s subtlety is aided by Gerads’s impeccable attention to detail and dynamic coloring, which nod to the story’s origins while giving the characters a realistically updated aesthetic. Thoughtful insights connect to the reader on a deeply human level. Fans of Mister Miracle and new readers will be equally enthralled.
This expansive survey from historian Klingaman (The First Century: Emperors, Gods, and Everyman) paints an extraordinary portrait of America’s home front during the first year of WWII as it was buffeted by political, social, and economic upheaval. No part of America was untouched by the war, from big cities—H.L. Mencken raged about “filthy poor whites from Appalachia” coming to work in Baltimore’s factories—to small towns like Dana, Ind., where a munitions factory signaled to war reporter Ernie Pyle “the end of the close-knit, simple, honest community” he’d known. Racial tensions escalated: there was widespread distrust of the war among blacks, and every day between March and May 1942 an average of 3,750 Japanese-Americans were escorted under guard to “assembly centers.” Across the nation, there were shortages of sugar, tin, tires, nurses, and coffee. College enrollment dropped, as did manpower in factories, where women came to account for 20% of the workforce. That year, New York Times editor Hanson Baldwin wrote, Americans came to the grim realization that “no nation is unbeatable, that liberty is purchased only at the price of pain, that even the resources of the United States are limited.” Klingaman uses media, literature, journals, and letters to illustrate the year, and the resulting history is riveting.
In this rewarding anthology, Liu continues the objective he pursued in Invisible Planets (2016), introducing readers to 16 contemporary science fiction stories translated from the Chinese, seven for the first time. Selections range in tone from the whimsicality of Chen Qiufan’s “Coming of the Light,” about an advertising firm whose campaign to merge technology with religion goes awry, to the poignant drama of Xia Jia’s “Goodnight, Melancholy,” a meditation on what it means to be human that’s inspired by AI research and the computation experiments of Alan Turing. The book’s most provocative stories offer variations on the time travel theme. In Liu Cixin’s “Moonlight,” a scientist gets phone calls from his future self proposing solutions to contemporary environmental problems that have become apocalyptic in the future, while Baoshu’s ingenious “What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear” concerns a man who lives the real historical events of China’s past century backwards, and Zhang Ran’s “The Snow of Jinyang” introduces a time traveler who steampunks the world of 10th-century China. Three essays on Chinese science fiction’s history and development further enlighten Western readers, who will be very excited by these outstanding works.
Edgar finalist Love’s outstanding sequel to 2017’s Lola delves deeper into the complicated persona of Lola Vasquez, who’s a loving mother to her adopted eight-year-old daughter, Lucy, and godmother to her community, often paying for groceries or the rent for neighbors in her apartment complex in Huntington Park, a “South Central–adjacent suburb of L.A.” On the other hand, she’s also a ruthless drug lord. Lola easily reconciles her two sides. She lives modestly and punishes anyone abusing women and children, but her criminal tendencies overshadow her good deeds and affect those close to her, including her brother, Hector, who’s in prison because she framed him for murder, and her secret business partner, Andrea Dennison Whitely, who’s an L.A. prosecutor. When a pregnant woman begs her to keep her abusive husband in prison, Lola inadvertently starts a drug war with a rival gang. Love crafts a first-rate plot, but this crime thriller’s real strength is the character study of Lola, who eschews preconceived notions of what a drug lord should be.
Historian Makos (A Higher Call) draws on correspondence, secondary sources, and first-person testimony to tell the story of Cpl. Clarence Smoyer and his tank crew as they fought across Europe in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division, nicknamed “Spearhead,” in WWII. Losses in the division were so high that tankers stopped naming their vehicles because they were destroyed so quickly. Stroyer’s crew was one of only 20 to be selected to man the new, top-secret M-26 Pershing tanks, and it was in an M-26 that the most famous of Smoyer’s exploits took place during the 1945 battle for Cologne: a one-on-one showdown against a formidable Panther tank, reminiscent of an American West gunfight, on the streets—all caught on film. Makos also includes the experience of the Panther’s German crewman Gustav Schafer—and Smoyer and Schafer’s latter-day meeting in the city square in Cologne; they walk the street where their tanks faced each other 70 years before. The tension, death, and courage that were everyday experiences for American tankers fill the pages of Makos’s book. This moving story of bravery and comradeship is an important contribution to WWII history that will inform and fascinate both the general reader and the military historian.
Malcolm (Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers) assembles an eclectic group of essays, mainly culled from the New Yorker and New York Review of Books, most of them from the past decade, into this outstanding collection. Varied and witty, the book includes profiles of such people as fashion designer Eileen Fisher, with her “aesthetic of elegant plainness” and concert pianist Yuja Wang, “whose tiny dresses and spiky heels” draw attention to the contrast between her petite frame and the “forcefulness she achieves at her instrument.” Several essays are literary critiques, touching on, among other points, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s ability to “bend actuality to [his] artistic will” and how Tolstoy follows the “deep structures” of dream logic in Anna Karenina. Malcolm also explores the differing ways millennials and baby boomers view sexual harassment, email etiquette, and the high-stakes drama of John Roberts’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, where little was learned about his judicial philosophy, but revelations about character emerged. With no weak selections and several strikingly prescient ones, this collection shows its author as a master of narrative nonfiction.
In this revealing follow-up to the 2015 British edition, Shukla (Meatspace) and Suleyman (Outside Looking On) invite 26 artists and scholars, who are immigrants or have ties to multiple countries, to reflect on race, ethnicity, nationality, belonging, and the legacy of colonization, mostly in the context of post-2016 U.S. Written after, and in response to, U.S. President Trump’s Muslim travel bans and references to “shithole countries,” these essays string similar notes—history, memory, pride, and (non)belonging—into many different melodies. Journalist Porochista Khakpour wonders at how she has come to write about nothing but “Iranian-America.” Artists Adrián and Sebastián Villar Rojas lay out Argentina’s struggle between its indigenous roots and its desire to be Western. Teju Cole and Walé Oyéjidé offer contrasting interpretations of depictions of Africa in the blockbuster film Black Panther. French-British film director Yann Demange gives an extended answer to the question, “Where are you from?” and concludes that he will keep giving the short answer, because “the alternative answer can take for-fucking-ever, innit.” The strength of this collection is in its diversity—of gender, sexuality, privilege, experience, and writing style. A gift for anyone who understands or wants to learn about the breadth of experience among immigrants to the U.S., this collection showcases the joy, empathy, and fierceness needed to adopt the country as one’s own.