THIS WORKS THE SAME as it did last year. The list includes all the books I read in 2017 (unless I forgot one or two), and each entry has a brief synopsis to give you an inkling for how I feel about it. If the title and author of the book are bold and in italics, that means I recommend the book. If not, either I didn’t like the book or I don’t feel it is accessible enough to recommend to everyone. The synopsis should clarify this. Here we go.
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft — (Stephen King)
- This is an oft-touted work that is simultaneously a sort of autobiography and a how-to on the craft of writing. I admit, I read it far later than I should have. It’s very good, and I recommend it to writers or aspiring writers, but I haven’t bolded or italicized this one because it isn’t the best work on writing I read this year. And, frankly, like all how-to works, this one is a mixed bag of advice, IMO.
- The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing — (Margot Livesey)
- Ok, this one is the best book on writing that I read this year. Livesey confines herself to very strict goals in her essays, a very limited scope or theme in each one, and this really serves to make her advice more easily digestible (if not easily followed… writing is difficult). If writing is your thing, check this one out for sure.
- The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe — (Peter Godwin)
- The Fear is a tale that centers around author Peter Godwin, a journalist, returning to his home country of Zimbabwe after Robert Mugabe lost his first election in 30 years in 2008. A harrowing story of corruption, violence, and confusion, this book is even more relevant now that Mugabe has been ousted.
- Eclipse: Journey to the Dark Side of the Moon — (Frank Close)
- In light of the eclipse that saw totality track across the United States in 2017, Frank Close (an eclipse chaser) wrote this book to describe the allure of the phenomenon and to encourage others to chase totality as well. It’s a good book, partly a memoir of his adventures chasing eclipses and partly a science-y breakdown of an eclipse’s mechanics. However, it felt a little too in-between for me, as if the book (and author) was not sure what it wanted to be.
- The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code — (Margalit Fox)
- Margalit Fox hits gold with this one. She details the unraveling of the ancient Linear B script, which was a triumph of the twentieth century. Not only that, but she honors both Michael Ventris (the eventual code-cracker) and Alice Kober (the somewhat unsung hero whose meticulous, almost obsessive work made the solution possible). Treat yourself to a well-written historical tale while simultaneously learning the intricacies of the Linear B problem and its elegant solution.
- How to Mellify a Corpse: and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition — (Vicki León)
- León tries to weave together a raucous romp through history with her unique humor, but frankly I’m not so sure it works. The idea was very good, and seemed right up my alley with topics like ancient mechanical engineering, Pythagoras and his mathematical discoveries and odd quirks of habit, and much more. However, the book simply isn’t as interesting (or as much of a page-turner) as the title would suggest.
- Sin Bravely: My Great Escape from Evangelical Hell — (Maggie Rowe)
- Maggie Rowe used to have a problem worrying, obsessively (like, clinically obsessively) about going to hell. This is her raw, personal story of spending time in a Christian mental health facility and, eventually, overcoming that fear. It is a brave work that anyone who identifies, or has ever identified, as an Evangelical should read.
- Both Flesh and Not: Essays — (David Foster Wallace)
- I agree with some reviewers that this posthumous collection of previously unpublished Wallace essays suffers from the usual posthumous malady: these pieces were never intended by the author to go together, and they sometimes feel odd at the seams. However, I mean… it’s David Foster Wallace.
- Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception — (Charles Seife)
- This is an interesting analysis of the way in which modern media uses numbers unscrupulously to promote whatever idea they want viewers to believe. It’s a look at the way the human mind treats numbers and a primer against being taken in by faulty or misrepresented mathematics. This is very important in the modern age, and Seife does a serviceable job explaining these things, but the book does suffer somewhat from its position between popular nonfiction and academic work. If this stuff interests you, you’re probably going to gravitate toward more dense works.
- Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century — (Masha Gessen)
- Perfect Rigor tells the story of Grigori Perelman, who in 2006 solved the Poincare Conjecture (a topological problem so complex that I don’t even understand its question, much less its solution). The PC remained unsolved for more than a century and was thought by some to be literally unsolvable. After Perelman solved the problem, he refused the one million dollar prize and became somewhat of a recluse. Perfect Rigor details, with clarity and with the appropriate amount of compassion, his early life in Russia’s mathematical schools as well as his eventual solving of the PC. None of this synopsis gives justice to how interesting the book is. I couldn’t put it down.
- The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction — (Neil Gaiman)
- Alright, this is blasphemous, but I didn’t really enjoy this collection from Gaiman. Maybe I’m souring on his style, or maybe the stories and essays felt too mashed together and incompatible… I don’t know.
- Chasing the Sun: the Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life — (Richard Cohen)
- I’ve never read Cohen before, but I plan on reading more of his work after this. Chasing the Sun is perhaps my BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR, though I have trouble declaring such superlatives. The book is the culmination of eight years of research and covers the sun’s influence in science, physics, art, food, culture, clothing, music, etc. etc. etc. I cannot recommend this book enough.
- Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief — (Lawrence Wright)
- It’s been in the news a lot lately, but guys: Scientology is weird and bad and you should stay away from it. This is an excellent analysis of the “religion’s” history and philosophy. Check it out.
- A Palette of Particles — (Jeremy Bernstein)
- This short book is an interesting primer on particle physics and its history, but I think it suffers from a few fatal flaws. First, it’s too short to cover anything in the sort of depth that something as complex as particle physics requires. Also, its diction is too academic for the book’s goal. If the diction is right for you, you probably already know what’s in the book and don’t need to read it. The book also seems unsure of what it wants to be: historical analysis, physics textbook/primer, memoir, etc.
- Confessions of a Young Novelist — (Umberto Eco)
- Eco is very hit-or-miss for me, and in this short work he misses the mark. The idea behind the book is to combine a few “confessions,” essays, and speeches made by Eco over the years regarding his thoughts on the craft of writing. However, I find much of Eco’s thoughts too, dare I say, pretentious. Of course, he’s a genius. But there is too much self-congratulation in the work, too much self-praise. Perhaps in his native Italian it comes off as more explanatory, but in the translation he seems more concerned with showing his genius.
- Mop Men: Inside the World of Crime Scene Cleaners — (Alan Emmins)
- This one is very straightforward. Emmins spends time with the professionals who clean crime scenes (and, yes, it does get gory and gross at times) and details his experiences. There’s a complicated man at the center of the business, and I’m not sure how I feel about Emmins’ portrayal of him, but nevertheless the book retains interest well and shows the reader a rarely-glimpsed corner of society.
- Lewis Carroll in Numberland: His Fantastical Mathematical Logical Life: An Agony in Eight Fits — (Robin J. Wilson)
- Don’t let the title scare you off. This is another contender for BOOK OF THE YEAR for me. Incredibly accessible and incredibly fun, this work details the life of Carroll in a compassionate manner. Don’t believe the rumors of Carroll’s odd behavior around kids, this well-researched book says. Instead, let Wilson show you Carroll as he was: a brilliant, loving man who made great strides in both mathematics and literature and who is every bit as interesting as his zany characters.
- Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics — (Paul Halpern)
- On the back of the recent confirmation of the Higgs Boson, Halpern details the story of Einstein and Schrödinger and their quest to arrive at a Grand Unified Theory of physics that eschewed the random dice in Einstein’s famous quip. The book does not shy away from these controversial characters and is a delight to read for anyone interested in physics who, like me, is worse than a layman.
- Poetry Notebook: Reflections on the Intensity of Language — (Clive James)
- An unbelievably well-thought-out catalog of the poetic arsenal, James’ book has given me much to think about regarding my own use of language in my writing. A must-read for writers of all shades.
- The Best American Poetry 2007 — (ed. Heather McHugh)
- I have to say, with a sigh, that almost all poetry collections are going to go unrecommended from me. There are gems in all of them, but alas, there are far too many that seem like linguistic masturbation. With poetry, usually, the key is to find a poet you love rather than a hodgepodge of poems.
- Best of the Best American Poetry — (ed. Robert Pinsky)
- See above comments.
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage — (Haruki Murakami)
- This was, I think, my first Murakami book, and I was not impressed. Though perhaps the translation can be blamed, the language seemed dead and detached. The titular Tazaki seemed by turns foolish, pitiable, and evil, and the plot itself seemed disjointed and odd in an unintended way.
- The Strange Library — (Haruki Murakami)
This is what I imagined Murakami to be after hearing his praises for years. Here, he seems like a master of language subtly crafting a story that is bizarre and, well, strange in ways that seem utterly intended. He maps a dream world that often doesn’t make sense, but it’s not about the making-sense. It’s about the feel of the thing, and Murakami is writing a concerto for the way dreams/nightmares feel. Highly recommend.
- The Pleasure of My Company — (Steve Martin)
- Yes, that Steve Martin. Honestly, he has no right to be this good at writing. He’s already had a great comedy career and is super into art or whatever. Leave some for the rest of us, Steve. (If you’re interested, his novella is about a man with clear OCD issues overcoming all of his harmful obsessions to fully realize himself, and it’s damn good).
- Normal — (Warren Ellis)
- This one is tough. Warren Ellis is a legendary figure on the comics front, but this is my first foray into his novels. Normal is… anything but. It’s weird and philosophical, insular and kind of oddly stilted and compressed in its scope. The story of a man who previously worked for the government being placed in a sort of camp or secluded retreat (involuntarily), Normal goes to weird places and waxes philosophical about the future of humanity. It’s very good, but I’d reserve a recommendation only for those who are familiar with Ellis’ previous work. It feels very much of a piece with Transmetropolitan.
- Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? — (Dave Eggers)
- 2017 was, it seems, a year of firsts for me. This, my first Eggers book, is a story told entirely in dialogue that features a man who decides to kidnap an old classmate of his who became an astronaut. From there, it only gets weirder, but Eggers manages to make the plot seem somehow reasonable and human.
- The Familiar, Vol. 4: Hades — (Mark Z. Danielewski)
- Danielewski continues his 20-some-part epic about a young girl, her cat, and her city. This volume returned to a slower pace, but it was still incredibly readable and enjoyable. If you haven’t started the series yet, get on it. It represents, for me, a return to form for MZD.
- Numero zero — (Umberto Eco)
- I said earlier that Eco is hit-or-miss for me, but this one is somewhere in between. Extremely short by Eco standards, Numero zero has some truly interesting and mind-bending ideas and historical puzzles, but it ultimately falls flat in its plot and remains forgettable. I’m having trouble remembering a lot of it, which does not bode well for a recommendation.
- The Name of the Rose — (Umberto Eco)
- This book, with which Eco originally burst onto the authorial scene, is simply a masterpiece. A mystery set in an ancient monastery, the level of detail and complexity is staggering. It’s a thinking person’s thriller, a page-turning dissertation on medieval life. It’s a lot of things, and one of them is “good.”
- Cold Hand in Mine: Strange Stories — (Robert Aickman)
- Lent to me by a friend, this collection was my introduction to Aickman. He is a master of the craft and weaves unsettling tales better than pretty much anyone I’ve read. From a strange hotel from which guests cannot leave to creature-horror set in a European castle’s lake, this collection shows Aickman at what I can only assume is his best.
- The Marvels — (Brian Selznick)
- Selznick is the award-winning author/illustrator of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and he returns to the same kind of half-written, half-drawn storytelling M.O. in this book. For my money, though, The Marvels is more intense, more emotionally gripping, and an all-around better book. Selznick deserves all the praise and awards he’s earned.
- A Confederacy of Dunces — (John Kennedy Toole)
- A classic, this book was one I had never read until this year. More’s the pity. It is hilarious, snide, cutting, interesting; its characters seem real and fleshed-out; its plot moves along steadily, retaining interest. Though it does flag a bit at the end, the novel is a work of art that I think everyone should read at least once. Practically every sentence drips with sarcasm, and I believe I actually laughed aloud while reading it.
- The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer — (Neal Stephenson)
- This was originally suggested to me by Hugh Howey, who cites it as one of his favorites of Stephenson’s. I tried to start it a few years ago and got bored, but now I don’t understand how that was possible. The book features Stephenson (who is probably my favorite extant sci-fi writer) at his world-building best. The tech and geopolitical realities are superbly wrought. Though, as usual, Stephenson seems not to care about wrapping up his stories and resorts to Deus Ex Machina type devices to end things, the novel is still excellent and provides an interesting commentary on ideas like the education system, politics, the speed of technological advancement, and more.
- SAGA, vol. 4 and 5 — (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
- I mentioned this last year when I started SAGA. It’s a wildly cool story about interspecies war and love, childhood, parenthood, kindness among strangers, meaning in the universe, etc. Expertly written, its equally stunning visuals are drawn by Staples at the absolute height of her power. Do not miss out on these works.
- Swamp Thing, Vol. 1-6 — (Alan Moore’s run; with John Totleben and Steve Bissette)
- I’ve been a fan of Moore since his Watchmen brought me into graphic novels and comics (I know, I know, so original, Mike). I own Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and some of his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen work, but this is my first time reading his highly acclaimed run on Swamp Thing. Needless to say, it’s a work of staggering genius. Moore may be a weird dude, but as a writer he is nearly unrivaled.
- Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth — (Chris Ware)
- Okay, so I recommend this one, but only as long as you go into it knowing that it’s unbelievably depressing. That said, it’s a monument to the struggles of the average modern man and is at times poignant and emotionally cathartic. We pull for Jimmy; we weep for Jimmy. We are Jimmy. It’s just… Jimmy’s very sad.
bonus book I didn’t know how to categorize
- The Paleblood Hunt — (Redgrave)
- Just as last year featured the genre-bending work “Darths and Droids,” so this year features a “book” that many might say doesn’t belong on a list of this nature. The Paleblood Hunt is kind of a blend of scholarly work and fan fiction. It’s author, a man whose online alias is Redgrave, is one of the leading lore historians in the Bloodborne community (yes, yes, the video game). The Paleblood Hunt is his synopsis of Bloodborne’s often obscure and difficult to parse story, and for my money it is the best working theory of the game out there. The length of a novella, TPH should be required reading for anyone playing the game who wishes to join the greater lore community.
It’s the day of the Muslim Ban protest at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and I’m pacing around the parking lot of my apartment complex, reading a book about Robert Mugabe’s dictatorship in Zimbabwe. The weather is chilly, which I find fitting. The cold helps keep my blood from boiling.
Eventually my friend Chris picks me up. He’s got long Jesus hair and drives a Prius, and even though it’s cold enough for me to put the hood of my jacket up, he’s wearing flip-flops. I slide my book into the backpack I’m bringing (which is loaded up with a water bottle, grapes, tortilla chips, and dip courtesy of my wife) and climb into the car. Chris seems at peace, calm. We exchange pleasantries and then get to talking about what it is we’re about to do, why we’re doing it.
We are both of us disillusioned. It has become nearly impossible to have any faith in representative government. The foreign policy and unchecked drone strikes of Barack Obama were bad enough, the election of Donald Trump worse, and the first ten days of Trump’s presidency worse yet. Chris leans back in his seat as he drives and tells me that one of the things he’s most dismayed about with Trump’s recent executive order is that there are several mayors of various “sanctuary cities” who have expressed the desire to fight Trump’s rhetoric and policies, and yet none of them are outright sending their local police forces in to keep the TSA from detaining people. In other words, like so many other moments in the history of America, the liberals are rolling over to the radical Right. The GOP, says Chris, know that all they have to do is stonewall any compromise and the Democrats will inevitably cave to them in the name of maintaining order and smooth governmental function. In this way, the nation continually moves farther and farther to the Right, inevitably leading us to this crucial moment in history: a President Trump whose right-hand man is the detestable and fascistic Steve Bannon. He tells me of a quote from Julius Nyerere, the first president of Tanzania: “The US is also a one-party state. But with typical American extravagance, they have two of them.”
We stop at a gas station to fuel up, and before Chris heads inside to grab some snacks he hands me a chunk of cardboard, a marker, and his knife. I cut the cardboard shabbily in twain while I wait for him to return, all the while wondering what I’ll put on my makeshift sign. This is my first protest, and I realize that I’ve thought of no catchy phrase. I’ve been too angry, too viscerally upset. So instead I set the cardboard aside and wait for Chris.
Back on the road, we continue our discussion of the state of the Union, its many faults, our disillusionment with the whole system. I bring up my favorite book of last year, Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and we discuss how Piketty’s chief fault is that he spends the entire book showing why capitalist-based democratic social states don’t work, and then finishes with a solution that is essentially a modified capitalist-based democratic social state. The problem is that we are trained in this system from the moment we’re born, trained to calculate everything based upon the monetary value it will bring us, not realizing that this value is a construction. We discuss how, back in the day, half of Americans were farmers. Now something like two percent are, and we produce a surplus of food every year. There is no reason for widespread hunger to exist on this planet. We have the technology to solve it. We have the technology to eradicate many diseases. And yet we don’t, because there is not enough profit in it. This, it seems to me and Chris, is the most damning evidence that our entire system is flawed beyond repair.
Then we pull into the parking deck at RDU and it’s time to make our signs. Now, all of a sudden, the reality of what we’re doing sinks in for me. President Donald Trump has just signed an executive order that has become widely known as the Muslim Ban. Because of this, many families have been separated from relatives who had just gone on vacation, and many green-card and visa holders have been detained at airports around the country. This is fascism, plain and simple: it is the restriction of liberty and compassion (as the order would mean refusal of access for refugees fleeing the unconscionable violence of the Islamic State) in the pursuit of comfort and safety. This country, which while no bastion of morality in the past at least proudly defeated the Nazis, has now grown closer to fascistic, militaristic government than ever before. I could go into this more, and show why it’s more than just this single action of Trump’s that leads me to this conclusion, but that would be too long.
So Chris and I settle down and take out the marker. Still at a loss, I decide to keep it simple with the statement “Refugees are PEOPLE; kindness is STRENGTH.”
Chris has been to the Women’s March, and he’s a veteran of this kind of protest. He pens the much better “ADMIT ANYONE WHO WILL PUNCH RICHARD SPENCER.“
We walk toward the designated protest area, blending into a trickle of latecomers like ourselves. There are some barricades and police standing by, and we’re herded down to the back of the protest crowd. This area, unfortunately, is well away from the departure zones. We’re not impeding or making difficult the normal operations of the airport, and that’s problematic. A protest only really works or has meaning if it causes discomfort. It is only effective if it shuts something down or makes the normal business of everyday life difficult. Only then is any point made.
But we sit in the back as many more people pile in behind us, and a handful of younger ladies in hijab make some chants. Soon they are joined by a black woman with a hand-made bucket-drum and a skinny man with a tambourine that I can barely hear over the voices. I have noted before that the problem with the Left is that everyone thinks his own solution is the only solution and that compromise is unthinkable, and so while we’re all in agreement that, say, fascism is bad, we’re split on how to combat it. This idea also proves true in our protests. The chants are disjointed, often two or three happening at once, and even when we all chant the same thing half the crowd is offbeat. As a former percussionist, this greatly bothers me. The drummer and the tambourinist continue to try to keep time, though, unperturbed.
But then I remember marching band, and I realize what this means. It means that there are so many people around (and no one brought a megaphone, oddly enough) that we’re all reacting to each others’ sounds, which throws us all off. This is a good thing. It means we are legion.
I later learned that though the protest permit was administered for 150 people, more than 1,000 showed up.
At one point a group of green-and-black clad hippies with beards and multiple piercings show up, each of them wielding cigarettes. Chris thinks that they’re probably with some political group or another, maybe PSL or something. They start trying to get the crowd on board with some more intense chants like “Fuck your borders, fuck your wall. America was meant for all!” and “Who shuts shit down? We shut shit down!” My favorite was the simple “Fascists out; Refugees in!” because of its clarity and brevity. But eventually this peters out and the group moves on.
Eventually we start moving forward, which is an unplanned part of the protest. I briefly wonder what’s going on before Chris and I are swept along in the tide of protesters. We pass the police car that marked the end of the designated protest zone. When we’ve stopped moving, the 1,000-strong protesters are now in front of the departure area, and I’m glad that we’re finally in a position to cause a bit of nonviolent shock to the powers that be.
(I would later find out that these people were responsible for the movement, and that it was probably why the protest got shut down early).
At some point the police form a line and start slowly condensing the crowd. Unbeknownst to the majority of us, the protest is over; it has been called off by the airport almost an hour and a half ago, when it became clear that way more than 150 people had shown up. So we slowly condense and leave in small groups, and though it feels great to be part of such a massive turnout, I am left to wonder the same thing I always wonder about protests: have we really done anything to bring about any real change?
Before we leave, one last person comes up to give Chris a fist-bump over his sign. “Nonviolence protects the State, man,” the guy says as we start to walk away. I am reminded of something else Chris told me in the early stages of the protest: usually, if someone is directly inciting you to violence at one of these things, that person is probably a cop.
We drive out of the airport in an orderly fashion, directed by police officers. And then we’re on the road, driving back to my apartment complex. I haven’t even touched the food I brought with me.
In the car, we talk about the heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent on the Right. Moreover, we commiserate in our distaste for much of the Left’s counter-rhetoric on this issue (i.e. “immigrants and refugees bring so much to our communities… Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant!”). No, we say to each other, we don’t save refugees or welcome immigrants because one of them might be a Steve Jobs. We don’t give homeless people houses for free (as Utah has done in an ongoing social experiment) because it’s a more cost-effective solution. We do these kindnesses because we’re dealing with human fucking beings. This, Chris says, is a symptom of our indoctrination into capitalism: every human is seen through the eyes of potential (monetary) value.
And then Chris says something else that truly blows my mind and makes me forget what I was just about to say (which, if you know me, is quite a feat). He says that this is essentially what social media has done to us. Social media, with its retweets and shares and likes and comments, has given a numeric value to your very thoughts.
So much of our lives are now spent on social media, farming for likes and retweets and Facebook interactions. And while I’d classify this as amoral, it is still a way in which harmful capitalist dogma injects itself into our thought processes. It is a way in which we dehumanize people, even if slightly, and condense ourselves into a series of “engagements,” as Twitter analytics call them.
As Chris pulls into my apartment complex to drop me off, we talk about all sorts of historical problems with our nation, how it could be better, and how all of this is contingent upon the people taking personal responsibility for the nation’s direction. Still, in the back of my mind, I’m worrying about that social media idea. I have been planning, throughout the day, to write a blog post about my protest experience. I brought along a notebook to record important moments or thoughts. And now here you are, reading them. Giving me feedback and engagements.
Is that what this protest is, when it comes down to it? I mentioned earlier how good it felt to be around people who were vocally supporting immigrants and refugees, how comforting it was to know that folks are just as upset as I am and are willing to fight an increasingly authoritarian government to show compassion to suffering humans. Yet is this not merely a form of “engagement”? Earlier I mentioned that over 1,000 people came to the protest. Is this not, like social media shares, a way of giving the protest numeric value? In this sense, have we really offered a new paradigm here, or were we just pretending?
And then, of course, I came home. And I logged onto my computer to assure people that I was safe, to look for news about other protests around the country, and to see how people are responding. Also of course, many people are aggrieved over the protesters. Many people are aggrieved at flight delays or minor traffic disruption, or merely at “whiny liberals.”
In short, many people are more upset about the disruption of their own normal everyday routines than they are about the prospect of shutting off entire swathes of this planet’s population from much-needed help.
We are the most prosperous nation in the history of the world. As far as we know, we–you and I, right now–are the most prosperous group of beings in the history of the universe.
And we’re too scared of the prospect of dying by terrorism to help people in war-torn areas. Though the risk of such a death is lower than dying from a lawnmower, we remain afraid. And we hoard our riches from those who are suffering.
So no, I don’t think the protest did much. Even after a federal judge put an emergency stay on Trump’s executive order, reports are that the stay is going unheeded in many airports. We haven’t solved the problem, and may not have brought about any change at all.
But we fight. We continue to fight. Not because it brings us value or social media likes. Not because we will change the dreadful policies or change the direction of our government.
We fight because these are human beings we’re talking about. Human fucking beings.
My uvula is forked, but not my tongue. That little dangly bit at the back of your throat? Yeah, mine has a bifurcation in it (likely the result of my palate closing late-on in my mother’s pregnancy). The kindest way to describe what this looks like is to say that it resembles a sort of upside-down heart. The way I end up having to describe it, inevitably, is that it basically looks like a tiny ballsack in my throat.
I know about the forked-uvula thing because I was told about it by my family doctor literally every time I visited him when I was growing up. We’d have almost the exact same conversation every visit, verbatim.
Doc: “Say ahh.”
Doc: “Hey, did you know you have a bifurcated uvula?”
Doc: “How did you know?”
Me: “You tell me every time I come in here.”
Doc: “Well, it’s a pretty rare thing. Pretty neat, Michael.”
(an awkward pause)
Doc: “Hey, it’s better than having a forked tongue!”
And every time, this cheered me up. Even when I was sick. Maybe my mood lightened because of the humor of my doctor’s confusion (though certainly not his corny joke); maybe I felt better because of the sheer familiarity of the routine. Most likely what lifted my mood was something different, something bigger than all of that.
Most likely what lifted my mood was the doctor’s sincere interest, his wonderment, at a part of me (even such a small thing as a uvula that no one ever sees, that has no effect on anything, really, whatsoever). As if something about me was worthy of note.
I grew up a good Christian boy, regularly attending church as many as three times a week, listening as patiently as I could to sermons and Sunday School lessons. From the age of nine until the age of twenty-five, when I left the faith, I was relatively diligent in my beliefs. What I’m saying is that I heard a lot of sermons and talks and testimonies and messages. Understandably, plenty of these talks get lost in time, and it’s interesting to note the ones that I remember.
One such moment from my religious past that has stuck with me is a talk that was given to my youth group by our youth pastor, Brad. The talk concerned humility. Trying to drive home the fact that remaining humble is a constant process that requires serious dedication, Brad gave us this little quip that I think has some profound implications: “If I were to give out a trophy to the most humble person in the room, I’d have to snatch it back the minute someone came up here to take it.”
Obviously Brad’s point was that humility is one of those slippery qualities that put you in a Catch-22 situation. If you think you have it, you probably don’t. And this was meant as a way for us young folks to start to think about our actions and our attitudes, to strive even more toward behaving in healthier, kinder ways toward other people. It was meant as a sort of admonishment and encouragement to us, a command to esteem others above ourselves. And this, of course, is a good and noble purpose.
However, I have grown up to be a writer. I have discovered that I feel most comfortable and alive when I am crafting some kind of written work. It is, to borrow jargon from my religious past, my calling. And one of the most important lessons to learn about writing is that the most powerful pieces resonate on a personal level. As all of my teachers hammered into me in college: write what you know.
But I don’t like writing too much of what I know. I don’t like writing creative nonfiction about my own past. For one, it feels less revelatory than my fiction (which, paradoxically, often winds up showing me something true about myself that I wasn’t even aware I was writing toward). Yet I think the worse issue with nonfiction, at least for me, is that it feels terribly unhumble. Writing fiction feels like I’m creating something new, making a thing that wasn’t there before. Perhaps I’ve been trained by an upbringing that urged me to join in the work of the Creator, that told me art and creation were things that proved I was made in the image of God, and perhaps for this reason fiction seems much holier, much safer. With fiction, I create whole realities out of thin air.
Writing nonfiction feels like screaming at the world LOOK AT ME, THESE ARE THINGS THAT HAPPENED TO ME, READ THEM AND BOW BEFORE MY WORDS. It feels uncouth, somehow almost dirty, in a way that writing fiction simply doesn’t. It feels like esteeming myself before others.
It feels like sin.
But it is not.
Writing nonfiction can be poignant or aphoristic; it can be a way to categorize your own life, even only for yourself (like a journal); it can be useful in finding others who have had similar experiences, useful in helping them through those experiences when needed, useful in bonding. Even if it weren’t important in all of those ways, writing nonfiction would still be important simply for the reason that it often does feel less safe, less holy than writing fiction. What better way to stretch yourself in your art than by doing that which is difficult for you to do? What better way to learn?
Above all that, writing nonfiction is important and good and righteous for this reason: it affirms that everyone has some feature that is interesting and worthy of note.
See, you may not have some harrowing drug-recovery story that you think will sell a lot of books. You may not have met tons of famous people or traveled to exotic locations. Hell, I went out of the country one time over a decade ago and I still try to milk those stories as much as I can. But even so, you have something within you that can serve as a story, that can and must be told. As the great Flannery O’Connor once said: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
You have important things to say. You are interesting and worthy of note.
As for me, my name is Michael Candelario.
My uvula is forked, but not my tongue.
THE WAY THIS WORKS is simple. I’ve listed all the books I read in 2016. Each has at least a brief review to give you a flavor of how I felt about it. If the book’s title and author are bold and in italics, that means I recommend checking it out. If not, I either didn’t like the book or wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. For cases that are on the line between recommendation and non-recommendation, the review should say how I feel about the book.
- Capital in the Twenty-First Century – (Thomas Piketty)
- One of (if not THE) most anticipated books on economics in the past decade (or more), Piketty’s book breaks down and analyzes the current state of the global economy in relation to the trends of the previous two centuries. Written in a layman’s style, the work is still difficult to parse at times (though not overly technical). Piketty is challenging, accessible, and necessary. In my opinion, this is probably the most important book I read this year, and it should be required reading for anyone wanting to discuss or think about capitalism and economics in the modern age (and perhaps especially in the age to come).
- Congo: The Epic History of a People – (David Van Reybrouck)
- Exactly what the title suggests, Van Reybrouck’s book takes you through the history of Congo (from its arbitrary creation as a Belgian colony, through independence and authoritarianism, up to its current struggles). Written passionately from the standpoint of a Belgian whose father lived in Congo for five years just after independence, the book is an incredibly poignant picture of both the devastation that richer countries can wreak on poorer nations and of the fabled indomitable human spirit.
- The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring – (Paul Danahar)
- Written by the former BBC Middle East Bureau Chief, this work is absolutely essential to understand the complex factors that led to the shakeup of the Arab world. Danahar is incisive and honest, and has a relatively evenhanded and consistent approach to the politics of the area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Middle East and its constantly shifting factions and complex underpinnings, this book is indispensable.
- Hitch-22 – (Christopher Hitchens)
- Admittedly, I liked this book. But I only gave it 3 stars on Goodreads and I am not recommending it here because it misses what I think should be the point of a good autobiography. While it does give a glimpse into the mind of Hitchens, and while it is at times poignant and instructive and wildly interesting, I think it veers too much into the territory of overindulgence. That is, too often Hitchens seems caught up in his own mystique. Perhaps, though, this is an incorrect interpretation on my part. By no means is it a bad read.
- Mortality – (Christopher Hitchens)
- Now this is a far better work by Hitchens. Diagnosed with cancer and knowing of his impending death, Hitchens’ partially unfinished book is incredibly insightful and (I’m using that word again here) poignant. You sense that he is being more honest and open than with his earlier Hitch-22. His reflections on life are applicable, interesting, emotional, and lovely. If you have any interest in Hitchens, this is a must-read. You almost certainly will not finish the book with dry eyes.
- Free Will – (Sam Harris)
- Harris’ booklet on the age-old debate between free will and determinism is not bad, but it fails to really reach any effective purpose. Though the writing is up to Harris’ standards, the arguments he puts forth are sometimes cloudy and inconsistent. My friend Cody has written a more in-depth review of the book here. Overall, this is a decent primer for people interested in the subject, but there are much better and more thorough books out there.
- On Inequality – (Harry G. Frankurt)
- I gave this book five stars on Goodreads for some reason. Looking back now, I can’t for the life of me decide why (other than that it was well-written, short enough to be accessible to the layman like myself, and provided me with a viewpoint very contrary to my own position [which I find important and yet all-too-often I neglect in my choice of books]). Frankfurt seems, honestly, to miss the point of the entire discussion and to settle instead on the semantic debate over whether or not “actual, pure equality among every person” is attainable—which is, of course, something that no one is even advocating.
- A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors – (Annie Liontas, ed.)
- As are most collections, this is a hodgepodge of hit-or-miss essays by writers on the people (or sometimes things) who have come alongside them and improved their writing in some way. A significant amount of these are, in my opinion, abortive and unhelpful. But an equal amount are genuinely uplifting, challenging, or freeing in some way. Still, this work is probably only of interest to writers (or maybe artists in general).
- The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century – (Steven Pinker)
- Admittedly, Pinker’s book is the first style-guide-type writing book I’ve ever read. Still, I find it hard to believe that another will surpass its importance and influence on my writing life. Pinker doesn’t just give you arbitrary rules about writing. Instead he lays out why those rules exist, why they are sometimes okay to break, and how to judge those situations for yourself. An absolutely essential read for any writer.
- Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking – (David Bayles and Ted Orland)
- This short booklet helped me through a rough and unproductive time. My basic takeaway is the mantra of the book: to paraphrase, your work is that work which no one else can do; you must do your work. Read it whenever you feel down about your art, or whenever you need that extra motivation.
- A Brief History of Time – (Stephen Hawking)
- I debated over whether or not to recommend this one. It’s already so well-known and lauded, and it is (by nature of its accessibility) such an oversimplification of the subject matter. However, I could not bring myself to deny a recommendation to the seminal work of one of our planet’s smartest humans. Plus, it is actually very interesting.
the controversial books**
**I have separated these books by Gerald Posner because of the plagiarism and inaccurate sourcing controversies that have surrounded Posner in recent years. I read these two books before knowing that, and so this alters and colors my opinion of his work. I’ll give a brief review of each book, but the presence of such controversies means that I cannot in good conscience give a recommendation (which is a shame, because he was going to be one of the major recommendations in this list).
- God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican – (Gerald Posner)
- This book about the moneyed interests within the Roman Catholic Church was so well-written, evenly-paced, and researched that it sparked within me a desire to read more nonfiction. If not for the controversy surrounding Posner, this would be my number two recommendation after Piketty’s book.
- Secrets of the Kingdom: The Inside Story of the Secret Saudi—U.S. Connection – (Gerald Posner)
- A fascinating and deeply disturbing discussion on our nation’s questionable relationship with the Saudi royal family, with a dissection of the Kingdom’s entanglement with Wahhabism, Posner’s book is seemingly crucial to understanding modern global politics.
books of poetry
- 100 Best-Loved Poems – (Philip Smith, ed.)
- A compilation of, well, best-loved poems from history, this book is a good way to get oneself into the swing of reading poetry.
- High Windows – (Philip Larkin)
- Larkin was a poetic giant, and this work is one of his best. A master of turns of phrase, he is required reading for anyone who enjoys poetry.
- The Familiar, vol. 1-3 – (Mark Z. Danielewski)
- One Rainy Day in May
- Into the Forest
- Honeysuckle and Pain
- Danielewski is one of the most experimental writers of our time, having written the wonderful House of Leaves and the (in my opinion) unreadable Only Revolutions. This series—a twenty-some volume work reportedly about Los Angeles—features a more straightforward narrative split between the viewpoints of different characters. Regardless of whether or not his constant experimentation suits you, Danielewski’s mastery of the written word is undeniable. The man can write better than almost anyone I’ve read. The Familiar is a testament to this fact, its prose weighty and complex and beautiful. Highly, highly, highly recommend to anyone who enjoys weird speculative fiction.
- The First Law, books 1-3 – (Joe Abercrombie)
- The Blade Itself
- Before They Are Hanged
- Last Argument of Kings
- Abercrombie is a new name to me, but his story is captivating. Though a bit slow to start, the character development and worldbuilding is very good. This series is not for the faint of heart, as the violence and despair of its world seeps out of every page. That said, the books have that page-turning quality that every writer seeks to employ. I look forward to reading more works by Abercrombie in the future.
- Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – (Philip K. Dick)
- Moviegoers should recognize this as the basis for the film Blade Runner, and not much else needs to be said. Though his writing is often blasé, Dick is unquestionably a pioneer of modern science fiction, and the ideas expressed in his stories are examples of incredible worldbuilding and philosophical thinking.
- Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis – (Johnny Pearce)
- Full disclosure: I know Pearce and read the book at his request. That said, this apocalyptic zombie story manages to ground the reader in real, visceral fears. Instead of the sometimes detached and lofty philosophical ideations of, say, a Philip K. Dick, Pearce deals with philosophy and religion within the context of zombie horror as experienced by normal, everyday people. There is something enjoyable about a horror novel that emphasizes the mundane—somehow this can have the strange effect of heightening the tension.
- Louder Than Words: 22 Authors Donate New Stories to Benefit Share Our Strength’s Fight Against Hunger, Homelessness, and Illiteracy – (William Shore, ed.)
- This collection of short stories—which is as old as I am, coincidentally—contains both some real gems and some very mediocre works. I picked the collection up for a few bucks at a local used bookstore, and I don’t regret spending that money. But, frankly, the fact that original purchasers of the book bought it largely for charity, well, makes sense.
- The Wheel of Time series, books 5-6 – (Robert Jordan)
- The Fires of Heaven
- Lord of Chaos
- I have a complicated relationship with the WoT series. Jordan’s pacing is too slow, his worldbuilding is often repetitive, and his characters are largely too similar to each other. However, the world itself is so fascinating, the “magic” element so well-designed, that I continue to push through the slow parts. (For reference, though, I’ve been stuck on book 7 since this summer, so…). I recommend it for fantasy aficionados willing to expend lots of grace and patience.
- Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – (Susanna Clarke)
- This book defies categorization. Obviously it is fantasy, but it contains elements of both a narrative and a stuffy history textbook (at least, as stuffy as it can be while discussing the fascinating subject of English Magic). In parts wry humor and tragedy, the book is unbelievably well-written and well-designed. It took me two tries to get into it, but honestly I’m not sure why I didn’t immediately fasten my nose to the page. Highly recommended.
- Locke and Key, vol. 1-5 – (Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez)
- Welcome to Lovecraft
- Head Games
- Crown of Shadows
- Keys to the Kingdom
- Illustrated by Rodriguez and written by Hill (Stephen King’s son), this story is wonderfully paced and beautifully whimsical even in its stark horror. All I will say re: plot is that it revolves around a family mansion and strange keys. I’ve yet to finish the series, as there is a sixth book I need to read, but each volume feels nearly perfectly resolved.
- SAGA, vol. 1-3 – (Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples)
- The writing of Vaughan and the artwork of Staples are perfectly wedded in this amazing sci-fi romp. Told from the perspective of a child about her parents, the story is surprisingly adult, sometimes raunchy, often hilarious, hugely insightful, and always interesting. I do not want to finish the series—I need to finish it. This highlights the main problem with graphic novels and comics—this series is not yet finished, and so I have to pace myself while not going insane with the wait.
- Through the Woods – (Emily Carroll)
- This is a unique compilation of five stories written and illustrated by the author. In the desire to make you interested, I’ll say that Carroll’s story have some of the horror of H.P. Lovecraft, and some of the pacing of those old Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books by Alvin Schwartz. However, this is a bit of disservice. Carroll’s style is very much her own, and her stories revel in the horror of the unknown.
- Darths and Droids – (The Comic Irregulars)
- Inspired by Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings (which recast the Lord of the Rings series as if the characters were players in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, and which I still—to my shame—have yet to read), Darths and Droids does the same thing with the Star Wars series. The current series covers the original trilogy and the prequels, as the writers wish to wait awhile before working on the new sequel-trilogy. Anyway, if you read one webcomic in your life, this probably should be it.
The world, when it comes right down to it, is a large place. There are more than seven billion human beings covering the face of this planet, and as a result there are innumerable cultures and subcultures. We split ourselves along racial divides, economic classes, religious ideologies. If there’s one thing we’re good at as a species, it’s boxing each other into easily digestible packets. You want a quick snapshot of this phenomenon? Check out your nearest high school’s cafeteria at lunch time. I guarantee you, the kids there will be able to point out the nerds, the jocks, the band geeks, etc.
For a longer, perhaps more emotionally complex example, I urge you to check out the latest viral video that has swept the internet. In it, a concerned mother reads out the lyrics to Vince Staples’ rap song “Norf Norf” and becomes increasingly distressed and upset–to the point of tears. At the end of the video the unnamed mother declares, teary-eyed, that “that was on our Top Hits radio station.” Unable to continue, she pauses to cry for a moment. But she has already said enough.
I think I know who the “our” is in her sentence. I think I know which clique she’s referring to. See, most middle-class white children don’t have to deal with the kinds of horrors that Vince Staples describes in the song. So, in that moment, the lyrics became a window for this woman into the hard life of a young black male in modern America. In that moment, “Norf Norf” provided her with a glimpse of the kinds of lives that are led, daily, by Americans who are less privileged than she is. Now, I know that’s a weighty word in today’s discourse. I know it angers a lot of people. But privilege is exactly the term that is needed here. Because her life has been (thankfully) sheltered from the type of gangbanging experiences depicted in the song, Angry Christian Mom (as the internet has named her) immediately reacts negatively to the lyrics. Because she is privileged, she completely misunderstands the message of the song. Because she is privileged, she becomes outraged over the lyric “I ain’t never ran from nothin’ but the police” instead of becoming introspective about the kind of systemic fear that might make someone who boasts of never backing down flee from the police. Instead of lamenting that the very existence of the song means that someone’s children have gone through these things, she becomes enraged that her children might simply hear about them.
This is silencing at its finest, folks.
This woman would rather try to change the fact that the song is on the radio than change the realities it describes. Pay attention to the kinds of things she says in the video. It is clear that she’s upset that her children (or “our” children, as that pesky word returns) were exposed to a song like this. And that is totally fine. I am a parent, and as parents it is our responsibility to curate the kinds of media we allow our children to digest. Personally, when I hear a song that I deem too mature for my children, I turn the radio station and move on. This woman, instead, chose to make a video denouncing the evils of the songwriter.
I want to make this a quick post, but before I wrap up I must discuss one crucial thing. The issue with me here is not that Angry Christian Mom is emotional about her children. Heck, I get emotional about my children. All parents do. The issue is that she quickly vilifies Vince Staples for his art, ignorantly drawing the conclusion that the song glorifies these activities. The song is undeniably a lament. Staples is painting a picture that we should not be happy about. He is shining the light of his art on a dark reality of his life. The song is called Norf Norf because it is supposed to be a description of what someone from “Northside Long Beach” deals with. Just from reading the lyrics, ACM should have understood that Staples himself was upset at the prevalence of the pain he describes. In the first few bars, he declares “Just don’t move too fast; I’m too crazy.” The narrator is a psychological mess from the killing he has done in his gang wars. Listening to the song, Staples’ voice is clearly saddened. Add to this the music video (which I admit the mother in question probably did not watch), and there can be no doubt that Staples is not glorifying cop-killing or abortions or anything else she cried over. And even if he was singing about killing police officers, I have to say it: so what? It is music. It is art. One of my favorite groups, Run the Jewels, have a plethora of lyrics about killing policemen. Those lyrics are there not to encourage actual murder, but to make political and intellectual points about the system in general. You know, much the same way that Johnny Cash’s lyrics about a burning ring of fire were not actually about a literal ring of fire. Art is supposed to be provocative. Nevertheless, I maintain that “Norf Norf” is not a pro-gang-violence song. Staples is an artist painting a picture of what his life has been like, and the proper response is to be spurred to action to fix the system that breeds such lifestyles. The proper response is anger and sadness, but the Angry Christian Mom directed those feelings at the wrong object.
Vince Staples said it best when he tweeted: “No person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children. They have a right to it.”
I just wish Angry Christian Mom’s opinion had been more thoughtful.
Imagine that we live in the future. We somehow have harnessed near-instantaneous interstellar travel, and—I don’t know—the economy has boomed so much from the expanded markets or whatever that each of us has a spaceship with which to take advantage of this miraculous technology. You—you, reader!—can at any point lift off and skip down to the nearest—or farthest—star to explore its planets and seek out intelligent life.
Imagine what that would ACTUALLY be like, the basically endless possibilities that this would present you with. From what we know of the universe, it would be incredibly boring in one sense. You would be unlikely to find anything other than rocky, dry, hostile terrain. Single-cell life would be considered a discovery of astronomical proportions. From what we know of the human psyche, however, it would be an unimaginably profound experience—one might even say a spiritual one, if one were inclined to that sort of thing. The infinity of the universe would overwhelm us, would reveal to us our incredible smallness, not even the size of minnows in the ocean of space.
This is what I went into No Man’s Sky seeking—the feeling of cutting-edge, lonely, somehow simultaneously soul-crushing and uplifting exploration on the fringes of the universe. No one would be near me, though theoretically the game was “multiplayer.” I would be the first to see new lifeforms, the first to set foot on new planets. That is what I wanted. I even boasted once to my father that this might be the last game I would ever need to buy. Happily, this sort of feeling is exactly what the head of Hello Games—Sean Murray—seemed to be pursuing. I remember distinctly that Mr. Murray told an interviewer he wasn’t interested in having players find actual alien civilizations—though, he said, the game would have some sentient beings—but, rather, he was trying to develop a game that would capture the aura of riskiness. As he put it, he was trying to make a game that had the same feel as early works of science fiction—when the genre was less about space opera and more “Western” in tone. In short, what Sean Murray wanted to make and what I wanted to play was a frontiersman’s game.
And for the first few hours of gameplay, No Man’s Sky delivered on that promise. Admittedly, I did well to shield myself from the game’s hype machine. After reading one preview article something like two years ago, I declined to read further or to watch trailers, fearing that doing so would spoil the feeling of newness that I so desired from the game. It should come as no surprise, then, that I did not experience the rank anger that many consumers (probably justly) felt after booting up the game for the first time. Let me try to discuss what I did experience, and to sift through what that means about the game itself.
Early hours of gameplay were incredible. I went around the planet I’d been randomly placed upon, steadily grinding to procure elements with which to fix my ship, exosuit, and mining tool. The planet on which I had spawned was basically devoid of life and toxic, so while I needed to hurry a bit, there weren’t any cool animals to distract me from the necessary business. Finally able to fix all the broken machines, I fled into space. The second planet I went to was terribly hot and devoid of any life. I left immediately, though I felt wrong for doing so. This game is about exploration! I told myself. You’ve got to explore stuff! And so I tried (and failed) to do that on the next few planets. I had yet to understand fully the cataloguing/scanning system with which the player tags flora and fauna, so I just kind of wandered around a planet or two looking at weird creatures. Then I followed the path that the game had drawn for me, heading toward the galaxy’s center.
This is where things got strangely amazing and weird and kind of bad all at the same time, for me. Because what I found on the next planet were these awesome sentient organisms called the Korvax. I thought that possibly this was because I was venturing toward the galaxy’s center (as despite my restriction on hype and media reviews, I’d overheard a rumor that stuff got “more interesting” as you traveled along the designated path). I did all the things NMS players are utterly aware of—I talked to a Korvax entity, used one of the machines in their buildings to find other locations, found a wrecked Korvax ship, learned new words in the Korvax language. I was having an absolute blast. Sure, the non-sentient creatures on the planet looked a bit cartoony and flat, but this was just one planet. Sure, it was tedious to travel a long way on foot, get lost, and then have to trek back all that way to my ship while avoiding the smoldering heat of various planetary heat-storms, but that was strangely invigorating—I was, after all, hankering for a game in which I felt like I was truly on a foreign planet.
I’ll spare you any more of my own personal play-through details. It suffices to say that I have explored many more planets and encountered the other sentient species in the game. Which, that fact—that I know I’ve encountered all the sentient species—is part of what gripes me about the game itself.
Because it seems like Hello Games panicked. It seems like they wanted to make a different kind of game, got scared from the extreme hype their project was getting, and “dumbed down” the mechanics. Elsewhere on the internet you can find all the promised features that are not present in the game—and these are legion, reader. I was able to avoid disappointment in this, as I hadn’t read about many of the features or watched the trailers that showed a planet that had been pre-made and not procedurally generated (though this latter controversy doesn’t bother me all that much). What disappoints me is not that NMS is tedious, or lacks a strong narrative, or holds a universe in which many planets suck. I expected all of that—indeed, I wanted it. What disappoints me, personally, is that the game reads as a complex mishmash of ideas that—it feels to me—Hello Games was either scared to fully buy into or was told to alter by executives who should have kept their hands out of the game.
The fact that all the planets have the same three sentient species on them, within the same exact buildings, near the same exact monoliths, and with the same exact Sentinels protecting them… well, this fact certainly undercuts the frontiersman-feel that Sean Murray said he wanted to instill in his players. Once I caught on to the game’s pattern, I realized that I in no way was the first to explore the planets. There are ruins that speak of long-dead civilizations, which would have been super cool… if it weren’t for the fact that representatives of these civilizations are still there on the planet, in their little outposts, doing their proscribed tasks. Having a living civilization or sentient species on the occasional planet would have been amazing; it would have made me feel as if I were beating the odds as an explorer, having my exploratory journey across the cosmos somehow validated. Having a long dead civilization on the occasional planet would have felt equally cool; it would have made me feel as if I had stumbled into a history of which I was no real part, that I was a cog within the universe—in short, it would have made me feel that spiritual or mystical smallness that I was talking about earlier, the cosmic reminder that I am not the center of the universe… that I am not even a big or especially important part of it. Having the ruins of civilizations coexist with living members of those species (with no clear explanation as to what that means or why the societies seem to be gone, the monuments crumbling, etc. while there are apparently tons of those species still alive), and having this be the case on literally every single planet I land on, well that seems to me to be the worst of all possible worlds. The only reason I can think for this is that Hello Games’ vision was compromised—they felt that they needed to dumb down the gameplay, stack the odds, or whatever you want to call it, in order to keep the masses happy. Usually this is the case when these kinds of odd half-measures or seeming capitulations and compromises take place.
On top of this, it seems as if we consumers (and I readily include myself in this denouncement) misunderstood what the procedural generation meant. Personally, I heard about the 18 quintillion possible planets to explore and my imagination (maybe understandably) went wild. I dreamt of finding—I don’t know—flying whales and crazy land-octopuses and humanoids and all kinds of exotic species of life. But this is not the case, and I don’t think it’s Hello Games’ fault that this is not the case. What I “knew” but failed to understand about procedural generation is that really this means there are a limited number of elements that are then combined and recombined to make unique wholes. We all knew this. I knew this. But my imagination did not really grasp that until I saw—in game—that this was the case. All the animals are clearly of the same group—after maybe four or five planets, you can guess many of the combinations before you even see them. Therefore, when you do encounter new creatures on the next planet, that feeling of awe and discovery evades you. You feel more like you’ve confirmed the inevitable, which is very different from that frontier-like experience. Instead of feeling like even microbial life is a virtual miracle, you feel like you can guess the next animal. What I had been imagining was that a sort of kernel would be randomly chosen, and then some programmed evolutionary algorithm would take over and generate wildly unique and interesting lifeforms, when applicable, that would also interact in believable ways with their world’s unique properties (gravity—which is not really a changing factor in NMS—toxicity, heat, cold, amount of moisture, etc.). Sadly, I was mistaken.
Furthermore, the constant grinding, while cool at first in its necessity (hey, I’m on a hazardous planet and so therefore I would expect to have to continually replenish my oxygen or whatever), never really leads to anything. As someone else has said online, you get a bunch of elements to upgrade your stuff so you can get a bunch of elements to upgrade your stuff so you can get a bunch of… There seems to be no real “point,” as in no truly discernible necessity there. So, like, the game gets the necessity of survival pretty well, but then the upgrades don’t actually deliver any visceral advantage (after you upgrade your ship enough to win a space battle or two).
And of course a huge issue is that your death results in… you just starting in the same system in which you died, as the next iteration, and then travelling to your death-place to get any missing items back into your inventory. This negates the feeling of survivalism or frontiersmanship by removing any real stakes. On one hand, I’m glad. Because early space battles suck, and I would have been super pissed if I’d lost my items permanently. On the other, this mechanic literally makes those space battles pointless and just increases tedium. Stakes are important to engender the right stress-and-relief cycle in the players, but this game has no stakes.
The game has received enough hate in the past few weeks, so I’ll stop pointing out its faults. Instead I will say that despite all of this, there are still insanely cool moments. I landed on a planet with gigantic goofy buffalo creatures that stood on their hind legs, and the trees were interesting in a satisfying way, and so I named that planet after my deceased grandmother. And it elicited some serious emotions within me, as if I’d actually named a real planet after her. Somewhere in the universe within the NMS servers, that planet is there and it is hers. And I remember one time I landed on a toxic planet that housed some super rare elements. I happened to turn around and almost run into a strange giraffe-like creature with—I have to say it, reader—a head that kind of resembled a dog’s penis, or maybe like a weird slug, emerging from its neck. I freaked the hell out, as you might expect. But it was cool. It was exactly what I was looking for in this game—weird stuff that I wasn’t expecting. I still get that feeling, after hours of gameplay, when I land on a planet and see a flying pig-squirrel or something. There’s a neato-factor that is certainly present, though not optimized as much as I would have liked. Though flawed, there are moments that work well and that, in my opinion, are harbingers or interesting spinoff points for future games.
So let me tell you about the game I want, deep down—the game I see coming eventually, give or take a decade more of technological advancement.
No Man’s Sky demonstrates that we have the ability to procedurally generate a wide variety of worlds with a wide variety of creatures. Even though the diversity is not quite as deep as I would have liked, I imagine that this would not be the case in a bigger studio with more programmers (and thus the ability to handle many more variances in data). What I’m saying is that NMS is a game that promises interesting developments in the visual environment of future games.
Now, I haven’t played Dwarf Fortress, but I have been told that its game engine essentially simulates several millennia of history as backstory to the game itself. In other words, when you start a new game, the computer runs a program that fast-forwards the gameworld several thousand years—ensuring that there is a real sense of history, with meaningful ruins and cultures and power structures, etc. (Okay, maybe this isn’t as detailed as I am imagining, but I’m building toward the concept of my Dream Game, so bear with me). In my opinion, this ability to simulate a believable history for a gameworld is an important step forward in gaming.
The last piece to the puzzle of Mike’s Dream Game is not from the videogame industry at all. Instead, it deals with narrative. This is what is lacking in No Man’s Sky, when we come right down to the issue. There is lore, but no meaningful progression. Even one’s own “story”—the story a player creates by moving through the universe in his or her own unique way, finding new planets, choosing which systems to travel to, etc.—even this meta-narrative is made trivial by the absence of a change in game mechanics from planet to planet, and by the nonexistent stakes involved with dying/respawning. While I went into the NMS experience without expecting or particularly wanting a strong narrative, I’ve since realized that I did have an expectation for mini-narratives. I wanted to craft my own story as I traveled through the universe, imagining that I might stumble upon sentient species with their own cultures and problems that I might engage with. Even these little narratives are important for a game to feel dynamic and interesting.
I’ll give an example from an unlikely source, narratively speaking: sports games. I love playing the FIFA franchise. I also enjoy (though I am far less skilled at) the Madden franchise. My wife, however, does not understand how anyone could possibly have fun playing sports games, as every soccer match or football game is on some level exactly the same as the others. You kick the ball or you throw it. You make a tackle and score a goal or a touchdown. But what I’ve realized is that the joy from these kinds of games often comes from the meta-narrative that the player crafts for himself or herself. The story is the player’s managerial career: which players he or she brings into the club, trophies won or lost, whether or not the player-manager gets fired or decides to move to another club or league, etc. There is a story there, marked by progression season after season, and by the end of a career the player can look back on a unique timeline of clubs managed, players traded or developed through youth systems, yada yada yada. The “narrative” of the game is contained within individual seasons, and the individual games that make up those seasons, and the individual choices the player-as-manager makes throughout each game and season and career.
So what am I getting at? Well, I’ve noticed that there have been several recent studies done on the specific structures of narratives, similar to Kurt Vonnegut’s legendary thesis about the “shape” of stories. We have made headway in the realm of narrative analysis: we can classify and write out how narrative lines often shape up, which ones are the most resonant, reasons that humans connect with specific story types, etc. The logical leap in gaming, to me, would be to treat this information in much the same way that Hello Games treated visual information in No Man’s Sky. That is, I imagine a game in which the developers create a complex database of narrative elements, and from this vast cache of plotpoints and rising/falling actions and stakes and whatnot the game engine can generate a unique storyline. Now, combine this idea with the ability, seen in Dwarf Fortress, to simulate millennia of cultural history and architecture, etc., and with the ability of No Man’s Sky to generate a nearly infinite universe of planets.
The result of all this combining would be a game in which the player—a lone space explorer, or the captain of a spaceship—travels the universe, landing on unique planets with entirely unique cultures and lifeforms who have lived through unique histories that have resulted in unique art/architecture/political structures/religions, and discovering unique storylines with which the player can engage. Perhaps the player lands on a planet with warring tribes and must either broker a peace, join a side, or even just decide to leave the planet—and if these are spacefaring tribes, would these choices possibly factor into other encounters on other planets in the star system? Or perhaps the player lands on a planet and finds—I don’t know—division within a country’s political or religious power structures, or the outbreak of some kind of plague that needs remedying, or crop failures, or… And maybe the player’s specific choices result in interesting things like members of these species joining the player’s ship’s crew. All of these mini-narratives make up the meta-narrative—the player’s unique gaming experience as he or she chooses which star systems to travel to, which planets to land on, and which problems to solve on those planets—in the same way that individual soccer games make up FIFA seasons, which in turn make up the player’s FIFA career.
In discussing this Dream Game with friends, I have realized that what I want—and what I was hoping for in No Man’s Sky even while knowing that one of the points of NMS is to make you feel small, to make you feel as if sentient life is very rare (something at which I don’t think NMS ultimately succeeds)—what I have truly desired for a long time, is to be the captain of the starship Enterprise. What I’ve been describing is essentially a game that makes me feel as if I am living through seasons of Star Trek. Of course, I should have realized that this is what my subconscious has wanted all along. I keep talking about frontiersmanship and exploration, and that’s exactly how each episode of Star Trek starts. I want to play a game that makes me feel like space truly is the “final frontier,” that dangers and intrigue and knowledge lurk around every corner. But I don’t want to sacrifice a meaningful meta-narrative in order to feel this way—just like Star Trek didn’t have full episodes of barren planets with no story to engage the viewer.
The true disappointment of No Man’s Sky, and one that is perhaps a bit unfair to Hello Games given their stated goals, is that I will have to keep waiting.
Good science fiction—well, wait, hold on. I’m not going to start this review by wildly generalizing about an extraordinarily varied genre. So I’ll be a bit more specific: good creature-based, invasion-type science fiction plays up its own fantastical elements to discuss what it means to be human. Examples of this kind of story are Alien (which showcases, among other things, the indomitable human spirit), Avatar (which flips the script and discusses humans as the invaders in order to get at an underlying theme of corporate greed), and even John Carpenter’s The Thing (which, as I see it, pinpoints just how solipsistic our inner lives are—we don’t truly know each other). These stories have staying power with us—we engage with them and carry them with us, reflecting on them, for quite some time—because they hit on subtle truths that we all feel, even if we haven’t worked through them intellectually.
10 Cloverfield Lane fits comfortably (if such a word can be used for such an uncomfortable film) within this mold. It is exciting, visceral, thought-provoking science fiction backed by a delicately worked script in which each line seems to flow naturally from the last, peopled with characters played to an astounding level of professionalism, and lit with perfect imagery that somehow stays fresh and new while simultaneously reinforcing the starkness of the film’s world. For me, the film was a refreshing take on alien invasion if solely for the fact that the aliens are basically tangential. The story reminds us that there is already plenty to be afraid of here among just us humans. Moreover, I think it makes an as yet unstated point about apocalyptic-type disaster films: perhaps, in order to survive, one would need to “doomsday prep.” And yet the propensity to prepare for a forthcoming doomsday—the ability to obsess over problems that haven’t arisen just yet to the point of building an underground shelter complete with water and air filtration systems, multi-locked doors, and several years’ worth of food—might in itself signify a bit of a mental disconnect from “normal” humanity. I’m not saying all doomsday preppers are super weird, and I don’t think the film is saying that either. But I do think there is an interesting conversation to be had—that has been started by the film—about what kinds of pathological issues might coincide with such behavior. Seriously, it is an amazingly well-done film. I have nothing negative to say about the performances or the writing—though I think that, in other actors’ hands, some of the lines could have been disastrous.
So that’s it. If you want to avoid spoilers, stop here and know that the film is really good.
From this point on, I assume you’ve seen the film. Serious spoilers ahead.
I want to talk about the plot for a moment. Okay, I won’t insult your intelligence by saying that I had no problems with the narrative. It does seem a bit strange (but not entirely impossible) that advanced alien technology wouldn’t be able to detect lifeforms bunkered underground (especially when we piece together that the “car” Michelle hears early on is actually the alien ship doing a pass over the area. But what bothered me the most is that Howard, a man who has been utterly meticulous about cleanliness/orderliness/preparation, somehow overlooked the scratched message of “HELP” and (more importantly) the brooch that his “daughter” left. I know it’s necessary to advance the plot, but I just don’t buy that Howard would neglect to clean that up. The only answer I can fathom is that he hadn’t gone into that area during the time since “Megan’s” death, but I don’t think someone like Howard would abstain from daily maintenance of a filtration system that, once the apocalypse he’s been preparing for comes, will be responsible for keeping him alive. I think the plot would have worked just fine with Michelle seeing the “HELP” carved into the window from the inside, talking to Emmett about it, and then having a separate moment in which the two flip open to “Megan’s” picture and Emmett realizes that she was the missing girl from his high school.
Regardless of one or two minor issues with the plot, what absolutely makes this film amazing is the strength of the actors’ performances. John Goodman plays the kind of creepoid character I love—epitomized in one of my favorite recent scary movies, Creep. Honestly, this performance is up there with my favorite Goodman roles of all time. Mary Elizabeth Winstead should have to swim in film opportunities after her stellar portrayal of Michelle. John Gallagher, Jr. had the unenviable job of being a third wheel both in central-film-relationship sense and in importance-to-the-plot, but he found a way to make Emmett both hilarious and deeply endearing (which, of course, is absolutely essential to the film “working”). I would hazard that, had a single one of this trio failed to perform, the entire film would have fallen apart. When you have such a small cast of characters, each and every one of them has to shine. And they did.
I think that’s probably all that needs to be said. The score is eerie and fitting, the décor is fantastic. I loved the movie, and I think most of you will too. Let me know your thoughts in the comments!