Today’s stories involve relationships with strange beginnings, odd circumstances, and even unexpected participants.
Audrey Niffenegger is an author known for books like The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Eddie Campbell is a comic book artist known for titles like From Hell. The two fell in love and got married, and—after some coaxing—decided to collaborate on these thirteen tales of, well, bizarre romance. The tales come in different forms: some are in a comic book format, and others are mostly prose with small illustrations accompanying them.
While some fit the traditional definition of romance—lovers and partners—there are others that put the stress on the “bizarre.” There’s one that depicts angels as a pest that gets into your attic and requires a call to the exterminators. There’s another about an old woman with too many cats who disappears. There’s a story inspired by Eadward Muybridge’s photo studies of motion, a nude woman getting out of bed and pulling the sheet back over the mattress. It’s a delightfully quirky collection of stories.
Nephele needs a do-over on her first year of high school: her best friend joined up with the cool kids and left her behind, and that’s just part of her troubles. So when she discovers a book called Time Travel for Love and Profit at her parents’ used book store, she puts her math skills to work and, well, invents time travel. One funny thing is that the book Nephele finds is actually a self-help book using time travel as a metaphor, but she takes it literally.
Nephele’s machine is a smartphone app she has named Dirk Angus (after a character from a romance novel), and she travels back to the beginning of 9th grade. (The time travel in this book is pretty hand-wavy, so best not to get too hung up on technical details.) Of course—because this is a time travel story—things don’t go exactly as planned. She’s zipped herself to the beginning of 9th grade, but the date didn’t change, so the whole world has moved a year ahead except her.
As Nephele tries again and again to reinvent herself and repair Dirk Angus, she gets further and further from her proper place in time, and there are some very worrying issues that start to arise. One of the unexpected friendships in this book is Chicago, 1955: it’s a (real) photograph taken by Harry Callahan, a double-exposure of two women walking in opposite directions but superimposed on each other. There’s a copy of it hanging up in the bookstore, and Nephele spends a lot of time talking to Chicago, who “talks” back to her. The other is Jazz, a kid who shows up in high school well into Nephele’s time travels. He performs tricks and tells stories and is absolutely not shy about anything, and he befriends Nephele despite her warnings that she’s a social outcast at the school. If Nephele finally gets her time machine working and fixes her life, will she have to leave Jazz behind?
It was an interesting take on the time loop story: one in which the main character is repeating (in this case, a year of her life) but the other people aren’t. It’s almost the opposite of Groundhog Day: what if Phil was doing the same thing every day, stuck on Groundhog Day himself, while the rest of the world moved on and forgot about him? At any rate, the book is really more about Nephele’s relationships and emotional growth than actually explaining the “science” behind her app, though we do get a few glimpses into that as well.
This slim novel is set in a future dystopian America that feels a bit like the distant past: a lot of the current infrastructure has apparently broken down, so people travel by horses and wagons. The Librarians travel between towns and cities, circulating Approved Materials to citizens.
Esther’s best friend was just hung for possession of dangerous propaganda—something about a resistance in Utah—so she decides to make a clean break with her past and stows away in the Librarians’ wagon, where she isn’t discovered until it’s too late to turn around and send her back home. They reluctantly allow her to accompany them until they figure out what to do, and Esther gradually learns that perhaps the Librarians aren’t the “Honorable Brigade of Morally Upright Women” that she’d seen on the posters growing up. She’s shocked to see that the two librarians aren’t just work partners but romantic partners, and she wrestles with the way she feels about Cye, the non-binary librarian trainee traveling with them.
The book has some action in it as the group journeys across the Southwest: they’re attacked by bandits, and they pick up a “delivery” that turns out to be three women with secrets. But mostly it’s about Esther and how she has her eyes opened: she starts to see how narrow her old life was and that there’s a growing resistance to the way things are.
While I enjoyed the book, the biggest thing that bothered me was the way that the US reverts to a pre-industrial society. It’s never explicitly defined what happened, but we get hints that the country is at war, which eats up all the resources and technology—there are mentions of drones, for instance—but outside of the Central Corridor it feels like the wild west. It reminds me a bit of that Kevin Costner movie The Postman: like, are we going to go back to log cabins and gingham skirts and revolvers if the government collapses? It’s just kind of a strange setting overall.
This is the fourth and last book in the Wayfarers series, and I was so sad to reach the end because I love this world and its stories. If you’re not familiar with them already, I recommend reading Robin Brooks’ write-up of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first in the series. Becky Chambers has created a vibrant world full of different alien species, connected through the Galactic Commons, a sort of interplanetary UN that has only (relatively) recently invited humans to join. Although there’s certainly a lot going on in this universe, Chambers’ stories tend to be character-driven, focusing on the relationships between characters rather than explosions and intense chases.
The Galaxy, and the Ground Within brings together five characters of four different species, and for the bulk of the book those are the only characters present. Three visitors have stopped in for a layover at the Five-Hop One-Stop, a sort of rest stop on a tiny planet that’s only important because it serves as a crossroads on the way to somewhere else. When a malfunction shuts off communications and halts travel, these five are stuck together.
In a sense, it’s similar to the “trapped in a spaceship” stories that I enjoy so much, even though in this case they’re on a planet: you have a limited cast of characters in an enclosed space that they can’t leave. In this case, though, it’s not so much focused on engineering solutions and compounding disasters (though there are some pressing issues that arise); it’s more intimate, with encounters between the characters that lead to better understanding.
The cast of characters include: Pei, an Aeluon we’ve met before in the first book, a cargo runner on shore leave who communicates with color; Roveg, an insect-like Quelin who has been exiled from his home; Speaker, a tiny Ararak who is in many ways shut off from the others; and Ouloo and her child Tupo, the Laru hosts of the One-Stop who take pride in their ability to cater to any number of different species. These species are all very different from each other—the way they talk (though there is a shared GC language called Klip), the way children are raised, the way their societies are structured, the foods they can eat. Many of the interactions are about the ways that the characters get around cultural barriers and recognize their own assumptions and prejudices, but in many cases there are also ways in which each character isn’t representative of their species, either, and that comes into play. And although Chambers is writing about alien species, she’s also, of course, writing about us.
While all four of the Wayfarers books take place in the same universe, it’s not a series in the traditional sense, where you follow a set of characters through an overarching plotline. There are only small overlaps (if any) in characters between books, and what you get instead is some close-up impressions of a few scenes taking place in a much larger, complex world. I know it’s only May, but this is definitely going to be a contender for my favorite book this year.
Andy Weir, the author of The Martian, is back with another book about, well, engineering solutions and compounding problems. Project Hail Mary is about one guy stuck by himself out in space—but this time he’s much farther away from Mars.
Here’s the gist: the story is narrated by Ryland Grace, with parts told in the present and parts as flashback. At the beginning, he wakes up in a strange room and doesn’t even remember his name or where he is—though a bit of that mystery, like why gravity seems a bit off, is kind of spoiled by the fact that, uh, the book cover shows an astronaut out in space and there’s a diagram of a spacecraft before the story begins. (At least, it is in the advance reader proof. I would have put the diagram in an appendix, or at least far enough back that it doesn’t spoil two plot points.) As he slowly gets his memory back, we’re treated to flashbacks, and what we find out, broadly, is that the sun is dying, and that somehow that ended up with a junior high science teacher traveling to another star in order to look for a solution.
There’s a lot going on: in the flashbacks, there’s the discovery process of figuring out what’s wrong with the sun, and then the various steps taken toward finding a solution. It involves a bunch of science as well as international politics, often centered on Eva Stratt, the head of a taskforce dedicated to tackling the problem. Stratt is one of those figures you see in some stories who has basically unlimited power and resources, and she isn’t afraid to wield it: there are no costs she isn’t willing to consider in order to prevent humanity from dying out completely, which leads to some very extreme measures. As we get bits and pieces of these flashbacks, we get a bigger picture of who Grace is and how he was pulled into the center of this whole mess.
In the present, we have Grace figuring out the ship and how to proceed with his mission, especially given the other two astronauts died in transit. This part will remind readers of The Martian: there are a lot of explanations for how to use science to figure things out, as well as creative MacGyvering to fix things. And there are some other surprises, but I don’t want to spoil those.
I enjoyed the book overall but it had a slow start. As I mentioned before, you kind of know from the get-go that it’s about an astronaut, so all of Grace’s physics experiments to measure gravity feel a bit unnecessary. Also, Grace frequently remarks that his head is full of random facts because he’s a science teacher, and it would be impressive in a way if you met somebody who could rattle these things off—but it’s less impressive when it’s in print in a book and you know the author could have just looked these things up, so then it kind of feels like Weir is just showing off. Those parts were less interesting to me, but once the story got away from “facts you can look up in a science book” and went into more speculative stuff, I was hooked. I think Weir’s strength is in that area rather than in character development, so it’s quite different from Chambers’ writing, but I also like hard sci-fi and Project Hail Mary scratches that itch.
My Current Stack
I’ve just started in on another time travel book, The Future of Another Timeline by Annalee Newitz; I’m only two chapters in so I can’t tell you too much about it yet, though it involves these time machines that have been around for millions of years, embedded in rock, along with factions who are competing to influence the timeline one way or another.
I also used a free Comixology trial to read a bit more of Invincible, though I was disappointed to discover that they only have about the first 5 years’ worth, so I’m still about 7 years short of completing that series. Gotta find it elsewhere, I guess!
Disclosure: I received review copies or proofs of the books in this column. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support independent bookstores and my writing!