Stack Overflow: Fill Up on Fiction

Stack Overflow: Fill Up on Fiction

Books Columns Stack Overflow

Last week I covered a big stack of comics. This week I’ve got a stack of fiction that I’ve read over the past month or two. Several of them turned out to be post-disaster stories, though the disaster in question varied from book to book: a pandemic, nuclear war, climate disaster. There was a time (a decade ago, as it happens) when I was reading a lot of dystopian fiction, mostly young adult novels, and the past few years I’ve picked up some more. I suppose it may seem strange to read a book about a global pandemic while we’re in the midst of an actual one, but it’s a similar reason to playing the Pandemic board game: it can help me make sense of things a little, or give me some sense of control, or—depending on the book—maybe get me to a happy ending when reality seems pretty bleak. The flip side of these disaster-related stories is that they’re also cautionary tales; maybe if we pay attention to the warnings, we can avoid some of these outcomes.

Trashlands

Trashlands by Alison Stine

Trashlands is what I think has been called “climate fiction,” in that it’s somewhat speculative fiction that takes place after ecological disasters have ravaged the world. Parts of the US flooded due to rising sea levels, and nations all over the globe finally banned the manufacture of plastics, among other things (but a bit too late). An unspecified amount of time later, plastic has become both currency and product: people scavenge for plastic because it’s one of the few materials that still survives, that can be fashioned into other things, and bits of plastic are used to barter—the higher the quality of plastic, the more valuable.

Scrappalachia, as it’s now known, is a huge region that has basically become a junkyard, with plastic washing up along river shores. Communities have formed around trash heaps, including the titular Trashlands, a theater-turned-strip-club run by a man named Rattlesnake Master who unofficially rules the dump surrounding it. Coral is a young woman who lives in Trashlands, plucking plastic from the river and trying to earn enough to buy her son’s freedom—he was taken as a child to work in a factory that recycles plastic into the bricks used to build the faraway cities, places that still have some semblance of life in the beforetimes. Some of it required a bit more suspension of disbelief—it’s unclear how the cities would be so vastly different from Scrappalachia, where most people have never seen a working vehicle and a can of soda is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The story jumps from character to character, showing us various perspectives: a journalist has come to the Trashlands to write a story about it for the city newspapers, but has some unspoken agenda; Mr. Fall is a teacher, trying to guard kids from being caught up either by the factory or the strip club; Foxglove is one of the dancers at the strip club, selling space on her skin for men to tattoo their names. It’s not a pretty world and life is mostly about survival, but there are moments of beauty, too. Coral sometimes makes artwork and leaves it in the woods for others to find, though she doesn’t fully understand her compulsion to do so. Overall, though, the story paints a picture of a world that has regressed significantly, both in terms of technology and in terms of human rights: women and children are oppressed and it’s hard for them to escape the violence of men.

In terms of the climate change itself, there are some moments where it’s addressed more explicitly, but for the most part it’s just background history—this is the world most of the characters know, with a few older ones remembering things like running water, the internet, and so on. A few times, there are characters who wonder at the waste of the past—our present—when people would use a plastic spoon or container once and then throw it away. What must that have been like? It’s definitely a message for us now, to consider the amount of single-use plastic we throw away every day. I’m not sure I would say I enjoyed the book, but it was captivating and compelling.

LIFEL1K3 and DEV1AT3

LIFEL1K3 and DEV1AT3 by Jay Kristoff

These are the first two books in a young adult trilogy from a few years ago that I’ve just gotten around to reading. I enjoyed the Illuminae trilogy last year, of which Kristoff was a co-author, so I decided to give these a shot. This story takes place after a nuclear war, though it seems like there may be some climate disaster mixed in with that as well, since California is now underwater with only a few trash-based islands called the Dregs remaining. Central to the story are different types of robots: machina are more like mechs, piloted by humans; automata are simple machines that run on their own but without intelligence; logika are intelligent machines, but programmed with Asimov’s Three Laws. The war that destroyed much of the US (now called Yousay) was between some competing corporations, two of which still are still struggling for dominion.

This tale also jumps between characters, though the central character is Eve, a teenager living in the Dregs who battles in the WarDomes with her scrap-built machina. She lives in a junkyard with her grandpa Silas, her bestest Lemon Fresh (a girl who was abandoned at a bar in an empty detergent box, for which she was named), and her little logika pal Cricket (who, like Jiminy Cricket, kind of serves as her conscience). She seems mostly happy with her life, until something strange crashes into it, quite literally: a pilot in the middle of a dogfight smashes down into the junkyard and seems quite dead, but then Eve and Lemon Fresh realize it’s actually a lifelike, one of the ultra-realistic logika designed by GnosisLabs—but nobody’s seen one since they went rogue and killed all the humans in the company, and then set off a nuke, glassing the desert. Apparently this one survived.

Pretty soon, Eve finds herself the target of several interested parties, and starts to realize that things aren’t what they seem. The competing corporations are after her because they both think she could be the key to their war; meanwhile the Brotherhood, a fanatical cult, are hunting her for being a “deviate,” people who have developed strange powers, perhaps as a result of the exposure to nuclear fallout.

It’s hard to say much about the second book without spoiling the first, though the second tends focuses a bit more on Lemon Fresh and Cricket as they get separated and have some adventures of their own—and we meet several more characters with mutant powers. The one thing I did notice is that Kristoff really likes his big twists. But wait—what you thought before was a lie! Now you know the truth … but that’s also a lie! Here’s the real truth! Oh ho, there’s yet another twist! Some of them I could see coming, and others I wasn’t quite expecting, but it does make for a bit of a roller coaster of a read. I had a fun time with them, and really liked a lot of the characters, especially Cricket. I’m curious to see how the trilogy ends, so I’ll have to track down the last book, TRUEL1F3.

Light Years from Home

Light Years From Home by Mike Chen

Mike Chen has been publishing a book a year for the past few years, and although the plots and premises have been quite different, most of them share one thing in common: they’re about family. His first book, Here and Now and Then, was a time travel story, which was what piqued my interest. Then he published his post-pandemic story A Beginning at the End in 2020, right as we were starting to get the news of COVID-19, some coincidental timing that made the story feel especially relevant. And last year brought We Could Be Heroes, about a superhero and supervillain who are both missing parts of their memories.

This year’s title is Light Years From Home, a sci-fi novel about alien abduction and a family that has been falling apart. Jakob Shao and his dad vanished on a family camping trip—the dad showed up a few days later, confused and delirious, and devoted his life to finding Jakob, convinced that they had been abducted by aliens. Jakob’s twin sister, Kass, was convinced that Jakob had just run off again to avoid his responsibilities, but their little sister Evie took up their dad’s mission and dove deep into alien research and UFO theories.

But then Jakob returns suddenly, telling a story about an intergalactic, Earth-threatening war that he holds the secret to winning, though Kass still suspects that he’s just been backpacking across Europe all this time. (There’s the question of whether Jakob was actually abducted or whether his drug-addled brain has given him delusions, and Chen plays both sides for a while, though even then there’s always some weird data that Evie has been tracking that makes it hard to believe that it’s all entirely in his head.) The siblings have to deal with fifteen years of tension and hurt, but it’s easy to fall back into their old patterns as well, and much of the book is watching them figure out how to communicate with each other, how to trust each other, and how to deal with the new realities of life. (Although, I gotta say, there were a lot of points in the story where I just wanted to shout at one character or another: “JUST SAY SOMETHING ALREADY!”)

Recursion

Recursion by Blake Crouch

I mentioned reading Dark Matter by Blake Crouch back in December, and part of what prompted me to read it was that I’d seen a recommendation of Recursion as a time-travel-ish book and had assumed that the two stories were related. They’re not, actually, though I’ve enjoyed both of them so I’m glad I read them.

Recursion begins with detective Barry Sutton in New York City, failing to stop a woman from leaping to her death. Before she died, she told him a story about having False Memory Syndrome, an affliction that has started cropping up. People are waking up with another set of memories, entire sections of their lives that feel as entirely real as their previous memories, and they don’t know what to do. You might remember being married and having kids and living in one house, but you also know that you’re single and live in this apartment.

All of this is tied to the experiments that neuroscientist Helena Smith is working on: a technology that can record our memories and let us re-experience them. She was driven to work on this by her own mother’s deteriorating memory; thanks to the tech genius Marcus Slade, she now has the funding and the lab to turn it into a reality.

I don’t want to say much more, because a lot of what I loved about reading Recursion was the experience of having the explanation of what was happening slowly unfold before me. Some of the story is about memory and how it shapes who we are—and who we think we are—but the fictional technology and how it works is also a real mind-bending treat. It’s an interesting combo, part crime thriller and part off-the-wall science-fiction, but I really enjoyed it.

Noumenon Ultra

Noumenon Ultra by Marina J. Lostetter

This is the last in a trilogy—I wrote about the first two books in 2017 and 2019, and finally finished this conclusion at the beginning of this year. The series is about interstellar exploration: the Noumenon fleet was sent into space to investigate a strange, pulsing star, and the first book was about the generations-long journey there, along with what they found. The second book was a parallel story, focusing on a different fleet, Convoy Seven, that had a subspace accident and found itself flung far into the future, encountering the descendants of humans that had long diverged into an almost unrecognizable species.

Noumenon Ultra jumps around a bit in time, but the story starts with ICC, the self-aware ship computer of the original Noumenon fleet, which was left behind on a newly constructed planet (also named Noumenon). After eons have passed, the ship computer finds itself awakened to what appears to be intelligent life. Where did it come from—since it hasn’t been nearly long enough for it to have evolved on this planet? The beginning of the book focuses on this first contact experience, as ICC learns to communicate with the creatures and we get to learn a little about their biology, which is fascinating. Meanwhile, we also follow some other stories about the descendants of Convoy Seven, and the appearance of some strange anomalies that have begun to appear across the galaxy, shutting some star systems off from others.

The scope of the Noumenon trilogy is vast, both in time and space, and it can be a bit hard to grasp just how much time has passed in between chapters, or how much distance these fleets have covered. It’s also a fascinating story, one that explores what it means to be human, even while including the perspectives of an intelligent computer and completely alien lifeforms. It took me a little longer to read just because there was so much to digest, and I’m glad I read it. (I even made an Etch-a-Sketch drawing of the cover as part of my daily drawing challenge.) I saw that Lostetter had a new sci-fi book, Activation Degradation, that released last year, so I’m adding it to my wish list now.

Battle of the Linguist Mages

Battle of the Linguist Mages by Scotto Moore

This one is a colorful explosion: one part Snow Crash, one part Ready Player One, blended together with a handful of sparkly glitter. The VR game series Sparkle Dungeon has titles like Mirrorball and Chain and Assassins of Glitter, and Isobel is the undisputed Queen; with her Electronic Dance Mace and Uplifting Encore spell, she is at the top of the leaderboards, and has just conquered yet another boss level. The game uses a language-based control system: Isobel rattles off gibberish syllables to cast spells and she’s good at it.

Then she gets recruited to test the upcoming Sparkle Dungeon title, and learns that it’s not just a game. There are people who have learned to use power morphemes to cast actual spells in reality, and Isobel quickly finds herself caught between two competing factions of linguist mages, in a war that could affect the entire population of California. This, by the way, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, because things get even weirder than that.

I loved the bizarro descriptions of Sparkle Dungeon and all of the punny names for enemies and weapons and locations. The linguistics reminded me of Snow Crash and Lexicon, which both posit that language actually affects our brains because we hear words and our brains interpret them and respond; these power morphemes are not quite the same, but it’s about words affecting belief and belief shaping reality. Fun stuff! If you’re looking for an intense, gonzo story, I recommend giving this one a shot.

All Systems Red

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Back in 2020 I got sent a copy of Network Effect, a Murderbot Diaries novel, but I hadn’t read any of the previous books in the series and I’d just set it aside. I heard a lot of good things about it, though, so recently I picked up the first novella, All Systems Red, at the bookstore and liked it so much that I just went back and picked up the next three novellas as well. (Wish I’d known there’s a box set of those—ah, well.)

Murderbot is a SecUnit, a bot rented out to various spacefaring groups when they need security (required by the Company, so they always need security) on an exploration. Technically, it’s not just a robot—it’s a construct, part organic and part machine, which makes people uncomfortable. Our protagonist (and narrator) has hacked its governor module, the part that ensures it follows commands, but does its best to keep up appearances, while sneakily watching TV series in its head when things are slow.

In this story, Murderbot (as it calls itself in its head) has been assigned to a team that’s doing some exploratory work on a planet, but there are weird things going on. After a disaster that wounds one of the scientists, they discover that their info package has gaps in it: missing maps, excised data. While Murderbot doesn’t particularly care about humans, it doesn’t really want its clients to die, either. The team discovers a dangerous threat, and it’s up to Murderbot to keep them alive.

Murderbot has a lot of social anxiety, and that’s part of what makes this book intriguing: it’s not a person, but it kind of looks like one, and people tend to have widely varying reactions to it. This crew eventually welcomes Murderbot and treats it more like a fellow human, but it’s not sure it wants that, either. The other thing that makes it worth reading, of course, is figuring out the mystery, which involves fancy technology and corporate nonsense and some good old detective work. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

Station Eleven

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This is a book I bought years ago for my wife but I never got around to reading it. I know it’s been back in the news lately because of the television series, but also because of its premise: a global pandemic. That’s about all I knew going into it. I was somewhat surprised to discover that, after the story of the beginning of the outbreak in the US, the story jumps twenty years into the future, and much of the story is set in this post-pandemic world.

The disease itself—the Georgia Flu (named after the country, not the State)—was extremely virulent and deadly. People began feeling ill in the morning and were dead by the afternoon, and infected anyone they shared space with. As soon as the news became public, flights were grounded—but it was too late. The disease wiped out the majority of the population, leaving behind a skeleton of the world we once knew. Planes never flew again. No more internet. Some cars still ran for a few years, until the stores of gasoline spoiled—but anyway the roads were so clogged with abandoned cars that it wasn’t much use anyway.

There’s a huge cast of characters, both in the past and present, and eventually we begin to see how they overlap and intersect. Arthur Leander dies during a performance of King Lear the night that things start to fall apart, and his life is a connecting strand between many of the people we’ll meet throughout the story. Kirsten Raymonde, who was just a child at the time, is later part of a traveling troupe of actors, performing Shakespeare for the small communities they visit. Jeevan Chaudhary is an EMT who attempts to revive Arthur, and later barricades himself in his brother’s apartment when he gets a tip about the virus.

The post-pandemic world is a bit like the one in Trashlands, too, with so much focused on survival, on scavenging things that are still usable because nothing new is being produced. It’s also a dangerous world: the troupe comes into contact with a man calling himself the Prophet, and his cult has strong ideas about who should be allowed to leave their little town. But there’s also beauty in the world here as well, and it seems like that’s a strong theme of the book: the people who are making the new world, the people who remember and preserve stories of the old world.

One thing I realized while reading this book (and reflecting on Mike Chen’s post-pandemic novel) was that perhaps one of the reasons we have found our actual pandemic so difficult to manage is that our expectations of a global pandemic are off. We expect things to be like these books or like zombie movies, where the disease strikes fast and has very obvious effects. In Y: The Last Man (I started watching the TV series), men all over the world drop dead at the same time, bleeding profusely. We also picture the post-pandemic world as something like the wild west: everyone has guns and we have a sort of tribal society with small communities standing off against outsiders. Infrastructure falls apart; we become hunters and gatherers, or rediscover agriculture. Meanwhile, the reality was much different: a virus that spread quickly but often hid its symptoms. We still have internet access but ran out of toilet paper. Instead of an in-your-face disease that nobody could deny, we have misinformation and a politicization of science. Millions have died worldwide, but because we don’t see them dropping dead in the streets, we sweep them under a rug. It’s hard to know how we’re going to come out of this, but I feel like the stories and movies just did not prepare us.


My Current Stack

I’ve got some “Art of” books that I’m working through now, so maybe if I get through a few more of those I’ll share a stack of them soon! In the meantime, I’m also reading the second Murderbot Diaries novella, Artificial Condition.

Disclosure: Except where noted, I received review copies of these titles. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support my writing and independent bookstores!

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