This week’s Stack Overflow is late because my wife and I spent the weekend visiting some local sites to celebrate our anniversary—some places we’ve never been despite having lived in Portland for about 17 years now—and because of Labor Day, which seems particularly pertinent right now with all the strikes currently going on. Our local bookstore, Powell’s, was even closed on Monday because of a union strike—I hope they are able to negotiate an acceptable agreement!
Ah, but you’re here for the books, right? Today I’ve got several novels and one sort-of-a-novel that I’ve read recently—these are all for adults. Let’s dive in!
Chain-Gang All-Stars takes place in a dystopian future America, where some of those incarcerated are offered a choice: a potentially shortened sentence in exchange for participating in gladiatorial combat against other prisoners. I say “potentially” because the fights are to the death, and very few in the history of this sport have actually survived the requisite time to be set free. At the time the book takes place, the game is already in its 32nd season, and the showrunners continue to tweak the rules and introduce new twists to hook their bloodthirsty audience. Like our reality TV shows, Chain-Gang All-Stars isn’t just about the fights, but follows its players almost constantly, giving viewers a strange relationship to them. They watch their lives and think they’re getting to know them, and they buy merch and cheer on their favorites, both admiring and despising these celebrity criminals.
The book jumps around between several different characters. We meet a lot of different fighters—some we follow over the course of the season, and some we meet only briefly before they’re dispatched. There’s also a van driver who transports the fighters, a sportscaster who resigns in protest, a fan who just wishes his wife could understand the appeal of the game. It’s a biting satire that mashes up the American prison industry, our obsession with reality shows, and capitalism. Throughout the book there are footnotes that allude to the realities underpinning this fiction: private prison corporations that make billions in revenue, women serving time for killing their rapists, the interpretation of the 13th Amendment that still allows for slavery as punishment while abolishing it in theory.
As you read the book, Adjei-Brenyah puts you in the role of the viewers, too. You voyeuristically watch the lives of these “Chains” in between fights, and you’re drawn into the intense action scenes of the battles. You learn about the crimes that originally put them into prison, and the murders added to that list as part of this “Criminal Action Penal Entertainment program.” You get to know them, and you understand the impossible situation they’ve been placed in, where their freedom depends on their ability to take even more lives—and then what?
Chain-Gang All-Stars is not an easy read, but it is a powerful critique of our carceral system, and it’s definitely worth the effort. It’s a story that I’ll be thinking about for a while.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the ultra-rich, the ones who can get away with anything because they can just buy their way out of trouble. Sucker is narrated by Chuck Gross, a scion of the Grossman family who shortened his name to obscure his family ties. He runs a punk record label, but his business partner girlfriend doesn’t realize that the label couldn’t survive without the cash that he reluctantly accepts from his parents. Of course, that money comes with strings attached, so he’s been trying to set up an exit strategy to become financially independent.
Enter Olivia Watts, his former Harvard classmate who is making waves with her new endeavor, a blood-testing company called Kenosis that promises to change the future of healthcare. (It’s pretty obvious that Olivia was inspired by Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal.) He winds up getting a job at Kenosis but doesn’t actually do much—but it pays well, gets his family off his back, and lets him continue running his record label, as long as he can keep his punk musicians from picking up where his money really comes from.
Okay, so then things get weird. He starts discovering things about Kenosis that don’t add up, and when he tries to warn his father that maybe he should withdraw his investment, he just keeps getting deeper into the mystery. But despite Chuck’s cluelessness, it’s pretty obvious right from the cover of the book what’s really going on: vampires. The thing is, because it’s written from Chuck’s perspective, we don’t get confirmation about it for most of the book. In fact, the book never actually uses the word “vampire” at all, like the way zombie shows and movies always come up with weird names for zombies when everyone knows what they really are. It’s not clear if you’re supposed to question the mounting evidence that it’s vampires, or if you’re supposed to just see that Chuck is an idiot and is walking himself into a trap for most of the book.
There are some other quirks here and there that just pulled me out of the story at times. Sometimes there are references to actual companies and people—Steve Jobs, Google—but at other times there are fictional characters that are clearly based on easily recognizable people. For instance, “Nate Zuckerman” is the founder of a major social media company, though it’s not called Facebook. It’s unclear why some names were changed, and also made me wonder how the book could still include the standard “any resemblance to actual … persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” Sure, and Kenosis isn’t a front for vampires.
Between Chuck’s unbearably irritating personality and the drawn-out final reveal, I didn’t really enjoy this one as much. It did have a funny take on the tech world and its personalities, but overall the problem is there weren’t really any characters I wanted to spend very much time with.
Now this book is a twist on vampires that I did enjoy. Okay, it also doesn’t use the word “vampires,” but unlike Sucker it’s because these folks are not your typical blood-suckers. As you may have guessed from the title, these people eat books—literally. They have “bookteeth” that can unsheath, allowing them to bite into hardcovers, and they absorb the information in them by consuming them. But book eaters are a vanishing breed, which has led to complicated traditions and family structures centered on ensuring more progeny, all kept secret from human society at large. In Britain, where this book takes place, there are the Six Families, linked through intermarriages, holed up in vast estates. The women of child-bearing age are expected to marry twice to produce heirs, and generally do not stay to raise the children themselves.
Aside from the book eaters, though, the Families also sometimes have another type of child: the mind eater. Instead of books, they have a hunger for minds, using their serpentine tongues to empty a person of their thoughts, after which they take on the victim’s memories. It’s implied that book eaters and mind eaters may have inspired stories of vampires; in modern times, the mind eaters’ hunger has been kept in check with a drug, but the Ravenscar family, which produces the drug, has fallen to internal strife and the drug is now in short supply.
That’s bad news for Devon, a woman from the Fairweather family, who is on the run with her mind eater son Cai. After being forcibly separated from her first child, she has no intention of giving up her second, and is trying to track down the Ravenscars. In the meantime, she’s trying to keep her child fed without attracting the attention of humans and other book eaters alike.
Although The Book Eaters is fantastical, the struggles that Devon faces can be very real. Since book eaters learn by eating books, girls are only given certain types of books to eat, and Devon grows up on a diet of fairy tales. It’s not until after her first arranged wedding that she understands how limited her understanding was of how marriages work within the Families; although she enjoyed her childhood, she also quickly learns how sheltered she was and how little information she was given about the rest of the world. She never knew her mother, who was whisked away (as they all are) as soon as she was weaned, and she has her own complicated emotions in caring for her son—she loves him absolutely but also fears his monstrous nature and the horrific things she has to do for his survival. As she attempts to break out of this broken system, she has to face various members of her family, and recognizes that they have not, in fact, had her best interests in mind.
It’s a fascinating story and I really enjoyed it, though there were two particular spots—not even all that important to the plot—where my suspension of disbelief failed, and they both had to do with motor vehicles. Sure, I can believe that there’s a species that looks human but actually subsists on books or human minds, but when a character puts a Prius into fifth gear (and while starting up!), I had a hard time glossing over that. Later on, somebody else hops on the back of a motorcycle and … puts on a seatbelt. I’m sorry, but that really just feels like something an editor should have caught. But that’s just me being nitpicky, I admit—the rest of the book was amazing.
Counterweight centers on a space elevator, built on the island of Patusan by the Korean conglomerate LK, which has completely transformed the former tropical resort into a transit hub—Earth’s gateway into outer space. The narrator, known only by the name Mac (which we eventually learn isn’t his real name) works for LK’s External Affairs division, and he has a somewhat contentious relationship with LK’s Security division, which has engaged in a lot of extralegal activities whenever LK’s interests are at risk. Some of these secrets died with the former CEO—at least, that’s what everyone assumed. But when a low-level LK employee shows up, behaving as if he is the deceased president, Mac (and Security, and a number of other players) are all invested in figuring out what’s going on.
This one is difficult to summarize: even though it’s a short novella, there’s just a lot going on here. There’s corporate espionage, political wrangling, technological wonders, companies created and run by AI, and a mystery about how the dead CEO’s memories wound up in the mind of this nobody. The author of this one is also a bit of a mystery: Djuna is a pen name, but the author’s actual identity is unknown. They were the former head of the Korean Science Fiction Writers Union and have published several novels and story collections, but have remained faceless for over twenty years.
Okay, we’ll end on a somewhat lighter note. Abby is an intern “Up Here”—what we call Heaven—where the Boss has decided to implement a faster update process. When the deceased arrive, they’re given a feedback form and are allowed to make suggestions about things they would like to see changed on Earth. While the big stuff is handled personally by the Boss, Abby is the one who sorts through the suggestions and decides which ones to recommend to the Update team.
After the brief introduction, most of the book consists of the suggestions and Abby’s comments about them. Each one has a name, cause of death, and then the suggestion itself along with the reason for upgrade. The causes of death range from natural disasters (landslide) to the improbable (poisoned chalice) to the absurd (fridge magnet avalanche). And they generally have nothing to do with the suggestions, which also run the gamut from complaints about insufficient memory storage to giving gravity a break from time to time. Abby makes notes about feasibility and raises questions about potential problems, or sometimes questions the motivation of the person requesting a change.
In the meantime, we also get bits and pieces about life Up Here, like Abby’s coworkers, some interoffice romance with other interns, and other shenanigans. The Boss is fond of dad jokes (of course), and we get some insight into some of the quirks of human life. Throughout the book there are plenty of illustrations, too, imagining the results of some of the silly suggestions. My kid saw this book and asked if she could read it, but having finished it I think there’s maybe a bit more about sex and relationships than is age-appropriate for her. Maybe in a few years. But for you adults, it’s an entertaining, somewhat irreverent book about the folks in charge of how the world works.
My Current Stack
I’ve got a couple of comics under my belt that I’m hoping to write up soon, but I’m also working on a stack of videogame-related books that I’m planning to share next week in honor of National Video Games Day, so keep an eye out for that!
Disclosure: I received review copies or advance reader copies of the books covered in this column. Affiliate links to Bookshop.org help support my writing and independent booksellers!