“It’s a mystery. Mysteries are great. Let’s peel it open and see if it’s wrapped around an enigma.”“I hate mysteries,” Callie said, not entirely accurately. “You always think it’s going to be a box full of gold, but usually it’s a box full of spiders.”
2017’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, by Meg Elison, is a stunning debut that was met with critical acclaim – including that year’s Philip K. Dick award. This book is chock-full of material ripe for analysis and discussion. Whether your book club is preparing to discuss it, or you’ve read it on your own and are looking for more, I hope the questions below will help guide your discussion.
Note: If you haven’t read The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, you can read my review of it here.
Please let me know if you use these questions, find them helpful, or think I missed something. And of course I would love to see your answers to any (or all) of these questions in the comments. Happy discussing!
Of course, MAJOR SPOILER WARNINGS below:
“Grow carrots. Eat carrots. Shit carrots. Die. That’s the best thing I can imagine. And the last generation of humanity winds down to zero. Got into the wrong business after graduation.[My] Profession is doomed.”
In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, Elison displays a raw understanding of what it is to be human. Her vision of the world immediately post-apocalypse is nothing particularly new – but it is a pure, distilled, biting vision, a natural evolution of the post-apocalypse narrative that rings achingly true.
The Philip K. Dick award will be announced March 30, 2018, in Seattle, WA. The award is presented annually to a distinguished work of science fiction originally published in paperback form in the United States. This post is the second in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick awards. The other nominees are Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, Revenger by Alastair Reynolds, The Book of Etta by Meg Elison, After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun, The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, and Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn.
Martha Wells’ All Systems Red won me over almost immediately. I began the first page with reservations and by page three I was charmed into complete immersion.
I’m not kidding when I say I read this book in almost one sitting. I was so comfortable in this book, so reluctant to surface from my reading bubble, at one point I tried to get my cat to flip the light switch for me – the sun had gone down and I couldn’t keep reading without the light, but I didn’t want to stop even for a minute. That said, this is absolutely an easy “one sitting” read.
“Bit late for misgivings now.” I put a hand on hers, wondering why it had fallen on me to comfort her, not the other way around. “You wanted adventure, Adrana. Don’t be too sorry when it happens.”
I’ve recently read the 2014 book Nigerians in Space by Deji Bryce Olukotun, and I’ve come out the other side baffled and unsettled. I don’t understand why this book has received the praise it’s gotten. While the core premise around which Olukotun builds his narrative may be promising, that premise is hardly explored and is almost entirely obscured by unrelatable and unlikable characters and bad writing.
I don’t think there’s a lot of value in delving more deeply into the “bad writing” claim. I think it’s poorly written, and I encourage potential readers to seek out an excerpt (for a spoiler-free excerpt, readers may look to the chapter on the character named Thursday, around page 53). From there, they’ll easily see whether the writing style will turn them off or not.
I do think there’s value in looking at what I mean when I say characters are unlikable (since it is my main complaint), and also in acknowledging what I do think is laudable about this book.
When it comes to unlikable characters, Olukotun has done something incredible. I did not encounter a single character I found relatable in any way, or indeed encounter any characters written in such a way that the audience was even supposed to like them. They are uniformly without personality, not just in a dry sense but in their almost frantic lack of relatable motivation or worldview. This alone might be chalked up to where I stand on the topic of “show don’t tell”, but a lack of personality is not where this character issue ends.
This book is astonishingly anti-woman. Wale’s wife, for instance, remains nothing more than an essentially mute and sullen harpy, a foil for Wale’s drama to play against. Another character, when encountering the girlfriend of his partner-in-crime, says
The Philip K. Dick award will be announced March 30, 2018, in Seattle, WA. The award is presented annually to a distinguished work of science fiction originally published in paperback form in the United States. This post is the first in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Philip K. Dick awards. The other nominees are The Book of Etta by Meg Elison, After the Flare by Deji Bryce Olukotun, The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt, Revenger by Alastair Reynolds, Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn, and All Systems Red by Martha Wells.
“All right, who did you become?” Maria asked as her door closed behind her with a whooshzz. She faced her rooms. It was an odd, ghostly feeling, missing so many years. She saw signs of herself everywhere, but someone who was a different person than she was now. She found herself mourning the dead woman, the Maria who would be remembered by no one.
It is clear beyond a shadow of a doubt why Mur Lafferty won the 2013 John W. Campbell award. This woman can write!
“Roxy feels the thing like pins and needles along her arms. Like needle-pricks of light from her spine to her collarbone, from her throat to her elbows, wrists, to the pads of her fingers. She’s glittering, inside.”
“Margot waits to see Jos do something; hold her breath, or wrinkle her brow, or show exertion in the muscles of her arm, but there’s nothing. Only the pain.”
The Power by Naomi Alderman is one of those books that people are going to be talking about and analyzing decades from now. As I read, I was struck almost immediately by how clearly, how perfectly, The Power fit into a very short list of culturally relevant, beautifully written, “social criticism as dystopian fiction” works. This is this decade’s answer to The Handmaid’s Tale and Never Let Me Go, and carries as much meaning, as much depth of social awareness, as much horror, and as much lovingly created characters as Atwood’s and Ishiguro’s genre-defining works.
Barbary Station appeared on a lot of best-of lists, and rightfully so. But if you’d asked me what I thought about it in the first hundred (or so) pages, I would’ve had a very different take.
It took me until page 120 or so to figure out why I was having such a hard time getting into Barbary Station. By rights, this book is so up my alley I should have been able to walk right into its pages like I’d been born there. It wasn’t the setting, nor was it the characters, nor the premise. It wasn’t the author’s voice, the pacing, or anything like that. Still, somehow I just couldn’t catch the flow of Stearns’ book.
Finally, I put my finger on it: the central political conflict that motivates much of the incidental inter-character conflict was lost on me. It wasn’t complicated or anything, it’s just that the way Stearns presented it it went in one ear and out the other (so to speak). I’m sure it’s not her fault – I just missed it, and was left with that arresting moment of “wait, what?” every time a new interaction went south because of that conflict.
Thankfully, once I was able to put my finger on what was tripping me up I fared a lot better, and almost immediately got into the swing of this book. It didn’t hurt that, coincidentally, right as I recovered from my revelation the whole AI plot (totally what I’d showed up for in the first place) picked up in earnest. From then on, there was no hope for me. I was in love!
I can’t find anything on Stearns’ background in AI, but I just can’t believe she hasn’t got one. AI development is one of my passions, and most of my life (and my college career) has been spent plumbing its depths and keeping abreast of the latest theories and developments. Stearns’ view of how real artificial intelligence would be integrated into a future society blew me away. Her vision for the future is brilliant (and perfectly credible), and her handling of the moral implications of true AI is the perfect blend of approachable and cutting-edge; it’s truly inspiring without ever trending preachy or overly “science”y.
In addition, Stearns has presented literally the only version of the “person entering a virtual realization of the concept-space a computer operates within” trope that didn’t make me roll my eyes – since Tron. Since that sentence is a nightmare, let me explain as well as I can without spoilers. Adda, the computer engineer protagonist, has a specialized jack implant with which she “jacks in” to computers in order to interact with their AIs. When she does this, she enters a hallucinographic environment that abstracts computer data into (sometimes odd) real-world items for her to interact with. This trope has been used over and over again, since Tron and the Matrix, Hackers and Andromeda. And visually, it kind of works. But when it’s used in writing, it’s always fallen flat for me. Stearns, however, uses this technique in a way that adds to, rather than distracts from, her narrative. Suffice it to say I’m very impressed.
To round it out, she writes amazing characters! The protagonist couple are wonderfully and stably in love, without going grossly “lovey”, and they’re each believably real as individual characters and as partners for each other. As a bonus for some of us readers, Stearns’ writing is body-inclusive and one of her main characters is a total introvert – and not just when it’s convenient to the story! Stearns displays a real knack for a very particular kind of humor, too, and I am HERE for it.
Which brings me to my last observation for this spoiler-free review: this book would make an AMAZING movie! So many of the plot-advancing reveals are visual, and while Stearns writes them exceedingly well they would be astounding on the large screen. Everything about this book would pop on screen – from the epic scenes, to the breathtaking action, to the nail-biting suspense, and beyond. I’ve never actually *wished* for a movie adaptation like this before. And with the reception it’s gotten since it was published, I think chances are good Barbary Station might just make it to a theater near you (and me).
As readers, I find that one of the experiences that unifies us as a group is a growing TBR list. I think it’s a thing to celebrate – that endless optimism and a yearning for more couple to create a magpie-like collection compulsion in us readers, who pile our books higher and higher, saying “someday I’ll read them all”.
Here is the remainder of my TBR list of books published in 2017. I loved reading so many books as they were published, and thoroughly enjoyed being part of the discussion as we readers experienced their stories fresh off the presses. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get to everything – but I will, someday!