“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.
How much did a degree and a neat resume really prepare someone for a job? The Alan Turings and Claude Shannons of the world had been eccentric, inventive, forceful people. Rule breakers. The people at Bletchley Park and Room 40 didn’t stop to check boxes; they got the job done no matter what the cost.
The Genius Plague by David Walton is a geopolitical science-fiction thriller about a fungus plague that threatens humanity.
A bunch of books get published every year. A large percentage of those books are bad. I don’t review a lot of those because I don’t bother finishing them. Some small percentage of the books that are published perfectly express the human experience, beautifully/accurately describe the nature of the world, or are so well-written, original, or just so super-fun that they are called “good.”
The Genius Plague is not bad, but it’s not really “good” either. It’s the literary equivalent of a Saturday afternoon movie or a prime time CBS television series that has a title that’s just a bunch of letters. You know the type: full of well-meaning, earnest, too-young-for-what-they-are-doing characters who speak in paragraphs, trying to save the world while dealing with a messy private life. It’s a book to read on an airplane. It’s a forgettable bit of entertainment. There isn’t going to be an epic fandom popping up for the characters of this book. Book clubs are not going to get together and analyze it (but if I’m wrong and they do, I’d suggest comparing and contrasting the United States intelligence agencies with the fungus as a discussion topic). It’s not beautifully written, with about the same level of sophistication as an Ernest Cline or Pierce Brown book.
All that being said, the book doesn’t suck. It’s a well-paced, easy-to-read page-turner. I was able to read about 100 pages of the book per day, and not only could I manage that pace, I wanted to maintain it because I wanted to know what happened next. It’s apparent that a lot of research went into the book. I also appreciated that the author took the time to explain things that other, lesser books, might gloss over. What I mean is that sometimes I would have a reaction like, “Wait, but what about x?” The author, anticipating this inquiry by readers, would usually address x in the very next sentence or paragraph. Since the book is a “present day” science fiction story – such that stuff really shouldn’t be explained by “magic science,” I really appreciated that effort by the author. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really goofy “sciencey” things in this book, but it works so hard to justify them, I just can’t hold them against it.
The Genius Plague is a fun, pretty ok book. I feel like the concept of the book had a lot more potential than what was ultimately utilized, but it is by no means a “bad read.”
My rating: 3 stars
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.”
If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realities are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.
Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel is a kinda-YA book about scientists discovering and then figuring out an ancient giant alien robot. It is the first book of a series (The Themis Files series). My reviews this year have mostly been all-out endorsement (Pachinko and Purple and Black) or a kind of resigned acceptance of well-meaning mediocrity (Beneath the Sugar Sky). My feelings for Sleeping Giants are more complex. On the one hand, I like how the book is about figuring out an ancient giant alien robot. On the other hand, that’s pretty much the only thing I liked about it.
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).