My staff picks are all over the map, but my special love is for science fiction and history.
What you think your job is at Left Bank Books? Saving civilization, one book at a time
If you had a Super Power, what would it be? Slowing time, so I can catch up
What’s your sign? Copyright 1954
What’s your favorite memory? I have to pick?
Using only one word, describe yourself. overextended
If they made a movie about your life, who would play you? Martin Freeman
Stick or Automatic? Both
Author you love to hate: Dan Brown
Theme song to your life: Wondrous Stories
Like the last work of Greenblatt's I read (The Swerve) I was struck by his clear prose and narrative sense as well as his extensive historical knowledge and command of the interconnectedness of a wide range of elements. This work takes a look at one of the central myths of christianity, namely the story of Adam and Eve, and examines its staying power, how and why in spite of centuries of, essentially, debunking the story tenaciously clings to our collective psyche. As allegory, this is no mystery---it's a compelling story---but the fact that so many people still assert its factual reality leads us into the murkiness of our ability to deceive ourselves and ignore evidence. He also does a good job showing how that myth became the source of a millennia-long embrace of studied misogyny, begun primarily by St. Augustine, who somehow could not come to terms with his own erotic obsessions and his desire to become (in my view, not Greenblatt's) Other Than Human for the glory of his newfound faith after his dramatic conversion to Catholicism. The details Greenblatt offers give us ample evidence of someone who was working out personal issues at the expense of half the human population. There are surprising turns of history, of intellectual adventurism, of the human capacity to master the irrational and accept the changes demanded by reason and evidence combined into reconceptualizations of things thought long settled. And then there are the artists and, finally, Milton. Highly recommended. Mark's Staff Pick, November 2017
Annalee Newitz, cofounder and editor-in-chief of io9, has written a novel that has all the signs of being a major touchpoint in science fiction. Autonomous bases its meditations on questions of ownership and resource allocation in a future where both are matters of patent law. If this seems like improbable grounds in which to grow a gripping, nail-biting action plot, reconsider. Captain Jack Chen is a pirate with a personal submarine and a working knowledge of pharmacology. She “liberates” drugs and see them distributed through networks that get them to people who ordinarily can’t afford them. Autonomous is the kind of novel science fiction is most adept at producing—the thoughtful, philosophically-attuned thriller that leaves you with plenty to mull over once your adrenalin stops pumping.
A debut novel that evokes the best of old- fashioned science fiction adventure and adds smart elements of satire, humor, and social commentary. The crew of the Wayfarer, a bore ship that "punches" holes through subspace to connect distant locales in interstellar space via wormhole, is a collection of humans, aliens, alien humans, and an overseeing AI named Lovey. Rosemary, who is fleeing family and hiding a secret, joins them and quickly discovers a new life that is both demanding and accepting in ways she never before imagined. The dialogue alone sets this novel a cut above. The characters are all fully realized, smart, and revealing in ways that bring us into their curious family, matching a wide and crowded universe as distinctly imagined as any in the genre. An unexpected treat, built of equal parts intelligence, sensitivity, and an adult appreciation of the 12-year-old SF fan in all of us.
If H.P. Lovecraft and Saul Bellow had ever collaborated on a ghost story, the result might be very much like John Langan's debut novel House of Windows. Not so much in style, but in the way the two writers would temper each other and blend their signature motifs into something simultaneously more sinister and more sophisticated. Patiently, persistently, and with great skill, Langan has constructed a modern ghost story about nightmares and families and fouled hopes and expectations imposed and denied, with a caution at its heart, that no matter how many windows into the soul one has, if the curtains are drawn or we refuse to honestly look, we cannot truly know each other. Or ourselves.
Murderbot is one of the most unexpectedly fascinating characters in recent SF. A robot, designed for the purpose of providing security for contractors, he (she? it?) is supposed to be a superficial cache of tactical and risk assessment expertise that will put it all on the line to defend its clients. Except this one has hacked its governor module, so it is completely independent. What does a suddenly "free" murderbot do now that it doesn't have to follow orders to the letter? Why, download hundreds of hours of entertainment and tune out at every opportunity. Except again, it turns out that it still has a dedication to protecting its clients, a dedication that gradually becomes a commitment, which grows eventually into something of a cause when it becomes clear that there is something fundamentally broken with the way this universe operates, and...well, it's beginning to like its clients, which shouldn't happen, and Murderbot doesn't know how to deal with that. Fun, fascinating, fast-paced, and, underneath it all a grueling inquiry into casuistry, responsibility, and empowerment.
The Amazing Telemachus Family was once poised to thrill the world with its assortment of psychic skills. Until the day they were shamed and debunked very publicly and everything went to hell for them too quickly. And then the martriarch of the family dies, leaving her husband, Teddy, to care for a collection of frustrated exceptionals. Teddy, the con man. Teddy, the one among them who is really not psychic. Following the family from the early days of Teddy and Maureen meeting at the birth of a government program looking for psychics to combat the threat of Soviet psychics, up to a present which may or may not involve the apocalypse, Daryl Gregory deftly turns everything everyone "knows" about psychics and cons and secret government programs on its multifaceted head(s) and tells the story of a family coping with lost love, fame, innocence, the mob, old age, death, and the true nature of the universe. By turns laugh-out-loud funny, deeply affecting, and nail-bitingly tense, Spoonbenders is exactly not what you expect.
An astonishingly rich example of world building, N.K. Jemisin has created an experience replete with a history, an aesthetic, and a cast of characters both tortured and noble and sympathetic. It is easy to believe this is about some ancient Earth. it is just as easy to believe this is the Earth of some far future, where the history that concerns us has been long forgotten. And yet the familiarity of concern, of tragedy, of aspiration crosses all gulfs and draws the reader in with its inexorable truths.
The Show That Never Ends is the definitive story of the extraordinary rise and fall of progressive (“prog”) rock. Epitomized by such classic, chart-topping bands as Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, and Emerson Lake & Palmer, along with such successors as Rush, Marillion, Asia, Styx, and Porcupine Tree, prog sold hundreds of millions of records. It brought into the mainstream concept albums, spaced-out cover art, crazy time signatures, multitrack recording, and stagecraft so bombastic it was spoofed in the classic movie This Is Spinal Tap.
With a vast knowledge of what Rolling Stone has called “the deliciously decadent genre that the punks failed to kill,” access to key people who made the music, and the passion of a true enthusiast, Washington Post national reporter David Weigel tells the story of prog in all its pomp, creativity, and excess.
Weigel explains exactly what was “progressive” about prog rock and how its complexity and experimentalism arose from such precursors as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. He traces prog’s popularity from the massive success of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” and the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” in 1967. He reveals how prog’s best-selling, epochal albums were made, including The Dark Side of the Moon, Thick as a Brick, and Tubular Bells. And he explores the rise of new instruments into the prog mix, such as the synthesizer, flute, mellotron, and—famously—the double-neck guitar.
The Show That Never Ends is filled with the candid reminiscences of prog’s celebrated musicians. It also features memorable portraits of the vital contributions of producers, empresarios, and technicians such as Richard Branson, Brian Eno, Ahmet Ertegun, and Bob Moog.
Ultimately, Weigel defends prog from the enormous derision it has received for a generation, and he reveals the new critical respect and popularity it has achieved in its contemporary resurgence.
Ann Leckie's Raadch Universe is vast and will contain multitudes. With Provenance she has shown that it is not a shallow pool with interesting surface tension but a deep, deep sea of narrative potential. While not as anxiety-inducing as her Ancillary Trilogy, there is ample tension and a story pivoting adroitly on aspect of culture, human foible, and politics of dynasties that will leave you thinking for quite some time in the afterglow of a first-rate yarn well told. There's even a murder. While different in tone, this is a necessary facet in the jewel of her creation. Not to be missed.
James Tiptree Jr. was one of the best short form writers of science fiction in a field that once lived and died in the short story. "His" appearance on the scene in the late Sixties rumbled through the field. The stories were electric, unusual, insightful, unexpected. But just as interesting was the fact that no one knew who James Tiptree Jr. was. Speculation was rampant. When finally it was revealed that "he" was Alice Sheldon, daughter of world explorers, ground-floor (and former) member of the nascent CIA, the revelation stunned those convinced of her "ineluctible masculinity." In the hands of Julie Phillips, Sheldon's life is shown to be as spectacularly exotic as anything she put down in her fiction. This is one of the finest literary biographers ever crafted and Phillips' subject was one of the most interesting writers of the 20th Century.
Flipping paradigms on their heads is what science fiction is all about. Sometimes the paradigms so flipped are so obvious and yet so unlikely that the act requires a fine touch, a clear mind, and considerable talent. Naomi Alderman exemplifies this combination in The Power. The paradigm? The power relations between men and women. When women suddenly acquire the ability to generate and channel electrical charges, the dynamics of the world, of history itself, change, even as some things seem to remain obdurately the same. A disquieting yet satisfying exegesis about sexual politics, tradition, revolution, evolution, and the transformation of cultural givens.
Neal Stephenson writes great big discursive SF novels that run along like well-tuned motors. The Diamond Age is one of his earlier works yet displays all his strengths---well-reasoned extrapolation, Quixotic political radicalism, and a cast of memorable and unpredictable characters, all brought face to face with world-changing technology. In this instance, a craftsman is tasked to design a teaching tool for the child of a fabulously wealthy aristo late in the 21st Century, a wonderful book that is interactive, challenging, a subversively philosophical. If used properly it will train its user to be a first-rate thinker. He decides to make a copy---quite illegally---and give it to his daughter. Poor Nell grows into more than anyone might have expected and the world is never the same.
"His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god."
So begins Roger Zelazny's masterpiece, Lord of Light. The novel won the Hugo Award in 1968 for best novel and was nominated for the Nebula. Zelazny, a master craftsman, produced a marvel---a science fiction novel that can be read as easily as a fantasy---about the descendants of a crashed starship on a world where in order to survive turned toward technologies that gave some of them both immortality and the power of gods. But the culture has stagnated and things need to be shaken up. Sam plans to do just that.
Klang Smith shows herself to be a masterful juggler. There should be no way for all the components at play here to cohere, and yet they do. They do with a surprising and pleasurable grace and at times the writing is nearing transcendence. This is allegory, metaphor, and potboiler mingled artfully to make an elegant mockery of expectation and resolution. Who these people are and who they become as they spin around each other just as the dragons circle overhead suggests, finally, that superficiality requires substance to survive, and that try as some might to remain shallow, depths are there to fall into whether we like it or not.
Dhalgren challenges. Myth, dystopia, alternate history, a soul-wrenching examination of life within layered landscapes, this novel is the 'Ulysses' of science fiction. More than that, it is comprised of the ur-stuff from which modern imaginative dissonance is mined to create our new fictive discourse.
Nova burns blindingly in the history of science fiction. One part space opera, one part examination of myth, one part dynastic struggle, and one part quest novel, Delany gives us a tale as big as the galaxy and as personal as yesterday.
Let me get straight to the point: Mary Robinette Kowal’s new novel, The Calculating Stars, is one of the best alternate histories I have read since… It is 1952. Dewey is president. Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, are on vacation in the Poconos. They both work for the newly-formed National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Nathaniel is the chief engineer and has a reputation for putting up America’s first satellites. Elma is a mathematician, a superb one. She is also a former WASP pilot, which fact figures prominently in all that follows. In the midst of their idyllic vacation, a meteor slams into the Atlantic just off the east coast. It destroys Washington D.C. and wreaks havoc up and down the seaboard. Elma and Nathaniel manage to get out and to her plane and west until a fighter squardon challenges them, learns who they are, and escorts them to Wright-Patterson Air Base, the only fully operational military base within range. There they learn the extent of the immediate losses. CalculatingStars_comp_v7_final-220x338 Quickly, the government scrambles to get up and running. The only surviving member of the Cabinet is the Secretary of Agriculture, who becomes Acting President until an election can be held. This, too, is very important. While the pieces are being picked up and some kind of order restored, Elma is asked to calculate the size of the meteor so her husband can go into the meetings with the paranoid military and convince them this was nothing to do with the Soviets. She crunches the numbers and discovers to her shock and dismay that this was an extinction-level event. In 50 or 60 years, the Earth will be too hot for survival. Kowal lays all this out meticulously. The science has the resonance of reality. So do the politics, the culture, the economics. In fact, this is a very well thought-out scenario. For Elma, Nathaniel, the Acting President it means one thing: humanity has got to get off the planet. Which kicks the space program into high gear in the early 1950s. The novel is soaked in telling details. And while it offers plenty of science and rocket-geek delight, it is also a story of challenging culture and social norms and overcoming personal difficulties in the face of all that the 1950s—our 1950s—was about to be. Kowal brings the culture into play with a seamless grace that produces a “well, of course that had to change” which occasionally leaves a residue of embarrassment. Embarrassment at how we know things were and even how they still are. We talk about Wake Up Calls when faced with growing or entrenched social problems, matters of injustice, the unexamined givens of the world. Kowal delivers the ultimate Wake Up Call. And then shows us just how resistant people can be to making absolutely necessary changes if they challenge how we believe the world ought to be. She puts ought to be on trial in a compelling narrative that seems to be all about building the future writers like Heinlein and Clarke expected. They neglected a few of the underlying pitfalls of trying to do so. As well, we are treated to a protagonist completely human, flawed and excellent in her abilities and craft and sensibilities. Elma York is composed of the stuff we want to cheer and she carries us along with a convincing humanity that includes a heart as large and full one could wish for. Her relationship with Nathaniel is wonderfully portrayed. But it is Elma’s constant checking of privilege as she works to bring women into the astronaut corps and has to face the fact that she had often been blind to things sometimes right in front of her. Living up to her own values becomes a process well worth following. This the first book in a new series. If it continues with the same verve and attention to detail and sheer passion, we may be looking at a landmark work.
Part biography, part science history, Charles Mann gives us the drama of the modern ecology movement embodied in two men who represent each side of what is often a seemingly unbridgeable divide. William Vogt and Norman Borlaug, the Prophet and the Wizard respectively, worked to solve the same problem---resources---but from very different expectations and ideologies. Sensitively-written, well-researched, and even-handed, this is an illuminating look at how we have arrived here and what some of the possibilities for the future.
Ian McDonald has the word-sense of a poet and uses it to produce some of the most interesting and delightful science fiction of the last three decades. This novella is a variation on the time travel theme by way of letters left in copies of an obscure book of poetry. It is a love story, speculative science, and a composite of periods bleeding into each other with the feel of a pastoral, set against WWII and the confusion of early 21st Century Britain. By turns charming, fascinating, grim, heart-breaking, and affirming.