20 for 20, Part II: Fiction

Hench, Natalie Zina Walschots (2020)

“Hench” is a refreshing take on the superhero genre that has proper reverence while also appropriately taking the piss out of it. Toronto-based writer and poet Walschots puts a Millennial gig economy spin on things by following some put-upon contract workers struggling to make it as temps and entry-level professionals hired out to supervillains. At times it’s a bit too twee, and I feel obliged to put a body horror warning out there for the end of the book, but overall I found it really compelling and a lot of fun. There’s a surprising amount of depth and a number of commendable choices, including a number of LGBTQ characters whose sexuality is a routine fact of their lives, not a gimmick.

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the book quite as much in print, however. Alex McKenna puts in a bravura audiobook performance. She skillfully handles an eccentric array of characters, heaps of wry dialogue, and a surprising number of more maudlin scenes. I particularly enjoyed Leviathan’s slow, crackly voice.

Leave the World Behind, Rumaan Alam (2020)

One of the most hyped books of the summer, in which a bougie white family from NYC is renting an Airbnb in the Hamptons when a slow-rolling disaster unfolds and the owners hurry home. 

I found it a gripping read and an indictment of the learned helplessness of those of us who aren’t really prepared for things really going wrong, or coping with a sudden dearth of information that a massive disaster would entail. 

Alam is constantly twisting the dials, turning up the tension and then slowly dialing it back so it doesn’t overwhelm. Marin Ireland also turns in a strong performance as the audiobook narrator. She ably differentiates the six main characters’ voices, and she’s particularly strong at bringing Alam’s sardonic descriptions of bougie Amanda and Clay’s activities and inner monologues to life.

Providence, Max Barry (2020)

I don’t re-read books these days, but this one would be one of the first I’d re-visit. There are elements that may be familiar on first blush–an alien bug species, a trigger-happy tactical officer, AI, etc.–but they’re often imparted with a fresh spin, and it all gels together quite well. 

The worldbuilding really appealed to me. The protagonists are the crew of a warship that is basically a juggernaut with surprisingly limited amenities, and they’re along for the ride largely to create social media content and present a veneer of human control. I really loved the idea presented of AI not being HAL 9000, or Alexa, or dealing with overt issues of sentience and communication like is en vogue these days. Instead, the idea of AI in Providence is that it sufficiently advanced AI will be utterly inscrutable to us. We can’t communicate with the AI and the AI can’t really communicate with us because we’re so different. The humans are supposed to trust the AI, but the lack of trust in its utterly opaque algorithms and actions sometimes undermines things. 

A Children’s Bible, Lydia Millet (2020)

A very compelling read that doesn’t overstay its welcome, A Children’s Bible is a sort of a yuppie apocalypse tale explored in terms of intergenerational conflict, climate change, and myth making. Even if some of the apocalypse elements feel de rigueur these days, they’re not really central to the plot–they’re a stage Millet uses to explore the real concepts.

I have to plead ignorance to the actual bible in a lot of ways, so some of the allegories and allusions were lost on me, but I don’t think belief or deeper familiarity is at all a requirement.

Superb audiobook narration by Xe Sands.

The New Wilderness, Diane Cooke (2020)

Cooke crafts a world in which climate change and strife have led some normal North Americans to flee to a sort of cordoned primitive life in a wilderness reserve. My feelings are slightly soured by the final chapters, which felt kind of wonky to me, but generally, this is a gripping and very well-written read. There’s a lot about motherhood in here that was powerful in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

What I liked the most was the way Cook kind of shaded in primate behaviours among the human tribe, usually in a relatively subtle fashion. It added a sort of depth to people’s actions, because they were following sort of base instincts and innate social conventions, not just people making decisions.

Emergency Skin, N.K. Jemisin (2019) *short story

N.K. Jemisin’s entry in Amazon’s “Forward” short story collection is a very cheeky, subversive that plays around with a few expectations of how these stories usually go. I interpreted “Emergency Skin” as a fun and well-earned “go to hell” rebuke of the Silicon Valley libertarian techbro/Elon Musk/1% mindset of ‘Earth is already doomed, we’ll make a new world in our own image’. A refreshing palette cleanser.

Radicalized, Cory Doctorow (2019)

This Canada Reads-nominated quartet of short stories is incisive and very well done, with “Unauthorized Bread”, which deals with DRM, right-to-repair, etc., being perhaps the most perceptive and high concept.  

Infinite Detail, Tim Maughan (2019)

Cyberterrorism has irrevocably broken the internet and left devastation in its wake. “Infinite Detail” is a near-future novel that feels increasingly prescient given the increasing scrutiny of Big Tech and how COVID-19 has exposed the frailty and vulnerability of international supply chains.

I appreciated how Maughan paints an ever so slightly advanced, eminently believable landscape of future tech, and the book doesn’t overstay its welcome. Really solid work.

Recursion, Blake Crouch (2019)

While they’re completely unrelated stories, I can’t review this novel without drawing a lot of parallels to “Dark Matter”, which I loved. In both cases, Crouch explores ‘roads not taken’ from the perspective of an underachieving middle-aged everyman, and he humanizes lofty sci-fi concepts like time travel and alternate dimensions by tying them deeply to the brain and the human experience.

Fans of “Dark Matter” will find a book that’s not dissimilar. While I didn’t enjoy “Recursion” quite as much, it’s a fun read, especially when it really picks up steam in the last act, and I found Crouch’s characterization of time travel and carefully tamed technobabble was refreshing. Helena’s perspective really bolsters the book and perhaps gives it a better balance than “Dark Matter”. I think Crouch really demonstrates growth as an author in comparison to the Wayward Pines books—he’s now handling similar themes and emotions both more efficiently and with more nuance.

The River, Peter Heller (2019)

The writing style will not be for everyone, but I found The River to be engaging and, at times, urgent or gripping, culminating in a gut punch of an ending. 

‘Wilderness adventure turned survival story’ is a genre that comes with tropes, but I liked how the story didn’t leap immediately into them: Wynn and Jack are young but experienced outdoorsmen and are equipped for just about anything (or so it seems). I also enjoyed the characterization, with, Wynn and Jack seeming in sync and sort of interchangeable in the beginning, growing much more distinct and nuanced as the book progresses.