Writing I Loved in 2019
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck I can’t remember if I read this in 2019 or not, but I can’t stop recommending it so let’s get it out of the way. It’s a science fiction novel with a resonant, clever, and squarely post-modern conceit- objects in the world only retain their shape and properties when named. Touch a pencil and call it a pencil and it shall be a pencil, for a time. If you start calling it something else, it slowly starts morphing into that thing. Leave it in a dark drawer for too long, without being named, and it falls apart into a bland, formless goop. The world then extends from this idea- buildings are marked with their purpose, books are titled for precisely what they are (About Plant House 7, About Bodily Variations, etc.), and children sing songs to keep their classroom inert. Tidbeck’s world, with its baked-in authoritarianism and mysterious history, is immediately different and gripping. She uses the concept to stab at identity, creativity, and the worth of inherited systems. The ending might be not be what you expect, but is, in short, glorious, redeeming, and ultimately unsettling. All that to say, I loved everything about it. It’s a novel I know I’ll be revisiting for years and having different impressions of as time morphs and changes me into my own formless blob. I’m also looking forward to picking up her previously published anthology, Jagannath, in 2020.
-- Zolitude by Paige Cooper Paige Cooper’s 2018 anthology is the first book I can recall in a long time that i wanted to immediately start from the beginning once I was finished. It’s a collection of work that has been well recognized before, so I’m a bit late to the game, but I was absolutely blown away by just about every story in here. The stories are effortlessly speculative and fantastical, woven with precise and intense imagery, and have such resonant themes that I became more and more jealous of it all with each page. Among my favorites: ‘Ryan & Irene, Irene & Ryan’, a revelatory story centered around a love triangle and the result of a violent bombing. ‘The Emperor’, a story about the passion between a cop and a radical set in a kind of dark, gothic Victorian backdrop including a horse with great, black wings. ‘Moriah’, about a woman operating a mobile library serving an enclave of former sex predators that sits at the base of a mountain that’s home to a massive Roc and its nest egg. And ‘Pre-Occupants’, one of the most striking and honest depictions of Mars colonization I’ve read that, in a kind of skewed suburban horror, tangles with the constant proximity between people that such an undertaking would require. These are the kinds of stories I want to read again and again, to learn from and use to improve my own writing. Cooper expertly walks the line between fascination and emotional weight, grounding the fantastical in real characters that give each story a sharpened point at their end. Just an overall excellent and inspirational read for any writer or lover of the weird.
-- Chernobyl, written by Craig Mazin I would love to have been in the room when Craig Mazin had to sit down and think, “How do I explain Soviet-era nuclear reactors, their regular operation, and the whole meltdown process, to a modern audience. In twenty minutes. And without boring them.” I think this HBO series stands as proof that audiences are smarter than they’re usually credited for, and your standard Netflix drama/thrillers could be taking more risks. But you don’t get to that point without a compelling and personable story first. The characters are expertly performed all around, and the show is able to expose the failures and tragedy of the incident at every level in a very human and personable way. The series is a great historical drama, but doubles as a sort of weird horror genre story as well. The episode with the crew wading through the water and the dark of the reactor and watching as their lights give out and the scratching of their Geiger counters escalated was a moment I felt in my chest. I can’t say a lot of TV shows have the affect of actually catching my breath or giving me the creeps, but I couldn’t help but imagine the paralyzing fear I’d feel in that situation. It’s also a series that knows where its heart lies. This is ultimately a story that champions the common people who were the first to be sacrificed, with the depiction and plight of the miners especially standing out as an example of the courage and resignation that prevented the disaster from becoming something much worse.
-- Disco Elysium by studio ZA/UM Disco Elysium is a video game by a Marxist studio/collective that’s already being spoken of as a defining moment for RPGs- something by which future RPGs will be measured against. It does this with simple twists on old ideas, filling in the spaces that RPGs have tended to ignore while excluding combat mechanics outright to instead focus heavily on choice, exploration, and everyday moral dilemmas. The depth of choice and character interactions here is really hard to understate. At the start you allocate points in 4 skill categories, each with six individual traits like Logic, Volition, Empathy, Reaction Speed, and so on. Each of these traits then become a voice in your head with their own personality, goals, and insights. They interrupt you mid-dialogue and play out the internal conflicts your character is having in his own mind. The dialogue you have with NPCs in turn is not labelled as [Persuade] or [Charm] or other RPG conventions, but result from these internal thoughts and range from confused questioning to pedantic nit-picking, absurd lies, political accusations, surreal rants, and everything inbetween. Most importantly, the dialogue tends to force you to commit to something, instead of offering easy, middle-of-the-road options that just streamline you through the story. Every character you meet is their own scene, and every interaction leads to an outcome that develops or reflects your character. The game directly tackles big topics like addiction, class consciousness, generational trauma, heartbreak and regret, political malaise, and the all-encompassing cynicism of being in a run down world, but does so with more levity, wit, and actual hope than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s an unconventional police procedural and tragic murder mystery. It’s a Charles Dickens tale through the lens of David Lynch. And it’s funny: Chuckling, gut-busting, meta-ish funny. I’ve been playing video games as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s because of my age or just my weariness with results of the industry overall, but I cannot remember any recent time in which a video game as been more personally relatable, affecting, or sincerely inspiring as this game has been.
-- Space Settlements by Fred Scharmen I bought this book when it came across my twitter feed as it felt right up my alley and I’m proud to say its been on of my surprise favorites of the year. Scharmen maps the work of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill whose early ideas and discussions sparked the 1975 NASA Summer Study, with the goal to design large-scale space habitats for millions of people. This resulted in drawings and renderings by Rick Guidice and Don Davis (which you’ve likely seen) who envisioned what would ultimately be known as O’Neill cylinders. Scharmen approaches the topic from an architectural point of view, dusting off a massive library of old resources, files, and images from archives, but also maps how influential the O’Neill cylinder designs have been on pop culture after the 70s. The impressive imagery and type layout make this a solid coffee table book as well, but ultimately it stands as an impressive recollection of a time when NASA’s imagination was almost limitless and some of the most wild ideas were realistically explored. -- The Lighthouse, written by Robert & Max Eggers There could be a long screed here about championing original film amid the Disney domination of the cinema market recently, but you could read about that anywhere. You don’t need an exterior, utilitarian motivation to go see The Lighthouse. You should see it because it is a strong, confident film that does what it sets out to do very well. It’s a simple story of two men stuck together on some rocky island in the North-east that gradually builds up the tension into a great climatic crescendo of a finale. It left me laughing with a friend a few good minutes into the credits over how well it wraps its pieces together and brings it all to an end. The performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are incredible. I’m becoming more and more of a Pattinson fan with his recent roles (also watched High Life this year which, while I’d say weaker than this film, is still worth a watch), and Dafoe is effectively ripped from history in his role as the lighthouse’s head wicky. He’s at once both over-the-top and completely on point, selling everything from the accent, to his limp, and how he drinks and handles his pipe. Like the The VVitch, another Eggers film that’ll be remembered as a must-see for horror fans.
-- X-Ray Magazine An alternative online literary journal I discovered this year, X-Ray has been putting out some of the most terrific short fiction from new(er) voices. I don’t have much else to say beyond the pieces I’ve seen them post have been exciting, electric, and unsettling in new and weird ways; the kind of stuff you won’t get in a lot of market publications. I did submit something earlier this year but was understandably rejected. Getting a piece in with them is a goal I’m looking at for 2020, so here’s hoping. For now, here’s some of the pieces they’ve published that stood out for me: ‘Women’s Rugby’ by Krys Malcolm Belc ‘The Horses, The Horses’ by John Torrance (Megan Pillow) ‘A Spectre Lurks at the Putt-Putt on Riverside’ by Keef ‘The Fall’ by Sara Lippmann ‘Life, As of Now’ by Kamil Ahsan ‘Our Lady Enters the City [In Three Attempts]’ by Sarah Arantza Amador ‘Routine’ by T.J. Larkey ‘Baby with a Flamethrower, Chewing Gum on a Mountain’ by Rebecca Gransden
-- ‘Enter the Supersensorium’ by Erik Hoel in The Baffler Lastly, an appropriate way to round out a list of good writing. Erik Hoel’s longform article reaches across a broad spectrum of ideas to interrogate our culture of superstimuli, the weakness of human biology allows us to be fixated, and what it means for our future to exist entirely within a “Supersensorium”. The reality of the majority of people today is one of living within complete fantasy, our only leisure and escape bottlenecked through a media environment that permeates every aspect of our lives and keeps us in a constant state of consumption. He touches on the purpose of dreams, our extended childhoods, binge watching habits, social community, and the distinction between art and entertainment. Abstinence, Hoel states, is no longer viable in the day-to-day. And so, “The only cure for too much fiction is good fiction.” Find the art in your life. Hold onto it. Fight for it. I’m over-simplifying, so I’d highly recommend taking the time to read through it. There’s lots of little nuggets of wisdom and insight, and it provides a nice reminder to always be critical and questioning of your media environment.