Character, Conflict, and The Girl With All the Gifts

Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.

As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.

This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.

The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.

As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.

These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.

In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.

In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.

When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.

Been Reading…

For someone who blogs about writing, I haven’t talked much about reading lately. Let’s remedy that…

The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett remains my all time favourite writer, which makes it particularly weird going back to his early works. One of two sci-fi novels he wrote before creating the Discworld, The Dark Side of the Sun feels strangely both like and unlike the Pratchett I know. It retains the surreality, some of the jokes, even a few specific words and phrases, but neither the voice nor the story style is anywhere near as rich.

At my book group, we talked about how Strata didn’t feel like a Pratchett story. Instead, it’s like an attempt to do Niven or Banks style sci-fi by someone whose style doesn’t fit that work. Dark Side is the same. It’s fascinating to go back to as a long time Pratchett fan, to see how he developed. And as a writer, it’s heartening to see that someone went from this to become one of the modern greats. But if this sort of thing was all he’d done, I’m not sure we’d even be talking about Pratchett any more.

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado

In England, we’re raised to see the reign of Elizabeth I as a great era of national strength and renewal. But it was also a time full of dark events and seedy shenanigans, from state sponsored piracy to a growing and desperate underclass. This book examines the lives of criminals in that era, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

This is a history book that’s rich in details. It evokes the characters of the time, the places they went, the crimes they carried out. There are descriptions of clever con games, rigged gambling games, and people struggling to survive the game of life.

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey, narrated by Flinty Williams

Of all the attempts I’ve seen to put a new twist on the zombie genre, Carey’s is one of the most successful.

Melanie is a girl, maybe ten years old, living in a Britain blighted by a terrible disease that turns people into monsters. Infected with the disease and held in a government research lab, Melanie is part of an experiment to try to understand the disease and maybe help humanity survive it. But of course Melanie doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t even understand the cruelty she’s suffering. She just wants to be loved.

Showing so much of the story from the perspective of a zombie child is part of what makes Carey’s story so distinctive, but the other view points add to its power. Seeing what makes the adults tick, how they respond to Melanie and to disaster, gives this extra emotional weight. It’s that emotion that makes it work – Carey’s clever take on the cause of zombies is just window dressing.

I’m listening to the audiobook of this one, mostly while out running, so it’s possible that my own racing pulse is shaping how I view it. But even with that caveat, this is a thrilling and touching story.

So that’s some of my recent reading. How about the rest of you – what are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?

When Fantasy Isn’t Fantasy

Sometimes making a story look like something it isn’t can frustrate readers. Other times, it can be immensely satisfying.

Why?

(Mild spoilers for The Shattered Sea ahead – don’t want this article turning into something you didn’t expect.)

Joe Abercrombie‘s Shattered Sea trilogy is mostly a straightforward, if rather dark, YA fantasy series. In a world ripped apart by a long-ago war, Viking-style raiders plough the seas, looting, trading, and making war on each other. The story has its twists and turns, all in keeping with the style of story it lays out from the start – one of deception and betrayal in the cause of greater goods.

There’s also another twist hidden in the world building, one that slowly becomes apparent as you read the story.

This isn’t a fantasy world. It’s our world in the future. The elven ruins are the remains of modern cities, magical artefacts modern technology. Hints dropped along the way let the reader work this out without the characters ever finding the truth, which is irrelevant to their lives. They care about what those artefacts can do, not what it really means for magic to exist.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. John Christopher did something similar in his 1970s Sword of the Spirits trilogy, and he’s not alone. But the reason this works isn’t precedentt. It’s the way it affects the reader.

Finding out that you’re not reading the story you thought you were can be frustrating. The writer pulls the rug out from beneath your feet and then stands there smugly grinning, with a look on their face like “aha! I tricked you!” They’re proving how clever they are.

Abercrombie’s books have the opposite effect. You as the reader get to feel clever, as you put the pieces together and work out the truth. That’s a great feeling. We accept the bait and switch because of the way that it’s presented.

I’ve talked about this idea a bunch of times – that we feel good about books when they make us feel smart. From a little kid learning to recognise letters to an undergraduate student ostentatiously reading Ulysses, feeling smart makes you feel good, which makes you like the thing that made you feel smart.

So yeah, I really liked The Shattered Sea series. Not just because of that smart feeling, of course. There are compelling characters and events presented in clear, enjoyable prose. But that fantasy that’s not fantasy, it certainly helps.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Comics

What’s this, a Christmas Eve post full of fine things you might enjoy? It’s a Christmas miracle! And this time, it’s all about comics – my favourite ones of this year.

Giant Days

Fifteen years ago, I had a dull admin job for a small office of a vast multinational construction firm. I was the only admin in the office and could get through the work at speeds that dazzled my employers, thanks to the poor quality of their previous admins. This left me with a lot of time to kill. I disappeared down a rabbit hole of webcomics, where I stumbled across the work of John Allison. I binged my way through Bobbins and Scary Go Round, which at the time was his main ongoing project. It was a discovery that warped my sense of humour forever.

Allison’s biggest current creation is Giant Days, made in collaboration with artists Lissa Treiman, Max Sarin, and Julia Madrigal, with inks from Liz Fleming, lettering by Jim Campbell, and colour from Whitney Cogar. It’s a comedy-drama about a group of friends studying at Sheffield University, where they face the challenges of study, romance, friendship, and trying to work out how to be an adult human being.

Giant Days is a wonderful book. Its stories are full of whimsy, its characters full of heart, its dialogue full of odd British humour. Allison’s tendency towards fantasy is almost entirely reined in in favour of slice-of-life storytelling, but the offbeat tone of his Tackleford stories remains. The art is uniformly vibrant and characterful, the ongoing story well balanced against the self-contained arcs of each issue, and I find myself utterly absorbed in these characters and their lives. A humour book about students might not sound like anything special, but I re-read every issue at least twice in the first week, bathing in its warmth and whimsy.

Crowded

Thought Bubble, the annual comics convention in Leeds, is a dangerous place. So many creators, so many comics, so much temptation to buy it all. This year, I was relatively restrained, but I’m very glad that I gave in to temptation and bought the first issue of Crowded.

Crowded is set in the very near future. There’s a crowdfunding platform for assassins, an app to hire bodyguards, and celebrity streamers turning death into entertainment for their subscribers. When Charlie Ellison becomes the target of the biggest ever crowd-funded killing, she hires the only bodyguard she can get – the poorly rated yet incredibly competent Vita. If they can stay alive for thirty days then the hunt for Charlie will end. But Charlie’s a narcissist with the attention span of a goldfish and no understanding of the word “consequences”. Staying out of trouble is going to be tough.

Crowded is written by Christopher Sebela, with pencils by Ro Stein, inks by Ted Brandt, colours by Triona Farrell, and letters by Cardinal Rae. It’s a darkly funny thrill ride that takes satirical jabs at modern culture without letting up on its tense storytelling. As the issues progress, the characters are revealing their depths, raising questions about who they are and how they got to this place in life. Even Trotter, the celebrity streamer using Charlie to maintain his channel’s upward momentum, has developed in five issues from a one-note caricature to a troubled man struggling to cope with his own monstrous persona.

This is as close to Transmetropolitan as I’ve read in years, and that’s very high praise.

The Wicked + The Divine

As it heads into its final year, the latest masterpiece from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie goes from strength to strength. This is one of those creative pairings that always leads to something wonderful, as shown in Phonogram and Young Avengers. This latest series, with colours from Matt Wilson and letters by Clayton Cowles, might be their strongest yet.

Every ninety years, twelve gods return in the bodies of young people. They live brief, glorious lives, only to burn out within two years. This time, they’re pop stars, their magic channeled through their music. They are stalked, studied, adored, and sometimes hated. They are the embodiment of fame.

The Wicked + The Divine is a fascinating exploration of celebrity culture and the power of music. Where Phonogram gave magical power to the audience, WicDiv gives it to the artists, creating a very different dynamic. Given Gillen’s background in music journalism, there’s a lot here that’s clearly personal, but that doesn’t turn it into something maudlin or shoe-gazing. This year’s comics have revealed the dark secrets behind the pantheon, dragging the story ever deeper into tragedy while letting a glimmer of hope still shine. It’s nearly finished, so if you don’t like to risk a story that might never end, you’re in safe hands here.

Gillen and McKelvie like to experiment from time to time, and that’s resulted in some unusual issues. I won’t spoil the surprises, but it’s great to see a creative team pushing the boundaries of the medium while maintaining the momentum of their story. This is a comic we’ll be talking about for decades to come.

 

There you have it – my top comics picks this year. If you haven’t read them yet, I hope you give at least one of them a try. Now I’m off to indulge in mince pies, mulled wine, and all the other festive treats.

Merry Christmas!

My Top Reads of 2018 – Non-Fiction

Continuing my review of the year in books, here are some of my favourite non-fiction reads from 2018. They didn’t necessarily come out this year, but now is when I found and enjoyed them. If you’ve particularly enjoyed a non-ficiton book this year, tell me about it in the comments – I’m always on the lookout for more.

Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini

To say that modern society faces problems with gender and sexuality would be an understatement up there with “King John seems a little bit off.” As half of society tries to adopt a more nuanced, egalitarian attitude, the other half kicks back, desperately clinging to binary divisions and patriarchal structures. Movements like gamergate and the sad puppies have turned geek culture into a battleground on gender issues, spewing angry invectives and threats of violence at people who question the status quo. “How dare they fill speculative fiction with gays and women?” the trolls cry out. “It was fine being all about straight white men!”

In that environment, it was particularly pleasing to see a British Fantasy Award go to Luna Press’s excellent collection of articles on gender and sexuality in speculative fiction. Articles in this book cover a wide range of topics, from the myth of meritocracy in publishing to the remarkable improvement in gender representation in the Magic the Gathering card game. These thought-provoking pieces by smart writers address both the content of our fiction and the process surrounding it, encouraging readers to look at gender and sexuality in geek culture from a dozen different angles.

This is academic writing of a relatively accessible type, aimed at wider readers with an interest in the field. It takes some effort, but if you’re interested in issues of social justice or the state of sf+f then it’s well worth a look. It’s a book whose existence and well-earned plaudits will help shift our culture in a more positive direction.

The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

Speaking of gender, I wrote back in June about Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War. Six months later, it still haunts me, one of the most remarkable history books I’ve read in my life, never mind this year.

Researched and written in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this book details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. It reveals a side of the war that fitted poorly with official accounts and heroic re-tellings, showing the vital place of women on the Eastern Front and the awful realities they faced. Despite its huge significance, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war, it’s a powerful testimony to the experiences of soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. But it’s not just about the moments of violent struggle. It’s also about the transformation of civilians into warriors, of women into men’s roles, how that changed them and how it affected their lives once the war ended. It’s also an account of Alexievich’s own mission to uncover these hidden stories, the way she related to the women she interviewed, and the way they viewed the war decades later.

The phrase “we have always fought” has become a rallying cry for the re-examination of women’s place in history and in the fiction influenced by it. The Unwomanly Face of War provides the ultimate evidence of how tragically true that phrase is.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton

Another unconventional look at the Second World War, Milton’s book delves into Britain’s covert operations. When Churchill called out for Europe to be set ablaze in resistance to the Nazis, these were the people who built him a bigger match and worked out where best to light it.

The book covers three aspects of their work. First, there were the mad inventors of the weapon’s making division, men like Cecil Clarke and Stuart Macrae who invented the limpet mine using condoms and aniseed balls. Then there were the trainers, men like Eric Sykes and William Fairbairn, the professional sharp-shooter and former police commander who taught men to kill with their bare hands. And finally, there were the operatives themselves, sent on dangerous missions deep in occupied Europe, committing acts of sabotage and assassination in the name of freedom.

Unlike The Unwomanly Face of WarChurchill’s Ministry sometimes glamourises its subjects, both the people and the missions. There’s a sense of boy’s own adventure in places that’s at odds with the true ugliness of events. But the overall tone is one of exploring the extraordinary, from the ingenuity of inventors to the courage and determination of undercover operatives. It’s an unexpected and seldom discussed niche within much larger events, compelling as much for the odd characters as for what they achieved.

My Top Reads of 2018 – Fiction

As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to look back on what’s been good in 2018. I’m going to start with fiction – not necessarily books that came out this year, but ones I’ve read and enjoyed over the past twelve months.

The Wounded Kingdom Trilogy by RJ Barker

This year saw the release of volumes two and three of RJ Barker’s Wounded Kingdom trilogy – Blood of Assassins and King of Assassins. Age of Assassins was one of my favourite books of 2017, so I had high hopes, and RJ absolutely lived up to them.

Girton Clubfoot is an assassin, his skills all about killing. When he and his master are called upon to save a life instead of ending one, they become drawn into the politics of a court at war with itself in a country ravaged by dark magic. Everybody has their secrets, from the king down to the stable hands. Some of them are willing to kill to keep those secrets safe, and it won’t be long before Girton finds himself on the sharp end of a blade.

This series consists of three murder mystery political thrillers set in a medieval fantasy world. There’s war, magic, crime, and intrigue aplenty. But what makes it stand out is the characters. With the books set years apart, we get to see them maturing and their relationships changing. They both shape and are shaped by the kingdom around them. Villains become heroes while heroes lose their way. The protagonist goes from a fumbling apprentice to a master of his craft. And through it all, there’s an exploration of family – what it is, what it means, and how it shapes us.

I don’t want to say much more, for fear of spoiling the series’ splendid twists and turns. While the first book was compelling, it’s the finale that makes it powerful. These are smartly written, compelling novels. If you enjoy fantasy at all, you should give them a go.

Dogs of War by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Rex is a good dog. All he wants is to do what his masters tell him and be rewarded with their love and gratitude. Unfortunately, Rex is also a seven foot tall muscled monstrosity, genetically engineered as one of the world’s deadliest killing machines. So when things start to get confusing for Rex, when the boundary between enemies and innocents becomes unclear, there’s trouble coming.

Dogs of War is a stand-alone sci-fi novel about the abuse of power and what it means to be a person. In Rex, it has one of the most perfectly written, perfectly heartbreaking viewpoint characters I’ve ever experienced. The difference between his innocent worldview and reality is skillfully implied from the very start, making for a really emotional read. And as the story shifts, digging deeper into the fate of creatures like Rex, it raises intriguing questions about how humans cope with the consequences of what we create.

I’ve been reading a lot of Adrain Tchaikovsky’s work recently. So far this is the standout story, a great book from a great writer.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

Years behind my friends’ recommendations, I’ve finally got started on Jen Williams’ Copper Cat trilogy and it was well worth it.

Another fantasy series, the Copper Cat trilogy follows a band of mercenaries whose attempts to make a living drag them into saving the world. What starts as a gritty story of lowlives in scummy taverns slowly escalates into an epic of gods and monsters in which mortals struggle to save the innocent from destruction.

Like all the best stories, the characters are what drive these books along. There conflicting motives and personalities ensure that there’s always trouble brewing, but their friendship pulls them together in battles against the odds. Sharp dialogue and lively action scenes become a conduit for those characters, not a distraction from them.

I haven’t yet read the last book in the series, but based on the first two, I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. And I can definitely recommend the first two, starting with The Copper Promise.

The Glamourist Histories by Mary Robinette Kowal

Imagine the early 19th century but with magical art that crafts illusions. That’s the world of the Glamourist Histories.

At the heart of this series is Jane, the narrator and protagonist. A young woman born into the English gentry, she starts out looking for all the things we expect from a Jane Austen character – love, marriage, a secure future. But Jane is also a skilled glamourist, able to use her art to bring beauty from thin air. If she can find a way to pursue her art, then life promises much more for Jane, even if she can’t see it.

Though character is the consistent thread of these books, it’s the variety of settings within them that I particularly love. One is a Jane Austen pastiche, the next a Napoleonic espionage thriller. We spend time with the reformers of London, the glassblowers of Venice, and the slaves of the Caribbean plantations. A lot of the themes of real 19th-century history are explored in the space of five fantasy novels.

I finished this series this year on audible, where the books are wonderfully narrated by the author. They’re a very different take on fantasy from most of what I read, drawing on different threads of history and society, rich with social tensions and the challenge of change.

 

So those were my top reads this year. What were yours?

Elite Versus Community: The Nature of Sci-fi

In his 1994 book Science Fiction in the 20th Century, Edward James cites Farah Mendelsohn as suggesting that science fiction could be viewed as a form of elite fiction, written for a technocratic elite rather than the literary one that a certain strain of high-brow fiction aims for.

I can see where she was coming from. Most sci-fi is written for a particular audience, one that’s often tech-savvy and which has the experience to decode science fiction’s tropes and assumptions. What makes a thrilling story to an experienced sci-fi reader, with the skills to wrap their head around sci-fi writing, would be bewildering to some other readers.

But I don’t think that elite is the right description for this group. I think it’s better viewed as a community, a selection of people with shared tastes and interests. Some do regard themselves as an elite, made superior by their grasp of the genre, but that doesn’t make them better sci-fi fans, it just makes them snobs.

Sci-fi might aspire to be for an elite because that’s how literary fiction presents itself. But again, I call bullshit on that. The ability to appreciate literary fiction means you have a particular set of skills that most people don’t. So does the ability to build a dry stone wall, plumb a boiler, or play the violin. Those skills are awesome but they don’t make you better than other people, as the word elite implies.

Sci-fi is for a particular community, one that can choose to elitist or inclusive. I know which I prefer.

The Emotional Puzzle of a Shared Universe

A lot of the most powerful storytelling happens in the moments between scenes, the pieces we put together to fill the gaps. If someone has died and then we see a relative rebuilding in the aftermath, we fill in the trauma of loss. When the happy couple ride off into the sunset, we feel happy for their future life together.

In a shared creative universe, there are even more of those gaps.

There are lots of shared creative universes out there. From the half-dozen interlinked Star Trek shows to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the insane sprawl of DC Comics, they’re something most people are exposed to. Maybe you just dip in and enjoy a little of what they offer, but for the hardcore fan, they’re a rich treasure trove. The more you consume of a single universe, the more of those gaps and connections you see. You fill them in through imagination, conversations, and fanfic, exponentially expanding that universe.

I used to think that the satisfaction in this was comparable with referencing in other parts of our culture. Looked at this way, recognising a Captain America character’s cameo in Ant-Man is like spotting a reference to Shakespeare in Stoppard – the satisfaction is all about feeling smart. You’re in on the reference. You’re part of the game.

But I now think that there’s more to it than that. Because these references exist within a continuity, there’s an extra layer of emotional meaning that those Shakespeare references don’t have. We’re not just recognising Agent Carter as a character from another film. We’re seeing how she’s aged, learning some of what she’s been through over the years, filling in gaps in her story. We feel for her. High culture references, with their focus on intellectual satisfaction, don’t do that.

Marvel’s Infinity War is full of this. It pulls in characters from so many other films, while leaving their familiar families and friends out. By the end, it only takes the slightest drift of imagination to start filling gaps elsewhere in this world, with tragic results. I’ve seen reviews that say the film is accessible to a Marvel outsider, but for someone who has been following these films, its impact stretches on and on.

I’m not arguing for the superiority of shared universes. Like any form of culture, they have advantages and disadvantages, can be good or bad. But their references have an extra layer of meaning that some others don’t. They don’t just hit you in the thoughts. They hit you in the feels.

Not the Booker

I don’t pay a lot of attention to literary prizes as they tend to ignore the genres I love. But the Guardian are currently running their alternative to the Booker and the long list includes some top quality sf+f. So if you enjoy that sort of thing then you might want to go look at their list in search of some more varied reading. I particularly recommend RJ Barker’s thrilling Age of Assassins or Jeannette Ng’s incredibly atmospheric Under the Pendulum Sun.

Dealing with Difficult Books – Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem

The phrase “difficult book” is such a loaded one, it’s hard to even say it without feeling weighed down. There’s an implication that this won’t be fun but that if you can’t get through it, then the problem is with you as a reader. That’s a puritanical approach to culture that I just can’t get behind.

An Important Book?

The Three-Body Problem comes loaded with that baggage. One of the most popular science fiction novels ever published in China, it was translated into English by American author Ken Liu. Its publication by a mainstream anglophone publisher was a groundbreaking moment. When the translated version won a Hugo award, it felt like recognition of the importance of international voices. Within sci-fi circles, that makes The Three-Body Problem a big deal.

As I started reading The Three-Body Problem, I could tell that it wasn’t popular for its accessibility. The prose and pacing feel old-fashioned. The structure is strange and sometimes uncomfortable. The exposition is sometimes intrusive.

The Chinese context adds to the challenge for a western reader. The first tenth of the book is set during the Cultural Revolution. For Chinese readers, the significance of events would be obvious. Western readers will need the footnotes and I’m sure I missed many implied connections. Once the story skips forward to the modern era, life in China is just alien enough to put bumps in the western reader’s road.

Then there’s the science. This is a book about physics. The science is central to the story and the protagonist achieves his goals by grappling with it. Though the author explains enough to make it comprehensible, it’s still challenging in places. This is hard science fiction in both meanings of that phrase.

This book has earned great prestige within western sci-fi circles but will be challenging for most western sci-fi readers. It’s practically the definition of a difficult book.

My Reading Experience

For me, difficult books are usually an emotionally unengaging experience. The more I’m challenged by the book, the less I’m engaged with the characters. Stopping to make sense of it all doesn’t make for a smooth read. They can be useful in learning technique, but they aren’t often much fun, and I like my leisure time to be fun.

This one wasn’t like James Joyce’s Ulysses, where I wanted to throw the book across the room, and which I’ve not finished after 19 years. But I certainly wasn’t feeling the thrill of reading, wanting to dive straight into each new chapter. I only cared about one character, and he was a grumpy cop cliché.

And yet, despite my cynicism about difficult books, I found this one rewarding. I don’t read a lot of hard sci-fi, the works focused on science rather than futuristic adventures. It was satisfying to read something clever with science at its core. It was also intriguing to see recent Chinese history through the lives of these characters and to read a story set in an unfamiliar society. The story didn’t engage my emotions as much as an author like John Scalzi does, but it really got its hooks into my brain. I left feeling unsettled yet intrigued.

Sometimes it can be good to read the difficult books. Not because hard work makes you better or gets you into some imaginary club of well-read readers, but because any book people place value on must contain something of interest. In the right frame of mind, that something can be well worth your time. I had to set aside my comfort-seeking brain to read this one, and that’s not something I want for all my reading. But I’ll be doing it again soon to read the next one in this series, feeling both thrilled and daunted at what I’ll find there.