historical fiction · literary fiction · review · science fiction · short stories

The Archive of Alternate Endings, by Lindsey Drager

I don’t know if other readers do this, but I often create a mental tapestry of plots for the books I read–especially the complicated books with multiple plots. I think of plots woven together to create a story. Lindsey Drager’s unusual and eloquent novel/linked short stories, The Archive of Alternate Endings, defied my usual method of visualizing a story. Part way through the stories (chapters) that make up this book, I had an epiphany. It is as though Drager wrote all of the individual stories that make up the overall book on different sheets of paper, then crumpled them all up together into a ball. Reading this book is like turning the ball around and around in one’s hands and seeing snippets of the stories. This may sound like a confusing story, but I didn’t find it that way at all. The Archive of Alternate Endings is astonishingly clear and I fell in love with what all of these stories had to say while they were all tangled up into one tale.

The chapters/stories that make up The Archive of Alternate Endings bounce around in time from the fourteenth century, in Germany, as two children wander in a great wood after being thrown out of the family house, to Johannes Gutenberg, to the Brothers Grimm, to Edmond Halley, to an American asylum in 1910, to the worst years of the AIDS pandemic, to the far future where a satellite repeats the story of “Hansel and Gretel” in binary, and to the ends of the world we know. And, just like its unusual structure, all of these stories absolutely work in juxtaposition. The collisions between the stories have so much to say about recording stories and the erasure of stories, about tolerance and abandonment, and how small things can have large consequences.

Illustration from a 1909 edition of “Hansel and Gretel,” illustrated by Arthur Rackham (Image via Wikicommons)

While The Archive of Alternative Endings is about all of the things that I listed in the previous paragraph, I found it to be, overall, a story about connections and interconnectivity, even between things that are spread out across vast periods of time and space. The collection of folklore is a strong theme in this book and one of the things that folklorists trade in are motifs: objects, events, and characters that appear in multiple stories. Motifs are a way of seeing the similarities and similar concerns of a variety of societies over time. In Drager’s novel/stories, there are motifs of gay characters cast out by their families, cookie jars, the act of listening to stories, and more. Each time I saw a motif, it shone a spotlight on the that that the same thing keeps happening over and over again. Essentially, we see the story of “Hansel and Gretel” play out repeatedly—but with a twist in who the real villains are—and the act of recording that story similarly repeat through time. The variations make each iteration unique and thought-provoking, while building on the feeling of grief and frustration I felt as I saw parents reject their children so many times. Thankfully, some of the variations introduce much-needed notes of hope, it seemed, just when I needed them.

The Archive of Alternate Endings is one of the most literary novels/linked story collections I’ve read in a long time. There are more places were it resembles a prose poem more than most fiction I encounter, with touches that capture the timelessness and universality of folk tales. Some readers will be frustrated by this collection because it is so different to most novels. But for readers who are, like me, obsessed with thinking about the nature of story, interconnectivity of seemingly disparate stories, and about the deep humanity that fuels our need for stories, this book will be pure intellectual joy. Now that I’ve finished reading it, I want desperately to go force my literature prof and former English major friends to read it so that we can talk about it. I loved every word of this strange, beautiful, emotional book.

review · science fiction

Dark Constellations, by Pola Oloixarac

I finished reading Pola Oloixarac’s Dark Constellations (translated by Roy Kesey) a few hours ago and I’m still not sure what I read. This work of science fiction blends ideas from cutting edge computer science, botany, virology, anthropology and much more into a whirlwind of ideas. I don’t fault the translator or the author for my lack of comprehension; I am not smart enough to understand this book.

This bewildering novel begins in 1882, with a trip to a South American island full of people, flora, and fauna that fuel the most exciting tales of exploration. A member of that expedition, Dutch botanist Niklas Bruun, is inspired to theorize all kinds of symbiotic wonders that make others wonder if Bruun is off his trolley. Then we jump to 1982, for the birth of hacker superstar Cassio, who later works for a company that attempts to create an algorithm that can make sense of DNA and surveillance data now collected across Latin America and the world. In 2024, Piera, a biologist who worked on a DNA surveillance tool called Bionose, joins Cassio and the company he works for. She asks Cassio a few points questions that make him wonder about the implications of the algorithm he’s helping to build.

This is about as much as I understand about Dark Constellations. The novel takes tangents to hint at the possibilities of interconnectedness between humans, plants, viruses, and other species. In another novel, this might have been fodder for a techno-utopia where humans worldwide finally develop an eco-conscience and work to stop climate change, pollution, and extinctions. Instead, there are what I saw as missed opportunities (at least until the end of the book) where Cassio and his intellectual predecessors should have been thinking about the consequences of their actions. I have been wary of algorithms since reading Algorithms of Oppression, by Safiya Umoja Noble. The characters in Cassio’s timeline note that law and ethics haven’t kept pace with technology, but they see this as a good thing. They can let their imaginations run wild to create things. The bad news for the rest of us is that they don’t consider privacy, consent, or civil rights of all the people who are unwittingly becoming data points for corporations.

More than once I felt like a luddite who just couldn’t encompass the grand vision of the company Cassio works for. What if I was just being a stick in the mud? But then, so many of the characters in this book sound just like Mr. Hammond and his scientists from Jurassic Park. Aside from Piera, there is no one to check their grand visions, to ask very important questions about the ramifications of their data mining. Which brings me back around to what I don’t understand about this book: what is it trying to say about the roles and responsibilities of technology? Bruun, Cassio, and their fellow scientists are unethical in the sense that they don’t even stop to think about ethics. They are not terribly sympathetic characters and I couldn’t admire them. On the other hand, the ideas about symbiosis are described in enchanting, sometimes literally glowing terms. Perhaps the next phase for humanity is to join with other species on our planet to create something new and magical? I just can’t figure this book out.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

historical fiction · review · science fiction

The Old Drift, by Namwali Serpell

Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift is a blend of genres I have never seen before. On the one hand, it is very much a family saga. There is even a sprawling family tree included at the beginning of the book. But, by the end, it is an Afrofuturist revolutionary story. The various segments of the book combine to create a conclusive ending, but the plot meanders as much as the Zambesi River that appears to book end the whole tale.

The first narrator of The Old Drift almost put me off the entire book. Percy Clark is a typical British bwana who has fetched up in a place along the Zambesi called “The Old Drift” by its inhabitants. Clark shoots the local wildlife, demeans the indigenous Bemba, and who generally contributes nothing except his genetic material to progeny who will eventually intermarry with Bembas, Ndebeles, Telugu-speaking Indians, and Italians. As The Old Drift, well, drifts along, we see the people who will become the ancestors of the teens who will eventually transform Zambia into something like a utopia in the rushed ending to the book. We meet Sibilla, who has full body hirsutism, who has unknown connections to the Old Drift. Then there’s blind Agnes, who falls in love at with a visiting student from Zambia only to end up estranged from him in the same house, and Matha, who is trained to be one of Zambia’s first astronauts only to end up in poverty and incessantly weeping.

The stories contained within The Old Drift often revolve around the body; there are frequent references to menstrual blood, damaged eyes, and lots and lots of hair. It was hard for me to understand the grotesqueries wrapped up in so many of the female characters’ stories. (Although the book begins with a male character, most of this book is about women.) It was much easier for me to understand the theme of exploitation that ran through the book. Over and over, Zambia and its people are used for electricity, labor, and test subjects for mass experiments. It’s the same thing every generation and, until the characters are able to seize the means of production, it seems like it will keep going on indefinitely. (Marxism makes many appearances, too.) But this book is not poverty tourism. While characters are frequently exploited, they often find ways to carve out a bit of peace or comfort in their lives—not always, but often enough that I didn’t feel like the characters were completely doomed.

The Old Drift has been getting a lot of buzz. I confess, however, that I found the book uneven. Much of the book reads to me a bit like a Southern Gothic family epic, with plenty of closet-bound skeletons and genetic mutations. But the end of the book is straight-up science fiction. I had no idea that I would end up reading about cyborg body modifications or hive-minded micro drones based on the first chapter about a British man who was looking for an easy life in Africa. I think I might have liked the book better if it had used more genres. If Sibilla’s section had had more horror than it did and if Lionel’s had had a bit more thriller and if some of the other parts had had more that was unique about them, I think The Old Drift might have knocked my socks off.

As it is, I’m not entirely sure why this book is being talked about so much by critics and readers. This might just be another case (and there are many) of a book that just isn’t for me. Readers who enjoy family sagas and/or books set in places that don’t usually appear in popular literary fiction might like The Old Drift. Me, I think I’ll wait for something that’s either more generically cohesive or something that pulls out all the stops in the other direction.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

alternate history · review · science fiction

Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess

The plight of a refugee is never easy. Uprooting oneself and family, fighting red tape and prejudice to find somewhere safe, homesickness. Even if there is no hope of returning, some refugees might be able to recreate a bit of home wherever they land. Not so for the refugees in K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived. The refugees in this novel come from another universe, an alternate New York that was destroyed in a terrorist-created nuclear meltdown. This new New York and world are just similar, it seems, to remind them of how different the two realities are.

Hel and Vikram are two Universally Displaced Persons who, at first, seem to have found some kind of equilibrium with their new reality. Vikram works as a security guard at a storage facility. Hel hasn’t resumed her career as an otorhinolaryngologist, but she seems to be doing well enough. That is, until Hel gets the idea of trying to find the exact point where the two realities split. She does this by tracking down relics of a man who became a great science fiction writer in her reality, but who drowned at age 10 in ours. This quest quickly becomes another. Hel wants to use traces of the science fiction writer as the core of a museum for the Universally Displaced Persons’ lost reality.

Memory, as we learn in Famous Men Who Never Lived, can be both a comfort and a joy. For people like Hel, who lost a son when she won the lottery to travel to our New York, memory torments them. Everything reminds them of what they left behind and what’s different about their new reality. Everyone here, Hel feels, does things wrong. For Vikram and other UDPs, memories of their old life need to be balanced with their new reality. After all, they can’t go back; they can only move forward. And, lastly, for Hel and Vikram’s unknown antagonist, memories are to be destroyed as ruthlessly as the alien germ in the science fiction writer’s best known novel.

Famous Men Who Never Lived changed directions on me more than once. Characters won and lost my sympathy as I learned more about what was happening. This might sound like criticism, but it’s something I actually like. For me it’s a sign that characters are growing in a dynamic environment and, above all, I loathe static characters. I wish there had been a bit more detail about Hel and Vikram’s reality because I really like thinking about what might have happened if someone zigged instead of zagged and ended up changing history. Still, even without a lot of detail, I ended up very much enjoying this original, thoughtful novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

review · science fiction

The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas

Is it ironic that the creators of time travel never seem to know what will come of their discovery? Could the four women who create time travel in England in the 1960s have known that their invention would lead to a byzantine, temporally tangled, terrifyingly shadowy bureaucracy? They definitely couldn’t have predicted what time travel itself could do the psyches of people who undertake it. In Kate Mascarenhas’ fascinating novel, The Psychology of Time Travel, we dive deeply into these questions, especially that last one.

Barbara was one of the original four women who created time travel but, after an incident captured live by the BBC, she was pushed out of the quartet and forever banned from even working for the Conclave. Decades later, when another time travel starts to send warnings? hints? to Barbara’s granddaughter, Ruby, a spectacularly complex plot kicks off that will take the rest of the book, several investigators, and a lot of head-scratching to figure out. I loved every page of it.

The title of the book–and many events therein–force us to think about the consequences of skipping through time. A lot of the time travelers employed by the Conclave (including all of the original inventors except Barbara) “cheat” by looking ahead to see what happens to themselves. On the one hand, they are very confident. They know they will accomplish what they set out to do, because they already know what the outcome is. On the other, knowing when they’ll die and how, who their spouses will be, and so on, seems to leach their emotions of their intensity; they just don’t feel as much after a few trips. The only way to feel anything is to haze the new recruits or play chilling psychological games with civilians. For a few recruits, time traveling leads to debilitating maladaptive coping behavior or triggers latent mental illnesses. On top of a wonderfully complicated plot, The Psychology of Time Travel is one of the best “set up a scenario and let’s see what happens” books I’ve read in a long time.

The more I read The Psychology of Time Travel, the more I enjoyed it. The characters are fascinatingly warped and the moving parts of the plot slide around before satisfactorily clicking into place. It’s the kind of book where, at the end, you see that everything up to that point was perfectly placed, necessary, even fated. It’s the kind of plot mastery that I absolutely adore; I got a story that was utterly gripping, but only saw the author’s pen at work at the very end. Reading The Psychology of Time Travel is like watching an elaborate magic trick and getting to learn how it worked afterwards.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, for review consideration.

metafiction · review · science fiction

Same Same, by Peter Mendelsund

If anyone could work out the precise formula for productive creativity would never have to worry about money every again–or for their children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, etc. etc. But one has to wonder, especially after reading Same Same by Peter Mendelsund (or seen Hollywood’s lineup for the last several years), if devising a formula wouldn’t strip the life out of whatever the mass produced artists came up with. In this strange, constantly morphing novel, Percy Frobisher arrives at the Freehold, an experimental artists’ community. Percy arrives with a vague plan to create something and a drug habit. This art makes sense. Subsequent events get distinctly surreal.

As soon as he arrives at Freehold, Percy begins to take stock of his new environment. Freehold is an elaborately landscaped dome in the middle of an unnamed desert. Everything the residents want will be provided, so long as they always wear their uniforms and make progress on their projects. There are poets, various species of artists, data analysts, archaeologists, philosophers, and others, all working on elaborate, highly conceptual work that might only be comprehensible to people with very specialized PhDs. The residents must also attend group sessions, document their progress, and give a Discourse™. In the group sessions and in Percy’s interactions with the other residents, I saw that all of the residents seem to have the same problem. They have gone so deep into their minds that they’ve lost the ability to communicate with others. They also can’t stop digging. One artist, who labels things for their project, noticed that the labels needed labels—a train of though that will clearly lead no where sensible.

As Same Same progresses (unlike the artists at Freehold), disturbing events occur and equally disturbing themes arise. Percy sees a strange attack that no one will talk about. The director and the admins hound Percy for progress. The other residents seem to be sliding further off kilter. Perhaps most unsettling of all is that it all seems terribly futile. Creativity can’t be forced. If anyone tries, they just end up with incomprehensible nonsense. And copying anyone’s method strips the life and soul out of the work.

Just when I thought I was getting the hang of Same Same, events fall even further into chaos. Percy’s drug habit gets worse. The other residents act even more strangely. Freehold starts to collapse under the weight of heat, sand, and curiously purposeful paper. The only way to understand this part, I think, is to read it metaphorically—a strategy that works very well as I started to wonder just how reliable Percy is as a narrator. Anyone who wants to know who Percy really is and what Freehold actually is will have to read Same Same themselves.

Same Same is a challenge to read, but fascinating. It’s definitely the sort of book I would want to read with other English majors because there is so much to pick apart and talk about. It’s got so many layers that I’m sure one reading doesn’t do this book justice. This is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

literary fiction · review · science fiction

Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, by Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken has lurked on the edge of my bookish awareness for a while, praised by other readers whose opinion I trust. But my aversion to short stories has always steered me away until. Now that I’ve finished Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry: Stories, I’m a little miffed at my past self for not diving in earlier. These thoughtful, often funny stories all feature cuckoos, people who either don’t fit into their families or who are made to feel as though they don’t belong.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware” is an uncomfortable but fascinating tale of a found family. After their mother dies, the narrator’s father starts to take in boarders. This in itself isn’t so unusual. What is unusual is that the narrator’s father is only interested in taking in boarders who have an interesting story to tell. Money is not a priority. And then, one day after years of life with a parade of oddballs, the narrator’s father disappears. Thankfully, the oddballs are more responsible (and less macabre than the father) and decide among themselves to raise the two children left behind.

“Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” is possibly my favorite story in the collection. In this story, Aunt Helen Beck comes to stay with one of her many relations. Aunt Helen Beck is notorious in the family for dropping in and staying for months or years. She’s not onerous company; she tries to make herself useful wherever she goes. The problem is that no one seems to be sure how they’re related to this brusque, practical woman with a past that is never the same way twice. Aunt Helen Beck is definitely a character for my growing pantheon of audacious old ladies.

“Secretary of State” is bittersweet funny story that vies with “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” for my favorite tale in the collection. In this novel, a young narrator sees her sensitive father struggle with bombastic siblings-in-laws. The Barrons debate endless with themselves about what would be the worst fate for one of their children, what they would do if they were suddenly in charge of the government, and what everyone in their extended family should do for a living. They are absolutely sure of their decision-making abilities, to catastrophic effect for the narrator’s father. In the end, the narrator and her mother have to make a choice about which side they’re on and if they’re willing to pay a terrible price for making the right decision.

The reactions to these cuckoos range from grudging tolerance to horror to ostracism. I fully realize that my summaries might make these stories sound more grim than they actually are. Thankfully, McCracken’s wit keeps things from getting too heavy; I really loved her turns of phrase and sharp observations about her quirky characters. I laughed more often than I felt teary. In addition to their wonderful writing, the stories also feel complete in themselves. (Too short stories are one of my big problems with the format.) I didn’t feel as though things were wrapping up too quickly, so I have no hesitation in recommending these stories even to readers who don’t like short stories. Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry is one of the best collections I think I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who feel like a cuckoo in their family or who have someone in their family they don’t understand.