Since when did allergy season start in February? Some of us are already waking up with swollen under-eyes and leaky nostrils, and it’s terrible. The one benefit is more time in bed, where the best thing to do is read. (Never Netflix or work—that pollutes the sacred space.) So we turn to our bedside table, and what’s there? New tech books. Crazy genre fare. Literary fiction. Something called Murderbot. Yes. Books always come through for us, and we’re not gonna get much work done in this sneezy state anyway. Time to grab a box of tissues and start reading.
In first-time author Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, the trauma in the life of Wallace—a black, gay biochemistry PhD in the Midwest—is beginning to thaw. The book opens with a puzzle: the nematode worms Wallace has been breeding all summer are contaminated, covered in mold and dust, “like one of those horrible recreations of a volcanic event.” He suspects foul play, a possible classmate (“the vengeance of a petty god”), but keeps us moving. It’s the final weekend of summer, and the ice of his past is beginning to pool with small revelations. Real Life is a book of debilitating microaggressions, a book wonderfully observant on the toxicity of whiteness, and a reminder of what even the smallest racial slights can do to the body and mind. Like the protagonist, Taylor’s sentences are light and tense—each one a balloon helium-puffed to its limit, on the verge of bursting. —Jason Parham
Most book critics, and all publicists, suffer from the incurable disease of having to compare new books to old ones. You know the sick formulations: “It’s Harry Potter meets Hemingway.” “The brainchild of Twelfth Night and In Cold Blood.” And so on. Agonizing. Not even fancy award committees are immune. In bestowing the 2017 Alfaguara Prize, one of the shiniest in the Spanish language, the jury said Ray Loriega’s novel Rendición “calls to mind The Handmaid’s Tale [and] Blindness.” ¡Siéntate, locos! Beyond its dystopian setting, the book—out now as Surrender in an English-language translation by Carolina de Robertis—lights out for its own future territories. Specifically a city whose every surface is perfectly see-through. (I don’t remember that in Atwood: nor these bleak rhythms: nor this kind of narrative machismo.) A man, woman, and boy end up there after being displaced by some vague, ongoing war. The contours of an elaborate metaphor for the brain-break of constant surveillance are just discernible enough in this riveting, and original, achievement. —Jason Kehe
Do people in tech hate books? As Joanne McNeil points out in Lurking, her personal history of the internet, Sergey Brin did—at least as of the early 2010s. Ditto Mark Zuckerberg, who once listed his favorite books on Facebook as “I don’t read.” (McNeil does not note that Zuck would eventually grow up and start a book club.) One imagines this ethos trickling on down to these guys’ respective workforces, producing at two of the most powerful companies in the world a generation of coders hostile to the idea of literature. Maybe a book like McNeil’s will convince them out of their childish bibliophobia. In its pages they’ll find stuff to be proud of—the humanity of the technology they helped create—and stuff that should haunt them—the inhumanity of so many of its exclusions and violences. The knockout first chapter on Google is the book’s best, but everywhere you’ll find sharp, sensitive writing about our digital lives: a case for the value of sustained thought, which books make possible. —Jason Kehe
It’s the layering that makes the pieces in Ken Liu’s chewy new collection of speculative fiction, The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, so delightful: A tale set in Tang Dynasty China might skip through an interstitial dimension and stop to watch a touching parental shaddow-puppet show. An exploration of consciousness-uploading might also show a distant, distributed parent protecting their kid from bullying. Liu, who has two daughters, often isolates children from their parents, stretching them away from each other through time and space. In “Seven Birthdays,” the girl character sees her mother every few weeks (because the mother is working so hard to save the world from global warming). In the stark, short sketch called “Memories of My Mother,” Mom cheats death and time by electing to see her child only in slices, like a two-dimensional person might experience a three-dimenional person, once every seven years through a time-dilatory trick that swells the heart and ultimately reverses their roles. (Read our full review here.) Throughout, Liu navigates the space between what’s real and what’s not, tumbling and faceting that notion, examining the people and aliens in this hot-fleshed chaotic world and how they might interact with spirits and memory, say, or even how they might express their love for the cool post-singularity mathematical souls that live inside the machine. —Sarah Fallon
Mississippi cabbie Lou Bishoff, one of the last drivers in a small, raucous southern town, does his best to ignore how close his profession is to going extinct in Lee Durkee’s jangly day-in-the-life novel. The specter of Uber hovers around the edges of the plot, giving the book the mood of a loopy elegy. “I’ve never used an Uber and don’t understand how that works, but my hope is that when they come into town next month—it’s not just a rumor anymore—Uber will shun the projects the same way all the other cab companies in town do,” Bishoff says early on. Oh dear. But he puts the looming threat of rideshares out of his mind to ferry a grimy assortment of ne’er-do-wells, elderly hospital discharges, and rehab patients around town at an antic clip; sex, death, and existential angst make frequent appearances in the backseat. The intimacy of Bishoff’s entanglements with his charges and his low-tech professional life already feel as though they’re from another time. It’s too chaotic to be nostalgic, but it’s charming as hell. —Kate Knibbs
If you’re not paying attention, Docile will worm its way into your brain and take up residence there, not giving you a moment to catch your breath. In this latest take on all-too-realistic dystopia, those in debt can enter a form of indentured servitude, serving as “Dociles” to a wealthy trillionaire class. Most opt to take a drug, Dociline, that numbs the brain and eases the horrific process. Our protagonist does not, and thus begins a story of torture, depravity, class warfare, and much more. Docile is queer and kinky and doesn’t shy away from the complicated questions that can come into play with those intersecting realities. A story that could quickly devolve into fan fiction instead holds a mirror to America’s class system, inviting you to sit in that discomfort rather than look away. —Kam Burns
The data is bad. For generations, well-intentioned people have stretched themselves and new technologies to pull numerical, quantitative, reproducible, codible, algorithmically predictable realities from the sticky biological swamp we live in. As they should. That’s what data science is for. However, over the years, humanity’s preoccupations—power, hierarchy, objectivity—have gunked up all the numbers and made them tout the status quo as empirical truth. Our artificial intelligences are racist and sexist because the data we feed them is marinated in our own prejudices. Our meritocracies play favorites because the data we use to make them equal is insufficient in its scope. In their new book, Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein lay out a plan to fix it, and boy, are some tech bros not gonna like it. According to the authors, the grand tweak the data needs is intersectional feminism, and, in addition to hard columns of numbers, some squishier, more human considerations like context. Without ever finger-wagging, Data Feminism reveals inequities and offers a way out of a broken system in which the numbers are allowed to lie. —Emma Grey Ellis
I’ll admit it: Hacker triumphalism makes me nauseous. Ever since Anonymous strapped on their Guy Fawkes masks and started digitally sticking it to Scientologists and the Westboro Baptist Church, certain parts of the internet have become convinced that God is a hacker, here to wash the hardrives of the impure with cleansing viruses. Especially hackers. Coding Democracy: How Hackers Are Disrupting Power, Surveillance, and Authoritarianism, by lawyer and human rights activist Maureen Webb, managed to reach through my comfortable layers of snark-justified disinterest. Webb doesn’t just praise cypherpunks for being the edgy little hornets’ nest kickers they are. She’s building a powerful case for the fact that technology as we know it—omnipresent, flawed, world-improving—has become so entrenched and static that it really does need the hackers worrying the edges of its firewalls. In Webb’s telling, hackers aren’t heroes destined to bring the world to a grand new order of their own transgressive imaginings. They’re agents of positive chaos. —Emma Grey Ellis
A lovely, looping, structurally intriguing novel that pulls you from a singular lakeshore retreat through a Bernie Madoff-style financial scheme and out out out into the ocean. Unlike the post-viral apocalypse world of Station Eleven, Mandel’s previous novel, The Glass Hotel feels grounded in reality—at least in parts. It might even feel too grounded in reality: The Madoff-esque episode maps closely to actual events, as does Leon Prevant’s experience roaming the country as part of an unwilling camperforce of older people shoved into low-wage work. Maybe that’s the point, because as much as parts of the book feel conspicuously familiar, the novel also blurs the edges of reality and the spirit world, even as the characters blur their own realities, becoming faux traders, wives, and artists in a kind of in-between space that we all inhabit, to one degree or another. —Sarah Fallon
Stunt journalism gets a bad reputation as gimmicky, but Eva Holland’s brisk Nerve is proof of how fruitful it can be when a reporter takes her risks thoughtfully. Holland, whose writing has appeared in WIRED, doesn’t seem like the type to scare easily; her magazine work often involves jaunts to remote, tough places like the Canadian Arctic (she lives in the Yukon) following people who have extreme passions (rock climbing, ultramarathon racing). Like most people, she does have fears. Unlike most people, she’s willing to subject herself to a variety pack of intense strategies to confront those fears. Holland sees a psychotherapist who leads her through eye-movement exercises to resolve traumatic memories about car accidents. She takes several terrifying trips to high places (skydiving, a firefighter’s bucket) to move past her fear of heights. And she writes with appealing vulnerability and wistfulness about a fear she couldn’t really get over—losing her mother, whose death galvanized Holland to start her fear-facing project. Nerve is brave and tender, and an example of why journalists treating themselves as guinea pigs should never completely go out of style. —Kate Knibbs
You must follow Lisa Dillman wherever she goes. She’s translated many Spanish-language works, notably a trio of Yuri Herrera masterpieces. (If you’re new to Herrera and his avant-garde genre play, start with Transmigration of Bodies.) Dillman’s latest is a short book by Andrés Barba called, in English, A Luminous Republic. It’s not as funky as her Herreras; Barba is a more dead-ahead writer. In this inverted-colors fairytale, his narrator recounts the invasion of San Cristóbal by a tribe of 32 children. From the first sentence, you know they all die. You also know they weren’t exactly nice kids. Not Greta Thunberg types, in other words. Then again, maybe they started out that way: fair, noble, true. Maybe the adults drove them to violence, to madness. Foretellers of a Thunbergian takeover may find comfort in Barba’s allegory, in which the children fail to conquer the world—because the adults can’t understand a word they say, and destroy them. —Jason Kehe
If you’ve been following along with techno-literature in recent years, your bookshelves are already filled with the stories of Uber (Super Pumped), Google, (In the Plex), Twitter (Hatching Twitter), and Amazon (The Everything Store). Now, journalist Sarah Frier gives the book-length treatment to Instagram. The story begins with college-aged cofounders, an app called Burbn, and a dream about sharing photos. It ends with a billion-dollar company, a massive regime change, and a platform that’s upended everything from retail to tourism to socializing. Slot it on your bookshelf next to Facebook: The Inside Story, Steven Levy’s brand-new history of Big Blue.
I might have a little bit of a thing for a robot. Its name is Murderbot—I mean. He cares about stuff but can’t be fucked. (Same.) He’s antisocial. (Hello.) He loves parentheticals. (Even parentheticals within parentheticals. (The best.)) Murderbot is the narrator and main character of a series by Martha Wells—four novellas (first one out back in 2017) and now a novel (well, forthcoming in May). You should probably read the novellas first. (I read two; should’ve done the rest.) That said, Network Effect works as a standalone. (Well, more than “works”—it’s great.) You know how TV shows sometimes get turned into movies and the movies are so bad? (Like just a longer TV episode with marginally improved special effects?) The opposite happens here. Wells’ novellas were teases; this is the main event. Did you know Murderbot doesn’t like being touched? It’s fine. We can still get married. (Robot rights! (Thank you.)) —Jason Kehe
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