Welcome to Smugglivus 2016! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2016, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2017, and more.
Smugglivus greetings from California! While most of my home state is badly in need of a drink, winter up here on the Redwood Coast means rain, and lots of it. It’s the sort of weather that lends itself well to hiding away with a good story or some old-fashioned book learnin’. Now, since most of my brainspace is used for writing sci-fi, I tend to reach for other stuff in my free time. I read a lot of non-fiction, I binge-watch with the best of them, and I love video games more than is reasonable. Happily, this year provided me with plenty to sustain me through these dark and soggy days.
2016 was also a gauntlet of suck in a great many ways, and I know I’m not the only one leaving it feeling ill at ease and overwhelmed. To that end, I’ve cherry-picked five of the best things I cozied up with in the past twelve months, things that filled me with curiosity and joy. In these times, we need those qualities more than ever. Whether you’re after some real-world science, mind-bending puzzles, or pure escapism, I’ve got you covered.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Books and I are in a long-term relationship, and as can happen, the glow of romance had faded into comfortable routine. I began to take them for granted. I forgot that tingling thrill I used to feel all through my chest when they took me some place new. Reading Lab Girl rekindled the spark I hadn’t realized I’d lost. Memoirs aren’t usually my thing, especially when I’m not familiar with the author. And the author’s specialties — soil, rocks, and plants — are admittedly not high on the historical list of natural sciences that pique my interest. A few pages were all it took for Lab Girl to win me over. This is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read in ages. The wording is exquisite, and it captured a wholehearted love for science that resonated with me strongly enough that for the first time, I, too, understood the wonder of soil, rocks, and plants. I see seeds differently now. I feel a new reverence when I look down at the forest dirt beneath my boots. But this book isn’t just a love letter to lab research (though it is that, too). This is someone’s life laid bare. Lab Girl is a deeply personal, deeply human piece of work. There is real loneliness here, real pain, real joy. If you view science — or the people who practice it — as cold and calculating, this will sway you. If you know the beauty of science already, this will make you soar.
Myst was the game that made me love games. I gobbled up every installment of the franchise from 1993 to 2005. Unwrapping a new CD-ROM case with the Cyan Worlds logo printed on it always made me feel like my birthday had come early. I have found games since that scratch a similar itch, but nothing has quite compared. The style of the puzzles and the artistic aesthetic made for a singular combination I found utterly captivating. When life got too loud, Myst and its kin provided respite. To this day, there are few fictional worlds I’d like to inhabit more.
So when the news broke in 2013 that Cyan was launching a Kickstarter campaign for a new game, I couldn’t throw my wallet at the screen fast enough. The fruit of their labor, Obduction, was delivered this summer. Playing it felt like coming home. It’s not set in the Myst universe, but was cut whole from the same cloth. You wander through alien worlds of surreal allure, soaking in the story and giving your brain the workout it deserves. Nothing in Obduction was placed there by accident. Every button has a purpose. Every hidden diary is worth reading. That rock formation you saw six hours ago will blow your mind good and proper later on. This is a fantastical journey made with a careful eye for detail, and it challenged and soothed me in equal measure.
Captain America: Civil War
I’m not putting this one down as the best movie ever made, but it did one thing in particular that was rather extraordinary. Civil War handed us a dozen superheroes, then gave every one of them a clear, relatable arc. I understood everyone’s motivation. I understood where everyone was coming from. I understood what was important to them, what their flaws were, why they made the decisions they did. The movie managed to do this in two hours and twenty-seven minutes. Yes, granted, the filmmakers probably couldn’t have pulled it off if we hadn’t already gotten to know Cap and Tony and many of the rest through the course of ten thousand previous movies. But Black Panther was a newcomer. Spider-Man was a newcomer, and they took me from “I am so sick of Spider-Man movies I go numb at the sight of blue-and-red spandex” to “OH MAN, I CAN’T WAIT FOR ANOTHER SPIDER-MAN MOVIE” in about a minute flat. Somehow, what should have been an absolute cluster of a film turned into an advanced class in how to write an ensemble piece. I love the MCU from top to bottom — yes, even Thor 2 — but this one managed something special.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal
I’m committing the cardinal sin of including a book I haven’t finished yet, but I can’t leave this one out. Animal intelligence is a topic I never tire of digging into, and I can’t think of anybody who writes about it better than primatologist Frans de Waal. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, is expanding my horizons in fascinating ways.
The book tackles the immeasurably complex problem of trying to understand creatures other than ourselves. De Waal argues that intelligence isn’t like a ladder, with a hard-and-fast order of high-to-low, but rather a branching tree, with different kinds of cognition suited for different needs. The history of behavioral testing, as I’m learning, is strewn with examples of shortchanging animals for not thinking like humans, as the result of tests that were flawed because we humans weren’t thinking like animals. If an animal can’t do something that we can — let’s say, counting to five — how much does that really matter, if it’s a skill they don’t require in their day-to-day? Would we dock points off our own intelligence because we can’t remember the precise locations of thousands of nuts buried over the course of a year, as some birds do? And what of differences in physiology or natural behavior? An elephant, for example, will probably do poorly on a test that requires it to solve a problem by grasping a fine tool with the end of its trunk (as we primates would do with our hands). Is that because the elephant isn’t smart enough for tool use? Or did we miss the fact that asking an elephant to do something that blocks off its sense of smell is akin to asking a sighted person to solve a puzzle blindfolded?
Devising tests that cater to the mindset of another species is a thorny problem, and you’d be right in guessing that this book isn’t a light read. De Waal is an academic, and though his writing style is accessible and often entertaining, the subject matter is something I’m inclined to dip into for an hour or two, then chew on for the rest of the day. As somebody who writes about aliens, this kind of reading is invaluable. As a member of a species that’s driving others to extinction before we even begin to understand them, it’s all the more important.
Given the interests I brought up in the previous section, this one should come as no surprise. There are three additional factors you should take into account:
1. Stories about aliens, cultural differences, and a cooperative, non-anthropocentric future for humanity are my jam.
2. One of my top-five favorite Star Trek episodes is “Darmok.”
3. My wife has a background in linguistics.
So, yeah, this one was pretty much destined to be a winner for me.
Some of my friends who live within pop culture or bookish circles have rolled their eyes at reviews calling this film “groundbreaking,” and I totally get it. If science fiction is familiar territory to you, you already know it’s not solely about ray guns and explosions. But to my mind, that doesn’t make Arrival any less of a damn fine film. The pacing was just about perfect. There were shots that left me aching. The soundtrack made me tense and rapt and quiet all at once. I’m not going to dig into all the little moments that worked for me, partly because we’ll be here all day, but mainly because I don’t want to give anything away. Suffice it to say, the last act of this movie knocked the air out of my lungs. All in all, I was delighted to see an alien invasion tale that hinged on cooperation and communication make its way to the big screen. This one’s going on my shelf.