Welcome to Smugglivus 2015! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2015, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2016, and more.
Who: Seth Dickinson, author of one of Thea’s top reads of the year, The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
Seth Dickinson is the author of THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT and more than a dozen short stories. During his time in the social sciences, he worked on cocoa farming in Ghana, political rumor control, and simulations built to study racial bias in police shootings. He wrote much of the lore and flavor for Bungie Studios’ smash hit DESTINY. If he were an animal, he would be a cockatoo.
Hello. My name is Seth Dickinson. I was trained as a social psychologist, specializing in the racial bias of police shootings. Something went terribly awry, and now I am an author! Every day I work hard to write you a book. Some of my proudest work includes The Traitor Baru Cormorant and the Grimoire in Bungie’s Destiny.
My great hope in life is to bring you joy and cause for thought! Existence is really weird and cool. Here are a few of my favorite things that I encountered in 2015!
Have you ever tried to sit down and focus, because it’s not so hard, damn it, all you have to do is type a few words and then you can be content and happy?
Then you spiral off into browser tabs and dismay. Maybe this is what’s really happening: there are zebra finches yelling on your keyboard.
Holy shit, this book is good! One of the beta readers on The Traitor Baru Cormorant urged me to read Wolf Hall, and I’m so glad I listened to her. This is the story of Thomas Cromwell, a common-born man who becomes an advisor and fixer for English nobility on strength of competence, confidence, and education. Cromwell, it is said, can get anything done. So the King asks him to find a way to dissolve the King’s marriage, remarry the King to Anne Boleyn, and destroy all the enemies of the crown.
So Cromwell sets about his work, playing sexual politics, money games, international strategy, gossip, and theology to achieve his objectives. He’s ruthless. And he understands the deep currents of world politics in a way the nobility can’t.
How can he explain it to him? The world isn’t run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.
I adore books that make the world feel like a fascinating, unfathomably complicated place. I love books about people who grab a fistful of the world’s weave and pull. I never gave a finch’s chirp for English history in particular, but this book galvanized me.
Molten Lead Reactor
Did you know that the Soviet Union manufactured two submarines whose nuclear reactors were cooled by actual molten lead? The reactors on the Lira-class were very powerful, but if they were ever allowed to cool below about 125 C, the lead would solidify and ruin the whole reactor. So you couldn’t turn them off for maintenance! They just had to keep running and running forever, pumping hot lead. A number of the Liras ended up being decommissioned because their reactors froze.
Relatedly, the infamous SL-1 reactor accident (in which a man was impaled against the ceiling by a control rod) might have been caused by relationship drama in the crew!
Our world has the craziest magic system.
SOMA is a game from Frictional, the studio that made Amnesia, a Lovecraftian fright-fest that started a gazillion YouTube careers (of the format ‘play Amnesia, scream into the camera’).
Do you think that the Star Trek transporter would kill you and replace you with a soulless duplicate? Are you afraid that scanning your brain into a computer would just create a copy, leaving you in your meat to die? (You’re wrong, but we can argue that later!) This is philosophical horror, a game about the awful risks of being conscious.
Your name is Simon. You go in for a diagnostic brain scan, to help treat the aftereffects of a car crash. You sit down in the chair. You blink.
When your eyes open, you’re in an underwater research facility called PATHOS-II. All the humans are dead. Ratcheting horrors of coral and alloy stalk the halls, begging to be told what they are. The facility’s machines all insist that they’re people. They scream if you try to turn them off.
There’s something wrong with your body. You can’t quite tell what…
Frankie the Cat
Frankie! Frankie is a cat who looks like an alien. I met Frankie on YouTube, where she makes narm narm narm noises.
What a clever triptych. Annihilation is the experiential hook, to pierce your lip and pull you in. Authority is thrashing confusion and listless dismay, as you try to make sense of what happened and why you should care. Acceptance (my favorite) is the rustling autumn of it all, the uncanny presence of Area X high above, the warmer human stories of the lighthouse-keeper and the Director behind you, the almost-but-not-quite glimpse of understanding ahead.
All these books are about understanding. Can we understand the universe? What would happen if we did? What would happen if we couldn’t? But they are also about people, and a place, a place that forces us to look around and realize that the nature just beyond our pores isn’t as easily mastered as we like to think.
Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game
I’ve been playing this Fantasy Flight monster for years now, but it’s still one of my favorite parts of any given year. Sit down with four friends and four hours, choose characters to play, assign a President, an Admiral, and a lead pilot, and try to keep the survivors of humanity together under a constant barrage of political crises, resource shortages, and Cylon nuclear attacks.
Some of you, of course, are Cylon agents. As in the show, some of you won’t know you’re Cylons until your sleeper programming activates partway through the game…and unlike the show, you’ll have different Cylons every time.
The rules can be a bear, and the pile of expansion packs just dares you to spend extra, but find a veteran player to lead you through and you’ll be screaming about the fate of humanity in no time.
How to Drive
I finally found a great video tutorial on how to drive. (This movie is weird as hell.)
Kai Ashante Wilson
The Devil in America. It’ll cut your soul. Sometimes you want a story that hammers on the glass pane between you and the world, until the pane shatters and the glass goes through your skin. And on that note, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.
Bubsy the Cat
I heard this story while I was working at Bungie. It’s about a friend of a friend, and his incredible cat.
Our hero lives out in the woods somewhere. Let’s say he lives in Colorado, and for sure he lives alone. One day he’s driving home in his pickup, and he comes across a cat. This cat is all messed up. He’s missing an eye, he’s been declawed, his tail’s a little stub. His fur is all cut up and his skin is all scars. He’s also huge, huge! But the cat says mew and rubs on our hero’s ankles, so he has no choice. He takes this cat in and names him Bubsy.
Bubsy lives outdoors but comes back to our hero for food and scratches. But our hero’s neighbor calls up. “Coyotes moving in,” the call says, “and they’re killing pets. Chickens. Cats.”
So our hero tries to keep Bubsy indoors. But Bubsy doesn’t like this at all. And he expresses this by pissing all over our hero’s belongings. One day our hero swerves home drunk and finds that Bubsy has marked up his favorite shirt. “Damn it, Bubsy!” he roars. “We can’t go on like this!”
And in a fit of drunken logic, he scoops up Bubsy (who squirms around saying mew), dumps him in the bathtub, unzips, and pisses all over his cat. And from that day forward there’s peace! His cat lives in harmony with him. This is a story, not a manual: do not try this, ever.
Soon the word comes to our hero that the coyotes have moved on and it’s safe to let Bubsy back out. So he does. Now soon after, our hero swerves home, opens his pickup trick, and hears a terrible scream from under his house. Something’s dragged Bubsy down there and started killing him. So our hero grabs a flashlight, jams it in his mouth, and starts army-crawling under his house as fast as he can! His light’s bouncing around like a found footage camera, he’s got dirt up in his beard, he’s crawling as fast as he can. I’m coming, Bubsy!
But he realizes something strange. There’s bones all over. There’s a boneyard under his house.
Soon he gets to the deep dark place under the middle of his house, and his light falls on a raccoon. This creature’s backed up against a post, all puffed up, and it’s screaming, screaming. And when our hero looks a little off to the side —
There’s Bubsy, crouched there, all declawed and scarred. Waiting.
Our friend raccoon looks over a moment at our hero, and the moment it does, Bubsy’s jaws shoot out like the goddamn Alien (from Alien) and bite the raccoon’s throat out! Our hero looks on in horror, understanding that there never were any coyotes, as Bubsy says Mew and starts crunching on that raccoon from the skull on down.
Once he’s fortified himself, our hero takes his beloved death-cat into a vet. The vet tells him that Bubsy is actually some kind of African wildcat hybrid, which explains his huge size and predatory disposition. And that’s the end of our story, except for a neat little coda. Our hero meets a lady, and they get to getting along. Soon they move in together, and they keep getting along. But Bubsy’s displeased. And he shows this by, well, pissing all over her stuff. So our hero says, lady, I really like you, and I want this to work out. But you’ve got to do something for me. You’ve got to piss on my cat.
This is not a manual. Never try this.
There’s a long-standing debate in the psychological community about whether non-human animals have true, subjective internal states (what we term qualia). I don’t know, although I suspect they do. But I do know that I’ve felt exactly like this.
Really Depressing Beautiful Movies
I love gorgeously shot, bracingly depressing movies, usually when they examine the structures of power and systemic violence that build the harder parts of our world. Here’s a brace of them! Did I mention depressing? They’re really depressing.
Sicario should’ve been True Detective Season 2. Emily Blunt struggles to keep her moral compass as a SWAT officer caught up in an escalating spiral of violence on the Mexican-American border. Some situations, Sicario argues, are trapped in themselves: there is no way out, and all possible actions lead downwards. Nihilistic, beautiful, and morally brutal.
Children of Men might be my favorite science fiction movie ever. No babies have been born in years, and the human race is dying. When a pregnant woman turns up in a refugee community, alcoholic Clive Owen gets a shot at redemption as her bodyguard. Watch it for the incredible direction and cinematography, and for the movie’s understanding of how to create a truly tense action scene.
No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood hardly need introduction. Try a double feature! A man who opens the wrong duffel bag goes on the run from a hitman who aspires to become the incarnation of fate. A megalomaniacal oil baron drives everyone away in his quest to dominate the world.
Zero Dark Thirty is the most unexpected remake of ET I’ve ever seen. Our ‘heroes’ treat monkeys better than people, descend from on high like four-eyed extraterrestrial stormtroopers, wave glowing fingers at children, refuse to socialize because the world is too dangerous, and end the movie weeping and alone because revenge is entirely hollow. The climax of the film is a Pakistani interpreter discarding the technological intermediary (a megaphone, equated with the Americans’ night vision goggles) and warning his countrymen to stay away from these murderous aliens.
The Act of Killing is a documentary in which (actual) perpetrators of mass killings re-enact the killings, on camera, from the perspective of the victims. Do not watch unprepared.
They do work! If you find the right one, at the right dose! If existence itself feels difficult, if you ponder suicide (even idly), if everything you do requires hours of psyching up, if you hate being conscious…get some help. It’s worth it. You can feel better. This is a disease that attacks the ability to even realize you’re sick. It’s insidious. You can fight!
Tehran UFO Incident
I just can’t figure this one out. I don’t see any compelling evidence for UFOs in general. But I really don’t know what happened here: multiple, independent reports from professionally trained military and flight officers, radar records, selective effects on electronics, DIA approval. Anyone got any insight? I’d love to pin this one down to a mundane cause!
The Book Smugglers
I discovered this website in 2015! I’m so glad it exists. Thank you for having me!