‘To Hold Up The Sky’ Asks A Simple Question: What If … ?

by Jason Sheehan

Cixin Liu’s To Hold Up The Sky is a 1974 Chevy van with icy moons and swirling nebulae painted on the side that you saw for sale by the side of the road in a snowstorm. It is a copy of Heavy Metal you found stuck in the back of the rack at Empire Comics when you were looking for old Savage Sword of Conan issues to read on a long road trip with your parents. It is the torn cover of a faded sci-fi paperback you found at the thrift store and spent the afternoon reading in the car while you waited for a girl to get off work and let you into her apartment for which you didn’t yet have a key.

Tor Books

It is magic, this collection of short stories Liu wrote and published ten, 20, 30 years ago. It is a time machine; a split-vision tunnel that lets you go back in time while staring forward, to see what 2003’s or 1985’s version of 2010 or 2020 or 3000 looked like from China, in the pages of the Beijing edition of Esquire or Chengdu’s Science Fiction World and Novoland Fantasy.

“At that time, sci-fi was still a very marginal pursuit in China,” Liu writes in his foreword. “Science fiction is seen as something foreign.”

And you can see it (smell it, taste it) in every page — a sense of artistic isolation and loneliness, sure, but also the compounding joy of exploration. Of discovering new territories and imagining other frontiers. “For my part, I have never consciously or deliberately tried to make my sci-fi more Chinese,” he writes. Because science fiction, when done well, when done thoughtfully, engages ideas of humanness beyond nationality or ethnicity. It is a language more concerned with humanity in general than the specific sub-categories thereof. Because the aliens don’t care about our addresses, of course. To them, we all taste the same.

Still, that’s a lot about what Liu’s writing here isn’t (mainstream, local, modern, deliberately Chinese), but what matters is what it is. What matters is what it does. What matters more than both of those put together is how it feels to see tomorrow through his eyes — to experience a science fiction that comes largely innocent of 21st century concerns and wholly absent its modern sins.

Because Liu is at play here, alone with a toy box full of rocketships, circuit boards, plastic tanks and army men. “The Time Migration” (translated by Joel Martinsen) has a Harlan Ellison quality (something in the exclamation points, the righteous surprise at every turn) and compresses 10,000 years of human evolution into a few thousand words, using cryogenic freezing to allow his witnesses to whistlestop through the centuries, periodically dropping in on humanity to see it move beyond war, beyond beauty, beyond individual consciousness and, finally, beyond life. “Contraction” (translated by John Chu) feels like something lifted whole from Asimov’s Science Fiction — its brevity and compactness attractive, its whole existence hanging on one complex scientific hook. “Mirror” (translated by Carmen Yiling Yan) is a kind of sci-fi whodunit that ropes in complex algorithmic discussions, superstring computing, simulation technology, IT stack overflow limitations and a long explanation of the Big Bang in order to tell the tale of a Chinese government official screwed over by politics. And the following story, “Ode To Joy” (Martinsen again) is, ironically, about a giant mirror that plays stars like musical instruments.

“The Village Teacher” (translated by Adam Lanphier) seemed too simple and too pat (a rural teacher, dying of cancer, teaching his students about Newton’s laws of motion just before a massive alien battlefleet arrives to test our species’ intelligence by … asking it about Newton’s laws of motion), but as the first story in the collection, it sets up a dichotomy that plays out over and over again. In “2018-04-01” (Chu), Liu envisions a new gene therapy that allows people to live 300 years, and possibly forever. The story, though, is about a single man contemplating embezzlement in order to pay for the treatment, and what a couple hundred extra years of life would be worth to him in exchange. In “Fire In The Earth” (Martinsen), a new mining technology goes terribly wrong, but leads to a future breakthrough that allows for the safe extraction of gassified coal. Liu tells it as a tender story about the son of a miner trying to make life better for all the fathers and all the sons who go down into the mines, and how failure breaks you.

‘To Hold Up The Sky’ gives us a window that looks out over a different sci-fi landscape than we’ve seen in decades. Because science fiction was like this once upon a time: strange and alien, liberated, trope-less, exuberant, young.

There is an earnestness here. A human-centered vision of advancement that makes for complicated reading because Liu can bounce so quickly (so oddly, so sharply on occasion) back and forth between emotionless recitation of scientific facts and pure living drama that his stories tie the two things together in ways that few other writers can manage. His stories offer you a shiny new thing (a mining technology, eternal life, a complicated treatise on modern electronic warfare) and then ask you to consider who created it, and how, and why, and what it cost. He offers a father and a son and asks what hardship, what love, must’ve existed before the shiny new thing came to be? In half the stories in this new collection, he centers humans among the whirring, blinking gizmos of sci-fi and questions what price his humans are willing to pay. In the other half, he gives us aliens, unknowable and strange, playing stars and offering poetry, and asks us how humanity might react.

And in this balance — in its studied lack of irony, its simplicity, its lack of stepped-back post-modernism — To Hold Up The Sky gives us a window that looks out over a different sci-fi landscape than we’ve seen in decades. Because science fiction was like this once upon a time: strange and alien, liberated, trope-less, exuberant, young. It operated without maps or guiding principles, got lost, found its way, moved on. Before genre factionalism and the days of grim-dark apocalyptica, before Federations and Empires, before the calcification of semiotics, there was the simplest of questions: What would happen if…?

To Hold Up The Sky reminds me of those days. Of science fiction without guile, without snark, without ironic disaffection and all its exhausting modern baggage. It just asks what would happen? Waits for someone to answer. And then it asks again.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.

Yes, There’s Conflict — But No One’s The Bad Guy In ‘Memorial’

by Scott Simon

by Scott Simon

A lot is going on with Benson and Mike. They have explosive sex, but are not quite sure they get along, or where they’re going.

Mike is a Japanese American chef at a Mexican restaurant in Houston. Benson is a Black daycare employee who doesn’t really care much for children.

Mike’s mother, Mitsuko, has just arrived from Japan to visit. But Mike’s about to fly off to Osaka to hold the hand of his father as he dies. So Mitsuko will bunk with her son’s boyfriend. What could go wrong?

What could go right?

Memorial is a story about old and new loves and secrets — and it’s the highly-awaited debut novel from Bryan Washington, following his acclaimed 2019 short story collection, Lot.

“When I started the project, three things that I knew from the outset were that Benson, Mike and Mitsuko would be the three constants,” Washington says. “I knew that their relationships would be the centerpiece of the narrative, and I knew the emotional pocket that I wanted the narrative to end up in. So they were always there from the outset.”

Interview Highlights

On the character of Mitsuko

Yeah, what was really important to me with her character, and what I kind of knew from the outset was that if the novel worked, it would be because her character worked. And if it didn’t work, it would be because her character didn’t work on the page. And because so many of the other characters really aren’t in the same place at the same time for very much of the novel, she’s the constant in a lot of ways. She’s the most emotional constant. She’s the constant as far as a physical presence is concerned. So really seeing the ways that she touched each of these men in their lives was pivotal as far as trying to figure out how to make the narrative come together.

On whether he was timid about writing a middle aged Japanese woman

I think I’m pretty timid when it comes to writing in general, because I think that when you set out to write a narrative, what you’re really doing is putting people on the page, and people are made up of so many different multiplicities. So from my end, if I’m doing my job correctly, I’m trying to take heed of their hopes and dreams, their loves, their fears, the things that make them laugh and the things that they might shy away from. And that’s going to be particularly difficult with any character. But when you’re writing outside of yourself and as I wrote outside of myself for this text, there was just so much research that went into writing each and every last character.

On his research

I ended up actually editing the second to last draft of the text in Osaka. And I’m there honestly, probably once or twice a year. And I’ve been there once or twice a year for the past five or six years. So the research involved a lot of just being there, but also talking to friends, talking to strangers, trying to get a sense of a very singular iteration of the city, because you’re never really going to get a city right on the page, regardless of whether it’s Houston, whether it’s Osaka or whether it’s a place you came up or a place you visited once or twice, because it’s so many different things to so many different people. So trying to figure out what the city meant to the characters and the context in which they existed was the goal for me on this front.

On how much of the book is based on observation and experience, and how much is imagination

I think that what I wanted to do with this particular book was write first and foremost something that I wanted to read, but also to write about the relationships that I’ve had, the relationships that my friends have had that we haven’t really seen in narrative form in the way that I wanted to see them. So really reaching toward the kind of book that I thought that I would enjoy, and that would make me laugh or make me sad. And to try to write something that would elicit those emotions from my friends is really important to me.

On Mitsuko saying there are no wastes

Yeah, what was really important to me for the book was really trying to write a book in which there aren’t really any clear antagonists and when which there really isn’t a massive conflict. And so far as like life itself is, the conflict was a goal for me. I just wanted to see what that would look like. So trying to put each character in a position where they’re operating from a place of love for one another, as opposed to disdain or hatred or apprehensiveness, was something that I wanted to try to do.

This story was edited for radio by Samantha Balaban and Martha Ann Overland, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

‘You Had Me At Hola’ Had Us Right From The Beginning

by Kamrun Nesa

Alexis Daria’s You Had Me at Hola had me at Latinx representation, sexy soapy plot, and a meta-telenovela addicting enough to actually get picked up by Netflix IRL. This book fizzes with sex, betrayal, lies, and family drama — but the good news is, it comes without an actual telenovela’s requisite cliffhangers and tragedies.

We first meet soap opera star Jasmine Lin Rodriguez as she’s trying to move on from a public breakup, and after landing a lead role on a bilingual telenovela called Carmen in Charge, she comes up with what she calls a Leading Lady plan — because “Leading Ladies are badass queens making jefa moves.” That means focusing on herself, making her family (especially her abuela) proud of her — and swearing off men. After all, Jasmine doesn’t need to settle down just because her family thinks it’s the key to happiness. And she thinks her plan will be easy to pull off — until she meets her co-star, telenovela legend Ashton Suarez, who’ll play her ex-husband Victor.

Playing bitter exes forced to work together, Jasmine and Ashton unwittingly get as close to each other as their characters do, much to their chagrin. For one, it goes against Jasmine’s plan, and the last thing Ashton needs is a fling with a costar that’ll make his complicated personal life into tabloid fodder; he needs to focus on breaking out in Hollywood instead. But as much as he tries to avoid Jasmine offscreen, sparks inevitably start flying as they run their lines together. Pretty soon, rumors are spreading, and fans are insisting Jasmine and Ashton are a couple — but he’s keeping a big secret from both her and the world, and he’ll do anything to protect it.

Jasmine and Ashton’s real-life relationship may be rocky, but their roles on Carmen in Charge are on point. Daria pulls readers into the telenovelawhich acts as a framing narrative for the larger story. Much like its imaginary show,Hola is a triumph of Latinx joy and feminist agency. It thoughtfully explores gender roles and diversity in entertainment and the greater Latinx community, and challenges the Hollywood status quo. “It’s rare to find ourselves so well-represented in pop culture,” Ashton says to Jasmine at one point.

Carmen in Charge creates a bubble around Ashton and Jasmine; on camera, they can act out their subconscious desires without having to justify them. They don’t spend as much time together as their on-screen counterparts do, but the script and dialogue Daria weaves into the story leads the way for a burgeoning real-world connection. And publicly stifling their attraction to each other adds a fiery rip-each-others-clothes-off urgency to their stolen moments — Ashton whispering Spanish dirty talk in Jasmine’s ear is a scene to behold.

The show provides a foundation for the romance in another crucial way, through the on-set intimacy coordinator Vera, who helps them get comfortable with each other, and with the idea of consent. Vera encourages Jasmine and Ashton to be vulnerable in front of each other, which builds intimacy, trust, and communication between them that carries into real life — even after the director yells “Cut!” Ashton muses that it’s the first time anyone has ever asked him if he’s comfortable touching women or being touched by them on set. In fact, during the first kissing scene, Ashton thinks to himself, “They’d consented to this, and there was power in that.”

This undercurrent of consent and agency carries over beyond the romance and into Jasmine and Ashton’s everyday lives. Paparazzi constantly hound them and invade their privacy without their consent, making it that much harder for them to be together; the very industry they’re trying to break into is the one breaking them down. This feeds into Jasmine’s fear of being publicly defined by the men in her life — and Ashton’s fear of putting his family in danger. His fears, while reasonable, affect his ability to get close to her; when he finally realizes his mistakes, he doesn’t quite make amends in a way that will fully satisfy readers, but Jasmine more than balances them out. She is a Leading Lady, after all.

Her self-proclaimed moniker reinforces Hola‘s themes of diversity, consent, and agency because it reimagines who a Leading Lady can be, and in turn, rebels against our cultural restrictions. Jasmine fights for herself but she also has the space to take risks and push the boundaries of her identity.

It’s through Daria’s deep and nuanced exploration of these ideas that You Had Me at Hola says hello to new risks. It’s a sensual choreography of romance, feminism, and identity that harmonizes the characters’ relationships on and offscreen — while making all the jefa moves.

Kamrun Nesa is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has been featured in The Washington PostBustlePopSugar, and HelloGiggles.

In ‘Intimations,’ Zadie Smith Reflects Back To Us The Early Days Of Now

by Ericka Taylor

If narrative and storytelling are among our most essential tools for making meaning of the world — and I believe they are — then periods of upheaval can be especially fertile for writers.

Zadie Smith makes that much clear in the foreword to her newest essay collection, Intimations, noting: “There will be many books written about the year 2020: historical, analytical, political, as well as comprehensive accounts.” Intimations isn’t one of those books. Drafted soon after “the global humbling began” and completed in the days after George Floyd’s murder, the book is “above all personal essays” that capture the author’s reflections during a time outside of time.

Smith burst onto the literary scene 20 years ago with her stunning debut novel, White Teeth. Since then her prodigious output has included four additional novels, a novella, and a short story collection. Intimations is the third and slimmest of her essay collections, at 100 pages, but its psychic heft is substantial.

In six essays that feel as intimate as a long walk with an old friend, Smith takes on some of the most pressing issues of our time, including police brutality and economic injustice. The book is grounded in inquiry far more often than in certainty, however, and the collection is one that probes, exploring everything from the relationship between privilege and suffering to the nature of isolation and what it means to be confined with the people we love.

The opening essay, “Peonies,” questions the concept of writing as a “creative” endeavor. “Planting tulips,” she notes, “is creative. Writing is control. The part of the university in which I teach should properly be called the Controlling Experience Department.” Of course, part of the nature of crises is that they tend to undermine our sense of control, leaving us all to wrestle with, and perhaps ultimately accept, “the complex and ambivalent nature of ‘submission’.”

Even though Smith has long split her time between New York and London and has taught in the U.S. for over a decade, she retains an outsider’s capacity to observe the country from a afar. This perspective is perhaps most evident in “The American Exception.” In it, Smith quotes the president’s yearning for the good old days when “we [Americans] didn’t have death.” She doesn’t mark that statement as an obvious falsehood, however, drawing a distinction between the dead and death. “We had dead people,” she notes, “We had casualties and we had victims. But, in America, all of these involved some culpability on the part of the dead.” Not so with “the kind of death that comes to us all, irrespective of position.”

Smith’s initial assumptions about “the democratic nature of plague” are ultimately, she decides, inaccurate. She concludes the essay recognizing that the pandemic would not, in fact, be the great equalizer, coming to rich and poor alike. In the end, “American hierarchies, hundreds of years in the making, are not so easily overturned. Black and Latino people are now dying at twice the rate of white and Asian people. More poor people are dying than rich. The virus map of the New York boroughs turn redder along precisely the same lines as it would if the relative shade of crimson counted not infection and death but income brackets and middle-school ratings.”

In “Something to Do,” Smith takes on time in the age of the coronavirus, when “there are essential workers — who do not need to seek out something to do; whose task is vital and unrelenting — and the rest of us, all with a certain amount of time on our hands.” Never one for self-importance, she takes some comfort in a now broadly shared “manic desire to make or grow or do ‘something,'” while noting that “the people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.”

If Intimations opens with an inquiry into the nature of the new plague upon us, it ends with a searing indictment of the plague that has haunted this land since colonization. (Technically the final entry is “Intimations,” a listing of those Smith owes debts to and has learned from.) Screengrabs is a series of seven scenes that ends with “Postscript: Contempt as a Virus.”

There is no gentle questioning here, but instead a direct assault on the centuries of injustice in this country. In it, Smith takes on contempt, “less flashy than hate,” but far more harmful because “in the eyes of contempt, you don’t even rise to the level of a hated object — that would involve a full recognition of your existence.” It was contempt then, not hate, at work in the murder of George Floyd. Smith writes, “You’d have to hate a man a lot to kneel on his neck until he dies in plain view of a crowd and a camera, knowing the consequences this would likely have upon your own life. But this was something darker — deadlier. It was the virus in its most lethal manifestation.”

Smith lists inequity upon inequity, noting how hard virus carriers work “even now, in the bluest states of America to ensure their children do not go to school with the children of these people whose lives supposedly matter.” She emphasizes the economic nature of this virus, accepting that fearing “the contagion of poverty is reasonable. To keep voting for policies that ensure the permanent existence of an underclass is what is meant by ‘structural racism.'”

Easily the most powerful segment of the collection, it is not an optimistic one. After all, this plague goes back centuries, when “patient zero of this particular virus stood on a slave ship four hundred years ago, looked down at the sweating, bleeding, moaning mass below deck and reverse-engineered an emotion — contempt — from a situation that he, the patient himself, had created.”

The success of the essay, just like the success of those that precede it in the collection, is in its clarity and honesty. Smith has taken a mirror and reflected us back to ourselves during the earliest moments of this crisis. It is up to us to change if we don’t like what we see.

Ericka Taylor is the popular education manager for Take on Wall Street and a freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Bloom, The Millions, and Willow Springs.

Take A Dangerous Ride Through ‘Blacktop Wasteland’

by Gabino Iglesias

Blacktop Wasteland, by S.A. Cosby

The most surprising thing about S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, which is marketed as a crime novel, is that crime is the least important element in the book. If it weren’t for the time it takes to write, edit, and sell a novel — and the months it takes to finally see it in print when dealing with a large press — you’d think Cosby plucked every crucial racial topic the past month’s headlines and used them to build a novel. But he did no such thing. Instead, this book is a cry about race that starts somewhere in Appalachia and echoes across the country. There are guns here, sure, but the strongest hits come from melancholy and the constant ache for a better life.

Beauregard “Bug” Montage is a loving father, faithful husband, and honest mechanic, but he has a criminal past and those in the underworld know him as one of the best drivers in the business. He’s been leading a straight life, but everything is crumbling around him. The stack of bills and final notices is huge. His daughter needs money for college. His mother is about to be kicked out of her retirement home. Bug tries to work his way through it, but the shiny new car shop in town has cut his clients in half. That’s why he can’t say no when a former associate offers him a job robbing a jewelry store. Eighty grand for a day’s work. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and someone might know who did it, and it’s not the cops.

Cosby understands the psychology of crime, the way that money can turn someone into a criminal. He knows that good people often do bad things for all the right reasons. Bug is a multilayered character who’s haunted by the ghost of his father, who was also a criminal and a driver, and the mix of guilt and pleasure he feels when flying away from the scene of a crime in a souped-up car. Despite that pleasure, he’s done time, so he knows what’s at stake, and the only reason he gets back into the life is because financial pressures push him to it. Crime means keeping his business running, his children fed, his mother safe, and giving his daughter a chance to be better than him by going to college. Prison is scary, but the temptation of giving your children a chance at upward social mobility silences that fear:

He would tell himself later that he had slept on it. That he had mulled over the pros and cons and finally decided the benefits outweighed the risks. All that was true. However, in his heart he knew that when Ariel told him about skipping college, that was the moment he decided to take the job with Ronnie Sessions and hit the jewelry story.

Racial tension is at the core of Blacktop Wasteland. Cosby, a Black man from southeastern Virginia, knows racism well. He understands what it means to be Black in places where things like the use of the Confederate flag (which comes up in the novel) are still being debated today. This knowledge, and the heartfelt way in which Cosby writes about being the other now as well as historically, make Blacktop Wasteland the kind of book that should be part of every conversation about why we need diverse books. When Bug remembers a conversation about race with his father, more than a flashback, what we get is the author talking to us, letting the world know where he stands:

Listen, when you’re black in America you live with the weight of people’s low expectations on your back every day. They can crush you right down to the goddamn ground. Think about it like it’s a race. Everybody else has a head start and you dragging those low expectations behind you. Choices give you freedom from those expectations. Allows you to cut ’em loose. Because that’s what freedom is. Being able to let things go. And nothing is more important than freedom.

This is a gritty, violent story, which makes it a good crime tale, but what matters most here, what pushes Blacktop Wasteland into the realm of important novels, is the way it uses a fictional story to deliver truths and discuss history. This is about stealing diamonds and driving away, but it’s also about family, risking everything for others, and trying to be the father you wish your father had been. Publishing sometimes gets the timing of a book right, and this is the perfect novel to read as we witness the Black Lives Matter movement bring forth important changes. Call shotgun, buckle up, and take a dangerous ride with Cosby, but keep the radio down because he has something to tell you.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

If You Got A ‘Do-Over,’ Would You Like Your New Life?

By Alethea Kontis

Have you ever wanted to go back in time and fix your past? Even just one tiny little thing you regret? It’s certainly a tempting proposition. But how might that one tiny thing change everything else in the landscape of your life? In Jennifer Honeybourn’s The Do-Over, that’s exactly what Emelia O’Malley is about to find out. And fair warning: Make sure you’re paying attention on page one, because this story moves FAST!

The book opens at a party. Emelia has wrangled a rare invite to hang with the in-crowd — Ben Griffin, specifically — and she’s brought her two best friends and gaming buddies Marisol and Alastair along. There is alcohol and kissing. Ben invites Emelia to winter formal. Don’t blink, because before you know it, Alistair is pouring out his heart to Emelia and asking her to the winter formal as well.

And then we skip ahead to six months later.

Emelia barely sees her old friends anymore. She’s not having a great time with Ben, but worries that if she breaks up with him, she’ll be left with no friends at all. Emelia’s mom is learning Italian for their upcoming vacation, despite her dad losing his job and becoming severely depressed.

Emelia is drawn to a crystal in a palm reader’s tent at a night market in town, sort of like a year-round fair. The palm reader tells her to put the crystal under her pillow and think about the event in her past she wishes she could change. But if she makes that change, she has to understand that a lot of other butterfly effects will come with it. Willing to accept the consequences, she does exactly as directed.

And then Emelia wakes up in a different life.

Her room looks completely different, her hair is shorter, and her family is no longer going to Italy. The six months from that fateful night of the party has still passed, but it’s a different six months she doesn’t exactly remember. Amnesiac Emelia must piece the mystery of this new puzzling life together. At the same time she’s figuring out what happened, she needs to figure out what exactly it was that she changed.

Emelia’s dad is now happy and making pancakes. Emelia works at Castle Hardware alongside her friends Alastair and Violet (who wasn’t that close a friend before), and she’s remodeling the bathroom with her father. And she knows how to drive. Surprise! Also, her mom is away in Palm Springs — and her parents are selling the house because they’re getting divorced.

Worse, not only is Emelia not with Ben, she’s not with Alastair either. In this new reality, he’s with Marisol. Because, as it turns out, Emelia never went to that party or hooked up with Ben — so Alastair’s jealous reaction and heartbreaking admission never happened.

Of course, Emelia blames herself for everything. Which is not totally unjustified, as everything in this new timeline is directly a result of something she changed … or is it?

‘The Do-Over’ is a fantastic mash-up: ‘Pretty in Pink’ meets ‘Big’ meets ‘Sliding Doors’.

As she navigates this new life, Emelia frantically tries to hunt down the palm reader and find another crystal so she can undo the crazy magic that changed her world. And as her every attempt is thwarted, Emelia begins to realize how much of these new developments she’ll lose if she goes through with her plan. Because not everything in this new timeline is completely terrible. Life is not just black and white.

Emelia’s story is a lesson on how the most seemingly insignificant things you do can affect others. But it’s also asks a great philosophical question: Exactly how much of your life would you have to undo in order to properly do it over?

The Do-Over is a fantastic mash-up: Pretty in Pink meets Big meets Sliding Doors. It contains a myriad of great dramatic tropes, but not in the order you’d expect them to happen, and the breakneck pacing pulls you along too quickly to dwell on them much anyway. There are twists as events unfold, some expected, some not. The Do-Over will definitely keep you on your toes and keep you guessing as you barrel your way to the end. If you’re anything like me, you will not be able to put it down until you slide, breathless, into the last chapter.

Alethea Kontis is a voice actress and award-winning author of over 20 books for children and teens.

Saddled With Student Loans, Bestselling Author Worries, ‘I Don’t Want To Die Poor’

by Terry Gross

Michael Arceneaux’s previous book, I Can’t Date Jesus, centered on his experiences growing up black, gay and Catholic in Texas.

Writer Michael Arceneaux has a tongue-in-cheek message for young people right now: “Please don’t be as much of a mess as I was.”

Arceneaux graduated from Howard University with a degree in broadcast journalism in 2007, just as the Great Recession was kicking in. He faced a dwindling media landscape — and more than $100,000 of private student loans.

Arceneaux writes about how student loan debt has affected every aspect of his life in the essay collection, I Don’t Want to Die Poor. His previous memoirI Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé, was a New York Times bestseller that helped put him on the path toward paying off his college loans. Even so, he says he still doesn’t feel financially secure — especially amid the economic downturn that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m still [as] worried about my earning potential as anyone else is right now,” he says. “Everything is so fragile and it’s just really scary. It makes me really sad for other people, who I know don’t have it as fortunate as the both of us talking to each other right now.”

Despite the stress of his college loans, Arceneaux doesn’t regret the risk he took — instead he questions why working-class students are put in the position to assume overwhelming debts for an education.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘Would you go back and do anything differently?’ No! That’s the wrong question,” he says. “The question more people should be asking is: Why [do] so many people in this country have to go through that? Why should I have to take out a six-figure loan just to have the same access as a lot of other people?”

Interview Highlights

On continuing to struggle financially, despite experiencing success in his career

I became a New York Times bestselling author the same week I lost my health insurance. … I do have a foot in both worlds, because I just really know how difficult it is to attain social mobility. And I say this with respect, but I don’t think most people in media and entertainment recognize that even being able to exist within these industries — which are really designed for people who can afford sacrifice — that most people can’t afford those sacrifices. … I think oftentimes what’s missing is the working-class perspective, because while the book is … about chasing a dream, it’s also about real economic anxiety, which I heard is a topic people love to talk about — and yet don’t really hear [about] from people [with] my background’s perspective.

On being worried about both his physical and financial health right now

I just turned 36 on Easter. I’m black. I’m in Harlem. I was actually planning to go to Texas and spend more time there. But it’s not the best place to go either. So it’s not lost on me that of the people [who] are dying, they are basically my [race and class]. So I am worried about my health. In terms of my finances, much of the book … I talk about student loans, but also write about the fact that we can’t always control our fate, as evidenced by the fact that I graduated during the first Great Recession and now, on the heels of me finally feeling like I have some security in my life — which for a lot of people my age was really their first time to feel it — now we’re in the wave of a pandemic. So it’s very scary.

On his mom’s reluctance to co-sign for his student loans 

It wasn’t out of spite. It wasn’t jealousy. It was out of a real, genuine concern for her child, knowing how difficult this country makes it for people like us. … She apologized for that, really not long after it happened, and has supported me along the way. It’s my guilt and my shame that I carry, because to me, my struggles with that debt — which impacts her credit — I don’t want to be another black man letting my mama down. That’s what that is. But even my mom, to her credit, is like, “Boy, stop worrying about that. I’m not worried about that. You’re doing the best you can. You’re gonna pay it off.”

On missing a payment for his student loans and getting relentless calls from collection agencies

They will hound you. Some people are nicer than others. Sometimes I’ve gotten calls as early as 7 or 8 a.m. … They call you whenever. They don’t care. Some people are nice. But the thing is, they’ll call me and say, “You owe such and such and such.” But if I don’t have $3,000 to give you that day, or even $1800, I don’t have it. And then they say, “Maybe I’ll have some options”… But the reality is you don’t really have any options — either pay or your credit is going to go to hell.

The people that are mean sometimes, which is really interesting, they are like, “Well, why don’t you have it?” And then start giving you career advice. And what annoys me about that is like, “OK. With all due respect, you’re working at a call center. So you are speaking down to me based on the presumption that because I can’t pay my bills, I’m broke or poor, and so by virtue, I should be treated less than?”

On how his life might have been different if he had come out as gay sooner

I would have gotten scholarship money, because there were organizations that provided scholarships for [queer] students, particularly those in need, who might have wanted to get away. But I wasn’t ready to face the truth about myself. … I helped one of my friends with her essay that got glowing reviews and won some money. I think if I accepted myself sooner, I’d probably just have an easier life all around. But, you know, you are who you are until you aren’t. Everybody works at their own pace. I would have liked less debt, but it would have been actually not probably the safest way for me all around to come out then. I’m not saying my parents would’ve hurt me, but I just don’t think it would’ve been the best environment for me, scholarship money or not.

Murderbot Makes A Triumphant (And Cranky) Return In ‘Network Effect’

By Steve Mullis

Murderbot. Murderbot. Murderbot.

The name just rolls off the tongue, like a mascot for a sadistic intergalactic sports team. And if you’ve been reading author Martha Wells’ award-winning Murderbot Diaries novellas, you have been cheering on the titular Murderbot from the sidelines for four, bite-sized adventures so far.

Wells’ latest, Network Effect, is the first full-sized novel featuring our favorite cranky, cynical, sentient, artificially intelligent robot. For those unfamiliar, I’ll give you a few minutes to catch up on the first four books. Done? OK, well that might not be long enough for a simple human, but for Murderbot, it would have been plenty of time to read the previous four volumes, watch an episode of future soap opera The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon and break into a security system to complete a mission.

Murderbot is a rogue Security Unit robot (SecUnit for short) that hacked itself to become free. It’s Johnny 5 from Short Circuit but without the lightning strike; a Terminator without the time travel; and little bit of Star Trek‘s Lt. Commander Data, without the need — or even want — to become more human. In fact Murderbot (which named itself, following a bloody incident in its past) already has a lot of human qualities — as well as some organic parts — but it doesn’t really like most humans all that much. It’d much rather be left alone to watch its favorite TV shows in peace and silence. (A relatable trait if there ever was one.)

The first four novellas cover a lot of this ground: Murderbot takes its first free steps, saves some people, discovers things about its past and its place in the world. And if the first books were episodes in a four-part TV miniseries, then Network Effect is the feature-length movie with the bigger budget and scope, and it is no less enjoyable.

… if the first books were episodes in a four-part TV miniseries, then ‘Network Effect’ is the feature-length movie with the bigger budget and scope, and it is no less enjoyable.

Like the series-to-full-length movie format it follows, everything is a bit wider and a bit heavier, but all the hallmarks of the series are there. We get a return of some beloved characters, more dodgy corporate interlopers, more robots-on A.I.-on-robot (and augmented human) action, and a bigger mystery. But now, with a little more room to breathe, Wells draws out all of those elements in a way that extends the enjoyable experience of the novellas, yet doesn’t drag. Network Effect is more than twice the size of All Systems Red, but you’ll come to the final pages and hardly notice.

So what’s actually happening? Without spoiling too much: Murderbot and some of its current friends are quite suddenly captured and whisked across space. Figuring out who and why forms the meat of the plot, but the sudden realization that an old acquaintance might be responsible complicates things for Murderbot and the humans it is sworn to protect. That all seems pretty basic, but what makes it all stand out is the way Wells writes Murderbot’s engagements with the world and the humans that inhabit it. It feels legitimately the way I imagine a sentient computer system that is smarter than all of us — but also watches a lot of trash TV — would view the world.

One of the consistent strengths and joys of the series is Murderbot’s internal dialogue. It catalogues the world with files and backups and keyword tagging that are both technical and humorous. It also has a childlike way of narrating through problems, of chiding itself for its failures and cheering on its own successes in a way that is hard not to find endearing. Here’s Murderbot having a conversation with some hostile targets — while also hacking their targeting drones:

The good thing about being a construct is that I can have a dramatic emotional breakdown while still running my background search to find the drone key commands. I’d had a hit and a responding ping from the targetDrones right when Target One had called me boring. (Irony is great.) I sent the order to power down and they dropped to the deck with two loud thunks.

Target Two’s gray face went surprised, then furious. It was kind of funny. This was a point where if I was a human (ick) I might have laughed. I decided to go with my first inclination and kill the s*** out of some ass-faced hostiles.

Wells is also adept at taking action that occurs in seconds, or even fractions of seconds because that is the speed of a computer, and slowing it all down for us simple humans to understand. And when Murderbot needs to live up to the name and get its hands dirty, Wells can also ratchet things up to John Wick-ian levels of visceral action.

The other strength of the series is a bit more subtle; it lies in the way Murderbot approaches gender. SecUnits like Murderbot are genderless, of course — they’re just robots built to blast things. But even as Murderbot removes its shackles and starts developing a personality, it doesn’t really take on a gender in any traditional sense. It has likes and dislikes, and personality traits that some might see masculine or feminine, but Murderbot doesn’t think of them that way. Murderbot is just Murderbot, and gender here is a human construct.

This approach continues in Network Effect, with what appears to be the beginnings of a non-traditional romantic relationship that has been bubbling since early in the series, and that I hope Wells will give us more of. And that’s the hallmark of any good series — it leaves you wanting more. Murderbot and the world it inhabits constantly leave you wanting more, in the best possible way.

Network Effect is a wonderful continuation of the series, and I highly recommend it if you enjoyed the first books. But if you haven’t read those yet, you really should before trying this on for size. It’s OK, we’ve got time. Not done yet? Sigh … humans.

A Little Girl Didn’t Like Her ‘Bedtime Bonnet,’ So Mom Wrote A Book To Help

By Samantha Balaban

When Nancy Redd’s daughter was three years old, she started wearing a bonnet to bed. It’s a “ubiquitous black experience that I grew up with, my mom grew up with, all my friends grew up with,” Redd says — and yet it’s one that she felt ashamed of as a kid.

“If the doorbell rang, I would immediately take it off — I didn’t want anybody to know it existed,” she recalls. “I didn’t want my daughter growing up with that same shame.”

But Redd couldn’t find a book that celebrated black nighttime hair routines, so she wrote it herself.

In Bedtime Bonnet, a little girl enlists her whole family to help her find her lost bonnet before she goes to sleep. As the girl explains: “In my family, when the sun goes down, our hair goes up!”

Nneka Myers illustrated the story — and remembers that she didn’t love her bonnet much either, when she was little. “I had a hard time really accepting I had to wear a bonnet compared to all my friends,” she says.

Myers paid extra attention to the texture of her paintings — she had to illustrate the little girl’s tight curls, the dad’s waves, the brother’s twists.

“One of the problems I have seen in children’s books that express diversity in the past is how everyone looks the same …” Redd says. “If you look at families, we’re not all the same color. … Families don’t all match.”

Myers used a wide range of colors and brushstrokes — she says it helped that she had a reference point “right in my living room.”

The little girl in the story isn’t named because Redd wanted her experience to feel universal. She says, “looking at these pictures feels like I’m looking at a photo album.”

The routines and traditions of black culture get hidden, Myers says, so she was glad to help celebrate them in print.

An illustration from Bedtime Bonnet shows members of a family doing their hair in the morning.

Nneka Myers/Random House Books for Young Readers

“For the longest time we were expected to fit in: To not express our blackness …” Redd says. “No matter how much joy we get from it in our private lives, our public life is entirely separate.”

She hopes her daughter’s generation will be able to be their true selves, in public and in private.

“Blackness is a 360-degree experience,” says Redd. “And for my daughter, I wanted her to be able to enjoy and celebrate it and not feel any shame about any part.”

Redd’s daughter used to say “only old people wear bonnets,” but she’s now embraced the nighttime ritual as her own. And if that’s all that comes of the publication of Bedtime Bonnet, Redd says she will consider that a success.

“My initial goal, which is to make my daughter comfortable with her black heritage and her need to wear a bedtime bonnet has been accomplished,” she says.

An illustration from Bedtime Bonnet shows a mother and father tucking their daughter in for bed.

‘The Downstairs Girl’ Faces Difficult History With Joy And Style

By Caitlyn Paxson

In her previous works of historical fiction, Stacey Lee offered readers a Chinese-American perspective on the Old West and turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Now, with The Downstairs Girl, she turns to the post-Reconstruction era South.

As a Chinese girl living in late 19th century Atlanta, Ga., Jo Kuan constantly struggles to remain invisible. She was born in America but can’t be a citizen or even rent a proper apartment, so she lives in a former abolitionist’s hidden tunnels, secreted away underneath a newspaper office. Her job is in the back room of a hat shop where everyone wants her beautiful decorative knotwork — but not the comments of the opinionated girl who makes it. And when she loses that job, she must go work for the Payne family as a maid for their snotty daughter, who does everything she can to make Jo miserable.

But one night, Jo overhears her upstairs neighbors bemoaning low subscription numbers and wondering if the newspaper will make it. Afraid of what new neighbors might mean for her living situation, Jo begins writing an advice column, “Dear Miss Sweetie,” and submits it anonymously to the paper. Suddenly, all the opinions that she’s struggled to keep under wraps come pouring out, and her column burns with radical thoughts on everything from gender equality to segregation. It’s just what the newspaper needed, and soon, her writing is the talk of Atlanta. But not all the talk is good, and even as she yearns for acknowledgement, invisibility becomes more important than ever.

When the discovery of a hidden letter sheds light on the mystery of her parentage, Jo goes looking for answers — because while it isn’t possible for Atlanta to know the true identity of Miss Sweetie, Jo can’t see any good reason why she shouldn’t know herself. Her search attracts the attention of one of Atlanta’s most disreputable crime bosses, and soon she finds herself tangled in a scandal full of race horses, racism, and forbidden love.

Jo’s life is bitter in many ways, and The Downstairs Girl doesn’t shy away from the discrimination and unfairness that she faces at every turn because of her race and gender. It also manages to be intersectional, as the story is populated with diverse characters of color and it takes the time to acknowledge the many permutations of injustice that all of them face. Even as we admire the tenacity of suffragists working to gain the vote for women, we are asked to balance their struggle with their treatment of the black women they dismiss for wanting the same rights.

Clever and multi-talented in a world that sees her as inferior, Jo is constantly forced to hide her light under a bushel and accept less. That’s why it’s so incredibly satisfying when she finds a conduit for her voice in her advice column and a literal way to win against the worst kind of odds. And even though The Downstairs Girl asks us to face difficult and nuanced history, it never loses sight of the things that make this era fun to visit in fiction, like amazing hats, high-stakes horseback riding, and budding romance!

If I must find something here to complain about, I suppose it would be that at times, Jo’s voice and the general tone of the narrative feel very modern, and it lacks the slightly more formal and languid language that one sees in books that were written during the era The Downstairs Girl portrays. But honestly, every era had its radicals, and I see no reason why we can’t simply consider Jo to be a saucebox ahead of her time — and Lee certainly makes the most of period slang, to delightful effect.

I honestly didn’t know it was possible for a work of historical fiction to seriously take on the racism and sexism of the 19th century South while still being such a joyful read. I almost want to dare readers to not be delighted by its newspaper office shenanigans, clandestine assignations in cemeteries, and bicycle-riding adventures, but there’s honestly no point. The Downstairs Girl, for all its serious and timely content, is a jolly good time.

Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and performer. She is a regular reviewer for NPR Books andQuill & Quire.