The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

Sometimes the impulse to fully represent how much a book means to you is almost enough to render you speechless. I feel this way about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that packs such potency that it still catches me unaware sometimes. Most admirers highlight the novel’s cerebral heft–it is, for my money, one of the most sophisticated thought experiments that touch on everything from extraterrestrial urban planning to theology, anthropology, and high-level geopolitics. But those kinds of reviews fail describe how well Le Guin wields wistful delicacy when she wants to, how unerringly she locates the beating human heart of this forbidding story.

The novel is told through a series of reports by an envoy named Genly Ai. He is nominally a human being (he refers to himself as Terran), but he comes from an advanced society called Ekumen that fosters intergalactic alliances and commerce among various alien entities. Genly arrives in Gethen, an ice-bound planet that can be considered a sort of backwater, in an attempt to persuade its inhabitants to join the alliance of planets. Continue reading

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

Part of me wishes that I had managed to read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when I was a lot younger, if only so that I could have had a more visceral affinity with the imagery that Jules Verne uses with gusto. There’s always a thread of exuberance in his prose that typifies the most optimistic of colonial literature. This novel, however, has more emotional weight than the other Verne novel I’ve read, Around the World in Eighty Days. It tackles issues such as the overhunting of the oceans, the slave trade, and rampant capitalism. A chapter can start off as a breathless travelogue then turn on a dime and transform into a claustrophobic thriller.

The only struggle that I experienced came from “almanac fatigue,” because Verne spends pages listing animals and plants that the characters see throughout the novel. The thorough descriptions of all the marine flora and fauna wears the reader down after a while, especially when you’re anticipating the inevitable batshit crazy climax at the end. The tedium makes it even more glaring that the final confrontation lacks a true denouement. Continue reading

World War Z: A huge wave of zombies is appro–wait

Max Brooks’ World War Z is fiction for the Discovery Channel / NatGeo junkie, that special breed of people who regard Shark Week as a red-letter holiday. Masquerading as a collection of interviews from survivors of a global zombie apocalypse, the book succeeds in taking a ludicrous premise and making the reader take it seriously.

Brooks does a good job at setting up the beginning of the zombie infection. The disease first emerges in China before slowly spreading around the world, both through regular air travel and human trafficking. The public was initially lulled into a false sense of security by a combination of government propaganda and predatory businessmen. By the time the existence of the zombies becomes impossible to deny the human race is already in the middle of a losing battle that ends up killing hundreds of millions and turning them into flesh-eating machines.

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