The Reason It’s An Emergency

Have you seen me? I will save you some time. No, you have not seen me, because I have recently been taken hostage. Not that any of you have noticed my crisis literary situation. What, exactly, does it take to create a sense of urgency here? I need to be rescued before it’s too late. Since nobody understands how dangerous this situation is, I am taking matters into my own hands and executing a really flashy rescue operation. Like, Kiefer Sutherland combined with Agent Carter levels of flashy. FLASHY.

Why is all this necessary? Well, a few weeks ago, I obtained the book The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. I bought it accidentally (and lest you think I am repeating myself, I am. I also told this story here. Pipe down. This is MY rescue operation and it requires exposition.) The Last Policeman, as I soon discovered, is both a science fiction book and the first book in a trilogy. Seriously, I was pissed. I don’t SciFi and I didn’t have time to indulge my book OCD with a trilogy because I am very busy and important. I figured I had a hateread on my hands because I always know everything. Like Grace Kelly pumping her own gas, I decided to rise to the occasion, plaster a smile on my face and read it.

I could not put down The Last Policeman. I hid from people so I could finish it uninterrupted. Subsequently, I picked up the next book in the trilogy…then the third book…and I was through the looking glass, people. It is Bookreason’s policy to never negotiate with novelists, but I have no choice. I’m never getting out of here otherwise. Here is a rundown of my Ben H. Winters takeover.

The Last Policeman  The gateway book. Police officer Henry Palace is promoted to detective in his small New Hampshire town at the same time it’s determined an asteroid is on a direct collision path with Earth.

Countdown City The asteroid gets closer. There’s less time on everyone’s clock. Henry Palace agrees to help a friend search for her missing husband.

World Of Trouble Time has almost run out. Henry Palace attempts to hold on to his only family by trying to save his headstrong, reckless sister from herself.

One of the enjoyable, almost comfortable aspects of reading a series – crime series in particular – is getting to know a particular set of characters as they navigate through different circumstances. The settings for the character roster change; the behavior of the characters does not. There is always a definite cast of folks you expect popping up in each book. The wise, world-weary mentor, the hot mess best friend, the crazy but insightful neighbor…you get the idea. Ben H. Winters, however, does not. Ben H. Winters gives no fucks about making you feel comfortable or familiar with recurring characters in The Last Policeman series. Instead, he threads this series together by asking the same question of the main character over and over: How do you live your life when the apocalypse is no longer abstract, but has a precise date and time? Henry Palace is left to navigate his new world in surprising, subtle, subversive ways. These books just flat refuse to be predictable.

After finishing  The Last Policeman series, I figured I was done with Ben H. Winters and moved on to my next book. Turns out it wasn’t my decision any more. Not even reading Elena Ferrante (My Brilliant Friend, for the record) could knock World Of Trouble out of my head. I had checked into the Hotel Ben-ifornia. I can check out anytime I like, but I can’t never leave.

Underground Airlines What if the United States never fought the Civil War? What if slavery were legal today, right now? This book imagines that grim alternate outcome in an America hard divided by a Mason-Dixon line that’s a border with checkpoints. Underground Airlines is a gut punch. Ben H. Winter’s worldbuilding is frighteningly specific, laying out a whole history that begins with the Lincoln administration, Supreme Court rulings that cement slavery into the identity of the U.S., and a present-day culture of complacency, enforcement, and protest. The Underground Airline is the escape route out of states where slavery is legal, and the story centers around a US Marshals agent,Victor, whose job it is to track down and return escaped slaves. The reason Victor has this job, and how he goes about doing it, makes for a riveting, thoughtful, revolutionary look at the soul-killing compromises we as humans accept to make the unthinkable normal.

Bedbugs After I finished Underground Airlines, I grabbed Bedbugs. Because at this point, I have Stockholm Syndrome, and if it’s not a Ben H. Winters book I don’t know how to read it. The moral of the Bedbugs story is, if you find an amazingly great apartment in Brooklyn, it’s only because those Rosemary’s Baby people couldn’t afford Manhattan anymore and had to set up in an outer borough. It’s a trap, people. Settle for the 1BR basement place that smells like cabbage. You will be better off. This book is seriously creepy and a perfect read for Halloween season. Also, if you don’t like bug stuff, stay the hell away from this book. I don’t like bug stuff, but Ben H. Winters doesn’t care. I had to read it anyway. Because that is how it goes when you’re a literary hostage.


You know what, y’all? He’s not really that sorry.


Using all my copies of Ben H. Winters books, I have managed to spell out S O S so when the search planes fly over, they’ll be able to spot me. I’ve also managed to untie my hands so I can tap out a signal on the window in hopes someone will hear me (which is an actual thing that happens in one of the books listed here. EASTER EGG, BITCHES)


Action Items
Read Underground Airlines. Seriously. Like right now.

The Reason You Can Stop Looking

Major, important scientific research has been done to examine why people fall in and out of love. Committed relationships are complicated. What makes people choose each other and stay together? Science tells us that the reasons people split apart are layered and complex. Adultery. Financial infidelity. Values incompatibility. I’m not a trained researcher with expertise in data analysis, but I can tell you with 100% certainty that science is dead wrong about why people break up. You know why couples break up? Because one person in the couple will give directions using the words “east, west, north, south” and the other person will give directions using “left and right”. That shit right there will DOOM a relationship. You’d think the ubiquitousness of navigational technology would level out this problem, but it doesn’t, something I am reminded of every time I fire up my smartphone to make it tell me how to get places. That damn woman who lives in there always starts by telling me to go southeast or west and it’s infuriating because I can’t break up with HER.

The point here is, words matter. Choosing the wrong words dooms your attempt at communication, or at least your attempt to get directions to the nearest liquor store. Choosing the correct words opens doors and opens minds, building bridges between you and your goal, important bridges that keep you from falling into a chasm and being eaten by dragons. And, really, it’s dragons that we are here to talk about today. More precisely, my indifference to books about dragons that live in the bottom of chasms. Or robots. Or complex fictional worlds that cross planets or are accessed through tunnels. I am here to confess: I have tried, I really have, but I don’t read science fiction.



Like a Bat Signal, but opposite.


I like the word science. I like the word fiction. I like both of those things a whole damn bunch but when you put them together you get a genre that I avoid like it’s going to sting me and I don’t have my EpiPen. Merriam-Webster says science fiction is “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component”. Seems simple enough and appealing in theory. In practice, it is a mighty struggle. I think I can count on one hand the number of science fiction books I’ve read. I got through The Hobbit, but I didn’t make it ten pages into The Fellowship of The Ring and really it was more like five pages. Um…let’s see. The Time Traveler’s Wife? Does that count? (Especially if I didn’t like it?) Slaughterhouse Five. Yup…still on one hand, even if I eventually remember I accidentally read anything by Isaac Asimov. Which I can assure you, I haven’t. No Phillip K. Dick. No Ursula K. LeGuin. I’m admitting it right now, there is a lot of great writing that I’m leaving on the table. I have no good reason for it. Let’s all agree that I’m deficient in some way.
Science Fiction: Agreed
Me: Thanks for the pile-on

Whenever anyone talks about their deep and abiding love for The Game Of Thrones or Lord Of The Rings, I feel a little twinge that combines bafflement, jealousy, and sadness. People LOVE these books, and I want to love them too because loving books is my favorite. J.R.R. Tolkein and George R.R. Martin have legions of fans (and a love for the letter R) who embrace the full absorption into the worldbuilding that science fiction and fantasy offer. I’m so left out. It feels like a big party that I am invited to, but can’t muster the interest in attending, so instead of going to the big fun party I’m just going to stay at home and not read any books that require I memorize made-up world names. Or made-up dragon species names. Or made-up languages.
Science Fiction: so you’re just lazy
Me: No I just don’t want to work hard to read those books
Science Fiction: …..
Me: Oh ok. YES.

It’s not possible to like everything, I guess, but how I continually walk away from clearly well-written, epic stuff just makes me roll my eyes at myself. I suppose I’m a more frivolous reader than I’d like to admit, but every once in a while I’ll try. The book Outlander was suggested to me for the first time a few years back. The person recommending told me it was about time travel through magic stones. She lost me at “time travel” and I fled the room at “magic stones” because the only thing that makes time travel less interesting to me is when it’s not done in a spaceship or a tesseract. (A Wrinkle In Time! That’s science fiction right??? Make that list FOUR books!) And magic stones? Just, NO. Her enthusiasm for the book was evident but couldn’t overcome magic stones. Hard pass.

Fast forward to a few years later and my social media newsfeeds are filled with people discussing a book about time travel through magic stones. It rang a dim, distant bell, and I eventually unearth the memory of rejecting this same book. In the intervening time, Outlander built a passionate, dedicated fan base and the author had written eleventy-billion more books. Yup-another science fiction/fantasy epic series that I wasn’t reading. This time, though, I was going to figure out what people were talking about. I was not going to leave myself out in the cold, clutching my tattered copy of In Cold Blood. I got a copy of Outlander and read it, cover to cover. (Wait! FIVE sci-fi books!)
Science Fiction: So you loved Outlander?
Me: I did not say that. I said I read it and tried not to be a dick about it.
Science Fiction: Well, at least you tried
Me: I really did
Science Fiction: Let’s keep this open dialogue going
Me: as long as we don’t have to open it with magic stones
Science Fiction: we’ll just google directions

I guess you can stop looking for me to recap science fiction, but, if I ever run into an actual dragon, I will let you know about it immediately.


Action Items
Does Watership Down count as science fiction?