Friday, May 20, 2022

Book Reviews: Forget the Game Tie-In, This is Great SF!


The Necropolis Empire, A Twilight Imperium Novel
, by Tim Pratt (Aconyte)

Tim Pratt writes a lot of very cool science fiction. From his “Axiom” series (my gateway into his work) to The Doors of Sleep (which I really, really hope will become an entire series, now that there’s a sequel) to his “Twilight Imperium” novels. When I reviewed the first of these, The Fractured Void, I had no idea that Twilight Imperium is a war-without-end strategic game. I wrote, “Game tie-in novels are common these days, but not those that are so well crafted as to stand on their own merits. I picked it up because I loved Tim Pratt’s other science fiction novels (and after reading it I still have no idea what Twilight Imperium is, nor do I particularly care as long as Pratt turns out books as good as this one).” That’s even more true for The Necropolis Empire. If you, like me, are so much Not a Gamer that you’re into negative gamer-ness, just ignore that part and enjoy the book as a great science fiction tale.

Standing on its own, The Necropolis Empire falls into one of my favorite science fiction subgenres: spooky alien ruins. In this case, very, very old alien ruins from a race we’re really glad has gone extinct. Now if folks would just stop trying to resurrect their tech…

Our young heroine, Bianca, lives on one such world, a pastoral culture built on top of the aforementioned, deeply buried alien tech. Scavenged bits are useful, but mostly the farmers go about their lives…until a ship from the imperialist Barony of Letnev arrives, annexes the planet, and carries Bianca away with a rather incredulous story about her being a space princess. Bianca falls for it, though. Not only is she adopted, but rather than settle down with a nice neighbor boy, she has always yearned for something beyond her own world. That something becomes clearer when she begins changing, developing superhuman speed, strength, senses, healing, and more. The ruthless Letnev believe she is the key to finding and controlling the ancient military relics, which they mean to use to dominate all known space. Bianca has other ideas.

I absolutely love how vulnerable and how competent Bianca is. Her confidence in herself and her abilities stems from more than her new, superhuman powers. As a child, she was wanted and cherished, never coddled but given responsibilities. She grew up with permission to tackle all manner of challenges, and she’s a genuinely nice person. The Letnev, not so much. They’ve perfected arrogance to an art form.

I would be perfectly happy to see an entire series of “The Adventures of Bianca,” although I sadly fear the good folks who’ve created Twilight Imperium are more interested in promoting their game and not so much in a fascinating character who stands on her own.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Superb Middle Grade Fiction Featuring Queer Kids


Nicole Melleby writes Middle Grade fiction featuring exclusively queer kids who also happen to struggle with mental illness. They're really, really good books, too. Books I wish every family of a troubled adolescent, queer or not, would sit down and read together.

How To Become a Planet features a youngster, creatively named Pluto, who struggles with depression. I reviewed it here.

How to Become a Planet focuses on Pluto as a sympathetic character, a person who is both resourceful and overwhelmed, insightful and confused by changes in herself. Her use of astronomy metaphors is particularly vivid and powerful. Above all, Pluto is a person whose brain chemistry isn’t working quite right, not a diagnosis, and this excellent novel showcases her journey toward a new balance in her life.

Here's what the author said about this character in a recent interview:

Q: How did you balance depicting the reality of living with mental illness with the important message of hope?

A: Getting a diagnosis isn’t the end for Pluto—it’s a new beginning. I wanted to show that despite it feeling so hard, there is always hope. In the end, Pluto still has depression, she still has her struggles, but she has her support system and the understanding of her needs, and she’ll be okay. 

I think this is spot on for adults as well as kids. Turning your life around takes not only appropriate treatment (including, in Pluto's case, medication as well as psychotherapy) but time and patience. Backsliding and reversals are par for the course, no matter how skillful the professional help and supportive the loving families are. There's no magic wand to make psychiatric problems disappear, although popular media often portray it so. One insightful conversation and poof! you're cured. This is one of many reasons why books like Melleby's are so important. There is hope, she says, so hang in there.

In Melleby's new novel, The Science of Being Angry, young Joey can't understand why she explodes into destructive fury. Like Pluto, she has a family that loves her and struggles to understand her, yet it isn't enough. 

In my review of this book, I wrote: 

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Melleby doesn't condescend or simply. Her characters grapple with complex, often ambivalent emotions. Yet her faith in the resourcefulness of troubled young people, when given appropriate care, shines through. She reminds us,

There’s no one answer, there’s no one story for someone struggling with mental illness. 

If this means there are many more Melleby MG novels to come, that's an excellent thing! 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Book Reviews: A Respectful Treatment of Adolescent Anger Issues


The Science of Being Angry
, by Nicole Melleby (Algonquin Young Readers)

Eleven-year-old Joey lives in an unusual blended family. For one thing, she and her two twin brothers have two moms, one of whom was married before and has a son from that marriage. She and her brothers were the result of IVF, and the boys are identical, having split from the same egg. For all the nontraditional nature of this family, there’s a lot of love and acceptance. But all is not well with Joey. She’s been having increasingly volatile episodes of anger and acting-out. Her temper has become legendary at school, where she’s been given the nickname, “Bruiser,” after she threw a soccer ball at a boy in gym class so hard she bruised his collarbone. She’s roughly pushed away her best friend, on whom she also has a crush. Now she’s left with the fallout wreckage of what she’s done.

Despite the efforts of her moms to help her, Joey’s outbursts are only getting worse. Finally, she melts down into a tantrum so destructive, her family is evicted from their apartment and must move into a motel, where close quarters fuel everyone’s irritation. Her moms start bickering, and Joey thinks that’s her fault. Her older brother, who is trying to focus on his academics, goes to live with his father, and of course, Joey blames herself for that, too.

Joey can’t understand why she flies into a rage or how to control it. All her best intentions are in vain. Then she gets the idea that perhaps her temper is a genetic trait inherited from her biological father. If she can just track him down, she thinks, she might better understand her own volatility—and he might have found successful strategies for managing his anger. With the help of her alienated best friend/crush, she embarks on a genetics project for science class. And, of course, nothing goes the way Joey expects.

In many ways, Joey is a typical adolescent, struggling with the tensions between immaturity and independence. In others, though, she is very much her own person with a unique family. I loved the way the unusual marriage and relationships are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Joey’s anger is clearly not caused by her having two lesbian mothers. Indeed, the clear love and understanding between her mothers, the way each of them has found her way to an authentic life, are one of Joey’s principal strengths. I also noted very little along the lines of, “girls don’t have anger management issues,” when in fact psychological research shows that girls experience anger as frequently as boys do (but are socialized to suppress it).

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Highly recommended for adults as well as their adolescent children.

Monday, May 9, 2022

In Times of War: Ukraine Is Not the Only Country Suffering

A couple of weeks, I wrote about the importance of taking a break from the war news. Being able to step away is indeed a privilege. Ukrainians can’t take a break in the same way that I, living in a nation not at war, can. They may have times when life goes on as usual, depending on where they live, but somewhere else in their own country, cities are being pulverized and ordinary people are the victims of terrorist attacks.

This reminds me of the revelation I had while listening to my Black friends about their experiences in a racist society. What I heard, over and over again, was that the barrage of aggressions, large or micro, is unrelenting. My friends don’t get a day off; the threat is always there to one degree or another. I wonder how living in a state of heightened stress or in a neighborhood that all too often resembles a war zone colors perceptions of a war far away. (See comments on hypertension and stress in Black people, below.)

When the Ukrainian war first broke out, there was an immediate outpouring of sympathy and calls for humanitarian aid as well as military assistance. Americans called for easing immigration requirements for Ukrainian refugees. A couple of friends pointed out the disparity in response between the warmth and concern, and action, for Ukrainian victims, as opposed to people of color in distress in other parts of the world: Central American migrants at the border, Haitians, Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, and more. The Conversation examined ways in which the inequitable treatment of those seeking asylum in the United States is based on race and religion. They wrote:

On March 11, 2022, however, the Biden administration provided guidance allowing Customs and Border Protection officers to exempt Ukrainians from Title 42 on a case-by-case basis, which has allowed many families to enter. However, this exception has not been granted to other asylum seekers, no matter what danger they are in. It is possible that the administration may lift Title 42 at the end of May 2022, but that plan has encountered fierce debates.

The different treatment of Ukrainian versus Central American, African, Haitian and other asylum seekers has prompted criticism that the administration is enforcing immigration policies in racist ways, favoring white, European, mostly Christian refugees over other groups.

The uncomfortable truth is that white Americans are more welcoming toward people who look like them, especially people whom they perceive as innocent victims of violence. I would like to think that once hearts are opened toward one group, common humanity will prevail and the same commitment to fairness will be applied elsewhere, but I am not overly optimistic. The challenge of the moment, or so it seems to me, is to find a balance between reminders that Ukrainians are not the only people suffering from violence and oppression today without descending to “whataboutism,” that is, dismissing the importance of one case by pointing to others. (The classic humorous example being, “But her emails…”)

I think there are ways of bringing up the (non-white) people in need without downplaying the horrible situation in Ukraine. While international aid funds may be finite, caring is not. Commitment to help is not. What would that look like? Perhaps donating to organizations that provide aid to countries around the world, not limited to Ukraine? Splitting contributions between aid organizations? Pressuring our leaders for more just policies, reminding them that just as immigrating Ukrainians need our help, many others qualify for asylum?

Surely, there is enough love to go around.

————————-

There’s a correlation between stress, poverty, racism, and ill health. Some studies have shown a relationship between experiences of racism and hypertension in Black people, particularly young Black men1. Stressors repeatedly occurring over time included the death of a family member or close friend (65.2%), having a new family member (32.9%), change in residence (31.4%), difficulty finding a job (24.3%), and fired or laid off from work (17.6%). Involvement with crime or legal matters was reported at least twice during the 48 months by 33.3% of men.2

1.       https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/docs/african_american_sourcebook.pdf

2.      Hae-Ra Han, et al. Effects of stressful life events in young black men with high blood pressure. Ethn Dis, Winter 2006;16(1):64-70

 

Friday, May 6, 2022

Book Reviews: Alien Messages from Space

Shadows of Eternity, by Gregory Benford (Saga)

Gregory Benford is an accomplished, seasoned writer and as usual, he offers a treasure trove of fascinating ideas. In this novel, set two centuries from now, humans have set up a base on the Moon to house a SETI library whose mission is to decipher and comprehend the many Messages received from space. As Benford points out, the immense distances involved would almost certainly mean that these civilizations are now long since extinct. So why would they broadcast Messages for a future intelligent race to receive? As a record for posterity, a boast of their prowess, a plea for help? What about the alien AIs, who have aggressive agendas of their own? Fascinating possibilities abound!

The story begins when Ruth, a trainee Librarian, is accepted into the program, her work is to analyze Message texts and eventually converse with the AIs. She finds her feet in the byzantine hierarchy of the library, makes friends and discovers romance, and embarks on studying the Messages and interacting with the alien AIs.

After Ruth’s initial integration into the Library culture and her first few AI encounters, the book loses much of its forward momentum and takes on an episodic quality. To be sure, there are occasional references to earlier events—for example, a present-day alien race seeks her out because of her role in deflecting an existential threat to Earth, a result of her bargain with one of those AIs. I kept looking for a sense of rising tension, the inexorable progression of one crisis building to an even greater one, and not finding it.

Eventually, I gave up. The book is really long, and I kept having the experience of beginning again. Information that is usually presented near the beginning of a novel appeared a third or a half through. This circling back to “Go” reminded me of television programs of the 1950s and early 1960s, where episodes could be shown in any order because no matter what happened, all the characters and pieces ended up right where they started. (In contrast, programs of the 1970s and later tended to have story arcs that lasted several episodes, and then Babylon 5 blew them all out of the water with a five year story arc.) Upon reflection, if the book had been presented as, “These are the ongoing adventures of Ruth, Librarian to Alien Cultures,” my expectations would have been more in line with my experience.

All that said, Benford is a highly skilled writer, and many readers will relish the length and slow build of this novel, as well as the richness of the ideas.


Monday, May 2, 2022

Sea Serpents and other Cool Science Stories

 

Mysterious 'hypercarnivore' with blade-like teeth roamed California 42 million years ago

Friday, April 29, 2022

Very Short Book Reviews: Murderbot, A Turtledove Collection, and More


The Best of Harry Turtledove
, by Harry Turtledove (Subterranean)

This is a huge book, a rich feast of imagination and consummate story-telling. The stories feature a wide range of characters and situations, including the nine-foot-tall Sasquatch who serves as governor of the fictional state of Jefferson; the descendants of dinosaurs that never got wiped out by the asteroid, digging up their own ancestors’ bones in a Wild West Dinosaur Craze and re-visiting Moby Dick as a mosasaur; heart-breaking tales of Jewish survival of the Holocaust; a fictional confrontation between Galileo and a leader of the Holy Inquisition; Cthulhu as a university lecturer in genetics; and a thriller set in 1940s New Orleans in which defeated Southerners plot to distract the Loyal States from entering World War II. It’s an understatement to say there is something here for every taste, but the scope and effortlessness of Turtledove’s storytelling never falls short.





Fugitive Telemetry, by Martha Wells (Tordotcom)

A murder mystery set on a space station—Murderbot’s summoned to the investigation! Do I need to say anything more? If you don't know Murderbot, the SecurityUnit cyborg who has, by dint of tremendous determination and not a little crankiness, become autonomous, you're in for a treat! Run out and get the previous novellas and novel right away! And clear your calendar, because Murderbot is addictive.





The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi (Subterranean)


Part noir detective story, part thriller, part inventive science fiction that examines a world in which death is not permanent (well, certain kinds of death and mostly), this is newest adventure in John Scalzi’s “The Dispatcher” series. I hadn’t read the first one but quickly found that didn’t matter. Scalzi skillfully weaves in all the necessary backstory with nary a plot hiccough.

In Scalzi’s world, a few years ago almost all folks who were murdered don’t die, they reappear in a place they feel safe, like a childhood home. Natural deaths are something else: you die, you stay dead. A new profession has arisen, that of “dispatcher,” a not-murderer for hire. If you’re about to die naturally, you hire them and get another chance at life. Most of the time. But business has been drying up, and Tony Valdez has been taking on cases that blur the shady line of what’s strictly legal. Like killing a Chinese executive so he can re-appear thousands of miles away in time for an important business meeting. At this point, Scalzi propels Valdez firmly into thriller territory, with plenty of dramatic tension, noir mystery, and danger. In Scalzi’s superlatively competent hands, it all comes together seamlessly for a can’t-put-it-down ride.



Monday, April 25, 2022

In Times of War: Taking a Break

These days I’m very aware of the need to click off social media, put down the newspaper, or turn off the radio. All too often the war news becomes overwhelming. The increased bombardment, the discovery of more atrocities, threats and counterthreats, nightmares and triggers. Every day the reports are the same or worse, or so it seems. I go out in my garden or take a walk in the redwoods or call a friend.

I’m acutely aware that being able to step away is a privilege. Ukrainians can’t take a break in the same way I, living in my nice safe neighborhood in a country not at war, can. They may have times when life goes on as usual, depending on where they live, but somewhere else in their country, cities are being pulverized and ordinary people—perhaps their friends or loved ones—are the targets of unspeakably brutal attacks. I don’t see how they can pretend that isn’t happening. Perhaps they find islands of mental refuge in the small joys of family and friends, human and furred. I hope so.

That bears repeating: When I see the smiles of my loved ones or feel the tiny leap of joy when one of my cats comes running to me, clearly delighted to see me, or a moment of awe in music or dance, or breathless wonder beneath the stars, I wish the same for people living in the war zone.

I fear for them, for their lives and mental health. At the same time, I am reminded how adaptable human beings are. I remember, in the midst of thrashing through my own PTSD recovery, my therapist remarking on the amazing ability we all have to overcome what has happened to us. That we are more than those events. I find stories of people who have survived war and torture, the Holocaust and similar devastating experiences, who are nonetheless compassionate, loving people capable of great joy. With shadows on their hearts, to be sure. I can never go back to the person I was before my own trauma. There is no magic to erase the memories in the very fibers of our selves. But we can and do heal into a new pattern. I so much wish that for the people whose lives are currently being torn apart.

Sooner or later, the war will end. The cost, already horrendous, will be even greater. I hold on to the hope that every moment of kindness and every shred of our collective experience recovering from violence will help to mend this broken world. Taking a break is not turning away or shutting down. It’s recharging our spiritual batteries for the work yet to come. My hope for Ukraine helps to keep me engaged in ways that will not leave me exhausted when the time for healing comes.

That time will come.

Meanwhile, take it easy.

On a parting note, Ukrainians are not the only ones suffering in today’s world. I’ll write about that in an upcoming post.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Book Reviews: A Brilliant Fantasy with an Intersex Hero

 The Desert Prince, by Peter V. Brett (Del Rey)


The Desert Prince was my introduction to the world of Peter V. Brett’s “Demon Cycle.” I’d read The Warded Man years ago, enjoyed it, but didn’t make the connection until sitting down to write this review. It’s a tremendous challenge for multi-volume series to make each book satisfying to the new reader without overwhelming with the backstory and boring continuing readers. Brett has accomplished this so deftly that I never missed what had come before, although now I want to go back and gobble up all the previous books. So if this is your entry point (aka “gateway drug”), dive right in!

In Brett’s world, demons arise from the core of the Earth, wreaking havoc and violence on human settlements. Fifteen years before the present, a small band of women and men created magical wards to beat back the hordes of demons and keep their lands and people safe. Now the teenaged children of those heroes have come of age, burdened by the weight of their legacies. Olive, the daughter of a duchess, has lived a life of luxury and confinement in a city, while Darrin, her childhood friend, who has a variety of magical talents, including the ability to change the density of his body, but who prefers to remain in obscurity while he creates musical magic with his pipes. Their parents tend to be both bossy and overprotective, which makes sense in light of their previous saving-the-world adventures. Naturally, neither teen is excited about living a safe, boring life of parental expectations, especially Olive.

Olive has a secret. When pregnant with Olive and her twin brother, her duchess mother engaged in a ferocious magical battle, resulting in the fusion of the two into a single, intersex person. “Which do you want to be? A boy or a girl,” the Duchess asks. Olive picks being a girl, although sooner or later, she knows, the game will be up, certainly on her wedding night. When she’s captured by a rival nation, who think to use her in a marriage alliance, her secret comes out. Princess Olive must then learn to survive as Prince Olive before the demons mass for another, devastating war. Olive is a wonderfully complex character, a joy to watch as they struggle against almost insurmountable odds, gains fighting skills, experiences love and loss, and brings their own perspective to the escalating conflicts, both between humans and between humans and the monstrous demon king, capable of controlling minds. A heroic, sympathetic intersex protagonist forced by circumstance to embrace both masculine and feminine aspects arises naturally from the world-building. The Desert Prince is written and marketed for a general fantasy audience, but readers with particular interest in LGBTQI characters will find the careful examination of gender issues especially rewarding.

Although The Desert Prince is clearly only the beginning of Olive’s and Darrin’s stories, it works well as a stand-alone. As I mentioned above, the backstory is woven into the action so skillfully that I never had the sense of not knowing what was going on or why. Instead, the story swept me up with a generosity that made every plot turn or character nuance a delight. The prose is smooth, the pacing brilliant, and the fight scenes some of the best I’ve ever read.

As I was writing this review, I came across an interview with Peter V. Brett. Check it out! 



 

 

Monday, April 18, 2022

In Times of War: Gifts

This week’s offering is short due to the conjunction of my 75th birthday and the spring holidays. The war and its personal repercussions are never far from our thoughts. My family celebrates Passover, and the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine came up many times in our conversation. We all saw Putin as a would-be latter-day Pharoah, certainly a tyrant. There’s a part in the ritual where we call out the names of the plagues visited upon Egypt when Pharoah refused to let Moses and the Israelites free. Our Haggadah includes calling out the names of contemporary plagues. We all looked at one another and said, “Putin!”

And yet, the holiday reminds us to have compassion, even for our enemies. There’s a part in our version where angels start singing when the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the Red Sea. HaShem admonishes them by saying, “The work of my hands is dying and you want to sing hymns?”

I’m not suggesting anyone should pray for Putin. I very much suspect that if he were to keel over from a massive heart attack tomorrow, there would be dancing in the streets in more than one nation. As much as we hold him responsible and abhor his actions, what do we want from him? Certainly, to stop waging war on Ukraine. To pay reparations to make ameliorate the grievous wrongs he is solely or primarily responsible for?

If we say we want Putin to be punished and to suffer for what he has done, the question remains, in what way? How is it possible to quantify the amount of human suffering—not to mention financial loss, environmental degradation, the ruin of cities? How can there be amends for such heinous crimes?

As a corollary: If we focus all our righteous outrage and even hatred on one man, what are we then ignoring? Even if Putin were to be tried in an international court of law and found guilty, even if he were to be deposed or assassinated by his own people, that cannot bring back the slaughtered Ukrainians or restore their once-beautiful cities. For all our focus on the unfolding military conflict and economic sanctions, consider what it does to us to turn away from what we can do, if only in small measure, for those in desperate need of help.

I love how generous Americans and our allies can be when we see the need. This is why I asked friends and family to donate to Doctors Without Borders (Médicins Sans Frontières) instead of birthday gifts. While the $1500 is a small drop in the bucket of need, I know it is part of the effort to save lives and alleviate suffering. I chose this charity because it’s one of my long-standing causes and I believe in the work they do.

I have also found that taking action, no matter how small, helps me to feel less powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming evil in the world. We’re in a position to make small donations of money. I don’t think that’s necessary. Small actions of lovingkindness can be even more powerful.

 

If this post is meaningful to you, please link to it. And check out my previous posts, most Mondays right here and on the Treehouse Writers collective blog.


Monday, April 11, 2022

In Times of War: How Will This End?


At best, uncertainty is a difficult emotional state. We live in a world of routines, reliable cause-and-effect, and pattern recognition. We don’t need to test gravity every time we take a step, which is a good thing. We make assumptions about how people we know well (or people in general) are going to behave, based on their past actions. (Erratic behavior, whether due to mental illness, substance abuse, or misreading body language, can be traumatic, especially for children.) We anticipate many things, from the functioning of traffic lights to our own digestion to the reaction of a deer suddenly come upon in a meadow, based on our understanding of “how things work.” We use these strategies all the time without thinking about it. Having a reasonable sense of how events will unfold frees up mental (and physical) energy and gives us a sense of control over our lives.

Unexpected things happen, of course. Most of the time they’re ordinary bumps and bruises like burned dinner, a sprained ankle, a higher-than-normal electricity bill, or a traffic ticket.  They can be terrible: 9-11, a hurricane, the wildfires that swept through my part of the country a couple of years ago and resulted in my family evacuating for a month. A death in the family. Often we have little or no advance warning: it’s over, leaving us stunned or horrified or grief-stricken. We don’t get to vote on what happened, we only get to pick up the pieces afterwards. At other times, we have advance notice, like the wildfires or other weather events (but not earthquakes, lived through a couple of big ones, too) or Covid-19. We grab the kids and the pets and get out of town; we wear masks and stay home, and so forth. Even if there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves, we often have a pretty good idea how things are going to go. Not always, of course. I remember staying glued to local news while camped out in our hotel room, anxiety eating away at me as the fires got closer to our house; I’d go to sleep certain that in the morning, our place would be ashes (but it survived with only a little storm damage).

I think war is fundamentally different. On a day-to-day basis, for those in the fighting zones, it must be like a monstrous union between the Chicxulub impact, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the Black Death. Adrenaline fight-or-flight panic overload survival time, one blast at a time. But for those of us watching the catastrophe unfold from afar, anxiety takes over as the dominant emotion. Watching one horrific event after another taxes our ability to pay attention to the present moment, and that is normal. It’s in our DNA to anticipate what will happen next. In our minds, we flee to the future.

Where will Russia strike next? What weapons will they use? What can we do to shield Ukrainian civilians? Will anything come of the peace talks? What will China—or India—do?

Enter the pundits and op-ed writers, predicting everything from the economic collapse of Russia and Putin being deposed, to Russia bludgeoning Ukraine into surrender to plots, to assassinate Zelenskyy to even wilder speculations. They speculate about increasingly grim futures: Is this a prelude to nuclear war? The collapse of Russia and a worldwide recession? We gobble up the columns, even though they often leave us feeling even more anxious and wretched than before.

Why do we do this to ourselves?

I think the answer lies in how predictability lowers anxiety, and the greater the stakes, the stronger the allure of a promised outcome. Not-knowing is a hellish limbo, and all too often it’s more intolerable than believing an authoritative voice with a fixed answer, no matter how grim.

I’ve started avoiding those opinion pieces. I see headlines while I’m scrolling through news, but I’m getting better at not clicking on them. Instead, I remind myself that masking anxiety with visions of doom is not likely to help anyone, beginning with myself. The truth is that I don’t have a crystal ball—and for sure the pundits don’t, either.

Working myself into a lather harms impairs my ability to think clearly. It cannot affect the outcome of the war.

Powerlessness is hard, and in evolutionary terms it’s dangerous. But when it is our true condition, the best way to manage it is by seeing it for what it is, and then finding ways to make a big difference in our own lives through good self-care and a small difference in the world.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Book Reviews: In Pandemic Times


Wish You Were Here
, by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine)

Although I write science fiction and fantasy, I’m a diehard Jodi Picoult fan. She has the almost magical ability to take a current issue and spin it into a compelling, human story that transcends the news of the day.

Wish You Were Here opens with art auction specialist Diana and her fiancé, Finn, regretfully cancelling their dream vacation to the Galápagos Islands. It’s March, 2020, and Finn is a resident in surgery in a New York City hospital…and it’s all hands on deck in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Immediately I was hooked, not just from the drama of the unfolding crisis we all lived through, but because my younger daughter was then in her final year of residency in Family Medicine. Instead of the usual rotation of specialties (such as surgery or pediatrics) she spent that last year caring for desperately ill Covid patients. Watching them die alone. Coming home to her wife exhausted, shift after brutal shift, when she got to come home at all.

I knew what was coming for Finn, even if he and Diana didn’t.

At Finn’s insistence, Diana goes off to the Galápagos by herself. First she loses her luggage, then, just after she arrives, the islands are locked down. Her hotel is closed and there’s no wi-fi. By gradual steps she’s drawn into the beauty of the islands and their animals, and the lives of the people there. Although she and Finn can’t talk directly, she writes him postcards about her adventures, and he sends her emails.

Without divulging any spoilers, Diana’s carefully planned life quickly unravels as she embraces the beauty and serenity of the islands and its people.

I found Diana’s stories about her time on the islands rather placid or perhaps idyllic, given the benign climate, isolation, and low threat of violence. The tension revolves primarily around Diana’s relationships, marred only by her frustration at not being able to contact Finn. But Finn’s emails, so strongly resonant of my daughter’s experiences with death, exhaustion, and burnout, hit home, and hit me hard. As the book unfolded, I realized that, in Picoult’s skillful hands, the contrast is not only deliberate but significant. Such intense, tragic experiences change us forever.