Americanah and Behold the Dreamers: What Will Become of Their Dreams?

After finishing Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers earlier this week, I did not immediately think back to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I’ve read several books from African ex-pats over the last few years, so the connection didn’t spring immediately to mind. But as I reflected, the two books became more and more entwined in my thinking.

Some of the comparisons are obvious, if superficial. Both novels portray immigrants from African countries who work their way through similar layers of the American immigrant experience, including protagonists who find jobs in service that bring them into the orbits of privileged white Americans. Behold the Dreamers follows Jende and Neni, a Cameroonian couple trying to make their way in Harlem just before the 2008 financial crisis. Their lives change dramatically when Jende snags a job as a chauffeur to the wealthy Edwards family–whose patriarch is an executive at Lehman Brothers. Americanah’s chief protagonist is Ifemelu, a Nigerian student separated from her original love interest by post-9/11 visa restrictions. Though she also does a tour as a nanny for a white family, her real exposure to white privilege is through a romantic relationship that opens her up to travel, fine dining, and ultimately to being fundamentally misunderstood. The contrasts between the worlds of black immigrants being exposed to America’s endemic racism and the lives of the white people they interact with inform both authors’ visions of America and, to varying degrees, act as the engines driving their characters’ evolutions.

And much separates the two novels as well. Adichie’s Americanah is undeniably a more sophisticated work. One of the highlights is the way that the first half of the novel is structured around an extended flashback while Ifemelu has her hair braided (a conceit that, sadly, has no parallel in the second half of the novel) and Adichie’s prose is on the whole richer, more sophisticated. Mbue’s prose on the other hand is unadorned, even pedestrian, but it steers well clear of any pat moralizing or judgments—even when the characters or their backstories swing toward melodrama. (She also insulates her white characters from too harsh a lens: Clark Edwards tries to warn his colleagues that the ship is sinking, but is dismissed; his wife is spared from being portrayed as simply a pampered wife of privilege through a painful and tragic backstory that earns her more sympathy that most people would earn while fretting over the horrific prospect of having to give up a summer home because of the national economic meltdown.)

It would be easy to read either novel simply as an indictment of the American Dream, which fails to deliver its promise in both. But Mcue’s impartial, plain-voiced narration and  Adichie’s carefully interwoven storylines seem to fall short of offering an outright evisceration of that American Dream on the order of something like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle from past eras. Perhaps that’s because other great novels that have analyzed these themes were surgery, diagnostics–but both Americanah and Behold the Dreamers feel more like postmortems.

Both feature characters choosing to abandon the American Dream instead of being crushed by it. Through those perspectives of erstwhile American immigrants returning to their home countries and using the experience and resources gleamed from their temporary immigration to build better lives back home, I wonder if something fundamentally new isn’t being documented. Much has been written in the wake of the Trump era about the decline of American, its loss of prestige, the likely end of the “American Century” before it quite hit the 100 year mark. These novels reckon to some extent with the catastrophes of 9/11 and 2008, and looking back, I wonder if historians won’t look at these as a chain of routs like those that befell Rome before its collapse: barbarians at the gates and mad rulers fiddling while the city burned.

But if we are living through the death throes of the American Dream, Mbue and Adichie’s novels suggest something else may be happening alongside this contraction. I’m fond of telling my high school students that they need to know this sequence: Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught Alexander the Great, who conquered much of the known world–and that’s why Greek culture was so influential.

It’s an oversimplification, of course, but cultural myths always are. The American Dream is, or was. But as I think about the way that dream captivated characters like Mbue’s Neni and the way that American media has transmitted the underlying ethos of that dream throughout the world, I wonder if even when it is no longer a lure to others, it might mutate into something America exported, something unconscious the myth disseminated into the hearts and minds of millions of others around the world.

Perhaps that’s what novels like these, so clearly American in their structure and ambitions, offer us: a window into a post-America American Century.

On Reading Hamnet: A Book About Shakespeare, Light on the Shakespeare

Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell’s novel Hamnet reminds us in its first pages of the inconstancy of Elizabethan spelling. (Shakespeare himself is known to have signed his own name differently at different times.) The names Hamnet and Hamlet were, we’re told, interchangeable.

So begins the story of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son who died at age eleven…except the novel isn’t especially Hamnet’s story. Nor is it about Shakespeare, who is never named (first or last) in its pages.

Instead, O’Farrell chooses Shakespeare’s wife Agnes Hawley, nee Anne Hathaway (I’m telling you, these Elizabethans were pretty flaky with spelling their own names), as her protagonist. Historical records of Shakespeare’s life are so scant that we know little about the man and his family. Property records tell part of the tale. Marriage and birth documentation some of the rest. Between these markers, O’Farrell casts Agnes as a bit of a mystic, a seer in tune with nature and able to read people’s destinies with a firm press to a pulse point in the palm. One of the best moments for Shakespeare fans is when she pulls this maneuver on her husband-to-be for the first time and senses something unreadable but expansive in his future. (Nice touch, Maggie.)

Drawn to this elusive something, it is Agnes who conspires to force their families to accept their union (Shakespeare’s father was at that point a disgraced former bailiff in Stratford, good only for a cheap pair of gloves) by letting him get her good and pregnant. Bill himself comes off as a bit flighty–that’s certainly what the townspeople think of him. Bullied by an abusive father, we never see much of him as a writer in O’Farrell’s rendering, just as a restless boy who gets mixed up in the theater while on assignment trying to extend his father’s business in London (a sojourn that Agnes arranges to satiate his wandering spirit).

With him away from Stratford, the story belongs soundly to Agnes and it is she who must grapple with Hamnet’s death. The boy is portrayed in O’Farrell’s narrative as devoted, almost saintlike, to his twin Judith. When she falls ill with the plague, he makes a kind of mystical bargain by pulling an old trick–he and his sister Judith fooling family and neighbors by switching clothes and pretending to be one another–on the grim reaper himself. By morning, Agnes finds that her frail youngest daughter is on the mend and her hearty son, dressed in the girl’s smock, is fading fast.

The novel dwells in Agnes’s grief, lives inside it, asks the reader to feel it in her disconnection from everything she has known, in her confusion continuing in a world that now lacks her child. Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s genius seems so far removed from this, that one wonders through the bulk of it why even use this as the backdrop for the story? Why not just write about loss with a fictional character unconnected to some famous Renaissance playwright?

But, just as many scholars and Shakespeare aficionados have, O’Farrell eventually gets around to connecting the death of Hamnet to the creation of the play Hamlet. By the time the novel reaches this pat conclusion, though, she has already rushed us over the hard years of Bill and Agnes repairing their marriage whilst living mostly apart (and dropped in an Easter egg of sorts to explain why Shakespeare’s will only bequeathed his “second best bed” to his widow).

Ultimately, O’Farrell’s meditation on grief seems a little ill at ease with the too-cute conceit of painting splashes of color in the bare outline of the Shakespeare family’s scant biography. But at least in Agnes, she finds an original character to insert into the over-crowded mythology of what-the-Bard-was-really-like.

Documenting an Unfolding Catastrophe: Migrations and The Overstory

By coincidence alone, the last two novels I read both dealt with conservation; both, in fact, grappled with the desecration of the natural world as a rolling crime against nature and against our own future.

In Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, the desecration of the natural world is foregone. Set in the very near future, McConaghy’s protagonist Franny lives in a dying world. The wife of an ornithologist, Franny has dedicated her pathological wanderlust toward a goal: tracking the last migration of the remaining arctic terns. For this, she must ingratiate herself with the crew of a fishing boat–themselves seeking the last golden catch of a dying industry.

Richard Powers’ Overstory, on the other hand, is a much more sweeping novel. It follows a diverse cast of characters–meeting most early in life, some deep in their family histories–and following them until they become entangled in the conservation movement, either directly or tangentially. Powers swipes his narrative hand over these individual stories, stirring up thematic elements like pollen spores–everything from the excesses and corruption of late-stage capitalism to the potential transformative power of deep-learning artificial intelligence. The ambitions of his scope sometimes stretch the narrative thin, but the deep core of empathy, not just for his human characters but for the natural world, for the trees themselves, carries the work.

Compared to Overstory, McConaghy’s novel seems hokey and small. Franny’s life story is shellacked over with needless  melodrama and McConaghy wastes narrative fuel building toward an obvious twist late in the novel that seeps the whole story in cliche interior monologues that dwell on Franny’s own restless nature as much as they do the plight of the birds or fish.

Powers, though, demonstrates the height of his powers in the intricacies of the connections between his characters and themes. There is no central figure, but one character does work her way through and into all the others’ lives and stories. Dendrologist Patricia Westerford is initially ostracized and exiled from the academic community for her research suggesting that trees–aggregated in a forest–communicate and cooperate with each other through chemical signals through the air and their roots. As Powers pans his focus across the long arc of her life, though, Westerford is validated, redeemed, elevated to banner-bearer status for the disciplines of the conservation movement.

Powers uses this airborne chemical communication and the snaking interconnection of the roots as a metaphor for the ideology that binds his characters. Once touched–infected, even–by the awareness of the shrinking domain of natural, old-growth forests that can heal and sustain themselves, the myriad characters are drawn to sacrifices, both profound and symbolic, in service to a future where human beings can begin to restore their balance with nature.

Both these novels reach for some kind of optimism in the face of the bleak reality of accelerating damage to the environment, and though McConaghy’s ray of light seems forced, both Migrations and Overstory unsettle us, forcing us to consider our place in history, standing as we do in the sunset of the radiant myth of progress, on the penumbra line facing the long shadow of imminent collapse.

Field Guides to Immortality

How many does it take to constitute a trend?

Like, remember how for several years it seemed like Hollywood kept making the same movie twice? There was the year we had two comets-are-going-to-destroy-the-world movies. Then there was the year of two animated penguin adventures. We even had a year with two different Truman Capote biopics–as if the world needed any.

So is this a trend? Is it just some weird fluke of my eclectic and unstructured reading habits? It just strikes me as odd that I can remember reading three books in the last few years with immortal protagonists of one stripe or another, but all of them kind of skirting any pigeonholed genre associations and flirting with mainstream or literary fiction. (Really, it’s remarkable simply because I remember them since I’m kind of bad at actually consolidating reads in long term memory.)

The most recent I read was The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab. In it, the titular character has been walking the earth for about three hundred years. She’s got kind of a mixed bag of a curse hanging over her–courtesy of a dark god she kinda accidentally prayed to in the nighttime forest of seventeenth century France. She gets to be eternally young, but no one remembers her. Literally. It’s a total out of sight out of mind scenario. So it makes it easy to shoplift, but hard to make friends.

But it seems like just a little while before that I’d read The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. No curse here. In fact, folks like this titular character think of themselves as somewhat superior to regular, Joe Schmo human beings. You see, when they die, they just start over at the beginning of their lives, ad infinitum. (They usually spend their second lives in mental institutions since it’s quite unsettling to go through your childhood knowing you were previously a full-grown adult.)

Larue actually name checks the older, and I think, better-regarded Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, even though it’s August that seems to share the basic premise. In that novel, which really smacks of more literary aspirations, the not-titular character of Ursula Todd goes through a similar cycle of death and then do-over–like a cosmic video game, but one that lacks the potential for that analogy since she’s always born in 1910.

Atkinson’s novel seems intent on interrogating how choices define our identities. The others seem mostly intent on selling books. Harry has some adventures hunting another immortal who’s trying to redirect future history to his liking. Addie finally meets a boy who can remember her, but finds out it’s all a trick from the night god who cursed her in the first place…and who also wants to marry her.

I’m not sure how these books found their way into my path. Somehow I actually have a hard copy of Atkinson’s book, although I can’t recall how. But the others were Kindle books and how I work through those is simply to download previews from wherever and if the preview keeps my interest then the empire of that smiley logo gets ten bucks from me. I suppose it says something about either my existential dread or the machinations of Amazon’s algorithms that these books ended up in my library.

For what it’s worth, these last two are just so-so. Addie Larue in particular spiraled down on me and I was left pretty dissatisfied by the ending. Schwab doesn’t seem to have really spent much time really thinking about what that bizarre kind of isolation might do to a person psychologically and instead seems intent on setting up a really far fetched love triangle: a girl, a boy, and the god who cursed them both?

What I’m wondering is: Am I missing some larger trend? I mean, I think I would have noticed if this had reached Twilight-level fandom where suddenly Barnes & Noble had to have a “Teen Paranormal Romance” section to hold all the imitators. But are there other books like this out there these days? Is this, as they say, a thing?

I’m sure that’s what Schwab is hoping for. Maybe a sequel where Addie meets her boy toy once he’s grown to manhood and has to weigh (again) the prospects of life with a mortal? Or maybe it’s already happening and there’s a reddit somewhere debating Team Henry vs. Team Luc (Yes, that stands for what you think).

 

On Reading Wings of the Dove

For the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly trudging through Henry James’s Wings of the Dove. Slowly and trudging is, after all, the way to do James. I’ve never studied him much in the past and don’t recall ever feeling so alienated, or “put out” as some might say, by his style as I was during much of Wings. I read “Turn of the Screw” in college and Daisy Miller in conjunction with studying Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and wasn’t then quite so vexed by his style, which apparently H.G. Wells described as a Hippopotamus struggling to pick up a pea.

Indeed, one of my recurrent thoughts throughout my plodding time with the novel was that it could never be published today. It’s a self-serving and predictable lament for a writer frustrated by the lack of an audience to complain about the maddening squeamishness and inscrutable subjectivity of the publishing industry, but on this occasion, I wonder if the industry doesn’t have it right as James’s syntax is not so much intricate as obtuse and his approach to exposition is in stark contrast to the show-don’t-tell directive I always give my students in creative writing class.

James tells. And tells. And tells. In seemingly interminable passages of prose he describes the characters’ thoughts and moods at a remove of several meters. This distanced relationship to their own emotions does not fall away when the characters actually speak to each other either. Their discourse is so heavy with vague vagaries and nineteenth century euphemisms that I often had to put the book down with a shake of my head after puzzling out a list of three or four possibilities for just what exactly they might be talking about.

But still, after finally finishing it, I can see why Wings of the Dove is lauded by some. There are layers of irony–though I’m not always sure they were all deliberate–that suffuse the story of journalist Merton Densher’s love triangle with his fiancé Kate Croy and the rich, yet doomed American socialite Millie Theale. It’s the kind of tragedy of manners that could only be set in England before the twentieth century. The shades of morality and immorality revolving around the dying girl’s fortune stir up quite a few contradictions. Kate always professes to admire and love Millie–well, everyone does as James develops her character primarily by having other people praise her as “stupendous” and call her a “dove” oh-so-many times…sooooo many times–but her intentions toward the girl are perhaps the most underhanded, in some ways worse than the rakish Lord Mark who gets summarily dismissed as a “wretch” and scoundrel by Densher even though his own girlfriend is the most manipulative of them all.

Of course, he does come to see this, leading to his ultimatum to Kate that closes the book. Spoilers: her scheme has paid off and without Densher ever having had to actually marry the sick girl. Millie, having come to understand the lovers’ scheme and seeing their need, just goes ahead and wills Densher a small fortune (how much of her ridiculous wealth she bequeaths him is never revealed, not even, apparently, to Densher himself) but the young man’s had enough. He tells Kate she can have the money…or she can have him. He wants them to be together just as they were before Millie came into their lives or not at all, which elicits Kate’s famous line to close the novel so ambiguously: “We shall never again be as we were!”

James Thurber wrote a long review for The New Yorker back in the fifties about the difficulty of adapting James to the stage and screen, but I disagree with him in thinking that this ending is actually quite fit for the screen. I find myself wondering how it’s played out in the most recent adaptation wherein Helena Bonham Carter’s Kate would have the honors of closing the drama, but unfortunately the film doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere and isn’t even readily available in Netflix’s DVD inventory. Reading that conclusion–just a few hours ago–I felt a bit like the Bradley Cooper character in Silver Linings Playbook who hurls away Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms in a fit of literary dissatisfaction. I think I (almost audibly) muttered: “You’ve got to be f’ing kidding me.”

It’s quite a canned moment, particularly from an author associated with Realism, but despite or perhaps because of that unsettled final moment, Wings does seem like a story that stays with one beyond the denouement. These characters, who for much of the past few weeks I felt were tedious (or at least tediously rendered) are now flitting about my mind, quiet and poised, naturally. Their overwrought, self-inflicted predicament lingers. I imagine them there still, frozen in a moment of “just what have we done,” unable to move forward…forever.

Regolith and Aquifers: Terraforming Mars with Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy is a monumental sci-fi classic.

It’s also kind of a slog.

With no central narrative arc beyond the ongoing political, economic, and ecological evolution of human settlement on Mars and a rotating cast of narrators whose lives on the red planet range from the mundane–hydrologists, yay!–to the, well, also mundane–desert nomads driving around rovers, yay!–the colossal 700,00o+ word opus never quite aspires to page-turner status.

Reading it, you come away feeling qualified to join NASA as a geologist should we ever get our collective shit together and actually settle a second planet.

And that is what the book is ultimately about: getting our shit together as Homo sapiens…well, rather as Homo martial. Throughout the novels, Robinson evidences his exhaustive and expansive research by dwelling on the minutiae of Martian geology and climate. It’s an ultimately fascinating kind of Utopianism tied to the reworking of the surface of Mars as a kind of ur-metaphor for shaping society.

The Mars Trilogy’s politics are based on a what-works practicality set against the tabula rosa of a new world. His characters squabble over the direction of this new society, eventually settling into a new constitution that ingests the best from Earth’s history with a keen understanding of the forces that have threatened human freedom and dignity throughout, whether they be economic injustices or cultural anachronisms.

Robinson offers a way forward beyond the privatization and spiraling inequality that plague post-Liberal Western society and posits a fresh start on Mars as a way that humanity can, as a whole, reinvent itself. A kind of new city upon the hill to replace the worn-out idealizations of America.

The Earth Robinson describes, wracked by ecological catastrophe and ruled by vast, competing trans-national corporations seems oddly prescient of the world we actually face in the twenty-first century (the last book, Blue Mars, was published in 1996). So many of his characters are ultimately scientists that the entire enterprise could be characterized as a scientific remaking of society–society remade as science. Empirical. Pragmatic. Testable. Open.

Given the retreat into ignorance so on display in contemporary American society–where people dismiss science as “fake news” and apparently flat Earthers are an actual thing–it’s a particularly appealing utopia to gaze at longingly. Robinson’s ultimate theory is that as society progresses, the new paradigms always come into conflict with the old, and indeed whole eras of history are defined by such tensions.

In his hypothesized future, capitalism as a transitional mode between feudalism and democracy gives way to new, more just economic modalities. It seems reasonable to believe that we have reached or are nearly reaching the useful limits of capitalism. Yes, it has created great wealth, but after being co-opted by regimes like today’s China,  it can no longer claim to be the channel into a broader liberalism of Fukuyamian promises and globally it is more and more a driver of extreme inequality–enough to rival any past aristocratic systems.

What, then, beyond it? Robinson’s Mars safeguards the commons, denying private ownership of land or resources and allows competitive economics and markets to be driven by co-ops, banishing the massive trans-nat corporations to Earth where they slowly wither.

It’s a lot to hope for, but in the book, one of the powerful forces that helps the Martians establish their independence and protect their special society is a giant corporation called Praxis, led by an polarizing visionary CEO who believes the world order of and by corporations must give way to something better. He aids the Martians in their search for that better something. Robinson seemed to be anticipating the era of the tech paragons of the Internet age like Jobs, Bezos, Zuckerberg…

Did I mention that Elon Musk wants to go to Mars?

On Reading ‘The Wasp Factory’

Iain Banks had an interesting career trajectory. He set out to write science fiction novels, but found it impossible to break into the genre. Then his more literary The Wasp Factory was received to great acclaim, launching his dual career. (His Culture series and other sci-fi was published under his name, but including his middle initial “M.”) He said, though, that The Wasp Factory was not so different from science fiction–that its protagonist and narrator Frank was something of an alien consciousness in his own right.

Frank is a sixteen year old who, as a child, killed three children in three carefully staged crimes meant to look like accidents. Yet his prose reads like a somewhat more intellectual Holden Caulfield as he describes his isolated life on a Scottish island with his father. He seems at most times grounded and perceptive–until he launches into a excursion into the woods to slaughter local rabbits with explosives and petrol or before he introduces the titular Wasp Factory itself. It is a huge labyrinth he has constructed in his attic with various ingenious means by which captured wasps might blunder into their own demise. Their deaths in his enormous contraption he reads as prophecy, using the factory as a means of prognostication.

The world, even his father, has no idea about Frank. No one knows he is directly responsible for the three deaths from his childhood (and he is careful not to kill again) or suspects the depravity of his other activities. They all do know, though, that his brother Eric is insane. As a med student, Eric was exposed to human horror so jarring that he was shaken out of his mind and developed the bad habit of setting dogs on fire. Frank spends much of the novel worrying about Eric who has escaped from protective care and, we learn from a series of raving phone calls to Frank, is making his way home.

The mishmash of coming-of-age teenage narrator and heavy helpings of the grotesque worthy of Flannery O’Conner make The Wasp Factory a puzzling exploration of otherness. Banks complicates that exploration by delving into misogyny and genderedness. Frank harbors a deep hatred towards women, beginning with his absentee mother, and has a complex about his own masculinity because he was essentially castrated by a dog attack as a young child.

If that sounds improbable, there’s a twist that I won’t reveal except to say that it feels unearned at the end of the novel and doesn’t make Frank’s psychology any more believable.

But that may be the point, after all. Banks succeeds first and foremost in crafting a very alien mind in his narrator, one you forget to be disturbed by more often than you should.

Persepolis Rising (Book 7 of The Expanse)

The Expanse as a novel series has sought to serve many masters. Both fun space romp and broad political allegory, through the six previous novels the rag-tag crew of the gunship Rocinante has wandered in and out of the path of several dramatic events in future history–from a war between Earth and Mars to the opening of interstellar wormholes created by the mysterious alien protomolecule.

The seventh novel, though, opens after a dizzying time jump. At the end of the previous installment Babylon’s Ashes, the Rocinante crew bested the Free Navy, the foes who in the previous novel had used an asteroid attack to decimate Earth, and established a new interstellar transport guild to ferry survivors to the 1,300 new worlds opened up by the alien ring gates. Persepolis Rising begins thirty years later. This jarring opening is the novel’s weakest point as Abraham and Franck, the two authors behind the penname James S. A. Corey, take the reader on an inventory of where the characters from the previous books are after thirty years.

And the answer is: exactly where we left them. We are treated to descriptions of former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper complaining about her old joints and pilot Alex Kamal ferrying messages off to his son by his now-divorced second wife who we never met, but essentially, the crew of the Rocinante are still flying around, just with three decades of apparently uneventful experience under their belts.

Amazingly, thirty years hasn’t changed the core dynamic. Futuristic anti-aging drugs explain why these septuagenarians might still be up to the work of tooling around space as independent contractors in the vast galaxy opened up by the ring gates, but it seems a little hard to swallow that the crew roster would be exactly the same and that life’s eddies never wooed anyone away to greener pastures or brought new, permanent fixtures into their lives.

This distracting conceit falls into the background, though, as the novel settles into beats familiar for any fan of the series. Scheming, adapting, skating by. As always, there’s a big bad that must be faced. This time it is the Laconian Empire, a new political power that grew up from the renegade Martian fleet that disappeared amidst the chaos of Nemesis Games–a threat we knew was out there, but never could have imagined would emerge in quite this way.

The thirty year time jump seems largely a device to give the Laconians time to arm up. It turns out that their leader cum High Consul Duarte picked the Laconia system for his band of mutineers to settle in because it housed an orbital fabrication machine left by the builders of the ring gates. Using this arcane technology, Duarte has built himself and his new nation the most powerful fleet in the universe. Few in number, but unstoppable. With the odds against them, the Rocinante crew settles into those familiar beats to deal with the newest crisis.

What isn’t familiar is the dark territory the novel ends in. The series has grappled with warfare, genocide, and the darkest of human machinations before, but always before the heroes have prevailed over whatever strove to drive them apart, found one another, and faced forward for the next challenge that cabalistic conspiracies and alien protomolecules had in store. This time, though, the odds are so stacked against our heroes that victory has to be redefined. Early on, trapped on the space station inside the null space between the stargates, er, um ring gates, the crew’s goals are tempered by realism. Defeating the Laconians is, early on, dismissed as too lofty a goal. Instead, they must opt for escape.

In the Laconians, Abraham and Franck design an intriguing enemy. Bent on conquest to establish a unified human empire, the Laconians have echoes of fascist domination, but also overtones of American manifest destiny. Obviously, perpetual do-gooder James Holden sums up the problem with their assertion that humanity ultimately needs a single hand at the rudder, “Humanity has done amazing things by just muddling through, arguing and complaining and fighting and negotiating. It’s messy and undignified, but it’s when we’re at our best, because everyone gets to have a voice in it…Whenever there’s just one voice that matters, something terrible comes out of it.”

It’s the kind of thing Holden says a lot and though he is the hero of the series, the novels have never shied away from questioning his smash-into-it idealism. Here, as the Laconians politely demand surrender and show restraint, insisting that they want to preserve lives through their “transition,” there’s a certain allure to the order they offer.

In the face of this sorta-hostile galactic take-over, the crew focuses on throwing their new enemies off their game, hoping to retreat through the gates with the Rocinante and live to fight another day. It sets up what the authors describe as the concluding trilogy of the series which will take on not only the Laconian empire, but the lurking alien threat of whatever ancient force destroyed the aliens behind the protomolecule and the ring gates billions of years ago. It creates a daunting Empire Strikes Back atmosphere to the novel as the heroes face an enemy they know they can’t defeat.

I won’t go into detail about the emotional toll of this opening chapter of this three-novel conclusion, but suffice it to say that I was so wracked with uncertainty and–maybe “despair” is the right word–that I was unable to sleep after finishing the book…and now cannot wait for next year’s release.