In between making roleplaying games, making tools for conversational characters at Spirit AI, and prepping a secret crowdfunding campaign (shh!) for a new book, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, and wanted to highlight three recent books in particular that stuck with me.
If you’re a writer, you’ve probably done this: you start voraciously reading about a certain topic for research, and then long after that project’s over find yourself still buying research books on that topic because, apparently, it got it hooks into you. This happened to me with books on polar exploration and arctic survival, which I started reading for Ice-Bound and never really stopped. I picked up Welcome to the Goddamn Icecube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North by Blair Braverman on a whim because it looked like it might scratch that adventure itch, but what I got was something much more profound.
The book focuses on the author’s lifelong obsession with the arctic, which led her as a young woman to live in remote parts of Alaska and Norway and become a professional sled dog driver. Braverman’s writing is gorgeous, capturing authentic sparks of places and especially people with honesty and heart. What’s especially striking about the book, though, is how well she interleaves the unpredictable threats of subzero temperatures and mercurial weather with the dangers of being a woman alone in male-dominated places. The book is a coming-of-age story about learning to face both the challenges of a midnight blizzard cutting through a flimsy jacket and a leering dude with his hand on your thigh, or a toxic relationship as the only woman in a remote glacier camp. It’s a testament to Braverman’s craft at how seamlessly she weaves these threads together into a story of learning how to survive in harsh conditions. The beautiful and unlikely friendship at the heart of the book moved me to tears by the final pages, in part because it’s a far more satisfying conclusion than the “first to the pole” kind of victories this genre is so often filled with.
Before I’d read any of her work I got to know Vylar Kaftan at local sci-fi and roleplaying conventions. I recently picked up a copy of her 2019 novella Her Silhouette, Drawn in Water which was put out by Tor as a standalone volume: it’s short enough to read through in one or two settings. I was on board with this right from the start, where two women are on the run through an underground alien cave system, chased by both blood-drinking insects and political jailers. Both of them are queer and at least one of them has telepathic powers. YES PLEASE. As the story goes on a second layer of truth (and a second woman) are revealed, and in the end the story becomes a symbolically-charged meditation on trust, forgiveness, and finding your strength.
Her Silhouette struck me in part because I recently finished my own story about a complex queer relationship in a subterranean setting (based on how well Vy and I get on at cons, seems like a good example of “great minds think alike”). But its raw portrayal of those core relationships struck a chord with me: how complex love can be, let alone self-love; how difficult to navigate inner landscapes and come to terms with what (and who) you find in them. I love to see these kinds of complex inner worlds in my sci-fi: here they get to take center stage, and it’s glorious.
Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean is a eulogy of sorts for the space shuttle program. Dean recounts her experience of trying to see the last shuttle flight of each orbiter (harder than it seems, because of how often launches would get scrubbed and delayed) while trying to figure out what it meant that the fifty-year American dream of sending humans to space was being put on hold.
I read this book with a certain amount of guilt, because I wanted very much to see one of the final orbiter launches myself: as a graduate student at the time, I ultimately decided I just didn’t have the right combination of funds and flexible schedule to make it happen. Dean does a good job at making you feel like you were there anyway, capturing the surreality of launching the world’s most advanced vehicles from a swamp, or the camaraderie of a diner filling up with bleary-eyed space fans after an early morning launch. She also drives home what an unsung loss the end of the program was: how much expertise will be lost forever, how rare it might be for the political, cultural, and financial will to ever again come together for an achievement like this. There are tons of poignant little moments, like an oblivious hotel clerk saying “See you for the next one” as the author checks out for the final time, unaware the American manned space program has just ended. Reporting like this, capturing not only the facts of a pivotal moment but its emotional landscape — what it felt like to be there, wondering how history will remember it — is much needed, and Dean’s book provides a good record of this particular moment in the saga of human spaceflight.
That’s it for now! If you’re active there, I invite you to follow me on Goodreads, where I’ll probably be posting reviews like this in the future rather than here. There also might be some special opportunities for Goodreads followers to get involved in my next book-related project, so stay tuned there for more on that.