Reading ‘The Best American Science Fiction And Fantasy 2021’

Over the past few years, my reading habits have been a lot more in the area of fiction than non-fiction, and when I do read fiction, it’s had a tendency to either be literary fiction or mysteries. But science fiction was my first love as a reader–I’ve just kind of fallen out of reading it.

So in an effort to re-acquaint myself with that’s out there, I picked up The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2021 edition when I was browsing the library. I love a good sci-fi short story, and while I didn’t like everything in this volume, there were a few that really stood out for me. They included:

“Survival Guide” by Karin Lowachee. My handwritten note for this story was “FUCK. That was GOOD.” This near-future story about kids being educated with the help of neural-connected AI was incredibly written but what really drew me into was how ambiguous it was about the technology. Usually this type of story falls pretty easily into two camps: the Frankenstein story, where the AI is destroying the essence of our humanity; or the transhuman story, where AI is liberating humanity from the confines of biology. This is neither. It’s interesting and I kept thinking about this story for days after I finished it.

“Our Language” by Yohanca Delgado. I found this mythological/fantasy story absolutely fascinating. In some ways, it reminded me of “Mythological Beast” by Stephen Donaldson, which is another first person tale of metamorphosis, but without the dystopian elements. Well-written and poignant. I liked this one.

“Schrodinger’s Catastrophe” by Gene Doucette. This was probably my favorite story in the book. Just a fun, old-school brain-breaking sci-fi story about what happens when the laws of physics don’t work the way the protagonists expect them to.

“The Cleaners” by Ken Liu. This was just haunting and beautiful. And I loved the central metaphor. I don’t want to spoil it. Just read it.

“Beyond The Dragon’s Gate” by Yoon Ha Lee. This one was published at so you can read it here. I recommend doing so. This one, weirdly enough, reminded me of a classic Asimov robot story, even though stylistically it’s very different. I loved it.

“The Beast Adjoins” by Ted Kosmatka. I didn’t think there was anything new you could do with the “robot/AI uprising” genre. Kosmatka proved me wrong. Bleak. Powerful. Depressing. But amazing.

“The Long Walk” by Kate Elliott. Probably my second favorite story in the book and a close contender for the top spot. This is a lovely fantasy story about a woman finding a new way to live by escaping a society that considers her disposable.

“Two Truths And A Lie” by Sarah Pinsker. I don’t have any idea how to talk about this one or describe it. (I realize I’ve done precious little of that above, either, but still.) This one I just loved to pieces. Had a very Twilight Zone vibe to it.

“Brother Rifle” by Daryl Gregory. This bit of near sci-fi only feels like it’s fiction right now. But it might not be in 10 years. A really affecting story of PTSD, warfare and the way we dehumanize soldiers in order to make them into killers. Bracing and sad.

An Empire Hidden In Plain Sight: Lakota America By Pekka Hamalainen

In Lakota America, historian Pekka Hamalainen does what few histories of America do: present Native Americans not only from their own point of view, but in a way that recognizes their agency and choices.

Before picking this book up, I confess to not knowing much about the Lakota peoples apart from the broad outlines, and even then, I knew mostly about Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee.

In this book, Hamalainen attempts to provide a comprehensive history of the Lakota people in a single volume. It’s very ambitious. I learned a lot – but at times the prose slipped into something more like an encyclopedia article rather than a narrative of history. Thorough but dry and somewhat removed.

This is particularly true as Hamalainen explores the first couple of centuries of the Lakota after Columbus. These parts of the book are much more of a birds-eye view of things, without a lot of perspective from the people on the ground. That changes as the story progresses into the 19th century, which is when the Lakota hit the peak of their power, building an empire in the American west and outwitting the European powers arrayed against it.

It’s this part of the book that’s the most fascinating, as Hamalainen explores the different views, values and perspectives of Lakota leaders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, not to mention the fascinating way in which these leaders wielded economic and social power in Western America.

If there’s one thing I wish there were more of, it would be the story of the Lakota after Wounded Knee, which is briefly covered in the book mostly as epilogue, but without nearly the depth the other centuries saw in the book. There’s a lot of history after that and it would have been interesting to know more about how the Lakota withstood the imperial pressures of the United States and maintained their own cultural integrity.

That said, this was still a worthwhile book and helped fill in a tapestry of American history that’s often never spoken of. I recommend it.

A ‘Man Out Of Bounds’ In The Old West: ‘The Thousand Crimes Of Ming Tsu’ By Tom Lin

So this was a book I completely judged by its cover. I was browsing at a local bookstore. Look at it. It’s gorgeous. I read the back cover copy. I bought the book nearly instantly.

I’m a big fan of the Westerns, and Tom Lin’s debut novel The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu is a terrific addition to the corpus. At its core, this book is a standard of the genre. Ming Tsu is the son of Chinese immigrants who’s orphaned at a young age and raised by a crime boss to become a killer. When he tries to settle down with a new wife, her father has his men tear him from her and forces him to work for years on the railroads while she remarries. His erstwhile father is held hostage to keep Ming Tsu docile, but when his father dies, Ming’s roaring rampage of revenge begins.

That journey of vengeance leads Ming Tsu down a road where this bleak, nihilistic Western meets another genre: lyrical historical magical realism. Accompanied by his friend the Prophet, a man who knows the future but has no memory of the past, Ming finds himself in a sideshow unlike what you’d expect. Miracles ensue.

I’ll be the first to say that this is not a book for everyone. This is, at its core, a mythic epic. Full of plot and magic, death and poetry. But if you’re looking for deep characterization or even a clue as to what makes Ming tick, this isn’t the book for you. The characters here are archetypes more than they are people. Which is fine for this type of story in my eyes but may leave others frustrated.

I was not left frustrated, however, The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu already stands among some of my favorite Westerns, and I can’t wait to read whatever Tom Lin writes next.

Theology So Ingrained It’s Invisible: ‘Dominion’ By Tom Holland

In an effort to push myself to read more books in 2023, I’m going to track and review every book I get to this year.

First up is Dominion by Tom Holland. This is the first book I’ve read by Holland, a historian who specializes in writing about the ancient world. But I’ve become obsessed with The Rest of History, the podcast he co-hosts with fellow historian Dominic Sandbrook. This book keeps getting brought up in their conversation, so I broke down and checked it out from the library.

First off, let me just say that Holland embarked on a very ambitious goal: to explore the ways in which Western civilization has been shaped, both consciously and unconsciously, by Christian theology. In particular, Christian ideas about equality, about individual worth and dignity, and about secularism. And I think he largely succeeds, especially because he’s good at anchoring the beginning the narrative by explaining just how absent these ideas were from Europe and North Africa, especially those areas under the rule of Rome. Roman society, notes Holland, was highly hierarchical, completely suffused with religious practice and a cruelty that seems utterly alien to the modern era, 2,000 years after Christianity began.

As Holland makes his way through the centuries, he shows how many of these ideas ended up fundamentally shaping and changing how European civilization operated, and convincingly argues that many ideas that underpin modern liberalism–from individual rights to economic equality, to separation of church and state–all emanate from theological ideas. This isn’t a new idea: Nietzsche argued this in the 19th century, as Holland notes, but Holland gives these ideas a solid historical foundation, showing that ironically, many thinkers claiming they were not Christian or arguing against Christianity were in fact swimming in a sea of Christian ideas and assumptions.

Holland doesn’t shy away from the dark side of Christian history either. Crusades, inquisitions, slavery, the American conquest — they’re all well-covered here. But Holland also makes a persuasive case that our modern judgements and criticisms of these brutal aspects of European history are built on a Christian foundation. That is, the bad acts of those Christians are being judged by Christian standards!

A deep tracing of the influence of ideas and arguments on the course of history is the type of subject that could easily be rendered very dry (and in fact, I was kind of dreading that when I cracked the book open) but Holland avoids this completely. His writing is narrative, using the events of history to illustrate his points in a compelling way, and the anecdotes he chooses do a good job of illustrating his arguments.

Indeed, despite the fact that the book clocks in at nearly 600 pages, it doesn’t feel like it. And in fact there were some aspects of Christian history I wished Holland had delved even more into (The intersection of Christian, Jewish and Muslim ideas in medieval al-Andalus, for one. The influence that Native American ideas had on 17th and 18th century philosophers, for two.) But overall, Holland’s work is eminently readable and compelling. And I keep thinking about it even though I finished it well over a week ago. It sticks with you.