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06-28-13: Nathaniel Rich Calculates 'Odds Against Tomorrow'

Kings of Catastrophe

In a world of constant uncertainty, we seek confidence. But too often what is certain is dire; not just bad, but catastrophic. Mitchell Zukor embraces catastrophe. He finds it, explores it, brings it into his being and sees the world for what it is — a brief compromise between dueling disasters.

As the protagonist of 'Odds Against Tomorrow', the second novel by Nathaniel Rich, Mitchell Zukor is American stress made real. Our worries, our doubts, our alternate personal histories that imagine everything gone wrong, find a spokesman in Mitchell Zukor. If the news is bad, and by and large, it is, then at least our faithful reporter knows how to spin a hell of a story.

Given that Mitchell 's so prone to worry, it's an irony he never quite twigs to that he's able to parlay his insecurity into a highly-paid profession, working as a quant on Wall Street. Rich surrounds Mitchell with a small cast of very spiky characters, the kind of people you really tend to find in the workplace. Meet Alec Charnobel, the proprietor of Future World, Wall Street's answer to Cassandra, with the added bonus that if you hear the future predicted and ignore the advice you're indemnified against paying for damages incurred because you didn't follow the advice you solicited. At least you tried!

Rich manages to create a sort of bureaucratic nightmare that rings hilariously true. Mitchell's world includes two very intriguing women, Elsa, a long-distance interest, and Jane, a co-worker. These characters are fascinating enough in their own right that each might easily hold down a rather different look at the events in 'Odds Against Tomorrow.'

One of the pleasures of 'Odds Against Tomorrow' is Rich's prose, which is consistently funny. Not surprisingly, Mitchell is a master of self-deprecation, and his wry observations about his own life and New York City, where much of the novel is set, are terrible, true and yes, funny. The corporate shenanigans all seem spot-on, combining a sort of wide-eyed, "What, me worry?" innocence with the mindless ruthlessness of a shark. The presentations and meeting notes and sales pitches ring embarrassingly, but not too embarrassingly true.

Rich's plot here is pretty simple, but he creates a nice arc of tension as we wait for one of his predictions to come pass. When it does, his prose once again comes to his aid, as Rich creates an almost poetic description of disaster on a huge, but still human scale. He captures with precision the surreal feel of an American city undone. It's beautiful and harrowing, and expertly intertwined with Mitchell's own personal arc of conquering self-doubt, or at least, accepting it and making the best of what remains.

'Odds Against Tomorrow' is a superb novel, funny, tense and imaginative. It's not quite science fiction, but it has the day-after-tomorrow feel of the best of the genre, a yearning inevitability that we are going to arrive at a place far too close for comfort to that which we read about in the book.

And here's the great thing about the book. It embraces that discomfort. Disaster, catastrophe, apocalypse, they're all so close they might have already come to pass. Life in our post-apocalyptic wasteland, then, is something of a relief. The worst has come and gone and we're still here. It's time to start building again. It'll all get washed away again, but at least we know we can cope.

06-25-13: Nina Allan Will 'Spin'

The Colours of Memory

The verb "see" is complicated; it describes the act of visually apprehending the world around us. But even that definition includes the verb "apprehend," which implies knowing the world around us. Seeing is believing, we are told. No matter what we see or say, the act of seeing is much more complicated than we might first suspect.

Seeing the world around you is your first experience of Nina Allan's 'Spin,' a superb vision of art, knowing and purpose set in a present-day Greece that bears some semblance to ours, but less than we might at first be tempted to think. We meet Layla as she's getting on the bus to leave home for the first time. Her father is not there to see her off; her mother is dead. Layla is a spinner, a natural artist who from the earliest age has been able to create tapestries of stunning beauty. On her journey to the city, she meets a disturbing old woman, who seems to know her. But she arrives safely and begins a new life working in a factory while creating new art, with an towards exhibition. The destiny she is weaving is considerably more complex.

Nina Allan's careful sculpted sentences immerse in a world that at first feels rich and familiar, even as she subtly shifts things and lets us know this is very much not the case. 'Spin' is a joy to read, rich and immersive as the art it describes. Allan pulls off the very hard feat of creating the creative work of another artist, and there are sentences and scenes that are simply dazzling to read.

Equally dazzling is the world-building. Allan creates a rich version of modern Greece that feels intimate and real. The hints as to how things are different are tantalizing enough that readers will feel as if they've read a trilogy's worth of prequels, even though the book tops out at under a hundred pages. Allan makes a lot of heavy lifting seems as light as a spider's web.

The feel of 'Spin' is incredibly rich; at times creepy, at times fantastic, always real and just a little off-kilter. Here's a book that will satisfy a wide variety of readers, from those who like horror fiction — though there are no real scares or really horror per se, just a creepy but gorgeous atmosphere — to those who like literature that discusses art in a complicated and engaging manner to those who just want to leave this world and find another next door that is very much like ours but also very different. This novella is not to be missed, and once you read you won't have to. This vision will trap you in a web from which you will have no desire to escape.

06-24-13: Annalee Newitz Suggests 'Scatter, Adapt, and Remember'

The Samsa Survival

Humans are a morbid species, able and willing to contemplate their own demise with an almost gleeful appreciation. Considering apocalypse, our imaginations go into overdrive, bringing on visions the world without us, our empty cities overrun by those hardy survive-it-alls, the cockroaches.

Annalee Newitz thinks otherwise, and in 'Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction,' she makes a great case for humanity as being every bit adept at survival as la cuharacha. Newitz brings a fresh vision to visions of doom and gloom. She's chock-a-block with hard science that shows just how dire things have been, but she has an ultimately sunny outlook. It's not optimism, exactly, but more of a grim appreciation of the plusses that brought us to the brink.

Newitz brings a smart sense of organization to the book, which is important because she intends to cover not just the past 4 billion years, but a few million into the future as well. She starts at the beginning, the first burst of life on earth, then sallies forth through one catastrophe after another with brio and verve. As one of our strengths is our ability to tells stories about what happened, thus at least allowing for the possibility of avoiding making the same mistake twice, Newitz offers a whirlwind tour of the mass extinctions that have already wiped the earth clean. It's an entertaining reminder of mortality at a mind-boggling scale.

Time is important to Newitz, and she does a fine job pulling her readers back to what she finally calls "The Million Year View." Having covered the big extinctions, she pulls in a bit closer and examines the human record, which is uncomfortably filled with misfortunes that nearly wiped us out. The "nearly" is important, as she pivots here and looks to how we have survived, then moves on to speculating what might happen in the future and how we might live through what's surely coming.

The pleasure in reading 'Scatter, Adapt, and Remember' starts with the prose. Newitz is fun to be around, and reading this book is a constantly pleasure. She has mastered the fine art of writing with a sly sense of (species)-self-deprecating humor even when she's slinging the bleakest facts. 'Scatter' features a large cast of guest scientists, and she manages to craft sharp character portraits and give readers a concise idea of what they're about.

If Newitz is crafty at the sentence level, she's equally so when it comes to the overall arc of the book. There are a lot of ideas and stories here, and she's picked them carefully for both readability and fit-ability into her bigger idea, nicely summarized in the title. From past to present to future, from scientific fact to informed speculation, Newitz manages to create tension and momentum. Reading 'Scatter' is like one of those science fiction scenarios where the captain of the starship uses the gravity well of a planet to sling his vehicle ever faster into the great beyond.

Given its focus on catastrophe, death and one extinction after another, with a heaping side order of "you cannot ignore the fact of climate change, so get over it and start doing something about it," it is as amazing as many of the facts you find within that 'Scatter, Adapt, and Remember' is so much fun to read. Consider mass extinction and make yourself smile. If you look in the mirror and see a cockroach looking back, you're not in a Kafka story. That's not a monster. It's the inner you, your happy ending.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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