This month, I asked my sometime editor, Jess d’Arbonne, to answer the question, Hey, Whatcha Reading?
1. What books are you currently reading?
I just finished Chuck Wendig’s magnum opus, Wanderers (Del Ray, 2019) and it blew my mind all over my face. Now I’m reading the English translation of Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling, which is like Kurt Vonnegut writing George Orwell with a dash of George Saunders thrown in for good measure (Grand Central Publishing, 2020). And I just started Contact by Carl Sagan, a book that I’ve been meaning to read forever, but am finally getting around to (1985, Simon & Schuster).
2) How far along in the books are you?
Wanderers is over 800 pages and I just finished it. I’m weird in that when I love a book, I intentionally read slowly to draw it out as long as possible. I didn’t want it to end! And I’m about halfway through Qualityland and only on the first chapter of Contact.
3) What are the books about?
Wanderers is about America—the country’s darkest and brightest sides. It takes place in a near future where a strange sleepwalking sickness seems to be afflicting random people throughout the country. The CDC can’t figure out what’s causing the sleepwalkers, the political parties are using them to drum up support and violence, and their families are desperate to keep them safe. Meanwhile, the real danger is going unnoticed until it’s too late. I’ve been a Wendig fan for a long time, and this is definitely the best thing he’s ever written.
Qualityland was originally published in German, and it’s about a fictitious country where an Amazon-like corporation rules supreme. People’s lives are dictated by ratings and advertisements, and The Shop sends you what you want before you even realize you want it! It’s a satire, and it works wonderfully in English, partially because I think Germany is the America of Europe. It’s one of those books that makes you go “HA HA—oooooh…”
And Contact is… Contact. It’s one of the most poetic science fiction novels ever written. Carl Sagan is a legend, from his mind-blowing memes to his utterly earnest sense of wonder about outer space. I’m already hooked, and I’ve barely begun.
4) What drew you to these books?
I really didn’t expect to be answering these questions when I happen to be reading not one, not two, but three white male authors… that’s not a good way to demonstrate why representation matters! But all three are saying something poignant about our culture. I love science fiction, I love satire—I read one Kurt Vonnegut novel a year—but the thing I like about science fiction and speculative fiction in general is how the genre uses these monumental, glamorous set pieces to drill down to the tiniest, most basic qualities of humanity.
Wanderers talks a lot about racism and xenophobia. It talks about self-sacrifice and doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. It talks about setting aside selfish things, and how hard it is to heal familial bonds. And it does it all amid post-apocalyptic gun battles and Weird Science™. Qualityland is using absolute absurdity to make a point about consumerism and capitalism and xenophobia (ok so maybe that’s a theme I’m really drawn to right now). I’m worried about these problems in contemporary politics right now, but it’s much more cathartic to explore them through reading literature than through reading the news.
And Contact is just… Contact. It’s space poetry! Why haven’t I read it before now? Clearly I’ve been wasting my life.
5) Who would you recommend this book to?
Everyone should read Qualityland. It’s capitalist satire at its finest. And if you’re at all worried about Amazon taking over the world… well, here you go!
Contact is for people who want to read about the beauty of the natural world from a perspective often overlooked. Even if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll still find something worthy in its pages.
And Wanderers is… not for the faint of heart. Some dark shit goes down in this book. But it’s utterly absorbing and so, so well written. If you like scientific case-solving… you’ll find this book equal parts exciting and horrifying. Every time you think you’ve got it figured out, the game changes. It truly is the author’s finest work to date, and as a fan, I felt weirdly proud of him as I finished reading.