A Review of “Redshirts”

Image of the cover for Redshirts. Used under fair use for review purposes.
The cover for Redshirts. Used under fair use for review purposes.

The first book by John Scalzi that I read was The President’s Brain is Missing, which was a great novella and, I think, a great introduction to Scalzi’s writing style. His science fiction in quirky, imaginative, and tends to not be the sort of thing to read in a quiet place unless you are really good at keeping yourself from bursting out into laughter. There is a wry and often hysterical sense of humor that’s present in everything I’ve read by Scalzi.

I read that novella back in the Before Times, and I’ve dipped into his work occasionally ever since, most recently his Dispatcher and Lock In series (which are great as audiobooks). I picked up Redshirts at our local library recently because it piqued my interest a bit, although I likely wouldn’t have had it not been for already knowing the author’s work. I’m glad that I did.

Scalzi has a way of exploring some really deep questions about our human condition in his work without the reader actually realizing that he is doing so…philosophy with a backward wave, if you will. This is difficult to describe without reading his work, but when you do, I imagine you’ll have an experience like mine in which this heavy realization hits you hours after you’ve put the book down that your mind has been churning on this really deep concept and you don’t know where it came from. That said, Redshirts is a bit more overt with what it’s trying to say, although the vehicle that it uses for exploration is no less imaginative.

This novel is, at its surface, a deconstruction of Star Trek and other popular sci-fi series, taking its name from from the expendable, nameless characters on Star Trek away missions (always in a red uniform) that have a habit of dying for dramatic effect. In Redshirts, these characters (who are functioning in a remarkably Star Trek-like universe) begin to realize that the fatality rate among their number is exponentially high, while the senior officers always make it out of any near-death experience without issue. They begin to ask why, and hilarity…and philosophy…ensue, as they discover that 20th century Hollywood writers are writing characters that mirror them in scripts for a (you guessed it) popular television program. Whatever happens to their characters, happens to them.

If we peel back a layer of the onion here, I think that one of the things Scalzi is doing in this multiversal sort of adventure is to drag into the light the lack of quality writing in a lot of American television, specifically in science fiction. The fun that is poked at a lot of Hollywood culture is difficult to miss, but it feels good-natured in the sense that someone who has lived in that culture gets to be the one that makes fun of it.

When we peel back another layer, things get heavier, because this novel is fundamentally grappling with fate vs. free will, or, in more theological terms, predestination vs. moral free agency. As our characters begin to plan how to stop these events from taking place (and thus extend their remarkably short lifespans), they also ask questions about whether or not they can stop these events. If one is destined to a certain fate, after all, can that be changed? From a broader perspective, do we have any control at all over our own lives? What if God is simply permitting our deaths…or worse, causing them…in a completely nonsensical way? Is there, in fact, any meaning at all to our lives, or are some of us merely supporting or incidental characters in a cosmic drama?

Something that I particularly appreciated about Redshirts is that, as these questions are asked, our protagonist, Andrew Dahl, who has attended an alien seminary before joining the Universal Union (read: Starfleet), pushes back on the nihilism that is the result of these questions spinning out of control. He responds (my paraphrase) that no coherent belief system has a god that would act in such a manner.

I also appreciate the gift that Scalzi has, and the space that this book makes, for the deeper implications of these sorts of questions. One of the characters has lost his wife in one of these nonsensical deaths, and the grief that we walk through with this character is real and lasting. We also are taken into the other side of that grief, in which every day is suddenly so extremely valuable because we know that love and purpose…perhaps even a Divine purpose?…are pervasive and worth experiencing for however long we are privileged to do so.

I often associate Scalzi’s work with humor and lightness. Redshirts pushes back on that framing of the author. This novel will be particularly entertaining if you, like me, grew up in a household that watched Star Trek every week. Even if you didn’t, though, it’s worth the read, but buckle in and get ready. What seems like a routine reading mission will leave you wanting to take evasive maneuvers, because you won’t be ready for the questions that it makes you ask.

It will, however, be worth the adventure.

A Review of “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art”

Cover of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Fair use for review purposes.
Cover of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Fair use for review purposes.

My very first comic book was an issue of X-Men. I grew up in a town with no comic shop, but one of the larger grocery stores had a healthy magazine rack and included a weekly stock of comics. I was hooked in a way that is difficult to describe. Much to my parents financial chagrin, I accompanied my mom on the weekend grocery shopping excursions faithfully, and I couldn’t wait to get to that store and to the comics. There was always something that I wanted to read.

Now, I think that comics is like any other artistic medium: whether or not you are drawn to it is a matter of taste. In a similar way that film, sculpture, or poetry may or may not be something that particularly engages you, comics sort of is or isn’t. And that’s fine. Inherent in that idea, though, is the supposition that comics is an art form in its own right, a medium deserving of the same respect as any other form of art or literature. And, as with other mediums, even if it isn’t to your taste, learning an appreciation for the art form is culturally important.

I, like many readers at their first exposure, just naturally grasped the way in which the stories and artwork flowed. I was far too young to articulate any sort of theory about usage of line, color, or pacing, but it worked. The stories captivated me, enchanting my imagination with a concept of good vs. evil that would later inform not only my entertainment choices, but my theology and worldview at a very practical level. Comics, especially superheroes, are something about which I’ve been passionate ever since.

That’s why I’m sort of surprised that I didn’t know that this book existed until recently. Understanding Comics was written as I graduated high school. Certainly, there are parts of the book that feel dated now. However, this is an absolutely essential read for putting into serious language why this art form works so well for so many of us. Central to this is that McCloud insists from page 1 that comics is to be taken seriously as an artistic medium. There is no room to conclude otherwise in his thesis, which is as it should be. He argues strongly for comics’ recognition as art, not just as pulp or “the funnies” as some see it, and does a great job of backing his assertions.

The beauty of this book is that it is written in the medium upon which it seeks to expound. That is, it’s essentially a nonfiction graphic novel, which I find to be ingenious for a couple of reasons. First, it immerses the reader into the art form. I don’t know of another art criticism text that does that (perhaps because other mediums can’t do it…?). Secondly, it uses the medium to illustrate the points. The beauty of comics, after all, is that literature and art intertwine, and the author’s choice here is a very practical application of that flexibility.

McCloud begins by defining a vocabulary for comics, and moves into discussions about the use of line, color, and how the artwork interacts with the language. This is a deceptively academic treatment of the subject, as he spends a significant amount of time working through a language development theory, with the written word as an ultimate abstraction of iconography. This works by example to prove the author’s point on legitimacy of the art form, as well: the very language used is painting the picture…quite literally…for us, drawing the reader in to inhabit the points being presented. That’s what makes comics such a powerful medium, in my opinion…and in the author’s…the direct interaction with the reader on so many different levels, an interaction that I would consider unparalleled in any medium other than theatre.

McCloud spends a chapter discussing how line enhances the mood of the story, replete with examples of lines illustrating anger, peace, anxiety. He walks through a fascinating history of how line work has developed through the history of art in general, and specifically in comics from artists in different geographical areas and cultures.

My favorite chapter, I think, is devoted to the gutter. The gutter is unique to comics: the space between panels in the layout of the page. Things happen in the gutter that require the reader to fill in with their imagination. Time passes in the gutter. McCloud argues that the physical space of the gutter is used in the same way as time is used in film. Examples of how panel layouts further stories are presented in fascinating detail.

I think that my one criticism of the book is that McCloud’s definition of art is far too expansive for my taste. He spends time unpacking a theory of what makes art, but backs himself into a trap composed of overly broad brush-strokes. Essentially, anyone doing anything for a purpose of understanding something is doing art. He also defines a process through which art is made that succumbs to the fault of many academic texts on the arts: a rigid definition of process for a creative instinct that defies process almost by definition.

Nobody is perfect.

Recent film successes and a pandemic have drawn new fans to comics. People are discovering the medium in earnest who have never been interested before. Those who are engaging comics for the first time will be curious, and will benefit a great deal from McCloud’s work. Those of who have loved comics for most of our lives will also…I have already found myself drawing greater understanding and appreciation from my weekly pulls having finished his work, and am re-reading some classics through a new lens.

In short, if comics interests you at all, I strongly recommend Understanding Comics as a read that will be well worth your time.

A Review of “When You Finish Saving the World”

Screenshot of the cover of When You Finish Saving the World.

Back before Audible “improved” their subscription plans and bundled podcasts in, subscribers used to receive two of their original publications each month. Sometimes there was something compelling, sometimes not, and sometimes I grabbed both several months in a row, resulting in a backlog of reading that I just didn’t get around to. This book was one of those cases. It was referenced as having an autistic character, which drew me in given that I used to work with adolescents on the spectrum, but then it just sort of digitally sat there for nearly six months before I finally got around to reading it. When I did, I found it to be one of the most compelling books I’ve experienced in years.

When You Finish Saving the World” is written by Jesse Eisenberg, who also voices one of the characters. You’ll recognize the voice fairly immediately if you watched the tragedy that was Dawn of Justice, because Eisenberg played Lex Luthor (one of the few performances that was worth anything in that film). Eisenberg’s novella introduces us to a family: Nathan, Rachel, and their son Ziggy, and tells their stories through recordings that each makes: Nathan and Ziggy to their therapists, Rachel to her first boyfriend. This was a deeply compelling way to peel back the layers to this story, because it gave so much space to each character to reveal themselves to the reader. I felt as though I was inhabiting their thoughts and emotions, not deducing them through dialogue. In this way, the work is more of a drama that a novella, and I found it to be a fantastic storytelling device.

We enter the story through Nathan, who is struggling with his inability to connect with his newborn son, and is working through the damage that this is causing to his relationship with Rachel. The reader realizes fairly quickly that Nathan is on the spectrum. I was extremely empathetic to him through his section of the novella (each character has a section), because he is trying to so hard to overcome this challenge that is insurmountable, and he is doing so for the person that he loves. Rachel, in turn, is placing unrealistic expectations on him as he makes his efforts, and the reader finds themselves very sympathetic to Nathan’s efforts and resentful of Rachel’s pressure.

Section 2 takes us to a near future scenario, where Ziggy is now a teenager and is struggling to fit into a society that he finds frustrating and fake, and that his mother, Rachel, champions. I really like that Eisenberg used the descriptions of the future as Ziggy goes to therapy with an artificial intelligence to make some honest societal comments with a backward wave, complete with a new slang vernacular for the teenagers of the future. The discord between Nathan and Rachel has left its mark on Ziggy, who harbors a great deal of anger toward his parents but particularly resents and is angry at Rachel, whom he paints as overzealous in her attempts to save everyone from everything, which becomes a form of oppression to his life. Again, the reader leaves Ziggy’s chapters resenting Rachel.

In both of the first two sections, however, Nathan and Ziggy foreshadow our meeting Rachel by mentioning the otherwise-well-kept secret that, before meeting Nathan, Rachel’s first boyfriend died. We take this knowledge into the final section of the book, in which we meet Rachel, with whom we have grown so frustrated. We pick up Rachel’s story before she meets Nathan, with the boyfriend whose fate we already know. Rachel is compellingly performed by Kaitlyn Dever. We walk through Rachel’s backstory with trepidation, sensing that the glass is about to break, and then we end sitting with this character with whom we’ve grown so frustrated through the preceding chapters…whose hero complex we’ve watched tear down the lives of those dearest to her…and end with such a profound sympathy that I needed to walk away for a few moments after reading the closing words.

Rachel is a mess, but the reader understands why, and realizes that they would be, too.

What I love about this book is that it reinforces that everyone has experienced tragedy, that all of us have issues, and that we didn’t acquire those issues in a vacuum. The concept that the reader leaves with is one of compassion for those that we encounter every day, because we don’t know what they’ve been through, the battle they’ve fought, the losses that they’ve experienced. And, perhaps, we find ourselves less angry at their shortcomings with this in mind.

“When You Finish Saving the World” is an unexpected gift, and simply the most compelling book that I’ve read so far this year. In the midst of our subscription fatigue, it’s difficult to recommend the cost of a membership to read a book (and I deeply hate that one would have to), but this is one of those rare books that is worth going through the extra effort. Hopefully this releases in other mediums soon to become more widely available, but please do yourself a favor and read this book.

And, when you finish, think about how you treat those around you, because it will be different.

A Review of “This is How They Tell Me the World Ends”

Screenshot of the cover of "This is How They Tell Me the World Ends". by Ncole Perlroth.

This book was an accidental find. I stumbled onto an ad in the pages of a recent issue of the Atlantic and, let’s face, it the title grabs you. The rest of the title, “The Cyberweapons Arms Race,” sealed my desire to read this. The author, Nicole Perlroth, is a cyber-security reporter for the New York Times who covered the Edward Snowden leaks when they broke. I’m interested in how history tends to get lost very quickly, and so I’m always drawn to books that walk through history that I’ve lived. I remember most of the events that Perlroth discusses: Stuxnet, the Snowden debacle, to say nothing of more recent events in our tumultuous political time. I thought that I knew the details of these events. I was honestly shocked at how little I knew. The title of the book is designed to give one a sense of dread, I think, and I would say that it succeeds. You really can’t walk away from this book without a sobering sense of reality settling on you at best, and a sense of digital paranoia at worst.

Perlroth walks us through a detailed underground history of events that led us to the place that we inhabit today. She defines how hackers began exploiting software, traces a tangled web through the way that hacking was weaponized by the governments of the world, and how cyber warfare became commonplace. What I had never realized prior to reading this was that there is an underground market for selling exploits, a market that is extremely lucrative for hackers who want to monetize their time, hackers that are often, by Perlroth’s description, quite mercenary in their approach to doing business. She walks us through how the exploits sold by such hackers were used in some of the world-changing cyber-attacks of our time, such as Stuxnet.

What I appreciate, especially given that I work in web technology for a living, is that Perlroth never paints all hackers with a broad brush. While she never uses the standard terms to deleniate between “white hat” and “black hat” hackers, I think that she avoids this on purpose, because she wants to make it clear that the temptation to label these hackers as either good or bad is misplaced. Their lives, and their vocation, is just not that simple.

This book is remarkably well-researched. The reader experiences key events in the development of the cyber arms race: The Google hack, the election interference of 2016, the politics behind the development of Stuxnet…in deep detail that leaves you with new appreciation for the history behind our current situation. The end goal of this is to leave the reader with an unsettled understanding: we have, through a series of cultural events and technological innovations, set ourselves up for a painful failure, a failure that has the potential to be quite devastating.

Some of my favorite recollections from the author are her own close calls with obvious hacking attempts into her own life. If you’re not digitally paranoid now, you will be after reading these stories.

My biggest issue with the writing of the book is that, in order to achieve a certain tone, the author casually uses unprofessional language that I think detracts from the feel of journalistic integrity that the book should have. The quality of the research and storytelling still stand out, but I think that there would be a more authoritative perception had the author made different choices here. I also was not impressed with the quality of the Audible production: it was poorly edited and the narrator didn’t capture the cadence of the writing. This does not detract from the quality of the book itself, though.

Please do yourself a favor and read this book. Even if you do not have an interest in the topic, this is a subject that effects all of us in ways that we don’t even realize and, if the author’s predictions are correct, will come to impact us more heavily in the future. This is a heavy read, but you will be glad that you’ve experienced this history.

A Review of “Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas

A photo of my copy of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.Ever since seminary, I generally read something either by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer at least once annually. Bonhoeffer remains one of the most influential theologians to my thought and spiritual life, and, as most know, the story of his life and martyrdom is compelling and powerful. After a few years, I’ve read almost all of his work, as well as a good deal of work about Bonhoeffer. I had always avoided Metaxas’ biography, though. I’ve always wanted to read it, as it’s recognized as the authoritative biography on Bonhoeffer’s life. To be honest, the sheer weight of the volume is off-putting. I’m not sure I’ve read something that long and that dense sense (ironically) reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics in seminary (the running joke was that not even Barth had read all of those volumes).

And that comparison is not altogether trivial, because Metaxas does his share of theology in this book. There was some controversy, as I recall, when this biography was initially published, because Metaxas was said to have asserted, against traditional perspective, that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist. That alone is compelling reason to read the book, but, as I said, just hefting it from the shelf in the bookstore is enough to give one pause unless you have a magnitude of free time on your hands.

Of course, a lot of us have more free time than usual on our hands due to world events lately, so I decided that it was time. I am so, so very glad that I did.

Let me say up front, if you haven’t assumed this already: this is not an easy read. The difficulty lies not in the writing style…Metaxas avoids being overly academic and I found his style to be very approachable, although he is given to a strange change of voices at times. The difficulty lies in the subject matter. You can’t study Bonhoeffer’s life and thought separate from the historical context, and WWII Germany is not an easy historical period to study. This is also one of the gifts of this book, though. I have learned more about this period of history, as well as the events that lead to it, by studying Bonhoeffer’s life than I did in any history class, but Metaxas takes this a step further. The reader walks away with a historical education as an added bonus for their time.

This speaks to the strength of the biography, and what ultimately makes any biography great: the depth of the research. Metaxas’ research is meticulous. He has obviously spent time with primary sources and studying the available material to an extent that most academics would envy, and it shows in the nuances of his record. One of the reasons that this is a heavy read is because you don’t just move through it at a normal pace, but rather you frequently need to stop to really digest what you’ve just read, to begin putting together disparate pieces of the puzzle of a man’s life into a cohesive whole. You begin to see how all of the pieces fit together, to truly see a portrait of Bonhoeffer’s life. Metaxas walks us through minute details of Bonhoeffer’s childhood and family background, through his experiences in traveling the world, to the best sources we have of his last moments before he was martyred. The depth of the image we have of Dietrich Bonhoeffer after reading this book is why it is considered the primary biography on this influential theologian.

I truly appreciate that Metaxas pauses regularly to unpack Bonhoeffer’s theology. All examination of Bonhoeffer’s thought is given to some speculation, because he didn’t live long enough to fully formulate his theology. His thoughts as we have them, though, are nothing short of prophetic, especially within their historical reference, and the reader gets to spend time with them here. Metaxas specifically walks through Bonhoeffer’s popular concept of “Religionless Christianity,” what he is convinced that it meant in its context, and how it has been so drastically misinterpreted by modern theologians (I happen to agree fully with his assessment).

I think that the only place in which this amazing book didn’t do what it says on the tin is to convince us that Bonhoeffer’s label as a pacifist was inaccurate. Metaxas actually works against his own assertion here by quoting one of Bonhoeffer’s colleagues from his time at Union Theological Seminary, in which his colleague identified the moment in which he realized Bonhoeffer had become a pacifist. Metaxas moves forward seeming to provide the support for his claim to the contrary as he puts together Bonhoeffer’s life, but ultimately makes an assertion late in the book that feels to not be supported by evidence. In short, Metaxas says Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist, because he was a spy willing to commit assassination. I’m not convinced. What we do see is what is to be seen from thoughtfully scrutinizing Bonhoeffer’s life, and that is a man struggling with the weight of an incomprehensible evil and how to reconcile the abhorrent actions that he concluded must be taken with his faith, concluding that not acting for fear of doing wrong is the greater sin. The depth of the struggle is felt by the reader in all of its weight, and this is a great credit to Metaxas’ work.

Placing “Bonhoeffer” on my shelf was one my top accomplishments this year. I think that it goes without saying that I would recommend this book for anyone, not just those who have previously found Bonhoeffer’s life inspiring. Yes, it is intimidating, but it is also very much worth whatever time it takes to complete this book. Your spiritual life will be better for the effort, just as all of our lives are better for Bonhoeffer’s thought.