We’ve been talking about slippery genre definitions off and on for several weeks. What makes something science fiction versus something presented as a mainstream literary book? What pushes it toward the thriller shelf? Do audiences really care, or are they just happy when they can find an interesting book to read? At what point does a historical novel set in the 19th century midwest stop being a “western” and become something more fantastic? Is it when you add monsters?
Oh, adding monsters always changes things. But where you do file a book that walks and talks like a western, but oops! it has monsters too. Is it horror now? Well, heck, are the Gunslinger novels horror? Are they fantasy? Or, because they’re written by Stephen King, you should just shove them on a table near the front register and call it good.
Of course, there is no right or wrong answer here. You put the books where people can find them. But we laughed really hard when we opened the box this week and found a new Michael Crichton novel.
That’s right. A NEW Crichton novel. Sure, he’s been dead for almost a decade, but that never stopped a writer before, right? Dragon Teeth, which was discovered in a stack of papers shoved behind his desk under a six inch tower of unread medical textbooks, is a historical novel set during the “Bone Wars,” a heady time for paleontologists during the 19th century. Ostensibly, it follows the rivalry of Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, but just look at that cover. Does that not say “Western with Monsters?” Indeed, it certainly does, doesn’t it?
We’re going to put it on the table next to the register, where everyone will be able to find it without having to ask where we might have stashed it on the shelf. Because that’ll get awkward.
Anyway, over here—on the other table—we have another one of Taschen’s fabulous art books, resized and repriced in a more affordable range. Fashion is a pictorial history of clothing from the 18th to the 20th century as curated by the Kyoto Costume Institute. As you can imagine with books by Taschen, it’s about eleven hundred million pages of full-color images of fabulous outfits. Perfect for picking out what you’d like to wear to your next costume party.
What sort of costume party? Well, maybe a Dystopian End of The World costume party. Now, we don’t want to get all morbid and depressing as we head into a long weekend, but well, there’s a trend in non-fiction right now that’s all that. Like, Richard A. Clarke and R. P. Eddy’s Warnings, a page-snapping investigation into just how badly we leaned into a bunch of disasters over these last few decades and how we could have avoided them. Oh, but let’s be positive: Warnings is a how-to for avoiding the next catastrophe.
[And it’s marginally funnier if you read that word as “cat-ass-trophy,” which we do.]
Or how about Sharon Weinberger’s The Imagineers of War, which is a history of what DARPA is really supposed to be working on, which is ways to kill people. But efficiently and cost-effectively. Ooh, five hundred pages of nerds geeking out on death machines.
[Sadly, “imagineering” has also been used in reference to making fun and happy animation at Disney. See? All the delightful things of your childhood are now deadly. We’re totally ruining it for the kids.]
And speaking of ruining things, how about Pandora’s Lab? Paul A. Offit takes us on a tour of seven times that science f*cked things up while trying to make something useful. Hey, opium is a cool pain reliever! Oh, wait, opioids-related deaths are spiking in depressed areas of the American heartland. How about trans fats! They were supposed to make for tastier and cheaper food, which they did, but look what tagged along: heart disease.
And here’s Where the Water Goes, which is an expose about the Colorado River, written by David Owen. Can you guess the book’s subtitle? No? Life and Death Along the Colorado River. Probably with an emphasis on “death.”
Meanwhile, Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes inverts the horror story in the title, and maybe—maybe—he winds up with a positive outlook on things. Well, based on his last three chapter titles— “Plugging the Drain,” “A Shaky Balancing Act,” and “A Great Lake Revival”—he might be the most optimistic of the bunch. Wouldn’t that be something?
It’s not all dismal. Well, it is, but it always is. Every generation has its share of doom-sayers, apocalyptic prophets, and wretched fear-mongers, but there are also those who can’t help themselves. People like Marcus du Sautoy who looks up at the sky and thinks, “Wow. That’s a lot of space. I wonder what’s up there.” And then writes The Great Unknown: Seven Journeys to the Frontiers of Science.
And Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, who have written The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. Sloman and Fernbach argue that we’re terrible at figuring things out by ourselves (which is why this book has two authors instead of one), but when we put our brains to work on a project, we do amazing things. Though, the mob brain also does some really stupid things, but regardless of our doom and gloom downward spirals, we have the capacity to be more than the sum of all our thoughts.
So, yes, maybe there is an apocalyptic costume party in our future, and maybe we’ll all show up wearing stillsuits and quoting Bene Gesserit homilies, but maybe we should have a few planning meetings first and see if we can come up with an alternative. Like a picnic, where we all sit around and listen to the birds, name-dropping species as we identify their songs. Let’s have some face-painting too, and give all the kids Junior Nemophilist badges.
And let’s leave the cat-ass-trophy at home, shall we?