[Note: This post is my take on The Leftovers, which ran on HBO from 2014 to 2017. For those who haven’t watched the series, be warned. Lots of spoilers here.]
Believing in a messiah can have unwelcome consequences, especially when that belief leads you to accidentally kill the wrong Kevin. But what are people to do when, in an instant, two percent of the world’s population vanish? You gotta believe in something or someone. If you can’t believe, there’s no place to go but to join the Guilty Remnant.
This is the alternate reality of The Leftovers, an HBO series created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta, and based on the novel by Perrotta. We follow the lives of half a dozen major characters, spend significant time with about half a dozen more, and deal with at least as many religious groups and cults. Christian imagery abounds. We have baptisms, drownings, floods, and a Lourdes-like spring. We have messiahs and martyrs in abundance. We have loss, and grief, and we have people desperately searching for the meaning of it all. Or, we have the Guilty Remnant, who violently resist the very notion of meaning.
The number one main character is Kevin Garvey, Chief of Police in Mapleton, New York. Neither he nor his estranged wife, Laurie, seem to have lost anyone in the Sudden Departure. And yet, Laurie joins the Guilty Remnant, a cigarette-smoking, clad-in-white, silent cult. At the other end of the spectrum is Nora Durst. Nora has lost her entire immediate family, her husband, and both children. After the Sudden Departure, Nora goes to work for the agency of the same name, a new branch of Homeland Security, interviewing those who have lost loved ones to evaluate their eligibility for government assistance.
Nora’s brother, Reverend Matt Jamison, seeks to disabuse the “leftover” population of the notion that the Sudden Departure was the result of The Rapture. He does this in kind of a hurtful way, by pointing out that many of the departed were of poor moral fiber. He is also caring for his brain-injured (awake, but non-verbal) wife, Mary. Her injury occurred as a result of a traffic accident at the moment of the Departure.
Matt may not believe in a Rapture, but he does believe in a potential miracle for his wife. That miracle comes, eventually, in the form of town named Jarden, renamed Miracle, the largest town in the world that is Departure-free. Miracle lost no one.
There is a lot to like about Miracle, TX, but one thing obvious is that the town is the ultimate gated community. Tickets are sold for visitors to enter the town (don’t lose your wristband!), and immigration is strictly controlled. More water, too: Tourists try to collect water from the town’s spring. It is clear the people of Miracle, likable though they are, see themselves as the elect, spared by God.
And on to the messiahs. Kevin acquires that label when he comes back from the dead, not once, but several times. And then, Matt goes and writes a gospel about him, leading to the aforementioned killing of a different chief of police named Kevin. Early in the first season, we also have a guru who uses hugs to heal people of their pain. Laurie, after eventually leaving the Guilty Remnant, goes back to her counseling roots by taking up scams with the motive of helping people feel better.
Meanwhile, uncanny events continue to occur. The characters sometimes think they’re going crazy. Sometimes they are going crazy. Sometimes the viewer goes crazy, too, trying to figure out what’s real and what isn’t. We are shown a universe that is utterly arbitrary, over which we lack any control. And then comes the final plot turn.
In the third season, seven years after the event, Nora, under the guise of investigation, makes contact with a group claiming to be able to send people to the place their loved ones disappeared to. How? Basically, a scientist invents a machine. No other details. The group is very picky about who they’ll take. Few even know of the existence of “the machine.” Oh, and the process involves a substance that seems exactly like water, but isn’t. Nora is at first turned down, but she persists. Eventually, she goes. We don’t see where she goes, but she does return an indeterminate number of years later, and tells Kevin about it.
The Suddenly Disappeared, according to Nora, witnessed the disappearance of the Leftovers. For them, ninety-eight percent of the world’s population suddenly vanished, leaving then in a drastically underpopulated world. Nora was able to come back from the two-percent world, she tells Kevin, because she sought out the scientist who invented the machine, and he made another one for her to return.
The point of Nora’s journey was that she wanted desperately to see the children she’d lost so many years ago. By the time she gets to them, they are adolescents, living with her disappeared husband. They seem happy, and she understands that she doesn’t belong in that world.
After listening to Nora’s account of the two-percent world, I found myself comparing it with the world of the ninety-eight percent. The disappearance of two percent compares, at least numerically, with the flu pandemic of 1918, which is estimated to have killed three to five percent of the world’s population. In some places, the outbreaks caused massive disruptions of daily life, as they do in The Leftovers.
There is nothing close to an historical equivalent for losing ninety-eight percent of humanity. Even the black death is said to have killed “only” sixty percent of the population of Europe in the fourteenth century.
We are never shown the two-percent world; we only hear Nora tell Kevin about it. I wanted to believe everything she was saying, and I think I would have done so without question had Nora’s experience been more like one of Kevin’s series of uncanny returns-from-the-dead, or like Mary’s miraculous recovery. Instead, Nora–the closest thing we have to a rationalist here–claims there was an invention, by a scientist. I am unconvinced.
My problem: Once a machine is invented, one that allows people to travel back and forth between realities, won’t it come into general use? Aren’t there people besides Nora who will want to go back and forth?
I don’t know what happened to Nora, but I don’t believe in the machine. I believe she had an uncanny experience, one with as much real-world consequence as Kevin’s sojourns in his luxury-hotel afterlife. I don’t know what the writers want us to think she believes about her experience, but she clearly seems surprised Kevin believes her. Surprised, and grateful.
I have trouble reaching any conclusions about this show. I adore the examination of the human need for answers, for meaning, for purpose, and for connection, as well as the utter frustration we all feel when we can’t make sense of the world. I loved how all the characters have the same needs, but work at cross purposes, and mess up their relationships with each other, those relationships being the only security any of them have. At the same time, I sometimes felt manipulated (particularly by the suicide feints in the penultimate episode), and lost at sea within all the craziness of the characters.
But here I am, a month out from watching the show, still thinking about it. That, in itself, is a big point in its favor.
“Reen’s people were cowards, but in the depths of their fear cowards could be deadlier than heroes.” (p. 92, Brother Termite)
Over fifty years ago, during the Eisenhower administration, the anthro-insectoid Cousins arrived at our planet, and, under threat of annihilation, Eisenhower agreed to alien takeover. The Cousins came here to save themselves, for they are a dying species. They hope to harvest and recombine our DNA with theirs, thus to create a mostly-Cousin, but hybrid race, in order to perpetuate their species.
That’s the premise of Patricia Anthony’s Brother Termite, first published in 1993 by Harcourt Brace. It’s an alt history/alien invasion/political thriller/satire, and features the same sort of character-based dark humor and tragedy as her later work, God’s Fires.
The plot is premised on one very well-worn SF trope–that of aliens coming here and somehow needing to reproduce with us in order to save their species. The core of the Cousins’ mission here, all the DNA recombinant stuff, is pretty much a rewrite of Mars Needs Women. And I don’t mean that as an insult. There are no bad ideas, only ideas badly told.
The story is told entirely from the POV of Reen, First Brother, and White House Chief of Staff. Reen has several pressing problems, but the worst one might be that he has fallen in love with Marian, the human mother of his hybrid child, and also CIA Director (installed by Reen). The other human he loves best, President Womack (also installed by Reen), has been in office for fifty-one years. Womack teasingly–and possibly even a little affectionately–refers to Reen as “Termite.”
By loving humans as he does, Reen is going beyond the pale. He is particularly at odds with Second Brother Tali, who, in the Cousins’ hive-mind social structure, serves as Reen’s “conscience.” Further beyond the pale is Oomal, who manages Cousin interests in Michigan, and who comes off more like Willy Loman than an anthro-insectoid alien. Opposing everyone is FBI director Hopkins, a direct successor to J. Edgar himself. (And also installed by Reen, of course.)
The Cousins existential burden requires they commit serial genocide. Reen, for one, feels guilty about this. Oomal too. But, in the Cousins’ view, humans are worse. Humans are vicious liars and commit violent acts against one another. Blood flows freely. They can’t be trusted. When Cousins kill, they do so at a distance, in other words, cleanly.
As in God’s Fires, those in charge, those who have all the power, have no idea what’s really going on. Brother Reen is like that. Marian, Womack, and Oomal all have clearer vision than he does. Not that a clearer view would have helped him much. The tragedy here is in the circumstance as well as the character.
Like God’s Fires, Brother Termite is a marvelous book, funny and tragic in equal measure. It’s out of print, but there are new and used paperbacks available on the internet. It’s available on Kindle. Or maybe you can find it at your local used bookseller, if you have one of those in your town.
I took part in a panel at this year’s Diversicon entitled “The Disappearance of Women SFF Writers,” in which we discussed women writers fading quickly into obscurity and being forgotten. One name that came up for me is that of Patricia Anthony.
Her career took place entirely within the 1990s, during which she published seven novels and one short story collection. All are worthy, but the one that blew me away is her penultimate novel, God’s Fires, published in 1997 by Ace Books.
God’s Fires covers a period of thirteen days around about 1668. Portugal has recently won its independence from Spain, and the Portuguese Inquisition is still in full swing.
Circuit Inquisitor Father Manoel Pessoa’s heart is not in his work. He only entered the business of Inquisition because he is the second son of a noble, and therefore not in line to inherit. He does not care much about his job. He wants to deal with easy prosecutions, like people having sex with farm animals. He does not want to deal with difficult cases, like allegations of a young woman being impregnated by an angel. Being a Jesuit, and having a mistress–a convert from Judaism and a healer, i.e. “witch” to boot–puts him at odds with everyone in his world, particularly with his boss.
That would be Monsignor Gomes, the Inquisitor-General of Lisbon. Gomes embodies several deadly sins, including that of gluttony. Through him we are regaled with the odors of seventeenth century digestive output. He is stuffed as well with his own self-importance. He is a clownish and deadly figure.
Then there is cognitively impaired King Afonso VI. He is fixated on Don Quixote, wants to be a good and heroic king, loves his brother Pedro, the Regent, and knows he falls short of being what he should be. Still, he tries very hard to do everything his priest, his nobles, and his caretaker/slave tell him to. But sometimes, he can’t help but follow his impulses.
Into this power structure an alien ship crash-lands.
There are strange lights. There is a report of angels having sex with the village women. There is a ship, crashed in a field. Aliens are taken into custody. But the story isn’t traditional alien-visitation science fiction.
Our aliens are an enigma. We never know who they are, or how they came to be here. They do not seem–in spite of their space-faring skills–like a technologically advanced people from another world; they seem more like lost souls, stranded on Earth, and asking for help. And they don’t entirely make sense. How on earth are they impregnating human women?
But this isn’t about the aliens, really. This is about the reactions of the characters to the aliens’ appearance in their midst. Of those in power, only childlike Afonso truly believes what he sees, and he believes he is seeing God Himself. The Inquisitors, on the other hand, are looking for another explanation. Any other explanation. The aliens are demons. The aliens are a Spanish plot. The aliens are from a far-off country. Borneo, perhaps. Amongst ordinary folk, priests and lay people alike, reactions vary. Some insist they are seeing angels, others see whatever suits them, and still others remain silent. Everyone sees in the aliens what they need to see. What they want to see.
If they aliens are an enigma, the women are as well–to the male characters, if not to the reader. Their points of view aren’t directly represented, and it would never occur to any of the men here that they should be represented. They are akin to Tiptree’s women, the ones that men don’t see. A judgment, however, must be made about their fates, and what an inconvenience that is!
In addition to the women, there is the science men don’t see. King Afonso, limited as he is, learns from the aliens that the Earth revolves around the sun. The Galileo heresy! Afonso’s advisors insist that what he sees is not what is happening.
Through the novel, there is humor–admittedly of the very dark sort–and there is tragedy. This is the Inquisition, after all.
Patricia Anthony died in 2013. I’m not certain the extent to which she has disappeared from the consciousness of the SFF reading public. A search of Amazon shows her books for sale, although out of print. There are Kindle versions of some of her books, although not God’s Fires. Interestingly, a posthumous work is scheduled for publication next year.
In the meantime, I’ve decided to reread some of her other works, and report on them in later posts. Meanwhile, if you can find a copy of this one, it might very well be worth your time.
Next up: Brother Termite.
Short stories can be read in one sitting. Often they slip from the brain as quickly as they slipped in. The greatest ones, though, can stick with a reader for a lifetime.
The short stories nominated this year are:
“Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim–Clockwork doll people.
“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde–An entity of some sort takes your coin and may or may not let you into a weird sort-of funhouse place.
“Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min–The first sentient robot discovers fandom.
“The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata–a monument on Mars created by an architect on a dying Earth.
“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon–A grandmother gives a magic sword to a grandson.
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse–Native Americans hire digital version of themselves out to tourists.
When I began this post, I had only read two of the stories. I have since read the other three.
Once again, we have a range, from literary to heroic fantasy to hard SF to AI to social commentary to fable. I note all of the short stories come from online zines: Tor, Uncanny, Apex, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, to be exact. All of them can be read, for free, by anyone. That has to be significant when it comes to Hugo nominations. Only the more dedicated fan, able to spend a little, will have read stories from F&SF, Asimov’s, or Analog, in time for Hugo nominations.
As much as I enjoy reading and voting, a part of me really doesn’t like awards. There is no “best” story, not even a “best” six stories. Any one of us can think of favorite authors and great stories that don’t make the cut. And the field of speculative fiction is the broadest of genres. To compare a high-quality hard SF story to a high-quality heroic fantasy is like comparing a robot to an animated doll. They have speculation in common, but are less similar than they appear.
That said, congrats to all finalists, including those in categories I haven’t discussed here.
A novelette is defined as a work of prose between 7,500 and 17,500 words in length. In contrast to the novella, I have never been drawn to the novelette as a form. It seems to fall into a kind of nowhere-land between the read-in-one-sitting short story, and the deeper dive of the novella. That’s not to say I can’t like a novelette, just that I don’t seek them out. So, surprise surprise, I have read none of the following nominees.
“Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard–This is in the world of de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen. The novelette falls chronologically between the first and second novels, and involves magic infiltrating powerful houses in Paris. Whether or not this can be read as a stand-alone depends on which reviewer you read. I will give it a try.
“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee–this is described as a distant future space opera, with an undercover agent uncovering a traitor, and finding a lost ship. Reading online reviews of this one gives me no idea, really, whether or not the story will be my cup of tea. I guess I’ll just have to read it.
“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer–the protagonist/bot is an outdated model tasked with destroying a rather nasty-sounding pest. Self-aware, narrator AI seem to be a trend, but I’m not tired of it yet. Good thing, because I’m writing a story with one.
“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad–a 3D printer with which our protagonist prints fake steaks. Food. Stories about food are good.
“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K. M. Szpara–Vampire horror. A vampire who is illegal because he is gay. I don’t claim to be a horror fan, but this one sounds promising.
“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker–a serious-looking generation ship story about lost records, lost history, and music. Another one where I can’t gauge my reaction from the reviews.
What pops into my mind as I look these over is how different each seems from the others. In the category, we see several different subgenera of the field, namely space opera, sentient AI, effects of new technology, vampire horror, and generation ship drama.
I am in a race to finish all the writing nominees, and it’s going to be close!
Novellas are a favorite of mine. Usually under two hundred pages, they don’t take forever to read. You don’t get bogged down. You do have time to get involved, though. It’s not in-and-out, like a short story. Novellas can be found in print and online periodicals, but increasingly can be bought as e-books. Because novellas are a favorite, I’m not as far behind as I am with Hugo-nominated novels.
All Systems Red, by Martha Wells–I have read this one, and I recommend it. It is one of several recent works about self-aware AI. This particular entity calls itself Murderbot. It does have a murderous past, because that was the purpose it was designed for. That is not what it wants to be. “Murderbot” is also the subtitle of the novella. The full title is All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1). So it’s a series!
“And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker–This one, I haven’t read. Love the title, though. And, it’s a murder mystery! The title is tough to Google…it keeps wanting to route me to the Agatha Christie novel. I hate all forms of auto-correct.
Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor–I read the first Binti at Worldcon in Kansas City a couple years ago, because it was being discussed at a panel. Binti is a heroic young woman of great intelligence, the sort of person who is held back and is underestimated. I look forward to reading this installment.
The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang–I haven’t read this one. It is described as “silkpunk fantasy.” This novella was released simultaneously with another, The Red Threads of Fortune, as a twin introduction to the Tensorate Series. According to the author, you can read these first two in either order. A third installment comes out this July. Silkpunk fantasy sounds like a fine idea to me.
Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire–A second installment of yet another novella series. I’ve read both installments. I’m intrigued by this series, because it’s different in concept from anything I’ve read, while seeming utterly familiar. It concerns a home parents can send their children to, specifically children who refuse–or can’t–live in the so-called real world, but who occasionally escape to other, more fantastic worlds. I’m tempted to say the premise sounds like the biography of the average science fiction or fantasy fan–hence its familiarity.
River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey–I haven’t read this one. It is billed as an alternate history about feral hippos overrunning Louisiana bayous around the turn of the twentieth century. That sounds like a very good idea for a story, and I do like alternate histories.
So…four of the six novella finalists are part of a series. Novella series seem to be a thing these days, a thing I like. The effect of a novella series is different from that of a serialized novel, or a novel series. The individual novellas in these series tend to be kind of free-standing. You never pick up right where you left off, even if the story does have an over-arching plot. Sometimes the individual installments are in the same universe, but feature different characters or different locales. It all provides a rich, deep sojourn in the worlds these authors create.
In recent years I have become more aware than ever before how important it is to vote. I’m not talking about the election of public officials–the importance of that has always been obvious to me. But the Hugos, nominating and final voting…well, it has been so easy to make excuses.
My “To Be Read” pile is a chronic feature that has endured in my life from childhood onward. When it comes time to nominate for the Hugos, I have often read hardly anything from the eligible year. In recent years, I have made an effort to nominate something, because I want to do my part to prevent future Sad/Rabid Puppy outbreaks.
Then comes the final ballot. Publishers and artists have been wonderful in recent years about making stories and novels available for Worldcon members to read free of charge, but the texts only become available a few months prior to the voting deadline. It’s a lot, but I’m determined to read as much as I can.
Here’s where I’m at right now.
The Collapsing Empire, by John Scalzi. Scalzi is always an easy read, so I am confident I will get to this one.
New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve been meaning to read this. I will.
Provenance, by Ann Leckie. This one is tougher. The book is in he same universe as her Ancillary universe, but is not a sequel to the trilogy, from what I can see. I read Ancillary Justice. I think I admired it more than I liked it. I haven’t gotten to the other two. Can I read this one as a stand-alone, without reading the other two? I’ll give it a try.
Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee. This one is clearly number two in a series, and I have not read the first. Sadly, its being second in a series makes it far less likely I’ll get to it.
Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. It’s a science fiction mystery. OMG! I love mysteries. I must read it!
The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin. I read the first in the series, The Fifth Season, and I enjoyed that one tremendously. This is the third in the series. I have not read the second. Oh dear. I’ll do it if I can.
Conclusion: I think I’m in trouble with the novel category, because I haven’t read a single one. And it’s the third week of May.
Next post: novellas, novelettes, and short stories.