5 Enduring American Mysteries Explored in 5 Novels

Although the United States is a fairly young country, we have our share of secrets. Here’s five of the nation’s weirdest mysteries and novels that reference them.

The cover of the book Brief CasesBrief Cases
JIM BUTCHER
Scotland has the Loch Ness monster, Mexico has the chupacabra, and we in the United States have Bigfoot: an ape-like beast thought by some to roam the more isolated corners of the Pacific Northwest. No one has ever found definitive evidence for the creature’s existence, but that hasn’t stopped plenty of people from looking.

Professional wizard and magical troubleshooter Harry Dresden has taken several jobs from the sasquatch, or “forest people,” during his career. Jim Butcher’s collection Brief Cases includes three such accounts: “B is for Bigfoot,” “I Was a Teenage Bigfoot,” and “Bigfoot on Campus.”

 

The cover of the book Journal of a UFO InvestigatorJournal of a UFO Investigator
DAVID HALPERIN
In the summer of 1947, townsfolk in Roswell, New Mexicoreported the discovery of what appeared to be the wreckage of some sort of space craft. The government response was confusing, to say the least. Military personnel released a statement to the local press indicating they had recovered a flying disc of some sort. Later, they claimed that what had crashed in Roswell was a perfectly ordinary weather balloon. Needless to say, people have been arguing about what really happened ever since.

David Halperin’s Journey of a UFO Investigator is the story of a troubled teenage boy who constructs an elaborate fantasy life around the UFO craze of the 1960s. As he becomes more strongly enmeshed in his world of Roswell, Men in Black, and Unidentified Flying Saucers, the lines between real and unreal begin to blur.

 

The cover of the book I Was Amelia EarhartI Was Amelia Earhart
JANE MENDELSOHN
On June 1, 1937, pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart set out to become the first woman pilot to fly around the world. She disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. Theories regarding her disappearance have come and gone. Recently discovered forensic evidence suggests that Earhart may have ditched her plane over the ocean and then survived a short while on Nikumaroro Island, but the mystery is far from settled.

Jane Mendelson’s I Was Amelia Earhart explores what might have happened had Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had both survived the crash and started a new life on a nearby tropical island. As they adjust to island life, Earhart looks back on her life and the expedition that might have been her doom.

 

The cover of the book The Lost SymbolThe Lost Symbol
DAN BROWN
The Central Intelligence Agency is a pretty mysterious organization, but one of its biggest secrets is hiding in plain sight. Kryptos is a large outdoor sculpture composed of copper, granite, quartz, and wood featuring four encrypted messages. Three of them have been solved, but the fourth has thus so far stumped amateur and professional codebreakers alike.

Kryptos is one of several mysteries referenced in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol: a suspense story set in the hidden chambers and tunnels of Washington, DC. While The Lost Symbol is fiction, there really are plenty of mysteries to explore in and around our nation’s capital city. Many of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons, and those guys really enjoyed their symbols and puzzles.

 

The cover of the book PhantomsPhantoms
DEAN KOONTZ
In 1587, a little more than 100 English colonists arrived on Roanoke Island to found a new colony. After the colony was successfully established, its governor, John White, returned to England to fetch more supplies. When he returned three years later, he discovered it deserted. The only clue that might solve the mystery was a single word carved on a tree: “Croatoan.” White had no idea what it meant, and neither does anyone else. One of the more popular theories suggest that the colonists may have abandoned their settlement in favor of moving in with a nearby Native American tribe, the Croatans, and left the engraving to let White know. There are plenty of other possibilities, though, and this one isn’t going to be solved any time soon.

Dean Koontz’s Phantoms features another disappearance that is eerily similar to what happened in Roanoke. Could the two incidents be related? What could possibly be responsible? (Hint: It’s not a friendly neighboring Native American tribe.)

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8 THINGS TO DO WITH UNWANTED BOOKS

So you’ve decided to take Marie Kondo’s advice to heart and remove some of the books from your space. Congratulations! It’s a tough thing to do sometimes, we know. But now that you’ve made that decision, you might be left wondering—what do I do with unwanted books? Well, my friend, you’re in luck. I have just the list for you.

8 Things to Do with Unwanted Books

MAKE BOOK ART

You might not be the most crafty person in the world, but there are lots of crafts you can do with books you’re otherwise finished with. Try something ornate, like making a decorative birdcage out of books or go a bit easier and use book pages as the canvas for your latest print or drawing.

MAKE A SECRET BOX

You might have sensitive documents or meaningful trinkets lying around and while we can’t all have a secret room hidden by a bookcase, we can pretty much all have secret boxes that look like books—and were, in a former life—to hide small items in. (Alternatively, switch out the traditional ring box with a book box for a proposal to show your potential future spouse you get them.)

DONATE THEM

Libraries, prisons, shelters, schools, and certainly other places are often in need of books. Be sure they’re in good condition and not too outdated for maximum helpfulness! Otherwise, you’re just asking someone else to do the work of chucking them in the recycling bin for you.

REGIFT THEM

Just because a book was no good for you doesn’t mean it’s not right for someone else. As long as the book is in good condition and you’re also giving it in good faith—not just to get rid of something—there’s nothing wrong with giving it as a gift.

BRING THEM TO A LITTLE FREE LIBRARY

Almost like regifting, there’s also the option of bringing unwanted books to your nearest Little Free Library. It’s a great way to get to know your neighborhood (and maybe meet your neighbors) while potentially even scoring some new books for yourself. Win-win! You can find official Little Free Libraries near you using their map tool. Meanwhile, you might also find similar, unofficial setups near your home just by going on a walk.

USE THEM AS A DOORSTOP

There’s a reason we call big books doorstops. And why not put something big and beautiful to use? It can be both an artful addition to your home and functional. Plus, imagine the conversations you’ll have in your home when others see it. “So, did you actually read War and Peace?” It’s only a hop to the woes of climate change from there—after all, you did reuse and recycle, thus avoiding more plastic packaging from an item actually meant to be a doorstop.

MAKE FURNITURE FROM THEM

Akin to crafting with books, why not make furniture of them? They’re already piled up around your home, and if you arrange them just so with a little added glue and maybe some additional wooden support, you’ve got yourself a new end table. More recycling—yay!

START A BOOK EXCHANGE AT YOUR WORKPLACE OR ELSEWHERE

Everyone likes free stuff! My library does an annual event around Valentine’s Day involving the exchange of romance novels and cupcakes. Why not encourage your coworkers or other groups you see regularly to do something similar? Do it in one big event where everyone gets a ticket for every book they take in to represent the number of books they can take out if you want to be exact about it or set up a system more like a Little Free Library in your break room. One person’s unwanted book is another person’s next great read!

What other ideas do you have for things to do with unwanted books? Tell us in the comments!

By , January 

 

5 SLIGHTLY RIDICULOUS UNSOLVED MYSTERIES OF THE HARRY POTTER SERIES

I have started rereading the Harry Potter books to help me get to sleep at night, since I know them well enough that I don’t feel like I’m missing anything when I fall asleep halfway through a chapter and need to find my place again. As a result, I have come across a number of tiny mysteries that were (gasp!) never addressed by Pottermore and I thought they were just, well, nice and comforting in light of the various larger inconsistencies in The Crimes of Grindelwald. I anticipate that I will find more of these as I move forward through the series. For the record, I will be leaving out anything about the mechanics of time travel via Time Turner because that just hurts my brain, and any thoughts about the mechanics of Hagrid’s conception because there are some things that really ought to stay mysteries.

1. THE WAND CHOOSES THE WIZARD (WITH SOME EXCEPTIONS)

Some people who are better at math than me figured out that, given the price of the materials (unicorn hair, phoenix tail feather, etc.) that go into each wand, Ollivander probably sells them at a loss. Even so, wands are among the most pricey of school supplies. However, since wizards get worse results when using someone else’s wand, it does not seem to me to be the best area to economize when buying school supplies for your eleven-year-old. I understand why Ron ended up with Charlie’s old wand given how many Weasley children there are, but Neville, who presumably had at least some money left to him by his parents, also used his father’s old wand for the first five books and that didn’t always go well for him. The poor kid already had the cards stacked against him, why not get him his own wand?

 

2. DUMBLEDORE’S SCAR

In the very first book, Dumbledore tells Hagrid and McGonagall that he has a scar on his left knee that is a perfect map of the London Underground and that scars can be useful—how so, Albus? Do you think he’s just going to strip in the middle of a chase scene in the Underground in the next Fantastic Beasts movie? Maybe that’s when he decides to switch to velvet robes instead of those smart suits.

 

3. QUIRRELL’S TURBAN

I asked a while back on Twitter why Quirrell’s students thought the turban smelled like it was stuffed with garlic when it was actually stuffed with Voldemort’s face. One suggestion was that it was just the stench of evil. It’s hard to brush teeth on the back of your head, someone else said.

 

4. WHERE DO THE ANIMALS FOR TRANSFIGURATION COME FROM?

Does Professor McGonagall just order, say, a bunch of umbrella birds to be turned into umbrellas? What happens to them after class? Do they just hang out as umbrellas until the next time they’re needed? You don’t have to feed or clean up after umbrellas. (I know, let it go. It’s magic.)

 

5. HOW DID NEARLY HEADLESS NICK GET UN-PETRIFIED IF HE CAN’T EAT OR DRINK?

We know that Nick and his fellow ghosts miss being able to taste food, even though they no longer have to eat. Nick obviously couldn’t have taken the potion that was used on the Petrified students. Was the Mandrake Draught just sprayed in his general direction?

I hope I’ve given you a few things to wonder about today.

By , December 

50 Wonderful Things From 2018

The Afro-Latino Brooklynite Miles Morales is one of many characters who don the mask in the 2018 film Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.
Sony Pictures

Standard caveats (really standard — same as last year!): I don’t watch everything. I am behind on many things. That’s just the way the world is. So if something you loved isn’t here, it is not a rebuke.

And: These are cultural — mostly pop-cultural — things. These are not the best things in the world. Like yours, my actual list of wonderful things from the year, if I wrote it in a journal instead of for work, would be a list of people and moments spent with them, of days when it was unexpectedly sunny and of times when things suddenly felt better. But whatever journey you’re on at any given moment, you can always use more good things. So here we go.

1. Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lively performance of “A Cover Is Not the Book,” a preposterously catchy dance-hall number in Mary Poppins Returns.

2. Miles Morales’ father talking to him through his door in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VerseThe film is full of visually inventive sequences, but this emotional scene between father and son might be its most important moment.

3. “Must the duck be here?” Yorgos Lanthimos’ royal court comedy-drama The Favourite isn’t as fussy as it could have turned out, and it runs on the performances of Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz. Its absurdity is carefully apportioned, including when Harley (Nicholas Hoult), exasperated by a companion’s feathered pal, wonders whether the room could be smaller by a couple of webbed feet.

4. The climactic moment of Steve McQueen’s Widows. It’s been hard to explain this difficult and thoughtful but also exhilarating heist film to audiences. But as it reaches its end and concludes as it must, Viola Davis stands in for many women who have simply had enough.

5. The gold shades of If Beale Street Could Talk. Barry Jenkins’ entire film is a series of lush images, beginning with the breathtaking opening shots, in which Tish’s (KiKi Layne) coat and Fonny’s (Stephan James) shirt and the canopy of leaves in their neighborhood are all the same autumn gold.

6. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant’s final scene in Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy, as a curmudgeonly forger, and Grant, as her lonely accomplice and only real friend, meet up at the end of Marielle Heller’s film after a long estrangement. And while the scene is deeply felt, it doesn’t betray the story’s fundamental sense of isolation.

7. Carla Gugino’s performance in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. The series was uneven and overlong, but one part that was riveting throughout was Gugino’s work as Olivia Crain, a mother slowly feeling her grip on reality slide.

8. The blues of Wildlife. Directed by Paul Dano and written by Dano and Zoe Kazan, the family drama Wildlife showcased great work from Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould. But it also stands out as a stunning example of color in visual storytelling. Watch the film when you can, and watch for where the blue is, where the neutrals are, and where unexpected colors are. It’s a fully thought-out color story in a way that’s immensely satisfying.

9. “Shallow.” For all the fuss that came and went over Bradley Cooper’s reimagining of the oft-told show-business tragedy A Star Is Born, the moment that stuck — for good reason — was Lady Gaga and Cooper performing the song “Shallow,” which Gaga wrote with her collaborators. In that moment, it’s utterly believable that Ally and Jackson are falling in love and finding that love in art, despite the fact that the literal telling of the tale, in which she warbles a bit of it in a parking lot and he completes a full arrangement with which she sings along flawlessly, doesn’t make the least bit of sense.

10. Blake Lively’s various looks in A Simple Favor. A tonally playful film, Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor is funny and tense and over-the-top all at once. One of its signatures is Blake Lively’s gorgeous menswear-inspired wardrobe, which plays against Anna Kendrick’s almost cartoonish femininity. Everyone in the film looks great, and the film looks great, and it continues Feig’s history of working very effectively with actresses to showcase notes they haven’t quite hit before.

11. The Good Place: The PodcastBehind-the-scenes podcasts are difficult. They can easily collapse into a bunch of people talking about how great it is to work together which, without more, isn’t much. The Good Place: The Podcast, however, hosted by actor Marc Evan Jackson, makes the formula work. They interview not only actors and writers, but also folks who work in areas like effects, set design, props, music and stunts. Taken together, the podcast’s run is a great way to learn how TV shows work and how many people put their full hearts into the ones that are good.

12. The opening montage of Forever. The showstarred Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph as a couple whose marriage faced a very unexpected set of circumstances. And while not all of it worked, the opening sequence, showing how a couple can go from blissfully in love to contentedly in love to companionably cohabitating, was efficient and alarmingly plausible.

13. Peter Kavinsky’s selfie. The Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA romance To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was a hit, not to mention a real boon to lovers of romantic comedy in general. And while its final scene is swoonworthy and its adorable flirtations are many, none stayed with me quite like Peter (Noah Centineo) taking a selfie for Lara Jean (Lana Condor) to use as the background on her phone. Gently and confidently funny (only because you know it’s supposed to be funny), it’s one of the moments that make it believable that Peter is very, very excited about Lara Jean.

14. The wig throw. Look, there are so many things to love about Black Panther. How do we choose? Well, I choose the moment in which Okoye (Danai Gurira) hurls her wig at one of the men attacking her, just long enough for it to distract him. Wigs detached from heads (and sometimes on heads) are inherently funny and that scene is inherently great, so it winds up being one of the film’s OH BOY NO WAY moments that work especially well in a crowded theater.

15. The end of Avengers: Infinity War. If you haven’t yet seen the penultimate installment in this set of Avengers films, just move right along. Skip this one. Don’t spoil yourself. Okay, if you’re still here, I assume you know that there were heavy losses at the end of the film (most of which, sure, will be undone in the next). Peter Parker (Tom Holland), in particular, was allowed to show fear as he began to vanish, and that fear and panic made his (come on, surely temporary) loss all the more emotional.

16. “Oh no, he died.” The comedy Game Night is much, much better than it sounds like it would be, thanks in part to the cast. Jason Bateman, Kyle Chandler, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury … everybody is good. But there is no performance in the film better than Rachel McAdams as Annie, a deadly serious competitor on game night with her friends who becomes a surprised participant in what film-lovers know as One Crazy Night. You can already know going into it that you will hear her say “Oh no, he died!” at one point and it will be one of the best line-readings of the year. It will still make you laugh. I can still watch it now and still laugh. Putting this together, I just did.

17. The scene where Kayla’s dad comes clean about his fears. There has been a ton of praise, all earned and all deserved, for Elsie Fisher’s performance as young Kayla in Bo Burnham’s stunning Eighth Grade. But the film also relies on Josh Hamilton as Kayla’s father. In one scene, the focus briefly shifts to him as he tries to explain how much he loves her and how much he loves being her father. There isn’t a false note. It’s a beautiful scene.

18. The Rumble In The Restroom. Little bits of the fight scene in which Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill and Liang Yang bounce each other off walls and sinks and mirrors started to circulate well before the release of Mission: Impossible – Fallout. But in the end, the whole thing was as claustrophobic, exciting, stylish and sort of funny as you could have possibly hoped.

19. Cate Blanchett’s suits in Ocean’s 8. If you saw the film, then you know.

20. The singing lineup. As depressing as it was to see Fox cancel the fantastic comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that’s how much fun it was to see NBC pick it right back up again for a sixth season that will start just after the new year. Where would we be without Jake Peralta having the guys in a police lineup sing “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys?

21. Tully‘s montage. It was a good year for montages, actually, and like the one in Forever, the one in Tully that showed the drudgery and monotony of caring for an infant gave us something that only a sequence like that can do. It compressed time — faster and faster, in fact — to tell a story about a lot of moments, none of which are memorable.

22. Sandra Oh in Killing Eve. All the performances in the BBC America series are terrific. But Sandra Oh, who has been one of our most indispensable actresses for many years, played the obsessed spy with an intensity and vulnerability that helped Jodie Comer’s somewhat broader portrayal of the assassin Villanelle remain grounded.

23. A Quiet Place‘s final shot. The entire film is almost unbearably tense, since one key to survival is to stay silent even as danger mounts, passes or arrives. It becomes difficult to imagine what could be a satisfying conclusion — what could feel fair and consistent with the story and not, at some level, just nihilistic and awful. It’s very smart that the story ends where it does — which I wouldn’t dare to give away.

24. John Mulaney and the horse in the hospital. Mulaney’s special Kid Gorgeous has long sections devoted to stranger-danger training and Saturday Night Live. But the peak is an extended simile in which he compares politics to having a horse loose in a hospital. Even if nothing else in the special worked, it would be an astounding document just for that.

25. The last line of Barry. The comedy-drama Barry stars Bill Hader as a hit man trying to go straight, in part by taking acting classes. While it sounds like the setup for black comedy only, the first season builds to a final sequence in which the entire point of the story and the entire meaning of the character’s experience up to this point come into focus in one jarring moment.

26. A dogfight over some garbage. I wound up having mixed feelings about Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, but a sequence in which two packs of dogs scrap over discarded and rotting food, all the while calmly negotiating over how to proceed, turns into a delightful Looney-Tunes-ish moment.

27. Chris Pine in A Wrinkle in Time. I was candidly baffled by the public ambivalence about Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the Madeleine L’Engle novel, in part because the relationship between Meg (Storm Reid) and her father, played by Pine, was so moving. He’s just wonderful in it, human and scared, brilliant and lost.

28. New Greg. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is approaching the end of its run. The creators, not surprisingly, decided that it would be a better story if Rebecca (Rachel Bloom) got to close the loop on her relationship with old boyfriend Greg. But when Greg’s original portrayer, Santino Fontana, wasn’t available, they recast with Skylar Astin. But they didn’t pretend it hadn’t happened. Instead, they used the change as a way to play with the idea that when you have changed and someone else has changed in the years since you dated each other, it can feel like the ex is literally a different person. It’s a clever and respectful way to recast a character who was much loved.

29. The sad, exciting, adventurous, devastating portrayal of middle school in the Netflix series Everything Sucks! Rarely has coming of age been so fairly and painfully drawn.

30. Revisiting ER. One of the fun things that happens in the streaming era is that when a series becomes available in a new place, it can be an excuse to talk about it. That’s what happened when all 15 seasons of ER arrived on Hulu in January. It became an opportunity to look back on an influential show, its blind spots and its stars in the making.

31. The Annihilation plants. Alex Garland’s thriller Annihilation features great performances from actresses including Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson and Jennifer Jason Leigh. But it also showcases genuinely beautiful visual effects. That’s not only the case in its purely frightening sequences or its curious finale. It’s true throughout, with the creation of unusual plants and strange sights that signal to the traveling women that they are somewhere they’re unprepared to be.

32. Successful reinventions. When The Great British Bake Off, broadcast in the United States as The Great British Baking Show, moved from the BBC to Channel 4, it lost judge Mary Berry and hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins. Without them, it was almost impossible to imagine it continuing. Nevertheless, while it feels disloyal to say so, those charged with carrying on have actually done a marvelous job. Hosts Noel Fielding and Sandi Toksvig have a very different but also entertaining dynamic, while judge Prue Leith is just a bit more naughty than Berry was, making her able to play off the eternally self-important Paul Hollywood in a slightly different way.

33. The two episodes of the podcast Reply All about policing. In a way no individual true crime podcast could, these episodes, called “The Crime Machine,” shed light on the development of New York’s crime statistics system and how a tool intended to create more just results became a weapon used against people who are already marginalized.

34. James Acaster’s Repertoire. Acaster, a British comic, released a set of four specials on Netflix in March together under the label Repertoire. They’re brilliantly structured, weird, insightful and profoundly funny.

35. Paige on the platform. The series finale of The Americans was wrenching in different ways than longtime viewers of the spy show might have expected. Maybe the biggest reveal in the entire run, though, happens the last time Paige (Holly Taylor) and her mother Elizabeth (Keri Russell) make eye contact. Perfectly timed to the period music that was always so thoughtfully used to score important scenes, it was more dramatic than any of the Jenningses’ capers.

36. In a world full of woe, there’s nothing that’s grown on me like Billy on the Street. It is an extremely your-mileage-may-vary situation, but in short bursts, I am always cheered by Billy Eichner running around the streets of New York surprising people and asking them questions. All that despite the fact that I would never want it to happen to me.

37. The second season of Netflix’s One Day at a Time was just as good as the first — that’s a very high bar. And the season finale, which featured Rita Moreno wrenching the tears from your very eyeballs, was shamelessly manipulative and very moving and very sweet. It was all you could ask from your favorite family show.

38. The capes of Lando. Not everything about Solo was successful, to say the least. But Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian was such a fine invention that it often seemed like it should have been his movie. I’d have watched a film about just his cape choices.

39. The Tara Westover book Educated, a memoir of Westover’s childhood, is sometimes terrifying, sometimes upsetting, and sometimes even inspiring. While it’s a hard read about a family’s isolation, it’s a riveting family story that makes for great conversations with friends.

40. Focaccia lessons. The Samin Nosrat book Salt Fat Acid Heat led to a four-part Netflix series of the same name. And while it seems weird that the Fat episode is first (making the series feel more like … Fat Salt Acid Heat?), it makes sense that they’d want to lead with the frankly sexy scene in which Nosrat learns to make focaccia with high-end olive oil. It will make you want to bake bread, at the very least.

41. Russell Hornsby in The Hate U Give. Hornsby plays the father of young Starr Carter in the adaptation of Angie Thomas’ hugely successful YA novel. And while Amandla Stenberg and Regina Hall and a lot of other folks are terrific in it, none stands out more than Hornsby, whose complicated portrayal of a dad who wants the best for his daughter gives the story much of its sizable heart.

42. Constance Wu in Crazy Rich AsiansWhen you’ve been watching an actress kill it as long as she has on ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, seeing Wu have a huge year in a huge film can be so inspiring. Wu got to be glamorous and sparkly and funny in Crazy Rich Asians, and she deserves every magazine cover she got.

43. Mrs. Rogers. The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is the story of Fred Rogers and his work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But it also becomes the story of his wife Joanne, who likely knew this complicated man better than anyone, and who provides humanizing insight into the man behind the cardigans.

44. Windows in windows in Searching. Very few stories reliant on technology work very well. Searching, starring John Cho as David, the father of a missing teenager, takes place entirely on screens — mostly on her laptop, as you see the texts and chats and messages and emails and videos he looks through while trying to find her. One of the film’s best qualities is that David isn’t either a tech genius or a dummy who has to learn what an emoji is. He’s somewhere in between, where a lot of parents fear they would be. Cho’s performance and the cleverness of the presentation make the film well worth seeing.

45. Jack-Jack. Hiding inside Incredibles 2 is a sequence in which Jack-Jack, the superhero baby (maybe), gets into a fight in the backyard. Worthy of any classic Saturday morning cartoon, the fight is a fully contained and fully delightful adventure of its own.

46. Mortal danger, by choice. Free Solo is the story of Alex Honnold, who set out to do something he’d dreamed of doing for ages. He wanted to “free solo” climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. “Free solo” means rock-climbing with no ropes, no safety harness, no nothing. Just you, skittering up a flat rock face. And while the climbing sequences are unforgettable (see it on the biggest screen you can; it’s out now), the filmmakers also examine what it is that makes a guy want to do something like this when everyone acknowledges that death is a very real possibility.

47. The other lost teenager. Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, didn’t get as much attention as Eighth Grade did. But it, too, contains a beautiful story of a father and his young teenage daughter. Here, Ben Foster plays a dad who lives in the woods with his daughter, played by Thomasin McKenzie. McKenzie’s quiet portrayal of a girl fiercely loyal to a father she doesn’t entirely understand gives the movie its serene sadness, very much grounded in love.

48. Frederick Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana is a documentary that (as is Wiseman’s way) only observes the town of Monrovia and never comments on it with narration or talking heads. This leads to some remarkable sequences, like one in which many of us will see our longest-ever look at a Freemasons’ ceremony.

49. The #Hamildrops. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s series of monthly additions to the Hamilton canon could have seemed like a desperate attempt to keep the brand going as the touring companies travel. But it didn’t. “First Burn,” an earlier draft of Eliza’s angry song aimed at her husband, let listeners glimpse a process that’s often opaque. In some cases, it may even put them in a position to second-guess the composer about what was left in and what was taken out. That’s a vulnerability not everyone wants to display.

50. Dog Twitter. I simply can’t end 2018 without mentioning that, because this was the year I got a dog, it was also the year I discovered Dog Twitter. To all of you who sent me photos of your dogs — in hats, in sweaters, begging, wagging their tails — I thank you. I’m glad we’re all here on Dog Twitter together.

MY READING RESOLUTIONS FOR 2019

I’ve never been much for reading resolutions. I read voraciously, always have, and I never wanted to turn something I do for fun into an obligation. But I do love spreadsheets, and this year I’ve been tracking my reading systematically for…honestly for the first time, thanks to the siren call of Rioter Rachel’s glorious spreadsheet. It’s allowed me to get a much better picture of what I read and how much, which has in turn made me want to up my game.

So here’s a few things I’m going to be aiming to work on in 2019:

1. Read more diversely. I knew I wasn’t focusing on this as much as I’d like myself to, but it’s pretty bad. Honestly, I’m ashamed to share this number with you guys, but if I don’t hold myself accountable than I’m failing before I’ve begun. I’ve read 120 books so far this year, and only 26 of them had POC authors and/or artists—a paltry 14%. I want to bring that percentage up to 33% next year at the bare minimum, and publishing being the glaringly white tundra that it is, that’s not going to happen unless I’m conscious of my choices. Step it up, Future Jess.

2. Read more in general. I’m not sure I’ve ever read more than 120 books in a year before, but I’m nothing if not competitive, especially with myself. I think I can do better. I’ve upped my contact lens prescription and I’m ready to go!

3. Get into cozy mysteries. I read all the Agatha Christie there is last year and I’m searching for something to fill that gap. I just want respectably tweedy people being gently nonplussed by corpses on the cricket green or whatever, is that so much to ask?

4. Read more indie comics. I’m a superhero gal, but that’s not all there is to the medium—not to mention the world outside capes and tights is much more diverse in just about every way. Time to step out of my four-color comfort zone!

5. Read more classics. Yeah, this is kind of counterintuitive with some of my earlier resolutions, but dangit, I enjoy some Charles Dickens now and again, and they’re always available on kindle from the library! I’ll make it work.

6. Talk about what I’ve read more. Sure, I write for Book Riot and I gab about books with friends over brunch, but I still don’t feel like I shout about the books I love enough. I haven’t decided whether I want to take it to Twitter, Instagram, Litsy, or somewhere else, but somewhere there’s a captive audience who wants to hear me gush about the latest niche New York history book I’ve devoured. (Um, right?)

7. Get my TBR down to a manageable level. *eyes the number of times I’ve written “read more” in this post already* Yeah, good luck with that, Future Jess!

Readers, do you have reading resolutions for 2019? What are they? Do you have any recommendations for mine? Send ‘em our way!

By , December 

The Top 10 Evil Robots in Science Fiction

Cover detail, The Robots of Gotham © HMH

Greetings, future toilers in the robot factories!

I’m Todd McAulty. I’m a science fiction writer. My first novel, THE ROBOTS OF GOTHAM, set in a future Chicago conquered by machines, was published in hardcover this week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Admittedly, science fiction writers don’t have much of a productive role to play in society. When we’re all working twenty hours a day in robot factories, we’ll be the ones getting chewed out by robotic overseers for constantly putting our slave collars on backwards. But we do have one sacred duty, and we take it seriously. It’s our job to prepare people for the future, ugly as it may be. We were the first ones to tell you about atomic power, Velcro, and the rise of hip hop. Yes, we missed the boat on Pokemon Go, but only because Neal Stephenson was on vacation that month.

The most helpful thing a science fiction writer can do today is to prepare you for the inevitable rise of our machine overlords. Yes, I know. You just got your deck resurfaced, and now you won’t get to enjoy it because you’ll soon be chained to a post, eating protein gruel and making power packs for a robot army. It could be worse. No, I don’t know how. Look, it’s just our job to tell you the bad news, not handhold you through the entire process.

Fortunately for me, most of the hard work preparing society for the robot uprising has already been done. Science fiction writers have been warning you about our future as second-class citizens for nearly a century, ever since Czech writer Karel Čapek penned the robot play R.U.R. in 1920, and Fritz Lang released the brilliant silent film Metropolis in 1927. If you haven’t got your escape route planned and your hidden mountain cave picked out by now, we wash our hands of you.

What’s that? You’ve been binge-watching Game of Thrones and The Good Place, and totally missed all the warning signs science fiction has been spooning you for the past thirty years?

All right, fine. We’ve probably got some time before the robots make their first move. While we wait patiently for our slave collars, here’s a quick refresher course on all those important lessons you missed.  We can’t cover them all, so I’ve condensed it down to a list of the Top Ten Evil Robots in Science Fiction. Study these carefully, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll be ready for your future role as a resistance fighter in burnt out urban trenches, or a loyal toady proudly posting proclamations on behalf of your robot masters. Wherever your career path takes you, we don’t judge.

A few caveats before we get started. We’re including only one evil robot per media franchise. Otherwise, let’s face it, this entire list would be made up of increasingly advanced Terminator models and five entries for Mechagodzilla. Also, we define ‘robot’ fairly loosely, to include pretty much any computer or algorithm with a nasty disposition.

With that, let’s plunge into the list!

[Caution: Spoilers for all the films mentioned below, plus Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, a bunch of Star Trek episodes, and other random stuff.]

10. Ultron (The Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015)

Ultron is the newest robot on this list (and also the shiniest). That means he built on everything that came before, and it shows. Ingenious evil plan for world domination? Check. Witty villain dialog? Check. Killer robotic styling? Check.

But the real reason Ultron makes the list is that Age of Ultron – which earned nearly $1.5 billion at the box office worldwide — instantly made him an iconic villain. He fought the Avengers to a virtual standstill, and went down to defeat only because his own robot creation, Vision, turned against him.

That’s tough luck, and it shows that even the greatest robot villains can have an off day. Remember that when you’re dithering between enlisting in the human resistance, and signing up for a cushy job as a robot toady.

Image courtesy of Disney

9. Megalon (Godzilla vs. Megalon, 1973)

Technically, Megalon’s not really a robot. He’s a 180-foot tall cyborg god, unleashed by an undersea civilization to wreak havoc on surface dwellers in retaliation for thoughtless underwater atomic testing (as they do). However, once you surpass about 30 feet, all these classifications get a little meaningless, so we’re just going to go with ‘robot.’

Why is Megalon on this list, and not Godzilla’s other metal adversaries, like the entirely awesome Mechagodzilla? Well. While it’s true that Mechagodzilla successfully went toe-to-toe with the big guy in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974), Megalon has the distinction of facing off against bothGodzilla and his giant robot buddy Jet Jaguar, and acquitting himself admirably.

Also, there’s this. Yes, that’s Megalon on the receiving end of a drop kick by a 90-ton Godzilla. In my book, that earns you a place of pride in the Top 10 Evil Robots of All Time.

Image courtesy of Toho

8. Ava (Ex Machina, 2014)

Ava almost didn’t make this list. And it’s because you can alllllmost be sympathetic to her plight.

She was made in an isolated laboratory by a textbook mad scientist and, despite the fact that she is without a doubt the most sophisticated artificial intelligence ever created, she’s scheduled to be cruelly dismantled for parts so her creator can get on with the business of creating the next model.

So, yeah, the murderous plot she hatches and executes really is all in the name of self-preservation. But it’s the way she does it that leaves you in a cold sweat. Her doe-eyed seduction of the naïve Caleb, and the grateful way she shields him from the worst of the violence, lulls you into a false sense of security. Until she coldly leaves him behind to die of starvation.

Also, she’s definitely the hottest robot on this list. I mean, woo. She is one hot robot. You can understand Caleb’s fascination with her, and the dawning horror he feels, helplessly watching her escape the compound. She is a ruthless and efficient killer slipping effortlessly into a world that doesn’t even know she exists.

It’s only as the credits come up in Ex Machina that you realize you’ve watched a horror film. And that gut punch you feel is because you understand Ava for the first time.

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures

7. Ash (Alien, 1979)

Like Ava in Ex Machina, Ash has secret motivations, and you sort of understand them. He’s an android secretly planted among a human crew by the evil Weyland-Yutani corporation, and he’s there to make sure nobody does anything to jeopardize profits. And that includes damaging a deadly alien specimen the bioweapons division would love to get their hands on.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Ash is an asshole. I mean, seriously. His entire crew is being systematically slaughtered by an alien xenomorph, and he’s secretly helping the thing? Dick move, Ash. You’re an evil robot, and you suck.

Image courtesy of Paramount

6. HAL 9000 (2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968)

HAL is one of the oldest entries on this list – 50 years old this year! — and in many ways is the archetype for every evil computer of the last half century. Yes, people argue that HAL wasn’t really evil, that he was just confused, but those people want to suck the fun out of everything. HAL was evil, and we love him for it.

Is it true that when IBM refused to allow Arthur C. Clarke to name his evil computer the IBM 9000, Clarke just nudged all the letters in “IBM” down the alphabet by one to produce HAL? If not, it should be. If I were IBM, I’d put a big red glowing eye on every supercomputer I make from now on, and watch my stock take an easy 50% bump.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

5. Roy Batty (Blade Runner, 1982)

Roy Batty is a coldly ruthless killer, and richly deserves a place of honor on any list of Top Ten Evil Robots. When he and his band of replicants hijack a shuttle to Earth, they kill the entire crew. Batty kills his creator Tyrell with his bare hands, and even kills poor Sebastian, whose only crime was trusting Roy enough to bring him to Tyrell.

So does it matter than when Rick Deckard kills his beloved Pris and comes gunning for him, Batty chases him relentlessly, only to save his life? Does it matter that life become so precious to him in his final moments that he lets Deckard live? Does it matter that in those moments he delivers the famous “Tears in rain” monologue, which critic Mark Rowlands describes as “the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history”?

“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.” I’m not crying, you’re crying.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros./Getty Images

4. The Doomsday Machine (Star Trek, 1967)

You remember the Doomsday Machine, right? The deadly mechanical artifact left over from an ancient galactic war that destroys Commodore Matt Decker’s ship and crew, and leaves him a traumatized wreck until Captain  Kirk and the Enterprise find him on the battered husk of the USS Constellation? “The Doomsday Machine” is one of the most beloved episodes of the original Trek, and it’s for a reason. Forget Khan Noonien Singh – the Doomsday Machine is the most dangerous opponent Kirk and crew ever faced, and no mistake.

Also, the machine gets serious points for originally of design. Most robots on this list have two arms and two legs, and use them for mischief. Not the Doomsday Machine. It’s a miles-long space cigar with a big glowy mouth, capable of gobbling planets for fuel and carving a path of destruction through the most densely populated section of our galaxy. It’s destroyed only through grit, quick thinking, and the kind of determination that Kirk and his crew are justly famous for.

Star Trek has a rich legacy of evil robot villains, from the indestructible Nomad of “The Changeling” to the V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But the Doomsday Machine towers above them all.

Image courtesy of Paramount Television

3. GLaDOS (Portal, 2007)

Valve’s brilliant Portal is the only game to make this list, and it’s purely on the strength of its magnificent villain GLaDOS, one of the most well-realized and sinister fictional robots ever created.

Portal has a fairly simple story. You wake up with no memories in the Aperture Science research facility, where the computer voice of GLaDOS guides you through a series of increasingly dangerous trials of something called the portal gun, a weapon that creates portals you can teleport through. The true nature of your surroundings and your circumstance gradually becomes clear as the tests progress. It’s a magnificent game, with a revolutionary play mechanic and a terrific sense of humor.

GLaDOS is one of the greatest villains in science fiction, of any kind. On top of using you to perfect her methods of killing, GLaDOS also totally cheats with her reward system. Since she’s a disembodied voice for virtually the entire game, it’s a challenge for her to find ways to really motivate you. One she abuses shamelessly is the promise of cake. Mmmm, delicious cake. You can almost taste it. But then you find desiccated corpses of earlier clone bodies, and ominous graffiti written in hidden locations: “THE CAKE IS A LIE.”

Could it be? Could the despicable GLaDOS, exterminator of all mankind, also be LYING ABOUT THE CAKE? Spoiler: yes.

Image courtesy of Valve

2. T-800 (The Terminator, 1984)

Now don’t act all surprised. You knew the Terminator had to be on this list somewhere. Although the film The Terminator is 34 years old (yes, 34 years old – stop thinking about it), it remains the high-water mark for evil robot cinema.

Although the T-800 has been technologically surpassed by newer models, including the terrifying shape-changing T-1000 and the T-X, the sturdy T-800 has never really been supplanted in our hearts.

In fact, the Terminator movies – and I’ve kinda lost track of how many there have been by this point – are a treasure trove of evil robots. The grandpappy of them all of course is Skynet, the net-based superintelligence that brings Armageddon down on its creators, one of the greatest of all fictional artificial intelligences. I debated giving Skynet the place of honor on this list rather than the T-800. But Skynet is not played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

1. Agent Smith (The Matrix, 1999)

Hmm, did I say The Terminator was the high-water mark for evil robot cinema? I meant, “except for The Matrix.”

The Matrix is a brilliant film, and a film like that needs a brilliant villain. It found it in Agent Smith, chillingly portrayed by Hugo Weaving.

Is Agent Smith a robot? I think so. He’s an artificial intelligence, that’s for sure. He shoots guns and you can punch him. Ergo, he’s a robot. Q.E.D.

Now that we got that out of the way, I submit that Agent Smith is the greatest evil robot ever created. All the other machines on this list are flawed in some way. Either they have sympathetic motivations, like Ava and Roy Batty, or they’re just following their programming, like Ash. Or they have a secret weakness, like the Doomsday Machine and GLaDOS.

Not Agent Smith. Despite that brief moment where he pulls out his earpiece and has some chummy one-on-one bonding time with Morpheus, we never come to sympathize with Smith. He is evil, supremely capable, and he has no weaknesses. And unlike other, lesser Agents, he absolutely will not give up. He is your nightmare, wrapped up in a superintelligent and indestructible package.

Image courtesy of Warner Brothers

 

There you have it. All the abject lessons of 100 years of science fiction condensed down into a neat package. You’re welcome.

While we await the inevitable arrival of our robot overlords, I know you have lots of questions. Let me simplify it for you. There’s really only one that matters: When the robots come, will they look like WALL-E, or Agent Smith?

Sleep well.