SARAH KIM

A thousand miles west of Shanghai, on a vast plain between two mountain ranges teeming with giant pandas, it looks like an alien spacecraft has landed in the fourth-largest city in China. Designed by Zaha Hadid Architects to resemble a star nebula, this is the 59,000-square-foot Chengdu Science Fiction Museum, constructed at lightspeed over the course of a single year to host the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, also known as WorldCon. For writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy, it's like the National Book Awards, the Academy Awards, and San Diego Comic-Con all rolled into one.

On Saturday, October 21st, 2023, thousands of people gathered here for panels, parties, and the annual Hugo Awards ceremony, which celebrates the best works of science fiction and fantasy published or released during the previous calendar year.

In Hollywood, a Hugo Award for best film or TV series may not carry the same cachet as an Oscar or an Emmy, but in bookstores from New York to Moscow, a bright Hugo Award badge on the cover of a novel can help it stand out. “We usually make a display in the store for the nominees and winners,” says Matthew Berger, co-owner of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in San Diego. In their early days, the Hugo Awards recognised writers who have since become genre legends, like Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Frank Herbert; more recently, honorees have included modern masters like George R.R. Martin, Brandon Sanderson, and N.K. Jemisin.

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An aerial view of Chengdu Science Fiction Museum, the main venue for the 81st World Science Fiction Convention, on October 15, 2023 in Chengdu, Sichuan Province of China.

That evening in Chengdu, in a massive auditorium shaped like the belly of a whale, Dave McCarty—a middle-aged software engineer for an Illinois trucking company and lifelong sci-fi fan who was chosen by the convention’s leaders to oversee last year’s Hugo Awards—walked onstage to thundering applause. Within the WorldCon community, he’s nicknamed the “Hugo Pope” for serving on so many awards committees over the years.

“With the help of fans from all over the world, including many fans here in China participating for the very first time, we identified a ballot of 114 deserving finalists,” McCarty said behind a podium, wearing a black tux over a white waistcoat and bow tie. “We then asked the community to rank those choices as they saw fit.”

But that’s not what happened. Something had gone horribly wrong.

Three months later, the truth came out when McCarty shared the Hugo nominating statistics on Facebook: Someone had stolen nominations from The Sandman legend Neil Gaiman, Babel author R. F. Kuang, Iron Widow novelist Xiran Jay Zhao, and fan writer Paul Weimer. All four of them earned enough votes to be finalists—and therefore eventually winners—but for unknown reasons, someone had secretly marked their works as “ineligible” after the first rounds of voting.

Among sci-fi and fantasy fans, the uproar was immediate and intense. Had government officials in the host country censored the finalists? Did the awards committee make a colossal mistake when tallying the votes, then try to cover it up? Or did something even stranger occur?

To get to the bottom of the mystery, I spoke with more than a dozen past Hugo winners, finalists, and committee members, some of whom requested anonymity. But to understand what these insiders believe really happened —and what it means for the future of the Hugos and other literary awards—we have to utilise a science fiction trope and go back in time.

The Hugo Awards have courted controversy before. In 2015, a right-wing voting bloc led by Brad R. Torgersen dominated the ballot after he complained that the Hugos had become “an affirmative action award” for “underrepresented minority or victim group” authors and characters. In 2021, the voting process to select the host city for the 2023 convention became a lightning rod for conspiracy theories.

Each year, anyone who purchases a membership in the World Science Fiction Society can vote on where WorldCon will be held two years later. In 2021, voters could choose between Chengdu and Winnipeg, Canada for the 2023 convention. “There were concerns that a couple thousand people from China purchased memberships [in the World Science Fiction Society] that year to vote for Chengdu,” says Jason Sanford, a three-time Hugo finalist. “It was unusual, but it was done under the rules.”

While Sanford welcomed the participation of new Chinese fans, other people were alarmed that many of the Chinese votes for Chengdu were written in the same handwriting and posted from the same mailing address. The chair of the convention that year, Mary Robinette Kowal, says some members of the awards committee wanted to mark those votes as invalid. “But if you’re filling out a ballot in English and you don’t speak English, you hand it to a friend who does,” she says. “And the translation we’d put in could be read as ‘where are you from,’ not ‘what is your address.’”

Eventually, a few votes were invalidated by the committee, but most were allowed to stand. “China has the largest science fiction reading audience on the planet by several magnitudes, and they are extremely passionate,” Kowal says.

Later, when Chengdu was announced as the winning site for the 2023 convention, more than 100 authors—including N. K. Jemisin, G. Willow Wilson, S. A. Chakraborty, and Tochi Onyebuchi—signed an open letter “in protest of serious and ongoing human rights violations taking place in the Uyghur region of China.” Other authors were concerned about the Chinese Communist Party’s history of censoring LGBTQ content, as well as material that criticises the party’s government.

These concerns planted the seeds for this year’s crisis, which reached a boiling point on January 20, 2024.

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Dave McCarty, Division Head of The Hugo Awards Selection Executive Department, unveiled the trophy base of the Hugo Award during the opening ceremony of the 81st World Science Fiction Convention.

Compared with other literary awards, the Hugos are usually remarkably transparent and democratic. While the National Book Awards and the Booker Prizes are selected behind closed doors by a panel of judges, anyone can vote for the Hugos by purchasing a supporting membership in the World Science Fiction Society for each year’s convention.

Most years, the Hugo committee shares the nominating statistics later the same evening after the winners are announced, or a few days later, at most. This year, Dave McCarty didn’t share the statistics until January 20—91 days after the awards ceremony, with no explanation for the delay. “The World Science Fiction Society’s constitution says the statistics have to be released within three months, but it’s never taken that long before now,” says Sanford.

When McCarty finally shared last year’s nominating statistics on his Facebook page, authors, fans, and finalists were shocked. In the history of the awards, no works had ever been deemed ineligible like this. Many people who had expected Kuang to win for Babel were now stunned to see she very well could have, and McCarty’s refusal to explain what happened made everything worse. (McCarty did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

“Fandom doesn't like people fucking with their awards, no matter who does it or why,” says John Scalzi, a three-time Hugo Award winner who was a finalist last year in the Best Novel category: the very same category in which R.F. Kuang should have been nominated for Babel, according to the nomination count on page 20 of McCarty’s document. “The reason people are outraged right now is because they care about the award, in one fashion or another, and this lack of transparency feels like a slap,” Scalzi says.

Brandon Sanderson, another past Hugo winner, says this incident damages the reputation of the award: “To find out that the committee behind the scenes [overrode] the voter base without saying anything AND with possible political motivations is extremely unsettling.”

Neil Gaiman didn’t respond to my interview request, but he did comment directly on McCarty’s Facebook post: “Is there anyone who could actually explain WHY Sandman episode 6 was ineligible?”

McCarty responded: “The only statement from the administration team that I can share is the one that I already have, after we reviewed the constitution and the rules we must follow, we determined the work was not eligible.”

Since then, hundreds of people have asked McCarty to explain what exactly in the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) constitution or rules made these works ineligible, but his responses quickly deteriorated into insults, such as “Are you slow?” and, “Clearly you can't understand plain English in our constitution.” However, there isn’t a single rule in the WSFS constitution that could possibly explain why any of these writers were deemed ineligible.

“When I started seeing Dave McCarty’s responses, I was utterly unsurprised,” a former WorldCon committee member who asked to remain anonymous tells me. “That is very consistent with who he is, and how he’s treated other people. It’s incredibly disrespectful on every level.”

Xinhua News Agency//Getty Images
Visitors browsed science fiction books during the 81st World Science Fiction Convention in Chengdu.

A few days later, McCarty apologised for his “inappropriate, unprofessional, condescending” responses, but still refused to explain the ineligibles. Without answers from McCarty, many Hugo enthusiasts have coalesced around two theories: either the awards committee miscounted early-round votes and realised their mistake too late, or the ineligible writers were censored under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party.

“If they had issued a statement saying there was a miscount and we’re deeply sorry about it, people would have been mad, but it would have been understandable,” Kowal says. Some fans have pointed to mathematical irregularities in the voting statistics compared to past years, and an additional former WorldCon committee member tells me, “I’m guessing someone made a mistake—probably more than one.”

Meanwhile, allegations of censorship have spread like Star Trek tribbles, especially because the protagonist of R. F. Kuang’s Babel is queer, Zhao is non-binary, and all four “ineligible” writers have criticised the Chinese Communist Party or its policies at some point in the past.

Gaiman, Kuang, and Zhao declined to comment on this story, but confirmed on social media that they were just as shocked as everyone else. Weimer says one of his Patreon posts from 2021, where he expressed concerns about holding the Hugos in China, may have marked him for censorship. “It's possible that the [Chinese Communist Party] took umbrage at my piece, or the [convention] felt that they might, and so I was rendered ineligible,” he says.

However, multiple former WorldCon committee members who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity do not believe the Chinese government—nor the Chinese members of last year’s Hugo Awards administration—directly or indirectly censored the awards. Rather, they believe that one or more members of the executive committee mismanaged this year’s awards—and failed to explain why four popular works were deemed ineligible.

On January 31, less than two weeks after McCarty revealed the voting statistics that kicked off the controversy, the California nonprofit that owns the Hugo Awards trademarks released a bombshell statement: McCarty resigned from the organisation, alongside the chair of its board of directors, Kevin Standlee.

Additionally, the nonprofit censured McCarty “for his public comments that have led to harm of the goodwill and value of our marks and for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that he presided over.” Two other members of the Chengdu awards committee, Ben Yalow and Shi Chen, were censured as well, “for actions of the Hugo Administration Committee of the Chengdu Worldcon that [they] presided over.”

Yalow and the rest of the 2023 awards committee did not respond to my interview requests for this story. None of my sources know why Yalow or Chen were censured, though as co-division heads of the convention, they would have been McCarty’s superiors.

Meanwhile, organisers of the upcoming 2024 Hugo Awards in Glasgow, Scotland, released a statement of their own to calm the waters: “We will also publish the reasons for any disqualifications of potential finalists, and any withdrawals of potential finalists from the ballot.”

Xinhua News Agency//Getty Images
Fans bought sci-fi themed merchandise during the 81st World Science Fiction Convention.

While this may be the last we hear about the Chengdu crisis, each year’s WorldCon and Hugo Awards are run by a different crop of volunteers, leaving many authors, fans, and finalists hopeful about the future, albeit insistent that permanent changes need to be made to the WSFS constitution that can’t be ignored by individual committees.

“At the very least, I think those [writers] who were removed should have their eligibility extended by a year, and perhaps it's time for a long hard look at the Hugo committee and overhaul how the award is managed,” Sanderson says.

Scalzi agrees. “The thing I would like to stress here is that the Hugos have been to this point pretty resilient: there have been major crises involving them before… and the [community] moved to address them,” he says. “So while this is a problem and needs to be addressed, quickly and comprehensively, I feel pretty confident the community will address it and the Hugos will come out the other side a better award.”

One thing everyone seems to agree on is that the transparent voting process makes the Hugo Awards special. “I love the Hugo for its unique method of walking the line between being a juried award and an open-voting, ‘who has the most fans’ award,” Sanderson says. “It's like an Academy Award, except if any person dedicated enough to the genre were able to join the Academy and participate.”

Perhaps in the future, other literary awards will be inspired by the transparency of the Hugos, if not the controversies that have occasionally accompanied them. Imagine the thrill and tragedy of finding out a book was one vote away from winning or becoming a finalist for the National Book Awards or the National Book Critics Circle Awards. Imagine the drama!

But when I reached out to those award organisations, they didn’t sound too wild about the idea. “The National Book Awards judges make their decisions independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors, and deliberations are strictly confidential,” says Ale Romero, communications and marketing manager at the National Book Foundation, which presents the National Book Awards.

A rep for the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) says that privacy is part of what gives the award its personality. “Much like the Quakers, nearly every decision made at the NBCC is one undertaken by the entire group, [and] I believe it would be very difficult to persuade a majority of our board to vote for such a change,” says Keetje Kuipers, vice president of awards and diversity, equity, and inclusion for the NBCC. “Releasing a voting statistics tally would not be in keeping with the tenor of our traditional deliberation style, which favours passionate critical argument over all else.”

At the end of my Zoom call with Sanford, I see some emotion in his face around the eyes. “When I was young, science fiction and fantasy books literally saved my life,” he says. “I looked for books that were Hugo finalists or winners, and they showed me a way forward. They showed me there are other people out there who think like me.”

Whatever happens to the Hugos moving forward, one thing is clear: No one should have the power to erase books from the reading lists of future Jason Sanfords.

Originally published on Esquire US

Something’s off, but you can’t quite name it. It’s the moment you get home after staying with friends and an influencer using their exact coffeemaker pops up on your Instagram feed. There's the split-second after an actor delivers a quippy line on a streaming series and you try to parse whether this scene has already become a meme or if it’s just written to court them. It’s the new song you’ve been hearing everywhere, only to discover it’s an ‘80s deep cut, inexplicably trending on TikTok.

There is a name for this uneasiness. It’s called “algorithmic anxiety,” and it’s one of the main subjects of Kyle Chayka’s new book, Filterworld: How Algorithms Flattened Culture. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Chayka charts the rise of algorithmic recommendations and decision-making. He shows how culture has slowly started effacing itself to fit more neatly within our social media platforms' parameters

Algorithms, Chayka reminds us, don’t spring from the machine fully-formed. They’re written by humans—in this case, humans employed by the world's biggest tech conglomerates—and their goal is simple: to prioritise content that keeps us scrolling, keeps us tapping and does not, under any circumstances, divert us from the feed.

Filterworld shows us all the ways this can manifest, both online and IRL, into a kind of contentless content. Songs are getting shorter, because it only takes 30 seconds to rack up a listen on Spotify. Poetry has enjoyed an unexpected revival on Instagram. But mostly when it is universal, aphoristic and neatly formatted to work as image as well as text.

There’s the phenomenon of the “fake movie” on streaming services like Netflix. These cultural artefacts have actors, plots, settings—all the makings of a real film. But it still seem slickly artificial, crowd-sourced and focus-grouped down to nothing.

If our old tech anxiety amounted to well-founded paranoia (“Are they tracking me? Of course they are.”), the new fear in Filterworld is more existential: “Do I really like this? Am I really like this?” Is the algorithm feeding us the next video, the next song, tailored to our unique taste? Or is it serving us the agglomerated preferences of a billion other users? Users who, like us, may just want something facile and forgettable to help us wind down at the end of the day.

Chayka doesn’t give us easy answers at the end of Filterworld. He does, however, offer an alternative to the numbing flow of the feed: taste! Remember taste? We still have it. Although the muscles may have atrophied after so many of us have ceded our decision-making abilities to the machines.

Rediscovering our personal taste doesn’t have to be an exercise in high culture or indie elitism. But it does require what Chayka calls the conscientious consumption of culture. In seeking out trusted curators, seeking out culture that challenges us and taking the time to share with others what we love.

To go deeper, Esquire sat down with Chayka to talk about the cultural equivalent of junk food, the difference between human and algorithmic gatekeepers, and why “tastemaker” doesn’t need to be a dirty word. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ESQUIRE: Let me start with a slightly provocative question. Is there anyone with a bigger grudge against algorithms than journalists?

KYLE CHAYKA: Well, journalists are known to have a grudge against algorithms. I can speak to my own dislike of them. Just because they’ve taken away this filtering, tastemaking function that journalists have had for so long. But through the course of the book, I talk to all sorts of creators who hate algorithms just as much.

It’s the illustrator who got trapped into doing one bit on Instagram because it succeeded all the time. Or the influencer whose hot selfies get tons of likes but their actually earnest, artistic posts don’t get any attention. In the book, I interview coffee shop founders around the world, and even they are like, “I hate the algorithm because I have to engage with all these peoples’ photos of my cappuccinos.” Everyone feels kind of terrorised.

Maybe journalists were just part of the first wave to realise this?

I think journalists are often canaries in the coal mine, partly because we complain the loudest about everything. But you could see the impact of algorithmic feeds in the media really early on. We moved from consuming news on cable TV or in a newspaper or even on a website homepage to consuming stories the majority of the time through social media feeds. And that just takes away so much control.

A newspaper front page or a website homepage is a human-curated, thought-through intentional thing that highlights important stuff, along with fun stuff, along with goofy stuff. There was an intention and a knowledge to that, which algorithmic feeds have just totally automated away.

Let’s take it from news to culture, which is really the focus of your book. Filterworld explains that the algorithms driving social media exist to keep us engaged as long as possible.The result is a kind of flattening of culture. Our social feeds privilege content that’s easily digestible so we can keep on grazing. What happens to us when all the culture we consume is flattened like that? And we’re not pushed to seek out new things, or to just try something that makes us uncomfortable? What happens to us when we aren’t getting any nutrients, you could say, from the feed?

It makes me think of the cultural equivalent of junk food. It’s engineered to appeal to you. To engage your senses in ways you might not even like, per se, but it’s just so chemically perfect. I talk a lot about how creators feel pressure to conform in certain ways to the feed. Consumers also have to conform in a way. Algorithmic feeds push us to become more passive consumers. That we don't really think about what we’re consuming. We float along on the feed and not think about our own taste too much. I feel like that makes us into more boring people. It makes the cultural landscape less interesting. But it also takes away this opportunity for us to encounter art that is really shocking or surprising or ambiguous.

Take the example of a Spotify playlist. You start by listening to something that you choose. Then Spotify pushes you along on this lazy river of music that is similar to what you put on and is not going to disrupt your experience but it’s also not going to push you anywhere new. It’s not going to try to disrupt you; it’s not going to try to challenge your taste. In the book I contrast that with an indie radio DJ who is making these intentional choices to put songs next to each other that don’t really fit but have some kind of implied meaning based on their proximity. Algorithmic feeds fundamentally can’t create meaning by putting things next to each other. There’s no meaning inherent in that choice because it’s purely automated, machine choice. There’s no consciousness behind it.

You talk a lot about curators in Filterworld. What else can a curator do for us that an algorithm cannot do? Why should we trust them more than an algorithm?

Curating as a word has this very long history dating back to Ancient Rome to the Catholic priesthood. It always had this meaning of taking responsibility for something. I feel like curators now take responsibility for culture. They take responsibility for providing the background to something, providing a context, telling you about the creator of something, putting one object next to others that build more meaning for it. So curating isn’t just about putting one thing next to another, it's all this background research and labour and thought that goes into presenting something in the right way.

That’s true of a museum curator who puts together an art exhibition. It’s true for a radio DJ who assembles a complicated playlist. It’s true for a librarian who chooses which books to buy for a library. But it’s not true for a Spotify algorithmic playlist. The Twitter feed is not trying to contextualise things for you with what it feeds to you. It’s just trying to spark your engagement. TikTok is maybe the worst offender because it’s constantly trying to engage your attention in a shallow way. But it’s absolutely not pushing you to find out anything more about something. There’s no depth there, there’s no context. It actively erases context, actually. It makes it even harder to find.

But we know curators can have their own agendas. What’s the difference between, say, a magazine editor who needs to please their advertisers and a tech company looking after their bottom line? Is there a difference?

There’s this transition that I write about in the book from human gatekeepers to algorithmic gatekeepers, so moving from the magazine editors and the record label executives to the kind of brute mathematics of the TikTok ‘For You’ feed. I think they both have their flaws. The human gatekeepers were biased. They were also beholden to advertisers; they had their own preferences and probably prioritised the people that they knew in their social circles. Whereas the flaw of the algorithmic feed is that while anyone can get their stuff out there, the only metric by which they’re judged is: How much engagement does it get? How much promotion does it merit based on the algorithmic feed?

So they’re both flawed. The question is: which flaws do we prefer? Or which flaws do we want to take with their benefits? The ability of the human gatekeeper was to highlight some voice that would be totally surprising or shocking—to highlight some new and strange thing that totally doesn’t fit with your preconceived notions of what art or music or writing is. The algorithmic feed can’t really do that because it’s only able to measure how much other people already consider it popular.

The advertiser thing—another hobbyhorse of mine is Monocle magazine, which has existed for a decade or two now. It’s a print magazine with a very nice mix of shopping and international news and culture and profiles. That magazine does really well selling print ads because they put print advertising in a good context with good articles. The advertisers appreciate the quality of the content that surrounds it. So that’s a net positive for everyone. Whereas with the internet now, the advertisers are almost in a war with the platforms just as much as the users are. Advertisers don’t want their content appearing willy-nilly, messily next to the crappy content the algorithmic feeds promote, which at this point might be snuff videos or videos of bombings in Gaza. That’s not serving either users or advertisers.

The other night, I was scrolling through this beautiful, curated interiors account and then there was an ad for Ex-Lax, just dropped in the middle of this very aspirational stuff.

That collision to me is the case and point. It’s so useless, and so not productive for either party, that it just feels like a glitch, you know? And that’s because of algorithmic targeting. It’s because these feeds don’t prioritise anything besides engagement.

Places like Monocle, for instance, cater to a relatively small readership. It’s not for everybody; it’s for this smaller subset of people who consider themselves clued-in. We’re getting into a sticky discussion about taste and tastemaking here, but: how do these more niche platforms react against the algorithm?

Tastemaking is a really complicated topic. I think it strikes a lot of people as elitist because you're talking about what people should like and why they should like it, and why I know something that you don’t. “I’m going to tell you something, and it's going to heighten your sensibilities or lead you somewhere different.” That can be intimidating, it can be pretentious, it can be alienating, it can be very biased in class ways, identity ways, all sorts of ways.

But I almost feel like it has to be defended at this point, just because we’re all so immersed in automated feeds. We’re consuming so much through different platforms that we’ve kind of lost touch with the human tastemaker. We all have voices we love following on Twitter or Instagram or TikTok but those voices get lost in the feed. We sometimes lose track of them and we sometimes don’t see their content. Those feeds are also not serving those creators particularly well because the business models are all based on advertising and the creators don’t get access to the bulk of that revenue. Through the book, I propose that one answer to Filterworld, to the dominance of these algorithmic feeds, is to find those human voices. Find tastemakers who you like and really follow them and support them and build a connection with those people.

Thinking about your own taste doesn’t have to be elitist. Fundamentally it’s just about creating a human connection around a piece of culture that you enjoy, and that should be open to anyone. It’s literally telling a friend why you like this specific song, or saying, “We should go see this movie, because I like the director because of XYZ reasons.”

Tastemaking is almost just being more conscientious about cultural consumption, being more intentional in the way that we’ve become totally intentional about food, right? Food is such a source of identity and community, and we take pride in what we eat, what restaurants we go to, what we cook. I would love it if people took more pride in going to a gallery, going to a library, going to a concert series at a concert hall. I think those are all acts of human tastemaking that can be really positive.

And all the things you mentioned are also things outside the house.

Yes. You’re coming together with other people in appreciation of the kind of culture you like to consume. And that’s really good. That helps everyone.

I want to finish by talking about the idea of ambient culture. You clearly appreciate ambient music, and in Filterworld you describe genres like lofi hiphop and Japanese City Pop as music that feels almost designed for the algorithm. Our feeds seem to push us toward ambient content: stuff that’s frictionless and easy to ignore. So I’m wondering, is that always a bad thing? When is ambience necessary and when is it detrimental?

I do really enjoy ambient content. My first book was about minimalism, which has a kind of ambient quality. I wrote an essay about Emily in Paris and ambient TV. I've written about Brian Eno a lot, the musician who coined the term ambient music. That kind of art fulfills a function: to put your brain at rest. It provides a pleasant background at a technological moment when we have a lot of distractions. Ambient TV is maybe the perfect TV to look at your phone in front of. It relies on the presence of that second screen to complement it. The TV show doesn’t have to be that interesting because your phone is interesting.

The problem becomes that through algorithmic recommendations, so much content is pushed towards ambience, and you never want all of your stuff to be ambient. You don’t only want to consume ambient art because then what are you actually paying attention to? If everything exists as a soothing background, what’s actually provoking you? What’s leading you somewhere new?

I think the critique goes back to Brian Eno’s definition of ambient music, which was that the music has to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” You have to be able to ignore it. It can be in the background, but you should also be able to pay attention to it and be rewarded by your attention to it. I feel like a lot of culture now only falls into that former category. You’re only able to ignore it. Once you start paying attention, there’s nothing really gripping there. Certainly with TikTok and Spotify playlists, there’s this prioritisation of the soothing, numbing quality of ambient content. Functional stimulus in the form of culture is so big these days, whether it’s ambient music or ASMR videos.

Sleep sounds…

So now sometimes, culture exists in a functional context rather than an artistic context. You’re like, “Oh I watch The Office to fall asleep,” or, “I listen to this track while I run because it sustains my exercise.” I personally always want to make an argument for culture for its own sake and for thinking deeply about artistic process and ideas.

Originally published on Esquire US

When Lexi Freiman sat down to write her second novel, she discovered an irresistible subject in Ayn Rand, the polarising (albeit influential) Russian-American writer. “I'm always drawn to people who are sort of persona non grata, and she’s so despised,” Freiman tells Esquire. “I just published a satire of identity politics, so I wanted to see how much more unpopular I could make myself, and she seemed like a good choice.”

The Book of Ayn builds off the themes of Freiman’s irreverent debut, Inappropriation, in which a high school girl naively tries to model her life after Donna J. Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto. This time around, the protagonist, Anna, a self-described contrarian, takes a liking to Rand’s fiercely libertarian philosophy after falling victim to the cancel culture mob—a spectre that now haunts any artist. Her infraction? Publishing an opioid epidemic novel lampooned by The New York Times. “The review claimed that I was economically insensitive and had exploited the working class for my own selfish ends,” Anna recounts.

Feeling down on her luck, she ventures to sunny Los Angeles so she can churn out content about Rand that’s designed to garner outrage. After her Hollywood plan sputters, she heads to a meditation commune on a Greek island to absolve herself of all her woes—success, identity, reputation, and most notably, her ego. Through presenting the attention economy as a Randian hellscape where everyone, regardless of pedigree, has to fend for likes and exposure, Freiman spares no one—not Peter Thiel-funded edgelord hipsters, not fitness influencers uploading their vapidity into the algorithmic abyss, and certainly not the curators of a dying culture who have to keep up a pretense that any of it matters.

Yes, this is all very, very absurd. But thanks to Freiman’s unique ability to meld ferocious irony with heartfelt contemplation, The Book of Ayn goes beyond just another indictment of millennials as narcissists and offers a fresh glimpse into how 21st century artists have to negotiate their sense of selfhood. A few weeks prior to the release of The Book of Ayn, Freiman Zoomed with Esquire from Nicosia, Crete, where she was staying at a friend’s home, to discuss why she turned to Rand as a source for inspiration, Jewishness in writing, her lunch with comedian Louis C.K., ego death, and why the novel is still a valuable medium for exploring fiercely debated issues.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


ESQUIRE: In your debut novel Inappropriation, Ziggy, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, devotes herself to Donna Haraway’s feminist text A Cyborg Manifesto. Anna in The Book of Ayn is older and more cynical. But, analogously, she becomes obsessed with jamming her own life into Ayn Rand’s framework of individuality. Can you speak to this tendency of using public intellectuals as a roadmap for the complexities of life? Does this stem from a personal experience that you've had?

LEXI FREIMAN: The spark of interest always comes from someone else’s text. With Donna Haraway, there were ideas about transhumanism that felt really interesting to me within the context of identity politics. That was the kernel of an idea for that book. In a way, you’re finding or creating a character that doesn't just serve the ideas, but you find the character's qualities, flaws, and tendencies almost as a product of the ideas that you want to explore. I had the same thing with Ayn Rand. I started reading her books, and the thing that I found interesting about her was that she was a public intellectual and also a novelist and artist. Her books are unbearable. She wrote novels and a lot of people love them.

That was another thing that felt interesting to me for the character of Anna: she is exploring these ideas of freedom and individuality and the collective. I feel like there’s always that tension at the heart of the artist’s psyche. We want to be unique and original individuals who are creating great works. We also have a sense of wanting to belong and a desire to transcend the ego. That also means transcending the self and touching the sublime if you’re going to write something great. The idea of wanting to be part of something larger than oneself is a big part of every human experience. But there’s a special tension there with an artist that I thought would be interesting [to explore in a novel].

I learned so much about Rand from your book. For instance, I didn’t know that she changed her name from Alisa Rosenbaum at Ellis Island after leaving the U.S.S.R. Anna muses how “Ayn’s Jewishness has shaped her thinking” and reflects on how “there was a strong sense of individualism and collectivism within Jewish culture.” What was Rand’s relationship to Judaism?

With Ayn Rand, it’s hard to separate her Jewishness from her biography and her historical trajectory as someone who was born in 1905, came of age during World War I, and then emigrated in the late 1920s. She witnessed how her father had his pharmacy taken away [by the communists]. She was literally there the day that they [the communists] came in and beat him and he fell to his knees. She watched her father have everything he worked for taken away from him, and that was a huge seminal moment for her hatred of socialism. She came to the U.S. and didn’t want any of her background to affect her freedom—being raceless, without a religion, and without a gender; she didn’t really use her feminine charm. I read a few biographies and there was nowhere I saw her speak of or encounter antisemitism. She never really acknowledged her Jewishness publicly. She was very against this idea of identifying oneself through any groups or affiliations because she felt that took away a person’s freedom.

As a Jewish writer, this question of what it actually means for a work of art or ideology to be shaped by Judaism was interesting to me. Can you elaborate on that idea of Jewishness in writing?

For me, it’s about having a really acute awareness both of privilege and power, and then a sense of responsibility or accountability. I don't want to talk about Israel. I feel like a huge problem with that is that we're doing too much talking and not enough listening, so I don't want to add to the noise. But it’s like having a sort of awareness of oneself both as victim and perpetrator. That's very strong. I don't even like that language. But in a sense, I think that's really useful because there's an opportunity for enormous humaneness when you don’t see yourself as a pure victim and you don’t see yourself as a guilty perpetrator. I think it’s important to be able to see yourself as both in different contexts, and most importantly, to not punish yourself and to be merciful. That's a big part of what I got out of all my Ayn Rand reading: this idea that in order to actually be generous in an authentic way, you have to be self-serving. To be loving or merciful to others, you have to be that for yourself first. In Jewishness, there is an opportunity to be very self-aware and have compassion for the pain of the past, and to try to imagine good ways of working through that in the future.

To be loving or merciful to others, you have to be that for yourself first.

Towards the end of the book, after Anna’s partner declines her request to strangle her, she reflects, “Sexual strangulation was one of the individual’s great freedoms. You had to reclaim this right from all the boring feminists who said it was just misogyny. But now I wondered, was it really freewill when being choked was the only way you can come? Was that really a choice you had made for yourself?” You do a fantastic job exploring how kinky sex may or may not be predetermined by cultural conditioning via pornography. Anna is a compelling character because she sees all sides of an issue. What’s the relationship between kink and free will?

Thanks, I think that comes with my mild OCD. There’s a [constant] sense of, “Have I covered all my arguments and counterarguments?” That was a part of writing this character who’s pretty paranoid that she has been cancelled, and so there’s always a sense of, “Oh fuck, am I being narcissistic again? How will this be perceived? Have I said the wrong thing?”

But yes, back to kinky sex. I was interested in what is a choice and what is not a choice, and how much does that matter. I go back and forth on this. It's easy to moralise and say that this is trauma and you have to overcome this proclivity because it's destructive. But there are ways of reframing that, once you have awareness of a thing. With that comes a choice that may not be about not doing the thing anymore, but thinking about it differently. Going into the thing with awareness just sucks some of the negative energy out of it. In terms of violent porn, I feel that stuff is a problem because it's so ubiquitous and accessible, and there’s so much addiction. The bigger problem is that people have very little control over their impulses, and that has come with the internet age. We have totally given up our willpower to these devices. This all ties back into ideas of self-responsibility. Now I sound like Jordan Peterson or something, and I am sorry.

That’s an interesting point that you touched on with getting OCD about whether or not you’re cancelled. It’s as if this thing we call “cancel culture” serves as surveillance. For instance, at the end of the book, Anna is on a secluded island, but she still feels haunted by the possibility of backlash, think pieces, and discourse. What does it actually mean to be cancelled?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m about to find out. Being cancelled is maybe an opportunity for ego death, and that’s really the most idealistic and positive way of thinking about it. That’s what I was exploring in this book, and I was thinking about it in an essay that I wrote about Louis C.K. At our lunch last year, [C.K. and I] ended up discussing this idea of ego death. In the end, even though we both agreed it would be a nice thing to be enlightened, I was really struck by something he said that as painful it is to have an ego, especially when it’s been trampled on, he wouldn’t give it up, because it’s part of what you need as an artist to make great work. It keeps you alive.

I personally struggle with the idea of ego death because I want to write books and I don’t think the two things are possible. If you were really enlightened, you wouldn’t even want to write books. So, yes, being cancelled just sucks. You think about how some artists get to a point where the whole thing is empty and meaningless and they start looking for a spiritual out. It makes you sort of think, “What’s the point of all of this if Jim Carrey is seeking enlightenment now?” Getting cancelled could be an opportunity to get enlightened.

Getting cancelled could be an opportunity to get enlightened.

That reminds me of how Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, got super religious and then he got super super cancelled. It was almost as if he was trying to get cancelled on purpose.

There’s something interesting about an artist like Kanye who is so transgressive, and that’s part of his genius. It’s a blurry line with Kanye—the antisemitism stuff wasn’t a blurry line—but with him, there’s always this sense of whether or not he’s fucking with us and blowing our minds open. Or does he have no idea what he’s doing? Madness is the ultimate transgression. In the book, I talk a little bit about how we’re really hard on our big superstars in terms of their behaviour, but we have to separate the artist from the art as much as possible and just acknowledge that these are not normal people. These people are living very strange lives. Part of my issue with the left is that it’s very punitive and at the same time, there’s an openness for some people for rehabilitation.

There’s a contradiction—some people get rehabilitated based on their circumstances and other people need to be destroyed. I don’t really believe in anyone who is trying to destroy anyone else, because this isn’t part of an ideology that comes from an integrated, synthesised worldview and a solid, compassionate, generous place. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how you have an effective movement like #MeToo without some consequences. There’s obviously a spectrum of crimes and bad behaviour. [But] there’s an impulse there that I think is unhealthy for everyone.

It seems to me that the throughline here is fluidity and grappling with the contradictions of being an individual. Do you expect yourself to one day disavow The Book of Ayn altogether?

Maybe. I don’t want to disavow anything or embrace anything. I don’t want to ever think that I have the answer. In this book, mostly, I don’t think this character has the answer because I don’t have the answer. I may disavow the whole project of writing books. I still think that the better project is trying to get enlightened. I do go to a spiritual commune that isn’t dissimilar to the place in the book. If I have ever disavowed something, I have probably embraced something that’s just as limiting, so hopefully not.

We are all too quick to want to have the right philosophy and ideology. That’s why I like writing novels, because there’s room in there for everything. Room to work through the ideas and work through the problems. Maybe through this process that’s a little bit OCD, you get to this point where you're like, “Oh, none of those ideas are good.”

I guess there's still more to come, hopefully.

Originally published on Esquire US

ESQUIRE

One of the nice things about books is they take a while to write. And so, while it can feel impossible to keep up with culture thanks to the constant barrage of television shows and movies and opinions that modern life throws our way, you will often find some more contemplative thoughts in literature.

The year ahead in reading looks all around: way back to landmark literary events, a dip into the more recent past (hello to the pandemic and London heatwave!), and forward to fictional future worlds reckoning with AI. And, of course, there is the here and now: an exciting crop of novelists dealing with identity and class and relationships. All the stuff that makes life interesting. Whether it is the debut you will see everywhere on the morning commute or a literary crime thriller, there’s a pick below for you.

Day, Michael Cunningham

MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

Michael Cunningham’s first novel in nine years gets its UK release this January: a suitably contemplative way to start the year. Day follows a Brooklyn-based family—centring on brother and sister Robbie and Isabel—on the same April date across three years, from 2019 to 2021. You may recall there was a worldwide event taking place in those years. The novel wisely doesn’t go too deep on any pandemic logistics (in fact, the word is never mentioned), but it does attempt to show the consequences of that extraordinary event on this family, as they grapple with the more regular facets of life: heartbreak, stagnant marriages, awkward adolescences. Cunningham deploys his trademark spare prose and wry humour to great effect here.

Wild Houses, Colin Barrett

COLIN BARRETT

The small-town crime novel is a very well-represented genre, but Collin Barrett’s debut has an enviable prestige: the author’s short stories have been published to great acclaim in the New Yorker and Irish literary magazine The Stinging FlyWild Houses is set in Ballina, County Mayo, where a feud between small-time dealer, Cillian, and local law enforcers, Gabe and Sketch is causing problems (as criminal feuds usually do). But when Cillian’s brother turns up, battered and bruised, on Dev’s doorstep, the isolated Dev is dragged headlong into a family’s revenge quest.

Come and Get It, Kiley Reid

KILEY REID

Kiley Reid’s 2019 debut Such a Fun Age was a—sorry, no other word for it—fun take on race and class, a refreshing outlier in a typically dour genre. Her follow-up, Come and Get It, heads to campus for some lessons in relationships and finance. Millie is about to graduate when a professor offers an unusual way to earn some much-needed money. Where will that newfound side-hustle lead? In Reid’s hands, expect high-wire tension, side-eyeing satire and a heap of jokes.

Change: A Novel, Édouard Louis

ÉDOUARD LOUIS

Édouard Louis’s latest, an autobiographical novel explores some familiar themes to the French author’s work: class, sexuality, society’s inequality. In this, Édouard heads to Amiens for school and university in Paris, taking on a new name and a life. He indulges in activities both aristocratic and seedy in an attempt to rebrand himself. But can you ever truly escape your past? Hm, we’d wager that it’s probably not that simple.

Blessings, Chukwuebuka Ibeh

CHUKWUEBUKA IBEH

As engaging as doorstoppers can be, there is an unparalleled pleasure in something short and searing. Chukwuebuka Ibeh’s debut is set in modern-day Nigeria, where the country’s criminalisation of same-sex marriage has created a hostile atmosphere for the LGBTQ+ population. After an intimate moment with the family apprentice, Obiefuna is sent to a Christian boarding school by his father. So begins a process of self-discovery. Blessings is told from Obiefuna and his mother’s perspective, a dynamic which has plenty of potential for the profound.

The Fetishist, Katherine Min

KATHERINE MIN

After author Katherine Min’s death, her daughter, Kayla, found a manuscript in her late mother’s drawer. Katherine had been working on a project, and that book turns The Fetishist, her first posthumous publication, a revenge story about musicians. Young and angry punk singer Kyoko blames violinist Daniel for her mother’s death. Daniel and Kyoko’s mother, Emi, had been part of the same orchestra. If we learned anything from Tar, it’s that we need more stories dedicated to obsession and revenge in the music world.

Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder, Salman Rushdie

SALMAN RUSHDIE

This is the first book Salman Rushdie has written since he was stabbed onstage at an event in New York state (his novel Victory City was published after the attack, but written beforehand). In Knife, Rushdie writes about the attempt on his life and what happened afterwards: a testament to endurance and the power of writing.

How to Leave the House, Nathan Newman

NATHAN NEWMAN

Nathan Newman’s debut brings together a pleasingly weird bunch of people: a dentist who longs to be an artist (he cannot stop creating pictures of mouths!), a romantically-troubled Imam, a teenager whose nudes have leaked. And then there is 23-year-old Natwest, who is waiting for an embarrassing package to arrive before heading off for university. An ambitious title.

Evenings and Weekends, Oisín McKenna

OISÍN MCKENNA

Every few years, we must read a novel about London during an unbearably hot summer. This time, it’s Oisín McKenna’s turn. It’s 2019, the hottest June on record, and we’re about to head into a highly-charged weekend between four characters. There’s Maggie, pregnant and down-on-her-luck, and Ed, the bike courier who hopes to make a life with her. Then there’s Ed’s best friend, Phil, who has a secret past with Maggie. Meanwhile, Phil’s mother is travelling to London to tell her son about her cancer diagnosis.

A Cage Went in Search of a Bird: Ten Kafkaesque Stories

ALI SMITH, JOSHUA COHEN, ELIF BATUMAN, NAOMI ALDERMAN, TOMMY ORANGE, HELEN OYEYEMI, KEITH RIDGWAY, YIYUN LI, LEONE ROSS, CHARLIE KAUFMAN

June marks a hundred years since Franz Kafka’s death (the author died from starvation as a result of tuberculosis at the age of 40). To mark that century, ten authors—including Ali Smith, Elif Batuman and Charlie Kaufman—have penned ten short stories which are deemed Kafaesque. If anything will speak to the general weirdness of our times, this collection, with its AI architects to bureaucratic nightmares, will be it. Though, perhaps, what we shall learn is that all times are a little weird.

Originally published on Esquire UK

Our favourite books of the year delve into everything from prisons to utopias, slashers to ghost stories, and American dreaming to American failures.

As we approach the halfway point of the year, 2023 has yielded a massive bounty of extraordinary new reads—in fact, the stacks are towering over us here in the Esquire books department.

If you're looking to read more as the days grow longer and brighter, then you’ve come to the right place. We’ve rounded up our favorite books of the year thus far, which range from debut works by emerging voices to new outings for canonical writers. Our favorite titles delve into everything from prisons to utopias, slashers to ghost stories, and American dreaming to American failures.

Whether you’re into novels, short stories, memoirs, or nonfiction, there’s something here for every type of reader. Not all of these books have hit shelves yet, but if you see something you like, pre-order it now and thank yourself later. When it arrives in your mailbox weeks from now, after you’ve long forgotten about it, it’ll be like a gift from Past You.

1) The Wager, by David Grann

One of our finest nonfiction storytellers returns with a swashbuckling epic about shipwreck, scandal, mutiny, and murder. In 1741, when a British naval vessel was shipwrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia, its crew divided into factions and descended into violence. After five months marooned, some seamen sailed away in makeshift boats, abandoning their captain and his few remaining loyalists. Survivors of this perilous journey back to England were hailed as heroes—until the captain made a miraculous return, accusing his officers of mutiny. What followed was a court martial and a vicious war of words, with each side spinning a narrative to avoid death by hanging. Masterfully structured from a wealth of firsthand accounts, like logbooks, correspondence, and court martial testimony, The Wager is a thrilling voyage about tall tales, at sea and on land. Read an interview with the author here at Esquire.

2) A Living Remedy, by Nicole Chung

In this gutting memoir, an adopted daughter wrestles with grief, loss, and regret. Growing up in rural Oregon, Chung often felt “racial isolation” as the Korean-American daughter of white parents, who lived paycheck to paycheck. Many years later, after finding a community and a home on the East Coast, Chung suffered two devastating blows: within the span of two years, she lost her father to kidney disease and her mother to cancer. A Living Remedy recounts the agony of watching them grapple with their health amid financial instability and a dysfunctional healthcare system. Chung describes her father’s death as “negligent homicide, facilitated and sped by the state’s failure to fulfill its most basic responsibilities to him and others like him.” Keep the tissues close for this visceral and wrenching memoir—you’ll need them. Read an essay by the author here at Esquire.

3) The Guest, by Emma Cline

With her propulsive third book, Cline confirms her reputation as the literary prophet of women on the brink. Her latest outing stars Alex, a 22-year-old grifter who makes ends meet by ingratiating herself with wealthy older men. When Alex miscalculates and runs afoul of her latest beau, she’s sent packing just one week before his annual Labor Day party, leaving her homeless. Rather than face the truth, Alex determines that if she can just make it through the week, she’ll be welcomed back at the party. Drifting through a languid summer week in the Hamptons, Alex folds into rarefied enclaves where she pretends to belong, and with each passing day, her perspective becomes even more dangerously warped. Dreamlike and disaffected, this charged study of class and gender lingers like a bad sunburn.

4) Chain-Gang All-Stars, by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Ever since his breakout debut, Friday Black, we’ve been eagerly awaiting Adjei-Brenyah’s sophomore outing. Nearly five years later, it’s finally here, and it surpasses all expectations. In a dystopian United States, the prison-industrial complex has gone private, leaving incarcerated people with no choice but to compete for their freedom in the Criminal Action Penal Entertainment system. Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker have traveled together for years as Links in the same Chain-Gang, but as Thurwar nears her freedom, she contemplates how to bring dignity to her multi-racial and multi-gendered coalition of fellow gladiators. Reading Chain-Gang All-Stars in a nation addicted to violent sports that brutalize athletes of color, Adjei-Brenyah’s acerbic vision lands like a lightning bolt of truth. Read an exclusive excerpt here at Esquire.

5) Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma, by Claire Dederer

What should we do when we love the art, but hate the artist? In Monsters, one of our sharpest critics delivers a bracing meditation on the thorniest questions of the #MeToo era. Can we ethically consume the art of monstrous artists? Do we hold monstrous women to different standards than monstrous men? In the age of parasocial relationships, how much does fandom define us, and what’s a fan to do when our favorite artist betrays us? Dederer contends that these contradictions are baked into the endeavor of making and loving art. Lucid and fierce, generous and unflinching, Monsters is the most exhilarating study on this topic to date. Read an interview with the author here at Esquire.

6) The Sense of Wonder, by Matthew Salesses

In his kinetic fourth novelMatthew Salesses introduces two unforgettable protagonists striving to expand what’s possible for Asian Americans. First, we meet New York Knicks player Won Lee, an under-appreciated point guard living in the shadow of the team’s star player. When Won steps into the spotlight, he leads the team to a stunning victory streak, but newfound celebrity doesn’t make Won’s life any easier—in fact, he continues to face racism both cutting and coded from his coaches, fans, and teammates. Salesses also introduces Won’s girlfriend, Carrie Kang, an ambitious producer of Korean dramas fighting to bring the beloved form to an American market. At once a heart-pumping sports thriller, a winsome romcom, and a metafictional meditation on love, The Sense of Wonder lands like a triumphant half-court shot. Read an interview with the author here at Esquire.

7) The Shards, by Bret Easton Ellis

In his first novel in thirteen years, Ellis plays the hits, delivering everything that superfans want from him and more: sex, drugs, violence, crime, privilege, secrets, you name it. Here, the author weaves a sleek metafictional tale set in 1980s Los Angeles, where a teenager (also named Bret Easton Ellis) spins out as his life of privilege and debauchery collides with a series of grisly murders. The coke-addled prep school backdrop of Less Than Zero fuses with the stylized ultraviolence of American Psycho as young Bret and his classmates become obsessed with—and then victimized by—the Trawler, a serial killer terrorizing the Valley. Seductive and spooky, this noirish slasher marks a welcome return for the author. Read an exclusive excerpt here at Esquire.

8) The Faraway World, by Patricia Engel

Fresh off the triumph of Infinite Country, one of our most essential writers returns with ten big-hearted tales of love, struggle, and regret set in the Colombian diaspora. In one standout, “Libélula,” a Colombian housekeeper takes a fateful job with a wealthy Colombian family in Manhattan, orbiting the lady of the house and her secret infidelities. Elsewhere in the collection, “The Book of Saints,” a punchy and surprising modern love story, volleys between the perspectives of a Home Depot manager and his mail-order Colombian bride. Engel’s gift for dialogue and her lyrical powers of description make these stories crackle, but it’s her bittersweet insight into the costs of leaving—and staying!—home that will lodge The Faraway World in your heart.

9) What Napoleon Could Not Do, by DK Nnuro

In this spellbinding debut novel, two Ghanaian siblings chase the same dream of making a new life in America. Belinda, the younger and brighter child, achieves “what Napoleon could not do”: she moves to the United States for college, becomes a lawyer, and marries a wealthy Black businessman. Meanwhile, back in Ghana, her older brother Jacob seethes with jealousy, repeatedly petitioning the American government for a green card. But as Belinda soon learns, hers and Jacob’s dreams of the promised land don’t square with the lived experience of African Americans like her husband, who face relentless racism and marginalization. In this compelling and insightful debut, Nnuro delivers a nuanced exploration of the American Dream's broken promises.

10) Don't Fear the Reaper, by Stephen Graham Jones

Jones’s chilling Indian Lake trilogy continues with Don’t Fear the Reaper, a bravura sequel to 2021’s My Heart is a Chainsaw. Four years after the carnage that concluded My Heart is a Chainsaw, Jade Daniels returns to Proofrock, Idaho just as legendary serial killer Dark Mill South escapes from prison. Jade has tried to put her horror-loving persona behind her, but when bodies pile up as Dark Mill South makes a bloody stab at avenging 38 Dakota men hanged in 1862 (the largest mass execution in American history), she’ll have to embrace her final girl status once and for all. Gory and thrilling, Don’t Fear the Reaper is a palm-sweating slasher that both satisfies and subverts its genre conventions. Now when is Book Three coming?

11) Victory City, by Salman Rushdie

Fifteen novels into a legendary life in letters, Rushdie’s formidable powers of imagination remain unrivaled. In his latest, an epic tale set in fourteenth-century India, a young woman becomes instrumental to the centuries-long rise and fall of a fantastical empire. Vijayanagara, or Victory City, was a real place—the seat of a Hindu empire, said to be one of the biggest and most splendid cities of the medieval world. In Rushdie’s telling, we see the city (called “Bisnaga” here) through the eyes of Pampa Kampana, a girl who becomes the vessel of a goddess and devotes her 247 years of life to building, populating, and later saving this fantastical place. Rich in shifting allegiances, palace intrigue, and divine myth, Victory City unspools like an ancient epic. It's a breathtaking adventure, told as only Rushdie could tell it.

12) Palo Alto, by Malcolm Harris

Billed as “the first comprehensive, global history of Silicon Valley,” Palo Alto lives up to its description, but it’s also so much more—in these whopping 720 pages, you’ll find nothing short of a history of capitalism. Harris deftly charts the long shadow of extraction in Northern California, from settler colonialism to robber barons to counterculture capitalists. The rapacious greed of today’s Silicon Valley, he argues, is the product of 150 years of damning local history. A monumental work of research and imagination, Palo Alto is destined to sit on a high shelf next to other unforgettable works of national history.

13) I Have Some Questions for You, by Rebecca Makkai

Makkai's first novel since the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Great Believers centers on the long shadow of a boarding school murder during the 1990s. Decades later, when a successful podcaster returns to her alma mater as a teacher, she meets two students producing a podcast about her late roommate’s murder, causing her to re-examine her own understanding of what happened, and the role gender and race played in the case. Could the man in prison be innocent? Juicy and propulsive, I Have Some Questions For You is a clever pageturner about the repercussions of how stories are crafted, in courtrooms and podcasts alike.

14) The Big Myth, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway

Two historians strike at the heart of our contemporary crisis in this scorching indictment of free market fundamentalism. In The Big Myth, Conway and Oreskes ask, “How did so many Americans come to have so much faith in markets and so little faith in government?” To answer that question, we have to roll the clock back to the early 20th century, when business leaders defended child labor, suppressed unions, and began to advance a free market doctrine that would shape the next century of American life. At once radical and radicalizing, The Big Myth paints a damning picture of how capitalism has destroyed democracy—and how we can change, before it’s too late.

15) Users, by Colin Winnette

In this claustrophobic tech thriller, the inventor of a cutting edge virtual reality game descends into alienation when he begins to receive anonymous death threats. Panic jeopardizes his career, his marriage, and his bond with his children, forcing him to make a hail Mary pitch for a revolutionary VR device—but the technology has devastating consequences. Lived reality and virtual reality blur in this gripping cautionary tale about technology’s ability to isolate us from what's real and important. Gripping, clever, and terrifying, Users sucks you in just like a video game.

16) Saving Time, by Jenny Odell

The visionary author of How to Do Nothing returns to challenge the notion that “time is money.” In this hopeful and subversive cultural history, Odell traces the origins of our market-based understanding of time, arguing that how we organize our days has always been “a history of extraction, whether of resources from the earth or of labor time from people.” Odell’s research is rigorous, but Saving Time’s real triumph lies in her road map for experiencing time outside the capitalist clock. Instead of “hoarding” time, we should “garden” it, attuning ourselves to the natural world and prioritizing meaningful human connections. Expect to feel changed by this radical way of seeing.

17) Poverty, by America, by Matthew Desmond

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted returns with another paradigm-shifting inquiry into America’s dark heart. This time, Desmond asks: how does the United States, the world’s richest nation, have more poverty than any other advanced democracy? Poverty, by America argues that poverty persists because the financially secure benefit from it, with landlords, banks, corporations, and politicians all reaping staggering gains from overcharging and under-serving Americans in need. Desmond advances a fierce argument: that alongside “aggressive, uncompromising antipoverty reforms,” it would take just $177 billion to end hunger and homelessness in America. As always, Desmond delivers a radical vision: a book that urges us to abandon old ways of thinking and dream a new path forward.

18) Lone Women, by Victor LaValle

Violent delights abound in this historical horror tale from one of the genre’s most exciting voices. In 1914, Adelaide Henry sets fire to her childhood home and flees eastward, carrying only a locked steamer trunk containing a mysterious secret. She hopes to outrun her past and start a new life in Montana, where “lone women” can stand on their own two feet as homesteaders. But as the sole Black woman in a too-white town, Adelaide isn’t welcomed with open arms—and when the lock on her steamer trunk is broken, all hell breaks loose. Rich in secrets, suspense, and dread, LaValle’s latest is a gripping and heartfelt thriller about how lone women survive a harsh world.

19) Y/N, by Esther Yi

As chatter about parasocial relationships burns up social media, this debut novel, a Kafkaesque fever dream about fandom and obsession, arrives right on time. For a Korean-American copywriter living in Berlin, life begins anew when she first discovers Moon, a dreamy K-pop superstar. Soon enough, she’s overpowered by fervent devotion, penning fanfiction in which “Y/N” (your name) imagines her way into romantic encounters with her boy band hero. When Moon abruptly retires, our narrator travels to Seoul to find him, making for a madcap journey of self-destruction and self-discovery. Haunting yet playful, immersive yet unreal, Y/N is a brilliant dissection of consumption in all its forms—how we consume art, and how it consumes us.

20) Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey

If Pew, Lacey’s visionary 2020 novel, seemed like the height of her ambition, think again. Now, she’s back with an even more staggering achievement: Biography of X, an alternate history of the United States told through the eyes of a grieving widow unraveling her late wife’s secrets. Determined to write an accurate biography of her wife, the famous performance artist X, crime reporter C.M. Lucca goes in search of X’s mysterious past. The quest sends her into the dark heart of a post-war America split into two territories, and deep into the inconsistencies of X’s shapeshifting past. All roads lead to one final destination: the truth about their marriage, which isn’t what it seems. In this masterpiece about the slippery nature of art, identity, and truth, Lacey contemplates a question that haunts us all: can we ever truly know the people we love?

Originally published on Esquire US

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