We have to backtrack a little here, right at the start.
Acceptance, book three in Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, is hitting the shelves soon, and I want very badly to talk about it. But before I can do that, I have to talk about the first two books. To set the scene, as it were. To make any of this make any kind of sense, because Southern Reach is not the kind of series where you can just drop in at book two or three and have any idea what's happening. VanderMeer doesn't coddle dilettantes. He rewards the dedicated.
In Annihilation, book one in the trilogy, a team of explorers enters the mysterious Area X. There is the sense, right from the start, that they are a kind of sacrifice. That they are going in — entering through a weird door, into an evolving disaster of undefinable dimensions — because the only other option is to not go. To leave this strange anomaly that has popped up on the east coast of the United States unexplored and unknown. And human beings don't do that. We can't not go. If there's a creepy lighthouse or an anomalous hole in the ground (both of which are present in Area X), we have to go and take a look for ourselves.
In book two, Authority, we meet the Southern Reach — the shattered, infected, doom-struck government agency tasked with investigating Area X and sending expedition after expedition across the border, through the door, and into a place that none of them understand. The Southern Reach has spent years attempting to solve the riddle of Area X. And it has failed utterly. Failed to suss out even the most basic truths — why it is here, where it came from, what is it for — and has gained nothing but useless samples, confusing videos treated like holy relics, jealously guarded top secret memos.
Authority ostensibly follows the new Director of the Southern Reach through his first days on the job and the interrogation of the Biologist — the sole "survivor" of the expedition described in book one. But it really isn't about that at all. That's just what happens. What it is about is the building of dread — the slow accretion of things going just a little bit wrong-er than they should. Of men and women already so broken by the past that they appear collectively blind (or willfully ignorant) to the rot spreading around them — until a moment comes that shatters the entire world with a whip-crack suddenness you never see coming — because, like the characters at the heart of Authority, you have become inured to the terrible things happening all around you.
Then comes Acceptance, book three, which is at different times the best haunted lighthouse story ever written, a deeply unsettling tale of first contact, a book about death, a book about obsession and loss, a book about the horrifying experience of confronting an intelligence far greater and far stranger than our own, and a book about sea monsters.
And at this point, you have to make a choice. You can stop reading this review right now and just go out and buy the books — all three of them, right now — and read them, back-to-back-to-back. If you need an incentive, let me say this: If the guys who wrote Lost had brought H.P. Lovecraft into the room as a script doctor in the first season, the Southern Reach trilogy is what they would've come up with.
Because your only other option right now is to keep reading this review and accept the fact that, from this point on, I'm going to spoil the hell out of this last book. There is just no way to talk about Acceptance that doesn't involve giving something away. There is no way to talk about it that doesn't involve an honest admission that, days and weeks later, you're still thinking about it and still picking it apart in your brain and still more than a little bit annoyed that it didn't conclude so much as just end. In death, yes. In destruction. With the breath and pulse of monsters echoing in your ears, and the haunting feeling that you must've missed some vital piece or plot detail somewhere back among all those words that would make the end feel more complete.
But you didn't. VanderMeer is trying to pull off a delicate trick here, trying to tell a story that's not about knowing and understanding (which is what all books by rational, non-insane people are basically about), but about the impossibility of knowing and the failure of human language and intelligence to encompass something that is completely and totally alien to us.
"Perhaps so many journals had piled up in the lighthouse," VanderMeer writes, "because on some level most came, in time, to recognize the futility of language. Not just in Area X but against the rightness of the lived-in moment, the instant of touch, of connection, for which words were such a sorrowful disappointment, so inadequate an expression of both the finite and the infinite."
Bold words for a dude writing a book, right? But also the main point of the tale. The world is what the world is. Talking about it is weak light compared to the experience of it. And, ultimately, pointless. Three books in and we will never know what Area X is, where it truly came from, what its purpose is. There are no words to speak of things beyond the comprehension of the human mind, nor to experience something so truly alien as Area X.
Warning: This is just my read, and I could be dead wrong. I could get a letter from Jeff VanderMeer tomorrow saying, "Hey, dummy. Just read your review and my book is about puppies. Thanks for getting it all wrong, jerk." But I don't think that's going to happen.
If the first book in the series was about exploring Area X and what it does to the explorers, and the second book is about what it does to those who command the explorers, then the third book is about coming, finally, to accept that there are no explanations for Area X. That Area X is the projection — through time, through unfathomable distance — of some alien operator whose motivations and purpose are as unknowable to man as man's motivations and purpose are to an ant.
When you get to the end yourself and see that this is the conclusion that VanderMeer has come to after hundreds of pages — you're going to be angry. You're going to feel cheated out of the catharsis that is supposed to come with finishing a great series of books. But I advise you to just roll with it. Have a drink if you must. Seethe quietly and internally and know that, as the days pass, the book will hang with you. It will haunt you, passages coming to you while you walk down the street or sit on the train. You will work through the multiple perspective, character and voice shifts and, slowly, accept that Acceptance is maybe the truest title ever given a book.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.
Got the flu? Or a new baby? Perhaps a little one with chicken pox? In most countries, your employer must pay your wages if you stay home sick or to care for others. Not in America.
But a growing grass-roots movement aims to change that — starting with paid sick leave.
Already the movement has met some success. This past weekend, California became the second state in the country to mandate sick leave for employees.
Others may join soon. Sick-day measures are on at least a half-dozen ballots in November, including in Massachusetts, Oakland, Calif., and a few citIes in New Jersey. At least six more states will take up the issue in 2015, including Colorado, Maryland and Vermont.
"We understand these are building blocks to a national standard," says Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work, an umbrella organization for state coalitions pushing paid leave. She hopes this fall's vote will boost momentum, upping the issue's profile and making 2015 "a tipping point to going national."
The effort is part of a fierce partisan battle for women voters, who are much likelier than men to take time off to care for a sick child or an elderly parent. Family-friendly policies let Democrats demonstrate some pro-women bona fides — and accuse Republicans who oppose such measures of stoking a "war on women."
That sort of rhetoric is already playing big in top 2014 races, and it's likely to intensify ahead of 2016, especially if Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton or another woman for president.
"There is only one developed country in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave, and that is us," President Obama told an audience in June at the White House Summit on Working Families. "And that is not the list you want to be on by your lonesome." The U.S. is also one of a few countries that do not have national requirements on paid sick days.
Business groups and conservatives have resisted paid leave, arguing that it stifles job creation and imposes heavy administrative burdens. Groups like the National Federation of Independent Business have released studies warning that future legislation will squelch employment, but they've mustered little real-world evidence.
Workers' advocates say data refute those claims, though their evidence suggests that paid sick leave isn't free. In a 2011 survey on San Francisco's paid sick-day ordinance, enacted in 2006, 14 percent of businesses said the ordinance hurt profits, but 71 percent said it didn't.
Administration was harder, with 31 percent of firms saying it was "somewhat" or "very difficult" to implement the ordinance, and 54 percent said it was "not difficult" or "not too difficult." The survey was conducted by the Institute for Women's Policy Research, which supports paid leave. While the results give some ammunition to paid-leave opponents, they counter the potent claim that paid leave kills jobs.
Such data have underpinned a city-by-city and state-by-state campaign by a coalition of labor unions, women's organizations and community groups that now can count at least 10 major victories since 2006. Most are in progressive havens like Connecticut, Seattle and Eugene, Ore. The goal is to get to a critical mass of cities and states that will force action from the federal government, which hasn't touched leave for decades.
In 1993, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to offer unpaid maternity leave or unpaid family health leave to certain employees. But the FMLA's exemptions are gaping: They exclude the more than 40 percent of people who work part time or for small, exempt companies. Disproportionately, those people are women, single, minorities and workers with a high school education or less.
Activists say that ballot initiatives can compensate for the lack of legislative clout. Oakland is a good example. After it became clear that some members of the Oakland City Council would fight tooth and nail against a proposal that would raise the minimum wage and require five paid sick days, a grassroots coalition gathered enough signatures to put the proposal directly on the November ballot. Advance polling shows strong support from voters.
The Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce tried to get a counter proposal on the ballot that would have created an extended phase-in for the wage hike and required fewer sick days. The chamber argued its proposal offered a more "sustainable approach to achieving fair and sustainable compensation," while keeping "Oakland's economy booming."
But it didn't get approval in the city council, and the group has since stopped its public campaign. Chamber representatives did not reply to interview requests. It's still possible, though, that state or national pro-business organizations could get involved.
There's pushback elsewhere. In San Diego, which enacted a minimum wage hike and paid-leave law on Aug. 18, the California Restaurant Association and San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce are gathering signatures for a 2016 ballot initiative to repeal it. Just getting the needed signatures would freeze the law until the vote takes place.
And three years after Milwaukee enacted paid sick leave requirements in 2008, Gov. Scott Walker pushed a statewide measure that nullified them. States like Florida and Oklahoma have followed suit. And in the past, pro-business groups have beat back legislative proposals in Maine, Maryland and New Hampshire.
All of which underscores why Bravo and others hope the statewide measures create a platform for federal action.
But for politicians in Washington to get on board, it first has to prove to be the vote-getter they promise.
The United States conducted airstrikes in Somalia late Monday, targeting the leadership of the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabab.
Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John F. Kirby tells The New York Times that the U.S. is "still assessing the results of the operation." Kirby would not reveal further details.
Local officials, however, tell Bloomberg that the airstrikes came near a meeting of top al-Shabab officials, including its spiritual leader. Bloomberg reports:
"Ahmed Abdi Godane was among a number of 'high-ranking' al-Shabab officials who were meeting at Dhaytubako, about 300 kilometers (186 miles) southwest of the capital, Mogadishu, when the drones struck late yesterday, Lower Shabelle Governor Abdulkadir Mohamed Nur said in a phone interview today.
"'We believe that a large number of senior al-Shabab officials have been hurt in the attack, but I cannot specifically confirm if Godane was killed,' Mohamed Nur said. 'He was among those meeting during the attack.'"
CNN, which first broke the story, reports that the strike happened in the port city of Barawe, which is an al-Shabab stronghold. Mohamed Nur told the network that al-Shabab leaders were meeting to strategize on how to repel "a joint offensive by Somali and African Union troops aimed at dislodging [al-Shabab] from their nearby strongholds."
CBS News has a bit of background on previous U.S. action in Somalia:
"A U.S. missile strike in January killed a high-ranking intelligence officer for al-Shabab, and last October a vehicle carrying senior members of the group was hit in a U.S. strike that killed al-Shabab's top explosives expert.
"The latest U.S. action comes after Somalia's government forces regained control of a high-security prison in the capital that was attacked on Sunday by seven heavily armed suspected Islamic militants who attempted to free other extremists held there. The Pentagon statement did not indicate whether the U.S. action was related to the prison attack.
"Somali officials said all the seven attackers, three government soldiers and two civilians were killed. Mogadishu's Godka Jilacow prison is an interrogation center for Somalia's intelligence agency, and many suspected militants are believed to be held in underground cells there."