Feb 172017
 

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: In the second book in the Broken Earth trilogy, Essun and her daughter Nassun explore and grow into the fullness of their powers, while surviving in a currently-unfolding apocalypse.

Book Review: Last year when I read the start of this trilogy, The Fifth Season (review, discussion), I was blown away. Easily one of the best books of 2015, and plenty of readers agreed with me, as it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.

Jemisin returns in strong from in this continuation, which picks up literally minutes after the first novel ended. It is a good companion, for a number of reasons.

First, it has a rational flavor. I would not call it RatFic, per se. But one of the major components of Rational Fiction is characters who explore the underlying rules of the world they are in, in order to munchkin their way into power. A lot of the focus of Obelisk Gate is the exploring and uncovering of how this magic system works, and exploiting it, and that really reminded me of RatFic. :)

The opposing sides continue to be relate-able, Jemisin puts a fair bit of work into making you understand how the various factions came to the place they are in and sympathizing with them.

It also stays in “grim” territory, which I really enjoy. There’s one scene in particular, which should make everyone cheer when it happens, and which strikes a blow against our ideals, that will stay with me a long time. This scene helped to cement in my mind the difference between “grimdark” and “traditional” fantasy. I think that in most fantasy, the heroes win because of their virtue. They are better people, and because of that they succeed. In grimdark people succeed or fail purely on their ability to impose their will on others. We want the heroes to win because they are better people. But the REASON they win is because they are better at violence then their opposition. It can be tricky to demonstrate the difference between the two if you are an author, because in both cases the heroes are better people than the antagonists, and in both cases they win by prevailing in a violent conflict. Jemisin performs this feat spectacularly, and still wins our hearts even when it’s clear our hero is simply better at killing and willing to use that to further her own goals.

Obelisk Gate does have the problem of being a middle book. (I continue to hold that authors should simply stop writing the middle book in a trilogy!) Which means it seems to tread water a lot, and much of the action within doesn’t feel that important. Middle books always feel like a long diversion that give you more info and some development without impacting anything of major significance.

This is significantly offset by the Nassun storyline. Nassun was briefly mentioned in The Fifth Season, but in The Obelisk Gate she becomes a secondary protagonist and we’re in her POV for aprox half the pages as we’re taken through her story. This means the book is one-half a “middle book” focusing on Essun, and one-half a “first book” for Nassun. This REALLY does a lot to make it a better novel! Having a first book folded into the middle book is a great idea, and if you’re going to write a middle book, this is one way to do it much better.

Another way is to be N.K. Jemisin. She is easily one of the best fantasy authors of our time, and it shows. There is one thing that bugged me personally, but it’s very spoilerific so I’ll save that for a future post. Despite this mystery complaint, the craft is beautiful, the characters are compelling, and the world that is slowly revealed to us as the book progresses is enthralling.

Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This novel produced TONS of discussion. There’s simply so much in here! I don’t want to go over everything, as that would simply take too long. The themes of human rights vs existential risk from the first book are still very present. Since they’re in the middle of an apocalypse there’s a bit of lifeboat ethics that comes up, but more interesting is the idea of who gets to decide how they’re implemented. And the themes of abuse are much stronger than they were in the first book, which sparked a lot of discussion about conditional vs unconditional love, and the biological realities of how you feel about children/parents, regardless of how they have treated you. To say it was interesting would be a hell of an understatement.

All this is because Jemisin obviously has a lot to say. Her society is brimming with rich concepts that must be on her mind often. Someone who doesn’t submerge themselves in these sorts of musings (and I’m assuming conversations/arguments) frequently simply wouldn’t have a world with such deep roots. They are as irremovable from the author’s work as they are from the author’s mind. And this works exceptionally well because Jemisin hasn’t set out to preach a message. The world and the stories within it are full and complex because these things are vital to the author. Having Something To Say but using it as fuel for driving your writing, rather than as material to make a soapbox out of, makes for stories that give people a LOT to talk about, in a thoughtful way.

We were at it for a long time, and it was great. Highly Recommended.

Feb 102017
 

The founder of my writer’s group (and 2x Nebula winner) Ed Bryant passed away in his sleep last night. I’d seen him for several hours every month for coming on three years now.

This is the first time anyone I’ve known personally in my life has died. I’m not sure what to make of it yet.

This picture is basically the Ed I knew, expect the shirt is wrong. He never wore anything but Hawaiian shirts. I don’t know how they got him into something this formal.

I owe Ed a lot. As I said, he started the Northern Colorado Writer’s Workshop. I learned more about my craft, in a shorter period of time, in that group than I could imagine was possible. It was a rocket burn of learning.

He attended every single meeting. We’re supposed to keep our comments to a reasonable length, to keep the meeting moving, but exceptions were made for our elder statesman. :) He would go on at length about all sorts of topics, sometimes not all that related to what we were doing, but generally interesting. He imparted insight into the world of professional writing, and kept us very much informed of his personal goings on. It was like having a grandpa, I imagine. I don’t know, I’ve never known my grandparents, they’re in Poland.

Sometimes he went on a bit too long, but no one ever complained, because come on… he’s Ed. He deserves to go on as long as he likes. And he’s just so damn accepting and caring. He smiled all the time. His laugh was a huff that came up from the belly, and sparkled from his eyes.

Almost every meeting he would doze off at some point. Just a thing that comes with age, right? It was endearing. He’d look up bleary-eyed when it would come his turn to offer a critique on a work, take a breath, and jump right in.

He has read almost everything I’ve ever written. And commented on all of it. He read every single word of the first draft of the novel I just finished. He called it “Bravara Writing.” :) I didn’t keep most of the manuscripts I got back, because who can keep 3000+ pages of printouts with notes scrawled over them? When I get home today I’m going to go digging. I hope I kept one or two with his handwriting. It just… didn’t occur to me that he’d be gone.

Even when his kidneys failed last year, and he had to start dialysis. Even when he had a bad turn last month, and missed an NCWW meeting for the first time in as long as I’d been coming. I just thought “Well, he’ll be better by next month. Ed is always there. Good ol’ Ed.” I sent him a get-well card. Maybe I should have gone to visit too.

People often say “I won’t ever see X again,” but that doesn’t seem to apply anymore. There’s photos, there’s video. And I’m not that visual. What weirds me out is I won’t hear his voice again. He had a very deep voice, like an old bear. A little scratchy and rumbly in his old age. He spoke slowly, deliberately, which was frustrating at times, but it was distinctive. It was him.

As far as I know, he wasn’t signed up for cryo. He’s just… gone.

Fuck. :(

Feb 102017
 

When I worked for The Man, I often had long periods of enforced idleness. Accounting is cyclical by nature. We’re busy at month-end, and very busy at quarter-end and year-end, but 8 months out of the year there’s a couple weeks were the work volume is just very low. But due how employment laws and norms work in the US, I still had to be in the office 40 hours a week, even during those weeks when there was only 15 hours of work to be done.

I thought this was stupid as shit. To be honest, from a business perspective I still think it’s stupid as shit. You’re literally paying your employees to burn away hours of their life on nothing. As long as their work gets done, I think they should be free to leave the office on slower weeks. But hey, some places have it worse. I hear in Japan you’re expected to put in 12+ hour days every day and often work weekends, which results in office workers who literally sit at their desks doing nothing at all for more than half their time in the office. And everyone knows it, and everyone still does it anyway, cuz expectations.

I’ve come to miss that Enforced Idleness. Because it’s not like I literally did NOTHING during that time. I spent a lot of time reading–specifically, surfing the web. This idle time is how I discovered Overcoming Bias. It’s how I got most of my econ knowledge (seriously, the two classes I took at college level ended up just being review. They were only 100-level classes, of course. But it’s cool that anyone with the interest can get an entry-level college education from dedicated reading of economist blogs). It’s how I gained most of my history knowledge, and kept up on advances in tech fields and some sciences. I read the entirety of the Less Wrong sequences, and SSC, and so many other things. If it wasn’t for this enforced idleness, I likely would never have read the Transdimensional Justice Monster post, which was a major inspiration for Of All Possible Worlds. I’ve greatly deepened my knowledge, and broadened my horizons, becoming a better and more thoughtful person. Because I was being paid to waste time.

Now that I’ve been “working” for myself for a number of months, I have much less idle time. I chisel it out for the stuff I find really important (like SSC). But I can’t stand to have hours every day where I’m merely reading interesting things about the world, because those are hours that I am not being paid anything, and not producing anything that will maybe help me pay my rent some day in the future. I don’t feel I can afford idleness, for the most part. I don’t follow many of the blogs I used to follow, nor podcasts. I’m worried I’m missing a lot, and it’ll come back to bite me, and some day I’ll just be an old man yelling at a cloud because the world has left me behind.

So I guess what I’m saying is, maybe that Enforced Idleness was a much better thing than I’d given it credit for at the time. It basically forced me into boredom regularly, and we all know how productive boredom can be. Maybe Enforced Idleness will be the future of work, once the robots have taken everything else.

Feb 072017
 

I know everyone says that, but it’s one of the nice things about human psychology that we can know it’s not true but still believe it on a gut level, because we like where we are so much. I live in the South Denver Metro area, in an area called “DTC” (the “Denver Tech Center”). It’s my favorite combination of density and nature.

As I’ve said many times before, I hate the suburbs. They sprawl and they’re ugly and inefficient. Dense living, such as multi-story apartments, are far more efficient both for energy- and land-use. And by not sprawling across miles and miles, we reserve that land for ACTUAL natural wilderness, rather than the aesthetic horror that is lawns.

And just on an aesthetic level, I love large, imposing buildings. Sided in glass and given a decent architect to make them structurally interesting, it feels like living among giant cut diamond artifacts, gleaming in the sun.

The problem is that in many cities, the space between these soaring buildings is ugly. It’s cracked concrete and sooty asphalt. It’s chainlink fences and deteriorating lampposts. This dirty sterility drives me away from many highly-dense urban settings.

Fortunately, there is DTC. It contains towering glass structures, surrounded by corporately-maintained strips of well-mimicked wilderness. It’s like someone took the best parts of our neon post-cyberpunk future, and blended them artfully with tolkeinesque elven forests. Here’s a few pictures taken between my apartment complex and the Starbucks I walk to most days.

As one can see, even the deer were fooled into thinking they were in a pretty nature place. :) This is not a common occurrence, but man was it cool. I’ve posted a video below that shows how close they let humans get to them, they’re mostly unconcerned with us. I could probably have touched one if I wanted to, but I think that’s probably a bad idea. Plus, the three bucks with very pointly antlers made me cautious of scaring them.

Jan 312017
 

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

Synopsis: The ladies of a wild west brothel have to save their town from an evil mayor.

Book Review: This is a solidly mediocre book that feels like the literary equivalent of going to eat at Olive Garden. The food will be acceptable and you won’t leave hungry, but this certainly isn’t where people go to follow their passion.

The story starts out strong. Bear obviously had a really cool idea and decided to try it out. The first several chapters are engaging and interesting. The women of the brothel form a tight-knit community that feels very much like a family, and the protagonist has a unique and enjoyable voice. I like the sort of high-agency protagonist that Karen Memory starts with.

But it feels like Bear wasn’t sure where to go with this idea, and decided to just keep typing until she reached her word count goal. Some of the worst writing advice I’ve ever seen widely repeated is “if you’re stuck, just write ‘A man enters with a gun’ and go from there.” This feels like that sort of book, and it results in a story with a very slapped-together feel. There are a ridiculous number of elements that are sort of dropped in and don’t really DO anything.

*There’s a mind-control machine that’s used to insert some random chaos when things get boring, it’s then destroyed, and it looks to have no impact on anything in specific.

*There’s a ridiculous cholera plot that doesn’t make the least bit of sense. It’s told to our heroines for no reason before they are to be killed in a “Before I Kill You Mr Bond” way, but of course they escape easily right after.

*Whenever Bear doesn’t want to bother with the specifics of how a certain bit of action resolves her heroine is conveniently knocked unconscious, or chloroformed, or faints, and we skip right to the next scene without explanation.

*A romance subplot is dropped in, has no real effect on anything, or any emotional impact, and is neatly resolved with “yup, I love you too! ^^”

On top of all this, there’s no reason for this to have been steampunk, nor does it add anything to the story. It feels tacked-on. Almost everything feels tacked on, to be honest.

Perhaps this is an artifact of the fact that after the initial brothel set up, the story really shifts to be the story of the Marshal who rides into town on the heels of a serial killer. But Bear doesn’t realize this and sticks doggedly with Karen, and it brings down the whole novel? I don’t know.

In the end, I like my fiction to be “thinky.” This doesn’t just mean that characters think a lot in it (although it does mean that), or that I like for it to make me think (altho it does mean that as well)… it also means I expect the author to spend a good deal of time really thinking through the world, and the plot, and all the characters. This feels like it was dashed off without pausing for breath or any real care as to how it holds together. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Eh. The book isn’t bad, but doesn’t have much to recommend it. There’s a bit of chatting that can be done, trying to suss out what went wrong, or talking about the enjoyable parts. More than that, the group can speculate as to why the novel got as much attention as it did when it came out, but that ends up feeling kinda icky pretty quickly. People can enjoy things for any reason they want, and I don’t like to judge. But in terms of leaving the group with lots of interesting things to talk about, or a memorable experience – Not Recommended.

Personal Note: I almost threw the book across the room when the first dead hooker showed up. I am absolutely sick to fucking death of that trope. It’s lazy and it degrades an entire category of human into a cheap plot device. I once knew a sex worker, and it would be painful to watch things with her and see how often this bullshit showed up. Try sitting next to a friend while watching a comedy that jokes about how funny violence against your friend’s group is, because they’re dirty subhumans. I thought I’d be safe from it in a story with an ensemble of brothel workers, but NOPE! Our protagonists are the good kind of prostitutes–the high-class ones with a nice building and a strict-but-fair madam–and the street-walkers are still disposable bodies used to show how evil the villain is.

I’m sorry. I know I sound like a crazy person. But I was really looking forward to seeing this group finally portrayed as real humans in a fun book, and I got hit with that again. Ugh.

Jan 252017
 

The primary thing I personally want to say is that there is almost no such thing as malicious evil. All evil is done by people who think they are doing good. Even the Nazi thinks that he is safe-guarding his society from exploitative forces that wish to drain it and abandon the hollowed-out ruin. The fact that doing evil ALWAYS FEELS LIKE DOING GOOD is exactly why we can’t count on arguments of “it’s for the good in this case” special-exceptions. We spent a lot of time and social capital on arriving at “Extra-judicial violence is never acceptable.” The fact that it feels so right and good to break an established rule against violence should give us pause. Twice.

Here’s some other things said on Facebook, which means it’ll disappear in just a few days, and that I wish to preserve for posterity.

 

L: One of the reasons we support liberal civilization is because it keeps us safer than an authoritarian regime would, even one that we thought was “on our side”.

The prohibition against private political violence is the absolute cornerstone of civilization. It is prior to free speech. It is prior to democracy. It is prior to egalitarianism. It is the very first step towards freedom and liberalism. It is the Schelling fence that must be defended above all others.

What’s terrifying isn’t that an idiot nazi blogger got punched. An occupational hazard of being an asshole is that people are more likely to punch you. What’s terrifying is that I’m arguing with people who think they are liberals on Facebook about whether or not to condone it.

I’m upset that so many people claiming to be liberals endorse punching people for the explicit purpose of political intimidation. That’s a big deal. That scares the shit out of me.

Jan 232017
 

I’m a big fan of Malcolm X. In fact, I used to think I supported violence-as-a-solution more than most people, and stayed quiet about those beliefs out of shame. Richard Spencer being punched has proven me wrong.

Race riots were acceptable & necessary because the law was on the side of racial oppression. That was an armed struggle against state-sponsored terrorism. The law supported and protected extra-judicial violence against black people.

The law is not on the side of the Nazis. In fact, the only law that IS on Richard Spencer’s side is the law guaranteeing freedom of speech. If our side is the one resorting to extra-judicial violence because we take issue with a law guaranteeing *freedom of speech*, we might need to take a serious look at ourselves.

Some people I know are saying that the law now IS on the side of the Nazis. I don’t see any evidence of this yet. Simply asserting “Trump loves Nazis” absolutely does not do it for me, because anyone can assert anything. I am, of course, worried that this will become the case. I was horrified when Trump called for a “2nd Amendment” solution to a Clinton win. But just as I would expect any decent person in the Republican party to say “Guys, that’s not OK,” I’m also willing to say that, until we see this happening, we shouldn’t be the first to resort to vigilante violence.

Yes, Spencer is a racist who advocates awful things. He organizes like-minded people and tries to rally them to political action. The Westboro Baptists so the same. So does the KKK. I think there’s better ways of handling this than anonymous beatings in the streets.

Spencer was literally on a public street, answering questions that an interested reporter was putting to him. Are we OK setting a precedent of walking up to two people engaged in a conversation and punching the one we dislike?

Germany has straight-up made Nazi rhetoric illegal. I think they’ve decided on a good tactic. I would be more than willing to at least seriously propose a similar law here in the US. Any system that protects ideologies that calls for its destruction is lacking a certain self-preservation instinct. It would have to be a careful law. But it is, at least, a good idea in the abstract. I would much rather live in a system where the law clearly carves out certain speech as unacceptable and Nazis face legal consequences, rather than having to live in a world of anarchy where I have to hope that I’m not on the wrong side of mob sentiment lest I be beaten and everyone decides to look the other way.

There will always be crazy fuckers with awful ideas. You discredit them, and you rely on the laws to protect us from their violence. The law is what holds them back. It’s when the law fails to do so that things are dangerous (see: the South, up until just a few decades ago). That’s why I become worried when people gleefully cheer at the failure of the law to protect people from violence. If you think beating someone in the street will effectively discredit them and keep public opinion on your side, well, I think that’s a bad way to influence public opinion.

 

Follow-up note: I’ve had one note of disagreement cleared up when it turned out me and a friend view a punch to the face as very different levels of violence. To me, it’s the first step to a beating, and the horrors that come with that. To them, it was merely the outside-level of a slap. I would not be nearly as horrified by a slap, or something symbolic like a thrown shoe. I see a lot more violence in a closed fist.

Jan 222017
 

In mid-November I was laid off from my accounting job, and decided to finish my novel by year’s end. Despite a huge shock to my personal life right about that time (of which there are still all sorts of aftershocks), I managed to do so. :) I wrote the final line on Dec 30th, 2016.

I’m in my revision pass now, which looks like it’ll take a couple months in itself. But a couple things I’ve learned so far:

1. Working for yourself is far more intense than working for The Man.

I thought working for myself would be relaxing. A nice change of pace from the demands of corporate life, since I could work when and where I liked, and no uniform is required. Oh how wrong I was.

I should perhaps put “working” in quotes, because there’s no guarantee I’ll ever see any money for this. But that being said – when I’m working The Man and I’m at the office, I get paid for every hour that I’m there, period. I don’t have to be at the top of my game. If I show up Monday after a big party weekend, and I’m hungover and working at half-efficiency? No big deal. If I surf Facebook or chat with my coworkers for an hour? Still getting paid.

My posts to this blog have dropped off quite a bit over the last few months. I’m behind with most of the blogs I read, as well as not following the news as much, and I’ve abandoned several podcasts I used to listen to religiously. Because I just don’t have the time anymore. Every single minute I’m NOT working is time that I’m not getting paid, so to speak. Every hour of my life is now divided into “productive” (meaning may support my continuing to be alive) or “non-productive” (which feels like it’s wasted entirely). It’s intense. There is no such thing as “time off” or “down time” or even “slack” when you work for yourself. There’s only Doing The Thing, or Not. And getting sick is a double-whammy. It makes me more jealous of my time, and I was already fairly jealous of it.

I used to work on the Methods of Rationality podcast at the office, during my lunch hour. It was a lot like getting paid to work on my podcast. Now I have to chisel out 6-8 hours of my life every two weeks, taking time away from my writing, or my friends/family, or just rest, to do so. I used to always be a full episode ahead, now I rarely get it finished more than 3 days before it goes live. I still love it, but before it was something I used to fill my “free” time, and now it is a more dearly-felt cost.

I can honestly say I have worked far harder during my last few months of unemployment than I ever worked when I was grinding away in the last decade at the 9-5 (with the exception of some very hairy Quarter-End months.)

2. Starbucks is awesome, cuz work environment matters.

I discovered pretty quickly that working at home just wasn’t working for me. It was too easy to get distracted. There was always something to read, or to do. More than anything else, my bed was right there, and the nap times called me.

“How can I write well when I’m this tired? I can’t. I must rest my brain, and I’ll write afterwards. Whoops, it’s two days later.”

It just felt like such a hollow pursuit. I was floating in a strange limbo and nothing I did mattered. So I went to Starbucks.

At Starbucks, there are other humans. Those humans are always looking at me and judging me. If I am typing away, being productive, they smile, and judge me worthy. If I am surfing the internet or chatting on Facebook, they see how I am wasting my life, and scowl.

I know this isn’t actually true. No one gives a shit what I’m doing, they don’t look at me or my screen. But now I’m no longer in some weird dreamtime, I’m among humans. I’m grounded in the real world. And I’m reminded why I write. It’s for these people around me. To some day be seen and validated and maybe maybe even admired. So I sit, and I write, and I feel good about it. I know this isn’t psychologically healthy, but fuck it – do what works. Cuz in the end that’s all that matters.

Also, no bed nearby, so naps are not an option. :)

 

Anyway, I still need to do a full revision pass, and find an agent, and find a publisher, so I’m only like halfway through the process. And I’ll have to get a day job pretty soon to pay the bills too. But I’m happy to have discovered that if I ever get the chance to do this sort of thing for a living for real, I have the self-discipline to actually sit down and write a novel, rather than sliding into sloth and hedonism. :)

Jan 182017
 

Oh how I hate the media. Are they TRYING to help Trump?

This article leads with DeVos’s Gun vs Bears comment. (“I will refer back to Sen. [Mike] Enzi and the school he was talking about in Wyoming. I think probably there, I would imagine that there is probably a gun in the schools to protect from potential grizzlies.”) It’s also the highlight line under the picture when you share on Facebook: “She wouldn’t say guns don’t belong in schools–and cited a school’s need to protect itself from “potential grizzlies.” Bears, that is.”

That just means she’s really shitty at social posturing. We all know the correct PR answer is “Guns never belong in schools!” and then to demure and say “of course some exceptions can be made in extreme situations, such as to protect our children from rampaging bears.” The fact that she was honest and led with “Well sometimes guns are necessary” shouldn’t be a strike against her. I prefer honesty over political double-talk.

In fact, this makes me sympathize with her very much, because I hate bullshit. So when the rest of the article goes on to point out how absolutely clueless and incompetent she is, I’m now asking myself “How much of this is true, and how much is it the source doing it’s best to smear her?”

But I guess having a snappy “omg she’s scared of bears and loves guns everywhere cuz of it” line will get more people to click through. At least that must be the media’s expectation. It SURE got me talking about it, and linking it! It’s Moloch, in the flesh. I wish there was some way to discourage/punish this sort of behavior.

Jan 132017
 

Luna: New Moon, by Ian McDonald

Synopsis:  The Godfather, on the moon

Book Review: I don’t have much to say about this, as I was neither wowed or disappointed. It is basically The Godfather, on the moon.

The physics is hard, as one would expect.

The society is extreme libertarian, to the point of there not being any police or law besides “contract law.” It’s an interesting portrait because normally these sorts of things are written as Libertarian Utopias by hardcore libertarians. This is written very much like a world of feuding crime families, with no law for the masses to appeal to, which feels far more realistic. But since the POV is from the crime family’s perspective, you only get the barest glimpse of how much this sucks for almost everyone else, and instead follow the rich and powerful as they brawl for resources.

This sounds like a good plot, and to be honest, the plotting is good. But you’ve already seen this plot as one of the most-revered movies in cinema history. The characters, meanwhile, are kinda flat and interchangeable. There’s just too damn many of them. And there is very little introspection or thinking, just action after action. This is great for some people, but I like my fiction to be more “thinky.”

In the end, not bad, but certainly not McDonald’s best, and not something I’ll remember in a few weeks. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Kinda the same as the book review. Reaction was mixed, but no one was disappointed. There were some fun things to talk about, and we had a nice evening. But I wouldn’t say this is one to seek out and really recommend to your group over other options so… Not Recommended.