Synopsis: An urban-fantasy supernatural bank heist
Book Review: This is a frustrating book, because it has some very cool parts, but some very big failures as well, and you can see the unrealized potential within it. It reads very much like a novelization of the Buffy TV Series if it had been done by someone without Joss Whedon’s talent for self-awareness and meta-analysis.
Skin Game has that snappy, modern, referential humor that we so love. It is often funny, and in parts laugh-out-loud hilarious. The big parasite twist absolutely made my evening. :) The writing is never bad, and in parts it is outstanding! “Her heels clicking with metronomic inevitability” or “with all the sympathy of a bullet in flight” are evocative and high-impact lines. And the characters are generally strong and distinct, making them easy to identify and accept.
Unfortunately the awesomeness-to-word-count ratio is not favorable. The story seems to need to take a break every so often to have a fight scene, like a Fox executive is standing over Jim’s shoulder saying “No one’s been staked in 20 minutes? Throw some vampires at them!” Now, some of these fight scenes are vital, well-built, and fantastic. The one just outside Carpenter’s house was a tour-de-force, with a fantastic build-up, high stakes, the possibility of something bad actually happening, and major plot-altering outcomes as a result. I loved it. But several other fight scenes were dull, and could have been removed entirely without changing the story one bit. Any time a scene can be removed without altering a story at all, it should be.
It wasn’t just the fight scenes though. There’s a lot of really unfortunate dialog that basically consists of the characters telling the reader how s/he should be feeling right now. Most of it while trying to sound profound or moving. That is bad writing. You never tell a reader how he should feel (even if it’s dressed up as friends psycho-analyzing the protagonist to make him feel better). You make a reader feel things by showing them action that evokes those feelings. No matter how many times someone says “They took away everything that was familiar. They hurt you.” that doesn’t make us feel that pain. Repeating it doesn’t make it more impactful. There was not a single emotional point in the book that was left un-belabored.
As a result, a lot of the book was simply boring. Which is one of the worst things a book can be. Any time I have to resort to skimming a book it loses esteem in my eyes, and I had to do that quite a bit. With the exception of the fight outside Carpenter’s house, I never felt reluctant to put it down, or excited to pick it up again.
I suspect that part of the problem is that this is the 15th book in a (planned) 20 book series. Call me cynical, but I have a very hard time believing this story arc had to be spread out over 20 books and couldn’t have been done in (say) five. Very little of consequence happened in this book, and all those extra pages I was forced to skim through were just padding. For comparison, Catherine Valente wrote Deathless, which in the course of a single book takes its protagonist from age 10 to age 60+, covers two world wars, and has an amazing character arc, intense plot, and vast changes in the world. It’s an epic story. A few years ago I read the first Dresden novel (Storm Front). Harry Dresden seems virtually unchanged since that novel. Same with the world he’s in. Valente accomplished more in a single book than Butcher’s done in fifteen. I kinda resent that. My time is being wasted so a series can be padded out. Bleh.
Ultimately, I want something that will stick with me when I read (or watch) a story. Buffy was campy and fun, but it was also good–it still reverberates in my life. Skin Game, once you skip the boring bits, was certainly fun. But there’s nothing there that’ll stick with me. As one friend said: “A workman-like example of entertainment product.” It’s probably good beach reading with a drink. But that’s not what I’m interested in. Not Recommended.
Book Club Review: There isn’t much to say here. I won’t say there’s nothing for a book club to talk about. It is interesting to compare what different people find enjoyable – what jokes worked for some but not others, what bored one person vs what excited another, etc. There were a couple people in our group who were legitimately entertained and said the rest of us were being too finicky. But that only gets you so far. There wasn’t anything thought-provoking or innovative to push discussion. While it may be a good book for individual reading for some, as a book club book I would Not Recommend.
Puppy Note: This book really isn’t terrible, it’s just not great. Which means it’s already better than at least one nominee I’ve read every year. Every year since I started participating in the Hugos there’s been at least one book that I thought was simply awful, and in one case I was surprised the book had even made it to print! This book is easily better than any of those. And from what I’ve heard, some of the other books in this series have been quite a bit better. Which, first of all, makes me more convinced there should be a separate Hugo category for Series. But which also makes me ask “Why did Brad pick this book, this year?” It’s obviously not a good example of what Butcher can do when he really tries (or at least I hope that’s the case). Picking this particular mediocre book smacks very much of the exact sort of “basing Hugo decisions based on insider knowledge and politics,” rather than “just judging a work on its merits” that the Puppies campaign was supposedly against. Oh how quickly things turn.
If your protagonist is literally Satan, and the most interesting thing you can think to do with that is put him in a glorified Police Procedural, you need to fire your ENTIRE CREATIVE STAFF >:(
This is my 5th ToastMasters speech, titled “Happily Ever After.” It basically just retreads a lot of stuff I’ve posted here before, but now in audio format.
Oh shit! My SO, much more concerned about animal rights than I am, may well be a better utilitarian than me. Ozy: We have seen the Utility Monster, and it is us.
An examination of the politics of the Harry Potter books.
“the whole Wizarding World in general, has been living under a continuous state of emergency for over three hundred years … Muggles are bound to find out in the end, unless the authorities and the population in general are allowed to react quickly and effectively without regard to constitutional niceties. … Since their society can’t have a proper rule of law (as we understand it) without risking its own existence, wizards have found another way of ensuring their safety and protection.
… the way power seems to work in the Wizarding World is the patron-client system, such as existed in Ancient Rome … Basically, the system works by otherwise unprotected wizards attaching themselves to a powerful “patron” and becoming his “clients.” The patron will smooth over any problems his client might have with the Ministry of Magic, and use his money and connections to help him out of his difficulties, and keep him out of Azkaban – as Dumbledore did with Mundungus Fletcher. In return, the client himself becomes a part of the patron’s entourage and connections. The patron ends up with a large body of wizards dependent on him whom he can rely on (a private army, in other words) which effectively puts him above the law ”
Killing the leaders of terrorist groups may make them more likely to attack civilian rather than military targets:
“Subsequent statistical studies have found that terrorism is not simply correlated with political failure; the attacks on civilians actually lower the odds of government concessions. This is because terrorism tends to shift electorates to the political right, strengthening hardliners most opposed to appeasement.
…It turns out that certain kinds of groups are significantly more likely to attack civilians than others – those suffering from leadership deficits in which lower level members are calling the shots. Leadership deficits promote terrorism by empowering lower level members of the organization, who have stronger incentives to harm civilians.
…In accordance with this new theory for terrorism, our study reveals that decapitation strikes with drones make militant groups more likely to attack civilians by weakening the leadership.”
First I thought this was an Onion article. Then I thought it was April 1st. Texas Governor Deploys State Guard To Stave Off Obama Takeover. What. The. Fuck.
Trolling for good. :) Satanic Temple: 72-Hour Abortion Waiting Period is Against Our Religion “Turns out a core religious tenet of The Satanic Temple is control over one’s own body.”
The U.S. imprisons a much higher percentage of its citizens than any similar country and frequently fails to protect those prisoners from being raped or assaulted, even when they are kids. The FBI helped send multiple people to death row based partly on junk science that was also used to convict people for lesser crimes for two decades. DNA exonerations of longtime prisoners are legion. Asset forfeiture laws have police seizing the property of Americans who’ve never been convicted of anything. The War on Drugs has eroded the Fourth Amendment and undermined the sanctity of the home to an oppressive degree, such that it is no longer surprising to hear about no-knock raids where family pets are shot, flash bang grenades burn innocents, and people are killed. Black and Hispanic men are stopped and frisked dozens of times by police without having done anything wrong.
Many conservatives show no evidence of caring.
… If public school teachers or community organizers behaved as badly, the outrage on AM radio and Fox News would be constant. Yet police abuses as numerous and egregious as what the Baltimore Sun documented in this stellar investigation garnered orders of magnitude less coverage and outrage from conservatives than James O’Keefe stinging ACORN.
Why is America celebrating the beating of a black child?
“these beatings are the acts of a people so desperate and helpless, so terrorized and enraged, that heaping pain upon their children actually seems like a sane and viable act of parental protection.
The intensity of this fear is integral to the history of black Americans. Just as black parents have “the talk” with their children, listing survival tips for when they are confronted by white authority, black corporal punishment has been encouraged as the only way to make black children acceptable to society.”
A CEO explains why CEOs make so much money. Interesting perspective. In short: unintended consequence of regulation and public disclosure. No board wants to admit to having a cruddy CEO by paying him less than average, so below-average pay is increased to match the market rate, which brings the entire average up, rinse and repeat. We need to make this work for accountants! www.glassdoor.com here I come!
So much yes. Smashing police cars is a legitimate political strategy.
“Non-violence is a type of political performance designed to raise awareness and win over sympathy of those with privilege. When those on the outside of struggle—the white, the wealthy, the straight, the able-bodied, the masculine—have demonstrated repeatedly that they do not care, are not invested, are not going to step in the line of fire to defend the oppressed, this is a futile political strategy.”
“Militance is about direct action which defends our communities from violence. […] it is how virtually all of our oppressed movements were sparked, and has arguably gained us the only real political victories we’ve had under the rule of empire.”
“Telling someone to be peaceful and shaming their militance not only lacks a nuanced and historical political understanding, it is literally a deadly and irresponsible demand.”
(relinking You Are Not The Target Audience again as well – “[peaceful] protest, even at its most acrimonious, still takes the form of an appeal to power–it assumes certain institutions can be reasoned with. As such it risks effectively bolstering the perceived legitimacy of those institutions.
In contrast, physical resistance challenges not only the state’s appearance of control but also the legitimacy of their monopoly on force. “)
Video – Obama brings in his Anger Translator during the White House Correspondents dinner. :) That’s gotta be a life-goal for any comedian!
More fun comedy, 5 min video –Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Last Fuckable Day
Obamacare’s projected cost falls due to lower premiums under health care law, CBO says
“Apparently, only 8% of the people are aware of this fact.
Obamacare is currently coming in at 11% below budget – mostly because:
(a) Health care premiums are rising less than expected. They are still rising – but much more slowly than they used to. Accusations that companies across the country are raising costs dramatically are simply not true (though there may be a few local exceptions).
(b) Fewer companies than expected are dropping health insurance coverage for employees. Again, the charge that companies across the country will be dropping health insurance coverage have turned out to be false. Some have done so, but not as many as the CBO had predicted.” (quoting Alonzo Fyfe)
On Utilitarian Ethics (or why Utilitarians aren’t as insufferable as more traditional liberals):
“Many people have remarked on the paradox of an academia made mostly of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners trying so very hard to find reasons why lots of things are the fault of upper-class ethnic-majority Westerners …
what if people are really, fundamentally, good? … Deontology very clearly says that if you cause a problem, it’s your job to help fix it … Utilitarianism tells us that we are perfectly justified in seeing the relief of suffering as a pressing need. We don’t need to justify it by positing facts that may later be proven untrue…
This theory implies that utilitarian liberals will have all the features of liberalism except the interest in blaming their own group for major problems. The utilitarians I know are very interested in helping the poor and in various other liberal ideas, but are more likely than other liberals to roll their eyes at talk about colonialism and stereotype threat.”
Hope everyone had a great Cake & Cunnilingus day on April 14th! (NSFW)
Thank all the gods! EFF Busts Podcasting Patent, Invalidating Key Claims at Patent Office
A quick primer on the Christus Victor idea. Christus Victor was the dominant view of the atonement for the first thousand years of the church. This was a fun read. I want more SF utilizing these themes.
Scott Alexander has some strong doubts about Growth Mindset.
“telling kids that they’re failing because they just don’t have the right work ethic is a crappy thing to do.
… Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever, saying “YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU’RE JUST NOT TRYING NOT TO BE STAMPED ON HARD ENOUGH”.”
This is even more fun than the original song. :)
For a break from the current drama: ‘Bees are good,’ Obama says as children scream.
“now THAT is how you write a headline” – Blake
I just re-read “Is this art?” Great post, and short, take five minutes to go read it if you can. Most relevant part is:
> If Person A uses the word “art” to mean “something beautiful that required skill to create” and Person B uses the word “art” to mean “something intentionally created to make a statement,” then it seems like their debate over whether the urinal is “art” should be resolved as soon as they clarify what they meant by the word.
> As far as I can tell, the disguised query in this case is usually “does this deserve to be taken seriously?” which can be translated in practice into, “Is this the sort of thing that deserves to be exhibited in a gallery?”
If the Larry and Brad can be taken at their word, they seem think that the answer to the question “Does this work represent the best of SF?” should be answered with “If the casual reader picked up a book for entertainment reading, would the Hugo winner be the best SF book of the year for that?”
This does make some sense — most people read fiction purely for entertainment. Their primary criteria for judging a work of fiction is “Was it fun to read? Did I have a good time?” So Larry and Brad have a point when they say that the Hugos do not represent the “large majority” of the reading public. The majority of the reading public is picking up a good yarn. And there is nothing wrong with that. It’s the same way I watch TV, or watch movies. For these sorts of things, you want Indiana Jones. You want the heart-of-gold guy having awesome adventures and cracking wise the whole time, who has loyal friends and scary enemies and wins the heart of the girl at the end. This is a fun-as-hell tale!
But some percentage of the SF readership considers SF to be Serious Business. It’s not just for fun, it is Art. I confess I am one of those people. I’m ok with admitting to being slightly snobby in SF reading. FFS, I run a silly Harry Potter Fanfic Podcast, I gotta have *something* I can be snobby about! Everyone needs are least one thing to snob over, whether it’s cooking, or reading, or gun use/knowledge. My thing is genre fic.
If you’re a bit snobby and consider SF to be Art, simply “being fun” is not a good enough criteria for an award. There’s lots of that. My criteria goes further… things that include “Making me feel an emotion really hard” and “Great skill in writing” and “Making me think” and “Being innovative and pushing the boundaries of the genre.” “Being fun” is included, but it’s not primary, and sometimes it takes a hit to make room for all the other things. Indiana Jones is great, but it doesn’t make me think, and in 2015 is certainly is not innovative or pushing the boundaries!
This is why some authors can consistently put out multi-best-selling books but never get a Hugo award. They put out great work that’s popular, and it’s fun to read, but that’s not what the Hugo award is for. I even get the impression that most people who pick up a book for fun-reading know this. They know that awards go to heavier stuff with an art focus, so they don’t look for an award sticker (or avoid it) if they don’t want something like that. Instead they look for the “Best Seller” line on the cover and buy that. It’s only when they want something more involved that they’ll pick up something that won awards. I think that the casual reader is ill-served by the Puppies’ initiative, because while they can still get the fun best-sellers by buying best-sellers, they don’t have a way to find the more artsy stuff when that’s what they’re in the mood for.
Larry and Brad wanted to make the Hugos into a “Best of what’s fun and popular!” award, because to them that’s synonymous with “Best of SF.” Their biggest problem was that generally the people who care enough to participate in the Hugos disagreed with them. We’re in it to argue over the artsy stuff. The people who share their opinion that having fun is the primary point of fiction don’t care enough to get involved. They pay for the best sellers and read them and have a good time. Why should they care if some geeks who take all this too seriously spend hours upon hours arguing over this point or that? Why would they invest that time, and that effort, and pay $40, when they already read their fun book and moved on to the next one?
The only way to marshal the forces is to turn them Rabid. In America that means the Culture War. This has already been refined to a science in the USA so the playbook is common knowledge. Make it a Red vs Blue thing, paint the other side as oppressors who are unfairly manipulating the system to keep out the people they hate, make it about standing up to an entrenched & corrupt power in order to defend the aggrieved common man, etc. Both sides do it. And BOY does it work for getting attention!
Which means that the Hugo’s future depends on how virulent the Rabies becomes. If things are left to shake out on their own, I’m of the opinion the pleasure-reader populace will go back to reading best-sellers and not caring much about the Hugos. It just isn’t worth their time and money on purely literary grounds. The only way to keep this movement going is to continue to fan the flames of Culture Warfare, keep the base riled up about how much the SJWs are assholes and need to be kicked around. That’s possible of course, the news media has been doing it for what… two decades now? It’s our country’s most popular drug. And Vox Day would love that result. I’m not sure if Larry and Brad have their hearts set on it as well. I get the feeling they honestly cared more for the genre than the politics, and just got carried away with the rush of popularity. But at this point they might be too committed and may be happy to go along with making the Hugos another Culture War battlefield. Just goes to show that nothing is sacred in war.
Normally I would hold off on saying anything about the Puppy Short Fiction until I do my full “Short Stories and Novelettes” post after my bookclub discusses them all. But that won’t be for another two months, and I keep seeing a ton of people saying John C Wright’s “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” is terrible. I haven’t read any of the other shorts yet, but I want to speak up and say that perhaps people are reading it wrong.
I assume that, due to Wright being super-Catholic and a darling of Vox Day, people are presuming that this story is meant as some sort of Christian allegory, and are reading it as such. To that I say: Death of the Author! Wright’s intent doesn’t matter, the story should be judged as it’s own work, and I think it is a really damn good work. I, too, had to struggle to get past my Puppy antipathy, but it’s worth it! Because yes, the beginning is really slow and quite boring. But if you push past that, it keeps getting better and better, and ended absolutely fan-fucking-tastic!! I think I’m a much bigger fan of religious horror than I thought I was.
For starters, the writing style is well done. It’s a throw-back to the old Talking Animal fables, which come with a very distinctive voice, and Wright does an excellent job of speaking in that antiquated, fable-style voice. It’s not amazingly difficult to do, but it certainly isn’t easy (as anyone who’s tried to mimic that archaic style without sounding ridiculous can tell you – eg Ren Faire actors), so it deserves to be noted that he did it well. Both the voice and the structure call up those olden tales skillfully.
But more importantly, try not to listen to it as a preacher delivering a sermon, but just as a story. It soon becomes clear this is a horror story.
Echopraxia kinda cemented in my mind the concept that “If a God existed, it would be necessary for Man to kill him.” Parliament pushed those same buttons for me. Cat’s brush with God is of an intrusive, alien, ever-watching eye, like that of a Lovecraftian Elder God. Then the minds of the animals are altered against their will, changing their personhood (the grossest violation of personhood that there is IMHO), and it isn’t even a change made FOR THEIR BENEFIT. They are given an aversion to nudity that imposes costs on their existence and makes them feel bad. It is a purely malevolent act, and smacks of species-sabotage. Plus the body-horror scene of everyone being twisted into upright grotesqueries. Then they are denied any way to improve their own existence, being put entirely at the mercy of alien minds (the uplifted humans) who may not give a damn about them. Finally, their only way to opt out of this is to literally destroy their intelligence and agency, reducing them to rutting beasts. Possibly a fate worse than extinction, I’m not sure.
The only ray of light I see is Fox. If I was writing this into a novel he would be the cunning trickster, lying just below God’s radar, finding a way to undermine and eventually overthrow the Hosts of Heaven.
It’s a bleak and horrifying tale, and if it wasn’t for the bad taste that the Puppies’ tactics have left in everyone’s mouths it might be easier to acknowledge that its really quite good. So I’m encouraging everyone to try to overlook that unfortunate fact and read the story like you’d read anything by Watts or Gaiman. I don’t have any comment on Hugo Voting – since tactics are a big part of what’s happening in that game this year it would be silly to tell people “don’t consider the circumstance when voting.” Take everything into account when voting. But when reading, or discussing the piece as a work, it’ll make life much more enjoyable to focus just on the story, if only for one day.
For the commenters and others who recently objected that art can’t be objectively measured–I agree to a point. Far be it for me to claim that beauty isn’t a subjective experience! But there’s a difference between “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “Storytelling has no standards.” Claiming there are no standards and everything is popularity is post-modern nihilism. I present as evidence the recent restoration of Ecce Homo.
Are there standards, or are these equally good?
So I was wrong about being done with the Puppies posts, because I just had the surprising pleasure of watching Brad Torgersen, self-avowed conservative, go Full Post-Modern. Pics included to show I’m not making this up.
“Gents, thing is, there is *no* objective standard. None. Pretense to the contrary, is just that: pretense.
Again, no objective standard. Just taste. If people with taste similar to yours can vote in sufficient numbers, then your taste prevails. If those with a different taste can vote in sufficient numbers, your taste does not prevail.”
“Storytelling has no standards.
The story either resonates with many, or it resonates with few.”
(in response to “Any writer should be able to judge a work’s quality based on professional criteria. Even if it’s not to your taste, you should have the ability to tell if it was well written or not. This is a vital skill for us. How do you get through critiques without it? How did you learn your trade without it?“)
“Folks, really, taste is not objective. There is no objective standard at work here. Just the competition of tastes.”
(in response to “Taste is subjective. Professional quality is objective. I will certainly agree that there are degrees of quality, but to say that ‘there are no standards’ is nonsense.“)
“Actually, no, “professional quality” is not objective either. … There are no boxes to check. No owner’s manual. There is only resonance. And resonance cannot be qualified nor quantified.”
(in response to “Why be a writer if you don’t think it’s a craft worth mastering? If you don’t think that a story can be honed and made better? People can argue about art and which story is “better” than another in the artistic sense all they like (and argue in good faith, I think), but the craft of writing is without question something that we can assess, and find wanting.“)
“Quality is in the eye of the beholder … in the end, there is nothing objective about it. … Nobody gets away from it. Because there is no objective measurement. Just audience and reader satisfaction.”
(in response to “So Brad, your writing isn’t any better now than it was when you were writing for years and years and selling nothing?“)
“you’d have to ask my readers. I freely admit to having no grasp of my own quality, now vs. when I broke into print in 2010 … Am I “better” than in 1992? Well, sales are sales…”
Now, I don’t want to say Brad doesn’t have any point at all, certainly much of art appreciation is subjective. But to see him go full “There are no standards, there is only resonance!” is delightful.
In retrospect, I guess it was kinda inevitable.
I expect that for Sad Puppies 4, Brad will give us an address to which we can send anything we had published in the previous year, and he will then pick five works at random to go on the slate, since everything is equally good and it’s all just subjective taste. We’ll re-name the Hugos “The Rando’s” and enjoy it as the biggest piece of Post Modern Performance Art of this decade. It’ll be like we’re all in the 90s again! :)
As always, I have done my best to find the Hugo Nominated Short Stories and Novelettes that are available free online and post the links here, for the convenience of my book club.
“The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright
“A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond – this doesn’t appear to be available free online
“Totaled”, Kary English
“Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa
The Short Stories are all Puppy-slate works.
“Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart
“Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner
“The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (audio version available at same link) – The only non-Puppy work in this category.
“The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn
“The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra