Jul 282016
 

It’s time for another round of Liberal America’s favorite game:

Is It Racist?

I just learned of The Great Wall. It’s a Chinese movie, with a Chinese director, a largely Chinese cast, set in ancient China. It’s the most expensive Chinese movie of all time (to date). But the script was written by American screen writers, and perhaps most important – this movie about the building of the Great Wall of China stars Matt Damon. (all info taken from the linked article)

I’m sure y’all remember the Scarlet-Johanson-as-Major-Kusanagi kerfuffle. It was interesting that as much as this was a big deal in the US, people in Japan didn’t understand why it was controversial. Now we have a Chinese movie, casting a white guy in its lead role.

If this was an American movie, with an American director, etc, there would be outcry about this whitewashing/appropriation. Perhaps with good reason? Regardless, I’m pretty sure we won’t be hearing anything like that regarding The Great Wall, since it’s a Chinese movie, and it’s not acceptable to call a non-white group Racist for making a movie the way they want to make it instead of the way we would like it to be made. The closest I’ve seen so far is the weak-sauce admission that it’s “an unfortunate look” at io9.

I plan on asking people “Is It Racist?” about The Great Wall a lot. Maybe it can move the conversation on cultural exchange/appropriation onto more sane grounds.

For what it’s worth, whenever I get questions like this, I always try to identify who is harmed. I’m not sure I know enough about the situation yet to have strong opinions on that.

Jul 272016
 

This graphic is both interesting and saddening. Take a look at the webpage on the left side first, then look over to the right for breakdown.

page viewing

It’s interesting that Baby Boomers (or at least those in the study) have not yet adapted their internet-looking behavior to disregard common places for ads. This brings up the question of whether this is because it becomes harder to adapt as one ages (which would be sad and scary), or because older people simply don’t spend as much time reading online, and therefore haven’t had enough stimuli to form the avoidance behavior yet (which makes me wonder where they heck they get their info?).

It’s sad because it points out another cost of advertising that I hadn’t consciously thought of before – reduced screen real-estate. Despite my screens continuing to get larger over time, the screen-space keep feeling smaller! This is likely one reason why – I never look to the side-bars anymore.

Which can be really annoying sometimes. On more than one occasion on reddit I was told the answer to my question was “in the sidebar”. And I was like “WTF? What sidebar? I looked all over the… ooooooohhh… right, THAT thing!” The sidebar had disappeared from my attention so thoroughly that I forgot it was a place I could look to if I was looking for information on-screen.

This is a damned tragedy. If I could pay $10-$15/month to a micro-transaction service that split that among all the websites I visited, and get that screen real-estate back, I’d gladly do so. Unfortunately the only way to make that work is if everyone else online also does so, and that’s a coordination problem we can’t tackle (yet?). /sigh. You win this round, Moloch!

Jul 262016
 

gb-logoI haven’t seen the new Ghostbusters yet (I do plan to), but I already know I’ll like it more than the original. Because I hate the original Ghostbusters.

Which is a damn shame. It’s an awesome concept. It is the triumph of science over religion. Our tech is better than your magic, and by the power of knowledge we will make this world safe for us. And any man can pick up a proton pack and fight the mystical, so it’s also the victory of the common man over the chosen elite – gods and priests. Great stuff!

And they ruin it all right away by focusing on Peter Venkman. The reason I hate Ghostbusters is because I hate Peter Venkman. Right in the opening scene he is shown to be a fraud. He’s supposedly a scientist, and he presents himself as such, but he doesn’t give a damn about the quest for knowledge. He fucks up his own experiment to hit on a girl. He’s on the leading edge of paranormal research – an untapped frontier that will radically change everything we thought we knew was true!! And yet when his male subject displays possible psychic powers (correctly getting “wavy lines” after a series of motivating electric shocks) he completely ignores this. He keeps telling the female subject she’s correct (she’s not), which not only means he’s canceled his experiment on a whim, but which will also likely bring disrepute on his field of research when the lady will inevitably go out and claim she’s been scientifically proven to have psychic powers when that’s clearly not the case!

I have a very deep respect for the scientific process, and the power it’s given us. And I have an emotional attachment to the Quest For Truth. I tend to view science with downright reverence. To see a supposed scientist crap all over science like this pisses me off to no end. I feel an actual religious-style outrage. It’s like I’m a religious person seeing a priest in a movie intentionally desecrating the rituals of my faith. Fuck Venkman!

The hero of the movie should have been Egon. He is the true scientist – he does the research, he created the proton packs. He is the interesting character. (He was also my favorite character in the cartoon.) Instead we spend the entire movie focused on a creepy, quasi-sexist asshole. And we’re supposed to like him??

I actually hate Bill Murray in everything he does. Maybe as a person he’s great, but as an actor he always plays this exact same character. The asshole who doesn’t care about anything. Generally, if I see a movie has Murray in it, I know I won’t like it, and I don’t bother to see it. The only exception is Groundhog Day, both because it’s one of the best scripts ever written, and because in that movie Murray’s character gets his comeuppance for all his assholery, and after hundreds of years finally manages to be beaten into a likeable person! It is nice to see redemption stories sometimes.

In summary – science good, Murray bad.

Jul 212016
 

300x300xhugo-awards.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AsqaLzncTzMost years we read all the Hugo-nominated short stories and novelettes in our book club, as generally all (or nearly all) of them are available free online. This year, that is not the case. :( (yes, I blame Vox Day). So we were unable to read them as a group. However I still read them myself for voting reasons, and my impressions are below.

This is the last of the Hugo works I’ll be reviewing. If you have a Hugo membership and you haven’t voted yet, you should do so very soon, there’s less than two weeks left! And they warn that their serves often get hammered on the last day.

 

Best Novelette

And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed, Feb 2015)

I don’t really understand the love for this piece. It’s cyberpunk, and I grew up in cyberpunk. It is my home genre, I love everything about it. But “You Shall Know Her” doesn’t do anything new. This story has been covered a dozen times, from Ghost In The Shell to the starter adventure given in the CyberPunk 2020 Rulebook!

Nor does it fit quite right. It feels a little off, like someone trying to emulate a style that doesn’t come naturally to them, and they can’t exactly pull it off. It goes over the top in an attempt to imitate a form, and ends up feeling like a good B-movie. Those can be tons of fun, but they aren’t really award winning.

 

“Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

This is a perfect example of “making the action scenes boring”, and it’s nothing but actions scenes. We see a bunch of stuff blowing up, but we don’t care who wins, because we were never given a reason to. There aren’t any characters or stakes we care about. And even the fights are yawn-inducing, because it’s a bunch of technobabble that doesn’t mean anything without a world built up around it to give it context.

 

Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, trans. Ken Liu (Uncanny Magazine, Jan-Feb 2015)

In this story, the Chinese government found a way to double (or triple?) the population density of Beijing by folding it up. This lets a lot more people live there, but in exchange they have to sleep a lot more. Instead of losing 1/3rd of your life to sleep, you have to lose (depending on how rich you are) either 1/2, 2/3rds, or 5/6ths. However this is apparently still a good deal, because millions of people jump at the chance, and compete for the opportunity.

This story also got a lot of positive attention, and I’m even MORE confused as to why. It’s an interesting premise, but it certainly isn’t ground-breaking. It’s message is dirt-simple: being poor sucks. Um, ok. Can you say something more about that? Or just make us feel it?

Because, worst of all, this story is poorly written. I’m just gonna come right out and say it. I don’t care if it’s a translation issue or a cultural variance or something. By every standard that I apply to prose, this is just plain bad writing. It is flat and emotionless. It tells rather than shows. It paints in broad, flat sweeps, rather than poignant details. The sentence structure is clunky. The POV jumps around at random, sometimes even within paragraphs. Even if this was an AMAZING new concept with message that made you go “Ohhhhhh… shit!!!” those would still be extreme sins. They’d have to be truly fantastic to make up for prose this crappy. But it doesn’t have any of those. It’s just plain “meh” in all respects, and crappy in writing. Heck, this is on the same level as last year’s “On A Spiritual Plain”. I have no idea how this made it on any award lists.

 

“Obits” by Stephen King (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Scribner)

Steven King takes the premise of Death Note, but doesn’t do anything with it. I suspect this is one of those nominations given out because when the author published his truly fantastic genre-defining work(s), he was somehow overlooked, and this is to make up for that. Fair enough, I guess? I see those sorts of nominations every now and then. Still, it feels like a disservice to whoever should have been in this slot instead.

It did get me to wondering how old this idea is. Obviously Death Note is the work that took the idea to its fullest/best exploration. But the concept of “being able to anonymously kill anyone in the world, instantly and unstoppably, without being a trace” has got to go a looooong way back, right? I bet there’s ancient myths using this idea.

 

“What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

This one was actually pretty decent! It has the same basic premise as Vinge’s “The Cookie Monster,” but applied to a military setting.

As far as re-using mindwiped soldiers goes, this was done better in “The Immaculate Conception of Private Ritter,” but that’s a high bar to clear, not everyone can be Seth Dickinson. It did pretty well for itself.

All in all, I enjoyed myself. It did seem to try to force some angst in the end in a way that was completely unwarranted (“Isn’t it terrible that these people get to relive the most awesome two weeks of their lives endlessly, all just so they can save the human race?”). But, eh, I can let that slide.

 

In the end, I don’t think a single one of the Novelettes is actually award-worthy. VanDyke came closest, and I can see him making the grade fairly some day! :)

 

Best Short Story 

“Asymmetrical Warfare” by S. R. Algernon (Nature, Mar 2015)

Cute, and fun! Not award-material, but it’s clever. :)

 

Cat Pictures Please” by Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2015)

Also cute, and also fun! This story has some neat ideas, and explores them in a fun way! I don’t really know comedy, so I don’t know if it’s good. But the writing is well done, and it’s certainly the best of this year’s lot. In a normal year this would probably be near the bottom of my list, and I am saddened that I can’t see the stories it would have legitimately competed against. That being said, at least there’s something worth voting for in Short Story this year!

 

“If You Were an Award, My Love” by Juan Tabo and S. Harris (voxday.blogspot.com, Jun 2015)

This is not a short story, it’s a shit someone took on the internet, which Vox has splattered on the Hugo list to show his disdain. Disdain of the same award he’s trying so hard to win. Oh Vox.

 

“Seven Kill Tiger” by Charles Shao (There Will Be War Volume X, Castalia House)

Hm. There’s… not really much story here? It’s basically “all humans are horrible, awful people, and we’d be better without them.” It’s literally just barbarity upon genocide upon cowardice. This is the sort of gloomfic that normally stays in high school notebooks. I really like grimdark, but this wasn’t even grimdark. It would do very nicely as the prologue of a post-apocalyptic novel, but it doesn’t work as a story in itself. The only good part is when it quotes a 400 year old poem, and you’re really better off just reading that poem instead.

 

Space Raptor Butt Invasion by Chuck Tingle (Amazon Digital Services)

I loved it. See my previous comments here. :)

 

Don’t forget to vote!

Jul 142016
 

Seveneves_Book_CoverSevenEves, by Neal Stephenson

Synopsis: Present-day humanity has two years to evacuate as many people as possible before the Earth is destroyed.

Book Review: This isn’t really a story, insomuch as it is the fragmented pieces of a story buried within mounds of engineering. You will hear more about how chains and whips work in zero-gravity than you ever cared to. Unless you are of a very specific audience, you will skip over dozens of pages multiple times searching for some interesting event. Reading this book is like doing archeology – you have to spend a lot of time clearing away dirt and debris to get to the valuable stuff.

The frustrating part is, most of the good stuff really is good! When Stephenson bothers with plot or dialog, the story is interesting. But it’s so fragmented that you can’t even pull an entire story out of it. The archeology metaphor applies further in that it seems a lot of the valuable stuff has been lost over time, and you can guess at the pieces that are missing, but unfortunately they just aren’t there.

The only reason I got to the end of this book is because Stephenson has written really amazing things in the past, and he had a lot of my goodwill to ride on. This determination led me to see things I wouldn’t have if I’d just abandoned the book, which now I kinda wish I hadn’t seen.

Stephenson doesn’t seem to care about portraying other people realistically anymore. The characters that are engineers & scientists feel very similar (can you tell Dinah and Ivy apart? I can’t), and I suspect they have a lot in common with Stephenson himself. Everyone else is a monkey. The contempt for all non-engineers displayed in the book is surprising. Politicians are power-hunger moustache-twirlers happy to damn the human race to extinction if they can rule for a few years. The common people are blind sheep, easily falling for the most asinine and bald-faced lies, which only the engineers are impervious to. The entire book reeks of “You all deserve to be wiped out, because you were too damn stupid to put us engineers in charge!” As a fan of Atlas Shrugged, I recognize this bile. And sure, I’m a bit of an elitist jerk myself. But I at least do my best to understand why intelligent people could reasonably disagree with me, rather than portraying them all as fuckwits deserving of the fate they’ve brought upon themselves with their stupidity.

Also, Stephenson seems to have gotten very, very lazy. He tells us (via a character talking to the protagonist) that what we’re going to see is possibly the saddest thing we have ever seen. He then describes a scene which is, at best, a mild downer. Later on he tries to make us feel moral outrage by having every relatable character react with outrage and horror over an event… but the event itself is no big deal at all. Dude, you can’t just tell us we’re supposed to feel a certain way and call your job done. You must actually make us feel it!

He even gets lazy with technical aspects. At one point it looks like he decided to have a character up on the Space Station whom he previously hadn’t intended to have there. So he inserts the line “[he] had been sent up to Izzy a month before” with a one-line excuse for why, and then continues. Anyone with respect for their art would have taken the time to go back and write a scene in a previous timeframe where this actually happens. Simply deciding “oh, he should be here” and dropping him in with an excuse in the middle of the action is not how one does good writing.

SevenEves honestly just feels like someone trying to cash in on the success of The Martian, but without having any understanding of what made The Martian so amazing. Not Recommended.

2nd Book Review: There is another book included with SevenEves. It’s passed off as part of the novel, so it doesn’t have its own title or anything. SevenEves just continues with “Five Thousand Years Later.” However, it is a new book, with a different feel, new characters, etc. Again I think this is a case of Stephenson being lazy – he didn’t want to establish setting and introduce characters again. Which is unfortunate, because it means we get several hundred pages of text without characters we care about.

In fact, the second book doesn’t even have a plot. I wouldn’t even call it a book. It is a bunch of awesome concepts, that are in desperate want of characters and story to drive them somewhere.

Don’t get me wrong, the concepts really are amazing! I would have loved to read this if it had a storyline. The second book is of FAR more interest to me than the first book, because it’s actual science fiction! It has awesome speculative elements, strange cultural and social constructs, semi-alien characters. In contrast, the first book was basically EarthFic with a lot of techno-fetishism. It was barely SF, IMHO. Sadly, the second book isn’t a novel – it’s a RPG source book. Lots of cool setting ideas and concepts, no story. Again, Not Recommended.

An Aside: Does anyone else think it’s a terrible idea to name the book “SevenEves” and have a huge eye on the cover? It’s almost impossible not to see “SevenEyes” when you look at it.

Book Club Review: If you stick to just the first book, and don’t bother with “Five Thousand Years Later”, it’s actually not bad for a Book Club book. After the first couple technology wanks it becomes pretty easy to flip pages rapidly until things start happening again. The plot (when it’s present) proceeds quickly enough that one can skip over the simmering misanthropy without taking too much note of it. In the final pages of the book it does raise some interesting questions about how we should improve the human race, if it were possible to do so (but sadly, it doesn’t bother trying to address them, it just ends.)

In our meeting, a bit of time was spent discussing Stephenson’s views of humanity, and how radically unrealistic they felt. Speculation of that sort (“what would happen if everyone only had 2 years to live?”) is kinda interesting. But you don’t need to slog through a door-stopper of a book to ask them, and you can find unrealistic portrayals of humans in all sorts of novels.

If your book club isn’t specifically SF-focused, please avoid this. This is the sort of book that I hope people who don’t read SF never pick up. It plays directly to the stereotype of “Science fiction is just technology fetishists drooling over made-up tech, without care for characters, plot, or writing craft.”

If your book club is SF-focused… well… I still think you could do better. Get one of Stephenson’s earlier works, those are very good! Anathem was great (although, again, long). Snow Crash was fun as hell. I’ve heard great things about Cryptonomicon, and it’s on my list. But SevenEves… Not Recommended.

Jul 112016
 

sidewise logohome2007Hey, you know the short story I wrote last year, “Red Legacy”? It’s a finalist for the 2015 Sidewise Award for Alternative History!!!

It’s interesting… I didn’t originally intend for this to be an alternative history story. I was just going for supervillain origin story. But I’d long been enraptured with Lamarckian evolution. It is the perfect evolutionary theory for communism, because it’s so damn optimistic! Darwinian evolution is a horror, as I expound on in the story. You get born with random genes, and then you find out if they’re good enough by being killed by nature (or, if you’re lucky, avoiding that). The selection process is needlessly cruel, and the determination of your worth (fitness of genes) is capricious and beyond your control. It’s a lot like Calvinism. You’re already saved or damned before you’re born, which one is the case is entirely beyond your control, and you have to go through this entire painful BS “life” thing just to find out which one you were fated to. :(

Lamarckian evolution, OTOH, is quasi-fair! If you work hard, you are rewarded. It closes its eyes to the cruel nature of reality, and embraces a comforting fantasy, because that fantasy is the way the world SHOULD work. Which, IMHO, is exactly the same thing communism does. And both failed for the same reason. Reality doesn’t care about what you think is fair.

Anyway, I wrote before about how much I love that Ted Chiang takes apart the world, changes one thing, and then puts it back together to see how it would run with that one thing changed. I don’t think I did quite that, I cannot aspire to Chiang-levels of writing. But I tried. If Lamarckian evolution is true, that’s a big change. It affects a lot more than just my one scientist in her laboratory, it alters how everything on earth works. I can’t get into all of them in a short story, but how does the world look different in ways that are relevant to the plot? If societal structures stayed similar to what we’re familiar with, what effect would that have? If the world looks like how the Soviets of the 50s envisioned it, how could that be explained in Lamarckian terms?

And so you get things like Europe’s aristocratic killer-elite. :)

Anyway, I am thrilled and honored to have been selected as a finalist for this award, and I look forward to meeting my fellow nominees at WorldCon next month!

Jul 012016
 

For the second year running I’ve worked as Coordinator of the Literary Track for Denver Comic Con. This means putting together the programming (mainly panels), scheduling it, and stocking it with speakers from our handful of invited guests (this year Terry Brooks) and our healthy pool of local authors. Overall, everything went great. Where there were flurries of frantic near-disaster, it was well-hidden from the panelists and the attendees. :) And honestly there was really only one such flurry this year, so we’re doing well! Some parts still need improvement, but every year we’re improving.
 
I moderated two panels this year, which you can listen to in their entirety.

Can’t We Get Along? Cultural Exchange vs Appropriation

I was nervous as hell going into this one, but it went really damn good! I hope I managed to push the discussion window back towards the direction of “Look, it’s ok to borrow from other cultures, remixing is all that creativity is” while still being respectful and considerate of other cultures.

 

The Writing Process of Best Sellers

This one was really fun to do! It was also cool as hell to get to interview Terry Brooks, who was formative to me in my early years (Jr High and early High School). I know it’s heresy to say, I still prefer his version of Lord of the Rings, because I really don’t need to hear about how everyone in the Shire is related to everyone else and their local politics for twenty freakin pages…

Anyway, he was super nice, as where Kevin and Carrie, and the whole panel was interesting.

Cosplay! This costume came to my attention during the Damsels Not In Distress panel, as she stood in the back the whole time. Later on I bumped into her and it turns out that the armor is nearly impossible to sit in, so she rarely does so. This was her second year cosplaying this, and she got special socks and arch-support in her boots this time, which made it easier. Apparently last year after cosplaying this costume in less-specialized boots for 1.5 days (again, almost never sitting down), eight of her toenails turned black and fell off! The things artists do for their art. :)

IMG_20160617_183851326

Mei! Woot!

IMG_20160618_185939124

LION!!

IMG_20160617_185532432

Looking forward to do it again next year. It’s a ton of work, but it’s totally worth it!

Jun 272016
 

Lilith_Third_ImpactThis post will have tons of spoilers for The Fifth Season. If you want to read this book (and again, I suggest you do!), it’s a good idea to skip this post for now, and maybe come back when you’re done.

OK, let’s continue.

There are a number of moments that really stick to me. When young Damaya is told the foundational myth of their culture, and is swelling with pride and excitement about how she’s going to be just like the hero, and then is told in no uncertain terms “You are the villain. You are the monster we are defending ourselves from. You are Other.” The punch of being forced into the role of the hated enemy is visceral. And it allows us to feel empathy for this culture, and the things it must do to survive. That will be handy, since our protagonists are the villains of this world, and we will have this touchstone of learning to fear and hate the villains to come back to, established from very early on in the story.

Honestly, starting out the story with Alabaster destroying the world and wiping out humanity was an equally genius move. It tells us right from the start that this culture’s fears are justified.

Of course what makes a Tragedy a Tragedy is that the Tragic Figure (in this case, the Sanzed Empire) brings about their own destruction. Fifth Season portrays this beautifully, showing us exactly how Damaya is turned from a normal, spirited child, to the very monster that their society so fears. Much of the book is dedicated to showing this process, so I won’t restate every case of it, but my favorite is when she and Alabaster are forced to breed more children. In the initial scene, she comes to the realization that Alabaster is more traumatized by this than she is. He fears it more, and hates it more, and that fear is partially reflected as fear of her. And she LIKES this. She’s no longer entirely a helpless victim, this gives her a measure of delicious control. She is more the aggressor in this rape than he is, and that is a comfort. That sort of “the abused comes to embrace dealing out abuse of her own” is the type of detail that makes this novel so moving. Not because Jemisin thought to include it (something to this effect is required in this sort of story), but because she made us feel it too. We felt that measure of joy and relief in getting to be the powerful one, this one time, even if it does make us monsters. That is good writing.

But what really sealed this for me, and why I found this book so effecting, is a scene very early on. After the mayor of her town helps her to quite an extant – and does so without hedges or questions or compulsions! He puts himself at some personal risk to use his power to help her, because he is a genuinely good person and believes that is the Just thing to do – she is forced to kill him (and at least a dozen other innocent people near her) in order to fuel the magic to defend herself. And she doesn’t feel bad about it. Because he is part of this society. She just saw her husband murder their son, out of fear and hatred. And:

“The kind of hate that can make a man murder his own son? It came from everyone around you.”

The internalized revulsion that leads a good man, a man she loved, to this sort of hate-murder of his own children, is not a flaw in a single man. It is not an incidence of mental illness. It is the well-known (and at least partially desired) result of this society. It cannot live in one man. It is the product of all of society, of everyone who participates in it, who accepts it, and does nothing to change anything about it. EVERYONE is complicit, and EVERYONE is equally deserving of condemnation for participating in and profiting from it. So when the complicit, even the friendly ones who smile and shake your hand, are caught up in the cycle of death they helped create, they are only getting exactly what they deserve. Very similarly to this excerpt from The Woman’s Room:

“Like a Jew just released from Dachau, I watch the handsome young Nazi soldier fall writhing to the ground with a bullet in his stomach and I look briefly and walk on. I don’t even need to shrug. I simply don’t care.”

Perhaps we’re bothered by this scene, occurring as it does very early in the novel. This scene is letting us know where we’re headed. Because the thing that this novel does is take us from the point of being just another average reader, to embracing that the world must be destroyed.

I spoke of this in Episode 7 of The Bayesian Conspiracy (“Kill All Humans?”), but if you haven’t heard it – when I was in college, I was pro-annihilation-of-mankind. Because all life is suffering. On net, existence is more pain than joy, and the most moral thing to do is end it all as quickly as possible.

I feel a lot better about life now, and no longer hold these views.

But a part of me still feels that. A part of me looks at the sealed box of Neon Genesis Evangelion DVDs on my shelf and thinks “Maybe I should watch that again…” A part of me suspects maybe I’m just in a local-maximum in my life right now, and eventually things will revert to misery, and that’s the natural and inevitable state of all human life.
This novel guides the reader to that place. It takes an entire novel to do it, because you can’t do it in less words than that. But it shows anyone who is willing to read it how one can come to that conclusion. No, not just shows – it makes the reader feel it as well. It brings understanding of that emotional state, on an emotional level. It allows others who read it to be, however briefly, Broken in the same way that I am/was Broken. And I appreciate that deeply.

I assume not everyone will get quite there. And I’m not sure people who have never felt that state in their past will feel as strongly about this book as I do. But to me, it was absolute perfection. That’s why I loved it so much. I hope others do too.

[EDIT: prediction time – since Alabaster has already doomed humanity to extinction, but *still* wants Essun to make it worse, his ultimate goal isn’t just the destruction of humanity. I’m thinking he has a plan for restoring/recreating a moon, which requires this level of destruction to make it happen, and he can’t do it alone. So even in this, he’s still trying to heal the world. :) ]

Jun 232016
 

5th SeasonThe Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: This is a story of how the world ends.

Book Review: Holy shit guys.

Holy.

Shit.

I’ve read a number of Jemisin’s works. 100,000 Kingdoms was good. Killing Moon was great! Fifth Season is phenomenal. She just keeps. Getting. Better. This is what mastery of the art of written storytelling looks like. This is the sort of book that awards were created to celebrate.

2/3rds of the story lead up to an apocalyptic event. 1/3rd of it takes place after (not a spoiler, you find that out almost immediately, as the book jumps around in time), and has a very The Road feel. Grey ash coats everything, the protagonist is literally traveling on a road with a young boy in tow, bandits are starting raiding, etc. But this story takes place in a world were apocalypses are not uncommon. Every few hundred years, most of humanity is wiped out. So the entirety of their religious and civic culture is focused on how to survive an apocalypse.

This is embedded all the way down to how people identify themselves. Everyone has a Personal Name (Eneasz), a Community Name (Denver), and a Use Name (Accountant). Your very name tells everyone else what you are useful for, in case of apocalypse. Everyone is always evaluated (and evaluating others) on how useful they are to society. Your usefulness decides if you live or die. This is a culture whose most fundamental value is that people must be treated a Tools Of Survival. As Things rather than People. It is the only way humanity can survive.

It is very Grim Dark.

Also, our protagonists belong to a class of magic users who can accidentally kill everyone around them if they aren’t very careful. Constantly. They can never rest. As they grow in power, they can accidentally (or intentionally!) wipe out entire cities. This causes the muggles of their society to put them under extremely strict controls, because the magic users are SO useful for preserving society and preventing apocalypses, that they can’t just wipe them all out. This is a familiar theme for Dragon Age players, but it is done far better in Jemisin’s book. The sadistic-yet-loving control that the Guardians exert is deliciously creepy.

But more than anything, I love how angry the protagonists are. Because I love angry characters. I love when their anger is justified, and I love seeing what it drives them to do. I love it even more when those who are abusing our characters actually have a damn good reason to do so! (“We don’t want you to explode the world, tyvm”) This book is an exploration of slavery, and systemic oppression, sure. But it’s not about that, per se. It is about what drives a person(s) to extremes, and it immerses you completely in that journey.

This is the best book I’ve read in many years. It rocketed directly to #2 on my “Best Books I’ve Ever Read” list. The reasons for this are full of spoilers, so I’ll get into them in a separate post, because everyone should have a chance to read this book fresh. I know not everyone will have the same reaction I did, because this novel is for exactly the sort of person I am. Our protagonists are broken in the same way that I am broken. Do you know how good it feels to see that sort of broken portrayed? To see your rage, and hurt, and doubt, mirrored by an author you’ve never met, but who obviously feels all those things too? This story reached directly into my soul, grabbed hold, and squeezed. It left me breathless.

The wordcraft is masterful. The plotting—slowly revealing the layers of mystery by exploring them in the story, and adding new layers as old ones are uncovered—is flawless. The characters are deep, and true. I literally cannot say enough good things about this novel. Go, read it!!

Be advised it’s the first book in a trilogy.

Highly Recommended!

An Aside: If you liked Neon Genesis Evangelion, you will probably like this book.

Book Club Review: To get things rolling in our book club, we start by having everyone say a handful of things they liked about a book (in turn, going clockwise). Then everyone says a few things they disliked about a book. Discussion is allowed between points, of course.

The “What I loved” went as usual. But when we came to the “What we dislike about the book” part, everyone had one small quibble or annoyance they mentioned. Then they went right back into talking about more things they loved about the book. No one intended this, but there was just so much to love, and so many things to talk about, that even mentioning the one thing that irritated you just reminded you of more amazing stuff you had to mention.

Everyone liked this book, most people loved it. There is an overflowing bounty of things to discuss. You will not lack for conversation topics, or for enthusiasm. Again – Highly Recommended.

Jun 162016
 

brodski dcc

First – I’ll be at Denver Comic Con this weekend. You can find me presenting at these two panels, feel free to come up afterwards and talk to me. :)

Panel Room Day Time
The Writing Process of Best Sellers 506/507 Saturday 1:00 – 1:50
Can’t We Get Along? Cultural Exchange vs Appropriation in Writing 506/507 Saturday 4:45 – 5:35

 

But to the meat:

I go to a lot of panels at lit cons. And I’ve found that the topic of a panel almost never matters – the important part is the quality of the panelists. If I find a good one, I’ll follow them around for a day or two. Cruddy panelists can make the most interesting topic boring, and great panelists can make the simplest panel fascinating. Now that I’m in charge of putting together literary programming for DCC, I’m trying to nudge more people to be better panelists. For that reason, a couple days ago I sent out this email to all our lit panelists. I’m keeping it here for easy reference, so I can send it out again in coming years. But I also think it’s good advice for anyone who is going to be on any panel.

When you’re on a panel, you’re selling yourself, and not your books. The audience is there to see interesting humans saying interesting things, and interacting with each other in fun ways. They are there to participate vicariously in a conversation. And no one in a real conversation tries to sell their book (or if they do, their friends always groan at this point). Last year Anaea Lay published a fantastic article on this – “On Marketing: Don’t.” – which lays out exactly why this is a bad long-term sales strategy, and how to be more effective while being less overbearing. I highly recommend it.

Of course, we’re all here to expand our audience. At the beginning of each panel, panelists will introduce themselves, and that is a perfect opportunity to mention your current book. Do so then! But afterwards, make the audience like you by giving them what they came to the panel for – an interesting conversation, or informative advice. This doesn’t mean you can’t mention your books at all. If it is relevant to the conversation, please do so. But keep these mentions as supporting details, rather than the focus of what you’re saying. (eg: “When writing I often ask myself, ‘can this character be a woman’? And in the case of Story X I decided yes, and this made the story better because [anecdote demonstrating how story-telling in general is improved, or whatever]”) To quote Anaea Lay (from above) “forget your product … sell you. You’re a complete person with a full range of interests and you’re willing to share a part of that with people.”

Be interesting and entertaining. If you are, people will remember you, and seek you out to buy your books. Have you seen actors and directors being interviewed on TV? Do they give plot synopses, and talk about the magic system of the world, and discuss the backstory of the character they played? Or do they talk about what it was like to work on that movie, and the people they met, and things they learned in the process? (It’s usually the second one). So talk about the process of writing, not the product of it. Otherwise you’re just like the parents that go on for hours about their kids, and everyone is too polite to say how boring that is.