embrodski

Oct 072017
 

I was recently selected as a winner of the 2017 Writers of the Future contest (2Q, 3rd place)! In addition to a nice cash prize and future publication, this is a fairly well-regarded award for new SF writers, because the organization hires well-known SF authors to act as the final judges. The combination of these two factors leads SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) to count it as a qualifying professional market.

After Asimov’s and Analog, that makes my third sale to a pro market. Which means… I’m now a member of SFWA, the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America!! :D This has been a dream of mine for ages, I count SFWA membership as my personal mark of “being legit.” Woooo!!!

Oct 052017
 

Three months? Ack, I’ve fallen behind again.

 

An interesting take on the sabbath.
“On my first solo two-night camping trip, I forgot to bring a backup battery to charge my laptop or phone…I mostly kept my phone turned off. Very quickly, I started being able to think about aspects of my situation that had been too overwhelming, too in motion, to get leverage on the day before. Because I wasn’t dealing with them. I wasn’t keeping up with anything. I was just present, where I was. I wished I’d done this years ago.

And then I realized: if I had keeping a Sabbath, it wouldn’t have taken years to take a step back from social momentum. I’d have gotten a chance within seven days of noticing that there was a problem. And seven days later, another chance, and so on.

One more useful attribute of the Jewish Sabbath is the extent to which its rigid rules generate friction in emergency situations. If your community center is not within walking distance, if there is not enough slack in your schedule to prep things a day in advance, or you are too poor to go a day without work, or too locally isolated to last a day without broadcast entertainment, then things are not okay.”

 

To quote a friend: Trump is taking a harder line against NFL players kneeling during the national anthem than a neo-nazi driving a car into a crowd. >:(

 

This is so good it brought tears to my eyes. So much <3 for TNG

Oh shit, this is how Silicon Valley works? Can anyone I know in start-up culture corroborate? It sounds like a bad way to do business. But on the plus side, also sounds fun and exciting from my POV. :)

“everyone gets caught in a meta-reputational meta-signaling trap that allocates resources extremely poorly and forces founders to focus solely on activities that can help them raise funds until the point where they have to get ready to approach the actual stock market, and thus need to build a real company. Deviating from this plan gets you punished on multiple meta-levels.”

 

Holy Crap. This is powerful and amazing. Notes on an Imagined Plaque. Strongly recommend it, even tho I know listening to stuff is a pain.

 

No matter what the context, we sexualize male touch. We do it automatically.
As a result, it has become every man’s job to prove they can be trusted, in each and every interaction, day by day and case by case. In part, because so many men have behaved poorly. And so, we prove our trustworthiness by foregoing physical touch completely in any context in which even the slightest doubt about our intentions might arise. Which, sadly, is pretty much every context we encounter.”

 

This is admirable as hell! In Durham, crowds stood in line to turn themselves in for the crime of tearing down a Confederate statue

 

Me, listening to Hamilton: Wow, they did a great job making King George the abusive boyfriend. I hate him now.
Me, watching Hamilton: OMG, King George is the best, I see why people stay with abusive boyfriends now.

 

Zvi argues that value drift has estranged the movement from its Mission.

“The rationalists took on Berkeley, and Berkeley won. … This is taking many of the people most capable of saving the world, and putting them in a culture focused instead on better living.”

 

See screen cap on left. This goes for traitors and slavers as well. Tear down every monument to Confederate generals, rename every street, rededicated every building. No worship of inhumanity.
(via due process tho. Seriously, no vigilantism)

 

You know all those NFL owners standing side-by-side with their kneeling players? That is good, and I am happy to see it. But Colin Kaepernick, the courageous man who started this movement, still hasn’t been signed by any of those NFL owners. Time to start putting your money where your mouth is, guys.

 

Oh shit, shots fired. American Apparel is testing shoppers with identical “Made in America” vs. foreign-made clothes. I think American Apparel is making the wrong argument though. The “buy American” issue is a moral issue for those who make it, so even if most people decide not to pay extra to buy American, that only reveals that most people are immoral (again, to those who make this argument). For example, if most people would choose to reinstitute slavery, that doesn’t mean it isn’t immoral. Or substitute “burning carbon” or whatever.

 

The idea that children are individual human beings should not feel like a radical notion

 

Here’s what Time put in its headline: Charles Koch Says US Can Bomb Its Way to $100,000 Salaries. Here’s what Charles Koch actually said:

“I think we can have growth rates in excess of 4%. When I’m talking about growth rates, I’m not talking about that GDP, which counts poison gas the same as it counts penicillin. What a monstrous measure this is. If we make more bombs, the GDP goes up — particularly if we explode them.”

Even Time fucking Magazine?? >< Goddammit, there is already plenty of good reason to hate the Koch’s, why go out and fucking lie for no reason??

 

Outside of existential threats, this is the most important thing facing our society right now. It is the most disruptive technological change we’ve seen in our generation, and it’s wreaking havoc. This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit

“The knowledge of how to reliably hijack the human brain for attention is one of the most significant new trends of the 21st century. This discovery, like every large-scale invention in our history, has unexpected outcomes that are difficult to predict.

If we wish to continue to live in a common reality, we must be willing to look at these outcomes with a clear head. Addressing our biggest issues as a species — from climate change, to pandemics, to poverty — requires us to have a common narrative of the honest problems we face: Real threats. Real reasons for outrage.

Without this, we are undermining our greatest strength — our unique ability to cooperate and share the careful and important burdens of being human.”

 

After eight years, I finally opened the owner’s manual and made my car’s auto-unlock feature unlock ALL the doors when I put it in park. Shoulda done this years ago. Procrastination will damn us all!

 

The birth of meta-fiction :)

 

“Eco-consumerism may expiate your guilt. But it’s only mass movements that have the power to alter the trajectory of the climate crisis.” “Neoliberalism has not merely ensured this agenda is politically unrealistic: it has also tried to make it culturally unthinkable.”

The headline is Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals. I disagree that it’s neoliberalism to blame, but it’s certainly a thing that’s happening. I wince whenever I see one of my friends beating themselves up for not washing out and recycling every tiny damn jar. Their attention is being misdirected so the real levers are completely ignored.

 

How A Reader’s Feminist Critique Changed My Sci-Fi Novel. So heartwarming that I got shivers of frisson at the end.

 

Corvids continue their ascension! Ravens Are So Smart, One Hacked This Researcher’s Experiment. Still unsure if we should be encouraging this or wiping them out preemptively. I hope to live long enough to see this become an actual issue ^^

Sep 292017
 

This meme confused me greatly when I first saw it, but now that Russian involvement is confirmed, it finally makes sense! Allow me to explain.
I had a VERY hard time figuring out which side of the debate this meme is endorsing.

1. Captain America in the current MCU is definitely a liberal. At first I got the impression that it was pro-SJ, because Cap is awesome (and liberal) and everyone wants to be like him. Also, the top picture doesn’t really make any sense. Everyone sits while watching football. So I basically ignored it and read “You are supportive of football players sitting” from the bottom picture, as that’s a very reasonable parsing of that sentence, especially with a celebratory, awesome Cap America pic just above it!

2. But the top pic is obviously supposed to be important in some way. Upon further thought I got the impression that it was a sarcastic anti-SJ thing, saying “You think you’re Cap America, but really you’re just a social media wanker posting SJW stuff and not doing anything of substance. Sitting on your ass like every other slacktavist, instead of doing something.”

3. But THEN I had the “read as sarcasm” filter on, and the bottom pic came into different focus. Now I think it means “Oh, so it’s a sarcastic anti-Trumper thing, saying THEY think they’re an alt-universe Right Wing Cap America, even tho they don’t even stand up for the pledge at home?”

In terms of clarity, this meme is garbage (as per above). In terms of accuracy, it’s also garbage. It assumes people are supposed to stand for the anthem playing in a stadium when they’re watching from their living rooms? And that Captain America is Right Wing? And that the athletes are “sitting” rather than “kneeling”? None of that makes a bit of sense. UNLESS! You are a professional Russian Troll without any real-world access to American Culture, and who gets all your impressions of Americans via stereotypes, 3rd-hand news, and pirated movies.

It’s entirely possible that a Russian Troll might assume Americans stand for the pledge in their living room, based on the crazy shit they’ve seen in the news over the past week. They don’t know enough about the subtleties of the American political climate to realize that Cap America, as portrayed by Hollywood and Marvel, is Left Wing. They just think of him as an UberPatriot draped in The Flag, which pattern-matches very nicely to Right Wing in shallow political discourse. And they could easily swap sitting for kneeling if they weren’t paying attention and didn’t realize the emotional distinction.

Also, it is targeted at “You.” When I first saw it thought “Screw you buddy, I don’t even WATCH football.” But that’s exactly the point, isn’t it? The Russians don’t care about accuracy, they don’t care about targeting their criticism at the people who actually deserve it. They want to enrage as many people as possible, so “you” works perfectly. And bringing in a symbol like Cap America that both sides like works to anger more people. And the sarcasm works to infuriate as many people as possible.

This is a pretty good meme if your only purpose is to anger the maximum amout of people as indiscriminately as possible. It is designed to be divisive. To splinter social groups, to drive wedges between friends, and to make everyone miserable and worse off. Don’t fall into Putin’s lap. CONSTANT VIGILANCE!

(to summarize: I hope everyone starts seriously considering that all anti-X memes may be the work of hostile outside interests hoping to maximize internal strife, and thus thinking twice or thrice before sharing or responding.)

Sep 282017
 

Dangerous Visions, editted by Harlan Ellison

Synopsis: One of the best-known and most-praised anthologies in Science Fiction.

Book Review: Well now. This was interesting.

Every anthology is a wide variety of hits and misses, and what hits and what misses will vary from reader to reader. Also, it’s been nearly 50 years since this was first published, and the world has changed significantly. But all in all, reading this, I had no idea why this anthology was a big deal. Every single story was either a Tomato Surprise – a short setup with a Gotcha Twist at the end, ala Twilight Zone; or else a story that went nowhere and did nothing and honestly isn’t really a story at all, it’s just an interesting world-building idea without any legs.

Which is weird, because it won so many awards. Stories from this collection won Hugos for Best Novella and Best Novelette, and a Nebula for Best Short Story. So I’ll touch on those three.

Best Short Story winner was “Aye, and Gomorrah…” is written with a lot of soul, as one would expect from Delany. The prose is elegant, and it leaves you with a melancholy feeling of loneliness. But the plot can be summarized as “Some people are asexual, and some other people fetishize asexuals.” I guess that saying this 50 years ago was a big deal, but… it’s not anymore. I kept expecting some sort of character development or plot movement, but there was none.

Best Novelette was “Gonna Roll the Bones.” It had very compelling visual descriptions, and great emotional action, centering around a gambler with amazing skills going up against Death (or possibly the Devil). But, again, nothing happens. It’s exciting while you read it, but there’s no there there. Also, it turns out in the end that It Was All A Dream. So why did I even bother reading it?

Best Novella was “Riders of the Purple Wage,” and BOY do I have mixed feelings about this one. The prose is lurid and beautiful and really just to die for. OMG so pretty. It’s got the borderline schizophrenic quality that puts the whole world out of tilt, which I loved so much when I read Vellum. It is like James Joyce, except with a purpose and drive, instead of just literary masturbation. I was in love with this for the first half.

And it portrays a post-scarcity society where yeah, OK, most people just sit around and watch TV, but there are some bright parts to it, some people working to improve the human race. Except… the further you read, the less that looks to be the case. EVERYONE is a jerk-off doing nothing except squandering their lives. Everyone is incompetent, immature, and nasty. It’s humanity at its most petty and distasteful. Our protagonist is supposed to be one of the exceptions, actually pursuing something of value. But then a girl he barely knows refuses to be his personal baby-incubator, and he gets so pissed off that he sexually assaults her with a spermicide container. This sexual assault goes on for PAGES, and it’s played for laughs. She says later that she was unable to walk without pain for over a week, and the whole assault is written as a nearly slap-stick comedy. I guess back in that era most people still thought that a husband threatening to pummel his wife was hilarious, so why should this be different? Damn it left me with such a sick taste in my mouth. THIS is the best of humanity? We, the reader, were being invited to view all humans as the worst sort of Jerry Springer guests, and to laugh at their lower-class mouth-breathing idiocy. Even just talking about it infuriates me.

Anyway, not all stories were that bad, but many of them were. Either just plain bad as stories, or grossly misogynistic or misanthropic. So what’s the deal?

The SF historian of our group let us know what the deal was. Before this, there was only one type of SF. The straight Golden Age narrative. Great Men do Great Things. Whether via Science or Integrity or some other High Virtue, the straight-laced protagonist advances through adversity and rescues humanity. There wasn’t much literary artistry, the plots were fairly simple, the morality was fairly simple, and the whole genre was viewed as inferior tripe by the literati. Very much the way most people roll their eyes and snicker nowadays when they talk about Fan Fiction.

In the 60s this had started to change. Borders were being pushed. Exciting new ideas were being explored. The prose was moving from “functional” to “beautiful”, at least among those writers who were into that sort of thing.

But the Old Guard were unhappy with this sort of change. And the outside world still held their noses. The stimga of simplistic Flash Gordon-style fiction was hard to shake.

So Harlan Ellison put out “Dangerous Visions” partly as a big “Fuck You” to everyone who thought SF couldn’t do experimental, beautiful, and uncomfortable things. It had prose to rival anything Lit Fic had on tap. It had stories that didn’t do much, except show off what COULD be done. It was a display of literary showmanship. Whenever someone was confronted with “Ugh, you read that childish tripe? Why don’t you read real literature?” they could point to this anthology and say “Read this you sonovabitch, and update your decrepit old opinions!”

It serves that purpose well. But it’s also a weapon that was used in a fight that’s half a century in our past. It’s not very relevant to the present day, and the world has moved on to such a point that much of it is unpalatable. As a foundation of the growth of my genre, a herald of what SF can do, I have tons of respect for this anthology. I acknowledge and appreciate the work my elders have done to get us to were we are. “The Shoulders of Giants,” etc. I’m thankful for this anthology, and the battles it fought.

That being said, if you are into SF history and retracing our progression – sure, Recommended. For any other purpose (general reading, etc) – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Every year after we finish reading the Hugo shorts, we say “This was really fun, and quite different! We should do it more often!” And this year we finally did! It was great to switch things up with short stories, rather than a novel. We’re glad we did this, and the shake up to the format was welcome.

The anthology itself led to a fair bit of conversation. Everyone liked different things, and recommended different stories. I’m going to go back and read several that I had skipped in the interest of time (and due to being kinda disgusted and disinterested in the anthology as a whole). There was a fair bit of comparison of notes (“You liked X? WTF, pls explain why, that’s crazy!”), as well as the excitement of bringing something cool you found to the attention of others. And we got to talk about both the growth of SF, and the changes in society overall.

Still, I’m not sure this anthology really fits an SF reading group, unless everyone there is OK with horror. I would’ve been more prepared for some of this crap if it had been marketed as a horror anthology. Seriously, lots of sexual violence. And in almost every case, no real pay off for it. :/ Unless your group is really sure – Not Recommended.

Sep 182017
 

I.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was, from the very beginning, almost a parody of the traditional High Fantasy Epic. Most of the main characters were the distilled essence of very well-worn tropes. Arya was the feisty tomboy. Sansa was the dainty princess. Ned Stark was the Honorable Paladin.

Hell, Ned was such a pure archetype of the Honorable Paladin that I laughed out loud several times while reading Game of Thrones. If this was any other book I would have put it down, because I’m not 14 anymore and I’ve read more than enough Honorable Paladin High Fantasy stories. But Martin was also tired of those stories, so he wasn’t just writing another Honorable Paladin Saves The Kingdom story. He was lampooning them, by taking the old heroic archetype and throwing him into a more realistic world. Martin was asking “What happens to the Honorable Paladin when there is no longer a Heroic Narrative protecting him? When there isn’t all the conveniences and providences of a righteous author and romantic audience that creates a plot designed to showcase how great Honor is? If there was no High Fantasy narrative protecting him, how would he fare?”

And the answer was, he’d get his head lopped off before the book was 2/3rds over.

What would happen if the White Savior narrative was dropped into the real world? They’d find that destabilizing a region to save the downtrodden requires a lot of atrocities both along the way, and to hold on to power afterwards. The trope doesn’t survive contact with the complexities of actual power structures.

Somewhere along the way, it grew into more than just parody of old tropes. When a character made a mistake, they paid a steep price. The worst offenders died, and the survivors adapted. They became more nuanced and grey. Villains were shown to have deeper lives, sometimes making the best of a shitty world. The characters were complex because the world was merciless.

II.

The TV show has lost all sight of that. They’ve degenerated into the story that Martin was lampooning when he started out.

The first time this really became clear was when Jamie charged Daenerys. This was a great scene, probably the most memorable of this season. Two characters we both care for are drawn into combat, and only one of them will survive.

Except both of them survive. Without any consequence. A fade-to-black followed by a week’s delay somehow excused Jamie resurfacing miles away, unharmed, and Daenerys losing interest in him. We, as the audience, got our surge of emotion in the charge, without anyone in the story paying any price for it. The characters are unchanged. The storyline is unchanged. The event might as well simply never have happened, for all the difference it made. It was nothing more than a cheap thrill for us. We were fed narrative candy.

Did you not feel empty, afterward? If I wanted narrative candy I’d go back to reading the High Fantasy Epics of my adolescence, full of Honorable Paladins and White Saviors, where the villain is Evil and the protagonist is Good, and in the end Good will win precisely because it IS Good. The narrative demands it.

Further examples of this:

Daenerys, our parody of the White Savior that manages to fuck up everything and become a committer of atrocities, is now just a plain old White Savior again. She left behind her smashed society so we don’t have to see it anymore, and instead she just rides in to save the people of Westeros. Without destroying their society. Without committing atrocities. Without any moral compromise at all, just good ol’ Saving The World. Narrative candy.

Jon Snow has replaced Ned Stark as the Honorable Paladin. Unlike Ned Stark, he doesn’t suffer any repercussions for this. He sticks to his code of honor, is murdered, and is resurrected. He sticks to his code of honor, and continues to draw more and more followers, of ever greater loyalty. He sticks to his code of honor, loses a major battle, but is saved in the end. He runs around north of the wall like an idiot, NOT getting on the damn dragon when they’re trying to evacuate, and is saved in the end. He sticks to his code of honor, doesn’t lie to gain political advantage, and in the end gets EVEN MORE political advantage for doing so! He is rewarded for being the biggest stereotype of Honorable Paladin ever. Narrative candy.

One of my favorite scenes this season was Sansa and Arya uniting. It’s a crowning Moment of Triumph, and it feels fantastic. I almost shouted “You tried to break them up, but you can’t split the Wolf Pack, motherfucker! Aaaaaooooooooooooooo!!!!” And then an hour later I felt empty again. It was more narrative candy. I got my emotion sugar-high. But this is the standard “Family Loyalty Overcomes All Obstacles!” trope. We’ve seen it a million times.

Yes it does feel good, in the moment. That’s why we’ve seen it a million times. It’s the same reason people eat candy. Cheap sugar-highs sell. They’re also boring. Sugar isn’t complex. It’s simple, and tasty, and unmemorable. I still have candy from time to time too! But that’s not why I watch GoT. It’s not why GoT won all those awards. Awards are given for things that are complex, and hard, and different. Not more sugar.

III.

I imagine Martin started writing this series as a reaction against all the High Fantasy narrative candy he was presumably tired of. He’s not Fantasy Jesus or anything, there were problems with his work, and the HBO team did a lot to smooth those out and make a great product. But in the last few seasons, GoT has degenerated into the type of story that Martin had been lampooning.

It’s even happened the same way it had previously been built up. Characters that were too nuanced or complex couldn’t survive in the new, Hollywood-simple world. The ones that could be killed off, were. Bye High Sparrow, bye Queen of Thorns.

The survivors adapted by becoming simpler and reverting to stock tropes. They face no consequences for being stupid fantasy stereotypes, and are often reward for it. A fantasy narrative of honor and loyalty protects them.

The villains are just dumb evil, for the sake of evil. Cersei’s only remaining emotion is spite (and I feel bad for Lena Headey, that must get boring). The Night King has no motivation at all.

We are fed emotional highs without substance or consequence.

The central conflict is no longer jostling among complex characters for advantage and survival. The two sides are now plain old Good vs Evil. That Cersei is on the side of Evil doesn’t change that.

And that’s why Season Seven sucked. It is the culmination of taking something complex and made for adults, and returning it back to the High Fantasy that doesn’t challenge anyone. It just feeds us candy.

That’s why Season Eight will probably suck too. It took a lot of narrative work to create the world and characters we had. Now all that has been destroyed, and there isn’t enough time to rebuild it (nor do I think anyone calling the shots has the desire to). Even if Good doesn’t win at the end of the series, we still will have sat through a standard Good Knights vs Evil Demons story, and a twist like “But the good guys lose!” doesn’t change why it’s boring. It doesn’t return to us what could have been. That destiny has been amputated.

All the characters we cared about are dead already, replaced with Hollywood narrative candy pod-people. Now we just get to watch the shells fight it out. At least the CGI will be pretty.

 

Sep 152017
 

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

Synopsis: A comedic fable-style story wherein a smart-ass Holmes-type character and his burly sidekick (our narrator) have crazy adventures while incidentally freeing a fairytale China from a bloodthirsty tyrant.

Book Review: I’m like the 1000th person to review this novel, so y’all have probably heard this before. But I’ll add my opinions to the mix, in case that tips the scales for anyone. After all, I don’t recall who finally tipped me into the “well, guess I gotta read this” camp, but it certainly wasn’t anyone well known, it was just an acquaintance whose opinion I respect.

This is an utterly delightful tale. It’s a black comedy, full of random murder and awfulness, but played with a slapstick sensibility that honestly makes you laugh. Everything in it is drawn with the super-saturated colors and jovial emotions of a fairy tale. Fun characters, over-the-top plot and coincidences, and really beautiful writing combine to make this a really fun read.

A lot of the fun comes from the somewhat absurd gambits that our Sherlock character engineers. If you like the clever little traps that Sherlock sets up, or deductions he waltz through, you’ll really enjoy the schemes Master Li cooks up. Tons of supporting characters keep reappearing in the most hilarious ways, and by the end of the book a number of things click together in this neat puzzle-resolution that’s really beautiful to read.

As it is written in fable-style, though, it’s not for everyone. It is over the top. It has the cyclical structure that fairytales love, repeating certain actions a number of times (well, three times, because fairytales love threes) with minor variations. But you know going into the same scene the 2nd or 3rd time basically how it’ll work out. This relieves the tension and lets you jaunt through the scene, but it also means there isn’t really much tension in much of the novel. This sort of story is read for the sparkle, rather than the immersion.

Two things kinda bothered me too. The first is that basically every problem humanity faces (aside from the evil tyrant himself) boils down to “Women Are The Root Of All Our Woes.” Either mean women who exploit men’s weakness for the opposite gender to dominate them, or pretty-but-vapid women who unknowingly drive men to do crazy things due to their inability to make rational decisions in the face of boobs. Most of the world’s problems would be gone if there just weren’t all these darn women around! I realize the whole story is a silly comedy, but “Men are dumb cuz of penis, and women all manipulate this whether knowingly or not” is a plot/joke that irks me personally.

The second thing is that it’s very deathist in the end. The tyrant is evil because he wants immortality. Many of the supporting characters have tragic deaths in their backstory, and at the end of the book quite a few of them are finally “reunited” with their dead loved ones. By dying. And we’re shown that it’s so great and wonderful that these nice people are dead now! They’re so much better off dead! Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was dead? And yeah, ok, it’s a fantasy novel that has a real afterlife, so death really is just going on to a cooler, better life. But A – why the hell were our protagonists going to such lengths to STOP people from dying if death is so great, (the primary quest is finding a cure to a plague that’s killing their village’s children); and B – I just personally really hate deathist themes, even in fantasy works with real afterlives, because fuck death, Death Is Bad.

Still, the novel really IS fantastic. It’s whimsical and fun and well-written, and it’s worth reading it anyway, despite the low-level misogyny/misandry (misanthropy?) and deathism. I know I made it sound bad in those last two paragraphs, but this is delightful throughout much of the story, and it is both a quick and easy read. You’ll laugh, and now and then you’ll be touched. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: In addition to all the fun that can be had in reading this book, and in sharing things that people really loved, there can be a lot of good conversation about this books flaws too. The misanthropy/deathism can spark  conversation. Two people in our book club did not care for the fairytale stylings at all, and that sparked discussion on the difference between fairytale stories and modern story telling, and the pros and cons of each, and so forth. There’s no wrong opinion here, just varying tastes, and the exploration of them. The conversation was interesting.

Aaaaaaand of course there was the cultural appropriation conversation as well. Bridge of Birds draws from a lot of traditional Chinese tales and cultural background. Enough so that I’ve heard someone say that as much as one likes the story, that enjoyment is significantly leveled up by having deep Chinese cultural knowledge. It’d be like reading a dark comedy based on western fairytales without having ever heard of Cinderella or Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood or King Arthur. It can still be a lot of fun if done well, but you’ll get so much more out of it if you are familiar with the background material.

But Barry Hughart is a white American, and for a couple readers in our group this brought up questions of authenticity immediately. Is this well-researched storytelling by someone who’s really dedicated themselves to getting this right? Or is it just someone grabbing stuff from Chinese culture they think is cool and throwing it in the book? And sadly, all any of us have to go on is what it vaguely “feels like” to us.

I remember hearing that Chinese readers/critics thought it was well done, but spending 15 minutes googling after the book club meeting didn’t return any results. I don’t  remember where I heard the “it’s well done” claim from, so I don’t have any source to give. :/ This is doubly confounded by the fact that it’s a dark comedy which treats most things irreverently, and could be said to be lampooning certain common tropes. So…. how do we know if it’s “authentic” and “respectful” enough? And if it wasn’t very authentic, does that ruin it, despite it being a well-written comedy and a good story?

I obviously have my own opinion, which I figure is pretty clear by the way I slanted that last paragraph. But to clarify, I think most claims of cultural appropriation are self-important bullshit. Yet this is something I can respectfully discuss with my fellow book-clubbers, and that was also an interesting discussion to have.

So, in addition to being a fun and easy read, lots of good conversation. Recommended!

Sep 112017
 

I don’t know what I was expecting from Burning Man, but what I got really surprised me. At about hour 12 of driving home–physically and emotionally exhausted, and feeling a bit light-headed from constant heat, minor sleep deprivation, and overwhelming gratitude–I realized why they say that the drive in/out is part of the Burning Man experience.

Burning Man isn’t just an event. It can be a pilgrimage. It was for me. And an important part of a pilgrimage is the road back home, where you mentally distance yourself from the strange dream-land where everything is different, and return to the solidity of the real world. A tried-and-true way of doing that involves actually putting physical distance between yourself and the dream-land. It allows you time to ruminate, and differentiates the two places.

As it stands, Burning Man isn’t remotely sustainable. The society is optimized for human social flourishing, rather than creating wealth. Trying to do work in such an environment would be extremely inefficient, if not impossible. One burns through previously-stored up wealth to enjoy Burning Man. The only way this could possibly persist is in a literal post-scarcity society, where all wealth is created by autonomous non-sapient robots and distributed to humans to enjoy.

Burning Man is also uncomfortable. This is a feature, not a bug. You no longer take anything for granted when you have nothing and the desert is trying to kill you. Even getting cold water or a brief shower feels immensely satisfying. Everything is more intense.

But pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be comfortable, or sustainable. They are supposed to be different worlds, set aside from the rest of reality. Burning Man achieves this in spades.

It feels weird to see so much effort and labor, so many resources, being put into creating a city in the desert… knowing that it’s designed to be destroyed. After a few weeks a fair bit of wealth will be intentionally destroyed in rituals of fire-sacrifice, and everything else will be disassembled and taken away again. But this extreme impermanence, the embrace of temporariness, is much of the driving force of the Burning Man ethos. It is worth the cost, to create this dreamtime for a week each year. To be in a different place, and to get a taste of what a post-scarcity future society could look like.

I strongly recommend that everyone go at least once in their lifetime. Obviously for some people it’s just not their thing, and I imagine those people already know who they are. But for everyone else, consider this some evidence strengthening your “I should try this” intuition. If you somehow get a ticket but don’t know anyone else going and are at a loss for what to do next, contact me and I’ll do what I can to provide guidance. :)

Sep 102017
 

A few things that didn’t fit elsewhere:

I.

The first night there, I watched the Opening Ceremonies, which included a cool performative dance around The Man involving a long, red silk banner. Like, a couple yards across and at least thirty yards long. The dancers swirled and swished it through the air. As the dance wound down, the lead dancer performed a solo piece at each of the four entrances to The Man’s pagoda (this year there was a structure built around Him). The entrance I was watching from (viewing space was VERY limited, I was outside the pagoda with a number of others, peering in through this entrance) was the last of the four, and the dancer slowly sashayed out into the watch crowd. We made way for her and once she broke free of us she yelled “Follow me!” and kept going, holding one end of the silk banner overhead.

I decided I wanted in on this, and this sound like an invitation, and dammit, the end of the banner was dragging on the ground, and that is not appropriate for a ceremonial artifact! So I grabbed one corner and followed. About 8-10 other people followed suit, and soon we were marching out into the Playa, banner stretched out to it’s full length and lifted overhead. None of us knew were we were going, but it was a ways. I began talking to one of my neighbors after a while, and made an exploration-friend for the night. Eventually we reached The Temple, were we concluded the Opening Ceremony by delivering the banner to it’s entrance (only the dancer and two helpers were allowed in the perimeter, it was still under construction).

And that’s how I became one of a handful of people that was a part of the Opening Ceremonies. All it took was luck, and openness to jumping into something new. It set the tone for my week, and it’s a great encapsulation of the ethos that makes Burning Man what it is.

II.

When anyone asks me what’s the most powerful thing at Burning Man, I always answer “The Temple.” I went to visit it on my third day. I did not know what it was. I thought it was just another art installation (albeit a gigantic one). I did not except to find what I did, right in the middle of this gigantic celebration of art and joy and partying. The fact that I didn’t know what I was walking into amplified the impact of the place, so I won’t say much about it, or post pictures. It was intense. I had to eventually just walk away, because I realized I would not come to grips with anything for as long as I stayed there. I will go back every year, but I will only go once per year. I encourage everyone to visit it at least once if/when they attend, preferably after it’s been open for a couple days.

III.

Our camp gathered to watch the climactic burning of The Man as a group. Afterwards, we trekked to just outside The Temple for a camp tradition, which I guess one could call a mini-ritual. Basically it consisted of gathering around a campfire and briefly speaking about what we’re grateful for. It was joyous and felt very intimate, and was the second-best event of the week for me (behind my initial visit to The Temple detailed above).

IV.

cw: this next part addresses a death at Burning Man

This isn’t a highlight, but I guess it has to be addressed somewhere. I did see the guy who ran into the fire. At first I thought he was just a streaker that broke through the perimeter. But he ran almost directly toward the flames, ducking and weaving past the emergency personnel that attempted to stop him. I think I realized when he was a few paces away what was going to happen, and I saw him flop right into the fire. They say he “dived in”, and I guess that’s true, but it was really more of an arms-outstretched full-frontal flop. As soon as he went down I figured he was gone. The fire is INSANELY hot. It was (mildly) painful even from the perimeter a hundred yards away. I can’t imagine anyone surviving for even a few seconds in that blaze.

I guess a lot of people took this hard, but I dunno. It was at a distance of a hundred yards, and it was all in silhouette. And to run into that hot of a fire takes serious determination. I want everyone to live as long as they’d like, even if that’s infinitely long (I hope to be around for thousands of years, at least). And with that comes the acceptance that some people will want to stop going on at some point, and they have the right to end their lives when they want. It’s a basic human right. I can understand wanting to go out in such a glorious way. So I didn’t have any negative emotional repercussions from this myself.

I’m close to someone who’s served in a warzone, and has seen friends involuntarily blown into multiple pieces. I’ve watched bloody depictions of death in Hollywood full-color close-ups. This just didn’t compare. I fervently hope that that man actually made an informed, rational decision, rather than losing control of his emotions while under the influence of too many unfamiliar drugs. But in terms of emotional hurt, this didn’t remotely compare to the ocean of grief that drowned me when I visited The Temple.

I feel sorry for that man’s family, especially if he didn’t warn them what he planned. And I’m upset that emergency personnel were injured pulling him from the fire. But I think only extraordinarily delicate people would have been traumatized by witnessing this. Or I dunno, maybe I’m just callous.

V.

It was interesting watching how humans act in an environment where there is almost nothing to fear, no resources to fight over, and no material wants. I realize this is just one small aspect of how people will choose to act once free of fear and want. But it gives me a lot of hope for how well we’ll handle a post-scarcity future. I no longer fear that we’ll degenerate into ennui and nihilism. As Cory Doctorow said, Burning Man is a trial-run for a post-scarcity society. And it is glorious, and fun, and I think humanity will love it. I am, for the first time, earnestly looking forward to it. :)

Sep 092017
 

I.

Before I left to Burning Man, I expected most of the people there to be hippies and stoners, with some party girls/boys mixed in. And to be fair, there’s certainly a fair share of those people. But I was surprised just how many very accomplished and respectable people attend!

In hindsight, I’m a bit ashamed of this prejudice. First, there’s no reason accomplished, successful people wouldn’t enjoy Burning Man. The perpetual group-flow-state of the entire festival is enjoyable regardless of one’s background. The excitement of temporary deprivation is probably more appealing to people who usually have plenty. And there are a great many highly intelligent people who consider psychedelics to be a useful tool for self-knowledge and various mental tasks (Sam Harris comes to mind immediately as a strong proponent).

Furthermore, I probably should have expected this, because Burning Man isn’t exactly cheap. The total cost of going for someone going extremely low-end (like I did) is about $1000. It just goes up from there. Even low-income tickets only help a bit, because the ticket was a bit less than half of my cost. Plus most people in lower-income jobs can’t just take eight days off of work. So yeah, someone really dedicated could save up and go, and I met several starving-artist types who did exactly that. But most of the people were professionals of some sort. And getting to meet them was an absolute treat. Here’s a sampling:

I met a rocket scientist who’d worked for NORAD. He related the tale of how his participation in a system-wide WWIII-simulation scenario caused him to reevaluate his life.

I met a scientist that’s recently made waves with his hypothesis of land-based origins of life on Earth. He’s a member of the groups advising/pitching NASA on where to land the next Mars rover. He let me hold a rock he brought that is 3.5 billion years old, and contains fossilized traces of the proto-life on earth!

I stood within arm’s reach of a professional opera singer as she performed a brief, beautiful piece for me and eight other people in our camp. You don’t really get any more intimate of a venue than that. :)

It wasn’t all great – I met a shamanistic healing guru who traveled the world spreading woo. At one point he expressed delight at what had happened in Houston, because that city had “toxic energy” and this would help everyone who lived there to get in touch with their spiritual lives. I was playing host at the tea house, so I couldn’t be too confrontational, but I let him know that glee at human misery is wrong. Also the culture of togetherness and understanding made it very hard to be contradictory. I should have pushed back sooner. I wish I had been more forceful. A thing to remember for next time.

Overall, though, lots of positive experiences with meeting people. Between the Art and the People, this is an awesome experience for those of us going straight-edge. :)

II.

The Playa is the term for the Burning Man grounds (spanish for “beach”). At night it transforms into a completely different place. First, ALL the lights come out. There is no public lighting, so it’s your civic duty to keep yourself lit up so people on bikes or art-cars don’t crash into you. And this is a place of art and beauty, so everyone is encouraged to light up in pretty colors and patterns. The effect is DAZZLING. I took a few pictures, but I really cannot do the effect justice, so I won’t post them. Maybe an actual photographer can capture it. Imagine a sea of neon-glowing life criss-crossing the dessert and congregating in clumps.

The sea analogy actually isn’t bad. Some of the sound cars start near the city at sundown and then slowly drive out to Deep Playa where they can blast music a great volume. The weave back and forth slowly, like an angler fish luring prey. Great numbers of humans in lit-up bikes swarm along side them, pulsing in and out like a school of minnows keeping pace. It’s mesmerizing to watch.

The inner-most road of the city is Burning Man’s main strip. It is the boardwalk. The camps that get these high-profile spots always put great effort into creating amazing frontage, full of lights and music, often several stories tall. Not only do they glow and gleam, but every one of them has true heart and emotion in their creation.

All these lights and sights and sounds make one feel like you are living in a post-human cyber-paradise. The Playa at night makes Las Vegas look like a pile of shit. And I realize that’s not hard to do, what with Vegas being kinda shitty anyway. But man, I don’t know how to put into words the neon-electric awesome.

The city has a heartbeat at night. There is music pulsing from all over, and across a distance the bass all melds into a low-level thruming rush. The land itself feels alive.

Much of the music is basic-as-fuck House, unfortunately. I understand why, it’s easy as hell for anyone to dance to. I said earlier that Burning Man is what you make of it, and I’m sure if I went looking I could have found music more to my taste. There was at least one Jazz camp, and one Goth/Industrial camp. But that wasn’t really what I was there for this year, so I didn’t seek it out and I was mostly inundated with boring House. Could be worse. I could be stuck in a dust-bowl desert. :)