embrodski

Dec 212018
 

Unholy Land, by Lavie Tidhar

Synopsis: An Alternate Universe fic where the Jewish state is created in Uganda in 1903 (actual thing that came close to happening).

Book Review: I didn’t like it, mainly for personal reasons.

First, the writing style was unbearable. I know I lean purple in my taste. I like flowery, lyrical writing. I love everything Catherine Valente touchers. I even enjoyed the overwrought gothic style of Twilight. Unholy Land is the opposite of that. The prose is utterly flat. It just lies there, dead on the page. Like so:

“He said nothing. His breath was labored and it was loud in the room. The room was underground. The walls were strong.”

or

“The sunlight was white on the hills.”

It made reading difficult, because I was so bored my mind would wander. I had to force my attention back to the page. I guess he was trying to do the spare Hemingway thing, but it didn’t work out well IMO.

Second, he had lots of cool things that were briefly introduced, but never did anything. Like introducing the kabbalistic Tree of Life as a map for travelling between the various realities, and using kabbalah to twist them. But it’s just a hint and then it’s dropped and it’s frustrating as hell to be teased in this way. It gives the distinct impression that Tidhar thought “This would be cool if it was ever developed, so I’ll just drop it in,” but doing so without developing it or thinking about it just makes it feel shallow and tacked-on. Pointing out a part of you world to say “This could be really cool if this thing was done!” only highlights how lame it is in comparison since that thing wasn’t done. It would have been better off not introduced at all. At least IMO. Again, my complaints about this book are personal-taste in nature.

Thirdly, Tidhar goes to pains to point out–from within the text–that this novel is just pulp trash and shouldn’t be taken seriously. It’s a “Haha, only serious,” kinda thing, because obviously he does want it taken seriously, he has some serious things to say. Which is fine. Pulp can say serious things. But when on more than one occasion the author lampshades how trashy and pulpy the novel is, so you can just ignore anything that doesn’t make perfect sense because none of this is Serious Literature anyway, it infuriates me. Genre Fic has long had Serious People looking down their noses at it, saying it can’t say anything of substance because it’s not Real Literature. For Tidhar to buy into this and perpetuate it, especially as an excuse to preemptively deflect criticism, soured me on the novel. If you’re gonna say serious shit, say your serious shit, and don’t go making excuses and abasing yourself before the EarthFic Snobs who’ll never accept you anyway.

That being said, there are a few parts in here that really do shine. When Tidhar does decide to get philosophical he does so really well. The blurring of identities when you switch between realities was fascinating. His portrayal of someone trying to escape from themselves is great. I enjoyed his use of 1st/2nd/3rd person and the way it allowed him to seamlessly transition between viewpoint changes, although I think it was a bit of a wasted opportunity… he could have done more with it.

And the theme is one I love. The theme comes down to “You can change details, change circumstances, but ultimately that doesn’t solve anything. Because the problems are bigger than some details. The problem is within the person. No matter how much you change things, people stay the same, and so will their problems.”

But… well… I’ve seen this theme done before. And done far better. Tidhar shows us one alternate reality, and how things repeat even when the circumstances are different. He hints at others. There’s a book that shows us this process occurring again and again, with the same cast of characters, repeating the same tragedies over at least a half-dozen universes, in a half-dozen different bodies. But always the core people are the same, and nothing is different because the fault is in them, to the point that they can be reified into god-like archetypes and myths that span millennia and societies. It’s not a fair criticism of Tidhar’s book to say “I read a different book that did this better,” so I apologize for doing so. But I’m just not that impressed with Unholy Land since I have Vellum to compare it to.

In short, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: As a book club book, this went pretty well. Despite its flaws, it does have several things to say, which will prompt discussion. Since the things I disliked about the book were primarily personal taste things, most other people didn’t dislike those things. But I hold to the idea that most of what this novel does have to say is pretty surface-level, and the novel doesn’t seem to aspire to the levels it should or could (…and very consciously so). It’s better than your average book in terms of book clubs and discussions, but it falls short of a strong recommendation. I suppose… Mild Approval, If You’re Curious.

Dec 172018
 

The problem with blind judging for an award is that sometimes awards are given to people we don’t like.

The Parsec Awards announced their 2018 winners yesterday (edit: link removed, as the page has been taken down). I have been a two-time finalist myself, in 2015 and 2016. One of the things I really appreciate about the award is that it is judged blind. This means that someone like me, who has a relatively small audience, can still potentially win if I put together something really good. I love that it’s based on artistic merit rather than popularity/fame.

I understand why publishers generally don’t read submissions blind. They are in the business of selling novels and/or stories. The name of a well-liked author on the cover of a magazine or book will sell more copies. This is an important consideration, because paying rent is important. Likewise, the name of a hated person who is being shunned or boycotted may sell fewer copies, and may even hurt the publisher’s brand.

But on the rare occasions where money isn’t important (like an award) and it’s feasible to pull off (unlike something that involves the artist directly, like acting), I really like it when things can be blinded. I would prefer for all art to be judged just on it’s artistic merits.

One of the winners of this year’s Parsec Awards is apparently a horrible person. I don’t know who, I don’t keep up with these sorts of things. But their awards committee is being flooded with emails about this person’s reprehensible behavior, and based on the tone of the email I received, they are very worried. They’re asking for time to figure out how to handle the situation.

I think they should let the award stand as it is. I don’t know what the circumstances or allegations are. I understand that it’s possible the award went to an actual violent rapist. Maybe a murderer. But the award was not presented based on the person, it was presented based on the artwork itself. It is unfortunate, but sometimes really awful people make really great art. People who you wouldn’t want breathing the same air as you, predators who should be kept under watch at all times.

That doesn’t change that the art is great. People who are unaware of the monstrosity of the creator may still enjoy it. Ideally, that would be how this art is always enjoyed — without recognition of the artist.

I am glad that blind awards exist. To withdraw an award after the blinding is removed insults the entire process. It says that there is no such thing as artistic merit for its own sake, that in the end everything must be subject to the courts of popularity and politics. Don’t remove one of the few blinded areas that are left. Let the award stand. Sometimes bad people will get an award. This is a price that is worth paying for this thing to remain in existence.

UPDATE: They aren’t withdrawing the award. Hooray!

Dec 052018
 

Well I’ll be damned. Major dark web drug suppliers have started to voluntarily ban the synthetic opioid fentanyl because it is too dangerous.

 

Who did CNN get to be their E. Coli expert? The Food Babe. The lady who claims there’s yoga mats in your bread. Yeah, of course everything she says is going to be made up bullshit, and put CNN viewers at risk. Jesus.

 

“The [baby] boomers inherited a rich, dynamic country and have gradually bankrupted it. They habitually cut their own taxes and borrow money without any concern for future burdens.

dealing with these problems has simply been irrelevant to the largest political class in the country — the boomers.”

 

Google Employees: “New York Times article […] stigmatizing depiction of polyamory and BDSM counterintuitively hurts victims and makes them less likely to speak out.
… Our existence as sex-positive and polyamorous people is not inherently abusive or scandalous. The abuses reported in the New York Times arose from corporate power dynamics and misogyny, not from polyamory or BDSM.”

 

Warcraft Classic is coming back. I will disappear for 3 months this summer.

 

From Robert Wiblin, who took it from Cards Against Humanity’s research:

“39.1% of Democrats think that it’s wrong to negatively stereotype people based on their place of birth… AND that Southerners are more racist.

65.2% of Republicans think that people shouldn’t be so easily offended… AND that Black Lives Matter is offensive.

64.6% of Democrats think that a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body… AND that selling organs should be illegal.

48.5% of Democrats think that a woman has the right to do what she wants with her body… AND that prostitution should be illegal.

57.9% of Republicans think that people should be free to express their opinions in the workplace… AND that athletes should not be allowed to sit or kneel during the national anthem.

Over half of Democrats think that Men and women ‘are equal in their talents and abilities.’ AND that women are ‘better at multi-tasking’ and ‘better able to feel empathy.’

More than half of the people who support Trump’s border wall believe that they could get past it.

34.5% of Democrats say that they trust the scientific consensus… AND that GMOs are not safe to eat.”

 

Just found out that you’re not supposed to drink hot tap water. Why did no one tell me??
The copper alloy pipes within the house could be up to 8% lead before 2014 (tho industry standard was no more than 5%, and some used even less).
In a pilot study, multi-day stagnant hot water did accumulate some lead. This was particularly prevalent in new pipes (since after some time all the readily-accessible lead has been leached out), so you’re actually better off with a few years on your pipes.
The CDC recommends not using hot tap water for drinking or cooking
I assuage myself that the levels to be found nowadays are probably too low to worry about much, since all pipes are either made under the new standards, or are already several years old. Especially if one takes the precaution of running the hot water for a while to clear out everything that’s been sitting in the pipes. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ll be using hot tap water for cooking or tea.

 

Bohemian Rhapsody Performed in 42 Styles

 

Three things from the midterm elections that [a friend] feels haven’t gotten enough attention:

1.4 million people in Florida just gained the right to vote – that’s over 10% of the currently registered voter population. It’s the largest expansion of voting rights in decades, a long-overdue rebuke of a shitty Jim Crow relic, it empowers marginalized communities, and will make it much harder for anyone running on a platform of bigotry and cruelty to win the state in future elections.

In Texas, a democrat who ran on impeaching Trump and abolishing ICE lost by only 3 points, with coattails that flipped an impressive number of downballot races in the aggressively-gerrymandered state. Texas is purple now.

The withered husk of the GOP was destroyed in the under-45 demographic, especially among women. The existing trend appears to be growing stronger as people who came of age under Bush, Obama, and Trump have developed basically the political attitudes you would expect given that background. There’s a myth that this is a common pattern of past generations: they start off liberal and get more conservative over time. That’s not really true. First: political distributions within a generation don’t change that much as they age. Second: the gap among millennials and gen Z is much bigger than any American political generation gap in the modern era. The effects of the Bush and Trump administrations on developing political attitudes are as real as they are lasting, and barring a dramatic change they have destined the Republican party for irrelevance

 

LeBron’s tattoo artists are suing the video game company making NBA 2K for portraying him with his tattoos without getting a licence from the tattoo artist.

 

The Planet Money halloween episode was pretty great. A spooky tale of haunting economics!

 

The History Behind “Hocus Pocus.” The entire history is worth reading, to get context on how the protestant reformation led to:
“…into this colossal mess walks the Great Hocus Pocus of London! With his billowing stars-and-moons cape and his gift for lifting an object over his head, intoning the solemn, allegedly Latin magic phrase “Hocus Pocus!!” and BOOM, his scarf just becomes a bunny wabbit, or something. He was a great illusionist of the early 1600s. There was no Vatican II yet, so every Catholic liturgy was in Latin and most folk didn’t know Latin. So, it was a common misconception at the time that when the priest lifted the bread and blessed it, he was performing a work of Magic, transforming the bread to the body of Christ, and the wine to the blood. Transubstantiation was something scholars could debate until they were blue in the face; the working class, many of whom still celebrated Yule and Samhain and the rest, knew it was Magic. So the Great Hocus Pocus of London would hold up items, mimicking a Catholic priest, and intone solemnly, “Hoc – us poc – us!” And BOOM! The item changed to something else. Hocus pocus was a seventeenth-century corruption of the Latin phrase “hoc est corpus” (this is the body) from the Eucharist.”

 

European Court of Human Rights comes out *in favor* of blasphemy laws. From comment: “Saying that blasphemy laws don’t breach human rights is tantamount to saying that freedom of speech and freedom of (from) religion aren’t human rights”

 

A bunch from Wiblim this month!

Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the stone age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories,

…I am aware that many people might be upset by my equating religion with fake news, but that’s exactly the point. When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion”

 

What The Social Network is *really* about

 

Amazon’s Ring Police Portal For Mass Surveillance
A lot of discussion in the Ycombinator comments, but basically Amazon is offering the police access to all video from their Ring doorbell camera devices. The customer has to opt-in (currently), but as long as the video is on Amazon servers rather than your own, I consider that shaky as hell.
“Ring is just giving this to cops for free and offering customers a discount for letting their video surveillance from their home / doorbell be shared with the police in this portal.

over 50+ local police departments are now partners.

…There is no legal protection for privacy of citizens face’s caught in these cameras and added to their facial recognition algorithms.”

 

The “In The No” series from Radio Lab is fantastic. (pt 1, pt 2, pt 3)In-depth discussion about today’s social climate around sexual harassment, from many perspectives. Some of the best reporting I’ve seen on this.

 

Somehow, I missed this in the initial Final Exam sprint. Delightful. And I lol’ed at the best comment:
“I just came in from clicking “random subreddit”, read this whole thing, and now have absolutely no idea what the fuck is going on here”

 

We Need to Share the Real, Gory, Painful Details of Postpartum Life
“Yes, these details are disturbing, bloody, brutal, messy, gross and uncomfortable. (Did I mention bloody?)
…Why do we hide? Who are we protecting? Not ourselves. When we stay silent, we don’t get the help we desperately need. Not other women. When we stay silent, we simply perpetuate a system that prioritizes babies at the expense of moms.”

Nov 262018
 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Synopsis: Two landed British gentlemen of the Napoleonic era flounce about being prissy, ineffectual twits. Also there are fairies.

Lately I’ve finally been picking up books that I’ve heard great things about for a long time, to great success! To continue this trend, I moved on to “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” next. I’ve heard from many sources that it’s an astounding novel.

Holy crap were those sources wrong. This is the most tedious, plodding, overhyped exercise in fiction I’ve come across in a while. I began to dread returning to it.

The basic conceit is that the landed gentry of Britain don’t have much to do, and so spend all of their time in frivolous pursuits like reading about old magics, and talking about old magics, and holding sessions about magics and writing great essays about the history of magic, but never actually doing any magic themselves. Until Mr Norrell comes in and changes all that by, I dunno, actually doing some of things they all read and discuss at length. But Norrell is just as ineffectual as everyone else, and the focus of all the action is not about the magic, or the Napoleonic wars, or the machinations of the fairies, or anything of the slightest bit of actual INTEREST. Rather, it focuses on how prissy and shallow and pompous everyone is.

I get that this is supposed to be a comedy. It’s just a type of comedy I find boring to the highest degree. A bunch of befuddled idiots faffing about because they’ve got way too much time and money? I realize this is a popular British thing, a sort of Comedy of Manners or something, and I’ve always found it stupid. This was just like all those. The only thing it did was convince me that all landed gentry need to be rounded up and executed for extracting the wealth of the working class to chase their own worthless follies. We (in the US) didn’t revolt hard enough, dammit. There’s still nobles left!

I read for several hundred pages. Nothing happened. In a book with fairies and the Napoleonic wars! And I didn’t even get halfway through this brick.

The worst part was the teasing. The novel is always right on the edge of interesting. I was always sure that on the next page, or maybe just in the next chapter, something really cool was going to happen. All these neat things are shown just enough to get our attention, and then quickly buried under more tomfoolery with manners and courtesies and being stymied by someone’s utter lack of proper decorum! Until eventually I lost all hope, I realized nothing would ever be fulfilled and I was just being strung along, and I gave up in disgust.

I realize some people find this sort of thing delightful. Some insane reviewer said ‘How can a book of over 800 pages still be too short?’ (paraphrased), because I guess if you love nothing happen it can very well keep not happening forever. But I’m not one of those people. Yeesh.

Nov 212018
 

A few years back, Rainbow Rowell wrote a post titled “Learn to Read, Kid, But Don’t Fall In Love.” Sadly, it’s been taken down, but it can still be found in pdf format around the web, because it was important to many people. Myself included.

It compared the love of reading to addiction. It pointed out that reading is an escape from reality. “Sometimes I worry that I’m not really living. That I’m spending as much time in secondhand lives than I am in the real thing.” Give it a read, it’s short.

I feel I’ve pretty much overcome this addiction. But I worry about the lasting effects.

I often feel detached from the world. I find myself unable to fully trust anyone, to get fully attached to any person or group of people. I don’t trust anything to last, and I live my life so that anything can be dropped if needed, and nothing and no one can be used against me as a weapon.

I suspect one of the reasons for this is that fictional worlds are fraught with peril. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be fun. In these worlds, people you care about die. Hundreds of people across dozens of lives. Everything is stripped from you, again and again, to put you through an arch of struggle which you can grow from as a character and leave you with a satisfying resolution. You begin to question the wisdom of growing close to anything, knowing it’ll be taken away.

And in the end, regardless of how pleasant the story and the fact that no one died and it was a wonderful fairy-tale ending… in the end, all your friends leave you anyway. Because you reached the last page, and that world ceased to exist. Every single book you pick up is another chance to grow connected, and then to have those people leave you and never return. Even a 20-novel series eventually has to end. Everyone dies.

It gets to the point where you have a hard time remembering people’s names in real life, or remember many personal details about them. Because in all the lives you’ve lived, the emotional lesson you’ve learned is that people are disposable. They will be with you for a time, and then they will leave, and you will pick up another book and replace them with someone else. If everyone is interchangeable, how do the little details matter?

Of course, this could all just be a way for me to excuse my rude treatment of others. I certainly don’t have trouble remembering the names of authors I like. It could be a way of avoiding going to therapy and dealing with a childhood of isolation. Maybe I should just consider that I might be depressed. Or maybe there are real effects to running many high-fidelity emotional-trauma simulations in your mind every year. Despite the title of this post, I think it’s not possible for human brains to not update on fictional evidence, at least to some degree. The more engaging and gripping stories are–the “better” they are–the harder it is for the emotional core of the brain not to update on them. After all, the whole point is to “be moved” emotionally in a way beyond one’s control.

That being said, the first chapters of my novel are now available, and more are coming each week. These things are self-perpetuating.

Nov 162018
 

This is the spoiler post for Circe, which talks about everything, but specifically the ending.

If you don’t want spoilers, don’t continue.

 

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As I said in my review, I viewed the gods within Circe as a metaphor for The Patriarchy. Circe explores just about every method a woman can use to deal with a Patriarchal society.

She starts out fawning and eager to please. Seeking approval from her father, as if this would provide some sort of protection and security. She sees first hand that this does nothing. A powerless person has nothing to offer and nothing to bargain with. Scylla, the beloved, is mocked with delight by her family when she’s turned into a monster. Circe’s mother is cast aside without a thought when her coupling with Helios proves politically troublesome. Being someone’s pet is terribly insecure, and pretty shitty anyhow.

She tries to be the good wife for her fisherman. She makes him happy, supports him, and eventually elevates him to godhood. And the instant he doesn’t need her anymore, she’s tossed aside as well. Without even the recognition that she’s done anything.

She tries to check out of the system entirely. Exile to an isolated island, just leave her alone. Nope, no can do. The system comes for you, and it will use you how it sees fit.

Then we have a wonderful dialog with her cruel half-sister. The sister points out that she makes poisons and monsters because if she didn’t she would be kept in a cage and bred to death. The system wants to use her up and discard her, and the only way she can live a decent life is to take power. To bend the world to her will through force and cruelty. It’s a wonderful revelation, and it shows just how shitty the Patriarchy is for everyone, even those on top.

We have a similar revelation about Odysseus much later. Where we see first his charming, warm side. And later the cold, violent side, which he was shaped into via this shit-ass system. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For a while she rages against men, and it’s very emotionally satisfying for the reader, but it leaves her bitter and unhappy with life. Then she finds Odysseus, one of the few good ones, and for a year she’s happy. But eventually the gods catch up with her and ruin that, too. (Also, he wasn’t that great after all… just better than most). She goes into full defensive mode, putting up a wall between herself and the rest of society. And that actually works, for quite a while! But it’s constant effort, and it drains her strength year after year, and if she ever slips for even a second it’ll all come crashing down. This is not sustainable.

So she decides this has to end. She has the most powerful magic in the world on her side. She’s smart as fuck, and she’s had more than enough of this shit. She calls her father down and has the most epic verbal show down with him. She dares him to test her power. She states she would rather ignite a war between the gods and see the world burn than be at their mercy any longer. She renounces her heritage, thinks of gods as “them” rather than “us”, declares that “I’m finished here, one way or another.”

The novel’s inciting incident was the chaining & torture of Prometheus. His rebellion against the gods and compassion for the downtrodden have been a recurring element during the narration. Now, in the final chapters, Circe is armed with a weapon even the gods fear, and she goes on a quest to retrieve the most powerful magical components in existence. I am so fucking happy at this time, because we are about to see some amazing shit. The world will be sundered, and the gods cast down. The Patriarchy will be smashed, and it sounds like Circe may very well die in the process, but fuck them all, it’ll be worth it! The heavens themselves will shake!

To step back just a bit, I didn’t actually expect all that to happen. It was pretty clear that the system is just too big for one person to destroy, even with the world’s most powerful magic. Much like the Patriarchy can’t actually be smashed. But there were hints throughout, hints that the world could be split somehow, and Circe could leave this world behind and enter a better one.

It turns out, Circe does leave this world behind. By committing suicide.

After all that, all her rage and learning and growth and fighting, she ultimately decides to just give up and kill herself.

WHAT. THE. EVER. LIVING. FUCK.

After all the compassion she’s shown for humans (or “everyone else trapped in the Patriarchy” if we’re extending the metaphor), after all her admiration of Prometheus for sacrificing himself so completely to make their lives less awful, she decides everyone else can fend for their fucking selves and she’s just going to nope the fuck out. After all her words about how she won’t put up with the gods’ abuse anymore, she surrenders so utterly that she kills herself for them so they don’t even have to inconvenience themselves with the effort. When she said “I’m finished here, one way or another,” I thought she meant that either this system would end, or she would die fighting it, not that she was abandoning everything. How are we supposed to sympathize with this? How is any of this OK?

To those saying that gods are inhumane because they are inhuman, and becoming humane means one must become human – bullshit. We have proof in the forms of both Prometheus and Circe that one can be a god and be compassionate and humane. To those saying “becoming mortal isn’t suicide” – bullshit. For a god it’s as much suicide as a human deciding to drink themselves to death over the course of years. And in both cases it’s cowardly. And the flash-forward dream-sequence final chapter lingers quite a bit on her eventual death anyway, like that’s the best part of being human. It is a suicide, and it is cowardice. I would have preferred no final chapter at all, an abrupt ending would at least have let me continue believing Circe was a good, courageous person.

Bleh.

Nov 152018
 

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Synopsis: Like Wicked, except for the witch who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs.

Book Review: One of the best things I’ve read this year, right up until the final chapter, which face-plants so hard I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The novel starts out somewhat slow and a little clunky, IMO, so I wasn’t really sold at first. The story starts with a confused young geek with a good heart constantly being rebuffed and rejected by a world obsessed with superficiality and pettiness, which I’ve seen many times before. But Circe continues to try new and varied techniques to deal with her social situation and her world, growing with each one. So what starts out as a flat character blossoms before our eyes into someone ever more complicated and interesting. She gains knowledge, insight, and awesome magic powers, and yet constantly fails in new, increasingly awful ways. Her occasional victories are all the more sweet for it.

The scene with Odysseus himself is particularly delicious. The characters in conflict have meta-knowledge of each others’ knowledge and destructive powers which they can’t acknowledge, which results in a riveting verbal dance of wit and power dynamics that thrilled me. And far later in the book, when one comes to learn more of Odysseus and his motivations, everything is recast in a new light that still leaves one with admiration, but now tinged with a deep distaste that leaves a complex swirl of emotions in your mind.

What I’m saying is, this is a good book.

By the time we get to the end we have a deep world of screwed up incentives and abusive power structures. And somewhere along the way, I came to realize that the gods and their dynamics are basically a reflection on The Patriarchy. How it scars and abuses both men and women, and flattens all sexual relationships into ugly exchanges. Or at least, that was my take. And rising up through it all is Circe, the outcast, refusing to play that fucked-up game. Right up until the last chapter I was sure this was going to be the best and most memorable thing I’ve read in years.

And then the last chapter was such an unspeakable disappointment that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How could something this good throw it all away in the end, and turn into such crap? I haven’t been this upset by squandered potential since the Phantom Menace.

Obviously I can’t get into details without massive spoilers. So later today or tomorrow I’ll post a spoiler post discussing why the ending failed so terribly.

But all that said… the entire journey up until the last chapter was worth it. Recommended!

Book Club Review: This book has a lot going for it. It’s relatively short, and quick to read. It’s a dang good book in its own right. And it is likely to spark quite a bit of discussion among a group. Conversation on the nature of gods and archetypes, and the interplay between the inhumane and becoming human. A member of my book club had a very different interpretation of what the gods represent, and what the overall arch of the story was, which led him to find the ending entirely acceptable. We got a lot out of this one, and there wasn’t a single person who didn’t find the novel immersive and enjoyable. Highly Recommended.

Oct 312018
 

Pandora’s Star, by Peter Hamilton

Synopsis: When an enormous force field envelopes a nearby star, humanity send an exploration ship to investigate.

Book Review: This was an interesting exercise for me, as I first read this book near its original publishing date, so 2004/2005. Rereading it now put into focus many of the ways my tastes have changed, as well ways that the world has changed.

For example, in the first chapter we follow an astronaut participating humanity’s first manned flight to Mars. In my first reading, all I could see was the glory and grandeur of this feat! The event itself is what held my attention. In my re-read, I noticed for the first time that the astronaut is written to be a bit of a prick. He’s arrogant and self-centered. I was reading him for the first time as a person of his own, rather than as an insert for me as I was experiencing the awesomeness of landing on Mars.

In the second chapter, a professor basically puts his entire life on hold in a long-con-style escapade to be the first to publish on the force field event. I was amazed at how long he delayed, how many years of his life were diverted into this effort. I would have just gone public with my observation looooong before reaching that goal. Except when I reread it, it turns out that super-long delay was only eight months. Eight months! Nowadays I fart and eight months blow by, how could it have seemed like such a long time when I was younger?

Anyway, young-me loved this book. I’ve kept my physical copy all these years, through a dozen-ish moves. It takes the idea of human-created wormholes and develops it to a fantastic extent. Hamilton has thought through what it would mean for transportation (everything travels everywhere by rail now!), exploration, government, colonization, etc. It finds all the ways that humans would use, abuse, and break this technology, and touches on all of them.

Hamilton is also very good with his physics. The science is hard, the speed of light is never forgotten, and so forth. This makes for some extremely satisfying competence-porn in several occasions, as characters in crisis situations use tech and science we’re familiar with in new and innovative ways to solve problems. It feels fair every time, and ingenious, and gives one the thrill of seeing that sort of smart problem-solving.

Also, the aliens are really, truly alien. The book is probably worth it for their chapters alone.

On the other hand, present-me had several problems with the book.

For starters, it’s really over-written. There are entire subplots and characters which simply don’t do anything, and could probably be taken out entirely. There are scenes that feel like they could’ve been wrapped up in a few paragraphs rather than taking many pages. The physical descriptions of locations and actions is at times exhaustive, without great reason, and I found myself skipping a lot of it. Yes, it’s worldbuilding. But often was worldbuilding for it’s own sake, rather than in service of another goal, and while many people love worldbuilding by itself, I am not one of those people.

Secondly, basically none of the characters are sympathetic. Ozzie starts out that way, and is the most relatable, but even he loses his luster after a time. Myo starts out cold, but slowly grows on you, to an extent. Most everyone else is unpleasant, and I found myself disliking them.

Thirdly, while the implications of a technology are extrapolated greatly, this does not happen with society, or with people in general. This is a tech & plot story, rather than a character story. It made everything feel somewhat… distant. Impersonal?

Finally, the sexual stuff in this novel is just weird. It feels like it came out of golden-age SF. The men use their power/information to get sex. The women use sex to get power/information. Most jarringly, at one point Ozzie and his young tagalong kid are mistaken for lovers. The intense awkwardness that this sparks is due to the fact that someone thought they were gay. Ozzie coulda just dropped “No homo!” for how quickly he skittered away from that. But neither Ozzie nor the lady who mistook him for gay seem to have the slightest problem with the fact that Ozzie’s supposed-lover is a 15 year old boy. Like, no one seemed to notice or care that he’d just been called a pedophile. WTF?

All in all, I was far more into this novel as a younger man. I think I read books differently now, more like I’m reading about other people rather than as self-insert stories. And I’m far less interested in world-building. It was mentioned in the book club that this felt similar to “Rendezvous at Rama” or “Ringworld,” neither of which I have read. This is probably a great book for people who love those sorts of books. Yet I still have fond memories of how much I loved this, and it does have quite a few cool parts, and an interesting world! I guess, ultimately, this would have been significantly more interesting if I was reading it for the first time, rather than rereading and already knowing what was coming. I can’t say with certainty that I’d recommend it to a present-day-me who hasn’t read it… but I might. So… Mildly Recommended?

Book Club Review: This thing is huge. It’s nearly 1000 pages, which is why we split it in two to ready over two sessions. And it’s still only half the story, because the story continues on to be concluded in Judas Unchained. I know there are people that like super-long fiction for its own sake, but having something this long does suppress turnout somewhat.

Aside from that, it was fairly interesting to talk about. It’s a real mixed bag of things that kinda rub one the wrong way, and things that are really fun and interesting. There’s something for everyone to like, and something for everyone to dislike, and the discussion of where those coincide and where they differ was cool. And because the book is so damn big, you probably won’t run out of material. On the other hand (again), none of the things brought up were deeply thought-provoking or personality-exploring. Which, of course, not every book can be, or even wants to be. So it was fun, but not exceptionally so. I’m not sure how my past memories are coloring my judgement, but I guess, Mildly Recommended as well.

Oct 242018
 

tl;dr – I’m publishing a novel at www.WhatLiesDreaming.com. It’s Lovecraftian fantasy in 2nd century Rome, updating weekly on Sundays. Chapter 1 drops on 11/11/18. There are 44 chapters in total. I based it on a story I wrote a few years ago, but I would NOT recommend reading that story now, as it contains huge spoilers.

 

I wrote the short story “Of All Possible Worlds” in early 2015. I wrote it hoping to win a spot in an anthology looking for Lovecraftian fiction in pre-gunpowder settings, called “Swords v Cthulhu.” Inspired by Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, specifically his “Fall of the Roman Republic” arc, and Sister Y’s hypothesized Transdimensional Justice Monster, I wrote a story set in Imperial Rome.

“Swords v Cthulhu” capped all stories at 5,000 words. When I was about 3,000 words in, I realized that I was barely 1/3rd of the way into my story. I cut entire scenes, including a sub-plot and an entire character, because I really wanted into this anthology. My final draft was still nearly 1000 words over, so I cut worldbuilding and condensed detail, and finally squeaked in at just a couple words under 5000.

This was well worth the effort. Not only did I get into the anthology, but one of the editors gushed about how fantastic this story was. The book came out in August of 2016, and I was contacted a few months after that by the editor of Wilde Stories–the annual anthology of the Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. The story was reprinted in Wilde Stories 2017.

I was elated, and not only due to the great reception. I had so much more I wanted to say in that story, and so much more I could do with it. The most terrifying thing for me, as a new writer, was the idea of writing a novel that no one wanted. A novel is a huge project for a part-time writer, over a year of concentrated effort, and no way to know ahead of time if it was worth all that pain. This validation was like a giant green light. “People like this story! Write the rest of it now!”

And so I did. I labored over this manuscript for a year and a half. I submitted all of to my writing group and spent several more months revising and rewriting. Our group’s head, Nebula-award winning author Ed Bryant, at one point called it “Bravara writing!”, which helped more than words can say.

It’s been well over a year since I finished this novel. I have a lot of faith in it. I wrestled for quite a while with the publishing options available. In the end, I’m going to go with the time-honored Rationalist tradition of serially publishing fiction online, a chapter at a time. My reading experience of HPMoR and Unsong was drastically improved by reading along with everyone else as chapters came out, and I really enjoy that format. I’d like to do it with something of mine a well. :)

The novel is titled “What Lies Dreaming.” Chapter 1 will drop on November 11th, at www.WhatLiesDreaming.com. Every Sunday another chapter comes out, until all forty-four are up. The novel is broken up into eight sections, each corresponding to one day in-story. Around the time we reach the last “day”, I’ll release the full book for purchase, both in ebook and paper options, should one wish to purchase it.

I’ll also have a Patreon up. There’s no need to support via Patreon, but anyone who does gets chapters one week early at the $1/month tier, and access to the Discord server. At higher tiers people can get access to Author’s Notes, some non-canon deleted content (including one full chapter that was cut), getting to read an entire “day” when the first chapter of that day releases, signed physical copies of the book when it becomes available, etc. None of these are needed to enjoy the story, but I want to offer them as extra thanks to anyone willing to support the arts.

A note about the story that served as the jumping off point for What Lies Dreaming: I would recommend NOT going back to re-read or re-listen to it. While the main storyline has been somewhat altered, and expanded upon greatly, the short story does include massive spoilers for the novel. If you have read the short story, please don’t drop spoilers for those who haven’t.

 

Oct 232018
 

This is an older pic, 2013 I think

I was just at MileHiCon over the weekend (Denver’s major local SF/F Lit con. 50 years this year!). Nowadays the majority of what I do there is meet up with friends/acquaintances that I basically only see once a year at these things and catch up on stuff. We sit or stand, have some drinks (often late into the night), talk shop, talk life, joke around, etc. It’s a lot of fun! It feels like a reunion.

So I hate it when people refer to going to these sorts of events as “networking.” I dislike the whole concept of networking. It makes people feel like tools. Networking implies business. It’s about profit and career. I never approach a friend with “Hey, you wanna network on Saturday?” I never ask a partner “Hey, I miss you, haven’t networked with you in a bit, got plans this weekend?” So why the hell am I “networking” at a convention about one of my passions in life?

I blame capitalism. Apparently one can’t even have fun without feeling guilty, unless it’s about advancing oneself in life. >:( I just like meeting people and talking and making acquaintances. I don’t expect anything from any of these evenings except a fun evening. I find that makes this actually fun, instead of some weird ratrace. Even when I’m talking to super-successful people that I admire and mostly only know from a distance… I’m doing it because I admire them and I want to bask in the glow of exchanging words with someone I admire. Not because I’m hoping they’ll be useful, or do me some sort of professional solid later on. I doubt Cat Valente remembers me at all, but I had the most thrilling evening getting pho with her and Charlie Jane Anders, and I won’t forget it for decades. :)

My most uncomfortable convention was World Fantasy, because everyone knows that’s the big “networking” convention were all the industry professionals go. And whenever I tried to do that I felt cheap and dirty, and I did a pretty crappy job of it. The times I remember fondly were when I was hanging out with fellow newbie writers and we were just shooting the shit. I regret having tried to network at all. People are not tools. I wish I had just chatted friendly-like with everyone and not bothered to try to find the agents and publishers. :/ I made a few good friends that weekend, and that was by far the best part of it.

So screw networking. Screw capitalism. I’m *am* here to make friends.