Synopsis: Two small-town slackers trip into combating universe-devouring elder beings, with plenty of jaded humor along the way. Kinda a cross between Clerks and Buffy.
Book Review: An odd duck, in that this was originally a web-serial rather than a novel, much like Wool and The Martian. As such, it doesn’t really feel like a cohesive whole. It’s not a single grand arc, inasmuch as it’s a series of related short stories that follow the same characters. This causes it to sag in a few places, but the strength of the individual stories is strong enough to overcome this artifact of its production.
I really liked this novel, and that might be because it’s aimed squarely at my generation. It’s a horror novel that points out the horror of our existence in a universe that is ultimately and inalienably built upon the application of violence. It made me viscerally feel why a greater being would want to destroy this reality, filled with suffering and predation and horrible tiny things tearing at each other for their entire existence. In real life I basically ignore my non-veganism as much as possible, but Wong reminded me how disgusted it would make something better than us when it sees humans digesting the flesh of other sentients.
The novel reacts to this awful state of affairs the way many of us have been for a while now–absurdist acceptance. Because we have no other choice. We embrace jaded humor, acknowledge this sucks, and get on with things anyway. Wubbalubba dub dub. It’s not the soaring transhuman defiance I prefer, nor even the rage-filled lashing out against the unacceptable that also excites me, but it’s not an uncommon reaction. Many readers will probably know David Wong from his stint at Cracked, where he wrote (among other things) one of the first the highly insightful explanation of what Trump provides to the half of the electorate that voted for him. This novel gives the reader a strong emotional taste of what living in Desolate America feels like. The small-town poverty. The grinding hopelessness. The fact that no one cares. What else can you do in the face of that? What difference does an extra World-Eating Horror or two make? It’s a novel of despair, and enduring through it is the only victory you get, even if it’s a shitty one.
It’s also well-written, really neat in several places, and makes you think in several others. Near the end it really threw a wrench in my view of my own sub-culture, in a way that I didn’t expect. It did it in a way that only good speculative fiction can do, by reframing everything you know in an alien context. And it was enjoyable to read throughout, even with some terminology that dates it (and makes me wonder what term we use casually now will become a slur in ten years? “Insane”, maybe?) Recommended!
Book Club Review: A good book for discussion. The social commentary is more buried than I like it, with most of the focus on action and humor, so you gotta dig for the morsels. But that also makes it more readable for people less like me. :) But they are still there. And the overall theme of the novel can get you talking about culture in small-town America, which is interesting, especially if some members of your book club hail from there. You get to learn several new things. Also opinions tended to be a bit scattered, with some people liking this significantly less than others, which leads to multiple views being explored. The biggest drawback is the occasional sagging sections I mentioned above, which can lose some readers. But overall, this went over well. Recommended.
In appreciation of all the joy that porn stars bring into our lives, and in recognition of the fact that they get shit on by society a lot and they shouldn’t, Today, the day before Mardi Gras, I am saying thanks to all porn workers. And in celebration, I’ll be taking the unorthodox step of paying for some porn! I hope y’all will join me, and continue to do so annually on the day before Mardi Gras. :)
“Okay, here’s the problem with the idea that oppressed groups can “alienate allies” by not being nice enough:
You shouldn’t be an ally because oppressed groups are nice to you. You should be an ally because you believe they deserve basic human rights. Hearing “I hate men” shouldn’t make men stop being feminist. Hearing “fuck white people” shouldn’t make white people stop opposing racism.
Your opposition to oppression should be moral, and immovable. Your belief that all humans should be treated with equal respect shouldn’t be conditional based on whether or not individual people are nice to you.”
(emphasis in original)
That last line is extremely important, and I wish the world was more like it. Principles fucking matter!
That being said, I think Ginny is conflating adherence to principles with support for a group, a little bit. I’m very pro-Free Speech, to the point that I support Fred Phelps’s right to say that gays are causing hurricanes, and neo-nazi’s rights to have peaceful protests, and communist’s right to say that our society should be burned to the ground. But I abhor all these groups, and would never consider myself an ally of any of them.
Likewise, if some person or group said “I hate men,” then I’m not an ally of theirs. Nor do I need to be to promote gender equality. My commitment to the principle of equality does not depend on my being bestowed with an “ally” token by every/any group who also supports that thing. So yeah, my “allyship” to any particular group is totally dependent on whether that group also treats me with some modicum of respect. For someone to claim that just because I’m not an ally of their particular circle, that means I’m a racist or sexist or pro-censorship or whatever, is manipulative and unethical.
Religion is evil. Yes, there are many good things provided by religious institutions (community, social trust, support for the local poor, shock cushions, counselling) which are valuable, and which partially offset religion’s evils. But the foundation of all religion is vile, and we would be far better off if we were to remove the good things these institutions provide from the root of religion, so we can offer them without that moral millstone around our necks.
So when someone asks me to respect something because it’s from a person’s or group’s religion, they’re already starting off on the worst possible footing.
And when Kids On The Internet proclaim something as their Spirit Animal, they are rescuing one of the good things from the slathering maws of religion. They now have a quick term that intuitively encapsulates “The thing I adore, an aspect of the person I wish to be – that which represents a part of my soul if it was refined to its highest level and I was the best, purest person I could be.” This is a good thing.
Likewise, anyone who gets a quest from their Spirit Animal should be honored and overjoyed for such a thing. I get the feeling that the above meme was supposed to be some sort of threat? But someone truly dedicated to an aspect of themselves would embrace such a thing. A chance to stand against adversity, to test your values, to be judged and prove yourself worthy. This is what character is made of. I would be honored (if perhaps terrified) to receive a quest from Face.
This is still not a proper review like I usually do, because I couldn’t make it to our book club meeting again. A close friend got in a car accident not an hour before book club was to start, and I rushed over to help them and get them to the hospital and all that. They are fine physically, although the financial blow is going to suck. :/ And of course I didn’t get to discuss all the beauty and wonder that is Borne with my homies!
But here’s a few quick things anyway.
Synopsis – in a post-apocalyptic world were humanity is slowly dying out, our protagonist finds a new form of life (“Borne”) that she raises from infancy into adulthood.
Review – Gorgeous. Just fantastic. First, Borne is a Data-type character (overly literal and doesn’t understand how humans work. See also Spock, Anya (from Buffy), Castiel (from Supernatural), etc. I love these sorts of characters, and so this had my heart very quickly.
Secondly, the whole novel was so beautifully written that it was almost a book of poetry. This is what master-class word-smithing looks like. Polished, precise, perfect. And the emotion throughout was heart-breaking. As the humans died out and saw themselves being replaced by the things that come next, the ones that are suited for this world, the bug-eye children and bears and foxes and Bornes… it felt like a story of the old generation dying, and seeing the new generation coming up to take their place. An old woman passing the torch to her young granddaughter. Whose values she can barely recognize as her own. But what can you do? The world isn’t for you anymore. Sooooo pretty.
As usual, VanderMeer doesn’t quite hit the ending. Most (all?) of his novels don’t end in so much as they peter out and kinda grind to a halt. This was no exception. Still, totally worth it. Recommended.
Notes from others – I did briefly chat with a couple members from my book club later on. Not a full-fledged meeting, but there was an interesting counterpoint brought up: The world doesn’t make sense. There was no world-building done, and it shows. To quote:
“We’re told they’re mostly scavengers, but what are they looking for? Nobody hunts or finds canned goods or grows anything; what do they eat? …VanderMeer never even tries to convince me anyone would ever have thought it was a good idea to create a giant man-eating flying bear and a zillion regular-sized poisonous bears, he just wants to have them roaming about.”
This is all true, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I think there’s a couple reasons why.
First, I’ve come to expect it from VanderMeer. All his novels are equally incoherent, just with various levels of hand-waving, which has gotten progressively thinner. He basically eschewed the handwaving entirely for his latest, and he led me down the path to accepting this via reading his works in published order. Oops. Also, by starting right off with something as ridiculous as a giant, flying bear, and simply having us accept it or not, he smashed through the “this is supposed to make sense” barrier right at the front. So afterwards I was willing to go with basically whatever.
Secondly, this is one of those lyrical works that doesn’t try to build a coherent or realistic world, it just tries to evoke a particular sentiment in the reader. Many of Cat Valente’s works do the same thing, and I love those just as much. Heck, I even enjoyed the most recent Star Wars, and that has so much buffoonery that you have to actively repress your brain in order to not sprain something. I appreciate works that do put in the work of making a coherent universe much more. Perdido Street Station is in my Top 5 books, and Borne is not, and this is part of why. But I guess I don’t always require it to still enjoy the story. You can get away with a lot, for me, by being pretty.
But this may not appeal to rationalists due to the non-care for world building, so use your best judgement there. :)
I can’t give it a book club yay/nay, as I wasn’t there and don’t know how conversation went.
In the wake of my disgust with the reporting on last week’s Trump scandal, I’ve been thinking there should be a Porn Star Appreciation day. It’s a physically demanding job, very few people are cut out for it psychologically, and they get shit on by society non-stop. The ratio of derision for the profession to the amount of joy they bring into people’s lives is likely one of the most skewed in existence (currently). It’d be nice to say thanks now and then.
And one could even go further, and engage a few Units of Caring on the issue. Upon the excellent suggestion of a friend, I propose that on Porn Star Appreciation Day, everyone do the unorthodox thing and actually pay for some porn. Few things say “I appreciate you” like helping someone’s career.
As for a particular day – unless there’s better suggestions, how about the day before Fat Tuesday? It’s thematically appropriate and thus easy to remember. And it’s not as kitschy as something like the June 9th, or the 69th day of the year.
“Let he who HASN’T raw dogged a porn star just after the birth of his fifth child with his third wife cast the first stone.”
Everyone is pro-feminism until they can score some cheap political points by throwing women under a bus.
In this week’s Trump scandal, it turns out he had an affair a decade ago. Not a big deal, except that the Other Woman was… <music ascends into a sharp pause> a porn star!! <DUN DUN DUN>
And I am seriously grossed out at this reporting. Every popular media source out there cannot stop trumpeting that the woman he was sleeping with was a porn star. It’s the most important thing you need to know about her, and it has to be the first thing you know about her! It makes the affair so much worse than any normal affair with a normal woman.
I expect it coming from the right, but it bothers me that even the left is leading with this sort of thing. That meme at the top? It was shared by a dedicated leftist colleague. I particularly love the lurid description of the sex itself, the same way gay people used to constantly have all references to their relationships reduced to descriptions of anal sex. The leftist colleague explained it away as not attacking sex workers–rather just pointing out the hypocrisy of the GOP and their railing that sex work is bad, porn is a sign of moral decay, and multiple marriages are because of a lack of godliness.
I consider this bullshit. All these headlines and memes are feeding off the derision of sex workers. Feeding off it, legitimizing it, popularizing it, and spreading it. You don’t get to call yourself pro-women while helping to degrade sex workers. You don’t get to use “but this is an attack on Trump, and anything we do to hurt him is good!” as an excuse. This sort of thing marks a group as an underclass who don’t deserve the same consideration and protections of everyone else. You can’t reform the social narrative about sex work while reblogging things that reinforce that narrative.
I spoke with a friend about this, and they gave me permission to post the following (paraphrased, and with some alterations for anonymity’s sake)
I was married to a sex worker. I was pro-sex-worker long before that… but there’s a difference between being theoretically for rights/respect, and living the reality yourself. I felt the impact of society’s casual disregard of sex-worker’s humanity much more viscerally when it was directed at a person I loved and shared a life with. I realized some things were a bigger deal than I had thought. And the casual contempt is part of that. It’s what makes it OK to mistreat “those people”
There’s groups you expect it from. The religious fuckheads, the GOP, and all the scum on the right. It still sucks, and it’s awful. But it was when it came from the left that it really hurt. Because I guess I bought into the whole “we’re on the side of women’s rights” thing. And then one’s supposed allies treat one as just as dirty as anyone else. A supposedly liberal comedy show like Archer uses “When they’re dead they’re just hookers” as a laugh line, and it makes you want to throw up.
My spouse learned this long before I did. She didn’t trust anyone, didn’t count any group as an ally. She was completely alone in a hostile world. I want the world to be better for her, and others like her.
I dislike the refrain of “Listen to [group]!” because it always comes with an implicit “…and shut up.” I don’t want anyone to shut up. Say what you want, but realize it comes at a cost that some of your allies will feel. I stopped considering the generic-left an ally a couple years back, and this was one of the reasons why (although, of course, not the only one).
I’m switching all my texting and messaging to it as much as possible, and this is my urging that you do too. First and foremost, due to security, of course, but…
The user interface is slick and beautiful and just sooooo responsive.
There’s a destop app that integrates seemlessly and stays synced to your phone(s) and other computers, so you can type on a keyboard when near one, instead of tapping on a screen! Yet is still fully mobile when you aren’t near a legit computer.
My biggest fear was that setup would be a pain, with all sorts of tech knowledge needed, and passwords, and private keys, etc. No. Nothing like that. Just install the app and you’re good to go. It syncs your contact list from your phone and auto-fills it with anyone else who has Signal.
And, of course, the security. Fully encrypted end-to-end, so no one else can read your messages. Not the NSA, not Facebook, not Google, not the phone company, or any service provider. Your conversations actually remain your own.
And it’s free!
Very importantly, this is good to use AT ALL TIMES. If people only use Signal for illicit talk, that means it’s obvious that anyone using Signal is doing something shady. Once you use it for everything, all the time, out of a matter of principle because it ain’t nobody else’s business what the hell you’re saying to your mom or your bae or your boss, there is a normalization of using encryption all the time. Which is as it should be.
I know this sounds like an ad or some shit, but I’m just really excited and happy about this. 4 out of 5, would encrypt again! https://signal.org/
“this film challenges the ideas of a medieval past as being so very different from the present. Spectators singing a rock and roll song by Queen at a medieval joust certainly raise the eyebrow of many, but the song certainly strikes a more familiar chord with a modern audience than the strumming of a lute. Does the modern song convey the enthusiasm and pageantry of such events to a modern audience more successfully than an authentic tune would have done?
… In other words, there is a truth of historical reality, and then there is a truth of historical relationship — a difference between knowing the actual physical feel of the past and the relative emotional feel of it.
…Because we don’t live in the fourteenth century, we don’t have the same context for a historically accurate jousting as a person would have had back then. A tournament back in the day was like the Super Bowl, but a wholly accurate representation of the event would not give us that same sense. Rather than pulling us into the moment, the full truth would push us out of it: rather than fostering the connection between the present and the past, it would have emphasized the separation. So Helgeland split the difference: he included tons of historical accuracies with non-historical familiarities.”
This is a rare feat. It was accomplished in exactly two places. Herodotus did it in Greece; Sima Qian did it in China. Of the other great civilizations—the Mesoamericans, the Egyptians, Summerians, and their descendants, the Andean kingdoms, the early rulers of the Eurasian steppe, the great empires that sprouted up along the Indus and Ganges rivers, along with their cultural satellites across South and Southeast Asia—history is nowhere to be found. I remember my shock when I discovered our knowledge of ancient India relies more on ancient Greek historians than ancient Indian historians. Traditional Indic civilization simply did not have any. In ancient India, playwrights, poets, lyricists, grammarians, philosophers, story-tellers, mathematicians, military strategists, religious authorities, and religious upstarts all put pen to palm frond, leaving a treasury of Sanskrit literature for the future. This literature is sophisticated. It is meaningful. Even in translation, much of it is beautiful. But search as you may, nowhere in this vast treasury will you ever find a work of history. That a great thinker could profitably spend his time sorting through evidence, trying to tie together cause and effect, distinguishing truth from legend, then present what is found in a written historical narrative—it is an idea that seems to have never occurred to anyone on the entire subcontinent. Only in Greece and in China did this notion catch hold. The work of every historian who ever lived finds its genesis in one of these two places—and with one of these two people.”
As to the thesis – “Those who rule do not have the time to write about it. … When high position is stolen from you, and access to the heights of wealth and power denied, there is little one can do about it—except write. History is thus rarely a “weapon of the weak.” The judgments of the historian do not serve the margins. They do not even serve the masses. They are a weapon in the hand of defeated elites, the voices of men and women who could be in power, but are not.”
In short, nightly comedy news fell into the same trap as the 24-hour news channels. To keep their audience night after night they have to manufacture outrage.
I’ve been saying for a while that Cultural Segregation is bad, and I’ve lost some friends over it. I’m glad to see the view is finally starting to reassert itself in the wider culture. (well ok, the wider culture of my bubble, I realize there’s plenty of sane places that never went through this phase) This is a link to an open Facebook post that went semi-viral. It starts with “As an Indian woman, I really appreciate Indian fashion being normalized in this way. Why should our clothes be relegated to Indian-only spaces? Why are only Western clothes allowed to be worn by mainstream society? This kind of generally well-meaning social segregation has the overall effect of holding White Western culture as a neutral norm all other cultures can and should draw from, while simultaneously telling us our cultures must be kept to ourselves.”
Iraq declares final victory over Islamic State. That was kinda anti-climactic for what was supposed to be the reestablishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth. “The only territory it still “controls” are a few scattered villages in Syria in the middle of nowhere.”
The host of this show set up a Trolley Problem. Subjects were convinced they were part of a focus group about commuter rail. They’re placed in a switching station, that mointors tracks remotely via CCTV, while waiting for the focus group to begin. A kindly old conductor shows them the ropes, and even has them switch a train coming down the tracks from one track to the other just for fun. Then he’s called away.
While he’s gone, convincing video footage is played of a 5-and-1 constructions workers stationing themselves on the two tracks. And then footage is played of an oncoming train that will hit the group of 5. The subject must choose to throw the switch or not, they don’t have a lot of time, maybe a minute?
Test was run 7 times. How many people do you predict flipped the switch to save net-4 lives IRL?
“Given a cursory glance and applying today’s worldview to the song, yes, you’re right, it absolutely *sounds* like a rape anthem.
BUT! Let’s look closer!
So it’s not actually a song about rape – in fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so. ”
Most interesting comment was the observation that the line “At least I’m gonna say that I tried” is basically saying “It’ll be easier for both of us if people just think you raped me” which… fuck. The past was a horrifying place. :(
“I’d like to talk a little bit about moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham, and why he has a weird level of celebrity status among people who think like I do.
…There is a sense in which Jeremy Bentham literally invented a lot of the concepts we take for granted as the founder of utilitarianism and a prolific Enlightenment thinker, but there is another sense in which, almost as a side-effect, he came to a variety of conclusions about the social order which wouldn’t gain widespread traction until decades or even centuries after his death.
…Jeremy Bentham, at a time when the morality of chattel-slavery was still a hotly-debated topic, was saying that It’s Okay to Be Gay and we shouldn’t slut-shame.
…Here is a radical proposition: Jeremy Bentham wasn’t just ahead of his time — he was ahead of *our* time.
…maybe you can’t have the visionary foresight without the eccentricity. Even among progressive people, who pay a lot of lip-service to celebrating diversity, there is a surprising amount of hostility to weird nerds re-deriving the social order from first principles. When we’re judging people for doing this, maybe we should remember Jeremy Bentham.”
“but now they tweet from Syria, and when our beautiful missiles crashed into their airbase Jared Kushner was listening to Hamilton
do you think bin Laden ever picked up the controller? maybe he did. maybe he slid into the skin of an American Marine and blew holes in his own country. high score. high score.”
What New Atheism Says “I’m not surprised when the New Atheists are characterized in ways which attempt to erase what they are saying or just get them to shut up. They’re forcing a conversation that most on the left really don’t want to have.”
People freaking out about Amazon Key are showing their “Living In A Neighborhood Where You Can Leave Packages Unattended Outside Your Door For Hours” privilege.
“Gaming, Lantz had realized, embodies the orthogonality thesis. When you enter a gameworld, you are a superintelligence aimed at a goal that is, by definition, kind of prosaic.
“When you play a game—really any game, but especially a game that is addictive and that you find yourself pulled into—it really does give you direct, first-hand experience of what it means to be fully compelled by an arbitrary goal,” Lantz says. Games don’t have a why, really. Why do you catch the ball? Why do want to surround the king, or box in your opponent’s counters? What’s so great about Candyland that you have to get there first? Nothing. It’s just the rules.”
Now whenever someone asks why an intelligent agent would turn the universe into paperclips, point them at this game. Then come back the next day, look them dead in the eyes, and ask them “Why. Did. You?”
In Favor of Futurism Being About the Future “We are going to fight our hardest to end poverty, disease, death, and suffering, and we’re going to do it in spite of petty Boston Review articles telling us we should stop doing it so we can focus on hating each other for stupid reasons.”
I actually had some time to read a few books outside of book club in the past couple months. So here’s a quick review of each. They aren’t the full reviews I normally do, because it just doesn’t feel the same without the book club chiming in. Plus, I don’t know if they’d turn out to be good/bad book club books (I’ve been surprised before, in both directions. Heck, see The Emperor’s Blades most recently for one such example). But here’s a few thoughts!
It’s been a really long time since I read ugly prose. So long, in fact, that I forgot what it was like. Then I picked up Europe In Autumn. Regardless of it’s other strengths of flaws, the prose in this really is just plain ugly. I don’t need everything to be Cat Valente-style gorgeous, but man, put in some effort to make the words not gross! Everything sentence is flat and just flops there. Descriptions are more often lists of things/characteristics than anything that evokes a visual or an emotion. Maybe it makes me shallow to be turned off by ugly prose, but… ugh.
Also, I couldn’t give two shits about the character or the plot. At first it was neat to see things in my native Polish, and the novelty of that carried me for a while. But by the time we get to the third boring description of a smuggling/infiltration going wrong we still have no reason to care about whether it goes wrong or not. There’s no stakes for the protagonist, it seems like he fell into this line of work because he was bored with his old job, but finds this one just as dreary. If he fails, what does he lose? What does he gain? Are there any consequences for anyone? For the world? Even if there were, do we care? The answer to all of these is “no.” Or it was for me, anyway.
I guess there’s some sort of alternate reality/hidden world thing going on once you get 3/4ths of the way through the book, but I barely made it 25% of the way through. I have no faith that it would be interesting enough to slog through this. Not Recommended.
The final novel in the Quantum Thief trilogy, and a fantastic finish!
I’ve raved about the previous two books in the trilogy, and Causal Angel doesn’t disappoint. The books just keep getting more and more epic, with Quantum Thief being somewhat local, mostly confined to one city, Fractal Prince expanding to cover the fate of the inner system, and Causal Angel tackling the ultimate fate of humanity and the observable universe.
Things keep getting more bombastic too, with ever-larger things exploding ever more frequently, more harrowing escapes, and more personal sacrifices in every book. By the time I was in the last quarter of the book I couldn’t stop reading, and stayed up waaaaay too late.
Also, I know I mentioned this before, but Rajaniemi is our people. The books are transhuman from the very beginning, fully embracing emulated minds and their consequences from page 1, and reference many well-known shibboleths and thought-experiments in the rationalist-sphere. But it’s really hammered home in the third book, where not only does Coherent Extrapolate Volition enter the plot, but much of the conflict (and problem-solving) revolves around the technologically-mediated CEVs of disparate groups competing against or reinforcing each other to drive toward the final conflict/resolution. It’s awesome.
Of course the writing is dense and sometimes I had to go back and reread a page (or two or three) to grasp what was being put down. I don’t think that’s too big a strike against the book, sometimes it’s good to be challenged. :) And it didn’t happen often.
I fully expected to love this, based on the previous two books, and I’m really glad I wasn’t disappointed. Highly Recommended.