Mar 202018
 

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Synopsis: A loner tries to make a living scavenging & smuggling alien artifacts from a restricted zone.

Book Review: Well this was a neat read.

First, the protagonist isn’t a typical, relatable protagonist. He’s abrasive and selfish, and I started out not liking him. But that’s OK, not every protagonist has to be you standard Good-aligned Hero, sometimes it’s nice to break away from all the cliché heroes. And by the time I got to know the world he lives in, I developed sympathy and understanding for him, despite a distinct lack of admiration.

Which brings me to the next interesting aspect – this novel is Soviet AF. All the institutions are maximally Inadequate while still keeping themselves from collapse (though you get the feeling they’ll get there in a few decades). Everyone is only looking out for themselves, and using whatever power they have to advance their own interests regardless of how much it screws the rest of their institution/society/anyone-else. Mid-level bureaucrats collude directly with the criminals they’re supposed to be apprehending (when those criminals have enough money and pull). There’s literally nothing you can count on. It was a heck of an experience to be placed in that world and realize there are still vast swaths of humanity that live like this. Very saddening too.

And the whole concept of humanity trying to reverse-engineer the discarded remnants of incredibly advanced and randomly-deadly technology in a large unpoliceable area, while others try to steal it, made for good plot. It felt very much like a precursor to the Annihilation vision of Area X & The Institute. I dunno if Jeff VanderMeer was directly influenced by this novel, but it’s certainly a fine pedigree if so!

I think the biggest downside is the POV-switch near the middle of the book, which was unnecessary and distracting. In addition, the character we shift to feels far too similar our main protagonist, they’re basically the same person in different situations. The novel drags a bit at this point, I was glad when that chapter was done.

But probably the most interesting thing about this book is the ending. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it leaves a major interpretation up to the reader. I know there are people who hate this sort of thing. But I really, really liked it. I was not expecting that at all, and I appreciate the trust the authors put in me to “get it.”

Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a good book for book clubs for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s really short. It comes from the days of novels that averaged 150 pages, and by today’s standards that feels like a walk in the park. People shouldn’t have trouble reading it, which always helps turnout.

It also presents us with a world we can relate to, but from a different enough perspective to get people talking. The view from Soviet Russia is bleak, and it led to disagreements both about the character of our protagonist (we had several readers who considered him a good person!), and reflections on our own institutions. The fact that it was written 40 years ago also reminded us that the past is a different country and got us talking about that (people smoked indoors? and just ashed on the carpet?? OMG)

And the open-ended ending gave us a hell of a hook to talk about. Everyone put forward their own interpretation/prediction of what would follow, and defended it with evidence from the story (mostly having to do with the protagonists character and desires). Of course, only the ones who agreed with me were right. ;) But it was the joy of the discussion that matters. Recommended.

(also of note, this book was the inspiration for the STALKER video game)

Mar 162018
 

soooo… I’ve listened to the first episode of Pounded In The Butt By My Own Podcast, and I’m really disappointed.

The guy playing Chuck Tingle really plays up the “retarded voice” for laughs, and I’m not PC or anything, but man, it really struck me as distasteful. ><

Then they read Tingle’s breakout hit (Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt), which was good! But it was just Cecil’s uncut first take, with people laughing in the background. Not terrible or anything, but it was kinda dumb and uncomfortable when book-ended by the previously mentioned Chuck Tingle voice.

I said in my first Chuck Tingle post that Tingle’s works, while they are parody, are “done in a gentle way that endears you to the characters.” The Chuck Tingle persona himself is the same way, there’s a sweetness and sincerity about the character that I think is what attracts most of his fans. This podcast feels like the opposite of that – a mockery that is mean-spirited, and somewhat cruel.

So far, not a fan, dunno if it’s worth listening to the next one. :(

Mar 152018
 

Students at Concord’s Mt. Diablo High break through gate in gun protest

Lately I’ve seen friends on both sides of the “Walk Out/Walk Up” debate. The two sides are (roughly)

1. Instead of walking out to protest guns, kids should walk up to the weird, bullied kid and befriend him.
2. It’s not any kids responsibility to be nice to anyone in order to not get shot.

Neither of these does anything but anger the other side, and both completely miss the root cause.

With public schools being prison-like environments, the incentives on children are to be awful to each other. This will not change until adults do something to make schools less like prisons, and no amount of shootings will change that. Neither will scolding kids to be nicer. Anti-gun programs are useless bullshit. Anti-bullying programs are useless bullshit. All the permanent incentives that shape action are pushing children to emulate prison gangs.

The schools must be reformed. By adults.

(Photo source)

 

 

Mar 082018
 

Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny

Synopsis: An amnesiac in the modern world slowly comes to discover he’s a demi-god of a fantasy world.

Book Review: I guess that synopsis is a bit of a spoiler, but not much of one, because it’s basically the same thing that’s on the back-cover blurb of most editions, and the cover art kinda gives this away too. At any rate, it’s something the reader discovers pretty early in the book. And that’s much of the problem with this novel.

For me, the interesting part of this story is Corwin trying to figure out what’s happening and who he is, all while hiding that he doesn’t know these things from the people around him. He has a (correct) suspicion that if they knew, he’d be in great danger. Watching this delicate subterfuge is pretty damn delightful, even if it’s a bit incredible in places, and helped along by his primary adversary being dim-witted and slow. The sense of danger, where every word could be a misstep that gives everything away and he won’t know it until it’s too late, makes for very engaging reading!

Unfortunately it ends pretty quickly. We have a few chapters of that, and then the whole novel reverts to pretty standard fantasy tropes. As a super-powerful magic user and claimant to a recently-vacated throne, Corwin marshals allies, has battles, gets in sword fights, feuds with his brothers, blah blah blah. There’s never a sense of danger again.

Worse, there’s no stakes. Corwin wants the throne, but I don’t care. He’s kinda an asshole. He leads tens of thousands of people into death for no good reason and without any care for their lives. We have no reason to think anything would be better or worse with one of his brothers on the throne, they all just want it because they feel entitled to it.

It’s odd, I first read this book about ten years ago. Either my standards have gone up (possible!), or this book is much better when you don’t know what’s coming next. The lack of knowledge Corwin has focuses the reader’s attention on the unraveling of the mystery, and distracts from all the glaring flaws of this thing. When you already know the mystery’s answer and can focus on things like character and plot, you realize how shabby they are.

I would hesitate to steer people away from this, based on my memories of really enjoying it the first time through. But as luck would have it, I was also rereading Too Like The Lightning (in preparation for my much-delayed first read of Seven Surrenders) as I read Nine Princes. In a way, this review is very much a story of two re-readings. Nine Princes crumbled upon the closer inspection of a reread. Too Like The Lightning only shined ever brighter, as the removal of the work needed to grasp the world-building really lets one focus on the characters and story and find greater depths and delights within them! Having a really good work to compare Nine Princes to lets me say with far less reservation – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It’s OK. There’s some conversational material here for discussing how the genre has changed over the decades. At the time, this book was a runaway hit, and series were a new thing. We had enough stuff to talk about that it was a successful evening. However, there’s so much good stuff out there, and so little time to read all of it, that it seems like a waste to focus on things that are merely OK. Unless your book club is looking for a discussion about the evolution of popular fantasy in the US (and someone’s ready without further outside research as well) – Not Recommended.

Personal Note: I’m way behind. We’ve read another book since that, which I’ll hopefully get out next week, along with some other misc posts. My office is short-staffed at my day job, I’ve resumed production on the Methods of Rationality podcast, I’ve bought a townhome that requires major renovations, and basically I’m out of time-slack. I’m finally chiseling some out on my lunch breaks (which I can take again!), so hopefully there’ll start to be content around this place again soon. ^^

Feb 212018
 

“Utopia, LOL?”, written by Jaime Wahls, is a finalist for this year’s Nebula!! The first piece of explicit RatFic (I believe) to be up for a major award! While there are other things put up that we all point to as great Rationalist Fiction, I don’t think those authors were aware of/writing as RatFic (esp since many of them pre-date the genre). This is pretty freakin’ huge, guys. :)

Feb 182018
 

My first reaction to Black Panther below, so spoiler alert.
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Erik Killmonger was *absolutely* the hero of that movie. He rose from nothing, infiltrated Galt’s Gulch, defeated them at their own game by simply *being better* than them, and did it all in order to raise 2 billion people out of subjugation and bring them justice. And in the end, even though he is slain by the uppermost pinnacle of the 1%, he *still* managed to bring his home country out of isolationism and engaging with the rest of the world in what will be the greatest boon for (the rest of) humanity since antibiotics were discovered.

And he was just so fucking awesome. I love characters that run on rage. Jesus. I really REALLY wish we got to see a lot more of him in the movie.

Feb 162018
 

I graduated high school the year before the Columbine shooting. Columbine was a neighboring high school, only a few miles from mine. That day was a bad day for me. I kept thinking “that could have been me.” In retrospect, I don’t think it could have. I don’t think I could’ve ever brought myself to do such a thing. But I understood the urge. The despair and the rage.

The initial post that started this semi-diary blog was an emotion dump after a mass shooting. I guess here’s another one.

I feel lucky to have survived high school. Many of my peers feel the same way. High school is torturous on many levels, and it’s commonly accepted that analogies to prison aren’t far off, though not to the same scale. Sleep deprivation, social gangs, enforced idleness, and helplessness rule the day. I’ve never heard anyone in high school say it was anything but various levels of awful. I have heard someone say “I wrote myself a letter about high school when I graduated, because I knew it was likely that in the future I would look back on that time with rose-colored glasses. I’m glad I did, it helps me to remember how bad that place is.”

Yes, “depression,” granted. But depression isn’t one-way. It’s not only causal, it’s also caused, and the high school experience certainly kindled my years of depression just as much as the depression made high school worse. High school shouldn’t have to be a thing that young people must survive. Even if nearly all of them do manage it.

I have a friend a couple years younger than me with a complicated relationship with Columbine. After the shooting, life in school got significantly better for [them]. Because now other social gangs were far more reluctant to engage in abuse of [their] social group. It feels disgusting to say anything that can be mistaken as an implication that Columbine was justified. Murder is monstrous. How fucked up is the situation in our high schools if an act of terrorism can make life better for a significant percentage of students?

Among all the calls for gun control and mental health services, no one is saying anything about what it is that breaks a lot of people. No one mentions this environment, which many people have to spend untold dollars and many years of therapy recovering from once they escape. No one talks about what could drive someone to pick up that gun and lash out in rage at the place and the people they view as responsible for their pain.

I know, this isn’t the only cause of school shootings, nor the only type of shooter. And even for those who may fit this template, there are many inputs that lead to this, from our American history of violence, to social contagion, to personal psychological pathology, among dozens more. Yet high school remains horrible and torturous for many young people. And it should not be this way.

I don’t have much faith in my society to fix this. We’ve known for at least a decade that simply pushing back the start time of high schools leads to improved mental and physical health for teenagers, as well as improved education outcomes. And yet we can’t even manage to take that first, simple, step. Instead, our schools become more and more like prisons every year, with stricter security and greater authoritarian control. Things are trending the wrong way.

But for the first time in my life, I think I am at a point where I can actually say this sort of thing out loud, rather than just emotion-dumping on a blog. Our schools must stop being places that damage those people we force into them.

Feb 132018
 

John Dies At The End, by David Wong

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.

Feb 122018
 

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. :)

Feb 082018
 

From GinnyDi:

“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.