Mar 282018
 

This is in regards to “The Stone Sky”, which I just reviewed.

MAJOR spoilers below.

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Let’s say that the fate of the world depends on you being in a specific city, at a specific time, about one week from now. Transportation isn’t an issue, you can get there in about an hour. But you have to physically be there, or literally the human race goes extinct. Do you:

A. Make sure you get there at least a day early, so you have plenty of time to check out the city, get situated, and leave a margin of error for any sort of SNAFU that crop up?
or
B. Spend a few days loafing, saying goodbye to all your friends, and the morning of the fateful hour eat a leisurely breakfast where you all screw around and bond for a bit, before leaving at a time that’ll ensure you’ll get to where you need to be with no more than fifteen minutes to spare?

Unless you are a fucking idiot, you go with A. In fact, I can’t think of anyone, even the world’s most fucking idiot, that would go with B, because fate of all of humanity. GET THERE EARLY. And yet, Essun chooses B. And it’s painfully obvious why.

The main source of conflict in the climax is the same source of conflict of every bad RomCom ever — the two protagonists don’t spend five damn minutes to just talk to each other! All the heartache and misunderstanding (and in bad RomComs, the entire plot) evaporates if the two protagonists would just sit down and have a short freakin’ conversation. This is why Essun waits until the last minute to go to the Appointed Location. If she got there any earlier there wouldn’t be time pressure preventing her from talking with her daughter, Nassun would discover she has options other than “kill everyone”, Essun would discover she could gift everyone with infinite life, and there wouldn’t be the Mother vs Daughter conflict that Jemisin wants.

As much as I love everything else Jemisin has done, this is just plain bad writing. There are dozens of ways to force Essun and Nassun into conflict that don’t involve “We don’t have five minutes to share knowledge.” Or, though less satisfying, if we really want to stick with time-pressure, there’s hundreds of reasonable ways to prevent Essun from getting to the Appointed Location until the last minute that don’t require her (and everyone in her entourage) to hold The Idiot Ball for days. None of these options were taken. Instead we get a forced climax that relies on a ridiculous contrivance.

Also, as long as I’m complaining, Nassun’s sudden switch to “Instead of killing everyone, let’s make everyone immortal!” was jarring. This would have been a far better book if she’d been given the “I can make everyone immortal” information right up front, so her role would have been the (Misguided?) Savior, which is entirely believable for someone her age, who has a loving and supportive father at her side at all times. Far better than the Destroyer role she was inelegantly forced into.

To be honest, I’m only harsh on this book because the first one was sooooo good. The Stone Sky is still better than 90% of the stuff out there! It’s mostly out of frustration for seeing awesomeness fall apart in the third book that I complain. But hey, this is not my book, I’m just a reader with his own agenda and opinions. Jemisin may very rightly say “Screw off, this is my book, and I wrote it just how I wanted it. You think you could write a better book? You try it!” Fair enough. I know people who love this book just as much as the first one in the trilogy. But this is my post of mourning, so take it as you will.

Mar 282018
 

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

Synopsis: The conclusion of the 5th Season trilogy. Could be summed up as “A very long and in-depth version of Those Who Walk Away From Omelas”

Book Review: Solid, with great thematic heft, but a disappointing plot.

The thematic arc of this trilogy is fantastic. Novels (or series of novels) often have plot arcs, or character arcs, but it’s unusual to see an arc of progression in a story’s themes. Yet Jemisin pulls off exactly this. At the start of the trilogy, the theme is raw, unmitigated rage. Rage at injustice, rage at exploitation and murder. By the end of the trilogy, the focus has shifted to revenge. To the expression of that rage in physical action. Righting the wrongs, and punishing the monsters. And it asks “when is it enough?” When someone has killed your child, enslaved you, and treated you like an object, when have you gotten enough revenge?

And the answer is always “It’s never enough.” There is no amount of vengeance that can make up for those crimes. The Earth will continue to punish the human race for eons upon eons, because the rage never ends. Our protagonist will continue to murder cities full of the opposite race, and society will continue to murder those of her race, forever, because the cycle of revenge is infinite and all-consuming.

There are two ways to end this cycle. Kill everyone, so there is nothing left. Or put down your vengeance, bury your rage, and embrace forgiveness.

These themes are played out in multiple ways through multiple character’s choices, including opposite paths taken two main POV characters, as well as flashbacks to the First Civilization and the Earth’s reaction to their crimes. It’s is awesome in scope and statement.

Of particular delight to myself was when the First Civilization resurrected the race they genoicided, but with every racial feature grossly exaggerated and their powers raised to super-human levels, so that they could tell themselves “We did the right thing. Look how dangerous these people are. We are not monsters, genocide was the only option.” It’s eye-opening and beautiful.

Unfortunately, the execution on the plot-level fell flat. As predicted (in part IV), Nassun (the protagonist’s daughter) is cast in the role of destroyer of worlds, whereas Essun (the protagonist) is given the “finding community, and through it finding redemption” arc. I feel this was a grave mistake, because Nassun is utterly unconvincing as the destroyer of worlds. She’s 10. She has no believable motivation. We spent a novel with her mother, watching her tortures, and agreeing with her that the world must end. We crowed for justice at the end of 5th Season. Kill them all! If Jemisin wants to give her the Redemption Arc rather than the Destroyer Arc, that’s totally legit. But in that case the Destroyer role must be abandoned, because few other characters could do it convincingly after we saw what Essun has been through. Certainly not a 10 year old girl, who’s been sheltered her whole life and who’s trauma pales in comparison to her mother’s. Every time she said “Until the world burns” I wanted to pat her on the head.

She could have worked as the Savior, the idealistic young person not yet beaten down by the world. But as the jaded destroyer? Not even close. It doesn’t help that she’s never shown as stable in her goals (getting far worse near the end of the book). It feels like Jemisin lost focus, and couldn’t decide on which direction she wanted Nassun, as well as their Mother-Daughter relationship, to take. Maybe her vision for it changed midway through the book, and the edits to alter this didn’t fit well? I dunno. But it was very disappointing.

Also the climax was infuriating and frustrating, for reasons I can only get into in a spoilery post.

I don’t know how to go on this one. Pretty much anyone who’s read the first two books will read this, so does my recommendation matter? And if you like what I like, you should definitely read at least the first book (The 5th Season), because it’s so good. But the frustrations I had with the characters and plot hampered my enjoyment of it so much, that it hindered the exploration of the themes of revenge. After all, no matter how great ones themes are, the way they are explored is with the tools of character and plot, and if those are flawed, even the best thematic aspirations suffer. I would have read this anyway, and I’m sure most people will as well, but in retrospect… I guess Not Recommended. EDIT: To be honest, I’m only harsh on this book because the first one was sooooo good. The Stone Sky is still better than 90% of the stuff out there!

Book Club Review: As with the first two books, this is a great one for book clubs. The strong treatment of the themes gives good avenues for conversation. Not everyone agrees with me about the flaws in the novel, and having issues like that to grouse about also gives the group things to focus on. I was particularly interested to find one member who disliked Jemisin’s use of the term “magic” to refer to the lifeforce that emanates from all living things and binds the universe together, and can be harnessed to transmute things, do useful work, and create raw energy. I found out that they think of “magic” as things that wizards do in fantasy novels, and that this doesn’t qualify, because this could be real(!). Turns out they’re kinda new-agey. It was interesting to find out where people aren’t comfortable using a term like “magic.”

Anyway, Recommended.

Mar 262018
 

You recently voted for H.R. 1865 “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017.”

1. This bill will make it more difficult to find and help victims of sex trafficking.

Freedom Network USA (a national network of frontline organizations working to reduce trafficking) say that eroding Section 230 would compromise the very tools that are most useful for finding and stopping traffickers:

“There are many cases of victims being identified online—and little doubt that without this platform, they would have not been identified. Internet sites provide a digital footprint that law enforcement can use to investigate trafficking into the sex trade, and to locate trafficking victims. When websites are shut down, the sex trade is pushed underground and sex trafficking victims are forced into even more dangerous circumstances.”

Anti-trafficking advocate (and herself a trafficking survivor) Kristen DiAngelo points out that losing those online spaces doesn’t just thwart law enforcement; it also exposes trafficking victims to the threat of more violence:

“SESTA would do nothing to decrease sex trafficking; in fact, it would have the opposite effect. […] When trafficking victims are pushed off of online platforms and onto the streets, we become invisible to the outside world as well as to law enforcement, thus putting us in more danger of violence.”

2. This law conflates sex trafficking with consensual sex work.

The majority of sex work is a victimless “crime” between consensual adults. The Sex Worker Outreach Project warns that “There are many Sex Workers who rely on meeting and screening clientele online as a way to stay safe. Without proper ways to establish identity, set service boundaries, and screen people properly, this bill could turn casual meet ups into life or death situations.”

Sex workers use multiple avenues to communicate, perhaps most importantly, about bad or dangerous clients,” says Mike Stabile, communications director at the Free Speech Coalition, via Motherboard. “Sometimes, these happen in the same sites where they also advertise, sometimes they are separate forums or social networks… If it passes, these websites would simply shutter, or ban all communication related to sex work, since the risk of missing a sign would mean prosecution.”

3. We already have laws against kidnapping, slavery, and forced prostitution. The moral panic this bill panders to is greatly exaggerated. Over the past decades these laws have been ratcheted up to the point that they’re the same level as the laws that leave teens registered as Sex Offenders for the rest of their lives because they took a nude picture of themselves to send to a boy/girlfriend.

There is no evidence that this will prevent the sort of “sex trafficking” that people want it to. It will make life horrendously more difficult for many of society’s most vulnerable and outcast. It is opposed by women’s rights organizations including the International Women’s Health Coalition.

This bill is anti-woman, and anti-human-decency. However it appears you care more about the votes of self-righteous morality crusaders than the health, safety, and very lives of society’s most vulnerable.

4. When it comes to the safety of sex workers and lives of trafficking victims, I am a single-issue voter. Until this bill is repealed or overturned by the courts, I will be voting for the candidate most likely to defeat you in every election, no matter how odious.

Sincerely,

Eneasz Brodski
[address redacted for the online version]


I’m sending this to both my Senators and my Representative, as they all voted for this bill, which is now on its way to the president.

Sen Michael Bennet – D
Sen Cory Gardner – R
Rep Ed Perlmutter – D

I’ll be printing it, signing it, and sending it in the mail, as physical mail is less ignored than e-mail.

If you’d like to contact your congressperson, the Senatorial Roll Call is here, the House Roll Call is here, and you can find who your congresspeople are at govtrack.us.

You can donate to the EFF, ACLU, or SWOP as well or instead.

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.