May 202020
 

I.

In 2007, M John Harrison, a genre author of some renown, posted an essay on what he saw as the scourge of worldbuilding in genre fiction. It was Harrison’s contention that genre creators were so enamored with “worldbuilding” that it was crowding out important things like character, plot structure, and what we now call “rule of cool.” Importantly, writers were cramming irrelevant worldbuilding details into their works simply to demonstrate they’d thought of them, rather than focussing on characters and story.

In addition, he decried the rise of a certain type of fanboy that searched for every inconsistency and failure of realism in a fictional world, to crow about how they’d found a plot hole. You know, the CinemaSins types. Those who tear down works over trivialities and dismiss the emotional journey.

These were good points, and worth articulating in the climate of the day. Unfortunately, he coined this the “Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism,” presumably because he’d grown to despise his audience and wanted us all to know of his contempt. Even more unfortunately, people took his good points regarding extremism in setting-over-story and over-applied them so broadly that now we have the opposite problem — realistic portrayals of anything are scorned and everything is chaos.

Enter: Late-Season Game of Thrones, and Picard.

II.

In one of my more popular posts I point out that the great thing about Game of Thrones is that it took the Standard Fantasy Honorable Paladin, removed him from a spurious world that rewarded him simply out of narrative fiat, and placed him into a real, breathing world with other real people to explore how the story changes when the author isn’t covering him with Plot Armor. The result was complex, rich stories that people ate up.

When the show runners ran out of source material they fell back to “creating cool scenes,” such as Jamie’s infamous charge at Daenerys’s dragon. It was the fallout from that scene that told the audience “There is no more story here. No characters. Just a series of scenes we think look cool that are strung together chronologically. Don’t expect any consequences to anything. Don’t expect people to make sense.”

This is death for a long-running narrative. Cool scenes are perfect for shorts, and for music videos. They can be heart-wrenching or life-affirming, when taken on their own. But when Inigo Montoya finally tracks down the Six-Fingered Man, we expect him to try to kill him. For him to forget that the Six-Fingered Man was right in front of him, and wander away to some other part of the castle, is inexcusable. Those aren’t the actions of a human, those are the actions of an automata acting on the whims of an author that wants to prolong this revenge narrative.

Game of Thrones was a tragic example, because it started off well-written by someone who cared about the world and the people within it. Picard never had that problem, it didn’t give two damns about anyone within it making sense from the very first scene. It was a naked cash grab. Picard had a singular purpose – create individual scenes that pop. Any scene, taken in isolation, is generally pretty good. The dialog is well written and well acted. Exchanges of emotions would be compelling, if they were taken as vignettes without any greater context. Action scenes would be visually interesting and seem to matter.

The problem comes when you place these scenes in a chronological order and try to imply that they are related to each other. There is no conceivable world where the actions we see on screen are those that real humans would take. No government would ban taking box cutters onto planes and not ALSO look into who was behind the 9/11 attacks. No person would see a loved one stabbed through the chest and not call for medical help. The actions taken cannot be attributed to humans. They are taken purely for the benefit of the camera, to create a scene for an audience that does not exist within the world.

III.

Powerful scenes emerge naturally from good story-telling. They are rare, the culmination of a lot of work during the telling of a story. Scene-chasers don’t want to do that work, and they don’t care about the story. They simply want the accolades of a moving or exciting scene. An impatient writer that just wants to jump from powerful scene to powerful scene without first building the people, the story, and the world in which this can actually happen isn’t just lazy. He’s the equivalent of the over-eager virgin stripping his date’s pants off before taking the time to flirt, tease, kiss, and caress. It will be terrible for everyone involved.

Perhaps this is a problem of perverse incentives. Afterall, it is the scene where Hodor holds the door that we all remember and talk about, and not the seasons of build-up that made it meaningful. It is the 72-second Action Scene clip that gets posted on YouTube that draws attention. It is the tearful confession that’s shown just before the Oscar winner is announced. Everyone wants to write a good scene.

But those pressures have always existed. So perhaps it’s that now too many people hold disdain for the work of building up a coherent world to set a scene within. Of creating and fleshing out the real people to populate a scene with. Now this work isn’t part of the work of the creative person, it is imposing a Great Clomping Foot of Nerdism, which true artists shouldn’t sully themselves with. It’s the nerds who care about what happened to the hero when he’s unhorsed mid-battle and the camera faded to black, only for him to wake up, alone, in complete safety. It’s the nerds who care about knowing why transporters work to get kidnappers into someone’s apartment but not out again. It’s the nerds who care about someone betraying everything they and their ancestors have worked for (in service of preventing humanoid extinction!), simply because it’s convenient for the protagonist.

A character in these situations is not in a living world full of real people. There are no human interactions to explore here, because there are no other humans. There are no consequences of choices to explore, because there are no consequences. These are sterile sets that exist only to provide spectacle for a camera. There are no people here. The writer has created a dead world.

IV.

“Who cares?” I am sometimes asked. “Can’t you just watch the show and enjoy it?”

It depends on what you want. Hell, on the far side of things, slapstick cartoons don’t even need object permanence as long as they are entertaining. But if I’m not in the mood for a cartoon? Can’t people inhabit a world designed to maximize on-screen drama?

One of the common effects of schizophrenia is feelings of immense importance placed on common experiences. The schizophrenic feels as if they are constantly within a defining moment of history, as if there is some supernatural focus on them specifically, and struggles to explain why this is happening. Common answers are attention from God, or aliens, or the CIA/FBI/Illuminati. 

The fact that the world is engineered for an audience is in itself deranging. The Truman Show is about a real person trapped in a dead world — a world designed to bring emotional scenes before a camera. Redshirts is about a character trapped in a dead world — a world that literally pauses when commercial breaks occur, so interesting scenes aren’t missed. Rick in Rick and Morty appears to know he’s playing for an audience.

A world where nonsensical things happen for the purpose of entertaining an outside observer is distinctly different from one where a normal narrative can happen. In all the above cases, the fact that the protagonist is in a dead world where nothing matters is what the story becomes about. All of these works are varying levels of surreal, and all of them are ultimately existential in nature. The struggle to find meaning and purpose within the meaningless existence of a dead world becomes the narrative.

If the story doesn’t become about the unbelievability of the world, then not even the protagonist is a relatable human being. The story degenerates into a series of images that have nothing to do with our common understanding of what it is to be human. There are no characters on screen, there are only puppets that pantomime human actions. There is no life anywhere, merely corpses animated by a deranged lich king who giggles as they emote strongly at one another, tears summoned to their eyes for aesthetic effect, words summoned to their lips that signify nothing deeper within. The writer has created not life, but a mockery of it.

You cannot have characters without a world for them to inhabit. You cannot have meaningful actions that are only there for spectacle. For a story to matter it must have some depth the audience will never directly see that it’s built upon. It must have a world that has been created with at least some care for those that will live within it. Worldbuilding is what prevents dead worlds.

May 192020
 

Normally I try not to call out things just for being bad, because that’s a bad spiral to fall into. But I have a special place in my heart for TNG – I bought the full series for the express purpose of teaching morality to any offspring I may have (back when that was in the realm of consideration), because it’s one of the best guides on how to be a moral person in the modern day. It’s my three-letter answer to anyone who would ask “How will you teach kids morality without religion?”

Also, this is a symptom of the wider problem of lazy writing. I’ll write more on this shortly, but it comes down to show runners simply not caring if their writers don’t think about what they are writing at all.

First, Picard isn’t all bad. There’s some good parts. The acting is amazing! Patrick Stewart knocks it out of the park. Jeri Ryan is fantastic as Seven of Nine.

And the dialog is obviously something the writers/show runners actually did care about – it works well. If this show was just a series of dialog scenes showcasing great acting, it would be perfect.

But it’s not, because that’s not all there is to story telling, and the series is trying to tell a story. A good story also needs a coherent plot, and comprehensible motivation for the people within it. Picard lacks these. Here are specific examples of what I’m talking about.

Spoiler below

Picard saying “I learn that the man I’ve been mourning for 20 years had a daughter, then I saw her killed before me, and then I found out she has a twin, of course I’m going to go find her!” basically for the audience’s benefit. The show had absolutely failed to establish this motivation over the past 3 hours of run time, even though that was it’s only job. Yes, those facts were presented to us, but they had no salience. I am glad the writers were self-aware enough to add the line, having realized that their attempt at showing this motivation sucked, but it was bad and lazy. They should have reworked the script to show us this instead.
There were many scenes of a similar vein.

Stupid stuff happened just so the writers wouldn’t have to put in extra effort, like the fallout of the Mars attack. The writers want Synth’s banned, and the attack was a very believable way to do that. But after the Federation bans synths, they just dropped the whole thing. Any real group of humans would put SOME effort into finding out who the hell hacked the Synths and murdered all of Mars, and then make the hackers pay (or “bring them to justice”). The fact that the Synths were hacked is blindingly obvious, and yet no one did anything about it, cuz the goal of the writers wasn’t “Make a believable world” it was “make Synths be banned.”

There was this sort of stuff all throughout, and it came to the worst cresendo in the final episode. The fact that the tal’shiar romulans had a collective lobotomy at the end was inexcusable. Their entire reason for existence, what they’ve sacrificed loved ones and all their own ambitions for for thousands of years, is to prevent the extermination of all biological life. At last they are at the point where all they have to do is bomb one tiny village to accomplish this goal, and they have an entire fleet to do it. Picard mimics his ship (using an annoying Super McGuffin introduced just for this purpose) and they decide to divert all firepower into shooting those down instead of launching one damned torpedo at the village at the same time. Then the federation shows up, and they flex at them instead, rather than launching one damned torpedo as soon as possible. It’s abjectly unrealistic and stupid. And then at the very end they just…. forget that’s the reason for their existence, and fly away. And the Federation lifts the ban on Synthetics for no reason.

I don’t want to overstate how bad that final episode was. I mean, yes, it was awful. But it was the culmination of all the lazy, stupid things they’d done before, crashing home all at once. It wasn’t qualitatively worse, it was just where all the other things caught up so you could see the full quantity all the badness at once.

This post isn’t just to warn people away from wasting 10 hours of their life on a bad show, though. This is but one example of a deep rot. More on the greater problem soon.

EDIT: As I was writing this, I was alerted that Mr. Plinkett just released a video covering much the same ground. I haven’t watched it yet, but here it is if you want more examples of this type of failure.

May 162020
 

Agency, by William Gibson

Synopsis: The world’s first GAI throws a coming-out party for itself.

Book Review: A couple months ago one of the panelists (don’t recall which one) at the Reason Roundtable commented that “William Gibson is very good at describing surfaces.” He meant this literally, and it’s true, Gibson does indeed do great visual descriptions, and you really get a feeling for how surfaces look and feel. But it works on a metaphorical level too, because this book is beautiful on the surface level, but doesn’t seem to have much depth to it.

At first I thought it was intentional, because the book is about an AI creating the infrastructure to manipulate the physical world, and her first step is to recruit a human agent. The human chosen is perfect for this role because she is pathologically passive. The world is on the brink of nuclear war and her primary concern is where she’s going to get coffee. She doesn’t really care about anything, and it makes complete sense that she’d do whatever the AI says with minimal prompting. The AI scoured the country and chose her mark well. I liked the nefarious implications.

But then the AI is removed from the narrative about 1/3rd of the way through, and things continue apace. Things keep happening to the protagonist, and she keeps getting shuffled forward in the plot, but there’s never much here to make us care. The protagonist doesn’t have motivation or desire, and makes almost no decisions. She doesn’t really have any agency in the story. Which feels like it should be some sort of theme, given the title, but it is never explored in the way a theme is explored… it’s just there.

The “very good at describing surfaces” comment kept coming back to me. Gibson has created a fantastic world. It has complex power structures and entrenched interests. It has a deep history. It is a marvelous place for stories to take place in, and I kept thinking this would make a wonderful source book for a role-playing game. There was even a plot-thread about an AI establishing its powr base that players could be guided through by a skilled GM. But it lacked characters, and so lacked a compelling story. It was a beautiful surface for a story to be painted on/within.

And upon further reflection, I think this is a feature of Gibson’s works. He crafts incredible worlds that are immensely cool to explore and be inside. The more weird and esoteric the world is, the more there is to explore and and be dazzled by. Like, what do you remember from the original Sprawl trilogy? If you’re like me, you recall there was a plot about freeing an AI-in-a-box, but that’s about it. The main attraction in those books was exploring an insane and awesome cyberpunk future (especially since this was the basically first time that had been done). I love that trilogy with a passion. But I don’t recall much plot, just an amazing world and the bizzare characters that peopled it.

The plot of Agency seems to be mainly about giving us a tour of this world, which has two problems. The first is that it’s a near-future world with very few deviations from our own. Someone whose strength is creating breath-taking new worlds should make them significantly different. That’s what made the Sprawl triology awesome. It’s what made Mieville’s Perdido Street Station + sequels awesome. A near future without much devation doesn’t have much to explore.

That brings us to the second problem. Since there isn’t that much difference to explore, the novel feels padded out to fill a word-count it can’t justify. There’s a lot of action that doesn’t have any purpose. And there’s a ridiculous amount of wasted word count. You know how soap operas will pad out their run time by having frequent commercial breaks, and after each comercial break they will recreate at least a full minute of what aired before the commercial break, except shot from a slightly different angle? That happens MANY times in the novel, when perspectives switch from one charecter to another.

You know how before people knew how to make movies we had wasted shots? To take my favorite example – in the first James Bond movie, Dr No, there’s a scene where Bond knocks out an assailant. He the walks back to his car. And the camera stays on him. On his back. As he walks. Slowly. Back to his car. For a good several seconds.

Because people just didn’t know you cut out the boring parts, I guess? That the audience can infer Bond walked back to his car if the next scene is him getting out of his car at the next location? Anyway, Agency was full of moments like this, completely unneeded descriptions that did nothing and were the literally equivalent of walking back to the car. Yes, the descriptions were good. But you skip the boring parts in a novel. You don’t show us the hero sleeping and going to the bathroom if it’s not important. Agency literally has a scene where someone goes to the bathroom, and it’s not remotely important.

Which is just to say, Gibson is great at making worlds, and skilled at wordcraft, but I found the plot and emotional drive in Agency sorely lacking. I do not wish to besmirch the rightly-celebrated author of one of the most influential works of the 80s. But as for Agency – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Some interesting discussion, beacuse the world really is created very well. But not too terribly much to talk about, as there isn’t much theme or story. Not bad, per se, but not something I can recommend, given how much is published every year. So again, Not Recommended.

May 162020
 

I was remiss in sharing this when I reviewed Player of Games — A friend of mine has a reaction-style podcast where he and a friend are reading through the entire Culture series together. He’s read it before, the friend has not. For those familiar with We’ve Got Worm, it’s that style of podcast. The whole series can be followed at the Discord under the #more-art-than-science channel, or the RSS.

May 062020
 

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Synopsis: Necromancers trying to hold together a dying interstellar empire seek to unlock the dark knowledge of the first necromancers on a barren Earth.

Book Review: You know how The Crow is the most goth movie ever filmed? Well the first 1/3rd of Gideon the Ninth is the most goth novel ever written. This alone is among the highest praise I can give it, and you should go read it right now. Highly Recommended.

Not enough? Well, imagine if the initial Warhammer 40K setting was written by twenty-year olds today, rather than 20-year-olds in 1970s, using all of today’s style, slang, and literary advances rather than that of 70s. Obviously you should go read it right now. Highly Recommended.

Still not enough? Oy vey.

This story begins on a literal tomb planet, which is in perpetual night, ruled by an order of dour catholics. The human population is down to maybe a few hundred people, animated skelitons work the fields and do most of the labor, techonology is dying, and everyone wears black. The protagonist (Gideon) is a snarky, bitter kid in her early 20s that kicks insane amounts of ass with a sword, but doesn’t have the patience or focus for subtley or intriuge. Fortunately she has a waif of a sister (Harrowhark) that does the heavy lifting on the social-manipulation front, including animating the corpses of her parents so no one will know their planet is without a legitimate ruler and come subjugate them. The sisters hate each other, of course.

The entire solar system is likewise denuded of population. The emperor is gone. The saints are gone. Humanity has been left to fend for itself, and hasn’t been able to keep up most tech. Interplanetary travel is extremely rare. In the midst of this, Gideon and Harrowhark are called to Earth to partake in a trial. If they can unlock the secrets of the first necromancers, they can ascend to sainthood themselves, and save their planet.

I didn’t love the book *quite* as much once they get to Earth. There is sunlight on Earth, which reduces the goth factor. And no dour catholics. But on the plus side, there’s basically no human life left on Earth at all, aside from a single Hogwarts-like facility that’s been basically abandoned, and the seven other pairs of saint-aspirants that come from the seven other planets trying to uncover the same secrets. For a while this becomes a sort of Hogwarts/Hunger Games kinda situation, with the teams competing against each other in a flexing but non-deadly rivalry to be the first to win. It was my least favorite part, but I rush to point out that I STILL REALLY ENJOYED IT!

And then shit just goes straight to hell, and damn does it get cool again.

This is incredibly fun. Our hero talks exactly like all our friends do, using slang we know and saying what we would say in her place, so we can relate to her on a deep level. She is also badly hurting, and uses this sarcastic humor as a defense mechanism. She doesn’t take shit from people, and generally does her best in the situation she finds herself in. She is, in a word, us.

This is gothic. The world is beautiful and dark and richly mysterious. And it’s such a welcome change from the same old gritty fantasy setting, or the same old space opera.

If you’re like me, you will love this. Highly Recommended.

(Also of note – I assumed I’d resent the 7 other houses, because that’s 14 more characters, and I can’t freakkin remember 16 different characters PLUS the headmaster!! But Muir does such a fantastic job of differentiating them that I had (almost) no difficulty at all! I briefly was muddling on the 6th house vs the 8th house, but that cleared itself up pretty quickly. I was legit shocked how different and easy to remember all the parties were. Very impressive.)

Audio Book Review: A rare special section! I have to comment on the audio book version, because Moira Quirk does the best narration in the history of audio book narrations. First, her accent is lovely and her voice is beautiful. Second, the way she reads the story, it’s like she’s living it. Third, her voices for the 18 different characters are superb, and easily discernable. I reduced the speed on this all the down to 105% just so I could listen to it longer. Everyone in my book club that listened to it rather than reading it rated it one point higher (on average). It’s just that good of a narration. I recommend that you go the audio book route with this one if you do that sometimes. Also Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: The fact that this was such a fresh change of pace made for some good discussion on its own. However I was worried that it would suffer from “everyone loves it,” which, while it makes for great reading, sometimes means the discussions aren’t as good as the book is. I don’t think that’s much of an issue here, because there is a lot about the universe that we are never told, which leads to a lot of great speculation. But I need not have worried, because there was a curmudgeon within our group who had no love for Gideon. So we had a delightful back-and-forth with him, trying to understand how any one person could be so wrong, while he was frustrated by how easily we were willing to let the author get away with necromancers in spaaaaaace without a deeper explanation as to what the hell was going on. It was a hell of a lot of fun. I reitterate: Highly Recommended.

Bonus FAQ: Is it gay? There is a contingent out there on the internet that seems to be making a big deal about this. And yeah, the protagonist is gay. It’s not a big deal, it’s just another thing about her, like her sex or her hair color. It’s not a gay-issues novel. I like my gay novels, and I’d heard this was one, so I was surprised that it wasn’t. I’m just putting this out there because occasionally I’d be like “When are we getting to the gay stuff? I’m halfway through this.” “Huh, I’m 90% through this, and still haven’t gotten there. I was lied to.” I don’t mind that it wasn’t in there, I just wish people hadn’t gotten me excited for it. OK, the protag is gay, but… so? Like, come on, it’s 2020 here. Gideon’s a Ginger too, but no one is calling this a Ginger book. Weirdos.

May 032020
 

Life is the ability to do things*. Much of my hatred of death is that it takes away ones ability to do anything and affect anything in the world.

To my chagrin, that is not the only thing that takes away one’s ability to do things.

Last year I suffered a back injury. I’m slowly recovering, but it’s altered my life. On the most easily-quantifiable level, I spend about an hour every day on physical therapy. That’s a large chunk of my ~19 waking hours per day. I’ve lost over 5% of my ability to do anything else in a day to that factor alone.

My sleep is usually worse, so even in my regular waking hours I’m less productive. But much worse than that is the constant physical pain. It’s been lessening lately, but it is a constant drain on my energy. I used to be able to Do Things for 15+ hours a day, if I needed to. Now I have a hard time just putting in my 8 hours/day for paid work, and I certainly get less done in those 8 hours than I used to. When I’m done with that work, it’s not just that I don’t want to go write a story, or improve my home. It’s that I do not have the energy to do much of anything, because the relentless pain has sapped me of everything. It’s all I can do to lay down and read for a while. Maybe I can get in an hour of other work in the evening. More likely I’ll be putting it off to the weekend, where I won’t be working as much as I used to at all.

At this point I’m up to maybe 2/3rds the ability to do things that I was at before my injury. This means it takes me 3 weeks to accomplish what I used to be able to do in 2 weeks, and it takes more effort. More strikingly, that means it takes me 3 years to accomplish what I once could have accomplished in 2 years. Assuming that I have another 30 productive years in front of me, if things don’t improve further, that means it’ll take me all those 30 years to do what before it would have only taken me 20 years to do. A pre-injury equivalent of 20 years of life is going to take 30 years instead. I will lose everything that I could have done in those hypothetical last 10 years that I won’t ever get to now.

In effect, this injury has taken 1/3rd of the rest of my life, even assuming I live just as long as I would have otherwise. (and assuming I don’t continue to recover). I haven’t been killed… but 1/3rd of me has.

And it occurs to me, that this will happen more and more often as I age and my shitty meat-suit decays around me. There will be more injuries and insults that further degrade my capacity. That is what aging is. It’s dying in pieces.


 

*Not a biological definition.

(On a related note, I always thought it was dumb when people said “Teenagers think they’re immortal.” No teenager I ever knew thought that, and neither did I. We knew we could die, and we feared it. What I think people meant (and should have said) is that teenagers don’t realize you can die in pieces. I thought it was a binary thing, and either I would survive and (at worst) return to baseline after a few months of healing, or I would die completley. I didn’t yet know that I had a middle-ground to be scared of, a dying that is partial, but just as permanent.)

May 022020
 

It’s been interesting seeing local beautification in the Age of Corona. Around my neighborhood I’m finding painted rocks set in strategic places. Other rocks with inspirational messages on them. A fence with a christmas lights strung up on it in the shape of a giant heart. Basically, the whole neighborhood looks to be slowly transforming into a Burning Man encampment. This is the sort of heart-felt, homemade decor that enlivens the Playa.

I find the resemblence striking, because I’m willing to bet none of my neighbors are Burners. 100,000 people out of the entire US population makes for an incredibly low base rate. And yet, they converged on the same sort of decor when they were left to their own devices, with a lot of free time and no way to hire professionals.

This leads me to believe that there is a common psychological working among most people that leads to a convergence on this sort of decor. Simple, colorful, warm, inviting. This is the sort of thing people like to make for each other and themselves, when they want their surroundings to be pleasant rather than imposing and impressive.

Cory Doctorow calls Burning Man “a dry-run for a post-scarcity society.” When people aren’t impressed by displays of material, and with people having all their waking hours to do whatever they like, I expect a lot more of our world will be decorated in these personal ways. I find this to be aesthetically pleasing. :)

Apr 232020
 

Hugo AwardThe Hugo Nominees are out. As always, I link all the short works that are available free online on my blog, for easy reference for my book club. If you have a book club, taking one meeting to read all these and discuss them is a great use of a meeting!

Best Novelette

 

 

Best Short Story

 

Apr 212020
 

Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan

Synopsis: A privileged, insufferable idiot has a bad relationship with this girlfriend and whines a lot.

Book Review: This is straight-up LitFic. Some ponce literary author wanted to write “SF” without having ever bothered to read any, and you get crap like this. The protagonist comes into possession of one of the first androids ever created. By the time I got to page 50, he still HAD NOT TURNED IT ON. He was too busy whining about the ennui of being an english major in a university and having a girlfriend that just doesn’t understand him.

By the time we do get to the android being turned on, we do almost nothing with it. It’s just a thing for the protag to be angsty about, and occasionally act like an autistic nephew. This isn’t SF. This is what someone who’s only exposure to SF was seeing an episode of the 60’s Star Trek out of the corner of his eye while someone else was watching it across the room. “Oh man, if I put an android in my novel, it’ll blow people’s minds! He’ll be all… analytic and not understanding of human emotions!”

The “alternate history” parts are occasional exposition dumps inserted in the most boring way possible without impacting anything in the story. Both the “SF” and the “alternate history” parts of this novel could be removed without changing anything of substance.

I don’t think LitFic authors should write SF if they aren’t read in it. The fact that they think they can shows how much contempt they hold for any form of art other than their own. I spit on them.

I’m on record as hating most LitFic, and this is no exception. MFA programs seem designed to ruin art. They give talentless hacks the idea that they can write because they learn how to string words together without actually creating anything of substance, while also denigrating most good art society produces. You know how you get awful crap like Star Trek: Picard? By hiring MFAs who have been taught to disdain what makes SF good and don’t care to do anything right aside from what they were taught makes “good dialog.”

Most MFAs also teach people to only “write what they know,” which is why you get stories of disaffected, insufferable intellectuals whining about their bad relationships. What else has an upper-middle-class kid pursuing an MFA degree done in his/her life?

I would consider this a typical LitFic book in that it doesn’t bother to think about anything of substance, has no higher goal or message, and is just griping about personal relationships with no stakes. To be fair, a couple people in our book club like LitFic and read some occasionally, and they both said that this is an exceptionally bad example of LitFic. To the point that focusing on how it fails as SF is besides the point, since it already fails really hard as LitFic. They assured me there really is some good LitFic out there, and some day I’ll read some of it and be wowed. I’m sure they’re right, but that day is not today.

Vehemently Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Most people gave up long before the end. Everyone hated it, even the LF readers. There’s nothing of substance here, so mostly we complained about how bad it was. Not Recommended.

Apr 182020
 

This is about Banks’s The Culture series, but doesn’t really contain spoilers.

Within The Culture it is established that biological humans are nigh-immortal, but that nearly all humans eventually choose suicide after several centuries of life. When I first heard this I thought it was just typical Deathist BS. The same “Ho ho, living forever is terrible, no one would want to do it unless they’re an evil villain” crap we usually get. I failed in properly giving Banks the benefit of the doubt. (In my defense, I didn’t know anything about him yet, knowing only how immortality is portrayed by mainstream media).

Upon reading The Player of Games, I understood why humans in that society choose death. The Culture is explicitly post-human. Anything of actual importance that needs to be done on a galactic scale is done by the Minds. For humans to feel important, their only option is to be important to each other. Unfortunately, that’s also not really an option, because no one needs anything.

At first, this seems like a blessing. That’s the whole point of getting post-scarcity. To truly need something is to be in peril. If you need something and can’t make/grow it yourself, you’re at the mercy of someone who can. Your best option is to find something they want or need and trade it to them for what you need. But ideally, you want to need as few things as possible.

In The Culture, no one needs anything. Everyone is given all the food, health, entertainment, and resources they could possibly want. No one relies on anyone else for anything. No one requires someone else to get any need or want met. And while it’s nice to finally have the safety and security to know that “no matter what happens, I’ll be fine,” it also means that no person is needed by any other. I don’t want to need anyone. But for me to not be needed by anyone feels… empty.

The Player of Games does a great job of portraying that lack of connection to any other humans. All the relationships that the protagonist has are superficial, trivial things. There are no stakes to anything he does in his life, aside from the one mission he is sent on that we read about. Everything before that was killing time. Everything after that was trivial as well. Nothing really matters, it’s all just games he plays. When no one needs you and there are no stakes, you’re just killing time. Eventually you realize you aren’t killing time for any purpose. Maybe just skip to the end already.

Which makes me feel really weird, because deprivation and insecurity SUCK. We’re trying to build this glorious post-human future because we’re tired of the suckiness of life, and we want to fix it. I am now somewhat worried about creating a future were no one is needed for anything anymore, though. Not enough to stop striving for it. But… going full The Culture seems like another Failed Utopia.