embrodski

Apr 122020
 

The Player of Games, by Iain M Banks

Synopsis: The post-scarcity Culture recruits their best game player to destabilize an expanding civilization that selects its rulers via an incredibly complex board/card/tabletop-war game.

Book Review: Banks is best known in the SF community for his creation of The Culture, an incredibly advanced post-scarcity civilization, and the series of books that take place within it. Player of Games isn’t the first book in the series, but it is the one that is considered the best entry point into the series. This book feels like it was written specifically to introduce people to The Culture. First we’re introduced to a typical citizen, and we get a typical day-in-the-life narrative to show us how these people live. World details and tech levels are displayed, and then this citizen is recruited to become the representative of the entire Culture to an alien civilization. Much of the conflict comes from the culture clash of this outsider navigating among strange people with strange ideas and customs, and every time there is a conflict not only do we learn how the alien civilization is structured, we also learn how The Culture is different in contrast. It’s pretty darn ingenious.

If this was just a tour of The Culture I’m not sure it would make an interesting book… you do need some story to get me excited. Fortunately, it is a lot more than just that. Yes, the novel does start out very slowly. The first few chapters drag on far longer than their word count would lead you to believe. Perhaps this was intentional, to get the reader to relate to the boredom and ennui of the titular protagonist, but it’s still a slog. It is, however, worth it. Once the central plot is engaged, the story really picks up, and it just keeps getting faster and better as it goes. Plots thicken, stakes are raised, and eventually hell is raised, bullets are flying, and everything is on fire.

More than that, though, this book reminded me that speculative fiction is the genre of Big Ideas. SF/F should be about something. Lots of times, it’s not. It’s just cool stories of interesting people doing exciting things. The Player of Games has a central thesis. I didn’t even realize that I had been starved of stories with a Big Idea until this novel gave me one and reawakened that thirst. It was wonderful, and I hope to not forget this again for a long time.

Dan Carlin often mentions the adage that civilizations ascend wearing wooden clogs, and descend wearing silk slippers. Meaning that only when life is hard and miserable do people struggle to make things better, and once a civilization is rich and secure it becomes weak, its people become lazy, and it declines. This is probably a perpetual fear of anyone living in a rich empire, but it’s hard not to take it seriously. One wonders, is it only by cruel strength, and the hard-bitten willingness to sacrifice the weak that people can advance? Is any great liberal society doomed to be out-competed and replaced by something leaner, meaner, and ruthless? The Player of Games asks exactly that question, pitting a rich, liberal society against a hungry, brutal one. And more to the point, it doesn’t do this by putting them in violent conflict, which would only resolve which civilization is better able to wage ware. It pits the ideals of the two societies against each other directly by abstracting those ideals into a high-stakes game that winnows out the weak and breaks the unworthy.

Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: For the reason stated in the previous paragraph, this is a very good book club book. There was a lot to talk about, much of it being very thought-provoking. Even outside of the central thesis, The Culture itself makes a fascinating topic of conversation (one of the reasons these books have become so popular, after all), and that along can keep a group going for quite a while. And while the beginning is slow, we didn’t lose any readers to it, because the kind of people that go to SF book clubs tend to also be the kind of people that have been gamers for ages, and so the promise of a book about an Uber-Game kept everyone engaged until things go going. :) Recommended.

Podcast Note: 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. The three Player of Games episodes are 1, 2, 3. And the whole series can be followed at the Discord, or the RSS.

Mar 312020
 

The Devourers, by Indra Das

Synopsis: A trio of vampire-ish/werewolf-ish shapeshifters travels to turn-of-the-century India. One commits a crime that sickens even these monsters, causing the trio to turn on each other, with much collateral mayhem.

Book Review: That synopsis really doesn’t do this novel justice, and I think the synopsis is pretty exciting as it is. This isn’t just a story of vendettas, betrayal, and personal clashes. This is a story about what it means to be human. It is, in my opinion, a statement on human sexual dimorphism and what it means to be a woman in a world were half the population can overpower you and wants to consume you. It’s about what it means to be a man in a world where men are considered predators by everyone, and not for bad reasons. It is about power and honor. It asks if civilization is a glorious thing that lifts mankind up from the wretched natural state we are born into, or if it is the shackles we’ve forged that prevent us from being free and noble and true.

It does all this while telling a great story of a proud person wronged, and of monsters that lurk in the dark to consume us. The plotting is exciting and the visuals are amazing. When one of these shifters goes into its monster form and starts to absolutely destroy the humans trying to oppose it, it was better than most anything I’ve seen on movie screens in ages. It was terrifying and glorious at once. When two such shifters go full-Sayen and attack each other, the prolonged ensuing fight is Akira levels of epic.

The rationalizations of the monsters are seductive, as well. I started to wonder if maybe they were right. Maybe their actions are net positive, and the being devoured is better than the alternative? Das does a great job of getting us to sympathize just enough to waver, even as he exposes us to the horror and violence of this predation.

The one downside to this novel is the framing story it uses. The tale in India is relayed to a young modern-day professor, and the professor is boring AF. The couple chapters with him are OK, but once you get into the meat of the story in India, you don’t want to go back to him. Then the final 25% or the book is JUST him, and that part is a drag. Nothing much happens, the professor has no personality and no motivation, and we’re left wondering “Why does this awesome, powerful, sexy werewolf have any interest in this schmuck?” It’s not terrible though, it’s just kinda dull. And Das has built up so much good will by giving us an absolutely outstanding main story that I didn’t mind coasting through that final part.

If I can speculate for a moment, I think it was required to bring the novel up to an acceptable word-count for a publisher of a first time novelist. Word count is ridiculously important to publishers, even though readers don’t really care. It’s kinda infuriating. Anyway, I think Das did the best he could with what they forced him to do, and the framing story isn’t a total loss, it has a few cool parts.

So, with that small caveat — amazing characters, amazing story, amazing writing, amazing action. Seriously, look back at the first three paragraphs I wrote. This is an absolutely stellar book. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: One of the best book club books we’ve had in a long time, and we’ve had some good ones! This is a fast read, and is gripping on its own. But in addition, it raises many interesting and thought-provoking themes, and comments on them via the actions of the characters just enough to really get conversation going. We went on for far longer than usual, and we all loved every minute of it. There were readers who disagreed that this was about sex roles in particular, and said it was more about power imbalances in general. There were readers who saw tones of trans identification in the monsters being able to change their forms over time. There is just so much to talk about, and all of it is on topics were the novel shows you examples of what it’s talking about and how it affects the people in the book but never preaches at you. If your book club reads only one book this year, it should be this one. Highly Recommended.

Coronavirus note: I’ve been a slacker, and I’m behind in my book reviews. Both this review and the next one I’ll be posting were meetings we had before the outbreak.

Mar 302020
 

I hear a lot about “that asshole that bought up all the hand sanitizer and has a garage-full that he can’t sell now.” And how he (and others like him) deserve punishment. This seems wrong to me. The real villain is the retailers that didn’t increase their prices as soon as it was apparent there would be a run on hand sanitizer. (Except actually, it’s the American Public)

At some point it became incredibly obvious to everyone in the nation that certain goods were about to become EXTREMELY in demand. Everyone would want them all at once. When this happens the best thing to happen is for the price of these to rise, for several reasons.

1. People will buy less. When hand sanitizer is $1/bottle and the masses are worried they’ll run out, they will fill their shopping carts to the brim with just that. It promptly runs out. Surprise. When hand sanitizer is $10/bottle, they’ll still buy a few, but leave a whole lot more to the next person. During a shortage, we WANT everyone to buy less. The mass public seems to think a few guys with a few crates of hand sanitizers in their garage stripped the entire country bare. This is laughable after a single minute of thought. The problem is everyone alive buys 100 bottles all at once so they’ll “have enough to ride this out.” It’s just enough for their family’s own personal use, of course, so it’s ok…

2. Substitute goods become viable. Distilled liquor can be made into hand sanitizer fairly easily. But it’s not cheap to do so, both because the liquor is more expensive, and because these distilleries are small operations rather than giant bottling factories. Right now, some distilleries are making hand sanitizer for their local communities and giving it out for free. They can’t afford to do so for very long, though. If the price of hand sanitizer were allowed to rise, more distilleries would be converted, and this could be a sustainable source of sanitizer for much longer.

Likewise, as surgical masks run out, people have been posting instruction on how to make DIY fabric face masks. Thank goodness these are technically a different product than disposable surgical masks, people are actually allowed to sell them at a profit.

3. Excess stockpiles are released. I pick up my toilet paper from Costco, which means that once every four months I get a four month supply. I still had 6+ weeks left when this hit. If the price got high enough, and it was legal, I would have been willing to part with half that on ebay. I’m willing to bet shelves will be restocked before I run out, and if not, well, that was a risk I took. But seeing as that’s not how this world works, I’m just sitting on my excess toilet paper. :/

4. Resources are moved from where they are in excess to where they are short. When Hurricane Katrina hit, a guy in Kentucky bought 19 generators. He and his family then rented a U-Haul and drove 600 miles to an area of Mississippi left without power. He offered to sell his generators for twice what he had paid for them. People wanted to pay, but he was arrested, thrown in a cage for four days, and his generators were confiscated. Are there towns in the middle of the country that are unaffected by coronavirus with extra supplies that cities in need could really use? Would the people there be willing to invest some labor and some of their money into getting those supplies where people will be happy to pay 5x more for them? Probably, but we’ll never know, because then those people would be locked in cages and their investments taken from them.

All these are just immediate effects in the first few days of a shortage crisis. And yet, none of this is allowed to happen. Retailers will not raise their prices because they are afraid of the public backlash, they can’t take the reputation hit. “That asshole” doesn’t care about his reputation, he’s not in this for the long haul. His work is to bring the prices to where they should be so that society can reap all the benefits of items 1 – 4. He’s making sure that people will buy only what they really need, rather than stocking up at the worst possible time. He’s ensuring that the places that REALLY need the sanitizer can get it! He’s bringing more expensive substitute goods into existence by allowing them to be sold sustainably. He’s encouraging others to release their stockpiles. He’s encouraging areas with excess to export into areas that need the sanitizer. What an asshole!

And because all of this takes investment money, and work, and causes the entire country to hate you, he pockets the difference between the retailer’s cowardly Stripped Shelves Prices, and the true Emergency Price. It is very inefficient, yes. It’s so inefficient, that the prices he’ll charge are probably a lot higher than what the Emergency Price would really be, if the retailers themselves had the courage to actually price the products at their correct Emergency Prices. A lot of people will end up paying a lot more than they would have otherwise, and most people will be stuck with nothing at all, because one garage can’t supply even half of one suburb, much less a whole state. But retailers are cowards, so that’s what we’re left with.

Except we wouldn’t be, if people weren’t such selfish jerks and wouldn’t riot over Emergency Pricing. It’s an Emergency, but they refuse to pay more to get supplies that are in huge demand. They’re used to getting everything cheap, and now. And what’s worse, they demand laws that make Emergency Pricing illegal, they call it “gouging” to make it sound bad, and they’ll get men with guns to take away any product sold at such prices and jail the people bringing it to market.

So you get what we have here, pictured. Which is the way they want it. Well, they get it.

Yes, there are times when “gouging” can be evil. A spike in prices of scarce goods that are in high demand in a emergency is not such a time.

Mar 092020
 

Empress of Forever, by Max Gladstone

Synopsis: Kinda a lesbian Inuyasha in space, and the galaxy is post-apocalyptic.

Book Review: With a synopsis like that, one would expect this to be an amazing ride. :) It is, however, just OK.

The characters are easy to relate to, and everyone will have one favorite one. They are all very archetypical, so as soon as you find the Type that you love most, you’ll really glom onto the character and enjoy them. The action goes fast, and it has ridiculous over-the-top anime combat that’s fun.

And ultimately, that’s mostly what this book is – action set pieces woven together by well-realized archetype characters. This is a perfect story for a video game, where you get to have all the fun of actually kicking huge amounts of ass in all the action scenes. It was a pretty typical JRPG plot as well, starting with a single character who gathers allies to form her party, beats several challenges, then the party is all split up near the end, and finally unites again against the multiple phases of the final boss. It’s definitely OK, but it’s told in the wrong medium, IMHO.

I think this book can be summed by a scene from within itself. One character is asking another why she reads fiction, and the reader answers “Simple. You know what the problem is, and you know how it will all turn out. It’s fun to watch it happen.” That was basically the experience of reading Empress, and if you like comfortable, actiony beach reading, this is for you. For those like me: Not Recommended.

(Also, as a personal gripe, I was really annoyed that the main character is supposed to be smart, but didn’t figure out why she had been yanked into the future, like, immediately. It’s clear from almost the very beginning, and it seems the only reason she never figured it out is because the author wanted to hold onto the reveal for a dramatic moment instead of after her thinking about it for 2 minutes. It’s just one of those things that irritates me.)

Book Club Review: The experience of talking about this book was much like the experience of reading it. Kinda fun, hard to complain, but nothing exceptional. I found myself very surprised that the entire story seems to have been wrapped up in one book. This is exactly the sort of ensemble cast and universe that lends itself to a long drawn-out series of monster-of-the-week books. As I was reading it I had the impression it was trying to set itself up as another Dresden Files style of series. But the ending seems pretty damn definitively an ending. Someone else in the book club mentioned that the ending felt rather rushed, like Gladstone had gotten tired of writing this story. Maybe creating a profitable series was his original intention, but he found it too tiresome to continue? He has written some really good things in the past, maybe this was just trying something new that didn’t quite work. While speculation on how the creative process works, and how maybe business decisions might interact with it, was kinda interesting, I don’t think it’s worth dedicating a book club slot to. Not Recommended.

Feb 252020
 

If you are like me, and you love the Harley Quinn character, I strongly recommend going to see Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I, personally, LOVED it. It was exactly what I had hoped for – a cartoonish slapstick comedy with ultraviolence throughout. :D Very reminiscent of the Tank Girl movie, which I loved for the same reason. Every minute of this was pure joy.

I had someone ask if it’s a lot like Deadpool, since that one is also a lot of cartoonish fun and violence. It sounds like they would be, but they have very different souls. Deadpool has a snarky teenage smirk. It’s fun in a jaded way. Harley takes childish glee in mayhem. It’s a purer form of emotion, IMO. I like Harley more, though I loved Deadpool too.

Anyway, this is the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in a LONG time.

Also I’m so glad they embraced an R rating. Trying to do this as PG13 would have been so pathetic.

Feb 122020
 

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

Synopsis: A paint-by-numbers 2nd world fantasy with medieval Africa flavor rather than medieval Europe flavor.

Book Review: Anyone who was a kid in the 80s will recognize this novel. It’s a basic 2nd world fantasy that fits right in with the pulp fantasy of that era. If you’re a kid, and it’s the 80s, this is ok. Because kids don’t have good taste, and in the 80s this whole 2nd world fantasy thing was still new and exciting and lots of authors were exploring the possibility-space of this newish genre. But I’m not a kid, and the 80s are long ago.

This novel doesn’t have an ounce of ambition. Everything here has been done before so many times that you can see the ruts in the ground as you’re trundling through them. The one difference is that the scenery is African rather than European, and even THAT isn’t new, it’s been done since at least Quest for Glory III in 1992, and likely much earlier via D&D supplements.

What’s worse, Blood & Bone doesn’t even take inspiration from the better stuff of the era, it dives right into the careless schlock. The plotting is actively stupid – things happened not because there was a good in-world reason for them to happen, but because the author decided that they wanted the thing to happen… so now it does. Goons were cartoonishly incompetent, they literally stood around until it was convenient for the heroes to fight them, like in those bad ninja movies. Villains are cartoonishly evil, genociding populations just for the heck of it. There’s the standard pairing-up of the opposite-sex protagonists because they’re opposite sex and protagonists, what other reason does one need?

This reads like a cheap cartoon where the writers didn’t care one whit for making good stories for children, they just wanted to churn out weekly 22-minute animated ads for toys. I haven’t read genre fiction this bad since Grant’s “Deadline”. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone hated this as much as I did. While no one thought it was “good writing,” there are people in our book club that haven’t become jaded grumpy readers, and can still take joy in a silly schlock adventure. You may get a good book club meeting out of discussing differences in tastes, how expectations affect perception, and what different people want out of a reading experience. Plus the haters get to vent some steam by hating, and the non-haters can laugh at them and talk about the fun bits they enjoyed. Still, it’s not really the sort of discussion I think book clubs are seeking, more like something they occasionally stumble into. Not Recommended.

Jan 312020
 

Do Cops Lie? (click image for link)

“the replacement of algorithms with a powerful technology in the form of the human brain is not without risks. Before humans become the standard way in which we make decisions, we need to consider the risks and ensure implementation of human decision-making systems does not cause widespread harm.”

 

Joker is interesting because it reminds us where we (or our parents) came from, which still impacts a lot of the present day.

“Our problems are different now, but Joker remains a product of a different era. Arthur Fleck lives in a fragile system on the brink of collapse, whereas we live under a system that only gets more stable and entrenched, so much so that the most powerful nation on earth can have an childish yet vicious know-nothing serve as President and continue prospering.

Perhaps the ebbing of chaos and crime left our psyches wounded in a special way.”

Of particular note is that CyberPunk was basically this setting with cool cyber stuff on top of it.

 

The entirety of this post is gold. About an actual thing that happened regarding a technical term in computer science.

“the trouble with obsessing over terms like “quantum supremacy” is not merely that it diverts attention, while contributing nothing to fighting the world’s actual racism and sexism. The trouble is that the obsessions are actually harmful. For they make academics—along with progressive activists—look silly. They make people think that we must not have meant it when we talked about the existential urgency of climate change and the world’s other crises. They pump oxygen into right-wing echo chambers.

But it’s worse than ridiculous, because of the message that I fear is received by many outside the activists’ bubble. When you say stuff like “[quantum] supremacy is for racists,” what’s heard might be something more like:

“Watch your back, you disgusting supremacist. Yes, you. You claim that you mentor women and minorities, donate to good causes, try hard to confront the demons in your own character? Ha! None of that counts for anything with us. You’ll never be with-it enough to be our ally, so don’t bother trying. We’ll see to it that you’re never safe, not even in the most abstruse and apolitical fields. We’ll comb through your words—even words like ‘ancilla qubit’—looking for any that we can cast as offensive by our opaque and ever-shifting standards. And once we find some, we’ll have it within our power to end your career, and you’ll be reduced to groveling that we don’t. Remember those popular kids who bullied you in second grade, giving you nightmares of social ostracism that persist to this day? We plan to achieve what even those bullies couldn’t: to shame you with the full backing of the modern world’s moral code. See, we’re the good guys of this story. It’s goodness itself that’s branding you as racist scum.” ”

 

Everyone, forever (yes, even me) XD

This is how much damage one person can do when put in power. Our history would be radically better if Andrew Johnson had never come anywhere near the presidency. Lincoln done fucked up.

 

Imagine that tomorrow everyone on the planet forgets the concept of training basketball skills.

“You don’t get better at life and rationality after taking one class with Prof. Kahnemann. After 8 years of hard work, you don’t stand out from the crowd even as the results become personally noticeable. And if you discover Rationality in college and stick with it, by the time you’re 55 you will be three times better than what you would have been if you hadn’t compounded these 3% gains year after year, and everyone will notice that.

What’s more, the outcomes don’t scale smoothly with your level of skill. When rare, high leverage opportunities come around, being slightly more rational can make a huge difference. Bitcoin was one such opportunity; meeting my wife was another such one for me. I don’t know what the next one will be: an emerging technology startup? a political upheaval? cryonics? I know that the world is getting weirder faster, and the payouts to Rationality are going to increase commensurately.”

 

I think I would love this. Oldest Mall In America Turned Into Tiny Homes

 

Metal Genres Without Distortion

 

I already wrote about this recently, but here’s the link: On Short Hair And Gender. Or Back To The 50s Gender Norms, With A Twist?

 

People’s perceptions of what they can do to reduce CO2 usage varies drastically from the actual numbers.

“This is an area where I think informing people about what is actually useful might really shift their behaviour. They’ve mostly just been misinformed and never stopped to research it. After all one can never directly see what is actually causing the most emissions.”

 

This makes me happy. I just need to clarify that I’m 3rd Wave Feminist and I can embrace the label again. (also, 4th wave feminists are as bad as TERFs. Judean People’s Front unite!)

 

Bad: Superhero whose secret identity is just staggeringly obvious, but nobody picks up on it for various implausible reasons.

Good: Superhero whose secret identity is just staggeringly obvious, and everybody “knows”, but in spite of countless people’s best efforts nobody can actually prove it.

 

Interesting perspective – the economy has been in a state of wartime mobilization since WWII began, having never returned to a peace-time economy, despite a lack of war.

 

I think I would actually watch this:

Jan 252020
 

Ra, by Sam Hughes

Synopsis: When magic is discovered in the 70s, it quickly becomes a branch of applied engineering. After losing her mother under magical (and mysterious) circumstances, a young student takes up Magic R&D to try to undo that loss.

Book Review: There’s so much to like here, it’s hard to decide were to begin. Right off the bat, this is the most true-to-life depiction I’ve seen of what would happen if magic did exist in our world. Much like the discovery of electricity, arguably the last time we found magic, we immediately set out to understand this new thing and learn everything we could about it, then use it to make life easier and better. But also much more complicated, and sometimes more dangerous. Especially in the period of time where we don’t yet fully understand this new force — which is the period that this book is set in. The most exciting time. :)

I’m also impressed by how deep the plotting and world goes, and how skillfully it’s slowly revealed to us. Every time we mostly grasp something, a new layer is revealed that adds to the mystery and intrigue. The rabbit holes are branching and deep, and often self-supportive.

But the scope of this whole thing is what really gets me. When I started the novel, I was in an interesting near-future story about magic and research. By the time I got to the end the story had morphed several times and greatly expanded, seamlessly enough that I didn’t notice at the time. But when I finished the book, and I looked back on where I finished, vs where I started, I would have never guessed I’d get there from here, and damn was that a hell of a ride.

This novel is supremely ambitious, and it’s a joy to read something that bites off so much, and chews it so well.

Along the way, I was confronted by a new revelation about what I value in reality/life, and I had to think hard about what makes human lives valuable. I still haven’t come to answers for the moral questions that the book raised in me. These two things are among the highest praise I can give a book.

It’s not perfect. There are times where it drags a bit (one too many digressing vignettes), and other times where it’s too damned hard to follow (I’m still confused about a couple minor points). Most regretably, about 2/3rds of the way through there is a revelation which caused me to almost stop reading the book entirely. I put it down and considered just not bothering to continue. I’m glad I did, because it turned out I was incorrect in my reading of that revelation, which I discovered two chapters later. But that’s a flaw that could have been avoided with slightly clearer writing.

Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work, and worth reading every word. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a challenging read, and not for everyone. A few people dropped out early in frustration, and attendance was a bit light due to that. And not everyone that stuck it out enjoyed it quite as much as I did, a couple of them thought that the density and focus on the engineering angle brought down the story overall. However we did have a fair few things to discuss and either marvel over or complain about. And it was certainly interesting to mull over the human-value related question as a group. I think you’ll have to take your group into consideration before deciding on this one, it certainly makes the reader put in work. I think it’s worth it, so – Recommended.

Personal opinion/note – The author released a Revised Ending several years after the original publication of Ra. This Revised Ending is so much better than the original that I recommend not even bothering reading the original ending. Maybe if your curious, afterwards, just to compare. But the Revised Ending is leaps and bounds better.

The book can also be read or downloaded freely from the author’s home webpage.