embrodski

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.

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.