June 18th, 2019
This got picked up by the NYT/PBS Newshour's Now Read This book club. It's been an interesting experience seeing a more general audience deal with a speculative work. I think there was more than the usual amount of "Nope. I'm skipping this one." And even among those who joined in, there was a surprising amount of "I don't understand what's going on!"
I don't think it's that inaccessible, but I wonder how much I have been 'trained' to understand modern speculative fiction by having consumed a lot of it and followed its progression. Maybe if you haven't read Anne McCaffrey and Katherine Kurtz, it's hard to absorb The Fifth Season. But again, I don't think it's that hard to take in, even if the world and reality is very different from our own.
In fact, it's so different that I'm somewhat surprised so many people think the book has some trenchant relevance to discussions of climate and race. I mean, surely it's there - persecution and control, and largescale climate effects on an entire world - but apart from very loose analogies, it doesn't seem very applicable.
The story itself is interesting and engaging as you learn more about the world, and its characters. But... not enough for me to go on for a whole trilogy. Another common complaint in the book club (and a merited one) is the choice of a first book of a trilogy.
June 3rd, 2019
Five Strokes to Midnight
is a World Fantasy Award nominated anthology of horror/dark fiction stories by five authors: Gary A. Braunbeck & Hank Schwaeble (which duo also edited), Tom Piccirilli, Deborah LeBlanc, and Christopher Golden. Each contributed two or three stories, loosely bound to a theme particular for each author. All pretty good stuff, many with a vein of deep personal emotion -- as a robot, this is not always my thing, but here it is handled generally really well.
The book starts out strong with Piccirilli's "Loss", as some out-of-left-field fantastic elements add some mystery to the regret. Tom's second story seems overlong, but now that he himself is gone, I'll take all the words I can get.
Leblanc's Curses gives us some vivid pictures of backwoods Louisiana - voodoo and worse.
Schwaeble's "Bone Daddy" is an agreeably nasty bit of work -- Lap dances for liches never turn out well.
Golden's Folklore stories take on Lost Miners, Goat Suckers and Ghost Trains. The last of which ends with a satisfying note that helps you close the book without shuddering.
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil
and Other Verses from the Red Book collects a few of the longer verses Tolkien used in the Lord of the Rings, some related poems not in LotR, and others.
Many of them are rather somber in tone, while others are quite, well, Tom Bombadilly.
" is delightfully creepyThe Shadows where the Mewlips dwell Are dark and wet as ink, And slow and softly rings their bell, As in the slime you sink.
And how can I not love "Cat
"?The fat cat on the mat may seem to dream of nice mice that suffice for him, or cream; but he free, maybe, walks in thought unbowed, proud, where loud roared and fought his kin, lean and slim, or deep in den in the East feasted on beasts and tender men.
His love of internal rhyme is on full display here, something I often find appealing.
The art by Pauline Baynes is amusing, hearkening to medieval illustrations, but it makes for a good segue into my last little review
----Eye of the Beholder
: The Art of Dungeons and Dragons
This is a documentary film about the artists behind some of the iconic images of D&D. In many ways, it is exactly as nerdy as it sounds. As a documentary, it's maybe not the best, but there are some neat insights, and plenty of dragons (and dungeons) on display.
Once upon a time, a lot of fantasy art looked like Pauline Baynes work -- somewhat tame. And then Frazetta and Vallejo showed up and went bonkers. D&D artists all wanted to be Frazetta and Boris. And this is their story.
It's interesting to see some of the inside history of how TSR grew, and went from amusing (and sometimes somewhat crudely executed) B&W images done on the cheap, and quickly turned into big colorful professional works. And then (to my eye) it drifted into something very 'corporate'. Alas, I think this final phase has, as the film I think correctly points out, informed a lot of current fantasy art (from novels to film to videogames to everything) making it derivative of a particular TSR corporate look. I mean it's commercial art, so it is what it is. And the stuff I'm nostalgic for was commercial art as well. But that original Players Handbook cover, which is rightly lauded in the documentary, just sets you thinking in exactly the right way to explain the game.
What just happened? Who are these people? What are they doing? Some people are doing this, and other people are doing that, and then there's those people over there -- what is going on? Did the lizard things live here and worship here? What's going to happen when they pop that jewel out? What will they do then?
May 24th, 2019
How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect
Mick West helped found the videogame company Neversoft, and after Tony Hawk's Pro Skater made him a bajillionaire, he could turn his time to more important things, like fighting conspiracies about chemtrails on the internet.
The book is intended as a real How-To guide in helping someone out conspiracy theories. It's a little idiosyncratic (in a good way) in that it is really intended as a guide for you to use on "your friend". West literally crafts this as how to help a close friend or loved one, so it's more intended that way instead of dealing with random people on the internet (though that's where many of his ideas were honed).
In the briefest sense, his advice is to foster honesty and respect -- understand that just as you know what's true and want to convince your friend to discard his false ideas, your friend also knows (or thinks he knows) what's true and wants to convince you to discard your false ideas. So just standing on I'm right and you're wrong doesn't get you anywhere. He suggests fostering more discussion where you explore the matter together and then...
Stick to the facts. Find something key to your friend's worldview that you can address in black and white.
One of the excellent details in the book are a few personal stories from people who have put their conspiracy theories aside and they describe how it happened to them. Or at least to move where they are on the conspiratorial scale.
My personal interest in not so much in conspiracy theories, per se, but scientific nonsense and political 'fake news'. But obviously there is a lot of overlap. If 9/11 was a conspiracy carried out by George W Bush, that has political overtones. If the schools are indoctrinating children with EVILution, and fluoridating their brains, or vaccinating them with poisons, there's a scientific conspiracy afoot. So I think the techniques and insights in West's book can easily apply to related situations.
Escapes by sudden realization come only after a build-up of new information that is initially strongly resisted. While they are learning new things, they are rejecting those things as false disinformation. Eventually their knowledge of the evidence against their theory builds up and leads to a more sudden realization they were wrong, a breaking of the dam, and a rapid movement over their own demarcation line. But there’s a single prime mover here in both routes: exposure to new information. Conspiracy theorists flourish in walled gardens. When asked where they get their news they will often point only to alternative fringe sites like Alex Jones’ Infowars, or more esoteric conspiracy theory sites like Rense.com, or even David Icke’s reptilian Illuminati related news.
Something I see on occasion in the creation/evolution battles is that a creationist has finally decided to accept the gauntlet. He's going to defeat evolution using the power of science by studying science the honest way and showing where the mistakes are. Most creationists are happy to play it safe and just listen to the professional creationists who just feed them what they want to hear. But these brave souls who venture into science expose themselves to new information, and sometimes the dam breaks. A recent case involving a former creationist now astronomer
has been making the rounds. So in my own involvement in these debates online, I try to help spread information and facts, hoping to be part of the solution for some of them. Most of the frequent participants are pretty set in their ways. West sees that as well, but sometimes there's still hope:
There’s some people you definitely cannot get through to, there’s just too much ego, too many Thanksgiving dinners they have invested in. There was one guy I was just explaining how claims have counterclaims, and there was this great process of critical thinking. I had been showing him the NIST 9/11 slides and he realized he was wrong at that moment. This guy just started screaming. It stuck in his head that he would have to go back to his family and explain that he was incorrect. He almost had a nervous breakdown.
Although he's ultimately hopeful, he sees a lot of dangers in the online world. First off... YouTube:
Sometimes they watch the same video over and over again. You get the sense from talking to them that it’s something like a drug, that the “truth” they feel is in the video is activating some kind of function in their brain, resonating with them
The data-driven algorithm has evolved to recognize that the way to get people to watch more videos is to direct them downhill, down the path of least resistance. Without human intervention the algorithm has evolved to perfect a method of gently stepping up the intensity of the conspiracy videos that it shows you so that you don’t get turned off, and so you continue to watch. They get more intense because the algorithm has found (not in any human sense, but found nonetheless) that the deeper it can guide people down the rabbit hole, the more revenue it can make.
Obviously, we've seen a lot of false propaganda being spread as facts recently, and West thinks it will get worse as AI improves and fake people and bots start to spread more and more disinformation. We've seen just this week how some crudely slowed video of Nancy Pelosi can be used to suggest she's drunk, and you'll get a retweet from the President. Imagine how things will get when 'deep fakes' become possible. Seeing is believing, they say, but it will become more and more important to source your photo and video evidence.
Or am I just being paranoid? [Cue Twilight Zone music]
May 16th, 2019
Subtitled The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence
, Ronan Farrow's book tackles the changes that have happened at the State Department and the devaluing of diplomacy in favor of more military-dominated foreign policy.
I was totally unaware that Farrow had worked in the State Department through more or less Obama's first term. He worked in close association with Richard Holbrooke, in his role as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the best and most engaging part of the book is really a fly-on-the-wall biography of Holbrooke's career and his successes and failures. And his own activities, of course, like talking with Afghan warlords about (their own) potential human rights abuses. Some of the details about some of our 'friends' in Afghanistan will curl your toes -- not unexpected, but grisly in detail.
On the whole, I'm not sure it adds up to a coherent picture or argument. He was on the iside during Obama, when he saw this discounting of State happening. But now he's on the outside during Trump who's setting everything on fire. The two ends don't quite match up.
Gahan Wilson put together an idiosyncratic anthology of the winners of the First World Fantasy Awards in 1975
, which were held in HPL's hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. Wilson, of course, also designed the HPL bust that once served as the Award itself. The bust has been replaced (Howard can take it).
Bob Bloch's acceptance speech for the Lifetime Achievement award is pretty hilarious.
I love the voice of Aickman's "Pages from a Young Girl's Journal". It has a good Carmilla-esque feel to it, and the antiquated diary styling is entertaining in itself. But I'm not that wild about the ending, so I think it's a shame this beat TED Klein's 'The Events at Poroth Farm'. But since Gahan's making the rules, he printed both.
Manly Wade Wellman's "Come into my Parlor" made me rethink Lance Shoeman's story in Strange California
. Either Shoeman was doing a 'remake' or (more likely) both stem from some bit of backwoods lore
(as many of Wellman's stories do).
April 11th, 2019
The Library Book
, by Susan Orlean, details two interleaved stories. One, the history of the Los Angeles Public Library, with a focus on the Central Library. Two, the story of the fire that ravaged the Central Library in 1986
Even though I was living not that far away, I don't have any memory of the event. One possible reason is that the Chernobyl Disaster occurred at essentially the same time. (I certainly remember that!).
Arson was suspected, and ultimately the finger of suspicion was pointed at Harry Peak, a wannabe actor and pathological liar who told multiple conflicting stories to friends and authorities about how he spent his day, everything from "I did it" to "I was nowhere near it."
On the one hand, given that the case was largely circumstantial, I think it was probably the right call to drop the criminal case. On the other hand, I think Orlean is far too generous in her treatment of Peak. At one point, she says that Peak was always in search of *positive* attention, and thus the library fire would be uncharacteristic. This ignores the fact that he literally bragged about being the arsonist -- apparently he didn't have that big an issue with attracting negative attention.
And now for the Kindle notes:
Best title ever: "
It housed the largest collection of books on food and cooking in the country—twelve thousand volumes, which included three hundred on French cuisine, thirty on cooking with oranges and lemons, and six guides to cooking with insects, including the classic Butterflies in My Stomach
Some notes from just after the fire, as there was a need to deal with thousands of water-logged smoke-damaged books:
Los Angeles has a multimillion-dollar fish-processing industry and one of the largest produce depots in the country, so there were huge freezers in town. Someone suggested contacting a few of those fish and produce companies. Though their freezers were full, the companies agreed to clear some space for the books. The volunteers were sent home with instructions to come back at dawn.
IBM gave its employees time off to volunteer. The next morning, close to two thousand people showed up at the library. Overnight, the city managed to procure thousands of cardboard boxes, fifteen hundred hard hats, a few thousand rolls of packing tape, and the services of Eric Lundquist, a mechanical engineer and former popcorn distributor who had reinvented himself as an expert in drying out wet things
The wet and smoke-damaged books were taken in refrigerated trucks to the food warehouses, where they were stored on racks between frozen shrimp and broccoli florets at an average temperature of 70 below 0. No one really knew when the wrecked books would be thawed out or how many of them could be saved. Nothing on this scale had ever been attempted.
A look into Harry Peak's life, as the author interviews his sister: "[mother] Annabell Peak worked as a cashier at a supermarket in what would be considered the wrong direction—the store was on the edge of Los Angeles. I told [sister] Debra that I lived in Los Angeles, and she thought I might be familiar with the supermarket. “It’s the one near L.A., you know, that’s owned by the Jew,” she said. “You know that one, don’t you?”"
Librarians as heroes:
A battery recycling plant in the neighborhood had contaminated soil with toxic levels of lead, necessitating the largest lead cleanup in California history. Exide Technologies, which operated the plant, had just agreed to fund blood tests for the twenty-one thousand households in the neighborhood. The tests would be conducted at the Boyle Heights Branch Library. In times of trouble, libraries are sanctuaries. They become town squares and community centers—even blood-draw locations. In Los Angeles, there have been plenty of disasters requiring libraries to fill that role. In 2016, for instance, a gas storage facility in the Porter Ranch neighborhood sprang a leak, and methane whooshed out, giving residents headaches, nosebleeds, stomachaches, and breathing problems. Eventually, the entire area had to be evacuated. With the help of industrial-strength air purifiers, the library managed to stay open. It became a clearinghouse for information about the crisis, as well as a place where residents could gather while exiled from home. The head of the branch noticed how anxious patrons seemed, so she set up yoga and meditation classes to help people relieve stress. Staff librarians learned how to fill out the expense forms from Southern California Gas so they could assist people applying to get reimbursed for housing and medical costs. American Libraries Magazine applauded the library’s response, noting, “Amid a devastating gas leak, Porter Ranch library remains a constant.”
Speaking of other fires I hadn't heard of, she mentions the Proud Bird Fire.
"When he finished writing the book, Bradbury tried to come up with a better title than “The Fireman.” He couldn’t think of a title he liked, so one day, on an impulse, he called the chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department and asked him the temperature at which paper burned. The chief’s answer became Bradbury’s title: Fahrenheit 451. When Central Library burned in 1986, everything in the Fiction section from A through L was destroyed, including all of the books by Ray Bradbury."
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, makes for a strange read. I guess ultimately, it's a story about a monster. La Farge certainly soaked in Lovecraftiana and one of the major counterfactual elements of the story is the idea that Lovecraft was gay and left behind a sexual diary of his exploits that was uncovered in the 1950s, causing a furore in fandom (and HUAC). The bits of its text reproduced in the novel are (while completely unbelievable) strangely believable. La Farge has some of the feel of Lovecraft's letters down quite well. The diary is soon exposed as a hoax, and then the actual story of the novel is a modern investigation of the hoaxer and who he really was or is. Could he be Robert Barlow, Lovecraft's friend and literary executor, reputed to have committed suicide in Mexico?
Sadly, this is one of those books where, when you get close to the end, you can tell that there aren't enough pages left for a GREAT ending. So while I didn't ultimately love the book, I appreciate the way it embodies a counterfactual world like that of Lovecraft - a world like our own apart from the existence of a particular book or other particular facts. Another topic it subtly bumps up against is Lovecraft's legacy... how would things be different if he was a 'pervert' instead of a racist? Or both a pervert and a racist.
Although it's a broad wink at the initiated, I also adore the name of the protagonist, Dr. Marina Willett.
March 29th, 2019
subtitled: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Another of Sobel's great books on history/science.
Before GPS, it wasn't easy to find out where you were at sea. Finding your latitude was relatively straightforward by observing the sun (if not exactly safe -- before the invention of the back-staff, the use of the cross-staff involved staring into the sun -- could be why so many pirates have eye patches.) But longitude was harder to determine and dead reckoning was liable to error. In 1707, a terrible naval disaster, involving the deaths of more than a thousand sailors. A few years later, the British passed the Longitude Act, setting up a huge prize for the first person to 'solve' the problem of longitude, making navigation safer. This is the main story of the book, with some broader discussion of events before and after.
For instance, Galileo developed a clever idea of using the motions of the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. If a certain eclipse would occur at midnight in Milan, but a sailor saw it at 11, he would know he was "one time zone away" or 15 degrees of longitude. It was a bit impractical, since you'd need an observatory on your ship with a trained astronomer. And you'd need timetables of satellite eclipses that didn't exist. But solutions along these lines were in the forefront, making a strange marriage of navies and astronomers. Though now it makes sense that we have Naval Observatories.
In some ways, this caused problems for the eventual winner of the contest. It was overseen by the Royal Astronomer (and others) who preferred their own approach, and the rather simple (and successful in retrospect) solution of just making an accurate clock that would keep time on board a ship seemed impractical. A fair amount of the story is a sad war between our hero, clockmaker John Harrison, and our villain, Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, who developed his own solution involving lunar measurements and thwarted Harrison through delays, additional hoops to jump through, and possibly manipulation of some of the clocks (held in his possession to 'test' them).
And just a silly little detail of French/English friction:
"In 1884, at the International Meridian Conference held in Washington, D.C., representatives from twenty-six countries voted to make the common practice official. They declared the Greenwich meridian the prime meridian of the world. This decision did not sit well with the French, however, who continued to recognize their own Paris Observatory meridian, a little more than two degrees east of Greenwich, as the starting line for another twenty-seven years, until 1911. (Even then, they hesitated to refer directly to Greenwich mean time, preferring the locution “Paris Mean Time, retarded by nine minutes twenty-one seconds.”)"
March 12th, 2019
Anthology of weird fiction
set in California. I know it's my own personal hang-up, but I'm always looking for a strong sense of place -- at least in a place I know and love well, like my home state. The stories within are kind of a mixed bag in terms of quality, and a mixed bag in terms of Californianess.
Before diving into the stories, I'll give a shout out to the artwork and illustrations, which were mainly the work of Batt. Nicely done. You certainly win me over with an opening map of California as an island, an image I love so much we have one on the wall now. Lots of the other illustrations for each story are also arresting. On the minus side, the book is printed on paper with a sort of grey fake foxing pattern that obtrude a bit much.
Some of the early stories are a bit to gonzo for my tastes. So is Lance Shoeman's "All This'll Be Yours", but this episode of Hoarders gone wrong somehow won me over. Tim Pratt's "A Sea Monster in the Bathtub" has exactly that California vibe I was looking for, and a great tale, even if it hews too closely to a predictable SJW fable than a fantasy that might take us anywhere. Chaz Brenchley's "Uncanny Valley" had me hooked, but didn't reach a destination. James Van Pelt's engaging "Five Dollars for a Ticket" does arrive at a destination, or will shortly. Meg Elison's "In Loving Memory" makes me glad I've only visited Hemet for the sailplaning, and not grown up there. Ezzy G. Languzzi's "Naranjas Inmortales" gets to the climax a bit too fast and glibly, but definitely caught my attention.
March 1st, 2019
Subtitled An Unnatural History
, the book looks into the effect that human beings are having on the extinction of other species on Earth. The title refers to the five established major extinction events
that have happened over the course of Earth's history, where large fractions of the species living on earth have gone extinct. The sexiest one is the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.
It's hard to deny the overall concept that our influence on the planet is causing a similar extinction event similar in size to these. Kolbert focuses on a number of particular research groups studying a particular species or groups of species that is under threat. These are really great looks at how science operates, and what scientists do, and paints a vivid picture of the facts and conclusions. At the same time, I think that in addition to these embedded journalist pieces, the book could have used a better summary and conclusion to tie everything together to suggest the overall impact. But perhaps that's just too huge to tackle and loses some immediacy in its hugeness. People will care more about that adorable squeaking bat over there suffering from white nose syndrome than about "37% of all species on earth".
There's also good variety among the cases and causes. Ocean acidification affecting corals, predation of moas and other prehistoric fauna that isn't around any more, climate change shifting habitable zones -- if you live on flat land, and the climate warms up, you can move north to stay at the right temperature. But if you live on a mountainside, all you can do is go up in altitude. Not only does the temperate zone shrinks, but if your mountain isn't tall enough, it vanishes.
Now that humans have air travel and poke our noses all over the place, things come along for the ride. Species that never would have run into each other do so now. Sure, we know about how smallpox affected Native Americans, but this story is being played out many times over, including the white nose syndrome decimating some bat populations in North America, caused by a European fungus that doesn't much bother European bats.
January 29th, 2019
I really like Sobel's book on Galileo's Daughter, so I was definitely curious to read this one
. It tells the history of the female calculators at Harvard University. How their role changed from the late 19th century into the mid-20th. First as (very modestly paid) numerical calculators, and then examiners of photographic plates, and on into become some of the main organizers of early stellar spectroscopic data, and early studies of variable stars to the first Ph.D. students and dissertations, and on into everything from Oh Be A Fine Girl
to spectroscopic binaries
, to the discovery that stars are mostly hydrogen and helium
, to the law between variable star periods and their intrinsic brightness
, one of our first and best rulers for measuring the distance to distant stars.
Just some other details that caught my eye:
The story focuses on the women, but also goes into other activities of the broader Harvard Observatory, including setting up a telescope in Peru near Arequipa, which got involved in some civil unrest "[Bailey] recorded daily events, the din of nearby rifle fire, and his relief that the battle coincided with the cloudy season, 'as otherwise it would sadly interfere with our night work.'" Or Shapley's work on globular clusters showing that we are not in the center of the galaxy. In Shapley's words, "the solar system is off center and consequently man is too, which is a rather nice idea because it means that man is not such a big chicken."
Just after WWII, Cecilia Payne and her husband Sergei Gaposchkin took in the family of Reverend Casper Horikoshi -- a Japanese born missionary whose family had recently been interned at one Heart Mountain camp before now coming to Massachusetts for Divinity school. He and his wife
probably had some stories of their own to tell.
January 9th, 2019
Take 25% Umberto Eco, 25% PKD, and 25% Dan Simmons and you get 75% of an author writing a book that's three times too long.