Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Too Like The Lightning

Wendy put quite a lot of effort into getting me to read the book Too Like The Lightning.  It is a science fiction novel by Ada Palmer set hundreds of years in the future.  The technology in the setting is advanced compared to what we have now but this isn't a space opera - humanity is still confined to Earth and a moon base.  Wendy absolutely loved the book and made it clear from the outset that I would find it hard to get into but she was sure I would love it by the end.  Lots of other people raved about the book too; it has plenty of ardent adherents.

I did not love it.  I spent the first 80% of the book thinking it was a rubbish mishmash and felt like reading it was a chore.  The final 20% was better, no longer a chore, but never a joy.

Massive spoilers ahead, by the way.

I have to give Palmer credit for creativity and research.  She obviously knows a ton about philosophers and great thinkers of the past (she is an academic in the history field, and it shows) and she brought a ton of that research into the book with characters constantly referencing philosophers from ages prior to now.  She tried hard to tackle all kinds of fascinating and worthy ideas in the book, and the list of things she attempted to write about is impressive.

Biological families being replaced by families of choice, called bashes.
Transport across the globe being a matter of an hour.
Traditional nations being replaced by nations based on personal characteristics rather than location due to the transportation revolution above.
The outlawing of organized religion and new ways to control thought.
Gender being nearly removed from mainstream society, and the pushback against that.
Children being raised to only interface with computers and never to interact with the physical world.
The ethics of trying to sacrifice the few for the good of the many.
Serious criminals being reduced to a particularly strange form of slavery instead of imprisonment.

And I could go on, this is just the stuff that came to me in two minutes thought.  The trouble is that when you try to do absolutely everything at once you end up not having enough time to do it right.  I suspect Palmer had all kinds of things figured out in her head but when you try to tackle all that stuff at once it becomes just impossible to do justice to any of it.  It ends up feeling like a massive rush of bits and pieces that are ultimately unsatisfying.

Much like she tried to tackle ALL THE ISSUES at once, she also tries to have an enormous cast of characters.  There are a good twenty important named characters and a collection of lesser ones and when you have so many of those everybody ends up being shallowly defined.  There wasn't a single character I empathized with, nor one that I felt I understood.  This is exacerbated by the huge number of societal changes that Palmer tries to tackle at the same time because with all the standards being different you need *more* time per character to let the reader really dig in, not less.  With so many characters interacting in a world where nothing is what you expect and standards are completely new I found it messy and unfulfilling.  People did stuff and I had no idea why, and I never got enough information about them to actually figure it out.

The majority of the plot is about a political intrigue surrounding a list of ten names.  That list was supposed to be a simple list of the ten people a newspaper reporter thinks are most influential in the world, and when the list gets stolen all the most powerful people in the world are terrified of the consequences and world peace teeters on the brink.

How it is that the world isn't a smoking hole in the ground if a simple list written by a random schmuck being stolen is a worldwide disaster?  Shouldn't everyone be dead by now in such a fragile place?

A lot of the way this world is put together feels bizarre like that, as though you can't really follow anything to its logical conclusion.  Technology seems to work randomly, and you have absolutely no idea what anyone can do at any given time.  People will often do things that make no sense at all given the tech they have at their command.  Maybe there are explanations in Palmer's head somewhere, but they didn't make it into the book.

Now there is one other thing that you have to add in to the mess - there is a kid with magic powers.  Not minor stuff either... he is capable of destroying the Earth in an instant, raising the dead, creating new intelligent life forms, curing diseases, wiping out humanity, or nearly anything else.  He has ultimate cosmic power.

And he doesn't matter.  His existence is a subplot, he doesn't make any relevant decisions, and the book ends with him having done nothing of consequence.  He just sits around being a demigod and like all the other characters there isn't enough time spent on him for him to have any depth.

Why is he there?!?

I get why people love the book.  It tries to do all kinds of things, interesting things.  However, Wendy is far more able than I to consume media and just forgive the nonsensical parts of it as long as the rest is fun and interesting.  We had similar differences of opinion on the latest Star Wars movie - I bristled at the obvious gaps in logic and nonsensical plot holes while she just enjoyed the scenery.  I couldn't get past the parts of this book that made no sense to me and while sometimes great characters can make up for that these characters never made me care.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Grand beginnings

Over the past year I have been reading a lot by N K Jemisin.  I raved about her book Fifth Season, and I stand by that.  I finished that series and also read two other series by her, the Dreamblood series and the Inheritance series.  There was a pattern in these series, which is that the first book absolutely rocks my world and then it goes downhill from there.

That sounds bad but it isn't like the followup books in Jemisin's series are bad, just that they don't measure up to the standard set by the first.  Sort of like The Matrix, where you are filled with wonder and excitement at the first installment and hope for exactly the same feeling when the next section arrives... and it doesn't do the same thing.  I wouldn't rate Jemisin's followup novels quite as badly as The Matrix 2 and 3, but the sense of disappointment was similar.

The reason they feel similar, I think, is that our minds fill in the gaps when we don't have enough information.  When we wonder why the Guardians do what they do in Fifth Season, we don't have much in the way of information.  When the stone eaters appear only in brief flashes with minimal explanation we have to guess at where they come from and what they are.  Jemisin is phenomenal at creating worlds where there is just enough information to feel satisfying and we spend our time wondering at what is around the corner.  The Matrix original was the same way because we didn't understand how things worked exactly but the parts that we saw were SO COOL.

But like The Matrix Jemisin kind of falls down when she tries to explain everything.  I don't know if she didn't have it all planned ahead and couldn't make it work or if she did have it planned but couldn't write a book where all the information came out in a way that would be completely satisfying to the reader, but the third book of the Inheritance trilogy and the Broken Earth trilogy both were big letdowns.  They tried desperately to show us all the things behind the curtain and ended up being far weaker than the first books in those series - they simply didn't achieve what they set out to do.

I think perhaps many great science fiction authors would struggle in the same way if they ever tried to follow up an amazing book with more story in the same universe.  While it might seem like it would be easy to simply continue on with a story you already have going I think that this is only true when the world is one that is familiar.  When you are trying to cope with a completely different world with rules and physics that are foreign to the reader it is extremely difficult to continue to write amazing fiction without running into all kinds of problems.  It is too easy to realize that the story you want to tell no longer works with the physics you have created, or that when you try to explain further the things you sketched out in earlier editions that they all fall apart.  Sometimes you have to just write something great and leave it, knowing that the conclusion that the readers will come up with in their own minds are better than what you can build yourself.  Many great science fiction books are like this, full of cool stuff that there isn't time to fully flesh out, and then left to the imagination of the reader.

This all shouldn't be taken as advice to avoid Jemisin's work.  Thankfully the first books in all her series are fantastic, engaging stories in magnificent worlds and you honestly don't need to read more of the books to feel happy with what she has created.  You can simply stop there if you like and you will have read a great book with wild and wonderful ideas.  I also love her seamless inclusion of a wide range of characters including queer people, trans people, poly people, and people of colour - these things are often a rarity in science fiction.

If you do continue on you will find good books, reasonable books, just not books that will blow your mind.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

In the zone

I just finished reading Zone One, a book about a zombie apocalypse written by Colson Whitehead.  It is written about a 3 day period after the rebuilding phase of the apocalypse has begun.  The government has begun to reform, people are organizing, and the protagonist of the book is part of an effort to clean out the last zombies from a section of New York which they refer to as Zone One.

When I was reading it the whole thing seemed kind of silly.  After all, with 99% of the human race wiped out what possible use could New York be?  Big cities would be useful for a portion of the zombie apocalypse scenario where survivors are scrounging for food and tools but after that it is completely worthless.

New York, like all large cities, requires a massive multinational supply chain to keep it functional.  It needs monstrous amounts of food, fuel, and other supplies trucked, floated, and flown in to maintain the lives of the people living there.  The most important of these is fuel because food can be grown in small, low tech chunks in parks, rooftops, and boulevards.  Fuel though, that requires a robust network to get it out of the ground, refine it, and transport it to its destination.  Cities require infrastructure to support them, and that infrastructure requires people.

In this kind of disaster scenario there are some things you never have to think about again, like mattresses.  They don't break down much, there are more of them than you can go through in 100 years, and they are everywhere.  With the population decimated you can safely ignore mattresses for the foreseeable future.  Cars would be in a similar sort of state - while they would run out faster than mattresses there are going to be usable cars that happen to be under shelter and work fine for decades at least.  The problem again is fuel.

Everything in our society runs on a steady supply of fossil fuel energy and that supply requires a huge number of people and lots of organization to be workable.  Even if you ignore the marauding bands of zombies that would make long distance shipping and manufacturing impossible you just don't have enough raw people to make it work.  Our system is designed around a certain scale and when that scale suddenly changes by a couple orders of magnitude nothing works.

When you think about an apocalypse like this you quickly realize just how dependent we are on this extremely fragile system for distributing fossil fuels.  Without that *nothing* works.  We can't get around, we can't build stuff, we can't make stuff.  Everything grinds to a halt immediately and then nearly everyone starves.  Decades from now we may be a lot more able to survive such a disaster, even if it is just an epidemic that kills people but doesn't reanimate them into flesh eating monsters.  If our society is much more dependent on solar power, for example, our ability to get the juice flowing again and make our stuff work would be much greater.  Disaster mitigation may not rank highly on our normal reasons for going solar but I think it is a real benefit, as it reduces our reliance on the global oil infrastructure.

At the end of the book the reason for the war to recapture New York from the zombies is revealed, and it does make a kind of sense.  The reasons may not be good ones, but they are the sorts of reasons that humans sometimes use for stupid things, and it does hold together.

I liked the book, generally speaking, as I mostly like zombie apocalypse fiction and this is a different sort of approach to the genre than is usual.  It doesn't have a happy ending though where attractive scientists find a miraculous cure and the world emerges from disaster stronger than ever... it leans more towards darkness and horror unending.  So if depressing is your thing, go for it.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

It hurts to be beautiful

This Friday I went in to get a tattoo.  I wanted to get the same artist who did my shoulder tattoos to do this new one, but I made the decision in June last year and she was booked up for seven months.  Seven months is a long time to wait, but I was sure I wanted the same artist so waiting was the thing to do.

For no good reason I wanted a flaming tree on my chest.  People have asked if it is some kind of biblical burning bush reference (HELL NO) and also if it has some kind of significance for me (regular no).  The only kind of memory I have that relates to a burning tree is one time when my dad was burning a brush pile in our field and the fire got away from him and ended up burning down a stand of huge old pine trees.  Thankfully the stand of trees was in the middle of a field so there wasn't anything to spread the fire to.  I recall me and my brother running around with pails once the fire was mostly burned out, putting water on the smouldering bits.  I had to put him on my shoulders so we could get water onto a smoking branch that was out of my reach.

But none of that has anything to do with my tattoo, it is just a funny memory.  I don't know why I wanted a burning tree on my chest.  It just stuck in my mind once the possibility was there and made me want it desperately.

Here is the picture the artist made of what she was trying to do:

I didn't like the background stuff or the drippy effect, so it got updated to this:

And then when I decided I loved it she went to work on me.  Keep in mind that this is halfway done - the line work is complete and some filling in is done but I have another whole day in the chair filling in the rest to go:

It looks fantastic.  I gotta say, shaving my chest in preparation for the procedure was really weird though.  I have never done that before and it highlighted how my chest hair grows in all kinds of unexpected directions.  I also immediately felt like I looked wider somehow, like normal Sky pattern chest hair is slimming.

Just 9-10 hours of constant pain and way too much money, that is all it takes to make me pretty.  SO worth it.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

The straw

Visiting Thunder Bay was a good thing, but it had one significant downside:  Disease.  I contracted something awful while there and it made the plane ride home on the 30th crappy, particularly as I had to cart both the cat and the big suitcase from the airport home.

The next few days are a blur of coughing, wiping my nose, standing around like an idiot trying to find the strength to do a simple task while simultaneously not being sure which task I should even do, and not being able to tell the difference between asleep and awake.

But the real final straw was hiccups.

I mean, this illness has had me spewing from everywhere, cramped with nausea, pain all over, and all of that is crap and all... but hiccups too?

Over and over again, for days.

That was the thing that really downed my mood.  Brutal winter illnesses are *not* supposed to cause hiccups.  That is in the fucking contract, I am pretty sure.  I haven't read the fine print in awhile but it has to be in there somewhere.

Also it turns out that regular cold medicine, taken in normal doses, can put me into a wild mental state that is some combination of hallucinating, daydreaming, and sleep.  For four hours!  It was not at all fun.  It did stop the runny nose though, I will give it that.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Cold as ice

I am in Thunder Bay visiting family for the holidays.  It is -28C raw temperature here - with the wind chill and humidex and such it would be far chillier than that.  We decided to take a walk along the river today to watch the ice and see what shape it had taken; every year is different.  You really have to wrap up properly under these sorts of conditions and though I managed to keep the rest of me warm the tip of my nose was not pleased about hiking through the woods on such a cold day.

We found an area where the river had a little bay of sorts and the water in the bay was shallow and frozen over.  We walked out onto the ice and managed to get quite near the edge where the fast moving open water began and while perhaps it should have been a nerve wracking experience it didn't work out that way.  My dad has lived rural for nearly his whole life and he knows what is safe and what is not, though admittedly my mom has too and their assessments of risk do not always quite agree.  At any rate he assured us that the ice under us was quite thick enough to be safe so we stood on the ice just 2 meters from the edge of the water gazing at the ice formations all along the river.

At the river's edge, standing on the ice, we found a couple particularly interesting formations - giant slabs of ice that were halfway on the shelf that held us and halfway in the water.  They were 2 by 3 meters and a good 20 cm thick, with one end dipping into the river and the other tilted up in the air, with the whole slab carefully balanced on the edge of the ice.

Of course we couldn't leave those slabs of ice alone!  We tried pushing them into the river and levering them up but neither really worked - instead we ended up accidentally snapping them in half and watching the half that was up in the air come crashing down and break into hundreds of pieces.  I had to grab those pieces and hurl them into the river, using them to try to smash other chunks of ice free to get them to float downstream.  I smashed many chunks of ice to smithereens and freed up some enormous pieces to float down the river.

It was glorious.

I don't know why smashing huge chunks of ice to bits is so satisfying, or why I feel compelled to get the ice moving downriver.  Sometimes I need to dam rivers and sometimes I need to watch them flow and carry all the things away.  Usually the river isn't quite so dangerous as it was today though.

Walking in a winter wonderland indeed.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Instructional video

I went and saw the movie Professor Marsden and the Wonder Women this week.  It made a big splash in the polyamory community because it focuses on the relationship between three people that happened roughly 80 years ago.  Polyamory isn't well accepted now, and it was far more fringe then.  I don't even know that they had words for it at the time.  The title character, Professor Marsden, was also the original author for Wonder Woman, hence the title.

After I heard about the movie I read a review of it by Franklin Veaux, who is a bit of a polyamory celebrity.  His review was brutal and he made it clear that he thought the movie was a disaster, particularly in terms of how it portrayed polyamory.  I went into the movie expecting it to be pretty bad, largely on the basis of the review.

It wasn't bad!  I wouldn't give it a stack of awards or anything but I enjoyed it perfectly well.  One of the main things that ground my gears about the show was it portraying lie detectors as being extremely effective at ferreting out the truth, which they are decidedly are not.  They are unreliable and should not be used in law enforcement.

My review of the movie largely depends on the perspective a viewer goes in with.  If you expect it to be an educational treatise on how best to conduct poly relationships it is an utter failure.  The characters do all kinds of crappy things to one another and they don't do poly right.  In particular there are a lot of instances of couple supremacy where the established married couple place their relationship as far more important and permanent than their relationship with the third person involved and she ends up being badly treated.

But seriously folks, this is a movie.  Nobody going into a movie should expect it to be an educational video on how to live properly!  Romcoms aren't good education in how to run monogamous relationships either.  Everybody has to make lots of bad decisions for the thing to feel realistic and be entertaining.  Calm discussions about boundaries and good communication do not make great entertainment.

I think Veaux's problems with the movie generally stem from him hoping that it would be positive poly activism and it doesn't do that particularly.  It does show a poly relationship that works, mostly, and bring a lot of happiness, mostly.  If you go into it with the idea of seeing how such a relationship might work you will probably be satisfied with it.

The movie won't teach you how to do poly right, but it might give you an introduction that grants some perspective and normalizes it a bit and I am perfectly happy with that.  Personally I am just happy to see models of poly behaviour in mainstream media, even if they don't show it off at its best.

Unfortunately very few people will see the film as it flopped in theatres and is now stuck in a tiny run. I wish that it had done better as it could have been an positive vehicle for poly exposure, but I won't fault the movie for that. It was fine, though never brilliant.

So if you want to see a movie about a polyamorous triad, Professor Marsden and the Wonder Women does that.  Don't go in expecting model behaviour though, and please ignore all the nonsense about lie detectors.