2016 Hugo Nominees

The 2016 Hugo Award nominees for best novel have been posted, and I’m excited that I’ve already read three of the five since last fall. In January, I reviewed The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I can’t wait to read more in the series, as I love swashbuckling, flying ships, and Butcher’s unique cast and world building.  I recently posted my thoughts on one of the nominees, Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson, as well as Aurora, which was not nominated, a shame. The other book that I’ve read is Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It’s a lovely, compelling story that pulls from different fairy tales than the ones I grew up on. I’m planning to write a longer review of it, possibly today.

I’d like to read the other two nominees soon, as I’ve enjoyed N.K. Jamison’s lush storytelling in the past.  I’ve read the first book in Ann Leckie’s amazing series, so I’d have to read another book before reading the nominee. This shouldn’t be hard to accomplish since the Hugo awards are presented in August. Luckily for me, I don’t actually have to choose between such disparate books.  I can just enjoy them all for what they are.

 

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“Aurora” and “Seveneves: A Novel”: Earth as Home

[Star-sized spoilers ahead]

At the end of 2015, I read two books: Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. My spouse suggested reading both of them together. I found out recently that Seveneves is a nominee for the Hugo award for best novel. I was actually a bit shocked that neither of these books made it on the Nebula list for novel this year.

This led to me thinking about what the characteristics of a good book should be, especially an award winning one. Certainly, there are times when I just want a fun, entertaining read. But other times, I want to be transformed. I want to look at the universe, the world, society, or myself in a new light. It’s a tall order, and, for me, it requires a thoughtful theme. The book asks the right questions, and possibly, points to new answers.

An award-winning book should leave you thinking. I was so overwhelmed by reading both of these novels at the end of last year that I spent considerable time processing them both individually, as well as their implications together. At first, I couldn’t even come up with topic for a post because they generated so many ideas. Ultimately, I realized just how delicate our relationship with Earth, our home, really is. We’re not living on a sterile spaceship. We’re part of a vast ecosystem developed over time that we do not fully comprehend. I no longer have copies of the library books so I’m going to do a general review from memory of these two.

In Aurora, settlers were packed onto a ship and sent out to their destination. During that time, the quantum machine guiding them became sentient.  (How the AI became sentient was a fascinating piece of characterization, although not what I’ll be discussing here.) It was an amazing feat, and yet, the settlers only hung on by a thread. Generations passed before the settlers arrived, and when they did, the first people that ventured onto their new home were quickly killed. And they had no true scientific understanding of why. The idea here is that if there are the conditions for life in a place, the place is likely already occupied. And the occupants, even if they aren’t sentient, will likely be harmful to us because we aren’t a part of the natural arising of their ecosystem. The settlers disagreed on whether to stay in the system or to return to earth. The narrative follows the ones who returned to Earth. Their return was difficult, and they struggled to survive. They only had enough resources to make it to their destination, if that, and not enough to return.  The AI made major contributions to their survival.

Although considerable problems had happened on Earth while the others went exploring, human culture was recognizable and dealing with the consequences of global warming, which emerged from a lack of consideration for the delicate balance of our ecosystem. (This same ignorance of the role of ecosystems led to the idea that people from earth could just fill some blank niche on another planet.) Furthermore, the characters question whether people had a right to send their descendants into the unknown without their consent. This book made me appreciate our home in a new way.

Seveneves was a gripping read from the moment that the moon shatters at the beginning of the book. There is a cast of characters, and they are all constantly trying to survive. It has interesting things to say about community and the breakdown of community. The few survivors of the catastrophe have to wait for many generations for the Earth to be habitable again, and they even help habitability along. Earth is our home, this novel points out, too. It explores how people react in the face of adversity—those who are helpers and those who are hinderers (often trying to ensure only their own survival.) It explored different examples of patterns of in-groups and out-groups. How would a catastrophe impact gender roles?  How would our different biological capacities, like for reproduction, shape the decisions that are made when the very survival of our species is at stake? It also explores how humans would survive and change both physically and culturally in vastly different environmental conditions over many generations. Finally, if you had the power to create an actual “race” of people, what traits would be emphasized?  When are certain traits useful? And perhaps, we need people of different traits and cultures for survival and to avoid groupthink. Yet, this can also lead to conflict.

Again, paired together, the books left me thinking for months about what our role in the universe is. We’re a part of a delicate ecosystem, and it’s where we thrive. And how we may neglect and destroy our home as we gaze longingly at the stars. I don’t think that either of these books is saying that we should ignore space research and technology; however, we also shouldn’t ignore the world around us. Both books, in their own ways, were optimistic, if cautionary.

 

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Lessons from “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer”

“Adventure books are dangerous” (22).

Pierre Mac Orlan

My spouse and I adventured to Boston last summer and visited the Institute of Contemporary Art with family. (It’s a beautiful museum in terms of both architecture and exhibits if you ever get a chance to go.) When we were browsing the museum store, my husband pointed out a book, “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” knowing that I love adventure stories, writing, and learning about writing craft.

The book by Pierre Mac Orlan is short, only 73 pages including the notes, but I savored it over many nights at bedtime. It’s translated from French by Napoleon Jeffries. Mac Orlan was a prolific writer, although I hadn’t heard of him before, likely due to how few of his books have been translated to English.

Although the book made many references, often to French literature that I wasn’t aware of, I loved the book, especially its dramatic flair. The tone cracked me up at points. It seemed tongue-in-cheek, silly, etc. Mac Orlan was a pithy writer, and I enjoyed his turns of phrase.

While it’s entitled “A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer,” it raises the question of what exactly an adventurer is.  The book explored the idea of active and passive adventurers but is written for the passive adventurer to assist in writing.  Mac Orlan’s premise is that behind every passive adventurer (e.g., writer) there is usually an active adventurer. The active adventurers are often have sociopathic tendencies while the passive adventurer merely watches the raucous adventures of others and then writes about it. He states with considerable disdain that parents often say of the active adventurers, “[t]hat child will end up on the scaffold” (12). Often, the active adventurer’s life does end in punishment. I loved this line about the active adventurer:

But his good luck, his health, and the guardian demon that watches over bad boys guide him with impunity through this torture garden which he adapts to his own size (12).

Orlean notes that passive adventurers rely on the imagination to create narrative and atmosphere rather than their lived experience. It wouldn’t do for a passive adventurer to actually describe real, distant locales, for example. Rather, the setting must be imbued with the right atmosphere. Instead of traveling as an active adventure to actual culturally distant places, a passive adventurer needs a bit of travel like to Holland, rather than America. Also, the passive adventurer needs to be an avid reader, as well as learning slang. This helps the fostering of his imagination. He further points out:

And never forget, you other passive adventurers, companions of the ink bottle, that a crime perpetuated in a tavern has a fantastical flavor to it that a crime committed on a public thoroughfare does not (47).

(I definitely want to use the phrase “companions of the ink bottle” for some creative endeavor in the future.  Perhaps, it could be the name of a writing or gaming group. And I do feel that certain taverns do work well in many adventure stories.)

In the end, the passive adventures dies as most people do, unlike the  demise of the active adventurer.  Therefore, they often have time to consider the ending of their lives. As Mac Orlean notes:

At that moment when each of us considers his share of responsibility, they can take the liberty of writing a novel that will be read by no one. It is at that moment, I fear, that the passive adventurer creates his most beautiful work, this time by not withdrawing from the game (62).

The book ends with the possibility of the active adventurer returning to beat up the man who exploited his life in tales.  The active adventurer doesn’t spend much time evaluating his actions; whereas, the passive adventurer spends too much time in reflection.

After reading the book, I decided that Mac Orlan was actually saying that there is no such thing as a perfect adventurer, only maybe a good enough one. The passive adventure is superior to the active one, if flawed. Mac Orlan states, “[t]he passive adventurer generally feeds on corpses” (18). (Although apparently a rare person such as Jack London can do both so perhaps balance is actually the recommendation. Being an active adventurer doesn’t have to mean that someone is wicked but rather experienced and skilled. And some books are about a character attempting to transition from one to the other.)

How does this apply to writing and life today, particularly mine?  I’d suggest that, as in most things, a balance is needed between living and writing.  It isn’t beneficial to get stuck solely in action or reflection.  An excellent writer of adventures (or anything really), and perhaps an excellent person, needs both. If forced to choose, I’d side with Pierre Mac Orlan and the passive adventurer.

 

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A Quick Review of Jim Butcher’s “The Aeronaut’s Windlass”

[Ahoy spoilers]

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve read one of Jim Butcher’s books, as I tend to cool out on long urban fantasy series. I’ve read many books in his Harry Dresden series, as well as his Codex Alera series. I decided to pick up The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book in a new series, to read over the holidays. I was hoping for a fast-paced, swashbuckling adventure, and Butcher didn’t let me down.  The cast of characters was entertaining. He switches point of view often, which I found jarring at first, but eventually, I grew accustomed to the large cast. I also really enjoyed the world building and am looking forward to learning more about the how the magical crystals work, as well as the Etherialists’ magic. I liked the Horatio Hornblower-esque feel to some of the scenes with Captain Grimm. The book included flying ships, magic, monsters (of both human and nonhuman varieties), and fascinating technology.

My favorite part of the book was the characterization, as well as the characters’ interactions with one another. I’ve grown weary in the past few years with so many “troubled” anti-heroes in books, movies, and TV shows. I found it refreshing to read a book where the protagonists were actually well-meaning, “good” people (and cats). Also, I liked the fact that among the “good” characters, there were several women, all with different strengths, as well as weaknesses.  Although there were some gender roles in the society, like different styles of clothing, it seemed that women were either equal participants or nearly equal. However, it’s possible that the women protagonists may have all been exceptional. I particularly enjoyed the voice of the cat, Rowl.  I haven’t made my mind up yet about what I think of the the Etherialist villain from the book yet.

I did begin to get fatigued on the chases and fighting in the book.  However, around the time I began to feel fatigued, there was big pay off for each of the major characters.  It felt a bit like a crescendo. And I particularly loved the scene for Bridget, who was reluctant to leave her home at the beginning of the novel.  She winds up saving the day by staying calm, and using her both her wits and brawn. She rescues her love interest, which means something because he is also very competent.

All in all, I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series and would recommend it to others. I feel like this book would make a fantastic movie if you like swashbuckling and magic. It was a fun way to end my reading in 2015 and to begin my reading in 2016.

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Satire in Jingo and Cat’s Cradle

“It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.”

Terry Pratchett

“Sometimes I dream that we could deal with the big crimes, that we could make a law for countries and not just for people.”

Terry Pratchett

“Always be wary of any helpful item that weighs less than its operating manual.”

Terry Pratchett

Recently, I read both Sir Terry Pratchett’s novel, Jingo, published in 1997, and Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Cat’s Cradle, published in 1963. I’d never read Vonnegut before so I was struck by the similarities and, more importantly, the differences between their works, especially the use of satire. I decided to write this piece comparing and contrasting the types of satire they used.  However, my expertise area is sociology, not english literature. Therefore, I needed to learn more about satire.  My friend, Amanda, loaned me her copy of “A Handbook of Literature” by Harmon and Holman to help me better understand satire.  Satire is “[a] work or manner that blends a censorious attitude with humor and wit for improving human institutions or humanity” (461). The point is that authors using satire write to “inspire a remodeling.” From my reading, I learned that there are two major types of satire, formal (direct) and indirect.  Indirect satire is “expressed through a narrative and the characters who are the butt are ridiculed by what they say or do.” Terry Pratchett’s novel Jingo falls into this category. Although there is a first person narrative, I believe that “Cat’s Cradle” also falls into this type. Although I’m arguing that they both employ indirect satire, I believe that the tone of Pratchett’s is more Horatian (e.g., “gentle, urbane, smiling) while “Cat’s Cradle” is more Juvenalian (e.g., “biting, bitter, angry.”) Perhaps, someone familiar with satire will tell me if I’m on the right track with these ideas or not.

Both books are quite witty, using humor on multiple levels. Although they were written in different time periods, they both deal with technology and war. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is a satirical fantasy series that often addresses modern political situations.  In particular, Jingo deals with the appearance of a fantasy island with no apparent “value.” In both countries, there are factions that want war rather than peace. Pratchett uses his characters to show the ridiculous and horrifying lengths that people will go to over their in-groups. However, there are many familiar characters from the Discworld series working to promote peace.

On the other hand, the narrator of Cat’s Cradle wanted to write a history of the day that the atomic bomb was dropped. During his investigations, he learns that the main scientist who helped to invent the bomb also helped to invent Ice-Nine, which essentially turns water into ice. The disastrous implications are easy to spot. In the end, humans destroy their own environment and many commit suicide.

As a side note, the treatment of scientists in Vonnegut’s piece, reminds me of the cartoon going around that science will allow us to clone dinosaurs, but we need the humanities (and the social sciences) to tell us that maybe that’s not a good idea. Just because someone is brilliant doesn’t mean that they are an ethical actor. However, there is no reason to assume that a brilliant mind has to be inherently cold and without empathy. Also, people in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences are usually intelligent (and hopefully, trained to be thoughtful and ethical.) The cartoon actually creates a false dichotomy.  I feel like the sciences and humanities have been pitted against one another to help minimize the attention on the business people and government officials who are throwing all of us under the bus through reduced tenure, instability, fewer grants, etc.

I loved Terry Pratchett’s treatment of his inventor/engineer in Jingo. We are introduced to Leonard of Quirm (based on Leonardo Da Vinci) in the book, who constantly generates ideas.  It becomes quickly apparent that he assumes other people are ethical and doesn’t think that his inventions should actually be used by people for war, although I, as the reader, worried that they might be. In the book, Pratchett notes:

Any sensible ruler would have killed off Leonard, and Lord Vetinari was extremely sensible and often wondered why he had not done so. He’d decided that it was because, imprisoned in the priceless, inquiring amber of Leonard’s massive mind, underneath that bright investigative genius was a kind of willful innocence that might in lesser men be called stupidity. It was the seat and soul of that force which, down the millennia, had caused mankind to stick its fingers in the electric light socket of the Universe and play with the switch to see what happened – and then be very surprised when it did.

Leonard of Quirm ridicules and seems horrified by the suggestion of the less intelligent/less educated character, Nobby, who repeatedly suggests that the drill on his submarine could be used to sink the other country’s ships. In the end, Lord Vetinari uses his own wits, science, and Leonard’s inventions to protect his people and country. He and his country even to come out on top politically. He’s certainly a believer in his in-group, but he does not turn to war.

In the end, the biggest different between the books to me is that of optimism versus pessimism about the ultimate human condition. Pratchett believes that we can learn and do better. It’s not that Pratchett is a “Polly Anna” type, because he certainly understands the darker side of the human condition, but when I read his books, I feel like there’s a chance for myself (and other people) to be better and even a chance to change institutions in society for the better. I prefer Terry Pratchett’s optimism to Vonnegut’s pessimism in Cat’s Cradle. If we don’t believe that humans can change things, I suspect that the chance we will becomes slimmer. In my own writing, I’d rather leave people feeling optimistic than bleak.

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Musings on Resort Hotels, Simulation, Reality, and Social Change

[This post is a bit different than my usual posts. I’m not a scientist or computer scientist so forgive me if I make egregious science mistakes here. I wrote this post to help me sort through some thoughts.]

I’ve read essays on the ideas that it’s possible, or even likely, that the world (or universe) as we know it is a simulation. (Here’s an essay from Aeon on this topic.) In the end, I’ve always thought that from an experiential level, if it feels real, then it is real to you, similar to the Thomas Theorem in sociology. (For an explanation of the Thomas Theorem, you can read this short article.) However, I had the oddest experience at a large resort hotel and conference center that I went to in Orlando, Florida for a work conference. Between the conference center and the different wings of the hotel, there was a middle area with an atrium, trees, flowers, ponds, shops, restaurants all woven together. There was a pond with small alligators. (Baby gators and a turtle hatchery were tucked away in a nook.)  Due to the atrium letting sunlight in, it almost felt “real,” and by that I mean being outside in nature. It was climate controlled, too.  So, you walked inside from the humid, warm Florida air to this cooler zone. Between sessions, I wandered around, noticing the exquisite attention to detail. It was seductive in a way, and as the days passed by, I focused on the conference and my colleagues, and I adjusted to the environment that I was in.

One morning, I decided to run outside. However, there was no sidewalk down the road. (I was told by friends that live in the area this was an intentional choice by the city to force consumers to have to stay and spend more money.) I ran across the parking lot thinking that I’d just run around the four acre complex. However, a gate for employees to drive through blocked my path.  In the spirit of gaining sociological knowledge, I decided to run past the gate to see what was on the back side of the complex. There was a dock for large trucks to bring the props, if we’re using Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis. (I’ve talked about dramaturgy on this blog before, but here is a short, new video explaining it that I came across recently.) On my back-stage run, I particularly appreciated the beer trucks. It was great to see that, unlike the employees in the front-stage, these employees didn’t feel compelled to smile at me, or even interact with me. It didn’t seem that they were performing emotional labor to interact with me. Emotional labor is Arlie Hochschild’s concept that people must manage their emotions and their display of their emotions to complete their jobs. This is often a central component of service work.

After running a mile, I returned to the front of the hotel, took time to appreciate the lovely sunrise, palm trees, and view. When I returned inside, I was struck by how artificial everything seemed again compared with the scene outside. At first, I almost used the word unnatural, but the parts of the facility were obviously natural. However, I had the oddest feeling that grew during the day.  I found myself thinking of the idea of simulation. If the resort that I was staying in became more and more “real” and “authentic” to me as I acclimated, then what if we actually are living in a simulation? I’ve thought about these ideas before, but I really grokked it.

Occasionally, I feel like the idea of the universe as a simulation is just missing the most important point of “simulation” in our lives. If you think of our society itself as simulation, then you can occasionally see through the cracks. (This reminds me of the movie, The Matrix.) The societal narrative is the set of symbolic, imaginary scenarios developed by past generations (and maintained by current generations) including culture and structure. We (and our ancestors) have created all kinds of imaginary scenarios and let them loose in the real world. People strongly believe in “private property,” “money,” “democracy” and many other imaginary concepts like race as real. (These ideas don’t have to be negative, per se.) Race has become real in terms of its consequences and deadly for many people due to previous generations creation of imaginary stereotypes and ideologies. However, these stereotypes have solidified into “reality,” meaning systems of oppression that lead to very real, lived consequences for people.  Some ancestors believed something heinous into existence through their collective will to create structures to advantage themselves. They essentially created a societal narrative. A societal narrative’s characters, plot, and script change over time.  If you can make and maintain a system, then you can modify or even break a system.  But it takes great will, effort, and potentially, lots of time. The rise of social media allows people to expose the holes in the system, as can be seen by African Americans having more of a voice on social media than in mass media. I have to say that more people need to awaken to the fact that all the socially constructed structures, systems, symbols, etc., are not as solid as they seem. Then, the trouble becomes which one should change and who gets to change it?

This isn’t my usual type of post, but I’d love to hear what makes sense or more importantly, what doesn’t make sense.

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“The Goblin Emperor:” An Optimistic Look at Incremental Social Change with Intrigue, Swashbucking, and Airships

[These spoilers are bigger than airships.]

As a part of my reading of the 2014 Nebula Award nominees, I just finished The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. The award has already been given and went to Annilation, which I reviewed here earlier this year. Both books were gripping in strikingly different ways.  I don’t personally care much for horror so I got more pleasure out of reading The Goblin Emperor. At it’s core, The Goblin Emperor is an optimistic book.

Although I haven’t read them in years, I love the swashbuckling and courtly intrigue in the novels of Alexandre Dumas.  The story opens with Maia, the protagonist, receiving the news that his father, the emperor, as well as his brothers, were killed in an airship crash. He returns to court to become Emperor. There are many barriers to Maia becoming a successful Emperor: some internal and many external.

Addison does a great job of using the language of the book itself to give the reader a sense of how overwhelmed Maia feels at court. Name after name is introduced, and as a reader, I began to feel a bit bogged down. However, I feel that this was an intentional choice as it actually demonstrates how challenging it is to come to court ignorant of all the courtiers and various factions. Over time, as Maia (and the reader) become more familiar with the characters, it’s easier to understand.  Maia is ignorant, not unintelligent, which other characters in the book begin to realize. (There’s also stereotypes about goblins by the elves that lead to assumptions that Maia is unintelligent, among other things.)

The book explores inequality and shows how Maia was treated by elves due to his goblin heritage, including stereotyping and discrimination. I also like the fact that Maia, although he is a young man, treats women as equals with their own interests. He is a good ally to his sister for example, when he allows her to study the stars instead of forcing her to immediately marry for political reasons. His repeated and supportive actions of women allow other women to begin trusting him, including his fiancé, a swordswoman. It’s a lovely look at how being disadvantaged in one category should allow for empathy towards other disadvantaged groups. Certainly, this empathy doesn’t always develop, and individual’s in one oppressed group may oppress another.

The book also deals with the inherent problems of monarchy.  It’s quite easy to see in their society how the particular personality of the ruler combined with the ultimate power of the position could lead to negative outcomes for people in their society.

In a storytelling sense, the novel couldn’t end with the “success” of those who wanted to depose him because the reader is likely rooting for Maia, the underdog, even though he is the emperor.  However, one of the people who masterminded the attack on the monarchy points out that they actually did change things for the better for the people.  While some of those behind the attack wanted to end monarchy altogether, their actions placed Maia on the throne, who had already shown himself to be more liberal and caring in his policies than many of his predecessors. He is concerned with workers’ rights, for example. Change is incremental, as this books illustrates. Even if democracy exists as a theory, it takes time to change the structure of the society, as well as the culture and beliefs of the individuals in the culture. (I think that this is an important point to remember when countries invade other countries to “free” them. If the people of the invaded country aren’t yet ready culturally or structurally for the change, it becomes challenging to make changes.)

All in all, this was a delightful read about power, in-groups and out-groups, stigma, stereotypes, social change, and more. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone who likes tales of diplomacy, swashbuckling, and a more optimistic look at the future of society’s social change. It’s refreshing to see a novel about a character who isn’t perfect but tries to be morally good.

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