Book review: Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell

Ack-Ack Macaque (Ack-Ack Macaque, #1)Ack-Ack Macaque by Gareth L. Powell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is a monkey with guns better or worse than a monkey with a handful of poo?

Victoria Valois has returned to Great Britain after the death of her ex-husband. She immediately realises that something is up when the killer comes back to murder her as well. Meanwhile across the pond, the prince and his girlfriend break into his mother’s labs to free the sentient AI of Ack-Ack Macaque. Things do not go according to plan. Victoria barely survives her attack and finds her path crossing the prince and Ack-Ack Macaque as they try to stop a cabal trying to wipe out humanity.

One of Gareth L Powell’s novels came up as a recommendation so I tried to find it at my local library. Instead, I found Ack-Ack Macaque. It was a pleasant surprise.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after seeing the cover art. Are monkies with revolvers dressed in WW2 flight gear representative of sci-fi novels?

Then the first chapter didn’t exactly grab me.

But the novel picks up after that sluggish start and doesn’t let up. This was fast-paced, enjoyable, and toyed with some of the ideas around sentience and what makes us who we are. At 300-odd pages, this was also a very quick read.

My wife also enjoyed Ack-Ack Macaque, although somewhat less than myself. Probably because there is a reasonably large amount of action and all the elements (characters, themes, etc) can feel superficial.

I’m looking forward to reading some more from Powell.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for MeaningThe Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn’t a book about seeing shapes in clouds. Especially not that shape.

In The Patterning Instinct Jeremy Lent argues that we humans like to create “patterns” which informs the way we think about things, which in turn shapes the way the world works. But, hey, did you know that those patterns could be wrong, we could think about things in different ways, and that would change the way the world works?

An interesting book with an interesting thesis.

I decided to read The Patterning Instinct after reading Lent’s rebuttal of the “Everything is Fine” nonsense you see trotted out by agents of the status quo. I was expecting that the book would be something similar to The Divide by Jason Hickel, but it was something quite different.

To summarise the book: why don’t we do better by thinking differently?

There. 600 pages summarised.

Obviously there is a bit more to it than that. Lent goes through our history of thinking, patterning behaviours, how those are shaped, have been shaped, and continue to be shaped. His argument is then that our current patterns of thought are kinda stupid (see problems like systemic racism, environmental destruction, and wealth inequality) and we should change the way we think about things.

For example, instead of thinking that the cost of fossil fuels is the price of extraction plus a little something something for the company, we should instead think of the cost of the extraction, the pollution, the remediation, the deaths caused, the tax evasion, and the political manipulation involved in fossil fuels. If we did this we’d act differently and want a different way of powering our society.

Overall this was a very interesting book.

View all my reviews

Book review: Permutation City by Greg Egan

Permutation City (Subjective Cosmology #2)Permutation City by Greg Egan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Just assume I’m right, I’m the protagonist.

Permutation City is about a guy – I’m sure he had a name, but as most reviews and the back cover indicate, it doesn’t matter – who believes he can create an immortal universe in cyberspace. His doubters think he is a conman, his backers want a copy of themselves there, and his colleagues think he’s still crazy. Can he create an everlasting future in Permutation City?

This was my second attempt at reading Permutation City. A few years ago, this novel and Egan’s work in general, were recommended to me by a friend. I gave up after a couple of chapters. This time I made it all the way through. I’m not entirely sure it was worth it.

Egan is excellent at imaginative and interesting ideas. There is a lot going on in this book that will tickle fans of hard sci-fi in all the right spots. But that was pretty much the only interesting aspect of the book. Everything else was bland or unimportant.

For example, I can’t remember the protagonist’s name nor any character traits. And since I’ve returned the novel to the library, I can’t look it up there. I’d check some of the reviews to remind myself, but none of them mention the protagonist either. There’s a Wikipedia page, which eventually mentions the protagonist (Paul Durham) roughly two thirds through the page.

The main characters didn’t matter.

I can’t recommend this book. Plenty of hard sci-fi fans disagree with me. YMMV.

View all my reviews

To Kill, To Kill a Mockingbird?

So this month’s It’s Lit! talks about the famous anti-racist novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

If you need a quick summary of To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman, I highly recommend these videos from Dr Sparky Sweets:

One of the trademark texts of the American school system is Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird. For decades it has been widely read in high schools and middle schools as a key anti-racist text. But how did this novel, with its Southern Gothic and Bildungsroman elements become a book that in 2006 the British said “every adult should read before they die” ahead of the Bible.

To Kill a Mockingbird was written by Harper Lee and was loosely based on Lee’s real-life experiences, the book tells the story of Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, a young girl growing up during the Great Depression in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama with her older brother Jeremy aka Jem, and her widowed lawyer father, Atticus Finch. A name, that will be imprinted on the world … forever.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: Limitless by Alan Glynn

The Dark Fields (Limitless, #1)The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If neurotropics actually worked you just know that only people with yachts would be taking them.

Eddie Spinola is a burnout former addict turned copywriter living it small in New York City. When he bumps into his old dealer and former brother-in-law he is exposed to a new drug. And it changes his life. Suddenly he can think clearly, organise his life, and become anything he wants. So he decides to become rich. But the side effects and his dwindling supply put all his aspirations in jeopardy. Can he overcome before he unravels?

The Dark Fields (aka Limitless) has been on my TBR since I first saw the Bradley Cooper movie. It had an interesting premise and I thought the book would have something more to it than the thriller movie which would make it worth checking out.

To say the book and the movie are wildly divergent is an understatement. On a very superficial level, most of the same story beats are hit. But where the film is basically about how smart people win at capitalism and become awesome, the book is about addiction. And the addiction is money.

It’s interesting to see how this plays out. Where you expect the superbrained Eddie to plan and scheme to come out on top against the loan sharks, the police, and the financial sector, instead you see him put things off and learn Spanish. This increasingly compounds his problems, just like all bad decisions, just like an addict.

I can see fans of the movie being disappointed with this book. It is fundamentally at odds with the movie and is a critique of the things lauded in the film. But I’d say the book is superior for it. Well worth a read.

View all my reviews

Some of my points above, plus several more, are covered in these videos from Just Write. I completely agree with their take on the books versus the movie/show (I did not like the show). See how the books and the adaptations serve as juxtapositions for one another.

Book vs Movie: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – What’s the Difference?

Did you know that Quentin Tarantino had novelised his ninth film? Neither did I. Let’s take a look and What’s the Difference?

As a Tarantino fan since the early 90s – geez, that makes me sound even older than I am – I have to come clean on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I didn’t like it.

I’ll even go a step further and say that his previous film, Hateful Eight, wasn’t good either.

Unlike Hateful Eight, which had a decisive moment when the film fell apart (Tarantino’s voice over setting up the third act just ruined everything for me), Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was entirely pedestrian. It always felt like a film avoiding being anything other than a love letter to Hollywood films of the 60s.

In fairness to the movie, Tarantino was clearly trying to subvert many of the usual movie moments and be more about actors making great films. For example, the scene at the ranch was setup for a fight for Pitt’s character (Cliff Booth) and the Manson acolytes. Instead, Tarantino subverts that moment and there is no fight, allowing us plenty more time for DiCaprio’s character to learn about method acting from his child co-star.

That the novelisation is quite different from the film isn’t particularly surprising. It’s pretty difficult to make Brad Pitt into a thoroughly unlikable character in a movie. Something to do with charisma and production credits. But the book is unconstrained by actor charisma, which makes it a good opportunity to throw the character under the bus.

Regardless of Tarantino’s future literary aspirations, I hope his tenth/final film is able to cement his career as one of the greats.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Who is Cliff Booth anyway?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a celebrated installment in writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. So when he came out with a book adaptation of the story, we were first in line to read it. But was the book markedly different from the film, and do those differences mean something big? We think so and we’ll explain in this Book vs. Film on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – The New Ending.

Popular Words Invented by Authors

Words are helpful in expressing ideas. So it is no surprise that authors, who sometimes try to express ideas, need to make a few words up. This video from PBS Other Words goes through a few examples.

I’m currently reading The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent. A topic discussed in the book was on how language and culture shape how we think and express ourselves. So the ability to craft out language is an important skill to advance not only language, but also culture and society and potentially the way we think.

Personally, I’m trying to make the word beveragement catch on.

The Unappreciated Female Writers Who Invented the Novel

This month’s It’s Lit covers Amatory Fiction.

This is an interesting video for several reasons. I’m always amused when the topic of rethinking “great authors” comes up and people without pearls start clutching them.

The literary canon excluding certain types of authors and books shouldn’t be news to people. But there always seems to be plenty of reactionary debate making excuses for why, for example, Grapes of Wrath got published while Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown (written the same year on the same topic, both using Babb’s notes) took 65 years to be released. Yeah, that was a thing.

I’ve covered this before when calls have been made to increase the diversity of the literary lists for students in the hopes that more diversity of texts will be taught. Getting people who don’t read much to acknowledge that “literary greats” are less about talent than luck (timing, contacts, $$, etc) is a hard task. Trying to get those same people to acknowledge that women, people of colour, and non-Americans might have written books throughout history is often a hurdle they are unwilling to even attempt jumping.

Which brings me around to one of my favourite topics here: snobbery and guilty pleasures. The It’s Lit video shows how snobbery essentially relegated an important part of literature to the unknown and unappreciated baskets of history. Combine that snobbery with a bit of the old bigotry of the pants and you will have people trying to ignore a segment of literature that broke boundaries (e.g. Behn wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery novels).

For more on Sanora Babb’s novel, it is worth watching this video:

The guy typically credited with inventing what we know as the modern novel was Miguel de Cervantes with his cumbersome 800+ page book, Don Quixote. But what if I told you that the real antecedent for the modern novel was created by… ladies.

Before the rise of what would become the modern novel, there was Amatory fiction. Amatory fiction was a genre of fiction that became popular in Britain in the late 17th century and early 18th century. As its name implies, amatory fiction is preoccupied with sexual love and romance. Most of its works were short stories, it was dominated by women, and women were the ones responsible for sharing and promoting their own work.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis

Axiom's End (Noumena, #1)Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The scariest phrase you can hear: We’re from the CIA, we’re here to help.

Cora Sabino is a university drop-out barely holding onto temp jobs. Her dad has become something of a celebrity for his self-aggrandising journalism that saw him flee the USA and abandon his family. Ever since the CIA has been keeping an eye on her mother and now her. But then something falls out of the sky. Cora’s dad leaks documents that say it is aliens. Caught between the CIA and aliens, Cora is thrust into the most important role imaginable.

I’ve been a fan of Lindsay Ellis’ video essays for many years now. She has an eye for pop-culture analysis and dissecting the role of media in creating culture. So when she announced that she had written a book, I was interested.

But a few chapters into Axiom’s End I was a little underwhelmed. The novel wasn’t exactly what I was expecting from Ellis, who is often witty and humorous. This was more of a standard sci-fi novel. With that revised expectation, I settled in for the rest of the book. Which continued to be pretty standard underwhelming sci-fi stuff.

Of course, I should have expected this. Many of Ellis’ videos (particularly It’s Lit!) are filmed in front of her bookshelf which is adorned with authors like John Scalzi. It’s just that I’d have hoped she would bring that video essay wit to her novel.

As far as standard sci-fi novels go, Axiom’s End was good enough. I’m starting to accumulate a few books that sit in the category of “Books I have read”. Which is to say, they aren’t bad, but not particularly memorable either. And I think I can narrow down a good example of why (queue the spoilers).

Okay, so there is this scene where Cora is being asked to trust the CIA agent Saul. She accuses him/CIA of wiping minds. Saul does the big laugh at her thing and calls her a conspiracy nut like her dad. She gets understandably angry. But she doesn’t push hard. This was the moment for her to push back.

You see, for a character whose family was literally abducted by the CIA during the middle of the night in black SUVs, who has also been blackmailed/forced to work for the CIA and military, who knows that the CIA has been covering up aliens, who have been spying on her and her family for years, who have forced her dad to flee the country, and who has had her life and future threatened by the CIA agent, this was the moment to tell Saul to fuck off. It felt like we’d been building to this moment, but instead it was a reveal and undermining of her trust in her new alien buddy. (end spoilers)

Essentially, character moments like this were undermined in service of plot machinations that probably could have still worked whilst retaining the flow of the scene. From another author I’d probably have ignored this issue, but I went in expecting more.

I think Lindsay Ellis has the makings of a great author. But Axiom’s End was disappointing for me.

View all my reviews

Octavia Butler, The Grand Dame of Science Fiction

This month’s It’s Lit! covers Octavia E Butler.

The most interesting part of this particular video for me isn’t about Octavia Butler. It’s about what I did after watching it.

Let’s face it, her novels sound really interesting. It feels wrong to use the term “fresh voice” for an author who went pro before I was born. But that’s what I thought when her work was being described.

So I logged onto my library e-reading app. Nothing.

I logged onto my local library catalogue. Nothing.

Okay. Don’t panic. Check the state library catalogue and get the local library to request it… Nothing.

Wait, let’s revise that search for all libraries in the state, not just the main library. Ah, success!

Literally. We have a suburb named Success and their library has a copy of Parable of the Sower. That ordering it from Success probably also means the pages have been dipped in meth and I’ll be able to read it in an hour is probably a bonus.

The point I’m making is one I’ve made about several non-cis-het-white-guy authors. It seems common for them to be less available to read. This is annoying. How can we discover new and exciting authors if they aren’t in libraries and stores?

But sure, keep plenty of Dan Brown books on the shelves.

If you are a fan of science fiction a name you should be familiar with is Octavia E. Butler (cough especially if you watched our telly award-winning Afro-Futurism video cough) One of the most prolific and important Black authors in the genre, Butler’s storytelling pushed the boundaries of what Black people were allowed to be in science fiction. Today we will be highlighting the Grand Dame herself, how her novels were important, and sometimes, oddly predictive.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs movie: Invincible – What’s the Difference?

This instalment of What’s the Difference? comes from Wisecrack and looks at Invincible.

I have to admit to having given the Invincible TV show a miss. Firstly because it is on Amazon, whose billing practices and worker treatment are terrible. Secondly because I read Irredeemable first and kinda felt I’d been down this path already.

It is interesting that several recent superhero adaptations have looked for material that explores the idea of “What would superheroes really be like?” Probably not surprising given the fact that comic book movie fatigue has started to hit.

Invincible: Does it have an attitude problem?

In a year full of comic adaptations, Invincible stands out as one of the best. But how do its 8 episodes compare to the 144 issues of the original comic? And what does attitude have to do with it? Let’s find out in this Book vs. Film: Invincible.

Jane Eyre: Why We Keep Reading It

This month’s It’s Lit! is all about Jane Eyre, even some of the fan-fic it inspired.

Having not read Jane Eyre, after watching this video I’m even less motivated to do so.

I’m fickle I guess.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was there for the weird girls, the quiet ones who watched and listened, the ones who pined away for someone to accept them in all of their weird, dark glory.

But in the nearly 175 years since its publication, the collective definition of what it means to be “a woman on the outside of society” has changed and expanded dramatically—and yet here we are, still dissecting Charlotte Bronte’s words and gravitating towards Jane as a protagonist.

For those of you who have never read Jane Eyre or enjoyed one of the 8000 films, television, stage, or radio adaptations not to mention countless literary retelling here we go.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: The End of Policing by Alex Vitale

The End of PolicingThe End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Imagine addressing the causes of crime rather than sending in heavily armed punishers.

Alex Vitale attempts to make the argument for The End of Policing. He covers the major activities of US policing and how these activities are largely ineffective and don’t address the causes of crime. Vitale also argues the actual role of the police is as the enforcers of the state/power/status quo and how this ties to inequality, poverty, racism, and bigotry.

I became interested in alternatives to policing after seeing cops abusing their power. One example sticks in my memory and drove me to read more on the subject. Several years ago a viral video showed 4 cops physically restraining a 12-year-old boy they claimed was autistic, because he “didn’t understand”, not like us normies… At the time my immediate response was of disgust. Four grown men pinning down a kid with autism in exactly the way that would cause someone with autism to have a meltdown was inexcusable. It showed they were the wrong people for the job, as they’d expressed some level of awareness about autism. That it was just a fabrication to excuse their assault, much like the later defences of their actions, showed a callous disregard for the values they are meant to abide by.

There was another example of an Aboriginal man being tasered 20 times whilst in a WA police lockup. I’d include that here but trying to find coverage of that incident is really difficult because it turns out that cops misusing tasers and assaulting restrained people is downright common. Police assaulting Aboriginal people is downright common too.

Prior to reading this book, I was surprised to learn that the common excuse for this overuse of force, that being a cop is dangerous, wasn’t true. The profession doesn’t rank in the Top 10 in any global north country (unless I’ve missed one). In Australia, the most dangerous thing a cop does is drive. Can’t think of any other people that drive anywhere. For the USA, which this book is primarily about, even the presence of enough guns to pay for every S&W executive’s private jet doesn’t make their job riskier than garbage collectors or taxi drivers. That’s not to say the job isn’t without risk, but the big dangers are suicide and the aforementioned driving.

All this is to say that I went into Vitale’s book expecting to receive a bit more insight into the problems with cops and why we need to move away from the policing model. That is what this book delivered. Where it lacked slightly was in transition ideas and alternatives. While there were plenty of alternatives mentioned, how to transition, how to address structural changes, etc., was a bit underdone. In fairness on this point, that would essentially be a whole other book of material and probably needs to be the follow-up.

The End of Policing will probably be pretty controversial to some people. As I’ve tried to explain above, I was already aware of how flat many of the usual pro-policing arguments fall. So I’d encourage people to read this book carefully, do the lateral reading, and see why this argument is solid and worth pursuing.

Comments while reading:
“Part of the problem is that our politicians, media, and criminal justice institutions too often equate justice with revenge.”

Yes. I’ve had this argument with people before. There are two problems, the first being revenge, the second being that people assume blast or dust.

Understandably, people don’t like it when bad things happen to them, so there is this idea of an eye for an eye – or more accurately a life for an eye. We perpetuate that idea in our media and the way we discuss justice, despite the hard fact that it only makes things worse.

The blast or dust problem is a hurdle for a lot of people on justice. I’ve had an argument with people who were justifying straight-up murdering someone for attempting to steal their TV. When I suggested that the death penalty doesn’t apply to petty theft, the response was to assert that I was being soft and that I might as well just give my TV away. There are no potential alternatives to not murdering people to these “justice” warriors – vengeance/revenge is the only answer. Yet I have personally intervened and stopped robberies just by having a chat with someone in a non-confrontational way. Realising that you can address crime without needing to punish someone is very important to advancing our society.

Had to lol. French saying: French people are free to do anything they like, with police supervision.

“Modern policing is largely a war on the poor that does little to make people safer or communities stronger, and even when it does, this is accomplished through the most coercive forms of state power that destroy the lives of millions. Instead of asking the police to solve our problems we must organize for real justice. We need to produce a society designed to meet people’s human needs, rather than wallow in the pursuit of wealth at the expense of all else.”

When you understand how crime arises in society you realise the police aren’t about stopping crime, they are barely about catching “bad guys”. In fact, they’d have little point for existing if we addressed the root causes of crime in our society.

On that point, fun fact, the biggest measure done to address crime was the environmental regulation of lead, which accounted for 56% of the decline in violent crime in the 1990s. Access to legal and safe abortions was the next biggest factor in decreasing violent crime at 29% of the decline. https://www.nber.org/papers/w13097

“The reality is that the police exist primarily as a system for managing and even producing inequality by suppressing social movements and tightly managing the behaviours of poor and nonwhite people: those on the losing end of economic and political arrangements.”

Seeing the police come out against climate change protesters in the past few years really cements this point.

“Reducing social services and replacing them with punitive social control mechanisms works less well and is more expensive. The cost of housing people and providing then with mental health services is actually lower than cycling them through emergency rooms, homeless shelters, and jails, as numerous studies have shown.”

This point is one that so many either can’t wrap their heads around or refuse to engage with. See my point above about an eye for an eye mentality.

“A kinder, gentler, and more diverse war on the poor is still a war on the poor.”

And doesn’t address the poverty to alleviate crime.

View all my reviews

Book review: A Very British Coup by Chris Mullins

A Very British CoupA Very British Coup by Chris Mullin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s so unrealistic to have a story about a media smear campaign…

Against all pundit expectations, Harry Perkins wins the UK election with his lefty policies. As soon as his government takes office the populace celebrates while the rich and powerful start plotting his downfall. The rich owners of the media lead a smear campaign. The landed gentry in positions of influence and those wishing to win titles with their appropriate service in the public sector undermine Perkins at every turn. And the UK allies, like the US, try to block the removal of bases and nuclear warheads with their extensive network of spies and monetary power. Can Harry and his government survive this Very British Coup?

I really enjoyed this book.

A Very British Coup popped onto my radar after the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. In this revised edition, Chris Mullin had added a foreword discussing the revised interest in the novel and the Corbyn link. One point he made was quoting from an article written by a recently retired head of the security services (MI5). The quote revealed that Mullin’s plot wasn’t far fetched at all. And given this novel was based on rumours that the security services had undermined a lefty government in the 70s (not to mention something similar happening in my home country of Australia), it appears this book is on the money.

That isn’t to say this is a perfect book. I found the writing, whilst fast-paced, a bit flat. I’m not sure if that is the same for the characters, as I watched the mini-series before reading the book, so it is hard to tell how much I imported the actor’s characterisations. But it is fair to say that this Very British Coup will ring true for anyone watching global north countries’ politics closely.

Give it a read and then sceptically eye those media headlines and scandals.

Comments while reading:
Intro to the new version makes reference to an article written by the former head of MI5 saying that Jeremy Corbyn was evil and would have been targeted by them. So, let’s dive into this totally fictional book….

View all my reviews

Sorry about the potato resolution quality of the video, but it is the only version I’ve seen available anywhere.

Book vs Movie: Coraline – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? is on Coraline.

This is another in the long line of books and movies I haven’t yet gotten to. The best I have on Coraline is that one of my writers’ group friends is a big fan of the book.

Okay, tenuous link.

Look, if you want me to read and watch everything, you’re going to have to invent more hours in the day.

In 2009, artisanal stop motion animation house Laika released their first feature film, Coraline. Based on Neil Gaman’s book of the same name, the film follows a young girl stumbling into a fantastic ‘other’ world to become a sneak-up scary kids movie classic. But how did the film adapt the realistic elements of the book into the visual whimsy of a creative juggernaut making its mark in Hollywood? It’s time to ask, What’s the Difference?

Written for the screen and directed by Henry Selick, of The Nightmare Before Christmas fame, both the book and the movie draw lines between Coraline’s worlds of fantasy and reality. The book is able to make it more distinct thanks while the movie is all stop motion whimsy, all the time. So what changes need to be made to the story to account for that Laika trademark look?

Book review: Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Consider Phlebas (Culture, #1)Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling you get when you mutiny only to find out you’re just as bad at captaining.

The war between the Idirans and the Culture is starting. Both are looking for an edge when they become aware of a ship mind that does the impossible. If they can have the mind then they could win the war. But the mind is hiding on a neutral planet, only accessible by Changers like Horza. Horza has to sneak past both armies to capture the mind, but will he survive long enough to see the mission through?

A few years ago, my uncle recommended the Culture series to me. I already had Consider Phlebas on my TBR pile, having picked up a copy cheap somewhere (thankyou online sales). Finally, the book made it to the top of the pile. And I was disappointed.

As far as sci-fi space opera goes, the novel is solid. There is a large amount of action, everyone is rarely not in danger, and the sci-fi elements make for an interesting setting.

Okay. So why the disappointment?

Good question, voice in my head. And thanks for letting up on the demands to burn stuff for that brief shining moment.

The first problem I had was that this novel felt meandering and long. At ~470 pages it feels about 100 pages or so too long. Often the series of events feel unnecessary or drawn-out just so we can get more descriptions of card games and wacky cannibals. I know that sci-fi and fantasy audiences often demand all that filler, but I am a fickle reader who has too many other books waiting in the wings.

The second problem was that Horza was somewhat unlikeable. For the main character to be less than admirable or straight-up evil is fine. But you have to want to spend time with them as they be jerks. Horza wasn’t really up to the task. Maybe this was because it felt like stuff happened to him quite a bit, rather than having agency, or that we were told a lot of stuff about him without seeing him do those things. Or maybe he just felt like a con-man… which is essentially what his character was.

I’m not sure if other books in the Culture series are like this one, being made up of stand-alone novels. Potentially the series improves; this is the lowest rated book in the series by the looks. This leaves me really torn on recommending Consider Phlebas and whether to read anything else in the Culture series.

View all my reviews

Good Shows, Bad Endings

As a science nerd, I love graphs. So this post is an excuse to share the work of Bo McCready.

So who doesn’t love having their favourite show suffer under the inability of the creators to care enough about finishing it properly? Whether it be show runners wanting to do something else, off-set controversies requiring massive changes to the show, or the writers being told they have 8 episodes to wrap up all the intricate characters and plots in a satisfactory way as they join the dole queue, show endings can suffer as a result.

If you go to the Tableau page you can interact with these graphs. You can see the version I’ve saved includes The Simpsons and its slow decline since seasons 5 and 6, that has you questioning how it is still on air 25 seasons later. But you have the ability to add any show.

You can also look at Good Shows with Good Endings. It’s interesting to browse through the list to see several of my favourites: Banshee, Justified, The Wire, Leverage, and Person of Interest. In this graphic I’ve added The Expanse, which has the interesting trend of getting better with each season and finishing at its peak.

As with all data, it is important to take onboard the limitations of this presentation.

Take for example the widely loved mediocrity that was Friends. A highly rated show with a highly rated finale whose entire run could be described as middling entertainment. You can see that largely unchallenging, unengaging, inoffensive entertainment has more of a chance to keep its audience happy.

Another example is Game of Thrones. Hey, remember that show? It was only two years ago. Remember how this pop culture phenomenon died and hasn’t been spoken about with anything other than derision since? I’ve gone into how the final season and finale didn’t manage to meet fan expectations, but worse than Baywatch, How I Met Your Mother, and [insert literally any sitcom ever here]?

I think the takeaway from these graphics is that people need to watch an episode of According to Jim or Big Brother to remind themselves that even at their worst, your favourite show was a well crafted gem.

Film genre popularity

As a science nerd, I love graphs. So this post is an excuse to share the work of Bo McCready.

The first is a graphic of film genres over time. As you can see, some genres are niche (sci-fi and fantasy), some have become less popular over time (westerns and musicals), while some have become more popular (horror and documentaries). Meanwhile, comedy has been dominating since the 1930s.

It should be noted how the films are classified. Obviously, very few films are purely one genre. Westerns would often be (hugely problematic) action movies as well. Some westerns were also romances, and there are at least a few famous musicals in that genre too. More recently, sci-fi could be more accurately termed comic book/Marvel movies. But they also tend to be comedies, action, and box-office gold.

So what does this data actually tell us?

Well, I think it shows a couple of things. The first is that one one genre ever really dominates, despite what we may think. The second is that most films are rarely able to fit neatly within one genre box, no matter how hard reductionists wish they would. And the third is that a bit of humour is always welcome.

How Manga Took Over American Bookshelves

Who likes Manga? And more importantly for the smoking jacket wearing class, is it literature? This month’s It’s Lit! discusses.

Okay, let’s just ignore the American-centric aspect of PBS videos. I’m sure one of their bylaws is about having to do cultural imperialism.

It’s quite interesting how Manga and Anime have percolated out into the mainstream. Most people will have been exposed to at least some of the Anime of various Manga. For myself, I can remember watching Astro Boy as a kid and discovering comics of it at the library. This lead to questions about why they would make a comic of a perfectly watchable TV show? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write something new that could be made into a TV show? Is there some reference in this card index that will help 9 year old me understand this issue better?

At the same time, Manga still has a fringe quality to it. This is partly due to it being (scare quotes) FOREIGN (/scare quotes). But it is also related to the comic format.

You see, comics are made for kids – puffs on pipe whilst leaning against mantle next to log fire, monocle helping me peer down my nose at those Lesser Works.

This tide is slowly turning. People are now able to recognise the merits of comics and Manga. And at some stage we might even get a decent live-action movie based on a Manga.

Astro Boy, Dragon Ball, Akira, Sailor Moon, Demon Slayer, Death Note all these interesting, iconic anime have something very much in common they started off as: manga.

Manga, by its most simplistic definition, are comics or graphic novels originating from Japan, which became extremely popular in the United States starting in the 80s and 90s. We’ve already touched on Western Graphic Novels and Comics, but you know we couldn’t just leave it at that (not with this t-shirt). So today we’re discussing manga as its own rich literature, reflecting the complicated political history of Japan.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the DarkThe Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hey kids, want some of the good stuff? Take a hit of this Science & Critical Thinking. It’ll blow your mind!!

Carl Sagan takes us on a journey through the history of science and our fleshy meat-sack attempts to understand the universe. He tries to illustrate the difference between knowledge and nonsense. And he tries to instill a sense of interest and wonder in the universe around us, something that he believes is a cornerstone of a functional society into the future.

I first read Demon-Haunted World in undergrad *cough-cough* years ago. I read it again about a decade ago, although have little memory of doing so. So it was interesting to revisit Sagan’s case for following knowledge (through science) in the post-alternative facts world.

Possibly the most obvious aspects of this book are the often-quoted sections about the risks of not valuing education and knowledge. What was more interesting this time around was digging into the offhand remarks and bias of the book. The introduction had a great remark about a teacher being a bully to female students that was barely explored, despite being a great anecdote about how certain groups are held out of STEM fields. Another was the US-centric bias (obviously the book was written by an American for an American audience) which was at odds with the theme of science and education helping everyone.

There were also more disappointments this time around. Sure, I still love the Baloney Detection Kit. And being reminded of how so many curious people don’t get exposed to good information because we don’t value actual knowledge. But I’ve got less time for the scientism that leads to dismissals of philosophy or other knowledge methods. While Sagan’s was a mild scientism, it does feed into something many pro-science communicators can fall into the trap of and comes off as a little arrogant.

I guess I’ll revisit this in another decade. Looking forward to it.

Comments while reading:
Sagan talks about his humble origins and passion for science. It’s good to see someone acknowledge how the “inspiring teacher” trope is often not present, both for those who develop a passion and for those who don’t for whatever subject.

There was also an incidental point made about bullying and sexism that was almost glossed over. He mentioned one of his teachers being very good but also a bully. Someone who delighted in being mean to the female students. This sort of overt sexism (or racism, or bigotry in general) undoubtedly has held back generations of people from STEM. The more subtle versions persist and do similar levels of damage.

The oblique references to post-modernism are a bit disappointing. I understand that Sagan has the common misunderstanding of the philosophy, but I’d like to think someone like him would have taken the time to read and understand it. Although, it would help if the po-mo writers weren’t so verbose and abstract (and being translated from French).

Sagan covers a bit about a Randi hoax done on the Australian media. It was interesting to hear about how credulous our Aussie media were back then. Sorry, what am I saying? They are still credulous fools publishing anything for outrage and eyeballs. The comedy team, The Chaser, just recently pranked the media with a fake Fairy Bread petition with exactly the foaming outrage from conservative media you’d expect.

It’s interesting to come out the other side of organised skepticism and re-read Sagan. He and some of the other more reasonable voices (e.g. Phil Plait) still come across well. But you can also see the scientism. Sagan’s isn’t as pronounced as some others, but you can’t help thinking that Sagan might have slid down the same road into grumpy old man shouting at people on Twitter road that so many of his contemporaries have (cough Dawkins cough). I’d like to think not.

View all my reviews