Book review: Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail MaryProject Hail Mary by Andy Weir
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The universal jazz hands.

Scientists around the world have discovered two things: a band of radiation (Petrova Line) and the sun is dimming. It soon becomes obvious that the two are related and the problem is getting worse, potentially world-ending worse. Rayland Grace, a high school teacher and former astrobiologist, is enlisted to examine a sample from the Petrova Line and discovers a new lifeform: Astrophage. Can the world and Rayland save the planet?

So let’s get this out of the way upfront: I loved this book.

My problem with reading Andy Weir books continues. Ever since I first purchased a copy of The Martian, I have failed to read a Weir book without it disappearing and requiring me to buy another copy or (in this instance) borrowing from the library. I’m sure there is a valuable lesson for me to learn about reading books as soon as they are purchased, but my TBR pile laughs at the mere suggestion of this idea.

A new twist to this adventure was accidentally ordering a Spanish version of Project Hail Mary from the library to replace my stolen permanently borrowed copy. My passable English (I still don’t have a good handle on American despite my best efforts) and primary school level French was not quite up to that particular challenge.

Weir continues his protagonist sciencing their way through one catastrophe after another disaster style of story with Project Hail Mary. He has a formula of sorts and it works. Even if some of it can feel a bit contrived or an obvious part of the Weir formula at times (my wife made a good point about some similarities between Weir’s protagonists).

My highlight from this book was the character of Rocky. This situation could have been handled any number of ways. A lot of authors would have gone for a much more scared, nasty, or aggressive route, but Weir went for nice and compassionate. Which, in turn, drove a more interesting plot – with the nice addition of some Wittgenstein inspired language problem-solving.

I’m looking forward to having Weir’s next book stolen from me.

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Book review: Callahan’s Legacy by Spider Robinson

Callahan's Legacy (Mary's Place #2, Callahan's #7)Callahan’s Legacy by Spider Robinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The next round is on me.

Jack and Zoey are two bar owners expecting their first child last week. The bar’s patrons are also their close friends who hail from all walks of life, time, and weird occurrences involving saving the world. What should be just another fun evening of drinks and song is interrupted by new patrons and trouble.

The Callahan novels were recommended to me via a list of humorous books. The only one I could lay my hands on easily was Callahan’s Legacy, one of the later instalments in the series. It seems to be representative of the rest of the books, as near as I can tell, and fans seem to enjoy it.

I’m really not sure what to say and how to rate this book. It was mildly amusing, the banter flowed freely, and some of the puns were ingenious. But I could pretty fairly say that virtually nothing happened in the story. This was pretty much a novel devoted to documenting an evening of drinks between friends, some of whom are aliens, resurrected early 20th-century scientists, and people from the future.

I’ll be generous and give this 3 stars because I quite liked the joke about the Buddhist Burger Joint that made you one with everything.

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Book review: War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American InfluenceWar on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence by Ronan Farrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Diplomacy? No idea where that is. Do they have any schools that we can bomb there?

In War on Peace, Ronan Farrow argues that since the end of the Cold War, the USA has been gradually cutting back its diplomatic resources whilst supercharging militarism. He attempts to document examples of how military figures have access, resources, and influence on the way the US (and its allies) conducts itself internationally to the detriment of peace and (sigh) US interests.

Ever since I saw the US market the post-9/11 war in Iraq as a totally good idea and certainly not based on an easily disprovable lie, I’ve been interested in understanding war and diplomacy. Unfortunately, few books want to look at the bigger picture, instead focussing on the “mistakes” of a conflict or the “harrowing true story” of a kid who was promised free university if they went and secured oil resources freedom in another country. War on Peace is one of the few bigger picture books that try to document how we got here.

This book has a lot of good insights into how diplomacy has been defunded, marginalised, and under-resourced while the military has been placed front and centre. As the saying goes, wouldn’t it be great if we gave diplomacy a try for once? I think Farrow also shows that we can’t just blame any one government or side of politics. And he also gives examples of how the militarism approach has embedded all sorts of issues that make the world far less safe.

Where I think War on Peace stumbles is in its American Exceptionalism and Supremacy. Laced throughout is this deep current of the USA wanting to control the world to meet its needs as though that is a good thing. And along for the ride is the idea that the USA is the “good guy”, all while documenting plenty of examples where the USA was clearly the “bad guy”. This would have been hilarious and worthy of being labelled satire if it wasn’t exactly the sort of thing these kinds of very serious US journalism books do without even a hint of irony.

Further to this point, the US-centric nature of the book neglects the international trends in diplomacy vs militarism. There is a small mention of China’s moves in this area, but it would have really helped the central argument to document, at the very least, changes in US-allies’ investment in diplomacy.

This is an important book on an important topic if you can get past the blinkered parochialism.

Comments while reading:
Not particularly shocking to hear that President “Drain The Swamp” turfed out the experts in favour of either not replacing people or looking for partisan hacks. But it was interesting to hear that this has been a trend since the 90s and the end of the cold war. That ties in with Jeremy Scahill’s writing on the rise of the private military, outsourcing, and militarisation.

I find it kinda funny to hear someone lamenting the decline of diplomacy continually utter it in the context of American Exceptionalism and Supremacy. “Decline in control of the region” is uttered at the same time as “negotiation for nuclear non-proliferation”, while oblivious to the irony of a nuclear power wanting to dictate terms.

President “drone strike” Obama’s first term being filled with warhawk generals taking over diplomatic roles is not particularly surprising. It was quite notable how much of the placating of the establishment Democrats and appeasement of Republicans resulted in his brand of Hope being watered down to Status Quo. The military angle was a big part of that.

Interesting that the diplomatic successes of Obama’s second term appear to have been a lot of hard work over the whole two terms and in spite of the administration. That this came from Hilary Clinton recognising various efforts being made and offering (the minimum of) support is telling given so many of the problems come back to Bill’s time as President.

I laughed out loud when, without a hint of irony, Farrow called China a country “who are wanting to be an international leader without acknowledging their continued human rights abuses.” Farrow, the former diplomat, whose bosses helped suppress human rights abuses, some of which are mentioned in this very book, wrote this down. His bosses also helped go after Julian Assange and Wikileaks for exposing US war crimes. Neither of these human rights abuses has been acknowledged and any accountability held.

But on the plus side, they did imprison, ruin the careers, and took a blind eye to the murder of those who exposed the human rights abuses of the US military.

Remember kids, it’s not human rights abuses when we, the good guys, do it!

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Book review: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

To Say Nothing of the Dog (Oxford Time Travel, #2)To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

And never mind the cat.

The Oxford History Department has changed a lot since the invention of time travel. Ned Henry, a history student, has been tasked by the department’s wealthy benefactor with locating the Bishop’s Bird Stump. But Ned is overworked, time-lagged, and in desperate need of a vacation. So his professor assigns him some R&R in Victorian England… and a very important mission to fix the time continuum before history is completely destroyed.

After finishing The Time Machine Did It, I saw a list of other humorous novels. Ever on the lookout for entertaining reads, I started matching titles with my library’s catalogue. As luck would have it, To Say Nothing of the Dog was available and just desperately wanting to be read.

And it was fine.

The book is light and whimsical without ever being hilarious. The story is solid without ever feeling too tense. And the continual obstacles Ned and Verity have to overcome never feel insurmountable. As a result, I came away from To Say Nothing of the Dog with the sense of having enjoyed myself but not having relished the experience.

Something that I think is worth highlighting is that this book is nice. As in, there are no fights, no evil people doing bad things, no heroes with dark problems, and surprisingly, for a time travel book, not one person ceasing to exist because of time-ripple-magic-stuff. Instead, Willis grounds the conflict in the more ordinary and the stakes in the people vs events. I mention this as it can be quite refreshing to read a book that doesn’t feel the need to be gritty, mean, dark, or focused on people you’d pretend you don’t recognise at a party before sneaking out the upstairs penthouse bathroom window.

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Book review: We Are Legion by Dennis E Taylor

We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse, #1)We Are Legion (We Are Bob) by Dennis E. Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Is it a Brazillian or Riker’s Beard?

Bob Johansson has cashed out of his software startup and cashed in on cryogenics. Thinking he’ll get to be immortal in a utopian future, he instead awakes to find himself as a slave to the new theocracy looking to spread the good word to the universe. The race to the stars becomes a race to Armageddon with only Bob floating in the way.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect with Taylor’s novel. The reviews were solid, people enjoyed it and they said it was humorous. But We Are Legion had the dreaded spectre of hard sci-fi attached to it. Too many times I’ve read glowing reviews of a hard sci-fi novel that ended up annoying the scientist and reader in me.

Happily, We Are Legion was good fun. It engaged with the hard sci-fi without becoming interminable and boring. The tone, while not what I’d call humorous, was light and helped keep the pace brisk. That did make the novel and Bob a little flippant and unengaging at times, but that didn’t undermine proceedings too much.

The only real complaint I have is that the novel just kinda ended. It felt like the first instalment in a series – hey look, there are three of these things – not like a complete story.

I’m looking forward to reading more Bobiverse.

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Book review: How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle by Jonas Ceika

How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle: Nietzsche and Marx for the 21st-Century LeftHow to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle: Nietzsche and Marx for the 21st-Century Left by Jonas Čeika
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s my will to pick up this book for the people.

Jonas Ceika’s How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle is a brief insight into the compatibilities between the thoughts of Marx and Nietzche. He uses these insights to point out how anemic modern left/Marxian thought is and how a new movement and human freedom can arise.

Back when I started taking an interest in philosophy, there were very few Youtube channels dedicated to discussing the field. If you count The School of Life as a philosophy channel… But that changed fairly quickly and many good (and bad, some just really terrible) channels emerged to tickle my brain between books.

Cuck Philosophy caught my attention thanks to Ceika’s rebuttal videos addressing common misconceptions of postmodernism. So when this book was announced on the channel, I was interested in giving it a read.

This was a particularly interesting take on Marx and Nietzsche. Having recently read a little from Rosa Luxemburg, I think the argument that Marx’s revolutionary ideas and intentions have been watered down by more modern lapdogs of the bourgeoisie leftists is fair. Combining the “will to power” and Marx is also an interesting idea. And as Ceika alludes to in his summary, this is also the way a lot of current social movements are operating.

As a result, this was a thought-provoking book. But I feel I need to read more Nietzsche and Marx and then revisit this text.

This review is also quite good and has a great overview.

Some of my favourite philosophy Youtube channels:
Jonas’ CCK Philosophy (obviously)
Then and Now
Carefree Wandering
Early Philosophy Tube (later stuff is good too, but early stuff is more directly philosophy)
Gregory B Sadler
Wireless Philosophy
There are others who utilise philosophy in their content that I enjoy, but it isn’t their primary focus so they’re on a different list. A list you may never see. Mu-ha-ha-ha-ha.

Comments while reading:
“Science is owned by capital.”
The idea that science can only be done by those whose needs are met, and that the production of that science has solved the needs of others who don’t have their needs met is a great insight.

Slave morality and the power/class divide. The idea of immutable morality being about maintaining power is interesting. We’re told theft is a moral value but is it? Do we condemn the morality of Jeff Bezos for creating abominable conditions in his factories (and launching PR campaigns to pretend it isn’t happening)? But those conditions create the poor who can only meet their needs through a supposedly immoral act. So is morality just a way to punish the poor and keep them in line?

The second philosophy course I did had a section on Marx that I’m reminded of here. He was very much of the materialist and humanist school of thought. But he was also a fan of a philosophy of doing rather than just thinking. Good to see that covered here.

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Book review: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)Hyperion by Dan Simmons
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A pilgrimage to a planet to be eternally impaled on a metal tree? Where do I sign up?

On the eve of an invasion of the planet Hyperion, a final pilgrimage has been organised. A select prime number of pilgrims will visit the Hyperion Time Tombs to plead with the Shrike, an immensely powerful being composed of blades. They decide to tell the tale of how they were chosen for the pilgrimage in hopes of understanding their mission.

Hyperion is one of those “classic” sci-fi novels that have the awards and street-cred amongst book nerds such as to make it compulsory reading. And I’m never quite sure what I’ll get with these types of “classics”. Will it be amazing, like Dune or Neuromancer, or will it be a trudge to get through, like any of the Dune sequels?

For me, Hyperion was a Dune sequel. Not so far into the series that you’ve stumbled into Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson performing CPR on Frank Herbert. But far enough that you’re not really invested.

This is partly because of the Canterbury Tales style utilised, where each character tells their tale about why they are on the pilgrimage. A format like this can work, if not for the second issue I had with Hyperion. It just ends. Tune in for the next instalment in this series. After ~500 pages the characters don’t even make it to the Time Tombs. So we don’t finish the story, we just get the backstory.

What Hyperion does well is diving us into the characters and world. But Hyperion didn’t make me invested enough to pick up the sequel to see how this story ends.

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Book review: The Time Machine Did It by John Swartzwelder

The Time Machine Did ItThe Time Machine Did It by John Swartzwelder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Did we really need more of me to go around?

Detective Frank Burly is terrible at his job. But he is persistent. His new indigent client wants him to find a family ornament that will somehow prove that he is actually a wealthy upstanding member of the community. The sort with buildings named after his family. Frank doesn’t know where to start. And it soon becomes clear that he doesn’t know when to start either.

The Simpsons was heavily influential on me. It screened every evening, sometimes multiple episodes per night, to the point that I could probably quote jokes from just about every episode in the first 10 seasons. And John Swartzwelder was a huge part of that.

As stunning as it is to realise that The Simpsons is still running 25 years after the start of its decline, it’s even more amazing that I’d never picked up one of Swartzwelder’s books. And it was fine.

The Time Machine Did It is absurdist humour from start to finish. Jokes pepper the page in a way that most authors would dream of being able to write. Of course, most writers would also not lean quite so heavily into the absurdity as Swartzwelder in favour of a story that is more engaging.

This is an amazingly off-the-wall book, but the way the story is told and the type of humour does hold you back from really enjoying it. Too many of the jokes are just jokes rather than being part of the story. Other jokes that are part of the story create holes that Swartzwelder fills with more absurdity and jokes. E.g. I’m still not sure if the time travel joke about the old elevator driver becoming a 4-year-old in the same job is genius, dumb, or both. Either way, it was clearly the sort of joke you put in a visual medium and not a wordy one.

I see from the ratings that the Frank Burly series improves with each instalment, so I’m likely to read some more from Swartzwelder in the future.

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Inside the Absurdist Mind of Kurt Vonnegut

And so it goes, in this month’s It’s Lit!

I have to admit to only having read two of Vonnegut’s books. Obviously the first is Slaughterhouse Five, because you can’t talk about books on the internet (or anywhere else for that matter) unless you’ve read it. The second is the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House.

Two of my favourite short stories are in Welcome to the Monkey House, the eponymous short the collection is named after, and Harrison Bergeron. The latter was used in our high school English Literature class. Don’t ask me why it was used or what we discussed about it, I only remember it being refreshingly good after too many weeks spent reading ee cummings.

I think the reason I’ve not read more Vonnegut is that I never really bonded with his work. Sure, he wrote two of my favourite short stories, but that same collection also had some really bland stuff in it that could be best described as unmemorable. And some of his satirical takes were, as the famous philosopher said, meh.

Like the afformentioned short stories, which appear to critique egalitarianism by attacking a strawperson (because egalitarianism doesn’t seek to eliminate individualism nor enforce mediocrity for all). Is that really satire or is it misrepresentation? Or did I just miss something? Because I didn’t miss the “corrective rape”… ewww.

Further reading: https://digitalcommons.butler.edu/bjur/vol4/iss1/7/

It can be said that there are two types of fiction writers – those who take a backseat and let their work take the spotlight, and those who are as iconic as their work, sometimes even more so. But maybe there’s a third type – a type of writer whose complex persona is so intertwined with their fiction – that to ignore them as a person would be to ignore their work entirely. In this episode we explore the life and work of Kurt Vonnegut.

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 is made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book review: A Fire Upon The Deep by Vernor Vinge

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who’d have thought puppy power was actually a thing?

Ravna Bergsndot has taken a posting at the High Beyond of the Transcend, where data flows quickly and transcended beings hang out before getting bored with mortals. But all that comes to an end as an artifact unleashes The Blight that enslaves all natural and artificial intelligences. Ravna is only able to narrowly escape with a reconstructed human from the Slow Zone, Pham Nuwen, and two Skroderiders. Now their mission is to find a potential cure for The Blight in a race against time.

If you are into reading those “Top 10/20/42” lists of “best ever books in [insert narrow genre here]” you’ll have no doubt come across a reference to A Fire Upon the Deep. Well, at least, that’s how I came across it. With no other recommendation, I tracked down a copy in my library and set to some holiday reading.

In some respects, I can see why this made it onto a list of top sci-fi books. There are some big ideas here and it is pretty well executed. I was particularly interested in the Tine characters and the idea of a group intelligence.

In other respects, this was a confusing book to start reading. It wasn’t until I was solidly halfway through the book that I felt like the story had hit its stride. Before that, everything felt like planet info-dump, population: cardboard cutouts we’ll expand on later.

A Fire Upon the Deep was fine. Once it got going things fell into place and it was good, but a fickle reader may not get that far.

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Book review: The Resurrection Key by Andy McDermott

The Resurrection Key (Nina Wilde & Eddie Chase #15)The Resurrection Key by Andy McDermott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Looking really good for 100,000 years old.

Nina and Eddie are trying to settle down, with Eddie hitting the big 5-0, and Nina in a cushy teaching job. That is until an ambitious student drags them both into an artefact purchase. From then on it is a race to uncover long-hidden technology and stop rich people and governments and their nefarious plans. But is that who they have to worry about?

Just before Xmas, my son realised that I was going to be the only person in our family without a present under the tree. So I was forced, forced I say, to go shopping for a suitable present from my local bookstore. This was the book I bought.

I continue to enjoy the Nina and Eddie adventures. There is a fun, fast-paced, action-packed nature to the books that I really appreciate. Other Artefact-McGuffin-Adventures often take themselves far too seriously for what are ridiculous premises. Andy leans into that ridiculousness and makes it fun and humorous.

Also, I have to commend Andy for writing a portrayal of Aussies and Australia that didn’t make me actively cringe. It is clear he puts some effort into the details that other authors don’t bother with, who instead opt to rewatch Crocodile Dundee while staring at a shirtless poster of Hugh Jackman.

I bought a few ebooks of Andy’s to read in the coming months/years/what is time now anyway? I think I’ll need some fun reading in the coming future.

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Final book reviews of 2021

As a start to 2022, I thought I would round out my book reviews for 2021.

Due to a slight case of Could Be Bothered, I didn’t write any reviews for November and December.

I ended up reading 59 books for the year with the highlights being the Discworld novels and Innkeeper Chronicles. The non-fiction I read last year was a little underwhelming aside from Science Fiction as Philosophy and The End of Policing.

Hopefully, 2022 brings us all many more good books!

Sweep with Me (Innkeeper Chronicles, #4.5)Sweep with Me by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A short and sweet instalment to the Innkeeper Chronicles.

This almost felt like a goodbye to Gertrude Hunt and its characters. I hope that isn’t the case.

Persepolis Rising, Tiamat's Wrath, and Leviathan Falls (The Expanse, #7-9)Persepolis Rising, Tiamat’s Wrath, and Leviatan Falls by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I took a break from reading The Expanse series around the time Persepolis Rising came out. After reading Babylon’s Ashes I’d had enough and didn’t intend to read the final three books.

But here we are. And I’m glad I did. The final three books in The Expanse were exactly the sort of strong ending the series deserved. The 5 star rating is for Ty and Dan sticking the landing on a modern sci-fi classic.

Magic Burns (Kate Daniels, #2)Magic Burns by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been meaning to read more of the Kate Daniels adventures.

The Innkeeper Chronicles were my recent binge, so I needed something to sate my Ilona Andrews addiction.

I stand by my original assessment that the Kate Daniels series is the Dresden Files without a jerk as the main character.

Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel AdaptationParable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Damian Duffy

I mistakenly picked this up on the e-library thinking I’d found an Octavia Butler ebook.

Normally I read graphic novels on a big screen, not my phone. And this is a wordy adaptation – although, I see other reviews suggesting Duffy has successfully cut a lot of the waffle from the source material. So my experience was very muted.

I’ll try to track down the original and maybe revisit this comic on a larger screen.

Pawn of Prophecy (The Belgariad, #1)Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings

DNF

After arriving at the halfway point of the novel, I found myself wondering if anything was going to happen. And much like my experience with The Wheel of Time series, I felt like this epic fantasy was going to drag out longer than I had the patience for.

To be fair, I gave Lord of the Rings a lot of leeway to eventually get started, something I’m not doing with Pawn of Prophecy. At least they set off for adventure a bit faster here.

Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and JapanAmong the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan by A.C. Grayling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Final thoughts:
This was a slog to get through. Grayling is of the school of “use 100 words where 10 will suffice” writing, which is obviously very helpful in discussing war crimes. But this is also an important text and topic which shows how immoral much of the actions of WW2 were. Easiest just to read the Judgement and Postscript chapters.

Comments while reading:
Grayling writes like he is trying to fit entire paragraphs into his sentences.

Shaun made a good video recently covering the bombing of Japan. The take-away is that area bombing was used in Japan very deliberately to attack non-military targets so that it would be noticed (have the most psychological impact) and force the Japanese to a quicker full concession. I.e. The allies wanted to carve up Japan without any negotiations (which Japan had been requesting for quite some time at that point) and preferably before Stalin got involved.

This review makes a couple of very interesting comments. The parts about Churchill are to be expected as many are unaware of just how terrible he was and how he essentially genocided Bengal among just some of his deeds. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…
https://crimesofbritain.com/the-crime…

Culturcide: an interesting idea. Military were trying to effectively wipe out not just industry used for war, but also culture and society. Send the Germans back to an agrarian state with bombing of all cities with more than 100k people. That’s pretty dark.

If there is a summary of the bombing, bombed, and resistance sections of this book, I think it would be the words righteous anger and malevolence. There was a level of malevolence to those in charge of targeting civilians. They justify these actions, but ultimately they have an enemy they want to attack and hurt. And their supporters tend to be fueled by righteous anger. This enemy attacks us, let’s attack them back, let’s pay it back 10-fold.

In amongst that, it is comforting to read that there were those who pointed out the depravity of these actions. Often the people least likely to want “revenge” were those who had suffered, realising that others would suffer too.

Less heartening is how common that righteous anger is deployed even now. Whether it be against other countries, other peoples, other ideas, criminals, etc., the common theme is wanting to make others suffer for some perceived sleight. Yet no one seems to want to stop that cycle of violence and find a different way to right wrongs.

In the case against, Grayling starts by pointing out moral philosophy is dealing with agreed values across humanity. But then, for some reason, he makes a simplistic jab at pacifists and their rejection of just war… Sure, tell me all about how fascists suddenly sprang forth the day war was declared, and that there was no chance to stop them prior, nor direct causes for their creation in the post-WW1 policies of the allies.

Book review: Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews

Sweep of the Blade (Innkeeper Chronicles, #4)Sweep of the Blade by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nothing like a good bloody wedding.

After successfully stopping a genocide, Maud (Dina’s sister) accepts Lord Arland’s invitation to accompany him to his homeworld. Their relationship is still in its early days and she knows she will have to fight to be accepted. Literally. With swords. But she wants to try. And what better time than when Arland’s house is hosting a rival house’s wedding that may be cover for something else, and species the vampires distrust want to open a trade port.

Jumping straight into Sweep of the Blade after finishing One Fell Sweep took a bit of adjusting. I had been expecting the next Innkeeper Chronicle to be about, as the name might suggest, the innkeeper. Instead, we’re off to follow Dina’s sister.

This wasn’t a bad thing. It was quite interesting to have the series expand outside of Gertrude Hunt and give us a sense of these other worlds the Innkeepers service. And it was enjoyable to read the filled out characters of Maud and Arland.

As with the other instalments, Sweep of the Blade is fast-paced and not overly long. In some regards that is a slight weakness as some plot points are left hanging – hopefully, to be dealt with in a later instalment. But I’ll take past-paced over drawn out and boring any day.

Already reading the next instalment.

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Book review: The Plague by Albert Camus

The PlagueThe Plague by Albert Camus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Can’t think why this book is currently popular again.

In the town of Oran, Dr Bernard Rieux notices rats are starting to die in their thousands. When his building concierge dies suddenly, Rieux urges the authorities to act on what appears to be the early stages of a plague. Obviously, they listen to him and the book ends there. Or more accurately, the plague takes hold of the town and people start dying in their hundreds. Rieux and his friends try to help the best they can.

I’ve read very little of Camus’ philosophy. His most famous contribution is “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is (whether to commit) suicide” which is a tad offputting. I’m sure the guy pushing the rock up a hill would agree with me on that.

But after watching a recent video from Carlos Maza, I decided to give The Plague a read.

In many respects, The Plague captures most of Camus’ philosophical arguments in a narrative form. It is also widely acknowledged as a WW2 allegory, specifically around the underground resistance movement against the Nazis. And the reason it is getting a lot of interest currently, aside from its title, is how much of the events of the novel sound painfully familiar.

Not that this novel is prophetic so much as an account of humanity. Which says a lot about how much we suck at learning from our mistakes.

I was roughly halfway through reading The Plague when I found myself reminded of a critique of philosophers. Professor Moeller suggested that analytic philosophers were failed scientists and continental philosophers were failed writers or poets.

Much of The Plague had me thinking of Camus as the failed writer doing philosophy. There’s a dry and detached style to the writing that is at odds with the story being told. And as a philosophical novel, I thought it swung between poignant and pointless at times.

Although, as I said above, I was going in thinking of Camus’ work as a bit offputting. Not to mention, whenever I think of Camus I’m reminded of this comic:
https://existentialcomics.com/comic/180

Existential Comics Original

The Plague is such an optimistic and timely book to read during a global pandemic.

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Book review: One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews

One Fell Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles, #3)One Fell Sweep by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Noxious killer weeds are annoying.

Fresh off of a successful peace summit, Dina DeMille is feeling a little bored. Fortunately, her estranged sister contacts her for urgent help. This then forces her hand in sheltering a hunted species in her inn. Before you know it, Gertrude Hunt is under siege.

I’ve been enjoying this series so much that the only gap between finishing one instalment and starting the next has been down to availability from the library. Sure, my wife owns the series already, but that would mean prying her e-reader out of her hands. And I wasn’t looking for a divorce currently.

Something I’ve noticed with Ilona Andrews’ books is that there is a gradual development of characters and relationships. Many series try to have the next adventure with essentially the same character and relationship dynamics. I’ve picked up other series at random intervals and don’t feel like anything has changed or that I’ve missed anything. Which could be a compliment to Andrews’ writing or it could be a condemnation of the usual book series I read (with the exception of the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs).

At this rate, I’ll have finished the series in a month’s time and moved on to the rest of the Kate Daniels books.

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Book Review: Last Human and Backwards by Grant Naylor

Last Human (Red Dwarf, #3)Last Human and Backwards by Doug Naylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s cold outside, there’s no kind of atmosphere, I’m all alone, more or less.

Last Human and Backwards continues the adventures of the crew of Red Dwarf after the events of Better Than Life. Doug Naylor tells the tale of Lister reuniting with his crew and adventuring into an alternate universe where they are mistaken for versions of themselves accused of crimes. Rob Grant tells the tale of Lister reuniting with the crew only to be stuck in the backward universe.

After Grant Naylor split up and became Doug Naylor and Rob Grant to write their respective third instalments in the Red Dwarf series, interesting things happened. I’m reviewing both books as one because I read both back to back and wanted to compare the two.

Last Human is the better of the two third instalments (4 stars). The adventure is a challenge for everyone and shows how far all the characters have come. While not as humorous as the previous books, it does manage to revel in the absurdity. I especially like (and remember from when I originally read this book 25 years ago) the luck virus and its part in the story.

Superficially, Backwards is the more absurd and humorous premise (2 stars). The multiverse crossovers, Ace Rimmer, and the Agonoids should make for an amazing adventure. But I found the jokes a bit flat and the story felt like a series of set-pieces – which is unsurprising given the previous instalments and that this was based on episodic TV scripts.

The main difference I wanted to discuss was the pig. I can still remember this mean “joke” from when I first read the series in the 90s. The “joke” in question appears in Backwards and it becomes apparent that the pig was actually a woman who had become morbidly obese and depressed as a result of being sexually assaulted as a teen by Cat.

The first time I read Backwards I felt sad for that character. This time I felt that Grant didn’t like his characters and would go as far as to be unnecessarily mean to them for fun and sadistic “laughs”.

This is also true of Rimmer. In Last Human, Rimmer is still the coward but manages to grow and be the character who says “Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast”. Naylor lets him become more than a joke. Whereas in Backwards, Grant rubs in just how terrible Rimmer is and how one decision had irreversibly led him to be the loser we’re meant to laugh at.

As Grant Naylor, I think the rough edges of both writers were smoothed out. Gestalt really is a great term for their partnership. But without Naylor, I think that Grant became mean (his own books seem to paint people as incompetent and dumb, and his stories are very dark).

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Book review: Mission Economy by Mariana Mazzucato

Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing CapitalismMission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism by Mariana Mazzucato
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mariana: Change for the betterment of all.
CEO: But will I still make a huge bonus?

Mission Economy continues Mariana Mazzucato’s writing on addressing the neo-liberal failures that have seen the importance of government to our economy sidelined. She uses the example of the mission to the moon for how government drives innovation, economic expansion, and aids private industry in direction. And from this, how a new mission could address the problems wrought by neo-liberal/crony capitalism (e.g. climate change, growing inequality).

After having read The Entrepreneurial State and The Value of Everything I was excited to read Mission Economy. But after finishing it, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.

I think this lack of whelms is from two factors. The first is that this is a continuation of Mazzucato’s previous two books. This isn’t a bad thing but it does feel like another version of the same arguments without much new material. If this had slightly more “meat” to the argument I’d have probably enjoyed it more.

The second reason is the idea of Reform or Revolution? Mazzucato is essentially arguing to reform our current capitalism with better capitalism. But standing in the way of that are all the people who made all the money with the current state of affairs. So how do you do this reform without revolution? Her argument is to have a rallying “mission” to address the big issues, but we have seen that blocked already.

So her argument, whilst not wrong or bad, needed more fleshing out as to how to overcome the blockages. What was going to be the revolution or reform that would do this? And why reform over revolution? The book would have been much stronger for this point.

On a side note, I know the moon mission was the example being used to underline the thesis of the book… but… the Kennedy love and moon example got a bit repetitive and thinly stretched.

Overall, this was a solid argument from Mazzucato and worth reading. Hopefully, we will see a mission to address some problems in the coming months and years with governments leading the way.

Comments while reading:
“The wrong question is: how much money is there and what can we do with it? The right question is: what needs doing and how can we structure budgets to meet those goals?”

This has been a common theme from a lot of more progressive political and economic texts/essays in the last decade or two. And yet, the message still doesn’t get through. Mainly because people still think of the economy as a household budget rather than an investment portfolio.

The revised Kennedy quote as a rallying call to fix current issues is a good one. But it does show how more nebulous issues, like the environment, health, climate change, are harder to set a clear outcome or goal for.

Mazzucato does talk about this a little, but I feel that it doesn’t quite capture how hard goals are easier to defend. “We’re going to beat the Ruskies and put a [man] on the moon first” is an easier target than “We have to all join together and stop burning fossil fuels so that the planet doesn’t warm beyond 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels”. What’s the win with the second idea, is the goal not burning fossil fuels or just not too much, is the warming 1.5 exactly, what were the pre-industrial levels, why is this important, will there be sandwiches?

But I suppose that’s why we’re trying to address climate change, not because it is easy, but because it is hard.

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Book review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

Monstrous Regiment (Discworld, #31; Industrial Revolution, #3)Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tactical socks.

Polly Perks joins the army disguised as a boy to find her brother and is assigned to one of the last regiments being sent to fight a losing war. She befriends her fellow soldiers and the legendary Sergeant Jackrum. But interest in this plucky band of warriors is growing as they look set to turn the tide of war. Especially after Polly kicked the wrong person’s sock drawer.

This Discworld novel has been near the top of my TBR for a while now and recently got a shove to the top. I’d say it is in the peak Pratchett period, with the story, satire, nuance and humour at their best.

The reason Monstrous Regiment got the shove to the top was after some media debating whether Sir Terry would have been for or against trans people being allowed to be people. Some were arguing that his pro-women views obviously meant he would have been a TERF (an overly polite term for transphobes). Others, generally those who knew him better, argued his books were littered with support for all peoples being treated well.

The entire plot of Monstrous Regiment can be read as support of not just feminism but LGBTQI+ rights in general. Although, as a man, I’d like to think we men have more to offer than just some particularly good burping and socks in the right places. Like the ability to reach higher shelves and open tight jars!

Anyway, this was a great novel and a wonderful example of how Sir Terry wanted us to accept all people as people. With plenty of laughs along the way.

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Book review: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David K Johnson

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as PhilosophySci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David K. Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Science Fiction: more than just pew-pew noises.

Science Fiction as Philosophy is a Great Courses series in which each lecture uses an example sci-fi movie or show (plus a few supporting examples) to discuss a philosophical concept. This illustrates both the depth of sci-fi and creates a starting point to draw various philosophical ideas together. David K Johnson presents this broad-ranging series.

The audiobook/lecture series is much like the rest of the Great Courses and includes course notes. The notes book in this instance is presented as a lot of dot points – I don’t remember this being the case in other Great Courses. It was incredibly handy for doing the lateral reading.

This was a fantastic series. The lecturer was able to cover a lot of material in a concise and accessible manner. Johnson also managed to retain a sense of humour that was entertaining in what could have been dry and boring subject matter.

It was great to revisit so many of my favourite sci-fi movies and shows to discuss them with a philosophical eye. This was generally well done and interesting. The deeper insights were not necessarily surprising to sci-fi fans but I generally found a bit more depth to the material here than in the usual pop-philosophy discussions.

That said, there were times where the lectures felt like the cliff notes of philosophy, which isn’t that surprising for something covering a lot of ground. For some topics, I noticed that material was a shortened version of things like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. So this could feel a bit light on if you are familiar with the philosophy being discussed.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Great Courses series and want to dive into some of the other series David K Johnson has made.

Comments while reading:
Lots of great material and subject matter. Highlighted a few of my old favourites, like The Thirteenth Floor.

I have so many issues with the Simulation Hypothesis and 20% chance figure. Personally, I think we should dismiss it in much the same way we dismiss the Devil’s Veil, Brain in a Vat, Matrix, and other similar ideas. Materialism is a much better explanation, as discussed in a previous lecture/chapter.

My main issue with the idea is that the probability matrix and reasoning are essentially Pascal’s Wager (which is predated by several other versions). The problem is that you can use this reasoning to justify just about anything. Replace belief that we’re living in a simulation with belief in magic or god or superman or evil superman or the free market. Nonsense can be granted a “logical” and “rational” foundation which could then be used to justify atrocities – e.g. you could justify killing people because it’s only a simulation.

Pascal’s wager: Believing in and searching for kryptonite — on the off chance that Superman exists and wants to kill you. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pascal%…

The section on militarism vs pacifism vs just war is a little disappointing. It starts strong with the castigation of militarism. The pacifism is covered reasonably, the best bit being the dispelling of the idea of pacifism being about just rolling over to violence rather than finding non-violent ways to address violence/militarism. But then Johnson kinda falls prey of several ahistorical factors and militaristic ideas in being critical of pacifism. Which leads into just war as some sort of compromise between the two.

I disagree here. I’d argue that just war isn’t a middle ground but instead a justification for militarism through a pseudo-intellectual justification. Take any of the given requirements of just war and you won’t find a single war (or conflict) that meets the criteria. Even going historically (it’s meant to be used prior and during) you have to be pretty selective in your cherry-picking to get things to fit. E.g. Hitler and the Nazis were bad, so WW2 was all good… well, except the conditions for WW2 were sown at the close of WW1 and could have easily been avoided, the war supplies to Germany could have easily been closed (although that would have stopped the US companies making big $$ from the Nazis), and the Nazis party could have not been internationally endorsed. In other words, the only reason you can meet Just War is if you turn a blind eye for a couple of decades and wait for atrocities to start happening and use those as a post-hoc reason to go to war (they didn’t know about the atrocities until after going to war).

There’s nothing like being reminded of how terrible Robert Nozick’s philosophy was/is. “Rawls was wrong because people earn stuff, even when they cheated or got lucky, and most actually get lucky, BUT THEY EARNED IT DAMMIT!!”

I think Johnson is way off the mark on the luke-warmerism of Snowpiercer. I’m not sure if this is just a really bad take on his part or if he is unaware of the arguments around geoengineering solutions to climate change. Probably a bit of both. Point being, geoengineering is seen by its critics as offering similar unforeseen consequences as the burning of fossil fuels. This means Snowpiercer exists in a world where delay by the powerful required hubristic action that once again disproportionally impacted the poor. Maybe the problem is that Johnson was trying to discuss something fresher, since Snowpiercer has been written about quite a bit from the class struggle perspective, and was trying to fit within his lecture structure.

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Book review: Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews

Sweep in Peace (Innkeeper Chronicles, #2)Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gotta wonder if magic would also work to stop weapons manufacturers perpetuating war?

It’s been slow for the Gertrude Hunt Inn since Dina Demille stopped an intergalactic assassin in her neighbourhood. But on short notice, Dina is called upon to host trilateral peace talks for groups who would really like to kill everyone. From looking after one guest to hosting feasts for dozens, Dina is under the pump to not only look after everyone but see that the talks are a success. She’ll be ruined otherwise.

There are times when I really love my library. After finishing Clean Sweep, I put my name on the reserve list for Sweep in Peace. The queue was a month long, so I started another novel in the interim. Just as I was debating whether to persist with that far less entertaining novel, Sweep in Peace was available. I can only assume the quick turnaround of only a few days to be due to how fast a read this series is.

This was quite an ambitious novel. The premise of the conflict is not an easy one to navigate. I especially appreciated the peace negotiation as it is almost the polar opposite of what most novels would do with a war. Diplomacy? Surely we can just shoot the diplomat full of arrows and then commit a genocide?*

While successfully achieving this ambitious premise, Sweep in Peace still manages to retain its fast pace, humour, and charm. The emergent humour that naturally fits within the scenes is particularly good.

I’m already reading book three in the series, One Fell Sweep. That should tell you everything you need to know about how much I enjoyed Sweep in Peace.

* If you don’t get this reference to one of the least subtle comments on diplomacy and promotion of war being awesome, then I’m glad. Old Man’s War was bad on many levels.

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