Book review: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Religion is a mental virus… Going with the uncontroversial plot ideas:

Hiro Protagonist is a pizza delivery boy, hacker, spy, and master swordsman who meets the courier YT during a last-minute delivery. They team up to try and uncover the secret behind a new drug/computer virus called Snow Crash after Hiro’s friend falls foul of it. Between Uncle Enzo’s mafia franchise, Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong franchise, and the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates franchise, there is about to be a war for the future of humanity.

I have been meaning to read Snow Crash for over a decade after purchasing a copy cheap in a sale. It was recommended to me in high school and has been off and on my TBR since then. I’m glad I finally read it.

The opening had me hooked. Somewhere in the midst of the frenetic action and heapings of satire was a world that offered some interesting ground to explore. Stephenson’s cyberpunk world of anarcho-capitalism felt ready for something big.

The big thing that Stephenson poured into this world was the idea of language as a program and religion as a virus. As I was reading, this idea was solid and kept the plot going, gave everything stakes, and was pretty satisfying. But now after finishing, I’m left reflecting on the idea and this world.

What was being satirised here? Cyberpunk? Anarcho-capitalism? Or was it just meant to be absurd for a bit of fun? If the latter, why not keep the absurdity going for other aspects of the novel? If either of the former, I’m not sure Snow Crash managed to say anything. And the language as a program idea felt like a huge plot point to just kinda resolve with a wave. Where was the fallout?

In other words, this could have been better.

That said, this was a highly enjoyable novel. I’m glad I finally read it. I’ll have to dive into some other novels from Stephenson.

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Book review: Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews

Clean Sweep (Innkeeper Chronicles, #1)Clean Sweep by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Tripadvisor reviews could literally kill your Inn.

Dina Demille runs an out-of-the-way inn catering to a very special clientele. The kind that want safety, neutrality, and for the local Texans to not suspect they are aliens. This is threatened when something starts killing dogs in the neighbourhood. She tries to get the local werewolf to deal with it but finds herself roped into the problem. Before she knows it, Dina is fighting a powerful intergalactic assassin to stop a war between vampire clans.

As a fan of the Kate Daniels series, I’ve been meaning to read more from Ilona and Gordan Andrews. My wife’s family had recently devoured the Innkeeper Chronicles and wouldn’t shut up about it. So it seemed like a safe bet that I’d probably enjoy this one.

Yep. It was great.

When my wife first mentioned Clean Sweep, I thought it sounded like Tanya Huff’s Keeper’s Chronicles. Innkeeper vs Keeper’s Chronicles… Young magical woman… Pet that isn’t really a pet… Magical inn… Love interest… And I enjoyed Summon the Keeper, so this totally not a rip-off should be good.

This was such a fun novel. It was fast-paced, plenty of action, the characters bounced off each other well, and everything felt earned. And in a book full of highlights, the Twilight joke at the end was a great touch.

Despite the superficial similarities between the Innkeeper and the Keeper’s series, they are very different. Clean Sweep has a faster pace and more action. Summon the Keeper has more humour and puts all the pieces in play for the final act. I enjoyed both, but Clean Sweep was easily better.

Can’t wait to read the next in the series.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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….

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

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.

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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.

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Book review: Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres

Burn Bright (Night Creatures, #1)Burn Bright by Marianne de Pierres
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a pill for that: a guide to partying on Ixion island.

Retra’s only friend, her brother, abandoned her to seek pleasure away from the stifling culture of Grave. She decides to follow him to Ixion, enduring the pain of an obedience implant to do so. Once there, everyone is encouraged to party until they burn out and get too old. Retra is more concerned about finding her brother. But in doing so, she uncovers the secrets about Ixion and upsets those in charge.

Burn Bright was fine. It had a fast pace and an interesting world.

I think I was halfway through the book when I made the comment, “I don’t know where de Pierres is heading with this, if anywhere.” I guessed straight away that the various Ixion inhabitants were using the kids as cattle in some way. My assumption was that they were vampires, to be honest. It took until the second last chapter for the big reveal, which wasn’t different enough from my assumption to be much of a “twist”.

This could just be the jaded reader in me wanting something fresher. I wasn’t sure where de Pierres was headed with Burn Bright because it felt like the obvious reveal couldn’t be what we were building to. But it was. Essentially, the big mystery was not interesting enough to make everything else payoff.

Burn Bright is entertaining enough, but I feel like this is a book for younger less jaded readers than me.

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Book review: Children of Dune by Frank Herbert

Children of Dune (Dune Chronicles, #3)Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you have all your ancestors’ memories, is that better or worse than having them watch you masturbate from the afterlife?

[Warning: this review contains a spoiler for a book released in the 1970s, which obviously requires a warning so that people will be adequately able to navigate to the comments section to complain.]

Paul Atreides’ twin children, Leto and Ghanima, are sick of being treated as children and are ready to rule. Their aunt Alia is possessed by her ancestor, Baron Harkonnen, and wants them dead. House Corrino is plotting to take over Dune, and wants them dead. Some of the Fremen want to return to the old ways, and want them dead. And their grandmother wants to test them with the gom jabbar, which could potentially leave them dead.

This review is being written almost a week after I finished reading it. Usually, a gap of this much between finishing and reviewing suggests I wasn’t left with any strong impressions of the book. And I think Children of Dune certainly falls into the category of “a book I have read”.

The book was entertaining. But it was only adequate.

Dune was a great novel. I felt Dune Messiah was a lesser novel in every way, whilst still enjoyable. Children of Dune was another few steps down the quality ladder.

I think the issue was that Children of Dune didn’t feel as well constructed. What appeared to be major plot points were essentially over before the halfway mark. Another plot point which has been hinted at for three novels essentially came out of left field. [Spoiler] Leto’s transformation really lacks supporting explanation. I mean, I find it really hard to believe that Leto was the first to get high on drugs, pull on a sand trout skin, and realise it gave them superpowers. Herbert introduces this idea as it happens and explains that it was something kids regularly did with their hands for fun. You can’t tell me that no idiot has ever been that wasted and tried it out.[/Spoiler]

Children of Dune was entertaining enough. But I don’t think I’ll read more of the series.

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Book review: Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A ManifestoFully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you labour the point does that make you working-class?

Dr Aaron Bastani is best known as one of the founders of Novara Media in the UK. A recurrent theme to their journalism is a hope to move society toward Fully Automated Luxury (Gay Space) Communism. His book attempts to articulate the whys and hows this will be possible and reasoning for it being the utopia we’re all looking for.

Fully Automated Luxury (Gay Space) Communism has been the dream of lefties since they first spotted a capitalist getting out of bed at noon to start a hard day of reading the paper and smoking cigars at a Gentleman’s Club. The rise of FAL(GS)C has been predicted by people of all political stripes, but notably anyone with one eye on the future. It’s often part of post-scarcity utopias common in science fiction. So writing about it in the 2010’s is not exactly groundbreaking.

In many respects, Bastani’s text is an update on how close we are to utopia right now. While it stands alone as its own argument for FALC, there aren’t a lot of new insights.

This isn’t a bad thing. I think people do need to be reminded that the future we choose to have is being shaped now. That our future could be one that is good for everyone rather than good for the type of people who buy diamond collars for their dogs.

But I felt Bastani laboured the point throughout. This could be because I’m somewhat familiar with most of the points raised. It could be that I was wanting less explanation of the basics and more of the ramifications (see for example my comments below about automation jobs lost vs created). Regardless, I felt this left the book somewhat lacking in its arguments and evidence.

I also felt that there were points made that were somewhat irrelevant or missed huge points. Space mining seems like one of those things people talk about because it has the word space in it. I’m yet to be convinced of the need and point of it. And as great as disrupting the system can be, you have to talk about the transition otherwise you risk making things worse, not better.

If you’re familiar with FALC and read the occasional piece about technology, this book isn’t going to offer any new insights for you. For everyone else, I think this is worth a read to start thinking about the sort of world WE want rather than the world others will create for themselves.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard Bastani talk about some of this before, but in his writing he is somewhat labouring the point about automation from computers. Yes, automation has happened and will happen from increased computing. But I hope he gets into less of Moore’s Law and more on the jobs lost to automation, if that is increasing, and whether they are being replaced.

Although, on that point, Bastani is trying to argue for FALC, so not really about replacing the jobs as sharing the fruits of their labour, methinks.

While I get the excitement about mining space, I really don’t see the point. As Bastani notes, one precious metal asteroid would oversupply the market thus make the exercise worthless. Not to mention, do we actually need more stuff, or are there just billionaires eyeing off the title of trillionaire? Like phosphorus, supposedly we’re running out… We’re not, actually, we’re just running out of cheap and easy to access sources. Hell, we literally flush away shitloads of nutrients and metals every day. If you change the way we think about our resources (particularly the value we assign) then it could be easier to just use our current planet better. And share better…

The discussion of the future of food and agriculture is interesting if a little inaccurate. We see the common claims about soils only having X harvests left (that is just false, but widely reported), and about meat requiring lots of inputs (bit misleading since something like a cow is used for a lot more than just the meat). In fairness, his mistakes are understandable as there is plenty of scientific literature that makes these same mistakes (which really undermines the credibility of some groups with those in ag science).

But the point about food being able to transition to partly/mostly/wholly being done “in the lab” is true and exciting. It does, however, have to be done as a proper transition, not as a disruption (as implied). Otherwise you’re lining up a genocide for food animals, the collapse of a massive industry, and huge negative environmental impacts (weeds and pests alone would be detrimental). Family farms are the biggest landholders and environmental managers, and I see a logical transition to having them become environmental land managers (reintroducing flora and fauna, documenting said same, controlling ferals, etc).

Bastani’s overall thesis is pretty obvious: hey, look at all of this now and near-future tech. We could literally all sit around and do whatever we want. Wouldn’t that be better than having a handful of trillionaires while the rest of us starve?

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Book review: The Establishment by Owen Jones

The Establishment: And How They Get Away with ItThe Establishment: And How They Get Away with It by Owen Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

*Puffs on cigar* The Establishment, hey, this sounds like a book for me.
*Pulls out monocule to read sub-heading* This book is trash!

Owen Jones’ The Establishment is an attempt to lift the veil on how power and the powerful have seized increasing levels of control and wealth from society at the expense of everyone else. It covers several facets, from the creators of the intellectual frameworks, through the enforcers of control, to the self-entitled people treating the economy like a casino safe in the knowledge the plebs will bail them out.

This was an excellent read and filled in a lot of the details for events and social changes we’ve heard covered numerous times. Instead of hearing these details discussed by the usual apologists of the status quo, Owen makes it clear what is happening and weaves it together as a solid narrative and argument for change.

Needless to say, I’m sure that plenty of the dismissals of this book did so by spotting a misplaced percentage symbol or by the tried and trusted baseless accusations of inaccuracy or confusion.

As an Aussie, I saw a lot of parallels between what Jones discussed for the UK and what the experience has been in Australia. The effective lack of difference between the two major parties (nominally right and left, but realistically described as shit and slightly less shit), the dominance of conservative (Murdoch owned) media, and the close ties of the powerful, all very familiar. This book could have been written about Australia, not the UK.

In some respects, the book, A Game of Mates, tried to cover much of the same ground. That book failed to be convincing as it lacked some of the scholarship and well thought out solutions you’d want. Jones’ The Establishment is the opposite, as it is compelling, and thus I take his arguments and solutions far more seriously.

Some of the solutions are no-brainers, like instead of taxpayer bailouts being socialism for the rich they could instead be the taxpayers buying the banks, utilities, etc. But some ideas, like stopping the revolving door, are more difficult and not fleshed out enough. This was also a solution proposed in A Game of Mates, and as I said in that review, it’s not well thought out. Are we just going to say that people can’t take on a different job in their field of expertise? Are we trapping them? Would it not be better to look at examples of where there isn’t/wasn’t a revolving door, and create those conditions (which I imagine would relate to a robust sense of community and contribution rather than thinking about how to game the system).

The Establishment is worth reading and then discussing widely.

Edit: Listening to an interview with Stacey Abrams reminded me of something that Jones said throughout the book that was quite important. There is this idea that the “two sides” of politics differ greatly and are hugely divided. Abrams stated that “conservatives want to conserve, which means protecting inequalities and suffering that occurs now from getting better” (approximate quote).

But something that I’ve noticed, and a point that Jones made throughout with reference to polling and surveys, is that there is a lot more common ground than people think. Jones argued that in many respects, the people who want the most progressive measures taken also happen to be voting for the most regressive and conservative parties and politicians. This is generally because supposed left or progressive politics doesn’t capture the attention, while those ultra-conservative voices are able to rally populism and easy messages to address complex issues (the classic being to blame the job stealing, dole bludging Schrodinger’s immigrant for whatever real issue).

So it is a trap people are falling into when assuming that the populous are somehow not looking to make society better. The real problem is actually selling the message of being able to make society better rather than just putting a fresh coat of paint on the status quo.

Comments while reading:
The main thrust, as outlined in the Introduction and part of the first chapter, reminds me of A Game of Mates and the TV mini series (based on a book) A Very British Coup. The former was a somewhat disappointing book that I felt lacked some evidence and cohesive thought to the arguments, which I get the early impression Jones isn’t replicating (i.e. he’s making a solid case).

The argument is similar to what we see in A Very British Coup where the power sphere is inherently conservative and the general populous is complicit in that continuing because the system was designed to keep democracy from eroding the power of the powerful. In that series (and the book), the powerful literally seek to undermine the democracy of their nation using any and all means. Obviously, completely fiction and no parallels to real life events can be drawn… (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Very_…)

The “good old days” that many people talk about were also the times of social democracy (at least partly). That annoyed the neo-liberals and free marketeers. Yet many of the reactionaries today would still point a hazy finger to those years as “great” (less for the economic social democracy and more for the bigotry). So it could be argued that many of the economic policies post-WW2 are what we need. It had more equal economic policies and it was a stark contrast to the pre-war policies that produced significant inequality in society.

Found myself nodding so much, but none more so than with the conclusion. I’d pull out some quotes, but the entire thing is a great summary of what needs to be done and why.

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The status quo may be treated as common sense now, but future generations will surely look back with a mixture of astonishment and contempt at how British society is currently organized: the richest 1,000 individuals worth £520 billion,1 while hundreds of thousands of people have to queue to eat in food banks; a thriving financial elite that helped plunge Britain into a vortex of economic collapse, which was rescued by over £1 trillion of public money but continues to operate much as before; a reigning dogma that treats the state as an obstacle to be eradicated and shunned, even as the state serves as the backbone for private interests; a corporate elite, dependent as it is on state largesse, that refuses to contribute money to the state; a media that does not exist to inform, educate, as well as challenge all those with power, but which serves as a platform for the ambitions, prejudices and naked self-interest of a small number of wealthy moguls. More startling to our descendants will be how this was passed off as normal, as entirely rational and defensible, and how institutions run by the elite attempted, with considerable success, to redirect people’s anger to those at the very bottom of society.

Book review: The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly

The Two Lost Mountains (Jack West Jr, #6)The Two Lost Mountains by Matthew Reilly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

MR: This happens every few thousand years and only the greatest can save the universe.
Me: So blowing up all the artefacts is going to make it hard for future generations to save the universe.
MR: Try not to think about that.

Jack West Jr is back in the third and final… almost final instalment in the trilogy which started with The Four Legendary Kingdoms. When we last saw him he’d lost family, friends, and was battling to keep ahead of the royal families while saving the universe. And nothing has changed. Sphinx has powerful new weapons that can put a city to sleep and has all the clues to help him gain access to the final challenge. Meanwhile, Jack is trying to save his family and friends and figure out what everyone else already knows.

As I’ve already indicated, I was expecting this to be the third book in the adventure trilogy. If I had remembered any of Matthew’s social media posts about the book I’d have realised he’d had so much fun writing that the trilogy has gone all Hitchikers Guide. This was both a good thing, as who doesn’t enjoy more of the books they are reading, and a bad thing, because the next book isn’t out yet!!!

Much like the previous The Three Secret Cities, I really enjoyed the book but upon reflection, wasn’t as excited by it as some of Matthew’s novels. I’m starting to suspect that this is a “more of the same” issue. The thrill of a Matthew Reilly novel is somewhat dampened by the fact I’ve read all of his stuff (multiple times in some instances) and am now a jaded husk of a reader, doomed to seek thrills from other authors who will fail to live up to my ever loftier standards. Other authors have reached this point much earlier for me (looking at you James Rollins and Steve Berry). Hopefully, Reilly will pull out all the stops – that is to say, no stops, just all sprinting – in the final in this Jack West Jr series.

Looking forward to the next one.

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Book review: Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Beware of a Tleilaxu bearing gifts.

After successfully taking the imperial throne, Paul “Muad’Dib” Atreides now rules as Emperor. The Fremen have been busy waging a religious war across the empire in Paul’s name, racking up a body count that would make all other past atrocities look like a rounding error. Paul is trapped in his destiny and is trying to nudge (future) history toward peace while negating conspiracies, fulfilling his role as Emperor, and keeping Chani safe.

Dune Messiah is an interesting follow-up to Dune. I had been expecting something of a look into the universe outside of Arrakis. Instead, the story is focused on (to use Herbert’s own term) inverting the tale of the chosen one’s rise to emperor. So much of the novel is about Paul feeling trapped, his failures as a leader, and the usual problems associated with retaining power as a dictator.

In many ways, this is a smaller novel than Dune. Much of the universe has been established, particularly on the political side of things, which means Herbert is able to discuss the foibles of his hero. This is both a good and bad thing. Most sequels would go bigger (or at least more explodey), so turning inward on the tale makes Dune Messiah interesting. But it also means you feel like this instalment is somewhat lesser.

I’m quite intrigued to see where Herbert took this series next [insert joke about Brian Herbert ruining the franchise after that].

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Book review: Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

Lords and Ladies (Discworld, #14)Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So… Elves like to watch you dance naked… And don’t even tip. Creepy.

The kingdom of Lancre is about to host the royal wedding of former fool, King Verance II, to current witch, Magrat Garlik. The locals are preparing for the wedding and the arrival of foreign dignitaries. With the wedding scheduled for Midsummer, when the skin between realities becomes thinnest, elves are trying to return to the Disc. But not if Granny Weatherwax has anything to say about it.

I have to preface this review by saying it has been so long since I’ve read A Midsummer Night’s Dream that there is virtually nothing I remember of it. Maybe a thou or two, but that’s it. As such, a novel that mocks it is not going to be fully appreciated by me.

As I was reading Lords and Ladies I was thoroughly entertained. There were some fantastic moments, not least of which was the inclusion of the Many Worlds Theory. It’s easy to pick out quotes:

“In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.”

“If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are. Style. That’s what people remember.”

But several days on from finishing the novel and I’m hard-pressed to think of anything much to say or highlight about Lords and Ladies. It’s an entertaining read, a solid entry in the Discworld series (particularly the bees), but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. That feels somewhat sacrilegious to say about a novel that is head and shoulders above most anything else. I guess there is a universe in which I have read A Midsummer Night’s Dream more recently and regarded this Discworld instalment more highly, just not in this one.

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