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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Book review: Trade Wars Are Class Wars by Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis

Trade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International PeaceTrade Wars Are Class Wars: How Rising Inequality Distorts the Global Economy and Threatens International Peace by Matthew C. Klein
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Inequality is bad you say? But isn’t my second gold toilet more important than food for everyone?

Matthew Klein and Michael Pettis’ Trade Wars Are Class Wars attempts to argue that inequality distorts the way money flows around the economy and thus undermines the efficient and rational capitalisation of the economy. He draws upon historical and contemporary examples from around the world to show how this is bad. For the USA….. (sigh)

I picked up a copy of this book after reading Mark Blyth’s Austerity: History of a Dangerous Idea. The idea that many of the trade and economic issues are tied to inequality and class divides was an interesting one. And the central thesis is largely acknowledged as true by anyone who has seen how quickly economies tumble when the average person can’t afford to buy stuff.

Unlike Blyth’s excellent books, Klein and Pettis have a limited understanding and unwillingness to engage with broader socio-political issues in the discussion of their thesis. They continually place the political as removed from the economic as though that is a fair and unbiased thing to do.

But how can you engage in discussing economic history and outcomes without honestly engaging with all, or at least some of the major, other factors? It essentially makes any of their arguments and analysis useless as anything other than fodder for very serious nodding competitions at corporate retreats.

In summary, this book was garbage as it deliberately or unintentionally failed to engage with reality to argue something that most would accept as true.

Comments while reading:

Good quote on China:
“China’s policies do not just hurt Americans (because fuck those other countries) – they also harm ordinary Chinese workers and retirees. Chinese workers are underpaid relative to the value of what they produce, and they are taxed too much. They are unable to access the goods and services they ought to be able to afford. They breathe dirty air and drink polluted water because many local government officials place the financial interests of politically connected business owners above the well-being of the public.”

Trying to explain this idea to people is often a challenge.

In the “how we got here” section there is a misleading bit about Natural Advantage. While a bit later it implies how the idea is untrue, there is no direct refutation of the idea. Natural Advantage isn’t a rational nor economic reality, but rather a political and exploitative one. People will often hold up the idea of (e.g.) gold producing nations being those with natural gold resources who will trade with the nations without gold for the thing they have a natural advantage in. Just don’t tell that to the resource-rich nations of Africa, South America, etc, who are dirt poor despite their supposed wealth.

I’m a little unimpressed with the overall stance being taken in the presentation of economic history. The very liberal tone (i.e. capitalist apologism) is managing to gloss over things like imperialism, coups, and the fights for democracy. One example that made me almost throw the book away was with the statement “which caused the British financial sector to remove support from the country” glossing over a very bloody war of oppression the British waged on that country only to be overthrown and independence declared. It places the political as removed from the economic as though that is a fair and unbiased thing to do.

There is a strong “if only those stupid other countries did capitalism right” vibe to covering the issues with the economy. It’s pretty much implied that the policy frameworks have been poorly done and if we just do it correctly then everything will be fine.

But this argument isn’t just ahistorical nonsense, it is narrow, ignorant, and woefully naive. Does Klein-Pettis just assume that inequality is something that rich/powerful people did by accident? (The answer to that rhetorical question is, of course, yes).

The section on China’s growth is… problematic. I’ll be kind and say that this is once again due to the very narrow economic scope Klein-Pettis uses for his discussion of very complex socio-political-economic interactions. If I were unkind I’d have to call it racist. But to suggest that China suddenly grew because they started doing capitalism and before that those silly commies just couldn’t do anything right and were creating poverty, is wonderfully wrong. I mean, the issues for Mao’s China can fill entire books, but the summary here doesn’t even hint at that.

Odd to summarise the systemic defanging of unions worldwide by corporate, business, and oligarch interests via their flunkies in government, legal, and industry as “workers lost interest in unions”. I mean, it’s like saying that coastal flood insurance costs have gone up whilst ignoring that someone keeps dropping bombs offshore to send tsunamis.

The installation of a right-wing government with deeply racist, anti-semetic, authoritarian, and nationalist views as a move to democracy in Hungary is an interesting take on history and politics. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archiv…

Another example: South Korea and the statements about yay democracy and capitalism curing poverty there… Look, I’m not well versed in South Korean politics, what with its every shifting, amalgamating, and disbanding political parties, but I’m pretty sure that referring to a literal military dictatorship in the 1980s as democracy, and its brutal regime which included at least one massacre, as progress is a what us thinky types refer to as wrong.

I’d bet money the authors worked in finance and write for very serious industry publications now.
I checked, yep, Klein was at an investment firm and now writes for Barron’s, a right-wing financial news page.

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The Women of Jane Austen

Do you need a summary of Jane Austen’s novels and heroes? Then this month’s It’s Lit! has you covered.

Elizabeth Bennet. Emma Woodhouse. Marianne Dashwood. Jane Austen has been responsible for creating some of the most frequently adapted and analyzed women in the English literary language. Along with Buzzfeed quizzes asking “which SATC or Little Women” character you are, there is always a lot of fanfare about which Jane Austen heroine you are.

But beyond the big three. Well mostly … big two. Who are the women of Jane Austen’s completed novels? How do they reveal to us, her modern audience, any insight into her growth as an author, her politics, and just how she feels about what makes a girlboss and #girlboss.

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

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.

Writer’s Block Research

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? It is a crippling and debilitating affliction that rivels writer’s cramp for its perniciousness.

Researchers, knowing the harm that writer’s block can cause, have been undertaking decades of research into potential treatments. The seminal work was written in 1974 by Dennis Upper.

Source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311997/

As you can see, it was a very concise paper that encapsulated the issue perfectly. Upper’s research was semi-influential and spawned several other studies on the issue. This culminated in a meta-analysis in 2014.

The meta-analysis covered all the relevant studies and data from 40 years of research. The study makes it clear that most treatments are unsuccessful at addressing writer’s block. Table 1, below, outlines the body of research and word counts under each treatment setting.

Full paper here.

While these studies and the meta-analysis suggest that there is no hope for those suffering from this disease, we shouldn’t be shuffling those afflicted into a career in programming bitcoin farms. They need to be treated with dignity and respect, not cast aside into worthless activities that destroy the planet.

So, before it is too late for writer’s block sufferers, try to talk to them about how many words Stephen King writes per day. Mention that Enid Blyton wrote over 800 novels in her career, including a period of time where it wasn’t uncommon for her to write a book every two to three days. Or that Ryoki Inoue published 1075 novels and that he writes night and day without any breaks until he finishes a book. 

Why We Keep Retelling the Classics

This month’s It’d Lit! is all about stealing your story ideas from others.

I’ve previously discussed how few plots there are and how certain archetypes trace their origins back as far as we have records for. One example of this is the wandering hero, or knight errant, arriving in town to take on the bad guys before moving off for the next adventure. This is a popular genre – think Jack Reacher – and has its origins at least as far back as the Greek myths and East Asian folklore.

So is this recycling or is it about the formula storytellers use as the basic backbone to hang their narrative off of?

I’d argue the latter. This is especially true of the examples of “inspired by” or “fan-fic” from the video (and elsewhere). The storyteller will have been thinking about that awesome story and what they’d have liked to do differently, or set it in a different location.

For example, the best Die Hard sequels haven’t been in the Die Hard franchise. Instead, they have been Die Hard On a Bus, or Die Hard On a Plane, or Die Hard In the Whitehouse. The fact you probably know exactly which movies those refer to shows how the basic premise being adapted doesn’t cut down on the creativity. Well, mostly.

And even if the recycling isn’t quite as overt as Die Hard On a Boat, all stories are inspired by or are a combination of the stories that came before. The storyteller has to start somewhere. Preferably not with Die Hard On a Train, the sequel to Die Hard On a Boat.

From James Joyce’s Ulysses to Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ve probably read a book that was just a modern retelling of a well-established story. Which is to say nothing of other forms of media and their own obsessions with retellings.

And despite what your Writing 101 instincts might tell you, this is neither bad nor lazy writing—or even a new concept. Because let’s be honest: sometimes a story is just so dang good, it bears repeating. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes multiple times. I’m looking at you, Jane Austen.

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

Book review: 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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What You Don’t Know About The Father of Sci-Fi – HG Wells

Let’s take a look at the works of HG Wells with this month’s It’s Lit!

A few years ago I read and re-read several of HG Wells’ novels. The thing that I was struck by was just how dry and dull the stories were.

Don’t get me wrong, the concepts, characters, plots, etc, are all good. The problem was how a story would be bookended or be a recounted narrative or some other technique that removed just about any tension or engagement. It was like setting fire to a classic sports car to get insurance money to buy a Toyota Corolla.

But it was a different time. Wells wrote for a different audience. We can forgive him.

Or can we?

One thing not discussed in the video is Wells’ long history of plagiarism. Several of his “big ideas” were lifted straight from other lesser-known authors. The novel that set him up as a professional writer was ripped directly from the unknown Florence Deeks. Not satisfied with having gotten away with the theft, Well’s decided to ruin Deeks.

So in terms of things we didn’t know about Well’s, I think him going against his own socialist values by plagiarising is near the top of the list.

H.G. Wells is a name that is synonymous with the creation of what we now know as science fiction. He effectively invented the subgenre of alien invasion, he coined now-ubiquitous terms “time machine,” “heat ray” and even disputably “the new world order.” But what most people don’t know about Wells is that although today he is predominantly known for his science fiction, his career as an SF author was pretty short.

Wells wrote dozens of novels, most of which weren’t science fiction. But despite the relatively few science fiction works he wrote in comparison to his vast oeuvre, Wells was an influential thinker – not just for the genre of science fiction, but for science’s relationship to the culture at large.

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

Book review: 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 vs Movie: Dune – What’s the Difference?

With the new Dune movie coming soon, it’s time to look at the 80s adaptation’s differences from the classic novel.

On the train to work the other day I noticed that in my carriage half the people reading books were reading Dune – mostly the first novel but some were reading other parts of the series. It was somewhat surprising.

Then about a week later I was in a book store and saw that they had an entire shelf of Dune novels and a new edition of the first novel in piles at the front of the store. It was then that I remembered Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation was coming out soon.

Now of course, I’m so ahead of the game that I read Dune *checks notes* 3 years ago. I even discussed the Dune series’ importance just last year.

For me the main thing about the David Lynch adaptation was that it needed to be a political thriller. Instead it was a drama.

Not that the film isn’t without tension and thrills, like the running across the desert without the thumpers and trying to avoid the worms. But the book needed to be stripped back to that political thriller plot to hang the conflict and civil war on.

I’m not sure what Villeneuve plans to do, but he is a very accomplished storyteller. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds where Lynch managed to find himself crying in the corner he’d painted himself into.

Dune is coming back to the big screen while Denis Villenueve and Timothee Chalamet crashing a sandworm into your HBO Max as well, so it’s time to take a look back at the adaptation from David Lynch back in 1984. Based on the Frank Herbert epic, Dune is considered to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. So how did an indie auteur make a big budget Hollywood adaptation out of a dense fantasy epic? It’s time to remember, fear is the mind killer as we ask, What’s the Difference?

Starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, Sting as the space-underwear clad Feyd-Rautha and the soon-to-be Captain Picard Patrick Stewart, Lynch brought together a fascinating group of 80s character actors like Dean Stockwell, Linda Hunt and Jurgen Prochnow to fill out the cast. A critical and commercial failure when it came out, and in light of prior failed attempts to adapt the sci fi fantasy all-timer, which included Jodorowsky’s Dune, the book was long thought to be unfilmable. With the Atreides and Harkonnen rekindling their big screen rivalry in the form of Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya and a cast as stellar as the one Lynch assembled, we’ll see how 2021’s adaptation fares.

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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Book review: Better Than Life by Grant Naylor

Better than Life (Red Dwarf #2)Better than Life by Grant Naylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The only time watching snooker isn’t boring is when you scale it up.

The crew of Red Dwarf are trapped in the most addictive game of all time: Better Than Life. Most people become trapped because they don’t even realise they are in the game, but Lister, Rimmer, Cat, and Kryten know it. They’ve even thought of leaving. Can they get out before Holly and the Toaster manage to crash into a black hole?

After reading Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Red Dwarf #1), I couldn’t help but continue straight into Better Than Life. The former finished with the Red Dwarf crew stuck in BTL, which is something of a cliffhanger. BTL similarly finishes on a bit of a cliffhanger that appears to lead into Backwards (although, Last Human is also a direct sequel to this, because reasons*).

Much like the first novel, this fleshes out ideas and episodes from the first few seasons of Red Dwarf. While it has been quite a while since I watched the show, I think the books do more with the material and rely on less of the banter/insults for humour. And like the first novel, I was pleasantly reminded of just how funny these books (and the show) are.

I’m looking forward to reading Backwards and Last Human soon.

* The reason being that Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had two more books on their contract to deliver and they had decided to separate as a writing team. The exact reasons for the separation are unclear, even to the duo themselves it seems, and Doug Naylor has continued Red Dwarf without Grant.

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