Book review: Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

Old Man's War (Old Man's War, #1)Old Man’s War by John Scalzi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

That feeling when you call someone a young whippersnapper and realise it’s your reflection in the mirror.

Widower John Perry has reached his seventy-fifth birthday and enlisted. The Colonial Defense Force are waging war across the universe and need old feeble bodies to join their fighting forces. After some upgrades and basic training, Perry and his new comrades are sent off to meet strange new people and cultures and kill the sons of bitches as quickly as possible.

When I finished reading I knew exactly what I was going to say about Old Man’s War. My entire review could be summarised as: It was fine. Just fine.

I decided to read Old Man’s War after my mixed feelings from reading Redshirts. To assuage those mixed feelings, I picked up Scalzi’s highest-rated book. And in many respects, it delivered. The “fresh” take on classic sci-fi novels from the likes of Heinlein was entertaining. But unlike those classics, I found myself nitpicking at various ideas and premises rather than being filled with wonder.

One of the premises I found hard to swallow was that in the infinite reaches of space, habitable planets are hotly contested property. Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around that one. Even Scalzi’s handwaving explanation in the book feels like someone fully cognizant of just how much hand flapping he’s doing.* Given that this is the central conceit for the novel, it felt like there either needed to be better groundwork or less attention drawn to how close that premise circles the plot hole.

In my review of Redshirts, I noted two things that apply to Old Man’s War as well. He said. He said. The first is that this novel is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is. It’s only upon reflection that I realised that many of the scenes were meant to be funny. Not the ideal time to notice the jokes. The second was the dialogue tags that often felt redundant and only there to remind you that the dialogue that could have been said by anyone had been said by a specific anyone.

This was an okay novel. Old Man’s War was entertaining enough to read but after two novels I’m not sure Scalzi entertains me enough for a third.

* And related to that particular scene was a scene that justified war and implied diplomacy didn’t have a place in this world. I’m not sure if that scene was meant to be ridiculously heavy-handed or if it was meant to be funny. Bit of a fail whichever way it was meant to fall.

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Book review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s so unrealistic to have Disney gradually taking over the world.

Jules has moved in with his girlfriend Lil – someone 15% his age at ~20 – at Disney World. As members of the ad hoc who had taken over Disney with the rise of the post-scarcity, post-death, Bitchun Society, they were there to have fun and accumulate Whuffie. His old friend Dan reappears in his life and someone murders Jules. Then another ad hoc tries to take over Jules and Lil’s part of Disney. Where reputation is everything, they have to put theirs on the line to fight back.

I’d heard of Cory Doctorow long before I realised he was an author. Sure, he was at writers festivals and associated events, but he never seemed to be there promoting a book so much as talking about copyright or Amazon or what sort of barrel publishing houses used with authors. So it has taken me quite a while to pick up one of his books.

I’m not sure how to rate this book. It was a fun read. The world-building was done effortlessly and didn’t pad things out – refreshing after the last sci-fi novel I read and DNF’d. Cory has also added in some very interesting ideas and explorations, particularly around what would happen post-scarcity and post-death. He even manages to stick the satirical boot in.

But now that I’ve finished the book, I’m not sure there was anything particularly remarkable about it. Possibly my feelings on the matter are related to the somewhat bland ending. Possibly it is related to how the moral questions raised were answered with a shoulder shrug. Maybe it’s just that this was a good but not great novel that promised more.

An entertaining read that explores some interesting territory.

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Book review: The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist RevolutionThe Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Beastie Boys said you gotta fight for your right to… exist?

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of Kameron Hurley’s essays that tie to the themes of feminism, representation in media, and not putting up with bullshit. Some of the essays also discuss being an author and all the fun that entails.

After finishing this collection I feel remiss for not having read any of Hurley’s work previously. I picked up a copy from the library after my sister recommended it to me – it’s literally the only title they have of Kameron’s. Hurley is passionate, often angry, and always eyeing off ways to make the world suck a little less.

It is difficult to go into specifics given the range of topics covered. Some highlights were around the 20-30% figure and women’s erasure from “the narrative” of history. That statistic is the fairly consistent proportion of women involved in conflicts throughout history. They have always fought, but that is not the way history is told to us. The concept of a dominant narrative that suits and reinforces ruling social structures is not new to me, but one I don’t feel I’ve heard enough about, making it always welcome in my reading. The insights on being a speculative fiction author were also excellent.

The only aspect that I didn’t enjoy in this collection was that it was a tad repetitive. That is to be expected with a collection of previously published essays. There’s bound to be a bit of overlap.

A very interesting collection of essays, particularly for those interested in speculative fiction and pop-culture.

Your voice is powerful. Your voice has meaning. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t work so hard to silence you.
Remember that.

 

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Book review: Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-RightKill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right by Angela Nagle

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

“Your mild demands made me become a Nazi.”

In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle attempts to document and explain the rise of the Alt-Right out of the online space and into the Oval Office. She discusses many of the toxic forums and their leading mouthpieces and their war against the left/liberals in their forums/safe-spaces.

This book hit my TBR list as it was highly recommended and one of the few to document the online culture that lead to the rise of a change in political and social discourse worldwide. Having existed online and been familiar with many of the “players”, I was hoping for some deeper insights and analysis of how these forums become toxic and how that spreads out.

Let’s just say that this is not the book I was hoping for.

For much of Kill All Normies, I found myself thinking that I don’t just disagree with many of the points made, but that Nagle gets many things factually incorrect or offers up a very poor understanding of points raised.* If I was unfamiliar with much of the material, this book would have been very misleading. Just one example of this, in a later chapter Nagle refers to Germaine Greer being de-platformed over transphobic comments, to which she claims Greer hadn’t written about trans-issues in 15 years. That’s blatantly false. In fact, worse, it is a lie from transphobic sources that this book is meant to be, in part, critiquing.

This article offers a few more examples, including the Greer example. Another accuses her of plagiarism. Apparently, Nagle and Zero Books (her publisher) had both offered rebuttals to these pieces, but they are now dead links.

Another problem I had with Kill All Normies was that a lot of Nagle’s expressed opinions seemed to utilise the terms of reference used by those she was supposedly exposing. But only in one direction. For example, when Nagle criticised the online misogynists she would treat their claims as having merit, but when she was criticising the multiple genders of Tumblr** they were treated as though they didn’t have merit.

There was also a level of misrepresentation or laziness in the accurate portrayal of several events mentioned. One of the above-linked articles discusses a Jordan Peterson example. I noted an egregious one about Milo Yiannopoulos. The Berkley campus protests that shut down Milo’s talk supposedly shows an unwillingness to engage him in debate and challenge his ideas, instead resorting to shutting down free speech… Except that’s revisionist nonsense that ignores several hard facts. Milo wasn’t actually available for a debate, he was there to lecture and browbeat unprepared audience members during Q&A. Given that these examples were key to Nagle’s argument about how these bad ideas should be addressed and challenged with the liberal idea of debate and free speech and the market place of ideas and… Well, that might be a tad hard to do when you don’t get to have any free speech other than protests outside the venue.

There were also several things I felt were lacking in the coverage of the online culture wars. Very little was said about the atheist and skeptic YouTube movements that are noted for their early adoption of anti-SJW and anti-feminist stances. This is especially important given many are seen as gateways to the Alt-Right, often platform Alt-Right figures, and would fit the definition of Alt-Lite. I mean, Carl “Sargon” Benjamin even went into politics with the far-right UKIP party and was referred to as a great entry point to the Alt-Right by white nationalist*** Richard Spencer. How can you leave that out?

Nagle also didn’t cover a very important part of the Alt-Lite and Alt-Right, particularly the online media it has created. The money. While much of the book makes it sound like the internet is filled with communities living off of one another, crowdfunding being racist or bronies – depending upon your kink. This ignores the documented money coming from rich conservatives interested in promoting their agenda on one side of this culture war. And prior to this, there was also the organised astroturfing that occurred, again funded by rich conservatives, that fed into a lot of the online communities (some of this was documented in training sessions organised during the Tea Party movement). Suddenly that crowdfunded “both sides” feel to the online communities takes on a more one-sided and darker reality than portrayed in the book.

Finally, I come to my main critique which is also the underlying thesis of the book. Nagle is essentially arguing throughout that all of these really nasty, racist, sexist, bigoted forums and subsequent culture is the left’s**** fault because they have been successful in getting gay married, not having women tied to the kitchen sink, and having public discussions of other progressive ideas. The Shock! The Horror! This is the classic “the left caused people to drop liberal principles and become alt-right extremists” argument that Matt Bors skewered. It is no less stupid and unsupported here than elsewhere.

fault right
Source. Check out Matt’s other comics as well.

I’d be near the front of the line to agree that “the left” is filled with smug intolerant people, a la the Vampire Castle. But much like the criticism of Exiting the Vampire Castle, it’s a tad unwise to treat the issues being raised by those “lefties” as somehow wrong or a valid reason for someone to pushback and become a Nazi. There has always been pushback against successful progressive social changes, and while many of the reactionary behaviours we see in the culture wars exist across the political spectrum, a proper critic of these culture wars would address these arguments more carefully, with more insight, and would stop pretending that Alt-Right propaganda claims are valid points to base a thesis around.

I was highly disappointed and annoyed with this book.

* There is also a very important point to be made about Nagle’s lack of quantitative insight. One piece of data I keep thinking back to is the demographics of various online platforms. It is interesting to note that male-dominated forums (4chan, sub-Reddits, Youtube comments sections) tend to be more toxic than those with a neutral or female dominant audience (Tumblr). Almost as if there is an important point to be made here. With stats. With some analysis. Something. Side note, women are larger users of social media than men.

** The Tumblr list used in the book wasn’t actually from Tumblr and most likely a satirical version.

*** Richard Spencer loves to dance around being called a white nationalist or neo-Nazi, but that’s just because he knows those terms are toxic. It’s why he coined the rebranding term Alt-Right.

**** A lot of the points being made about left/liberal people (two very different groups that appear to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, odd given that Nagle identifies as a feminist lefty) amount to lefties can be reactionaries too (call-out culture, etc). Oddly, not much discussion of the reactionary nature of all the groups being discussed and how that feeds the culture wars.

I apologise for posting a negative review. As I said in my negative review of Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, I will try to keep my blog reviews 3 stars and above. I will endeavour to keep the exceptions to a minimum.

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Another review of Kill All Normies.

Book review: Altered Carbon by Richard K Morgan

Altered Carbon (Takeshi Kovacs, #1)Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Invent technology to make interstellar travel possible. Use it to make rich people immortal.

Takeshi Kovacs is a former elite soldier – Envoy – who becomes a criminal on Harlan’s World and has his body killed. Thanks to the technology of stored consciousness – via cortical stacks – he is revived on Earth to solve the body death of one of the richest men on the planet. The police think Bancroft committed suicide, the evidence suggests suicide, but Bancroft is convinced he wouldn’t kill himself after centuries of living. Kovacs starts treading through the underbelly of Earth and tries to discover if it was suicide or murder.

Altered Carbon has been on my TBR pile for almost a decade. My uncle recommended it again a few years ago, which got it bumped up the list. But, as with all TBR piles, it took a TV adaptation to get the novel read. I enjoyed the TV series, particularly on a second viewing. I’d say I enjoyed the book a similar amount but in a different way.

I commented in a blog post about the show that I enjoyed the themes even if the aesthetic was borrowed from Blade Runner. Kovacs in the show is a grumpier and more adept character than the novel. The show also has a more personal feel to many of the characters and makes the female characters feel less like a description of sexy body parts. Pretty amazing given the amount of nudity in the show.

What I think I liked most about the novel was one of the themes. Morgan expressed it like this:

“Society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an élite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the majority whom the system oppresses.” Source.

This resonated with me given the sorts of non-fiction I’ve been reading lately. Not to mention some of the things happening in the world these days… It made this hard-boiled cyberpunk novel very entertaining.

Well worth reading before or after watching the TV show.*

A couple of quotes related to that theme:

“Kristin, nothing ever does change.” I jerked a thumb back at the crowd outside. “You’ll always have morons like that, swallowing belief patterns whole so they don’t have to think for themselves. You’ll always have people like Kawahara and the Bancrofts to push their buttons and cash in on the program. People like you to make sure the game runs smoothly and the rules don’t get broken too often. And when the Meths want to break the rules themselves, they’ll send people like Trepp and me to do it. That’s the truth, Kristin. It’s been the truth since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago and from what I read in the history books, it’s never been any different. Better get used to it.”

“You live that long, things start happening to you. You get too impressed with yourself. Ends up, you think you’re God. Suddenly the little people, thirty, maybe forty years old, well, they don’t really matter anymore. You’ve seen whole societies rise and fall, and you start to feel you’re standing outside it all, and none of it really matters to you. And maybe you’ll start snuffing those little people, just like picking daisies, if they get under your feet.”

* Is it accurate to call them TV shows now? We watch them on TV, but would it be more accurate to call them streaming shows since they aren’t made for TV networks?

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Book review: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

Capitalist Realism is a long essay or short book that argues we – as in Americans, but pretty much everyone on the planet – are so emersed in capitalism that we have no frame of reference for anything else. Mark Fisher argues that this both impedes our ability to reform or fight back against the worst aspects of capitalism, and/or to develop other socio-political societies. This is, of course, he argues, bad.

This was an interesting book. There were some truly eye-opening and enlightening moments where Fisher managed to capture an idea or concept in a concise and accessible way. He makes high-level critical analysis easy to read and understand, and not like an obtuse – or is that acute? – philosophy textbook.

It was somewhat less interesting when it drew upon pop-culture references. These references were often very good and served as a great way to make points or analogies. But some undermined any points being made by the very subjective interpretations and associations used. E.g. Kurt Cobain being the last self-aware musician was a little too reductionist. Trying to argue that Cobain could see himself being commodified and thus sought escape ignores so much of what made Cobain the person he was.

Then there were the Zizek references… and so on and sniff so on. I’ve only a passing knowledge of Zizek, but many of the philosophers I follow on social media have the same thoughts on him as I have. That is, Zizek is a sloppy thinker who gets distracted from any point he is trying to make and ends up chasing his tail around. To quote Chomsky: “There’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t.” Which, again, tends to undermine the points a bit, as it can be seen as selective and potentially misrepresentative.

Overall, this was fascinating. I think Fisher’s main points are worth serious thought and action. And at 80 pages, this probably needs to be read a few times.

https://www.reddit.com/r/ChapoTrapHou…

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Book review: Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

Death on the Nile (Hercule Poirot, #17)Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than a group of rich people travelling together.

Hercule Poirot decides that he has earned himself a holiday and thinks it would be nice to travel up The Nile in Eygpt. As he ventures out he meets a newlywed couple, their stalker, their maid, their trustee, a romance novelist and her daughter, a socialite and her cousin and nurse, a mother and son, a communist, an archaeologist, a solicitor, a doctor, and Poirot’s friend Colonel Race. He is soon taken into the confidence of newlywed Linnet and her stalker Jacqueline and thinks that it will not be long before something tragic happens. But more than one person is targeting Linnet and it isn’t long before Poirot has another mystery to solve.

I read my first Agatha Christie Poirot novel a couple of years ago and felt that it was time for another. In that previous outing, I had enjoyed discovering many of the mystery tropes in their original form. This time, knowing what to expect, I was more interested in the story itself. Which was okay.

This mystery was interesting and I enjoyed the use of multiple crimes to muddy the waters. Christie certainly earned her reputation. But it did all feel just a little bit quaint. Whether it be the characters reminding you of the class system the Brits loved (and still do), or that the setting could have been the steamer or a country manor – as long as it had a sitting room. You can’t help but agree with the commie character that a few more could do with shooting.

I’m probably being a little harsh. This was a quick and entertaining read that was enjoyable. And they are making it into a movie soon, so best to read it before watching the movie.

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