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: 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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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: 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.

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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Octavia Butler, The Grand Dame of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

I logged onto my local library catalogue. Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book 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: 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: 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: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

Lovecraft CountryLovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lovecraft Country: where the monsters play second fiddle to the racism.

Atticus Turner’s family has a secret link to the powerful Braithwhite family. The Braithwhites are part of a sect of natural philosophers, and they have designs on Atticus, his family, and his friends. Each of them are playing a part in Caleb Braithwhite’s plan [spoilers]which is, shock-horror, to take over the world… that is to say the USA[/spoilers]. Can Atticus and his kin triumph, even in Jim Crow America’s Lovecraft Country?

I think I was about two chapters in when I remarked how good this book was. Ruff’s weaving together of (US) black history and Lovecraftian themes made for compelling reading. Reading it in 2020 after Black Lives Matter has swept across much of the global north was a timely reminder of how there is still a lot to be done.

It was odd having to remind myself that many of the things in this book actually happened. Okay, I’m not entirely convinced that someone has figured out how to create a portal between worlds, but white people deciding to kill their new black neighbours because they are afraid of the impact on their house value, that was (is??) a thing.

The only real flaws for me was that there were a few sections that felt unnecessary (e.g. Rose’s new job) and that the racism could feel a bit off. This latter point is about how Ruff is telling us all what it was like to be black in America. It is hard for me to judge how accurate the handling of this was, as I’m not old or black enough to really understand, and the same could be said of Ruff. I wonder how historically accurate this story is – the racism, not the secret society of rich white guys using their power and influence to control the world, which is obviously bang on.

I think any flaws can be forgiven thanks to the payoff of the climactic scene. Weaving all of the narrative and thematic elements together for a single dialogue exchange was damned near as good an ending as you could hope for.

Lovecraft Country is well worth reading.

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Book vs Movie: They Live – What’s the Difference?

This installment of What’s the Difference? covers one of the classics of 80s filmmaking. CineFix gives a big middle finger to the man with They Live.

Does anyone else remember video rental stores? No? Just me?

Okay, so imagine there’s a Netflix but instead of a library of movies of questionable quality and some series that will be cancelled after two seasons on your TV, there is a store you visit to borrow these shows and movies.* You can only borrow a few at a time for no longer than a week. And these borrowings are handed to you on a thing called a VHS tape cassette. This is deemed superior to watching broadcast TV, which consists of two channels, one of which is Elvis movie re-runs and sport, the other is designed to appeal to people whose hip isn’t up to making it out on Sunday mornings anymore.

Anyway, VHS rental tapes used to have a lot of junk before the start of the movie. This included anti-piracy warnings, a helpful reminder that this was a VHS tape, warnings about not pirating this tape, and trailers for other available titles. Fast-forwarding didn’t work that well, due in part to the slowness of fast-forwarding at the time, and the ingenuity of some dirtbag at the VHS factory who made sure all anti-piracy warnings took into account fast-forwarding in their design. Honestly, it was just easier to set the tape playing, go and fetch snacks, and come back when you stopped hearing super-serious voice-overs.

It was on one of those rented VHS tapes that I first saw an incredibly cheesy late 80s early 90s voice-over trailer for They Live. To say I desperately wanted to see it was an understatement

Of course, back in those days, we had to walk 50 cubits through freezing deserts up hill wearing a bag filled with bricks to get to the physical not-Netflix store. And while they called themselves a video rental business, there was no guarantee they had any of the films that were advertised on their videos. They Live was certainly one of the films not at our store. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I saw a censored for TV version of the film.

The reason I tell this tragic story of childhood disappointment is to highlight how long I had to wait to actually see They Live. And despite that anticipation, the movie still met/exceeded my expectations. It is a classic of B-movies and one that has only gained more appreciation with time rather than less. As discussed in the Cinefix video, the themes about unrestrained capitalism are even more relevant today with a reality TV star for US president, billionaires splattered all over our media, and growing inequality.

The original short story and comic (linked below) are used as the premise of the movie. But as discussed in the video, you can do things in a short story that you can’t in a movie. That means we have to show more of the world, establish characters, kick-ass and chew bubblegum. If anything, I was disappointed with the short story after seeing the movie.

If there is any year to read Eight O’Clock in the Morning and watch They Live, it is 2020.

The comic based upon Ray Nelson’s story:
http://sapcomics.blogspot.com/2012/01/nada.html

The original short story Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson

* If anyone wants to comment on the origins of Netflix as a response to Blockbuster and late fees, feel free.

Book review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1)Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sing a happy song about imperialism… Oh, there aren’t any?

Breq is all that remains of the once-great warship Justice of Toren. Having been a ship for over a thousand years, she is somewhat annoyed at having been destroyed to keep a cold-war secret. In the 20 years since the destruction, she has travelled to find the tools needed to bring justice for the ship and crew to the Radch. With her new sidekick, Seivarden, she plans to turn the cold-war hot.

In the first few chapters of Ancillary Justice, I wasn’t sure if I was enjoying the story. The usual checkboxes for sci-fi novels were being ticked, but that didn’t really feel like enough to push this into the enjoyment zone. Since this is an award-winning novel, I persisted. Now at the end of the novel, I’m left with the same feeling.

If I could summarise my feeling about Ancillary Justice, it would be that this is an okay novel. Want a sci-fi novel? Then this is certainly one of those.

Reading that summary back, I admit it sounds very scathing. So I want to make it clear that this isn’t a bad book. There is a lot to enjoy with it and is generally well-executed. And in the grand tradition of sci-fi, the satisfying ending still leaves plenty for the sequel. I guess I just didn’t bond with Leckie’s much-hyped novel as much as I expected.

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The Constructed Languages of JRR Tolkien

Let’s have a look at making up languages for stories.

I don’t know how I feel about constructed languages in fiction. On the one hand, it can be a great part of worldbuilding, something that adds another layer of realism or interest to the story. On the other hand, it’s a fake language that I’m going to skip reading because I can’t understand it BECAUSE IT’S MADE UP AND NO ONE BUT THE AUTHOR UNDERSTANDS IT.

Obviously, a lot of thought goes into worldbuilding, particularly in sci-fi and fantasy. Part of that will be trying to come up with interesting places that naturally derive the conflicts of the story. Where would it be realistic for a clan of ninja pirates to run a soup kitchen for homeless astronauts? What sort of world would allow a conflict between the soup kitchen and a basketweaving franchise run by outcast chartered accountants?* These are not easy things to construct in a satisfying and consistent/rational way.

Language is a natural extension of this worldbuilding. The ninja pirates are clearly not going to have the same slang or language as the chartered accountants. But they still have to be understood by the homeless astronauts. Does this require a language though? Does it even require rational slang? Is it going to feel natural to Ar and Eye through dialogue or is it going to feel annoying and distracting?

When all said and done, is this just backstory that doesn’t need to appear on the page? Often what happens is that because someone has put so much time and effort into creating a language (or other worldbuilding antics) they feel the desperate need to make sure every excruciating detail is given to the reader. Some readers may enjoy tolerate this, but others may sign the offending author up to be the chief target holder at the World Beginners’ Archery Contest.

As with everything in writing, good execution is key. Especially if you want to avoid just the execution.

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Funny meme is inaccurate**

Tolkien is widely regarded as the most influential author on the fantasy genre… period. But one of the less-discussed aspects of his work is the way Tolkien used constructed language in his writing.

Nowadays authors are constantly making up words and languages for the worlds they build, but Tolkien was unique in that he constructed languages first, and then created worlds so his fictional languages would have somewhere to live.

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.

This channel has an interesting series on writing craft and worldbuilding. The most recent video covered social structures that has some nice parallels with language.

* The answer to both of these questions is, of course, Florida. I don’t want this to sound mean to Floridians, but the latest “Florida man/woman” arrests news articles suggest if there is a place anything could happen, it is Florida.

** Had to share the meme, but a friend of a friend pointed out it is inaccurate, and that Amon Amarth are awesome:

Russell K
Yeah, hate to be that guy, but Treebeard had a name that “was growing all the time” – Treebeard was shorthand for hobbitish convenience. Tolkien had multiple names for most things, and it’s disingenuous for the OP to pick on just one. Mount Doom, for example, was Orodruin and Amon Amarth, a name so evocative it was co-opted by a melodic death metal band.

We’ve stopped reading… Apparently.

Have you ever run across one of those opinion pieces where you understand exactly where the author is coming from but realise they are shaking the wrong end of the stick?

Well, I found one of those pieces on how people have stopped reading novels. Apparently.

The article starts strongly, outlining the evidence for the argument. We get to hear about the “many” conversations that the author has had that confirm their belief.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

I’m obviously overwhelmed with this high-quality anecdata. The $122 billion publishing industry, which is expected to grow by 6% by 2023, is bound to just give up now and stop releasing books.

But don’t worry, the author has more evidence…

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

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So obviously, the author of this piece is clearly and utterly wrong. They do, however, touch on something important I’d like to discuss. But before I do… I need to say something.

These kinds of unresearched posts written by influential opinion havers annoy me. How hard is it to fact check your uninformed pubinion (get it, pub + opinion) before letting it out into the world? Couldn’t you just keep this sort of uninformed blathering confined to a drunken evening with your mates who won’t remember it in the morning? I mean, check any data on reading, any data on books sales, any data from readers, and you’ll see there are plenty of people reading novels.

But sure, one writer for The Guardian (and elsewhere) and a few their mates haven’t read a book lately, so its all over. Sound The Last Post and bring in the flags, we’re done here.

Really makes you want to start hunting people for sport… I kid, I kid.*

I think a big part of the problem with this argument is that the author doesn’t recognise the actual issue. They burnt out on reading a very specific type of sci-fi/fantasy novel. Yes, they might complain about the bad self-published novels ruining the industry – did I mention they used to write for The Guardian? – but it is clear they don’t read very widely. If I was reading half-a-dozen literary sci-fi/fantasy novels a month, I’d probably be removing any sharp objects from my house to alleviate any spur of the moment desires.

Would it have hurt them to branch out and read some non-literary sci-fi/fantasy? Maybe mix in some romance, crime, western, graphic novels, something, anything, just to have a change of pace. For myself, as much as I love sci-fi, I read just as many fantasies, crime, thriller, horror, philosophy, and non-fiction titles.

This is part of why I dislike the book warden and worthy approach to reading. Those “great books” cause burnout. People stop enjoying reading and engage in other forms of entertainment. The article author mentions several of these, such as the competition from digital and social media, and the rise of prestige television. And to some extent this is happening already, people aren’t reading books because the novels they are told are the important or best ones to read aren’t as interesting as gaming, or TV, or movies.

By not identifying the actual problem it becomes very easy to lay the blame in exactly the wrong place. Let’s blame Dan Brown. How dare he entertain people with his terrible books. Let’s blame self-publishing. How dare authors release the equivalent of pulp novels onto the market. Let’s blame all those books I refuse to read as the reason I’m not reading. But the problem is the “great books” mentality and sticking to only one type of “worthy” novel.

The author wants a revolution in the industry to bring about the novel equivalent that “Mad Men or Breaking Bad” were to TV. But I’d suggest they would miss the revolution. They’ve walled themselves off in one specific sub-genre, complaining about how there aren’t enough shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, that they missed Deadwood, The Wire, and literally every other show.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to acknowledge that there is more to novels than the ones marked “Literary Snob Approved”.**

* Although, you might want to start running, and don’t forget your haversack and hunting knife.

** Also known as Award Winning.

Book review: Thirteen by Richard K Morgan

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When society stops being violent someone will try to genetically re-engineer violence.

Carl Marsalis is a specialist bounty hunter. Genetically engineered and indoctrinated from birth to be a dangerous weapon, he now hunts others like him. After landing in prison in the wrong part of the former USA – Jesusland – he is seconded to track down someone who is killing his way across the former USA after eating his way through the crew of a Mars-to-Earth flight. But the cannibal seems to be a step ahead of the game and not picking targets at random. It’s as though he has help and is possibly working for someone as their hitman.

After recently finishing the Altered Carbon series, I decided to see what other Morgan novels I could get my hands on. Thirteen promised to be similar to Altered Carbon. The setting was similarly cyber-punk, the mystery/detective narrative is front and centre, and Marsalis likes to get violent and have sex with any and all female characters.

But where Altered Carbon used those elements in a compelling way, Thirteen was too indulgent with them. The novel feels padded out and runs far too long. This leads to pacing problems, with some sections really bogging down. The charisma of Kovacs is not present in Marsalis, despite their similarities, so you don’t feel the same thrill from him dispatching a bad guy or having the love interest* throw herself at him.

I think I could have forgiven those aspects a bit more if it weren’t for the “conversations” between characters about genetics. These were long discussions that bashed the reader with the point. I’d have had less of a problem with them if they weren’t quite so wrong on the science. The “conversations” amounted to telling us that we are essentially only our genetics. That’s not only nonsense (GxExM is how we discuss genetics in science) but is pretty much spouting modern-day scientific racism.**

That point is particularly ironic given the obvious analogies for racism and backward thinking being drawn. “Look at how backward these religious bigots are. Look at how badly they treat black people. Hey, check out my thinly veiled racism disguised as science!” I don’t know if I missed something, but this really did read to me as admonishing racism whilst justifying it as not something we can get over. If that was Morgan’s point, then it would have been great if he could have done it in about 150 pages less.

With all that said, this was still enjoyable and I am looking forward to reading more from Morgan.

* I’m being overly flippant and critical here. Sevgi Ertekin is a fairly well-developed character but her role does appear to be just the love interest and character motivation.

** Yes, scientific racism is back. Modern-day phrenology comes in many forms. Often it is IQ studies and hereditarianism, sometimes it is labelled Human Biodiversity (HBD), other times it will be straight up eugenicists and white nationalists. Reading about its insidious creep into academia and mainstream discourse is sickening.

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Cli-Fi: Can These Books Save The Planet?

Climate Fiction or cli-fi – get it, it’s like sci-fi except with climate… – may trace its origins to early science fiction works, but it has become a (sub) genre of its own in recent years. Who’d have thought that active disinformation and denial campaigns leading to delayed action on such an important issue would lead to a cultural response expressing concern at the lack of action?

This video from the PBS Digital Studios channel Hot Mess offers a great explainer on cli-fi. It also features Lindsay Ellis.

I think many of us would have read or watched cli-fi without really acknowledging it. Sometimes climate change is just a theme or motif because it is a reality writers/creators have absorbed. Other times it is more deliberate with the intention of discussing the issue.

While this can help create a wider acknowledgement and acceptance of climate change, I’m not sure it can help save the planet. I think there was an analogy about a horse and water and beatings or something that works here.

One thing I am hopeful of is that cli-fi will be like the nuclear holocaust fiction, emblematic of the fears of our time, but those fears will prove misplaced due to actions to prevent disaster. Or at least a great resource in the future for the evolved sentient cockroaches looking to understand what happened to our race and the planet.

See also: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/08/climate-fiction-margaret-atwood-literature/400112/

Climate Fiction comes in all sorts of forms, there’s your Mad Maxes, your Games of Thrones, your Parables of the Sowers, and your WALL-Es. But are all these Cli-Fi books, movies, and TV shows just capitalizing on a hot topic, or do they actually change people’s perceptions of climate change? Lindsay Ellis, of It’s Lit, and Amy Brady, the editor-in-chief of The Chicago Review of Books, help us find out.

Read more: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vp6lDmU3vT-NvMTRzCkLW97JfX7FQ4ZLhX0qvTGg-_I/edit

Book review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

The Calculating Stars (Lady Astronaut, #1)The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it does take PhDs in math and physics to explain where babies come from.

In 1952 Elma York and her husband are on a weekend retreat when a meteorite wipes out the east coast of the USA. Elma flies them to safety only to realise that this strike was an extinction-level event. The fledgeling space program is thrown into overdrive, with Elma and her husband deeply involved. But in the race to colonize space, a few people are being overlooked for humanity’s future, and Elma wants to see women go into space too.

Quite simply, I loved this book.

There were so many moments where you feel the frustrations, joys, and unfairness of the 1950s. This is a very human tale mixed with the fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the early space program – reimagined, of course. And while this comes across as hard sci-fi, it doesn’t make the plot nor pacing drag.

Normally I’m not a fan of the alternate history tales. Often they feel gratuitous and unnecessary, like dragging in various famous historical figures for cameos – hey look, Mark Twain is on the Enterprise!! But here the alternate history felt like it served the plot and themes well, and not just some stoned writer saying, hey, what if…

Well worth reading.

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