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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Book vs Movie: Doctor No – What’s the Difference?

With a new Bond movie set for theaters, it’s time to look back at the first James Bond adventure and ask, What’s the Difference?

I still haven’t picked up any of the Bond books. Previously I’ve mentioned having vague memories of reading a couple when I was younger. But honestly, they could have been Biggles books.

Side note: as a kid I always thought that Biggles and his friends were gay. I didn’t really know what that was exactly, but they were definitely it. Monty Python agreed. Pity it wasn’t championed a bit more.

Seeing the differences outlined between the Dr No book and film does highlight an issue with plot vs character adaptation. Especially for a series. Change one and you have to change the other.

Although, it would be interesting to see how a cardboard thin character could be slotted into any plot without change. Like say the majority of Jason Statham’s roles.

No Time to Die finds James Bond, Her Majesty’s most infamous double-oh, retired in Jamaica. But we’re going all the way back to the first time Sean Connery as 007 found his way to the Caribbean Island in 1962’s Doctor No. But while it was the first Bond adventure in the film franchise, it was the sixth book author Ian Fleming published. So how did the filmmakers set about adapting the middle of Bond’s novel career for the beginning of his film escapade? Dust off your license to kill because it’s time to ask, “Difference… What’s the Difference?”

Book review: The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z Muller

The Tyranny of MetricsThe Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Measuring contests are also exaggeration contests.

In The Tyranny of Metrics, Jerry Muller attempts to argue that the introduction of managing by metrics had unforeseen consequences. By mandating “progress” against these metrics we forgot about the unmeasured and unmeasurable aspects. Which was bad. The solution is to be less caught up in managing to metrics and have bosses who use experience and judgement.

This book is a real mixed bag. I’m not sure my rating is fair but I will try to explain why I think this book fails to support its own argument which is pretty self-evidently true.

I wanted to read this book after seeing a short excerpt in Aeon magazine. This essay hinted at covering more broadly something one of my university professors had talked about.

My professor wrote a piece about how the introduction of what has come to be termed “publish or perish” was a terrible idea. He pointed out how it favoured some fields of research over others and established researchers over those early in their career. This obviously risked the very future of academia.

The metrics my professor was concerned about was the use of Impact Factor and number of papers published as part of staff performance measures. Sounds reasonable for academics to publish a certain amount in quality publications, doesn’t it? Except, some fields can produce a research paper in a month or two, while others need several years of experiments. That means the longer production timeline results in fewer papers, fewer citations, and the journals in those fields will have lower impact factors.

Of course, the universities went ahead with this anyway. Funny that higher education has become a bit of a factory churning out degree holders, with retention of postgraduates steadily declining.

This is all to say that Muller’s argument is not new, is well acknowledged as true, and is a serious problem. So in reading this book, I was hoping for some further insights and potential solutions. Which is why I found The Tyranny of Metrics so frustrating to read. On the one hand, it was able to articulate the problem, give examples, and prove its thesis. On the other hand, it would often misunderstand its own argument and provide yet another example of failing to grasp the problem.

One example I highlighted whilst reading was Muller’s discussion of how the epi-pen had its price hiked to make more money. Rather than look at the full picture of what this profit metric focus had done, Muller only looked at part of the picture, missing the impact on the people who couldn’t afford life-saving medicine.

This failure to take in the bigger picture then undermines his own argued solution to The Tyranny of Metrics. Muller thinks that wise and well-informed managers will be able to use their judgement to something something how good is Ayn Rand blah blah blah. My two-word rebuttal to this assertion was: bigotry and nepotism.

In fact, throughout The Tyranny of Metrics, Muller is full of apologetics for management in a way that is bordering on delusional. This shouldn’t have surprised me as he is a big fan of conservatism and capitalism, having written extensively on the two. Kinda hard to critique failures of those things when you’re in love with them.

I’ve been so frustrated by this book. It’s like watching a guy sidle up to the point and then furiously dash off into a field of rakes.

Overall, I can’t recommend The Tyranny of Metrics. While its thesis is true and fairly well supported and argued, it undermines itself constantly and offers grossly flawed solutions.

Comments while reading:
In defining the problem, Muller has already hinted at what he thinks is the solution. Hey, let’s replace these poorly thought out KPIs with whatever the boss reckons. That couldn’t possibly go wrong…

I mean, history isn’t littered with countless examples of racial, sexual, gender, and ethnic discrimination by bosses. No sir. And the saying, it isn’t what you know it’s who you know, isn’t still applicable.

One wonders where we will find all these amazing managers. Do we train them up internally as Muller suggests? Well, doesn’t that remove your best staff from their role and place them into management? Do we regard management as a career in and of itself? Not according to Muller.

This review raises this critique of the book as well: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show…

Makes a good point about university and the unmeasurable benefits of attending, like meeting friends and spouses. Yep, that is a big one that no one even thinks to measure but are probably a big factor in how people view their university experience.

In talking about health care in the USA, he tries to point out factors that drive health outcomes that aren’t part of health care. One example was gun ownership and how “we need to keep guns out of irresponsible hands”… That’s a very American statement. Most any country would just admit that gun ownership is the problem. End of story.

Another very American moment: the epi-pen cost hike example. Interesting that this was framed in terms of the cost of share price and market value, along with confidence in the company. HOW ABOUT THE PEOPLE WHO DIED BECAUSE THE EPI-PEN WAS TOO EXPENSIVE!?!?!

I’m finding the apologism for senior management, CEOs, etc, with regard to the dark side of performance metrics a little on the nose. There’s an element of “how were they to know?” or “employees rewarded for gaming the metrics” statements that are either untrue or a fraction of the story. And when this is used to explain things like the GFC it kinda makes you want to take the entire segment of the population who got shafted by the GFC round to Muller’s place for a little game of dilly twacking.

There are several assumptions built into this apologism, not least of which is the idea that management can’t be expected to know what’s going on in their organisations. But that isn’t incompetence… somehow… The worst aspect of this to my mind, however, is the direct evidence we have from post-GFC investigations that have shown complicit and explicit knowledge throughout the organisations. It’s a little to easy to blame the metrics and a little too easy to say that these were unintended consequences.

Ugh. Book written in 2018 dead names Chelsea Manning who transitioned immediately after her trial, the thing Muller was discussing. This shouldn’t surprise me as it appears Muller wrote a very academic essay saying “gay people should stay in the closet”. Bigotry isn’t okay. https://www.firstthings.com/article/1…

The point about transparency being bad is bonkers. He’s literally talking about war crimes being covered up and how exposing that is somehow bad. This is probably the worst point he makes in the book and shows how little he understands his own subject.

His argument about transparency isn’t without merit. Muller is correct that being too transparent can be detrimental. FOI requests are often weaponised, often the information released is deliberately misconstrued, especially with cherry-picking. But he misses the point about why we have FOIs and transparency. If governments, companies, and other organisations aren’t held accountable then they can literally get away with murder. This requires transparency so that we can create the checks and balances that are often lacking internally (deliberately or otherwise).

Oh, and the irony of writing a book about how metrics have lead us down a dark path but transparency is too idealistic is amazing. How exactly did we learn about metrics being bad without some transparency there Jerry?

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Why Do People Think Huck Finn Is Racist?

This month’s It’s Lit is going to talk about one of the most controversial classics of literature.

I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was very young. The former was an easy and entertaining read, but the latter I remember being a slog to get through. When I revisited Huck Finn as an adult I came across some history of the book which suggested Twain had battled to write the book over many years. This was certainly how the novel felt in reading.

Both times I read Huck Finn, I was struck by just how infantalised Jim’s character was. It felt wrong. And giving it any level of thought leads you to conclude that this was the way white people viewed African Americans at the time the book was written.

You could argue that this is to draw the reader in and have them empathise with the plight of African Americans. But then wouldn’t you also have Jim grow to become an adult equal to other people by the end of the novel? Or was that something Twain struggled with, as it may have not being judged “realistic” to his audience?

Previously, I’ve discussed banned books and Huckleberry Finn. Something this video raised is what I had said about schools teaching Huck Finn, and that is the idea of complex discussions. It’s hard to teach an older text, provide the context, provide the complex subject matter, and do it all justice. Especially when that subject and context is something like racism.

People might say they are no longer teaching or will attempt to ban Huck Finn because of the N-word. But realistically, it’s because they aren’t willing to put the effort into teaching a complex topic and text. Double that unwillingness if they are someone who wants to pretend racism doesn’t exist.

I’m still a fan of old Samuel Clemens. But as noted in the video, this book isn’t without flaws and there are plenty of other authors and books who probably need highlighting more than Twain and Huck Finn.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by American author Mark Twain is both considered one of the great American novels and one of the most frequently banned and contested novels due to its use of the N-word and racial stereotypes. This has launched many debates as to if the work should even be taught in schools.

Today we are going to attempt to crack the case: is Huckleberry Finn an anti-racist work? Or is it just plain ol’ racist?

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: Red Dwarf by Grant Naylor

Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Red Dwarf #1)Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book review will avoid the temptation to use the word smeg.

When Dave Lister gets drunk, he gets DRUNK. Which is how he ended up on a foreign planet with no money, a passport in someone else’s name, and only a storage locker to sleep in. So when a menial job on the mining ship Red Dwarf comes up, he jumps at his chance to get back to Earth. Pity it is going to take a bit longer than he expects.

It’s so nice to revisit an old favourite and appreciate it all over again. I was a little afraid that too much of the Red Dwarf book series would have dated badly. When I read this and when it was published was, after all, when I was in high school. Not to speak poorly of my younger self, but I can remember enjoying all sorts of trash. Red Dwarf was the good stuff.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the humour. I’d forgotten just how funny these books were. I’ve read too many novels that managed to be joke adjacent instead of decently funny.

The other highlight was how this book didn’t hate its characters. At times, particularly in British humour, satirical and humorous novels focus on having us laugh at the loser or inept protagonists. Even Rimmer, someone who is incompetent and useless, is treated as part of the odd-couple rather than the heel.

I enjoyed this so much that I continued straight into Better Than Life (Red Dwarf 2).

NB: if you get the chance, listen to the audiobook narrated by Chris Barrie. He obviously does a great job bringing the book to life, but he also nails every single character’s voice from the show.

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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: The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent

The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity's Search for MeaningThe Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning by Jeremy Lent
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This isn’t a book about seeing shapes in clouds. Especially not that shape.

In The Patterning Instinct Jeremy Lent argues that we humans like to create “patterns” which informs the way we think about things, which in turn shapes the way the world works. But, hey, did you know that those patterns could be wrong, we could think about things in different ways, and that would change the way the world works?

An interesting book with an interesting thesis.

I decided to read The Patterning Instinct after reading Lent’s rebuttal of the “Everything is Fine” nonsense you see trotted out by agents of the status quo. I was expecting that the book would be something similar to The Divide by Jason Hickel, but it was something quite different.

To summarise the book: why don’t we do better by thinking differently?

There. 600 pages summarised.

Obviously there is a bit more to it than that. Lent goes through our history of thinking, patterning behaviours, how those are shaped, have been shaped, and continue to be shaped. His argument is then that our current patterns of thought are kinda stupid (see problems like systemic racism, environmental destruction, and wealth inequality) and we should change the way we think about things.

For example, instead of thinking that the cost of fossil fuels is the price of extraction plus a little something something for the company, we should instead think of the cost of the extraction, the pollution, the remediation, the deaths caused, the tax evasion, and the political manipulation involved in fossil fuels. If we did this we’d act differently and want a different way of powering our society.

Overall this was a very interesting book.

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