This is an enormous fan fic version of the beginning the the Harry Potter story, rewritten portraying Harry as a hyperrationalist.
Not worth five stars...moreThis is an enormous fan fic version of the beginning the the Harry Potter story, rewritten portraying Harry as a hyperrationalist.
Not worth five stars as a work of fiction per se, but fascinating enough to get bumped up to amazing because of several other factors:
• Folks with mildly compulsive rationalist and/or scientific leanings often have trouble with the nonsensical goings on of magical worlds. Occasionally Yudkowsky nails this so well that I was laughing convulsively. That the author sometimes over-indulged in this, and very often got too preachy about aspects of the world that aren't perfectly is probably the biggest flaw here as a work of fiction. Sadly, folks that already know what the fundamental attribution error is, or disdain television news because they understand the availability cascade, and can discuss Kahnemann's System 1 and System 2 at length — well, the choir can get tired of the preaching. And the folks that don't already know that stuff are unlikely to suddenly find the lectures worthwhile, because they really interfere with the flow of the novel. If you enjoyed Rowling's original series, and have at least a passing familiarity with some of that nonsense I just listed, you should take a gander at this.
• Dark, dark, dark. Rowling's book is targeted at young adults — or younger, actually. Yudkowsky's Harry thinks Ron Weasley is too dumb to waste time from day one, so we quickly learn that Harry doesn't tolerate fools. The author seriously engages the question of whether Rowling's bad guys actually have sensible grievances, but are perhaps simply more realistic about moral complexity, as Harry sometimes (but not always) is. Thus, Draco Malfoy becomes a very major character. One of my biggest peeves with most fantasy is the characters go through life-threatening situations yet seldom suffer. Yes, Rowling killed some secondary characters, and kinda killed one major character, but too little too late, really. "What part of suicide mission didn't you understand?" is a line I keep hoping to hear, and I'm happy to say Yudkowsky seems inclined to address that — although you might not enjoy some of the consequences.
• Startlingly good characterizations. Harry becomes in many ways a more complex and layered persona than in the original, and Yudkowsky's Draco is far, far more interesting than one would expect. The adults benefit a little from examining their reactions to the more nuanced Harry, but suffer by being confronted by a child with the mind and experiences that no child could reasonably have attained. The exaggeration of this here actually illuminates a trope that is too common: by privileging a character with knowledge and skills far beyond what a reasonable person could anticipate, those others can too easily be portrayed as idiots. But this is itself unreasonable — expecting children to be merely children is rational for humans, with their limited cognitive capacity. Kahenem's Subconcious System 1 thinking is an evolutionary adaptation that lets us think more efficiently, albeit frequently at the expense of accuracy. Anyone constantly trying to use System 2 ratiocination to overcome the cognitive traps evolution which has planted in our brains will suffer persistent ego depletion, and won't be able to function.
• There are some plot developments here that are much more intriguing that what I remember from the canonical series. Probably the best is the long-term project that Harry convinces Draco to address with respect to House Slytherin, which swaps out Rawling's simplistic social world and puts in a much more nuanced and realistic one.
This is like an insightful cover version of a great song (like William Shatner's punked up version of Pulp's "Common People"); it adds something new without detracting from the original. If you are interested in seeing how the Harry Potter series can be subverted, converted, diverted and perverted into something delightfully new, assuming you hit the target audience criteria, then check it out.
Oh — this isn't in print or published; it is effectively an on-line ebook. Aim your ebook reader or web browser at http://hpmor.com(less)
Although this book contains both Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika, this review is only of the latter, shorter story.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really...moreAlthough this book contains both Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika, this review is only of the latter, shorter story.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really worth reading. If you’re curious about my review of that one, see here.
Think of Tale of the Troika as kind of a twisted Lewis Carroll-esque fantasy of the Soviet bureaucracy, but not nearly as good as Lewis Carroll would have done.
Luckily it is short, because it is hit and miss, with the emphasis on miss. Still, there are some delightful sections. The argument between the bedbug and abominable snowman about whether the human race was any better than other species is probably the highlight, but there are others scattered amidst the dross.
Near the end, there was one paragraph that will ring true for anyone tired of the attack on science common in the United States today. Is evolution true? Is climate change happening? The Soviets knew the power of ideological denial.
“How’s he on perjury?” Feofil asked the goat. “Never,” she replied. “He always believes every word he says.” “Really, what is a lie?” said Farfurkis. “A lie is a denial or a distortion of a fact. But what is a fact? Can we speak of facts in our increasingly complex life? A fact is a phenomenon or action that is verified by witnesses. But eyewitnesses can be prejudiced, self-interested, or simply ignorant. Or, a fact is a phenomenon or action that is verified by documents. But documents can be forged or tampered with. Or finally, a fact is a phenomenon or action that is determined by me personally. However, my sensations can be dulled or even completely deceived under certain circumstances. Thus, it is evident that a fact is something ephemeral, nebulous, and unverifiable, and the elimination of the concept becomes necessary. But in that case falsehood and truth become primitive concepts, indefinable through any other general categories. There exist only the Great Truth and its antipode, the Great Lie. The Great Truth is so great and its validity so obvious to any normal man, such as myself, that it is totally futile to try to refute or distort it, that is, to lie.”
I actually read Roadside Picnic in a different edition, but I wanted to reserve that review for the much-better Tale of the Troika. See here for that...moreI actually read Roadside Picnic in a different edition, but I wanted to reserve that review for the much-better Tale of the Troika. See here for that book, and here for my review.
Roadside Picnic isn’t really worth reading.
Ostensibly it is a tale of the chaos that reigns when aliens “visit” Earth and leave some mystifying junk behind.
But what you get is (view spoiler)[a story of a very corrupt society that is trying to both investigate (the scientists) and profit from (everyone else, including many of the scientists) the horrific junk, which tends to mangle and kill anyone that ventures into the visitation zone. Why the junk should do this is barely mentioned. The authors’ primary purpose in writing this was to let them fantasize about those nasty effects; it is fundamentally no different that what a group of kids telling scifi-themed horror stories around a campfire might come up with, although the authors might have a more creative collection than the kids create. But that, frankly, isn’t enough to make this an interesting story. (hide spoiler)]
The only reason this doesn’t get a one-star rating is the portrayal of Soviet-era corruption. The contrast with how the same story would unfold in the United States is mildly interesting (envision locals trying to deal with the invasion of the sinister military-industrial complex, a la E.T.) An interesting book along these lines would explore how visitation sites throughout the world were investigated and exploited differently, but that isn’t this book.
Read Tale of the Troika if you want a taste of these authors. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Miéville is the best world-builder out there. Writing “weird” fiction is already challenging; most of us recognize weird when we see it, but would str...moreMiéville is the best world-builder out there. Writing “weird” fiction is already challenging; most of us recognize weird when we see it, but would struggle fruitlessly to create something that is both unconventional and interesting. Unlike us, the author of Railsea excels at this, which is a marvel. His worlds are fleshed out with details that are strikingly unearthly, but not so alien as to be unrealistic.
He also gifts us with characters that are exuberantly real, and stylish prose that is a pleasure to read. Here, in Railsea, there is an enjoyable nod to of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which undoubtedly creates the Young Adult mood, even though there is no reduction in complexity. One stagey twist is that the word and, per se, will be found nowhere in the text, replaced by the ampersand, which is both explained within the story and adds to the cozy steampunk atmosphere.
Where Miéville doesn’t live up to his own standards is in the basic story. The lack isn’t huge, but tragic nevertheless, given how close he sails to greatness. Of course, in many ways he’s already attained greatness — he certainly has won plenty of awards. But Railsea is again exemplary here. (view spoiler)[There is a twinned quest going on here; our hero struggling to go to the rescue of a pair of orphans (kind of), who themselves are committed to following their parents’ path, but as the book nears its end, that latter quest provides no catharsis. For the parents there would have been a profound existential meaning to what is found, but it doesn’t resonate in the lives of the adolescents. (hide spoiler)]
Perhaps Miéville isn’t arrogant enough. He is willing to embrue his social concerns deep into his stories, but doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t suggest answers. There is a bit of anti-corporatist texture in back of the Railsea story, but it is merely window-dressing. No one will be writing their doctorate on the subtext of his stories, because he just wants to tell cool stories. That is, of course, fine as far as it goes — those awards certainly show that we are appreciative.
Railsea, as a grand parody of Moby Dick, is a great example. Miéville does no more than borrow some of the more outrageous elements, neglecting the opportunity to comment on the symbolism of that greater work. The captain’s Ahab-like monomania is curiously referred to as a philosophy, and supposedly has some symbolic import — but, alas, this remains only a superficial eccentricity.
If you enjoy adventure stories, read this book. Just because it comes so close to five-star perfection and falls short, it is still a splendid fantasy. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This is a fun and quick read. But in the days after I finished it, I found that my impression took a bit of a dip as I pondered it, and it lost its fo...moreThis is a fun and quick read. But in the days after I finished it, I found that my impression took a bit of a dip as I pondered it, and it lost its four-star rating in the process.
But first, a curiosity: this is the second off-beat mystery novel set in Oakland that I've read recently. The other one, Swing: A Mystery by Rupert Holmes, isn't SciFi at all, but also involves a musical theme which is even more central to the plot.
As the blurb and other reviews have remarked, Gun, with Occasional Music has a fantastic element. Definitely not magical realism: the tone of the novel is pure big-fisted Raymond Chandler noir. But both animals and babies have undergone "forced evolution" which means guns, sneers and snide language are often aimed at our protagonist by sheep, monkeys, kangaroos and toddlers. This does lend a surrealistic feel, but is more like Who Censored Roger Rabbit? (the source material for the 1988 film). And Philip K. Dick is best known for confronting questions of identity and existence, which Lethem never taps into here. (But see postscript, below.)
What we have here is a basic noir detective story set in an uncertain time with some scifi elements. Lethem channels the attitude of Raymond Chandler/Dashiel Hammett well enough, and the amalgam of genres is handled pretty well. In fact, he does the detective story better than Philip K. Dick did in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.
But it doesn't take too much thought to realize that Lethem didn't put too much effort into this. He doesn't have to, of course, but without the extra push he doesn't earn the extra stars, either.
This is definitely taking place within a dystopia. The general population is kept numbed with mind-control drugs and heavy censorship. But who is doing the controlling, and why? The only authorities shown are the local cops ("inquisitors"), and they have their own petty political battles and succession crises, and they clearly aren't at the top of the pyramid, but we never get a hint of who or what is in charge of the big picture. What is so feared that so much control is desired?
With evolved animals taking most menial jobs, should there be massive problems with underemployment of humans? Where are all those people, and how do they feel about this? There are hints that the animals are resented, and that killing them isn't considered murder... Something happened before this story took place that re-branded police investigators are "inquisitors", eliminated written journalism, and conditioned the population to feel uncomfortable about asking questions? Not a hint about what took place, and in many ways such traumas have left disturbingly few collateral changes.
The time and place also feel anachronistic. The general technology (cars, no cell phones) recalls the publication date of 1995 and keeps things from feeling too futuristic, but then those animals and "babyheads" (the forced-growth toddlers) are absurdly out of place. And within the first few pages our hero is complaining about bleeding gums and I'm thinking "they've figured out how to turn sheep into sentient beings (albeit still dim-bulb sex toys) but haven't advanced dental care?"
Lethem has given us a minor delight of an adventure story, but things simply aren't thought out well. Put this story in the hands of Ridley Scott and you might get a miracle of a movie, but don't expect too much from the book.
Postscript: amended a month after reading.
I just returned to a reading a bit of Philip K. Dick after an absence of decades, and I can definitely see the similarity to Lethem's book. But it wasn't where I had thought it might be. PKD's signature, in my mind, is in presenting questions of identity and existence, which are absent here. It is the existential mires his protagonists run into that makes him so interesting to movie makers and new audiences so many years after his death.
But PKD also used the Chandler/Hammett hard-boiled writing style, which Lethem did replicate quite accurately. Characters are socially isolated, with no friends in which they can place heartfelt trust. Caution, even paranoia, is so pervasive it has become boring. Authority is corrupt and inefficient, using arbitrariness and barbarism to instill fear and fealty. Drug use is casual. Violence is frequent and indifferently meted out, sometimes in the most curiously impersonal way: the fellow standing in front of you with the baseball bat isn't your enemy, just another peon doing his job, and he might chat with you in sympathy before breaking your nose and ribs, then help you up and express concern over whether you'll be able to make it home.
This book started as a wild, five-star adventure. The closest comparison is to the movie Men in Black, but in this book the hidden organization is ded...moreThis book started as a wild, five-star adventure. The closest comparison is to the movie Men in Black, but in this book the hidden organization is dedicated to rooting out evil, not to protecting aliens blah blah blah. Several parallels to the movie: the organization is completely hidden; they have some crazy technology; due to their unconventional mission they are very tolerant of unconventional personalities and tactics. And, most importantly, Ruff has the same absurdist sense of humor evidenced by the movie.
The title comes from the nickname for a division within the organization (which, it is made clear, is not part of the government). "Bad Monkeys" are the assassins devoted to killing evil people (real division names tend towards the baroque; this one is: "The Department of Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons", so you can see why they use nicknames). But not until "Cost-Benefits" has calculated that death is the best option; in some cases redemption might be attempted by the division nicknamed "Good Samaritans" or by "Second and Third Chances". Another division, "Scary Clowns", specializes in Psychological Operations.
Another similarity is to Fight Club. Our protagonist, Jane Charlotte, is very much an unreliable narrator. It soon becomes clear that she might not be telling the truth. It then becomes apparent that she might not know the truth. As we get to the end, it becomes very uncertain whether there is any truth in the book at all.
Ruff chose to pursue this path down the rabbit hole, and unfortunately ended up with a weaker book thereby. He gets to demonstrate his extreme cleverness, but at the expense of his readers' engagement. His choice led to a convoluted, mind-bending conclusion that is reminiscent of some of Philip K. Dick, but because he maintains a consistent and well-balanced plot, Ruff actually writes a much better story than PDK. Folks that like the movies made from Dick's stories are quite likely to enjoy this book.
The best news: even though this isn't the blow-out promised by the first pages, the book is a short and fast read. Probably four or five hours. (less)
When I first read the blurb for this "new play", I thought it would be a silly thing, like the fluff of Jasper Fforde. Shortly after starting, however...moreWhen I first read the blurb for this "new play", I thought it would be a silly thing, like the fluff of Jasper Fforde. Shortly after starting, however, I realized what I was reading a mash-up of several of Shakespeare's plays. The content isn't silly at all, although the conceit of it may be.
I think two types of Wikipedia's discussions of "mash-up" are germane -- first, the "web application hybrid" is often a real act of creation. It typically draws data from different internet sources and present interpretations or deductions from those sources that would not have been foreseen otherwise.
The video and musical mash-ups, however, don't seem to add anything new other than the cleverness and mischievousness of combining disparate sources.
Unfortunately, despite his obvious hard and earnest effort, Reed's product is closer to the latter than to the former. The only readers likely to enjoy ATWAG are those already on intimate terms with the source material, and will have learned which scenes and which lines they cherish, and which are melodious filler. Reed recombines these -- yes, with cleverness and mischievousness, but not with anything resembling heartfelt creativity.
I can recommend ATWAG to anyone that already knows Shakespeare well and is willing to spend a few pleasant hours decoding the pastiche. There is certainly some fun to be had in seeing where Reed places and misplaces certain lines. But there are plenty of other Shakespearean diversions -- sorry to say, this one doesn't shine so bright as to obscure the fact that Amazon indexes an astonishing 72,497 books under the keyword Shakespeare (for example, you might enjoy this one as much).
Postscript: whilst proofreading my review, I checked up on my understanding of the word "pastiche" and discovered that the word was more appropriate than I had realized. See the Wikipedia discussion of the term.
“The book I’m looking for,” a friend of my mentioned, “would be a playfully innovative postmodernist puzzle that uses a plethora of narrative techniqu...more“The book I’m looking for,” a friend of my mentioned, “would be a playfully innovative postmodernist puzzle that uses a plethora of narrative techniques to tease us, entertain us and educate us.”
“I know just the book you’re looking for — or, at least, a book that started out exactly that way,” I replied. “Unfortunately, an international cabal of postmodernist writers were so dismayed at its brilliance that they arrange to have the book rewritten so that it becomes increasingly tedious and repetitive.”
“Oh, dear! Didn’t anyone notice? Didn’t the author object?”
“Well, the author was short-listed for the Nobel Prize for keeping his mouth shut.”(less)
I thought I had read this, but when I listened to one of the stories herein narrated — beautifully, by Liev Schreiber — on Radiolab's podcast, it didn...moreI thought I had read this, but when I listened to one of the stories herein narrated — beautifully, by Liev Schreiber — on Radiolab's podcast, it didn't sound familiar at all. So it goes back on the TBR shelf.
Waaayyyy too dark and misanthropic for my taste. Twain was just incredibly nasty here. Not a pleasant book. I’d recommend it only for those that to ex...moreWaaayyyy too dark and misanthropic for my taste. Twain was just incredibly nasty here. Not a pleasant book. I’d recommend it only for those that to examine some of the more unusual entries in Twain’s prodigious oeuvre. Really more of a one-star “I didn’t like it” book, ’cept it is Twain and intriguing for that reason.(less)
It has been so many years that I read this that I really should revisit it. I recall it as a very difficult book that required effort to trudge throug...moreIt has been so many years that I read this that I really should revisit it. I recall it as a very difficult book that required effort to trudge through many very slow sections in order to glean the fascinating underlying conceit.
There are huge portions of the book I barely recall, including the personal travails of the narrator and the culture of the boardinghouses for the children being raised to play the Game. What I recall best is the Game itself.
whose exact nature remains elusive and whose devotees occupy a special school within Castalia known as Waldzell. The rules of the game are only alluded to, and are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history. Essentially the game is an abstract synthesis of all arts and scholarship. It proceeds by players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics.
Devoting one's life to seeking subtle connections within all knowledge would probably seem like hell to most; it comes close to heaven for me.
That aside, I think the Game should also be of interest to people examining how the internet is altering the would today. We've recently seen a minor avalanche of essays and books on these multifaceted changes. Some bemoan how our individual and collective attention spans are withering, how the web's anarchic nature subverts objectivity for subjectivity, or how it is causing the collapse of intellectual property rights. Others applaud some of these same changes and point to others, such as the lower cost of entry into the world of information exchange, once the costs of publishing and distribution are diminished. A good article that revisits many of these themes is the New York Times essay Texts Without Context. Towards the end of the essay (and, tellingly, hinted at in the URL), the author discusses the emergence of mash ups. The final paragraphs quote Jaron Lanier, who is dismissive of the phenomena:
To Mr. Lanier, however, the prevalence of mash-ups in today’s culture is a sign of “nostalgic malaise.” “Online culture,” he writes, “is dominated by trivial mash-ups of the culture that existed before the onset of mash-ups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.”
He points out that much of the chatter online today is actually “driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media,” which many digerati mock as old-fashioned and passé, and which is now being destroyed by the Internet. “Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lanier writes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”
I disagree with his overall assessment in many ways (caveat: I haven't yet read Lanier's diatribe manifesto). The first and obvious response is that any new medium is immediately used to examine and explore previous media. That early films mined the treasures of written literature is obvious. Why should the internet be any different? That these derivatives simultaneously reach into multiple media is a fascinating innovation, not a sign of decline. A look back at how film and television evolved over decades tells us that it will be quite some time before the internet finds its own voice.
Another response is that today's infantile mash-up might be the beginning of the Glass Bead Game itself. Obviously the internet means it will not have anything like the form Hesse envisioned, but that is a minor point. The ability of the internet to link disparate sources and forge a synthesis isn't new, but the ability to do so within a collaborative structure is.
Consider the Broadway musical West Side Story. This mashed a Shakespearean tragedy with a story about New York gangs into a musical. In the Glass Bead Game, this would exist at a nexus of links back to several antecedents; among them would be Romeo and Juliet, foremost but not alone. In today's internet culture this would quickly breed numerous tributes and satires, almost all of which would be of trivial lasting important. But their persistence could allow later links to be made that are more subtle and ingenious. Perhaps someone would note that an ancient Persian poem had a similar theme to R&J, and that it was later set to music in a folk ballad. An academic might stumble over this and carefully examine the parallels between the Sondheim musical and the ballad.
We can consider the potential that a network could have previously existed as analogous to something in the oral tradition, and the actuality of such a network within the Web as akin to being within the written tradition. This persistent connectivity is radically new: to switch metaphors, previously the informational constructs that make up our media existed in atomic form; mash-ups are the first of the molecules we have constructed of those atoms.
The Glass Bead Game involves the exploration of the history and the discovery of ever more complex and intriguing molecules. And explicitly documenting these molecules instantiates them as new "beads" within the game. (less)