Sunday, December 8, 2013

Delta Module 1

I've posted close to nothing for several months, as I've been focusing my mental energies on work and study. On December 4, Jenna and I both took the Delta Module 1 Exam, following a several-month online course managed by International House that incorporated plenty of reading and several assessed practice assignments.

I believe I turned in a thoroughly mediocre performance on the actual exam. Not bad by any means, but mediocre. I fully expect to come away with a 'Pass', unadorned with a 'Merit' or 'Distinction'. To tell the truth, I am satisfied with this -- I know I learned a lot in the run-up to the test, and I don't need the additional fancy word on my certificate.

Overall the course was well-designed and worthwhile. It was the first serious online course I've ever taken and invested substantial time in (sorry, Coursera and Udacity), and it exposed me, even more than my CELTA course did, to English teaching as a serious discipline. Not to sound too hoity-toity elitist, but there are probably cram school teachers with twice my experience working in East Asia who haven't consciously thought about teaching to the extent this course forces you to.

I also appreciated the online forum as a means of communicating with fellow Distance Delta students, although I didn't make use of it nearly as often as Jenna did. (Come to think of it, I think 10% of course participants probably accounted for 90% of forum posts.)

I was disappointed as the course ended, as International House unceremoniously pulled the plug on the website just before we took the test on December 4. I understand the logic of shutting down the forum on test day. There's no sense in letting us East Asian candidates go online and screech 'Omigod omigod Paper 2 Task 4 is all about teaching pronunciation!!!' before candidates in Europe have even taken the test. But IH had been telling us for weeks the forum would be shuttered at midnight December 6, so I'd assumed it would go back online after test day had finished for us to spend a final few hours sharing reactions and commiserating with those feeling glum about their performance. But we got no such sense of closure.

The Good:

I learned a hell of a lot by studying for this test. My knowledge of English grammar is now stronger than it has been at any point in my life. In addition, I now have a much larger vocabulary of pedagogical terms than I did a couple of months ago. This is valuable not so much so that I can drop terms and impress fancy ESL people, but rather because it's carved out real estate in my brain which has been occupied by actual concrete concepts. In other words, knowing that a test can have 'face validity', 'content validity' and 'construct validity' is useful, but even more useful is having the concepts behind those terms fully developed in my head.

Additionally, it was very, very good for me to feel like I should go and become familiar with what the key commentators on the state of English-language teaching have to say -- people like Lewis, Krashen, Thornbury, etc. This is my job, it's what's earning me money, and what I've read just in the past few weeks has already noticeably affected my teaching in my IELTS prep classes.

And this is because I wanted to be prepared for what the actual test would throw at me. Paper Two, Task Four presents some issue in ESL teaching, such as contrasting two different approaches to class planning, or the value of teaching writing in a class environment, and asks us test-takers to comment on it. The way the test is marked, writing something stupid does not detract from your score (apart from taking up valuable time) but everything you write that's accepted earns you marks. So it's in your best interest to make as many points as you possibly can. Students are motivated to have a great deal to say on any topic they could potentially be asked about.

The Bad:

I have nothing bad to say about the online course that International House put together.

As for the test itself, I have to admit I am a bit unsure what I think of Paper Two, Tasks Two and Three. In these two tasks, you are presented with a series of exercises from a commercially published ESL coursebook. In Task 2a, you comment on the purpose of selected exercises, as they are meant to relate to the lesson as a whole. In Task 2b, you list at least six assumptions about language learning that you can discern behind the design of these exercises, and provide reasons for these assumptions.

In past exam reports, Cambridge complained that many candidates seem to be memorizing assumptions that were accepted in past exams and slotting them in where they seem appropriate. But the design of the task continues to encourage students to do just that. Most of the coursebook selections used in Task 2 seem broadly similar to each other: there's a reading or listening that students process in order to do tasks, then students' attention is called to the lesson's target language which the reading/listening text used in context, then students manipulate the target language in controlled and freer practice exercises/activities. (The June 2013 test, which we took as a mock, differed from this and used a lesson from a Business English textbook teaching presentation skills instead. But our December 2013 exam was back to the same familiar pattern.)

Additionally, the guideline answers published with each exam report tend to list the same sorts of assumptions in exam after exam. So can Cambridge really fault students for thinking, Hey, it's a presentation of language in context! I'm gonna pull out my 'grammar should be presented in context' assumption! It's a guided discovery exercise! I'm gonna use my 'guided discovery' assumption!

I did. And if previous guideline answers are any indication, I'm going to get marks.

There's also the fact -- and Jenna has much more to say about this -- that the reasoning behind what Cambridge does and does not include in its guideline answers is often opaque, to say the least, and to ace the test you basically have to learn to think like a Cambridge assessor.

Overall, though, I'm happy with the whole experience -- it's taught me a lot and has pushed me in a more professional direction. It's also pointed me in the direction of a decent-sized pile of reading material I would like to work my way through before I start to seriously think about Delta Module 2.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Good Omens

Good Omens
by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Published in 1990
Published by Harper Torch

The Plot: Six thousand years after the world is created, it's time for it all to end. The Antichrist assumes human form and the armies of heaven and hell line up to do battle -- although the angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley, longtime frenemies who battle each other largely through witty banter -- are rather wistful and sad to see Earth go. As it happens, Armageddon is in trouble from the start, as babies are mistakenly switched and as a result the Antichrist receives the wrong upbringing...

My Reactions: This book is very well-known in the right circles, written by two of the most popular (maybe the two most popular) names in modern English lighthearted tales of the supernatural, back before either was nearly as famous as they are now. It didn't change my life. It didn't hold me in rapt attention.  But it was a pleasant read, and I snickered and giggled a lot, and on the whole it was not badly done.

Perhaps I would be more gung-ho about it if the writing style hadn't already been familiar to me from various works by Douglas Adams, Christopher Moore, and Pratchett working solo. If any of these names appeal to you, you'll probably enjoy Good Omens.

I want to say something about this story's universe. At first glance, the events of this book appear to hinge on random chance. It's thanks to miscommunication among Devil-worshipping nuns -- in other words, ordinary human error -- that the Antichrist is given to the wrong family. Everything that happens subsequently, up to and including the way the Apocalypse unfolds, stems from that mistake. So it would seem this is a universe where Chaos reigns.

But this was all foreseen by the witch Agnes Nutt way back in the 1600s. It was always going to happen this way. The cosmos' vast orders of angels and demons sincerely believed the world was going to end, but they were misinformed because they couldn't see the big picture. This is, underneath it all, a deterministic universe, and primal Chaos (or the illusion thereof) is only a tool used by the hand of unfolding Fate to move people and things to the places on the cosmic chessboard where they were always going to be.

Aziraphale and Crowley make such a big deal over humans and their supposed 'free will.' But I see no free will here.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Movie: V for Vendetta

In which Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving fight to free Londoners from a tyrannical dictatorship. At least I assume that's Hugo Weaving, which is something that must be taken on trust.

The Plot: Britain is a repressive dictatorship headed by the autocratic High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Our story centers on Evey (Natalie Portman), a low-level employee at the state-run TV network, who meets a masked crime fighter named V (Hugo Weaving).

My Reactions: I have not read the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, and my ignorance will no doubt be glaringly obvious at several points in this post. I had some interest in watching this movie when it first came out, but I never got around to it.  A couple of years later it was playing on a long-distance bus and I sorta-kinda paid attention to it; what I gleaned from it was little more than 'Huh, Stephen Fry's in this'.

Meanwhile, the visuals of the movie grew in popularity, as anti-establishment protestors the world over took up V's mask as an iconic symbol. V's mask is based upon the old Guy Fawkes masks that British kids used to wear, but the masks you see at demonstrations nowadays use the specific style Moore & Lloyd invented. I realize V's mask design dates all the way back to the original 1982 graphic novel, but (as is so often the case) it was the movie that propelled the story and its accompanying visual look to the attention of mass culture.

So finally I decided that I ought to watch the movie properly, for the purpose of increasing my cultural literacy. I liked it, while at the same time I understood it's a movie that relies more on looking really cool than on having a coherent plot and characters. I'm not convinced the story is as substantial or as unproblematic as its blossoming fame among the young and disaffected, who I generally sympathize with, deserves. Perhaps I should read the graphic novel.

If you care about spoilers stop reading here. My thoughts, in no particularly well-organized order:
  • V is really a jerk, isn't he? His treatment of Evey is absolutely appalling. He does manage to transform her into a badass and this is a universe where being tough is an important asset, but that doesn't retroactively excuse all that he puts her through. Now, this doesn't wreck the movie, as it might if V were the sole main protagonist and we were supposed to empathize with him fully. In fact, I find it strengthens the movie, as it makes V into less of a sympathetic human and more of a symbol of an impersonal force.
  • We never see V's face, but we are led to believe it is a horrific ruin, a wreckage of burned flesh completely devastated by fire. But there's one part of V's face that we know was spared: his lips. He can speak perfectly well, producing the full range of English consonants without impediment, including his favorite consonant, which requires an intact lower lip to produce correctly. See for yourself: try to say 'V for Vendetta' out loud without using your lips. Just once I'd like to see a tragic hero with a facial scar whose injury causes them to lisp.
  • The fact that Stephen Fry plays himself (more or less) makes it all the more shocking when he dies. He's called by a different name in the movie, but he plays a highly cultured, homosexual, articulate, erudite comedian and TV personality, and many viewers probably saw him and thought 'Oh, this universe has a Stephen Fry too'. Then the High Chancellor's goons murder him.
  • Speaking of which, I really feel sorry for the two guys who play High Chancellor Adam Sutler in the comedy skit that gets Fry killed. Think about it. They were probably young aspiring comedians who thought themselves lucky to get minor roles as on-screen clowns on national TV. When they had to do the fateful skit, they probably thought, 'Well, this seems like it's treading on dangerous ground, but Mr. Fry says it's OK, so I'm sure we'll be fine.' We never find out what happened to them, but the consequences could not have been pleasant.
  • The idea of using Guy Fawkes as a symbol strikes me as problematic. Fawkes didn't want to blow up Parliament to free the people from tyranny. He wanted to blow up Parliament in order to replace an autocratic Protestant regime with an autocratic Catholic regime, which I hope most British people nowadays would consider a lateral move at best. Maybe there's something I'm missing as a foreigner.
  • That subplot with the police inspector nudged the plot forward a few times and provided some exposition. But I won't remember anything about it a year from now, even though the rest of the movie has lots of memorable scenes that will stick with me.
  • I can't be the first person to point this out, but let's think about V's final battle logically. V is facing down a half dozen bad guys, led by chief goon Creedy, and he invites them all to take a shot at him. They open fire and keep shooting him until they run out of ammo, tearing apart his body armor and fatally wounding him. Then it's V's turn to move, and he kills the bad guys with his knife, one after another. (This particular part, I can suspend my disbelief for.) V expected to die in this battle, but he also expected to have at least a chance of killing Creedy first. Isn't it remarkably lucky for him that not one of the bad guys shot him in the head?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Prague Cemetery

The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco
Translated by Richard Dixon
Published in 2012
Published by Vintage

The Plot: Simone Simonini is a forger and spy in 1890s Paris. He is our protagonist -- or shall I say one of our protagonists, for he seems to share an apartment with one Abbe Dalla Piccola, although the two men have never met. Deducing that they are probably a single individual with two personalities, they communicate with each other via a shared diary, and piece together the events of their life. Simonini is a terrible person, a sociopath who spreads mayhem wherever he goes -- which in this case includes many of the key events in 19th century French and Italian history. (In reference to Simonini's ability to influence so many disparate events, the New York Times review describes him as 'a Forrest Gump of evil'.)

Reactions: I've now read every one of Eco's novels except for The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. He is very good at making me feel like a simpleton who is not quite educated enough to appreciate him fully. I felt that way when I read The Island of the Day Before, and I feel that way again with The Prague Cemetery.

The more familiar you are with 19th century Europe, particularly major events in Italy and France in the latter half of the century, the easier a time you'll have with this book. As for me, I know who Garibaldi is, I'm vaguely familiar with the Paris Commune, and I can give you enough information on the Dreyfus Affair to fill two, maybe three sentences, but don't ask me for details on any of these. Eco presumes his audience is up to speed on its history, and I'm sure as a result there are plenty of in-jokes and ironic asides that flew over my head.

All that said, the novel held my interest, partially because of a perverse fascination I had with the character of Simonini. Not since I read Akhil Sharma's An Obedient Father several years ago have I encountered such a repulsive main protagonist in a novel. Readers who cannot stand such a disagreeable character are filtered out early on, as the book opens with Simonini explaining, in quite lurid detail, exactly what he thinks of Jews. This is slightly mitigated by the fact that Simonini goes on to express equally hate-filled feelings for the Italians, the Germans, the French, and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. But it is Simonini's anti-Semitism that remains at the heart of the novel, and drives the plot towards its final conclusion. And Simonini's vileness goes far deeper than simple bigotry. He has a knack for stabbing his comrades in the back, often in ways that cause the deaths of many innocent people.

Umberto Eco is no anti-Semite. But he's fascinated by the history of human thought, and he loves his conspiracy theories, albeit as objects to play with rather than as things to believe. The book often seems like a spiritual prequel to Foucault's Pendulum, as the sprawling universe of 19th-century nuttery concerning the nefarious doings of the Jews and the Freemasons and the Catholics all turn out to be traceable back to Simonini's damaged mind and his remarkable knack for forgery. Simonini is the only fictional character in the novel. Apart from possibly some background extras of trifling importance, every other person is real, and the book takes us from one historical event to another, showing us the events as they looked from Simonini's quirky perspective.

As for the conceit of having the narrative alternate between Simonini and Dalla Piccola's viewpoints, the two of them almost certainly two halves of the same personality (but we don't find out for sure until nearly the end), it was quite unnecessary as far as the main plot was concerned. But it's clearly a game Eco is playing with us, another layer of complexity on top of an already complex novel, and I'm happy to have him lead me through the labyrinth.

Despite the nagging feeling that I wasn't getting quite as much out of the novel as Eco intended me to, I enjoyed what I read. I just feel I ought to go do my homework and bone up on history, and come back in a few years to read the book again and see if I can glean more from it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
by Asne Seierstad
Published in 2003
Published by Back Bay Books

In November 2001, journalist Asne Seierstad arrived in Kabul, and soon made the acquaintance of a bookseller she called Sultan Khan. Over the next few months, she lived with Khan's family and got to know them closely. Upon her return to her native Norway, she wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, a look at the lives of middle-class Afghanis in the months after the collapse of Taliban rule.

The picture she paints is of a socially conservative land, one where the family, not the individual, is the basic unit, and young people's decisions are made for them by the family. Any notion among Westerners that the fall of the Taliban resulted in the liberation of Afghan women is erroneous. In the society Seierstad describes, young women's lives are not their own; they are not free to make their own choices, and who they are going to marry and whether they are allowed to work outside the home are dictated by their elders.

The main difference that came with the fall of the Taliban is that now women can play music as they do their sixteen hours of daily chores without the fear they will be taken to jail. That's assuming their family says it's OK, of course.

In her book, Seierstad delves into the heads of several members of Khan's family. Two of the most prominent are Khan's son Mansur and his much younger sister, Leila.

Mansur is torn between hating his father and wanting to earn his approval. Mansur is inefficient and lackadaisical at running the family bookstore in his father's absence, but he forces himself to become utterly cold-hearted when a former employee pilfers postcards to sell and Sultan Khan insists he be punished severely. Despite the fact that the employee's family is clearly in extremely dire financial straits, and literally on their knees begging for leniency, Mansur acts as his father's representative and brings the full weight of the law to bear on the thief, who ultimately ends up spending several years living under terrible conditions in prison.

Leila, is a very different character. As the youngest of I-don't-even-remember-how-many children, Leila is the perpetual workhorse of the family, but she would dearly love to achieve a bit of independence. She wants to work as an English teacher, but there's an enormous amount of bureaucracy that she has to navigate before she can get herself hired. This is nearly impossible, with her family obligations.

Now, this book is a work of narrative nonfiction. I approach this kind of writing by treating it as realistic fiction. When I read narrative nonfiction, at the outset I assume at the very least that the author has performed acts of artistry such as rearranging events for dramatic effect, or consolidating two or more people into one for clarity. If I think of these characters as people who could very easily have been real, but who aren't necessarily based on any specific people, then I can keep myself from feeling cheated when it turns out the author took liberties with reality.

That is all very well and good, but when characters in a work of narrative nonfiction can be associated with specific people in real life, you get problems. 'Sultan Khan' is an invented name, but the character was drawn in enough detail that the specific real person he was based on could easily be identified, and boy oh boy was he unhappy. He took the author to court to sue her for defamation and an assault on his character. I have some sympathy. All my high-minded talk about how narrative nonfiction should be read doesn't mean much when there's this guy in a book that everyone knows is based on you.

The real person behind Sultan Khan drew up a list of specific complaints. The first was, 'Depicting me as a fundamentalist, when I have been against fundamentalism all of my life and have suffered personally from it.' I'm sorry, I don't see that. The Sultan Khan of the book is not a fundamentalist, unless the meaning of 'fundamentalist' is so loose that the word means nothing.

He is on much firmer ground when he says, 'Is it nothing to depict me as a domestic tyrant when I have preserved my family through a quarter century of war only through sacrifice, sweat, and tears?' He's right. Seierstad really does depict him as a domestic tyrant, and a really nasty one at that. The question is whether that depiction is accurate. I have no way of knowing.

That's why this is best read as a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Man from Primrose Lane

The Man from Primrose Lane
by David Renner
Published in 2012
Published by Sarah Crichton Books

The Man from Primrose Lane, an eccentric mitten-wearing man who lived a solitary existence in suburban Ohio, has been murdered! Not only was his death bloody (I'm talking fingers-in-a-blender bloody) and the list of suspects nonexistent, but investigation shows his identity was faked. No one knows who he really was. The years pass and the case grows cold.

Eventually journalist David Neff is persuaded to begin his own investigation. Neff has grown rich and famous from the success of his true-crime book The Serial Killer's Protege, which led to the institutionalization of one of Ohio's most notorious murderers. But he and his young son have lived a life of seclusion since the mysterious death of his wife. Researching the case of the Man from Primrose Lane promises to bring David out of his shell. Incidentally, David's wife died in a suicidal car crash the same day the Man from Primrose Lane was murdered, but any rational person would agree that there couldn't possibly be any connection between the two deaths. Right?

David Neff is clearly based, at least in part, on James Renner himself. Renner is an Ohio-based crime journalist who once published a book called The Serial Killer's Apprentice, though this was a compilation of Renner's previously published stories and not as explosively original as Neff's similarly-titled book. This strikes me as an in-joke rather than a case of Mary Sue.

Renner's real-life experiences help build the apparent verisimilitude of the novel's version of Ohio.  For roughly the first third of the novel, the story appears to stay within the boundaries of the crime fiction genre, despite the accumulating bits and pieces of oddness that promise that something very, very strange is going on.

And then things get explicitly science-fictional, and I almost feel bad for any SF-hating reader who was duped into reading the book by the fact it does not go out of its way to advertise its sciencefictionality.

I say, bring it on. I love banging genres together. I love the sound it makes. And don't worry, hardcore science fiction fans: Renner knows what he's doing when he plays with the tropes. I won't say too much about what's really going on, but I will say that Renner thought through the implications of how this universe works as well as any established SF author, and as far as I can tell the narrative never contradicts its own internal logic.

For all that's good about the novel, I do have to agree with Kirkus Reviews that it's slightly discomfiting that (a) a certain Cindy, who is the only female character who doesn't need to be saved by a big, strong David Neff, is 'made to look like an incompetent, vindictive bitch', and (b) said Cindy appears to be remarkably superfluous to the story, considering the amount of time spent on her. (Not that this is in any way provable, but I got the feeling that she was a real person, or composite of real people, that the author knew and disliked.) Point (a) above is surely unintentional and could have been avoided by fleshing her out more; fix that and point (b) probably would have gone unnoticed.

That aside, this novel does a tremendous job meshing the genres together. Whether you are likely to enjoy this depends on the degree to which you like the two constituent genres (bear in mind the writing style is primarily that of hardboiled crime fiction) and the degree to which you enjoy dumping them both in a bowl and mixing them together.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Pretty Monsters

Pretty Monsters
by Kelly Link

This collection of Kelly Link short stories entertained me marvelously. Link's an SF (speculative fiction, the big-tent genre) writer, mostly fantasy with forays into science-fictional and horror territory, and usually with a good amount of sardonic humor.

These stories are of diverse settings and moods, and I assume are a good representative sample of Link's oeuvre.  (Aside from these, my Kelly Link exposure has been a couple of stories I heard in audio form on Podcastle: Some Zombie Contingency Plans and The Hortlak.)

All of these stories center around young people, and I suppose that one who wished to classify everything could call these stories 'Young Adult'. Bear in mind that these aren't kid's stories, in case you have pejorative associations for that term.

So what do we have in this volume?

The Wrong Grave is about a teenage boy, Miles, whose girlfriend Bethany was killed in an accident. An aspiring poet (but not a very good one), Miles stuck the only copy of some of his poetry into her coffin in a romantic gesture, but a year later he regrets what he's done and he digs up her grave to get the poems back. Miles apparently manages to exhume the wrong teenage girl, who gets rather annoyed at Miles.

This is a universe where a just-exhumed dead person can walk and move and talk, and everyone treats it as normal. I like this. This is something you probably couldn't pull off in a novel. If reanimated dead people are not an amazing sight in this universe, it stands to reason that they are not uncommon, and that demands acknowledgement that this is a different society than the one you and I live in, and then you have to pull out the worldbuilding kit. Make no mistake, that could make for a really fun novel, but it would be different from what Link is doing here.

It's a feature of the short-story form that the notion of a world with unusually verbose dead people can be pulled off successfully with no explanation necessary.

The Wizards of Perfil is set in a fantasy world with a roughly 19th-century level of technology. A family fleeing war sells off daughter Halsa, who had incessantly bullied her siblings and her orphaned cousin Onion, to an agent of the legendary Wizards of Perfil, so as to have more money and fewer mouths to feed. Halsa possesses telepathic powers; so does Onion, and this allows them to maintain a channel of communication as the geographical separation between them grows.

This story's a charmer. Don't have much to say about it other than that I like the worldbuilding and the more-hinted-at-than-actually-delineated magic system.

Magic for Beginners is... well, drat. Look, in 1939 a guy named Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a novel called Gadsby that didn't use the letter 'e', just to show he could. I'm going to have to do something similar if I want to describe this story without using the word 'quirky'. I feel obliged to do this because many people have a severe allergic reaction to the Q-word, and it would be a shame if they miss out on Link's story just because I describe it as q***** twice in the same sentence, which could happen if I don't pay attention.

This story is about a teen named Jeremy, and his family (including a best-selling horror father who specializes in books about giant spiders), and his friends in Vermont. And it's also about the wonderfully creative little TV show called The Library that they all watch.

The Library is a likably eccentric show, put out on an irregular schedule, which has built a loyal cult following. There are many details about it that attract me, but best is the conceit that they have a troupe of actors and rotate many of the leading roles among them. The most popular character is a woman named Fox who has never been played by the same actor twice. I don't know why, but I love this idea.

The plot deals with Jeremy's family, and the odd inheritance (a public phone booth outside of Las Vegas) that he receives, and his friends' love for and fervent analysis of The Library. This story won a well-deserved Nebula Award.

The Faery Handbag is about a young lady's relationship with her eccentric grandmother Zofia, an immigrant from Badeziwurlekistan who brought a very special handbag over from the old country.

I love how this story takes a plot with a bare-bones structure that, let's face it, is reminiscent of tales that have been told at bedsides and around campfires for generations, and very successfully marries it with modern idiom and worldview, giving it a firm grounding in the (to us) mundane. This story won not only a Nebula but also a Hugo.

The Specialist's Hat is a ghost story that centers on the two girls who live in a creepy old house with their father, who is writing a book about the creepy old poet who lived in the same house around the turn of the century. This story successfully convinces the reader that the word 'specialist', when spoken in the right way, is a very creepy word.

Monster is about a group of boys at camp. The boys of Bungalow 6 head into the woods for a night of camping. They're nervous after hearing stories of a boy-eating monster from their peers in Bungalow 4, but they don't let that stop them; they can't let themselves wimp out now, can they?

The viewpoint shifts to a nerdy boy named James Lorbick, who puts on a dress and pretends to be a zombie because he is willing to play the role of group weirdo if it means the other boys will accept him in it. The monster appears. He and James have a conversation. People are eaten.

The Surfer centers on a young soccer phenom who is kidnapped by his father and flown to Costa Rica where his father has connections to a UFO cult. Just then, a deadly flu strain breaks out, and father and son and various other people are quarantined together in Costa Rica, forced to interact, learn, and mature.

The UFO cult in this story was born several years ago when aliens arrived, picked up an airheaded surfer, and dropped him back to Earth minutes later. The aliens then left the planet behind, apparently for good. Ever since then the surfer's been preaching an utterly generic gospel of love and peace. Nobody in this world really doubts the existence of the aliens; rather, the skeptics tend to think it was the bad luck of humanity that the person the aliens randomly chose was this brainless dolt.  No wonder they packed up and left so quickly.

The Constable of Abal is the second of the stories in this book to be set in a 'high fantasy' setting (although it appears to be a different universe from 'The Wizards of Perfil'). Ozma's a girl who works as her mother Zilla's assistant, as Zilla uses the family ability to see and interact with ghosts to blackmail and bamboozle families in the city of Abal. One day things go wrong and Zilla is forced to murder a constable; they flee the city. Ozma hides the constable's ghost in her pocket, and the two grow quite fond of one another. They settle in another city, where Zilla insists they take up the lives of utterly respectable people. There are strange things happening and people who clearly know more than they are letting on. Like 'The Wizards of Perfil', this story is quite good at the worldbuilding.

And finally, Pretty Monsters. On one plane of existence, a girl named Clementine develops a hopeless crush on an older boy named Cabell when he saves her life after she sleepwalks into the sea. As the years pass, Clementine can not let go of her crush, even as Cabell gets married and moves to Romania...

But that's all fiction, a bad paranormal romance novel that Lee, a private school girl, is reading. Lee and her friends are getting ready to deliver their classmate's Ordeal (read: hazing ritual), and Lee retreats back into the book every time things go off-plan (which is often). The target of the hazing is Czigany, an Eastern European diplomat's kid. Czigany insists she has to be back home at five so she can take her never-precisely-explained 'medicine'. Her friends make promises, that they have no intention of keeping, that of course she'll be back in time. You can guess where this is going. Part of it, anyway.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

I have every right to do this!

Say you see a guy named Bob. Bob is doing something that is really harmful and unfair to other people. Or maybe he's just making an ass of himself in public and doesn't seem to realize it.

You call him out. You tell him what a jerk he's being. Bob's response is that he has a right to do what he's doing, and he's not doing anything illegal. (Even though you never said he was doing anything illegal.)

When this happens, you are almost certainly right and Bob is indeed almost certainly being an ass.

This little rule of thumb can most often be applied to Internet conversations:

butthead69: LOL i heard he's dating a girl from bazorkistan, bazorkistanians are all terrierists and smell like farts, why can't he get an american gf
cosmo_nerd: My mother is a Bazorkistani immigrant. Racist lowlifes like you disgust me.
butthead69: hey dumbass ever heard of free speech? you can't take away my first amendment rites you nazi scumbagg

But really, you can apply it to almost any situation. What really crystallized it for me was a moment in a recent Planet Money podcast titled When Patents Hit the Podcast. There's this guy (not named Bob) who claims he invented podcasting back in the 1990s and now he wants all podcasters, including the little independent ones with no money, to pay him a licensing fee. (He did patent many of the basic principles behind podcasting back then; these patents subsequently sat forgotten and did nothing and inspired no one until he had a recent 'Oh, yeah!' moment.)

When the NPR reporter asked him what he would say to people who accused him of being a patent troll, charging people to use a bridge someone else had built, he explained that he was doing nothing illegal. Everything he did was allowed under the laws of the U.S. patent system. This would be an appropriate response if the NPR reporter had said people were accusing him of breaking the law. But she hadn't.

I don't claim to be knowledgeable about patents, and it's possible that this guy is making the world a better place (in a way that's unclear to me) by demanding that podcasters pay him. But he didn't say that, unless NPR maliciously edited the piece. Or he could say it was the principle of the thing. But he didn't.

And that's the point. It's not just that when my hypothetical generic jerk Bob says 'Nuh-uh, I have a RIGHT to do this!' he's answering an objection that no one raised. It's that he's doing this instead of explaining why he's right, or why he's not actually hurting anyone. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sea of Poppies

Sea of Poppies
by Amitav Ghosh
Published in 2008
Published by John Murray

Here we have a full-fledged action-adventure novel, full of fighting and danger and valiant last-minute escapes and bad guys coming to satisfyingly violent ends and other bad guys living to fight another day. Sea of Poppies is the first novel in a trilogy, you see, and Amitav Ghosh has officially hooked me.

Every character with a narrative POV eventually ends up on the Ibis, a ship on the Indian Ocean, where each individual person aboard is probably harboring some sort of deep dark secret. If there seem to be people who aren't, that's just because the narrative hasn't seen fit to tell us about them yet.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's the 1830s and Britain rules the seas.

Britain also makes a great deal of money off of its overseas trade; it controls the production of opium in India and makes huge profits by selling the opium to millions of addicts in China. This is pure and simple exploitation on both counts; agents of the British Empire use a combination of economic pressure and hooliganism to force the Indian peasantry to grow poppies as a cash crop rather than allowing them to be self-sufficient, and when the economic overseers of China want to limit the amount of opium the country can import, Britain prepares for war.

Do we detect a whiff of politics in this story? Yes, we do, and if the preceding paragraph makes you roll your eyes at Ghosh's politics, then you'd better get ready to roll your eyes a lot. For the rest of us, Ghosh does quite a bit of riffing on his Western characters' tendency to call slavery 'freedom' and economic bullying 'free trade'.

He makes the West appear vaguely ridiculous in payback for its world-dominating ways back in the 1800s, but he includes sympathetic Westerners and bad, thuggish Easterners in his cast of characters. Of course he does. If he just wrote of evil Westerners and virtuous Asians, he's be little more than an unimaginative hack.

(That said, I did notice that of the two sympathetic Western POV characters, one is culturally more Bengali than French or English, and the other is a fair-skinned man of partially African ancestry who must hide his true heritage. One could derive the unfortunate implication that if you're both a Westerner and a sympathetic character in Ghosh's fiction, there must be a way to see you as not really Western, at least not according to 19th Century standards.)

As the title implies, everything in this book ultimately comes down to the opium trade. We begin in rural northern India, along the banks of the Ganges in 1838, where peasant woman Deeti supervises her poppy fields as her opium addict husband works at the opium factory in Ghazipur. Her husband's habit has taken its toll on his constitution, and when he becomes too weak to continue to work and support Deeti's daughter, she is thrust into a terrible family-based dilemma. (Every Ghosh novel I've read has featured a woman who is mistreated by a family she was not born into, and generally it's an older woman who orchestrates the mistreatment.) She eventually ends up in Calcutta and her fate converges with that of the remaining characters, who come from a variety of backgrounds in Indian society and from abroad.

As I said, I am hooked. Some very minor qualms:

  • I was confused by a bit of muddled motivation that makes it unclear what drives a certain person to do a certain thing. There's this young woman who's being raised by an English family, and it turns out a respected elderly judge who she finds repulsive but is chummy with her foster father is smitten with her and wants to marry her, and her foster family thinks this is just the greatest development ever. Shortly after, she runs away, never to return. She explains that the reason she ran away was that her foster father was a disgusting pervert who got off on having her beat him for ostensibly religious reasons. At first I figured she lying to make others more sympathetic. After all, she had plenty of motivation for running away already. Her foster family couldn't have forced her to marry this man, but her refusal would have made things very awkward and uncomfortable for everybody, and she wasn't in a terribly comfortable position to begin with. But I got less sure as time went on, and now I have no idea if I was meant to take her story at face value or not. I have no problem with ambiguity if it's intentional, but I don't think Ghosh meant for me to be wondering this.
  • There's this old seaman on the Ibis, and he claims to be a veteran of this epic battle, years and years ago, that involved hundreds of ships, but no one else believes him because he says the battle has the silly name of 'Three fruit house', or tri phal ghar. Okay, I get it, Ghosh is poking fun at British arrogance by puncturing Anglo-Saxon pride in one of the most storied battles in their history. But this old sailor's telling his tales to an audience of lascars from all over the Eastern Hemisphere, probably a very multilingual bunch of people, who even if they aren't up to speed on the glorious history of the British Navy are unlikely to get hung up on how a phrase sounds in one particular language. I know it's meant to be a joke, but it's unrealistic, and it took me out of the story.
  • There are lots and lots of Indian characters. Good people, bad people, fat people, thin people, serious characters, comic characters, the full range of human variation. There is one character of Chinese heritage, and once he beats his opium habit it turns out he's got wicked martial arts skills. It's not a big deal, particularly since I suspect many more Chinese people will show up later in the trilogy, but I just wanted to point that out.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh

The Forty Days of Musa Dagh
by Franz Werfel
English translation by Geoffrey Dunlop and James Reidel
Published in 1933

In 1915, during World War I, the government of the Ottoman Empire took measures to expel its Armenian minority, which was relatively wealthy and generally Christian. Expulsion turned to eradication as entire communities of Armenians were brutally transferred, death-march style (causing the deaths of tens of thousands along the way), to horrific relocation camps (where untold thousands more perished). When the relocation orders came to the Armenian communities of Hatay, the populace revolted; the locals retreated up the coastal mountain of Musa Dagh and dug trenches. Several waves of Ottoman troops tried and failed to drive them out of their makeshift fortress. The Armenians held out for fifty-three days before they were rescued by French naval forces. (Werfel shortened the siege to forty days because he liked the religious resonance of the number.)

One of the Armenian men who defended Musa Dagh was my wife's great-great-grandfather. It's the ancestral meaning the story has for her that was the reason why she and then I read Werfel's book. (It's also why we visited the Musa Dagh region when we were in Turkey last year.) And what's more, the book is an important work of historical fiction; it is still the best-known literary work to deal with the events for which the word 'genocide' was first coined.

Make no mistake, this is a work of fiction. All of the Armenian characters are heavily fictionalized, although Werfel does delve into the heads of several non-Armenian actual historical figures such as Enver Pasha and Johannes Lepsius. Werfel shortened the length of the siege from 53 to 40 days, and if Wikipedia's figure of 18 Armenian deaths in the fighting is accurate, then Werfel substantially inflated the death toll.

But that does not diminish the struggle of the actual Armenians who defended their families on that mountain in 1915. Even if the number of deaths in actual history did not reach the novel's total, Werfel nevertheless very accurately conveyed the stakes involved. The Armenians of Musa Dagh really did face almost certain death when the expulsion orders reached them; their only options were to submit meekly to the authorities who wanted them eliminated, or to reluctantly take up their arms and fight. Knowing that Werfel made some dramatic embellishments does not negate the facts of what really happened in 1915.

As for the book, I had mixed impressions overall. It took me a long time to read -- I must admit that between the dates when I started and finished Musa Dagh, I polished off three other novels. (I don't remember if the book actually took me forty days to read, but it'd have been amusing if it had.) That said, it's very readable, especially in the book's latter half when things are moving much more quickly. (Werfel makes use of the trick of telling the reader directly that something awful is about to happen, several pages before the details are revealed; I suppose I should consider it a too-easy way of snagging the reader's attention, but it worked on me.)

The characters, for me, were a mixed bag. I never warmed to chief protagonist Gabriel Bagradian. Especially in the latter half, he felt less like a real person and more like a literary character. Of course, a literary character is exactly what he is, but he's not supposed to seem that way when I'm immersed in the story. I know I wasn't supposed to like the schoolteacher Oskanian, but I actually found him so annoying that I suspect the novel would have been improved if he'd tripped and fallen off a cliff in his very first appearance. And while I appreciate that Gabriel's wife Juliette was a complex character, I found it strange beyond belief that cosseting her in luxurious surroundings on the mountaintop while the siege was going on did not meet with more disapproval among the Armenian families who had to make do with very little.

On the other hand, Gabriel and Juliette's son Stephan was a much more compelling character for me. Not to mention the orphan girl Sato and the apothecary Krikor, both of whom were wonderfully weird and memorable despite both being rather one-dimensional characters.

It's the Orientalism that really drives home that this novel was written in the early 1930s. You feel like Werfel is constantly evaluating these Eastern peoples, both the Armenians and the Turks, with a Western eye. This is generally done unmaliciously, and Werfel had good intentions and a great deal of sympathy for the Armenians, but he was still a Western European describing the 'Eastern' mentality, and the results are going to sit uneasily with a lot of modern-day readers.

Also note that Gabriel Bagradian is an Armenian who lived in France for most of his life and received a French education, and he is the source of the drive and initiative that gets these Armenians out of their homes and up the mountain. One gets the sense that without this Westernized man providing the oomph, the grit and the gumption, the peasants of Musa Dagh would have placidly gone off to their deaths like sheep. But in real life, the Musa Dagh Armenians pulled off their fifty-three (not forty) day resistance without Gabriel Bagradian, who was a fictional character invented years later. In Werfel's defense, Gabriel was probably invented to give his Western European audience, who didn't know an Armenian from an Assyrian, a protagonist they could easily identify with. But the point still stands.

One thing I can say about the depictions of the 'Oriental' characterization is that it affects the Armenians and the Turks equally. What's more, despite a plot which revolves around evil actions instigated by Turks, Werfel is very careful to show that his Turks are not uniformly evil. Occasionally we hear of Turkish peasants cursing the government deportation orders that forcibly remove their Armenian neighbors from their communities. And for every passage that portrays Turks as exotic foreign 'Others', there is one in which Armenians are portrayed in much the same way. My own feeling is that this is not an inherently anti-Turkish book.

Despite its slow pace and the old-fashioned nature of much of its characterization, I'm happy I read it. And I am reminded that I need to learn more about the complex events surrounding the genocide, which I know took on many forms and lasted over a period of many years. It's still a controversial political issue today, and my reaction to a controversial historical issue is to try to really sink my teeth into it, to try to get to terms with it. This book is a start but is not the end.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Published in 1925

I admit it. I never read this in high school. Clearly I missed out on a key piece of cultural literacy.

I also admit this: A key reason why I finally read it this month was because of the release of Baz Luhrmann film (more on which in a moment). After the 'The Great Gatsby book club' episode of The Colbert Report (which, predictably, never got around to discussing the book), I gave in and bought it for my Kindle.

Now, finally, I understand. This, more than any other source, is where Americans get their image of what 1920s flappers-and-speakeasies America was like. Only now have I absorbed the same bit of cultural knowledge that every one of the creative movers and shakers of American culture absorbed in their school days. I'm sure there were dozens of Gatsby references on The Simpsons that went right over my head when I saw them.

As for the novel itself, I found it breezy and very easy to read. A while back I read a bunch of O. Henry short stories from the New York of 1890-1910. They were quick and punchy, despite being full of cultural references that few born after 1900 would understand, and I was entertained. Reading The Great Gatsby was like revisiting the same world, 25 years later.

And it struck me that, although it would not be difficult for an adaptation to set exactly the same story in contemporary times, there wouldn't be any point. Yes, there's a story and characters and all, but I felt the point of the story was 1920s New York. To me, The Great Gatsby is historical fiction, which just happened to be written in the same period it was set.

Anyway, as my reading of the novel drew to a close I saw the Baz Luhrmann movie. My expectations were very low indeed. I was half-expecting something like Moulin Rouge which happened to be vaguely based on Gatsby. (I actually liked Moulin Rouge quite a lot back when it first came out, but I suspect it would not age well if I were to watch it again today.)

It was better than I expected. That's not terribly high praise, but the movie does at least try to be a halfway-decent adaptation. It falls flat on its fact at times, and it's downright laughter-provoking when Leonardo DiCaprio turns to the camera, introduces himself as Gatsby, and smiles as the Gershwin swells and the fireworks go off. There's also the unfortunate fact that in some scenes Tobey Maguire's hairstyle and outfit make him look like Pee-wee Herman.

When given the chance I tend to geek out and start analyzing the decisions the creative class made in adapting books for screen -- I mean, just look at my posts on Game of Thrones, in which I could be far more unreadably obsessive if I let myself.

With that said, the biggest plot difference between the book and Luhrmann's movie was that they dropped the romance between Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker. As this stripped Movie Nick of any overt sexuality, it probably made some viewers assume that Nick was uninterested in women and instead pined only for Gatsby. (Some say that was hinted at in the novel, but I missed it.)

Otherwise, the movie probably could have been better if it had strayed a little further from the book. Tobey Maguire's narration, most of which is drawn directly from the novel, could have been cut considerably -- I counted one scene where the narration blatantly described something everyone could see happening on-screen anyway, and I tend to notice that kind of stuff much less than other people, so there were probably several other bits where the narration was unnecessary.

But in the end it doesn't matter, because the definitive screen adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel isn't Luhrmann's movie but rather the NES-style video game.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Your Mom Is a Monkey

Today we have been wonderfully reminded that:

If the latest XKCD cartoon doesn't blow your mind, here's another fun science fact.

We all know that monkeys are quite a diverse group of critters, but you may not realize that what we humans rather arbitrarily choose to call 'monkeys' are actually two distinct groups of animals. Old World monkeys are the monkeys native to Africa and Asia. New World monkeys are native to the Western Hemisphere.

The two groups of primates are only very distantly related to each other.

The unpalatable truth for human beings is that Old World monkeys are closer to us (and chimpanzees, gorillas, and so on) than they are to New World monkeys. A macaque is more closely related to your first-grade teacher than he is to a howler monkey. So the only reason human beings aren't monkeys, scientifically speaking, is an arbitrary naming convention: we're not monkeys because we're not called monkeys.

So that religious nut who insists that if you take science at its word, we're all basically monkeys? He's right. But I'm sure we'll all agree that there are human beings in this world whom we would find it more disagreeable to count as family than the more agreeable sort of monkeys.

(Incidentally, if you really want your mind blown, you could technically say the same for fish. A trout is more closely related to your uncle Frank than it is to a shark. I'll be sure to mention that in my explosive upcoming pamphlet, On the Illogical Arbitrariness of Zoological Nomenclature.)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


by Peter Watts
Published in 2004
Published by Tor

Five years have passed since the events of Maelstrom. The βehemoth life-form -- yes, it's spelled with a beta -- has ravaged North America, causing a general collapse of government and infrastructure. The rest of the world is desperately hoping βehemoth can be contained, and reflexively lobs missiles at any attempt to leave the troubled continent. The North American corporate elite has retreated to Atlantis, a habitat on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, to wait out the end times. They have been joined by the surviving Rifters, cybernetically-enhanced transhumans built for working on the ocean floor for whom the Rifters trilogy is named. The rifters hate the corporate types, or 'corpses'. The corpses hate the rifters. They've already tried to wipe each other out once, and each side still has an impressive array of armaments left over.

But both sides would also like to stop βehemoth, which everyone expects will eventually chew its way across the entire planet and wipe out all life. Our designated hero is Lenie Clarke, the rifter who spent much of Maelstrom spreading βehemoth willy-nilly across the American and Canadian West. To be fair, she is on much more stable mental and emotional ground now that we've reached the final volume, and does occasionally show a flicker of remorse for her past actions.

Other characters include Ken Lubin, a rifter trained as an assassin, who makes your typical Hollywood action movie hero look like a cowardly weakling; Patricia Rowan, spokesperson for the corpses and former high-level mover and shaker; and Achilles Desjardins. Desjardins was one of the people trained to make the tough 'kill ten people to save a thousand' decisions. His brain chemistry had been tampered with by his superiors to give him an artificially tweaked conscience. Then, at the end of Maelstrom, it turned out that a colleague with strong political activist leanings had infected him with a virus that stripped him of all conscience, natural and artificial, so that he'd be able to act on his own moral sense without any interference. That turned out to be a great idea. (Tone doesn't always carry in blog writing. Was that sentence supposed to be sarcastic? Read the book and find out!)

Let's revisit what I said about the previous books in the series. This is from my blog post on Starfish:

This is not happy, optimistic science fiction. This is horror. There are honest-to-God sea monsters down there. Not to mention the psychological tension and continual sense of unease that pervades the book. You don't read Peter Watts for a happy fun time.

And this is on Maelstrom:

So, let's recap. The protagonist is an insane woman spreading carnage and destruction throughout western North America as she tramps off on a perverse quest that has no rational basis, who does not care that her actions cause numerous innocent deaths. The antagonist is the person who is in charge of saving the world. And the Internet is where bizarre inhuman monsters live.

And, the hell with it, here's what I wrote about Peter Watts' Blindsight last yearBlindsight was a novel Watts wrote later on, not set in the Rifters universe:

Blindsight has a 'love and cuddliness' quotient of zero. There is no happiness to be found in these pages. No hope, and no optimism, and the only positive emotion is a purely intellectual spirit of discovery, unless you also count the sizable portion of black humor. Depending on your own mindset and background, you might find there are no sympathetic characters at all.

You may be seeing a pattern here. βehemoth is one of the most unpleasant, squirm-inducing works of fiction I've ever read. (If depictions of sexual violence particularly bother you, you might be better off skipping the Rifters trilogy altogether, or at least stopping after Starfish.)

It is also profoundly depressing, the story of a human race which seems to be on its absolutely last legs, and when the first indications appear of a slim hope of survival for the world, it comes as a genuine surprise. It didn't help that Watts set large swathes of the second half of the novel in a βehemoth-ravaged post-apocalyptic eastern Maine, not far from where I grew up. And very, very few of the named characters are still living by the time the novel reaches its conclusion. (That said, with one important character, whether she survives or not is left ambiguous, and it's very frustrating because I got the impression Watts thought her fate was much more clear than it actually was.)

All that said, the Rifters trilogy is fascinating. It's a look at a hypothetical future where humans have really screwed things up on Earth, to the point where in the best of times a large portion of GDP is spent cleaning up our messes and repairing our self-inflicted wounds. In a weird way it's optimistic, as you consider that there's a good likelihood that not all of the bad stuff Watts predicts will come to pass.

I'm happy I read the Rifters books, but now I feel like I need to read some light frippery to cleanse my psyche.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Authentic Cultural Experience

Back when I was a student in the USA, I liked to go to performances of traditional music and dance from foreign countries. We always thought it was desirable to get an 'authentic' experience of that country's traditional culture.

This video was shot by my wife at a temple fair in Lugang a couple of weeks ago. Westerners, this is what Asian culture looks like when nobody's trying to please people who crave an 'authentic cultural experience'.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

We Know a Famous Cat

I've been reading BoingBoing for years, but this is the first time they've posted about an individual whom I have met in real life. Xeni Jardin reports:

Above: Misha, the manager of Fernando's Kaffe, my favorite place for coffee in La Antigua, Guatemala. Seriously, she runs the joint. After the barista made me my espresso, the barista pushed keys next to the creature's paws and tail to ring up my drink without moving Misha; the cat sleeps right through everything.

Misha does indeed run the place. When Jenna and I were at Fernando's Kaffe in 2010, Misha carefully supervised Jenna's coffee consumption, as can be seen here:

Monday, April 22, 2013


by Peter Watts
Published in 2001
Published by Tor

When I read Peter Watts' Starfish a couple of weeks ago, I wrote the following:

This is not happy, optimistic science fiction. This is horror. There are honest-to-God sea monsters down there. Not to mention the psychological tension and continual sense of unease that pervades the book. You don't read Peter Watts for a happy fun time.

So, needless to say, I went back for more.

Starfish was the claustrophobic story of a team of psychologically damaged individuals -- the Rifters -- working in unspeakably close quarters in a station at the bottom of the sea, with honest-to-God sea monsters swimming around outside. Maelstrom is not claustrophobic. Peter Watts has opened up the setting and shown us the world. And what a horrible place this world is.

As the first novel progresses to its climax, something very dangerous is uncovered at the seabed: a microbe dubbed βehemoth. βehemoth is a relic of the earliest days of life on Earth. It is a life form completely unrelated to anything in our current biosphere; it has several structural advantages that would give it a leg up in evolutionary competition with the microbes we're used to, but pure random chance 4 billion years ago consigned it to the bottom of the ocean. If it ever establishes a foothold on dry land, it will very likely breed and breed, and clog up our biosphere, and eventually kill us all.

And this sets up the remainder of the Rifters trilogy, of which Maelstrom is book 2.

Peter Watts thoughtfully set the events of Maelstrom in the year when I will be seventy years old, a year in which I intend to be fully alive and aware. That helps make the screwed-uppedness of the world more immediate for me. Climate change has wreaked all sorts of unforeseen havoc on the world's weather patterns, and natural evolution (egged on by genetic engineering) has produced all sorts of superbugs that the authorities are busily containing by Any Means Necessary. Large swathes of the west coast of North America are refugee camps full of Asians displaced by climate-related disasters. The situation there is not helped by the massive earthquake/tsunami combo unleashed at the end of Starfish, which most people do not yet realize was triggered by a deliberate nuclear explosion meant to annihilate the Rifters, who were presumed to be infected by βehemoth.

Lenie Clarke, the closest thing the trilogy has to a main protagonist, survives. Clarke, like the other Rifters, is psychologically damaged by years of childhood abuse. But she has formidable survival skills, and can handle herself well in a fight. Not realizing she's carrying the βehemoth microbe, she sets off over land on an ill-defined journey to an uncertain destination. The calculating government bureaucrat Patricia Rowan is determined to track her down and stop her.

There are several other viewpoint characters, some of whom have had their conscience tampered with by the authorities. There are also some who only think their conscience is still being tampered with, which raises some interesting philosophical questions about the placebo effect. And then there is Maelstrom itself, which is the vast wild frontier that our Internet eventually evolves into. Maelstrom is an ecosystem where Darwinian evolution, quite uncontrolled by human beings, takes place among the native life at an astonishing speed. The Maelstrom-POV chapters are fascinating, and the Maelstrom-native life ends up impacting the story in ways that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes quite alarming.

Characters get plenty of development and then die with little fanfare. I don't know how George R. R. Martin ever got his reputation for killing off characters. Trust me, you do NOT want to be a character in a Peter Watts novel.

So, let's recap. The protagonist is an insane woman spreading carnage and destruction throughout western North America as she tramps off on a perverse quest that has no rational basis, who does not care that her actions cause numerous innocent deaths. The antagonist is the person who is in charge of saving the world. And the Internet is where bizarre inhuman monsters live.

This novel is highly unpleasant. I also found it compulsively readable. I've already got the third volume of the trilogy on my smartphone, ready to read.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

News consumption

The other day this article by Rolf Dobelli in The Guardian floated around my Facebook feed.

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

Most people were skeptical, to say the least; most reactions were along the lines of 'So this guy is saying that ignorance is bliss? Give me a break!'

I thought that was a bit unfair. Dobelli had a point. The vast majority of news and analysis does not leave the news consumer knowing more about the world than the consumer did before.

What's more, the news media are absolutely crap at communicating the relative importance of stories. With all the horrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis, the American media seem to spend a huge amount of resources choosing a few murdered children every year, seemingly arbitrarily, and giving their cases enormous coverage. From what I've seen, other countries' media are not much different

And that's not even bringing up people who get all their news from within partisan echo chambers, and the twisted view of the world that they develop as a result.

Charles Stross, an author I like and a man who never strikes me as uninformed or ignorant, wrote approvingly of Dobelli's article. His take on it reminds me of the parallel Earth in Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem, where humanity's intellectuals cloister themselves away in monasteries to shield themselves from the day-to-day distractions of pop culture and world events.

All that said, however, I have to agree in the end with people who bashed the article on Facebook. Dobelli, for all his spot-on criticism of the news media, really does seem to argue that it's better to not know so much of current events in his 'News kills creativity' paragraph. He partially redeems himself in his very next paragraph:

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don't have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

But that's buried near the end. Much better would have been for him to make it clearer that people need to be well-informed, but genuinely well-informed, not the illusion of knowledge that watching CNN will get you. I like long-form journalism and reading nonfiction books. I wish he'd made that point more central to his article.

And that was where I stood a day and a half ago. Now for my personal anecdote. I live on the opposite side of the world from my native North America, and the Internet greeted me on Tuesday morning with pictures of bloody streets and carnage in Boston. Horrible situation.

There is a prominent blogger I read. He had assembled tweets from various semi-prominent people which represented their early reactions to the Boston bombings.

There were two tweets that made me mad. They weren't from random idiots with Twitter accounts; there are so many of those that if you go looking you can find offensive tweets reacting to any situation, and I frankly don't see any reason to care.

No, these tweets were both from people who called themselves journalists. They were both political commentators. Both are famous enough to have Wikipedia biographies. Both presumably get paid to do what they do. One of them made a really offensive and tasteless comment about the bombings. The other used the bombings to make a snarky comment about a completely unrelated news story.

They both offended me, but what really made me mad was that I knew exactly what would happen next. There would be pushback. People would be offended. The commentator who had made the offensive comment would probably complain she was being lambasted for 'political incorrectness'. The one who made the snarky comment would assume that nobody had 'gotten it', and would 'helpfully' explain what he meant to all those people who had incorrectly been offended.

And I got even madder, thinking about their cluelessness.

And only then, I realized just how screwed-up my emotions at that moment were.

First, I was much madder at these commentators' obliviousness (real or feigned) at their offensiveness, than I was at their offensive comments in the first place. And what's more, I was madder at these commentators' offensive comments, than I was about the fact that some person or people had just torn a crowd of people to shreds with bombs.

Second, there was a funny thing about these commentators' obliviousness. It hadn't happened yet. I was already mad, just thinking about how I expected these dumbheads to react. In other words, I was angry -- really, genuinely angry -- at something I had imagined. I had no idea if they had actually reacted (or would actually react) to the inevitable pushback in the way that I had involuntarily visualized.

In short, I realized that my years of reading political commentators, and getting mad when they said dumb things, had horribly twisted my mind.

One thing I had already done was prune the list of political commentators I read to a very few. (The two chief conditions are that they don't insult my intelligence and they don't try to make me feel waves of anger, for silly reasons, towards political figures I didn't like anyway.) Now, what I'll try to work on is not feeling angry when I see a political commentator being quoted saying something stupid, no matter how illogical and/or offensive their words are.

I will also try to read David Wong's 5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds every day, until it sinks in.

After five or so years of carefully pruning my news consumption, maybe I'll have developed some rules of thumb that are more useful than Dobelli's well-intentioned but ultimately incomplete advice.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
by Joe Hill
Published by William Morrow
Published in 2007

Judas Coyne is a middle-aged rock star who lives with his twentysomething Goth girlfriend Georgia in an upstate New York farmhouse. Jude's music is informed by his interest in the occult and the macabre; when his PA helpfully mentions that some crazy lady is offering her stepfather's ghost for sale online, Jude buys it immediately.

Unbeknownst to him, the ghost is real. Unbeknownst to him, the crazy lady is the sister of his previous twentysomething girlfriend, who killed herself after he broke up with her. The living sister and the deceased stepfather are intent on revenge, and Judas Coyne has the most unpleasant time of his life ahead of him...

I'm going to do something that Joe Hill is probably tired of at this point. I can't discuss my reactions to this book without mentioning Joe Hill's father. Horror is a genre I do not read often. I like Peter Watts, but his science-fictional horror seems like a very different subgenre. And while I'm a fan of the short stories of the PseudoPod podcast, I generally won't seek out a big fat supernatural horror novel to relax with. But long ago, when I was a teenager, I read the occasional horror novel, and most of them were written by Hill's esteemed father. Joe Hill, Senior.

I grew up not far from Joe Hill, Sr's house. I never met the man, but he was without doubt the local celebrity, and I read a bunch of his big fat novels when I was in high school. As of now I haven't read any of his stuff in years. However, when I read Heart-Shaped Box, there was no question whose writing style it reminded me of. I suspect I would have thought 'This reminds me of old Joe Hill, Sr!' even if I hadn't known the family connection. That said, this is probably less due to Hill taking after his father and more due to the fact that I haven't read terribly much in this particular genre.

I'm going to admit that I can be a squeamish reader, and there are certain types of bodily injury that reading about can make me feel nauseated and dizzy. Heart-Shaped Box is a very bloody book, and by 'bloody' I do not simply mean violent. I mean this book is full of lacerations and puncture wounds and traumatic amputations, all of them graphically described, and by the final scenes I imagine the surviving characters are leaving trails of blood behind them wherever they go. This isn't meant to be negative criticism; it's more a note that this book hit me in some viscerally unpleasant ways that may have lessened my enjoyment of it; at the same time, though, the sheer bloodiness of it may have also made the story more immediate, more vivid, for me.

With all that said, Heart-Shaped Box absolutely did a masterful job keeping my interest.

About a quarter of the way in, I felt the story (and Judas Coyne's life) was probably about to reach its grim conclusion, and I wondered if I'd maybe unwittingly procured a collection of novellas rather than a single novel.

Then the story threw in a plot twist, and then another, and then another which I did not see coming, shamefully enough. By the time the tale comes around to its grisly, bloody conclusion, I was enthralled.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fiction I Read in March

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

by Cory Doctorow
Published in 2005
Published by Tor

This is the third Cory Doctorow novel I've read (after Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and Little Brother), and somehow it seems both the most Cory Doctorowiest and the least mainstream of the three. It takes place in Doctorow's native Ontario, delves deep into topics that Doctorow is passionate about, and contains weirdness of a sort that many readers will find odd and perplexing.

Alan is the name our protagonist is most commonly known by. He's an eccentric sort of person who arrives in a new neighborhood in Toronto and befriends the local oddballs. He's owned a variety of small businesses and sees himself as a tinkerer and craftsman. When he meets local oddball Kurt, who plans to blanket Toronto in free wifi (bear in mind this novel was written in the pre-smartphone era), the two of them join forces.

At one point Alan describes his family in this way:

Alan's father was a mountain, and his mother was a washing machine -- he kept a roof over their heads and she kept their clothes clean. His brothers were: a dead man, a trio of nesting dolls, a fortune-teller, and an island. He only had two or three family portraits, but he treasured them, even if outsiders who saw them often mistook them for landscapes. There was one where his family stood on his father's slopes, Mom out in the open for a rare exception, a long tail of extension cords snaking away from her to the cave and the diesel generator's three-prong outlet. He hung it over the mantel, using two hooks and a level to make sure that it came out perfectly even.

You probably think he's speaking in metaphors. When I first read this, I thought he was speaking in metaphors, too.

He's not.

You see, Alan comes from 'mountain folk'.

He has no belly button.

His neighbor Mimi is a lady with wings.

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is a novel of consistent, very well-done surrealism, greatly informed by the mood of old folktales while at the same time not only putting them in a modern setting, but also making making the folktales themselves almost modern.


by Peter Watts
Published in 1999
Published by Tor Books

Deep down, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, hydrothermal vents exist where tectonic plates are moving apart. Amid the bizarre sea creatures of the deep, power stations have been built that now, in the mid-to-late 21st century, supply most of the planet with electricity.

The people who work down here are surgically modified to exist in the water outside with a minimum of protective equipment; most notably, they have a lung removed and replaced by machinery to filter oxygen from water. But what are more important are their psychological profiles. Research has concluded that happy, chipper people are dangerously unfit for life in the deep. Rather, the focus has been on training the psychologically damaged. The abused. Victims of child molestation. Abusers. Pedophiles. These are the sorts of people who maintain the equipment down there. They find, in the deep, a calm that had always evaded them up on dry land.

This is not happy, optimistic science fiction. This is horror. There are honest-to-God sea monsters down there. Not to mention the psychological tension and continual sense of unease that pervades the book. You don't read Peter Watts for a happy fun time.

I like Peter Watts in controlled doses. In the second half of Starfish, an overarching plot of truly epic scope begins to coalesce. Starfish is the first volume in what is known as the Rifters trilogy, which I cheerfully await making my way through over the next few weeks.

The Girl Who Played Go

by Shan Sa
translated by Adriana Hunter
Published in 2001

Manchuria, 1937. One of our protagonists is a teenage Chinese girl who plays Go in her village square. The other is a Japanese officer, sent to Manchuria to hunt down anti-Japanese elements disguised as local peasantry.

(Historical Context Note. In 1937 Manchuria was nominally an independent country and ally of Japan. In reality Manchuria had been broken away from China by Japanese effort, and its government was basically a puppet of Tokyo. At the time of the events in the novel, the outbreak of full-scale war between Japan and China is just weeks away.)

Our female protagonist is anxious about her own future. Her best friend appears doomed to be married to a man from her rustic hometown that her father found for her. Her sister is married to a local bigshot who is blatantly cheating on her. Our protagonist becomes involved with two local anti-Japanese revolutionaries. As might be expected, she does not exactly find true love with either.

Our male protagonist's romantic exploits include enjoying the company of prostitutes, though he does longingly look back on a certain geisha back in Japan. His letters back home reveal the nationalistic Japanese mindset, and one thing I can say to Shan Sa's credit is that while the cruelty of the Japanese forces is spelled out in some detail, the book never feels like a piece of anti-Japanese propaganda.

By the time our two protagonists finally meet, the novel is at its halfway point. Events happen. There is fighting. In the final pages there is a coincidence so improbable that you know you're reading a work of fiction. Even so, you saw it coming. And that's OK. You know you're reading a novel in which everything happens for a purpose, generally to make things horrible for the main characters to see how they react.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

'You think you're better than me?'

I enjoy reading the Captain Awkward blog. It's become my favorite practical, down-to-earth advice column, and it's one of those rare blogs with comment sections that are almost uniformly well-written and enlightening.

Recently CA published a letter from a young woman who didn't drink alcohol, and was tired of having to justify her not-drinking to others at social occasions. (She was not bothered by other people drinking, and did not lecture others on the dangers of The Demon, Drink.) Apparently, some people are offended by what other people bring into their own bodies, and will keep being offended until they get a reasonable-sounding explanation. And this happens repeatedly.

Fun fact: Some people like to drink this. And some people don't. Feel free to talk about which group you belong to and why, but nobody actually has to submit a defense justifying their choice.

So I wonder, why do people take other people's choices personally? I understand that if a bunch of people are drinking and one person doesn't drink alcohol, the abstainer might be in for a little ribbing -- and the level of ribbing that is acceptable depends on the personalities of the people and the nature of the relationships involved. And if a line is crossed, then that person (the ribber) is being an asshole. That's basic just human relations.

But why act offended when you're drinking and someone else isn't (and doesn't think it's necessary to give you an explanation for their abstinence you find acceptable)? I don't get it. Maybe it's a sense that drinking is a group bonding activity and the non-drinker is sabotaging things?

But the problem with that hypothesis is that, as several people point out in the comments, vegetarians get the same sort of crap from people. As 'cloudninja9' writes: 'People are terrible to me sometimes (questioning my patriotism, telling me I have an eating disorder, making fun of me on and off for hours, trying to force me to try it)'. 'Bluecandles' responds: 'I try to avoid telling people I’m vegetarian if possible because I often get a whole bunch of questions to get me to justify it, or look at me as if I’m judging them for their eating meat. I have had people get real touchy about it and look at me suspiciously as they eat their meal. I don’t say anything or care about how they eat, but they take offence all the same.'

First, 'questioning my patriotism'? What the hell?

Second... no, same as the first. I'm an omnivore who occasionally drinks alcohol, and this is one of those times when I am genuinely baffled, both how someone comes to the conclusion that they should treat a person in a certain way, and how they justify it to themselves afterwards. My 'social bonding' theory is inadequate.

Fun fact: Some people like to eat this. And some people don't. Feel free to talk about which group you belong to and why, but nobody actually has to submit a defense justifying their choice.

Maybe it's because people have a mental image of 'vegetarians' as 'people who go around hectoring others that they shouldn't eat meat and are bad people for doing so'. But I have known many strict vegetarians in my life, and not a single one has tried to 'convert' me to their diet, or implied that I was a bad person for eating meat.

Now, maybe it's the case that 90% of self-described vegetarians want to make meat-eaters feel bad, and it's just plain good luck that I've managed to avoid meeting one. Fine. Let's assume that. If 90% of vegetarians go around judging omnivores, once the words 'I'm a vegetarian' are out of a person's mouth, are the words 'And I think it's JUST DISGUSTING that freaks like YOU eat meat' so inevitable that you're 100% justified in preemptively taking offense?

(Hint: The answer is 'no'.)

Several years ago, some journalist (I believe it may have been Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post) in an online chat proposed a theory that I didn't think much of at the time. This journalist was a meat-eater who was troubled by doubts about the moral rightness of eating meat. He suspected that most meat-eaters were similarly troubled, but most of them had taken these doubts and hidden them away behind sturdy psychological walls of prickly defensiveness. These meat-eaters look down on evangelical vegetarians who lecture about the wrongness of being a carnivore. They attribute all sorts of silly stereotypes to these vegetarians, and are happy that by eating meat, at least they're nothing like THOSE people.

So you put one of these prickly meat-eaters on a collision course with a real-life vegetarian, one who has no interest in preaching, and what happens? Their defensive alarms get set off and they become one of those people that 'cloudninja9' and 'bluecandles' describe.

'You're a vegetarian, huh? You think you're better than me?'

When I first read this viewpoint, I thought the journalist was overthinking things, perhaps projecting a bit onto other people. Now, I think he's onto something.

Especially since you could replace 'meat' with 'alcohol' and the theory still holds up. The reason for inwardly doubting the morality of drinking alcohol is different, but everything follows from there in pretty much the same way.

'Don't like drinking, huh? What's your excuse? You don't have one? Fine, go be morally superior somewhere else.'

I don't have any particular advice for the original letter-writer, but I do want to close with the words that the Captain Awkward advice columnist finished with:

Whenever someone behaves like that, I wonder, are they really THAT insecure about what they like? If the people in your life love drinking so much, they can do it without your validation or participation. Someone making a different choice than you would make is not invalidating your choices.

Feel free to replace 'drinking' with 'eating meat'... or anything else, really.