Bon Appétit

ISART Digital came out with the first of their 2021 graduation videos a few weeks ago. They are remarkable and you should visit them to see more. So far, though, this is my favorite:

“His grandchildren’s unexpected arrival leads Robert to prepare an extraordinary meal. Unfortunately, he is missing some key elements for his chosen recipe. The grandfather goes on a perilous journey to fantastic worlds to bring back unusual ingredients.”

Who Is Arthur Dent?

three short reviews

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Harper Perennial, 2003

Some weeks ago, I posted a brief review of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest, wherein I noted a marked resemblance between his main protagonist, Alexander Duplessis, and Douglas Adams’ Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not long after, I decided to reread Neil Gaiman’s classic Neverwhere. This would not ordinarily be fodder for a review, but gosh! Doesn’t the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, resemble Arthur Dent? And the story is basically Hitchhiker’s Guide as well: The hapless anti-hero loses his comfortable place in the universe and confronts a series of frame-of-reference-shattering challenges before returning… home? By golly, once you see the blocks, telling a story is almost like building with Legos! If this were a proper review, a discussion of the underworld’s political economy would be in order and how that economy is of a type for certain fantasy, that is to say magical, stories, as well as its appeal to those who don’t quite belong. And furthermore, how should we recognize an Arthur Dent when we meet one: “Arthur Dent, I presume?” What bundle of traits, circumstances, character and tropes define an “Arthur Dent”? But this is a brief review, so I’ll end it by noting: Arthur Dent is everywhere, once you begin looking for him.

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch, DAW Books, 2020

Once again, this is not a book I’d ordinarily review. Being but the latest in a series of police procedurals (the Rivers of London novels) involving magic (and magical institutions), it’s basically mind-candy that follows familiar conventions in both mystery and urban magic genres. As is typical of many mystery series, the Rivers of London novels focus on a particular character, Peter Grant, where each book is a challenge that evolves the character in a sort of life journey. And how did Peter Grant begin, in that first novel, Midnight Riot? As someone with a distinct resemblance to Arthur Dent?

No! Wait! There is another reason for reviewing False Value. Earlier this year, I noted how unions are so much not a part of science fiction. Well, you can add Aaronovitch to that short list of sf authors who at least mention unions. Take this line of questioning from the protagonist, Peter Grant:

“… Vampires were a problem, of course – they always are. You burn out one nest and another would pop up. Got real bad in the ’70s until a bunch of homeless vets went after them with homemade napalm and flame-throwers – quite a war by all accounts.”

“You didn’t intervene?”

“I was a teenager at the time, but the Association stayed out of it,” said Mrs. Chin. The Association being the New York Libraries Association, the militant magical wing of the New York Public Library Services. “Although we’re all members of the Green Machine as well.” That being the AFSCME, the union that most mundane librarians belonged to.

This is, I think, an act of mischievous dissonance. After all, magic is personal power, an act of will as well as incantation and calculation. Why should magical librarians need collective bargaining and solidarity? Are contracts magical? Is the magical vulnerable without the mundane? Well, this is a brief review so I’ll just note that this series of novels is one of those that is a) good if you like both police procedural mysteries and magical fantasy and b) best begun with the first of the books, Midnight Riot.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan, Tachyon Publications, 2020

Driftwood is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and doing it quite well, thank you. The major difference in such situations being that as a collection, the author need not be so much concerned about closure, about bringing the whole edifice in for a landing at the end. Nor is the author confined to a particular few POVs. The stories, regardless of POV, all feature two characters: a guide / broker / informant / facilitator with an unnatural lifespan named “Last” and the universe that includes each story, “Driftwood”.

Driftwood is about aging and death. It is a constantly shrinking, constantly accreting amalgamation of fragments of different universes, each fragment being the remnant of a larger universe that has suffered some apocalypse. Wedged in with other fragments, they evaporate and shrink and settle toward the center of Driftwood where they, for a time, exist as ever diminishing parts of an urban shanty town, the Shreds. After all, when an organism (such as yourself) dies outside of extreme conditions, it doesn’t die all at once. Under the right conditions, individual cells might struggle along indefinitely. Heck, cells from your mother may still live within you. And ageing? We regress toward death, forgetting and losing, one by one. Or all at once.

Its worth noting that each of the fragments of Driftwood contains a particular culture and species of intelligence, often wildly different from their neighbors, but quaintly referred to as a “race” rather than as a “species”. This is an old science fiction practice that sometimes has a metaphorical function (aside from the fact that most science fiction aliens are humans in drag). In this case, “race” may be more apt as most of them can interbreed, and do: that being another characteristic that defines “the Shreds”. It’s not clear to me what Brennan’s point is except that it is likely also a part of the death metaphor. As is the character “Last”.

At some point, someone needs to write a compare-and-contrast essay about the political economy of fantasy novels… But I said that already, yes?

I always look forward to new writing by Brennan and am rarely disappointed.


Photo by Roman.

Four Short Reviews

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi, TOR books, 2020

This is not a book that I would have ordinarily reviewed. I mean, it’s basically brain candy; one could as easily do a bong or a shot. But it’s good for what it is. Scalzi is what I would call a genre writer not simply because he writes mostly within the genre of science fantasy but because he is capable of writing well enough in just about any genre, even if the product is not necessarily great literature. And The Last Emperox is not great literature, it’s biggest weakness being that much of the dialogue sounds like Scalzi talking to himself. There are a few plot-holes, though none that will damage your tires. Also, the book is the final entry in a space opera trilogy, and great literature rarely appears outside of where literary critics expect to see it.

As a reader, I can tell you that trilogies are a special problem for authors, especially in Sci-Fi: How to tell the story that has gone before and to introduce the characters to-date. Too often it’s lots and lots of (quite possibly boring, staged) exposition. I was totally overjoyed with Scalzi’s use of action to set the stage. I mean, there’s nothing like a ground-to-air missile headed in your direction to inspire a life-passing-before-your-eyes introspection. My delight in Scalzi’s execution of this plot device carried me through the first part of the book. The rest went down more slowly.

The central drama of the trilogy revolves around an interstellar empire (a sort of corporate feudalism) that becomes embroiled in a leadership crisis (with good guys and bad guys of various genders) right when it becomes apparent that the aptly named “Interdependency” is facing a something of an existential ecological crisis, the end of FTL interstellar travel. As you might suspect, elements of the setup are borrowed from the present; conservatives may have some difficulty with that. Want more? Read the damned books. Or at least the publisher’s blurbs.

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem, Ecco / HarperCollins, 2020

Speaking of literature and genre fiction, Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors who has successfully done both, getting his start with science fiction then drifting into the mainstream. With this latest book, Lethem returns to science fiction though it could equally be argued that he has gone further into literary territory with magical realism.

The basic set up is a post-apocalyptic New England wherein modern technology has ceased to work. This has a long history in science fiction. I first encountered this plot device in a 1945 short story by Fredric Brown, The Waveries, and it has popped up every now and again since. Lethem’s story spans both sides of the apocalypse but not the event itself, focusing on three individuals: Alexander Duplessis, mostly referred to as “Journeyman” or “Sandy” in the text; Alexander’s old college chum, Peter Todbaum; and Alexander’s sister, Maddy. The protagonist of this story is Alexander Duplessis, who could easily be a not-so-funny version of Douglas Adam’s Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While the focus of the storytelling stays on Alexander, the real conflict, the drama, is actually between Peter Todbaum and Maddy Duplessis. What is it about? I never did figure that out, though maybe there is herein some sympathy for the “unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski.

A City Made of Words by Paul Park, PM Press, 2019

This short book is an anthology of some of Park’s short stories, plus an author interview, and it is an entry in PM Press’ “Outspoken Authors” series. Paul Park is another science fiction author who has literary chops. Geez Lueez! What mighty teeth hath this talent! But unfortunately for most of the time, he’s just better than average and so I am usually disappointed when he’s merely very good. This collection has some fancy writing that I should love, but mostly I was bored. Great title, though.

The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky, TOR Books, 2018

Adrian Tchaikovsky (a pen name, I’m given to understand) is an award-winning U.K. science fantasy author. I’m sure I’ve read at least some of Tchaikovsky’s other work, but none of it has stuck with me. The set-up for this short novel is the problem of human settlement on habitable worlds other than Earth. What do you do about incompatible biomes? How do you preserve knowledge in the face of its irrelevance? This is a coming of age and rebirth story, a journey with a number of interesting twists and surprises and a few predictable plot devices as well. I would regard all of the above as a spoiler, except you’ll get a bit more from the publisher’s blurb and so there. Nice work plus another great title.


I’ve not been posting reviews lately for a variety of reasons. Mostly it is because I think of reviews primarily in the context of books. The COVID plague has been a boon for the reading habits of some, but for those of us as are library-dependent, not so much. But now things, including libraries and used book stores, are beginning to open up. Another reason has to do with my perception of the reviews’ utility. But if these serve as at least a memo to myself, maybe it’s worth the effort. There are other reasons that I’ll incorporate into any reviews henceforth.

Photo by Roman.


Unions in Science Fiction

I mentioned, a few posts back, that John Barnes was one of the few science fiction authors who took the concept of “memes” seriously. He’s also one of the few that occasionally include a favorable mention of labor unions in his stories. At least, he’s among the few that I’m aware of. There is quite the flood of work labelled “science fiction.” It would be a full time job just to keep up with it, which is another way of saying that I’m not all that hip so maybe there are a lot more such authors these days: IDK.

Most science fiction authors do not consistently write from a particular ideological point of view, so what is it about unions? Part of it is that a good story-teller generally relies upon the reader to supply part of the story. Stories, true or fiction, are collaborative efforts, and the readers who have had direct contact with unions are a distinct minority, and most of those experienced the union the way most of us experience an insurance company. Including unfamiliar plot elements such as unions comes with a cost: You must explain and show as otherwise the readers don’t know. (That’s also one of the reasons most science fiction tales resemble a Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of re-used plot elements.) Another part of it is the assumption that in a futurama future productivity is so great that… why would most people need a union? We’re “post-economic,” right? On the other hand, how few hours a week did the early 20th Century economist John Maynard Keynes predict we would be working by the end of that century? Gee, where did all that time and money go?

Whatever. My ulterior motive in bringing up unions here is as an excuse to quote a paragraph from one of the John Barnes books that I recommended in that previous post, Candle. The series that includes Candle was written around the turn of the century, when failed states seemed to be the likely theme for the 21st Century, including the United States. This is part of a recruiting pitch made to the residents of a Seattle orphanage by the captain of a militia hired to protect that part of the Pacific northwest:

“Burton’s Thugs for Jesus is a union shop, represented by the United Combatants, Engineers, Medics, and Chaplains, and we use the standard UCEMC contract for a battalion-sized unit. You get room and board, medical, dental if we ever get another dentist under contract, and locked-in rent control for basic uniforms and equipment. In the event of combat against other UCEMC units, you have a much better POW contract — which can make a big difference if you’re captured — you keep your seniority without penalty if you elect to defect, and you fight under the strict form of the Hague Convention, so the union is a good deal for most of you, and it’s a flat four percent of your pay. You also pay for your training with a five-percent deduction from your pay for your first year, which I waive if you’re decorated for bravery in combat. You don’t pay any local or episcopal taxes.”

Lest I give the wrong impression, unions appear in only some of Barnes’ works. But even those few inclusions are enough to stand out an otherwise silent or hostile fiction genre. When I finished reading the recruiting pitch for the first time many years ago, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to weep.

But as Billy Bragg sang:

Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own;
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?

Coup de Idiots

C’est pire qu’un crime. C’est une faute.

— attributed to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (disputed)

The attempted coup on January 6 should not have been much of a surprise to anyone but maybe the most naive. As I wrote back in 2016, Night of the Living Trumps:

“A geezer I am. I have lived through Nixon, Reagan and Dubya. Should I mention LBJ? One might think of this as yet another spell of really bad weather and verily the sun also rises. But there is a stink of existential threat from Trump that hasn’t been so strong in the air since Nixon.

“Part of it is Trump’s so nakedly disordered personality. Nearly everyone who aspires to be President is likely to be a bit insane, but until now most have been able to simulate normality. Part of it is the enthusiastic bigotry used to motivate Trump’s electorate; there’s no putting that back in the bottle while Trump holds office and the Republican caucuses control the legislature. Part of it is the solid wall of chaotic uncertainty about just what a governing Trump actually means in terms of policy.”

This post is written in early days post-riot, but my impression from a great distance is that the riot was essentially a clusterfuck, to use a bureaucratic term of art: The organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching and consequently people went where anger and hysteria led them or the organizers had no plan beyond yelling and marching but others at the rally did have a plan or some (or all) of the organizers had a plan but it wasn’t shared with everyone. You might think of additional possibilities but regardless, people did bring young children, infants in fact, to the rally and march. What expectations do you think they had?

One ongoing discussion that I find particularly interesting is the examination of conspiracy theories as role-playing games. A good introduction to this (lots of links) is Reed Berkowitz’ A Game Designer’s Analysis of QAnon, posted back in September of 2020 at the curiouserinstitute. Berkowitz begins his analysis with:

“When I saw QAnon, I knew exactly what it was and what it was doing. I had seen it before. I had almost built it before. It was gaming’s evil twin. A game that plays people. (cue ominous music)

“QAnon has often been compared to ARGs and LARPs and rightly so. It uses many of the same gaming mechanisms and rewards. It has a game-like feel to it that is evident to anyone who has ever played an ARG, online role-play (RP) or LARP before. The similarities are so striking that it has often been referred to as a LARP or ARG. However this beast is very very different from a game.

“It is the differences that shed the light on how QAnon works and many of them are hard to see if you’re not involved in game development. QAnon is like the reflection of a game in a mirror, it looks just like one, but it is inverted.”

While the technology Berkowitz writes about is ideologically neutral (like Alinsky’s organizing techniques), this particular exercise was targeted:

“Another major difference between QAnon and an actual game, is that Q is almost pure propaganda. That IS the sole purpose of this. It’s not advertising a product, it’s not for fun, and it’s not an art project. There is no doubt about the political nature of the propaganda either. From ancient tropes about Jews and Democrats eating babies (blood-libel re-booted) to anti-science hysteria, this is all the solid reliable stuff of authoritarianism. This is the internet’s re-purposing of hatred’s oldest hits. The messaging is spot on. The “drops” implanted in an aspic of anti-Semitic, misogynist, and grotesque posts on posting boards that, indeed, have been implicated in many of the things the fake conspiracy is supposed to be guilty of!”

If Berkowitz’ analysis is even approximately accurate, it has important and existential implications for democracy, media, journalism, and politics generally. Yet that isn’t quite what got my attention. Berkowitz’ description of the QAnon phenomenon (“A game that plays people.”) suggests that it is a genuine meme, the first that I’ve actually heard of.

Wait. Meme? Don’t we see these every day, those graphical and sometimes comical little factoids that people trade back and forth? Well, yes and no. Richard Dawkins gets credit for coining the term in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As Wikipedia helpfully explains:

“Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.”

So “yes” in that an internet factoid could be a trivial example of the concept, “no” in the sense that some folks felt that these “replicating cultural entities” could do much more than entertain. They could conceivably warp human history, indeed even human evolution, as part of their process of natural selection. So if conspiracy explanations on the internet are in fact “memes,” QAnon is a research opportunity of major importance.

Alas, the study of memes hasn’t prospered, has failed to be naturally selected if you will for obvious (to me anyway) reasons: How do you operationalize the concept? How do you define and measure a meme so that it is possible to trace its ecology, evolution and spread? Also IMHO the concept carries an alarming burden of social Darwinism.

But if, conceptually, “meme” has such social Darwinist baggage, is discounting it as social science so unfortunate? Well, maybe, because there are analogous phenomena in the physical sciences: “quasiparticles” and “collective excitations.” These “are emergent phenomena that occur when a microscopically complicated system such as a solid behaves as if it contained different weakly interacting particles in vacuum.” Yeah, your computer and phone and any electronic solid state thing depend on an “emergent phenomenon.” Human consciousness is sometimes speculatively described as an emergent phenomena, a consequence of neural size and complexity. It may be that mass culture has emergent properties as well.

I think we’re in the process of finding out, through experience rather than research.


Postscript: Among the people who took memes seriously is the science fiction author John Barnes. He wrote a series of speculative novels around memes, wherein he turned memes into something resembling computer viruses. All of the books are good albeit some are seriously depressing. I’d recommend (in order) Candle and The Sky So Big and Black. Barnes has gotten favorable cover blurbs from both Poul Anderson and Steven Brust…

“Avarya”

I’ve been known to complain about genre fiction, about how so much of it consists of variations on the same old elements with maybe popular concerns thrown in for seasoning… or maybe to justify, socially redeem, the whole project.

On the other hand, occasionally someone like Gökalp Gönen comes along to take the same old (in this case, quite old: Isaac Asimov, but also more recent: steam punk, and 2001, not to mention a certain kind of wordy play I might have attended back in the 1970s) same old and do something quite creative none-the-less. For me, this video is wow… just wow.

Note that subtitles in various languages, including English, are available.

I think the title is intended to add another dimension of meaning to the video, but I’m not competent to pursue that. My Sanskrit is a tad rusty, begging your pardon. Apparently avarya is used as a feminine name, implying sweetly irresistible.

“Sundown”

I was not going to share this at first. Among other things, it’s on YouTube and that platform has gotten to packing an unreasonable number of commercials into their hosted videos. My TV died for this?

But I came back to it because, on the other hand, it is a super bit of storytelling, carefully crafted to build a particular effect, timed to a particular plot point but with multiple suggestions of subplots (left to the viewer to fill in; the characters are genre archetypes, so any number of subplots suggest themselves) and paced to fit its five minutes. Plus there is the trippy, comic-book style of animation; the story is almost told in frames.

See for yourself:

This is from GOBELINS.