Tuesday, July 26, 2016

They're Ba-ack

Our Russian Spambot overlords, that is. And they're all using Internet Explorer.
What, boosting Donald Trump wasn't enough for you?

Friday, July 22, 2016

Book Review: The Nightmare Stacks

The Nightmare Stacks
Charles Stross
Fantasy, humor

I was a little bit disappointed with last year's The Annihilation Score. When you switch viewpoint characters in a long-running series, you have the chance to do something new and different, and The Annihilation Scores kinda didn't. The Nightmare Stacks, to a pretty fair extent, does.

Oh, it's got what you expect from a Laundry Files novel. It's got black humor and genuine horror and snappy dialog and imagination and stuff. It's also got some new elements. For example, our new viewpoint character Alex is both a nerdy young guy and a powerful though newly-minted vampire--sorry, victim of PHANG Syndrome--and he's trying to reconcile the two. Also, even more than in The Annihilation Score, the world of the The Annihilation Score has very definitively diverged from our own, which makes for a different reading experience as well. The antagonists are very well written, the bad parts are appropriately sobering, and the ending is a real twist.

In an odd way, this is one of the more . . . hopeful books in the series. Yes, we're deep in CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN where REDACTED and REDACTED cause a disastrous REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED. On the other hand, our guys get to encounter an menace that isn't immune to bullets. In fact, the good guys are pretty effectual!

I'll also note that the book is kindly dedicated to the late great Sir Terry Pratchett. It's a very appropriate tribute, in part because The Nightmare Stacks (even more than 2014's The Rhesus Chart) can be read seen as a Strossified riff on a theme that Pratchett also used.

If you like the series, you'll like The Nightmare Stacks--in fact, I think you'll like it a lot. If you're unfamiliar with the series, this isn't a bad place to start. There are minor spoilers for some of the recent books, but nothing earth-shattering, and Alex is a good introductory viewpoint character.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: Frankensteins and Foreign Devils

Frankensteins and Foreign Devils
Walter Jon Williams
Science fiction

A wide-ranging short-story collection. By far the most enjoyable story is "Broadway Johnny", which is a Bertie Wooster chop-sockey 1920s Jazz pulp Oriental fantasy adventure. " Williams mentions in his afterword that he had other stories in mind for the character, but regrettably he doesn't seem to have followed through. "Red Elvis" is an intriguing thought piece with a nice twist at the end. Multiple award nominee "Wall, Stone, Craft" is interesting, but for full effect you need to be quite familiar with the original Frankenstein, i.e. the book.

The rest of the stories are generally good, some very good, but not quite crowd-pleasers; Williams, here and elsewhere, is a writer who relies a lot on mood. The closest author parallel I can think of is Roger Zelazny. If you like his short fiction, there's a good chance you'll like WJW (and vice-versa).

Zelazny has a number of short-story collections out there. Unicorn Variations is a good one.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Valiant Ambition

Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution
Nathaniel Philbrick
History, Biography

George Washington mastered his passions. Benedict Arnold's passions mastered him. There, in an aphorism, is the essential difference between the two. 

Nathaniel Philbrick brings out the contrast beautifully by showing how the two men faced similar challenges--and reacted very differently. Furthermore, Valiant Ambition is a ripping yarn. Philbrick makes masterful narrative sense of the strategic picture, the tactics of the battles, the events, and the personalities of the commanders. Not only Washington and Arnold, either--their British counterparts get some insightful character portraits.

Less happily, Philbrick likes Just-So Stories. He wants to have a neat narrative explanation, where Outcome X happens exactly and only because of Prior Events A, B, and C. (The more technical term here is post-hoc fallacy.) In Valiant Ambition, he seems to be trying to set up The Story of Just How the Continental Congress Got Its Mojo Back. The conceit is that the shock of Arnold's betrayal somehow pulled Congress back from the brink: revelation dawned, there were hosannas and reconciliations, everyone pitched in with renewed vigor, the patriotic background music swelled up . .  . 

It's a feeble attempt. Even Philbrick seems to realize as much. He states it as a thesis right up front, and half-heartedly comes back to it at the very end, but in between times he more or less forgets the idea. That's just as well.

For related reasons, he's overly dismissive towards Washington's military abilities, and overly generous toward Arnold's. Washington was brave, ambitious, aggressive, inspirational, and under-prepared. Arnold was brave, ambitious, aggressive, inspirational, under-prepared ... and lucky. Philbrick, however, wants to tell The Story of Just How George Washington Learned His Lesson and Became a Great Leader.

(Also, Philbrick gets digressive. He devotes a good deal of space to, for example, David Bushnell. Bushnell was an ingenious and intriguing fellow, for sure, but he's perfectly irrelevant to the book.)

So Valiant Ambition doesn't strike me as a masterpiece of analysis. It's very enjoyable narrative, though. More than that, once you get past its unconvincing nominal premise, it has a point: character is can get you things that you can't get by depending on, say, intellect. I, personally, would have been better off if I'd learned that at a somewhat younger age.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Book Review: Night Drive

Night Drive: Travels With My Brother
Garnet Rogers
Biography, music

I live in a parallel musical universe. In my universe, almost any name you're familiar with is a non-entity. (Or a punchline.)

In your universe, you poor sucker, people will actually pay real actual dollars to listen to something that goes 
Bitch better have my money
Bitch better have my money
Pay me what you owe me
Bitch better have my
Bitch better have my
Bitch better have my money*
Poetry, sheer poetry. I'm sure it will be a lasting cultural contribution, one that will tug at the musical heartstrings of generations yet unborn.

My ignorance of popular music is a thing that I cherish and love and nurture. See, over in my universe, there are people you've never heard of who are musical gods.

Stan Rogers was one of them.

Even though you've never heard of Stan--hell, even if you can't stomach his music (it's not your fault; you were brought up wrong)--you should read Night Drive. It's side-splittingly funny, for one thing. And it's achingly wistful. And raw, and honest, and angry, and insightful, and illuminating. It's not a conventional biography; it's only mostly chronological, and its arrangement is a bit haphazard. Garnet is more raconteur than author. If Night Drive were a painting, it'd be Impressionist: not photographic, not precise, not posed, not even complete, yet withal absolutely true.

Trying to make a living playing non-commercial music is clearly the act of a desperate person. If you've ever had any ambitions in that direction, Night Drive should cure you. (If it doesn't, you've soared past "desperate" and are well over the border into "deranged".) This is an unsanitized look at what gods are like when they're not really gods, but young men with outsized gifts and dedication and idealism and egos and ambition and inability to function conventionally and no more wisdom than most young men have, which is a number so small that mathematicians haven't diagnosed it yet. By the end, their livers must have had the consistency of Hostess Ding Dongs.

Thanks to Garnet for writing what must have been an agonizing book. Thanks to Stan and Garnet's parents, who were supportive and loving and forgiving to a degree that I can't even envision. Thanks to the other band members. Thanks to the club owners (including my seventh-grade social studies teacher). Thanks, finally, to Stan for the music. I never heard him live--for no good reason; he was in my home area often enough--but I've got a dozen of his songs in my repertoire. 

I can't do them justice. But I can pass them on.

*NO, I did not know that. I just googled "stupidest song lyrics" and there it was.

Night Drive is available through Garnet's website.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: The Man Who Invented Fiction

The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered In the Modern World
William Egginton

This is a pretty good book. I say that here, at the outset, because I'm going to spend most of this review taking pot shots at it.

What? I hear you cry. Is JT going soft? Why is he not airing out the ol' sarcasm vocab, the way he did here? Where is the steely-eyed dissection, like this?

The difference is that The Man Who Invented Fiction is an unambiguously humanist book. Most of what I read here falls, broadly speaking, under the the umbrella of . . . empiricism, I suppose, is the best label. Empiricist writing is about facts, while humanist writing is about interpretation. Or, alternatively: the empiricist writer seeks to inform; the humanist writer seeks to convince. To disagree with a humanist book is not (necessarily) a failure of the book, but (arguably, probably) a success. The author has a thesis. Agree with it, challenge it, disagree vehemently, modify it: these are all valid responses.

So here's the thesis. Before Cervantes, people wrote stuff that they and their audience knew wasn't true, but readers/listeners didn't experience it in the way that we call "fiction". Aristotle divided literature into history (the true) and poetry (the untrue), and had some very specific ideas on how the latter worked. Egginton's argument is that pre-Cervantean readers followed Aristotle in considering only certain forms of the not-true: fables, allegories, and satires, more or less.

Fiction--and here I'll agree with Egginton--is none of these. In fiction, we know that the story is not true, but we accept it as true for the duration. This willing suspension of disbelief allows us to identify with a fictional character in ways that we can't with a satirical or fabulous or allegorical one. When a favorite character hurts, we hurt. This doubleness of vision allows for a deeper and qualitatively different experience. And Cervantes (pace Egginton) is its inventor.

It's an interesting idea. I don't buy it. In the first place, some of what Egginton derives from Aristotle's theory of tragedy seems to me to be pretty strained (although I admit I haven't read the Poetics since high school). Anyway, the fact that Aristotle divided literature into a particular taxonomy doesn't prove anything about how actual people actually experienced it 1900 actual years later. Does Egginton seriously believe (for example) that the medieval consumers of the Arthurian tales didn't identify with Arthur--that they somehow were incapable of feeling along with him when Guinevere's adultery is forced into the open? Does he imagine that ancient Greeks couldn't grieve along with Odysseus, when his dog Argos--old, weary, sick, neglected--sees him, and recognizes, him, and dies? It seems highly unlikely to me.

Maybe Egginton would dismiss that and similar material as mere escapism, unworthy of the label of "fiction" (much less "literature"). That's his loss. I can assure him, from personal experience, that it is quite possible to identify with Arthur, Odysseus, Luke Skywalker, Mr. Spock, Dr. John H. Watson, Frodo Baggins, Alvin of Diaspar, Robin Hood, Beowulf, Horatio Hornblower, Philip Marlowe, Spenser, Clark Kent (the Christopher Reeves version), and a great many others besides.

Then, too, Egginton's claims can get pretty thoroughly imbrangled. For example:
What fiction permitted Cervantes to do in a way that no author before him managed was to juxtapose ideals and their inevitable disappointment in such a way as to force the reader simultaneously to acknowledge their value and to recognize the comic tragedy of their defeat. And because portraying the disappointment of expectations required him to draw on his own experience to imagine how those expectations would feel to those who held them, the shuttling back and forth between expectation and disappointment, between belief and its betrayal, or simply between different points of view in turn animated the characters he created, pulling them into relief by virtue of the difference between their views and those of their counterparts.
I wrote some papers in college that sounded very much like that, but I'm not proud of them.

And then there are blanket statements like this:
And it was not until Rene Decartes wrote his Meditations at the end of the 1630s that a rigorous distinction between how things appear to be to a person's senses and how they in fact are in themselves entered the philosophical lexicon.
Whaaaaaa . . . ? I don't know exactly what Egginton is trying to say here, but this is prima facie nonsense. This distinction has been around since Plato.

Then, too, Egginton just ignores the fact that Don Quixote really is satire, especially the first part. Cervantes is making fun of a popular genre of his day--the chivalric romance, close cousin of the trashy, never-ending series of fantasy novels that we know so well. (Seriously. Robert Jordan and Dragonlance are their spiritual descendants.)  There was Amadis of Gaul and Tirant the White and Palmerin of England and many more, each of which spawned sequels and imitators galore. Don Quixote's misadventures make copious references to this vast literature. 

In addition to literary criticism, The Man Who Invented Fiction has a substantial biographical component. Much of this is very good. Where it goes off the rails is where Egginton tries to substantiate his vision of Cervantes-as-inventor-of-fiction by interpreting the life of Cervantes-the-man. The weakness of this approach is made obvious by the liberal use of weasel phrases: "Surely Cervantes understood that ..." and "Cervantes must have felt ..." and "Clearly Cervantes intended ..." and "Perhaps this led Cervantes to write ..." and so forth.

Egginton, in short, has the luxury of constructing his own "Cervantes". "Cervantes" has some relationship to the actual, historical Miguel de Cervantes, but they're not identical. "Cervantes" serves as a vehicle for Egginton's ideas. This allows him to discover that "Cervantes" was a sympathetic character with a compatible world-view, and that his experiences made him the father of "fiction" per se. Similarly, a nationalist Catholic can discover that "Cervantes" was a devout and conservative man, while a liberal pacifist can discover that "Cervantes" was himself a liberal pacifist. (In English literature, we have a multiplicity of "Shakespeare"s with much the same effect.)

As I said, I don't buy it. But, as you may note, I did engage with it. I read the book with interest, taking mental notes and analyzing and (usually but not always) disagreeing. That makes The Man Who Invented Fiction a success on its author's terms, I think.

Don Quixote itself is well worth reading, even in an abridged version. It's still very funny in places, and wise as well. Honestly, there's not much "classic" fiction that can be read for pleasure by the general reader, but the Quixote is an exception.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review: The Gene

The Gene: An Intimate History
Siddhartha Mukherjee
Science, medicine

I've been trying for a couple of days to think of something insightful to say about The Gene. You know what? Just go read it. It's excellent. 

Oh, I don't think it's quite as good as Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies. The latter has the virtue of being intrinsically story-like. Cancer is the villain, and it has the upper hand for most of the book, until at the last minute the Rebel Alliance scientists start to find the chinks in its armor ... The Gene is a little less dramatic. Also, I wouldn't minded if there had been more scientific detail; that's probably a minority view, though.

What's astonishing is both how much we know, and how fast we've learned it. Even five years ago, this would have been a different book. Fifty years ago, it would have been about a tenth of the size. A hundred and fifty years ago, it would have been non-existent. It's exciting, mostly in a good way. You want to see the Technological Singularity coming? Don't look to computers. Look to biology.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Book Review: You May Also Like

You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice
Tom Vanderbilt
2016, Books, Psychology

You May Also Like is endlessly diverting. It is also, for a rationalist, faintly depressing. Tom Vanderbilt charges (entertainingly enougn) off in a great many different directions at once, although making sense of his results is not simple. Executive summary: people are nuts. We seem to make decisions based on everything except anything that makes sense. 

For example, the conventional wisdom is that the Internet makes it possible for esoteric and idiosyncratic preferences to flourish (the so-called long-tail phenomenon). Sounds great, huh? Except that, according to Vanderbilt, it ain't so. The Internet, instead, magnifies the "signal" of mass consumption. People with more information on what's popular are more conformist, not less.

There are a lot of other examples here. Vanderbilt is good at drawing connections between seemingly-disparate findings. He's a little less good at large-scale conclusions. This is one of the few books where the epilogue, where Vanderbilt actually summarizes what he thinks he's found, is almost as informative as the main text.