Books I’ve Been Reading

Not including all the Harry Potter fanfiction. Quick reviews, because I have nothing particularly long and insightful to say about most of them. I’m just looking around my desk (and inside the Stanza iPhone app) and trying to remember what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks, because I sure haven’t been doing anything productive.

Are You Experienced (William Sutcliffe):

This book could be a fun read if you are a) not an Indian, b) okay with casual racism, and c) like reading gritty/funny travel stories. I picked it up because the back cover suggested c) , not realizing that a) and b) are at least as necessary. The basic plot is about a guy who hates travel but goes to India because he wants to sleep with his best friend’s girlfriend (someone whose characterization at least some feminist readers might get upset about, although I was content just to think she was a bitch), talks to oh-so-whacky people and gets oh-so-funny diarrhea and gets back to wonderful Britain, so unlike smelly, dirty, horrible India.

I made it through the book only out of sheer boredom. And because I was invested enough in the character to see if he finally got to screw someone (No… technically). It seems to have gotten some good reviews, surprisingly enough, but all by British newspapers, so maybe they just fulfil the three criteria mentioned above; it’s decently written, so if you pretend you’re white and English, I suppose it looks alright. Meanwhile, I’m happy I only spent 20 bucks on it.

 

 

Gods of War, by Ashok Banker

I promised a full review of this, and I will get around to it sometime, so leaving this blank for now. Or maybe I’ll just have part 2 of this and include that book I forgot the name of. As a very, very quick review: the opposite of everything I found wrong with the last book, in an almost as bad way. Ashok Banker tries to take on what he sees as the pervasive racism/anti-Hinduism/whatever of western SF and makes something so ridiculous that it would’ve been quite wonderfully funny if he had opted to write the same story in the style of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy instead of an Author Tract. (Essentially, the evil Americans will kill us all!)

The Left Hand of Darkness  (Ursula Le Guin):

This book is one of the first major works of feminist SF, at least according to wiki, and I’d been planning to read it for a while. It was certainly interesting, well-written and it had quite a few new ideas, but… it just wasn’t that much fun. I mean, it wasn’t boring by any definition, but it doesn’t fixate you to the page or get your heart beating or make you so engrossed that you miss your meals, which is what I have come to expect from a really good book. I think the major problem was just that I started reading it with too many expectations; I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who is interested in SF in general, anyway.

There are two fundamental facts that shape the story. One is that the world of Gethen is far colder than our own, and the only inhabitable land is a (relatively speaking, of course) small bit between 2 huge ice sheets. The second and more important factor is that everyone on Gethen is a hermaphrodite, and essentially- but not quite- bisexual. For a few days every month, they go into the state of “kemmer” in which they can shift to either men or women, depending on a variety of factors. Anyone can bear children. This leads to what is a much more “equal” society, in a sense that one can’t ever replicate among “normal” humans. The book explores the implications of this in some detail.

The plot follows Genly Ai, Envoy to the planet Gethen (Winter) of the Ekumen, a collective of planets that guides development and facilitates trade, etc. His mission is to convince them to join the Ekumen, but many of the people he talks to don’t believe him, and the others are paranoid and afraid that if they join they will have to relinquish control over the planet to some galactic bureacracy, although he explains that it does not work that way. We go with him from Karhide, which is a monarchy with a slightly paranoid king, to Orgoreyn, which is basically an efficiently run communist government (complete with a powerful secret police that controls the Parliament and “Voluntary Farms” for political prisoners) and then back in a reckless voyage across the Ice (a stand-in for the uninhabitable wilderness that features in stories of this sort set in the real world). There are various obstacles along the way, and any number of diversions. The structure of the story has several tropes and narrative devices that a literature student can spend a good deal of time on, but I’ll skip over all that and just ask you to read the book. 

Equal Rites (Terry Pratchett):

This is the first of the Witches series in Discworld. I’d finished both the City Watch series (awesome, in almost every book) and the Death series ( pretty good; Susan Sto Helit is wonderful, and Hogfather is the sweetest fantasy I’ve read in a very long time), and I remembered reading somewhere that Granny Weatherwax was something of an analogue of Captain Vimes (still my favourite character in all the Disc), so this was the natural next choice.

Equal Rites, interestingly, is another “feminist” book. It’s about what happens when a wizard’s magic-“male” magic- happens to get passed down to a newborn girl by mistake. it doesn’t mix well with witch’s magic, which is “female magic”, and…well, several anecdotes and outbursts on sexual equality later, the girl manages to become a wizard. I don’t want to insult the book here- it’s quite a fun read- but I can’t honestly pretend that the overall plotline isn’t completely predictable. The basic premise is rather interesting, though, and as with so much of Pratchett’s works the really good parts are the little things, and this book has as many hilarious pieces of dialogue as most of his work.

See also this essay: Why Gandalf never Got Married.

Wyrd Sisters (Terry Pratchett):

This is the second of the Witches series (Book 6 of Discworld) but it clearly isn’t set up as a sequel to Equal Rites, which I was very disappointed by: I would very much have liked to see a little more about Esk, the first female wizard, who we parted with when she was a mere 9 years old. 

The book is… I can’t say a homage to Hamlet/Macbeth so much as something that just happens to borrow from them in fairly obvious ways (although, strangely enough, this is not mentioned on the wiki page). The titular “Wyrd sisters” are the 3 witches Nanny Ogg, Grandma Weatherwax and the young Magrat Garlick, all of whom are very different from each other and all of whose characters are built up quite wonderfully. The basic plot is this: the Duke murders the king in order to usurp the throne after being bullied by his more ambitious wife. The old king’s new born heir winds up with the witches, who give him to a family of traveling actors to raise. The new king turns out to be really bad news, and is slowly going crazy, and the kingdom itself “awakens” and…things happen. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, although the real twist is only right at the end, and showcases Pratchett’s rather non-traditional (for a fantasy setting, that is) views on destiny and monarchy. The major theme of the book is “the power of words”, or propaganda, as well as the psychological tricks (“headology”) that the witches usually employ to make things happen.

Next up: the remaining Witches novels, as and when I finish them, Gods of War, and the other book I was reading last week which I seem to have forgotten the title of.

PS: Ok, apparently I had a lot more to say than I thought. Either these will really be mini-reviews the next time, or I’ll just do full posts for each book.

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Random Announcements

So exams are over, although my work at the institute is not, and I’m finally doing something interesting with Google Wave: Playing RPGs. Specifically, Eclipse Phase, which is a CC-licensed RPG that deals with transhumanist themes:

Eclipse Phase is a pen & paper roleplaying game of post-apocalyptic transhuman conspiracy and horror.

An “eclipse phase” is the period between when a cell is infected by a virus and when the virus appears within the cell and transforms it. During this period, the cell does not appear to be infected, but it is.

Players take part in a cross-faction secret network dubbed Firewall that is dedicated to counteracting “existential risks” — threats to the existence of transhumanity, whether they be biowar plagues, self-replicating nanoswarms, nuclear proliferation, terrorists with WMDs, net-breaking computer attacks, rogue AIs, alien encounters, or anything else that could drive an already decimated transhumanity to extinction.

I’m just getting started playing a one shot scenario, but if I like it, I’m definitely hoping I could continue playing with someone that I already know. (Or not, random commenter, if you are interested!) Do comment if interested. 

Second- and I’ve been wondering about this one for a while, and I’m not really sure how to go about it- I was thinking of writing a post on preference modification and “preference choice”, which is a rather oxymoronic term that I quickly need to find a substitute for. Essentially, it was sparked off my my rather religious friend telling me that I would be much happier if I picked things other than my current preferences to be happy about. This struck me as both obviously true and completely pointless, but I am coming to realize that I may have been wrong about the latter. Of course, this is hardly a revolutionary idea: it’s already preached by any number of religious and spiritual groups, and any number of best-selling self-help authors as well. I am interested in:

a) seeing how far this is actually possible, with what is currently known about human psychology and perhaps any technological assistance. This post seems to imply that it is not.(“One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” “)

b) Postulating that at some point of time, any amount of self-modification is possible, how far would one want to take it? This is an ontological issue, obviously, relating to how far your preferences dictate your identity- there’s a wonderful quote from High Fidelity* that fits in well here- and you can expect some amount of philosophy to be thrown about. The whole “so why don’t you wire up implants to pleasure centres in your brain and just stick yourself into a socket” issue will also hopefully be discussed here.

The problem is, I can’t seem to get very far on this alone, so I was wondering if anyone had some sort of pointers/links/ comments.

*”I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter. Call me shallow but it’s the fuckin’ truth, and by this measure I was having one of the best dates of my life.”
–Rob Gordon, High Fidelity. 

Journalistic Integrity

This is the story that I wrote for the Shaastra Online Science Fiction Writing contest this year in the Short Sketch category. It got picked first by Cory Doctorow 😀 . It’s not very,er, scientific, as you might notice. But that’s not supposed to be the important part, anyway 🙂

An asteroid is about to collide with the Earth. Because there is no way of preventing the collision, the Earth is being evacuated. But your protagonist and a few others decide to stay back on Earth and await their fates. Recount the last hour of your protagonist’s life.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” they asked for what seemed like the millionth time. Of course! Why would a man his age miss the greatest show on earth-the biggest and the last, at least-to be stuck in suspended animation for a century or two? They probably wouldn’t be able to unfreeze him when they got to wherever it is that they planned to go, and he was just as likely to keel over and die as soon as they did, anyway. And if he was going to die, he wanted to go like Terry Pratchett; glass of whiskey in hand, sitting on his favourite bench and admiring the garden he had tended himself for over half a century. With an approaching meteorite in the background. And he would go doing what he did best, going where others couldn’t-staying while others couldn’t stay- and telling them what they were missing. Nobody would watch what he made for a very long time, of course, but when they finally woke up, he wanted them to know just how this planet had gone into the good night.

He did have one final duty to tend to, so he set up the cameras and other equipment. Clip-on mic, check. Video link, check. Audio link, check. The others would be doing this at various other stations now, but he would be the one putting it all together. The Americans got to do this in daylight, which was easier, although he appreciated the darkness; he wanted to see the stars as they fell towards him. “Then the third angel sounded; and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water.” Why had no one made a movie about Revelations yet? Some one at Warner Bros should have thrown a bible at Michael Bay and told him to get to work. He had always wanted to do it, but no one trusted him with that kind of thing. “Stick to the documentaries, John.” All studio executives sneered the same way. “You’re doing good work here, serious work. We all love your interviews. This country needs people like you. Keep at it. Leave the explosions to the experts.” Well. Well. He’d show them how to shoot a great explosion.

It was about the size of the moon now, and he could see it getting bigger every minute. Not long now. One camera was always focused on it; that would be his introduction sequence. Then a short but fittingly memorable speech, a few shots of the Wonders set to Ravel’s Bolero with Big Boy-what a stupid name for the Agent of Armageddon!-in the background, providing Context. And of course, the first person shot of the explosion for a finale.

“As we stand on the brink of destruction, it is only fitting to question what we as a species have accomplished in our short stay on this doomed planet. We have built bridges and skyscrapers, pyramids and temples, but what of that? In a few hours, and long before you hear this, they will all return to the earth from which they were carved. We are frustrated sculptors, seeking to shape the world in our image, only to be rebuffed by catastrophe. This planet will probably recover from this; at some point, it will hold life again. Perhaps, civilization will re-emerge. But nothing of out deeds will remain. What is our legacy? What has mankind done that separates it from any other form of life, from all the dumb creatures that remain behind, unaware of their fates? What can…”

That’s interesting… It didn’t seem to be moving any more. He peered over at the telescope. Was that a hole? Why would an asteroid have a hole in its side? He was sure it wasn’t there earlier… too astonished now to provide commentary, he focused the camera on it. That thing coming out of it now looked an awful lot like a ship, although it moved a lot faster than the speed at which those shuttles moved on TV. It was almost on the ground already!

Really? Little green men? If there was a god, he certainly has a sense of humour.

<Greetings, friend. We hope we translator decode you brain waves goodly. Translator bad now but become more goodly fastly. We are @#$@R$()%@$. We come in peace. We travel galaxy to spread %$#^&@#. We offer matter transmutator as sign of good faith.>

He bit back a sigh. Great, here come the alien evangelists, offering salvation. All he’d ever wanted was to film a good explosion!

Snow Crash

Snow Crash is a novel about hackers. This is fairly obvious, although like in many dramatizations these hackers are not particularly realistic-one is a champion swordsman, which is hard enough to take, and another is a hot chick, which we all know is utterly ridiculous. It is, in fact, a book where they are the elite, or close to it; most of the rich and famous spend a considerable amount of their time plugged into a virtual reality “Metaverse”, and since hackers built it, they exert more influence there. It is also a book about (as the wikipedia page suggests) history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, religion, computer science, politics, cryptography and philosophy. But while all of these concepts have been dissected and discussed at length in various intellectual circles after the book was published, none of these are the themes of Snow Crash. This is because the true theme of the book is one of those things that are anathema to serious literary critics everywhere.

The theme of Snow Crash is badassery.

But of course, this is obvious, too. How else could it possibly contain [SPOILER ALERT] the aforementioned hacker/greatest swordsman in the world(where “the world” actually refers to the Metaverse: this feat is a lot more understandable given that he wrote the program that simulates sword-fighting in the Metaverse in the first place), 15 year old “air-skateboarding”(for lack of a better term) couriers, pleasantly “reasonable”( a word that will be understood in the intended sense by anyone who has seen/read The Godfather) and understatedly awesome mafia bosses, allusions to 6,000 year old Sumerian mind-hacker(another term that, really, you should just read the book to figure out) gods, induced glossolalia( i.e. being made to speak in tongues, like the early Pentecostals), Aleutian bikers in the mold of Chuck Norris(or Rajinikanth, if you prefer) and…oh, much, much more. The downside is that the plot requires that you either be completely technically ignorant, or read enough science fiction and fantasy to induce that willing suspension of disbelief.

To summarize: in the post-governmental future, the aforementioned unbelievably cool hacker-aptly named Hiro Protagonist- is slumming it by doing odd jobs because he’s too cool to work in “programmer factories”, and finds that his fellow hackers are being brainwashed by a new virus-yes, a computer virus- called “Snow Crash”. Which is also the name of a real world drug. He finds that this is all part of a conspiracy to take over the world:not one that has been going on for several thousand years, like in Foucalt’s Pendulum and the like, just one that USES “technology” from several thousand years ago, which is of course so much more believable. He then proceeds to be awesome and with the help of his equally awesome fellow rebels, takes on the Big Baddy(a larger-than-life Texan media baron with evangelical leanings) and emerges triumphant, rich and paired up with the hot hacker chick.
[/SPOILER ALERT]

Obviously, there is a lot more to the book besides the central plot-line. There are interesting illustrations of life in a world where technology renders governments redundant (hardly a libertarian paradise, but not exactly dystopic,either), the idea of viruses/memes/genes in several domains (among others, the concept of franchises as extended from our familiar abbreviations (McDs and KFCs and CCDs) to replace even what we today consider core functions of the state, and of course the kind of biological and informational/computer viruses that are at the core of the book), meta-viruses, panspermia, and many others. There are a whole collection of grotesquely but hilariously stereotyped characters-in fact, there are nothing BUT stereotyped characters, which ought to offend (especially since many of them are ethnic), but don’t.

This is not really a balanced review of the book, and it is very incomplete in some respects. That is because this is the kind of book that it’s very hard to write a “balanced” review about. Many of you will love it. Just as many are likely to hate it. But for those who have a “thing” for science fiction/fantasy/”badassery”, it is definitely worth a read.

A note on the author: Neal Stephenson is a rather famous speculative fiction author who looks like the Emperor Ming from Flash Gordon. What else do you need to know, really? But just in case:

  1. He comes from a family of engineers and hard scientists, who he calls “propellerheads”.
  2. Apart from speculative fiction, he writes articles on technology for Wired.
  3. His books “tend to have elaborate, inventive plots drawing on numerous technological and sociological ideas at the same time”, according to wikipedia.
  4. He writes baroque SF. No, seriously.  He wrote a whole trilogy of them, called, what else, “The Baroque Cycle”.
  5. One of his novels, Cryptonomicon, includes “a lengthy erotic story about antique furniture and stockings.”

Firefly

..is totally, completely, mind-blowingly awesome. All the characters are awesome, the setting is awesome,  the theme song is awesome(and I didn’t even know I liked that kind of music!),the humour is awesome-standard Joss Whedon humour, just like in Buffy, but it feels even more awesome in this show, I don’t know why- and even the overall tenor of the story… the space western concept and Mal’s disregard for rules and the general frontier lifestyle is awesome. Morena Baccarin is also really awesome, even in the one episode of How I Met Your Mother that I’ve previously seen her in.I can’t believe I didn’t see it before now. And I finally see what all those people who were trying not to get Dollhouse canceled even before the show started were thinking. Not that Dollhouse is anywhere near as awesome, of course.

Right, I’ll update this and make it less hysterical and more of a review in a little while. Till then, enjoy:

No, I mean this.  Enjoy this:

Sexual Dystopia

There’s an interesting if not very useful (I think, for the purposes I assume he’s doing it for) post by Eliezer up at Overcoming Bias. It would make a reasonably interesting meme, I suppose. The idea is this: you look at various aspects of our lives( he takes economic, sexual, governmental, technological and cognitive) and write down whatthat aspect would be like in a utopic society, a dystopic society and what he calls a ‘weirdtopic” society, which is something that may be totally creepy or weird but may or may not be “better”.* He seeded the discussion by putting the first 2 of each, and kept his ‘weirdtopic” ideas to himself. I got a laugh out of his idea of sexual dystopia:

  • Dystopia: 10% of women have never had an orgasm.  States adopt laws to ban gay marriage.  Prostitution illegal.

*The idea being that if anyone from,say, 2 centuries ago was teleported to this time, he/she would be totally repelled and disgusted, although we would almost certainly agree that Now is better than Then, for pretty much most of Now compared with most of Then, if not just some sections against others.

Can someone explain what this means?

No, seriously….I was told this is a GOOD song,too.

No clouds in my stones
Let it rain, I hydroplane in the bank
Coming down with the Dow Jones
When the clouds come we gone, we Rocafella
We fly higher than weather
And G5’s are better, You know me,
an anticipation, for precipitation. Stacked chips for the rainy day
Jay, Rain Man is back with little Ms. Sunshine
Rihanna where you at?

And what the f*** is an umbArella?

So, I do my periodical reassessment of the genre and come away with my biases confirmed. Back to alt rock!

PS: Off the topic, but Reason has a pretty cool article up on Tor Books and libertarianism, as well as libertarianism in SF in general. Excerpts:

…“Libertarianism is very much part of the intellectual argument of science fiction,” says longtime Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. “It’s impossible to be a part of the argument of science fiction without engaging both broad libertarian ideas and also specifically the whole American free market intellectual tradition.”

…Tom Doherty, who started out as a salesman of cheap paperbacks for Pocket Books, founded Tor on his birthday in the spring of 1980. (Tor is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “summit” or “peak.” This image also provides the imprint’s logo.) Doherty was publisher at the time of the science fiction imprint Ace but decided it was time to strike out on his own. That first year Tor shipped just four books, and two were movie tie-ins: Flash Gordon and Popeye. The new publisher announced his arrival in earnest in 1981 with Psychotechnic League, by libertarian favorite Poul Anderson, and picked up its first Prometheus Award in 1982 for L. Neil Smith’s The Probability Broach.

PS2: Must say, however, that I’m not quite sure whether I should be taking offence at this, or just finally accept it.:

“I suspect S.F. has an individualistic, antiauthoritarian trend to it not least because so many of the people who read and write it (not all by any means, but quite a few) are innerdirected introverts who make neither good leaders nor good followers,”emails Harry Turtledove, a best-selling author whose most famous novels pose questions about contingency in history and the importance of individual action. “Am I talking about myself? Well, now that you mention it, yes. But I ain’t the only one, not even close.”

Listening to: Love of the Loveless, by The Eels.

Even MORE Science Fiction News!

Well, the topics have finally been “finalized”, and sent for publishing. Should be up within a day now. I’m not sure whether there any issues with me mirroring them on this blog, but I think I should hold off at least until the ever-busy webops coordinators upload them on the main site. But I can tell you two things that just about everyone has been asking me about:

  1. You are supposed to mail your entries to onlinesciencefiction@shaastra.org. The details on how I would (really REALLY) like your subject lines to be formatted are given (will be given) on the main site: nothing too complicated, just “Online SF Writing Category: [Conventional or Short Sketch or Fan Fiction] [title of story].
  2. The last date is September 21st. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but when it comes to deadlines, that never seems to matter.

By the way, I also have an account for on the spot sf (sciencefiction@shaastra.org) but if you have any doubts you’re much better off mailing me directly on my normal account. Or commenting, which basically does the same thing. 🙂

For those with additional doubts, here is a small part of an email conversation I had with a very enthusiastic science fiction fan working in Wipro. The vast majority of his doubts/gripes should have been cleared by the new tab on the OSF page, but I thought these deserved a little additional clarification

1) Frankly, I found the FAQs for OSF unrelated to the contest (it is simply ripped from the
on-the-spot contest). I wish to confirm if there really are two contests in Science Fiction, the
on-the-spot one and the online one.
1) There are two contests that you can enter independent of each other (and 2 prizes,too), but according to the Shaastra Events roster it is only one event, and there is only one event coordinator (yours truly). I simply separated the pages for clarity’s sake, because I’d received complaints from others that they couldn’t really tell which rules applied where.
[…]
3) And no details about the judges, the evaluation procedure or anything more is given, which I find odd for a webpage coming out of Shaastra ’08 website. You guys can always put a watermark in the background saying ‘Page under Construction’, can’t you?
To be perfectly honest, besides our one “celebrity judge” for the Online Contest, we haven’t really decided on the final judges. I hasten to add that we have a list of people who have agreed to judge: we simply haven’t confirmed with them, since there is after all over a month left. I realize that I didn’t specify the evaluation method, but I believe I have described the type of entries I am looking for in sufficient detail. I had hoped that would be enough information from the point of view of a contestant. As for things like prize money and the like, even I am in the dark. I have yet to receive information from the Events Cores(the people in charge of all the Events) on what I will be allocated.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll probably upload the topics later as well. Participate!