The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu

Keep reading this book: the first three-quarters seem aimless, and I gave up. What’s at stake? Who gives a damn about this video game? (I also have an anti-video-game prejudice.) But enough people I admire recommended the book that I kept going, and I’m glad I did.

And after The Three-Body Problem, I read the next two which are in some ways structured similarly: somewhat meandering first halves followed by shocking reversals and revelations, culminating in a work of deep time that does not seem to break special or general relativity but does work with them.

The real terror here is not the many monsters of fairy tales, whether ancient or modern, but knowledge itself: “If even an extremely simple arrangement like the three-body system is unpredictable chaos, how can we have any faith in discovering the laws of a complicated universe?” Wang asks about two-thirds through the novel. I will not offer the answer, but I did read Martin Rees’s essay “Is There a Limit to Scientific Understanding?” just before re-starting The Three-Body Problem. One hopes there is no limit to scientific understanding, but that is a hope, not a guarantee.

In the “game” Wang plays in The Three-Body Problem, a civilization keeps being destroyed by perturbations in the orbit of three suns around a planet (hence the title). Each time he enters the world, he needs to observe or solve a problem in order for the civilization to advance—it’s a bit like the computer game Civilization or Age of Empires. Except this game seems to have unnerving, mysterious consequences in the real world.

Not much is explained, and it’s hard to identify the “missing” information pieces in the novel; The Three-Body Problem doesn’t seem to have rules, as other novels do. In a mystery novel, the implicit rules are there, and the killer is human, with human motives and values. He (usually a he, but not always) cannot destroy humanity itself. A mystery novel is like a war using conventional weapons. Unpleasant and miserable, perhaps, but unlikely to be existentially destructive. Nuclear weapons are different: they could be existentially destructive, and war with them is different. Some novels seem to have no internal rules and no guarantee that the good guys will win, or even that any guys will survive. These novels are existentially unsettling, and they tend to be classified as SF; Three-Body is one of them (Blindsight is another).

Initially the novel starts in China’s Cultural Revolution: “During those years, everyone had a special sensitivity for their own political situation. The sense was especially acute in Ye Wenjie. She felt the world around her closing in like a sack being drawn shut, and everything press in on her.” We may think the novel is about politics, and it often is, but science is its bedrock, for reasons I don’t want to elaborate here but that will become apparent over the trilogy’s course. The novel’s world depends on science, but also on the fear of contact with a more technologically advanced society. In Three-Body, Wang finds that “This civilization seems to have developed to a very advanced state.” The implication being, of course, that it may soon be destroyed.

Some spoilers follow. In later books, the possibility of civilization extinction is explored and occurs. The third book in the series, Dearth’s End, finds that one threat had, from humanity’s perspective, “lasted close to three centuries [. . .] yet what took its place was an even crueler universe.” People—in the broadest sense possible—who don’t struggle and win, die. There is no long-term respite from competition.

We don’t often see modern fiction imply this. A nonfiction book like Zero to One may, but most who read Zero to One aren’t seeking its darker depths. Perhaps we should go there.

If you read The Three-Body Problem, don’t give up halfway through, as I did. Often, when the book (and not just the first one) seems like it’s at best dully meandering, something shocking happens. That sense of complacency and direction shattered happens again and again, perhaps as a metaphor for life. I don’t fully understand the extensive metaphoric readings the books could be given, and that’s good news: they’re rich enough for re-readings and many readings, in a way many books aren’t. There are also many sub-genres of science fiction stashed in it, ranging from first contact to deep space exploration to the many-worlds theory.

Some things remain strangely absent—we don’t get AI centuries from now?—but they can be ignored because there’s so much on the page.

Annihilation — Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation works and lives up to its hype but may not live up to predecessors like Solaris or Peter Watt’s brilliant, bizarre novel Blindsight. I say “may not” because Annihilation is a simpler book, which I say descriptively rather than derogatorily, written in an easy-to-understand style that isn’t as demanding as Blindsight. Because the protagonist of Annihilation knows very little, she doesn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary to explain what is happening to her. Most of the characters in Blindsight speak in sentences like this: “The geometry—it’s not so symmetrical. Looks almost like the Phaistos Disk.” The what disk? And the chapters skip confusingly around.

Annihilation_coverBlindsight is much harder SF, but the last third, like the novel as a whole, is as good as any fiction I’ve read, ever. It is a book that needs to be started again from the beginning to be understood, which is both a strength and weakness. One could say that Ulysses is the greatest novel ever written—I don’t think so, despite the commonness of the view—but it is also not for everyone or even most people.

Annihilation and Blindsight should be compared because they share an important theme: what happens when we can’t trust our own senses. Annihilation is scary not just because it’s about exploring the unknown but because the protagonist can’t trust memory, which can be directly manipulated in the novel. In a world without reliable memory it becomes impossible to know what you know or don’t. There is no real way to make sense of human life or to receive meaningful feedback from the environment.

This isn’t a totally new fear—Lovecraft’s stories often involve cosmic horror overcoming the senses of humans and causing madness in them, such that they can no longer rationally evaluate what they see and process with their senses. Descartes asked how we know what we know and how we can trust it in 1641’s First Meditation. The difference between then and the near future is the possibility of being able to systematically alter memories. Contemporary science fiction (and, increasingly, science), however, points out that we’re getting much closer to the point at which direct brain or sensory manipulation could be used to make it impossible to trust one’s senses. That sort of thing existing as a fantastical horror scenario is very different from knowing that it could be done to you and, almost as bad, you might not even know.

The narrator’s epistemological gaps are wide. She says: “We had also been assured that it was safe to live off the land if necessary.” Who had done the assuring? When? Why? The party reaches “the camp” and “set about replacing obsolete or damaged equipment.” What equipment is gone and what remains? The narrator doesn’t say. She hears “a lot, powerful moaning at dusk,” but no one tries to figure out what it is. Blindsight is a voyage of discovery; Annihilation is a voyage of strange passivity.

The part of the brain that deals with curiosity seems to have disappeared, and a few pages later the narrator says as much: that “Curiosity could be a powerful distraction.” For someone exploring the unknown, however, curiosity is a motivator, not a distraction. The term “unreliable narrator” is common, but it doesn’t describe Annihilation’s narrator, who better be termed “wildly delusional.” She seems not to search for explanations when the explanation might save her life and its lack might kill her. At times she is anti-rationalist:

I found the psychologist’s faith in measurements and her rationalization for the tower’s absence from maps oddly. . . endearing? Perhaps she meant only to reassure us, but I would like to believe she was trying to reassure herself. Her position, to lead and possibly to know more than us, must have been difficult and lonely.

Almost no one could know less than the narrator. She knows nothing at the beginning of the novel: of one of her party, she says “I think we all believed she came from some kind of management background.” I’d want to know more about someone I hired to edit proposals, let alone someone I’m accompanying into an unknown area long cut off from the rest of the world and human society. She realizes that “we might now be living in a kind of nightmare,” and that sense never goes away. Neither do questions about the narrator’s reliability; towards the end of the novel, she says:

It may be clear by now that I am not always good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details about the brightness. My reason for this is, again, the hope that any reader’s initial opinion in judging my objectivity might not be influenced by these details.

Worries about “objectivity” are standard fare in novels. The quality of the writing in Annihilation, on a sentence-by-sentence basis, is average, but the novel remains fun, even if the narrator’s ineptness is not to my taste. That the ineptness may be an artifact of whoever sent her is scarier than the things she sees, or think she sees, in Area X.

Links: Matthew Weiner, the book biz, fear, drunk consultants, adjuncts, “involuntary celibates,” and more

* A brilliant Paris Review interview with Mad Men screenwriter Matthew Weiner; recommended even for those who don’t like the show.

* “Can Authors Make Money Selling Books?” On some level the answer is obviously “yes,” but the industry’s economics aren’t especially well known.

* Deeply chilling sentences.

* Someone found this blog by searching for “drunk consultants.”

* “The Adjunct Revolt;” the day we see colleges unable to find adjuncts to hire is the day we’ll see improved wages and working conditions. Why do posts like this get published without any reference to “supply” and “demand?”

* “How Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future: The literary genre isn’t meant to predict the future, but implausible ideas that fire inventors’ imaginations often, amazingly, come true.”

* Elizabeth Bear on knowledge in pre-modern society; I ordered the first book.

* “Confessions of a Reformed InCel [“Involuntary Celibate”];” reading this is brutal.

Bowl of Heaven — Larry Niven and Gregory Benford

Bowl_of_heavenIt’s almost always a mistake to represent alien consciousness in science fiction. Aliens, if we ever encounter them, are likely to be so alien that we can’t or won’t understand them—not at first, and conceivably not ever. The bigger problem with representing alien consciousness in science fiction comes from the language that is doing the representing.

Language, as pretty much everyone who has ever learned a foreign one knows, shapes what and how you think, as does the culture that carried by that language. Languages, though translatable, have different flavors. And the aliens in Bowl of Heaven sound like the humans, who sound like each other, and all of whom sound like Americans. They can’t do much better than call the human-built spacecraft “boldly simple.” These are aliens who, even more than most aliens in fiction, feel like humans dressed in exotic garb and wielding exotic technology.

Arthur C. Clarke wisely avoided this problem in Rendezvous with Rama, which is one reason the first one is so good and the latter ones less so.

It’s very hard to create fully differentiated human characters, each with a style all their own. Few accomplish this, which is why most writers choose a single first-person narrator, or a limited third-person narrator. One accomplishment in a novel like Anita Shreve’s Testimony is that the characters don’t sound alike, as they do in, say, Tom Perrotta’s Election, or many of Elmore Leonard’s novels. Hell, the style of, say, Remains of the Day, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Atonement are as different as they are because each of their authors is trying to achieve (and achieving) a very specific effect and way of thinking. Niven and Benford aren’t.

I got into Bowl of Heaven because Peter Watts blurbed it and wrote about it in Circling the Bowl. I should’ve paid more heed to the way he described it: “Bowl of Heaven resonates with me, not so much as a work of fiction but as an artefact of the publishing industry.” I can see why it wouldn’t resonate with him “much as a work of fiction,” because by that standard it doesn’t succeed well. I should’ve read his post more carefully and noticed that sentence, though he also notes that “Bowl of Heaven seems to have done just fine with the advance reviewers.”

_MG_9690-1Watts looked at Amazon reviews for the book and noticed that “27% of the reviews complain about sloppy editing and continuity errors.” I’m going to complain about sloppy editing too: a lot of my pages looked like the one on the right, in which extraneous words and sentences are crossed out. This is the sort of thing nearly all authors do on their own (many pages of my own work are filled with cross-outs), and that line and copy editors do too. Generally I ignore extraneous sentences in novels, because everyone commits a couple. But when page after page looks like the one depicted to the right, I get annoyed.

Anyway, Watts’s recommendation kept me reading despite editing problems, but I quit reading when the English-speaking aliens appeared, with all of their Capitalized Proper Nouns (“For Memor was not amid the fevered straits of the Change;” there are also mentions of “the Dancing,” “the Watchers,” and capital-A “Astronomers”). There’s better work out there: before Bowl of Heaven, make sure you’ve read Blindsight and Starfish first: those are Watts novels, and I don’t remember where I first learned about them, and both are hard to read at their beginnings but dazzling by their ends as pieces click into place.

To return to the language issue, novels like Bowl of Heaven tend to give SF a bad rep among lit-fic types, who are obsessively attentive to language and how people use language in very particular way. As I noted above, these authors aren’t attentive to those issues, and they also seem to have a confused point of view—and not one that’s intentionally confused for artistic effect, like Virginia Woolf. The effect feels like a mess: it seems like the novel is following Cliff from a first-person limited view, but then it slips into a paragraph or two with only things that Redwing, or other characters, could know. It’s the sort of thing that undergrads learn about in creative writing classes.

Maybe there’s an artistic purpose here, but if so I’m not seeing it. If not, it’s just a mistake, and seeing novels with many simple mistakes praised by many eminent science fiction writers will tend to subtly and unfairly devalue the genre as a whole.

Distrust That Particular Flavor — William Gibson

As with most essay collections, the ones in Distrust That Particular Flavor are uneven: a few feel like period pieces that’ve outlived their period, but most maintain their vitality (Gibson admits as much in the introduction). Gibson knows about the expiration date of predictions and commentary, and having this feature built into his essays makes them endure better. It’s a useful form of admitting a potential weakness and thus nullifying it. In the place of dubious predictions, Gibson makes predictions about not being able to predict and how we should respond:

I found the material of the actual twenty-first century richer, stranger, more multiplex, than any imaginary twenty-first century could ever have been. And it it could be unpacked with the toolkit of science fiction. I don’t really see how it can be unpacked otherwise, as so much of it is so utterly akin to science fiction, complete with a workaday level of cognitive dissonance we now take utterly for granted.

I’d like to know what that last sentence means: what’s a “workaday level of cognitive dissonance,” as opposed to a high or low level? How do we take it for granted now, in a way w didn’t before? I’d like clarification, but I have some idea of what he means: that things are going to look very different in a couple years, in a way that we can’t predict now. His own novels offer an example of this: in Pattern Recognition, published in 2003, Cayce Pollard is part of a loose collaborative of “footage” fetishists, who hunt down a series of mysterious videos and debate what, if anything, they mean (as so many people do on so many Internet forums: the chatter too often means nothing, as I’ve discovered since starting to read about photography). By 2005, YouTube comes along as the de facto repository of all non-pornographic things video. The “material of the actual twenty-first century” changes from 2003 to 2012. What remains is the weirdness.

In writing and in ideas, though Gibson is less weird and easier to follow here than in his recent fiction. There are transitions, titles, short descriptions in italicized blue at the back of each essay, where the contemporary-ish, 2011 Gibson comments on his earlier work. He gets to grade himself on what he’s gotten right and what he hasn’t. He’s self-aware, about both his faults and his mode of work:

A book exists at the intersection of the author’s subconscious and the reader’s response. An author’s career exists in the same way. A writer worries away at a jumble of thoughts, building them into a device that communicates, but the writer doesn’t know what’s been communicated until it’s possible to see it communicated.

After thirty years, a writer looks back and sees a career of a certain shape, entirely unanticipated.

It’s a mysterious business, the writing of fiction, and I thank you all for making it possible.

Comments like this, on the nature of the book and of writing, are peppered in Distrust That Particular Flavor. Technology changes but writing remains, though we again get the idea of fundamental unpredictability (“the writer doesn’t know what’s being communicated”), which is the hallmark of our time and perhaps the hallmark of life since the Industrial Revolution. It’s the kind of life that science fiction prepares us for, even when the science fiction is wrong about the particulars. It still gets the temperament right. Hence science fiction as a toolkit for the present and future—and, to some extent, as a toolkit for the past. One could view the past as a series of social disruptions abetted and enabled by technology that creates winners and losers in the struggle or cooperation for resources, sex, power:

Much of history has been, often to an unrecognized degree, technologically driven. From the extinction of North America’s mega-fauna to the current geopolitical significance of the Middle East, technology has driven change. [. . .] Very seldom do nations legislate the emergence of new technology.

The Internet, an unprecedented driver of change, was a complete accident, and that seems more often the way of things. The Internet is the result of the unlikely marriage of a DARPA project and the nascent industry of desktop computing. Had nations better understood the potential of the Internet, I suspect they might well have strangled it in its cradle. Emergent technology is, by its very nature, out of control, and leads to unpredictable outcomes.

The first step is recognition, which is part of the work Gibson is doing. Nations also might not “legislate the emergence of new technology,” but they do create more or less favorable conditions to the emergence of technology. Economic historians, general historians, and others have been trying to figure out why the Industrial Revolution emerged from England when it did, as opposed to emerging somewhere else or sometime else. I find the Roman example most tantalizing: they appear to have missed the printing press and gunpowder as two major pre-conditions, since the printing press allows the rapid dissemination of ideas and gunpowder, if used correctly, lowers of the cost of defense against barbarians.

I find the idea of history being “technologically driven” intriguing: technology has enabled progressively large agglomerations of humans, whether in what we now call “countries” or “corporations,” to act in concert. The endgame isn’t obvious and probably never will be, unless we manage to destroy ourselves. We can only watch, participate in, or ignore the show. Most people do the latter, to the extent they can.

I use a fountain pen and notebook and so identify with this:

Mechanical watches are so brilliantly unnecessary.
Any Swatch or Casio keeps better time, and high-end contemporary Swiss watches are priced like small cars. But mechanical watches partake of what my friend John Clute calls the Tamagotchi Gesture. They’re pointless in a peculiarly needful way; they’re comforting precisely because they require tending.

Much of life, especially cultural life, beyond food, shelter, and sex might be categorized as “brilliantly unnecessary;” it’s awfully hard to delineate where the necessary ends and superfluous begins—as the Soviet Union discovered. To me, haute couture is stupidly unnecessary, but a lot of fashion designers would call fountain pens the same. Necessity changes. Pleasure varies by person. Being able to keep “better time” isn’t the sole purpose of a watch, which itself is increasingly an affectation, given the ubiquity of computers with clocks embedded (we sometimes call these computers “cell phones”). We want to tend. Maybe we need to. Maybe tending is part of what makes us who we are, part of what makes us different from the people who like hanging out with their friends, watching TV, and shopping. Gibson also mentions that his relationship or lack thereof to TV also relates to him as a writer:

I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.

Notice that word, “may,” weakening his comment, but not fatally. TV is the mostly invisible vampire of time, and it’s only when people like Gibson, or Clay Shirky, point to it as such that we think about it. Doing almost anything other than watching TV with the time most people spend watching it means you’re going to learn a lot more, if you’re doing something even marginally active (this is Shirky’s point about the coming “cognitive surplus” enabled by the Internet). Gibson did something different than most people his generation, which is why we now know who he is, and why his thoughts go deeper. Like this, variations of which I’ve read before but that still resonate:

Conspiracy theories and the occult comfort us because they present models of the world that more easily make sense than the world itself, and, regardless of how dark or threatening, are inherently less frightening.

They’re less frightening because they have intentionality instead of randomness, and random is really scary to many people, who prefer to see causality where none or little exists. Instead, we have all these large systems with numerous nodes and inherently unpredictability in the changes and interactions between the nodes; one can see this from a very small to a very large scale.

This is easier to perceive in the abstract, as stated here, than in the concrete, as seen in life. So we get stories, often in “nonfiction” form, about good and evil and malevolent consciousnesses, often wrapped up in political narratives, that don’t really capture reality. The weirdness of reality, to return to term I used above. Reality is hard to capture, and perhaps that science fiction toolkit gives us a method of doing so better than many others. Certainly better than a lot of the newspaper story toolkits, or literary theory toolkits, to name two I’m familiar with (and probably better than religious toolkits, too).

I’m keeping the book; given that I’ve become progressively less inclined to keep books I can’t imagine re-reading, this is a serious endorsement of Distrust That Particular Flavor. I wish Gibson wrote more nonfiction—at least, I wish he did if he could maintain the impressive quality he does here.

Flashback — Dan Simmons

There are shades of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle all over Flashback. Problem is, they don’t really go anywhere. The novel opens in the near future with a mystery: Hiroshi Nakamura is a wildly wealthy Japanese man who needs Nick Bottom to solve the mystery of his son’s death using a drug called Flashback, which lets one relive in the past as if it’s the present. The setup is clever; Nick, rather than being a classic detective-alcoholic, is a flashback addict and feels “the flashback itch crawling in him like a centipede. He wanted to get out of this room and pull the warm wool covers of then, not-now, her, not-this over himself like a blanket.” He wants his time warped, in other words, as the centipede tells him. He wants to retreat to childhood: hence the blanket. It’s a nice image, and double so because the novel doesn’t have many of them.

Flashback is frustrating because it has so much promise that goes unfilled. There are lots of “as-you-know-captain speeches” (as there were A Game of Thrones), like this one, six pages in:

The polishes cedar floors and fresh tatami mats, in contrast, seemed to emanate their own warm light. A sensuous, fresh dried-grass smell rose from the tatami. Nick Bottom had had enough contact with the Japanese in his previous job as a Denver homicide detective to know that Mr. Nakamura’s compound, his house, his garden, this office, and the ikebana and few modest but precious artifacts on display here were all perfect expressions of wabi (simple quietude) and sabi (elegant simplicity and the celebration of the impermanent.

How do you have fresh dried grass? Shouldn’t it be fresh or dried? Beyond that, the phrase “Nick Bottom had had enough contact” signals that we’re about to be told a bunch of stuff. In and of itself, that’s fine. The problem is the sheer number of times the story pauses for no particular reason to regurgitate stuff at us. Susan Bell’s essay “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” (part of The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House) details how deftly F. Scott Fitzgerald avoids such problems in The Great Gatsby, with the help of Maxwell Perkins. We’re not so lucky here. In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, digressions feel organic. Here they feel forced.

So do the italics that give us Nick’s thoughts; toward the end of chapter one, he thinks, “You know why you’re going to hire me for this job, jerkwad. Let’s get to it. Yes or no.” I’ve heard similar sentiments in a thousand detective novels and movies. They don’t add anything to the story or Nick’s character. They’re distracting. The problems in the first chapter continue throughout.

There are good bits, as when Nick decides not to flashback to sex: “he was simply glad that his video-recorded idiot’s face wouldn’t be showing the uncoordinated spastic echoes of his orgasms from eighteen years earlier.” We get the self-loathing, the professional’s unhappiness at being caught unaware, the thought of “uncoordinated spastic echoes” that capture a look in a way that’s fresh and vital. Such moments are just too rare. The book is too fat. It deals with balkanization and terrorism in ways that are interesting and imagines a future without state or national infrastructure, which is a scary one. It just doesn’t do so well. There’s a palpable fear of Muslims and what, for lack of a better word, I would call multiculturalism or pluralism; a character thinks:

Los Angeles [was] celebrating the events of that old holiday called 9-11, September 11, 2001, the date—as Val had been taught in school—of the beginning of successful resistance to the old imperialist American hegemony and a turning point in the creation of the New Caliphate and other hopeful signs of the new world order.

We get a lot of conservative ideology here: the distribution of dangerous ideas in schools; the idea that liberals see American hegemony as dangerous and imperialist; and the fear of Islamists taking over the world. Women “in full burkas” sit, and one has “bright blue eyes” who Val says “was Cindy from his Wednesday Social Responsibility class.” None of these fears seem likely, and after the Arab Spring, they seem even more ludicrous. The world is mostly inching toward liberalism, not authoritarianism, bikinis, not burkhas, despite the United States’ present penchant for spying on its own citizens. A college professor begins to question his own received wisdom, and experiences “Doubt [about] whether America’s eventual retreat from the rising success of radical Islam’s influence around the world was the wisest course.” Except that the U.S. is successful precisely because its culture promotes letting people live as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others: this is part of the reason why the U.S. is very good at integrating minorities, while Europe struggles. The idea that the U.S. will ‘retreat,” whatever that means in the context, is ludicrous.

I’m not opposed to novels with political messages, as long as those messages are thoughtful, reasonable, and well-integrated, and dumb politics aren’t limited to the right (on the left, see: John Steinbeck). I’m opposed to novels with dumb politics, like this one, but I’m even more opposed to weak writing.

You can have a book with little plot and spectacularly unusual sentences or language use; this is basically what Joyce and John Banville do (or, think of Banville’s alter ego detective fiction writer, Benjamin Black). You have a book with lots of plot and uninteresting or banal sentences, which is what a lot of thrillers do. But it’s really hard to have little plot and average sentences, which is what you see in Flashback. It’s got a great premise and doesn’t deliver. I got to page 200, mostly because I had time to kill while waiting to meet a friend. Flashback did fill time and did offer an intriguing premise. It didn’t do much else.

EDIT: I am not the only one who is disappointed in Flashback.

Week 33 links: The secret sex lives of teachers, B. R. Myers and A Reader's Manifesto, digital cameras, a book in the home, science fiction writers' picks, adultery and politics

* The secret sex lives of teachers, which notes, “there is clearly something irresistible about teachers with decidedly adult extracurricular activities.”

* The Soul-Sucking Suckiness of B.R. Myers, which I don’t buy. I read A Reader’s Manifesto and loved it. Hallberg says, “It was hard to say which was more irritating: Myers’ scorched-earth certainties; his method, a kind of myopic travesty of New Criticism; or his own prose, a donnish pastiche of high-minded affectation and dreary cliché.” I suppose one man’s weak “method” is the opening of another’s eyes to something he’d long suspected but never quite articulated.

I remember trying to read DeLillo and Pynchon as a teenager, thinking they were incoherent, boring, or both, and putting them back down again—an opinion I haven’t managed to revised.

* Why we’ve reached the end of the camera megapixel race.

* A Book in Every Home, and Then Some.

* The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels.

* The stars of modern SF pick the best science fiction. A lot of the choices don’t look very appealing to me; I wonder if this is an example of the values of writers and reading diverging.

* Normally I think the day-to-day of politics is stupid and cruel, but some meta political commentary can be amusing, along the observation of hypocrisy. Like in this New York Times column: “What is it with Republicans lately? Is there something about being a leader of the family-values party that makes you want to go out and commit adultery?”

* The Magician King is done.

* The annoyances of eBooks, and why they will probably win anyway.

Late March Links: Sexting times two, English as a baffling language, vocabulary, raising the status of U.S. manufactured goods, Lev Grossman's The Magician King, science as a career, and more

* Sexting lawsuits get stupid.

* Why videogames haven’t grown up yet: sex. And, the writer notes, why do so many videogames deal with it in such a juvenile (read: juvenile boy) way?

* An etiquette guide, and one of the unintentional hilarities of self-publishing.

* “To improve its public schools, the United States should raise the status of the teaching profession by recruiting more qualified candidates, training them better and paying them more [. . .] ‘Teaching in the U.S. is unfortunately no longer a high-status occupation [. . . .]’ ” The problem: I don’t see how you can accomplish this without making it harder to fire teachers. One thing most high-status occupations have in common: you have to be good at them to remain in the occupation. If you’re not good, you’ll be forced to the margins of the occupation, suffer financial consequences, and have clients leave you. Until teaching does that, it can’t really improve in status. Until teachers’ unions will accept simpler firing procedures or are eliminated, that can’t happen.

* English, that baffling language.

* AT & T is piping Internet data straight to the NSA. Nasty.

* Microsoft Word Now Includes Squiggly Blue Line To Alert Writer When Word Is Too Advanced For Mainstream Audience.

* Who Is Really a Sex Rebel? Why we are so obsessed with desire among the Victorians.

* A political history of science fiction.

* Neil Gaiman: Why defend freedom of icky speech?

* A Girl’s Nude Photo, and Altered Lives. This is completely insane:

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it.

In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost. Only then would the community try to turn the fiasco into an opportunity to educate.

* Lev Grossman says The Magician King will be out August 9.

* How to manufacture stuff in the U.S.: raise the status of the stuff’s place of origin. This is being written by a guy who has a Tom Bihn (made in Washington State!) messenger bag, so it worked on me.

* Deadbeats and Turnips: understand who can actually pay child support, since sending people who can’t pay to jail is counterproductive.

The basic problem is this: someone (usually the father) can’t pay child support. Virtually all states now send you to jail if you can’t pay court-ordered child support. Sending people to jail has lots of obvious negative effects on the ability to find and keep a job. So you get out of jail, can’t find a job, still have to pay child support and. . . go to jail again.

* How Western Diets Are Making The World Sick. This should be obvious to anyone who’s read Michael Pollan.

* The real science gap, which mirrors Philip Greenspun’s Women in Science. The short version: science is great but science careers are terrible and getting worse. Smart students figure this out and do something other than science PhD programs. Remember this next time someone is bemoaning the lack of American scientists.

February 2011 Links: Brian Jacques, Writing, Science Fiction, Innovation, Tea, and more

* Brian Jacques died. I met him once, briefly, during an otherwise dreadful study abroad experience at the University of East Anglia in England. His books haven’t held up especially well with time—unlike, say, Tolkien and Philip Pullman, he isn’t as easily enjoyed as an adult than as a child—but I still think his plotting, characters, and ethos are forever stamped in my mind because a fifth grade teacher read Redwall and Martin the Warrior to my class.

And Jacques was an astonishing performer, more like an actor than a writer. Maybe his material and audience demanded it. Nonetheless, it was easy to see the vitality in his books in his person. I’ve met enough authors to realize they’re often nothing like the books they write, but he was.

* A Classic ‘Nontextbook’ on Writing, the “Nontextbook” being Writing With Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing. Expect a review when I get my copy.

* The Purpose of Science Fiction: How it teaches governments—and citizens—how to understand the future of technology. Also, it might be fun.

* Space Stasis: What the strange persistence of rockets can teach us about innovation. Neal Stephenson wrote this, as he did “Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out.” Both are highly recommended.

* Bureaucrat acts like a jerk and attempts to silence smart guy, news at 11:00.

* Hilarious: how advertisers use to sex to get their ads banned from the SuperBowl, then viewed widely online.

* You Can’t Be Against Dense, Urban Development and Consider Yourself an Environmentalist.

* Tea: A Literary Tour. Sample: “I suspect that many of you, dear readers, are tea drinkers, too (tea and the literary life just seem to fit together, somehow). . .”

Late December Links: Robertson Davies’ stock falls, science fiction, typing speed, Jane Austen meets pornography, censorship, and more

* Does Typing Speed Really Matter For Programmers? Answer: probably not, once you reach a relatively low level of speed. I suspect the same is true for writers: I tend to be more limited by my brain than my fingers.

* Steampunk and the origins of science fiction, which go in directions different than the ones you’re probably imagining.

* Anarcho-Monarchism, Tolkien and Dalí.

* A great comment on blogging:

I think there are two ways to blog: altruistically or narcissistically. If you’re blogging altruistically you’re blogging for others primarily and yourself secondarily. If you’re blogging narcissistically you’re mostly blogging for yourself.

Which am I?

* Possibly NSFW but hilarious: Porn and Penetration, an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.

* Literary reputations, with Melville falling and Tolkien gaining. Sadly, Robertson Davies is “falling off a cliff,” which I find distressing because I think he might be the most underrated writer I know, and most people I’ve recommended The Deptford Trilogy to love it; they ask why he isn’t better known, but I have no answer I wish to share publicly.

* The [Unjust] war against cameras:

Police across the country are using decades-old wiretapping statutes that did not anticipate iPhones or Droids, combined with broadly written laws against obstructing or interfering with law enforcement, to arrest people who point microphones or video cameras at them. Even in the wake of gross injustices, state legislatures have largely neglected the issue.

* New York Magazine’s Chris Rovzar speciously asks of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal, Why Must We Pretend It Is Not Strange When Adult Celebrities Date Underage Celebrities? There are a couple obvious answers:

1) Taylor Swift, at 20, is nowhere near underage; the fact that she “isn’t old enough to legally drink alcohol” (emphasis in original) says more about U.S. law than what it means to be an adult.

2) Most women appear to want to date men of higher status than themselves. If you’re a celebrity, the only way you can effectively do this is by dating another celebrity.

This assumes the post is serious, which it might not be, or that it’s not merely trolling, which it might be.

* Eminent domain now effectively has no limits, and that’s definitely a bad thing.

* Arizona State makes 30 Rock.

* Amazon’s Kindle censorship. This is a great danger, since we’re moving toward a world in which a handful of companies (Amazon and Apple, most probably) may effectively control the vast majority of electronic books.

(See too the Ars Technica take.)

* Shortage of Engineers or a Glut: No Simple Answer. The real answer: there is always a shortage of smart, motivated people at the top of their field and a glut of people at the bottom of any field.

* Not Really ‘Made in China’: The iPhone’s Complex Supply Chain Highlights Problems With Trade Statistics. The short version: beware trade statistics, especially those related to manufacturing.

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