bookaneer

bookaneer

Unabashedly unprofessional reviews in fantasy, scifi, and mystery.
Coming to terms with an addiction to bad puns.

Review
5 Stars
"We believe that Black People will not be free until we are able to determine our own destiny."
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party - Joshua Bloom, Waldo E. Martin Jr.

Black Against Empire

 

by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E Martin, Jr.

 

I don't say this type of thing much, but here goes: I believe that if you live in the US, this is one of those books you should read.

"The issues are not complex. The objective is seizure of power. Until we seize power, not visible power where a black man looks like he's running things--but real, actual power; everything else is bullshit [...] Peace and order are bullshit; they are meaningless without justice."
--Leroy Goodwin

I believe we have entered another Civil Rights era, and I have a perhaps naive hope that this one will finally complete the mission that was left incomplete during the time of MLK and Malcom X and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense: full, meaningful equality. Equality that is reflected in housing, in the police force, in education, in integration of society, in self-determination for all.

The Black Panthers believed that such a world could only come through true revolution.

I believe that we must share a common context for what hashappened before we can shape what should happen. We must understand the past in order to shape the future.

And here's the problem: mainstream America still has a woefully inaccurate view of the BPP, even though at this point, it's widely acknowledged that the Black Panther Party was the target of an insidious, targeted, widespread, often illegal onslaught by the U.S. government, including a concerted policy of propaganda and isolation and infiltration and misinformation. And yet despite continuing revelations about the extent of COINTELPRO-BLACK-HATE, Operation CHAOS, and all the rest, the Black Panther Party remains an uncomfortable and often misunderstood political movement. Independent of whether you agree with the stances taken by the BPP in its many iterations, it's crucial to understand their contexts.

It's easy to laud a nonviolent movement, at least once the movement is over. It's safe. Putting nonviolent figures on a pedestal is comfortable. It's probably why my childhood education repeatedly ignored all other aspects of the Civil Rights movement to focus on MLK. Maybe that's why we remember, say, Harriet Tubman as a kindly figure of the Underground Railroad rather than an active supporter of John Brown's raid and a vocal supporter of war against the South. It's even harder to go back and look at revolutions where violence was a relevant factor, particularly when those revolutions were lost. But this battle will be fought again and again until it is won, and I believe that a crucial aspect is for all Americans to try to understand the history and context of the unrest of today.

Black Against Empire is a fact-driven, unemotional examination of the social history and context of the Black Panther Party. Although a little dry at times, the sense of impartiality is one of the most impressive aspects of the book. It's a massive tome because the BPP has a long and fascinating history.

Often, as the rhetoric on each side mounts, it's difficult to read. But it illuminates on aspect that I, at least, was missing before reading this book: the BPP saw itself as a revolutionary force representing a disenfranchised nation occupied by a hostile invading force. The BPP's Ten Point Program even paraphrased the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, and that all men are created equal that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. [...] But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, and their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards of their future security.

This aspect alone goes far in explaining the rationale behind armed defense. As George Mason Murray put it in 1968:

The Black Panther Party recognizes the critical position of black people in the United States. We recognize that we are a colony within the imperialist domains of North America and that it is the historic duty of black people in the United States to bring about the complete, absolute and unconditional end of racism and neocolonialism by smashing, shattering, and destroying the imperialist domains of North America.


Wondering if this book is relevant? As the news is awash with warnings of another "Bloody Summer" in Chicago and elsewhere, consider Bobby Seale's words in 1967:

“If one would look closely, and check this three year history, he will find that in damn near every rebellion a racist cop was involved in the starting of that rebellion [...] by inflicting brutality or murdering some black person within the confines of one of our black communities. Black people will defend themselves at all costs. They will learn the correct tactics to use in dealing with the racist cops […] The racist military police force occupies our community just like the foreign American troops in Vietnam. But to inform you dog racists controlling this rotten government and for you to let your pig cops know you ain’t just causing a ‘long hot summer,’ you’re causing a Black Revolution."

TL;DR: if you live in the US, and maybe even if you don't, this is a book worth reading.

Review
4 Stars
“What are the odds that people will make smart decisions [...] if they can get rich making dumb decisions?"
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine - Michael Lewis

The Big Short

by Michael Lewis

 

Achievement unlocked: I finally understand what the term "shorting" actually means.

Lewis provides a thorough and interesting take on the financial crisis, and now I think I finally begin to understand what caused the world economy to tank. As Lewis notes, there was plenty of greed to go around, but it was the criminal irresponsibility of the bankers, the investors, the bond traders, that really created the opportunity for such large-scale corruption.

I found this book particularly difficult because of my own fears of debt. My personality tends towards "control freak" and I find the idea of being in debt utterly terrifying. I have lived in suburbia for over five years without owning a car, commuting everywhere by bicycle, partly because the amount of money involved in buying a car simply scares me. Just thinking about the national debt makes my heart race. As a kid, I remember hearing my parents talk about variable-rate mortgages and the way that banks were using them to trick credulous and innocent buyers, but it was hard to see what banks could get out of selling homes to people who couldn't afford them. Now I understand: the homes were secondary to the CDOs that could be constructed from the loans. I find the story of the shadow banking system playing with peoples' lives and hopes this way, tempting them into a lifestyle beyond their means, utterly disgusting. Sure, you could say people should know better, but that's not sufficient and it's not fair. As Lewis notes, the incentives for everyone involved, from the homeowners to the bonds salesmen to the regulators, were simply all wrong. And they're still all wrong.

The one issue I'm left with is Lewis's take on his protagonists, a group of men who all "shorted" the sub-prime market industry. He treats them as heroes, as isolated voices of sanity in an increasingly insane world. But if they hadn't acted as buyers for sub-prime market insurance, there couldn't have been sellers, either. They ended up earning billions of dollars, and this type of finance is a zero-sum game. Their gains meant the losses of the sellers, and, ultimately, the American taxpayers. Sure, they didn't do anything strictly unethical, and sure, several of them apparently attempted to shut down the industry. But in the end, when they couldn't get anyone to listen, they settled for exploitation. And because they didn't turn around and, say, donate all that money to the ultimate victims of the sharks of Wall Street, I find it hard to see that choice as heroic.

If you, like me, are a financial dunce but still want to understand what on earth caused our economy to fail, I heartily recommend The Big Short. It may leave you disgusted with every person even tangentially involved with Wall Street and the shadow banking system, but at least you'll have a clue about how they took down our economy, and how they're probably going to do it all over again.

 

By the way: the smartest guy in the book, Dr. Michael Burry, believes we're in for another bust. And I believe him.

Review
4 Stars
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Vol 10
The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Ten (Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of the Year) - Jonathan Strahan

I've been a fan of Strahan's "Year's Best" collections for years. He has a great eye for memorable stories, and the tenth volume is no exception. So what was last year in SFF like? As one might expect, Strahan's introduction included a few mentions of the "Sad Puppies" Hugo controversy, but despite the push for "traditional" SFF of adventurous derring-do, Strahan's collection contains a satisfying variety of thoughtful examinations of social issues as well as a few pure chilling tales and rip-roaring adventures.

My favourite variety of short story is the one where the twist is like a punch in the gut, and where the story haunts you long after you close the book. "Little Sisters" by Vonda N. Mcintyre is easily one of the most chilling, eerie stories in the entire collection. It is [trigger warning] about rape, and defilement, and child custody, but all in an utterly alien context, and all told from the perspective of a gender and sexuality utterly foreign to our own. Yet the sheer alienness also makes it distressingly, effectively visceral.

 

Equally unique was "Kaiju Maximus: 'So Various, So Beautiful, So New'" by Kai Ashante Williams. It takes place in a future where superhuman Heroes fight endlessly against alien forces, told from the perspective of a camp follower. It's an interesting vision of the superhero dynamic and the ways in which someone with superhuman abilities can all too quickly become inhuman, and it's all the more fascinating because of the underlying gender dynamics: the great Hero is female and the camp follower is male. Alyssa Wong's "Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers" is one of the most thoroughly creepy short stories I've encountered for a while. It involves vampirelike creatures--possibly Jiangshi, but I'm not sure-- who thrive on the consumption of evil thoughts. They also keep the spares in jars. Totally creepy, but it's also a coming-of-age story about sexuality and mother-daughter relationships.

The common theme that stood out most to me was that of emergent consciousness. While the idea certainly has appeared before, this year, it felt almost omnipresent, taking the place of the previous year's focus on surveillance societies. I couldn't help but wonder if AlphaGo and similar breakthroughs influenced the writers or Strahan himself. Apart from the previously-mentioned "Little Sisters," quite a few stories played with the theme of a post-AI-ascended future, including Kelly Link's "The Game of Smash and Recovery", Geoff Ryman's "Capitalism in the 22nd Century or AIR", and Gwyneth Jones' "Emergence". Several explored themes of slavery, agency, and free will in such a future. Most memorably, Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl's "Jamaica Ginger" is a poignant steampunk story of an alternate nineteenth-century New Orleans. It uses the replacement of Pullman porters with AI robots to draw parallels to racism and slavery, and as I'd recently read a book that dealt with this history, I found the story particularly memorable.

Strahan's SFF collections tend to define the genre quite broadly, and quite a few of the stories here could fit quite neatly into the horror genre. Tamsyn Muir's "The Deepwater Bride" is an entertaining take on the coming of a thonic Lovecraftian monster told from a teenage perspective. It boasts one of the best opening lines I've ever encountered:

"In the time of our crawling Night Lord's ascendancy, foretold by exodus of starlight into his sucking astral wounds, I turned sixteen and received Barbie's Dream Car."

"The Lily and the Horn" by Catherynn M. Valente is perhaps the first Valente story that I thoroughly enjoyed and wins the award as one of the creepiest love stories I've ever read. Lush, lyrical writing introduces us to a world where wars are fought with poison and treachery over the dinner tables. "A Murmuration" by Alastair Reynolds is a brilliant work of psychological horror and a perfect portrait of academic insanity. My favourite quotable quote:

"I squeeze our data until it bleeds science."

Neil Gaiman's "Black Dog," which opens the collection, combines American Gods-style worldbuilding with an atmospheric and foreboding take on the traditional village ghost story. Not all these horror-type stories worked for me, however: honestly, I wasn't sure what to make of Jeffrey Ford's "The Winter Wraith". A pseudo-horror story about a Christmas tree feels too ridiculous to be intended as anything but silly, but I didn't find it particularly funny, either.

Several stories took current political concerns to a possible conclusion. "Oral Argument" by Kim Stanley Robinson is easily my favourite KSR story I've read. Told as excerpts from a court case by an extremely snarky witness, it's short, sweet, and with a vastly entertaining punchline. Paolo Bacigalupi's "City of Ash" is a vignette that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world of extreme water scarcity, possibly the same world as The Water Knife. Sam J. Miller's "Calved"is a poignant story of a father and his estranged son trying to come to terms in an ever-changing, post-US-collapsed world, but it's also about race and acceptance and prejudice and, most of all, entitlement. As the protagonist puts it:

"Shielded by willful blindness and complex interlocking institutions of privilege, we mistook our uniqueness for universality."

Sam J. Miller's other story in the collection, "The Ghosts of Home," is an imaginative take on the bank foreclosing catastrophe. While I didn't care much for the story's romance, several quotes were satisfyingly memorable:

"Agnes had made mistakes before. [...] One thing was always true, though: She knew they were mistakes before she made them. She decided to make a mistake and that's what she did. The hard part was figuring out the right mistake to make."

"Another Word for World" by Ann Leckie is a brilliant and amusing examination of language and the way it shapes our preconceptions. Thematically, it reminded me tremendously of C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner. Ian Mcdonald's "Botanica Veneris: Thirteen Papercuts by Ida Countess Rathangan" is a very direct transference of the late nineteenth century imperialistic mentality to Venus, complete with teeth-grinding jingoism and grating "Great White Hunter"-type adventures. It's fun, but has the sort of jarring disconnect one gets when reading Kipling.

A few of the stories didn't fall under any unifying theme."The Heart's Filthy Lesson" by Elizabeth Bear is a thoroughly enjoyable gem that takes us to a distant planet where a scientist named Dharthi, preoccupied by a one-sided rivalry with her all-too-perfect lover, sets off on a dangerous scientific quest. Not only did the story show off Bear's lushly creative worldbuilding, but it also featured swamp tigers--definitely a win. Genevieve Valentine's "Blood, Ash, Brains" paints a vivid picture of the "Nachthexen" (Night Witches), with a little real witchcraft thrown in for good measure. Greg Bear's "The Machine Starts" is a trippy, brain-bending multiverse jaunt. "The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn" by Usman T Malik is one of the longer stories in the collection and fuses ancient myth with a man's relationship with his cultural history.

As always, there were a few stories that didn't quite hit me.Caitlyn R. Kiernan's "Dancy vs. the Pterosaur" centers primarily around the main character's interaction with a rigid evangelical in a post-apocalyptic world. It feels rather like a glimpse into a larger saga, and while I found the worldbuilding interesting, the religious discussion isn't what I'd call thought-provoking or illuminating. While I think I"Drones" by Simon Ings was a bit too weird for me. In Ings' future, a random disease manages to kill off most of the women and all of the bees, leaving a future world where a very few men have harems and the rest are the titular drones. I found it all too illogical and too much like a fifties throwback to be able to get into the story. While I generally love Robert Reed, his "The Empress in her Glory", which tells the story of a blogger who gains power because her predictions are made true by conquering aliens, just didn't quite grab me. Kelly Robson's "The Waters of Versailles," a magic-and-manners alternate history of Roi-Solei France, is one of the longest stories in the book, but I found the protagonist so utterly unsympathetic that it was hard to be interested in his story. "The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club" by Nike Sulway earns the prize as my least favourite story in the book. It mixes real people (e.g. Karen Joy Fowler) with utterly un-thought-out anthropomorphic rhinoceri who make tea (with what arms?), shop on ebay (with what fingers?), garden, build houses, read and write books, drive up driveways, and make bread (how?); their actual rhinocerosness is apparently restricted only to the word and to their grey skin. Personally I can't even picture a rhinoceros gardening or typing on a computer, and I don't think the author even thought far enough into her utterly superficial worldbuilding to consider it. Such slipshod thinking infuriated me far too much to allow me to enjoy whatever the story was supposed to be about.

Despite a few stories that didn't grab me, Strahan continues to demonstrate his gift for creating eclectic, interesting collections that capture the spirit of the year. His collections tend to include many familiar names, but usually include a few new authors as well. If you're looking to widen your SFF perspective, I highly recommend picking up one of Strahan's Year's Best.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Rebellion/Solaris, in exchange for my honest review. Thanks!~~

Review
3.5 Stars
You had one job!
You Had One Job! - Beverly L. Jenkins

You know, I think the best way to summarize this book is with an example:

Sure, it's not highbrow or anything, but a couple of the images struck me as funny enough that I couldn't help audibly sniggering. In public. Which I find extremely embarrassing.

It's a short book--about 150 pages-- and you can flip through the whole thing in less than half an hour. Each image is accompanied with a short comment. Some of the pictures were funnier than others, but in general, I found the images amusing rather than the comments, which struck me as a bit over the top. In retrospect, the fact that the author writes for CollegeHumor.com isn't a surprise. Most of the images are just misspellings or mis-shelvings or mass production gone wrong, but they're amusing nonetheless, and I can think of worse ways to spend a few minutes.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publishers, Andrews McMeel Publishing, in exchange for my honest review~~

 

Since everyone else is doing it...

I've been neglecting my book sites lately* and have returned to find BL practically ablaze with rumours that BL has been acquired and may be going down. In that light, I have two things to note:

 

(1) I can also be found on GR right here: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/4490040-carly. I'd love to stay in touch with all of you through GR if BL falls through. 

 

(2) If you're using a linux (and possibly mac) machine, you can back up your BL reviews by saving the entire contents of your blog to your local drive. I posted instructions for doing so a long time ago right here. I'm about to start my backup.

 

I'm also kinda-sorta on Tumblr, in that I occasionally post fanart there, but mostly just look through my feed, which is composed almost entirely of dog pictures and vines.

 

*Combination of RL issues, work, picking up trail running as a hobby, and a newfound addiction to watching POI at the gym instead of reading through my BL and GR feeds. Then I got to That Episode (SE3) and now I don't even know what to think. Argh.

Review
4 Stars
"Do you want to destroy Perfection?"
The Sudden Appearance of Hope - Gillian Burke, Hachette Audio UK, Claire North

The Sudden Appearance of Hope

by Claire North

 

Given the circumstances, perhaps it's not surprising that Hope Arden's disability never made it into the DSM: while she can interact with the world, from everyone else's perspective, it is always for the first time. As soon as people are distracted from her presence, they forget her, their minds conveniently substituting new Hope-less memories and explanations. And then Hope gets to meet them all over again. As she puts it:

First impressions-- my life is about making a good first impression. When one attempt fails, I will go away, and reinvent myself, and return to try again. Though first impressions may be the only thing I have, at least I get to practise until they're right.

Naturally, Hope's career and relationship options are somewhat limited. As she notes:

Things that are difficult, when the world forgets you:
  • Dating
  • Getting a job
  • Receiving consistent medical attention
  • Getting a loan
  • Certificated education
  • Getting a reference
  • Getting service at restaurants
Things that are easy, when the world forgets you:
  • Assassination
  • Theft
  • Espionage
  • Casual cruelty
  • Angst-free one-night stands (w/condoms)
  • Not tipping

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she ends up embracing a career as a thief, drifting through life, choosing score after score, often to settle some petty spite of her own. No matter how incompetent her heists, she never gets caught because all she needs to do is distract her captors for a few minutes to erase her presence. But then Hope encounters Perfection, and her unmemorable life is irrevocably changed.

 

Perfection: a brand new lifestyle app. Give it your schedule, your access, your health stats, your bank accounts, your total attention, and in return it will optimize your life, shaping a new perfect you. Touched by the tragedy of a woman who fails to satisfy Perfection, Hope finds herself set on a course to destroy it.

 

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a book out of left field. As the names may have indicated, subtle the book is not, but it makes up for its directness in pure passion. I suspect that reader enjoyment will be heavily predicated on tolerance for pretty anvilicious "message" books. Plus, I had to love the gleeful mileage North got out of double entendres with Hope, Perfection, and more. I'm already a fan of Kate Griffin/Claire North, so perhaps unsurprisingly, I found North's heavily descriptive, almost stream-of-consciousness style utterly captivating. At moments, it's also just plain funny, particularly in the lists that Hope continually writes for herself.

 

For me, the book's major weakness was the characters. I never really felt connected to any of them, which may have been something of a blessing, as North is as casually brutal to them as she is to the sidekicks in the Matthew Swift series. Perhaps some of my sense of alienation came from Hope's condition. As one character says of her,

It's a peculiar thing, but I find emotion, when it comes to you, rather hard to engage with [...] Instead of feelings, I find with you there are only facts.

She is, naturally, a drifter, herself oddly disconnected from the world. Despite her many heists, she spends most of her time simply drifting, and more often reacts to situations with blind flailing rather than planning. As she puts it:

Having no one to define the limits of me, I have to define myself, otherwise I am nothing [...] I don't know what my destination is, but I keep on travelling, surrounded by other people's stories, absorbing them, and in their way, though they are not me, they become me. I am just… travelling.

This was clearest in her efforts to stop Perfection and Byron. What on earth was her plan? She disagreed with Byron and sought to stop her, but had no plan of her own except, apparently, blindly hoping for the best. And that also seemed to be the sum of her plan to stop Byron.

(show spoiler)

With a character who cannot be remembered, development of relationships is effectively impossible, and for me, this led to a sense of alienation from the other characters, a perspective that Hope seemed to share. As she says towards the end of the story of one of the major characters: "How strange to think of her as something human."

 

Unsubtle it may be, but my favourite part of the book was the way North uses Perfection and Hope's condition as a lens to examine the feedback loop that is human interaction with the world. Some of the more memorable quotes:

Perfection is derived by a consensus of society, Perfect-- to perfectly fit the mould.

Alone, you can lose yourself, or you may find yourself, and most of the time you do both.

Shall we break down the truth, the bitter, unloved, bloody-nosed truth? Tell me, in a world where wealth is power, and power is the only freedom, what would desperate men not do to be heard? [...] The internet gave us all the power of speech, and what did we discover? That victory goes to he who shouts the loudest, and that reason does not sell.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is a unique story, and I'd have a hard time describing its perfect audience. However, if you're intrigued by an unusual character and a thought-provoking dialogue about the way society shapes us, Hope is well worth a look. As she says,

I think there has to be a moment when you turn round and permit yourself to be defined by the world that surrounds you.

 

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Redhook Books, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

 

Cross-posted on Goodreads.

Review
4 Stars
"We are oil and humans are water. We do not need to be other than what we are to exist in the same vessel."
Visitor: A Foreigner Novel - C. J. Cherryh

Visitor

by C. J. Cherryh

 

I've been wanting to try Cherryh's series for a while, and I'm thrilled to have finally had the opportunity. Cherryh is an intriguing writer, and the world she creates is fully-fleshed and complex. Long ago, a human spaceship found itself transposed a multitude of lightyears from Earth, orbiting the planet of a non-space-faring species called the atevi. Some of the humans onboard leave to create a colony on the atevi homeworld, and for centuries, the humans and atevi live together on the planet in a state too tense to be called "peace." Bren Cameron, a human born on the atevi homeworld, acts as the paidhi-aiji of the atevi court, a translator and mediator who acts as a tenuous bridge between two cultures. Now Cameron must step outside his experience to negotiate with the enigmatic, powerful, and frighteningly alien kyo, and failure could spell doom to human and atevi alike.

If you've read any of my reviews before, you're probably aware that I routinely start series out of order, sometimes at the halfway point or later. So when I say that Visitor is not a good book to start the series with, take it from an inveterate series-order-ignorer and start somewhere else--and no, I can't tell you where. Why? Well, the story assumes the reader is already familiar with the backstory--and there's apparently quite a lot of backstory to be familiar with-- but the sensation of being transported into the middle of a vivid history is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading series out of order.

The real reason why you shouldn't start the series with this book is that it is, indisputably, what I'd term a "payoff book," and payoff books work best when you've actually paid for them by navigating the story arc's slow build. It's the reason why you shouldn't start with Deathly Hallows or Night Watch or Memory: the power of those books comes from the history, from the experiences, from the characters' pasts and the ways they've changed. In Visitor, most of the characters appear to be drawn from previous stories, and in this book, the background politics are put aside as Cameron's friends and allies rally around to support him. I got the sense that such camaraderie should be poignant and touching, but without understanding the base state of conflicts, I missed out on the grand effect. The plot, too, is primarily centered on the repercussions of previous books. Without experiencing what Cameron and his allies went through at Reunion, without seeing their previous confrontations with the kyo, I think the book just can't have the same punch that it would have for the series regular. And this is a good enough story that it's worth doing it right.

The plot is an unusual change of pace from your standard space opera. Don't go into this story expecting battles or heists or daring escapes. It's a book of secrets and repercussions, of breathless waiting and slow-burning tension, of strained negotiation. It's a book about understanding humanity, or, since most of the characters are nonhuman, whatever one calls that core sense of self and civilization. Previous interactions with the kyo involved a lot of mistakes, and now only care and goodwill on both sides can save them all from disaster. Cherryh approaches the conflict she sets up thoughtfully, yet with an endearing optimism. As Cameron puts it, bridging two cultures is all about "Work[ing] until they understand what the person meant, rather than investing in winning." While this may not be the perfect starting book for the series, but for those who are already fans, know you've got something to look forward to. As for me, I've finally been galvanized to put Foreigner on my to-read list.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Berkley Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final versions, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

Review
3.5 Stars
"A man without a past and a woman without a future."
Company Town - Madeline Ashby

Company Town

by Madeline Ashby

 

In the future Ashby envisions, bioaugmentation has become so universal that Go Jung-Hwa, unedited and suffering from congenital Sturge-Weber Syndrome, is effectively unique, a black swan in a world where everyone else's perceptions and interactions are fully regulated by augmented reality. Hwa is just trying to live her life, working as a bodyguard for the local sex workers' union and teaching them self-defense on the side when her duties bring her into contact with Daniel Siofra, a mysterious fixer who works directly under the man who now owns the whole town. Suddenly, Hwa finds herself tasked with protecting a vulnerable child while around her, her old start dying under horrific circumstances.

 

The strongest aspect of Company Town is the worldbuilding. Ashby's new future is gritty and immersive, familiar and yet imbued with an alien strangeness. The story takes place in a near-future mining town in Canada that is undergoing the same sort of rusting as so many current industrial towns. The single-product economy is on the brink of failure, and while the town's new owner/investor may bring it back to life, everyone in the town is on edge about the potential cost. However familiar the social and economic situation might be, the people themselves walk around in augmented reality, their vision tagged with identifying information of the people they see, their forms obscured and defined by virtual reality instead of physicality. Botflies--no, not those botflies; these are flying robots-- buzz around everywhere, acting as tiny and ubiquitous paparazzi. A post-human civilization seems to be just on the horizon.

 

The concept is fascinating and the book itself is packed with nonstop action. However, I found the plot itself rather more problematic, from the core concept to the solution of the underlying mystery. I felt that not even the basic setup could withstand cursory examination; for example, I was completely puzzled about why Hwa, hired as a bodyguard for a kid, ends up attending school with him as a fellow student rather than actually guarding him. Everyone knows what she's doing, so it's not a disguise, and having your bodyguard take classes and do homework seems a great way to keep them distracted. Outside of school, Hwa spends basically all the time on her own rather than actually guarding the kid, again without any explanation. Not only that, but Hwa herself ends up as a target, and even though her very presence puts her charge in danger, they keep her as his bodyguard, with no explanation for why anyone would keep a bodyguard who is clearly getting the body into danger rather than guarding it.

And then the point where they both stay home because the bodyguard is getting rape/murder threats? And they both skip school because she's in danger? Really?

(show spoiler)

Very little else about the plot could bear scrutiny, from the action scenes to the final reveal.

For example, when they duck into the bathroom to avoid the killer, why doesn't he just come in after them instead of politely waiting outside or wandering away so they can regroup and have a nice chat before heading to the elevators? Why did Hwa so quickly forgive the freaking destruction of the city? And the whole singularity thing just didn't work for me. The problem is that as soon as you set up a killer who can come back over and over again, you've set up an inherently losing situation. Forget the whole time paradox issue; you now have a protagonist who simply cannot win, unless the author cheerfully ignores the rules she put into place.

(show spoiler)

The book is also a good example of a common device used in mysteries that I call "plot-driven obscurity," where characters withhold facts or wrap them in cryptic statements solely because doing otherwise would reveal the mystery.

This was most visible with everyone talking about the unknown teacher's proclivities. Why wouldn't anyone just say the name?

(show spoiler)

However, such issues aren't out of the ordinary for thrillers, and if you're in the right mood, I think they can easily be overlooked.

 

Plot issues aside, Company Town is an interesting story tackling some compelling issues ranging from post-human life to the politics of prostitution. Throughout, Hwa struggles to be seen--and to see herself-- as a person instead of a disorder. She also fights to come to terms with her frustratingly appearance-obsessed mother, and a culture in which people prefer to edit her out rather than see her disfigurement. Despite a few plot weaknesses, Company Town is an interesting scifi read with an interesting protagonist and a vivid vision of a near future.

 

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Macmillan-Tor/Forge, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Review
4 Stars
"Choose between what is ethical, honorable, and what is important."
Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel

Sleeping Giants

by Sylvain Neuvel

 

When Rose stumbles and falls into a deep pit in the woods, she finds herself curled up in the palm of a giant metal hand, her surroundings lit by ethereal blue light. Her accident shapes the path of her entire life, and decades later, she finds herself on an elite team tasked with studying the hand she found as a child. For that giant hand is only a tiny piece of the whole, and her discovery will have repercussions that will be felt throughout the world.

 

Sleeping Giants is a unique story in everything from plot to narrative structure. The story is told through a series of interviews between the characters and a mysterious man who is at the heart of events. The pace is measured, almost dreamlike, yet I was quickly sucked into plot., and into the mystery of the statue and those who seek it. mThroughout, the characters must make hard choices, and the story delves into the ethics and consequences of their actions and attitudes in everything from whether the ends justify the means:

"You are definitely not one to throw away your life, your family and your career for something as petty as principles."

to perspectives on people who make that one unforgivable mistake:

"What he did, however horrifying, doesn't have to negate every other day of his life."

to measuring tragedy:

"It's one thing to risk your own life. It's fairly easy to rationalize the deaths of strangers. To shoulder the death of a friend, someone you know, that's a completely different thing."

to alterity, defined as "the concept of otherness":

What I am is very much a function of what I am not. If the 'other' is the Muslim world, then I am the Judeo-Christian world. If the other is from thousands of light-years away, I am simply human. Redefine alterity and you can erase boundaries."

 

The prose is crisp, the story insightful, and as you may have guessed, I found myself repeatedly highlighting quote after quote. The questions that Sleeping Giants explores are complex, and there are no easy answers. The conclusion leaves more questions unanswered than answered, yet in an absolutely satisfying way. It is the start of a larger story, and I'm looking forward to the next segment.

 

~~I received a copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Random House Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

Review
4.5 Stars
"In the hands of their chosen gods. Or choosing gods."
Penric's Demon - Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric's Demon

by Lois McMaster Bujold

 

Wow, I hadn't realized just how much I missed Bujold.


If you're familiar with Lois McMaster Bujold, you probably know her through her iconic Vorkosigan Saga and may not even be aware of her high fantasy series. While the style, worldbuilding, and characters are startlingly different from the Vorkosigan Saga, the World of the Five Gods series is well worth the read. Featuring a different protagonist in each book, it takes place in a vaguely medieval high-fantasy world ruled by the aforementioned Five Gods. Like the loas of Santeria, these gods can choose "saints" that they inhabit and ride. But the world is also inhabited by the servants of the Fifth God, the Bastard. These incorporeal demons also choose humans to ride, and a demon-ridden human can become either a sorcerer or a psychotic.

A man became a sorcerer upon acquiring a demon much as a man became a rider upon acquiring a horse, with the implication that the inept horseman was riding for a fall.

This novella centers around the eponymous Penric, a son of an impoverished country lord of a land "more noted for producing cheese than history". At the novella's outset, Penric stumbles into the wrong place at exactly the wrong time and ends up discovering far more about the incorporeal world of the spirit than he had planned. The story itself is thoroughly enjoyable, a gentle exploration of a thoroughly satisfying world infused with the trademark Bujold wit. If you're a fan of the Five Gods books, this little novella is a joy to read. I'm not sure how well it would work if you're not familiar with the world of the five gods, but that's okay, because if you're fond of unique high fantasy, Curse of Chalion deserves a place on your to-read list anyway.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Subterranean Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novella as a whole.~~

Review
3 Stars
"If you want to be counted, put some clothes on."
Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930–1972 (Expanding Frontiers: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Studies of Women, Gender, a) - Jessica Cammaert

Undesirable Practices: Women, Children, and the Politics of the Body in Northern Ghana, 1930–1972

by Jessica Cammaert

 

The politics of women's rights is a complex subject, and that's without adding relativism, imperialism, and cultural trusteeship to the mix. Undesirable Practices seeks to track the relationships and reactions to nudity, FGM (referred to in the book as "female circumcision"), and slavery-related practices such as human pawning. Some of the facts are as startling as they are appalling; for example, for years, colonists actively encouraged FGM of infants under the apparent belief that it was milder than when performed on adolescents.

Cammaert tackles a dense subject, and as an utter novice in the subject, I soon discovered that I was not in the book's target audience. Thesis-turned-nonfiction-type books vary widely in their levels of accessibility. Cammaert assumes a high level of expertise in her readers, or at least a higher level than I could muster. She casually refers to events such as the 1922 Women's War in southeastern Nigeria and the politics of the Gold Coast with the assumption that the reader will catch the references without further explanation. Personally, I spent a lot of time on Wikipedia. The book seeks to fill in the anthropological side of the issue and therefore doesn't discuss the statistics, apparently assuming the reader already is familiar with them. As a numbers person, I was left adrift in a sea of assertions with plenty of anecdotes but precious little proof. For example, Cammaert portrays "bundo," or "female circumcision," as an operation performed by men on women. This is the antithesis of everything I've ever heard about bundo, and given that her primary proof seemed to be a single event observation by a male anthropologist in the 1930s, I remained unconvinced.

Undesirable Practices would, I think, be a fascinating book for an expert in the subject, someone already aware of the history of the area, the underlying statistics, and the impact of trusteeship, FGM, and pawning on the affected cultures. The book is, in some ways, mainly about the anthropologists, not about the people they studied or even the repercussions of those studies on the people. In particular, it focuses heavily on anthropologist Robert Sutherland Rattray and in particular, the tensions between Rattray and the colonial authorities.

Starting with the colonists' attempts to recreate a mythical pre-colonial Africa, it tracks the ways that male colonial bias, fear of detribalization, and a preference for indirect rule--but not cultural relativism-- led to the trustees' support of initiation rights even as a changing economy exacerbated practices such as pawning. Reaction to this fostered the creation of rescue narratives which in turn led to a backlash against "primitive" practices such as nudity. Possibly due to my lack of knowledge, I found the narrative somewhat disconnected. In fact, until she restated it in the conclusion, I couldn't have told you precisely what Cammaert's thesis was. While I was thoroughly convinced by her argument that women were seen primarily in reproductive terms and that cultural upheaval was repeatedly framed in terms of "gender chaos," I was less persuaded by her argument that these issues were driven by male power over women, with men exercising their power by dismissing the problem and instead "looking away." While that element is certainly present, casting an embarrassed unwillingness to delve into "women's matters" as a cool exercise of male trusteeship. It seemed more like bewildered incompetence to me.

However, many other aspects of the narrative were fascinating, such as the colonial legal case surrounding the pawning/enslavement of three girls. It was fascinating to hear the narrative from the girls themselves, even if it was refracted through the eyes of the colonial authorities. I was also interested by the sharp distinction made between FGM and male circumcision. During most of the relevant time period, the (minimal and still-disputed) health benefits of male circumcision were unknown, meaning that the primary difference came from whether the mutilation was performed by the colonials as well. The most interesting aspect of the narrative came after the nation gained independence and began to struggle with "undesirable practices" as a way of shedding perceived primitivism. Suddenly, nudity had become a woman's problem, and in turn was cast as a problem for the whole country. Overall, while it assumes a high degree of familiarity with the subject, if you already know the cultural and historical context, I think Undesirable Practices would make for an interesting read.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, University of Nebraska Press, in exchange for my honest review.~~

Review
3 Stars
Unemulsifiable opinions
Illuminae - Jay Kristoff, Amie Kaufman

Illuminae

Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

 

This isn't just a mixed review; it's a mixture as unemulsifiable as oil and water.

There are some aspects of this book I really enjoyed; it's an extremely creative framework, a supposed collection of various primary sources from a multitude of voices that together tell the story. While I'm sure it's more effective in print form, that creativity was even echoed in the audiobook, which is how I encountered it. The authors create a set of strong and very unique voices, and the story involves, amongst other subplots, space battles, zombifying diseases, vengeful AIs, and shoutouts to everything from Firefly (lots of mentions of "[take me back] to the black" and "nothing in the 'verse") to TNG (there's a captain named Riker. 'Nuff said) to Star Wars ("I can't shake 'em! I can't shake 'em!" shows up in the dialogue.) Most of all, the authors have a true genius for suspense. This book is heading towards the "unputdownable" category.

But then there are the negatives. First of all, this is YA, so there's the obligatory teen romance. This is actually played reasonably well, with the authors repeatedly lampshading the absurdity of the teens squabbling over their passions during utter disaster. Second, there's a bit of a Mary Sue syndrome; essentially every self-describing male character in the book is in love with the heroine. But these things are just part of the genre; if you're going to read YA, you're going to have to deal with it. Constant profanity--only slightly beeped out-- is an ongoing joke throughout the novel, but while I found it surprising (for YA) and irritating, it didn't phase me.

My real problem is with the "jokes" and "humor" that the boys throw around. and Apparently this future century hasn't gotten past the homophobia and sexism that leads to macho men using "gay" and "feminine" as the worst possible insults. Apparently jokes about "hammering" each others' sisters as a joking comeback or having busy hands while staring at a photo of another boy's girlfriend are just all in good fun. Look, I'm not one for censorship, but this is a book I really wouldn't want any kids I know to read.

Honestly, I can't even really reconcile my feelings about the story and my feelings about the presentation. And that's what I mean about an unemulsifiably mixed opinion.

Book Logic #2: Do No Harm -- Let Inaction Do It For You

**I'm planning a mini series on peculiar narrative logic where I don't have a TvTropes link to fully express my feelings. I'll use these posts as explanatory links in future reviews. (Previous post: Forget the Many, Save the One)**

 

 

It's a phrase we've all heard, over and over. In every decision you make, you have the choice between action and inaction. Both have the potential for good, and both have consequences. But due to a deeply ingrained cognitive bias that we all carry, the harm we cause by our inaction doesn't really feel like our fault.

 

First things first: heroes, being inactive? Aren't heroes effectively defined by their tendency to meddle in cosmic affairs? Well, yes and no. Book heroes are pretty much guaranteed to get involved when it's a question of doing the risky and potentially deadly Right Thing, where "Right Thing" is all-too-often defined as "Forget the Many, Save the One." Heroes inevitably prefer doing something over doing nothing-- until they hit a hard decision. However, when they're forced to make a choice between damaging their principles /actively hurting others versus inaction that will cause even more harm? At that point, inaction becomes the rule of the day.

 

As you might have guessed, I'm going to bring up the Trolley Problem again, but this time, in its more common formulation:

A train is barreling towards an innocent group of workers on the track. If it continues on its course, all of them will die. You have the opportunity to pull a lever that will switch the train onto a different track, but there's a man on that one too, and your action will kill him. What do you do? What if the train was originally heading towards him?

An impressive number of people feel that it's right to do nothing. It doesn't matter how many people die; the only thing that matters is not pulling the switch. This is thrown into even starker relief by the next version:

A train is barreling towards an innocent group of workers on the track. You're on a bridge above it, standing next to a fat man. If you push the fat man off the bridge, you'll save all those below but kill him. What do you do?

It quickly becomes a messy problem. How many ethical boundaries should get crossed, given that someone is going to die either way? How responsible are we for situations where our inaction has consequences? This problem isn't quite as simple as the previous one--and that one wasn't simple. Ultimately, we can't be responsible for all the evils we could have prevented but didn't; it's just too much. In some ways, "Do No Harm" is practical because it creates a sharply delineated moral line. But if we start thinking in terms of one decision rather than another as opposed to action versus inaction, it all starts falling apart, and no action leaves us with clean hands.

 

How does this come up in books? In some ways, this is just another facet of my previous Book Logic post, "Forget the Many, Save the One," and it manifests in much the same way, but there's a subtle difference. In the previous case, Our Hero neglects the nameless multitude to save the one person (s)he relates to or cares about. In this case, Our Hero is faced with an ethical decision: actively do harm, or do nothing and let much more harm be done.

 

In a memorable example--in fact, the book that triggered these posts--the hero is faced with the option of (1) killing one willing sacrifice to save an entire city, or (2) risking everything on a million-to-one chance that might avoid the aforesaid killing, but was guaranteed to cause the deaths of hundreds or thousands during the panic and destruction as he fumbled around figuring out his "lesser evil" solution. Guess which one he went with? Even though he could have intervened to save hundreds or thousands of lives, he considered it morally indefensible to actively take that one life. And other than a mad priest who is painted as the villain, no one called him out on it. No one pointed out that his "nobility" created more tragedy than it obviated. In some ways, it's a selfish non-act: the hero is willing to sacrifice the multitude to preserve his own rectitude.

 

Yet again, there's no easy answer, but I like my books to at least acknowledge the moral quandary. In lots of genres, it's not even a question: the white knight must stay pure, even if other people must suffer the consequences of his intransigent integrity. In fact, one of the reasons that I find the hardboiled genre endlessly appealing is that the detective always sticks his nose in where it doesn't belong, and always has at least one moment where he considers getting out and going home, but feels the risks of his actions outweigh the consequences of inaction. And quite often, he ends up making a soul-tarnishing decision, and not always in the right direction. (One of the major failings of hardboiled is Book Logic #1, usually targeted towards a damsel in distress.)

 

On the rare occasions that this is reversed, you're pretty much guaranteed to be in a dystopia, because dispensing with "Do No Harm" is practically a steep slope greased with Teflon. If you've ever read "Minority Report," then you'll know that within the story, absolutely all of the characters take it for granted that putting innocent citizens in prison camps to save their putative victims is the right thing to do. It's an incredibly spooky book for precisely that reason.

 

Many wrongs have been done in the name of prevention and preemptive action, but just as many have been done through inaction and neglect because of the fear of doing harm. If only more books would admit it.

 

** Up Next: Intended Consequences: It's Not Murder If You Don't Pull the Trigger**

Review
4 Stars
"Never bang your head against a wall. Bang someone else's."
The Dark Side - Anthony O'Neill

The Dark Side

by Andrew O'Neill

"Only a lunatic would live on the Moon.
The Moon is a dead rock--eighty-one quintillion tons of dead rock. It's been dead for nearly four billion years. And--inasmuch as a dead rock wants anything--it wants you dead too."

So opens The Dark Side, a bold, brash, larger-than-life adventure with the aforementioned lunatics on the dark side of the moon. Exploding goats, discussions of democratic murder, bouncing chases across rooftops--bouncing because of the lower gravity, of course--, men with bowie knives popping up to interrupt informants as they open their mouths to tattle on the villain, rough terrain vehicle chases across moon craters… this book's got it all.

In some ways, The Dark Side reminded me of Douglas Adams, if Douglas Adams decided to borrow plot points from Guillermo de Toro and James M. Cain. Like Hitchhiker's Guide, the tone of the book is conversational, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall with explanatory asides to the reader, apparently with the assumption that the reader is a prospective tourist to the moon. The whimsical and punny character names-- Q.T. Brass, Johnny D-Tox, Dash Chin, Prince Oda Universe, etc-- reminded me of Adams as well.

 

However, there is one sharp difference: the level of gore. Since the city started life as a penal colony, the number of immoral characters isn't much of a surprise, but the details of some of their atrocities are still horrifying. Don't get attached to the characters of The Dark Side because in almost every case, here's what's going to happen: the character will be introduced, be humanized (or dehumanized) through a backstory, and then suffer a grisly fate. All within a few pages. Rinse and repeat. Sure, Adams has a pretty high death toll in Dirk Gently and Hitchhiker's Guide, but Adams' deaths are comparatively gentle and mostly happen offscreen, with a whale and a pot of petunias suffering some of the most graphic on-page deaths. (I still feel badly for the whale.) Like Adams or early Pratchett, I think O'Neill is using death as comic relief, but it's something I have difficulty appreciating, particularly since the deaths are often wincingly, breath-catchingly graphic. Unfortunately for me, I don't find death--even the death of sperm whales falling towards a planet--all that funny.

At the same time, O'Neill really, really gets the hardboiled/noir vibe. He's got the cheerfully immoral city, the almost admirably egotistical gangster kingpins, the enigmatic femme fatales, the sly wit, and the jaded but earnest detective. Example quintessential hardboiled quote:

"He's come to trust the droids implicitly. It's an illusion, of course, because he knows very well that robots can be programmed to betray, but in his experience humans are always programmed to betray."

Our protagonist, Damien Justus--pronounced like "Eustace," although no one on the moon seems to believe him-- has just been transferred to the city of Sin, part of Purgatory, on the dark side of the moon. (They tell it like it is in Purgatory. Motto of the city: "There's nothing better than living in Sin.") On his first day of work, he gets a bombing, and while no one on his team seems all that bothered, Justus quickly realizes that the murder may be tangled up in something much, much larger: a conspiracy that will put him in the middle of a power struggle between mob boss Fletcher Brass and his daughter, QT Brass. All too soon, Justus is fencing with the Brass family and their shared "art of preemptive candor" while dodging bullets, escaping hits, and investigating an ever-increasing pile of bodies. Even as Justus remains mired in Sin, a psychotic android is on its way to the city, swiftly internalizing Fletcher' Brass's "Brass Code" into its new moral system:

"Never bang your head against a wall. Bang someone else's."

If you're in the mood for a crazy, colorful, flamboyant noir space adventure, The Dark Side may be for you.

~~I received an advanced reader copy of this ebook from the publisher, Simon & Schuster, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

Review
4.5 Stars
"The dead were dreams that dreamed themselves alive. Maybe the living were too."
Fellside - M.V. Carey

Fellside

by M. R. Carey

 

Mike Carey has a real genius for making me care about characters that I don't want to care about. No matter how unprincipled or corrupt they are, no matter how destructive their decisions, no matter how foreordained their fates, I end up empathizing with them despite myself. In Fellside, he exploits this talent more ruthlessly than ever before.

Fellside is a very different book than anything else I've read by Carey. Yes, like 90% of his other books, it involves ghosts. Yes, like several of his most recent books, it's in some ways a story about stories, with the narrative woven in and around the life stories of the characters. But Fellside is darker, grittier, and grimmer than any book that came before. Much of this has to do with the cast of characters. The narrative switches between the perspectives of a convicted childkiller, a corrupt guard, a viciously sanctimonious nurse, a pliable and defeated doctor, and more. And the worst of all of it is that I ended up caring about almost all of them, aching as they made destructive choice after destructive choice. <i>Fellside</i> deals punch after punch to the gut, then somehow transforms itself into something heartwrenching but also bittersweet and oddly beautiful. 

Jess was the worst. She made so many stupid decisions, from going with the armed guard to failing to shut Devlin into the prison. I was shocked by the ending, partly because I thought life would, for Jess, be harder than death, and a more bittersweet ending. I was also a bit fascinated by Alex: although he is at the center of the story, in some ways, he's the eye of the maelstrom: we end up knowing no more about him than we did at the opening of the story.

(show spoiler)


I can't describe much of the plot; I don't want to even give my usual blurb for fear that details will lessen the book's impact. While there is an overall mystery, it isn't the driving force behind the plot. Instead, the story is composed of smaller arcs and the slow complex entangling of the characters' lives. While I did guess the solution to the mystery, the ending took me utterly by surprise. Most of the narrative is an exploration of morality through the microcosm of Fellside prison. Some of my favourite quotes:

“The facts are in the outside world. You can verify them with your senses or with objective tests. The truth is something that people build inside their heads, using the facts as raw materials. And sometimes the facts get bent or broken in the process. [...]
Justice? Justice is even more problematic than truth. It’s an emergent property of a very complicated system. [...] It’s neither an ingredient in the pie nor the pie itself. It’s the smell that rises up out of the pie if you’ve cooked it right. We don’t aim for justice, Ms Moulson. We perform our roles and justice happens."

"Doing time, she thought inconsequentially. As though time were a drug. If it was, she might have dosed herself more carefully."

"The dead were dreams that dreamed themselves alive. Maybe the living were too. Another time for that."

Fellside itself is startlingly different than Carey's other works. While I'm not quite sure its audience is a perfect match for fans of The Girl with All the Gifts or The Steel Seraglio, if you're in the mood for a uniquely dark, peculiarly gripping story, Fellside is well worth a look.

~~I received this ebook from the publisher, Orbit Books, in exchange for my honest review. Thank you! Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the novel as a whole.~~

Book Logic #1: Forget the Many, Save the One

**I'm planning a mini series on peculiar narrative logic where I don't have a TvTropes link to fully express my feelings. I'll use these posts as explanatory links in future reviews.**

 

If we're the heroes of our own story, then our friends are the supporting cast and the people we don't meet-- the woman we bump into at the grocery store, the man hurrying along on the street, the nameless and faceless multitude who become the statistic of the nightly news-- they are, at best, uncredited walk-ons. For the purpose of our narrative, they don't matter. To quote a phrase misattributed to Stalin, "One death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic." And this unthinking logic is often carried into the books we read. The protagonist will do anything to save that one child, that one distressed damsel, that one friend, even if it puts all the crew, all of the city, all of humanity at risk.

 

And in terms of Book Logic, sacrificing the Many to save the One--even if they're not the Chosen One-- is often the Right Thing. Anyone who crunches the numbers and argues that the Greater Good is served by letting the one die in exchange for the many is practically guaranteed to be a villain. It's exquisitely rare to see Greater Good argued in its pure form for a choice that doesn't involve sacrificing principles. All too often, the protagonist has a choice where greater good isn't the same as personal good because the One has a face and a name. And then, according to Book Logic, it's morally right to save the One, or at least morally wrong to save the many instead. To quote the outraged Matthew Swift from Kate Griffin's Midnight Mayor:

A simple bit of mathematics, the bigger picture, let the evil live so that the good need not suffer extraordinarily...will their deaths buy you the way into heaven, or do you suppose at the pearly gates blood is blood regardless of whose heart it was squeezed from? Greater evil, lesser evil, let's do a risk assessment analysis, weigh up the pros and cons...let's vote and kill a stranger.

Book Logic employs the inverse of the Greater Good, possibly because such maths have so often been abused in the past. As soon as you turn casualty into a sum, you're putting a numeric value on someone's life. You're judging them. Are people actually equal? Is a baby's life really worth the same as a lonely, unhappy nursing home resident faced with dementia? It's an ugly, troubling question. And if, from your perspective, a person has a face or even just a name, it's hard to condense them into a number. As Lois McMaster Bujold put it:

Lives did not add as integers. They added as infinities.

If you're familiar with mathematical analysis, you probably know that summing two infinities of the same cardinality still equals an infinity of that cardinality. But when your protagonist is stuck with an infinity of bad choices, they need to make a decision: when should one life outweigh a multitude of others? If you're forced to make a choice, you're weighing those lives against one another, and why should one regular cast member be worth ten redshirts simply because we can put a face to the name? On the other hand, how many lives should be sacrificed to protect a president or a prime minister? It's ugly and sordid, but at some point, numbers have to matter. To stretch the metaphor a little more, there are an infinite number of cardinalities of infinities. Some infinities are actually greater than others. In typical book arithmetic, if the death doesn't impact the narrative, then it evaluates to zero.

 

There's a philosophical problem that's probably going to keep coming up in this series called the Trolley Problem. In this incarnation, due to a communication mix-up far above the conductor, a train is speeding along the tracks towards a dangerous junction. One leads to damaged tracks and certain death for all passengers. The other has a workman named Fred on the tracks who will be certain to be killed if the train goes down it. You must make a blind choice, as it's not clear which way the junction is currently set. Which do you choose? (Note that neither the conductor nor Fred are responsible for the tragedy, and there is no defined default-- you're forced to choose one way or the other. I'll tackle blame and inaction later.) How many people need to be on the train before you choose to kill Fred? One? Two? All of humanity?

 

As for me, I'm just glad I never have to face the arithmetic of life and death.

 

 

** Next up: Book Logic #2: Do No Harm-- Let Inaction Do It For You **

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