What'cha reading?

Meh, according to some tropy website this existed…

After devouring The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin in September, I read The Word for the World is Forest and The Left Hand of Darkness.

LHoD is phenomenal. Everything good that I said about The Dispossessed applies to this book. This is, undoubtedly, a more human book than the other, but still deeply political, philosophical, and interesting. It’s different, but great. I don’t really know how else to describe it without spoilers at this point, but if you’re interested in good scifi that deals with anarchy, politics, gender, love, and kinship, this is the book for you.

TWFWIF is good, but not life-changing. It’s a pretty biting critique on wars, violence, and the lasting effects of imperialism/colonialism. A large part of it is written from the perspective of a villain who is such a villain it almost feels like a comic book. Definitely lacking the nuance and care that I had come to expect from her, but also short enough that I don’t feel like it’s a bad read. It’s also obvious the George Lucas read this book and used the ideas/setting for Return of the Jedi. It’s a book about short, hairy aliens who have a city called “Endtor” and use guerrilla warfare to fight off invaders. Not even a subtle homage, just straight ripping it. It’s fine to me because most other adaptations of Le Guin’s work sucks.

Despite not being as hot on TWFWIF, I think I’m a huge Le Guin fan. Going to keep reading, might move on to Earthsea next, or perhaps Lathe of Heaven.

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I’m reading A Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back as a fun bit of switch my brain off fiction as I didn’t want anything too contemplative and philosophical as The Years of Rice and Salt and it is a lot of fun. I’ve just reached Seth Dickinson’s short story focusing on the upper echelons of an Imperial Star Destroyer. Ofc in true Dickinson fashion it also immediately concerns itself with the logistics of the ship and commanding a crew of over 10000 people. It also opens with “In time of peace, the Imperial Star Destroyer will disburse the Emperor’s peace and justice, and by its presence deter disorder, both material and ideological.”

Most of the stories are fine. My favourite one both because it feels like it indulges the tendency of Star Wars to expand on literally every second of the movie in the EU as well as just being funny is the chapter which is devoted to the internal monologue of someone’s final moments being force choked by Lord Vader.

My only real criticism, and it’s one that feels a bit unfair given the justification for the book but it also haunts stories like The Mandalorian, is that there’s too much reliance on the popular characters from the movie. I don’t mind the focus on Luke Skywalker from a character directly interacting with Luke in a scene from the movie but it feels like a writer isn’t confident in telling their own story when they devote a substantial part of their chapter on, say, an analyst in the base on Hoth to focusing on how they feel about Leia and Han’s burgeoning relationship. Give me some thoughts on how they personally feel about working with the Rebellion rather than retreading an irrelevant subplot that has no bearing on the character being written about!

I’m enjoying it though. It’s acting as a useful foil to the final 300 pages of book six of Knausgaard which is the most Knausgaard Knausgaard’s been across the last 3500 pages.

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I am still slowly making my way through Harrow the Ninth. As folks have said, it is disorienting and vivid, and I’ve honestly had some trouble following pieces of it, perhaps because the format is made even more disorienting in audio (which is not to take away from the reading performance, which is wonderful, hands-down)? However: chapters 43-44, when we get snapped into sharpness around narrators and perspectives, was fucking awesome and pays off every bit of confusion along the way. This book is just a RIDE, and I think Muir is doing something pretty brilliant in her shift from book 1 to book 2 with this change in form and style.

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I just finished reading Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman [2020]. It is one of the most uplifting things I have ever read and I highly recommend it especially to the ‘very online’ and frequently depressed or angry people in this community. Finishing it the day after watching A Christmas Carol and the same day the COVID relief bill was passed has a put a truly warm feeling in my heart that was, only a month or two ago, so cold and angry and despairing.

It posits an optimistic view of humanity that I was rather skeptical of when I started reading it a few months ago, but it takes it’s time and gets there rather convincingly. It starts by setting up a philosophical confrontation: the belief for and against the idea that humanity is naturally selfish or bad. Then it takes apart all the false scientific and cultural touchstones that support it and raises up all science and history that supports it. Then it moves to how embracing this view has a powerful influence on how we treat each other and on the solutions we can come up with to solve society’s problems and it presents some of those. It has a lot of ground to cover from war to education to prisons and all the wild history, psychology and sociology that comes with it, but it moves through each topic in concise and methodological fashion. It has shown me the wonderful things humanity can do and constantly does and has given me ample material to me with which I may enrich my life.

A lot that you have probably read some of before, as I had, but it was/is hard to properly recognize in between all the horror of these modern times. Taken all together though it is hard to ignore. It was recommended to me by my sister and then also my mom and, at first, I was very skeptical (plus I rarely read nonfiction books so I didn’t think it would hold my attention in the first place), but it has very much won me over. I highly recommend it. Especially after this very difficult year.

You are all wonderful. I love this community and I love you, reader of this post. Wishing you the very best in the new year and all of the years that follow.

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I’m trying to get back into reading more frequently so I picked up a collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories I got as a gift a couple years ago, and I’m liking it a lot so far! But it also has me wanting something a little more contemporary. Now that 2020 is coming to an end, what fiction (either purely written or graphic novel form!) from the past couple years would you recommend?

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I started reading Musil’s The Man Without Qualities after years of hearing how good it was. The cover of the book proclaims it to be the third of the great 20th-century modernist novels along with Ulysses and Temps Perdu. I’ve never been a fan of modernist literature, though I respect it and acknowledge that lit wouldn’t be where it is today without that medium (for reference, I agree with nearly everything said in To the Lighthouse and also hated every second of reading that book), and so, ultimately, The Man Without Qualities is… fine. It’s a striking combination between what must be great original prose met by an equally great translation by Wilkins and Pike and the consummate modernist’s exhaustive obsession with ceaselessly qualifying through extended digression every stray thought that might occur.

So, I just finished Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni, which increasingly impressed me by managing that difficult line of being an accurate historical novel [1899 New York, for the most part], a novel covering cultural groups the author is not a part of [the Jewish and Syrian communities in New York in the v late 19th Century], and also a fantasy novel built around the titular entities and their thematically opposed natures (Golems being of clay in a similar sense to which Djinni are of ‘smokeless fire’). I was especially impressed that it didn’t shy away from having difficult or even bad things happen - it’s as much a novel about the consequences of your own decisions as it is about anything else.
I’d recommend it.

I also read through a Christmas present: Edward Ross’ Gamish: A Graphic History of Gaming. I found this… slightly frustrating. “Graphic novel non-fiction” can be done very well - I still think that The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage’s opening biographical history bit is brilliant - but in this case, Ross seems to have made concessions to the reduced textual content which weaken his overall arguments. Often he simplifies positions - relegating the actually relevant and nuanced content to the endnotes - or makes strange choices for what to present (for example, choosing Turing’s Chess program as his example of early interconnection between games and computers, whilst the Turing Test is surely a much better and apposite example of a game - as he covers in, yes, the endnotes).

In other cases, the same “compaction” of argument leads to weird mismatches between the illustration and the argument he’s presenting - a somewhat lacking in nuance discussion of the relationship between the rising popularity of FPSes and the increasing marketing of video games at young men [coupled with an increasingly macho tone to those games] not only lacks that nuance, but also undermines itself - the opening panel talking about “voiceless, blank-slate heroes” showcases Duke Nuke’em prominently, whilst surely he’s a great example of the kind of toxic masculinity that the argument goes on to discuss, that’s partly because he’s not voiceless, or a blank-slate - Duke very much has a personality (that, indeed, being a selling point versus the voiceless protagonist of Doom).

This kind of weird mismatch happens several more times - there’s an ambiguous case later on within the same “macho” argument where the increase in macho, toxic figures after Doom is illustrated including: Street Fighter’s Ken Masters (who of course pre-dates Doom by 5 years, and is obviously based on martial arts film references) and the difficult case of Solid Snake (who also pre-dates Doom by 5 years - but also isn’t really an example of the kind of hypermasculine figures that Ross seems to want to talk about; he’s not Kratos (also depicted in this panel), and from MGS onward, his games seem to want to talk about how damaged a figure like Snake would be, rather than lauding them).

[There’s also some missed opportunities - a section which starts with Colossal Cave Adventure drops the ball seriously in not really engaging with the entire genre of Interactive Fiction [which is really missing from the work], and barely touching on true roguelikes - Ross is far more enamoured of Skyrim than he is of talking about things with less flashy graphics; it’s pretty clear, from a section where he waxes lyrical about game controllers that he’s a console boy at heart.]

All of this critique aside, if you read the endnotes, it’s actually a well researched book - it just probably would have benefited from not being forced into graphic non-fiction form. [Ross also really finds it hard to draw “non-smiley” characters, which leads to some dissonant reproductions of usually dour-faced Adam Jensen and others].

(Addendum to this: having just read an interview with Ross - I also think he suffers from apparently not having thought about the critical theory of art before writing this. In the interview he talks about how “we rarely talk about or formalise” the difference that perspective (first person / third person / etc) has on our empathy and interaction with games… when anyone who’s done anything in any art form (be that writing, filmmaking, painting, or… yes, digital arts and video games) knows that there’s a huge host of existing theory on how this works. It’s just not video games specific - and it seems that Ross sort of harms himself by trying to consider a critical theory of games in isolation to other art [because he’s ignorant of that theory himself].)

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To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini, a long (approx 900 page) science fiction/ thriller that because I read it digitally did not notice just how deep of a story I was getting into until I was well hooked.
A Xenobiologist discovers an ancient alien artifact and the story blasts off from there and never stops. In a post interview included in the book the author describes himself as putting “everything but the kitchen sink” into this novel and I have to agree. You can see influences from all over contemporary science fiction, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was also inspired by videogames like Warframe and Dead Space. Most noticeably (to me) was the relationship of the main character and the personable crew of an independent starship which immediately reminded me of Becky Chambers.

I’m happy to see that this was received really well. I felt bad for Paolini after the reception for the Eragon books was (understandably given the, uh, inspiration) pretty negative.

Rereading The Hobbit (or There and Back Again) to the kiddo. Noticing that the Peter Jackson movies tend to remove anything too…C.S. Lewis-y from Tolkien’s stories. Especially when it comes to anthropomorphic stuff. Jackson was like, y’all can have giant eagles. But no, none of this animals-serving-breakfast-in-Beorn’s-home craziness.

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Like that cover! I’ve still got an illustrated hardcover version I’ve had since grade school, lots of beautiful illustrations by Michael Hague.

I’m about 2/3rds of the way through The Colour of Magic By Terry Pratchet and I think I get the hype. Rincewind is such a relatable fuck up and the whole world feels like it’s caught realistically between humanism and cynical self-interest. I’m not huge on the parody aspects so much, but I can definitely see myself getting very into the Sam Vimes books once I’m finished this one.

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I recently plowed through Ametora: How Japan Saved American Style. It was particularly interesting to me because I’m a connoisseur of Japanese denim, but it was about much more than just Levi’s 501 reproductions. It was a fascinating look at the exchange of ideas and culture, the Japanese cultural hegemony, and the way people mythologize other cultures and ideas. It’s a book with lots of names and dates, but W. David Marx has an excellent command of the written language, and keeps it fascinating and easy to understand. If any of those things sound remotely interesting, I’d recommend it.

On the fiction front, I’m worried that Ursula K. Le Guin ruined fiction for me. I read The Dispossessed last year, and it was the best book I’ve ever read. It may be the best book ever written. If you read it, maybe it will be your favorite book too! I immediately followed that up with The Left Hand of Darkness, which is my third favorite book ever written (Silence, by Shusaku Endo, is my second for those keeping score). I recently started reading Pattern Recognition by William Gibson because I’ve always wanted to read his work, and a lot of the book focuses on a Buzz Rickson bomber jacket reproduction (related to Ametora, above. Love that stuff). And… it’s fine? I’m like 30% of the way through, and it’s just fine. It’s not Ursula K. Le Guin. I’m not sure what else can be Ursula K. Le Guin. When I’m done with this book I’m going to read more Ursula K. Le Guin because she might be the best fiction author of all time. Life is too short to not read all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s works.

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Pattern Recognition is definitely not the best Gibson. I do love the idea of being allergic to branding, though.

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Yeah it’s playing with some interesting ideas for sure! Any Gibson stuff you’d recommend? I’ve heard mixed reviews on Neuromancer, although that’s from people I know that aren’t as hot on interesting cyberpunk stuff

I was never super into Gibson, to tell the truth, but Neuromancer is actually pretty good if you adjust for the fact that almost every cyberpunk thing you’ve seen or read afterward is biting its aesthetic and ideas.

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Been diving deep into old Eberron material after reigniting my love for it by purchasing the 5E sourcebook.

Currently reading Tales of the Last War. I’m enjoying it.

So, I’m re-reading Gideon the Ninth, and it’s one of those really satisfying re-reads where once you know what the massive reveals are you can see the little hints scattered all throughout the first half of the book, sometimes literally as soon as the first time some of the characters are introduced.

I really, really want to read Harrow, but the paperback isn’t out until September and my local library doesn’t have a copy. Obnoxious.

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I’d recommend Neuromancer, with the caveat that everything good in that book has been built on by other authors to the point were it’s hard to see what’s particularly special about it without putting yourself into the time where it was written. Still, it can be fun to deconstruct a work, and there are sequences that still absolutely shine. An alternative would be to read the short story collection Burning Chrome. It’s pretty dense with ideas, which are the best part of good sci-fi for me.

The rest of the Blue Ant trilogy is honestly more of the same that you found in Pattern Recognition. I particularly liked Spook Country (the second book), since it really goes deep in fashion communities in a way that felt voyeuristic of something I’ll never quite understand myself. Might be more of an anti-recommendation than a recommendation. It’s fine, but it’s no LeGuin.

I want to recommend The Peripheral, because it’s in many ways a synthesis of the ideas in The Sprawl and the ideas in the Blue Ant mapped onto late Obama era American politics. But when I last read it, I was way less angry about the status quo than I am today, so I’m not sure how well it works in a post 2016 context. The fundamental conceit is superb though, so it might be worth it just for that.

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