The home page for author Eric J. Juneau

The Books I Read: November – December 2020

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Death of a Rainmaker: A Dust Bowl Mystery by Laurie Loewenstein

I read this because my wife was reading it for book club. Plus the idea intrigued me–a mystery story set in a piece of history rooted in Americana. I had never heard of it, the author, or the publishing company before. But I thought I could use a break from the robots and aliens.

The thing is, it’s just tedious. The characters are dull as dishwater. There’s no intensity to the mystery. There’re no stakes. It’s as dry as the dust bowl it’s telling about.

The thing about a mystery book is that bad mysteries contain large swaths of text that don’t matter to the plot. In a good mystery, the entire story is the mystery, not side characters or subplots. Knives Out, The Da Vinci Code, The Maltese Falcon, The Silence of the Lambs, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Even the false leads, the red herring, still matter to the plot.

So for example, this book has a suspect. They spend time investigating them, thinking he’s the killer, but then it turns out to be wrong. And the audience knows this all the time. So you feel like you wasted time reading that part. It’s not dramatic irony, it’s page filler. This feels more like a regular book that got labeled “mystery” for marketing purpose. Maybe that’s why I don’t read them — I don’t like plot threads that end at a wall.

In a mystery, all the parts are important. Finding evidence A leads to talking to suspect B who points a finger at witness C who we find out was with D who lied about artifact E which suspect B wants and so on. It should be “buts” and “therefores”, not “and thens”. I don’t mean it has to be a complex web, but “Garfield’s Babes and Bullets” was a more intriguing mystery than this.

This book is for old ladies who just want a comfort read. They don’t want anything surprising or challenging. There’s no diversity in the book–no black people, no immigrants, no one ethnic, no Native Americans, no gays, no Jews. Just loud, white males and one white female (the wife of the investigating sheriff).

Oh, there is one blind guy who runs the theater, so I guess you can check off “disability”. Thing is, he’s an asshole, so it’s not exactly glorious representation. Not to mention he doesn’t figure into the story whatsoever. He’s not even a B-plot, he’s a C-plot. I’m not sure what role he’s meant to play? The struggling entrepreneur during the time of economic hardship?

I would rate it three stars, but my judgment criteria means I wouldn’t bring anything two stars or below to a desert island with me. And I wouldn’t bring this with me — I don’t want to read it again.

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson

It’s a funny book. But at three-quarters of the way through, the humor started to wear thin. I recommend you don’t read it all at once. You don’t have to read it in sequence. Take breaks, read something else in-between. The jokes are intense and fast, but it’s overwhelming. As in, it’s not relaxing to read. Maybe it has a Police Squad effect.

Police Squad is a television show from 1982. I learned about it in high school in a unit in English about films. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s hilarious–and why shouldn’t it be? It’s from the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker trifecta. The same people who did The Naked Gun, Airplane!, Hot Shots, and other fantastic comedies. But Police Squad only lasted six episodes. Why?

Because it was too much for viewing audiences who wanted to relax and watch TV. If you watch The Naked Gun and Airplane!, you see there are a TON of jokes. Visual gags and puns and subtle humor and slapstick and parody and fourth-wall breaks. There’re even jokes embedded in the credits (if you have the patience). But it works because, in a movie, all your focus is on the movie. But with TV, you’re talking to people, you’re relaxing with a glass of wine, you’re going to the bathroom, you’re talking with your wife. Police Squad forces you to pay attention to get all the jokes, because there are so many.

In Furiously Happy, the biggest flaw is that the same joke gets told over and over. I get it — you’re a wacky mentally ill woman trying to have it all and still survive and you’re into weird stuff like raccoon taxidermy. Basically a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. But real because she has rheumatoid arthritis, bouts of depression, and personality disorders.

I’m thinking maybe I’m not cut out for non-fiction memoirs by underprivileged women. It started off so strongly, but at a certain point, I just got overwhelmed by her.

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

From now, if I need an example of a novel written exclusively for male audiences, this is what I’ll think of.

I suppose you could call it a science-fiction thriller. The problem is it brings up plot questions, but doesn’t answer them.

The story is about a guy with a wonderful satisfying life, just that he chose family over becoming a famous scientist. Then he’s kidnapped in an odd way, taken to a strange building, and knocked out. He wakes up in a hospital/laboratory where he’s being lauded by a bunch of people who seem to know him, but he doesn’t. So instead of sticking around to ask some questions, get reoriented, and learn what’s going on, he takes the idiot ball and breaks out of the lab into a world he doesn’t know with no allies or money.

So pages and pages go on of this guy wondering what happened, where he is, why things have changed. And I’m yelling at the book “it’s an alternate timeline, idiot! Haven’t you seen a single episode of Star Trek? Or The Twilight Zone? Donnie Darko? Sliding Doors? It’s a Wonderful Life?” This isn’t a foreign concept. It’s like people in zombie movies never using the “Z word”. Being genre blind, either as character or author, doesn’t disguise the concept as original.

And that’s the thing–I’ve seen all those movies mentioned above, and so has the discerning science-fiction audience. I already know every concept and plot point in this sort of story. I knew this guy was going to find his wife, freak out that it’s not her, she’d freak out on him, someone from the alt universe would help him for no reason, and so on. There is some cleverness halfway through in regard to where it takes the idea of all the other alt timeline. But it doesn’t make the main character any more likable.

Speaking of which, this book is pretty misogynist. Or at least not forward-thinking. The guy’s wife is a huge factor in what drives the story goal. Except she’s not really a player in the story. She has all positive personality traits and never makes a mistake, like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She’s the ball being tossed back and forth, the prize to be won. This is why I say this was clearly written for men.

It’s like Taken combined with Community‘s “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode. The premise is capitalizing on the “defend my family so I can justify violence” power fantasy that is trending, like John Wick or anything involving Gerard Butler or Denzel Washington, although none of them have a science fiction twist like this does. Too bad that playing ignorant of its legacy couldn’t save it.

Ready Player Two by Ernest Cline

I read the first one with an open heart, but without a critical eye. But through the years, after reading others’ takes on it, I’ve come around and no longer believe Ready Player One is the five-star delight I originally thought.

Most significant was the central theme, that being “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”. It’s the kind of thing entitled fanboys use to ruin things like Star Wars, Rick & Morty, sports, elections. It results in cults like YouTube content creators and QAnon. They think if they sink enough time into something, there’s a reward at the bottom of the well. Like a “nice guy” who believes being nice to a girl equals points on a “sex card” that he can trade in at some point. They think that because they invest time and money into someone else’s creative work, they possess a share of it. In other words, Sam Sykes’s stages of a toxic fandom: “I love this. I own this. I control this. I can’t control this. I hate this. I must destroy this.”

Plus, the lack of diversity, the weird sex, the total absence of female perspective, and me learning what good characters, good plotting, and good writing looks like, I came into this sequel with glasses un-smudged by nostalgia. Long story short, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake of naivety with this book.

Eight years have passed between book one and book two. Years which included a dismal sophomore follow-up and a popular Stephen Spielberg movie. Mr. Cline has had plenty of time to gain perspective on his work. Develop himself as a writer. Improve his craft, his tastes. Learn the mistakes he made in the past, correct them, and grow ambition for something that exceeded his original vision. That is the hope I had coming into this.

That hope was false.

This book is much the same as the first. In fact, it feels like both the protagonist and the author haven’t learned a thing from the previous book. The pop culture references are even more unnecessary and jammed in there (no one cares that you woke up to Soul II Soul). The story and characters are the same shit as the first one. No sign that Cline learned anything or developed his skill. This could be marketing (just give them the same slop that sold last time) or it could be laziness.

It starts with summary and summary and summary. No dialogue or characterization. All showing, no telling. The story doesn’t really start until a third of the way in, just like last time. Until then, all you’re getting is setup and backstory, and it’s sad. The main character is the CEO of the world’s biggest company–basically Facebook and Nintendo combined–and all he does is play video games all day. He loses the girlfriend he made in the last book because he goes all-in to sucking more people into the virtual world he now owns. He stops talking to the real-life friends he needed in the last book, and spends all his time in the OASIS instead of running the company. It’s like he learned nothing.

For the first 33% of the book, we just follow him in his routine. The author tries to give him “Save the Cat” credit by having him give away money on education (in his VR game) and providing rigs to poor people (for his VR game). He gives so much money away I wonder how his company makes a profit.

And this is part of the virtue-signaling in the book you’ve probably already heard of. I didn’t think virtue-signaling was a real thing until I read this. I thought it was a false flag made up by reactionaries and trolls to hate on people doing good. The triggering incident I’m talking about is when the main character meets a girl he likes (in the simulation). And just like in the last book, he violates her privacy, spies on her, digs up information (this time using his CEO privileges which violate the privacy policy and could get him in jail), and discovers she was assigned male at birth.

“Discovering this minor detail didn’t send me spiraling into a sexual-identity crisis…” Since his VR game allows him to have sex as anyone with anything, he’s realized that “passion was passion, and love was love.” Two things here. One, the fact that he’s only using gender in relation to sex (i.e. whether or not I’d do her) and not her character as a whole. And two, the author doing the same thing–using her gender status as the sole identifier of her character. This tidbit is the only thing I remember about this character. She does nothing in the story. She shows up two times, both as a “plot coupon” to help Wade out of a sticky situation. In other words, not exactly well-rounded. Virtue-signaling is when you tell people you’re “woke” without showing it through action.

So that’s out of the way, let’s talk about what’s left. The new “thing” in the story is technology created by the CEO who left the previous easter egg hunt. It’s called ONI and it’s a direct neural interface, meaning you can now touch, taste, and smell everything in the game. How the hell did this guy have time to design an expansive virtual world AND run a company from scratch (meaning marketing, management, customers, capital, facilities, etc.) AND build the hardware for the company AND architect the program the hardware would run on AND engineer the software to run on the hardware AND invent totally new equipment, in secret, that’s basically the singularity. By himself!

And like I said, the first 33% of the book is just this–setting up the book. The aftermath of winning the contest, finding the new ONI, releasing it to the public, shifting culture again so people spend even more time in a simulated world so the real world can go to pot. What reason is there to spend in reality anymore?

After all that summary the story finally starts and guess what. It’s ANOTHER Easter egg quest, designed by the founder (how did this guy have time to take a shit?). Go here, traverse the world, solve the clues, get the token. And it’s all eighties themed again. So yeah, guess what. You’re getting more of the same. Wade finds the path to one obstacle, finds the way around it (it’s not even detective work, it’s using trivia and video game powers), then moves onto the next. And everything is jammed with 80s pop culture. It makes the whole book a game of “I understood that reference.”

What is the reference Captain America understood? - Science Fiction &  Fantasy Stack Exchange

Unless you can win that game, you’re not going to have any fun. For example, they spend three chapters on the Prince planet. Prince the artist. Three chapters on Prince’s entire history.

Here’s Ready Player Two’s basic structure. Imagine a football field. Our main character is at one end and the goal is at the other. In-between there are seven blockades. All the character has to do is climb over them, one after the other, to get to the goal. Character is at point A, wants to be at point B, gets to point B without any meaningful problems or deviations that surprise the reader. The end. This is number one item in Strange Horizons’s list of stories seen too often.

A better story would involve no obstacles at first. Then, at the twenty-yard-line, an impassible wall springs up. Our character has to dig under it, or scale it, only to find murderous eagles along the way. The second barricade spans the width of the field, so he has to run through the stands, which breaks the rules and he has to avoid being seen by referees. But that presents a new problem as the audience tries to hold him back. If he gets through, the audience hates him stepping on them. And so on.

They say, in a good story, when a character is close to achieving their goal, the goalposts get pushed back. Would Mario Kart be any fun without the random items knocking you back and forth in the race? Ready Player Two is full of “and then”, “and then”, “and then”, when it should be “buts” and “therefores”.

So yeah, drop this one from your to-read lists. Cline has not demonstrated that he’s learned anything as a writer and this book feels like catering to edgelords and internet trolls that are like his characters. There was plenty of opportunity here to fix the mistakes and improve upon the first one. Change the POV character. Have multiple POV characters. Start a family to add some maturity. Go all-female version of the first book. What is it like to be the CEO of a video game company? What are the consequences of a worldwide phenomenon that’s sucking the life out of the planet? Nope, just more Willy Wonka fun & games from the 1980s.

If the theme of this book is “if you obsess over something enough, you will get it”, Cline should learn the opposite. “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.”

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

This is an epistolary science fiction novel mostly about unearthing alien artifacts. Big ones. Like Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers sized. But it’s a novel about scientific discovery and exploration and puzzle-solving. Our three main characters are the scientist leader, the tough-as-nails fighter pilot, and a linguist deciphering what was left behind. Also there’s the “mysterious g-man” who’s pulling the strings and conducting the interviews.

The author weaves an intriguing mystery and really grips you out of the gate. There are huge pieces of a statue buried all over the world, like a disassembled action figure. Who left them? How do they fit together? How do we get them out of countries that aren’t exactly friendly to us? There’s a real sense of “how are we going to get out of this one” and “what is the solution to this riddle?”

This is all helped along by good characters. They are well-rounded and competent. Meaning there’s no gruff five-star general who just wants to use it as a weapon against the commies, or the pencil-necked politician, or the bad boy Tom Cruise with a huge ego, or a love interest whose only job is to get Tom Cruise where he needs to go.

Disadvantage: since it’s in epistolary format, all the action’s is muted. When a character is describing a climactic chase scene or a huge disastrous explosion, it’s always after the fact. In hindsight. That kills the suspense.

The cover makes comparisons to The Martian. I wouldn’t say you get as warm a character as Mark Watney or as whizbang of an ending. But you get a good meal. Quick and engaging. And I’ll be coming back to this restaurant to try the chef’s next special.

The Humans by Matt Haig

I didn’t bother finishing this because the story was dull and the humor was hackneyed. Imagine every bad alien joke you heard in the eighties and nineties. Like all the material from ALF or Mork & Mindy or Coneheads. Not even Third Rock from the Sun material.

“Fish Out of Water” only works when the fish are fresh and the water is clean. This is the same damn thing we’ve seen a million times before. Alien comes to Earth and gets in trouble because he doesn’t know the customs. “Humans wear clothes! They wear these many layers of fabrics on their genitals!” Blah, blah, blah. You’re just using nerd language to describe everyday stuff.

And pointing out the oddity of what we consider commonplace isn’t funny anymore. “Aren’t noses weird? I am afraid of pudding!” It’s bordering on cultural insensitivity, even if it’s making fun of ourselves. I got my fill of that “anthropology through a mirror” BS by reading “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” in high school.

In addition, I never understood what the main character’s goal in the story was. But it sure didn’t seem as important as making fun of humans for their weird hair and pencils.

Set My Heart to Five by Simon Stephenson

It starts quite well, but then it gets sluggy. There are some strange detours throughout, which means our main character wanders around for a time, and his actions aren’t really in service of reaching his goal. Instead it’s a “slice of life” kind of thing where we watch his antics as he does the rom-com stuff, gets advice from a mentor, falls for the trickster’s tricks, and so on.

The main plot is that a dentist-servant robot starts to get feelings. He’s not sure what to do about it, but he knows if he tells anyone, he’ll be erased. So what’s his solution? Go to Hollywood and write a screenplay that will make others stop thinking of bots as inhuman automatons. I guess he’s trying to pull an “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?.

This is supposed to be a comedy book, but the humor grates because he keeps telling the same jokes over and over. I guess it’s supposed to be because it doesn’t fully understand sarcasm or irony. Which makes me wonder how he’s supposed to write a screenplay. Let alone THE screenplay. But I cannot take one more “Can you guess what XYZ is? You cannot! Humans!”

But it’s still heartfelt. It plays out pretty much how you’d expect it to so don’t expect any surprises. Plus the robots are barely robots–they pass for humans with no difficulty. So don’t come in looking for any cool robot stuff.

The Books I Read: July – August 2019

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nora roberts year one
Year One by Nora Roberts

This is the nicest apocalypse I’ve ever seen.

It was advertised to me as a big epic story like The Stand, but with magic. It even has a mystery flu as the apocalypse-causing incident. But The Stand, this ain’t. Where’s the bleakness? Where’s the stakes? Where’s the beef?

The blurbs and reviews made it out like the next best thing since Patrick Rothfuss, but really it’s just a standard novel that feels like it belongs on mass market shelves at the grocery store. I was hoping for a unique twist, but it’s underdeveloped. And all you get are a bunch of nice people doing nice things in hard times. It reads more like the Katrina disaster than the end of the world.

For another thing, it has the problem of a big sludgy middle. It’s nothing like Swan Song or other apocalypse fiction I’ve read. Everyone’s too nice to each other. No one’s a hoarder. Everyone gives what they have willingly, like it’s a Meg Ryan apocalypse. Everyone trusts each other. And the weird part is how the build up around it is so unsatisfying. They create this big town called “New Hope” (eye roll), then it’s ransacked by bad guys and looters. But that’s not the end of the novel. You think it is, but it keeps going.

No one has a goal stronger than “survive”. No one has a character arc. If there are bad guys lurking, we don’t know anything about them. I’d call it “The Stand Lite“. I don’t think the author took time to think about what happens in a real worldwide disaster, as Stephen King and Robert McCammon did.

Some people said that it fell apart for them when the magic came in. I say it needed to have more magic. As such, there’s just a sprinkling of wiccan stuff and cliched prophecies going on. No one blasts each other with a spell. No one conjures up water. The fairies are human-sized and they actually have very little power. Don’t expect something like “the fae come to take over the ruined Earth”, because that’s a far cry from this.

I won’t be reading the next in the series. I probably won’t be reading any more Nora Roberts after this disappointment. Another case of an excellent idea executed poorly.

dean koontz watchers
Watchers by Dean Koontz

According to the PBS Special “The Great American Read”, this was the most-voted-for Dean Koontz book. I find myself wanting to read Dean Koontz, but am never sure what book to pick up, until this one.

There are three different storylines. That makes the book bloated, but I found I could speed-read the narrative and just read the dialogue. The best is the one with the dog (obviously). The dog isn’t telepathic, but it can understand human speech and language.

The story is fine being a nice little romance (reminds me of the beginning of 101 Dalmatians). One big problem is that the antagonists are shoe-horned in. One drops out 1/3 of the way through and the other(s) don’t show up until the very end. And then they are quickly dispatched. All build-up and little bang. These thriller aspects are what Koontz is known for, but they don’t have an effect on the main story. You just get glimpses of what they are doing as breaks from the main plot line.

It’s a decent story, but it’s long. So damn long. I liked Lightning better, so I’m not sure why everyone’s so fascinated with this particular novel. Maybe it’s the dog. It’s a very good dog. Maybe they love the family aspects and the romance. Koontz does a lot of telling. This is one of those books that gives me confidence that I can make it in the writing world. But it’s also dated in that none of this stuff is as significant as it was in the eighties. A genius dog manipulating Scrabble tiles isn’t as impressive when today’s movies have a realistic space raccoon with a foul mouth that shoots lasers.

11/22/63 stephen king
11/22/63 by Stephen King

If The Stand is Stephen King’s most popular work and The Dark Tower is his magnum opus, then where is the room for 11/22/63? I don’t know, but we need a new word for it. Magna cum libris?

So the book is a basic “what if?”: What if you could time travel and stop the JFK assassination. With none of the hang-ups that time travel comes with. No Grandfather Paradox, no complicated machines that break down, no future stuff baggage (because it’s not the future), no deLoreans needing to get struck by lightning.

It certainly starts quick and strong. And will it keep a grip on you and hold on? That depends on your feelings on JFK. If you’re like me and were born in the eighties, you have no idea what an event this was. Funnily, the story is less about stopping the JFK assassination and as much about the main character. What happens when you travel to the past and have to stay there for a given time? You miss cell phones, but you love the unprocessed food. You hate the lack of Google, but love how friendly everyone is (unless you’re black). So the novel’s in two main storylines that twine together–stalking Lee Harvey Oswald and a love story.

Quite honestly, this is some of the best King work I’ve ever read. The setting is vivid, not bleak like Firestarter. There’s no reliance on some spiritual un-be-knowable thing to draw tension, no bullies, no alcoholism, no monster-of-the-week. It’s damn well-researched. This is surprising because King’s been known to be a seat-of-the-pants writer (hence his tendency to overwrite). Is this story overwritten? Well, I wonder if it needed to be as long as it needed to be. The character ends up about four years before Oswald’s scheduled to make his fatal shot, so that gives him time to kill.

You don’t get to the consequences of his actions until the very end. And if you’re hoping for a big story about the alternate history if Kennedy lived, all you get is a glimpse. I won’t spoil what that is, because it was spoiled for me. But about 95% of the story is the events leading up to it. This is not a book about alternate history, it’s a book about the late fifties/early sixties (a little like It), which King lived through and thus has a mastery of.

I think this will most appeal to baby boomers because it’s preying on nostalgia and “blasts from the past” to evoke feelings of nostalgia. And hey, I’m the last person to deny the appeal of nostalgia. It uses rose-colored glasses to tell its tale, but they’re not smudgy.

jhereg stephen brust
Jhereg by Steven Brust

Halfway through, I realized I didn’t care if anyone lives or dies. It succeeds at pulling you in — the main character getting a dragon familiar — but all it does is make snide comments every now and then. It promises to be a huge part of the plot/story, but then fails to do so. It’s more about the BS behind houses and ancestry and all that junk. It makes promises the middle can’t keep.

revenge of the shadow king derek benz
The Revenge of the Shadow King by Derek Benz and J.S. Lewis

It’s all right, but I didn’t finish it because the plot kept looping. A disaster happens, reaction to it, disaster happens, reaction to it. The plot never gets started. Instead we get “prophecies”, which now I’m getting sick of–they’re an artificial way to create tension and foreshadowing. You’re supposed to go “ooh, ahh, I wonder what that means” and meanwhile I’m over here with “this is meaningless until I know the context for this”.

I picked it up because I guess the author lives near me and based the setting on where I live. But I don’t see the resemblance. The main character is supposed to be a super-rich kid, and there’s no one like that around here. I also couldn’t differentiate the characters. There were too many and they sounded too alike to figure out who was who. Basically, it was a poorly written novel and too long.

It’s basically about a card game like Magic: the Gathering comes to life and the creatures start invading reality, and I don’t even know how it happens. I think the author was going for a feel like “The Neverending Story”, but that didn’t come across at all because there’s no empathy for the characters. Why bother having empathy for a kid with a driver/bodyguard and his friends whose biggest problem is getting rare cards. Someone who appreciates a good, well-written story will not like this book.

three laws lethal david walton
Three Laws Lethal by David Walton

My wife and I have an ongoing debate about self-driving cars. I think they’re the wave of the future and can’t wait for them to arrive. She thinks there’s too many logistical problems to overcome–what happens when the GPS doesn’t have info? How do you get off-road?–not to mention the ethical issues. That’s why I was delighted when I heard about this book–something that tackles those questions. And this book delivers.

The very first scene is the classic problem–if the car has to make a choice between killing the driver and killing someone on the road, which does it choose? How does it choose? And the rest of the story is thinking out those questions (Tip #1: Don’t tease the cars). The story is always moving, always building on what happened before, so there’s no long moral/ethical/metaphysical diatribes that take time out of the story. The characters are distinct and sympathetic. If I had to categorize it, I’d say it’s a techno-thriller like Daemon, but much better than that. It entertains and teaches something at the same time, and well, it’s just fun.

It’s a great book because it brings up questions, but doesn’t necessarily answer them. It reminds me of Cory Doctorow’s earlier works, like Eastern Standard Tribe. It acknowledges the work of Asimov, stands on his giant shoulders, and creates some big shoulders of its own. This is what Robopocalypse should have been. It’s a must for anyone interested in robot tropes.

sleeping dragon joel rosenberg
The Sleeping Dragon (Guardians of the Flame #1) by Joel Rosenberg

So you know how writing professors tell you not to write about your D & D campaign? This is that.

I mean, I’ve never had a stigma about it, so I embrace the concept. Five or six people get whisked away into their fantasy world they created at the table rolling dice. They’ve all become their characters and have to get back home.

This was probably more significant in the eighties, when these college kids had to do their research at the library instead of the computer. Today it’s old hat. I’m not saying the book is out of date, but it’s falls into some other fantasy trappings. There’s nothing about this fantasy world that makes it different from any others. I expected to see creepy D&D monsters and elements like sentient swords and beholders. But this is a pretty standard get from point A to point B with a few stumblings on the way.

I’d read the shit out of a book about this guy

I will say the pacing is pretty good and most of the characters are distinguishable, but inconsistent. One character dies and no one seems to give a rip. Another has muscular dystrophy and he’s torn between staying or going back to the real world. So it scales back and forth. I can’t tell whether the tropes are cliche by now or not, but I don’t think they were when this was written.

There’s lots to dislike about the book, but here’s the one that’ll make you drop it–it uses rape as a plot point. The females get barely any screen time to begin with, I don’t think a single scene takes their POV, and I don’t think they have a conversation with each other. But when a troop of bandits kidnaps them, they take the women into the back. This is purely to give the characters motivation. Any love I had for this book dropped. It happens about 80% of the way through, so I finished it anyway, but all the book’s good will left the building. Especially when it takes the big strong men to avenge the rapists. One woman goes catatonic and the other acts like nothing happened. This is what people point to when they say fantasy doesn’t favor females. I won’t be reading any more in the series.

pushcart war jean merrill
The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill

A perfectly serviceable book. It’s good for explaining to kids about war–how it starts, how it works. Like Animal Farm Lite. It’s so well-written, I thought it was a true story. I had to look up whether this was fiction or non-fiction.

It’s narrative fiction book about a conflict between pushcart peddlers and the truckers who want them off the streets. Although I said it’s good for teaching about war, there’s a clear “little guys vs. big bullies” allegory here, as the truckers are never put in a sympathetic light. The newspaper publisher in Newsies got better press than the truckers did.

This is as small a conflict as you expect from such a war, but that makes it accessible to readers. But it blows it up to talk about the Pea-Shooter Campaign as importantly as Sherman’s March. It’s different from any other children’s fiction book I’ve read. It’s good for the rare child who doesn’t like reading fiction, adding a little humor into it now and then to keep kids interested (but it’s no Sideways Stories from Wayside School). It gives kids what they don’t usually get in their fiction–politics, war theory, international issues, economics, civil liberties, propaganda, etc.

Problem is, I’m trying to figure out who this book is for, who I’d recommend it to, and I can’t think of anyone. It would be a great book for a social studies teacher to use in a classroom, to teach the issues mentioned above. But I don’t think I can recommend just picking it up and reading it. They love fantasy books like “Wings of Fire” and “Percy Jackson”, which put plot before message. This is a message book. But it’s a book of good taste so you feel smarter after reading it.

lila bowen malice of crows
Malice of Crows (The Shadow #3) by Lila Bowen

It’s much the same as the earlier books, so I feel I can copy and paste my review of those. It even follows the same pattern–there’s a whole bunch of traveling, sprinkled with a few battles and a few town visits, until the end where there’s a big climax/ultimate goal fulfilled. The problem is that travel portion. It feels like filler. Like the hurdles they have to jump don’t have to do with the main goal, they don’t have a permanent effect on the characters. Which is not a deal breaker, but it irritates me. Makes me feel like there was no point in reading what I just read. Or that it’s a repetitive cycle, with minimal character development in-between. It’s a quest story.

stalking the unicorn mike resnick
Stalking the Unicorn (John Justin Mallory Mystery #1) by Mike Resnick

It promises to be a hardboiled detective novel in a fantasy world (like Raymond Chandler meets Legend), but it’s more like a portal fantasy. Like Alice in Wonderland and The Phantom Tollbooth, most of the main character’s time is taken up with little sidequests, like the two people playing a game of chess that takes forever, or the bar with old-timey witches. It’s like a character just moves from station to station, interviewing these oddballs and characters of humor when he should be getting on with the main goal. Because unlike Alice and Phantom, this isn’t a quest, this is a mystery. So it has a bad case of the “get-on-with-its”.

This book doesn’t deliver on it’s promise because it’s not a detective story. There are no clues, no suspects, no witnesses. Garfield’s Babes and Bullets was more of a detective story than this. So no, I won’t be reading any more in the series. It’s too farcical to be taken seriously.

Robots vs. Fairies

robots vs fairies close

So last month I read “Robots vs. Fairies”, a collection of short stories. I was a little disappointed because it wasn’t so much “versus” as “here’s robots and now here’s fairies” (except for one story at the end). But at the end of each story, the author declared whether they were “Team Robot” or “Team Fairy” and why. Even though the split is even, it felt like Team Fairy came out the winner. But I thought it’d be fun to declare my allegiance, even though I’m not part of the book. (They didn’t even *ask* me! *sniffle*)

Even though I probably read and produce more fantasy than science fiction, I play for Team Robot. This could be because of my unyielding loyalty to Johnny 5. It’s been demonstrated by my unyielding criticism of any other robot media because I know how computers work and how robots shouldn’t. I like computers, I like autonomous devices, I like the droids in Star Wars. I’m harsh because I care so much, like Anton Ego in Ratatouille.

anton ego robot

Stories with fairies are intrinsically lacking cohesion because it’s magic. Rules change from one book to the next. And sometimes they aren’t even consistent in their own universe. This is because fairies are tricksters and shapeshifters. The fey realm is unpredictable, emotional, and quick to react. In Magic: The Gathering, most of the fairy creatures are blue, the color of trickery and manipulation.

Of course, this is not a sufficient reason for taking one side over the other. I love fantasy and there are more stories with fairies that I like than ones that I don’t.

But here’s the thing. Stories about fairies and the fey realm are about how people in power treat us. It makes for good story fodder: a chosen hero, antagonist with impossible powers, mystery, vibrant settings. But stories about robots are about how we treat those under our power. (Ladies, this is why you always you should always go out with a guy who has a pet or grew up with pets. That way he knows how to care for something other than himself.)

Asimov’s “I, Robot” did it first and did it well, if you want an example. It kinda started the baseline theme for many robot stories, which is “where do you draw the line between tool and living being?” We’ve seen the results of slavery, we all know it’s terrible. But are you allowed to use slaves that aren’t human? That only differ in how they were created? How should we act towards those we hold absolute power over? The best novels provide questions, not answers.

Robots are basically slaves. It’s a paradigm you simply can’t avoid. And you shouldn’t avoid it. It’s something that needs to be reconciled. Think about the droids in Star Wars. They’re clearly intelligent, aware of their self as a separate entity from others, and respond to stimuli. Yet they are constructed, not born and grown over time. I think if we created autonomous intelligent robots, we’d treat them the way they do in Star Wars. Kinda like disposable pets. You can talk to them, but don’t get too sad if they explode, and you have no qualms using them as a meat/metal shield. Droids may be invaluable and expensive, but Luke’s not above using them as tools for getting into Jabba’s palace. C-3P0 and R2-D2 could have been easily destroyed without ever setting foot off the sand. And even Poe Dameron treats BB-8 like a puppy.

poe dameron bb-8 star wars

He even scratches his belly. Who does that with a robot? What does that accomplish. I think, even as much as I love robots, I can’t treat them different than a tamagotchi. Those stupid little eggs were meant to mimic a living creature — something that needs food, attention, and sleep. If not, it dies. But none of it’s anything more the programming. And the only way it can “die” is to be beyond repair. Does that do something to empathy? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure what the point of this post was. Anyway, here’s a robot and a kitten.

robot and kitten cat

Robots and Kill Switches

emergency kill switch

I’ve been reading synopses of Westworld episodes, thinking about robots.

robot thinking

Why don’t people ever put in failsafes or killswitches in their robots? This seems like the first thing you should think of when you working with a complex machine that has potential to turn on you. They even got buzzsaws that can shut off when they detect your finger. Sure, you get a cut, but you get to keep your finger.

But robots. No, they don’t need killswitches. We make ’em so perfect they don’t need ’em. Which leads to the cliche “moral of the story” about man’s hubris that we’ve been hearing about since Frankenstein (arguably the first robot story). It only took one Titanic to realize you need lots of lifeboats. Which means it’s implausible that humans wouldn’t create something without a way to shut off or roll back, should something happen. I work on the software industry and that’s 25% of features.

It’s just a natural failsafe. Computers have power switches for a reason. If things get so hosed you can’t control it anymore, you can turn it off. Stop all functions. Data had one. Johnny 5 had one. The Terminator did (in a deleted scene from T2). Even men have a kill switch to exploit if needed.

The Books I Read: November – December 2016

bookshelf books

rejected princesses david porath
Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by David Porath

I fell in love with this book immediately, which has never happened to me before. I am not an early adopter, and it’s the onus of every book to entice me. Of course, by the time I know that, I’m usually victim to time sink fallacy. But look at this cover. It looks like all the books in the old Disney movies. You know, like in Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty where a live-action book opens at the beginning and closes at “the end”. Now I have a book like that. I can look like I’m reading an old timey volume of forgotten lore (quoth the raven). Look at me — I’m gushing and I haven’t even opened the book yet.

snow white book

Inside is more than fifty stories of women who kicked ass and took names, folk tales you never heard of, tribal leaders, revolutionaries, women who outrode Paul Revere, outsmarted popes, outbattled kings, and outwitted empires. Each entry is about a page or two, so no princess outstays her welcome. They’re like wikipedia entries, but don’t duplicate the dry descriptions. Many include anecdotes and details that bring them to life as real people who existed. This is not a research/reference book. It’s entertaining and informative like The Daily Show or CGPGrey or Extra Credits. The author adds a unique flavor/voice that gives away how much he loves this subject and how much he wants to share it.

Plus, each entry has a beautiful illustration of the lady therein, rendered as a kind of Dreamworks/Disney princess. Like each woman has her own movie poster. It even includes notes on how the art includes culture and tidbits not in the story.

Now this volume does have a fault: there are maturity ratings and content warnings for each story, ranging from one to five. But even the tamest wasn’t appropriate for kids under ten (IMHO). In fact, just about all of them… well, this makes me sound like the most conservative of parents, but they acknowledge the existence of sex, use words like “plastered”, and assume some historical knowledge. It’s not that the content is vulgar or adult. It just brings up questions that I don’t need to answers yet. Which makes it kind of strange that this book wants to highlight famous influential women, but the content is too old for when girls are their most influenced. Maybe they can release a PG version for the younglings? I want them to learn about these people too. The earlier the better.

hollow city peregrine peculiar children random riggs
Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I dunno. It’s a basic quest story. The Peculiars need to get from Point A to Point B and they come up against obstacles in-between. The bulk of those obstacles take place in WWII London during the firebombings. It’s hard to get invested in the characters again because they never stay in one place for long. There are no “quiet moments” where they talk about what they’re feeling or their reactions or how they feel about each other. The kids bicker among themselves about where to go and what to do, but never about their relationships. They don’t use their powers much, except for invisible kid, so I have trouble telling any of them apart.

It’s more like exploring the “expanded universe” of peculiars. And this time around, the events are even more aimless. Like the author pulled out a photograph at random and had to write about it. As a result, this seems like random stuff that happened. Because by the end, it seems like it was all forced filler. No one has a plot arc and no one feels changed at the end. The bulk of what they learned is that World War II sucks (which I already knew).

neil gaiman view from the cheap seats
The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman

These are all the speeches, articles, blog entries, and forewords Neil Gaiman has written over the years. A lot of them were about stuff I know nothing about — old authors that he admired, music I don’t listen to, stories from his youth I’m too young to appreciate. It’s not a memoir, it’s a series of essays. Most of them are gushes about someone. There’s nothing about the writing process or creation in here, except the “Make Good Art” speech which everyone knows.

And it’s long. His writing style is unchanged — full of comfort and warmth, like when Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi for the first time, and you know that this guy is one of the good ones. But I am not the kind of guy who has found solace in any of Gaiman’s influencers — Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Will Eisner, etc. There are a few memorable ones, but as a whole, this is only for the most diehard Gaiman fan.

fuzzy tom angleberger
Fuzzy by Tom Angleberger and Paul Dellinger

It’s… all right. It’s perfectly average. There are no groundbreaking ideas, no new techniques. It’s aimed at a younger age group than YA (Percy Jackson, Underland Chronicles, et al). There’s nothing controversial or gaspworthy inside. It’s less about the robot and more about everything surrounding him. Like the AI that runs the school being super Big Brother. It’s kind of like 1984 meets Double Dare.

There are some plot threads that taper off into nothingness, as if there were already sequels planned, which make me disgusted. I hate when marketers plan a series before anyone’s seen it. The robot doesn’t act much like a robot (I say that about every robot book, don’t I?). There was a perfectly serviceable opportunity to present some interesting STEM topics here, like “what IS fuzzy logic?” “how does/could AI work?” WWW: Wake is a book that better explores these ideas, and I had no inclination to continue that series (too metaphysical).

I know I’m complaining more than praising, but the things that the book does right are basic and safe. Harmless. I could really only recommend this book if you’ve got nothing else that’s flipping your cookie at the moment.

What Went Wrong With Chappie

chappie movie poster

Okay, let’s talk about Chappie.

Since I saw its trailer, I’ve been through months of indecision about whether or not to put it on my Netflix Queue. I love robot movies, but reviews were terribly mixed – one YouTuber put it on his best of 2015 list and another put it on his worst list. When one critic called it a combination of “Short Circuit” and “Robocop”, I couldn’t say no anymore.

Overall, it’s a highly flawed movie. The concept isn’t original, but it’s not a cliche. The story has peaks and valleys, like it should, but it’s overshadowed by hammy actors. I can’t help but see it as a replication of “Short Circuit”. Maybe because that’s my favorite movie of all time.

But even if it wasn’t all the parallels are there. There’s the same “learning to walk” moments, not saying words correctly, seeing death for the first time, being fascinated by TV, an Indian programmer who’s his “dad”, a “break the woobie” scene, a problem with the battery running out, being duped into committing a crime, then going psycho when he learns about it. They both even get covered in graffiti.

You can tell how plausible the movie is going to treat this concept by the “creation” scene. Our kid genius is the lead programmer for cop robots (of whom Chappie is), but he’s trying to create an AI in his spare time, drinking Red Bull fetched by his proto-bots. Then there’s a montage of him in his hacker cave, typing and compiling — action! screens! mayhem! excitement! beeping! No one will be seated during the programming scene!

And the only way he can tell it’s “done” is if it passes 100% of some arbitrary test. Isn’t the real test of intelligence something only humans could measure? Isn’t that the point of making it? And at the end, the whole of consciousness can be contained in a single .DAT file.

This is a movie made of two parts. One is the evolution of learning. This is something we’ve seen before in every robot story: Star Trek’s Data, Pinocchio, Terminator. They all have that “cute learning” scene where they look around at stuff and inadvertently break it. He gets a book and gets all “Dis is Chappie’s book?” He accidentally pours out milk and freaks out. He starts imitating He-Man on TV. It would be just a rehash of “Short Circuit 2” if it wasn’t for the second part: Gangsta Life.

Instead of Johnny 5 Chappie being raised by a kind-hearted animal lover, he’s captured/held hostage by two street punks (a girl and a guy). This causes conflict between what his creator wants and what the punks want — a cop robot in their pocket. (And I’m not even talking about how freaky they look/act or their grinding music.) The “mom” is more nurturing, but all the “dad” wants is something he can use to steal cars and make heists. He acts like Shredder in “TMNT II: The Secret of the Ooze”.

tokka rahzar teenage mutant ninja turtles 2 secret of the ooze
Babies! They are… babies!

This is where it loses the audience. There’s too much dissonance between the culture that’s enthralled by AI and the one interested in gangsta life. I applaud the creator for trying to put the two together — I love mixing genres like this — but it just doesn’t work. You can’t combine “Menace II Society” with “Bicentennial Man”. It doesn’t work because their goal is to turn Chappie into a jerk. He becomes like the bullies in high school, acting tough and doing what anyone tells him. Plus he gets lots of other annoying characteristics, like a faux-South African accent (which sounds more Jamaican to me).

And then there’s the “my god, not all humans are friendly!?” scene, where “daddy” drops him in gangland territory and leaves him to get tortured. You’d think if he wanted to get rid of him he could have thought of something more profitable. But this is so we can have our “break the cutie” moment. In “Short Circuit”, it’s enough to make a man cry, but in “Chappie”, it’s so forced and telegraphed it’s laughable. There isn’t enough time for us to fall in love with him before this happens. Granted, Johnny Five had the benefit of a previous movie, but if you haven’t earned it, you can’t play it.

Who am I supposed to sympathize with here? I know it’s supposed to be Chappie, but you’re not going to accomplish that when he’s talking too fast and continually wiping his non-existent nose like he has a coke problem (because that’s a thing gangstas do, apparently). Certainly not the gang-bangers. The Indian programmer? He doesn’t have enough personality or backstory to make me care, not even with Hugh Jackman punking his ass. I thought Jackman was a good villain until the movie browbeats us when he throws down the programmer on his desk AT WORK AND HOLDS A GUN TO HIS HEAD. What company wouldn’t fire him after that? Is this a South African thing?

I can’t discount Chappie’s design either. It’s not that he’s all CG. That never bothered me — I never thought that Chappie wasn’t there. As I understand it, Sharlto Copley did the mocap in-scene, like Andy Serkis. So the fact that the acting is fine is also its downfall — Chappie moves too humanly. Too fluidly. Chappie is shaped and moves like so close to a humanoid that, from a distance, he could be easily mistaken for a person in a helmet.

Whereas Johnny Five was intentionally designed to look like a clunky robot. Even though he was cute, you could never mistake him for a human. And that was the point of the story. His “tankness” affirms his original purpose for battle and violence, which makes his changeover all the more poignant. Chappie moves like a human who was rotoscoped. Which is what he was.

Robot movies are meant to give the audience a renewed appreciation of life by showing it through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time. And how important free will by showing someone designed not to have any. But none of this gets covered. Chappie acts like a curious toddler, calling his kidnappers “mommy” and “daddy”, even when they abuse him. His journey is marred by the ridiculous gang members and his desire to be like them. The ending provokes some agonizingly recondite philosophical questions when human consciousness is transferred into a robot body. Doesn’t anyone have anything to say about that? We now have a way to make people immortal and bring them back from the dead? No one wants to acknowledge that the Singularity just happened?

oprah you get a car
You get a robot body! You get a robot body! Everyone gets a robot body!

From a movie-maker’s perspective, it’s just kind of sad — taking these themes and corrupting them with a comic mess of “blings” and “Chappie no crimes”. I just want my Short Circuit 3.

P.S. I want to see Chappie vs. the District 9 aliens. Can that be Neill Blomkamp’s next movie?

The Books I Read: September – October 2014

bookshelf books

I Shall Wear Midnight (Tiffany Aching #4) by Terry Pratchett

The last of the Tiffany Aching books and an excellent ending to the series. Besides the first, I think this might be my favorite book of the four. Tiffany has finished her “apprenticeship” and is now the resident witch of her hometown. This means she’s taking care of the community the way true witches do — helping the sick who have no one to take care of them, easing the elderly to the next stage of life, fixing domestic disputes so no one knows she’s really doing it. She’s confronting anti-witches and land-grabbers and old fundamentalist ladies who simply don’t agree with what she does.

We see a grown up Tiffany here, making and dealing with being an adult. She no longer has the wisdom and guidance of her fellow witches, so her mistakes are a result of a lack of experience (and a sharp tongue). But she does have the wee free men in her corner. You see her finally deal with some of the relationships that other books have let linger.

This book also borrows more from Pratchett’s existing universe, as Tiffany travels to Ankh-Morpork.  This chunk in the middle seems to be catering to Discworld die-hards. It harms a little of the overall narrative, but the rest of the story makes up for it.

Unlike the last two, this one doesn’t have a big bad or a problematic witch teacher. You get to see Tiffany being Tiffany, rough and gruff, practical but still scared. All in all, it’s a very satisfying conclusion, closer to the magic of the first book.

Lock In by John Scalzi

Lock In is Scalzi’s most serious science fiction novel yet, and one you’ve got to pay attention to. It’s got a lot of heady issues. Not to say his other books, like Old Man’s War, don’t bring up existential puzzles. But they usually make up for it with whiz bang sci-fi gizmos or cynical humor. This one, no. It’s essentially a police procedural that involves semi-artificial beings.

At its core, this is a robot story, but without artificial intelligence. A disease has rendered a significant portion of the populace catatonic, but new technology allows their brains to venture out in walking automatons. The Hadens (Haden’s Syndrome is the name of the disease, and becomes the identifier of people with it) have created their own culture, like the deaf and handicapped community.  But the government funding that kept them provided for is about to be rescinded. That means a lot of opportunities for private companies, civil rights leaders, and millions of people who had been getting a free lunch wondering what’s going to happen to them. This is all narrated to the reader through Chris, a Haden who’s new on the FBI force.

It does what a good novel should do, not make answers but bring up questions, much like Gaiman’s novels. But unlike Gaiman’s novels, this one reaches a satisfying, concrete solution. I think the murder mystery was definitely the way to go. It makes a lot of the head-wrapping around the Haden culture (like people who hitch a ride in other people’s bodies) easier to understand and a plot that keeps moving forward.

It’s not my favorite Scalzi of all time, but it’s pretty good. The world-building is at an intermediate level, and the characters suffer from his famous “blank slates, no development, no sympathy” that his other books have. But the fast and intriguing plot will keep you wondering what happens next.

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

This book is not for me. I was on board for the first few pages, but I have a hard time getting into story where the main conflict is “do I choose this boy or that boy”. I just can’t sympathize with any character caught up in a dilemma of riches. Maybe this a thing girls go through, maybe it’s a problem they like to read about. But it makes me want to smack them all in the face. Especially in this case, when the drama isn’t even that good.

It has been three months since Lennie’s sister died. Lennie always lived her life gladly in the shadow of her more exuberant sister, including vicarious romance with Toby, her sister’s boyfriend. Now she’s insecure about her feelings for Toby and the new hippie kid who just moved in and has “hella good hair” so he wants him to come on over and shake, shake, shake.

The sister thing reminded me a little bit of Frozen, but that’s the only part that appealed to me. Like others of its genre, the plot is driven forward by misunderstandings, refusals to listen, misinterpretations, and other petty obstacles that could be solved with thirty seconds of talking.

The style is full of trite teenspeak and quotations way beyond their years (Lennie constantly reads Wuthering Heights — isn’t that about a mentally abusive man who marries his beau’s daughter? — but oh precious she is that she reads something so adult). At one point, it’s revealed that the sister was pregnant at the time of her death, but no one raises a hand about how they, as teenagers, expected to raise it, earn money, get a house. Everyone was too entranced by the tragic baby romance.

This is for people who un-ironically enjoy the romances you see in Hannah Montana and The Bachelor. There are essentially no stakes, and the characters are too hippie-dippie to be realistic.

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart is a book about what happens when superheroes stop being polite and start getting real. Essentially they all become supervillains, taking over cities and ruling with an iron a steel fist. In fact, the entire city’s been turned into steel and plunged into darkness.

This is the story of David, a boy with a mission against the super who killed his father. He joins with La Resistance, eager to show his skills and the encyclopedia of knowledge he’s been gathering all his life in preparation for revenge.

This book has a lot of action, and I’ve never been a fan of action scenes in novels. The mediums just don’t translate. You don’t see novelizations of The Fast and the Furious (and if there are, don’t tell me, I don’t want to know). But the strengths of the book are the straightforward style and the concrete characters. Each member of La Resistance has a personality and a look (for some reason they remind me of Team Fortress 2 characters). The POV from David’s perspective helps keep the story grounded. For instance, instead of epic battles you lose track of, you see David’s role in it all.

My two disappointments were that it seems overly oriented to a male audience (trope of female character that exists to be girl who doesn’t like him at first but once he proves himself changes her tune). Lots of cars and guns and superheroes and action scenes. The other is that the reason people with powers become evil is intrinsically linked to their powers, not simply a result of absolute power corrupting absolutely.

But the energy and overall fun factor of the concept are going to keep me reading the rest of the series.

Fly on the Wall: How One Girl Saw Everything by E. Lockhart

Doesn’t the title sound like a Lifetime movie?

It’s short, but doesn’t have very much plot. It’s supposed to be about a girl who Franz Kafka’s into a fly, so she can know what boys are really like, what they talk about, what goes on when girls aren’t there turning them into monkey-idiots. The thing is, it doesn’t seem like her big problem is understanding boys, but getting people to understand her. She goes to an arts high school where her teacher frowns on her refusal to branch from a comic book style. Her parents spring a divorce on her, then her mom leaves her daughter behind while she goes on a week-long cruise (this makes it convenient to be a fly for a week). She’s not boy-crazy, like I’d expect out of a plot like this.

It’s better than Cycler insofar as learning about the gendered Other. But like Cycler, it doesn’t go as far with the idea as it could, and uses too much melodrama. The titular fly on the wall literally doesn’t leave the locker room, and there is a lot more to teen males than what happens there. It’s like studying polar bear behavior only in the zoo. There’s a significant portion of the text dedicated to discovering boys’ penises, which she constantly calls gherkins. Is this a northeastern thing?  I’ve NEVER heard anyone use the word gherkin, least of all as much as she does.

But it’s easy and short. I think you’ll get something out of it, as long as you’re not looking for much.

Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross

I talked some about this book already. It’s just not a story for me. It’s for complex people who like complex stories. Critical acclaim? Award winner? Maybe, but I just couldn’t stand it. It’s for people who like Dune, Ringworld, and other “essential science fiction”. If you can appreciate that, fine. But every Charles Stross I’ve tried to read has left me bored. I guess this isn’t my place.

Boy Proof by Cecil Castellucci

Nothing special at all. And in fact, kinda boring. It’s just a series of things that happened, and the title makes it sound more interesting than it is. She’s not boy proof, she’s just an anti-social asshole. She’s Miss Independent until some cute guy transfers schools. Of course. But this takes place in Hollywood, so Miss Independent has the added weirdness of mimicking a girl from a Matrix pastiche, so much so that she dresses like her and wants to be called by that character’s name (which is “Egg”). And this character is described as looking kinda like Ilia from Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

ilia star trek motion picture

She’s a bitch for no reason, and combine this with the weirdness of living with a mother who’s an old sci-fi starlet and a dad who works in special f/x makeup. I learned more about growing up in Tinseltown than anything else. That includes the character and her motivations.

And her change comes unprovoked. It feels like “The Girl Who Became a Beatle” — a forced idea that has nothing to do with the title concept. At least “The Sky is Everywhere” had style. This just has an unlikeable character being unlikeable. I would have rather heard the story of a likable girl with those kind of parents doing a Hollywood movie thing (kinda like my opinion of Landline needing more TV writing).

The Night Sessions by Ken McLeod

Also mentioned in my article with Saturn’s Children. I heard it had an interesting take on robots, but it never got to the robots. It was about a very thick built world around politics and religion, two topics I cannot stand to read about. I’m just not interested in material like archaic religion or the U.K. or the murder of a bishop when Christianity has become a niche religion (I assume.  I really didn’t understand much of this book).

It just wasn’t entertaining for me. It was more work than it was fun. It had no characters. The big ideas were the characters (which I find to be a trapping of science fiction that keeps it from being regarded as seriously as literary fiction). There are just other books I’d rather read.

Why Am I So Damn Fascinated By Five Nights at Freddy’s?

five nights at freddy's fazbear jumpscare

I think it got popular because of the Let’s Plays. It’s always fun to watch people freak out. Bill Cosby said when a person is scared, that’s the only time they’re really being themself. I’ve been watching Let’s Play’s, reading the entire FN@F wiki, playing the memes.

Yet I don’t own the game, and don’t plan to. It’s all jumpscares. I hate jumpscares for two reasons. They’re cheap and meaningless ways to control the audience. And I hate the way jumpscares make me feel, like a weak little kitten, manipulated, afraid of everything. Just like elementary school. Yes, I have a double standard. Deal with it.*

So why am I so damn fascinated with it? Maybe because it’s Halloween. But let’s take a look at why it appeals, at least, to me.

Robots – If you’ve read some of my book reviews, you’ll see that I complain a lot about how the robots act too human. Not here. They are nice and robotty. Full of gears, wires, crossbars. This is great because they are in that space where the uncanny valley peaks its highest and falls to its lowest. In fact, I’ve seen graphs that show “teddy bear” at the top and “zombie” at the valley.

Their faces move separate from their eyes, if they have eyes… or faces. Warped or missing body parts (like Foxy). Limb joints that expose the endoskeleton. They move faster than they should, but you never see them doing so. If you read the story, you see that they refer to Bonnie as a “he”.  These things are just so awfully off you can’t look away. Even their sounds are uncanny — slowed down girl laughing or raptor-like screeching that cuts out. I think Chica scares me the most, because she’s got that second set of teeth in her mouth.

Fear and Dread – FN@F’s encompasses all ways to scare someone — the gross-out, the startle, the sense of dread. You have basically no control, no agency in this game. You’re a helpless babe with no arms or legs. All you can do is watch on cameras and maybe shut the door (a mechanic which comes with cost).

In all horror movies, it’s not the jump scare that gets you, it’s the part before that. The dread that something is going to happen, you don’t know what, but you can’t do a damn thing about it. The same held true for Resident Evil. The scary part is not that you’re in a mansion with zombies. It’s that there are more of them than you have bullets, and you don’t know where you can get more.

Also, claustrophobia. You can’t leave the room. The perspectives you are given are grainy, colorless, and fixed. It’s got key elements that are always winners — the creepy doll, the painting that follows you with its eyes, unbearable silence, fear of mental illness (with the hallucinations), and various kinds of jump scares.

A Unique Setting – As far as I know, there’s never been a horror story set at a Showbiz Pizza. There’ve been similar scenarios, like a circus, a funhouse, that are tangential. It’s the new Friday the 13th. Before we had young innocent summer camp, young innocent babysitting, young innocent slumber parties. Now we’ve got young innocent pizza-oriented family entertainment centers.  But Freddy Fazbear’s Pizza hits on that unique niche of nostalgia that only eighties kids like me can understand and appreciate. Plus it’s pretty universal to all of us who are now thirty-year-old gamers.

A Thin Backstory – Any narrative is presented though a mysterious “phone guy” to give you your tutorial. I still don’t get how it works — did he pre-record all five in a row? Does he work the 6 – midnight shift right before you enter? If so, don’t you pass each other on the way in? How did the fifth night get recorded? Are these on an answering machine? A voice mail? If so, why does it ring? Is he in a different room? Where is the phone?

Besides all that, there are the purposeful “hints” of something wrong, just enough to give a sense of “offness”. The “Bite of ’87” that phone guy mentions never gets further explanation. There are posted articles about the the animatronics’ smell of decaying flesh and pus, the serial killer who posed as Freddy Fazbear, and the five children who were never found. You are never given any more than suggestions that they exist and may be the cause of this “haunting”.

And here’s Phone Guy to tell you it’s all fine, nothing to worry about, it’s all in your head. Yeah, you might get horribly mangled, but if you play dead, that might stave off the killer robots in this Chuck E. Cheese.

That means it’s great fun to interpret all the missing elements, analyse and add your own story. Trade theories and suggest alternatives. It’s what smart people on the Internet do.  People have gotten so desperate they’re making the cupcake on the desk into a character.

Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek. No food establishment could exist with such things and still be in business. No contract that says “we have ninety days until we need to report you missing” could legally exist. There’s no rules sign that says “no pooping on the floor”. These robots have the ability to be “free-roaming” in 198X, but we still don’t have a robot that can climb stairs.

So take that for what it’s worth — the campiness of a eighties horror Blockbuster Rental. It’s become an instant, quick-play classic. Does that mean it’s bright flame that will burn quickly. I’m afraid it might be — there’s not much to the game besides atmosphere and jumpscares. I think more of the innovating setting and aesthetic than the gameplay itself. But time will tell.

*Remember those Flash thingies that masqueraded as images, that you had to find the differences or stare for a while and something would happen, then the Exorcist would pop up and scream? Fucking hated those.

The Books I Read: May – June 2014

bookshelf books

vN by Madeline Ashby

In the first chapter, a five-year-old child robot eats her estranged grandmother, python-style, and goes from kindergartner to adult in an instant from the additional biomass.

Good opening, and there are some interesting WTF circumstances (like robots were created to fill out the Earth after the rapture) but the rest stagnates. Once again, it’s a book where the robots don’t act like robots. They act like people. The only difference is they know they were artificially created. But other than that, they eat, they fall in love, they procreate. You can’t tell the difference. The interesting things are just background — they don’t come into play with the plot and don’t even make plausible sense in the scheme of the world.

The story is about programming as parenting. The problem is it felt more like a summer blockbuster action piece with chase sequences and romances that don’t blossom until the end, and for me, those just don’t work in a book format. It was a sludge to get through. It’s a promising idea, and it does use some tropes like the existence of smart “gray goo” and robots in/as families in new ways. I can see this appealing to those few who liked A.I. and Brazil.

Finding Laura Buggs by Stanley Gordon West

This is a YA historical fiction novel, a rare breed. It takes place in 1950’s Minnesota, the time when all those MST3K shorts and movies take place. The main plot is about a high school senior who just found out she’s adopted (really a black market baby) and wants to find her birth parents. I don’t know why any adopted kid would want to do that because there’s no way it won’t be a disappointment (there’s a reason they were given up), but I’m not adopted so I can’t say. Maybe I’m just made it’s a common plot catalyst. In between sleuthings, she visits an old folks home, goes out with her friends doing things you saw in American Graffiti, laments about the effects of war, and generally putzes around.

I feel like the story did a lot of pandering to Minnesota native. It makes sure to mention that it’s the Snelling streetcar, not just the streetcar that everyone knows and no one needs to mention by name. Also, it takes a long time to get events moving. The first third of the novel, Laura Buggs is trying to get info out of the ninety-year-old lawyer that served as the intermediary. After this she learns that old people are actually kind of cool, like in Recess episode 112 (57a).

On the other hand, it also made me wish I was there, eating chocolate malts and riding streetcars without parents to helicopter. It’s an enjoyable read, but I don’t feel particularly satisfied after it. There’s a real disconnect between the happy optimism of the first 75% and the whip-turn ending. I think it’s audience is more for Minnesota senior citizens who will appreciate the old times and a good mystery.

Kendra by Coe Booth

In the ghetto, if a boy does anal sex on you, it means he’s ready for a relationship.

This feels like Pride and Prejudice in the PJ’s. This was another of John Green’s recommendations of great books that aren’t bestsellers, but I’m not sure what he found in this one. It reads like a generic YA romance but with the trappings of so many early 90’s “gangsta” movies. Kind of. The main conflict is that Kendra’s mother is back after her post-graduate degree, and Kendra’s hoping she’ll finally take her away from the neighborhood and the strict-ass grandmother who’s been raising her for sixteen years.

But the bigger crux of the book is her boy crushes and her sexually acting out as a result of this negligence. Kendra’s better than that, but the past is repeating herself as she waffles between the nice guy and the bad boy player, as cliche dictates. Of course, as far as generic YA romance goes, it ends there. Kendra pulls away from sex with the bad boy at the last second, cautious of losing her virginity (for disciplinary and moral reasons). He doesn’t force himself or respect her wishes or grow resentful — he’s “going to need something”. That devolves into booty calls in the closet after school leading to the butt sex so she can remain “chaste”.

And after all that, the fudge packer confesses affectionate feelings for her. And they start going out together. Is this a realistic scenario? Yes. Maturity rides up fast in risky situations. Does it send a good message to American youth? No, it does not. I’m not going to say that a writer can’t write what he/she wants, but I’m a believer that books “teach you that dragons can be killed”. This moral seems to be, if you give up the rough enough, love is just around the corner.

The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff

The most John Greeny of the John Green recommendations that I’ve gone through so far. It seems like the subject manner is mild-mannered, but in fact, it’s awfully intense. To the point where I wanted to reach through the book and strangle some characters.

It takes place in the 70’s-80’s, following a young Jewish boy, the middle child in a very Jewish family, growing from kid to adult. His father is some kind of theater-director/entertainer and his mother is/was a SAHM until she wants to go to college. And there’s an older brother who’s his best buddy, but grows more rebellious and treats him like an older brother does. Kinda like The Wonder Years without the Vietnam backdrop.

But the big character is the father — the overbearing, Woody Allen-loving, temper-tantrum-having, overall-horrible human being father. Example: the very first scene is a moving-in party, where he drags every member of his family out in front of everyone for huge embarrassing introductions, like singing and dancing monkeys, showing them off like part of an act. Example: his son has a learning disability, but the father won’t accept that his son just isn’t trying hard enough. He sings praises of him to other people, but when the doors are closed, he rants and raves like a sarcastic, insulting baby. His father goes ballistic as the son keeps screwing up the Bar Mitzvah thank you cards with each try, because of the pressure. This causes an intense blow-up in the middle of the book where the father finally gets some people standing up to him.

The back of the book makes it seems like a dramedy, like “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. It’s not. It’s about a dysfunctional family, and a mentally abusive father, combined with some coming-of-age and Jewish themes. It’s better than just “drunk dad beats his kid” a la Radio Flyer.

The End Games by T. Michael Martin

This is the book with the “Everything not saved will be lost — Nintendo message” epigraph. It sounded promising, but did not deliver. The beginning was better than anything after it. Then it just becomes typical zombie story with typical “humans are the real enemy” plot. The characters are stock zombie tropes.

It’s about a teenager and his little brother trying to survive the apocalypse. But the teenager has to frame the experience as a game, because the little brother is only five and will freak out if he thinks his life is in danger. Their goal to find their mother fades away after you get through the first act. On one hand, it’s nice to have the caretaker relationship between brothers. On the other hand, the book is mostly about survival, not plot points, like The Boy at the End of the World.

I was hoping the video game metaphor extended through the book, but it doesn’t. It acts more as a hook, and becomes weedy partway through. The book is really just a horror novel.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan

I don’t usually include comic books/graphic novels in these reviews, but I’m trying to catch up in this scene, and there’s a lot of good stuff I missed. This is one of them.

It’s an apocalypse scenario, not superheroes or science fiction. Simply put, all the men on Earth suddenly die, except for one. What happens next is so intriguing as he travels the world and sees how it copes. Simply put, it’s not all nurturing and caring. If men disappeared, the world would not become a haven. You still deal with Mad Max biker gangs, religious zealots, and desperate civilians.

I love this story. It’s heart-wrenching and realistic. It has characters, it has plot points. It doesn’t answer all the questions. It’s not about finding the goal, it’s about the journey to it, and what’s learned along the way. It’s about gender dynamics and group politics and what people do when their backs are against the wall, and the best thing of all — people solve things through cleverness and determination, not brute force.

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome by John Scalzi

Scalzi released this as a companion novella to his upcoming book. You can buy it for a few dollars from Amazon or Nook or get it from for free, which I did.

It’s not so much a piece of fiction as a simple timeline of the backstory up to when I presume Lock In starts. It’s kinda dry. It feels more interested in imparting information than creating a story or memorable characters. Like Scalzi took his story bible and turned it into a novella. Which I don’t blame him for — I’d do the same thing. Good promotional material.

Unfortunately, I don’t know how necessary it is to read this if you plan to read Lock In. Scalzi says it isn’t, but it feels like there’s a lot of key details in this that lead up to something. But that something (people being able to enter others’ bodies and control them) may or may not be relevant. On its own though, it feels skippable.

Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper by Diablo Cody

Hmph, another book with a Minnesota setting. A vastly different subject matter, but still…

Diablo Cody (the person who wrote Juno and fine-tuned The Evil Dead remake) displays her humble beginnings with a memoir of her experience as an outsider in the live-action sex industry. I’ve read books from people inside, but they’ve grown bitter and resentful of the field. I read those as research for Black Hole Son, but I should have read this one first. I was afraid it would be too perky and positive, and I wanted gritty.

But this book is neither, it’s somewhere in-between. She writes with the same style in Juno, meaning quirky, creative metaphors that take sixty words to illustrate. I’ve never had to use my eReader’s dictionary function so much. Half the content is similes about her situation. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy them, but at a certain point, it’s ridiculous. But damned if it doesn’t get the point across in an entertaining way.

Some people criticized her for being too filthy or see the book as validation for her career choice. I don’t. I found it page-turning, and more informative than the other stripper books I’ve read (there seems to be an astonishing lack of good books about the sex industry). I know she didn’t become a stripper so she could write a book, but her motivations seem a little ambiguous. Still, she proves that she’s more together than lots of the other working girls.

I liked how she was able to examine differences at each kind of strip club, from high end to low end to sex store peep shows. And she talks about the girls she met, the boredom and thrills, and how her personal life affected her stripper life. It’s not strictly anthropological. It’s a little more like a LiveJournal made into a book. It’s sharp and witty, and even without the Minnesota ties I recognized, I would have enjoyed it. It reminds me of pre-Lena Dunham.

Vegan Vampire Vaginas by Wol-vriey

The biggest problem with this book is that it’s more about the sex than the story. It has bizarro elements, but really it’s just sex. Sex, sex, sex. Mostly bizarre sex — transsexual sex, vagina in a hand, living dildos. The plot stops as it takes multiple chapters to describe everyone’s sex life between days. If you’re into that, fine. It’s not the sex that bothers me — I’m a hard man to offend — but it has nothing to do with the story. Nothing moves forward.

Besides that, the characters don’t have distinguishable personalities. I can’t tell one name from the other. They play roles, not personalities. It’s like character soup, so it’s hard to figure out who wants what and where the story is going.

It’s like a portal fantasy, but I’m never quite sure of what the goal is supposed to be. For example, the main character is brought to the king because he (or his other personality, I dunno) knows where some stolen gold is. But the first thing they ask the truth-telling vagina-in-the-hand has nothing to do with this. It’s not lazily written, but it seems the plot is missing fundamentals of story-telling – characterization of the lead, character wants something, goes through obstacles to get it.

The Books I Read: November – December 2013 (Part 2)

bookshelf books

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett

The second in the “Tiffany Aching” series. I read and really enjoyed “The Wee Free Men”. But I have to be honest: this one is not as good. Maybe because there’s not as much wee free men. No Granny Aching. Maybe because it suffers from “sequel syndrome” where, since her first goal was already accomplished, now the story struggles with achievements. It’s about Tiffany living with the witches, and now she has to go to “witch school”. She meets colorful characters, but suffers from annoyances and problems. Rather than something to achieve, to reach for.

On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

I paged through it on my way out of the library. The first page I contacted had a diagram of words with accent tick marks. I thought, oh boy, this might be full of advice that’s obsolete or nonsensical or useless. And I was pretty much right.

I’m pretty sure John Scalzi has never done stress tick marks on his work. The accents of words have never even crossed my mind. I change things around if they sound funny or off, but diagramming is not a factor.

The content of this book is too old, too archaic. It’s concerned about making art, not a story. Gardner frequently cites Nabokov and James Joyce as role models. Do you know how many people hate James Joyce? His own wife told him “why can’t you write books people can read?” It says nothing about writing commercial fiction, just post-modern literary fiction. Ick.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

I’m not sure what to think about this one. This is the first Kurt Vonnegut I’ve ever read, and I was expecting something revolutionary, given the way people talk about him. It’s actually just sort of weird. Chapters are bite-sized. Characters and events fall in weird ways.

Everyone says Vonnegut writes satire, but I didn’t feel that here. Maybe the book is out of time. It did seem to have relevant themes, like science out of control, atomic bombs. Those were current of the day. And I’m willing to say that the themes were lost on me. But not because the book is bad/weird, but because I’m an idiot. It could be that it’s more straightforward than I was led to believe, and I’m searching for something that’s not there.

I do plan to read Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe then I’ll have a more complete picture of Vonnegut.

Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista

I gave it 50 pages, so it’s not like I didn’t try. I just wasn’t interested enough to continue. It’s written in French by an Italian guy, translated into English. So that’s an obstacle right there.

After that, I just didn’t care about the characters enough. The main character is grumpy and friendless. He gets a vineyard and hates everybody. There, that’s the story in a nutshell.

When the main character got shot at, and I didn’t even notice, I knew that was the time to stop. I just couldn’t see how the book could bring me back around to care.

The Girl Who Became a Beatle by Dave Taylor

WARNING: This book does not contain The Beatles. This is more like “The Girl Who Became a Pop Diva”. She gets wish fulfillment for no real reason, has typical band problems, wants to be a leader and no one likes her for it. She starts getting bossy, but experiences no consequences. She starts out liking a boy, but then life becomes too perfect. In her alternate universe, she has a boyfriend from “The O.C.”, creative control, a $12 million mansion, a life in L.A. instead of podunk midwest, Grammys, sellout crowds, and fame & fortune. Nothing goes wrong for her.

I wanted this to be about The Beatles. I thought it would be about a teen experiencing their history, growing up in the fifties, struggling from dive bars to the Ed Sullivan show to Beatlemania and drugs and Yoko and the break-up. Like John or Paul’s POV but transformed into current day YA form.

Instead, she just takes their songs, which makes no sense. Songs written in the fifties have no place in today’s context. Can you imagine “I Want to Hold Your Hand” going up against Ke$ha and Lady Gaga? The way it’s written the Beatles are just placeholders. It could have been any band — Nirvana, Green Day, Metallica.

And the ending is not earned. She spends 90% of her time living an awesome rock star life, and there’s no evidence that she wants a change back, or that a change back would be good for her. And of course, she does. Because its expected of her. Gotta have that Disney ending.

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

A set of disconnected stories about humans trying to debug artificial intelligence. This books is more about ideas that turned into stories. Putting a face onto potential problems with thinking robots. And it doesn’t gel with what I know about computers. I don’t believe that we’d develop robots that move before they can output verbal commands (we already have that technology in Siri). Or robots that get in a tizzy over weakly-worded commands versus strongly-emphasized Robotic Laws. Logic just doesn’t work like that.

I know everyone gives Isaac Asimov props, and I’ll be the first to contribute to that coffer. But I just don’t see how this book helps my understanding of robots and a future with them.