Childhood’s End

childhood's endChildhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

First, a major SPOILER ALERT. In these reviews, I do discuss the plot, but I generally try to stay away from spoilers or giving away the whole ending. For this one, though, I’m not at all sure how to discuss it without delving into some of the purpose of the book, so spoilers lie beneath. I’d be sorrier about that if the book weren’t 66 years old.)

While most of Arthur C. Clarke’s books take place in the medium-to-far-distant future, Childhood’s End begins in the mid-20th century. Humanity receives a surprise visit from a different planetary civilization who call themselves the Overlords. They claim they are only there to help humanity better themselves, but refuse to show themselves and only deal directly with a few humans. There is a great deal of skepticism among the population that we’re dealing with a “To Serve Man” situation here, but it eventually becomes clear that the intentions of the Overlords really are to help humanity, putting an end to hunger, disease, warfare, and even animal cruelty and ushering in an era of peace and prosperity.

We eventually come to learn that the Overlords are here to help humanity as we make our next evolutionary leap, to join numerous other civilizations who have made a similar transition, from beings of the physical world to pure mental energy. This does come to pass within a generation of the Overlords coming to Earth, with first a few and eventually all children making this transition, and there being no ‘human’ children in existence, as all people under a certain age make this leap. Humanity on Earth dies out, and we end with these energy balls we cannot comprehend joining their brethren on a faraway planet.

I found this a very strange book, and was surprised to learn not only how well received it was at the time, but that many more recent readers seem to love the book as well. I generally look around at other reviews before I write one of these, and many people apparently love this book, and the creativity of thought and one thought experiment of how we could evolve. What partly surprised me there is that my own copy of the book, which is a few decades old (bought for $.25 at the Library Book sale, obviously), included a disclaimer and a bit of a disavowal of the book from Clarke. Apparently, he was very deeply into the idea of psychic powers, ESP and telekinesis at the time and had written that while bit with the Overlords may be out there he really thought that this evolution to pure mind was one possibility for humanity. However, he had since learned how little evidence there was for such things, and how much he had believed before was from frauds, and was now keeping this book as pure fiction but was embarrassed by his previous beliefs. I’m sure that colored my own perception of the book, and I know it made some of the reviews extolling his creativity seem a bit, well, incorrect.

Plus, while I recognize that eventually all things must end, as someone who dedicates their real world work to humanity not ending itself, it was hard to read that part as hopeful, even if it means our children will be bouncing balls of light on a weird planet somewhere.

To sum up, while apparently, I’m in the minority, this book just left me feeling weird and unsettled all around, but not in a good way like 2001 or the other books do. Just a strange piece of work, and one that doesn’t feel like it fits with what I look for when I read some Arthur C. Clarke.

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Annual Book Review!

Another year come and gone already. It hardly seems possible. As xkcd has put it, I’m somehow always surprised by the passage of time, even though it’s literally the most predictable thing in the universe.  I did pretty well on my reading this year, 54 books, which I think is respectable, what with the three small humans I have to keep alive taking up most of my time. (That 54 does not include the many times I read Dragons Love Tacos 2 or Spot Goes to the Beach). As for the writing, well, I started out strong, and then life got in the way. But the good news is it’s time for me to make New Year’s resolutions again, so this year, for real, I’ll write enough reviews to keep up with my reading habit. Below, a full list of my grown-up reading for 2018, with links to my full reviews where available. And be warned, apparently my reading list ended up being pretty depressing this year.

Mort, Terry Pratchett—Death trains an apprentice in this typically witty addition to the Discworld universe. One of my favorites in the series, and I do enjoy the Discworld Death, he’s one of my favorite characters.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, Katherine Howe—Just a fun bit of mystery and suspense, but I really enjoyed it and it was quite well researched for a book about witches. And I liked some of the minor twists at the end. Great light read to pick up.

Meet Me in Atlantis, Mark Adams—This book is hilarious and informative and I highly recommend it. I know you think you know about the Atlantis story, but I guarantee you’ve barely scratched the surface. This is a great tour of the world and theories about Atlantis, Plato, numerology, and almost everything in between.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John Le Carré—No one is ever going to suggest John Le Carré as a happy, feel-good read, but it sticks with a person, that’s for sure. He’s a fine writer, though, and I have a couple other books on my to be read shelf for when I start feeling too optimistic about people.

Woman in White, Wilkie Collins—I am outraged that I didn’t know about this book before. One of the earliest suspense novels, written by a contemporary of Charles Dickens, this is a fantastic book. Amazing, strong female characters, great twists and turns, and a thrill to read.

The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs—A tale of what happens when a man decides to try to follow all the rules of the Bible—including the stuff about no mixed fabrics, never telling a lie, and being sure never to touch a menstruating woman. Very tongue in cheek but surprisingly compassionate, too. I read this while listening to the OMGWTFBIBLE podcast, and they complement each other well.

The Planets, Dava Sobel—I loved Galileo’s Daughter and Longitude, which are very readable but still standard non-fiction, well-researched scientific tales, so I wasn’t prepared for the poetry and myth in this ode to the planets. Beautiful book, though.

My Life with the Saints, James Martin, SJ—A walk through and short tale of some of Fr. Martin’s favorite saints. A great piece on the importance of saints in Catholicism, and of not too challenging but not too light spiritual reading.

Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel—First of all, the Holocaust is a horrific event that needs to be treated as its own thing if you’re writing about it, don’t use it as a setting to work out your own feelings on art and whatever. Secondly, we already have a book that’s “The Holocaust, but with Animals.” It’s Maus, and no one is going to top it, so don’t try.

Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith–Oh, hey, it’s the book that took me over a month and almost derailed all my reading goals. Lots of writing on laws around pasture that drag on, but still really glad I read this. It’s much more down on monopolies, the merchant class, and allowing policies to be set by the wealthy, than you’d think from the way it’s discussed today.

Guadalajara, Quim Monzó—A very strange short story collection. One or two sort of stood out to me, but for the most part I’m not sure I really got it.

Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace, Kent Nerburn—A reflection on how to live out the prayer of St. Francis, this one disappointed me. It was far more Christian self-improvement than spiritual or religious writing.

Artemis, Andy Weir—Weir’s sophomore novel. I liked this book more than a lot of the critics. It’s not nearly as good as The Martian, but it’s still a fun enough novel. He just seems to know how to write the one character, but that’s never been a problem for hard sci-fi before.

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert—An accessible and detailed description of how we are destroying life on earth and making the planet’s ecosystems and atmosphere unrecognizable to most species. The way we have transformed transportation, ecosystems and climate are like nothing any species has ever seen, and we are a cataclysm on par with a meteor strike.

Encounters with the Archdruid, John McPhee—Tales of ‘archdruid’ David Brower, the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club, an an ardent protector of nature, in conversation of those who would cut up nature for parts. (Although far more even handed than my description, this is not a polemic by any means.) An excellent distillation of the debates still occurring today, and a reminder of the value of nature.

The Comedians, Graham Greene—I continue to say that Graham Greene is one of the greatest and most insightful novelists of the 20th century. This novel of idealists, con artists, and just people in search of a life in Duvalier’s Haiti was heartbreaking and beautiful.

Sourcery, Terry Pratchett—Look, there are 41 Discworld novels and a handful of short stories, they won’t all be the winners. Luckily, Pratchett on a bad day is still better than most, so it’ll keep you entertained.

First Among Sequels, Jasper Fforde—I thought this was the weakest of the Thursday Next books, but you sort of have to read it to get to the other books in the series. And the last two are definitely worth it.

Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon—I’m consistently impressed by the intricate worlds Chabon can weave. This book is in our reality, not a slightly-mystical one like Kavalier and Clay or Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but the contained universe of one neighborhood is still incredibly detailed and well realized.

The Banquet in Blitva, Miroslav Krleža—The first two novels of a trilogy by a Croatian author, set in a fictional Balkan country. The trilogy was interrupted by World War I, so definitely a strange and unique set of political circumstances. A satire of a revolutionary hero now become an authoritarian leader, the content was fine but the writing a bit stilted. I don’t know if that’s the original or the translation.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Roll Back Global Warming, Paul Hawken—This is an incredibly interesting run down of all the possible ways to not only eliminate carbon emissions, but also pull it from the atmosphere, based only on things that are technically feasible today. It almost makes one feel hopeful. You can look at the solutions and their ratings on the website as well.

Wyrd Sisters, Terry Pratchett—Pratchett’s back in full form with the Witches, and a parody of Hamlet.  Really fun read that also plays around with a ton of tropes in a creative way.

Václav Havel: Or Living in Truth, Václav Havel—This collection of essays by Havel was surprisingly readable, and a shot in the arm for those of us struggling to fight for democracy in this time. I ended up highlighting almost every line to quote.

One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Jasper Fforde—Almost entirely in BookWorld, another fun entry in the Thursday Next series. Real world Thursday hasn’t been seen in ages, and BookWorld series needs to find her. If you like the others—and if you’ve read anything I’ve ever written about books, you really should have picked up a Fforde novel or two—you’ll love those one.

Pyramids, Terry Pratchett—An introduction to the Discworld desert kingdom of Djelibeybi, the tale of tearing open doorways between dimensions, people fulfilling their destinies and the intelligence of camels (they’re sort of the dolphins or mice of Discworld) was another excellent entry in the series.

A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss—I know a mystery centered around the financial intrigues of the East India Trading Company with long explanations of the way the stock market was first started and trading laws in early 1800s Britain doesn’t sound interesting, but it really was.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan—My second time reading this book, and I’m once again blown away by it. Egan is a brilliant writer, and there’s so much here that is completely new and could be so gimmicky if handled by a lesser writer, but is just a revelation to read here.

The Woman Who Died a Lot, Jasper Fforde—The final installment of the Thursday Next series, leaving me with naught to do but sit around waiting for the next in the Shades of Grey series. While never losing Fforde’s wit and humor, this seemed to be the one dealing the most with actual issues such as our perception of reality and what makes us ourselves. This, Something Rotten, and the first one, The Eyre Affair, are probably tied for my favorites.

Brave Companions, David McCullough—I’m not generally the biggest fan of McCullough, but this collection of short essays on remarkable people really pulled me in. It covers still-famous people like Charles Lindbergh, formerly famous people like Alexander von Humboldt, and people we should know more about, like Appalachian activist David Plowden. It was wide ranging and incredibly interesting.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, Jon Ronson—I’m still not entirely sure what to think of this book. It’s about the MK Ultra projects, and how they transformed into psychological warfare techniques that were seen in the war on terror and in Iraq. I never quite grasped the tone, which was half incredulous and bemused and half incredibly serious and didn’t seem to be sure itself where it was going.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon—Probably time to admit that Pynchon just isn’t for me. This odd take on a noir in a surfing town in California at the tale end of the sixties should have been my jam, but I never got into it.

His Family, Ernest Poole—The first ever Pulitzer Prize winner, this was a very satisfying book. It took a bit to get into, but it was an eye-opening take on life as World War I was opening and its impact. And I don’t know when I’ve last read a woman character I could so identify with.

Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?, Robert Kuttner— Spoiler alert: No. And Kuttner really dives into the details of why, and why it doesn’t have to be this way. He soft pedals tribalism and racism, but his critiques or capitalism and in depth analysis of how obscure financial rules hamstring democracy make it still highly worth reading. A good companion book to The Shock Doctrine.

Less, Andrew Sean Greer—Decently well-off middle aged American men and their sorrows aren’t exactly my thing, but this was self-aware enough and well written enough that it completely won me over.

American Canopy: Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation, Eric Rutkow—I don’t think the author did enough with the central conceit—a history of the US told through trees—to make it feel that the thesis of the book really held up, but still an interesting retrospective on the use of forests, conservation and preservation in the country.

Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett—A cynical, power hungry politician tries to manipulate ignorant, aggrieved citizens and then can’t handle what he’s unleashed. No, this isn’t at all relevant for today’s world, why do you ask?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson—An insanely creepy book. If I had to give a master class on setting a tone with nothing even happening I would assign my students the first chapters of this and of Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene—My second time reading this book. As with Fabric of the Cosmos I’m struck that the more I read about string theory and quantum physics the less sense any of it makes. Why is everyone so sure that all the extra dimensions would be space ones, and that strings can’t be wrapped around extra time dimensions? How can a lack of our observation mean that a particle isn’t interacting with anything? And wait, there may be giant strings that haven’t collapsed on themselves floating around? How would we even identify that? Great, now my head hurts again.

The Idiot, Elif Batuman—Not sure why this was a critically acclaimed book. It centers around e-mail, and yet I’m reading about the correspondence instead of what the e-mail correspondence actually says. And I don’t know how characters in a book can have no chemistry, but these people have no chemistry.

Eric, Terry Pratchett—Sometimes you write yourself into a corner and trap your main character in the dungeon dimensions and have to dash off a 100 page novella to explain how he got out. I think we can all identify with that.

The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco—I always love Eco, although this is one of the harder books, I think. An exploration of reality, memory and time as someone searches for longitude, and the point of the meridian where today becomes yesterday.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Stories, H.P. Lovecraft–Delightfully creepy, and an origin story for so many horror, fantasy, and even sci-fi books today. Basically, if it includes an ancient and unknowable power in a time before comprehension, it owes a debt to Lovecraft.

Travels in Alaska, John Muir—Some of the original travel and nature writing, as Muir explores glaciers and visits much an at-the-time unexplored territory. Filled with an obvious love of place and of wilderness.

In the Distance, Hernan Diaz—This was a finalist for the Pulitzer in 2018, and it absolutely should have one. Beautifully written challenging book of a Swedish immigrant boy stranded in San Francisco and trying to find a brother in New York, but that doesn’t even describe it. You just have to read it and lose yourself in his descriptions and language and the surreal nature of this book.

The Three-Body Problem, Ciuxin Liu—I spent two nights being up until 1:00am with my nose in the book trying to finish it that night because it was so good I couldn’t put it down. It deals with contact with an alien civilization and spans the cultural revolution to modern day China. One of the best books I read this year.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson—I went on a bit of a horror kick this year. The original haunted house story, and it has held up for a reason. Do yourself a favor and just try to read the opening paragraph without shuddering.

Why Should the Devil Get All the Good Music?, Gregory Alan Thornbury—The topic—Larry Norman, the grandfather of Christian rock, an artist, someone who grappled with his place, and what his religion and art had become—is fascinating. The book was uneven. It glossed over and elided too much and offered more speculation than I’d like. But I’d warrant this is a topic most people aren’t familiar with, and it would be of interest for the rock history, and the early Evangelical movement that has outsize influence today.

Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett—The mythical old Gods, or something like Gods, of Holy Wood will demand your attention and sacrifice! With all the good and bad that may include. Not many of the familiar Discworld characters, but definitely the familiar Discworld style.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou—Easily one of the most interesting books I read all year. An amazing history of Theranos, a ‘unicorn’ valued at over $1 billion, that had suckered prominent investors, and with no product at all. Everything wrong with Silicon Valley, current capitalism, and a cult like company.

The Dark Forest, Ciuxin Liu—The sequel to The Three-Body Problem this book was a bit harder to follow, and it took us into the far future as we are making actual, physical contact with an alien civilization and struggling towards survival. The plot didn’t make as much sense to me, there was definitely more of just going with the flow. But much to think about and I wish the third book was off hold at the library already.

Hocus Pocus, Kurt Vonnegut—World War II, the last arguably good war, made Vonnegut an incurable cynic. You can imagine what watching Vietnam did to him. This is late period Vonnegut, and it was strange to read such familiar phrases and writing but in the late 90s instead of the 60s.

Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Anand Giridharadas—Another one of the best books I read all year, this one take on our social impact investing and culture of corporate philanthropy that don’t challenge systems. How much good can one really be doing if you only look for ways to profit and don’t consider any sacrifice? How can we laud corporations who are fighting paying taxes with one hand and then giving pennies to schools on the other? Should ‘first do no harm’ mean more than sharing ill-gotten largesse? From someone who lived in the social consulting/corporate philanthropy world, there are many important questions for us to consider here.

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson—This book is like is like Adbusters, Ghost in the Shell, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, and those anarcho-punk kids you met at Warped had a crazy dystopian baby. But, like, in a good way.

The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin—Jemisin won the Hugo Award three years in a row for this trilogy, the first person ever to do so, and I can understand why. She is powerful writer. A story of enslaved power and community and loss and sorrow and the end of the world. Another of the best books I read this year and I cannot wait to read the rest of this series.

His Family

his familyHis Family, Ernest Poole

His Family holds the distinction of being the first ever Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, from 1918, and yet, oddly enough, it has more or less disappeared from our national literary consciousness. Oh, I’m sure there are some scholars and historians who are well versed in Ernest Poole and this novel, but one can say that about almost anything. I had never heard of it before, nor the author, which seems surprising for something that was so highly regarded. It’s not at my library, or the library of my neighboring county, indicating that it is not very much read in today’s world. I always find it so interesting how something can mean so much at one point, and then more or less disappear. What makes some books endure and others be relegated into obscurity? Is it just the luck of being place on one large school system’s reading list and growing from there? So much of merit is really luck.

Well, at least I’m here to revitalize the book’s fortunes. His Family tells the story of Roger Gale, a rather average middle class small business owner in New York in the 1910s. His wife has died several years earlier, and after an extended period of depression, he is now trying to make good on a promise he made to his wife on her death bed to connect with their three daughters, now grown, and live on in their lives.

I struggled with this book at the beginning. Gale is likely a character others could identify with, fearful of all the changes he sees in the city, in particular the tenements filled with Jews and Italians and who knows who else, and in general unsure of his place in a new world. And a very self-absorbed character, even only able to view his own children as extensions of himself, with no real sense of other. I spent the first few chapters trying to figure out how the author even intended Roger Gale—was he a sympathetic character with whom I should identify? Was he someone I was supposed to recognize as an architype but vaguely pity as out of touch? Was he an Archie Bunker type to be played off of? This is where my lack of understanding of the exact feelings of everyone in 1918 really held me back. And even outside of that, his lack of, well, what’s the opposite of introspection? Extrospection? Let’s go with that. His lack of extrospection started to wear.

I am glad I stuck with it, though, as the character work was well done in this book. Gale grew more and more, and the book expanded to show more of a perspective of others, and the world as a whole, while still focused on his family. His three very different daughters, one pulled towards hold traditions, one a reformer, and one wanting to throw off everything and yet only for herself, showed very different reactions to the societal shifts at the time. The book goes through the early 1910s to the beginning of the war, and demonstrates the effect on how this, and different reform movements were playing out. I appreciated the way it showed this through allusions to the daughters’ lives outside the house. And the character of his middle daughter, Deborah Gale, a reformer who is also yearning for motherhood and very poignantly wondering what this means for her career—not in terms of a husband who will not allow her to work, but in terms of the still relevant question of how to handle the need to be there for a new person so dependent on you, but also so many others if you’re an activist—was amazing. She was so truthfully written, and it captured the ways women still today are torn amazingly accurately.

I didn’t think the book was perfect. There were a few places where the tone seemed off, or where everything shifted too rapidly and we were pulled from one scene to another in a jarring fashion. But as a whole, I thought the book was interesting and worthwhile, and a valuable perspective on parts of the United States in 1917. I would encourage libraries to carry it once again.

Snow Crash

snowcrash1Snow Crash, Neil Stephenson

This cyberpunk cult classic seems to divide people pretty starkly, as cult classics often do, so let me start by acknowledging that there are many places where I agree with the book’s  critics: the book is too long, the characters’ actions don’t always make sense, it devolves to stereotypes too often, and the plot doesn’t completely hold together. Here is where I depart from the critics: none of that matters, because this book is still a whole hell of a lot of fun.

Snow Crash grabbed me from its opening scene, which had a genuine twist I won’t give away, introducing its main character, Hiro Protagonist, and soon-to-be partner in adventure, Y.T., a 15-year-old courier. Sorry, Kourier, in this world. And let me say—I enjoyed this book enough to completely overlook Hiro’s name after a few chapters, although I definitely had to push my way through that.

Hiro is a freelance hacker in an unspecified future and one of the people who helped create the Metaverse, which can probably most be compared to Second Life. Snow Crash was written in 1992, and it’s amazing to read him explaining how the Metaverse works, and that Hiro is walking around and talking to these people who aren’t really there, but they can interact in this futuristic Metaverse world. The appear in the Metaverse as their avatars, images they’ve decided on to represent themselves. I know you know what an avatar is, but it was still to fun to read Stephenson’s descriptions. Hiro visits an exclusive club, The Black Sun, where he sees an old girlfriend who indicates she’s involved in something big, and his good friend and former employer Da5id, also one of the Metaverse creators and a big deal here. Da5id and Hiro have both been offered Snow Crash by a large avatar outside the venue, and while Hiro refuses, Da5id decides to give it a try, assuming it’s a new drug. It is, in a sense, and ends up not only crashing his avatar but crashing his brain (his main operating system, as it will end up being referred to) in real life.

And from there we’re off to the races, although the book does get a bit draggy and far too expositional in certain points. We end up with a Human Weapon, Raven, who is trying to distribute Snow Crash to destroy American society, a crazy global and perhaps ever so slightly interstellar conspiracy, boat chases, the Mob, ancient Sumerian myths and Gods, and commentary on World War II and Vietnam – two events which make the placing of this event in time far more difficult, and almost suggestive of just-off-to-the-side parallel world rather than a futuristic one.

The book can get a bit disjointed and throws a lot at the reader all at once in many places. Some of the infodumps where you’re gathering what the whole major conspiracy is are just paragraphs and paragraphs of a Metaverse character explaining things, which can be a bit hard to follow. Especially as the aforementioned Sumerian myths play a major role, and it’s not as if most of us have existing knowledge of ancient Sumer we can fall back on if we get lost. One part of the disjointedness, though, that I really appreciated in the book were the small asides, which could almost function as their own short stories. The opening scene works that way, as does a chapter on Y.T’s mom and her terrible job in a government bureaucracy, and a bit on a cyborg dog called a Rat Thing. The bits and pieces that went into the side characters and world building were some of my favorite parts of the book, and I think Stephenson could probably excel at short stories.

Snow Crash operates in a weird place, feeling both incredibly prescient and incredibly of 1992 at the same time. There were parts of the descriptions of the Metaverse, internet stand ins, and a massive library that was just information collected and uploaded by others, that honestly made me go back and double check when the book was written, as it seemed like it should have been late nineties at least. And the vignette about Y.T.s mom was a great piece on efficiency taken to an insane level, with enforced hot desking and constant monitoring.

And then there are ample signs that it was written in the early nineties. Like the fact that skateboarding is incredibly important.  Y.T. is a Kourier, meaning a skateboard delivery person, a group that plays a very distinct rebellious and essential role in this world. And then there’s the world they live in. While we have plenty of corporation problems here, the world in Snow Crash has a particularly nineties-dystopia vibe, from back before we’d entirely given up and people were still worried about what the fall of US manufacturing and small businesses would do to us. The US government is all but expired, corporations have taken on most of the roles, such as building roads and providing security and jails. Most people who can afford to live in Burbclaves, semiautonomous neighborhood/cities that people require citizenship or permission to enter. Many of the Burbclaves are explicitly segregated. Everything, from the Burbclaves to the rented out jails and security people, are franchises of major corporations. The primary religious group is a corporate franchise as well, Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates.  Oh, and everyone has a bar code on them to prove their citizenship or permission to enter different Burbclaves and franchises, just as we were all sure would be required of us soon enough. It’s hard to explain how the texture and the tone were so evocative of the nineties rather that something written today, but it really was. It felt far more like the anti-globalization and Adbusters campaigns I grew up on than the Occupy Wall Street flavor of today, even though those are all of a piece. But as that is what I grew up on, the dystopia it presented was oddly nostalgic and comforting to me.

Snow Crash is not a perfect book. The plot, which I only vaguely got into here, doesn’t 100% hold together, and so it’s best not to think about it too much at the end. But it’s a wild ride while on the way, and I can definitely understand why it’s developed such a following. Stephenson is an uneven writer, but I loved him when he was on. The story itself is gripping and engaging along the way, a really fun journey down early cyber punk. If you let yourself just get swept along, it’s a great adventure you can really enjoy.

Ringworld

ringworldRingworld, Larry Niven

Larry Niven’s Ringworld is not just a science-fiction classic, it’s practically science fiction royalty. It’s won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and spawning a whole series of books in the Known World universe. And, most importantly, inspiring a role-playing game. In the realm of geekery, that’s how you know you’ve really and truly made it.

For all that, though, I was underwhelmed. Ringworld is set not quite 1000 years in the future, in a world that the optimistic sci-fi authors of the past envisioned. Long life spans, spaceships that let you go jetting about anywhere you’d like, glamorous 1970s style parties. Humans have made contact with two alien races, Pierson’s Puppeteers, a race that is incredibly technologically advanced yet known as ‘cowards’ with a fierce survival instinct and tendency to turn away from fighting, and the Kzin, cat-like humanoids who are incredibly warlike and aggressive. Many wars have been fought between the humans and the Kzin, but they now seem to have achieved a tense peace. The Puppeteers, on the other hand, profit across the Known Universe through trading their incredibly advanced technology, particularly as they are known to be unfailingly truthful in their dealings and to have the safest technology around, as befitting of a race dedicated to survival.

The book opens with Louis Wu, an incredibly wealthy man celebrating his 200th birthday, travelling from party to party and filled with the ennui that comes from having everything one could possibly have and living for 200 years. While he is considering a sabbatical from humanity, which he does every now and again, he is approached by a Puppeteer, Nessus, who wants him to join an expedition to explore a very mysterious object, on which quest he will be joined by a Kzin, Speaker-to-Animals, and the fourth member of their crew, Teela, an attractive twenty-year old who the Puppeteers believe has a genetic predisposition to be lucky and will help their quest.  This being a standard science fiction novel, I suppose it will surprise no one when I say that the rich 200 year old guy and the twenty year old girl hook up? And that other than being there for Louis to monologue to and being ‘lucky’ she doesn’t have much to share?

Up to this point, the book hadn’t particularly interested me, but I must admit once they start explaining the titular Ringworld it did grab my attention. Honestly, I only barely recall snippets of the plot—mostly being eye-rollingly annoyed at the way Teela’s character was written and that of course she and the older guy hooked up—but I can clearly remember Ringworld. It is one of the founding examples of the sci fi’s Big Dumb Object trope. No one knows who developed Ringworld or why it is there or how it is there, and this is what the crew is sent to discover. It is unimaginably large, one million miles wide (Earth’s circumference at the equator is not quite 25,000 miles), and 600 million miles wide in circumference. It rotates, creating its own artificial gravity, a breathable atmosphere and stable temperature. Additional squares of material travel around the inside of the Ringworld occasionally blocking out the light and creating a night/day cycle. It is incredibly technologically advanced, and yet no one knows anything about who might have created it.

After crash landing on the Ringworld, they traverse the unimaginably large area in search of answers, traveling over miles and miles and miles of blank space and finding the occasional settlement, including one where they are assumed to be the designers or Ringworld and welcomed as prophets. It becomes clear throughout the course of their travels that the original designers of Ringworld are long gone, and that the current inhabitants have lost the technological know how to repair the world and are staying afloat using past technology that they may not always understand, with old rituals reminding them how to care for it and taking the place of science.

In the end, they manage to get off of Ringworld and head home—with Tessa staying behind with an inhabitant she finds, with the suggestion that her genetic luck may have caused the crash so that she could meet him, it’s a long story—with no clear answers. I don’t particularly mind the lack of answers. Sometimes someone has a good idea, but it’ll never work if you get into the details, and no one wants to have to spend more time thinking about mitochlorians than they are about space wizard fights. Sometimes it’s okay to leave some of that mystery there.

I wasn’t as impressed with Ringworld as I’d expected to be, given its revered place in the science fiction canon. I am wondering if the issue is that the book just isn’t for me, or if the book would have read very differently if I had read it 40 years ago. The book was chock full of tropes, which was grating after a while. But it is also the book that popularized most of those tropes. Given all of that, I can’t tell what it would have been like to read this when it first came out, when stories of people with more technology being greeted as Gods and the Proud Warrior Race and the fall of technology weren’t as expected as they’ve become. Given all that, I’d say this is a good read for sci-fi fans, but not necessary reading outside of that. The book didn’t hold my attention on its own, only with how I know it’s situated in the world of science fiction literature. However, it is a part of our canon, where we get many of our other stories, and a quick read as well. Worth your time if you’re a fan of the genre.

Except for the 200 year old rich guy with the 20 year old hot girl part. That’s a trope that will always be irritating.

Bad Blood

bad bloodBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Start Up, John Carreyrou

What a surprisingly appropriate follow up to Going Clear. Bad Blood, the story of Theranos and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, is a fascinating tale of hubris, charisma, failure of the elites of our society, and a microcosm of many of the issues with Silicon Valley and our economic culture today.

For those unfamiliar with the tale, Theranos was a company more or less willed into existence by a ruthless, clever, and extraordinarily charismatic woman, Elizabeth Holmes. At nineteen Holmes dropped out of Stanford to found a medical device company, one that could conduct tests through a patch on one’s skin and relay that information to doctors. With the support and encouragement of an associate dean at the college, and parlaying family and Stanford connections, she built a board and gathered funders, but quickly tossed the idea for another: the dream of a pinprick medical test that could conduct hundreds of tests with milliliters of blood and, in the future, even conduct early detection tests not even possible with current blood testing technology. Eventually, through selling this dream, her story as a brilliant Silicon Valley disrupter, and, to put it bluntly, a willingness to tell complete lies to someone’s face and ruthlessly attack anyone who questioned her, she built a company worth, on paper, over a billion dollars.

The dream of pinprick blood test sounds wonderful, which is why many research institutions have been working on such a thing for decades. But they are routinely stymied by the need to have enough blood for tests, that different tests may end up changing the blood in certain ways, by the fact that blood can dry out quickly if it is in small quantities, and other challenges. However, through playing on the dream of Silicon Valley, Holmes was able to convince many that she, with no medical training and only a year of engineering training, could address these issues. She raised money with fake prospectuses, convinced Walgreens and Safeway to spend billions on contracts with them, and aggressively went after anyone who questioned her. Employees had to sign NDAs and were tracked by private investigators when they began talking to John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal journalist who first exposed the company and wrote Bad Blood. Doctors and patients who had received faulty information from Theranos’ tests were threatened. Anyone on the board who spoke up was removed. And despite the many people who questioned this, most of whom were silenced over the years, she kept this con going for well over a decade.

The story truly does mimic that of a cult leader. Employees were routinely told that this should be their religion, that anyone who was not 100% committed should leave. Hours were tracked constantly, and people expected to be at work throughout the evening and in the weekends in order to prove their devotion. And while the silver lining, I suppose, is that actual medical companies didn’t seem to be taken in, many other leaders who shouldn’t have been so willing to buy into something uncritically were. George Schultz, an elder statesman who has served in four different cabinet positions, and now Defense Secretary James Mattis were fully on board, despite people they knew and trusted bringing forth questions. Schultz even chose to trust Holmes over his own grandson, Tyler Schultz, who became one of the more important whistleblowers. Financers and investors bought in with no proof. Safeway and Walgreens were fully committed to the end, even when Walgreens’ advisor was refused access to the labs or to see a functioning test.* Because people were afraid of missing out, and, more importantly, seemed to be enamored of and trust Elizabeth Holmes. One person described her as creating her own personal ‘reality distortion field.’ And, what is most amazing, is that in what seemed to be a truly hellish work environment, with employees who clearly knew this product wasn’t working, people stayed. People stayed and were committed. And some stayed who weren’t! Despite the abuse, and threats, and their own doubts about what they were doing. Again, many, many people need to watch Labyrinth.

The biggest question, and what will never be answered, is how much of this Holmes herself bought into. It is the case that in the world of other technology and apps and startups, one can begin with many bugs and without a fully functional product—think of how many patches you download with any new system. But there is a much different standard when the worst problem is the maps app crashing regularly and with a test incorrectly saying whether or not one has HIV. And it is also the fact that this product was not just buggy, it straight up wasn’t working. And yet tests were given, results were sent. Investors were sent pretend test results and financial reports of completely fake numbers. One expects that Holmes thought she would fake it until things were working, but also… they were just not working.

The thought of reading through a failed business and faked financial reports might not sound compelling, but this truly is one of the most fascinating stories of our time. And, as I said above, an excellent example of so much of what is wrong with our economy today. The number of elites, of ‘brilliant’ people, who were completely suckered into this is staggering. Political leaders in all parties bought in! The fact that this fraud was perpetuated for as long as it is, and enabled by so many, is amazing. The delusion and lies that exist, the lack of regulation, the amount of success one can sustain through bald faced lying, bullying and aggression, is terrifying. For anyone wondering just what is going wrong today, you could do worse than starting with this book. And even if you’re not looking for a larger message, it’s a darn good read.

 

*Oddly enough, just about the only person who makes it through the tale with integrity and intelligence intact is Rupert Murdoch. A major investor in Theranos, apparently Holmes tried to get him to kill the initial story that led to the company’s unraveling. But he refused because, as I read elsewhere, whatever other faults he has, he knows a good story when he smells one.^

^Also probably because Rupert Murdoch is worth at least US$13 billion. An investment of a few hundred million dollars is just playing around money.

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

going clear coverGoing Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright

First of all, let me start with an apology. Since my last review it’s been *checks notes * one month?! Well. Sorry about that. All I can say is I was going through a bit of a busy time at work. And all of my spare time at the end of October was, obviously, spent calling and texting voters for the US election. That’s (mostly sort-of) over for now, though, and I can see light at the end of the work tunnel, so let’s see if I can get through some of this backlog, eh?

I have always been fascinated by cults and the like. What makes people stay in obviously terrible situations? What is it about some people that can compel some people stand by them in total disregard of their self-respect, families, friends, logic, etc.? I don’t think we’ve found an answer yet about what imbues some people with that type of charisma, and what means that others stick with obviously terrible and ridiculous situations. And when I say this, I’m not referring to beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, the beliefs of Scientology—that we are all home to alien essences (thetans), that we have memories going back 75 trillion years ago (older than the age of the universe), and that humans were brought to earth by a galactic tyrant 75 million years ago (way, way before humans evolved)—are patently ridiculous. But when it comes to religion, I recognize mine seems bizarre to others, too, and am very much whatever gets you through the day. So the patently ridiculous situation and beliefs I’m talking about are the whole, ‘anyone who disagrees is suppressive,’ ‘sign a billion year contract,’ and ‘surrender everything you have to a megalomaniac’ parts of the religion. And while it doesn’t ever provide an explanation, Going Clear focuses in on those aspects of Scientology and really highlights what it does to at least some of its followers and their families.

Going Clear is an amazingly deep and detailed dive into the life of L. Ron Hubbard, including his early years and time as an incredibly prolific science fiction author, his friendship with people like Jack Parsons, the creation of Scientology, and what the, well, I guess they’re classified as a religion, has become today. I have read other reviews who have said that the only problem with this book is that it is too long. At 560 pages it is a commitment, but it flew by for me, and honestly, I can’t think of what would be cut. (Okay, except the somewhat fawning review of Crash, one of the worst best picture winners ever, but that was maybe one page.)*

Ron Hubbard himself is a fascinating and bizarre figure, with an undistinguished but often embellished time in the navy, drives of grandeur, and prolific writing career. He seems to have developed the tenets of Scientology over time, steadily adding not only to the belief system, but the network of rules and punishments for breaking them over time, as he added more power. Among the more bizarre stories that has stuck with me in the time since I have read this book is the tale of a long time friend, and early follower, who had broken a rule of Hubbard’s and was forced to roll an orange in laps around the deck of the ship with his nose while his crying wife and children and the rest of the crew watched. This was among the many times when I mentally screamed, “But you can just leave! He has no power! Just say this is f***ing ridiculous and leave!” Whyyyy didn’t they do that? I remain convinced that the most important movie to show young people is Labyrinth so that they can practice saying, “You have no power over me.” How many people stay in terrible situations because they never learned to believe in that lin

Through the time he had spent in California, and by growing and expanding Scientology in the petri dish of beliefs swirling around the west coast in the middle of the 20th Century, Hubbard was able to expand his philosophy/religion. Crucially, he had some early successes in pulling in aspiring actors, who eventually became successful actors, thus getting it some early acclaim, a good deal of money, and social cachet. Wright details this growth as well, and how other aspiring actors were pulled into the religion by more successful people in the business. It was almost a fraternity or secret, Skull and Bones, type society to some. And the religion continued to expand, through Hubbard’s death, largely in this way, and through shunning and cutting off anyone who started to question the religion. After Hubbard’s death, David Miscavige took over Scientology and seems to have taken it to even greater extremes.

The book is full of shocking stories of people agreeing to ridiculous things when they should have just left and walked out the door. People shunning their families. Going to work camps for rehabilitation. Agreeing to have their lives controlled in the Sea Org with no marriage and forced abortions for one billion years. And there is no real explanation for how Hubbard, and now Miscavige, are able to command such loyalty. And what is even more troubling is how much they are able to cow production companies, governments, regulatory agencies, and those who would leave and just share their own truths, through lawsuits and tenacity. Since they care far more about their image than a person who wants to be left alone, or a government functionary just doing their job, they are able to intimidate others and get their way through brute force, as far too many are by just operating outside of the standards of conduct we all thought we’d agreed to long ago.

Going Clear and the subsequent HBO documentary came out before Leah Remini’s documentary on Scientology, but they all seem of a piece, and an intriguing part of people breaking their silence. I do wonder what this will mean for the organization. It can’t grow forever with the type of control they’ve had so far, as they are likely tolerated by many currently because they are a fringe group for celebrities, rather than something seen as affecting ‘real people’. But I find them fascinating for far more than just the Scientology piece. It is a case study in what can happen through a divisively charismatic, controlling and narcissistic leader, and an organization who refuses to follow any normal standards of decency or norms. And that seems highly relevant today. After all, just imagine if someone like that ever got real power.

*Paul Haggis, the Director of Crash, is a Scientology apostate/whistleblower and one of the main sources for the book.