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.

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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.

The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories

the thing on the doorstepThe Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories, H.P. Lovecraft

H.P. Lovecraft is a towering figure in genre fiction, a god father of horror, fantasy, science and fiction and world building in general. Really, in terms of horror stories, it’s probably Poe and Lovecraft that created the literary world we know. Writing primarily short stories in Weird Tales, Lovecraft created a whole world of Elder Gods and mysticism and alternate dimensions and an ageless time before ours whose influence can be seen in modern authors such as Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (anything with the idea that there are ancient Gods and demons from aeons before humans and in dimensions just off to the side owe a debt to Lovecraft) and even parts of culture that don’t even realize it, such as the Silurian Hypothesis.

The Thing on the Doorstep was a great showcase of Lovecraft’s writing. It centers quite often on the Old Ones/Elder Gods, humans mucking about with forces beyond our understanding, and calling forth horrors primarily through Yog-Soggoth, who features prominently. (While Cthulu is probably the best known of his mythology now, Lovecraft jokingly referred to his world as ‘’Yog-Soggothery”). It includes the chilling “The Thing on the Doorstep”, the eerie and sad “The Quest of Iranon”, the eerie and amazing “The Music of Erich Zann,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Dunwich Horror”, two of his most famous, in addition to several others.

Lovecraft is a masterful story teller, and given the similarities of all of his stories, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading them all in a row. “At the Mountains of Madness,” in which a group of explorers discover an amazing, gigantic city that looks like mountains created by Elder Ones millions of years ago, drags on a bit, but is incredibly creepy. It also showed off Lovecraft’s devotion to Poe, calling back as it did so much on The Narrative of Arthur Pym of Nantucket. And while Lovecraft’s books are clearly horror novels, filled as they are with an overall disconcerting sentiment even when nothing overtly scary is going on, and an eerie atmosphere, the stories are often reminiscent of other writers as well. “The Quest for Iranon” felt like a short story from golden age science fiction, that may have come from someone like Clark or Bradbury. And “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” in particular, the longest story that Lovecraft wrote, could almost be an Agatha Christie book with the mystery at the center, albeit one that seemed to go through a looking glass and pick up several supernatural elements.

Lovecraft has had such a strong influence on literary culture, and has picked up such an odd subculture of following, that he has almost become a myth unto himself. Given that, he is imbued with importance and a set of feelings and expectations and a weightiness that can be intimidating. But I strongly suggest that anyone interested in good short stories, mysteries, or soft science fiction and fantasy pick up one of his books. There’s a reason they have endured and influenced so many others. These stories stand up by themselves, and will fully creep you out. They’re an excellent October read.

Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011

best sci and nature 2011

Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2011, edited by Mary Roach

The Best American… series are some of my favorite to pick up at the library book sale. They’re often there, usually only a couple of books, and they’re reliably interesting. I tend to go for the Science and Nature ones in particular. And this one was edited by Mary Roach, which seemed as good a reason as any to pick it over others.

This one was excellent, as always, with several essays that have stood out and had me thinking about them long after. Burkhard Bilger’s “Natures Spoils”, about the strange underground world of trading in raw milk and extolling the virtue of eating ‘high meat’ was bizarre and fascinating. “The Chemist’s War”, by Deborah Blum, taught me a piece of history I hadn’t previously known about, wherein the federal government systematically tried to poison people during prohibition to stop them from drinking alcohol. And Atul Gawande, common in many essay collections, has an amazing essay, “Letting Go,” that had me crying in the corner of a diner while I was reading it.

Many of the essays here, though, are about the destruction we have wrought and are continuing to wreak on the Earth. As is to be expected—there’s almost nothing else to talk about if you’re on the topic of nature. This one isn’t quite as full of such topics as the collection edited by Elizabeth Kolbert, but it still includes an essay on the tradition of eating migrating song birds in the Mediterranean that has all but wiped out several bird populations, the jumping Asian carp overwhelming midwestern lakes, and the destructive nature of fracking. And an essay on space debris that, while not as directly related to ecology, is still a symptom of the same problem as the others—a belief that one well, one person shooting song birds, one dumping of space debris, can’t have that much of an impact, ignoring that this decision is being made over and over and over again by a huge number of people.

I have never wholly subscribed to Kant’s categorical imperative, that one can only act according to the maxim that that action would become a universal law to be done by all, it seems increasingly clear that, in environmental issues this does need to be the rule. It’s the only way to govern the tragedy of the commons problem. Because whatever negative actions one takes, or actions done thinking it can be allowed because it is only one person, will be done so often that they may as well be universal laws.

The recent special report by the International Panel on Climate Change has highlighted again that we are in the midst of the most dangerous crisis humanity as a whole has yet faced, with unknown consequences if we cannot rapidly decrease or emissions starting immediately. And this can only be done by everyone taking action, and everyone recognizing that the universality of our actions is killing us.

This is obvious by perusing the news, but reading several environmental essays in a row drives it home. The common thread in all of them is each of us ignoring that our actions have consequences and that we are never just one. Hopefully we’ll realize that before it’s too late.

Library Book Sale!

library book sale 2018.JPG

 

♫♪It’s the hap-happiest time, of the year!♫♪ That’s right, it’s the weekend of the fall library book sale in my county. It’s one of the most magical places. They have rows and rows and stacks and boxes of books. Mass market paperbacks are fifty cents. Fifty cents!!!!! And the most expensive book I’ve ever seen there was $4, although I would never pay that for a book sale book. I usually go there with a $20 budget, and for the first time ever I managed to stay under it. Below, a preview of my haul:

Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today’s World, Karen Armstrong. Karen Armstrong might be my favorite religion/theology writer. Her History of God is amazing. I’m very much looking forward to digging into this one.

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms: The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind, Richard Fortey. A narrative history of evolution and the creatures that have outlasted all of the others of their time. And even it were just about horseshoe crabs and velvet worms I probably would have gotten it. Those things are cool.

The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, Nadia Hashimi. In 2007 Kabul, on streets still controlled by the Taliban, a young girl is supporting her family through an ancient custom that allows a young girl to be treated as a son until she’s of marriageable age, a custom her great-great-grandmother had used as well, and the way their stories weave together.

Dune Messiah, Frank Herbert. My husband just read Dune  (although he should have ages ago), and neither one of us has read further on in the series, so it seemed a good choice for us to read together.

The Green Brain, Frank Herbert. And I wanted to see if Frank Herbert was any good at writing books about forests, or if he could really just do the one ecosystem.

J, Howard Jacobson. This is a book that has been on my to-be-read list forever. J is a dystopia where there has been a calamity that no one mentions and collective memory has vanished. And it’s described as a darkly humorous tale. This very much appeals to my interests.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory. A short story collection that looked intriguing (It’s the one up there with a tentacle and a UFO – I totally judged the book by its cover). But one of the blurbs on the back also described Loory as a combination of Mother Goose, Philip K. Dick and Richard Brautigan. I pretty much had to buy it.

Upon the Sleeping Flood and Other Stories, Joyce Carol Oates. I know I had to read something by Oates in school, but I honestly don’t remember it at all. And I’ve only read one short story since. She seems essential reading for anyone who likes American literature (which I do) so I wanted to give her a better shot.

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel.  A bit of an impulse buy, as I knew nothing about this, but it caught my attention. Another dystopian future, this time when a devastating flu pandemic has completely disrupted civilization, and a small troupe of artists trying to keep the humanities and humanity alive.

The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman. This is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best books, on how World War I got started. World War I was such a ridiculous war that should never have happened, and it could use more discussion. Especially these days, when we regularly see people abdicating responsibility, making decisions everyone knows and agrees are wrong, and letting stubbornness and foolish allegiances make decisions rather than any sort of thought or sense. I increasingly think we don’t need the tales of pure evil to warn us for today so much as the tales of history’s great blunders.

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, Simon Winder. Basically, a humorous history of Central Europe and the Habsburg Empire, who ruled over the region for centuries (pretty much until World War I, so it’s sort of a companion piece to Tuchman’s book.)

Not Even Wrong, Peter Woit. I’m fascinated by physics and the search for a theory of everything, as I’ve written about before. And, having just read some critiques of string theory and how it doesn’t work with our current universe, I’m excited to read this book critiquing it in depth.

Eric

ericFaust Eric,Terry Pratchett

At the end of Sourcery, Terry Pratchett had a slight problem. Rincewind had ended up stuck in the dungeon dimensions. But as the hero Discworld deserves, if not necessarily the one it wants, Rincewind will obviously have a greater role to play and can’t just remain exiled to a different plane. So what to do? Oh, sure, Pratchett could have just started the next book by saying that Rincewind had been saved by, oh, let’s say Moe, but Pratchett is no slacker. He’s a professional, so he went ahead and wrote a ministory to explain how and why Rincewind had returned.

And, well, that really seems to be the purpose of this book. Eric is quite short, clocking in at just over 100 pages, and tells the tale of a teenage boy who decides to become a great demonologist, attempting to summon a demon that will grant him his three wishes of having dominion over all of the world, having the most beautiful woman in the world, and living forever. Unfortunately, when he opens the door to the dungeon dimensions for summoning he brings forth Rincewind instead.

Eric was not the greatest of the Discworld novels, but it was fine. It had some bits that were quite clever, such as the Discworld variant of the Trojan Wars, and an always appreciated cameo by Death. (As well as The Librarian, who is the true history of Discworld.) But it also seemed to be a bit dashed off. There is more than one quip that is fine at first, but wears thin quickly and one has to assume would have been changed out in subsequent drafts if time permits. The horrible deity Quetzlovercoatl, for instance, is a play on words that would be fine once, but more than that and it seems to be a place holder but nothing better came up.

All in all, though, I thought it was a perfectly cromulent Discworld book, and at its short length, one may as well read it just to complete the series. I’m looking forward to getting back to Death and The Witches a couple of books on, though.