Religious Orders

Probability Space Review

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

Probability Space - Nancy Kress

After the superb second book, I was really excited for the third. Alas, I was heavilly let down. The third book abandons the one of the dual plotlines from the first two. Folks go to World, but they don't really do anything there. There's really nothing for them to do. The book just wanders away from the place.

I really thought what would happen here is that World would return to its earlier state. (I'm trying to avoid spoilers here.) There are great issues of free will versus societal peace that could be explored. Hell, were crying to be explored! But they weren't explored, not at all.

Instead, the alternate plotline is some sort of coming of age story, with a young female protagonist. At first, I was fine with this. I looked forward to her slowly gaining more agency as the book went on. She never did. She was simply pushed and shoved through the plot. She has some effect on the plot near the end, but even then, it's not really her doing the driving. At the end of the book, I couldn't figure out why she was there. Did her character change? A little. She discovered boys. That's it. She didn't really become a stronger person.

Other characterizations suffered, too. Some characters seemed parodies of archetypes. It was jarring. The characters seemed much more real in the earlier books.

The final plot? Well, it was like Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the end, it didn't matter what the protagonists did. Things would have turned out pretty much the same had they all just decided to stay home. Overall, the issues get wrapped up just fine. It was a clever enough resolution, but I had little fun getting there.

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An Experiment Gone Meh

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

John Scalzi has reached a point in his career where he can do pretty much whatever he wants. This lets him experiment, the results of which can be awesome, or, well, meh.

A good example of this experimentation working well was Redshirts. (A number of his fans think that it was his worst book ever. They're wrong. Clearly his worst book ever was The Android's Dream.)

So, while writing his latest novel, Lock In, he thought something along the lines of Hey, I've always wanted to write an oral history. I'll write a novella intro to the book as an oral history!

How do I know this? He told us all. He tweets a lot.

Anyway, so he wrote the novella, called Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome. How is it? Meh.

It's not bad. Scalzi's too skilled for that. It's just not compelling. None of the characters stand out. It reads more like a Wikipedia history section minus the neutral point of view. Without fleshed-out characters, what's the point of an oral history?

The novella includes the first chapter of Lock In. That first chapter is meh, too. It appears to be The Caves of Steel, except R. Daneel Olivaw is remote-controlled by a person.

Okay, seriously, I suspect it'll be much more than that, but I base that suspicion on Scalzi's skill, not on the provided first chapter.

Despite all the meh, I still pre-ordered the full book. It's a very rare occasion when Scalzi writes a bad book. (See The Android's Dream, above.)

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A Tale of Two Victorian Utopias

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

For some reason I no longer remember, I decided to read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race. It's a bit of utopian fiction that came out in 1871. It describes an adventurer stumbling onto an unknown civilization. The protagonist describes the people and society, falls in love with a woman, and attempts to escape when the society endangers him.

Later, I learned of Samuel Butler's Erewhon, published the very next year. It describes an adventurer stumbling onto an unknown civilization. The protagonist describes the people and society, falls in love with a woman, and attempts to escape when the society endangers him.

So, let's say there's some similarity here. Butler, in a later version's forward, assures the reader that his book was written without any knowledge of the other.

So, let's review them!

The Coming Race - Edward Bulwer-Lytton

If you've ever heard the phrase It was a dark and stormy night then you've heard of Bulwer-Lytton. So, he's known as a bad writer. Despite that reputation, he was a successful writer. This is the only book of his I've read, so my opinion of his writing is based solely on this one example. My opinion? Well, he wasn't very good.

I'll be honest; I didn't finish the book. It just became too tiresome. Bulwer-Lytton drones on and on, describing aspects of the found society. It's a weird twist on society, matriarchal in odd ways, and I suppose it could be a gripping subject. Alas, the descriptions are florid, yet bone-dry. The society is technologically evolved, but in a magical fantastical sort of way that just isn't that interesting. There's no real plot of which to speak, just a long series of essays on aspects of a fictional society. I just couldn't get through it. Others may like it as an early example of this type of fiction, but I wanted something better. If only there was such an example...

Erewhon - Samuel Butler

It's difficult to believe that this book was written at the same time as The Coming Race. Although there really isn't much plot here either, the delivery feels fresh, the language almost modern. I actually cared about the protagonist.

The society itself is a reversal of real-world society, for the purposes of satire. It's not really meant to represent a real alternative society. (The reversal goes to the extent of forming proper names by near-reversals of normal words and names. Erewhon is nearly nowhere in reverse.) As with the other example, the middle consists of essays. However, instead of being dry, they're lively and chuckle-worthy. Some of the targets of the satire flew by me. Either I'm not smart enough or the targets themselves are strictly of another time. (Most likely the former.) There's a wonderful trio of chapters detailing the dangers of technology. It's not far off from some of the concerns you hear today regarding artificial intelligence. The section on children is simply hilarious.

The plot aspects are wrapped up quickly at the end, mostly just as a means of getting the protagonist into a position to be able to hand over the narrative to the reader. Neither of these books are novels. They're essays wrapped in just enough plot to justify themselves.

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The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet Review

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

I haven't truly loved a book this much in a long, long time. I haven't been as sad to have a book end, divorcing me from the characters' lives, since I last read the Lord of the Rings.

This isn't plot-heavy book. There's a simple plot holding things together, but it's not the important thing in the book. The important part are the characters and their various arcs. The characters themselves cover a wide variety of species, races, genders, and biologies (or lack thereof). Some get bigger arcs than others, but everyone gets something. Everyone changes over the course of the book. It's glorious.

It's not a perfect book. Some arcs are a bit too tidy. It's almost as if each chapter was an episode in a TV series. It's sort of like, say, the Mary Tyler Moore show. Most episodes revolved around Mary, but there would be episodes for other characters, too. Even Murray would get Murray-centric episodes, although they usually sucked.

This book reads a lot like that. It's very episodic. I didn't mind. It fit the nature of the book, but does serve to point out the minimal nature of the overlying plot.

The book ends on an open note, much like a TV season might. There's some resolution, but the door is clearly open for future volumes. I eagerly await them. (No TV-style cliffhanger at the end of the book, though. It's a standalone book.)

I made my resolution to read fiction only by writers other than white males based on this blog post. Coincidentally, she read the same book at the same time. She loved it as much as I did. My favorite part of her review is where she details just how much this is a gorgeously queer book.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for Summer 2014

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

Holy crap! Nearly two months since a blog post? Well, here ya go, then!

The Ebony Exodus - Candace R. M. Gorham

Full title is The Ebony Exodus Project: Why Some Black Women Are Walking Out on Religion - and Others Should Too. While that title is a mouthful, the book itself is very, very good. About two-thirds of the book consists of stories of black women and their relationship with the Black Church. (Black as in racially black, not satanically black.) These aren't the rantings you might be expecting if your atheist readings have consisted of lots of white folks. Every women in this book has her own personal story and perspective. Some are more ambivalent than others.

The other third consists of essays from Gorham herself on the negative aspects of the Black Church and how it harms black women while at the same time acting as a support system. If you're looking for more straight-up criticism, this is where you'll find it. Gorham's writing is so clear and direct that it cuts like a scalpel. (I don't mean that in terms of Wow! Look at that articulate black person! I mean as a contrast to the overly-philosophical mental noodling you see in a lot of atheist writing.)

I'm going to lob one criticism at this book, and it's one to which the author alludes in her introduction. The book is too short. Gorham bemoans having to take excerpts of her interviews for the sake of book length. I really wish she hadn't. The book could have been, seriously, twice as long and it wouldn't have worn out its welcome with me.

Of course, as a suburban white guy, I'm just getting exposure to issues about which I was utterly clueless. I can't speak to the level at which this book can help black women. I sure hope it can, though.

The Martian - Andy Weir

This one is odd. The story is simple: A guy gets marooned on Mars and has to use his wits to survive. It's almost like Verne's The Mysterious Island, minus the last third or so. Much of it is very technical, which will thrill hard sci-fi fans. Indeed, many folks have given it high praise. There exists a subset, including me, who find the first-person narrative grating.

The book bounces between first and third person, which is fine. The problem is that the first-person narrative, that of the eponymous Martian, is a wise-cracking quip monster. He's like Deadpool in space. It's actually a three-fold problem. One, it just gets old, quickly. Two, it clashes with the technical parts. Three, it's the laziest possible characterization.

Seriously, the joking wiseacre is the go-to character for those who don't want to bother fleshing out a real character. Clearly, more time was spent on the technical challenges and their resolution than on the characterization.

Another problem with the book is that the question of whether the guy ought to be rescued at all never really arises. It's hinted at, once or twice, but not actually dealt with. Should we expend millions of dollars to save one guy? What are the trade-offs here? That could have been a nice addition to the story.

All that said, if you can get past the tone of the narrative, it's a swell read for fans of rock-hard sci-fi.

Planet of the Apes - Pierre Boulle, Xan Fielding (Translator)

This is the novel from which all the movies derive. It's not exactly the same as the first film. (To understand why, give my buddy JC's article on it a read.) That said, overall knowledge of the film plot will blunt many of the dramatic turns here. Still, it's a great read.

It's also interesting to see how the story changes for the films while still incorporating other aspects. It's my favorite book/film combo right now. (Subject to change on a whim.)

One aspect I really loved was the turning of the trope of Medieval Stasis right on its head. Instead of being a weakness, it's an important plot point.

Little Fuzzy - H. Beam Piper

This one is a classic. It's extremely charming and a worthwhile read. My main complaint is that it raises philosophical issues around which it then makes an end-run, rather than actually trying to resolve them.

Null-ABC - H. Beam Piper

Entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. It takes place in a world where reading is met with derision by the masses while also being jealously guarded by a learned elite. It ain't no Fahrenheit 451, although it includes the usual Piper rootin'-tootin' gunplay.

One day, I'll open a bookstore called Montag's Books. In the window will perpetually hang a sign exclaiming Fire Sale!

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A Love/Hate Relationship

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

Back when I used to read paper books, I picked up Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark from a paperback swap club. Then I bought a Nook, and the book sat with a bunch of other paperbacks on a shelf, neglected. This winter, I purchased an exercise bike, to try and keep up some sort of exercise regimen during the cold days. Since I didn't want to drip sweat on my Nook, I've been going through old paperbacks, starting with the long neglected The Speed of Dark.

If you look at reviews on Goodreads, you'll see some folks who think this is the best book ever. Others think it's crap, an inferior rip of Flowers for Algernon. Neither are fully correct. I both liked and disliked it intensely.

On the positive side, most of it is from the first-person perspective of an autistic man, albeit one with some near-future therapies applied. These parts are really touching and insightful. They do make you look at folks differently, with better understanding. It's very effective and evocative writing. I fully understand readers who laud the book based on this, and while I'm only dedicating a paragraph to this aspect of the book, it's equally as important as all my complaints to come. For you see, The Speed of Dark has a, well, dark side...


Actually, it's nothing sinister, it's just that the story is tepid and antagonists are awful. Let's talk about the story first. The gist of the book is that the protagonist has a chance to take advantage of a new treatment for autism. Should he avail himself of it? Seems simple, no? The story tries to be a mechanism by which the protagonist grows as a person, but it's utterly unnecessary. His growth occurs as part of his daily activities, which happen alongside the main storyline. Meanwhile, the main storyline itself churns along, adding very little. Yes, it forces a decision, but it does so in a very clunky manner. Midway, there's some intrigue suggested behind the therapy, but it's just left to sit there, as a vague threat. It's never developed. (If you want to see this threat actually developed, I highly recommend Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky. That book also does an excellent job providing a viewpoint from a radically different perspective.)

The book would be better without that storyline. Just give us the day-to-day personal growth of a compelling individual.

It's also worth noting that the whole book is very different from Flowers for Algernon in that most of the book leads up to decisions about the treatment. The book would have been fine stopping at the decision rather than continuing on with a couple more chapters showing the ramifications. The decision stands alone without need to be justified either way by subsequent events.

The second problem is with the antagonists. There's a main one, who propels the main storyline. He is, well, just awful. He may as well be twirling a mustache while he cackles his hatred of the protagonist, a hatred which is neither explained nor justified. It reminds me of reviews of The Lord of the Rings, complaining that Sauron is just this evil bad dude with no real motivation. (He actually has tons of motivation, but you need to read much more Tolkien before you see it. Or so I'm told. I haven't read that much.) Every time the book brings this guy in, I would cringe.

The second and tertiary antagonists are more realistic, in different degrees. It's weird. I totally buy the tertiary one and partially buy the secondary. It seems like the less central the antagonist, the better job she does making them real people with real motivations.

One other aspect that bothered me was that most of the book is written in the first person perspective, but it occasionally shifts to third-person to show things not apparent to the protagonist. This causes two problems. First, it lends an objectivity to the antagonists described above. Without these third-person sections, I could chalk the shallowness of the characters up to the differing perceptions of the protagonist. With those third-person sections in, I have to accept that those characters are just poorly written.

Second, it takes me out of the sense of immersion into which she so masterfully puts me for most of the book. Because most of these third-person sections involve the main storyline, they could just as easily be jettisoned.

So, final judgment? It's a really great book with some really big flaws. I enjoyed my time reading it, but I never felt compelled to read more. Normally, it's the plot that drives me to keep picking up a book. Instead, I picked it up, here and there, eventually reaching the end.

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To Infinity And Behind!

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

Okay, I'm done with this novella and with NaNoWriMo. If you're in the mood for a goofy half-assed read, the page for the novella is here: To Infinity And Behind!

Or, just use one of these quick links:

It ain't good, but it's okay for something hacked out in a month with minimal planning.

It's under a Creative Commons license, so feel free to share my literary brilliance with everyone you hate.

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Grunts Review

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

Grunts is a parody, mixing the Lord of the Rings from the orc perspective with Bakshi's Wizards. It's fun and clever, but drags on way too long. The story is broken down into three major story sections. If it had stopped with the first section, it would have been a brilliant parody. If it had stopped after the second, it still would have been good. But I really had to push through the third section. All the cleverness of the parody had long been played out. (With the exception of a bit of fun at chapter 11.)

It's one of those books people seem to love or hate. As usual, I fall somewhere in between, liking it, but finding it way too long for the concept. Descriptions get repetitious as well. Main characters are described, over and over, in the same terms. Maybe that's on purpose, as part of the parody? If so, that was a poor choice.

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Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

The B-Team (The Human Division #1)

So, John Scalzi is trying out serialization by diving back into the Old Man's War universe. Sweet! The idea is that he'll release thirteen works, one per week. Each one will be a self-contained story but, together, will form an overarching tale.

I want to pause at this point and mention how sweet pre-orders are on an eReader. Pre-ordered books just show up on the release date. It's awesome! That said, you should still strip the DRM from them. Although, in this case, the books have no DRM, because Scalzi is awesome that way. Don't abuse his awesomeness by pirating his books! Or any books, for that matter. If you don't want to pay for it, don't fucking read it! But do strip DRM, so that you aren't locked into an eReader platform.

Anyway, back to the book. The first episode came out last Tuesday, and, of course, I dropped everything to read it. It was a fun read but not a great book. It does have a tall order. It has to introduce a bunch of background and characters while also starting off the overarching tale and providing a decent story of its own. For long-time fans of the universe, there's a goodly amount of review. (Although it had been long enough for me that much of the review was welcome.) So, all in all, there's just too much it has to do in order to shine at any one task.

What suffers the most is the self-contained story. It features clever approaches by characters which are actually kind of obvious. It also crudely establishes things which are supposed to be a surprise later, yet aren't. Finally, it tries for the rushed feeling of a time sensitive crisis while also having characters engage in long-winded banter.

So, overall, it doesn't really shine, but nor is it a bad book. It's just not great. It is, however, good enough to make me want to read the next episode, and that's all it really has to do, isn't it.

(If I was thinking of it as simply the first couple chapters of a long book then I'd give it a better review. When all is said and done, I'll probably post such a review. But, as a standalone work, I stand by the criticisms.)

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I Thought You Were Dead

Posted: Monday November 01 2021 @ 6:28am

Religious Order: Books

Millennium People - J. G. Ballard

New Ballard? But he's dead.

Oh, it's new to the US. Well, okay then.

I'll admit, right out front, that I love Ballard. I will also admit that he writes the same damn book over and over.

It's always about society changing in some way, with people forming new ways to interact and new societies. It could be a high-rise apartment building. Or an island sanctuary. Or a gated community. Or a river. Or a car crash.

Millennium People is the same damn book. This time, it's the middle class getting pissed off about their empty lives.

So, why do I love Ballard? Because it's not about the story. It's not even about the people. (Hint, the main male character is always Ballard.) It's the way in which he writes. There's a high-strung pitch to it. There's a descriptive sense of the world that elevates the ordinary to something higher. Or lower.

And, if you like Ballard's writing, then you'll like this book as well. If you don't, well, then there's nothing here to presuade you otherwise.

The one difference this book has is an actual happy ending. That's new.

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