Religious Orders

A Tale of Two Victorian Utopias

Posted: Thursday January 15 2015 @ 8:03pm

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 Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:19pm

Religious Order: Books

The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard - J. G. Ballard

I've always loved Ballard, but this is really a bit too much. Read one after the other, the stories reveal Ballard's weakness for always writing the same story too obviously to ignore. Take one male protagonist, representing Ballard, add in a bromance with a second charismatic character, add an optional female love interest. Shake in a dystopia until the two men have a falling out. Done!

That said, if you're a big fan, there's some tasty stuff in here, just don't try and read it straight through. Dip in here and there, jumping back out when it gets to be too much. If you're a casual fan, you can get the highlights in other collections.

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On the Steel Breeze Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:17pm

Religious Order: Books

On the Steel Breeze - Alastair Reynolds

This is the sequel to Blue Remembered Earth. I didn't like that one much. I don't like this one much either. Most of the characters lack any sort of agency. Things happen to them or push them into certain actions. It doesn't help that much of the story is told in flashbacks. It's an odd choice in dealing with time dilation. I don't think it was a good one.

All that said, it's well written and contains more in the way of big ideas than the first book.

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Ears of Steel Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:14pm

Religious Order: Books

Ears of Steel: The Real Man's Guide to Walt Disney World - Bart Scott

As a nice short guide to manly stuff at Disney World, this was surprisingly good. I learned some new things while also learning to look at some old favorites in a different light.

The pandering to manly men gets a little old, but I'm not a manly man, so I'm not precisely the target market.

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Doubt: A History Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:12pm

Religious Order: Books

Doubt: A History - Jennifer Hecht

I can't say enough good things about this book. It's long. It's detailed. I loved every minute of it.

The subtitle explains it well: "The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson." That's exactly what it does, looking at various philosophers and philosophies, tracing the ideas through the ages, watching how they change. It's fascinating.

One thing I loved about it was that it isn't an atheist polemic. It covers some atheists, sure, but also believers with their own forms and levels of doubt. Sure, some religions look pretty bad during some eras. That's because they were pretty bad during those eras.

Another thing I loved is that it provides enough background on various religious movements for me to understand the changes in doubt that react to those movements, while not boring me if I happen to already know the details of a particular religion.

The only weakness is the last chapter, which spends a little too much time listing current doubters based on fame rather than ideas.

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Ancillary Justice Review

Posted: Friday November 28 2014 @ 4:11pm

Religious Order: Books

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

I'm pretty sure this is a debut novel, which is darn impressive. It's garnered some awards, as well. It has some really innovative stuff going on, although not everything works.

The first-person protagonist is an AI who runs distributed bodies to extend her real-world presence. Sweet idea and very well done. Any more details would be highly spoilery.

There are two separate storylines, displaced in time, which come together in a satisfying manner.

There's a goodly amount of societal backstory spicing things up. Most folks mention that the main society is genderless. Her and she are the defaults. You can play at trying to figure out which characters have which genitalia. I don't really visualize characters in books, so it neither thrilled nor annoyed me, once I realized what was going on.

Backstory I found more interesting included the various religions and the gloves. Yes, gloves. Their importance isn't explained, which I liked. I'm reading the second book in the trilogy right now. Still isn't explained. Good.

Two negative things stand out for me.

First, the writing is, well, unclear. Not bad, certainly. Not even clunky. Still, I found my self repeatedly rereading sections, unsure of what I had just read. Sure, this happens when I'm reading some heavy non-fiction or philosophy, but not with fiction. It's not just me, either. I've seen others make similar complaints. I'm having the same issue with the second book in the trilogy.

The second thing is that the basic plot is, well, very similar to the plot of the first book in John Varley's Titan series.

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Burn This Book!

Posted: Friday September 26 2014 @ 6:43am

Religious Order: Books

No, don't. Burn your body, instead. After you're dead. Or try a natural burial.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory
- Caitlin Doughty

Doughty's deal is that she's looking to revamp how we, as a society, deal with death. She has a series of fun videos called Ask a Mortician. This book augments her efforts there.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is basically a combination of Mary Roach's Stiff and Steve Almond's Candyfreak. It has some of the inside detail that Roach supplies, combined with the personal connections that you find from Almond. It describes her experiences working in a crematorium alongside her evolving views of death. There's a good balance between the two.

Keep in mind that her criticisms are societal in nature. If you're looking for a rant about the ecological consequences of huge-ass coffins, you'll not find it here. I'm not suggesting those aren't valid concerns, they're just not the focus of this particular book.

The only criticisms I'll lob are that her efforts building The Order of the Good Death get crammed into the very end of the book and the events in the Redwoods chapter seem to come out of nowhere.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for Late Summer 2014

Posted: Monday August 25 2014 @ 5:43pm

Religious Order: Books

More books!

Going Interstellar - Les Johnson & Jack McDevitt

This in an intriguing combination of fiction and non, all dealing with interstellar travel. The fiction is pretty sweet, going beyond the usual. (Buddhists in space? Really?) The non-fiction is good, but focused solely on drive alternatives. I would have liked to see some other aspects covered.

One bonus is that most of the non-fiction pieces reference other books that would be of interest. I bought a couple, but have only read one, so far. How did that go? Well...

Back to the Moon - Travis S. Taylor & Les Johnson

China has secretly gone to the Moon, but are in trouble and need rescuing! It sounds like a smaller, earlier version of The Martian. So I gave it a shot.

Ugh. This is awful. I abandoned it after four chapters. It reads like competent-men SF from the fifties, yet is only four years old. The characters? Here's Bill:

Bill rose from his chair and strode to the table, the alpha male in the room by the way he carried himself and his purposeful stride to the chair adjacent to the one Carlton had just occupied.

Here's Millie:

She had been Stetson's secretary, or, to be politically correct, his management support assistant, for almost five years.

Seriously, Millie the secretary?

Then there are the long rants at NASA, for making space travel boring. Legitimate gripe? Oh yes. Do you want to spend time with folks continually making said gripe? I don't.

After four chapters, I checked out some reviews, to see if this got any better. What I found was that the characterization became even worse once the Chinese showed up, and the rants at NASA continued.

Remember, kids, life is too short to waste it on bad books.

Starhawk - Jack McDevitt

McDevitt has a problem. He has this nice series of books about a Space Academy, featuring Priscilla Hutch Hutchins. The books are, generally, really fun reads. The problem? Hutch was getting old. In the fifth book, he moved her into a desk job, to the book's detriment. Turns out, this really isn't the Academy series. This is the Hutch series. Hutch needs to be the star player. Book six put her back into space, which was great to read, but the book suffered in other ways. Plus, now Hutch is, in the book's universe, getting a little old for action-packed space adventure.

What to do. What to do.

Ah ha! A prequel! See the start of Hutch's career!

And, you know, that's not a bad idea at all. The books isn't perfect. The overriding plot is thin. Hutch herself doesn't really do a whole lot of note. (Although that fits the prequel nature.) There are mysteries brought up that aren't resolved, presumedly as fodder for further books. (This sort of thing is awkward in a prequel, as none of the earlier-yet-later books mention these mysteries. Or maybe they do. It's been years since I read them. Hell, they're paper books!) Overall, a much improved read over the prior two books and a nice return to form for a great series.

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Short-Ass Book Reviews for Summer 2014

Posted: Monday August 11 2014 @ 10:23am

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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All-Star Game

Posted: Tuesday June 17 2014 @ 6:13pm

Religious Order: Sports

There's a problem with the All-Star Game. (Which All-Star Game? Baseball, duh.) Players get on the team via a popularity contest, which would be fine if the game was just an exhibition. Alas, the game counts now, as an overreaction to Bud leaving the 2002 game as a tie. If the game is going to count, then it should be played by the actual best players, not fan favorites.

Now, personally, I would be happiest with the game as an exhibition game. I don't see the point in the present meaningful game. To a very real extent, it could be abusive to non-contenting teams.

But let's say we're sticking with the meaningful all-Star Game. What would those teams look like? How would we pick? The most convenient way would be to use WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Is WAR perfect? No. But it's good enough for a blog post no one will read. So let's use ESPN's list, for the sole reason that it's the first one I found.

I'm going to follow Gold Glove rules and just use the top three outfielders, instead of worrying about which field they play. I'm also going to use the best pitcher as the starting pitcher and the next three as relief. (On the theory that relief pitchers are just failed starters.) I left closers out, as there weren't any in the top one hundred players, and I tired of looking for them. I also left out the DH, despite this year's game being held at Target Field, because the DH is an abomination.

So, here's what we get:

PositionAmerican LeagueNational League
CatcherSalvador Perez (Royals)Jonathan Lucroy (Brewers)
First BaseBrandon Moss (A's)Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks)
Second BaseBrian Dozier (Twins)Chase Utley (Phillies)
ShortstopAlexei Ramirez (White Sox)Troy Tulowitzki (Rockies)
Third BaseJosh Donaldson (A's)Todd Frazier (Reds)
OutfieldMike Trout (Angels)Giancarlo Stanton (Marlins)
OutfieldAlex Gordon (Royals)Andrew McCutchen (Pirates)
OutfieldJose Bautista (Blue Jays)A.J. Pollock (Diamondbacks)
Starting PitcherDallas Keuchel (Astros)Johnny Cueto (Reds)
ReliefYu Darvish (Rangers)Adam Wainwright (Cardinals)
ReliefMasahiro Tanaka (Yankees)Tim Hudson (Giants)
ReliefMark Buehrle (Blue Jays)Julio Teheran (Braves)

Seeing Dozier in there was a pleasant surprise for this die-hard Twins fan!

Feel free to compare these with the actual All-Star Game voting. There may be various rules keeping some players listed above from being considered for the voting. I just don't know. Overall, though, the All-Star Game voting is clearly a popularity contest.

I think that's fine, for an exhibition game. I think it's crappy, for a game that counts.

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