Saturday, August 2, 2014

On Being a Completionist

I am currently listening to an Econtalk episode with D.G. Myers, a literary critic who is living with cancer. He mentions that one of the great thing about these days is the possibility of being a completionist--the ability to read the entire work of an author.

I've wanted to read through some great authors' works before. and I think that I am going to get started on it. Now my question is: who do I read? I going to restrict myself to the 20th century, though I might eventually be up to reading through Twain and Melville and Dickens, though not Dickens (Nickeby was the worst thing I've ever read, except for Moll Flanders). I'm actually very close to having read the entire works of some authors (Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester; not to mention some recent authors who don't count), but never in a mindful way.

On to the list. I hope others will suggest possibilities in the comments. (% I've read before).
Raymond Carver (0%)
John Updike (0%)
Arthur C. Clarke (5%)
Kurt Vonnegut (60%)
Hemmingway (5%)
UK Le Guin (35%)

Of course, maybe I should just endeavor to read more good books, the best of everyone.

I recommend the podcast, by the way. The first half is his reflections on cancer and the common mentality towards those with cancer; the second half is a discussion of literary theory and the teaching of creative writing. Both halves are good, but the second half is a little more engaging. He seems to share my feelings that critical theory is the poison that is slowly killing the humanities.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Living and Dead Fandom; Or, Why It's Okay if GRRM Dies before Finishing ASOIAF

The internet has changed the way people consume media and spread knowledge about media. 

Fandom is perhaps the most important innovation. Fandom is a community that complements each member's consumption of a media franchise. These communities predated the internet, as Star Trek conventions and Star Wars media attests (even to the awkward romantic pairings that are commonplace these days). The internet is a much stronger community building tool than existed in the days of fan newsletters, magazines, and annual conventions. Fandom is open to anyone with an internet connection or a local library and findable by anyone with a search engine.* 

Fandom requires two things: some threshold of interest in the media franchise to make the community is self-sustaining, and the possibility that the franchise continues in the future. Fandom creates complementary media (including fan-fiction), speculates about the in-universe world, and plays out real-world issues in the context of the franchise. Each of these things makes the franchise itself more enjoyable and valuable to the people who consume the media. While a few 'dead' media franchises can maintain the 'threshold' for community survival (Harry Potter, Trek/Wars), most Fandoms cannot survive without the value of speculation and the relevance of the story to contemporary events. 

When Harry Potter was still 'living,' there was an enormous community (several forums and websites) devoted to mining the text to predict what will happen next in the story. LOST inspired similar devotion. The novels of A Song of Ice and Fire do the same today. As does Doctor Who. Once the work is 'dead,' the incentive to mine the text disappears, since few people will choose to painstakingly uncover evidence about the future of the story when the story has an ending. The sort of 'Canon capital' that individuals within fandom acquire, in finding little hints or inventing ingenious theories disappears when the story ends.** The communities surrounding LOST or BSG dispersed at the end of the series finale. Franchises like Firefly or Veronica Mars, which died pre-ending, seem to maintain their communities better than franchises that properly end. 

Fandom's emergence has enormous effects on new media. First, the threshold factor of Fandom makes media franchises more 'superstar' oriented. Franchises which differ little in quality or audience can have drastically different Fandoms: one may reach the 'tipping point' to a self-sustaining community while another falls just short. Random events that push popularity briefly above that tipping point are much more important. Audience members who 'consume' media in a social setting have an outsized influence on the creation of Fandom and the success of a franchise. Media becomes much more feast-or-famine. 

In conjunction with the decline of television advertising, Fandom's knowledge-distributing network can mobilize people to consume media. Keeping franchises alive, or using franchises to tell stories (where they otherwise might have been told 'unfranchised'), becomes much more powerful. The almost absurd propensity to tie things into franchises or reboot old franchises is a natural reaction to Fandom: it gives existing Fandoms hope that their franchise has not seen the end, and it taps into an existing resource. The new miniseries strategy (e.g., 24; Heroes: Reborn; Torchwood) becomes a dominant strategy. British TV has thrived not because of any superiority of content, but because its model better fits the new media consumption reality.We'll move away from a model where TV shows are either renewed or cancelled, towards one where every media franchise is open to constant, uncertain, renewal, similar to British TV and Netflix. 

Overall, there is great value in keeping a media franchise alive. There was joy in the communities that emerged when Harry Potter was incomplete, and the experience can't be recreated by reading the books today. These communities are time-sensitive, so jump in while they're still going. 

*Back when media was a monolith--three channels and few movies--one's media-consumption community and one's social community were much more likely to be one and the same. Once media became much more diverse, one's community would have to be much larger to match the same threshold of like-consumers. As an aside, I wonder if a sort of Fandom emerged in the early mystery magazines, or Western novels? 

**Which raises an interesting point: why does the author of a work have near authoritarian power over the decision of 'canon?' Can one individual, or group, unilaterally change canon, like Disney is apparently doing with the Star Wars Extended Universe? Why might there be no resistance from fans? If the ending to LOST sucked, why not invent a new one? Copyright law is huge here, which is a bummer for Fandoms.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On Good and Evil

Many people claim that complex representations of good and evil are superior to black-and-white distinctions. I tend to agree with this claim, especially when representing reality. Very rarely in real life are there people who would, with proper 'fellow-feeling,' be entirely evil. Stories depicting reality in black-and-white terms are, more often than not, destructive. When art is trying to imitate life, then, strict boundaries of good versus evil are not productive. 

That said, I was reflecting upon many of the stories that I love. Harry Potter. The Lord of the Rings. The Hunger Games. Star Wars (to a lesser extent). And, heck, I'll even throw in Atlas Shrugged. What these have in common is that they do not in any way match my avowed ideal depiction of good versus evil. At best, these stories try to generate sympathy for the villains by showing where they 'went wrong,' like with Smeagol or Tom Riddle. But, while the 'merit' of evil is not always unambiguously placed at the feet of the character, there is no doubt that evil is the result. 

Now, in my defense, I like quite a few stories where things are less black and white. The Stars My Destination, anything by UK Le Guin, the Ender series (the first one), Song of Ice and Fire, Star Trek on good days... but it's not the overwhelming majority that I would have guessed. 

So, what's the purpose of sharp distinctions between good and evil? By making one side unambiguously evil, it frees up the story to explore what it means to be 'good.' By caricaturing one side, all of the focus can be on the exploration of, and a more complex depiction of, what it means to be good, to live a good life, and so on. Angels vs Demons is boring, to be sure, but complexly imagined good guys vs Demons is something that works. In Harry Potter, we get a very clear vision of good: one who is forgiving, reliant on friends, compassionate, imperfect, and so on. In LoTR, the good is pastoral, simple, self-reliant as much as possible, and so on. The villains may have some level of complexity, but their values do not. It's probably why Rand was a Romantic: it allowed her to spend the time presenting her image of the good, which was the entire point of her project. Imagining the villains of Atlas Shrugged complexly would have been more realistic, but it would have made the endeavor less successful; LoTR would not have been improved by complexly imagining Sauron's philosophy.

I will say that when it comes to historical or contemporary fiction, especially when dealing with somewhat political events, my original 'good and evil should both be imagined complexly and not as a dichotomy in reality' maxim still applies. I think that's why I found The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak so non-compelling. He tries to depict a real life situation, Nazi Germany, and does so by clearly labeling people 'good guys' and 'bad guys' depending on their relationship to the party. I get it, Nazis are evil. But if you are going to depict a group of people who actually existed, there should be some attempt to try to get inside their heads. At the very least, you will be able to discover how normal people can find 'evil' so compelling. Perhaps this is one of the benefits science fiction and fantasy, where depicting someone as 'pure evil' does not dehumanize actual people, and so understandings about what is 'good' can be explored more acceptably.

(This is my "Ryan discovers what he would have learned in week 3 of his Lit 101 class" post)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ryan Reviews: The Stars My Destination - Alfred Bester

One of my all-time favorite books. The Stars My Destination (originally called Tyger, Tyger) is, basically, the Count of Monte Cristo in space but a lot shorter.

Gully Foyle is our antihero. He begins the book as a nobody who just happens to be stranded on a ship. He lives in a utility closet, leaving each day to replenish his food, water, and air. His entire life has been a story of wasted potential: intellect but no education, strength but no finesse, opportunity but no effort. We are told that psychologists have tried, and failed, to find the ‘key’ to ‘unlock’ Foyle. That key arrives during one of Foyle’s daily gatherings. His salvation, the SS Vorga, approaches his ship when Foyle fires off his emergency flares, but bypasses him.* Foyle’s rage engages his mind. He educates himself using the manuals on the ship, and ingeniously gets his dead ship moving again. An extremely weird ‘Scientific People,’ the barbaric decedents of a lost scientific expedition, collect Foyle’s ship and brand him with a hideous face tattoo. 

The middle of the book follows Foyle’s attempts to get revenge on Vorga. He is single-minded, ugly, and amoral (and occasionally evil). He is imprisoned for refusing to tell people the location of his ship and the powerful PyRE that was aboard. He escapes with the unfortunately named Jizz McQueen, a woman who educated him while they were both in prison, able to speak only by a quirk of geology. After the escape, the two go to get Foyle’s tattoo removed. Unfortunately, the removal is only partially successful: when blood rushes to Gully’s face, the ugly mask returns. Emotion becomes Foyle’s greatest enemy.

He and Jizz are successful at liberating the cargo of his ship, but Foyle loses Jizz in the process. The fortune aboard the ship allows Foyle to rebrand himself Geoffrey Fourmyle, a man who exists only to be noticed. Fourmyle is more articulate and educated than Foyle, and with control of his emotions. People recognized Foyle only by his mask, so as long as Fourmyle kept his emotions under control, he was free to continue his pursuit of Vorga. Unfortunately, he falls in love with Olivia Prestign, who turns out to be the person who was in command of the Vorga when it left Foyle to die (and turned out to be an awful human for other reasons). 

As the book nears conclusion, Foyle starts to encounter a burning man. The burning man, it turns out, is him—from his future. Foyle is concussed while trying to protect PyRE, and the concussion interacts with his enhancements (that make him move more quickly than his prey and heighten his senses) to cause a weird bout of synesthesia. The burning man is Foyle, fully unlocked. While most humans can only jaunte (teleport using the mind) between 50-1000 miles, and only terrestrially, Foyle turns out to be exempt from this limitation, jaunting through space and time (the confused Foyle tries to warn his past self, showing up only as the strange burning man, unable to communicate through his synesthesia). Once he returns to normal, he is faced with a moral dilemma: what to do with PyRE. PyRE could potentially destroy the world, or it could end the war (between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites). His options: respect the property rights of the rightful owner of PyRE; give the weapon to the Inner Planet government, to give them a fighting chance against the more powerful Outer Satellites; or to be pragmatic, giving both sides PyRE with the hope that neither will use it for fear of retaliation. 

By now Foyle is a transformed man. Foyle’s conscience is like a muscle, atrophied after years of being unnecessary (since he could just coast along), but growing stronger as he begins to face dilemmas. His decision is to take the decision away from the Great Men. A society where the great, the tigers, choose for the many is a society where the many become like Foyle at the beginning of the book: willing to act only to meet their necessities. He distributes the PyRE among the common people of the Earth, giving the choice of ‘living or dying back to the people who do the living and the dying.’ 

While Foyle may be unredeemable (rapists usually are), his arc is one of moral growth and transformation. Even though his goal throughout the book is vengeance, hardly commendable, he is forced into situations where he must choose to act morally or immorally. By having a goal, Foyle had choices to make, whereas when he had no power, he needed make no choices. The anti-authority, pro-moral-autonomy message is one that I, of course, like quite a bit. 

A friend of mine (Anthony) said that this book was full of ‘casual ridiculousness’ (did I get it right?). Very true. The concept of teleportation with the mind, as an inherent ability of all humans, is ridiculous. The Scientific People are ridiculous. I could go on. If you’re looking for any hard Sci-Fi, look elsewhere. This is Star Wars logic, not even Star Trek, and perish the thought of Hal Clement. While the scientific aspects of it all were patently ridiculous, the social aspects of it resonated, for the most part. A new technology makes important resources that some nations rely on completely worthless, leading to political instability? Check. Ridiculous conspicuous consumption by the rich? Check (though I could do without the ‘business as clan’). Groups of people circling the world in perpetual night looking for places to loot? Sure. People cutting their brains off from their senses, so that they live voluntarily as vegetables? Yeah, especially given the universal lack of moral autonomy.

Finally, I love Bester’s style, at least for this book. He’s brisk and cinematic (making his transition into Comic Book writing unsurprising).

This book is imperfect, of course. Bester is steeped in Freudian psychology, though it manifests itself only lightly in this book. Bester is also sexist; not the (not really) benign neglect that characterizes most Sci-Fi authors of the Golden Age, but a sexism that actively defines a role for women as generally subservient to men. It peeks through in this book, given the hyper-Victorian treatment of women, but it is concealed by a couple strong female characters (who are unusual in their strength, it is noted). I would have written the sexism off as a purposeful way of showing the alienness of the world caused by jaunting,** but readings elsewhere of his speeches and non-fiction writings show a fairly unrepentant sexist. In addition to that, some of the tropes that Bester plays upon are probably a lot easier for me to swallow, given my love for random old sci-fi, than it is for someone going in for a straightforward story.

*Bester was inspired by a story during WWII, where a seaman on a lifeboat was ignored by both Axis and Allied ships, though both had the opportunity to save him. Both thought the lifeboat was a trap laid by the other. 

**My rule of thumb is to believe that fictional worlds represent ideas that the author finds interesting, rather than aspects of the author’s ideology. Some people call Robert Heinlein a fascist, because in Starship Troopers only those who have served the government have the right to vote. Of course, that makes him an anarchist for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. (People usually only do this when they disagree with the author’s real views. Heinlein a libertarian? That’s basically a stone’s throw away from fascism anyways! Le Guin portrays a socialist society with some subtlety? She must be a commie-relativist-hippie! Mixing politics with reading is lame. Yes, I know I’ve just been doing that for the past several sentences.)

Ryan Reviews: The Colorado Kid - Stephen King

3 out of 5 stars.

More of a novella than a novel, The Colorado Kid features three newspaper writers, two old men and a young lady. The newspapermen, deciding that the young lady is a good egg, let her in on their Island’s most interesting unsolved mystery: the death of the Colorado Kid. 

That the mystery is unsolved is the point of the story. Stories in newspapers or in books often have clean beginnings, middles, and ends. Stories in life do not. The Colorado Kid subverts the standard expectations that this book sets forth. Does a new set of eyes shed light on the mystery? Not at all. Is she inspired to find clues to solve the case? No. Most stories that we observe in real life have no endings, and we are perpetually suspended in the midst of stories that are not really stories. Because there is no closure to these stories, people rarely recite them, since they are inherently unsatisfying (something King thought most readers would feel about The Colorado Kid). 

Being a one-of-a-kind story gives CK a bit more impact. If it became common for books to take a post-modern turn and tell stories-that-aren’t-stories, it would get tiresome quickly. Heck, there are a lot of bad books that are unintentionally stories-that-aren’t-stories. Read as a commentary on the stories we tell, CK works. 

Now, the book’s biggest detractors cite its place in a series of books meant to be hard-boiled, pulp detective novels. As a detective story this book fails—whoever decided to market it as a detective story did this book no favors. There is mystery, yes, but recounting some amateur detective work of twenty-five years ago does not a detective story make. 

As an aside… One thing that drew me to this book was the Syfy (*cringe*) TV show Haven, which is fun but not great. The show is a paranormal police procedural, where the townsfolk are cursed with psychic ‘troubles’ that… well, cause trouble. Haven shares three things with the Colorado Kid: it takes place in Maine, the newspapermen are named Vince and Dave, and someone named the Colorado Kid died mysteriously, long ago. The two have less in common than Asimov’s I Robot story collection has with the eponymous Will Smith movie. That said, the worst that the association did was point me to this book, so I can forgive it. At least I didn’t come to it expecting a hard-boiled detective novel!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ryan Reviews: Nexus - Ramez Naam

This is hard sci fi going where lots of soft sci fi has gone before. Telepathy and collective intelligence shows up, notably, in Bester's Demolished Man, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, and many, many more; not to mention the collective intelligences featured in Star Trek and Doctor Who (and many, many, more.) The innovation of Nexus is its focus on neuroscientific and nanotechnological foundations of collective intelligence. 

The central mechanism in the story is Nexus 5. This drug, when first ingested, goes about mapping and 'rationalizing' the mind, making intelligible what would otherwise be unintelligible to others (or to the self). People can program their bodies to react in certain ways, overriding weakness of body and will. It then allows people to access and alter other people's minds at varying levels, allowing mental 'texting' and communication of emotions, but also the domination of the senses and body. Lane, the protagonist, uses this aspect of the drug to force Sam, an anti-drug government agent, into a state of sensory deprivation. Lane gets dominated, later, by posthuman Chinese scientist Su-Yong Shu. The most interesting implication comes from the merging of minds without coercion, when the merging of minds creates an emergent, greater, intelligence. It is fitting that the people most interested in this are hippies and Buddhist monks. 

Naam's biggest success is the idea of Nexus 5. His execution of the story based around the concept is less of a success, but still enjoyable. The descriptions of the effects of the drug were, frankly, not weird enough. Nexus often just seems like Google Glass that can make your body a video game character (indeed, the 'Don Juan' pick-up program reminded me a lot of the dialog choice interface in the Mass Effect or Knights of the Old Republic video games). The more radical implications of Nexus suffer from being told to us instead of shown. 

Kade Lane, the protagonist, is an optimist regarding the potential of Nexus to do social good. His opposition is Sam, who fears the abuse of power that Nexus allows. Sam's arguments against Nexus are shot down by Lane by statements of 'I won't allow that to happen,' which are never really that reassuring. The government gets Lane to work with them in exchange for leniency for his friends in a drug bust, and Lane and Sam attend a Neuroscience conference in Thailand. There, Sam and Lane argue about the merits of Nexus and 

Sam's character arc comes to a close when she discusses her reasons for being against the Nexus drugs. Turns out, her family was dominated by a precursor to Nexus; a commune decided to expose itself to a virus that made all of them more altruistic--but (in a parable out of Ayn Rand) in the land of the altruistic, the selfish man is king. Sam escaped, while her family did not. She confesses all of this to Lane while they are under the influence of Nexus and another mood-enhancing drug. She releases her pain, but then ceases to be a driving character. Like the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek 5 when Sybok took their pain, Sam's emotional resolution leads to a loss of agency.

The resolution of the book ignores the characters, cementing Nexus as the central purpose of the book. Lane uploads the Nexus formula, and despite the efforts of governments around the world, it spreads to everyone. Lane's victory in the debate between him and Sam is not really the victory of his ideas, but in the loss of Sam's agency and the evil of his enemies. 

The shape of the story (a la, Vonnegut) is an incomplete version of 'Man in a Hole.' We have a well-off character who is dumped into a hole... and he's supposed to get out and be better off for the journey, but instead it ends with him being still in the hole while Nexus gets out. Visually:

Some unanswered questions: How does consciousness work? When we're given the perspective of the characters under domination, their internal monologues remain their own, their thoughts remain untouched; only the 'machinery' aspects of the mind are affected. Was this description of the mind intentional? It seems to cut against the possibility of collective intelligence, instead pointing to the drug as an extreme form of communication (which is even hinted at by the comparison of Nexus to reading and writing).

Overall, ***.5/***** (rounded up for Goodreads). An intriguing subject and easy read, somewhat limited by an unsatisfactory handling of the story and description.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ryan Reviews (short): The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman (Audiobook)

** (out of *****)

A 'postmodern' take on the wizard school genre. The protagonist, Quentin Coldwater, is a boy who has little investment in the real world and is chronically unhappy. He's smart but doesn't care that much about school, has only a handful of friends, and is not that close to his family. His main escape is magic (as in sleights-of-hand) and a fantastical world of Fillory (which is, by the way, the dumbest name ever). He's whisked away to a school of magic, where he excels but fails to find contentment. After graduation, he moves to Manhattan where he does nothing but slide further into motionlessness--until an old acquaintance returns with a way into Fillory. Blessed with the opportunity to live his childhood dreams, Quentin, of course, finds nothing but despair and tragedy. The experience leaves him so disillusioned that he returns to New York and gives up magic, instead settling for a menial job provided as a sort of welfare for disillusioned magicians.

I expected a lot from this book and was disappointed. The 'deconstruction' of the 'boy-magic' genre is superficial, and turn instead into 'what would Hogwarts be like if it kind of sucked' along with 'Quiddich that kind of sucks.' The biting social commentary is, sadly, absent. The book touches on some important subjects: What do you do in a 'post-scarcity' situation, when the main struggle of life is not satisfying your wants, but in finding things to want? [Iain M. Banks's Culture series tackles this question much better.]
The lack of direction experienced by Quentin resonates, at first, but he quickly turns into a caricature, severing any degree of sympathy between him and the reader.

The failings of the book lie in the weakness of the main character, Quentin. Quentin exists simply to be disappointed by things. Not for any deep reason; that is just his m.o. Unfortunately, merely describing someone feeling disappointment is not enough to get the reader to go along with the character's disappointment. The fantasy genre is full of paper characters who have no purpose other than to let the author tell us how wondrous everything is; paper characters who only let the author tell us how disappointing everything is not much of an advance.