Top Books

I like to write, which I think for most people who enjoy that, also likely enjoy reading. I could go into a very long post about how society is on the verge of being post-literate, best exemplified by the increase in streaming + book to movie conversions. But this is a blog, and you’re reading it, so you’re not exactly that audience.

I have a preference for fiction. Mostly due to work giving me more than enough material in the non-fiction area. I tend to stick to sci-fi authors, as they generally have more complex world building that isn’t reliant on tropes. Or perhaps that’s just cause the gap between good sci-fi and bad is much larger than good and bad fantasy.

Dune – Herbert

Might as well start with a gold standard. Dune as a standalone novel is full of crazy ideas that have been replicated in nearly all sci-fi stories from 1990 on out. Dune as an idea, that is something else. There are few examples of books that can tackle the concepts of religion and determinism, and this series is at another level. It is one of the first books to really take the concept of AI to the next level, again, with religious tones.

Foundation – Asimov

This series started as a collection of short stories in pulp. The three main line books (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Second Foundation) deal with intergalactic civilizations and rarely ever fire a shot. It’s a thinking person’s series, more in line with Sherlock Holmes than you would think. The concept here is that there’s a math equation for society, that can foretell future events at larger scales (not individuals, but groups of people). There’s an underlying plan to avert 1000 year dark age, and then seeing how people deal with that concept and the people “controlling” the math. There are ton of books in this series, but these 3 are the gold standard.

If you want to read another seminal book from Asimov, I suggest The Gods Themselves. That is a mind messer.

Childhood’s End – Clarke

I’ve read this story at least a dozen times. Every time is makes me take pause and reflect on our understanding of what humanity really means. This theme of humanity exploring it’s own limits is also found in 2001: A Space Odyssey (I do appreciate the film more than the novel), and Rendez-vous with Rama (only the first book is worth it). Childhood’s End instead focused on the end of humanity as we know it, and how society comes to terms with that fact. It is an astounding work of thought.

The Fifth Season – Jemison

A very recent series that deals with society facing the end of the world. Again. There are a few tropes in here (mages are all evil and need to be controlled) but the real interesting bit here is the world building. The lengths that people will go to in order to protect their own. The 3rd novel comes to terms with the lore, which ties in so many other loose ends. There’s no denying the fact that as a female author of colour, Jemison had to surmount some impressive hurdles to get this out the door.

7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Covey

I can’t think of any other book that has had more impact on my general life than this one. If ever you’re feeling overswamped with things, this book has a set of tools that can help you prioritize through them. With some exercises. If you have someone you can talk to about this method, all the better. I’m somewhat amazed this isn’t mandatory reading in high school.

Wheel of Time – Jordan

Where Tolkien laid the ground work, Jordan defined pretty much every single fantasy trope in use today. It is an astoundingly dense series of overflow 4 million words, hundreds of characters, massive armies, complex magical structures, time travelling eternals, and an absolutely effective ending. I re-read the series every time a new book came out, and there’s a practically essential wiki as well.

Flowers for Algernon – Keyes

This is a story about a slow person who goes through an experimental project to become smarter, and examines the positives and negatives that come with it. It exemplifies the “ignorance is bliss” mindset. It is rare to read any tragic sci-fi novel, and rarer still to have one stick with you for years on.

Ender’s Game – Card

Boy genius + military world set = catastrophic consequences. This is a very complicated story, with a very strange writer. This was written when war games (simulated war through computers) was a theory, and has only aged like wine with time. The entire concept of consequences when you think you’re playing a game is the foundation of drone strikes being a valid military strategy. That distance removes empathy and allows for crazy decisions. Then the realization dawns, and it all falls to pieces.

Hyperion Cantos – Simmons

What if people were immortal? What if time travel were possible? What if both intersected? The first novel is more anthology, and absolutely spectacular with a tomb that is travelling back through time as the focal point. The latter parts of the series focuses on the challenges with immortality, the risks with AI, and the concepts of self-sacrifice. Simmons underlays it all with multiple allusions to the poet Keats.

American Gods – Gaiman

Gaiman is a prolific author, primarily in visual mediums (comics, tv). This book explores the concept of gods being real, manifest of our worships and feeding off of it. The American Gods reflect our obsession with the internet, TV, and food, taking away from the older gods of folklore. It’s really hard to write any fantasy in current day settings, it just doesn’t age well. Yet here it feels almost prescient.

There are dozens of other authors I enjoy. King’s Dark Tower series would be here if he was still doing drugs (Blaine the mono can only exist on a binge). A lot a references from other people, or message boards. And with ebooks its a simple matter of finding what you want. And there’s plenty of “good” bad writing out there. Dan Brown is a horrible writer, like eye gouging bad, but he gets people reading which is awesome. Not everything needs to be about learning or deep thought, it can be to just past the time and think of something else.

While we’re all strapped for time, there really isn’t much compared to the feeling you get when reading a great book. Just need to make time for it.

Love, Death & Robots

I think sci-fi is my favorite genre.  My favorite stories come from the golden age, when people were chasing stories rather than paychecks (the 80s… ugh).  There’s a child-like vision in those older stories, where the science projections were more magical and focused on the psychology, rather than the technology itself.  Or from another lens, great sci-fi is about people, not technology.

Netflix has an anthology series Love, Death & Robots that tells multiple story lines, with a sci-fi backdrop.  They are between 5-17 minutes, so really quick bites.  Anthologies are like a buffet, there’s something for everyone, but not everything is for someone.  I used to have bookshelves full of them as a kid (Reader’s Digest is exactly that).  And in most sci-fi, the best stories are the short ones, where there’s plenty of open ended questions (see The Martian Chronicles).

There were quite a few highlights here for me, in my order of preference

Beyond the Aquila Rift

This plays out like golden sci-fi, with an interesting punch at the end.  There are some open ended parts, and a nice twinge of horror within.

Sonnie’s Edge

The main line story is great, the setting a bit less.

Secret War

Aside from the monster design, every other bit of this story hits near-perfect notes.  It’s very tight, and is eerily relatable.

The Witness

There are many stories like this, but none that look like this.  Apparently there was no mo-cap, which frankly, bodes well for CG as a whole in the genre.

Shape-Shifters

Werewolves in modern day setting… much better than Underworld’s gothic take on it.  The blending of genres works here… a bit like the Forever War.

 

Not to say that the other shorts are bad, they just resonated less with me.  When the Yogurt Took Over I’ve read a dozen times now in other formats.  A half dozen others seem like they are pulled straight from Heavy Metal.

Considering how short each episode is, it’s very digestible.  Most of us can spare 17 minutes to watch an interesting story.  Kind of hoping we get more anthologies in this vein.

Wrist Issues

I’ve been going to physio for a few weeks now, with a pain in the lower left part of the palm of my right hand.  It’s been nagging me for a few months, enough that push ups are too painful.  Anyhoot, a fair chunk of exercises and massages and treatment with basically more pain.

Last night I had a 2nd consult, from someone with a bit more experience with hand injuries.  It is difficult to describe the level of pain felt when he started some movements with my hand.  Sort of like stubbing all your toes at once and the body simply goes numb except for that single part flaring like fire.  He found some other issues at play and now I have a taped up wrist and a new set of exercises to do.  Apparently I have a month of rehab at least, then it may end up with surgery.  I am not looking forward to that possibility.

The worst part is that I play hockey and the injury is on the hand that does most of the work. And some of the exercises I do are limited by the movements of the wrist.  I’m told that as long as I have the tape, I should be able to keep doing what I was doing… but I’m now consciously aware of the issue more so than just living with the pain.  Ah well, cardio doesn’t really require the hands so maybe I’ll swap to that for a while.

I did order some gym equipment… and I think it’s being delivered today.  That should be interesting.

Books

I’ve read a fair chunk of Hugo books lately, though the most challenging was the Rama series.  I really like Clarke’s style of sci-fi, a real knack for the future.  The first book is exactly this, an exploration into a new world, with great pace.  A solid pitch.

The next 3 novels in that series were not really from Clarke but from Gentry Lee.  They go back to the same spaceships and focuses more on the people than the science.  Gentry Lee is not a very good “people” writer.  It is littered with tropes and needless sexual descriptions.  It’s got to be every 40 pages that the characters are getting it on.  The science and underlying ideas are solid enough, minus the last 20 pages or so.

spoiler.  If your main character has spent 60 years cheating and avoiding death, yearning to stay with their family, I am not certain that they would have a sudden change of heart and just accept they are going to die in 10 hours, when a perfectly viable solution is available.  end spoiler

The first book was done in 2 days.  The last 3 took me nearly a week each because it was so hard to get into it.  Then again, I guess it’s like asking someone to take up Michelangelo’s chisel and make another David.

Update on Things

Da Books

I’ve finished a few more books along the way.

The 2nd book in the Three Body Problem series, Dark Forest, is done.  I enjoyed it a lot more than the first one, mainly due to pacing.  When the first book ends, there’s a 450 year countdown to the end of the Earth.  The second book starts with 4 people assigned to think of a way to avert that destruction, while being limited to today’s technology.  The baddies have found a way to prevent the quantum leap in technology.  From a writing perspective, this is actually pretty neat.  It makes the entire tech relatable from a human perspective, and the aliens tech work like magic.  The twist in the story is logical, which helps a whole lot, though the 4 people all use the same gambit. Of course, you can’t read this one if you didn’t read the first one…

I also picked up and finished Red Shirts.  As you can guess, this is a book about the Star Trek (TOS) phenomena where all the red shirts die on away missions.  It’s written through comedy and is quite meta.  It borrows a fair chunk from Last Action Hero, Stranger than Fiction and similar stories, but adds a human touch to it with the Jenkins character.  All of it is relatable, and quite hilarious.  The final quarter moves away from the main story and provides a different view on the problem sets.  I found it oddly similar to the Douglas Adams series of books, with quite a few absurd situations.

I’m now digging into some golden era books, starting with Stranger in a Strange Land.

Da Games

A little break from XCOM2 for a bit.  I have a few ideas as to what my next playthrough will include.  Going to plan a bit before starting up again.

Meanwhile, I found Assassin’s Creed Pirates on my tablet.  This exemplifies what I did and did not like from AC4.  The game is more or less a set of mini-games focused almost entirely on the ship on the sea.  There’s a very small component of infinite runner for some customization upgrades, but overall, it’s just about finding other ships and blowing them up.  The navigation is good enough, the combat is acceptable, and the art is quite nice.  It’s a F2P game that used to be B2P, so there are very few hurdles aside from time played.  It’s grindy, since there are really only a few types of missions in the game, but it’s fun.

The worst part is the storyline, which I think is endemic to the entire AC series.  It makes no sense whatsoever and the actual missions are horrible. It could have been any other IP and just pasted Pirates on it, and you wouldn’t have seen the difference.  It should be said that the main story is like 2% of the game though, so it’s really just a jarring stop to the gameplay when you encounter it.

Finally, The Room 3 is worth every penny.  It took about 6 hours to clear all the various parts, and aside from a single puzzle (the pendulum) I was able to get it all done without any hints.  The production values are amazing.  After playing these games, it really does beg the question why there is no competition in this field on tablets.  Firewatch, the Witness, and Monument Valley can show that puzzle games are really quite good.  Hopefully this section of the market can expand.  Really makes me want to play Myst again…

When Will This Month End

I have mentioned over the years how much I despise the month of February and this year doesn’t feel much different.  Well, aside from the fact that winter seems to be leaving quite a bit early.  It’s a ho-hum month of blah, stuck at the tail end of the holiday season and before the March break.  The middle child month I suppose, certainly because the only days of note are for scams romantics or drunks.  Or maybe both, depending on how you’re feeling.  Ah well.

Three Body Problem

Continuing my Hugo journey, I picked up Three Body Problem, a sci-fi novel from a rather popular Chinese author.  Of course it’s a trilogy, it’s sci-fi.  I’ve finished the first book and moved onto the second.

I generally try to avoid translated material, as the nuances of a given language rarely ever translate properly.  I speak 2 languages fluently and understand chunks of a few others, and stuff just doesn’t move over.  You lose the flavor and nuance of that culture.  This is a clearly evident in the books.  It’s written at a high school level mastery of English, which I think is quite appropriate.  But when you compare to the vividness of English-first sci-fi, you’re left wanting more.  The story is solid, with some neat twists within.  It’s not hard to follow either.

The general premise is that scientific research is going haywire and scientists are freaking out.  There’s a hidden organization that needs to be infiltrated by a scientist and the stuff he uncovers changes the reality for all humans.  The final quarter starts to stretch the imagination, in particular in the description of sophons.  At a very basic level, the question is “what happens if we can’t move past the quantum mechanics wall”?  A story that is rooted in relativistic physics is more fiction related than science-fiction, but the ideas mesh well.

The second book deals with the aftermath of the first book’s discovery and how humanity has to deal with the idea of a no-win situation for their progeny.  If you’re read Childhood’s End by Clarke, then you have an idea where this is going.

I can’t seem to find a translated ebook version of the 3rd book yet, so we’ll see where I end up after the 2nd one.  I’m rather liking moving from recent, down to the golden age.  I have read a fair chunk of Heinlein, Clark, Asimov, Dick, Herbert, Gibson, Niven, and Bradbury.  Having that as a basis, it really makes you appreciate the foundations they’ve built for today’s authors.

XCOM2

I don’t get how GMG makes money.  I had a 25% voucher for XCOM2 on Steam through GMG.  Dan Stapleton is my go-to reviewer for strategy games and if he’s happy, then it’s a done deal.  My understanding is that it’s XCOM refined with lessons learned from both Enemy Within and the Long War mod.

Enemy Within was a great addition, since it forced you to keep moving rather than play a defensive style.  It also added a lot of customization options, which meant that I was no longer running 5 snipers.  The Long War mod…that’s just a whole other topic.  You can call it a remake of a remake I guess, since it took all the basics of the game and tweaked the balance in order to make much more strategic.  Placing the right resources at the right time, being able to recover from un-winnable decisions (like losing a country’s funding), and just extending the entire session to something epic.

Given the early reviews are extremely positive, this seems like a done deal.

Hugo and Me

Transport

Driving is more than the act of sitting in a vehicle, it involves actual movement.  Living in Canada in the winter, the capital no less, means that there’s not much driving to be had, so I end up taking the bus to and from work.  I don’t particularly like the bus as I can spend 20 minutes waiting for the damn thing to arrive, only to be packed like sardines, but it is a greener option and less costly overall.  When things do end up just right, I get a seat and can get some reading done.

Reading Goals

Murf had mentioned this late last year, getting some heavy reading done with a particular focus on the Hugo Awards. That works out, since I have quite a liking to the sci-fi genre.  I used to read quite heavily on my e-reader, though over time I found it less and less practical compared to having a tablet.  So I’ve loaded up some software and started at it.

I will say this about sci-fi, and fantasy even, authors have a love for trilogies.  I don’t get what people are so fascinated about the number 3, but it seems like everything is linked to something else.  The downside to this is that you have trouble moving between series and feel some sort of obligation to finish it (if possible) or end up waiting years between the books to close some cliffhangers.  Robert Jordan and GRR Martin are notorious culprits in the length of writing, though quite nicely offset by the quality.

Back on track.  I wasn’t quite sure where to start with the Hugos, either the golden age or the new age.  Then I started looking at the titles and realized that I’ve already read a fair chunk of the older stuff.  Clark, Asimov, Dick, Heinlein, Niven, Card…heck, without realizing it I’ve probably read 20 of them on the list already.  So I’m going to move from the newest to the oldest, skipping those I’ve already done.  If all works out, I should have 20 novels done by the year, though that will likely include books in the series rather than just from the list.  Some of them will be long to get through, such as Robinson’s Mars series but other’s I’ve already done, like Herbert’s Dune series.

Ancillary Justice

While I know the Three Body Problem should be first, I noticed that the Ancillary series was already there twice, so I started with the first one, Ancillary Justice.

Set in space, with a very high tech empire bent on conquest and annexation, the story deals with a ship AI who’s been stranded in a single body and is looking for revenge.  Ancillaries are corpse soldiers, captured enemies who get implants that allows for the ship AI to take possession of their body.  Not a hive mind as much as a bunch of puppets.

The book is most notable for its parallels to the Romans.  Conquest, culture assimilation, language, citizens, emperor and quite a bit more come out from the background.  There’s actually quite a bit found here that’s already been explored in the Foundation series, though this one certainly has more action within the pages.  The second piece that makes this series stand out is that the main culture is gender neutral.  I speak French, and as with most latin-based tongues, it’s heavily focused on gender.  A ball is feminine, while a book is masculine.  English really only focuses on pronouns (he/she), so there’s certainly less of a gap to be had, but it’s still hard to read through a book where the word “she” is used for both males and females.  It makes is hard to visualize the character’s attributes, but otherwise has little impact on the story.

Truly good sci-fi has technology as a setting and not so much part of the plot, which for the majority of the book is the case.  It’s the people that matter and their decisions, and they are all generally relatable.  The hardest part to get your head around is the concept of many bodies but a single mind, and the impact that has on society.  I’ve been in sci-fi for a long time, so the hive-mind mentality isn’t too far-fetched but I’m sure for a lot of folks, it’s a hurdle.  It does bring some interesting ideas to the table, certainly near the mid-point and the plot twist (well, you can see most of it coming), which I think is why it won the Hugo.  It’s not a perfect 5/7, but it’s certainly a solid read.

Now onto Ancillary Sword, then Ancillary Mercy.

What If?

Long weekend = relaxing = reading.

After having it come up during a conversation last week, I decided to pick up The Chrysalids and The Day of the Triffids, both by John Wyndham.  Easy enough reads but rather chocked full of ideas.

Both focus around society’s attitudes after a cataclysmic event and both have interesting narrative points of view.  It really was the age of Golden Science Fiction and truth be told, I’m incredibly drawn by the ideas.  The whole concept of that era is the “What If?” line of thought and seeing how today’s society (at the time) would fit into it.

Today’s sci-fi is pretty trashy and more focused on the technology than the characters.  At least from the few that I’ve read.  The sense of awe and exponential growth is lost on today’s authors and instead we get Dan Brown’s getting all the media attention.

Still, the whole what if idea really gets you thinking.  What if we are all islands in a massive ocean, disconnected by the sea but connected through the land underneath?  What if we all share different facets of the same unconscious world in our dreams? What if we are more than the total amount of our cells?  What if our “souls” have connections?  How do we explain the repeatable paranormal, our empathic links with close friends?

It sounds religious, and truly I think this is where religion should focus itself, but the idea that we are, as a whole, united in growth is refreshing.  It’s like the human individual potential has been fully tapped and the next step (which we are in mid-stride) is the social potential – the ability for many minds to accomplish a common goal.  A step further would have us be able to do that without a proxy, simply by nature.  Who knows…

Childhood's End

I read a lot.  A very lot.  An E-Reader makes that very easy.  Lately I’ve been on a kick of mid 20th century fiction – a lot of sci-fi.  Lord of the Flies, Foundation, I, Robot, Fahrenheit 451 and the like.  I can say with utmost confidence that sci-fi of the past is much better than today’s outings, for one major reason.  Older sci-fi was about the psychological impact of the future rather than the gadgets.  Foundation doesn’t have any major fights or technological “magic”.  It’s just people being people in a different setting.

This brings me to a recent book and probably one of the most profound I’ve read in a while – Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke.  There are 3 main parts – the advent of space ships and overlords that oversee the future of mankind, the prosperity of a golden age and finally the evolution of mankind into a higher life form.

The kicker here is that other than being actual space ships, there is next to no technology used in the entire book.  There are no Deus Ex Machina events where something happens, with no explanation, just to move the story along (a-la Dan Brown or JK Rowling).

The entire premise of the story is how humanity acts, as a whole and individually, when a higher power comes along and provides nothing but benefits, though cloaked in shadow.  Sort of like the TV show “V”, minus evil intents.  Some people welcome the change while others fight the loss of “human identity” and accomplishments.  To see how the various factions move along, in a short book mind you, to accomplish their various goals is intriguing.  Some use subterfuge, others political control and others are granted leniency simply for the sake of curiosity.

The final act however has one heck of a speech where it states plainly that man is not made for the stars.  The sheer scope of space, our galaxy and even our universe completely dwarfs anything that the human mind can comprehend.  At most, we can visualize a city or maybe a small country.  The moon takes weeks to get to, taking 30 times longer than going across the planet.  Think about that.  Jules Verne traveled across the world in 80 days.  It would take 6.5 years to reach the moon at that speed.  Our closest star, Proxima Centauri, is 4.24 light years away – 8 million years if you traveled at the same speed of 80 days around the Earth.  And that’s the closest!

Secondary to the psychological impact that number has is the lack of reasoning outside of science.  Somewhat of an anti-sci-fi sentiment and more of a slant towards the paranormal.  When faced with the abyss that is the universe, you start thinking there is more than what science can describe.  When humanity evolves into simple conscious energy, to join a pre-existing mass, you feel a certain shame towards those left behind.  Again, the humans that do remain undergo more psychological trauma where their investment (children) is removed from their grasp – dooming the entire species.  The fact that the space ship aliens are unable to make this transition juxtaposes the scientific advances versus the paranormal ones.  It’s like looking at two sides of a coin and trying to decide which one is better.

It is difficult to convey the imagery of this story as it truly is a personal reflection within the circumstances.  Empathy for each situation is key and that depends on the reader’s disposition. You can take the face value of the words and be entertained or you can experience the story and become thoughtful.  This, above all other criteria, is the mark of a truly great author.

Gaming better than Art?

I read an interesting article that proposed that Video Games were superior to Art in that they require a social aspect to conquer/appreciate while being consumed.  The gist is that movies and books are isolated experiences, where you could just as easily do they in a black box and get the same value where a video game usually requires thoughtful approach, group strategy and provides a longer term return on investment.

While I agree with the statement I think that both have diverging interests.  I read a LOT and I talk about it a lot.  It’s also socially acceptable to read and often a measure of intelligence (though reading Cosmo would be the opposite I think).  Regardless, books and art are about interpretation and self-reflection.  You can share ideas with the author and other readers, help frame your own ideas and questions and usually by the end of a good book, your perception of your reality has changed.  Maybe you appreciate music more, maybe you think government is inherently evil.  Whatever it is, you change.  Art is meant to change people and that change typically permeates the rest of your life.  Art is also different for different people.  For example, read Orwell’s 1984 and then see how that changes your impression of the outside world.

Games are primarily meant to provide puzzles and then appropriate rewards for solving them in the way the programmers intended.  A bug in a game is when you try a different way to solve something than was intended.  You don’t share a new idea about how terrorists are very good at blowing up buildings or how that giant horse is blocking your path.  You are presented with a problem, a visible goal and the tools to get there.  At the end of the game, you’re better at those puzzles, you’re not necessarily able to map those skills to the outside world.  Though games provide a social outlet, it also removes the non-verbal social aspects and the subtleties that make for great interactions.  People who excel at World of Warcraft gain organizational skills and twitch skills but translating that into real-world equivalents is quite difficult.

If I were to compare Video Games, I would do so versus mental sports such as Chess or Go and a little bit towards physical sports for the adrenal rush you get.  The goal is to repeat an activity until you excel at that activity and some tangential benefit comes from it.

I read/watch movies to enrich myself and explore other ideas.  I play games to perfect minute analytic skills and keep mentally sharp.  With separate goals, it becomes easier to enjoy both while not competing between them.

Ender's Game

I’ve wanted to for some time now and finally got around to reading Ender’s Game (or the first Mega Man).  The basic idea is that gifted children are recruited to participate in a war simulation room, the thought being that children make better killers than adults simply because they have yet to build any social stigmas.  Instincts are self-preservation after all.

This actually got me thinking a bit further along.  No one joins the military in active service in their 30s but people can swap careers from sales to nursing at that point without issue.  Our social dilemma that requires us to be empathic towards another in case we meet them again triumphs.  Not to mention that after your first funeral in your late teens, your grasp of death is more solid.

When you’re a kid playing cops and robbers, when you shout “bang” the guy is dead until he gets up.  When you do that with a real gun, they don’t get up.  It’s an interesting hard-wired mode where ideas and concepts have yet to be grounded in reality, where actions and consequences are not yet linked.

Back to the book.  The core tenet is that the above statement is factually incorrect.  A gifted child is able to correlate action and consequence, with the given data set.  Where a “regular” kid would have A leads to B, a “gifted” child would see A leads to B, B leads to C and maybe D leads to E afterwards.  I say this from experience in that the amount of information one has to compile, analyse and act upon is staggering.  I don’t think I was a kid for much of a time, certainly never a teenager.  I’ve always been thinking in “adult” terms where the lack of experience simply left me with variables to experiment with.

Aside from the fact that the book deals with complex issues in a rather simple format, it allows all people some insight into the mindset of a gifted child, however neurotic or foreign it might seem.