Book Review: Altered Carbon

Amazon’s been telling me I need to read this book by Richard Morgan since it came out, and a few weeks ago I managed to hack down the stack to it.

There are two things I think are structurally interesting about this book. First, it’s a wonderful example of setting economy. There’s a single central piece of technology around which the setting revolves — the capacity to upload and download consciousness in and out of different bodies — and most of the book’s world proceeds from the ramifications of that technology.

The other intriguing bit is that I think Altered Carbon is an excellent instance of the decline of prognosticatory science fiction. There was a time when most science fiction could at least be construed as an attempt to predict a possible future. More and more, however, science fiction is allegorical rather than realistic. Altered Carbon, despite being set centuries into the future, has the feel of a noir detective story plus the aforementioned braintaping tech and more sophisticated weaponry. It’s a great story, and a fascinating meditation on a whole slew of social and ethical issues, but it’s not a plausible vision of the future.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Lessons of 2004: The “Your Mom” Rule

Only your mom cares how hard you tried.

There’s this thing I do, and only lately have I realized how deeply boneheaded it is. What happens is that someone will offer me a task or project that I want to take on, or reveal a new complication to a task I have already undertaken, and I will suspect that the task as currently defined may be beyond my ability to complete competently. (Not is, mind you; just may be.)

My reflexive response tends to be to sigh heavily (or its online equivalent) and say, “Well, that’s going to be really rough, but if that’s what you need, I’ll take a crack at it.” There is a part of me that then thinks that if problems arise, or things don’t work out, well, I put my cards on the table, and they know the score. I have done this a lot over the years.

This is totally dim. The fact that I usually get away with it because I’m good at deathmarching makes it no less asinine. No one wants you to do your best, they want you to do the job. They don’t want you to tell them no, but they really don’t want you to say yes and then fail. And they don’t care that you tried really hard; at best, the fact that you tried really hard and still failed just makes it awkward to yell at you.

Part of this is that I tend to assume that someone wouldn’t ask something of me if it weren’t a reasonable request. Thus, when someone asks me to do something beyond my limits, the very act of asking tends to make me think, “Well, if they think I can handle it, maybe I can. They know the nature of the task better than I do.” Thus overlooking that it is not other people’s job to gauge my limits, and ignoring the fact that people often make (intentionally or not) unreasonable requests.

I suspect my stupid tactic is also half intended, subconsciously, as a bargaining ploy to get the person offering the task to offer me more congenial terms. It doesn’t work.

I need not to do that anymore. When someone offers me a job that I think I may not be able to handle, I need to make a counteroffer rather than accepting while trying to hedge. Even when the person making the offer says they’ll owe me one if I take it on.  (Editor’s note 2021: When that person is an employee, who then moves on before you have a chance to cash that chit in, it is vexing.)  Above and beyond only counts when you succeed.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: The Etched City

I’d been wanting to start doing some book reviews as I work my way through the massive backlog of bibliage that bows my shelves, but I realize, after a couple tries, that I don’t really enjoy that. I hate doing synopses, and a number of the books I’ve read lately feel a bit beyond the level that my critical skills can fully encompass.

So instead I’m going to try talking about individual concepts that interest me in or around the books I’m reading.

First up is K.J. Bishop’s The Etched City, and asymmetry.

I’ll start by saying that this book is really frickin’ good. Anyone who can pull together flavors of Marquez, Mieville, and Squaresoft into a single book and make it work is doing something right. There’s depth and juice in the worldbuilding, there’s interesting philosophical freight and multifurcate narrative, and there’s a dude who forges his dead wife into a battleaxe. What more could you want?

When I took an initial stab at writing up a review, I had a paragraph about how I felt one of the book’s weaker points was its asymmetry. The book’s first fifty pages are set in a war-ravaged country (this bit read like a novelization of a console RPG in a very weird way), and then the protagonists go to the city of Ashamoil and pretty much stay there for the next three hundred-odd pages. The story is ostensibly a braided narrative about two estranged ex-revolutionaries and their tribulations in Ashamoil, but the vast majority of screen time goes to Gwynn, the brooding badass with the gun and the sword and the other gun.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I think that the asymmetry may be an effective narrative device. It’s unbalancing. You expect the narrative to shift from Gwynn back to Raule any minute now, or from Ashamoil back to the Copper Country or on to some other peregrination, and it consistently doesn’t. The net effect is that you lose your expectations, leaving everything possible. This may be essential to what Bishop is endeavoring.

The Etched City is basically magical realism set in a constructed world, which I’ve never seen before. Constructed-world fantasy tends to be naturalistic; the given circumstances may be different, but the world’s details proceed logically and predictably from those given circumstances. This is typically because it’s hard to make a story work when the audience lacks a touchstone to orient themselves by. In most magical realism, the familiarity of the real world is the axis mundi which makes the dream logic of the narrative comprehensible. Constructed-world magical realism lacks this anchor. I’m not sure how Bishop pulls it off, but my hypothesis is that she starts off with a fairly gritty, naturalistic base (the section in the Copper Country) and then uses distancing techniques like asymmetry to slowly ease the reader into the more dreamlike world of the later Ashamoil sections.

I have trouble describing this book in ways that don’t make it sound disastrous, but somehow it works. I recommend it highly.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Lessons of 2004: Delegation, and Bitches

I’ve been musing on the year that was — what I did, what I saw, what I heard about — and thinking about what is to be learned from the mighty shambles that was 2004. Today, I want to talk about what I learned about delegation, and about two-thirds of it boils down to this:

Nobody likes to delegate; everybody wants a bitch.

The difference, as I see it, is that delegation means assigning a task for which you are responsible to someone else whom you trust to get it right, while having a bitch means drafting someone to be an extra pair of hands for you because you can’t be everywhere at once. Almost inevitably, bitch work is of poor quality. There are a couple reasons for this.

First of all, nobody wants to be your bitch. If you have a bitch, either you’re paying them (whether in cash or less tangible forms of satisfaction) or they don’t realize they’re your bitch yet. It’s demeaning, and your bitch will resent you for it, and this will come through in their work.

Second, bitch work rarely shows initiative. This is because people tend to disrespect their bitches’ contributions, discarding (and occasionally excoriating) their labor if it’s not done exactly the way they would have done it. Over time, a bitch recognizes this pattern and sticks to doing exactly what they’re told, checking back for further instruction whenever there is ambiguity.

I cannot count the number of people I’ve seen bewailing the low morale, high turnover, and poor performance of their organizations, never realizing that their problems are a direct result of people waking up to the fact that they had been transformed from subordinates to bitches. And yet, people still want bitches.

Part of this is that you have to trust someone’s competence to successfully delegate to them, and competence is not falling off the trees in this world of ours. But the big sticking point, I think, is that at its heart, in order to really delegate, you have to be able to look at a project you’re responsible for, and say, “I think that’s the wrong decision. But it’s your decision to make.”

Delegation can’t just be “I trust you when I’m too busy to tell you what to do”. You have to trust your delegatee *all* the time, and you have to back their plays. Every time you override them — especially when you’re overriding something they’ve done in public — you’re saying, “Nice try, but we’ll do this my way, bitch.” And the bitch spiral takes another step.

Occasionally, that may be necessary, if something really huge is at stake. But I’ve seen far too many supervisors override their subordinates every time they disagreed, and every one of them had terrible morale and occasional revolts from the ranks. It’s not worth it to screw up your organization over minor points.

Originally published on LiveJournal