The Problematic Ethnic Stereotypes Are Coming

I’ve been reading Where the Sidewalk Ends to my son, and I noticed a change in the poem about people coming to town to buy various sorts of children at various rates. It is called “The Googies Are Coming.” I’m fairly certain it was called “The Gypsies Are Coming” when I was a tot.

I can understand why one would want to change it, but the publishers kept the original illustration of a hook-nosed babushka with a big sack full of children. The net effect is that now the poem slanders some indeterminate Eastern European ethnicity. Possibly the good people of Guzhe, Lithuania.

I mean, what, “goblin” was too fantastical for a Shel Silverstein book?

Originally published on Google Plus

Book Review: Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker

Checkpoint is an absolutely terrible book. Baker more or less writes by pouring out raw id onto the page, which in the past has made for entertaining if rather pervy prose. However, Checkpoint is a 2004-era Bush assassination fantasy rendered as a dialogue between two old friends, one of whom has apparently gone off the deep end and decided to kill the president. While Baker accomplishes his usual feat of expressing clearly and accurately the things that people think but would never, ever say, in Checkpoint that insight doesn’t lead us anywhere.

In large part this is, I think, because after the two characters have between them expressed the key dilemma of an assassination fantasy — the target deserves to die, but it would be Wrong to kill them — there’s not really anywhere to go. It’s basically the dramatic equivalent of a long blog thread on “Bush: Worst President Ever?” It would, I think, have been much more interesting if Baker had written a book about someone actually killing the president. There’s interesting conflict in killing the president, but not so much in wanting to kill the president, and only slightly more in admitting that you want to kill the president.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: Out of the Silent Planet

Recently, I read Out of the Silent Planet, which is the last book of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy that I hadn’t read (though it’s actually the first book). It’s a good book, and I recommend it (primarily for its worldbuilding), but this is going to be one of my reviews wherein I talk relatively little about the book itself.

A lot of people I have known feel somehow betrayed by C.S. Lewis, mostly because of the role of Christian allegory in the Chronicles of Narnia. You’re reading along in a perfectly nice fantasy adventure series, and then one day — maybe years after reading the books — you find out, holy crap! Aslan was Jesus! (I’m sorry if that was a spoiler for anyone. Rosebud was a sled, too.)

I’m not sure if it works the same way in other countries, but I think Christian children’s fiction has really shot itself in the foot in the United States. So many extremely earnest people work so hard to make sure that kids get their regular dose of Jesus that Christian allegory has become the green vegetable of kids’ narrative. Finding out there was spinach in the chocolate cake is … well, disappointing. As if the Establishment put one over on you, the bastards. Hiding Jesus in a fairy tale; it just ain’t right.

I begin to think that this is unfair to Lewis. Reading the Space Trilogy, I realize that Lewis doesn’t write allegory at all. Rather, he writes fantastic stories in settings which include our own world, a world which for him is framed by the existence of the divine. Aslan and Maleldil don’t symbolize Christ; they *are* Christ. And yet, on some level, it doesn’t matter. The books aren’t parables; the stories are meaningful on their own terms. Perelandra isn’t Eden; neither is Narnia. They’re just places which went through similar histories after arising from similar origins.

It’s interesting, in passing, to contrast many modern comic books which rely heavily on Christian mythology, but in which God is a vague and distant presence and Jesus barely figures at all. It’s sort of the Apocalypse Now of the War in Heaven: angels and demons beating the crap out of each other with minimal supervision. It always seemed like sort of a dodge to me to tap the geekish glory of angelological hierarchy while avoiding the cosmology of which that hierarchy is a part. I would totally buy a comic about superheroes in the intertestamental period. (Yeah, I’d probably be the only one, but still, an apostle superteam would so totally kick ass.)

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: The Art of the Start

One of the nice bits about the GDC was that I wound up riding BART for 45 minutes every day, which gave me some time to catch up on reading. Not that the mighty backlog of stripped books, using-up-the employee-discount purchases, and holiday loot is anywhere near expunged, but I did manage to get through the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (which I’m not going to talk about except to say that I enjoyed Runaway America more; got to give a shout out to Yale AmStud) and The Art of the Start (which I am).

The Art of the Start is the latest book from Guy Kawasaki, who made his name back in the 80s as a product evangelist for the Macintosh. These days, he writes books and runs a venture capital firm. The book bills itself as “the time-tested, battle-hardened guide for anyone starting anything”. I liked The Macintosh Way a lot; Kawasaki has a knack for drawing expansive lessons from amusing anecdotes, and so I thought I’d give this one a shot.

Alas, the book oversells itself. The entire thing would be useful for someone assembling a startup firm; maybe half of it would be useful to someone starting any sort of organization; the first chapter or so is worth reading in the context of any major project. As I am not establishing an organization, this made it interesting but not terribly useful.

That said, it’s good at doing what it does. His discussion of mantras versus mission statements alone makes it worth reading, and the chapter on pitches is excellent stuff as well. The later chapters are solid but more mundane; it’s possible I’m less enthused simply because they deal with biz dev stuff that’s almost entirely unuseful to me. And then the final chapter is the seemingly obligatory “Oh yeah. Don’t be evil.” section that every business book seems to have these days.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: Metropolis: Values in Conflict

I’ve just finished a book I picked up at the Menlo Park library sale a few months ago (any venue that sells books by the grocery bag is lethal to me). Metropolis is an urban studies reader from 1964. The first lesson I have gleaned from this is that I really need to break the habit of buying generations-old textbooks for a quarter; they’re interesting, but it’s not really a time-efficient way to learn things.

The second thing I notice is that urban theorists, from the earliest days of technocratic America up to the modern day, seem to dwell in a curiously non-geographic world. (I’m not just drawing from Metropolis on this; it just crystallized something that has niggled at me about various contemporary pieces I’ve read about reimagining cities.) I’ve seen any number of discussions of how to lay out cities, optimizing density and accessibility while preserving an appropriate amount of open and agricultural space, which completely elide the question of what happens if there’s a mountain or a river in the way of, say, your concentric rings scheme.

Perhaps I’m simply oversensitized to the question from living in a part of the world deeply at the mercy of its geography when it comes to urban development. I suppose that would explain why a lot of urban visionaries are Dutch; the Netherlands are pretty much flat, and heavily modified by human intervention already.

Originally published on LiveJournal

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

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

Book Review: Three Books of Occult Philosophy

Last night I finally slogged my way to the end of Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy, one of the major tomes of Renaissance magical thought. It is a mighty slab of words, and the translation preserves that (possibly intentional) opacity that is typical of magical writers; it was a pretty long trek. I’ve been reading it for months.

At the end, my feelings are mixed. I wish I’d picked up more of the classics at some point in my education; I kept wanting more background in Aristotle and Pliny. Certainly I have a better sense of what magic was about at the dawn of rationalism now. I know the humors better, and I finally know the difference between a cherub and a domination. The astrology was a little past me at points, and a lot of the angelology would have been way more comprehensible if I knew some Hebrew. On the other hand, Three Books also has the most accessible introduction to Kabbalah I’ve read yet.

Basically, I learned a lot, but I’m not sure it was worth the massive investment of time. And I certainly wish I’d finished it before I started working on GURPS Magic.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: The Disinformation Book of Lists

I like The Disinformation Company. I like Russ Kick. They do a lot of cool work distributing strange and wonderful information that more people should know, and they do it with style. Alas, I think this set me up to want more from the Disinformation Book of Lists than it could deliver.

To be fair, I would have loved this book with a deep and abiding passion ten years ago. It’s possible that I have simply lost my hardcore edge. But I think it’s more than the Book of Lists is … well, the best way I’ve been able to put it is that it’s conventionally subversive. Lists of heroin brand names, smart drugs, and incidents of homosexuality in animals are interesting, but not exactly mind-blowing. It’s nice to know that Sherlock Holmes was a coke fiend, but my world is not rocked. Nor is it really a shock to learn that characters in the Bible do horrible things.

There are a few lists in the book that are more powerful. I think these are the ones that take advantage of the power of the list format by showing the reader patterns of things that they might have otherwise dismissed as a freak accident. Most people have heard about a nuclear test that dumped radioactive dust on a nearby Nevada town; it’s harder to accept the story as a regrettable mistake when you’re presented with a dozen separate incidents. The same principle works with botched executions and prisoners exonerated after years behind bars. It does not add any power to the aforementioned list of heroin brand names.

I think the book works best, however, as a source of cocktail party conversation. The right type of person can draw a lot of fodder from all the ways people have died at Disneyland. I certainly have.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Book Review: Sirio

Sirio is the autobiography of Sirio Maccioni, proprietor of the famously exclusive Le Cirque in New York. It begins with his childhood as an orphan in Tuscany during World War II and chronicles his ascent through the ranks of the restaurant industry over five decades and four countries.

I like nice restaurants, and I have a soft spot for a good Horatio Alger story, so I thought it would be a fun read. And I really enjoyed the first half of the book. His tribulations as a busboy and waiter in the postwar restaurant scene, at the verge of the nouvelle cuisine, are interesting social history and a ripping yarn besides. A brush with the forbidden ortolan and chasing down a cruise ship in a Cuban police boat are fun grace notes to the series of ever more responsible jobs that are the hallmark of the up-from-poverty narrative.

Around halfway through, however, with the closing of the famous Colony, where Sirio had been maitre d’, and the opening of Le Cirque, his own venture, the snap begins to fade. In a way, there’s nowhere left to go but down, and the youthful exuberance and relentless progress fades into an endless series of battles with the New York Times restaurant reviewers and his own chefs.

You can’t edit a man’s life, of course, but I would have loved more pages on the scrappy waiter and fewer on the beleaguered restaurateur.

First published on LiveJournal