Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Philadelphia Zoo

The Philadelphia Zoo is a delightful hotel for assorted animal creatures. It has a lot of humane features, too, like sky-highways of netting that allow the various animals to wander outside their enclosures, wander the zoo, look at other animals and humans, and nap in the sky above the ice-cream stand.

The greenest animals I saw were these green anacondas, shockingly muscular and large and right there, waiting for the Potter-esque disappearing glass to give them an opportunity to frighten humans.
Green anacondas (2) lounging at the Philadelphia Zoo.

This post's theme word is obdormition (n), "numbness in a limb, usually caused by pressure on a nerve. also known as falling asleep." Seek immediate medical assistance if you feel the sudden or gradual onset of serpent-related obdormition.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

This is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is an epistolary romance novel(la) between opposing time-travel agents. The premise is cute, a little dashed-off letter here, a twist in time there, and it builds to an entirely forseeable end, which was the most surprising thing about the book.

It had some nice turns of phrase --- "apophenic as a haruspex" is truly outstanding (p. 100) --- and plays out a budding relationship nicely, albeit with a flourish only available to truly ridiculous time-travel narratives. The summary "I love cities, To be alone in a crowd, apart and belonging, to have distance between what I see and what I am." (p. 87) resonated with how calm and happy I feel in some city-crowd situations. And the silly-serious "I have built a you within me, or you have. I wonder what of me there is in you." (p. 113) is definitely a feeling I've had, and shared with others, before; it's a nice summary of how it feels to think theory-of-mind thoughts.

Overall, though, the book was not nearly as twisty timey-wimey as I expected. There were certain conclusions that seemed pretty obvious to me, and were delivered as if revelatory. But it's a cute, brief read, and reading fictional characters assigning each other a beloved book and then discussing it has added that book to my list. Plus there were several literary references I appreciated, and others I was sent scurrying to reference material for. And I always appreciate a book that forces me to perform outside study.

This post's theme word is apophenic (adj), "perceiving or believing in connections and meaningful patterns among unrelated phenomena." "I am yours in other ways as well: yours as I watch the world for your signs, apophenic as a haruspex; yours as I debate methods, motives, chances of delivery..." (p. 100)

Monday, August 5, 2019

Empress of Forever

Empress of Forever is Max Gladstone's doorstop-sized foray into science fiction. It tells the story of Vivian Lao, a tech CEO/brilliant executive coordinator-and-person-reader, who is trying to use her wits to make things better for the people around her (and, ultimately, all people everywhere: "for the liberation of all sentient beings." p. 982 in the novel & p. 1041 in the acknowledgements). This opening of philosophy --- "wealth was the only real freedom left. Get money and you could do what you wanted, help your friends, pile cash and power as a wall against the world." (p.7) --- is one I read a lot of in certain online circles, and it seems both relevant to modern discourse and incredibly depressing. It's clear why Gladstone chose this as the starting point, not the conclusion, of the story.

This book, however, is trying not to be depressing. The first chapter reads like the climactic chapter of a William Gibson novel (action-suspense-technology gizmos); the second chapter reads like Philip K. Dick (surreal-trippy-helpless in the face of a powerful incomprehensible system). Thereafter, it goes a bit more on the rails, and sticks to an optimistic tone which alternates between joyous nonsense wordplay (describing fractalline spaceships as "whirling furious Mandelcontinents of Pride set against a regimented vast and glistening phalanx", p. 168) and serious well-adjusted grown-ups dealing with feelings and relationships; overall the theme of the book emerges as:
Viv was used to this split-heart feeling. Most of the time the calculative half bubbled out, seizing control. The interpersonal details, your own emotional well-being or your friends', could wait until after you figured out how to solve the problem at hand. (p. 916)
This resonates for me with all sorts of writing around rationalism, adulthood, science, and community-building. (See for example this post, selected arbitrarily from what I read around the same time as this book.) There is a certain philosophical, a-little-bit-cold approach to being a functioning social person, which hits a lot of familiar notes for the educated-techie-rationalist set; even some of the book's one-liner jokes are in this zone: "the human mind had assembled itself haphazard from spare parts meant for something else." (p. 750)

Overall I thought this book was fine, but a bit overlong (how many times will we cycle through "the team was split up, everyone was sad, then someone had a realization that friendship and caring and communication are the solution, then they miraculously get out of a bind!"?), and it didn't hit that magical sweet spot of Three Parts Dead, which had BOTH a protagonist I identified with (as did this book), AND a really cool mechanic/worldbuilding/storytelling aspect. This one felt more plodding, and the long-building climax felt less climactic, for all that it tried, with strenuous adjectives, to stress how incredibly important and galaxy-spanning the repercussions would be.

This post's theme word is circumvallate (v tr), "to surround by a defensive structure, such as a rampart" and fuligin (n), "dark". The hyperspace circumvallations were a bit strange. "Vantablack statues looked like this in person. Fuligin, but green. The light that came off her throbbed." (p. 54)

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The Nightmare Stacks

The Nightmare Stacks is the seventh book in Charles Stross' The Laundry Files series (previously: 1 2 3 4 4.5 5 6). It is the second book to feature a different narrator (#6 also did this) --- this time, a new and mostly-unwilling recruit, a math PhD who has been turned into a vampire by an unlikely theorem discovered while researching esoteric topology for high-frequency trading banks. This character first showed up book #5, and is a good bumbling nerd.

TL;DR: I loved this book!

(Stross is nominated for a Hugo for "Best Series" this year for The Laundry Files, and I absolutely think he deserves it. We'll find out in a few weeks.)

The world of The Laundry Files is much like our own, up to some point in the 90s or 00s where it started diverging because it turns out that Lovecraftian horrors are real and are accessible to those with enough computational power/acumen/idiocy to summon them.  You'd think that it is good to be a computer/math nerd, then, since those are the people with the acumen to control Actual Magical Power, but with great power comes great mandatory bureaucratic machinery to control that power. Nerds are now double-burdened, firstly with the standard dollop of social marginalization, and secondly with the mandate to Save The World (and not let anyone find out they're doing it), and since most of Stross' nerdy characters are lawful good, they actually try to follow rules, limit civilian casualties, and get their stupid make-work done so that they can get to the real work in their off-hours.

The Lovecraftian descriptions include mention of Lovecraft, of course, because in the books' universe, Lovecraft was the same author as in ours (albeit much more accurate-to-reality). This means that characters can openly observe that certain monsters are Lovecraftian, or certain encounters have a DnD-ish flavor, and so on --- they are able to see how much their reality looks like a crafted fantasy story from our reality. This has some fun applications, as characters who e.g. play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons end up describing their encounters in DnD style. It also means that the reader can consider whether, and how, Stross' creations fit into the bigger fantasy pantheon, in the terms that his characters use for understanding their own experiences.

Apparently this setup is infinitely enjoyable to me; certainly Stross' tone, a wry sarcasm, is able to make descriptions of otherwise-mundane tasks a fun read. Plus it is peppered with the technical language of computer science, academia, and geekery. For example, describing the protagonist math PhD/social bumpkin: "Alex doesn't so much wonder about sex as have a fully developed five-year post-doc research program in mind, assuming he ever finds a willing collaborator." (p.195) Or referring to The Royal Armouries as "one of the largest collections of murder cutlery in the entire world." (p. 265) Or using the word "deterministic" for its technical meaning having to do with probability in "they make the entirely predictable and deterministic trip south to the big IKEA warehouse store" (p. 190).

This dry and skeptical tone is somehow shaped into a thrilling, electrifying read that had me shouting in excitement several times throughout the book. I read most of it in the period from midnight to dawn, because I got to a point and thought, no, Stross wouldn't possibly do that... how could he do that... how is he going to do THAT? I had the sense that Stross, as an author, is willing to make big and irreversible sacrifices for the sake of story, and I could not believe how much he chose to make this not another installment in an endlessly-extensible franchise. This is the book where Stross, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire of the Laundry-verse, makes it clear that he is not going to DM this game forever, and he is not afraid of the Total Party Kill. (I am slightly concerned for books 8 and 9, in my to-read queue.)

I am not sure how to convey how utterly stunning and brilliant a book this is, since the heavy plot choices and the sheer importance of what was happening are based on the many, many hours I have sunk into reading all the preceding books in the series, and immersing myself in Stross' dry and withdrawn attitude towards bureaucracy, tech support, and nerds with feelings. Overall this book was a virtuosic demonstration of Stross' command and control of narrative, his incredible attention to story beats, and the unrelenting and fantastic way that his cleverness will sneak up behind you and BOP you on the head with a pun that has been several pages (or chapters... or books!) in the making.

Conclusorily, this book was excellent and I recommend it --- but you might need to read 6 books' worth of prelude to enjoy it as much as I did.

This post's theme word is fuliginous (adj), "sooty", or "colored by soot, or having the color of soot." "Over it all she wears a black hooded cloak, fuliginous and dull as death." (p. 218)