Mundane Fiction in Disguise: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

“Lovers are fun, but kind of stupid, too. They say stupid things to each other and they ignore all their friends because they’re too busy staring, and they get jealous, and they have fights over dumb shit like who did the dishes last or why they can’t fold their fucking socks, and maybe the sex gets bad, or maybe they stop finding each other interesting, and then somebody bangs someone else, and everyone cries, and they see each other years later, and that person you once shared everything with is a total stranger you don’t even want to be around because it’s awkward.”


In “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet” by Becky Chambers

(No, I didn’t get the quote wrong; it’s really in the book ipsis verbis)


Should all speculative fiction be written in a fantastical, hyper-imagined future where everything is new and shiny and different?


Having a rich panoply of characters make 'walk on' appearances engages the reader and helps them to develop a richness, texture and depth to a work. The reader can determine whether or not one of these 'extras' connects to the story-line elsewhere - and an impressionistic sketch of these characters and their activities actually requires that the reader puts in some effort in constructing the world in which the characters operate. Roger Zelazny used this device quite well, and I enjoyed it: discontinuities were everywhere, and hints and ephemera enhanced the story. I didn't want to see everything in a well-lit room. I tried Larkin when I was twelve, then when I was sixteen (yay for required reading as part of my British Council English education.) Much preferred Tennyson and then I was in my late twenties. 



If you're into a Mundane-Fiction--in-Disguise, read on.  

Hippocrates 2.0 or On How to Put People into Boxes:"The Right—and Wrong—Stuff - How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade" by Caster Cast

The Right—and Wrong—Stuff: How Brilliant Careers Are Made and Unmade - Carter Cast


Presumably there are four types of persons in the world. To wit:


Those who believe there are four types;

Those who believe there are fewer than four types;

Those who believe there are more than four types;

Those who think the whole idea is cobblers;

Those who don't care (like me).


* Note for pedants.

The list has five elements. This is known as a "joke". I have left you some grammar errors as well to give you something useless to do.


** Note for mathematicians.

We could usefully consider the fifth element as a description of the null set in this context. Feel free to discuss whether the presence of a null set invalidates the claim that dividing a set into four subsets covers all parts of the original set.


Seriously. Really. Strikes me as unlikely that we fit into five professional "categories": Captain Fantastic, the Solo Flyer, Version 1.0, the One-Trick Pony, and the Whirling Dervish (I like the names though). Is there here something really new? Nah, Cast nicked the idea off Hippocrates. This has been around since ancient times when the four types were choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine. Truly there is nothing new under the sun. Speaking for myself I was never one to believe we could be pigeonholed. Aye right, “there is no one-size-fits-all solution" - but four (or five according to Cast) sizes? Yep, that just about covers the entire human population.



If you're into self-help books of the Managerial Type, read on.

Walking Ahead into the Darkness: "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas - Ursula K. Le Guin

“There's a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”


In “The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. Le Guin.


Thank you, Ursula k. Le Guin, for encouraging me to celebrate my peculiarities. The short story about 'Omelas' is as insightful a demolition of utilitarianism I've read. Well, I didn't mean refutation, I meant demolish the underlying rationale. If we're all OK with someone perfectly innocent being lumped with all misery so we can be happy, then it's for the greater good, no? If we're not happy with that trade, and I doubt any society that isn't made of psychos would be, then for the utilitarianism is obviously undesirable as second order moral justification.


Utilitarianism is supposed to be a way to be good, by maximizing happiness. But if maximizing happiness above all else leads to evil, then it's a bit of a non-starter. If you bring in rules and regulations to stop leading to an Omelas type scenario, then these are meta rules that aren't justified by utilitarianism, and so you're leaning on something else, or shorter, you've stopped justifying your acts by utilitarianism and at best it's become are process within the framework. In real life, we can't know what maximizes happiness, and so it's all a bit philosopher’s armchair.


If you're into SF, read on.

Brontosaurus Shit: "On Bullshit" by Harry G. Frankfurt

On Bullshit - Harry G. Frankfurt

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share."


In “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt


"’a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to take the context as well, so far as need requires. This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberate than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent with more spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art. Hence the familiar notion of the 'bullshit artist'"


In “On Bullshit” by Harry G. Frankfurt




The current state-of-affairs (I won't name any more names) is not b... s... It is elephant shit! Or is it chicken shit? I know! It's Brontosaurus shit! Let's start by dropping the euphemisms. Not bullshit, not alternative facts, nor post-truth - but lies. Lies, lies, lies, lies. That's all we know how to do. The difference is important between a liar and a bullshitter. All politicians for instance, bend or interpret their own version of the truth but it is possible for us to take a view on their reasoning and motives. A bullshitter like Trump, Farage, Socrates (a former Portuguese Prime-Minister) literally couldn't care less and will say absolutely anything to anyone to get what they want and pivot 180 º in an instant.



If you want to Bullshit Your Way Into Any Situation, read on.

We're Trillions of Light-Years from Home: "Lost in Space" (2018) by Netflix


"We're trillions of light-years from home!"
In "Lost in Space" (2018 version)
I've just watched the first episode, but neither this first take nor some misguided people will persuade me that there’ll be much to engage an adult. It looks to me like they passed the show through the usual J.J. Abram Makeover Machine, particularly the robot, who resembles a character from an anime inspired PS4 game. If too many of the scenes are similarly generated in the series, with a constantly floating from point to point camera and the cast digitally comped in to say a few breathy lines whenever we zoom through a window, then I’ll keep getting that feeling I get with many a Netflix original SF creation - that I need to keep my controller to hand for when these overly long and confusing cut scenes end and the Benfica vs. Porto football game starts next Sunday. Yeah, I’ve not got high hopes for it, but it’s not like the original campy nonsense was highly regarded as gritty SF as well. I think the camp/kitsch aspect is what made the original series so popular. Removing that seems like removing the entire soul of the series. It was (after the black&white first series) completely camp and completely kitsch at the time - that was the whole idea. The monster in one of the episodes was a giant carrot for goodness' sake. The mid-60s (1966 to be precise) is well documented as when the mainstream suddenly cottoned on to the idea of camp (Susan Sontag having been the first to pin down what it was in her "Notes on Camp" a couple of years before). 
Read on, if you're into SF.

milSF Without Story: "Ironclads" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Ironclads - Adrian Tchaikovsky

As a seasoned SF reader, I've always disagree strongly with the assessment of milSF as glorification of war; "The Forever War", after all, betrays the political strand of extreme dubiousness about war that also exists in science fiction, a strand demonstrated also in novels such as John Scalzi's “Old Man's War”, but that could equally be seen in “Veteran” by Gavin Smith (which contains a number of other left-wing themes) and the aforementioned New Model Army by Adam Roberts, which is deeply entrenched in liberal, democratised thinking about war, glorifying it to some extent but also attacking it. The fact is this: milSF has a certain concern, and that isn't to show war in its grand scale and all its effects, but to show it from the perspective, normally, of the troops. Dan Abnett's “Gaunt's Ghosts” is a great example of a series that does this - a Warhammer 40k spinoff series, I might add - without glorifying war as a whole, beyond the fact that certain characters believe in the glory of war; to deny that soldiers may think war is glorious is to simplify it in the exact opposite way that you accuse milSF of doing, but is just as problematic and perilous. That's all just scratching the surface, without looking at the glorification of war in fantasy such as Terry Brooks' “Sword of Shannara” and Markus Heitz' “The Dwarves”, either. War and milSF are not the same. War has been a topic for Story since forever but the mil SF tends to have more weapon, tactics, etc., stuff, I guess. But the way that conflict is treated varies a lot and is more complex than it's been given credit for. A few things: the "military fantasy" that viewers get drawn into in “Battlestar Galactica” IS the fact that only the military can save humanity (as microbes were the saving grace in Well's “War of the Worlds.”) Yeah, civilian government, yada, yada - except one that is mightily curtailed by the state of martial law that's imposed, figuratively if not actually (would have made a much better story if they'd offed the civilians for purported collaboration with the Cylons, imposed full conscription and then all died in the end, lol)



If you're into milSF, read on.

The Man Flu: "Five to Twelve" by Edmund Cooper

Five to Twelve (Coronet Books) - EDMUND COOPER

There are undoubtedly many factors that influence the trends revealed by some statistics - social roles, required sustenance levels, lifestyle, physical conflict, sacrifice, etc, as well as the fact that we already know that men have lower life expectancy. Men and women are different, but equal. It's a sad state of affairs when the idea that men die younger is wheeled out with smugness as some kind of victory, complete with a picture of a jubilant old woman (are we supposed to assume that she is specifically laughing about the death of her husband or a close male relative?). I fully and completely acknowledge that women have been, and are being, subjected to terrible treatment due simply to their gender - however I don't think the way to address that issue is to put the boot on the other foot and start kicking the other way instead. (Is the notion that your own husbands, brothers, sons, are going to die statistically younger really something to be triumphalist about? Does that make them weak?) As nice as it may be to get some payback, and I'm not saying that towards a lot of men it isn't deserved, the real problem in our society is that men and women are taught to be opposing sides and are pitted against each other; we are stuck in a conflict of men vs women. It's true that men have traditionally had the upper hand, but (some variants of) feminism seeks only to level the scores, or to give women the upper hand. What really needs to happen is that we end the ridiculous rivalry and work together to make life better for everyone. Let's end the gender pay gap, stop women being treated like objects, end the shaming of women, have women properly represented in our legislature. 



If you're into Vintage SF, read on.

Ronaldo's WTF Moment: Overhead Goal - Juventus vs. Real Madrid


If you're into Football, read on.

If I don't come back don't get surprised...

Superstrings vs. The Brain: "Incognito - The Secret Lives of the Brain" by David Eagleman

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain - David Eagleman
"Experimentation and transformation in both art and science spring from the same root - to understand, to encapsulate the world. This is why I've ever found reductionism (and scientism) drearily limiting and worthily pompous - that utilitarian speculation over what art 'is for', that misapprehension of art as a kind of elaborate trickery, only readable in the light of neuroscience or physics. The best writers of fiction, artists, composers and scientists are, I've long felt, the ones who see the 'divide' as porous, and are open to findings in both great spheres of endeavour and experimentation."
In "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" by David Eagleman
I've experienced significant creative leaps in shorter timelines than 4 weeks I think because over many years I've become increasingly adept as recognising and leveraging useful elements and catalysts. However I also agree that deep, long-term immersion in a creative problem, descending into disillusion and the chaotic abyss and then often out of failure or accident finding a new path based on hard won knowledge and insight - is where real invention and deeper epiphanies reside. The first time I experienced the creative process at this depth was after months of investigation and it was life changing - not in terms of the creative result so much but because of my first hand experience of the creative journey itself. Sometimes, even Steven King takes thirty years to write a book. Often only a year or two. Sometimes he manages to pop one out in a couple of weeks.
If you're into the nature of consciousness, read on.

Homemade and Fermented Hot-Sauce: Habaneros and Bird's Eye Chiles - Part 2


Bloody Hell!!! This was frigging delicious!!!

Game of the Mind: "Martin Johnson - The Autobiography" by Martin Johnson

The Autobiography - Martin Johnson

Rugby as I see it is a game of the mind: for all the strength, all the bashing all the dark dark places you go to (in the scrum for one) you need to have a clear mind to make the move that takes you beyond the try line. As a player Martin Johnson was great. As a coach not so much. View the 1997 Lions DVDs, going back 14 years and see that Martin Johnson's pep talks are very elementary. He's a brute of a man who could play second row and lead from the trenches. What is required now is a far more cerebral approach with good man management skills. As a Captain both for the Lions and England he was surrounded by good lieutenants and captains. Easy to be a leader then. He did not make the transition to General where he could see the whole landscape and arena of the upcoming battle. Any venture of this nature and it is so, requires the ability to connect up the dots from the microcosm to the macro. This demands, at the most basic level, to know your own strengths and weaknesses, employ staff who compliment you and to hold actions accountable to a clear vision. Johnson failed on all levels. Maybe he would be a good forward's coach, but that's about it. At least he finally stepped down which showed his self esteem wasn't at rock bottom, unlike Andrews.


But the book is great...

Follow-up on ∂S/∂t + H = 0: "Reality Is Not What It Seems" by Carlo Rovelli

Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Elusive Structure of the Universe and the Journey to Quantum Gravity - Carlo Rovelli, Simon Carnell, Erica Segre
"The world of quantum mechanics is not a world of objects: it is a world of events".
In "Reality Is Not What It Seems" by Carlo Rovelli
Rovelli is more than right to rail against the schism of art and science. Theoretical physics in some sense is the poetry of science; and science in its great evolution from the classical era on was intertwined with art (Galileo was a musician, Leonardo an anatomist and technological innovator; Piero was a geometer, while painters have ever worked at the edge of physics (light properties) and materials science (pigments and chemical properties), and so on).
If you're into Quantum Mechanics, read on.

Workmanlike Prose: "Rendezvous with Rama" by Arthur C. Clarke

Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke

Ah, yes. Rama. I actually read this with a torch under the blankets in an intense all-nighter back in the day. What I like about this book in retrospect is its complete lack of compromise as a work of SF. Characters? Who the frack needs 'em. Themes? Bah, pointless! All SF needs to be is an unbroken, brilliantly done description of an alien environment. I'm glad things have moved on since, but I'd still happily sit and read a book so single-mindedly in its purpose like this one.


In any genre of literature, you definitely have some people whose names tower above everyone else, and their influence could not be denied. However, people who like literature don't just read the so-called greats. Clarke certainly wrote some seminal works of SF, but he probably read many obscure works too, some of which may have influenced him. Readers don't just read the big name writers, but have a much bigger interest in the genre. A writer’s work only makes sense within a tradition and how it is situated along other people's work. It is all interlinked and some of the smaller voices may be bigger than critics acknowledge. For instance Clarke's influences aren't as well-known but what he learned from them is part of his work, so the voices remain powerful, and readers equally value preceding works. That doesn't mean that the big name writers don't deserve their place in history, but as fan of literature, I think sometimes, the bigger contributions are made by lesser known writers. I disagree with the assessment that Clarke left questions unanswered; world-building can get boring at the micro, non-plot-related level. This book was "sensawunda" in triplicate -- for the Ramans always did everything in threes. How about those tripodal cleansing things that whirled about? I'm not disappointed that Clarke had no sequel; when you look at 2001 on the screen, then read Clarke's rejected worlds, you realise that Kubrick was right to end with the “Star Child”. 



If you're into SF, read on.

Anomic Outsiders: "The Stranger" by Albert Camus

The Stranger - Albert Camus,  Matthew    Ward

As a dilettante translator I find this book fascinating, even though I don’t read French.


Literary texts are sacred and you cannot alter them; translations on the other hand are a more or less faithful reflection of the original text, but can be altered, changed, or renewed. Did Proust write "Remembrance of Things Past" or "In Search of Time Lost" or “In Search of Lost Time"? My favourite is Gabrielle Roy's "Bonheur d'occasion" published in English as "The Tin Flute". As a general point, a translation transmigrates one text for another; often the "mistakes" don't matter (to the monoglot reader). On the other hand, the title is the only part of a work of literature known even to those who haven't read it. I note in passing that étranger “doesn’t just mean "stranger" but also "foreigner", and in the colonial context, that could have been a possibility too. It's a bit like 9 to 5 by Sheena Easton and 9 to 5 by Dolly Parton.



If you're into European Literature, read on.

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