The Smallnesses of War: "The Two of Swords, 3 volume" by K.J. Parker

The Two of Swords: Volume Three - Philip M. Parker, K.J. Parker

This book in particular, and K. J. Parker’s SF in general, reminds me of a quote by Yevgeny Zamyatin:


“It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.”


Zamyatin was referring to the deadening effects of Stalinist oppression on the arts but I think his quote can apply to bureaucratic and warring societies like ours as well. Go and apply for a bank loan or talk to a lawyer about an insurance claim and experience some treasured moments with the dead-alive.


Despite being fortunate enough to be married with kids and have enough close friends in my life, I like solitude. I've always identified with Graham Greene's protagonists, as well as those appearing in many of Haruki Murakami's stories. Maybe that’s why I'll probably never outgrow the teenage thing (SF, AOR music, dabbling in programming, rugby, etc.).


If you're into Superior SF, read on.

The Smallnesses of War: "The Two of Swords, 2 volume" by K.J. Parker

The Two of Swords: Volume Two - K.J. Parker


The best we can do is seek to transform ourselves and those around us into kinder, gentler versions of ourselves. This is a struggle that never ends and begins anew every time a new child is born. Success is only ever temporary and only ever a mitigation not a total victory. For all that it is an effort worth making but utopian dreams of a New Jerusalem are more of a hindrance than a help along the way. But it's one thing to say war is stupid, another thing is to say it's futile. It’s such a facile, throwaway line. Of course war is terrible, and futility is certainly a frequent aspect. It’s like saying that murder is bad, and claiming some moral superiority because you’ve said it. But irrespective of the claims of pacifists, it takes only one side to start a war. It’s just that a war with only one side is more commonly called a genocide. So rather than take a simplistic, clean view, one that protects your own conscience at the (possible) expense of other people’s lives, why not instead try to understand that war is deeply complex. 

The Smallnesses of War: "The Two of Swords, 1 volume" by K.J. Parker

The Two of Swords: Volume One - K.J. Parker

This book in particular, and K. J. Parker’s SF in general, reminds me of a quote by Yevgeny Zamyatin:


“It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.”


Zamyatin was referring to the deadening effects of Stalinist oppression on the arts but I think his quote can apply to bureaucratic and warring societies like ours as well. Go and apply for a bank loan or talk to a lawyer about an insurance claim and experience some treasured moments with the dead-alive.


Despite being fortunate enough to be married with kids and have enough close friends in my life, I like solitude. I've always identified with Graham Greene's protagonists, as well as those appearing in many of Haruki Murakami's stories. Maybe that’s why I'll probably never outgrow the teenage thing (SF, AOR music, dabbling in programming, rugby, etc.).

Reiterated Popperian Non-Fiction: "Homo Deus - A Brief History of Tomorrow" by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow - Yuval Noah Harari

When I was little, I believed (sort of) that Santa Claus existed. It was a working hypothesis that worked, and I didn't look behind it until it became untenable. Now I effectively assume my continuing identity as a person - because that works, sort of, too. In me, and most people I know, the baton of consciousness, of awareness of one's I-ness, is repeatedly exchanged at unimaginable speeds between the two hemispheres. That baton seems to get dropped by people suffering certain forms of dementia - with increasing frequency as their condition worsens, being eventually only picked up and handed to and fro for brief, sometimes apparently fortuitous periods, if at all. How cruel (alongside other pains and indignities) to lose the working hypothesis that everyone else lives by. But perhaps, isolated in the permanently unfamiliar and frightening. Now they may be closer to the reality of the human condition than the rest of us. As with Santa, the mere fact that a working hypothesis produces a desirable and convenient result does not make it correct.


Take famine. We are told that "famine is rare". But across what data-set is that claim true? Across the data-set of what we actually know, about what is actually happening, at the present time? But that is a profoundly-inadequate data-set. We ought to consider also what we don't know about what is happening right now (Do we know whether or not, even right now, a serious famine is underway in under-reported/remote in parts of Africa?). More important, we ought to consider what might have happened, in recent history (has humanity quite possibly been merely lucky not to have experienced a mega-famine, in recent times (we may have come close, for instance, in 2007-9, during which period most of the world's countries resorted to banning food exports)?



If you're into science, read on.

Growth and Disillusionment: "Rebecca" by Dauphne du Maurier

Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier, Sally Beauman

Rebecca is, of course, indebted to Jane Eyre in all sorts of consciously thematic and perhaps unconsciously associative ways, but the book has always maintained its own peculiar identity which puts it out of the category of mere imitation or 'tribute' fiction. Most important is du Maurier's tone, or rather that which she gives her own 'Jane': where Bronte's heroine is boldly certain and declarative, the 'I' who narrates Rebecca is self-effacing and habitually deferential, made clear by the singular device (which is also a dark joke) of keeping herself nameless throughout. The namelessness itself may trip readers into thinking that this will be an example of an unreliable narrative; but there is the important and almost never commented upon device of those first introductory chapters - a device unused in Jane Eyre, which proceeds in strict linear fashion - before the 'flashback' which takes up the rest of the story. This is no attempt to muddy the narratorial waters, much less to complicate the reader's point of view; rather, it is the second Mrs. de Winter's open declaration that the story of her own growth and disillusionment, while told from her own present-day understanding, must be gone through step by step from the moment she entered it several years before.


If you're into Mundane Fiction, read on.

Non-canonical SF author: “The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks - A Critical Introduction” by Simone Caroti

The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks a Critical Introduction - Simone Caroti

"Banks loved metafictional negotiations, complex plots, and deconstructionist approaches, but he also loved story; he tied every subplot, told the tale of every character, and made sure to repay out good faith in him in kind.”

In “The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks - A Critical Introduction” by Simone Caroti

As a wildly innovative, imaginative, popular and subversive novelist, his works are infused with darker elements that give them a forbidden, cultish, underground status, but the fictions that are perceived as being in his more conventional and less evidently speculative mode fail to. It's entirely possible that readers expect SF to be simpler and less demanding based on their previous experience of reading SF, rather than on mere prejudice. After all, you don't have to eat all that much crap before you become unable or unwilling to distinguish it from fudge brownies.
Well I've done a systems check this morning and it appears that, yes, the anal probe has caused some slight damage to the self-censorship circuit boards, which may also have caused the nuance software to be over-ridden. This meant that the remains of the message was diverted to the spamsac. I include it here under the Full Disclosure subroutine:
"Of course, this logic doesn't just apply to SF. If, for example, someone gave me “Amsterdam”, “Freedom” and "My Brilliant Friend” to read, telling me that it was the best of contemporary fiction, then I would legitimately be led to expect that there was no such thing as a fudge brownie, and that the main requirement for reading contemporary fiction would be to install the Brainfuck 2.0 virus whilst sticking hot knitting needles in one’s ocular sensors." (although in italics, they're my own words) 
If you're into SF Literary Criticism, read on.

Claustrophobic and Baroque Experience: "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust

Swann's Way - Marcel Proust, Lydia Davis

I read Proust's masterpiece back in 1985. What did I know of life then? Nothing!


Having recently read a Smithsonian editorial that made fun of the novels, and remembering all too well one particular hilariously snippy Monty Python sketch (the Summarize Proust Competition), I too wanted to be able to rub elbows with the elite intellectuals who mocked Proust, so I picked up the first of three volumes (the weighty Moncrieff editions because I have no french whatsoever) and got started. The first few pages were tough going, but soon I became mesmerized, then I fell in love, and by the end of the summer I was tucking flowers into the plackets of my blouses and wearing bows in my hair.


Oh you kids. “Swann's Way” is the swiftest, plottiest volume in the monster, with “Un Amour de Swann” a little novel in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and all that sort of thing. Originally drafted in a mere three volumes, the Recherche grew as Proust re-Proustified the later volumes while waiting for publication; many readers have wished that that long mini-book could be recovered. The pace picks up again in the last volume, which the author's death prevented him from reworking it, so that a dinner party—one of the greatest scenes in all literature, by the way—takes only a few hundred pages to describe, what with the jolts of consciousness with which Proust bracketed it, while the first half of the volume is impossibly brilliant about the first World War without ever leaving Paris.



If you're into Mundane Fiction, read on.

Such a Beautiful Hindquarter of Pork: "Emma" by Jane Austen

Emma - Jane Austen, Fiona Stafford

I wonder if a variation on the Unreliable Narrator is permissible here? Jane Austen's Emma, while narrated solely by the author herself, is told exclusively from the title character's point of view (chime in and correct me if there are scenes in which she doesn't take part, however minor) so that Austen becomes Emma's interpreter, and our interlocutor. It's a very deliberate choice, because Austen then goes on deftly but in plain sight to give you every reason to question Emma's headlong conclusions, while knowing full well that you'll simply go right along with Emma anyway. Surprisingly, none of this feels tricksy or opportunistic, though of course it might had Austen not had this particular objective unwaveringly in her sights: The Unreliable Reader. If we look at the story from within Emma's world, she's a classic unreliable narrator, primarily to poor Harriet Smith. Emma's wishful and willful narratives consistently mislead Harriet, who depends entirely on Emma's versions of things. To make matters more complex, Emma really should have known better, as she admits (to her credit) when her eyes are opened. Nor is Emma the only unreliable narrator. She is misled in her turn by Frank Churchill's camouflaging accounts of his relationship to Jane Fairfax. Again, the reliability angle is enriched when Frank thinks at one point that Emma does perceive his attachment to Jane.



If you're into Mundane Fiction, read on.

Frazzled Frenzy SF: "The Stand - The Complete & Uncut Edition" by Stephen King

The Stand - Stephen King

One of my favourite SF books was Stephen King's 1979 "The Stand", which I read in the full unadulterated double-doorstop version released in 1990, which was considered far to voluminous to release in 1979. This is the second time I'm re-reading it. How did it fare?


This is the sort of SF that is all too plausible, an accidental spill from a biological weapons facility releasing a plague-like virus which sweeps the planet in a matter of weeks, leaving 99% of humanity dead. King introduces a scores of protagonists, split into two camps of good and evil, the good 'uns drawn to Boulder Colorado through a shared dream of a 108 year old black woman, and the baddies under the control of supernatural drifter Randal Flagg.


King said he had been wanting to create an American Lord of the Rings, saying he:


“...just couldn't figure out how to do it. Then . . . after my wife and kids and I moved to Boulder, Colorado, I saw a 60 Minutes segment on CBW (chemical-biological warfare). I never forgot the gruesome footage of the test mice shuddering, convulsing, and dying, all in twenty seconds or less. That got me remembering a chemical spill in Utah, that killed a bunch of sheep (these were canisters on their way to some burial ground; they fell off the truck and ruptured). I remembered a news reporter saying, 'If the winds had been blowing the other way, there was Salt Lake City.' Only instead of a hobbit, my hero was a Texan named Stu Redman, and instead of a Dark Lord, my villain was a ruthless drifter and supernatural madman named Randall Flagg. The land of Mordor ('where the shadows lie,' according to Tolkien) was played by Las Vegas”.


If you're into Massive SF, read on.

Pax Americana: "Double Star" by Robert A. Heinlein

Double Star - Robert A. Heinlein

Implausible and impossible to put down- like all of Heinlein's books I've read its hero is a man of action and boundless self confidence, a wisecracking all-American cowboy figure who brushes obstacles aside, a genial dictator figure who knows that as long as he's left in charge everything will be o.k. The voice is always the same - and I can see why the new wake of science fiction writers reacted against Heinlein: Aldiss, Moorcock, Ballard, Dick. Heinlein's Pax Americana and paternalism vision of the future certainly does have fascist overtones. But he's still a great storyteller, his books filled with mind-bending concepts presumably achieved without the help of the consciousness expanding substances that inspired some of his successors.


Yes, the Bonforte character was a very macho autocrat...Who cares? Nevertheless, “The Great Lorenzo” doesn't quite conform to the macho 'tit man' narrator as Heinlein... although the authorial voice does creep through in interesting ways in his stereotyped descriptions of Lorenzo's camp-actor personality and co...Heinlein enjoyed challenging established ways of thinking, and for most of his great period of writing liberal politics was on the rise, so he took great pleasure in poking holes in political sacred figures.



If you're into SF, read on.

Crap on Repeat: "Two Kinds of Truth" by Michael Connelly

Two Kinds of Truth - Michael Connelly

I used to feel that I shouldn't like reading Crime Fiction so much, but then sensibly decided that a well written Crime Fiction book has as much "value" as any other book, however much the literary snobs may turn their noses up. Good writing is good writing, whether it's a spy novel or a romance, a whodunit or a family saga. When I had finished all of the wonderful Wallander books, I started looking elsewhere for Nordic detection. Helene Tursten's Inspector Irene Huss (Swedish) is wonderful as is Ake Edwardson's young, hip Inspector Winter, while Liza Marklund's newspaper reporter, Annika Bengtzon gets herself into some rivetting, nail-biting situations. Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer (Norwegian) is great, as is Arnaldur Indridason's Inspector Erlunder (Icelandic)! These are all excellent translations (unlike the earlier Swedish thrillers by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, whose translations leave something to be desired). When I had got through all the Wallander books I was devastated, which is how I found these other wonderful Scandinavian mystery writers and a few others, namely their American counterparts. There is apparently something about the Nordic climate and temperament that makes for unbeatable crime stories! Unfortunately, it is looking like there won't be any more Wallanders since Mr. Mankell has gone to another plane of existence - though one can always hope.



If you're into Crime Fiction, read on.

Who am I? : "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick

I'm a big Pynchon fan, too, so don't get me wrong here, but it seems to me like the main difference between Dick's writing style and Pynchon's--or at least, the difference that mostly accounts for Dick being treated as a "pulp" author with some interesting ideas whereas Pynchon is considered a major "literary" figure--is simply that Dick tends to write in crisp, straightforward sentences that just directly say what he means to say, whereas Pynchon's writing is (in)famously dense with allusion and rambling esoteric figurative expressions to the point where it can be an intellectual exercise in its own right just trying to figure out what the hell Pynchon is trying to say.


All of which makes major Dick novels like “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” or “Radio Free Albemuth” sort of resemble, IMHO, what “Gravity's Rainbow” might have looked like if Pynchon had been working with editors who expected him to actually keep tight deadlines.


I think Dick was really gifted as a wry satirist, too, and this is something I think he's often under-appreciated for. Probably my favourite single episode in all of Dick's stories I've ever read--and I was quite overjoyed to see this faithfully recreated in the film adaptation--is still the "suicide" sequence from “A Scanner Darkly”. In short, I don't think Dick was ever bad at writing--he just doesn't seem to have had any real interest in the kind of writing that people like James Joyce or William Burroughs (or Pynchon, for whom to my mind it seems that both Joyce and Burroughs were major stylistic influences) were famous for.



If you're into SF, read on.

On How to Spin a Top-Notch Yarn of Bullshit: "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress - Robert A. Heinlein

The usual pretty crude pneumatic sex-fantasies cropped up... But women actually have a pretty dominant role in Heinlein's lunar society... It's a penal colony, and Heinlein reckons that means there are going to be far fewer women then men there - so he's come up with a system called 'line-marriage'... wherein a few women in a household share numerous husbands... And the head of the household is a woman... and women call the shots... Meanwhile, outside the home, women are treated with far more respect than they are on earth because they are so rare and precious... Obviously, he's not going to get any badges from feminists, but he does at least ask a few interesting questions about the way women were viewed in his own world...The characters explicitly reject using patriotism as a method to revolution.  


I think that Prof De La Paz's 'rational anarchism' is also expressed by Jubal Harshaw in 'Stranger', though not in as straightforward a manner. Both seem to say that it's not that hard to figure out what ideal behavior should be but expecting actual live humans to live up that is impossible. After accepting that point, they both want to move on. Yep, humans are hypocritical and sometimes hard to live with. What of it? The other big point of this is that only the direst situation (near term cannibalism here) justifies butting into other people's business. Sadly, this attitude is pretty rare today. The characters explicitly reject using patriotism as a method to revolution. 



If you're into SF, read on.

The SF Lamp was Broken: "Six of Crows" by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows - Leigh Bardugo

After having finished “Six of Crows”, I would encourage anyone to consider the potential for SF to help us all drop our lazy assumptions about Realism, mimesis, and how any writing made up of words upon a page ever really relates to or captures some discernible, locatable "real world." As someone who prefers poetry over novels (Yep. I know I'm built that way), I turn to SF (science-fiction, weird fiction, fantasy) for the same sort of liberation from the tyrannous fantasy of the Real. Forget the mirror; look to the Lamp. Every piece of fiction is just that, fiction, and for those who read attentively and with appreciation of the power of the imagination. Dickens's London in “Bleak House” and Eliot's “Middlemarch” are just as artificial and speculative and weird as Carroll's “Looking Glass” world or Stoker's “Transylvania” or Barrie's “Neverland” or Mirrlees “Lud-in-the-Mist” or Jack Vance's “Dying Earth” or Peake's “Gormenghast” or China Mieville's “New Crobuzon”. All of these fantastic places are projections of the imagination. All of them hold prime value in the way they transport us away from our easy assumptions about what is real and then return us, much changed.



If you're into romancy SF, read on.

Beckettian SF: "The Man in the High Castle" by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

“The Man in the High Castle” is my second favourite PKD novel, after “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep”. I read both novels in the same year, back in the day, along with “Ubik”, “VALIS” and “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”, and most of PKD's short fiction. Without doubt the most mind-bending year of reading I've ever had, and the one that hooked me on SF more than any other. The thing I love about his stories more than anything else is their mastery of chaos and illogicality. Reality in a PKD story is held together by the desperate hopes of his characters, and its always falling apart beneath their feet. Love it!


As for PKD's prose not keeping up with his ideas and co... I agree... and also agree it's often part of the fun. Although here, as noted, I found his writing mainly quite elegant.


I've been hunting around for speculation as to why PKD called Hawthorne Abendsen's book “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy”. Dick says in the book that the title is a quote from The Bible, but if so it is not in a common translation. You can find some speculation elsewhere; being speculative about a Dick novel means we'll be wandering into some fairly strange territory... I've also asked the question on my own blog, so there may be enlightening comments there.



If you're into SF, read on.

Thinking in Code: "Antao's Tetris Ported from Python"


If you want to have a go at my version of the game, you can install it from here at the Google Play Store (Python version running on the Chrome Browser here).
Any idiot can code, and many do. The skill is in understanding the maths and algorithms (speaking as an idiot who codes).
Lazy (or to be fair perhaps just poorly informed) people have taken to use the word "coding" as a synonym for software development. Actually, coding is tricky in and of itself (read the C++11 reference manual and tell me it ain't so) but it is still only the "bricklaying" part of construction, so to speak. Programming is creative and exploratory and stimulating to the imagination. It's a different way of thinking that serves people well in all sorts of life situations outside of software. So as a way to develop skills in logical thinking, problem solving and invention it's very useful. Not every child will go on to write software as an adult but having a basic understanding and insight into systems has to be a fundamental part of every child's education I say. If you don't understand the systems controlling your life how can you ever use them to your best advantage?
Actually the basics of code are not directly computer related at all. A simple binary device is an on-off light switch which says something like when I am 'on' my user is at home and when I am 'off' my user is away. A second light switch allows this develop into when both lights are on my user is awake and when only one light is on my user is asleep and so on. The code is what you make the light sequences mean. The same use is made of morse code, an abacus, flag signals , hand gestures, anything that can be logically explained to mean something for each different state. I think most children develop logic rather more quickly than we believe possible, and the only problem with computers is demystifying their apparent complexity when they are only ever very fast at very simple arithmetic and being given very precise instructions about what to do with all that speed adding numbers together.
If you're into Android Game Development, read on.
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