Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2020-07-03: Review: The Light Brigade

Review: The Light Brigade, by Kameron Hurley

Publisher Saga
Copyright 2019
ISBN 1-4814-4798-X
Format Kindle
Pages 355

In the wake of the Blink, which left a giant crater where São Paulo was, Dietz signed up for the military. To be a hero. To satisfy an oath of vengeance. To kill aliens.

Corporations have consumed the governments that used to run Earth and have divided the world between them. Dietz's family, before the Blink, were ghouls in Tene-Silva territory, non-citizens who scavenged a precarious life on the margins. Citizenship is a reward for loyalty and a mechanism of control. The only people who don't fit into the corporate framework are the Martians, former colonists who went dark for ten years and re-emerged as a splinter group offering to use their superior technology to repair environmental damage to the northern hemisphere caused by corporate wars. When the Blink happens, apparently done with technology far beyond what the corporations have, corporate war with the Martians is the unsurprising result.

Long-time SF readers will immediately recognize The Light Brigade as a response to Starship Troopers with far more cynical world-building. For the first few chapters, the parallelism is very strong, down to the destruction of a large South American city (São Paulo instead of Buenos Aires), a naive military volunteer, and horrific basic training. But, rather than dropships, the soldiers in Dietz's world are sent into battle via, essentially, Star Trek transporters. These still very experimental transporters send Dietz to a different mission than the one in the briefing.

Advance warning that I'm going to talk about what's happening with Dietz's drops below. It's a spoiler, but you would find out not far into the book and I don't think it ruins anything important. (On the contrary, it may give you an incentive to stick through the slow and unappealing first few chapters.)

I had so many suspension of disbelief problems with this book. So many.

This starts with the technology. The core piece of world-building is Star Trek transporters, so fine, we're not talking about hard physics. Every SF story gets one or two free bits of impossible technology, and Hurley does a good job showing the transporters through a jaundiced military eye. But, late in the book, this technology devolves into one of my least-favorite bits of SF hand-waving that, for me, destroyed that gritty edge.

Technology problems go beyond the transporters. One of the bits of horror in basic training is, essentially, torture simulators, whose goal is apparently to teach soldiers to dissociate (not that the book calls it that). One problem is that I never understood why a military would want to teach dissociation to so many people, but a deeper problem is that the mechanics of this simulation made no sense. Dietz's training in this simulator is a significant ongoing plot point, and it kept feeling like it was cribbed from The Matrix rather than something translatable into how computers work.

Technology was the more minor suspension of disbelief problem, though. The larger problem was the political and social world-building.

Hurley constructs a grim, totalitarian future, which is a fine world-building choice although I think it robs some nuance from the story she is telling about how militaries lie to soldiers. But the totalitarian model she uses is one of near-total information control. People believe what the corporations tell them to believe, or at least are indifferent to it. Huge world events (with major plot significance) are distorted or outright lies, and those lies are apparently believed by everyone. The skepticism that exists is limited to grumbling about leadership competence and cynicism about motives, not disagreement with the provided history. This is critical to the story; it's a driver behind Dietz's character growth and is required to set up the story's conclusion.

This is a model of totalitarianism that's familiar from Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The problem: The Internet broke this model. You now need North Korean levels of isolation to pull off total message control, which is incompatible with the social structure or technology level that Hurley shows.

You may be objecting that the modern world is full of people who believe outrageous propaganda against all evidence. But the world-building problem is not that some people believe the corporate propaganda. It's that everyone does. Modern totalitarians have stopped trying to achieve uniformity (because it stopped working) and instead make the disagreement part of the appeal. You no longer get half a country to believe a lie by ensuring they never hear the truth. Instead, you equate belief in the lie with loyalty to a social or political group, and belief in the truth with affiliation with some enemy. This goes hand in hand with "flooding the zone" with disinformation and fakes and wild stories until people's belief in the accessibility of objective truth is worn down and all facts become ideological statements. This does work, all too well, but it relies on more information, not less. (See Zeynep Tufekci's excellent Twitter and Tear Gas if you're unfamiliar with this analysis.) In that world, Dietz would have heard the official history, the true history, and all sorts of wild alternative histories, making correct belief a matter of political loyalty. There is no sign of that.

Hurley does gesture towards some technology to try to explain this surprising corporate effectiveness. All the soldiers have implants, and military censors can supposedly listen in at any time. But, in the story, this censorship is primarily aimed at grumbling and local disloyalty. There is no sign that it's being used to keep knowledge of significant facts from spreading, nor is there any sign of the same control among the general population. It's stated in the story that the censors can't even keep up with soldiers; one would have to get unlucky to be caught. And yet the corporation maintains preternatural information control.

The place this bugged me the most is around knowledge of the current date. For reasons that will be obvious in a moment, Dietz has reasons to badly want to know what month and year it is and is unable to find this information anywhere. This appears to be intentional; Tene-Silva has a good (albeit not that urgent) reason to keep soldiers from knowing the date. But I don't think Hurley realizes just how hard that is.

Take a look around the computer you're using to read this and think about how many places the date shows up. Apart from the ubiquitous clock and calendar app, there are dates on every file, dates on every news story, dates on search results, dates in instant messages, dates on email messages and voice mail... they're everywhere. And it's not just the computer. The soldiers can easily smuggle prohibited outside goods into the base; knowledge of the date would be much easier. And even if Dietz doesn't want to ask anyone, there are opportunities to go off base during missions. Somehow every newspaper and every news bulletin has its dates suppressed? It's not credible, and it threw me straight out of the story.

These world-building problems are unfortunate, since at the heart of The Light Brigade is a (spoiler alert) well-constructed time travel story that I would have otherwise enjoyed. Dietz is being tossed around in time with each jump. And, unlike some of these stories, Hurley does not take the escape hatch of alternate worlds or possible futures. There is a single coherent timeline that Dietz and the reader experience in one order and the rest of the world experiences in a different order.

The construction of this timeline is incredibly well-done. Time can only disconnect at jump and return points, and Hurley maintains tight control over the number of unresolved connections. At every point in the story, I could list all of the unresolved discontinuities and enjoy their complexity and implications without feeling overwhelmed by them. Dietz gains some foreknowledge, but in a way that's wildly erratic and hard to piece together fast enough for a single soldier to do anything about the plot. The world spins out of control with foreshadowing of grimmer and grimmer events, and then Hurley pulls it back together in a thoroughly satisfying interweaving of long-anticipated scenes and major surprises.

I'm not usually a fan of time travel stories, but this is one of the best I've read. It also has a satisfying emotional conclusion (albeit marred for me by some unbelievable mystical technobabble), which is impressive given how awful and nasty Hurley makes this world. Dietz is a great first-person narrator, believably naive and cynical by turns, and piecing together the story structure alongside the protagonist built my emotional attachment to Dietz's character arc. Hurley writes the emotional dynamics of soldiers thoughtfully and well: shit-talking, fights, sudden moments of connection, shared cynicism over degenerating conditions, and the underlying growth of squad loyalty that takes over other motivations and becomes the reason to keep on fighting.

Hurley also pulled off a neat homage to (and improvement on) Starship Troopers that caught me entirely by surprise and that I've hopefully not spoiled.

This is a solid science fiction novel if you can handle the world-building. I couldn't, but I understand why it was nominated for the Hugo and Clarke awards. Recommended if you're less picky about technological and social believability than I am, although content warning for a lot of bloody violence and death (including against children) and a horrifically depressing world.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-06-29: Review: The Fifth Risk

Review: The Fifth Risk, by Michael Lewis

Publisher W.W. Norton
Copyright 2018
Printing 2019
ISBN 0-393-35745-7
Format Kindle
Pages 254

The Fifth Risk starts with the presidential transition. Max Stier, the first person profiled by Lewis in this book, is the founder of the Partnership for Public Service. That foundation helped push through laws to provide more resources and structure for the transition of the United States executive branch from one president to the next. The goal was to fight wasted effort, unnecessary churn, and pointless disruption in the face of each administration's skepticism about everyone who worked for the previous administration.

"It's Groundhog Day," said Max. "The new people come in and think that the previous administration and the civil service are lazy or stupid. Then they actually get to know the place they are managing. And when they leave, they say, 'This was a really hard job, and those are the best people I've ever worked with.' This happens over and over and over."

By 2016, Stier saw vast improvements, despite his frustration with other actions of the Obama administration. He believed their transition briefings were one of the best courses ever produced on how the federal government works. Then that transition process ran into Donald Trump.

Or, to be more accurate, that transition did not run into Donald Trump, because neither he nor anyone who worked for him were there. We'll never know how good the transition information was because no one ever listened to or read it. Meetings were never scheduled. No one showed up.

This book is not truly about the presidential transition, though, despite its presence as a continuing theme. The Fifth Risk is, at its heart, an examination of government work, the people who do it, why it matters, and why you should care about it. It's a study of the surprising and misunderstood responsibilities of the departments of the United States federal government. And it's a series of profiles of the people who choose this work as a career, not in the upper offices of political appointees, but deep in the civil service, attempting to keep that system running.

I will warn now that I am far too happy that this book exists to be entirely objective about it. The United States desperately needs basic education about the government at all levels, but particularly the federal civil service. The public impression of government employees is skewed heavily towards the small number of public-facing positions and towards paperwork frustrations, over which the agency usually has no control because they have been sabotaged by Congress (mostly by Republicans, although the Democrats get involved occasionally). Mental images of who works for the government are weirdly selective. The Coast Guard could say "I'm from the government and I'm here to help" every day, to the immense gratitude of the people they rescue, but Reagan was still able to use that as a cheap applause line in his attack on government programs.

Other countries have more functional and realistic social attitudes towards their government workers. The United States is trapped in a politically-fueled cycle of contempt and ignorance. It has to stop. And one way to help stop it is someone with Michael Lewis's story-telling skills writing a different narrative.

The Fifth Risk is divided into a prologue about presidential transitions, three main parts, and an afterword (added in current editions) about a remarkable government worker whom you likely otherwise would never hear about. Each of the main parts talks about a different federal department: the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce. In keeping with the theme of the book, the people Lewis profiles do not do what you might expect from the names of those departments.

Lewis's title comes from his discussion with John MacWilliams, a former Goldman Sachs banker who quit the industry in search of more personally meaningful work and became the chief risk officer for the Department of Energy. Lewis asks him for the top five risks he sees, and if you know that the DOE is responsible for safeguarding nuclear weapons, you will be able to guess several of them: nuclear weapons accidents, North Korea, and Iran. If you work in computer security, you may share his worry about the safety of the electrical grid. But his fifth risk was project management. Can the government follow through on long-term hazardous waste safety and cleanup projects, despite constant political turnover? Can it attract new scientists to the work of nuclear non-proliferation before everyone with the needed skills retires? Can it continue to lay the groundwork with basic science for innovation that we'll need in twenty or fifty years? This is what the Department of Energy is trying to do.

Lewis's profiles of other departments are similarly illuminating. The Department of Agriculture is responsible for food stamps, the most effective anti-poverty program in the United States with the possible exception of Social Security. The section on the Department of Commerce is about weather forecasting, specifically about NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). If you didn't know that all of the raw data and many of the forecasts you get from weather apps and web sites are the work of government employees, and that AccuWeather has lobbied Congress persistently for years to prohibit the NOAA from making their weather forecasts public so that AccuWeather can charge you more for data your taxes already paid for, you should read this book. The story of American contempt for government work is partly about ignorance, but it's also partly about corporations who claim all of the credit while selling taxpayer-funded resources back to you at absurd markups.

The afterword I'll leave for you to read for yourself, but it's the story of Art Allen, a government employee you likely have never heard of but whose work for the Coast Guard has saved more lives than we are able to measure. I found it deeply moving.

If you, like I, are a regular reader of long-form journalism and watch for new Michael Lewis essays in particular, you've probably already read long sections of this book. By the time I sat down with it, I think I'd read about a third in other forms on-line. But the profiles that I had already read were so good that I was happy to read them again, and the additional stories and elaboration around previously published material was more than worth the cost and time investment in the full book.

It was never obvious to me that anyone would want to read what had interested me about the United States government. Doug Stumpf, my magazine editor for the past decade, persuaded me that, at this strange moment in American history, others might share my enthusiasm.

I'll join Michael Lewis in thanking Doug Stumpf.

The Fifth Risk is not a proposal for how to fix government, or politics, or polarization. It's not even truly a book about the Trump presidency or about the transition. Lewis's goal is more basic: The United States government is full of hard-working people who are doing good and important work. They have effectively no public relations department. Achievements that would result in internal and external press releases in corporations, not to mention bonuses and promotions, go unnoticed and uncelebrated. If you are a United States citizen, this is your government and it does important work that you should care about. It deserves the respect of understanding and thoughtful engagement, both from the citizenry and from the politicians we elect.

Rating: 10 out of 10

2020-06-27: PGP::Sign 1.00

This is the first new release of PGP::Sign in 13 years, so it's long-overdue. I have finally updated it in preparation for creating a new, more modern signing key for the Big Eight Usenet hierarchies and issuing control messages with both the old and new keys, using GnuPG v2 for the new key.

The biggest change in this release is that it drops support for all OpenPGP implementations other than GnuPG, and adds support for GnuPG v2. I think some of the other PGP implementations are still around, but I haven't seen them in years and have no way to test against them, so it didn't seem worthwhile to continue to support them. GnuPG v2 support is obviously long-overdue, given that we're getting close to the point where GnuPG v1 will start disappearing from distributions. The default backend is now GnuPG v2, although the module can be configured to use GnuPG v1 instead.

This release also adds a new object-oriented API. When I first wrote this module, it was common in the Perl community to have functional APIs configured with global variables. Subsequently we've learned this is a bad idea for a host of reasons, and I finally got around to redoing the API. It's still not perfect (in particular, the return value of the verify method is still a little silly), but it's much nicer. The old API is still supported, implemented as a shim in front of the new API.

A few other, more minor changes in this release:

It also now uses IPC::Run and File::Temp instead of hand-rolling equivalent functionality, and the module build system is now Module::Build.

You can get the latest version from CPAN or from the PGP::Sign distribution page.

2020-06-16: Review: Network Effect

Review: Network Effect, by Martha Wells

Series Murderbot Diaries #5
Publisher Tor
Copyright May 2020
ISBN 1-250-22984-7
Format Kindle
Pages 351

Network Effect is the first Murderbot novel, although the fifth story of the series. The previous stories, beginning with All Systems Red, were novellas. Under no circumstances should you start reading the series here. Network Effect builds significantly on the story arc that ended with Exit Strategy and resolves some important loose ends from Artificial Condition. It's meant to be read in series order.

I believe this is the first time in my life that I've started reading a book on the night of its release. I was looking forward to this novel that much, and it does not disappoint.

I'll try not to spoil the previous books too much in this review, but at this point it's a challenge. Just go read them. They're great.

The big question I had about the first Murderbot novel was how would it change the plot dynamic of the series. All of the novellas followed roughly the same plot structure: Murderbot would encounter some humans who need help, somewhat grudgingly help them while pursuing its own agenda, snark heavily about human behavior in the process, once again prove its competence, and do a little bit of processing of its feelings and a lot of avoiding them. This formula works great at short length. Would Wells change it at novel length, or if not, would it get tedious or strained?

The answer is that Wells added in quite a bit more emotional processing and relationship management to flesh out the core of the book and created a plot with more layers and complexity than the novella plots, and the whole construction works wonderfully. This is exactly the book I was hoping for when I heard there would be a Murderbot novel. If you like the series, you'll like this, and should feel free to read it now without reading the rest of the review.

Overse added, "Just remember you're not alone here."

I never know what to say to that. I am actually alone in my head, and that's where 90 plus percent of my problems are.

Many of the loose ends in the novellas were tied up in the final one, Exit Strategy. The biggest one that wasn't, at least in my opinion, was ART, the research transport who helped Murderbot considerably in Artificial Condition and clearly was more than it appeared to be. That is exactly the loose end that Wells resolves here, to great effect. I liked the dynamic between ART and Murderbot before, but it's so much better with an audience to riff off of (and yet better still when there are two audiences, one who already knew Murderbot and one who already knew ART). I like ART almost as much as Murderbot, and that's saying a lot.

The emotional loose end of the whole series has been how Murderbot will decide to interact with other humans. I think that's not quite resolved by the end of the novel, but we and Murderbot have both learned considerably more. The novellas, except for the first, are mostly solo missions even when Murderbot is protecting clients. This is something more complicated; the interpersonal dynamics hearken back to the first novella and then go much deeper, particularly in the story-justified flashbacks. Wells uses Murderbot's irritated avoidance to keep some emotional dynamics underplayed and indirect, letting the reader discover them at opportune moments, and this worked beautifully for me. And Murderbot's dynamic with Amena is just wonderful, mostly because of how smart, matter-of-fact, trusting, and perceptive Amena is.

That's one place where the novel length helps: Wells has more room to expand the characterization of characters other than Murderbot, something that's usually limited in the novellas to a character or two. And these characters are great. Murderbot is clearly the center of the story, but the other characters aren't just furniture for it to react to. They have their own story arcs, they're thoughtful, they learn, and it's a delight to watch them slot Murderbot into various roles, change their minds, adjust, and occasionally surprise it in quite touching ways, all through Murderbot's eyes.

Thiago had said he felt like he should apologize and talk to me more about it. Ratthi had said, "I think you should let it go for a while, at least until we get ourselves out of this situation. SecUnit is a very private person, it doesn't like to discuss its feelings."

This is why Ratthi is my friend.

I have some minor quibbles. The targetSomething naming convention Murderbot comes up with and then is stuck with because it develops too much momentum is entertaining but confusing. A few of the action sequences were just a little on the long side; I find the emotional processing much more interesting. There's also a subplot with a character with memory holes and confusion that I thought dragged on too long, mostly because I found the character intensely irritating for some reason. But these are just quibbles. Network Effect is on par with the best of the novellas that precede it, and that's a high bar indeed.

In this series, Wells has merged the long-running science fiction thread of artificial intelligences and the humanity of robots with the sarcastic and introspective first-person narration of urban fantasy, gotten the internal sensation of emotional avoidance note-perfect without making it irritating (that's some deep magic right there), and added in some top-tier negotiation of friendship and relationships without losing the action and excitement of a great action movie. It's a truly impressive feat and the novel is the best installment so far. I will be stunned if Network Effect doesn't make most of the award lists next year.

Followed by Fugitive Telemetry, due out in April of 2021. You can believe that I have already preordered it.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2020-06-14: Radical haul

Along with the normal selection of science fiction and fantasy, a few radical publishers have done book giveaways due to the current political crisis in the United States. I've been feeling for a while like I've not done my homework on diverse political theory, so I downloaded those. (That's the easy part; making time to read them is the hard part, and we'll see how that goes.)

Yarimar Bonilla & Marisol LeBrón (ed.) — Aftershocks of Disaster (non-fiction anthology)
Jordan T. Camp & Christina Heatherton (ed.) — Policing the Planet (non-fiction anthology)
Zachary D. Carter — The Price of Peace (non-fiction)
Justin Akers Chacón & Mike Davis — No One is Illegal (non-fiction)
Grace Chang — Disposable Domestics (non-fiction)
Suzanne Collins — The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (sff)
Angela Y. Davis — Freedom is a Constant Struggle (non-fiction)
Danny Katch — Socialism... Seriously (non-fiction)
Naomi Klein — The Battle for Paradise (non-fiction)
Naomi Klein — No is Not Enough (non-fiction)
Naomi Kritzer — Catfishing on CatNet (sff)
Derek Künsken — The Quantum Magician (sff)
Rob Larson — Bit Tyrants (non-fiction)
Michael Löwy — Ecosocialism (non-fiction)
Joe Macaré, Maya Schenwar, et al. (ed.) — Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? (non-fiction anthology)
Tochi Onyebuchi — Riot Baby (sff)
Sarah Pinsker — A Song for a New Day (sff)
Lina Rather — Sisters of the Vast Black (sff)
Marta Russell — Capitalism and Disbility (non-fiction)
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor — From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (non-fiction)
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (ed.) — How We Get Free (non-fiction anthology)
Linda Tirado — Hand to Mouth (non-fiction)
Alex S. Vitale — The End of Policing (non-fiction)
C.M. Waggoner — Unnatural Magic (sff)
Martha Wells — Network Effect (sff)
Kai Ashante Wilson — Sorcerer of the Wildeeps (sff)

2020-05-26: Review: Middlegame

Review: Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire

Publisher Tor
Copyright May 2019
ISBN 1-250-19551-9
Format Kindle
Pages 528

Roger and Dodger are cuckoo children, alchemical constructs created by other alchemical constructs masquerading as humans. They are halves of the primal force of the universe, the Doctrine of Ethos (which is not what the Doctrine of Ethos is, but that is one of my lesser problems with this book), divided into language and math and kept separate to properly mature. In this case, separate means being adopted by families on opposite coasts of the United States, ignorant of each other's existence and closely monitored by agents Reed controls. None of that prevents Roger and Dodger from becoming each other's invisible friends at the age of seven, effortlessly communicating psychically even though they've never met.

That could have been the start of an enjoyable story that hearkened back to an earlier age of science fiction: the secret science experiments discover that they have more power than their creators expected, form a clandestine alliance, and fight back against the people who are trying to control them. I have fond memories of Escape to Witch Mountain and would have happily read that book.

Unfortunately, that isn't the story McGuire wanted to tell. The story she told involves ripping Roger and Dodger apart, breaking Dodger, and turning Roger into an abusive asshole.

Whooboy, where to start. This book made me very angry, in a way that I would not have been if it didn't contain the bones of a much better novel. Four of them, to be precise: four other books that would have felt less gratuitously cruel and less apparently oblivious to just how bad Roger's behavior is.

There are some things to like. One of them is that the structure of this book is clever. I can't tell you how it's clever because the structure doesn't become clear until more than halfway through and it completely changes the story in a way that would be a massive spoiler. But it's an interesting spin on an old idea, one that gave Roger and Dodger a type of agency in the story that has far-ranging implications. I enjoyed thinking about it.

That leads me to another element I liked: Erin. She makes only fleeting appearances until well into the story, but I thought she competed with Dodger for being the best character of the book. The second of the better novels I saw in the bones of Middlegame was the same story told from Erin's perspective. I found myself guessing at her motives and paying close attention to hints that led to a story with a much different emotional tone. Viewing the ending of the book through her eyes instead of Roger and Dodger's puts it in a different, more complicated, and more thought-provoking light.

Unfortunately, she's not McGuire's protagonist. She instead is one of the monsters of this book, which leads to my first, although not my strongest, complaint. It felt like McGuire was trying too hard to write horror, packing Middlegame with the visuals of horror movies without the underlying structure required to make them effective. I'm not a fan of horror personally, so to some extent I'm grateful that the horrific elements were ineffective, but it makes for some frustratingly bad writing.

For example, one of the longest horror scenes in the book features Erin, and should be a defining moment for the character. Unfortunately, it's so heavy on visuals and so focused on what McGuire wants the reader to be thinking that it doesn't show any of the psychology underlying Erin's decisions. The camera is pointed the wrong way; all the interesting storytelling work, moral complexity, and world-building darkness is happening in the character we don't get to see. And, on top of that, McGuire overuses foreshadowing so much that it robs the scene of suspense and terror. Again, I'm partly grateful, since I don't read books for suspense and terror, but it means the scene does only a fraction of the work it could.

This problem of trying too hard extends to the writing. McGuire has a bit of a tendency in all of her books to overdo the descriptions, but is usually saved by narrative momentum. Unfortunately, that's not true here, and her prose often seems overwrought. She also resorts to this style of description, which never fails to irritate me:

The thought has barely formed when a different shape looms over him, grinning widely enough to show every tooth in its head. They are even, white, and perfect, and yet he somehow can't stop himself from thinking there's something wrong with them, that they're mismatched, that this assortment of teeth was never meant to share a single jaw, a single terrible smile.

This isn't effective. This is telling the reader how they're supposed to feel about the thing you're describing, without doing the work of writing a description that makes them feel that way. (Also, you may see what I mean by overwrought.)

That leads me to my next complaint: the villains.

My problem is not so much with Leigh, who I thought was an adequate monster, if a bit single-note. There's some thought and depth behind her arguments with Reed, a few hints of her own motives that were more convincing for not being fully shown. The descriptions of how dangerous she is were reasonably effective. She's a good villain for this type of dark fantasy story where the world is dangerous and full of terrors (and reminded me of some of the villains from McGuire's October Daye series).

Reed, though, is a storytelling train wreck. The Big Bad of the novel is the least interesting character in it. He is a stuffed tailcoat full of malicious incompetence who is only dangerous because the author proclaims him to be. It only adds insult to injury that he kills off a far more nuanced and creative villain before the novel starts, replacing her ambiguous goals with Snidely Whiplash mustache-twirling. The reader has to suffer through extended scenes focused on him as he brags, monologues, and obsesses over his eventual victory without an ounce of nuance or subtlety.

Worse is the dynamic between him and Leigh, which is only one symptom of the problem with Middlegame that made me the most angry: the degree to which this book oozes patriarchy. Every man in this book, including the supposed hero, orders around the women, who are forced in various ways to obey. This is the most obvious between Leigh and Reed, but it's the most toxic, if generally more subtle, between Roger and Dodger.

Dodger is great. I had absolutely no trouble identifying with and rooting for her as a character. The nasty things that McGuire does to her over the course of the book (and wow does that never let up) made me like her more when she tenaciously refuses to give up. Dodger is the math component of the Doctrine of Ethos, and early in the book I thought McGuire handled that well, particularly given how difficult it is to write a preternatural genius. Towards the end of this book, her math sadly turns into a very non-mathematical magic (more on this in a moment), but her character holds all the way through. It felt like she carved her personality out of this story through sheer force of will and clung to it despite the plot. I wanted to rescue her from this novel and put her into a better book, such as the one in which her college friends (who are great; McGuire is very good at female friendships when she writes them) stage an intervention, kick a few people out of her life, and convince her to trust them.

Unfortunately, Dodger is, by authorial fiat, half of a bound pair, and the other half of that pair is Roger, who is the sort of nice guy everyone likes and thinks is sweet and charming until he turns into an emotional trap door right when you need him the most and dumps you into the ocean to drown. And then somehow makes you do all the work of helping him feel better about his betrayal.

The most egregious (and most patriarchal) thing Roger does in this book is late in the book and a fairly substantial spoiler, so I can't rant about that properly. But even before that, Roger keeps doing the same damn emotional abandonment trick, and the book is heavily invested into justifying it and making excuses for him. Excuses that, I should note, are not made for Dodger; her failings are due to her mistakes and weaknesses, whereas Roger's are natural reactions to outside forces. I got very, very tired of this, and I'm upset by how little awareness the narrative voice showed for how dysfunctional and abusive this relationship is. The solution is always for Dodger to reunite with Roger; it's built into the structure of the story.

I have a weakness for the soul-bound pair, in part from reading a lot of Mercedes Lackey at an impressionable age, but one of the dangerous pitfalls of the concept is that the characters then have to have an almost flawless relationship. If not, it can turn abusive very quickly, since the characters by definition cannot leave each other. It's essentially coercive, so as soon as the relationship shows a dark side, the author needs to be extremely careful. McGuire was not.

There is an attempted partial patch, late in the book, for the patriarchal structure. One of the characters complains about it, and another says that the gender of the language and math pairs is random and went either way in other pairs. Given that both of the pairs that we meet in this story have the same male-dominant gender dynamic, what I took from this is that McGuire realized there was a problem but wasn't able to fix it. (I'm also reminded of David R. Henry's old line that it's never a good sign when the characters start complaining about the plot.)

The structural problems are all the more frustrating because I think there were ways out of them. Roger is supposedly the embodiment of language, not that you'd be able to tell from most scenes in this novel. For reasons that I do not understand, McGuire expressed that as a love of words: lexicography, translation, and synonyms. This makes no sense to me. Those are some of the more structured and rules-based (and hence mathematical) parts of language. If Roger had instead been focused on stories — collecting them, telling them, and understanding why and how they're told — he would have had a clearer contrast with Dodger. More importantly, it would have solved the plot problem that McGuire solved with a nasty bit of patriarchy. So much could have been done with Dodger building a structure of math around Roger's story-based expansion of the possible, and it would have grounded Dodger's mathematics in something more interesting than symbolic magic. To me, it's such an obvious lost opportunity.

I'm still upset about this book. McGuire does a lovely bit of world-building with Asphodel Baker, what little we see of her. I found the hidden alchemical war against her work by L. Frank Baum delightful, and enjoyed every excerpt from the fictional Over the Woodward Wall scattered throughout Middlegame. But a problem with inventing a fictional book to excerpt in a real novel is that the reader may decide that the fictional book sounds a lot better than the book they're reading, and start wishing they could just read that book instead. That was certainly the case for me. I'm sad that Over the Woodward Wall doesn't exist, and am mostly infuriated by Middlegame.

Dodger and Erin deserved to live in a better book.

Should you want to read this anyway (and I do know people who liked it), serious content warning for self-harm.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2020-05-25: Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January

Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow

Publisher Redhook
Copyright September 2019
ISBN 0-316-42198-7
Format Kindle
Pages 373

In 1901, at the age of seven, January found a Door. It was barely more than a frame in a ruined house in a field in Kentucky, but she wrote a story about opening it, and then did.

Once there was a brave and temeraryous (sp?) girl who found a Door. It was a magic Door that's why it has a capital D. She opened the Door.

The Door led to a bluff over the sea and above a city, a place very far from Kentucky, and she almost stayed, but she came back through the Door when her guardian, Mr. Locke, called. The adventure cost her a diary, several lectures, days of being locked in her room, and the remnants of her strained relationship with her father. When she went back, the frame of the Door was burned to the ground.

That was the end of Doors for January for some time, and the continuation of a difficult childhood. She was cared for by her father's employer as a sort of exotic pet, dutifully attempting to obey, grateful for Mr. Locke's protection, and convinced that he was occasionally sneaking her presents through a box in the Pharaoh Room out of some hidden kindness. Her father appeared rarely, said little, and refused to take her with him. Three things helped: the grocery boy who smuggled her stories, an intimidating black woman sent by her father to replace her nurse, and her dog.

Once upon a time there was a good girl who met a bad dog, and they became the very best of friends. She and her dog were inseparable from that day forward.

I will give you a minor spoiler that I would have preferred to have had, since it would have saved me some unwarranted worry and some mental yelling at the author: The above story strains but holds.

January's adventure truly starts the day before her seventeenth birthday, when she finds a book titled The Ten Thousand Doors in the box in the Pharaoh Room.

As you may have guessed from the title, The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a portal fantasy, but it's the sort of portal fantasy that is more concerned with the portal itself than the world on the other side of it. (Hello to all of you out there who, like me, have vivid memories of the Wood between the Worlds.) It's a book about traveling and restlessness and the possibility of escape, about the ability to return home again, and about the sort of people who want to close those doors because the possibility of change created by people moving around freely threatens the world they have carefully constructed.

Structurally, the central part of the book is told by interleaving chapters of January's tale with chapters from The Ten Thousand Doors. That book within a book starts with the framing of a scholarly treatment but quickly becomes a biography of a woman: Adelaide Lee Larson, a half-wild farm girl who met her true love at the threshold of a Door and then spent much of her life looking for him.

I am not a very observant reader for plot details, particularly for books that I'm enjoying. I read books primarily for the emotional beats and the story structure, and often miss rather obvious story clues. (I'm hopeless at guessing the outcomes of mysteries.) Therefore, when I say that there are many things January is unaware of that are obvious to the reader, that's saying a lot. Even more clues were apparent when I skimmed the first chapter again, and a more observant reader would probably have seen them on the first read. Right down to Mr. Locke's name, Harrow is not very subtle about the moral shape of this world.

That can make the early chapters of the book frustrating. January is being emotionally (and later physically) abused by the people who have power in her life, but she's very deeply trapped by false loyalty and lack of external context. Winning free of that is much of the story of the book, and at times it has the unpleasantness of watching someone make excuses for her abuser. At other times it has the unpleasantness of watching someone be abused. But this is the place where I thought the nested story structure worked marvelously. January escapes into the story of The Ten Thousand Doors at the worst moments of her life, and the reader escapes with her. Harrow uses the desire to switch scenes back to the more adventurous and positive story to construct and reinforce the emotional structure of the book. For me, it worked extremely well.

It helps that the ending is glorious. The payoff is worth all the discomfort and tension-building in the first half of the book. Both The Ten Thousand Doors and the surrounding narrative reach deeply satisfying conclusions, ones that are entangled but separate in just the ways that they need to be. January's abilities, actions, and decisions at the end of the book were just the outcome that I needed but didn't entirely guess in advance. I could barely put down the last quarter of this story and loved every moment of the conclusion.

This is the sort of book that can be hard to describe in a review because its merits don't rest on an original twist or easily-summarized idea. The elements here are all elements found in other books: portal fantasy, the importance of story-telling, coming of age, found family, irrepressible and indomitable characters, and the battle of the primal freedom of travel and discovery and belief against the structural forces that keep rulers in place. The merits of this book are in the small details: the way that January's stories are sparse and rare and sometimes breathtaking, the handling of tattoos, the construction of other worlds with a few deft strokes, and the way Harrow embraces the emotional divergence between January's life and Adelaide's to help the reader synchronize the emotional structure of their reading experience with January's.

She writes a door of blood and silver. The door opens just for her.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is up against a very strong slate for both the Nebula and the Hugo this year, and I suspect it may be edged out by other books, although I wouldn't be unhappy if it won. (It probably has a better shot at the Nebula than the Hugo.) But I will be stunned if Harrow doesn't walk away with the Mythopoeic Award. This seems like exactly the type of book that award was created for.

This is an excellent book, one of the best I've read so far this year. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2020-05-24: Review: The Last Emperox

Review: The Last Emperox, by John Scalzi

Series Interdependency #3
Publisher Tor
Copyright April 2020
ISBN 0-7653-8917-7
Format Kindle
Pages 318

This is the conclusion of the Interdependency trilogy, which is a single story told in three books. Start with The Collapsing Empire. You don't want to read this series out of order.

All the pieces and players are in place, the causes and timeline of the collapse of the empire she is accidentally ruling are now clear, and Cardenia Wu-Patrick knows who her friends and enemies are. What she doesn't know is what she can do about it. Her enemies, unfettered Cardenia's ethics or desire to save the general population, have the advantage of clearer and more achievable goals. If they survive and, almost as important, remain in power, who cares what happens to everyone else?

As with The Consuming Fire, the politics may feel a bit too on-the-nose for current events, this time for the way that some powerful people are handling (or not handling) the current pandemic. Also as with The Consuming Fire, Scalzi's fast-moving story, likable characters, banter, and occasional humorous descriptions prevent those similarities from feeling heavy or didactic. This is political wish fulfillment to be sure, but it doesn't try to justify itself or linger too much on its improbabilities. It's a good story about entertaining people trying (mostly) to save the world with a combination of science and political maneuvering.

I picked up The Last Emperox as a palate cleanser after reading Gideon the Ninth, and it provided exactly what I was looking for. That gave me an opportunity to think about what Scalzi does in his writing, why his latest novel was one of my first thoughts for a palate cleanser, and why I react to his writing the way that I do.

Scalzi isn't a writer about whom I have strong opinions. In my review of The Collapsing Empire, I compared his writing to the famous description of Asimov as the "default voice" of science fiction, but that's not quite right. He has a distinct and easily-recognizable style, heavy on banter and light-hearted description. But for me his novels are pleasant, reliable entertainment that I forget shortly after reading them. They don't linger or stand out, even though I enjoy them while I'm reading them.

That's my reaction. Others clearly do not have that reaction, fully engage with his books, and remember them vividly. That indicates to me that there's something his writing is doing that leaves substantial room for difference of personal taste and personal reaction to the story, and the sharp contrast between The Last Emperox and Gideon the Ninth helped me put my finger on part of it. I don't feel like Scalzi's books try to tell me how to feel about the story.

There's a moment in The Last Emperox where Cardenia breaks down crying over an incredibly difficult decision that she's made, one that the readers don't find out about until later. In another book, there would be considerably more emotional build-up to that moment, or at least some deep analysis of it later once the decision is revealed. In this book, it's only a handful of paragraphs and then a few pages of processing later, primarily in dialogue, and less focused on the emotions of the characters than on the forward-looking decisions they've made to deal with those emotions. The emotion itself is subtext. Many other authors would try to pull the reader into those moments and make them feel what the characters are feeling. Scalzi just relates them, and leaves the reader free to feel what they choose to feel.

I don't think this is a flaw (or a merit) in Scalzi's writing; it's just a difference, and exactly the difference that made me reach for this book as an emotional break after a book that got its emotions all over the place. Calling Scalzi's writing emotionally relaxing isn't quite right, but it gives me space to choose to be emotionally relaxed if I want to be. I can pick the level of my engagement. If I want to care about these characters and agonize over their decisions, there's enough information here to mull over and use to recreate their emotional states. If I just want to read a story about some interesting people and not care too much about their hopes and dreams, I can choose to do that instead, and the book won't fight me. That approach lets me sidle up on the things that I care about and think about them at my leisure, or leave them be.

This approach makes Scalzi's books less intense than other novels for me. This is where personal preference comes in. I read books in large part to engage emotionally with the characters, and I therefore appreciate books that do a lot of that work for me. Scalzi makes me do the work myself, and the result is not as effective for me, or as memorable.

I think this may be part of what I and others are picking up on when we say that Scalzi's writing is reminiscent of classic SF from decades earlier. It used to be common for SF to not show any emotional vulnerability in the main characters, and to instead focus on the action plot and the heroics and martial virtues. This is not what Scalzi is doing, to be clear; he has a much better grasp of character and dialogue than most classic SF, adds considerable light-hearted humor, and leaves clear clues and hooks for a wide range of human emotions in the story. But one can read Scalzi in that tone if one wants to, since the emotional hooks do not grab hard at the reader and dig in. By comparison, you cannot read Gideon the Ninth without grappling with the emotions of the characters. The book will not let you.

I think this is part of why Scalzi is so consistent for me. If you do not care deeply about Gideon Nav, you will not get along with Gideon the Ninth, and not everyone will. But several main characters in The Last Emperox (Mance and to some extent Cardenia) did little or nothing for me emotionally, and it didn't matter. I liked Kiva and enjoyed watching her strategically smash her way through social conventions, but it was easy to watch her from a distance and not get too engrossed in her life or her thoughts. The plot trundled along satisfyingly, regardless. That lack of emotional involvement precludes, for me, a book becoming the sort of work that I will rave about and try to press into other people's hands, but it also makes it comfortable and gentle and relaxing in a way that a more emotionally fraught book could not be.

This is a long-winded way to say that this was a satisfying conclusion to a space opera trilogy that I enjoyed reading, will recommend mildly to others, and am already forgetting the details of. If you liked the first two books, this is an appropriate and fun conclusion with a few new twists and a satisfying amount of swearing (mostly, although not entirely, from Kiva). There are a few neat (albeit not horribly original) bits of world-building, a nice nod to and subversion of Asimov, a fair bit of political competency wish fulfillment (which I didn't find particularly believable but also didn't mind being unbelievable), and one enjoyable "oh no she didn't" moment. If you like the thing that Scalzi is doing, you will enjoy this book.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-05-17: krb5-strength 3.2

krb5-strength provides password strength checking for Kerberos KDCs (either MIT or Heimdal), and also provides a password history implementation for Heimdal.

This release adds a check-only mode to the heimdal-history command to interrogate history without modifying it and increases the default hash iterations used when storing old passwords. explicit_bzero is now used, where available, to clear the memory used for passwords after processing. krb5-strength can now optionally be built without CrackLib support at all, if you only want to use the word list, edit distance, or length and character class rules.

It's been a few years since the previous release, so this release also updates all the portability code, overhauls valgrind testing, and now passes tests when built with system CrackLib (by skipping tests for passwords that are rejected by the stronger rules of the embedded CrackLib fork).

You can get the latest release from the krb5-strength distribution page. New packages will be uploaded to Debian unstable shortly (as soon as a Perl transition completes enough to make the package buildable in unstable).

2020-05-16: DocKnot 3.04

This is a relatively small feature release of my tool for managing software documentation and releases.

I'm slowly moving all of my packages from Travis-CI to GitHub Workflows for automated CI. GitHub Workflows is much easier to configure and control, and I've been a bit worried about the future of Travis-CI since their acquisition. It seems unlikely that GitHub Workflows is going anywhere.

It would be nice to use a fully free software solution for CI, but there doesn't seem to be anything out there that's nearly as easy and straightforward to use, and I have neither the time nor the energy to cobble something together myself. The configuration is fairly straightforward and should be portable to any fully free solution that might materialize in the future.

Anyway, as part of that migration I needed to make some changes to DocKnot to generate status badges from GitHub Workflows instead of Travis-CI. This release includes those changes. There is a backward-incompatible change to make the semantics of the package metadata a bit more straightforward: vcs.travis needs to be changed to vcs.status.travis.

You can get the latest release from the DocKnot distribution page. Debian packages have been uploaded to my personal repository. I plan on uploading DocKnot to Debian proper once I change the metadata format to use YAML instead of relaxed JSON.

2020-05-16: rra-c-util 8.2

This release of my general utility libraries and support code includes a large grab bag of fixes and improvements.

portable/system.h now defines explicit_bzero in terms of memset if it is not available. The memset version is unlikely to have the same security properties since the compiler may optimize it away, but that allows me to use explicit_bzero to erase security data where it is available.

For packages with Kerberos tests, generating a test krb5.conf file now works properly even if the system krb5.conf file does not set a default realm, and a krb5.conf file dropped into the test configuration directory now works properly. Thanks to Jeffrey Hutzelman for the latter fix.

For packages with PAM modules, the ENTRY and EXIT logging macros can now be used like function calls, and portable/pam.h now defines PAM_MAX_RESP_SIZE if it isn't defined.

Header ordering in some of the portability socket code has been restored to compatibility with a few ancient UNIX systems. This was accidentally broken by the clang-format reformatting. Thanks to Julien ÉLIE for the fix.

A few bugs in the test for SPDX license identifiers have been fixed.

Finally, this release fixes warnings with Clang 10 and GCC 10.

You can get the latest release from the rra-c-util distribution page.

2020-05-16: C TAP Harness 4.7

This is a small bug fix release to my testing framework for C packages. It picks up a change to the test suite so that it won't break when C_TAP_VERBOSE is already set in the environment, and fixes new compilation warnings with GCC 10.

You can get the latest release from the C TAP Harness distribution page.

2020-05-12: Review: Gideon the Ninth

Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Series The Locked Tomb #1
Publisher Tor
Copyright September 2019
ISBN 1-250-31317-1
Format Kindle
Pages 448

Despite being raised there, Gideon Nav is an outsider in the Ninth House. Her mother, already dead, fell from the sky with a one-day-old Gideon in tow, leaving her an indentured servant. She's a grumpy, caustic teenager in a world of moldering corpses, animated skeletons, and mostly-dead adults whose parts are falling off. Her world is sword fighting, dirty magazines, a feud with the house heir Harrowhark, and a determination to escape the terms of her indenture.

Gideon does get off the planet, but not the way that she expects. She doesn't get accepted into the military. She ends up in the middle of a bizarre test, or possibly an ascension rite, mingling with and competing with the nobility of the empire alongside her worst enemy.

I struggled to enjoy the beginning of Gideon the Ninth. Gideon tries to carry the story on pure snark, but it is very, very goth. If you like desiccated crypts, mostly-dead goons, betrayal, frustration, necromancers, black robes, disturbing family relationships, gloom, and bitter despair, the first six chapters certainly deliver, but I was sick of it by the time Gideon gets out. Thankfully, the opening is largely unlike the rest of the book. What starts as an over-the-top teenage goth rebellion turns into a cross between a manor house murder mystery and a competitive escape room. This book is a bit of a mess, but it's a glorious mess.

It's also the sort of glorious mess that I don't think would have been written or published twenty years ago, and I have a pet theory that attributes this to the invigorating influence of fanfic and writers who grew up reading and writing it.

I read a lot of classic science fiction and epic fantasy as a teenager. Those books have many merits, obviously, but emotional range is not one of them. There are a few exceptions, but on average the genre either focused on puzzles and problem solving (how do we fix the starship, how do we use the magic system to take down the dark god) or on the typical "heroic" (and male-coded) emotions of loyalty, bravery, responsibility, authority, and defiance of evil. Characters didn't have messy breakups, frenemies, anxiety, socially-awkward love affairs, impostor syndrome, self-hatred, or depression. And authors weren't allowed to fall in love with the messiness of their characters, at least on the page.

I'm not enough of a scholar to make the argument well, but I suspect there's a case to be made that fanfic exists partially to fill this gap. So much of fanfic starts from taking the characters on the canonical page or screen and letting them feel more, live more, love more, screw up more, and otherwise experience a far wider range of human drama, particularly compared to what made it into television, which was even more censored than what made it into print. Some of those readers and writers are now writing for publication, and others have gone into publishing. The result, in my theory, is that the range of stories that are acceptable in the genre has broadened, and the emotional texture of those stories has deepened.

Whether or not this theory is correct, there are now more novels like this in the world, novels full of grudges, deflective banter, squabbling, messy emotional processing, and moments of glorious emotional catharsis. This makes me very happy. To describe the emotional payoff of this book in any more detail would be a huge spoiler; suffice it to say that I unabashedly love fragile competence and unexpected emotional support, and adore this book for containing it.

Gideon's voice, irreverent banter, stubborn defiance, and impulsive good-heartedness are the center of this book. At the start, it's not clear whether there will be another likable character in the book. There will be, several of them, but it takes a while for Gideon to find them or for them to become likable. You'll need to like Gideon well enough to stick with her for that journey.

I read books primarily for the characters, not for the setting, and Gideon the Ninth struck some specific notes that I will happily read endlessly. If that doesn't match your preferences, I would not be too surprised to hear you bounced off the book. There's a lot here that won't be to everyone's taste. The setting felt very close to Warhammer 40K: an undead emperor that everyone worships, endless war, necromancy, and gothic grimdark. The stage for most of the book is at least more light-filled, complex, and interesting than the Ninth House section at the start, but everything is crumbling, drowning, broken, or decaying. There's quite a lot of body horror, grotesque monsters, and bloody fights. And the ending is not the best part of the book; roughly the last 15% of the novel is composed of two running fight scenes against a few practically unkillable and frankly not very interesting villains. I got exhausted by the fighting long before it was over, and the conclusion is essentially a series cliffhanger.

There are also a few too many characters. The collection of characters and the interplay between the houses is one of the strengths of this book, but Muir sets up her story in a way that requires eighteen significant characters and makes the reader want to keep track of all of them. It took me about halfway through the book before I felt like I had my bearings and wasn't confusing one character for another or forgetting a whole group of characters. That said, most of the characters are great, and the story gains a lot from the interplay of their different approaches and mindsets. Palamedes Sextus's logical geekery, in particular, is a great counterpoint to the approaches of most of the other characters.

The other interesting thing Muir does in this novel that I've not seen before, and that feels very modern, is to set the book in essentially an escape room. Locking a bunch of characters in a sprawling mansion until people start dying is an old fictional trope, but this one has puzzles, rewards, and a progressive physical structure that provides a lot of opportunities to motivate the characters and give them space to take wildly different problem-solving approaches. I liked this a lot, and I'm looking forward to seeing it in future books.

This is not the best book I've read, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite some problems with the ending. I've already pre-ordered the sequel.

Followed by Harrow the Ninth.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-05-09: Review: Golden Gates

Review: Golden Gates, by Conor Dougherty

Publisher Penguin
Copyright 2020
ISBN 0-525-56022-X
Format Kindle
Pages 249

This review, for reasons that will hopefully become clear later, starts with a personal digression.

I have been interested in political theory my entire life. That sounds like something admirable, or at least neutral. It's not. "Interested" means that I have opinions that are generally stronger than my depth of knowledge warrants. "Interested" means that I like thinking about and casting judgment on how politics should be done without doing the work of politics myself. And "political theory" is different than politics in important ways, not the least of which is that political actions have rarely been a direct danger to me or my family. I have the luxury of arguing about politics as a theory.

In short, I'm at high risk of being one of those people who has an opinion about everything and shares it on Twitter.

I'm still in the process (to be honest, near the beginning of the process) of making something useful out of that interest. I've had some success when I become enough a part of a community that I can do some of the political work, understand the arguments at a level deeper than theory, and have to deal with the consequences of my own opinions. But those communities have been on-line and relatively low stakes. For the big political problems, the ones that involve governments and taxes and laws, those that decide who gets medical treatment and income support and who doesn't, to ever improve, more people like me need to learn enough about the practical details that we can do the real work of fixing them, rather than only making our native (and generally privileged) communities better for ourselves.

I haven't found my path helping with that work yet. But I do have a concrete, challenging, local political question that makes me coldly furious: housing policy. Hence this book.

Golden Gates is about housing policy in the notoriously underbuilt and therefore incredibly expensive San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. I wanted to deepen that emotional reaction to the failures of housing policy with facts and analysis. Golden Gates does provide some of that. But this also turns out to be a book about the translation of political theory into practice, about the messiness and conflict that results, and about the difficult process of measuring success. It's also a book about how substantial agreement on the basics of necessary political change can still founder on the shoals of prioritization, tribalism, and people who are interested in political theory.

In short, it's a book about the difficulty of changing the world instead of arguing about how to change it.

This is not a direct analysis of housing policy, although Dougherty provides the basics as background. Rather, it's the story of the political fight over housing told primarily through two lenses: Sonja Trauss, founder of BARF (the Bay Area Renters' Federation); and a Redwood City apartment complex, the people who fought its rent increases, and the nun who eventually purchased it. Around that framework, Dougherty writes about the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the history of California's Proposition 13, a fight over a development in Lafayette, the logistics challenge of constructing sufficient housing even when approved, and the political career of Scott Wiener, the hated opponent of every city fighting for the continued ability to arbitrarily veto any new housing.

One of the things Golden Gates helped clarify for me is that there are three core interest groups that have to be part of any discussion of Bay Area housing: homeowners who want to limit or eliminate local change, renters who are vulnerable to gentrification and redevelopment, and the people who want to live in that area and can't (which includes people who want to move there, but more sympathetically includes all the people who work there but can't afford to live locally, such as teachers, day care workers, food service workers, and, well, just about anyone who doesn't work in tech). (As with any political classification, statements about collectives may not apply to individuals; there are numerous people who appear to fall into one group but who vote in alignment with another.) Dougherty makes it clear that housing policy is intractable in part because the policies that most clearly help one of those three groups hurt the other two.

As advertised by the subtitle (Fighting for Housing in America), Dougherty's focus is on the fight for more housing. Those who already own homes whose values have been inflated by artificial scarcity, or who want to preserve such stratified living conditions as low-density, large-lot single-family dwellings within short mass-transit commute of one of the densest cities in the United States, don't get a lot of sympathy or focus here except as opponents. I understand this choice; I also don't have much sympathy. But I do wish that Dougherty had spent more time discussing the unsustainable promise that California has implicitly made to homeowners: housing may be impossibly expensive, but if you can manage to reach that pinnacle of financial success, the ongoing value of your home is guaranteed. He does mention this in passing, but I don't think he puts enough emphasis on the impact that a single huge, illiquid investment that is heavily encouraged by government policy has on people's attitude towards anything that jeopardizes that investment.

The bulk of this book focuses on the two factions trying to make housing cheaper: Sonja Trauss and others who are pushing for construction of more housing, and tenant groups trying to manage the price of existing housing for those who have to rent. The tragedy of Bay Area housing is that even the faintest connection of housing to the economic principle of supply and demand implies that the long-term goals of those two groups align. Building more housing will decrease the cost of housing, at least if you build enough of it over a long enough period of time. But in the short term, particularly given the amount of Bay Area land pre-emptively excluded from housing by environmental protection and the actions of the existing homeowners, building more housing usually means tearing down cheap lower-density housing and replacing it with expensive higher-density housing. And that destroys people's lives.

I'll admit my natural sympathy is with Trauss on pure economic grounds. There simply aren't enough places to live in the Bay Area, and the number of people in the area will not decrease. To the marginal extent that growth even slows, that's another tale of misery involving "super commutes" of over 90 minutes each way. But the most affecting part of this book was the detailed look at what redevelopment looks like for the people who thought they had housing, and how it disrupts and destroys existing communities. It's impossible to read those stories and not be moved. But it's equally impossible to not be moved by the stories of people who live in their cars during the week, going home only on weekends because they have to live too far away from their jobs to commute.

This is exactly the kind of politics that I lose when I take a superficial interest in political theory. Even when I feel confident in a guiding principle, the hard part of real-world politics is bringing real people with you in the implementation and mitigating the damage that any choice of implementation will cause. There are a lot of details, and those details matter. Without the right balance between addressing a long-term deficit and providing short-term protection and relief, an attempt to alleviate unsustainable long-term misery creates more short-term misery for those least able to afford it. And while I personally may have less sympathy for the relatively well-off who have clawed their way into their own mortgage, being cavalier with their goals and their financial needs is both poor ethics and poor politics. Mobilizing political opponents who have resources and vote locally isn't a winning strategy.

Dougherty is a reporter, not a housing or public policy expert, so Golden Gates poses problems and tells stories rather than describes solutions. This book didn't lead me to a brilliant plan for fixing the Bay Area housing crunch, or hand me a roadmap for how to get effectively involved in local politics. What it did do is tell stories about what political approaches have worked, how they've worked, what change they've created, and the limitations of that change. Solving political problems is work. That work requires understanding people and balancing concerns, which in turn requires a lot of empathy, a lot of communication, and sometimes finding a way to make unlikely allies.

I'm not sure how broad the appeal of this book will be outside of those who live in the region. Some aspects of the fight for housing generalize, but the Bay Area (and I suspect every region) has properties specific to it or to the state of California. It has also reached an extreme of housing shortage that is rivaled in the United States only by New York City, which changes the nature of the solutions. But if you want to seriously engage with Bay Area housing policy, knowing the background explained here is nearly mandatory. There are some flaws — I wish Dougherty would have talked more about traffic and transit policy, although I realize that could be another book — but this is an important story told well.

If this somewhat narrow topic is within your interests, highly recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-05-03: Review: Seraphina

Review: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Series Seraphina #1
Publisher Ember
Copyright 2012
ISBN 0-375-89658-9
Format Kindle
Pages 360

Forty years ago, dragons and humans negotiated a fragile truce. The fighting stopped, the dragon-killing knights were outlawed, and dragons were allowed to visit the city in peace, albeit under stringent restrictions. Some on both sides were never happy with that truce and now, as the anniversary approaches, Prince Rufus has been murdered while hunting. His head was never found, and not a few members of the court are certain that it was eaten.

Sixteen-year-old Seraphina had no intention of being part of that debate. She's desperately trying to keep a low profile as the assistant court music director and music tutor to a princess. Her father is furious that she's at court at all, since that they are hiding a family secret that cannot get out. But Seraphina has a bad habit of being competent in ways that are hard to ignore: improving the princess's willingness to learn music beyond all expectations, performing memorably at Prince Rufus's funeral, and then helping, with her dragon tutor, a newskin dragon (one new to shapeshifting) who was attacked by a mob. This brings her to the attention of Prince Lucian Kiggs: royal bastard, fiance of the princess, head of the royal guard, and observant investigator. For Seraphina and her secrets, that's a threat, but she has made more friends at court than she realizes.

I probably should spoil Seraphina's secret, since it's hard to talk about this book without it and Hartman reveals it relatively early, but I try to avoid spoilers. I'll instead say that Seraphina is in danger from both the court and the dragons if her secret is uncovered, but she has an ability that will prove more useful than she ever expected in helping the kingdom avoid war. That ability is not something flashy; it lies in listening, understanding, and forming connections.

As you have probably guessed from the age of the protagonist, this is a young adult fantasy. It has that YA shape; Seraphina is uncertain but brave, gets into trouble by being unable to keep her mouth shut or stand by when she can prevent bad things from happening, and is caught by surprise when others find those characteristics likable. The cast is small despite an epic fantasy setup, and the degree to which Seraphina ends up at the heart of the kingdom's affairs is perhaps a touch unrealistic. Like a lot of YA, Seraphina is very centered on its main character. Your enjoyment of this book will likely hinge on how much you like her mix of uncertainty, determination, and ethics.

I liked her. I also appreciated the way that Hartman had her stumble into the plot through a series of accidents and entanglements with her past and her secret, despite her own best intentions. Seraphina is trying to avoid attention, not get into the middle of a novel, but she's naturally the sort of person who rushes towards danger to help others whenever events happen too fast for her to think. She has also attracted the attention (and unexpected friendship) of critical members of the royal family who like to meddle, which is bad for her attempts to hide. This could have felt artificial and too coincidental, but it didn't.

The one thing that did bother me about this book, though, was the nature of dragons, although it's possible that I'm being unfair. Dragons in Hartman's world can shapeshift into human form, but they don't understand (and deeply distrust) human emotions, finding them overwhelming and impure. This bit of world-building is not original to this book, and perhaps I should attribute it to the ubiquitous influence of Spock and Vulcans. But I kept stumbling over the feeling like dragons were based partly on stereotypes of the autism spectrum, which hurt my ability to engross myself in the story. It would not surprise me if I had this all wrong, Hartman didn't intend anything of the sort, and no one else will read it that way. But it still seemed worth mentioning.

Seraphina's dynamic with Kiggs becomes the core of the story, but it's slow and stumbling and occasionally frustrating when Seraphina is more cautious than the reader thinks she needs to be. The payoff is mostly worth the frustration, though. I wish Seraphina had been a bit more curious about her abilities, a bit more willing to notice the obvious (the bit with the dancers drug on far too long), and a bit more trusting of people who deserve her trust, and I wish Hartman had taken a different approach with the dragon attitude towards emotions. But this was fun.

Recommended if you want a good-hearted story where doing the right thing is rewarded and people in positions of power notice when someone is a good person.

Followed by Shadow Scale.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Last spun 2020-07-04 from thread modified 2008-08-13