Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

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 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 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, 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

2020-04-25: Review: The Last Goodbye

Review: The Last Goodbye, by Matt Potter

Publisher Silvertail
Copyright 2014-2016
Printing 2016
ISBN 1-909269-42-5
Format Kindle
Pages 308

In the contested space between the interested amateur and the trained expert lies the enthusiast. A topic has, for often inexplicable reasons, caught fire in their thoughts and become a mild obsession. They may not have formal training or systematic conceptual grounding beneath their interest, but they partly make up for that lack with sustained fascination. They research widely and obscurely about their particular focus, develop novel theories, see distinctions and classifications that few others would bother to investigate, and present their discoveries to anyone who will stand still long enough. And occasionally, when that interest happens to coincide with writing skill, they produce some surprisingly excellent essays or books.

Matt Potter's enthusiasm is resignation letters.

Every damaging resignation letter, every cornered truth attack, every out-of-control speech by a former friend, is more than just an inconvenience, to be countered with positive spin and internal memos: it's an open challenge to the official version of the story, the perfectly controlled brand. They are breaks in an otherwise perfectly planned, smoothly executed narrative of the powerful. Holes in the program code. A rare, irresistible chance to hack into history's shiny, unstoppable operation.

The Last Goodbye: A History of the World in Resignation Letters is not, in truth, a history of the world. It is, first and foremost, a taxonomy, because there are types of resignation letters. The opening chapter, the truth bomb, is the type that one would expect upon discovering that someone wrote a book on the topic (that wasn't advice on how to write a good one). But there are other types, less heavy on the fireworks but just as fascinating. The unquotable expert construction. The knife in the back. The incoherent scream of rage. But also the surprisingly gentle and graceful conclusion.

It is the question that the letters themselves try in vain to answer, over and over again — even as they explain, analyse, protest and bear witness to a million other details.

The question is: Why?

All the forces in the universe stack up against unburdening ourselves in a resignation letter. Professionally, it can be suicide. In practical terms, it is often self-defeating. Self-help books coach against unleashing its force; colleagues and confidantes urge caution, self-restraint. And yet we do it, and damn the consequences. We have no choice but to speak — in sorrow, love, grief, cold anger, thirst for revenge, wounded pride, the pain of injustice, loyalty, pangs of regret, throes of vengeful madness, deluded righteousness, panic, black distress, isolation, ecstasies of martyrdom, and a million other shades of human extremity — we need to say our piece even as we leave the stage.

The risk of the enthusiast's book is that the lack of structural grounding can leave the conclusions unsupported. A fair critique of this book is that it contains a lot of amateur sociology. Potter has a journalist's eye for motive and narrative, but some of his conclusions may not be warranted. But he compensates for the lack of rigor with, well, enthusiasm. Potter is fascinated by resignation letters and the insight they offer, and that fascination is irresistibly contagious.

It's probably obvious that the chapters on truth bombs, fuck yous, and knives in the back have visceral appeal. The resignation letter as a force of truth-telling, as the revenge of a disregarded peon, as a crack in the alliance between the powerful that may let some truth shine through, is what got me to buy this book. And Potter doesn't disappoint; he quotes from both famous and nearly unknown examples, dissects the writing and the intent, and gives us a ringside seat to a few effective acts of revenge.

That's not the best part of this book, though. The chapter that I will remember the longest is Potter's dissection of the constructed resignation letter. The carefully drafted public relations statement, the bland formality, the attempt to make a news story disappear. The conversation-ender.

It's a truism that any area of human endeavor involves more expertise than those who have only observed it from the outside will realize, but I had never thought to apply that principle to the ghost-written resignation letter. The careful non-apology, the declaration that one has "become a distraction," the tell-tale phrasing of "spending more time with my family" is offensive in its bland dishonesty. But Potter shows that the blandness is expertly constructed to destroy quotability. Those statements are nearly impossible to remember or report on because they have been built that way: nouns carefully separated from verbs, all force dissipated by circuities and modifiers, and subtle grammatical errors introduced to discourage written news from including direct quotes.

Potter's journalism background shines here because he can describe the effect on news reporting. He walks the reader through the construction to reveal that the writing is not incompetent but instead is skillfully bad in a way that causes one's attention to skitter off of it. The letter vanishes into its own vagueness. The goal is to smother the story in such mediocrity that it becomes forgettable. And it works.

I've written several resignation letters of my own. Somewhat unusually, I've even sent several of them, although (as Potter says is typical) fewer than I've written. I've even written (and sent) the sort of resignation letter that every career advisor will say to never send. Potter's discussion of the motives and thought process behind those letters rang true for me. It's a raw and very human moment, one is never in as much control of it as one wishes, the cracks and emotions break through in the writing, and often those letters are trying to do far too many things at the same time. But it's also a moment in which one can say something important and have others listen, which can be weirdly challenging to do in the normal course of a job.

Potter ends this book beautifully by looking at resignation letters that break or transcend the mold of most of the others he's examined: letters where the author seems to have found some peace and internal understanding and expresses that simply and straightforwardly. I found this surprisingly touching after the emotional roller-coaster of the rest of the book, and a lovely note on which to end.

This is a great book. Potter has a good eye for language and the emotion encoded in it, a bracing preference for the common worker or employee over the manager or politician, and the skill to produce some memorable turns of phrase. Most importantly, he has the enthusiast's love of the topic. Even if you don't care about resignation letters going in, it will be hard to avoid some fascination with them by the end of this book. Recommended.

This book was originally published as F*ck You and Goodbye in the UK.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-04-18: Review: Beyond the Galaxy

Review: Beyond the Galaxy, by Ethan Siegel

Publisher World Scientific
Copyright 2016
ISBN 981-4667-16-1
Format Kindle
Pages 370

In the preface of this book, Ethan Siegel recounts his experience as a new college professor in 2009, thrilled to learn that he would be teaching the college's introductory astronomy class. The only disappointment was that he could not find a textbook that described astronomy the way that he wanted to teach it. Siegel did not want to simply describe the current astronomical understanding. He wanted to start at the beginning and tell a story. What questions did we start with? How did we answer them? What new questions did those answers provoke?

I enjoyed Sabine Hossenfelder's Lost in Math, but I'm even happier that she included in it a recommendation of Beyond the Galaxy as a good introduction to modern astronomy. I am completely in agreement with Siegel: Astronomy is interesting however it is described, but the best presentation for the interested lay person who does not intend to become a professional astronomy is chronological. (I feel the same way about physics and mathematics.) The narrative structure of scientific discovery draws me in every time. It's so satisfying to see our knowledge growing, breakthrough by breakthrough, only to meet the next puzzling inconsistency. It also is a natural fit for bringing someone up to speed on a field, since the history of the field starts with simpler questions and problems, and the complications of later discoveries build on the gaps left by earlier theories.

Siegel tells that story well. Beyond the Galaxy starts with observations of seasonal changes in the path of the Sun through the sky and phases of the moon, quickly moves on to Eratosthenes's calculation of the circumference of the Earth, and continues at pace through early astronomy. The first chapter brings the reader up to the start of the 20th century, after which Siegel slows down and spends the remaining 10 chapters on the last 100 years: special and general relativity, the expansion of the universe, the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, the inflationary period, and more.

For me, this was perfect. The story of early astronomy and the fight over the heliocentric model of the universe is worth telling, but it's been told many times before and features prominently in history books outside of science classes. The weight of material in this book matched my interest: What new developments have there been after general relativity and the Big Bang theory? What inconsistencies are dark matter and dark energy explaining? What is the inflationary period and how did it modify the Big Bang theory? (My half-formed impression of this part of astronomy from news articles turned out to be almost entirely wrong.) And how do we know all of this?

The question of how we know as much as we do about the early origins of the universe turned out to be far more interesting than I had realized. It's one of those pieces of science where, when given only the conclusions, it's hard to imagine how our theories could be as complete as they are. Siegel is a bit repetitive in how he talks about theory development and occasionally skims over the details to avoid getting too deep into techniques and math, but he does a great job explaining the predictions of a theory, the design of experiments to prove or disprove those predictions, and the implications for the boundaries of what we know. This is the first time someone has explained the theorized origin of matter-antimatter asymmetry in sufficient detail that I was able to understand and internalize it.

Dark matter and dark energy are the current topics of astronomy that get the most press, and the coverage of both is very good here. I was particularly fascinated by the link between dark matter and the superstructures of the universe that we've discovered. Astronomy does scale in a way that no other science can manage, and the scale of structure we've discovered and been able to map has gone up considerably since the last time I refreshed my astronomical knowledge.

If you're looking for a math-light, comprehensive introduction to modern astronomy, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. That goes double if you, like me, prefer a chronological view of scientific discovery so that you can understand what questions people were trying to answer and how our understanding changed over time.

One note on format: Astronomy being what it is, this book is very heavy on pictures. It is not at all suitable for a dedicated ebook reader. The Kindle tries, but the combination of a small screen and black and white e-ink fail miserably. I switched to reading on a tablet, and that was a far better experience. The Kindle app still struggles to put the figures next to the text that discusses them, but that's a typesetting problem that I often have with physical books as well. If you don't have a tablet and you aren't willing to read on a computer screen, you probably want a physical copy of this one (which, sadly, means academic textbook pricing).

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-04-05: Review: Thick

Review: Thick, by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Publisher The New Press
Copyright 2019
ISBN 1-62097-437-1
Format Kindle
Pages 247

Tressie McMillan Cottom is an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University. I first became aware of her via retweets and recommendations from other people I follow on Twitter, and she is indeed one of the best writers on that site. Thick: And Other Essays is an essay collection focused primarily on how American culture treats black women.

I will be honest here, in part because I think much of the regular audience for my book reviews is similar to me (white, well-off from working in tech, and leftist but privileged) and therefore may identify with my experience. This is the sort of book that I always want to read and then struggle to start because I find it intimidating. It received a huge amount of praise on release, including being named as a finalist for the National Book Award, and that praise focused on its incisiveness, its truth-telling, and its depth and complexity. Complex and incisive books about racism are often hard for me to read; they're painful, depressing, and infuriating, and I have to fight my tendency to come away from them feeling more cynical and despairing. (Despite loving his essays, I'm still procrastinating reading Ta-Nehisi Coates's books.) I want to learn and understand but am not good at doing anything with the information, so this reading can feel like homework.

If that's also your reaction, read this book. I regret having waited as long as I did.

Thick is still, at times, painful, depressing, and infuriating. It's also brilliantly written in a way that makes the knowledge being conveyed easier to absorb. Rather than a relentless onslaught of bearing witness (for which, I should stress, there is an important place), it is a scalpel. Each essay lays open the heart of a subject in a few deft strokes, points out important features that the reader has previously missed, and then steps aside, leaving you alone with your thoughts to come to terms with what you've just learned. I needed this book to be an essay collection, with each thought just long enough to have an impact and not so long that I became numb. It's the type of collection that demands a pause at the end of each essay, a moment of mental readjustment, and perhaps a paging back through the essay again to remember the sharpest points.

The essays often start with seeds of the personal, drawing directly on McMillan Cottom's own life to wrap context around their point. In the first essay, "Thick," she uses advice given her younger self against writing too many first-person essays to talk about the writing form, its critics, and how the backlash against it has become part of systematic discrimination because black women are not allowed to write any other sort of authoritative essay. She then draws a distinction between her own writing and personal essays, not because she thinks less of that genre but because that genre does not work for her as a writer. The essays in Thick do this repeatedly. They appear to head in one direction, then deepen and shift with the added context of precise sociological analysis, defying predictability and reaching a more interesting conclusion than the reader had expected. And, despite those shifts, McMillan Cottom never lost me in a turn. This is a book that is not only comfortable with complexity and nuance, but helps the reader become comfortable with that complexity as well.

The second essay, "In the Name of Beauty," is perhaps my favorite of the book. Its spark was backlash against an essay McMillan Cottom wrote about Miley Cyrus, but the topic of the essay wasn't what sparked the backlash.

What many black women were angry about was how I located myself in what I'd written. I said, blithely as a matter of observable fact, that I am unattractive. Because I am unattractive, the argument went, I have a particular kind of experience of beauty, race, racism, and interacting with what we might call the white gaze. I thought nothing of it at the time I was writing it, which is unusual. I can usually pinpoint what I have said, written, or done that will piss people off and which people will be pissed off. I missed this one entirely.

What follows is one of the best essays on the social construction of beauty I've ever read. It barely pauses at the typical discussion of unrealistic beauty standards as a feminist issue, instead diving directly into beauty as whiteness, distinguishing between beauty standards that change with generations and the more lasting rules that instead police the bounds between white and not white. McMillan Cottom then goes on to explain how beauty is a form of capital, a poor and problematic one but nonetheless one of the few forms of capital women have access to, and therefore why black women have fought to be included in beauty despite all of the problems with judging people by beauty standards. And the essay deepens from there into a trenchant critique of both capitalism and white feminism that is both precise and illuminating.

When I say that I am unattractive or ugly, I am not internalizing the dominant culture's assessment of me. I am naming what has been done to me. And signaling who did it. I am glad that doing so unsettles folks, including the many white women who wrote to me with impassioned cases for how beautiful I am. They offered me neoliberal self-help nonsense that borders on the religious. They need me to believe beauty is both achievable and individual, because the alternative makes them vulnerable.

I could go on. Every essay in this book deserves similar attention. I want to quote from all of them. These essays are about racism, feminism, capitalism, and economics, all at the same time. They're about power, and how it functions in society, and what it does to people. There is an essay about Obama that contains the most concise explanation for his appeal to white voters that I've read. There is a fascinating essay about the difference between ethnic black and black-black in U.S. culture. There is so much more.

We do not share much in the U.S. culture of individualism except our delusions about meritocracy. God help my people, but I can talk to hundreds of black folks who have been systematically separated from their money, citizenship, and personhood and hear at least eighty stories about how no one is to blame but themselves. That is not about black people being black but about people being American. That is what we do. If my work is about anything it is about making plain precisely how prestige, money, and power structure our so-called democratic institutions so that most of us will always fail.

I, like many other people in my profession, was always more comfortable with the technical and scientific classes in college. I liked math and equations and rules, dreaded essay courses, and struggled to engage with the mandatory humanities courses. Something that I'm still learning, two decades later, is the extent to which this was because the humanities are harder work than the sciences and I wasn't yet up to the challenge of learning them properly. The problems are messier and more fluid. The context required is broader. It's harder to be clear and precise. And disciplines like sociology deal with our everyday lived experience, which means that we all think we're entitled to an opinion.

Books like this, which can offer me a hand up and a grounding in the intellectual rigor while simultaneously being engaging and easy to read, are a treasure. They help me fill in the gaps in my education and help me recognize and appreciate the depth of thought in disciplines that don't come as naturally to me.

This book was homework, but the good kind, the kind that exposes gaps in my understanding, introduces topics I hadn't considered, and makes the time fly until I come up for air, awed and thinking hard. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

2020-03-31: Review: A Grand and Bold Thing

Review: A Grand and Bold Thing, by Ann Finkbeiner

Publisher Free Press
Copyright August 2010
ISBN 1-4391-9647-8
Format Kindle
Pages 200

With the (somewhat excessively long) subtitle of An Extraordinary New Map of the Universe Ushering In a New Era of Discovery, this is a history of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. It's structured as a mostly chronological history of the project with background profiles on key project members, particularly James Gunn.

Those who follow my blog will know that I recently started a new job at Vera C. Rubin Observatory (formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope). Our goal is to take a complete survey of the night sky several times a week for ten years. That project is the direct successor of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, and its project team includes many people who formerly worked on Sloan. This book (and another one, Giant Telescopes) was recommended to me as a way to come up to speed on the history of this branch of astronomy.

Before reading this book, I hadn't understood how deeply the ready availability of the Sloan sky survey data had changed astronomy. Prior to the availability of that survey data, astronomers would develop theories and then try to book telescope time to make observations to test those theories. That telescope time was precious and in high demand, so was not readily available, and was vulnerable to poor weather conditions (like overcast skies) once the allocated time finally arrived.

The Sloan project changed all of that. Its output was a comprehensive sky survey available digitally whenever and wherever an astronomer needed it. One could develop a theory and then search the Sloan Digital Sky Survey for relevant data and, for at least some types of theories, test that theory against the data without needing precious telescope time or new observations. It was a transformational change in astronomy, made possible by the radical decision, early in the project, to release all of the data instead of keeping it private to a specific research project.

The shape of that change is one takeaway from this book. The other is how many problems the project ran into trying to achieve that goal. About a third of the way into this book, I started wondering if the project was cursed. So many things went wrong, from institutional politics through equipment failures to software bugs and manufacturing problems with the telescope mirror. That makes it all the more impressive how much impact the project eventually had. It's also remarkable just how many bad things can happen to a telescope mirror without making the telescope unusable.

Finkbeiner provides the most relevant astronomical background as she tells the story so that the unfamiliar reader can get an idea of what questions the Sloan survey originally set out to answer (particularly about quasars), but this is more of a project history than a popular astronomy book. There's enough astronomy here for context, but not enough to satisfy curiosity. If you're like me, expect to have your curiosity piqued, possibly resulting in buying popular surveys of current astronomy research. (At least one review is coming soon.)

Obviously this book is of special interest to me because of my new field of work, my background at a research university, and because it features some of my co-workers. I'm not sure how interesting it will be to someone without that background and personal connection. But if you've ever been adjacent to or curious about how large-scale science projects are done, this is a fascinating story. Both the failures and problems and the way they were eventually solved is different than how the more common stories of successful or failed companies are told. (It helps, at least for me, that the shared goal was to do science, rather than to make money for a corporation whose fortunes are loosely connected to those of the people doing the work.)

Recommended if this topic sounds at all interesting.

Rating: 7 out of 10

2020-03-30: pam-krb5 4.9

This is a security release fixing a one-byte buffer overflow when relaying prompts from the underlying Kerberos library. All users of my pam-krb5 module should upgrade as soon as possible. See the security advisory for more information.

There are also a couple more minor security improvements in this release: The module now rejects passwords as long or longer than PAM_MAX_RESP_SIZE (normally 512 octets) since they can be a denial of service attack via the Kerberos string-to-key function, and uses explicit_bzero where available to clear passwords before releasing memory.

Also in this release, use_pkinit is now supported with MIT Kerberos, the Kerberos prompter function returns more accurate error messages, I fixed an edge-case memory leak in pam_chauthtok, and the module/basic test will run properly with a system krb5.conf file that doesn't specify a realm.

You can get the latest release from the pam-krb5 distribution page. I've also uploaded the new version to Debian unstable and patched security releases with only the security fix to Debian stable and oldstable.

Last spun 2020-05-27 from thread modified 2008-08-13