Eagle's Path

Passion and dispassion. Choose two.

Larry Wall

2020-08-09: rra-c-util 8.3

In this release of my utility library for my other packages, I finally decided to drop support for platforms without a working snprintf.

This dates back to the early 2000s and a very early iteration of this package. At the time, there were still some older versions of UNIX without snprintf at all. More commonly, it was buggy. The most common problem was that it would return -1 if the buffer wasn't large enough rather than returning the necessary size of the buffer. Or, in some cases, it wouldn't support a buffer size of 0 and a NULL buffer to get the necessary size.

At the time I added this support for INN and some other packages, Solaris had several of these issues. But C99 standardized the correct snprintf behavior, and slowly every maintained operating system was fixed. (I forget whether it was fixed in Solaris 8 or Solaris 9, but regardless, Solaris has had a working snprintf for many years.) Meanwhile, the replacement function (Patrick Powell's version, also used by mutt and other packages) was a huge wad of code and a corresponding test suite. Over time, I've increased the aggressiveness of linters to try to catch more dangerous C pitfalls, and that's required carrying more and more small modifications plus a preamble to disable various warnings that I didn't want to try to fix.

The straw that broke the camel's back was Clang's new case fallthrough warning. Clang stopped supporting the traditional /* fallthrough */ comment. It now prefers [[clang:fallthrough]] syntax, but of course older compilers choke on that. It does support the GCC __attribute__((__fallthrough__)) syntax, but older compilers don't like that construction because they think it's an empty statement. It was a mess, and I decided the time had come to drop this support effort.

At this point, if you're still running an operating system without C99 snprintf, I think it's essentially a retrocomputing or at least extremely stable legacy production situation, and you're unlikely to want the latest and greatest releases of new software. Hopefully that assumption is correct, or at least correct enough.

(I realize the right solution to this problem is probably for me to use Gnulib for portability. But converting to it is a whole other project with a lot of other implications and machinery, and I'm not sure that's what I want to spend time on.)

Also in this release is a fix for network tests on hosts with no IPv4 addresses (more on this when I release the next version of remctl), fixes for style issues found by Perl::Critic::Freenode, and some other test suite improvements.

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

2020-08-09: DocKnot 3.05

I keep telling myself that the next release of DocKnot will be the one where I convert everything to YAML and then feel confident about uploading it to Debian, and then I keep finding one more thing to fix to release another package I'm working on.

Anyway, this is the package I use to generate software documentation and, in the long run, will subsume my static web site generator and software release workflow. This release tweaks a heuristic for wrapping paragraphs in text documents, fixes the status badge for software with Debian packages to do what I had intended, and updates dependencies based on the advice of Perl::Critic::Freenode.

You can get the latest version from CPAN or from the DocKnot distribution page.

2020-07-27: Review: The City in the Middle of the Night

Review: The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders

Publisher Tor
Copyright February 2019
Printing February 2020
ISBN 1-4668-7113-X
Format Kindle
Pages 366

January is a tidally-locked planet divided between permanent night and permanent day, an unfortunate destination for a colony starship. Now, humans cling to a precarious existence along the terminator, huddling in two wildly different cities and a handful of smaller settlements, connected by a road through the treacherous cold.

The novel opens with Sophie, a shy university student from the dark side of the city of Xiosphant. She has an overwhelming crush on Bianca, her high-class, self-confident roommate and one of the few people in her life to have ever treated her with compassion and attention. That crush, and her almost non-existent self-esteem, lead her to take the blame for Bianca's petty theft, resulting in what should have been a death sentence. Sophie survives only because she makes first contact with a native intelligent species of January, one that the humans have been hunting for food and sport.

Sadly, I think this is enough Anders for me. I've now bounced off two of her novels, both for structural reasons that I think go deeper than execution and indicate a fundamental mismatch between what Anders wants to do as an author and what I'm looking for as a reader.

I'll talk more about what this book is doing in a moment, but I have to start with Bianca and Sophie. It's difficult for me to express how much I loathed this relationship and how little I wanted to read about it. It took me about five pages to peg Bianca as a malignant narcissist and Sophie's all-consuming crush as dangerous codependency. It took the entire book for Sophie to figure out how awful Bianca is to her, during which Bianca goes through the entire abusive partner playbook of gaslighting, trivializing, contingent affection, jealous rage, and controlling behavior. And meanwhile Sophie goes back to her again, and again, and again, and again. If I hadn't been reading this book on a Kindle, I think it would have physically hit a wall after their conversation in the junkyard.

This is truly a matter of personal taste and preference. This is not an unrealistic relationship; this dynamic happens in life all too often. I'm sure there is someone for whom reading about Sophie's spectacularly poor choices is affirming or cathartic. I've not personally experienced this sort of relationship, which doubtless matters.

But having empathy for someone who is making awful and self-destructive life decisions and trusting someone they should not be trusting and who is awful to them in every way is difficult work. Sophie is the victim of Bianca's abuse, but she does so many stupid and ill-conceived things in support of this twisted relationship that I found it very difficult to not get angry at her. Meanwhile, Anders writes Sophie as so clearly fragile and uncertain and devoid of a support network that getting angry at her is like kicking a puppy. The result for me was spending nearly an entire book in a deeply unpleasant state of emotional dissonance. I may be willing to go through that for a close friend, but in a work of fiction it's draining and awful and entirely not fun.

The other viewpoint character had the opposite problem for me. Mouth starts the book as a traveling smuggler, the sole survivor of a group of religious travelers called the Citizens. She's practical, tough, and guarded. Beneath that, I think the intent was to show her as struggling to come to terms with the loss of her family and faith community. Her first goal in the book is to recover a recording of Citizen sacred scripture to preserve it and to reconnect with her past.

This sounds interesting on the surface, but none of it gelled. Mouth never felt to me like someone from a faith community. She doesn't act on Citizen beliefs to any meaningful extent, she rarely talks about them, and when she does, her attitude is nostalgia without spirituality. When Mouth isn't pursuing goals that turn out to be meaningless, she aimlessly meanders through the story. Sophie at least has agency and makes some important and meaningful decisions. Mouth is just there, even when Anders does shattering things to her understanding of her past.

Between Sophie and Bianca putting my shoulders up around my ears within the first few pages of the first chapter and failing to muster any enthusiasm for Mouth, I said the eight deadly words ("I don't care what happens to these people") about a hundred pages in and the book never recovered.

There are parts of the world-building I did enjoy. The alien species that Sophie bonds with is not stunningly original, but it's a good (and detailed) take on one of the alternate cognitive and social models that science fiction has dreamed up. I was comparing the strangeness and dislocation unfavorably to China Miéville's Embassytown while I was reading it, but in retrospect Anders's treatment is more decolonialized. Xiosphant's turn to Circadianism as their manifestation of order is a nicely understated touch, a believable political overreaction to the lack of a day/night cycle. That touch is significantly enhanced by Sophie's time working in a salon whose business model is to help Xiosphant residents temporarily forget about time. And what glimmers we got of politics on the colony ship and their echoing influence on social and political structures were intriguing.

Even with the world-building, though, I want the author to be interested in and willing to expand the same bits of world-building that I'm engaged with. Anders didn't seem to be. The reader gets two contrasting cities along a road, one authoritarian and one libertine, which makes concrete a metaphor for single-axis political classification. But then Anders does almost nothing with that setup; it's just the backdrop of petty warlord politics, and none of the political activism of Bianca's student group seems to have relevance or theoretical depth. It's a similar shallowness as the religion of Mouth's Citizens: We get a few fragments of culture and religion, but without narrative exploration and without engagement from any of the characters. The way the crew of the Mothership was assembled seems to have led to a factional and racial caste system based on city of origin and technical expertise, but I couldn't tell you more than that because few of the characters seem to care. And so on.

In short, the world-building that I wanted to add up to a coherent universe that was meaningful to the characters and to the plot seemed to be little more than window-dressing. Anders tosses in neat ideas, but they don't add up to anything. They're just background scenery for Bianca and Sophie's drama.

The one thing that The City in the Middle of the Night does well is Sophie's nervous but excited embrace of the unknown. It was delightful to see the places where a typical protagonist would have to overcome a horror reaction or talk themselves through tradeoffs and where Sophie's reaction was instead "yes, of course, let's try." It provided an emotional strength to an extended first-contact exploration scene that made it liberating and heart-warming without losing the alienness. During that part of the book (in which, not coincidentally, Bianca does not appear), I was able to let my guard down and like Sophie for the first time, and I suspect that was intentional on Anders's part.

But, overall, I think the conflict between Anders's story-telling approach and my preferences as a reader are mostly irreconcilable. She likes to write about people who make bad decisions and compound their own problems. In one of the chapters of her non-fiction book about writing that's being serialized on Tor.com she says "when we watch someone do something unforgivable, we're primed to root for them as they search desperately for an impossible forgiveness." This is absolutely not true for me; when I watch a character do something unforgivable, I want to see repudiation from the protagonists and ideally some clear consequences. When that doesn't happen, I want to stop reading about them and find something more enjoyable to do with my time. I certainly don't want to watch a viewpoint character insist that the person who is doing unforgivable things is the center of her life.

If your preferences on character and story arc are closer to Anders's than mine, you may like this book. Certainly lots of people did; it was nominated for multiple awards and won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. But despite the things it did well, I had a truly miserable time reading it and am not anxious to repeat the experience.

Rating: 4 out of 10

2020-07-26: Summer haul

I'm buying rather too many books at the moment and not reading enough of them (in part because I got back into Minecraft and in part because I got a bit stuck on a few difficult books). I think I've managed to get myself unstuck again, though, and have started catching up on reviews.

2020. It's kind of a lot. And I'm not even that heavily affected.

Katherine Addison — The Angel of the Crows (sff)
Marie Brennan — A Natural History of Dragons (sff)
Kacen Callender — Queen of the Conquered (sff)
Jo Clayton — Diadem from the Stars (sff)
Jo Clayton — Lamarchos (sff)
Jo Clayton — Irsud (sff)
Clifford D. Conner — The Tragedy of American Science (nonfiction)
Kate Elliott — Unconquerable Sun (sff)
Rory Fanning & Craig Hodges — Long Shot (nonfiction)
Michael Harrington — Socialism: Past & Future (nonfiction)
Nalo Hopkinson — Brown Girl in the Ring (sff)
Kameron Hurley — The Stars Are Legion (sff)
N.K. Jemisin — Emergency Skin (sff)
T. Kingfisher — A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking (sff)
T. Kingfisher — Nine Goblins (sff)
Michael Lewis — The Fifth Risk (nonfiction)
Paul McAuley — War of the Maps (sff)
Gretchen McCulloch — Because Internet (nonfiction)
Hayao Miyazaki — Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (graphic novel)
Annalee Newitz — The Future of Another Timeline (sff)
Nick Pettigrew — Anti-Social (nonfiction)
Rivers Solomon, et al. — The Deep (sff)
Jo Walton — Or What You Will (sff)
Erik Olin Wright — Stardust to Stardust (nonfiction)

Of these, I've already read and reviewed The Fifth Risk (an excellent book).

2020-07-26: Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop

Review: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko

Publisher PublicAffairs
Copyright 2013
ISBN 1-61039-212-4
Format Kindle
Pages 336

As the United States tries, in fits and starts, to have a meaningful discussion about long-standing police racism, brutality, overreach, corruption, and murder, I've realized that my theoretical understanding of the history of and alternative frameworks for law enforcement is woefully lacking. Starting with a book by a conservative white guy is not the most ideal of approaches, but it's what I already had on hand, and it won't be the last book I read and review on this topic. (Most of my research so far has been in podcast form. I don't review those here, but I can recommend Ezra Klein's interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Paul Butler, and, most strongly, sujatha baliga.)

Rise of the Warrior Cop is from 2013 and has had several moments of fame, no doubt helped by Balko's connections to the conservative and libertarian right. One of the frustrating facts of US politics is that critiques of the justice system from the right (and from white men) get more media attention than critiques from the left. That said, it's a generally well-respected book on the factual history of the topic, and police brutality and civil rights are among the points on which I have stopped-clock agreements with US libertarians.

This book is very, very libertarian.

In my callow youth, I was an ardent libertarian, so I've read a lot of US libertarian literature. It's a genre with its own conventions that become obvious when you read enough of it, and Rise of the Warrior Cop goes through them like a checklist. Use the Roman Republic (never the Roman Empire) as the starting point for any political discussion, check. Analyze the topic in the context of pre-revolutionary America, check. Spend considerable effort on discerning the opinions of the US founders on the topic since their opinions are always relevant to the modern world, check. Locate some point in the past (preferably before 1960) where the political issue was as good as it has ever been, check. Frame all changes since then as an erosion of rights through government overreach, check. Present your solution as a return to a previous era of respect for civil rights, check. Once you start recognizing the genre conventions, their prevalence in libertarian writing is almost comical.

The framing chapters therefore leave a bit to be desired, but the meat of the book is a useful resource. Starting with the 1970s and its use as a campaigning tool by Nixon, Balko traces a useful history of the war on drugs. And starting with the 1980s, the number of cites to primary sources and the evidence of Balko's own research increases considerably. If you want to know how US police turned into military cosplayers with body armor, heavy weapons, and armored vehicles, this book provides a lot of context and history.

One of the reasons why I view libertarians as allies of convenience on this specific issue is that drug legalization and disgust with the war on drugs have been libertarian issues for decades. Ideologically honest libertarians (and Balko appears to be one) are inherently skeptical of the police, so when the police overreach in an area of libertarian interest, they notice. Balko makes a solid argument, backed up with statistics, specific programs, legislation, and court cases, that the drug war and its accompanying lies about heavily-armed drug dealers and their supposed threat to police officers was the fuel for the growth of SWAT teams, no-knock search warrants, erosion of legal protections for criminal defendants, and de facto license for the police to ignore the scope and sometimes even the existence of warrants.

This book is useful support for the argument that fears for the safety of officers underlying the militarization of police forces are imaginary. One telling point that Balko makes repeatedly and backs with statistical and anecdotal evidence is that the police generally do not use raid tactics on dangerous criminals. On the contrary, aggressive raids are more likely to be used on the least dangerous criminals because they're faster, they're fun for the police (they provide an adrenaline high and let them play with toys), and they're essentially risk-free. If the police believe someone is truly dangerous, they're more likely to use careful surveillance and to conduct a quiet arrest at an unexpected moment. The middle-of-the-night armed break-ins with battering rams, tear gas, and flash-bangs are, tellingly, used against the less dangerous suspects.

This is part of Balko's overall argument that police equipment and tactics have become untethered from any realistic threat and have become cultural. He traces an acceleration of that trend to 9/11 and the resulting obsession with terrorism, which further opened the spigot of military hardware and "special forces" training. This became a point of competition between police departments, with small town forces that had never seen a terrorist and had almost no chance of a terrorist incident demanding their own armored vehicles. I've encountered this bizarre terrorism justification personally; one of the reasons my local police department gave in a public hearing for not having a policy against shooting at moving vehicles was "but what if terrorism?" I don't believe there has ever been a local terrorist attack.

SWAT in such places didn't involve the special training or dedicated personnel of large city forces; instead, it was a part-time duty for normal police officers, and frequently they were encouraged to practice SWAT tactics by using them at random for some otherwise normal arrest or search. Balko argues that those raids were more exciting than normal police work, leading to a flood of volunteers for that duty and a tendency to use them as much as possible. That in turn normalizes disconnecting police tactics from the underlying crime or situational risk.

So far, so good. But despite the information I was able to extract from it, I have mixed feelings about Rise of the Warrior Cop as a whole. At the least, it has substantial limitations.

First, I don't trust the historical survey of policing in this book. Libertarian writing makes for bad history. The constraints of the genre require overusing only a few points of reference, treating every opinion of the US founders as holy writ, and tying forward progress to a return to a previous era, all of which interfere with good analysis. Balko also didn't do the research for the historical survey, as is clear from the footnotes. The citations are all to other people's histories, not to primary sources. He's summarizing other people's histories, and you'll almost certainly get better history by finding well-respected historians who cover the same ground. (That said, if you're not familiar with Peel's policing principles, this is a good introduction.)

Second, and this too is unfortunately predictable in a libertarian treatment, race rarely appears in this book. If Balko published the same book today, I'm sure he would say more about race, but even in 2013 its absence is strange. I was struck while reading by how many examples of excessive police force were raids on west coast pot farms; yes, I'm sure that was traumatic, but it's not the demographic I would name as the most vulnerable to or affected by police brutality. West coast pot growers are, however, mostly white.

I have no idea why Balko made that choice. Perhaps he thought his target audience would be more persuaded by his argument if he focused on white victims. Perhaps he thought it was an easier and less complicated story to tell. Perhaps, like a lot of libertarians, he doesn't believe racism has a significant impact on society because it would be a market failure. Perhaps those were the people who more readily came to mind. But to talk about police militarization, denial of civil rights, and police brutality in the United States without putting race at the center of both the history and the societal effects leaves a gaping hole in the analysis.

Given that lack of engagement, I also am dubious of Balko's policy prescriptions. His reform suggestions aren't unreasonable, but they stay firmly in the centrist and incrementalist camp and would benefit white people more than black people. Transparency, accountability, and cultural changes are all fine and good, but the cultural change Balko is focused on is less aggressive arrest tactics, more use of mediation, and better physical fitness. I would not object to those things (well, maybe the last, which seemed odd), but we need to have a discussion about police white supremacist organizations, the prevalence of spousal abuse, and the police tendency to see themselves not as public servants but as embattled warriors who are misunderstood by the naive sheep they are defending.

And, of course, you won't find in Rise of the Warrior Cop any thoughtful wrestling with whether there are alternative approaches to community safety, whether punitive rather than restorative justice is effective, or whether crime is a symptom of deeper societal problems we could address but refuse to. The most radical suggestion Balko has is to legalize drugs, which is both the predictable libertarian position and, as we have seen from recent events in the United States, far from the only problem of overcriminalization.

I understand why this book is so frequently mentioned on-line, and its author's political views may make it more palatable to some people than a more race-centered or radical perspective. But I don't think this is the best or most useful book on police violence that one could read today. I hope to find a better one in upcoming reviews.

Rating: 6 out of 10

2020-07-25: Review: Paladin's Grace

Review: Paladin's Grace, by T. Kingfisher

Publisher Red Wombat Studio
Copyright 2020
Format Kindle
Pages 399

Stephen was a paladin. Then his god died.

He was a berserker, an unstoppable warrior in the service of his god. Now, well, he's still a berserker, but going berserk when you don't have a god to control the results is not a good idea. He and his brothers were taken in by the Temple of the Rat, where they serve as guards, watch out for each other, and try to get through each day with an emptiness in their souls where a god should be.

Stephen had just finished escorting a healer through some of the poorer parts of town when a woman runs up to him and asks him to hide her. Their awkward simulated tryst is sufficient to fool the two Motherhood priests who were after her for picking flowers from the graveyard. Stephen then walks her home and that would have been the end of it, except that neither could get the other out of their mind.

Despite first appearances, and despite being set in the same world and sharing a supporting character, this is not the promised sequel to Swordheart (which is apparently still coming). It's an entirely different paladin story. T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon's nom de plume when writing for adults) has a lot of things to say about paladins! And, apparently, paladin-involved romances.

On the romance front, Kingfisher clearly has a type. The general shape of the story will be familiar from Swordheart and The Wonder Engine: An independent and occasionally self-confident woman with various quirks, a hunky paladin who is often maddeningly dense, and a lot of worrying on both sides about whether the other person is truly interested in them and if their personal liabilities make a relationship a horrible idea. This is not my preferred romance formula (it provokes the occasional muttered "for the love of god just talk to each other"), but I liked this iteration of it better than the previous two, mostly because of Grace.

Grace is a perfumer, a trade she went into by being picked out of a lineup of orphans by a master perfumer for her sense of smell. One of Kingfisher's strengths as a writer is in letting her characters get lost in their routine day-to-day competence. When mixed with an inherently fascinating profession, this creates a great reading experience. Grace is also an abuse survivor, which made the communication difficulties with Stephen more interesting and subtle. Grace has created space and a life for herself, and her unwillingness to take risks on changes is a deep part of her sense of self and personal safety. As her past is slowly revealed, Kingfisher puts the reader in a position to share Stephen's anger and protectiveness, but then consistently puts Grace's own choices, coping mechanisms, and irritated refusal to be protected back into the center of the story. She has to accept some help as she gets entangled in the investigation of a highly political staged assassination attempt, but both that help and the relationship come on her own terms. It's very well-done.

The plot was enjoyable enough, although it involved a bit too much of constantly rising stakes and turns for the worst for my taste, and the ending had a touch of deus ex machina. Like Kingfisher's other books, though, the delight is in the unexpected details. Stephen knitting socks. Grace's frustrated obsession with why he smells like gingerbread. The beautifully practical and respectful relationship between the Temple of the Rat and Stephen's band of former paladins. (After only two books in which they play a major role, the Temple of the Rat is already one of my favorite fantasy religions.) Everything about Bishop Beartongue. Grace's friend Marguerite. And a truly satisfying ending.

The best part of this book, though, is the way Grace is shown as a complete character in a way that even most books with well-rounded characterization don't manage. Some things she does make the reader's heart ache because of the hints they provide about her past, but they're also wise and effective safety mechanisms for her. Kingfisher gives her space to be competent and prickly and absent-minded. She has a complete life: friends, work, goals, habits, and little rituals. Grace meets someone and falls in love, but one can readily imagine her not falling in love and going on with her life and that result wouldn't be tragic. In short, she feels like a grown adult who has made her own peace with where she came from and what she is doing. The book provides her an opportunity for more happiness and more closure without undermining her independence. I rarely see this in a novel, and even more rarely done this well.

If you haven't read any of Kingfisher's books and are in the mood for faux-medieval city romance involving a perfumer and a bit of political skulduggery, this is a great place to start. If you liked Swordheart, you'll probably like Paladin's Grace; like me, you may even like it a bit more. Recommended, particularly if you want something light and heart-warming.

Rating: 8 out of 10

2020-07-18: PGP::Sign 1.01

This is mostly a test-suite fix for my Perl module to automate creation and verification of detached signatures.

The 1.00 release of PGP::Sign added support for GnuPG v2 and changed the default to assume that gpg is GnuPG v2, but this isn't the case on some older operating systems (particularly non-Linux ones). That in turn caused chaos for automated testing.

This release fixes the test suite to detect when gpg is GnuPG v1 and run the test suite accordingly, trying to exercise as much of the module as possible in that case. It also fixes a few issues found by Perl::Critic::Freenode.

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

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

Last spun 2020-08-10 from thread modified 2008-08-13