Ryan Anderson

Science, Fiction, Life

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning

They say you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but what about its title? The title of Ada Palmer’s “Too Like the Lightning” gripped me the first time I saw it, and I knew I had to read the book regardless of what it was about. I only learned later that the title is part of a line from Romeo and Juliet:

I have no joy of this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,
Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be
Ere one can say “It lightens.”
I’ll say up front that although this book is not perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, I can’t stop thinking about it. The basic premise is that several hundred years in the future, geopolitics on Earth looks radically different from what we have now. Technology is advanced enough that people can hop in a (flying) car and travel anywhere in the world in less than two hours, and this has led to a breakdown of traditional nations. Instead, society is organized into several different groups or “hives” and people can choose which one they ant to be a part of, if any:
  • Humanists: focused on human achievements (athletic, artistic, etc)
  • Cousins: focused on altruism and providing social services to all
  • The Masonic empire: A Rome-like monarchy built on the longstanding rumors of a secret society pulling the strings throughout history
  • The Gordians: Basically a think-tank become a nation, with a focus on understanding the human brain and behavior
  • The European Union: Self-explanatory
  • Mitsubishi corporation: A coalition of former Asian nations now run as a “shareholder democracy”. Owns most of the land on Earth.
  • Utopians: A group of scientists and others focused on the future. They work tirelessly to end all disease, extend human life, and colonize other planets.

Here is a more detailed description of each hive, written by Palmer herself.

This fascinating vision of the future is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is crammed full of other really creative ideas about the future, and that’s what really made me love it. Some are relatively minor, like textiles that project an image of the background on their surface rendering the wearer nearly invisible. Others are fascinating and troubling, like “set sets”: humans who have been interfaced directly with computers since birth, co-opting the neural pathways normally reserved for things like sight and smell and taste, turning them into phenomenally powerful biological computers.

The plot of the novel revolves around a family who play a central role in the smooth functioning of this future world. Their two “set-sets” (along with a massive array of supercomputers) are responsible for the flight paths of the billions and billions of high-speed cars that zip around the world and make the distributed “Hives” possible. (The cars of course, are not driven by their passengers, and crashes are so rare that they make international news when they occur.) Only the small Utopian hive does not use their system of cars. Unbeknownst to most, the family also harbors a boy with extraordinary abilities that I won’t divulge here, and protecting him from discovery is a major driver of the plot.

But really I’ll be honest: this is not a novel about plot. It’s about this vivid and fascinating vision of the future in all of its glorious, messy, detail. The plot serves primarily as an excuse for the main characters to meet and interact with the outlandish characters who lead each of the Hives, and therefore to show the reader another facet of the complicated future world. (And of course, just as has often been the case with leaders of nations throughout history, the leaders of the hives all know each other and are connected by a web of marriages, adoptions, etc.)

In case the intricate worldbuilding didn’t clue you in, this novel is unabashedly smart, and to some it may veer into the territory of “pretentious”. You see, “Too Like The Lightning” is obsessed with Enlightenment philosophy. The writing style of the book is heavily influenced by this time period as well, with a narrator (who is also a main character) who speaks directly to the reader, sometimes even inventing interjections from the reader and responding to them. Palmer does some exposition jiu-jitsu by having the narrator ostensibly relating the events of the novel to a reader even farther in the future, but by explaining things to that future reader, we in the “past” are also able to understand things. Here, it’s probably easier if I just show an example, from where the narrator is explaining why he’s writing in the style of the 18th century:

“You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.”

I suspect some readers might balk at the almost self-indulgent way this book goes on about various philosophers and how their works are relevant for certain aspects of the future society depicted, but I found it refreshing. Usually if sci-fi is going to get self-indulgent about some subject, it’s science (often physics). Most people don’t bat an eye when the brilliant scientist in a hard sci-fi novel gives a big speech explaining special relativity or the chaotic orbits of planets in a multi-star system, or what have you. In fact, books like that are often applauded for their perceived realism. I’d argue that “Too Like The Lightning” is doing exactly the same thing, explaining some point of philosophy that is just as fundamental to understanding the world depicted in the novel as special relativity is fundamental to understanding Tau Zero, for example.

What really impressed me about this book (Palmer’s first published novel!) is the confidence and skill with which Palmer manages to pull off several very difficult things. The voice and narrative style, as you can see in the quote above, are very distinctive and unusual. The world she has created is intricate and complicated and feels organic, which means it is potentially confusing, yet somehow Palmer manages to write in such a way that you always have just enough information to want to keep going to learn more. From the very beginning , it is written in such a way that you trust all will be made clear in due time. Often I lose patience with stories that string the reader along, but “Too Like the Lightning” does it extremely well. In this, it has a lot in common with Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, which also contains lots of philosophical discussions and likewise provides the reader just enough information to understand but doles it out slowly.

Finally, I found it refreshing to read far-future sci-fi set here on Earth rather than a space opera set in an unknown star system on the other side of the galaxy. Most authors writing this far into the future use the time gap and fictional worlds they’re writing about as an excuse to start with a relatively blank slate. Palmer instead takes the far more challenging route of setting her story here on Earth. That means that her worldbuilding has to deal with the complicated, messy baggage of thousands of years of real history, but as a historian Palmer is up to the challenge and the result is a sci-fi vision of the future that feels far more “real” than the hardest “hard” sci-fi.

I was disappointed at the end of the book to learn that it is really only the beginning of a longer story, but that’s unfortunately par for the course in speculative fiction. That said, I still thought the twists and revelations at the end were very good. As I listened to the end of the audiobook (which has a great narrator) on a plane, I may have said “whoaaah” out loud. I am eagerly looking forward to reading the next book in the series.

 

Book Review: Blood Meridian – or – The Evening Redness in the West

I have mixed feelings about this book, which I am pretty sure is exactly the idea. Like other Cormac McCarthy books, the prose in Blood Meridian is great, as long as you can tolerate lots of arcane and antiquated uses for words and don’t require frivolous punctuation like quotation marks and apostrophes. The book is full of evocative descriptions of the desert southwest, from the details of tiny Mexican villages to the size and desolation of the desert. However, that same gorgeous prose is used to describe some of the nastiest violence and depravity that I’ve ever read, so it is absolutely not a joy to read.

The book follows The Kid, who wanders west in the 1840s and gets caught up in a gang of men roving the Mexican border killing and scalping Indians. They quickly realize that it’s awfully hard to tell whether a scalp comes from an Apache or a Mexican, and end up just killing indiscriminately. They go from being hailed as heroes to hunted as monsters.

As far as plot and characters go, this book is pretty weak. The plot is pretty repetitive, and in some places barely makes sense, and most characters are little more than names. In fact, most don’t even have names. Even the Kid, technically the main character, is basically only there to provide a point of view on the events. The only real character is The Judge, fascinating and monstrous both in physical bearing and in deed, who by the end of the book is revealed to be more a symbol than an actual character.  The whole book, even though it is based on real historical events, is written in such a way that it feels freighted with symbolism and half-perceived meaning.

When you get down to it, this is less a novel than a treatise on the human love of violence in the guise of a novel so that it is more “palatable” (which, to be sure, is a generous term to use for this book). It is a sort of dialog between the author and the reader that goes like this:

 

Author: Do you like westerns? Cowboys and Indians? You like the idea of a past when men were men and the frontier was there to be settled by those who could handle its hardships?

Reader: Yes, that sounds great!

Author: Ok, here you go.

Reader: Oh. No, no, that’s horrible! So much death and cruelty. And really, dead babies too? Was that necessary? Why are you showing me this?

Author: You say it’s horrible, but you’re still reading.

Reader: Well, there is some great writing here. But there’s something wrong with you.

Author: The reader dost protest too much, methinks. I think you like it. I think you know you’re supposed to say you hate this but it also excites you. If there’s something wrong here, is it with me, or with you? Or both of us?

This is not a fun book. Both the plot and the characters are lacking. But despite that, having had a few days to reflect on it, I think this is a very good book because it forces the reader to have that internal conversation. This book would probably reveal hidden symbolism and meaning with a second read through, but I don’t have the stomach for it. Heck, I don’t blame people who can’t make it through a first reading. It is not for everyone. You don’t read this for fun, but if you do read it, it sticks with you and makes you think.

 

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

For the majority of popular authors out there, especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, it’s all about the plot. Prose exists to tell you what’s going on and otherwise its job is to get out of the way and try to be as “invisible” as possible. That’s why it was so refreshing to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The prose in this book is the opposite of that bland “invisible” utilitarian prose that is so common. It’s so good that it is hard to even find the words to convey it. The difference between other authors’ writing and the writing on display in Kavalier and Clay is like the difference between those sleepy ponies that give kids a nice safe ride at the state fair and a thoroughbred racehorse on a straightaway. You get so used to safe, easy, invisible prose that when a book comes along that really shows you what the English language can do, its power is breathtaking and exhilarating. Seeing it used to its full potential relieves a tension you didn’t even know was there.

There’s so much to gush about when it comes to Chabon’s writing, but one of the most noticeable things for me was the skill with which characters are introduced. Even for minor characters who are present for a scene or two, he somehow manages to deploy the perfect metaphor, the perfect few details of their appearance and demeanor, so that in a paragraph you not only know what the person looks like, but you know their backstory, their motivation, their family life, their aspirations and disappointments in life. You feel like you know the person, like you’re pretty sure you’ve met the person in real life.

It’s not just the descriptions of people, it’s all the descriptions. Chabon manages to find the perfect words every time so that it’s not just a description, it’s a visceral feeling. It’s familiar even if there’s no reason it should be. And somehow this is done without feeling like the prose is bloated. The only complaint I have is that he does have a tendency to use an unusual word when a more common one would do fine. It’s a fine line to walk: sometimes the less common word has shades of meaning that are missing from the everyday one. But sometimes it just sounds pretentious. And I’ll admit, there were a couple of times, for some reason both involving violent events, that the word choices and figurative language was so unusual I didn’t actually understand what happened except by context clues. But for the most part, I think the writing falls on the correct side of the fine line.

So what’s the book about? It is nominally about two Jewish cousins, one from New York, one a WWII refugee from Czechoslovakia, who team up to create a superhero comic. I was never much of a fan of comics, but I am enough of a SFF fan that I have absorbed some comics knowledge through osmosis. One of the coolest things about Kavalier and Clay was seeing Chabon use the strength of his prose to convey the power of the story being told by the comics in such a way that an adult reader gets the same feelings as a kid reading the comic.

But comics are just the surface veneer. The main theme of the story is “Escape” and whether it’s a good thing or not, ranging from the escapism of comic books, to escaping the War, to escaping the city to settle for living the American dream in the suburbs, to escaping from that sterile and boring suburban life to be who you really are, etc. I’m not doing it justice of course: it is very well done, perfectly walking the line between ham-fisted and too subtle.

I also found it interesting to see many familiar threads appear in Kavalier and Clay that I recognized from Chabon’s collection of personal essays “Manhood for Amateurs.” Comic books and magic tricks, of course. But also a lot of melancholy and wistful reflections on growing up and nostalgia for childhood, fraternal (or in this case, cousinly) bonds, and the relationship between father and son.

It’s not a perfect book. I found the first half to be much more engaging than the second, as if once he was done introducing new characters, the writing lost some of its initial spark. That said, it was still excellent. The prose in Kavalier and Clay makes you feel things in a way that very few other authors are capable of, and it certainly cements Chabon’s place among my favorite authors.

 

I’m volunteering for the Democratic party, and you should be too.

I don’t know the original source for this image. If you do, please let me know.

The Republican party has gone off the rails.

In just the last week, the Republican president threatened nuclear war with North Korea, military action against Venezuela for no apparent reason, thanked Russia for expelling American diplomats, and failed to immediately denounce Nazis and white supremacists even after they murdered a woman and assaulted many others. Before that, Republicans came within a hair’s breadth of passing a law, drafted in secret at the last minute, that would dismantle the Affordable Care Act (which is based on conservative ideas) and strip health insurance from millions of people. Our attorney general is a man who was deemed, in 1986, in Alabama, to be too racist to serve on the district court. Our Secretary of Education is a billionaire who has openly said that it is her goal to use education reform to “advance the kingdom of God” in direct opposition to the separation of church and state. The Republican party is systematically making it harder for minorities and the poor to vote, and has gerrymandered legislative districts in many states so that even if the GOP gets fewer votes, it gets more representatives. They reject the fact that humans are causing climate change, even as its effects become more obvious every year. They stole a seat on the supreme court.

It’s easy to point the finger at the Republican voters who got us here, and they absolutely deserve that blame. Many of them will claim that they just want smaller government and lower taxes and that they don’t support Nazis or racism or taking healthcare from poor children. But it was obvious what they were getting when they voted for Trump and Ryan and McConnell and other Republicans. If you are willing to ignore racism and misogyny and contempt for reality itself in order to get lower taxes for the rich, then guess what? The blood is on your hands when Nazis, encouraged by the people you elected, openly murder people on the streets.

That said, Republican voters are not the only ones to blame for the rise of Trump and the Republican party’s insanity. You and I are responsible for it too. We are complicit because we took for granted that facts and human decency should win out over lies and hatred. We sat by and watched while Republicans organized and voted and methodically took over every level of government. We saw Obama elected and thought that the country had turned a corner and that our work was done, when in reality the work was just beginning. We bickered among ourselves instead of working together to defeat one of the greatest threats that our democracy has ever faced. So now we have white nationalists in the streets and in the White House, a know-nothing president condoning their behavior and casually threatening nuclear war, and people having to call to beg their senators not to let them or their loved ones die for lack of health care.

This last election was a wake-up call for many of us, and I know that many of you have been participating in the resistance: marching and making calls, writing your representatives, going to town halls, donating to worthy causes, and all the rest. I know you’re tired, and I know you’re stretched thin, but there’s something else that I encourage you to do: Get involved with your local Democratic party as a Precinct Committee person (PC).

PCs are volunteers for the party who work at the most local level, usually within their own neighborhood. They help to get people registered to vote, to find out what issues matter most to their neighbors, and help get out the vote when election season comes around. PCs also play an important role in getting their county’s voice heard at the state level. For every three Elected PCs from a county, the country gets one additional representative at the state level.

The time commitment is not very large: occasional meetings and events that you attend as you are able. It is incredibly gratifying to get involved with a group of like-minded people from your county who are getting out there and doing something to turn the tide in 2018 and beyond. It’s also a great way to learn about local and state candidates so that you can make an informed decision for the primary election and help make sure the party puts forward candidates whose views reflect your own. As a PC, I’ve already gotten to meet multiple candidates for state and national office, as well as our representative in the U.S. House.

Becoming an active part of the party also lets you influence the party directly, outside of the primary election. If there is an issue that you think the Democrats aren’t emphasizing enough, or that you disagree with, then the best way to fix that is to get involved. Meet the people in your local party who can communicate that sentiment to those higher up in the party, or tell your representatives and candidates directly when you meet with them as a PC.  I’ve been a PC for a few months now, and at least for my county, I have noticed that most PCs are older retired people. There is a lack of people from my generation and younger, meaning that the younger perspective is missing from the grassroots foundation of the party.

And lest you think that the Democrats are just taking the place of Republicans as the “Party of No” without any policy to back up our resistance, I encourage you to take a look at the Democratic party platform. I think you’ll like what you see there. We are fighting against racism and white nationalism. We are fighting to ensure that every person has access to affordable health care. We are fighting to ensure that every citizen can vote, and that every vote counts. We believe that everyone deserves a good education, not just those who can afford to pay for private schools and expensive colleges. We believe in science, and that something must be done to slow climate change.

It really boils down to this: the only way to stop the Republican party’s madness is for Democrats to start winning elections at all levels. Republicans have taken over our government because they are organized and they vote. If you want to resist them, then the best thing you can do is help the Democrats do the same. Get involved. Help make the Democratic party what you want it to be. Only then will we be able set our country back on the right track.

My Experience as a Stay-at-home Dad

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been taking time off of work and spending it at home with our 7.5 month old baby. I’ll continue to be mostly off for another couple of weeks (more on that “mostly” caveat later), but I have enough under my belt at this point that I thought it would be worth writing down some thoughts.

Most people, if they’re going to take time off, take it right after the baby is born, and I did take some time off then as well. But we decided early on that it made more sense for me to postpone some of my paternity leave until now. Erin was lucky enough to be able to be off work from when Shane was born in December until the end of July, so the idea is for me to take this time off now to ease the transition as she returns to work.

The fact that I’m able to take this much time off at all is pretty great. The family medical leave act (FMLA) requires employers to allow employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave in the 12 month period following the birth of a child, but it doesn’t require that leave to be paid which is absurd. The only other nations in the world that don’t provide any paid family leave at all are Suriname and Papua New Guinea. Thankfully, I have accumulated enough sick leave and vacation time that I am able to take this time off without missing a paycheck, and my job is flexible enough that I can do this without causing major problems.

What I am doing is pretty unusual though. In the workaholic culture of the United States, and particularly the culture of science, it is not common for dads to take this much time off. Everyone I have told about this plan to take time off has been supportive, sometimes with with hints of jealousy, but I still feel the need to explain myself to everyone (including writing this blog post).

I hate that I feel guilty for taking this time, and that in explaining it, I feel the instinctive need to promise that I’m actually going to use this time to get some work done. Because heaven forbid that I would be so decadent as to take a month off for the sole purpose of spending time with my baby.

So, with that, let’s turn to the question of how my decadent month of child care is going.

First, the obvious: it’s great. Instead of just seeing my baby first thing in the morning, and then in the evening when both of us are tired and fussy, I get to spend all day with him. That’s interspersed with nap times when I can read a book, or get a little work done, or make dinner, or whatever else I want/need to do. We can go on little adventures, like taking the running stroller to Buffalo Park and going for a jog, or walking to the grocery store to get some ingredients for dinner. As a homebody who is content to just hang out in my house most of the time, this works well for me.

One thing I have noticed is how quickly I lose all track of time. Not that I don’t know what day it is, but at the end of the day it’s very hard to say what I actually did when. When did he last eat? How long were his naps? Did he go to sleep nicely last time or was it 45 minutes of screaming and crying? It all blurs together, making these questions surprisingly hard for me to answer. I actually went so far as to install a phone app to track feeding and nap times just so that I could verify that, yes, it has been 4 hours since the last bottle so that’s why he’s fussy. Taking care of a baby this age is repetitive: He is generally awake for about two hours, followed by a nap ranging from 45 minutes to a couple hours. In between naps, there are bottles, diaper changes, eating solid food, maybe a bath, and play time. When you add in at least 15 minutes (and sometimes much, much more) time spent getting him to calm down in preparation for nap time, you end up with a nearly endless cycle that blurs together.

I have also learned that I’m not very good at playing with babies this age. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but babies are pretty boring. I’ve always thought of myself as being good with kids, but babies are different. My go-to way of entertaining a baby is to read board books, but unlike younger babies who don’t really do much (and therefore make a fine book reading audience), 7 month old babies are interested in everything. This also means they aren’t generally interested in a single thing for very long. We’ll sit down to read some books, and after a couple pages, he’s fussing, wanting to gnaw the book or reaching for the dog, or looking at the colorful toy on the table. Also, this may come as a surprise to you, but books written for infants and toddlers are not particularly interesting for adults.

When books fail, there are always other toys. Dangling toys are always a hit, and things that crinkle or that feel nice to chew are also good. There’s peekaboo, or bouncing on my knee, and when in doubt I can usually make him crack up with tickles or a kiss-attack. My problem is that is seems like we can go through all of these options and then I check the time and only a few minutes have passed.

I’ve found that the best entertainment for everyone involved is actually food. We’re working on learning to eat finger foods, and putting Shane in his chair and placing a slice of peach or a stick of roasted sweet potato or a piece of banana on his tray to play with will keep him happy and entertained for quite a while. Meanwhile I get to play goalie, keeping him from sending his food off the edge of the tray, or retrieving fragments of food that have managed to bypass the bib and end up in his lap.

The hardest part about this has been self-inflicted and I knew it was going to happen, but that didn’t stop it. I built up this time off as this mythical gap in my calendar during which I hoped to get all manner of things done, ranging from work that I haven’t had time to get to, to writing, to exercise, to home improvement projects. Of course, it turns out most of the day is taken up with caring for my baby (shocker, I know), leaving just nap time for all of this stuff to happen. By not fully disconnecting from work, I have lost quite a bit of that “free” time during naps to answering emails, or helping my summer student finish up her presentation and paper, or doing some work (but not enough to feel satisfied). I am ashamed to find myself impatient for the baby to go down for another nap so I can get more stuff done, but then when nap times come, I never get done what I want to, and so I end up frustrated.

If I was truly off of work, with no responsibilities that kept drawing me back in, I think this month would be more enjoyable. Instead, I have been trying to exist as some sort of Schrodinger’s dad, in a bizarre superposition of working and not working, which turns out to just make both the time off and the small amount of work accomplished feel less satisfying. I think next week I am going to try to do a better job of actually being “off” so that I can enjoy this time. The week after, Shane starts half-day daycare, and I can ease back into working.

I want to make it clear that I recognize how fortunate I am in having this time off to spend with my son. I always feel guilty and self-indulgent when I write blog posts like this, because I know that many people only wish they had lives easy enough to have the “problems” I write about on this blog. I don’t mean to be overly negative, but I think it is worthwhile to talk about parenting honestly, and I use writing here on the blog as a way to process thoughts that otherwise would just rattle around in my head. So, thanks for indulging me and reading this far.

Now, the baby is waking up from his morning nap, so I am off to have a fun day with my son!

 

Book Review: The Sheep Look Up

It’s strange to call a book that was published in the 70s “timely” but The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner is just that. It is a dystopian sci-fi novel about a world where there are no government regulations on pollution, so corporations are freely poisoning the air and water, making the planet unlivable. The president of the United States is an idiot who, when he can be bothered to get involved in current events at all, mostly delivers short, simplistic, often xenophobic quips that indicate that he has no idea what he’s talking about. Race and Class relations are tense and the incompetent government and ongoing environmental disasters only exacerbate them.

In the novel, the skies are perpetually overcast because of all the smog. People have to wear filter masks whenever they go outdoors, and rain comes down filthy and acidic. The Mediterranean sea and the Great Lakes are dead. Rampant pesticide use has led to an evolutionary arms race and there are now nearly-indestructible pests that destroy most crops, not to mention the resistant fleas and lice that infest the slums. Likewise with antibiotics: resistant diseases are widespread, and combined with the many diseases caused by all the pollution, most people are constantly sick with multiple ailments. All of this causes political and geopolitical unrest that grows out of control over the course of the book.

Like his other famous novel, Stand On Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up is written in an experimental style, telling a larger story through lots of small, disjointed sections. A page or two about one character, then a news report, then a few advertising jingles, then a poem, then back to a few pages about some other characters, then an emergency government bulletin, and so on. It’s an effective way to give an overall feel for events in the country and wider world, but it makes it very difficult to keep track of main characters. By the end of the book I recognized some of the names as people I’d heard about before, but had completely lost track of who was who. It doesn’t help that they are all written in basically the same 1970s slangy voice.

I remember enjoying Stand on Zanzibar, but I read it much faster (while on Christmas break in grad school) rather than the slow pace that was forced on me for The Sheep Look Up by a new baby, work, and occasionally having to return the ebook to the library because someone else put a hold on it. I almost didn’t finish, but decided that the book was so timely that I might as well power through.

The Sheep Look Up is an unusual and challenging read, and definitely feels dated, but at the same time is frighteningly relevant to current events, and for that reason I’d still recommend checking it out.

 

Patriotism, Genre Fiction, and Criticizing What You Love

In both genre fiction and politics, our culture is struggling with the idea that you can criticize something that you love.

When someone points out that many video games are disturbingly sexist, or that Lord of the Rings is kind of racist, or that the Avatar movie perpetuates the “white savior” trope, are they no longer a fan of genre fiction?

When someone points out that the United States is the only country out of the 25 wealthiest nations that lacks universal health care, or that black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by police, or that our wars in the Middle East are responsible for the rise of ISIS, are they no longer a patriot?

In both cases, I say that thoughtful criticism is a deeper, more meaningful expression of love than blind enthusiastic support.

Let’s take Game of Thrones as an example. I love Game of Thrones. The books are among my favorite books of all time. They’re vast and deep, with well-developed characters with unique narrative voices; exciting, twisty, satisfyingly complex plots; epic, vivid worldbuilding; and they signal a profound shift in the fantasy genre, subverting the tropes of the genre established by Lord of the Rings and beginning the modern era of more “grimdark” fantasy. Likewise, the show is excellent: visually stunning, well-acted, and it brings the books that I love to life in a way that allows many more people to experience them. Not only that, but the show has been a revolution in terms of getting excellent genre fiction onto television, demonstrating to TV channels that compelling, adult-oriented stories can be told through genre fiction, and that audiences will eat it up.

But I will readily admit that both the books and the show have major problems too. The show is famous for its gratuitous nudity, and there have been several notorious examples of changes to the original book where main female characters are raped or threatened with rape. There is also a problematic “white savior” vibe to much of Danaerys’ story line. I would argue that the books are somewhat better, but there’s still a whole lot of rape and threats of rape, which is often defended with the old “historical accuracy” argument, because apparently dragons are plausible but a medieval society that isn’t quite so horrifically misogynistic is not.

There are those who see comments like those in the last paragraph and reflexively condemn them. How dare some “social justice warrior” criticize the genre they love? Why can’t people just enjoy things without picking them apart and over-analyzing everything? Why do these SJWs have to ruin everything by insisting on political correctness? They’re clearly not real fans. They clearly hate the genre.

For those who have been paying attention, this conflict came to a head in the video game community with the “gamergate” fiasco a few years ago. Women who dared to point out that video games are full of a disgusting amount of misogyny were harassed by an army of angry, mostly white, mostly male gamers who felt that their favorite hobby and its fundamental culture were being unfairly bashed. The conflict rapidly escalated to doxing (the release of private personal information), lost jobs, lost homes, and death threats.

Later, in the speculative fiction community, a similar conflict arose when the “Sad Puppies“, a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, readers stuffed the ballot for the Hugo Award. They were supposedly fighting back against their perception  that science fiction and fantasy were being ruined by SJWs trying to force everything to be politically correct and shoehorning women, people of color, and LGBT people into fiction, rather than trying to tell good old fashioned apolitical stories. (It apparently did not occur to them that it is possible to tell great speculative fiction about people who are not white straight men, or that all fiction carries with it political baggage.)

And then, of course, there is the 2016 election, where a group of angry, mostly white, mostly male, voters were apparently so appalled that we had a black president, and that a woman dared to run as his successor on a platform of inclusiveness and tolerance, that they instead voted for an unqualified narcissistic idiot. Trump’s campaign and its “Make America Great Again” slogan catered directly to the perception that criticizing our country is unpatriotic, and that somehow making things better for people who aren’t straight white men undermines what makes our country great.

But here’s the thing that the gamer-gators, sad puppies, and Trump voters don’t understand: unlike them, we don’t criticize from a place of hatred, but of love.

Sci-fi and Fantasy are supposed to push the limits of imagination, so why is it so hard to imagine that young women and people of color could be the heroes in great adventures? Video games allow the player to escape the real world and experience being powerful and “the chosen one”, so shouldn’t players be allowed to leave behind racism and misogyny when they enter the game world? And the United States is supposed to be a country where all people have unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so shouldn’t we strive to uphold that ideal? Shouldn’t we point out where our great country does not live up to its promise for all of its citizens and then work together to form a “more perfect union”?

When you’re raising a child, you don’t praise them when they are behaving badly. You set high expectations and then help them to live up to those expectations. Why is it so hard to apply the same logic to the other things we love?

Whether it’s genre fiction, video games, or the United States of America itself, what we want is for the things that we love to live up to their true potential. To me, this is a much deeper, more meaningful way to show your devotion to something than blindly singing its praises and ignoring its flaws.

 

Thoughts on Parenting: 6 months in

It’s hard to believe, but Shane is already 6 months old! With this arbitrary milestone, I thought this was as good a time as any to write a bit about how parenting is going, compared to how I expected it to be.

The first thing is that it’s easier and less exhausting than I was led to believe. All credit for this goes to Shane, who turns out to be a remarkably well-behaved baby. I know other parents will hate me for this, but he was sleeping through the night very early, and has generally been a pretty laid-back little dude. As he gets older he is actually getting worse at sleeping than he used to be, and tends to cry and get fussy more now that he is showing interest in the world around him. When he was a little baby, he hardly cried at all, and was mostly content to just snooze on my chest (a position we refer to as “snuggle mode”). Now, he wants to be sitting up and looking around, and really resists going into “snuggle mode” even if it’s what he needs.

My biggest apprehension about parenting before Shane was born was about the first few months, aka the “Fourth Trimester”. I was sure that I would not really like this “larval” phase: the baby is still basically a helpless fetus who can’t lift his head or interact with the world very much. I figured that as he grew and became more of a little person I’d like parenting more and more. Much to my surprise, I actually really liked those first few months. Newborns are easy to deal with since all they can do is eat, sleep and poop, and it’s great to just snuggle on the couch with a tiny sleepy baby. Also to my surprise, I am finding Shane more frustrating as he becomes more mature. Of course it is wonderful to see him learning to sit up, play with solid food, make babbling noises, and all the other milestones, but in the last couple of months he has also been in a sort of limbo: he is alert and interested enough that he is no longer content to just lay on the couch, but he can’t sit up on his own or entertain himself or communicate very well, so he and I both can get frustrated. I’m looking forward to when he can sit up on his own and we have taught him some basic baby signs so that he has options other than whining to communicate that he’s hungry or needs a new diaper.

One thing that has been surprising and disappointing is my own lack of patience when Shane is upset and I can’t seem to fix it. I pride myself on generally being a very patient person (sometimes to a fault), but when Shane is fussing and resisting everything that I try to comfort him, I lose my patience much faster than I’d like. It doesn’t help that a lot of the time I get to interact with him in the evening after work, so he and I are both tired. I’m also overly self-conscious about what I’ll call the “mommy does it better” syndrome. I try to be a good dad and do everything right, but sometimes he just wants mommy. It’s amazing how quickly and effectively an infant rejecting your attempts to comfort and care for him can hurt your feelings.

Finally, one of the hardest things about parenthood has been adjusting my time management. Even before Shane showed up, I struggled with finding time in the evening and weekend to do all the things that I wanted to do (or wanted to want to do). Now (and this is no surprise) it’s even harder. As you can tell by the frequency of my posts here on the blog, it’s hard to find a stretch of uninterrupted time to just sit and write. Turns out babies need constant attention! Who knew? Evenings basically consist of coming home from work, eating dinner, giving baby a bottle, having him pass out on me, and then watching TV while trapped on the couch. Which is fine, and certainly more relaxed than most parents are able to be, but I still have the delusion that it’d be nice to spend some time on writing, or on political stuff, or on putting together a photo book of last year’s vacation, or the million other hobbies and other tasks that I want to do with my “free time” that never seem to get done. The worst part about this isn’t that I don’t get this stuff done (let’s be real, I didn’t live up to my own expectations of what I wanted to get done even before we had a baby), it’s the conflict between wanting to spend time with Shane and wanting some down time to myself to do stuff I want to do. Whichever one I choose, I feel guilty about not doing the other.

Another interesting aspect of parenting that I’ve noticed is that it seems to warp my perception of time. The last six months has been densely packed with milestones and life-changing events, but it also seems to have flown by in a heartbeat. I have no idea how it suddenly became July. Wasn’t it just February? From what I’ve heard from other parents, this is just the beginning. Tomorrow I’ll be blinking and wondering where the past 18 years went and how my kid can possibly be heading off to college.

Looking back at this post, it seems like I am mostly complaining about parenthood, so I want to conclude by saying: I love it. I have been looking forward to having kids for a while, and despite the challenges, it has been wonderful. Shane is a very easy baby, and watching him grow and learn and become more aware of the world around him makes me happier than I can express. Also, have you seen how cute he is? Multiple times a day, Erin and I just turn to each other and say “How is it even possible for him to be this cute?” Even though, as I said above, I’m looking forward to him being able to do things like sit up and communicate better, I know that as he grows, some things will get easier but other challenges will come with that. Babies change so fast, so mostly I’m trying to remember to savor every moment. I know that looking back, it will seem like the blink of an eye. So with that, I’m going to stop writing and go spend time with my baby.

 

My Baby Was Not Intelligently Designed

Baby is concerned about all of his design flaws.

The idea of intelligent design is silly, and has been thoroughly debunked by scientists with more patience than me, but now that I’m a dad, I have a new perspective on the idea. Instead of painstakingly giving examples of the independent evolution of the eye or calmly explaining that we share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, we didn’t evolve from them, I have realized that all you need is a human infant to illustrate how far-fetched intelligent design is. Babies have a number of fundamental design flaws that conclusively prove that there was no Designer.

First of all, before we even get to babies themselves, let’s reflect on the fact that human childbirth is a horribly painful and dangerous undertaking for the mother, with death of the mother and/or child in childbirth disturbingly common before modern medicine. This is, needless to say, not a good starting place for those who argue that humans were perfectly engineered by God.

And then you have the babies themselves. The reason that childbirth is so difficult is that humans have large heads containing large brains. Our brains are what make us special. And yet, babies are born with holes in their skulls that don’t close for years, and necks that are too weak to even hold their heads up for months. It’s also quite common for newborn babies to require treatment for jaundice. Why? Because their livers aren’t mature enough to effectively remove the bilirubin in the blood formed by breaking down red blood cells. Too much bilirubin can cause brain damage. I’m just saying, if I were engineering an animal that was so reliant on brainpower, I think I’d try to do a better job of protecting the brain and spinal cord.

Then there is the issue of eating and digestion. As we learned when our boy was born 5 weeks early, babies who are born even slightly early often lack the coordination required to be able to nurse, swallow, and breathe in a good rhythm. You would think that swallowing and not choking would be high priorities, something built in as an instinct, but apparently these things take practice. We also learned while in the NICU waiting for our baby to learn to eat that often when babies begin to eat, their body diverts blood to the digestive system, which causes the oxygen levels in the rest of their body to drop. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that getting oxygen to the brain should be prioritized over digesting food in the belly, since the one can cause damage in seconds, the other takes hours or longer to cause a problem.

There’s also the spitting up issue. After managing to master the complex art of eating without choking or falling asleep or desaturating blood oxygen, you would think that the digestive system would be designed to keep the milk in the stomach.  It is not good at this! Slight pressure on the stomach, too much excitement, a stray air bubble, all can cause the stomach’s contents to erupt like a milky Vesuvius.

Finally, there is the fact that newborn babies are completely helpless. They don’t even figure out that they can control their own arms and legs for months. They can’t see more than a foot or so at first. As mentioned above, their heads are squishy and poorly attached, and it is more than a year before they can walk reliably. Human babies are just born way too soon, leaving the parents and other adult humans to care for what is essentially a still-developing fetus as it struggles to survive in the cold, harsh world outside until it is fully functional. To me, this seems like a fundamental design flaw.

I can easily explain all of these things based on an evolutionary perspective, but there are simply too many bad engineering choices for me to believe that someone intelligently designed human babies.

The American Dream and Other Myths

It turns out moral bankruptcy is not just the domain of the White House. The arrival of the Republican bill to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, which does not repeal it but does distort it into something that has amazingly managed to enrage both liberals and conservatives (even leading some to speculate that it was designed to fail), has brought with it a barrage of horrifying statements such as:

And you know what? Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. And so maybe rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to go spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.” – Jason Chaffetz, in a 21st century “let them eat cake” moment

“The idea of Obamacare is … that the people who are healthy pay for the people who are sick.” – Paul Ryan, appalled at about how insurance fundamentally works

Statements like these boggle my mind, and I’ve been trying to figure out how a person can get to the point where they can say things like this and not realize what they are saying is evil. Because these guys don’t think they’re bad guys, and a disturbingly large portion of our population is on their side.

After giving it some thought, I have decided that it comes down to the myth of the American dream: the idea that anyone can achieve prosperity if they just work hard enough. It’s a wonderful sentiment that we all want to believe in, but viewing the world through this lens, you can quickly come to some troubling conclusions. If anyone can be prosperous if they just work hard enough, then the flip side of that is that if you’re poor, it’s because you’re lazy, and if you’re rich, it’s because you worked really hard. Your bank account balance becomes an indicator of your character. Being poor is a moral failure.

The other corollary is that it’s not the government’s job to help poor people, and that it’s morally abhorrent to tax rich people. After all, if poor people would just work harder, they wouldn’t be poor, and those rich people earned all that money fair and square, so why should it go toward helping people who refuse to help themselves? (I suspect that in some cases, this attitude toward taxes is exacerbated by a hazy and mythologized understanding of the American revolution that goes something like this: 1. Those who fought in the revolution were true patriots. 2. They fought because they were upset about taxes. 3. Therefore true patriots hate all taxes.)

This dovetails nicely with two related ideas about the world: Objectivism and the Laffer curve. Objectivism, the philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand and popularized in her novels, says that self-interest is morally good, altruism is destructive, individual rights are paramount, and the ideal social system is laissez-faire capitalism in which the government does not meddle in economics at all. The Laffer curve, a thought experiment originally sketched on a cocktail napkin, has grown to dominate conservative thoughts about taxation. It argues that at some point, increasing taxes actually decreases revenue because it slows economic growth. Conservatives have seized upon this and twisted it to argue that the best way to encourage economic growth and therefore help everyone (“A rising tide lifts all ships”), is to reduce taxes. These ideas raise capitalism up from being an economic doctrine to being a moral imperative. It becomes an article of faith that all problems can be solved by the invisible hand of the market, if only the market were allowed to operate free from government regulations.

The problem is, these ideas don’t really jibe with reality. Everyone wants to believe in the American dream, and there are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there to fan the flames of that belief, but actual data throws cold water on the idea. Multiple studies show that compared to European countries, Canada, and Australia, it is harder on average for Americans to make more than their parents did. Upward mobility is particularly rare for the poorest Americans.

And if you think about it, this is obviously true. There are poor single moms out there working two or three minimum wage jobs just to be able to afford rent and food for their kids. Meanwhile I easily make more than them sitting at my comfortable desk for 8 hours a day, thinking about Mars, doing work that has no tangible benefit to anyone. Hard work is clearly not the only factor leading to prosperity. Yes, I worked hard through years of school, but I also had literally every possible advantage helping me out along the way. There are inescapable structural and cultural factors that are outside of any individual’s control, and they can make a huge difference. The American dream is just too simplistic.

“If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire.” – George Monbiot

The obsession with individualism and rejection of the “social contract” is also complete bunk. In much the same way that anti-vaxxers oppose vaccines even as they benefit from the herd immunity of those around them which keeps dozens of horrible diseases at bay, libertarians and objectivists who think they don’t owe society anything ignore the countless ways that they benefit from programs and facilities put in place for the public good. Working together for the benefit of all is literally the foundation upon which our species and our civilization is built. As the Author Yuval Noah Hariri argues in his book Sapiens, it is our species’ ability to work together that elevated us from just another ape to the dominant species on the planet. The social contract is what makes our civilization function and what makes us human.

And of course, blind faith in capitalism to solve all problems ignores some major flaws. Most notably, not all markets are “free”. This brings us back to health care. If I’m having a heart attack, I can’t shop around and choose the hospital that gives the best service for the lowest price, as the free market would have me do. There is one hospital in my town, so I’ll go there or die. If I lived in a larger city with multiple hospitals, I’d go to whichever was closest. Even if my major health issue was something I could plan ahead, like a scheduled surgery, it’s still almost impossible to find out prices ahead of time and shop around. And that leaves aside the fact that capitalism dictates that health insurance companies should do everything in their power not to pay for people’s medical bills, so as to maximize their profit, even if that leaves people bankrupt or dead because they couldn’t afford life-saving treatment.

As for the Laffer curve, too often it is used as shorthand by conservatives to argue that taxes should be decreased, when in reality most evidence indicates that if the curve does exist, the US is firmly on the left side of the peak. That means that raising taxes should raise revenue, and lowering taxes should lower it. This was put to the test in the real world in Kansas recently, when their governor cut tax rates significantly, which unsurprisingly drove the state into a massive deficit.

The bottom line is this: today’s GOP has become obsessed with several inter-related myths about how the world works, and base their actions on these myths instead of reality. The American dream, while a nice story, is not attainable for many, due to complicated structural and cultural issues. The social contract is the foundation of our civilization, not some burden that you can shrug off in favor of “individual liberty”. Capitalism is not a panacea. Cutting taxes doesn’t raise revenue. Being poor is not a moral failure.

Above all, we must be careful of the stories that we internalize, because they are the lens through which we view everything:

“It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibility. They work with the internal materials of the mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. Beware the stories you read and tell: subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” – Birds of Heaven, Ben Okri

 

« Older posts

© 2017 Ryan Anderson

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑