wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - Furies of Calderon

Book Two

Codex Alera 1: Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

As you probably have noticed by now, I am a huge fan of Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series. The books are fun reads - fast-paced, gritty and realistic, while still maintaining that a tarnished patina of fantasy about them. They have a great narrative voice and I could read them the same way I eat a bag of Doritos - all in one sitting, unsure of how it happened, but with less orange Cheez (tm) on my fingers. I know for a fact that as long as Jim Butcher continues to write The Dresden Files, I will continue reading them.

At a certain point, I became aware of his Codex Alera series, mainly because he talked about them in author's notes in the backs of the latest few Dresden paperbacks. I didn't really read through the notes, usually because I was far too impatient to get into the next book, but I knew they were out there and that I would, sooner or later, have to read them. I also knew that they would be a different beast from what I was used to.

This series is Butcher's real baby, as he tells us. From his childhood, Butcher was fascinated with high fantasy, the kinds of epic journeys that were made famous by people like Tolkien and Eddings, Zelazny, Brooks, and Weis and Hickman, to name a few. So, when he decided that he wanted to be a writer, it was on that kind of world-spanning, epic fantasy that he set his sights. He found what a lot of young writers find - that this kind of fiction is viciously hard to do well, and is really suitable only for writers who have either mutant-level innate talent or who have spent many, many years honing their skills.

Out of the process of working on his craft, of course, Butcher gave birth to Harry Dresden, which has certainly made the world a better place, but he never forgot his dream of writing an epic fantasy series. After much hard work, and what was no doubt a series of terrifying decisions to let it go public, Butcher published The Codex Alera, his contribution to the Sword-and-Sorcery genre.

It introduces us to the nation of Alera, an old and massive country build on swords, intrigue, and the strange talent possessed by most people to shape and control the very elements themselves. Within the very earth itself, in water and air and fire, trees and metal and stone, there are furies - spirit beings that can bend these elements to their will. The furies, in turn, link to a human, who gives them direction and purpose. A human in control of a fury is a force to be reckoned with, whether they are just bending a water fury to tell if someone is telling the truth, or compelling an earth fury to raise great walls in defense of a population. Most everyone has one or two furies at their command, and some of them have more. Young Tavi, living in the frontier region of Calderon, has none.

Despite his disadvantage, however, Tavi is surrounded by good people. He's been raised by his uncle, Bernard, who is the leader of their community at Bernardholt, and Bernard's sister, Isana. Like all people on the edges of empire, the people of Bernardholt have learned to be tough and live without the security of armies or the support of central government. They take care of their own matters, thankyouverymuch, and don't need a lot of interference from the rest of Aleran political society.

Unfortunately, of course, what they want doesn't really matter. They soon find themselves at the heart of a violent coup, a plan to overrun the empire and topple its leaders. With the help of the inhuman Marat, the traitors to the First Lord are willing to sacrifice everything in order to save what they believe are the best parts of their nation.

Of all the themes that kind of got lost in this book, that last one is the one I wish had gotten more play - that sometimes people do horrible things for reasons that they believe are not only defensible, but actually good. The main antagonist, a man with the hilariously ironic name of Fidelias, starts out as a wonderfully conflicted character. He tricks his apprentice, the Cursor Amara, into traveling with him to the rebel camp. He makes an attempt to convert her to his way of thinking, and when she rejects a place in his coup, he reverts to Villain Pastiche - the former teacher who is very, very disappointed with his student, to the point where he just has to kill her so she won't give away the plan. Fidelias travels with a sword-happy knight, Aldrick, who is almost invincibly good at what he does, and the knight's lady-friend, a semi-psychotic water-crafter named Odiana.

It's kind of unfortunate, really - I really wanted to be uncertain as to whether Fidelias and his crew were actually good guys, but I was pretty much convinced of their alignment within a few chapters. If I had one wish for this book, it would be that Butcher had kept me wondering throughout the book. I mean, it's not impossible that the First Lord was deserving of being toppled, and that Amara had given her loyalties to the wrong man, but I stopped questioning that pretty quickly once Fidelias reached mustache-twirling levels.

In general, there were some parts of the story that I really liked, some that left me cold, and a lot that had me playing "Spot The Fantasy Trope" drinking game. Some of the best scenes were fast-paced and full of action, scenes that Butcher has always been good at. Whether it's Tavi being chased by giant, heat-seeking spiders, or an all-out assault on a semi-impregnable fortress, Butcher does a very good job at controlling the action and making sure the reader knows what is going on where.

On the other hand, a lot of the narration itself, especially in the beginning, is way too talky. Probably one of the hardest things for any epic fantasy writer to do is to introduce his or her world to the reader in a way that is not only clear, but that also makes sense from within the story. Often characters spell out details of history and culture that they already know, and really don't need to recap.

It would be as though I called my friend back in the United States and said, "As you know, President Obama, who was democratically elected by the people -" "Yes," my friend says, "in a process that was established over two hundred years ago!" "Indeed," I say. "President Obama - who is African-American - is thought be some to be Muslim!" "But he isn't! He is a Christian!" "That's right, a follower of that ancient religion founded on the teachings of Jesus Christ...."

It would be weird. But writers do this all the time, especially in Fantasy and Science Fiction. And you have to feel a little sorry for them - they have all this information to give us, and no natural way to do it, because the residents of that world already know it. That's why so many epic fantasies (this one included) tend to start in backwater, isolated regions, where people haven't seen a tax collector in generations, and why the protagonists tend to be young, working-class people. They are the only ones who would need this kind of history recap. It's one of the most common ways of filling the audience in, from Lord of the Rings to The Wheel of Time to Star Wars, and Butcher is not an exception.

There is a lot of potential here, though, shining through all the weight that the first book of a fantasy series always has to bear. There's a complicated political system that we have barely begun to explore, and the way that people and furies interact is shown to be very flexible and creative. As we follow Tavi through the rest of the books, we'll get to see how someone without the ability to call on a fury might make his way in the world.

Incidentally, that is a place where I have to give Butcher credit. I seriously expected Tavi to finally gain his furycrafting powers in a big way at some point in the book, but he never did. For all intents and purposes, Tavi is a cripple in this world, and that is going to be a serious obstacle in his future endeavors. It looks like Butcher's going to allow the boy to stay disabled, which makes for a far more interesting character in the end.

Anyway, out of loyalty to an author I really like, and in the hopes that he will be able to break the shackles of the Fantasy Formula, I will continue with this series. Don't disappoint me, Jim....

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"Two days ago, I had a lot more sense...."
- Tavi, Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
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wish, hope, life

2011 Reading List - Side Jobs

Book One

Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

"Hell's Bells" count: 14

There's a reason that clichés become clichés. That's because, no matter how much we may hate them, they concisely describe some feature of human existence that is common to us all. The reason everyone uses them is because they're just so... right, and there's really no need for us to come up with something else. It's like saying, "Yes, I could use a screwdriver to put together my new IKEA desk, but everyone does that. I'm going to invent my own, completely new tool instead." So we use clichés, no matter how much we don't want to, because there's no reason not to.

Having said that: Reading this collection of Dresden Files stories is like visiting with an old friend. One of those people you've known for ages, never get to see often enough, and always know you'll spend a good time with. From the moment you start reading, you know where you are, you know who you're dealing with, and you're ready to jump right into the story without a whole lot of character building, exposition, and the nuisance of trying to decide if this is something you'll like to read. If you're picking up Side Jobs, odds are that you already know The Dresden Files, and odds are that you'll really enjoy these stories.

Most of them have been published before, in one form or another, but if you don't follow the various anthologies that are put out from time to time, these'll be new to you. They're not especially necessary to understand the overall series plot, but they do help to flesh out some characters and ideas that have already been presented – and hand us a few new ones as well..

The first story, "A Restoration of Faith," is a little rough, as Butcher himself admits. In the introduction to the story, he tells us that it was written when he was still in school, before he had really built up his writing chops and figured out his voice. And it does show, but in a kind of amusing way. As if, to continue on with our cliché of the day, you got to see the high school photos and videos of a friend you've only known in adulthood. It's a little awkward and a bit weird, but you can see the person he would one day become. In the same way, we get a glimpse of the young Harry Dresden, just getting his start as a private investigator. Working with Ragged Angel Investigations to get his license, Harry finds himself in one of his classic intractable positions: find a little girl whose parents don't particularly want her found. To make it more fun, she doesn't really want to be found either.

The story looks at what Harry does and why he does it, and how no matter how dark the world gets, he sees himself as a person born to hold a light in the darkness. He saves the girl, of course, with his classic nick-of-time timing, and the story ends with the introduction of Karrin Murphy and a rather punny ending. It's not really the Harry Dresden that we know, but we can see the Harry Dresden that he will become.

The other stories are good fun, too. In "It's My Birthday, Too," a story written for an anthology with a birthday theme, Harry sees the worlds of fantasy and reality collide. Violently, as usual. His brother Thomas has a birthday, and Harry has so few opportunities to do "normal" things - like celebrate birthdays - that he's determined to see that his brother gets his present. He tracks Thomas down to a shopping mall which, after hours, plays host to a LARP club. For those of you not in the know, LARP is Live-Action Role-Playing, wherein people like I was a decade ago dress up in costumes and pretend to be vampires and werewolves and wizards and things. When done well, it's good fun, and it's a great way to put on another personality for a few hours. Unfortunately for this group, their session gets interrupted by some real vampires. Drulinda, of the Black Court, is out for some social revenge against her former peers, and she's willing to kill everyone she finds in order to get it. Harry and Thomas work to bring her down, of course, while also bringing the rest of the mall down at the same time.

In "Day Off," Harry tries to take a little bit of time for himself. With no cases to work, no calls from the Chicago police, and no official duties with the White Council, he is intent on having just one day to be somewhat normal - sleep late, go out with a girl, that kind of thing. Of course, things don't work out that way, because he's Harry Dresden. Instead, he ends up with a group of wannabe wizards who think they can take him on, a couple of bespelled, amorous werewolves, and an apprentice who is only moments away from blowing herself up. It's good fun, and reminiscent of Dante in Clerks, who laments that he's not even supposed to be there.

"The Warrior" is, in many ways, a response to the readers who thought that Michael Carpenter got kind of a raw deal at the end of Small Favor. Michael had been a Knight of the Cross, a literal warrior of God, who had helped Harry fight the forces of evil many, many times. He's very different from Harry in many ways, but their differences work well together. What's more, Michael is a genuinely good man, of the Atticus Finch variety. He is honest, dedicated, and devoted to his friends, his family and his duty. That's why, when he was nearly killed at the end of Small Favor and forced to give up his position as a Knight, a lot of readers were upset.

Why? Well, because horrible things aren't supposed to happen to people as good as Michael, and yet they had. What's more, without his strength and his sword, it was hard to see how he could continue the work that he so obviously loved. This story, then, is all about how the battle to make the world a better place isn't always about the big fights and battles against entities of indescribable evil. It's also about small gestures, about stopping to talk to someone when no one else will. It's about a word or a gesture or a joke, and the way that these little things can have huge effects later. Michael may not be swinging a sword around anymore, but we know that he is still part of the fight.

Two stories that really stood out were "Backup" and "Aftermath," mainly because they were told from the point of view of someone who wasn't Harry Dresden. In "Backup," we get a story told by his brother, Thomas. A vampire of the White Court, Thomas feeds off emotion, rather than blood. This doesn't make him any less dangerous, of course. More dangerous, actually, in that so many of his potential victims give themselves to him willingly. but Thomas is trying his best to stay on the side of Good. Through his eyes, we not only get to see Harry from a new point of view, but we also get to see a lot more of a world that Harry never gets to see. Because of who he is, Harry will never really get a good look at the inner workings of the White Court and the Oblivion War – a concept that is fascinating and frustrating, because we know that Harry can never get involved in it. By telling a story through Thomas, Butcher expands the universe of The Dresden Files and makes it even more interesting.

The other non-Harry story is "Aftermath," which takes place after the most recent novel, Changes. Told from the point of view of Harry's oldest friend, Karrin Murphy, it's a look at what's happened in Chicago in the hours after Harry's disappearance (and presumed death). Without him (and without the now-destroyed Red Court of vampires), there is a huge power vacuum just waiting to be filled. Whether it's the mafia or mermen, the absence of Harry Dresden is an opportunity for many. Murphy gets involved in the hunt for special people, anyone with a trace of magical nature, who are to be used for their power. Without Harry to rely on, she has to use her own knowledge and resources to save her friends. At the same time, she has to face the reality that Harry is gone, maybe dead, and that is more terrifying than all the monsters that might try to take over the city.

It's a great collection of tales, one that's quick to get through. If you're just itching for the new book to come out, this should hold you over for a little while.

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Harry Dresden. Saving the world, one act of random destruction at a time."
- Jim Butcher, "The Warrior"
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wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - Sex at Dawn

Book Fifty-two

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Hey! Hey, baby, baby, waitwaitwaitwait. Wait. Wait! Baby, don't... don't freak out

Okay, okay, I know what this looks like, but I can explain! Quiet, Chad, let me handle this. I can explain! I'm just - please, stop crying and listen - I'm just fulfilling my evolutionary heritage and helping to cement social bonds with... um... the pizza boy, but that'snotthepoint!! That's
not the point! Look, before you do anything, y'know, drastic, you just need to read this book....

Humans a really good at figuring things out. As far as we go, we have a real knack for taking things apart and figuring out how they work. Though determined curiosity and perseverance, we know what's happening at the center of the sun, we know how the continents slide across the surface of the earth, how plants turn sunlight into potatoes. We can smash atoms and cure disease and peer back to the moment of creation itself. There is almost nothing that humans cannot comprehend if we put our minds to it.

Except ourselves.

Don't get me wrong - we have made great strides in philosophy and psychology, and come very far in understanding human origins and our spread across the planet. But there is a fundamental problem that we have when we study ourselves, and that is that we cannot do so objectively. Try as we might, it is impossible to completely put aside our own biases, judgments and backgrounds when we study how humans behave and try to understand why they do what they do. They are still there, if you look for them, and nowhere are they more evident than in the search for the origins of foundations of human sexuality.

The standard model, as it's often called, goes something like this: ancient men and women established a pattern of monogamy based on mutual self-interest. The man would keep to one mate in order to be absolutely sure that he was dedicating his efforts towards raising his own kids and not someone else's. If a man had multiple partners, he wouldn't be able to provide for them all, and his genetic investment would die out. So, in terms of efficiency, it is much better for the man to keep himself to one woman, focusing all his attention on the children he knows he has fathered and making sure they live to have children of their own.

As far as women are concerned, they require the resources that the men bring. When pregnant, a woman's physical capacities are reduced and she is in a vulnerable state, so by staying monogamous, she is essentially purchasing security and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to her in a world that brought quick and merciless death to the weak. If she slept around, the man wouldn't be sure that the child she bore was his, and would therefore have less interest in taking care of the both of them. Thus, monogamy is the best bet to assure the survival of herself and her child.

This is the story that's been told for a long time, and it's considered by most to be the truth. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, however, disagree. Not only do they think the standard model is wrong, but they think it is nothing more than a relic of our own modern biases and hang-ups. The process, they say, can be referred to as "Flintstonization."

As you know, the characters in "The Flintstones" were more or less just like us. They went to work, they had houses and appliances and domestic disputes. They had the same issues and amusements as we did, because we overlaid our own society onto a prehistoric setting. Now in cartoons, that's good entertainment, and in the right hands it can be used as powerful satire and commentary. In science, though, it's just no good.

Starting with Darwin, people have imagined prehistoric humans to have the same sexual values that we have: a demure, reluctant female who is very choosy in deciding which male she will mate with. A bond forms, and they are faithful to each other until the end of their days. Later researchers, looking at our ape cousins, have plenty of observational research to support the idea that very early humans were monogamous. They look at chimps and gorillas and baboons and confirm what they had always suspected - that our natural sexual state is one of monogamy.

The logical conclusion, then, is that our modern attitude towards sexuality, with the rising rates of divorce and teen sexuality, represents a deviation from the way things "should" be, and must therefore be fixed. A loveless marriage, a man's roving eye, a woman who cuckolds her husband, serial monogamists, all of these, according to the standard model, result from our attempts to go against our nature.

Or is it the other way around?

Ryan and Jetha have put together a very compelling argument that the standard model of pre-agricultural human sexuality is not only wrong, but dangerously so. By looking at modern foraging tribes and the way they live, as well as doing a comparative analysis of humans against our nearest ape cousins, they have come to this conclusion: our "natural" sexual state is one of promiscuity. Back in the day, communities were small and tightly bonded, and sex was one of the things that held those bonds tight. Rather than one man and one woman struggling to protect their own genetic line, their entire community made sure that children were cared for and raised well. Everyone was everyone else's responsibility, and in a world of plenty there was no reason to try and enforce any kind of sexual exclusivity.

It was only with the rise of agriculture that it became important to know what was yours, as opposed to someone else's, and that quickly extended from fields and livestock to wives and children. Now that people were keeping their own food and making sure to divide their lands from their neighbor's lands, sharing went out of style. With so much work put into growing crops, that's where the standard model of economic monogamy settled in, and it's been with us ever since. The advent of agriculture changed everything, and not everything for the better.

In addition, the very biology of humans, from the way sperm behaves to the shape of the penis, to the anatomy of the clitoris to the noises women make in the throes of orgasm - all of these point to an evolutionary history of sexual promiscuity. The evidence of our bodies tell us that being locked into a lifetime monogamous pair-bond is not what we evolved to do.

Ryan and Jetha know that their view of the fundamental nature of human sexuality will not be popular, mainly because it completely undermines our vision of who we are. So much law, tradition, education, entertainment and just plain common sense relies on humans being naturally monogamous. It's something that seems so obvious to us that we cannot imagine a society built any other way. Unfortunately, if Ryan and Jetha are right, society is the problem. We have established a cultural norm that goes completely against our biological and evolutionary nature, and which makes people miserable on a daily basis.

I bought this book mainly to stop Dan Savage from nagging me about it. If you listen to Savage's podcast - and you should - you will soon realize that monogamy is something that a lot of people aren't good at. We look at other people with lust in our hearts, we cheat, we stay in relationships where we're sexually miserable just because that's what we "should" do. For most people, our sexual urges are to be fought against, with everything from self-restraint to social shame to law itself. It seems like staying monogamous is one of the hardest things for many people to do.

This, of course, raises the question: if it were natural, would it really be so hard?

It is a fascinating read, which covers a lot of ground and makes some very compelling arguments. It's also quite funny in places, which was quite welcome. In discussing the standard model the authors note that this is, fundamentally, prostitution, wherein the woman uses sex for material resources. This sexual barter system has been assumed to be true for years, leading the authors to write, "Darwin says your mother's a whore. Simple as that." They also put in some special notes for adventurous grad students in the field of sexual research (especially genital to genital rubbing, something popular in bonobo apes, but which is rarely studied in humans) and re-titling the extremely popular song "When A Man Loves a Woman" as "When a Man Becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self-Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway Because Really, Who Wants a Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out in the Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)"

I don't really know what can be made of the serious information proposed in this book. No matter how it may seem, the authors are not proposing a dissolution of marriage or compulsory orgies or anything like that, nor is this book a "Get Out of Cheating Free" card. We've spent thousands of years putting these restraints on human sexuality, and they're not going to come off anytime soon. The best we can do right now is to be aware of where our ideas about relationships come from, and stop to think about the difference between what is true and what we wish were true. This understanding might help to save relationships that would otherwise work. People cheat not because they're scum or whores, but because they're human. Being monogamous is really hard not because we're weak or flawed, but because it's not what our bodies want for us.

The search for a better understanding of human nature should lead us to being better humans, and nothing should be left out. Not even our most sacred beliefs. Not even sex.

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"Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends."
- Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn
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Okay? Okay, baby? So you see, I wasn't really cheating - okay, I was, but you can see why, right? I was just acting in accordance with my fundamental humanity, following the biological impulses as determined by millions of years of evolution when we... Hey, where are you going? Where are you? Oh, hell, he's going for the shotgun. Run, Chad, leave your pants, you don't have time, run!
wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - The God Engines

Book Fifty-one

The God Engines by John Scalzi

There is not, to my knowledge, a whole lot of theological science fiction. Madeleine L'Engle's books may qualify, but to be honest, it's been years since I read them so I don't know. The Golden Compass books, too, but they struck me more as fantasy, seeing as how there were no spaceships. My only successful foray into National Novel Writing Month produced some theological sci-fi, but it was questionable at best and is still fermenting on my hard drive somewhere.

In any case, that is what John Scalzi has given us, and if you're a regular reader of his blog and his other books then you may find this one to be a little... off. You see, like many accomplished writers, Scalzi has a Voice, a way of writing that is immediately identifiable as his own, and which a lot of his fans have gotten used to. There's no single thing I can point to that really illustrates what this is, but trust me - it's there. A certain whip-quick sarcasm, a way of looking at old questions from a new angle and the ability to cut through the requisite fuzzy thinking that seems so endemic to the human race.

In this book, he tries on a new voice, something that sounds kind of like his, but at the same time like he's trying on something new. It's as if Jonathan Coulton started doing Manowar cover songs. It's not bad, it's just something that takes a little getting used to.

Captain Ean Tephe is the commander of a great starship, the Righteous, one of the many ships in the fleet controlled by the Bishopry Militant. He and the other captains in the fleet are charged with carrying out missions for the Bishopry in the name of their God, a being of immense power who uses the faith of millions to rule them. Their Lord is a powerful and active god, one who brooks no dissent from His followers and who will suffer no challengers to His dominion. Long ago, the Lord battled countless other, smaller gods, and won, chaining them to his will and turning them into the engines of the great starships that carry His people out into the universe.

The god that powers the Righteous, however, is not cooperating. Some ships' gods are quiet and obedient, others chatty, some cowed into good behavior by fear. The god on this ship is defiant, despite the prayers of priests and acolytes, and the horrible whip that the captain wields to compel obedience. This god soon reveals itself to be part of a greater plan, one which enfolds both Tephe and his crew and reveals a truth about their God that is enough to drive men mad. It is a test of faith for the men aboard the Righteous, and if they should fail, their lives will end in short order.

It's a very cool concept, really, one which I haven't seen done before. Scalzi has powered a civilization by faith, quite literally, in a God that not only exists, but it quite active in the lives of His worshipers. His high priests exert complete control over a population that rightfully fears for their souls, and manage to channel the God's power into various science-like applications. Through the use of amulets called Talents, the God facilitates communication over great distances, compels obedience, and opens gateways. He has a civilian population whose faith nourishes Him, and a military arm that travels the galaxy spreading His word and destroying His enemies. And it all makes sense.

As cool as the idea is, though, the book itself felt like a rough sketch rather than a fleshed-out novel. It's quite short, as novels go, and we are introduced to a lot of concepts and characters in a fairly brief amount of time. The Bishopry Militant, for example, sounds like a great place to see intrigue and double-dealing, lies upon lies that somehow manage to get things done, and we do see a bit of that when Captain Tephe gets a secret mission to a new world. Scalzi showed us in The Last Colony that he can handle this kind of multi-layered politicking, and I think it would be even better in a place like this. Add to that the Rookery, a kind of church-sanctioned brothel/therapy center aboard the ships, where the women who work there have nearly as much power and influence as the Bishopry itself. What would happen if these two institutions came into conflict, and what weapons would they wield?

The chained gods, too, are a wonderful chance to explore a lot of ethical questions. They are undoubtedly sentient beings of great power, enslaved by a God that is stronger than they. Is this kind of slavery justified? Would it be possible for a ship to work with its god-engine, rather than compelling it with whips and prayers. What do these gods know, and how reliable are they? The god powering the Righteous seems to know a lot about how this universe works, including some terrifying tales about the God that Tephe follows, but how much of what it says can be trusted?

And what are the powers and limitations of a faith-powered science? Much in the way that engineers and scientists in our world manipulate a few basic laws of nature to achieve amazing things, what could be done in a world where prayers have power and where a high priest's whim can decide the outcome of an entire mission? How do you creatively solve problems in a reality like this one, where they deal in belief and faith, rather than wavelengths and mass?

So yeah, there was a lot that I wanted from this book once I figured out what Scalzi was doing with it. After a great opening line (and a third line that just left me confused), the learning curve was a little steep. Once you figure it out, though, the possibilities seem endless. Unfortunately, the book itself ends rather sooner than it should.

It's not my favorite book by Scalzi, not by a long run, but since he's said he's going to lay off the Old Man's War universe for a while, I should be thankful that he is willing to experiment and try new things. As many music lovers know, it's sometimes very hard to accept that an artist you love wants to try to do things that are new and different, rather than keep doing the things that made you love them in the first place. I remember when U2 put out Achtung Baby and my friends who fell in love with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum were almost personally offended. Zooropa, of course, was not to be mentioned aloud in their presence.

That kind of experimentation and risk-taking, however, is ultimately what helps an artist grow. You may not like what comes of such experimentation, but that's tough – it's not about you.

I don't know if Scalzi will return to this universe or not, but I hope he does. If he does, I hope he lingers longer than he did in The God Engines, and brings forth another wonderful and complex universe.

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"Faith is not for what comes after this life. Faith is for this life alone."
- A God, The God Engines
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wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - The Walking Dead, Compendium One

Book Fifty

The Walking Dead, Compendium One by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore & Cliff Rathburn

Zombies are boring.

There. I said it. And I'm not ashamed.

They are, though. Zombies have no real motivation, they have no goals other than to kill all humans. They are mindless, a kind of twisted force of nature whose great terror lies in their sheer numbers and their unstoppability. As a concept, zombies are interesting, and as a symbol or a metaphor there's a lot you can do with them, but the zombies themselves are kind of dull. They lurch about, slowly decaying, looking for people to devour. No one ever made a best-selling book or a hit movie with a zombie protagonist. [1]

Think about it: every zombie story rests on the same basic plot. The dead have risen and a small band of living survivors tries to find safety in a world that is actively trying to kill them. That's it. Sure, the details may vary - fast zombies or slow ones, a cure or no cure, they eat brains or they'll eat anything, trapped in a mall or a farmhouse - but the foundation of the story is the same, and woe betide the writer who strays too far from the formula. Writing a zombie story means agreeing to adhere to a set of predetermined set of rules, which allow only a little room for straying.

So what is it that makes zombie stories so popular? Why do people love books like this one, or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or World War Z? Why do movies like Shaun of the Dead and Night of the Living Dead and even Resident Evil get people so excited? It certainly isn't because of the zombies, although it is always fun to see the special effects improve.

We read and watch zombie stories because we love the survivors, and it is they who make or break a zombie story. The more closely we can identify or sympathize with a survivor, the more interesting and horrifying the story becomes for us. They are a great demonstration of the variety in the human condition, and illuminate new and interesting aspects of humanity every time. In this case, we are given Rick Grimes as our protagonist, a police officer from a small town in Kentucky who gets shot on duty and wakes up a month later in the hospital to find the world has been given over to the dead.

As he looks for his wife and son, Rick finds himself leading a band of survivors in their search for a place of safety away from both the dead who wish to devour them and the living who wish to kill them.

What makes this a really fun - and terrifying - read is that Kirkman carefully paces the plot so that we never really get much time to rest. A pattern quickly starts to emerge in the story, with Rick and his people finding safety, a kind of equilibrium between running for their lives and resting, only to have that equilibrium disrupted. Each time the interval gets longer and longer, both in terms of page count and story-time, but each time you know what's coming. The hardest moments are the most peaceful ones, when they have found a refuge from the horrors of the world because you know it isn't going to last, and you know that when the balance is finally undone, it's going to be worse than before. Kirkman uses this pattern and this expectation to his advantage, creating a tight and tense narrative.

He also provides us with a look at some of the ethical problems that arise from a world where the dead outnumber the living. In nearly every zombie story ever written, the living immediately start killing the zombies, but is that the right choice to make? We don't know all the facts. We don't know what caused this outbreak, whether it can be cured, or even whether the people affected might just get better. We just start taking head shots in ignorance, but might it not be worth it to try and learn something about these "monsters?" [2]

There's also the question of how to organize a post-outbreak society. What kind of person or people should run the survivors' societies? Is this an opportunity to remake civilization, or should the old ways be adhered to? How much leeway to we have in restarting the world, and what will that look like in the end? The characters in this story have to deal with how to define a family when one's partner or parents or children could die at any time. They have a chance to redefine what is lawful and illegal, to toy with the notions of what is right and wrong, and to re-evaluate the role religion plays in their lives. It's a chance to rebuild the world from scratch, and the characters in this story test those limits in interesting and sometimes unsettling ways.

And that's assuming that the living will actually survive and thrive in a zombified world. This is a world where death is always only moments away. It is only a matter of time before the living survivors join the ranks of the undead, and the awareness of that fact is the classic existential puzzle with a little extra twist to it: how do you live when you know that you will die, and especially when you know the horror that your death will entail? One of the more heartbreaking moments is when one character gets killed, and Rick has to break the news to his young son, Carl. When he asks his son if he is upset, Carl replies, "No. People die, dad. It happens all the time. I'll miss [him]... but I knew he was going to die eventually. Everyone will. Everyone."

That is an observation that, frankly, no child should ever have to make.

The characters in this story make hard choices and sometimes do terrible things in the name of survival. But, with very few exceptions, there are few characters that we cannot truly come to understand and identify with. Their decisions and their reactions make them richer, more interesting, which is what truly makes for a fascinating and engaging story.

The zombies are really incidental to all that.

As this is a comic series, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the art, which is overall quite good. There were a few times when I had trouble telling some characters apart, but the high rate of attrition generally took care of that problem. The detail in the artwork is very impressive, though I can imagine there were more than a few times that Charlie Adlard cursed Robert Kirkman for setting a large part of the series in a locale with a prominent chain-link fence that couldn't easily be ignored. As this is a horror comic, the art is sometimes horrifying, very graphic and quite satisfying without being gratuitous. Well, mostly without being gratuitous....

It's a really excellent book, though I do have one caveat if you're planning to buy the compendium edition: get a reinforced reading harness, or rest the book on a solid piece of furniture with a low center of gravity. This is one of the densest books I've ever read, packing nearly five pounds of book into less physical volume [3] than the last hardcover installment of The Dark Tower, a fairly hefty book. I think the ink may contain uranium or something. So, take measures to prevent back injury and hernias when you read this and you'll be just fine.

Many thanks to my brother Michael for knowing I would enjoy this, and I look forward to watching the AMC television adaptation.

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"But honestly... I just don't know what anyone's thinking. To me, that's scarier than any half-rotten ghoul trying to eat my flesh."
- Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead
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[1] Cue angry email pointing me towards exactly that book or movie in 3... 2... 1...

[2] Short answer: no.

[3] It comes out to 1.147 grams per cubic centimeter, which isn't nearly as dense as it feels when it's making the straps of your bag dig into your shoulder....
wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - The Wave

Book Forty-nine

The Wave by Susan Casey

Okay, I want you to do something for me. Close your eyes.

Wait. No, that won't work. Open your eyes again.

Eyes open? Good. Now imagine you've closed your eyes, but don't actually close them because that will rather impair your ability to read this review.

So, you're imagining that your eyes are closed. Now imagine you're on a cruise ship. It's a lovely place - blue water, blue skies, the faint scent of salt in the air, the waves lapping up against the hull of the boat in a soothing rhythm. It's a perfect way to spend a vacation.

You get a daiquiri and lean on the railing, looking out towards the horizon. This is nice, you think. Just what I -

Wait. What is that?

You shield your eyes from the sun to get a better look and see what looks for all the world like a shadow on the horizon, stretching long and with flecks of light shimmering off its top. As it gets closer, it gets bigger, and you can feel the boat drop under your feet. The water gets higher and higher, and you know this can't possibly be happening because for the wave to be that high, it would have to be at least sixty or seventy feet. In thirty-five foot waters.

A shadow is cast over the boat as the wave crests above you, and the last thing you think before the top comes down, shattering the cruise ship like it was made of so much balsa wood, is, "I wonder what it would be like to surf that...."

It has often been said that we know more about the surface of the moon than we know about our own oceans. I have no idea who first said it, or in what form it was said, but reading this book drives home that it is absolutely correct. What's more, that ignorance may well kill us. The oceans are full of relentless mysteries and hypnotic beauty, but also terrors and dangers the likes of which we shorebound humans have trouble understanding. The sea has always been a dangerous place, really. We know that. What we don't know is what all of those dangers are.

Tales of giant waves have been around since antiquity, but until recently, people didn't really believe them. It defied everything that was known about the ocean - to say nothing of common sense - to have waves appear out of nowhere, rise to heights of up to a hundred feet or more, wreak havoc on oceangoing vessels, and then vanish. These were the tales of sailors, whom everyone knew could not be trusted to tell the truth about their journeys.

Perhaps that is why Casey chooses to open with a scene from a research vessel in the North Atlantic. The RRS Discovery was on a routine mission to gather data about the sea between the British Isles and Iceland when it found itself under attack by the ocean itself. The ship was hit over and over again by waves reaching up to sixty feet, then dropped down into the void between waves and lifted up again, over and over for five days. Things that weren't bolted down flew in mad directions all over the ship, and many things that were bolted down - like lifeboats - were ripped off their moorings. It was so terrifying that the scientists on board, after they had gotten home, wrote one of the very few research papers that included a note at the end thanking the captain for bringing them back alive. Only great skill and good luck saved that ship from oblivion in waters that seemed to have risen up for the sole purpose of destroying it.

No one - no weather forecaster or meteorologist, oceanographer or climatologist - no one thought that waves of that size could exist under those conditions. And yet there they were, and the Discovery's instruments captured it all.

Scientists who study the oceans are just beginning to understand how waves work on the ocean, but the almost infinite number of variables that contribute to making waves is so overwhelming that it's hard to conclusively predict where and when these rogue waves will appear. Other people who work with the sea - salvage operators, ship captains, insurers - know that this kind of thing is possible, and that the sea carries risks with it that no other form of transportation faces. Every year, dozens of ships are lost, and with them go many lives and countless dollars worth of merchandise. Some of these losses come from human error, but others come because the ocean is an inherently dangerous place for us to be. It is vital for our safety and our economy that we know how the ocean works, but we are nowhere near being able to do that.

What's worse, the onset of climate change could make current models obsolete as the seas become higher, rougher, and more unpredictable. We are racing against the clock - and losing.

But for all the scientists who are trying to map the behavior of waves, there is a community of people who seek them out. People who know the waves intimately, even if they can't write an equation to tell you what it is they know, exactly. These people are the surfers, and if there was ever a group of people more attached and attuned to the sea, they'd have to be mermen.

Casey spends a lot of time with surfer Laird Hamilton. I wanted to say "the famous Laird Hamilton," but I didn't know the man existed until I read this book, which makes him one of those people who is very famous, but only to the kind of people who would find him famous. Now that I know more about him and his community, though, I can certainly understand why he has the prestige that he does. Among big-wave surfers, he is a legend. And that takes some doing.

To ride a regular wave, you see, you get out there with your board, get behind the point where the waves start to break, and paddle to catch up. With the big waves, though, they're moving much too fast for a paddler to get into position, so the big-wave riders have someone on a jet ski to pull them along. Once in position, the jet ski goes down the back of the wave while the surfer heads down the front where, hopefully, he won't be killed. If he falls off, his partner has to come in, find him, and get them both out before the next giant wave - and where there's one wave there are always more - comes in to crush them both. Regular surfing has its share of dangers, but the perils of big-wave surfing are orders of magnitude worse.

There is a whole community of surfers looking to ride these great waves. They travel across the world on the mere possibility of great surfing, heading to places with names like Jaws, Mavericks, or Egypt, all in the hope of catching the biggest waves. Injuries are common, and sometimes terrible. Death is always an option. But they come anyway, just for that moment of zenlike awareness of the Eternal Now that you can only truly achieve when you're riding down the face of a wave and trying not to die.

I don't like the ocean, myself. I find it too big, too impersonal. It's a place that could swallow you whole and leave no trace you were ever there. It's a place that cares nothing for us puny humans and will, on a whim, try to destroy us. I certainly appreciate the ocean and what it does for us, and it's nice to look at. But I certainly don't trust it, and this book really didn't help in that regard. From tales of ships crushed by rogue waves south of Africa to waves so large and so powerful they could strip the bark off the trees they uprooted, it was a testament to the fact that the moment we underestimate the ocean is the moment it kills us.

What's more, with climate change being what it is, our problems with the ocean are going to turn into new and different ones. The models we have now - good though they are - are incomplete, and the changes that are coming in the future will keep scientists on their toes for years to come. As Casey notes, wave science is a very young discipline, but it is one that needs attention if we're going to safeguard our coastal cities and global commerce.

This book is an exciting read about a topic you've probably never given much thought to. You fear for both the surfers and the scientists, and in the end realize just how much there is about the ocean that we still don't know. I don't know about you, but it kind of freaks me out....

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"If you can look at one of these waves and you don't believe that there's something greater than we are, then you've got some serious analyzing to do and you should go sit under a tree for a very long time."
- Laird Hamilton
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wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - The Last Colony and Zoë's Tale

Books Forty-seven and forty-eight

The Last Colony and Zoë's Tale by John Scalzi

In Old Man's War, John Scalzi brought us a new future, vast in scope, amazingly advanced and yet horribly familiar at the same time. Humans have spread out through space, snatching up habitable planets as fast as they can and setting up new colonies to thrive or perish. Back on Earth, most of the population is fed just enough information about the greater universe to ensure a steady supply of colonists and soldiers, but not enough to make them aware of all the cool stuff they're missing.

Unfortunately, we are not the only ones out there who want this real estate. Dozens of alien species are out there, and most of them want the same worlds that we do. We - and they - will fight tooth and nail to get and keep the precious few worlds that will support life. Existence out in space is much like existence on Earth - a constant struggle for scarce resources, and the species who is best adapted to get and keep planets will be the one that, for lack of a better word, wins.

To keep human colonists alive, the Colonial Union has created the Colonial Defense Force. These soldiers, taken from senior citizens of Earth, are given new, superhuman bodies, terrifyingly effective weapons, and just enough training to make sure they can defeat the horrifying things that they are sure to face. John Perry, a widower from Earth, joins the CDF and becomes one of the few Earthlings to learn about the wider universe into which humanity has spread. Sarcastic and quick-witted, Perry learns a lot more than he bargained for - among other things, that his dead wife's DNA had been used to make the Special Forces soldier called Jane Sagan.

In The Ghost Brigades, we follow Sagan through the shadowy and violent world of the Special Forces. Where the regular CDF soldiers have bodies that would make them superheroes on Earth, the special forces are on a whole other level. Grown from the DNA of people who did not survive to become CDF soldiers, the special forces are where the newest and most interesting genetic modifications are tried out. Better vision, faster reflexes, a nearly telepathic connection with their squadmates, and even in some cases whole new body plans are all options for the Special Forces soldier. They are single-minded, deadly, and proud, knowing their purpose in the universe almost from the moment of their "birth." What they lack, however, is the years of living that ordinary humans have and all that comes with that. This makes the Special Forces even more separate from the rest of the CDF - human, but not quite, yet essential to the survival of humanity.

Jane Sagan is one of the people trying to find Charles Boutin, a brilliant scientist who has vanished, taking a dangerous amount of information on the CDF's mind transference process with him. Their worst fear - that Boutin will try to sell that technology to their enemies - isn't even close to how bad the truth is. Boutin hates the Colonial Union with a passion and devises a plan that will make all human colonies everywhere completely vulnerable to attack. When he dies, the only thing Jane and her squad can do is escape, but not before saving Boutin's young daughter, Zoë, from the terrifying Obin. More on them later, though.

Their days of adventuring over, Perry and Sagan marry, creating a partnership that sounds impossible, if you stop to think about it for too long - a man well into his 80s, with the body of a 30-year-old, marrying a woman cloned from the DNA of his former wife, and who is technically still too young to get a driver's license. They love each other, though, and are willing to bring Zoë into their family. Following their discharge from the CDF, they got new, normal bodies and accepted a position on the oddly-named colony world of Huckleberry. In the town of New Goa, John is the ombudsman, which means having to deal with all the petty problems that come with a small town, and Jane is the constable. They live with Zoë and her two Obin bodyguards in what could certainly be considered a good life.

So you know that won't last.

They are tapped to lead a new colony - a new type of colony, actually. Whereas previous colonists had all come from Earth, the new colony of Roanoke will be founded by representatives from ten of the oldest human colonies. It's a second generation colonization, which would be a fantastic milestone if it weren't for one tiny little detail: the Conclave.

Having been willing to fight pretty much everyone in their area of space, the Colonial Union hasn't made many friends. In fact, they have damn few. Their enemies, sensing a common threat, have banded together into an organization called The Conclave, which is working to end interplanetary war through a representative government of sorts. One of their first acts was to forbid colonization by any non-Conclave members. Unauthorized colonies that resist the Conclave are vaporized.

Humanity, always the contrarians, wants to flout the Conclave's rule and undermine its presumed authority. Thus begins an intricate web of deception and misinformation and scheming that all centers around the colonists at Roanoke, who know nothing of what's going on over their heads. There are a few clues, though, and when John starts pulling at loose threads, a whole tapestry of intrigue is revealed to him. Roanoke may be vital to the survival of humans in space, but that doesn't mean that the colony itself has to survive.

The reason I'm putting these two books together is because they're really one book. The Last Colony is a fantastic read, where every time the plot turns it's like a punch in the gut. The tension never really lets up, and every time we think things are going to get better, that's the cue for them to get a whole lot worse.

After finishing the book, however, Scalzi got a light wrist-slapping by his readers for taking a few shortcuts. One is that an indigenous, intelligent life form is discovered on Roanoke, which cause the deaths of several colonists... and then they vanish, never to be seen again. From the description, they sounded pretty cool, and I was disappointed that Scalzi had just let them kind of drift away so quietly. The other problem was with Zoë - Perry comes up with an interesting end-run around the Colonial Union, one which involves Zoë pulling rank with the Obin, who revere her as the daughter of the man who gave them consciousness. She gets sent off with her Obin bodyguards, partly to get help and also to get her out of harm's way, and returns twenty pages later with a piece of alien technology that just happens to be exactly what they need to win the final, climactic confrontation against the Conclave. The author knew he couldn't put all that into the book without producing something of doorstop proportions, so he "did a little hand waving and hoped [he] wouldn't get caught."

This is what you get for cultivating an intelligent readership, Scalzi.

The other reason for writing Zoë's Tale, of course, was that Zoë was a really interesting character. The daughter of a man who would have betrayed humanity, and at the same time brought consciousness to the Obin - a species that had been uplifted long ago to have intelligence without consciousness. The Obin revere Zoë, and would do anything to protect her. Under these circumstances you might think that she would grow up kind of weird, but she actually ends up pretty cool. We get to see her in action a few times during The Last Colony, and those few times are more than enough to make you want to read a whole book about her.

That book, then, is Zoë's Tale, a re-telling of the events of The Last Colony from the perspective of the most important teenage girl in the known universe.

It's hard enough being a teenage girl here and now (or so I'm told), so imagine how much harder it must be when your father is one of the greatest traitors to humanity; when your adoptive parents are ex-soldiers, and your mother is technically younger than you are; when an entire species depends on you as a model of what it means to be a conscious, self-aware being; and when you suddenly have to leave your home to start a new colony on a world that no one has ever heard of.

That would be enough to mess anyone up.

Fortunately, Zoë is a tough girl. She's bright, resilient and sarcastic. She enjoys a deep inner life, knows how to taunt boys, and keeps her head in a crisis. In short, the kind of teenage daughter we would all want to have, if we wanted to have teenage daughters. She and her friends do what teenagers do best: push the boundaries of their new home, have fights, fall in love, and feel big feelings about everything. Through her, we learn a lot more about the indigenous life forms of Roanoke, and we find out much more about the universe at large when she is sent to find a way to save her family and friends.

While Zoë's Tale was very enjoyable, I find it hard to evaluate fairly. I love Zoë, and her friends are great characters as well. Scalzi does a fantastic job at writing the intricate webs of angst that make up our teenage years, fraught with emotional land mines and exciting new feelings. Her relationship with her boyfriend Enzo is very well handled, as is the ever-shifting dynamic of friendship between her and the other teens of the colony. There are some beautiful, raw moments of emotion in the book that made me - the man whose heart was long ago replaced by a spinning, cold lump of stone - stop for a moment and say, "Wow."

What I can't fairly say is whether or not Zoë's Tale works as a stand-alone book. As I read it, I was constantly filling in gaps from my knowledge of The Last Colony, which made everything make sense. If I had my way, I would wipe my memory of both books and then read them again in reverse order to see if they still worked. Perhaps one day, if Scalzi has a lot of free time, he will integrate the two into a larger single volume. I wouldn't envy him that work, but I think the resulting book would be a brilliant read.

One of the things I like about the work of John Scalzi is that I can always recommend him without reservation, so I'm doing that now. If you like good science fiction, an engaging plot and wonderful characters, pick up The Last Colony and Zoë's Tale. You won't regret it.

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"Being from Earth in this universe is like being a small-town kid who gets on the bus, goes to the big city and spends his entire afternoon gawking at all the tall buildings. Then he gets mugged for the crime of marveling at this strange new world, which has such things in it, because the things in it don't have much time or sympathy for the new kid in town, and they're happy to kill him for what he's got in his suitcase."
- John Scalzi, The Last Colony

"You and I are so totally going to be best friends."
"Are we? I don't know. What are the hours?"
"The hours are terrible. And the pay is even worse."
"Will I be treated horribly?"
"You will cry yourself to sleep on a nightly basis."
"Fed crusts?"
"Of course not. We feed the crusts to the dogs."
"Oh, very nice. Okay, you pass. We can be best friends."
"Good. Another life decision taken care of."
"Yes. Now, come on. No point wasting all this attitude on ourselves. Let's go find something to point and laugh at."
- Zoë and Gretchen, Zoë's Tale
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wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - Machine of Death

Book Forty-six

Machine of Death, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !

How would you live if you knew how you would die?

The premise for this collection of short stories was introduced back in 2005, in an installment of Ryan North's popular Dinosaur Comics. In it, he presents the following premise: there is a machine which, with only a small sample of your blood, can tell you how you will die. But there are no dates, no details, no explanations. Just a few words, and that's it. The Machine is never wrong, but it is annoyingly vague and has a decidedly un-machinelike love of irony. So you might get OLD AGE and think you were set, right? Not necessarily. You could be murdered by an octogenarian while trying to steal their TV. Or you might get PLANE CRASH and decide never to fly again. Fine, but that won't stop the single-engine Cessna from plowing into your house one fine spring afternoon. Pulled GUILLOTINE, did you? Hope you know to stay away from heavy metal concerts.

But it doesn't matter. The Machine, while perversely misleading at times, is never wrong, and like most prophets, its predictions often only make sense after the event has already happened.

With that premise, hundreds of writers across the internet set to work. How would this Machine affect people? How would it affect society or business or politics? Would we become slaves to its predictions, or simply shrug it off and live our lives as we did before, knowing that we were going to die someday anyway?

In "Flaming Marshmallow" by Camille Alexa, we see how the existence of the Machine has begun to shape youth culture. Carolyn is about to turn sixteen, the legal age at which one can be tested. A milestone equivalent with getting one's driver's license or being able to vote, kids monitor each other's fates with scrupulous detail. Your eventual manner of death brings you together with those of similar fates, and new cliques begin to form. Kids who are going to die violent deaths sit together in the lunch room, far away from the ones who get OLD AGE. The kids with DRUG OVERDOSE and fates like it all mill about with each other, and nobody talks to the ones who get SUICIDE. By finding out one's manner of death, a teenager gets what teenagers always want: a sense of belonging and inclusion. But will Carolyn's fate bring her closer to her fellow students or just leave her an outsider?

"After Many Years, Stops Breathing, While Asleep, With Smile On Face," by William Grallo, continues that idea out into the adult world. Ricky is dragged out on the town to a nightclub where people flaunt their deaths. They wear fake toe tags with MURDER or HEART ATTACK on them. Or, if they're feeling impish, NEVER, or BOREDOM. But while everyone else is mocking their deaths, Ricky is in the odd position of knowing that he's got a good end to his life. What he doesn't know is what will happen between now and then, or with whom he will share it.

David Malki ! explores the darker side of society's reactions in "Cancer." James is a young man whose father is dying of cancer. It's what the Machine had predicted, and it was all coming true. Despite the Machine's infallibility, however, his father was seeking out a cure, a way out from the fate that had been given to him. And he's not the only one - a new generation of hucksters and faith healers has sprung up, all claiming to be able to defy the predictions of The Machine. It gives James' father hope, but whether that hope is worth the price or not is something James is unsure of.

"Nothing," by Pelotard, is a touching tale of a young woman who discovers a family secret that never would have been revealed before the Machine was invented. "Despair," by K.M. Lawrence, is an examination of how paralyzed people might become by the ambiguity of the predictions, unable to act lest they inadvertently fulfill them. "Improperly Prepared Blowfish" by Gord Sellar is an entertaining moment of secrets and betrayal among a group of yakuza in Japan, and Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw has some fun with the politics of Machine predictions by giving us a politician whose fate is to die from EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR.

Some stories are funny, others are touching, but they all center around that most existential of questions: how do we live, knowing that we will die?

Without The Machine, we still know we're going to die. Every one of us has, somewhere in the back of our mind, that constant reminder that our lives are finite, that there is a limit to the amount of time we can spend on this earth. And, for the most part, we choose to ignore it. After all, if you spend your whole life obsessing over your own death, then you can't have much of a life, now can you? But add to that fundamental knowledge of finitude the extra awareness of the manner of your death. If you get CAR CRASH, what can you do with that knowledge? You know it's inevitable, that The Machine is never wrong, but you may still struggle with that fate. You may cut up your driver's license, move out to Amish country and vow never to be within striking distance of a car again. The entire course of your life will shift drastically, based on the two words printed on that card, but the end result will be the same: CAR CRASH. Knowing that, is it better to act on the knowledge you have gained, or to ignore it?

Even worse, sometimes the very act of finding out your fate leads you right to it. In "Suicide" by David Michael Wharton, characters learn about their deaths only moments before experiencing it. Had they not gone to get tested on The Machine - had they not gone to that machine - would they have avoided their fate? The Machine would say no, but you'd have to ask it first. The best expression of this paradox is contained in the book's shortest tale, "HIV Infection From Machine of Death Needle" by Brian Quinlan, wherein the very act of discovering your fate causes that fate to happen, whereas you would never have had it if you hadn't gone looking for it. It's kind of a mind trip, if you think about it.

What if you get something fairly straightforward, like CANCER, and you decide to, say, jump out of an airplane without a parachute? Will that even be possible, or will random events conspire to keep you safe until your proscribed end? And if you get SUICIDE, the one form of death you have absolute control over, do you fight against it or give in, knowing that nothing you do will change the outcome?

And what could this tell you about the future for everyone? In "Heat Death of the Universe," by Ramon Perez, teenagers who reach the legal testing age start getting NUCLEAR BOMB as their means of death. The government springs into action, testing, re-testing, and vowing to corral all these kids into one place. But if their deaths are inevitably by NUCLEAR BOMB, what does that mean? It means that whether they're all in one place or dispersed across the country, that is how they will die. Acting on the information doesn't change its outcome, only what the manner of that outcome will be.

Conversely, it might be impossible to predict anything from the predictions The Machine gives out. As was pointed out in the same story, the 3,000 victims of 9/11 probably wouldn't have all had TERRORISM printed on their little cards. They might have had FALLING or FIRE or PLANE CRASH - all true, but none of that would have helped anyone prevent that event. Even something as clear and unambiguous as GLOBAL THERMONUCLEAR WAR creates problems, as Cassandra finds out in the story of the same name by T. J. Radcliffe. If you tell people about this future, will they even believe you? Or will the actions they take to prevent it instead be what causes it to happen? There are no easy answers, at least not without electroshock.

It's a fascinating group of stories, illustrated by some of the internet's best artists - Adam Koford, Kevin McShane, Aaron Diaz, Kate Beaton, Christopher Hastings, and too many others to mention. It will do what all really good writing should do - make you think. As seductive as it sounds, knowing the means of your death is information that you really can do without. It is the end to your story, whether you know it or not, but everything until then is still up to you. While you may not have any choice over how you die, you still have plenty of control over how you live. You can live in fear or hope, make plans and take risks and hope for the best.

Just like we do now.

I'll leave you with a joke from Steven Wright, one that was running through my head as I read the book: My girlfriend asked me if I could know how and when I was going to die, would I want to know? I said, "No, not really." She said, "Okay, forget it, then."

Thank you, he'll be here all week.

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"What good is knowing the future if you can't do anything with the knowledge?"
Dad, from "Friendly Fire" by Douglas J. Lane
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wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - Wheel of Time 13: Towers of Midnight

Book Forty-five

Wheel of Time 13: Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I'd like to say that I held off on this review because I wanted to give people time to read it. You know, so that I didn't spoil anything serious for the other fans out there. The truth, however, is that I've been rather busy and preoccupied, and am just now getting around to reviewing it. So, if you haven't read the book yet, be warned - it will be slightly spoilery.

This is it, folks. We're nearly done. Hang in there....

I'm finding this book tough to review for a few reasons. Firstly, reviewing it is kind of like preaching to the choir - if you've read this far into Wheel of Time then you really don't need me to tell you that you ought to read this book. You probably already have, maybe more than once. If you haven't started the series, there's so much information you need to know in order for this book to make sense that this review will have no real significance for you. So I'll just have to tell you what I thought and hope that's enough.

Be warned: Spoilers ahead. I'll try to keep them to a minimum, but they're there.

As with all the Wheel of Time books, a lot happens in this volume. Some of the events have been anticipated by the fans for more than a decade, others are wonderful surprises. Either way, they're setting us up for what I expect to be the Mother of All Finales when A Memory of Light comes out.

Let's begin with Perrin, since he gets the most page time in this book. He has rescued his wife from the Shaido Aiel, along with a city full of refugees and former prisoners. Despite what he wants, these people look to him to be their leader, something he wants no part of. He just wants to send everybody home, forget that he was ever called the Lord of the Two Rivers, and go back to leading a normal life. But the Wheel won't let that happen. Perrin Aybara is ta'veren, one of those individuals who both shape and are shaped by the Pattern, and what he wants doesn't much figure into it.

One of the issues I've had with Perrin, actually, is this steadfast, stubborn ignorance of what and who he truly is. For many book now, he's been going through this whole "I just want to be normal" phase, when it's obvious to everyone else - his wife, the people traveling with him, the dead wolves he talks to, to say nothing of the readers - that Perrin can never lead a normal life again. As with real people, it's frustrating to see them deny what's so clearly true, and that was one of the reasons why Perrin has never been my favorite character.

He turns around on that in this book, however. He does finally start to make peace with who and what he is, and understands his duties to the people who follow him. With that understanding comes strength - the strength to win over his greatest enemies and to master the abilities available to him in the World of Dreams. Perrin is finally coming into his own as both a leader and a warrior, and it will be good to see him look forward to the future instead of long for a past he can't have anymore.

Mat is another who has been getting under my skin. While I love the way that Sanderson writes him - much funnier, more sarcastic, more modern than Jordan wrote him - he also wants nothing more than to opt out of the role that fate has decreed for him. Through his travels, he has been granted centuries of knowledge about battle and war, he has gone toe-to-toe against creatures that literally defy human understanding, and has a power over luck and fortune that has saved him more times than he can count. Yet he still resists the destiny that is clear to everyone else - to be a leader in the Last Battle.

And that battle is definitely coming soon. Vast armies of Shadowspawn are overwhelming the northern defenses, turning whole cities into killing grounds. Food is rotting at a rapid rate, sometimes as soon as it is prepared. The very fabric of space and time is twisting, moving things around randomly. Rooms, streets, entire villages might shift and vanish in the night. The Dark One is nearly free, and there are very few options open when it comes to stopping him.

Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, has one idea - to break the seals of the Dark One's prison so that it may be re-sealed. Rand's opinion, however, is not very well regarded at the moment. Despite being the prophesied warrior on whose shoulders the fate of the world rests, he's been kind of an unpredictable nutjob of late. In an attempt to be ready to save the world, Rand tried to distance himself from all emotion, all ties to the world, so that he could be hard enough to do what must be done when the End Times come. He has done terrible things in the name of What Must Be Done, which has led some to fear that the world would be doomed regardless of who won the final battle.

He's feeling much better now, though. He has come to a state of understanding that should allow him not only victory against the Dark One but also peace. Unfortunately, it's going to take some time to convince others of that, especially Egwene - formerly the Girl Next Door, now the Amyrlin Seat, leader of all Aes Sedai.

Having ended the internecine feud within the White Tower and begun the process of reconciliation, Egwene finds herself at odds against Rand and those who follow him. She agrees with his ends - victory over the Dark One - but not his means. If necessary, she will stand against the Dragon Reborn all the way to the end of the world.

There's so much more, too. There are action scenes between Mat and the vicious gholam that made me wish I had an animation studio at my disposal. A heartbreaking reunion between father and son. A terrible vision of the future of the Aiel, should things continue the way they are. Ragtag armies barely holding their own, people who we thought were dead revealed to be alive, sons reunited with their mother, battles against the forces of darkness, mislaid messages, a daring rescue, a growing army, and so, so much more.

The complexity of Wheel of Time is understandably off-putting for a lot of new readers, but I think Sanderson is doing a very good job at putting all the pieces together. We are now on the brink of the end, ready to dive into the Last Battle and the much-anticipated Fourth Age. Questions will be answered, people will live, nations will die, and the Wheel of Time will turn.

Stick with me folks, it's only going to get better.

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"After what we went through together, it turns out that she's Morgase Trakand. Not just a queen - the Queen. The woman's a legend. And she was here, with us, serving us tea. Poorly."
- Alliandre, Towers of Midnight
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wish, hope, life

2010 Reading List - Ender's Game

Book Forty-four

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

A little while after I started teaching literature, I thought about what kinds of books I'd like to do with students in the years to come. The texts I did this year - Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories - are all well and good, but probably not what I would have chosen to teach. I wanted something that would speak to the students, that would engage with their lives, and which ideally was some good classic science fiction. So I went over to Ask Metafilter and asked them what science fiction they would recommend teaching to high school students studying English as a foreign language.

Just about everyone mentioned Ender's Game, and with good reason. It's a good story, for one, and it addresses a lot of the issues that young people have to deal with that are often left out of the literature they have to read for English class. The adults in the book are like the adults in the students' lives - slightly removed, seemingly omniscient, and not necessarily acting in their best interests, at least not as they see it. It deals with issues of bullying and isolation, of fitting in and standing out and accepting your place in the grander scheme of things. It's about critical thinking and moral reflection, all wrapped up in the unending carnival that is youth.

Ender Wiggin is, as our book begins, six years old, and he may be the last, best hope for humanity.

Ender comes from a strange place. In a near-totalitarian America, families are allowed to have only two children, in order to keep the population static. If a good reason exists, however, they might be allowed to have a third. That third is destined from the beginning to have a hard life, no matter what happens, especially if that third has been bred for a very specific reason.

Ender Wiggin is a Third. His parents had two children already - their son, Peter, and daughter, Valentine. Peter is a brilliant young sociopath, and Valentine is an equally brilliant pacifist. In ordinary times, either of them could have been an historical figure, but these were far from ordinary times. Earth is at war with an insectile alien race it has nicknamed the Formics (nicknamed "Buggers"), and has survived two invasions. Everyone knows there will be a third, and if they can't fight it off then humanity will be scythed clean off the planet. The International Fleet needs a commander, one who has enough empathy to understand the enemy, but who also has the killer instinct to be able to wipe them out. Where Peter is too hard and Valentine is too soft, Ender Wiggin could be the one they're looking for.

Young and frightened, Ender is taken off-planet to Battle School, where he and hundreds of other youths will take part in battle games to train them in how best to one day defeat the Buggers. While Ender knows that he's been chosen, he doesn't know why, and his experiences in the school lead him to wonder if being a Chosen One is really worth it. In game after game, Ender manages to prove his worth to the International Fleet by defying their expectations of what a battle commander should do. He is pushed to his limits and beyond by the International Fleet, whose motives and methods remain a mystery to him until he has accomplished their goal - one which he never even knew he was aiming for.

It's a fun book, and a very quick read, and it's one of those "I should have read this when I was a teenager" books. While I was never put in a position where my action could very possibly save the existence of all humanity, I - like every other teenager ever - had doubts about my place in the world. I saw the conflict between what I wanted for myself and what the adults in my life wanted for me. I was given responsibility that I didn't want, and had to make a choice about whether or not I would live up to it. In other words, while the scale of Ender's problems are much bigger than that of the average young person's, they are essentially the same. I am fortunate in that Ender's Game can work to explode a pervasive and not entirely accurate belief held by all teenagers everywhere, from the dawn of time until now: the belief that there is no one else in the world who understands what they are going through.

The big question then becomes, How do I teach this? What can I do to not only get my students to read it but to also understand its relationship to their own lives? However I manage to do it, that will hopefully reveal to them the whole point behind reading for pleasure: that you can look at a book or a story and say, "Yes - life is like this." Not all of it, but you can find that moment, that point of any story that can connect what it is saying to your own life, and thereby learn something from it.

There are also a whole host of other issues that can be brought up with this novel, not the least of which is the systematic indoctrination of young people by their educational system. Perhaps a bit self-defeating, but the anti-authoritarian in me would be vastly entertained if I could somehow encourage these kids to look suspiciously upon the very foundation of the system in which they were currently residing. There is also the greater issues of how a society teaches its children, and the limited value of truth. We tell kids that "honesty is the best policy," but this book blows that axiom away. If they had told Ender the truth about what he was doing and why, he would have refused, and Earth would likely have been wiped out. In the same way, how do we - adults, and especially teachers - lie to young people in order to achieve a greater goal? What value, then, do these lies have, and are they worth telling?

We can explore redemption and atonement through Ender's attempt to make up for the things he has done. Even more interestingly, we can look at Card's prediction of how the internet would shape political discourse and how citizens can easily be manipulated. Peter and Valentine put on electronic personae through which they gain immense power despite their youth, using their own innate genius to spark debate on the topics that will achieve their own goals.

Outside the text, too, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between a work and its author. While Ender's Game is a brilliant story that is so well-written that it is recommended reading by both Quakers and the U.S. Marine Corps, its author holds some rather despicable views that don't seem to mesh with the message he has put into his book. I speak here of Card's public denouncement of gay marriage, including accepting a position on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage. This group has made many attempts to block the spread of queer civil rights in the U.S., and it disturbs me that an author whose work I respect is spearheading the effort. What, then, is my responsibility as a reader? Should I never read his work again, lest it be seen as a show of support for his politics? Can I even read him fairly from now on, or will I always be looking for that anti-gay undercurrent, perhaps where there is none? Or should I simply ignore the author and enjoy the work? There are a great many authors and artists who are in the same position as Card, and it is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are so many topics to mine from this book that I had to stop myself from time to time and remember to enjoy it, rather than make mental lesson plans.

In any case, if you haven't read Ender's Game, I recommend that you do. If you have a young person in your life, see to it that he or she has a chance to read it as well. If you're really lucky, it'll foster a lifelong love of reading. If not, at least they might walk away with the understanding that their problems are pretty universal, and that, on the whole, things could be a whole lot worse.

They could be Ender Wiggin.

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"It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren't for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn't fight with honor... I fought to win."
- Ender Wiggin, Ender's Game"
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