Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Power

Naomi Alderman

Historical fiction, written from sometime 5,000 years in the future (which means it is a story of what is about to happen in our time). Written as fiction because from the point of view of future humans, the descriptions of what life is like now is so outside the norm of their reality, that a true history would be seen as crazy and false. The story follows a series of women who are on the forefront of an evolutionary change in humanity where women are born with an electrical skein, or a reservoir of electrical static charge. These women use the ability to change the male/female power dynamic to the point that from the future, the mere idea that men could be soldiers, or violent, or powerful, or leaders is unimaginable. I see that one point of this telling is to turn traditional gender roles on their head so dramatically that the reader begins to think about stereotypes and biases in a new way. What I like is that woven into the story about gender is the more important story of power, and empire. We get to explore the human condition, seeking to understand, regardless of gender, the effects of seeking and finding power. And in that way, it is truly frightening and depressing. Alderman does not have a pleasant view of the truth of humanity and we can only hope that she is wrong in her assessment. A necessary read.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Neal Shusterman

Book 2 in Arc of a Scythe trilogy

Picking up where Scythe left off, the Scythedom is polarized between the old and new guard. The old guard promotes the solemnity of the job of the Scythe while the new guard caters to the sociopathic tendencies of those who simply enjoy killing. We follow new Scythes Rowan and Citra (now Lucifer and Anastasia) as they play out their roles in the post massacre politics that ended book 1. Interstitial to the "main story" (but actually the driving plot) is the influence and thought process of Thunderhead, the AI that runs everything on earth (except the Scythes). On the surface, this is a traditional and standard fantasy/sci-fi treatment of a possible future that has yet to be designated dystopian/utopian. But the most interesting piece of this writing is the development of Thunderhead. In book 1, the AI was sentient, and nearly omnipotent. Here we see that the AI is really just a teenager. The Thunderhead is nearly omnipotent, but considers the things it does not know as practically irrelevant. So basically it is omnipotent, and therefore basically a god (very much the attitude of most teenagers). The Thunderhead is also discovering what it knows about itself, as separate from what it was taught by its parents, is beginning to push boundaries and assert its own personality, which we see as benevolent, but also petulant at times. I love this idea of a long story arc that allows us to see the aging and character development process for an AI. We talk about AI learning, but we don't really talking about AI personality development. Here we see that both are necessarily interconnected. If only book 3 were available now.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

Adam Rutherford

History of genetics, what we know, how we know it, and what it will tell us soon. Most books in this 'popular science' genre are simultaneously fascinating and so-dry-they-are-a-chore-to-finish, and this book is exactly that. Get it, keep it handy, and read a bit now and then. Don't try to power through, and don't get frustrated that you can't finish it. Even in short spurts, I learned something every time I picked it up. Some of the most interesting things that stick with me are how we can use genetic comparisons to tell us something about the history of migration and what genetic testing does/does not tell us about race. 
Read (slowly)

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Jesus and the Disinherited

Howard Thurman

Written immediately post WWII as a treatise on what it means to be a follower of Jesus at the same time you are a member of an oppressed class. Thurman talks about fear and deception as tools that the oppressed utilize to cope with their reality, or as tools to 'get over' on the oppressor. The argument here is that these tools are precisely what Jesus was teaching against and offering alternate ways to cope and 'get over'. Thurman takes the additional step, arguing that in fact, utilizing these will always turn back on the user, in effect ceding your power to the oppressor instead of giving you power over them. In his opening section, and supported thereafter, Thurman sets an important foundation for the argument by showing how important it is to read Jesus life and teaching first knowing the context from which he lived and taught. The book was a foundational work for radically nonviolent social justice movements that followed over the next several decades, and is unsurprisingly still relevant and challenging today.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Dead Lands

Benjamin Percy

A very clever dystopian future fiction that recreates the Oregon trail and the journey of Lewis and Clark. Earth is in a post global nuclear war scenario, where the nuclear bombs were dropped not out of aggression, but in an attempt to burn out an impossibly virulent flu that decimated humanity. The opening setting is St Louis. A few tens of thousands of people live in St. Louis, and they have built a serious wall around the city to keep out the monsters and goblins, who are in reality mutagenic results of the massive radiation dosage on earth. Most people have cancer, or will have cancer and water is the premium limiting resource in the desert of St. Louis. Due to a series of circumstances, the local museum curator (Lewis) and low level police deputy (Clark) escape the wall and begin a journey to the west coast and Oregon. I love the occasional breadcrumb of historical trivia overlapping this dystopian future. I love the world created... well, the world created is quite scary, but I love the detail and imagination of a post flu epidemic/nuclear catastrophe North America. This is quite fun and engaging throughout.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Dark Tower III: The Waste Lands

Stephen King

Book 3 of The Dark Tower Series

In this installment, our three gunslingers are making their way along the beam in their journey to get to the Tower. Along they way, they pick up Jake again (who was lost in book 1), and encounter more dying technology from the previous world, before it moved on. I really like the mixture of western and sci-fi that is developing here. This is really a significant exploration and quest novel, a dusty-dirty us-vs-them save-the-town hero story, and simultaneously a commentary on technology, an eerie look at what a technological world gasping for life could look like. My sense is that a full review will require a full reading of the entire series.


Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Prey of Gods

Nicky Drayden

In many ways, this is the South African version of Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Only better... for me, at least. In addition to magical realism, with gods and demigods breaking into modern society, Drayden adds a cyberpunk flavor and puts it all together in a way that makes me look closely at South African culture. Loved this. The story follows a series of characters that, obviously, will all connect in the end. We have a couple of teens, a politician, a young township girl, a pop-diva, a nail-salon worker. But these characters are also drag queens, drug users, hackers, demigods and demons and afflicted with MS. Add in the AI helper bots ("Alphies"), who have their own perspective/observations on the story and this really gets fun. We get to think about purpose, friendship, the difference between fear, anger, love, praise and belief, the afterlife and integrity. Drayden's writing is easy and light, resulting in an almost trivial feel to the book. Is this really making me think about all these things? Definitely should be on your read list.