Category: Books


"Bald, Fat & Crazy" — A Book About Perseverance

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Today I write in praise of a new book called "Bald, Fat & Crazy." No, it's not a memoir, but thank you for asking.

Nearly a decade ago my friend Stephanie Hosford found herself unexpectedly pregnant, diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer, and just months from a long-planned international adoption, all at the same time. The book, freshly released and justifiably well-reviewed, is the story of how she handled it. It's funny and inspiring, and useful in reminding us that whatever faces us, someone else is facing something even scarier. Check it out.

Clark's Favorite Books Part 1: Science Fiction

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Patrick has been bugging me recently for my top 10 books list. I'm an anarchist, and I don't kowtow to The Man, maaan, so I refuse to generate a top ten list. On the other hand, I can't resist telling people what cool shit they should be reading, so here's my I'm-not-even-sure-how-large list of books that I really like. Is it my "top" list? I dunno. I'm not the viewpoint character in High Fidelity; I don't spend that much time rank ordering stuff. Make of this list (these lists) what you will.

Lucifer's Hammer – this is, IMO, the single best post apocalyptic / survival book ever written. It's got it all: astronomy, physics, chemistry, economics, individual survival skills, sociology. One mark of a good book is whether you remember scenes from it years later. LH has dozens. It's a little bit dated by now (US / USSR Cold War, post-Vietnam US Army with racial integration problems, etc.), but it's still a great yarn.

The Mote in God's Eye – Niven and Pournelle are off to an early lead. TMiGE is the single best First Contact story ever written, and it deals with aliens that are truly weird, in some ways, and truly familiar in others. It warrants the term "space opera" for working at a grand scale: grand scales of space, time, imaginary physics, and stakes to human life.

Snowcrash – Neal Stephenson has written better books (Cryptonomicon, Anathem), but he's never written a more-Neal-Stephenson-per-page book than Snowcrash. It distilled, parodied, and reified the cyberpunk genre. As with Lucifer's Hammer, it was so good that it basically took all of the air out of the genre. After this, what's left to do? Does it have Big Ideas(tm)? And how. Dropping Big Idea bombs always runs the risk of looking silly, but with out risk there is no art. Shows its age a bit, but still excellent.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Heinlein distilled mid 20th century science fiction. Everything either good or bad in it, he did better or worse than others. Likable characters? And how. Embarrassing authorial excess? Yep. TMiaHM shows him at his best: fast paced, emotionally moving, exciting, full of ideas, and very little of the embarrassing or weird Heinlein. It's a seminal libertarian / anarcho capitalist science fiction novel and created the mold for a half dozen other similar novels that came later. The ending still leaves me a bit melancholy even thirty years after I first read it.

Anathem – Stephenson pulls forward and ties for first place. (I'm reminded of the beginning of the movie Rounders: science fiction isn't a game of luck; it's a game of skill. Do you think that Stephenson and Niven and Pournelle keep writing great novels because they're lucky?). Anathem has it all: deep history, parallel worlds, medieval monasteries, formal logic, quantum uncertainty, cross-polar chase scenes, orbital mechanics, starships. A lot of people say that they thought that Anathem was too wordy or too weird. I feel bad for them – they've admitted something very embarrassing about themselves in public.

A Fire Upon the Deep / A Deepness in the Sky – A lot of my favorite authors write very little…or, rather, they release very few books. Mrs. Clark has a theory that authors accumulate good ideas for stories at a certain fixed rate, and their first books drain the tank half dry. According to her elaboration of this theory, most authors have two or three good books in them. I disagree with this hard-line version, but I think that there's some truth in the idea. Specifically, I think that most authors can write a good novel only once every few years (or, rather, most authors can't write a good novel at all, and those that can write one at all can write one at most every few years). Anyway, Vernor Vinge, computer science professor, does the smart thing: he writes at exactly the rate that he can generate good stories. Sadly, this means he doesn't write might. The two novels referenced here contain a lot: space exploration, vast galactic civilizations, weird physics, thoughts on anarchy, trade, and fascism.

The Star Fraction / The Stone Canal / The Cassini Division / The Sky Road – There are only three important things in life: what is the point of existence and what is The Good? what is worth having or doing?, when those things are scarce, how should they be divided up? Or, in shorter form: religion, politics, and money. You know – the three things that we're not supposed to talk about with people. In the mid 1980s the Scottish Big Three exploded on the American science fiction scene: Ian Banks (RIP), Ken Macleod, and Charlie Stross. Stross flamed out after a few good books (see Mrs. Clark's rule of thumb about most authors having only a few good books). Banks is operatic, utopian, and excellent. Macleod, though…Macleod is something between the sleeper of the group and the tortoise that wins the race. He's not as operatic as Banks – one novel (Newton's Wake) aside, there are no vast mega-structures, few vast spaceships, not much wit in each paragraph…but he does consistently talk about the big three topics: what is the good? what are things worth? who should divide them up? He's not a perfect writer – far too many of his novels have a denouement that boils down to several Scottish (just like him!) reformed Trotskyists (just like him!) discussing politics in a pub (just like him!), but he's good. The four books listed here aren't a series per se – more like riffing on the same subject via different paths (see also: Goldberg Variations, Kim Stanley Robinson's Three California's Trilogy, George Bush and Barrack Obama, etc. They're all worth reading.

Directive 51 – To my mind, the two most underrated science fiction authors of the last 10 or 20 years are Walter Jon Williams and John Barnes. Both have technical mastery of fiction writing, good characterization, amazing plots, complexity, and a dozen other skills down cold. They're not the only authors who are this good – there are a half dozen or so now writing who perform at this level. The amazing thing, though, is that these guys are all but invisible. Their works should be classics, and yet they're outsold by Jim Butcher, John Scalzi, and Stephenie Meyer. So, short version: pick up absolutely anything by either of these two guys (aside from Barne's Jak Jinnaka series, which was sort sort of experiment that didn't work for me). Anyway, on to Directive 51. This is the first book in a trilogy that traces the breakdown of our current world into a post apocalyptic nightmare. In our hyper-connected early 21st century society memes grow and spread like flashmobs, and soon a semiotics researcher named Arnie Yang (John Barne's not-really-a-Mary-Sue-but-sorta-based-on-himself) starts to see dangerous resonances. Deep Greens are talking about crashing the system and returning to nature. Billionaires are talking about crashing the system and returning to monarchy. Techies are talking about crashing the system with nanotech. What the heck is going on? The book is a multi-viewpoint-architected novel like a big technothriller (c.f. The Hunt for Red October, etc.) that investigates this question from a variety of viewpoints. Unfortunately, almost as soon as the authorities detect that something is wrong, the disaster is upon them: nanotech starts destroying modern technology, and the good guys are always two steps behind…or three. One of the hardest things in fiction is creating a true sense of dread and foreboding: most of the time we're watching a TV show or reading a book, we know that everything is going to turn out all right in the end. Luke will blow up the Deathstar. Doctor House will cure the patient. Professor Bernardo de la Plaz will free the Loonies from Earth's fascist grip. Barnes isn't like that. Good people die, and at every step of the way you fear that the good guys could lose entirely…and the scenes stick. More than a decade after reading Kaleidoscope Century I remember the protagonist throwing gold coins into the air to precipitate a riot and years after reading Directive 51 I remember a scene of captives being fast-marched past terrified viewpoint characters who are hiding in a crumbling suburb. After all this time these bits still send chills down my spine. Anyway, read Directive 51…and look out for a group review I've got queued up entitled "Three Post Apocalypses, Left, Right, and Center" that covers John Varley's Slow Apocalypse (left), S.M. Stirling's Dies the Fire (right) and Barnes' Directive 51 (center). I've got some thoughts on in vino post apocalypse veritas.

update: added 23 December 2013:

Tales of the Dying Earth – There's a genre that I don't read or watch, "comedy of manners", which – Wikipedia tells me – satirizes the manners and affectations of a social class or of multiple classes, often represented by stereotypical stock characters. As far as I can tell examples of it mostly occur in mid-century British novels and TV, and a few American books making fun of NYC socialites. Neither is something that I'm particularly interested in, but I've been provided entre to the genre by Jack Vance, who writes utterly hilarious science fantasy that says a lot more about human foibles than it does about what the world will look like 30,000 years from now. In Vance's Dying Earth series the swollen red sun is so tired and ancient that it may go out at any time, and all of the characters in his books (a) realize this, and (b) react to it either with beyond-cinematic arrogance, beyond-Roissy rakishness, or beyong Quentin Crisp flamboyant good cheer. If you picture the characters Thundar the Barbarian as voiced by Jeeves and Wooster you'd not be too far off course (fictional exempli gratia "let me slip out of this wet pit of eternal despond and into a dry martini!"). A decade or more after reading it I still occassionally pause in the middle of the day and laugh thinking about Cugel as an incompetent worminger, or his insoucience in eating from the expensive buffet at the company town associated with a dragon scale mine. Fun, light reading, but really really rewarding.

Revelation Space /
Chasm City /
Redemption Ark /
Absolution Gap /
The Prefect – Wikipedia calls Alastair Reynolds a writer of "dark hard science fiction". I think that's a perfect term. The "Revelation Space" universe he crafts is cold, unforgiving, and vaguely menacing. Not just vaguely menacing in a "Cold Equations" / "there's nothing between my skin and the deadly vacuum but this thin suit" manner, but in a "there are deep and impersonal forces that are none-the-less malevolent and either actively want you dead, or at least won't care a bit if you die" sense. Couple that with rigorous physics, tight plots, and a very intricate back story and a deeply thought out universe, and the books are a mix of wonder at how much mankind might achieve over the next 500 years despite no magic get-out-of-jail-free cards like FTL, and a sense of dread about just how cold and scary the universe is. Picture Iain Banks without the cheerful tone and with more hard physics, and you get something a lot like Alastair Reynolds.

If you liked these reviews, keep your eyes peeled for future installments:

  • Clark's Favorite Books Part 2: Fantasy
  • Clark's Favorite Books Part 3: Politics
  • Clark's Favorite Books Part 4: Miscellaneous


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We have added an Amazon "store" link  to our front page, very attractively designed, I must say. This does not mean we'll be selling Popehat t-shirts, mitres, panties, or the like, though that day may come. What it allows us to do is provide recommendations on products, so far limited to books and sporting goods, to readers who may be interested in such things and who would like to support our site.

The books added so far are an eclectic lot, reflecting reading material discussed (and endorsed) on our front page, on Twitter, or our Facebook page through the years. And did I mention sporting goods?

We do receive a portion of the price of any sales generated through the site, but the buyer pays nothing extra. All funds received go to defraying out-of-pocket costs for running the site. Any funds received in excess of our out-of-pocket costs will be donated to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or to some similarly worthy charity.

As always, we thank our readers for their generous support.

And did I mention sporting goods? If only 100,000 of you will buy sporting goods through our store, we can all retire from our day jobs, to fulfill our proper purpose of providing entertainment for you, our valued readers.

Or at least insulting you, as (and if) you deserve.

Should We Boycott Art Because of the Politics of the Artists?

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Ender's Golden Tablets

The progress-o-sphere is all a-twitter this week reminding all and sundry that science fiction author Orson Scott Card, a practicing Mormon, believes in – wait for it – Mormonism.

Among the dozens of doctrines this implies is the idea that while Card, deeply involved in stage and drama for all of his adult life, has gay friends, he does not endorse gay marriage.

Therefore, goes the argument, we right thinking people who do endorse gay marriage (including, presumably, the version of Obama who ran for office in 2012, but not the version that ran for office in 2008, were he to time travel a handful of months into his future and join us here), should boycott the movie.

Some versions of the argument are more nuanced, and specify that it's not that we shouldn't watch a movie that has absolutely nothing to say, good or bad, about gays, but that we shouldn't pay to watch such a movie, because some fraction of the funds would end up in OSC's pocket.

I'm not a huge OSC fan myself – I read one or two of the Ender books and found them OK, read one or two of his Tales of Alvin Maker books and found them OK, and read a collection of his short stories which I thought were quite good. I don't think I've bought a book by him in over 15 years.

Which is to say, I post not in defense of OSC the man.

Nor do I post in defense of his anti-gay marriage stance (as an voluntaryist / anarchist, I'm against the state recognizing any marriage, because I'm in favor of the state – if it exists at all – defending the country from invasion and nothing else).

Release the Communist!

I lean culturally conservative, yet many (if not most) of my favorite authors are from the left, if not the far left. I regularly read – and even buy – fiction from self-declared Marxists (the most recent was
Kraken by China Mieville (a member of the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Workers Party) a week or so ago.

By buying Kraken (and then mentioning it here) did I culturally endorse Mieville and his views?

One presumes that of the $20 or so I spent on the book perhaps $2 ended up in Mieville's pocket, and if he donates 10% of his after tax income to political charities, perhaps 10 cents of my money ended up helping socialists print up broadsheets full of propaganda and lies to convince British voters to further infringe the rights of their countrymen.

Am I aiding and abetting evil?

On the one hand, the argument that I should never give a penny to any creator who might then donate a fraction of that penny to authoritarian political groups that seek to squash individual liberty seems airtight. I wouldn't voluntarily write a check to the KKK or Hezbollah or the US Federal Government for even ten cents.

And yet, on the other hand, should I deprive myself of art that might entertain or even enlighten? And then, on the gripping hand, is that not a weak aesthete's argument for enjoying himself in the moment, while ignoring his own contribution to the enslavement of others? Northern abolitionists refused to wear slave state cotton cloth, because the purchase supported a terrible institution.

Or, perhaps, on the one-beyond-the-gripping-hand, we should all be willing to consume art even when a minor fraction of the purchase price ends up in evil hands as an explicit endorsement of a Popperian Open Society.

On the fifth hand, maybe we should actively strive to consume art from those with whom we disagree, so that we are open to new ideas, avoid epistemological closure, and – if the art both has a memetic payload is convincing in its moral and message – perhaps allow ourselves to change and converge on ideas that are foreign to us now but are more correct.

Conclusion Closing Thoughts

I have no firm answers, but I have half baked thoughts and intuitions.

I dislike the idea of Index Librorum Prohibitorum, whether it is run by a Church, a State, or a decentralized Github-of-received-opinion.

I like the idea of actively challenging my preconceptions and tentatively held opinions with new viewpoints.

I dislike the snark, moral posturing, and self-satisfaction that is so deeply entwined with telling other people who is inside the circle of civilization (me, you, him) and who is outside (Orson Scott Card, practicing members of religion X and Y).

I like the inclusiveness that is implied and exercised by demonstrating our own commitments to reading and viewing widely.

I have no good response to the "this puts a nickel in the pocket of bad-group-X" other than, perhaps, donating a quarter to good-group-Y.

I may or may not see Ender's Game in the theater, because it looks like typical Joseph-Campbell-journey-of-the-young-hero-as-he-gathers-$150-million-of-special-effects fare.

Rebuttals? Agreements? Other?

Squeeze Hard to Get the Maximum Amount

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I'm reading The Golden Bough.

Ancient supersitious people believed that farmers could increase their wealth from the coming year's corn crop by seizing a stranger and squeezing his blood onto the ground.

Modern scientific people understand that farmers can better increase their wealth from the coming year's corn crop by seizing 300 million strangers and squeezing their wallets.

I do enjoy learning about humanity's moral progress.

Clark's Science Fiction Review Policy

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@Dan Hill comments about some novels he's too shy to link to:

I've written a couple of post apocalyptic novels, probably too obscure for mention in this hallowed place…

I love post apocalyptic novels.

@G. Filotto writes in the comments:

Can I send you autographed copies of my two SF books? A review would be amazing since I am a solo guy writing without funding and a 13 hour a day job. And I think you would enjoy the politics and sociology. You can get an idea by googling "Overlords of Mars" . And if interested at all, just PM me an address and I'll send you copies. Thanks.

I think that one of the most exciting trends in the last few years is the disintermediation of the big publishing oligarchy and the rise of self publishing. I follow with fascination several blogs by established and new authors who are grappling with this new world. I think it is an unalloyed advance in human freedom.

That said, I also think that Big Paper served an actual function: it took the bell curve of the slush pile, chopped off the left 95%, and ensured that the vast majority of what actually hit Barnes & Noble shelves was at least competent. There were many false negatives: books that were good enough to read, but did not get published. But there were even more true negatives: the vast majority of submitted manuscripts that were not published were not published for a reason.

Today that barrier is no longer in place. Which is wonderful. The snobby elite New York money is no longer stopping the consumer from buying the dinosaur erotica it demands.

Which brings me around to my point: the Clark science fiction review policy, such as it is.

Note that the following list sounds pretty dickish (and the graphic above is consistent with the tone). I may not actually be that dickish in practice, but this is the social contract we're agreeing to. I set the bar low for my own responsibilities so that I can meet or exceed my promises.

  • I will review as often as I care to. This probably won't be very often.
  • I will review what I want to review. Most of it will be big publisher books, but I am open to reviewing self-published / "indie" novels.
  • You can email a .mobi file to clark at THE SAME DOMAIN NAME AS THIS BLOG dot com. Repeat: .mobi only. PDFs, Microsoft whatever files, and anything else that does not load easily into my small-screen Kindle in a single mouse drag and display nicely thereafter will be deleted unread and without a response. I apologize for that harshness, but you certainly aren't going to be bitten by it, because you're more professional than that, so it's not really a problem, right?
  • If you email me a file do not expect email acknowledgement (I check the email account once per month – if that), do not expect a review, and do not expect a review on any particular schedule.
  • I do not grade on a curve.

Let me unpack that last one, because it's really important.

I've read lots of self-published stuff. Most of it is terrible. I've read e-books written by friends-of-friends that have hundreds of five star reviews…and I've found them unreadable.

I've been told that writing a novel is hard. I respect that. I've watched friends and FOAFs labor over draft after draft. I've watched them fly to distant cities to take workshops. I've seen them spend weeks at Clarion. I've seen them print up business cards and self-promote like nobody's business.

It's exhausting work, and I have nothing but respect for someone who puts "write a novel" on their bucket list, and then actually accomplishes it.

However, Clark reviews are not your therapist, your support group, or your best friend. All novels will be measured on a scale calibrated to books published by actual publishers (Mieville / Banks: A. Scalzi: B-. That 'Fifty Shades' lady: F). Weak plots, absurd premises, bad dialogue – it will all be called out. Your bravery and hard work will count for little, because I intend to do book reviews, not "brave and plucky author" reviews.

I promise, though, fairness. This has two parts:

1) I will not grade down – or up – on ideology. Well-done lesbian environmental thriller? Yeah, actually, I really liked "Slow River" despite the fact that my political sympathies and cultural norms lie in the opposite direction. Right-wing/libertarian by-the-numbers military fiction that's got nothing new to say, despite the fact that my political and cultural norms lie in that direction? I will trash it.

2) I will attempt to base criticism in fact: I will not say that your plot is bad if your plot is good, even if you once spilled your beer on me and insulted my mom's memory at her funeral.

Finally, I am an actual human being. Any review is inherently subjective and de gustibus non est disputandum, so I may criticize a book as being provably chocolate, and I may hate it because I prefer French vanilla. That will upset chocolate partisans.

If, after all of that, you want me to maybe take a look at your post apocalyptic and/or science fiction novel, you know where to send it.

History Must Be Curved

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I'm about to quote almost 700 words from a blog post, which normally would be considered long…but it's from an almost book-length series of posts, so as a proportion of the whole, it's actually quite short.

HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds. (Vansina 1985)

In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries. Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle. Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself. History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend. In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum). Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni). But by 1098, Roland had become a “paladin” and the central character, the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland). Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20). This suggests that 17th century history has for the bulk of the population already become myth. Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.” And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view.

Conclusion: Our ancestors were not fools.

In three centuries, the long complex story of how the mobile Earth replaced the stationary Earth dipped below the horizon from History into Legend. Like all good legends, the story of heliocentrism and the culture-hero Galileo is simple and general and geared toward supporting the Rightness of the Modern worldview. But history is always detailed and particular.

The reasons for the stationary Earth were rooted in empirical experience and successful modeling. The dual motion of the Earth is not sensibly evident and was difficult to establish on empirical grounds. Heliocentrism triumphed first of all because Neoplatonic number mysticism had become au courant during the Renaissance, and Platonists equated mathematical elegance with physical evidence.

Resistance to heliocentrism was rooted in the science of the day and religion entered the picture mainly because the Church Fathers had interpreted Scripture in the light of that science. They weren’t about to change until there was solid evidence that the science (and hence the interpretation) was wrong; not in the middle of no honkin' Reformation they weren’t. Thomas Huxley said after investigating the affair that “the Church had the better case.” But Pierre Duhem put it differently. The Copernicans were “right for the wrong reasons.” The Ptolemaics were “wrong for the right reasons.”

Science doesn’t follow a mythic positivist ideal but the plural scientific methods described by Feyerabend: a mixture of empiricism, flights of fancy, intuition, aesthetics, doggedness, and jealousy. Scientific theories are underdetermined. Any finite set of facts can support multiple theories, and for a long time the available facts were equally explained by geostationary or geomobile models.

In the Legend, the conflict was between Science and Religion. But in the History, the conflict was between two groups of scientists, with churchmen lined up on all sides. Copernicanism was supported by humanist literati and opposed by Aristotelian physicists; so it was a mixed bag all around. Science does not take place in a bubble. International and domestic politics and individual personalities roil the pot as well. The mystery is not why Galileo failed to triumph – he didn’t have good evidence, made enemies of his friends, and stepped into a political minefield. The real mystery is why Kepler, who actually had the correct solution, constantly flew under the radar. A deviant Lutheran working in a Catholic monarchy, he pushed Copernicanism as strongly as Galileo; but no one hassled him over it. Too bad he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.

This is from the conclusion of Michael Flynn's masterful nine part essay on "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown".

I can not recommend it highly enough.

  1. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown
  2. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Down for the Count
  3. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Great Galileo-Scheiner Flame War of 1611-13
  4. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Down 'n Dirty Mud Wrassle
  5. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Here's Mud in Yer Eye
  6. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Comet Chameleon
  7. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Time and Tides Wait Not
  8. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Trial and Error
  9. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: From Plausible to Proven

If you find the idea in the first quoted paragraph above ("Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions 'abraded into anecdotes.'") somewhere between tantalizing and fascinating, then you could do worse than to check out his Spiral Arm series of novels:

  1. January Dancer
  2. Up Jim River
  3. On the Razor's Edge
  4. In the Lion's Mouth

I loved the books.

Wikipedia has this to say about them:


This is a far future science fiction novel set in a universe populated with only humans and "pre-human" artifacts. It is told as a narrative presented with variations on English, Chinese, Indian, and Celtic words. The literary style has been described as extremely difficult to read due to the inclusion of non-English terms and historical accounts that are not common knowledge to most SF readers[1][2]. The characters in the story belong to 2 major factions of humanity: The United League of the Periphery, and the Confederacy of Central Worlds. The Confederacy is the remnant of Earth and its original colonies while the League is composed of the planets far out on the spiral arm of the galaxy. These 2 factions are in a galactic "cold war" and both have secretive pseudo-military agencies that feature prominently in the book. The story centers around the Confederacy and League agents seeking the answer to a mystery of the disappearance of ships in the rift between the spiral arm and the central worlds. The story's title comes from a "pre-human" artifact called the Dancer which is discovered early in the book. It exerts a subtle but very profound effect on various characters throughout the story. It is eventually revealed to be part of an ancient race of silicon based lifeforms called "The Folk of Sand and Iron" that have played a very significant but almost unknown role in human history. The story has 2 sequels and a third planned[3]. The January Dancer was a finalist for the 2009 Prometheus Award.

ObDisclosure about this review:

  1. I've never met Michael Flynn, and have no personal or economic stake in his success.
  2. I do, however, have a memetic stake. He thinks Deep Thoughts that I agree with. I wouldn't mind him getting funded so that he can keep writing.
  3. The links to his books above use the Amazon Popehat affiliate code. Read about how that money gets spent here.
  4. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may end up writing reviews of science fiction novels that I find worthy of note. Whether or not people like this one, I'm pretty likely to write one of my big-honkin' pieces on the topic of left/right/centrist post-apocalyptic novels.

UPDATE: Thanks for dropping by, Hacker News readers. If you liked this you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed. Popehat is a group blog. Ken is the most prolific blogger and covers civil rights law. I'm the second most prolific blogger (this week, at least) and talk about science, politics, and – upcoming – intended to dive deep into Urbit and will soon start writing reviews of science fiction novels. The other co-bloggers are also fascinating nerds and write about stuff that the typical news.yc reader would enjoy. Stick around!

A Footehold on Research

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 "As for research, I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else. A research assistant couldn’t have done that. Not being a trained historian, I had botherations that led to good things. For instance, I didn’t take careful notes while reading. Then I’d get to something and I’d say, By golly, there’s something John Rawlins said at that time that’s real important. Where did I see it? Then I would remember that it was in a book with a red cover, close to the middle of the book, on the right-hand side and one third from the top of the page. So I’d spend an hour combing through all my red-bound books. I’d find it eventually, but I’d also find a great many other things in the course of the search." ~ Shelby Foote1

Bring Me The Red Pages

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This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

This and other pics of Codex Rossanensis courtesy of

One of the cable channels is showing the whole run of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in order, and so we're dipping in from time to time. I'm glad to report that it holds up quite well, as sitcoms go. At a certain juncture in tonight's episode, Murray ripped the breast pocket off Ted Baxter's jacket, and I turned to my wife and said, "Watch. Later he pulls off all three." Sho nuff, it came to pass as I had said.

Now, normally I wouldn't spoil in that way, but we had been discussing just how strange memory is, and this incident presented a good example. I haven't seen that episode since it first ran in 1972. It was not deeply meaningful to me then. There was no particular reason that this detail should have lodged itself in my cortex. But there it was. Something about the visual of Eventual Captain Stubing's sartorial assault was odd enough to stick with me involuntarily, for no particular reason, all these years… alongside who knows how much other pop-cultural clutter and high-minded ephemera.

Brains are strange. Minds are mysterious. Strangely hangs the Loop that wears the Moebius strip. But here's the lesson of the moment: not only is a picture worth a thousand words, but it's also an agent of Mnemosyne. And Mnemosyne likes codices. (And polkas, waltzes, and schottisches.)

I was thinking about Lady Mnemosyne on the way home from Chipotle with the kid this evening, when suddenly the passenger in the next car up jettisoned a cigarette butt. I mumbled to the kid (now home from college for the summer) that if we had been at a stoplight, I might've been tempted to get out, retrieve the butt, fling it into her open window, and explain with a Wodehousian demeanor that it appeared as if she had dropped something. He mumbled back that he'd set it on fire first, which didn't make much sense and seemed a tad violent but nicely captured the spirit of repugnance I was trying to convey and inculcate.

Litter is a pet peeve of mine, and littering from cars is the one and only thing that ever tips me toward road rage. "Haven't these people seen the cartoon owl?" I screech. "Didn't they see the tear on that fake Indian guy?" I lament. "How can they do this?!"  The Humane Society, or someone, wants you to know that Kant thinks our treatment of animals is the measure of humanity, and maybe it is, but for my money there's no clearer sign of character than whether or not one treats the landscape– however suburbanized and inviting it may seem– as his personal ashtray.

Manage your freakin' trash, loser.


Did The Stalker Have A Point?

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Today the Los Angeles Times ran a review of a book by a professor named Grace Lasdun. Lasdun describes her terrifying ordeal of being stalked by a madman. "Imagine," the review bids us, that a stalker "seemed affectionate, then convinced of a deep connection, then became furious and set upon destroying your life." The book — and review — tells the tale of how a stalker became convinced of a relationship with Grace Lasdun, then went on campaign of deranged hate, deluging Ms. Lasdun with dozens of anti-Semitic emails and an internet campaign of untruths, accusations of plagiarism, and vile communications with Lasdun's employers and colleagues. Her life was changed.

But this review asks something that is too rarely asked. What responsibility does Lasdun bear for a deranged stalker pursuing her, imagining a relationship that she did not want? Did she lead him on? Did she give the wrong signals? Does her language in describing the stalking suggest an unbecoming entitlement? "This lack of perspective," as reviewer Carolyn Kellogg calls it, calls into question the entire way Grace Lasdun describes her stalking. Kellogg explains how Lasdun's description of the stalker suggests a preoccupation with appearance and a lack of awareness of power differentials that might have contributed to the stalking — "Lasdun reveals actions that may have contributed to her problems without seeing the connections. She likes their flirtatious emails but at one point realizes they have become too much and suggests breaking off contact."

Reviewer Carolyn Kellogg also shows an admirable sense of empathy for the stalker, asking us to question "could Lasdun have managed his growing affections differently"?


Better Call Galactus

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Not everyone can take the preposterous and examine it through the lens of the practical. Doing so for comic effect is the The Onion's gig, but those guys are old pros. Larry Niven did it for both comic and scientific effect in "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex", but most of us aren't Larry Niven. (Geek-life brag: I once talked to Larry Niven about that column at a concert of Star Wars music.) Too often the "what would happen if [extraordinary character] encountered [mundane circumstance]" shtick falls flat, like a Usenet flame war or a tiresome Saturday Night Live skit.

That's why it's impressive that attorneys James Daily and Ryan Davidson have pulled it off so flawlessly in the educational and fun "The Law of Superheroes." Their publisher sent Popehat an advance copy.

The book introduced me to the authors' blog Law and the Multiverse, which I shall now follow. The book concerns the same subject: how would the law treat the sorts of things that happens in the comics?

Is Batman a state actor? Does the newest Robin inherit the old Robin's assets or liabilities? For that matter, is Robin liable when Batman goes nuts and kills someone? How, exactly, can you expect to testify wearing a cowl? Are mind-readings admissible? All those buildings that get knocked down — who pays for them? Should the Avengers have a charter with an arbitration clause, and will it be enforceable if they do? What's better, tax-wise, for the Fantastic Four — a corporation or an LLC? And everybody in every Alan Moore comic should be in jail, right?

Those are the sorts of subjects Daily and Davidson tackle. They apply constitutional, criminal, and civil law issues to comic book heroes and villains, from the familiar to the (to me) obscure.

There are so many ways they could have handled this wrong. They could have been too serious about comics and not serious enough about the law, or vice-versa. They could have written the book in to much detail, like a law review article, or too little, like a comic book. They could have assumed too much of their readers' legal acumen, or too little. Instead, they did it just right. "The Law of Superheroes" is both entertaining and informative. People who aren't lawyers or law-geeks will learn something about the law, and lawyers and law-geeks will be thoroughly entertained at the application of familiar principles to comic extravaganzas. (This means, of course, that I disagreed with some of their legal analysis, and thought about how I would have explained it better. The book would have been intolerable had that not been the case.)

I gripe a lot here that the media does a terrible job at explaining the law to the American public. "The Law of Superheroes" shows that it can be done clearly and directly and effectively, even if you are talking about people in tights who have mood issues and talk funny. It's an enjoyable read; I suspect I'll return to it. Recommended.

The Once And Future Blogger, The Department Of Conan Studies, The Anarchism Of Fools, Book-Buying Recommendations, And The ULTIMATE EXCUSE!

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I no longer write here.

At one time (this has always been Ken's site), I was the junior member of a thriving partnership, but it's evolved into a solo firm.  I'm sorry that I don't write here any longer, but for reasons various and sundry it isn't where my heart is any longer.  That's happened in the past.  I began blogging here, left for my own moody reasons (which had nothing to do with Ken), wrote my own blog which became too much work, and returned to the fold.  Primarily because I like Ken.  I've never met him.  I may never meet him, but I enjoy his virtual company.  He's the best blogger I read.

That said, I'll be blogging here for a few days next week, over a major political problem in my fair state, one which bothers me enough that I've spent hours digging through the mathom hall, to find my sword.  May it only wound evildoers.

Speaking of swords, let's talk about books.  Specifically the genre of "Swords and Sorcery", as Gary Gygax among others called it.  I recently re-read the collected stories of Robert E. Howard, those concerning the fictional character, place, and time who will carry his name forward not just into this century, but the next, Conan the Cimmerian, of the Hyborian Age. The appellation "the Barbarian" was popularized by others, principally L. Sprague DeCamp (a fine fantasy writer in his own right), who discovered the stories of Howard in the pages of Weird Tales  (one of the most important literary magazines of the twentieth century, which no serious person would now deny), and as with August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft, refused to allow his predecessor's work to die.

As with Derleth and Lovecraft, Howard's work was saved because DeCamp (whose own Grey Mouser and Fafhrd work is superior to what he did to Howard) re-wrote and changed the chronology of the Conan stories.  Howard was a pulp author, but so were Raymond Chandler and James Cain, authors whose genius no one disputes.  The Conan stories (along with the rest of Howard's work) have recently been reprinted, as originally written, with interpretation and comment of an almost academic stripe.  "Beyond The Black River" is one of the five best short stories I've ever read.  You might consider reading it and other stories of Conan the Cimmerian in:

The Coming of Conan

The Bloody Crown of Conan

The Conquering Sword of Conan (my personal favorite, and Howard's last, and most mature, work)

Now at this point you're saying, Patrick, you're shitting me.  There's no way that a bunch of stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger are as worthy of study as the work of, say, Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing (who reluctantly admits she's dabbled in science fiction and fantasy), but I'm saying it.  Raymond Chandler, whose work was considered trash by everyone except Ben Hecht when he wrote it, pointed out the now fully accepted truth that, "Down these mean streets a man must go."  A timeless truth Howard only wrote better at his best, and the man walked wearing sandals.

Don't believe me?  Try the Wall Street Journal.  A hundred years from now, Conan the Cimmerian will still be read and appreciated, while the works of Doris Lessing will be consigned to the one-dollar-a-mindlink (the inflation of a hundred years will make the dollar equivalent to a modern penny) Thoughtbin at

On that note, I've also been reading the re-released work of Michael Moorcock, who back when boomer males could get an erection without the aid of blue pills was considered a revolutionary in fantasy, acclaimed by such modern heroes as Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.  While Moorcock now writes "literary fiction" (whatever that means), his most influential work (apart from inspiring the "Lawful" and "Chaotic" alignments in Dungeons & Dragons"), remains the Elric series of short stories, later re-written (by anonymous editors) and, as with Howard's work, re-assembled into some form of God-forsaken chronological  narrative series of fake novels, under the Del Ray imprint.  As with Howard's stories, the Elric series was originally written in no particular order, each story reflecting a phase in its hero's life, the last perhaps occurring decades before the next, as though told around a campfire.

And shouldn't all fantasy be appreciated out of chronological order, like yarns spun round a campfire?

Anyway, Moorcock's Elric stories, also, have recently printed in America in the original order and as originally written.  I'll just link to the first volume:

The Stealer of Souls

in which the reader is introduced to, in many ways, the 1960s' answer to Conan, a magician rendered a weakling by genetic infirmity, not a barbarian but the product of an ancient and decadent civilization, whose powers are based on magic, addiction to drugs, and a demon disguised as a sword far more intimidating than any Arthurian toy, Stormbringer.

Moorcock, by the way, when he's not writing fantasy and/or litfic, is a political theorist.  A self-proclaimed atheist anarchist who trumpets the virtues of socialism, to which I, in my non-ancient, non-decadent, barbaric mind, can only reply: Huh?

Judge for yourself, as Moorcock denounces all science fiction writers Who Came Before as racist, authoritarian, and insufficiently dedicated to government-enforced redistribution of wealth.  Tolstoy was also an anarchist and a socialist, but as a religious mystic he had little use for practicality or consistency. And unlike Moorcock (a writer I quite admire), Tolstoy was a genius.

Socialism is the anarchism of fools.

Speaking of socialism, can we talk? Due to my partner's political proclivities, we are near bombarded with calls from Barack Obama, or his surrogates, asking for money.  I can tell it's them because they open the conversation with "Mr. [my partner's last name which is not my last name]?"  Then they go into their spiel.  At the first breathing point, I reply with…

"I'm sorry, I'm a libertarian."

At which point they go on with their talking points, ignoring what I said to be answered with a dial tone, get off the phone on their own, answer with some non-Moorcockian equivalent of "Huh?", or, most rarely, try to discuss politics in their crude, Flatlandish way with me (usually these are the college kids), a la:

"So you support children working in factories 14 hours a day?"…

To which I respond:

"Only if the children are there voluntarily, as free agents."

Mind you, I once made the mistake of donating to a Republican, and we get occasional calls from them as well.  Last election season, one of them, a college Republican sort, engaged me in a similar discussion, asking me whether, since I wasn't going to donate to McCain, I supported polygamy and bestiality.

To which I responded:

"Only if the animals are participating voluntarily, as free agents."

There are probably many flaws to libertarianism as a political philosophy, but it's the ultimate excuse when one wishes to end a stupid political conversation.


Justice Alito Knows Obscenity When He Plays It

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It won't surprise long-time readers to learn that I approve of Justice Scalia's majority opinion in Brown v. Entertainment Merchant's Association, which struck down California's ban on the sale of violent videogames to minors.  The opinion is more or less mandated by United States v. Stevens, another case we cheered.

So I won't dwell (other than to applaud it briefly) on the majority's holding that minors do have First Amendment rights, nor on the cynicism of California's attempt to end-run the First Amendment by claiming that all speech may be regulated in the name of protecting children.

I want to dwell on the concurring opinion of Justice Samuel Alito, which shows the danger posed by statutes such as California's Violent Videogame Act, and of judges who believe their opinions as art critics ought to be the law of the land.  This passage:

It is certainly true, as the Court notes, that “ ‘[l]iterature, when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader’s own.’ ”  Ante, at 11 (quoting American Amusement Machine Assn. v. Kendrick, 244 F. 3d 572, 577 (CA7 2001)).  But only an extraordinarily imaginative reader who reads a description of a killing in a literary work will experience that event as vividly as he might if he played the role of the killer in a video game. To take an example, think of a person who reads thepassage in Crime and Punishment in which Raskolni- kov  kills the old pawn broker with an  axe.  See F. Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment 78 (Modern Library ed. 1950).  Compare that reader with a video-game player who creates an avatar that bears his own image; who sees a realistic image of the victim and the scene of the killing in high definition and in three dimensions; who is forced to decide whether or not to kill  the victim and decides to do so; who then pretends to grasp an axe, to raise it above the head of the victim, and then to bring it down; who hearsthe thud of the axe hitting her head and her cry of pain;who sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood onhis face and hands.  For most people, the two experiences will not be the same.

illustrates the problem perfectly.

For those who haven't read it, spoilers follow:


Jackson Seizes Little Round Top; Meade's Flank Broken, Lee Defeats The Army Of The Potomac And Surrounds Philadelphia; So Today I'll Complain About The Kaiser's Slave Duty Increasing The Price Of Good Domestics

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As longtime readers know, we dabble in alternate history. Well, I do.  Ken's a political science major who thinks history began in 1968. But it's all wanking, as much as the long title of this post.

Still, for those who delight in this sort of wanking as much as I, here's a nifty, if deeply flawed, "counterfactual" of the Second World War with an utterly implausible (yet plausible to Hitler) thesis:

Then, too, what if Poland had agreed in 1939 to join Germany in an invasion of the Soviet Union, as Hitler wanted? If Poland had allied with Germany rather than resisting, Britain and France would not have issued territorial guarantees to Poland, and would not have had their casus belli in September 1939. It is hard to imagine that Britain and France would have declared war on Germany and Poland in order to save the Soviet Union. If Poland’s armies had joined with Germany’s, the starting line for the invasion would have been farther east than it was in June 1941, and Japan might have joined in, which would have forced some of the Red Army divisions that defended Moscow to remain in the Far East. Moscow might have been attained. In this scenario, there is no Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and thus no alienation of Japan from Germany. In that case, no Pearl Harbor, and no American involvement. What World War II becomes is a German-Polish-Japanese victory over the Soviet Union. That, by the way, was precisely the scenario that Stalin feared.

Implausible for three reasons: First, it assumes that the Poles would, or could, have caved in to the Nazis, becoming a giant Finland as Hitler wished.  For those who appreciate such things, here's an old Polish joke that isn't derogatory to the noble people of Poland:

Q: A Polish soldier is confronted by a German soldier approaching from the west, and a Russian soldier approaching from the east. Which does he shoot first?

A: The German. Duty before pleasure.

Second, the larger work, which speaks of ways Hitler could have won the war, is flawed because it ignores its central character: Hitler. Hitler was no more capable of doing the "right" thing in war than he was of doing the "right" thing in politics.  A Hitler who could have sat back and let the Prussian General Staff dictate the course of the war to him would never have propelled the National Socialists to power in the first place, nor held power for six years before war, nor have scared the Russians so badly they'd made a deal to give Hitler a free hand, and cheap oil and minerals, while he dealt with France.

Third, the larger work ignores the singular character of Churchill, in his way as odd a man, and every bit as exceptional, as Hitler:

If we agree with Roberts, as we should, that Churchill personally helped lengthen the war by keeping Britain from seeking peace terms after the fall of France, then we are also implicitly saying that, absent Churchill, peace might have been made. The war-winning alliance of the United Kingdom, the United States and the Soviet Union was sealed only in December 1941, and could not have been achieved had Britain left the war.

"Absent Churchill" is a tall order, in that the man was on the scene.  Removing Churchill takes us from the realm of alternate history into "what if Stonewall Jackson had survived Chancellorsville?" territory: not alternate history, but The Man In The High Castle, or Doctor Who prevents the creation of the Daleks level science fiction.

Still, for those who care, this is some fantastic semi-science fictional wanking.

Via Angus, who in an alternate reality co-blogs with the Governor of North Carolina.

(Hey, I voted for his co-blogger, even if no one else did.)