Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


Archive for the 'Recommended Reading' Category

Recommended Reading: Ninefox Gambit

Saturday, January 7th, 2017

I started, and failed to finish, three or four novels before picking up Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit. If you’re looking for something different, something challenging and endlessly interesting — a puzzle to be figured out — try this one.

I’m still not sure what it’s about.

Usually I say very little about the plot or even the background of the books that I recommend here, because I think a book is best appreciated without preconceptions. But I’m making an exception this time. So if you’re already intrigued, go off and read Ninefox Gambit. Otherwise, read on for just a bit of discussion about the book.

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Recommended Reading: Darktown

Friday, November 4th, 2016

darktown_by_thomas_mullenThomas Mullen is the author of Darktown, a novel set in Atlanta shortly after World War II, in a time when black police officers were first allowed to work in the Atlanta Police Department.

Darktown succeeds on multiple levels. First, it’s very well written, with gorgeous detail in both setting and characters, without ever going overboard.

It also works as a straight-up crime novel as police officers attempt to unravel the mystery behind the murder of a young woman.

But the most powerful aspect of the novel for me was the immersion into the violently segregated culture of the deep south during this period of history. The oppression and brutalization of black communities is rendered in detail, but what’s also made clear is how difficult it is to change the status quo when ordinary citizens, including law enforcement, fully support the authoritarian culture and are thoroughly trained to crush any dissent. Yes, this novel is a well-timed reminder of what authoritarianism and bigotry mean for a society.

Despite this, Darktown is not a “downer.” It’s a fascinating, well-told tale of courage.

I listened to the audio edition. I really enjoyed the narrator’s voice, finding it both pleasant to listen to and easy to understand, with the drawback that the voices of the different characters tended to sound the same, and at several points I wasn’t sure who was speaking.

In my own writing, I’ve begun using more speech tags – he said / she said – since I started listening to audiobooks. Speech tags aren’t always necessary if you’re reading text. If two characters are in conversation, a paragraph break indicates when a different character is speaking. But a listener can’t see this, so additional speech tags can be necessary for clarity. Something to keep in mind, for those of you who write.

Recommended Reading: How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything

Saturday, October 29th, 2016

rosa_brooks_tales_from_the_pentagonHow Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales From the Pentagon, by Rosa Brooks, is a wide-ranging overview of the present state of the American military, how we got to this point, the effect of recent changes on both our system of government and on the world at large, the implications for the future, and thoughts on how we can do better.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor, who worked at the Pentagon for two years, and is a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy.

She writes that post-9/11 the role of the American military has expanded beyond traditionally “military” functions, taking over territory that once belonged to civilian departments, in particular the Department of State. This happened gradually, as cost-cutting measures reduced the size and effectiveness of civilian departments, leaving the military as the only branch with a budget that allowed it to rise to the task — and as the military took on more tasks, civilian departments were further trimmed. It’s this process that Brooks captures with the book’s title, but she pursues many other subjects.

There are interesting discussions of the way we’ve chosen to see war and peace as polar opposites, as two easily distinguished states — our view being heavily biased by the world wars. “What is war?” is an important question because our laws change depending on whether or not we are “at war.” A state of war allows many actions (killing, indeterminate imprisonment) that are not allowed during peacetime. But a closer look at history offers the idea that there is a continuum between war and peace — the “space between” — that is not all-out war, but is also not peace. And if we accept that we are now — and likely will be for the foreseeable future — caught in this “space between” then we need to develop a legal framework to deal with it.

Brooks also looks at the precedents America has set by asserting “a unilateral right to use force in secret and with little accountability outside the executive branch…”

Her description of the international community is especially disturbing:

“…the international community” struggles to respond effectively to the challenges posed by “failed” states. From the perspective of an alien observer from another planet, the “international community” of the planet earth would surely appear like a failed state writ large; it has proven consistently unable to control the violence of powerful actors (whether states or nonstate entities such as terrorist organizations), control environmental catastrophes such as climate change; remedy astronomically large economic inequities between individuals and societies, constrain the devastating scramble to exploit the earth’s dwindling natural resources, or address crises such as global epidemics.”

How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything offers a lot to learn and ponder. It’s well researched and well argued. Recommended.

Links, News, and Recommendations

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

Links
It’s easy to tell when I’m trying to catch up on my nonfiction reading — that’s when I start posting links here.

At USNI News, Megan Eckstein has an article titled “CMC Neller: Marines Now Training to Battle Drones, Fight Without Comms”, which is a pretty interesting look at exactly what the title says, and has some intersections with events in The Red trilogy — particularly the last action sequence in Going Dark.

And on a completely different subject, “The Cost of Holding On” is a short post at The New York Times by Carl Richards, offering some excellent advice on letting go of grudges:

“There is an actual cost to holding onto things we should let go of. It can come in the form of anger, frustration, resentment or something even worse. The question is, can you really afford to keep paying the bill?”

I’ve seen people hold on tight to the memory of slights, and to grudges that are twenty, thirty, forty years old, or more. It’s not worth it, folks. All that energy spent on resentment could be so much better spent in positive ways.

Recommended Audiobook
My latest audiobook rave is Bruce Schneier’s Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World. This is a nonfiction read, exploring the remarkable extent of government and corporate surveillance and data collection in the modern world. The book was originally published in 2014. In the realm of technology a two-year-old book might be suspected of being dated, but this one felt utterly relevant. I found it fascinating.

Rebis edition - Polish language - The RedNews
The Nanotech Succession Omnibus is an ebook that includes my first four novels, all taking place in a shared story world. The omnibus has been available at my webstore, but it can now be purchased from Kobo if that’s your preferred vendor. Find it here.

The Red now has its second translated edition. The first was Italian. This one is a Polish-language edition by the publisher Rebis. I like that red font on the cover!

Final Work-In-Progress Report + Various

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

Work-In-Progress Report
I haven’t been posting much lately, have I? That’s because I’ve mostly been writing, with time off for workouts — but even the workouts stopped a few days ago as other chores intruded.

Anyway, as noted in the title, this is my last work-in-progress report for the new novel, because that novel is officially “done.”

Of course, in this business there are many phases of “done,” and there will certainly be more revisions to come, but it’s now with my agent, so that’s a draft!

John W. Campbell Memorial Award
The Hugo Awards, given out at Worldcon this past weekend, were casting shade, but the winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award was also announced during the convention — and no, it wasn’t me. The award went to Eleanor Lerman for her novel Radiomen. Congratulations to Eleanor! As it turns out, Going Dark was tied for second place alongside Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself.

Follow this link for details.

Recommended Audiobook
Malka Older’s Infomocracy is a near-future look at politics and the way a global system of “micro-democracies” might work — and of course how people, being people, will attempt to game the system. The story takes place during a world-wide election, held every ten years, in which “centinels” — geographic divisions of a hundred-thousand people — are each choosing new leadership, and there is a lot of competition among the various political groups to pick up these new centinels.

The world building behind Infomocracy is absolutely brilliant and at times some of the observations made in the story are quite funny — but be aware that there is a lot of detail as the characters discuss statistics, voting, and political platforms. Think of Infomocracy as a bureaucrat’s thriller. I won’t be at all surprised to see it on next year’s Campbell Memorial list.

The audio narration is by Christine Marshal and I thought it was very well done.

Book Rave: Red Rising

Friday, August 12th, 2016

Red Rising by Pierce BrownI don’t remember hearing much about Pierce Brown’s novel Red Rising within the SFF genre, but it’s been a hugely popular book, with 3,200 Amazon reviews averaging 4.5 stars. Even after I finally noticed it, I assumed it was a YA novel, and I’m not particularly interested in YA, so I didn’t pursue it. What finally persuaded me to take a serious look was an enthusiastic recommendation from @alexvdl0 on Twitter. (See? Word of mouth really does work!)

I started reading the sample and was hooked almost immediately. Red Rising is set on Mars, in a highly stratified society. It’s the story of a young man named Darrow, born into the lowest strata. It’s told in his own words, and in some sense it’s a study of how a very skilled writer can employ standard tropes and make them fascinating again.

I was swept away — which doesn’t actually happen all that often anymore.

(Some slight spoilers follow…)

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Tribe by Sebastian Junger

Monday, July 11th, 2016

TRIBE by Sebastian JungerEvolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould used Kipling’s term “just-so stories” to describe explanations of biological forms and functions that sounded good, but didn’t hold up to closer examination. This was on my mind as I finished Sebastian Junger’s latest book, Tribe.

Junger is the author of the excellent and highly recommended War, a narrative of his time as an embedded reporter in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. Tribe is a short book by comparison. It looks at human societies and especially the egalitarian social structure of some tribes. It also considers the impact of struggle on group cohesiveness, the experiences of soldiers both at the frontline and after coming home from war, gender roles, and many other things. It’s a quick read, always fascinating, and packed with interesting and provocative anecdotes — but by the end I was suspicious that I’d read something close to a “just-so story.”

Early on, Junger talks about the effect of disasters on human society, using examples of strategic bombing during World War II and a study by Charles Fritz that looked at the way people behave during natural disasters:

Fritz “was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy […] people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community…”

The idea this leads to is that in such situations, innate tribal bonds rise to the surface, and people are more willing to work and sacrifice for the group, rather than working for themselves alone.

Junger follows with a poignant observation: “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.” In other words, we are safe and wealthy enough that we can live in isolation, but that means we’re living in isolation, with the implication that this is an unhappy existence.

The book contains discussions of gender roles, leadership styles, the appeal of tribal social structures, and also the toxic political environment we presently endure:

“People speak with incredible contempt about — depending on their views — the rich, the poor, the educated, the foreign-born, the president, or the entire US government. It’s a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime […] Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker…”

There is a lot here to like and a lot to think about, but for me, romanticizing tribal societies is troubling. As soon as I finished Tribe, I went to look for a counterpoint — I was sure I’d find one — and I did. In response, Ann Marlowe at Tablet, asks “Do We Really Want To Be Members of a Tribe?” and takes a hard look at many points of the book.

Nevertheless, I recommend Tribe — it will give you much to think about.

Recommended Reading

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

Three recent articles on diverse topics that you might find interesting:

Shared Responsibility
In “The Citizen-Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military” Phil Klay looks at the history of American soldiery, the perception of our soldiers today, the relationship between soldiers and civilians, and our collective responsibilities. Klay says, “A decade after I joined the Marines, I’m left wondering what obligations I incurred as a result of that choice, and what obligations I share with the rest of my country toward our wars and to the men and women who fight them.”
Read it here.

Micropayments
In my 2001 novel, Limit of Vision, the income of a freelance journalist is in part dependent on micropayments. Looking back, it’s startling to realize that despite all the advances in our wired world, micropayments are still mostly theoretical. In a two-part series, David Brin takes a look at micropayments and how they may eventually save us from the horror of an ad-based Internet.
Read part 1 here. (I’ve only read part 1 so far)
Read part 2 here.

Purposeful Practice
In their article “Not All Practice Makes Perfect” Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool make a case that “practice” and “purposeful practice” are not the same things. The article is overlong with historical examples before the authors really get into the meat of their point, but the idea is that, over the past century, people have gotten much better at doing various things. Examples include top-flight pianists, gymnasts, divers, etc, who have gone far beyond the achievements of their predecessors. The article focuses on an experiment in which a subject was trained to memorize random strings of digits. He felt he couldn’t get beyond a string eight or nine digits long–until his method of practice changed. Eventually he was able to memorize, and then repeat back, a string of 82 digits. “Purposeful practice” is an idea that generalizes across mental and physical activities.
Read the article here.

Book Rave: Too Like The Lightning

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

An amazing novel — likely the best I’ll read this year.

Too Like The Lightning by Ada PalmerThe title is a little awkward and the cover makes it look like generic space fantasy, but there is nothing generic about Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning.

I first looked at this novel out of duty. It’s a science fiction novel by a woman, and that’s something I want to support. So I read the first few pages, posted at Tor.com — and I was hooked. I needed a new audiobook, so I downloaded it in that format. I wasn’t far into it when I began mentally comparing it to Dan Simmons Hyperion. Like that novel, Too Like The Lightning is complex, fascinating, with unique characters drawn in exquisite detail, it’s deeply concerned with political structures, and in many ways it grasps aspects of the genre and reworks them, raising them to a new level.

When I recommend a book here on my blog, I usually say little or nothing about the plot, and I’m going to hold to that this time as well, because working out the plot is part of the intrigue of this book. Suffice to say that it takes place on Earth, a few hundred years in the future, in a diverse and intricately worked-out culture. It focuses on the workings of an aristocracy, treats gender in interesting ways, and offers abundant asides exploring history and philosophy. It is the most erudite work I can remember reading in the science fiction genre. It is very obviously science fiction, and yet it’s one of those novels that could have been published outside the genre — and maybe it should have been. It deserves a large audience.

I listened to Too Like The Lightning as an audiobook. The narrator, Jefferson Mays, is excellent. But as a measure of how much I admired the story, I ordered the hardcover for my shelf when I was only halfway through. The second book in the series is scheduled for a December 2016 release. The publisher is Tor Books.

Links and Recommendations

Sunday, March 6th, 2016

As if you don’t already have enough distractions…

I failed to post here at my blog for almost the entire month of February, so I’m making up for it with a flurry of posts in early March. (If posting regularly is the key to building a blog readership, well, that explains a lot.)

Recommended Audiobooks

Hyperion by Dan SimmonsHyperion and The Fall of Hyperion
by Dan Simmons:
These are science fiction classics that I loved back when they were originally published, and they are just as amazing today. Instead of re-reading, I listened to the audiobooks and was extremely impressed by the production. I’ve been listening to audiobooks for only about nine months, and early on I got into the habit of listening at a slightly faster than normal speed, usually 1.25x, unless I really wasn’t enjoying a book and then I would shift to 1.5x. But with these books I downshifted to 1.0x because every word is worth hearing. Truly amazing writing, characters, and world building. I’ll be moving on to the next book in the set, Endymion, before too long.

Annihilation by Jeff VandermeerThe Southern Reach Trilogy
by Jeff Vandermeer:
Audible had all three volumes of the Southern Reach trilogy — Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance — in an omnibus edition, available for a ridiculously low one credit, so I decided it was high time I familiarized myself with these much-acclaimed novels. I’m not entirely sure what I expected of the Southern Reach, but I was surprised at what I found. These are “literary” novels. They engage with fine language and description and, especially in the first two books, there is much time spent exploring the odd and troubled pasts of the main characters. At times I found it slow going, and early on I tweeted this:

What kept me going was the truly amazing writing, and a wonderful cast of narrators. As above, I slowed this one down to 1.0x speed, to catch every word, and as the story proceeded, I began to feel I was drawn into a spell of words and insight. I also felt that the quality of my own writing was improving as I continued to listen — a very nice side effect!

Of the three volumes, the third was my favorite. I found it the most engrossing, as some of the mysteries are being worked out. Some reader reviews complained that the ending was too abrupt, but I didn’t find it so. Highly recommended.

Links

• In midFebruary SF Signal published a piece by James Wallace Harris called Staying on the Cutting Edge of Science Fiction. I found it to be an interesting look at how the idea of what constitutes “cutting edge” technology shifts over time and how technologically based science fiction responds to that, especially since this is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. James suggests that writers wanting to “extrapolate about the impact of real scientific knowledge … can’t let older science fiction cloud their vision.” I think this is a very important point. The post was surrounded by controversy though, because none of the books cited as examples were written by women. I wish it had been different and that the post had included a more varied list of examples. Nevertheless, I thought it was an interesting perspective.

• Yesterday Charles Stross published a very entertaining and thought-provoking piece called Towards a taxonomy of cliches in Space Opera, in which are listed several hundred “already seen it” tropes from science fiction. To my mind, this list is asking a similar question to that above: what’s new? and what’s left to explore in a literary sense?

• And finally, just for fun… this was making the rounds a few weeks ago, but if you haven’t seen it yet, check it out, and know that we are doomed: