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2016 Stuff Read, #s 26(c)-30

I'm actually starting to believe that I'll make it to 40 books this year. At least, I will if I just maintain the pace I've set for the past nine months. I have already made good headway on numbers 31 & 32, and once I've finished those two books, I will have equaled my number from 2014, which is the year I've with the highest number of books read since I started tracking this back in 2010. If I actually finish 40 by the end of the year, I plan on rewarding myself with one of the unread mega-anthologies currently sitting on my shelves -- the type of book that would typically take my well over a month to complete. But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself...

26(c). Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (ebook)
Not much I can say that hasn't already been said by others. Highly entertaining story, that also taught me about the Himba -- a people I previously knew nothing about. Highly deserving of the Nebula Award it won earlier this year.

27. The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis (dead tree/eBook)
This is the third time I've read the book, but my last reading was roughly 20 years ago. I remember being enthralled with this novel the first couple readings, and while I did enjoy it again, I didn't experience the amount of joy I thought I would. I thought the story dragged at times, and the fact that Willis didn't anticipate the rise of mobile phones has made the present-era plot of the novel creak with dated age -- something she should be forgiven for as William Gibson's Neuromancer suffers from the same defect. I'm certain I'll read The Doomsday Book again at some point in the future, but this reading has disconcertedly reminded me of how the overwhelming majority of science fiction eventually begins to show its age, no matter how well it's written.

28. Acceptance, by Jeff Vandermeer (audiobook)
As much as I loved the first book of the trilogy and enjoyed the second to a lesser extent, I found myself slightly struggling to complete the story. I don't read much literary fiction -- even when that fiction is SF -- mostly because I read primarily for plot and ideas and far less for in-depth examinations of character and motivations. As I result, I tend to become mentally exhausted when engaging with literary fiction for too long, and I think this might have started happening by the middle of this book. I think if the series had been any longer I would have needed to space out the installments a bit rather than listen to all three consecutively. Interestingly, the combined length of the three books in the series was approximately 2/3 that of The Stand, which I finished earlier this year.

29. The Magazine of SF&F, July/Aug. 2016 (dead tree)
After the disappointment of the seeing how the Rabid Puppies managed to game the Hugo Awards again this year, I've found it hard to engage with new short fiction in the manner that I did last year. By that, I mean reading with the same frequency and attention to detail that I did last year. This was the first installment of 2016 fiction I read this year, and because I spread this issue of SF&F out over a few months and didn't take note of which stories I thought might be award-worthy next year, I can't at this moment state which of the stories I should consider for next year's Hugo nominations. (as I write this, I'm at my in-laws house and don't have the issue at hand.) I'm making it a point to skim through the issue again soon to figure out which ones deserve that honor.

30. English in America: A Linguistic History, by Prof. Natalie Schilling (audio lecture series)
I've enjoyed all The Great Courses series on grammar and linguistics I've ever listened to, but while listening to this series I realized that I have limits when it comes to getting into extreme detail about some aspects of linguistics.  I was happy with the general overviews and learning about the influences and drivers of linguistic change, but there were times when, for my taste, Prof. Schilling went into just a little too much excruciating detail regarding minute differences in some of the strains of American English. However, I'm certain that my complaint is probably something that appeals to the rest of the target audience for this subject.


2016 Stuff Read, #s 23-26(b)

The last month of the summer included far less actual reading than I should have accomplished, but at least I kept the audiobooks moving at a fairly rapid pace -- at the expense of my music listening. But, that's a trade-off I was happy to make. I'm sure that at some point down the road I'll set aside in a similar manner the audiobooks for a while.

23. The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague, by Prof. Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D.
(audio lecture series)

When it was released, Prof. Armstrong's lecture series on the Black Death was one of those drop everything moments for me -- especially since this was a Great Courses lecture series. In fact, I essentially ditched the audiobook of The Stand and finished it via the dead tree version just so I could immediately start on this series. I'm happy to report that it satisfied my morbid desire to know everything I can about that period and place in history -- even if much of the material was already familiar to me. I certainly enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than the Ziegler book I read a couple years ago. Finishing this and The Stand convinced me that I needed to read Connie Willis's The Doomsday Book just so I could have a thematic trilogy for my summer reading.

24. Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (audiobook)
25. Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer (audiobook)

Speaking of trilogies, Annilhilation, the first book in VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy had been hovering near the top of my fiction pile ever since it won the Nebula. Finding out that a film adaptation starring Natalie Portman and Oscar Isaac was under development pushed me to finally start it. Thankfully, my local library system has the entire trilogy as audiobooks, which made it easy for me to immediately continue onto Authority, which I finished this morning. I already have the final book in the trilogy queued and ready to go on my iPod.

26(a). "The Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang (dead tree)
26(b). "Cat Pictures Please," by Naomi Kritzer (online)

As was the case with the Southern Reach trilogy, the trailers for the November release of Arrival, the film adaptation for "The Story of Your Life," inspired me to pull my copy of Stories of Your Life and Others off my shelf and reread the original. It must have been quite some time since I last read it, because I had little memory of having read it before, even though it appeared in a couple different anthologies/collections that I know I read in their entirety. However, it has been at least 10 years since reading those particular volumes, so I suppose it's not unlikely that I had managed to forget all the details. In regards to the film adaptation, my one concern after rereading the story is that the narrative glue, that this story is being told as part of a larger narrative to the narrator's daughter, might be jettisoned so that the movie can simply focus on the alien first contact. I hope I'm wrong, but if I'm not that would be a shame as I found that particular aspect of the story I enjoyed most. I still look forward to seeing Arrival, but I can't help but think that I have trepid feelings similar to those that fans of Starship Troopers must have felt when they first saw the trailers for the mid-'90s film version.

Although I was half-heartedly hoping that Chuck Tingle would win this year's short story Hugo Award, I am glad he didn't. "Cat Pictures Please" was an awesome short story and totally deserved to win the award. That's all that needs to be said.


2016 Stuff Read, #s 15-22

Even by my own recent lax standards, I view the two-month period since my last post as an abomination. Aside from losing the various other items I'm sure I woud love to have committed to some kind of memory via text, it makes writing Stuff Read posts rather difficult -- particularly when I've been knocking out the items at the pace I have managed since my last Stuff Read post. I'll publicly state that I'll post these more frequently -- as well as the other less-specific posts -- but I've made similar statements in the past that I've done a poor job of upholding. So, without further comment, the list of items since May 20:

15. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman (audiobook)
16. The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard (dead tree)
17. Some of the Best From Tor.com: 2015 Edition, edited by Ellen Datlow, et al. (ebook)
18. Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire (dead tree)
19. How Great Science Fiction Works, by Prof. Gary K. Wolfe, Ph.D. (audio lecture series)
20. Black Tom, by Victor LaValle (ebook)
21. The End of All Things, by John Scalzi (dead tree)
22. The Stand, by Stephen King (audiobook/dead tree)


2016 Stuff Read, #s 12-14

12. Nova Swing, by M. John Harrison (audiobook)
13. Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link
14. 1984, by George Orwell

On one hand, I'm pleased that I am doing a better job of tackling my reading and listening piles much more aggressively than I have by this point in any of the years since I started tracking what I've read. On the other, it's clear that I'm not actually spending more time reading books -- rather, I'm spending more time listening to them. Eight of my 14 completed books so far this year have been audiobooks. Remove the audiobooks from the count, and I'm actually reading at a slower pace than I've averaged over the previous five years.

The other elephant in the room is the fact that I've only read one item published this year. It's been nice to refocus on the backlog, but I'm going to need to redirect my focus fairly soon so that I can start compiling a list of items to consider nominating for next year's Hugo Awards. I've already accumlated a small stack of 2016 issues of the big three magazines -- I'll need to agressively attack those sooner than later.

Moving on to the books listed above...

Harrison's novel was nearly as good as advertised -- I enjoyed it immensely. For a number of what I think are mostly superficial reasons, I was reminded of Richard Paul Russo's Carlucci's Edge as I read it. I'm sure that the fact that it's been nearly 20 years since I read Russo's novel is the reason why I cannot completely explain why my brain made a connection between the two books.

Link's short story collection was problematic for me. I wanted to like this collection. Oh, how I really wanted to like this collection. How could I not? Genre author makes good and is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for literature. However, Link's style of story telling isn't something I normally enjoy, and I struggled with many of the stories in Get in Trouble. I could see why others might enjoy those stories, but such insight didn't make them easier for me to digest. Conversely, were a few I really enjoyed, but as a collective whole I was slightly let down by the book.

Finally, I feel like that I should have done something to preserve some of the thoughts I had while listening to 1984 -- that is, more in addition to ones I posted last week. I suppose it's not too late to attempt to reconstruct and/or recall as many of them as possible and compose something similar to what I wrote for the second issue of Some Fantastic back in 2004. The biggest impediment to that is my taking the time away from other things I want really want to do -- such as getting fully caught up with 12 Monkeys on Syfy.


Odds and Ends

A random potpourri, in no particular order:

  • I'm now nearly halfway through my once every decade rereading (listening to the audiobook, in this case) of 1984. This marks the fourth time I've gone through the novel, and once again I am amazed at the new insights I gained on each successive reading. At the same time, I'm also working my way through Amazon's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. It's doing wonders for my outlook on the world right now. I almost feel as though a rereading of Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is now also in order.

  • This past Sunday marked the first heavy metal concert I ever attended. Admittedly, Ghost is at most borderline-metal, but their sacrilegious occult shtick has garnered them a following in metal fandom. Anyway, I had a hell of a time (sorry about the pun) and look forward to seeing them live again. I'm sure my enjoyment of the show was only enhanced by the venue -- the Hippdrome near Baltimore's Inner Harbor. I feel like I should post a photo or two I took of the interior before the show started, but in lieu of that let me just say that the oligarchs of the late 19th century Gilded Age did one thing right: they didn't spare any expense on the buildings they commissioned. Today's newly crowned oligarchs could learn a thing or two from their predecessors.

  • Just so I have it more readily accessible in the future. a Facebook status I posted as I was leaving for the Ghost concert:

    Sally: "You don't look very metal."

    Me: "Quick -- give me the eyeliner the kids gave you this morning for Mother's Day. No, wait... That's goth. Never mind."

  • Pinkish Black, the opening act for Ghost, was quite possibly the worst band I've ever heard play live. They were aggressively, unapologetically, in-your-face bad. They were a two-person act, with just drums and synthesizers, and frequently it seemed like the two of them were just doing their own thing with little regard to what the other guy was playing. While listening to them, I was suddenly filled with the certainty that liberal use of a theremin would only have enhanced their music. I'm fairly confident that previous sentence has never before been uttered or committed to paper or pixels in the history of the English language.

  • One final tidbit from the Ghost concert: as my friend Dave and I sat in our seats, one of the teens next to us just said, "Now I feel like my dad is here." At that moment, I couldn't imagine the evening going any better.

  • Today marks the 14th straight day of measurable rain in the DC region. This stretch has easily eclipsed the previous record of 10 consecutive days with measurable rainfall and is very likely to continue for another few days at least. I suppose the silver lining is that we haven't had to turn on the air conditioner once yet.

  • From the end of 2011, after I initially removed all the excess weight I had been carrying for years, through the end of last year, my weight has fluctuated in a 30-pound range -- which I'm certain runs somewhat counter to my goal of taking better care of myself. However, in the five months since early December I've kept it within a much smaller 10-pound ban-- this is the longest stretch of stability at a relatively healthy weight in my adult life (I've had longer stretches at far less healthy weights.) This range is still roughly 5-10 pounds where I'd like to maintain, but in the grand scheme of things I don't think I'll be disappointed in myself if I don't manage to make that particular adjustment.

2016 Stuff Read, #s 9-11

I suppose that in the light of today's Hugo news, it somehow seems appropriate that none of the three books below are ones I truly enjoyed.

9. Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin (audiobook)

I love most of Le Guin's work, but this won't be a novel that I plan to return to someday. I can see why it won a couple awards and why other readers enjoyed it. However, it just didn't appeal to my sensibilities despite the fact that I genuinely liked the title character.

10. Nevermore, by Rob Thurman

I've now stuck with this series through 10 books, and I think that this is the first one that left me feeling nonplussed. I think that Thurman finally hit the limit of credibility as to how much more she could increase the potential threat to the series protagonists -- quite a feat given that this is an urban fantasy series. The next one is supposedly going to be the last, so I will probably read it for the sake of completion. However, I can't help but think I really should have stopped after one of the earlier installments which contained a decent stopping point.

11. On the Edge of Gone, by Corinne Duyvis

I wanted to enjoy this book far more than I did, given that the protagonist was high-functioning autistic. Unfortunately, I found myself skimming at times. It wasn't a bad book, but it wasn't one that particularly grabbed me. It certainly didn't help that one element of the ending was simply nonsensical.


This Year's Hugo Disaster

It's not often that it happens, but occasionally I forgo caution and allow myself to just be optimistic about something for no good, discernible reason. That's exactly what I did when I found out that there were 4,032 nominating ballots for the Hugo Awards this year, a new record. I thought it would be enough to drown out the voices of Vox Day and his sick, twisted group of hateful minions and their efforts to subvert a literary award I've held dear for nearly three decades.

I've had the irrational optimism spiked so hard into my face that my forehead bears a reverse imprint of the manufacturer logo that graced the volleyball which harbored that exuberance.

I can't begin to state just how much today's announcement of the 2016 final ballot saddens me. It boggles my mind that any individual or group of people can take such gleeful, twisted pleasure in angering and upsetting others. It angers me that for the second year in a row, the three short fiction categories have been completely hijacked by people who want to turn the Hugo Awards into a game, proving how much they don't really care about the award. I'm bewildered at the notion that they think they are achieving some noble purpose in ruining an award with such a long, distinguished history.

Yes, there will almost certainly be rule changes this year, and, hopefully, today's ballot is the last, desperate act by a bunch of people who will probably get a perverse thrill at their "accomplishment" for the rest of their lives. Sadly, there's no way to judge that until next year's ballot is announced. In the meantime, we're going to have another year where "No Award" either wins or places far too high in too many of the categories.

Fuck Vox Day. Fuck him and all his little Rabid Puppy followers who are barely any more human than oligotrophic pond scum.

My Non-Neurotypical Prejudices

Although I've never received an official diagnosis, I have plenty of good reasons to suspect that I am in fact high-functioning autistic. In particular, I'm likely in the part of the spectrum formally denoted as Asperger's Syndrome. During the process of getting the man-child tested for autism and his subsequent treatment and aid, I've had this suspicion validated by a few professionals who were and are working with him. Yet, I don't feel the need for an official diagnosis as I've been incredibly fortunate in some of the friendships I've made as an adult. The guidance and input I've received by those in my life have provided a good deal of training and insight that allow me to navigate the neurotypical world far more easily than I did as a child and teen.

That's not to say that I don't see the value of a potential diagnosis and professional assistance. I'm just not certain that the amount of time in energy in engaging in such a process will be fully justified by what I could gain from it. I say this because I never use my non-neurotypical tendencies as a simple excuse for behavior and statements that cause issues with others. Instead, whenever a situation arises where I've inadvertently offended and/or confused someone, I reach out and ask for guidance so that I'm less likely to make the same mistake in the future. It's resulted in an oddly paradoxical situation for me: I care deeply about the feelings of others and try to respect them, even though I frequently don't display or experience empathy in the way that I sense that I should.

By necessity, I became more selfless and kept my ego in check as I underwent this learning process. It's vital if you're going to interact with others in a fashion that's not instinctual and to accept criticism intended to help you learn. That doesn't mean that I'm a completely altruistic. In fact, I still harbor some rather intense feelings of intellectual superiority. But, I see it as a weakness of sorts; a prejudice I constantly persevere against.

As a result, I'm certain that a good deal of this is part of the reason why I've steadily gravitated further to the left of the political spectrum as I've gotten older. To me, a core governing philosophy of liberalism is one of empathy and understanding; working towards a greater good is a logical extension of all that. Yet, I think my learning process has produced a somewhat unintended side effect. I have come to see conservatism, with its emphasis on rugged individualism, as a condescendingly selfish and lazy political philosophy.

I know that such an assessment is highly prejudicial/judgmental. I do actually understand why someone would choose such a way to view the world, and I would go so far as to state that it's not a completely immoral filter to guide your actions and beliefs -- so long as you are not actively using it to justify intentionally maltreating others. However, it jarringly runs counter to all my efforts to be more understanding, empathetic, and easily understood. In short, I've worked hard to work with the world around me, and I see how much happier it's made me. Thus, when I see someone metaphorically (and sometimes literally) giving the middle finger to society and saying their individual wants are far more important than the notion of societal good, some of my intellectual snobbery starts mutating into moral snobbery.

In other words, how dare such a person state that no one should have work as coexisting with others and learning how to play nice? What the hell is wrong with such people?

Look, I know that reaction is a fault that lies within me. This is my prejudice. It's just that it's one what I'm finding a lot harder to overcome than nearly all of the others I've harbored and learned to overcome. The funny thing is that over time, I've had to  learn how not to take intense discussions and debates over hot button issues personally -- it's another of my non-neurotypical quirks that has caused me trouble in the past. Yet, this prejudice is different because it actually is personal in a way that arguing over the deregulation of the American banking system isn't.

I don't know how successful I will ever be in overcoming the intellectual and moral prejudices inherent in the way my brain's OS is coded. I will certainly keep trying, though, as I've figured out other ways to alter and overcome my programming. I just wish other "neurotypical" individuals would work as hard as I have at playing nicely with others.

"Does Carrying A Pistol Make You Safer?"

“A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
– Agent K, Men in Black

Margaret: “What are you, darling? Where's your costume?”
Wednesday: “This is my costume. I'm a homicidal maniac; they look just like everyone else.”
Addams Family (1991 movie)

The first half of “Does Carrying A Pistol Make You Safer?” aired on NPR’s Morning Edition, which led to me find it in its entirety online (note: the audio version is notably different from the text version.) I suppose that to a degree I’m glad I read and heard both pieces this because it gave me an insight into the thought processes of people who feel it absolutely necessary to carry concealed firearms. However, some of the interviewees’ statements left me at various moments feeling appalled, saddened, flustered, and angry.

These people are clearly living in fear and are convinced that carrying a gun will make them safer. Unfortunately, as the piece so clearly illustrates, carrying a concealed weapon changes the way one views the world around them. They are constantly performing risk/threat assessment and stereotyping in an effort to differentiate potential bad guys from potential good guys. Worse, they are teaching their children to view the world through fear-tinted prisms – one mother stated, “When we go to a restaurant, my 9-year-old [is thinking] who looks suspicious? What are people doing? What’s an anomaly? Let’s point out people in their cars. We make a game of it, of who can find somebody in their car just sitting there.”

Hearing that made my stomach feel as though I had just driven far too fast over the crest of a hill.

Look, I understand that everyone wants to feel safer, and as a parent I want the world to be a safer place for my son. However, this just strikes me as all wrong. It’s a terrible thing to live in fear, but I just don't get the sense that carrying that gun is making things any better. They may “feel” safer, but their statements belie that belief. I can’t imagine walking into any situation – restaurant, movie theater, concert, etc. – and performing a basic risk assessment by noting the location of all the exits and scanning for potential threats. On top of that, the thought of periodically rechecking my surrounding to reassess everything sounds absolutely draining. I don’t have the inclination or the time, and, quite frankly, such a mindset strikes me as defeatist. You go looking for threats all the time, and you’re going to find them, whether they are legitimate or not.

It’s those wrongly-determined threats that are truly appalling. One of the interviewees stated, “I pay attention to different people, weird people, maybe stereotype people,” and went on to add that he was looking for “Gangbanger-looking guys, maybe guys that look like they’re up to no good or somebody that may think they’re a Muslim extremist or something like that.” I’m sorry, but from my perspective, this ammosexual sounds like more of a bad guy than the overwhelming majority of strangers I run into in everyday life. In fact, stereotyping doesn’t mean shit. The fact is that most mass shootings have been committed by white men, and white men are scarcely ever stereotyped as gangbangers or potential Muslim terrorists.*

But that barely begins to address the issues I have with people who are putting their individual need to feel safe, regardless of the cost, above everyone else’s. To these people, I ask the following: How do I know that you’re not the bad guy with the gun? How do I know that you’re not the one who will pull-and-shoot in response to a situation where it wasn’t warranted at all? You do realize, don’t you, that I view you as a stranger and that the fact you have a gun makes me feel less safe? Or, is it that your need to feel safe completely trumps everyone else’s need to feel safe?

Of course, it’s well understood that we as human beings are awful at personal risk assessment. The majority of gun violence occurs in the home. Furthermore, you are far more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident than you are to be shot at in a public setting. Yes, mass shootings are horrifying and we should be doing more to stop them, but the fact is that there are many other lethal threats in your everyday life that we do almost nothing about. People who are carrying guns to feel safer have woefully, erroneously prioritized the ways to protect themselves.

I know that there isn’t a single thing here that hasn’t been said countless times before and will be repeated countless times in the future. It just continues to bewilder and frighten me that there are people in this world who view the world and interact with it in such a manner. I suppose that it is understandable – I know full well that we all operate with different operating systems and that these operating systems can be somewhat incompatible with each other. I just continue to vainly wish that more people took the time to stop and attempt to the best of their abilities to understand the intricacies of the world around them rather than simply react and then defend that reaction.

* It amuses me to think that the man who made the statement about stereotyping might be one of those men who gets personally insulted when a woman states that she has to treat all men as potential rapists – a risk assessment which, in my opinion, is both defensible and totally understandable.

Five Years Ago, Today

Five years ago, on this date, I embarked on yet another attempt to properly take care of myself by eating better and exercising regularly. At that time, I weighed more than I ever had in my life, and I had just discovered that statins, the primary drug for controlling high cholesterol, caused all the side effects that suggested the treatment was possibly worse than the chronic condition. Amazingly, unlike all the previous attempts, I made this effort stick, and I'm actually still hovering within a couple of pounds within the goal weight I originally set for myself. I take less than half the blood pressure medication I used to, and my cholesterol numbers are relatively good without the use of any medication (though admittedly still a little higher than my doctor is comfortable with.)

Yet, five years of basically maintaining a healthy lifestyle hasn't made doing any of the right things any easier. In fact, it's disconcertingly easy to find myself reverting to my "fat bastard" default setting -- something I've allowed numerous times and just happened again. For the past couple weeks, I've been eating rather badly, but at least I've maintained the exercise routine, which has helped minimize the weight gain. As a result, I didn't step on the scale today in an effort to hide from myself some of the self-inflicted damage, letting a few of the extra pounds quickly disappear unseen while I reassert my healthy eating patterns. Thankfully, as far as these mini setbacks go, this one was rather minor, and if I do everything right over the next few weeks, the recently added excess should come back off.

Incidents like this reinforce the bewliderment I feel when I hear people who say things like, "If I don't go to the gym and/or eat badly for a few days in a row, I just don't feel right." Nope; eating badly and sedentary living feel quite nice. In fact, many mornings it's still a struggle to drag myself to the gym, and I make it a point to not even bother keeping certain types of food in the house because I just can't exert any kind of reasonable self-control when they're around. I keep wondering when these efforts magically transform into some kind of ingrained good habit/routine that I easily maintain.

But, today is not a day to dwell on the negatives. I can state without a hint of exaggeration that I've been in better shape for the entirety of my 40s (thus far) than I was for nearly all of my 20s. I'm happier with my appearance and self-image than I've been at any other time of my life, and that is the result of five years of perseverence and hard work. I've overcome each of the occassional setbacks, and despite the difficulties that never seem to get easier to overcome, there is no reason to believe that I can't continue to do the right things -- even when I really don't want to. As a result, I have every reason to expect that in another five years I'll be able to write another post very similar to this one.