Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Thoughts on “The Templars”

November 16, 2018

So, quite a while ago I read “The Templars” by Dan Jones. I’ve long held an interest in knights, and had heard a number of things about the Templar Order, and so thought that this would be a good book to get an introduction to them and find out some interesting things about them. My overall impression of the book is that it wasn’t bad for that, but really just made me want to go out and find a different book about the Templars for comparison.

The issue is that while the book follows the history of the Templars from their inception to their downfall, it does seem to have a bit of a bias towards the Templars. The scandals that brought them down, especially, are presented as being complete frame jobs that are politically motivated. Which they probably are. But the book takes such a strong position on that that it makes me wonder what, if any, of the accusations were true or had merit. Which then mostly makes me want to read a more neutral account of it to see if what Jones expresses is the mainstream historical view or if he’s taking a more pro-Templar side in all of this.

Still, it’s not a bad introduction to the Templars and was a relatively easy and fun read, not very boring and not too detailed so that I got swamped in the details. I’ll probably read it again at some point.

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Thoughts on “Colony”

November 15, 2018

So the first Ben Bova novel I’m going to look at is “Colony”. The basic idea of the story is that there is a big artificial colony called “Island One” in space, which is attempting to build a more ideal structure or society because Earth itself is wracked by political strife, with the big cities mostly abandoned with those who stay caught up in crime, violence, and starvation, with the planet run by a council whose members, other than the leader, are generally more concerned with their own self-interest than that of the planet, with terrorists fighting to gain independence and necessities, and the corporations trying to sabotage countries and the council using even the weather — with weather-making machines — to do so.

Bova talks a lot about technology in his world-building, especially the sorts of things he talked about in “The High Road”, like Solar Power Satellites. He also does a good job of creating an interesting set of political and social situations on Earth, using that to drive a lot of the drama. This is what generally works the best. The problem with the book is that it focuses a lot on the personal lives of two characters. The first is David Adams, who is the first genetically perfect test tube baby, born on Island One and who has never been to Earth until the events of the novel. The second is Bahjat, the daughter of one of the council members and a terrorist leader. Unfortunately, neither of these characters is all that interesting, and so their love affair isn’t interesting either. For the most part, it often seems like their stories get in the way of the more interesting one, despite the resolution of it being critical to resolving the main story.

Despite that, though, the book is interesting. It starts in the middle of the action, but Bova does a good job filling us in on the details without boring us. As I said, the political situation is interesting and the book flows well despite its main characters not being all that interesting. I liked it a lot better than any of the 2016 Hugo Award winners and would almost certainly read it again at some point.

Thoughts on “Guns, Germs and Steel”

October 22, 2018

So the last of the historical works that I decided to work through was “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond. This book made the rounds of all the progressive circles that I occasionally frequent a while ago, if I recall correctly, which is why it stood out to me when I was browsing historical books a long, long while back. But for the life of me I can’t really remember why they were talking about it, except that I think they liked it. After reading it, I think I know what about it interested them, but let me give my overall assessment of the book first.

The big problem with this book is that I think it’ll have a hard time finding an audience. The book is too technical and detailed for a casual history fan like myself who just wants to know or find out some interesting things or theories about the rise of civilizations. It takes on too many areas in too much detail and spends too much time trying to prove its case to be just an interesting read. However, for anyone who really wanted to be able to assess Diamond’s thesis it’s no where near detailed enough, nor does it spend enough time linking the myriad details presented in the work to the overall hypothesis. So a serious scholar looking to assess Diamond’s theory will find it sorely lacking details, while the casual reader will find it to be absolutely swarming in details that aren’t all that interesting. In both cases, the failure to directly link the details to an overall hypothesis hurts the work because all audiences will at least spend some time wondering what some detail actually has to do with anything the work wants to talk about.

So, what is that overall hypothesis? Well, one of the problems with the book is that the book doesn’t really seem to know what that thesis is … or, rather, that it doesn’t really want to come out and tell us what that is. From the start, Diamond presents the work as aiming to simply figure out why one area in particular came to be dominant over most of the rest of the world, starting from the proximate cause of “guns, germs and steel” — weaponry and diseases — to get down to the heart of the matter. He even apologizes for taking on a question that could lead to a racist conclusion, that being that there are differences in the people themselves that explain that. Well, that sounds interesting, and potentially risky. But as the work goes along it becomes clear that his main goal is to actually refute the racist conclusion and to demonstrate that it wasn’t differences in the people that were responsible for that. He raises it initially as a question that he somewhat hand waves an objection to, but by the end of the book he’s taking it on directly. But nothing in the early stages of the book sets us up for this, which really makes me wonder why he didn’t just say from the beginning that he was taking on that idea and even to say that he thinks that geography plays a far larger role than biological differences. If he wasn’t so blatant about it later, this wouldn’t matter, but by the end he is addressing it directly despite dancing around it up to that point, which makes it stand out.

On top of that, without that direct challenge to the racist conclusion, his hypothesis isn’t all that interesting or controversial. It essentially boils down to the fact that a number of peoples who stayed in the hunter/gatherer mode instead of moving to towns or the more “civilized” mode did so primarily because geographical factors made that move at the very least impractical if not impossible. At a minimum, the geography meant that towns and so on weren’t obviously more beneficial than the hunter/gatherer models that they were using at the time. The reasons for this can be interesting, such as it being the case in the Americas that there were few remaining large animals that they could domesticate for use in agriculture (although I find his reasoning for this — that they were too trusting and so were hunting into extinction — a bit specious). But overall it’s a mildly interesting theory that I might listen to at a party but not one that I want to spend a 400 page book reading about, which includes a survey of all areas to try to explain all of those things. It’s only if one is attached to the idea that it has to be biological differences that one would really care about his theory, which is precisely why it is so baffling that he doesn’t focus on that more throughout the entire book and be obvious that that is the theory he is directly challenging.

Even his refutation of the racist conclusion is lacking, however. While all of those factors certainly were the base causes of the distinctions, most people who care about the racist conclusion do so because of its implications for today. And since those geographical distinctions persisted for thousands of years, those conditions could have an evolutionary impact, and so the people could indeed have different capabilities today based on how they lived for those thousands of years. Diamond even ends up at least the specter of this while trying to show that the people of a particular area that he worked with are as smart as we are. He does so by appealing to them being able to do spatial mapping that he and most Westerners wouldn’t be capable of, explaining it as being necessary for them to survive. But if that’s the case then that would have been selected for and the sorts of capabilities that are necessary for our Western societies wouldn’t have been, and so it might still be the case that their biology makes them less capable for our world as our biology makes us less fit for theirs. Or it could just be the result of lots of practice. Either way, he leaves much room open for those who want to claim biological differences while spending too much time arguing against that for people who have no attachment to that hypothesis.

At the end of the day, it was an okay book. I didn’t hate reading it, but it didn’t thrill me either. I highly doubt it will get the 3+ reads that “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” got.

And that’s the last of my history reading. As already stated, I’m now reading some older science fiction by Ben Bova, which is a huge departure from the formal academic stuff that I’ve been reading for the past while. Hopefully, I’ll also find it more enjoyable, if less educational.

Back to (old) SF …

October 15, 2018

So I’ve updated my reading list. As you know by now, I’ve finished my third read-through of “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, and in addition to that I’ve finished reading “Guns, Germs and Steel” (I’ll comment on that book in the near future). This pretty much clears out my list of historical books that I wanted to read. Thus, I need to decide what I’m going to read next.

I actually have a historical book left to read, about the battle of Waterloo. I picked it up in Chapters recently while browsing for books. But I think I’ve read enough history for a while, and so wanted to do something different. The biggest non-fiction thing on the list is my long, long list of philosophical works that I want to read, but I wasn’t really in the mood for that. I considered just taking a break from trying to get things finished and just read the X-Wing books, but I tend to read those in December and it’s not quite December yet. So I’d still like to try to get something read that I can say that I made progress reading things and to generate content for the blog before taking a break from that with something that is simply pure enjoyment.

So I kinda split the difference. A while ago I went through all of my books and divided them into a number of boxes that contained books that I definitely wanted to read in the near future, books that I might want to read at some point, and books that I would never read again. I have hundreds of books in the first two categories. Among them was a collection of Ben Bova novels, whom I discovered after reading and enjoying his non-fiction work “The High Road”, which talked about using solar power satellites to solve power generation problems. Since I noted the name, I started buying fiction books that he had written. So I have ten of those, and while doing the sorting figured that I should just sit down and read them all at some point. This seemed like a good opportunity to do so. I also decided to finally read “The Mote in God’s Eye” and “The Gripping Hand” that I bought during my rant at the Hugos and and started reading but abandoned because I wanted to read some things just for fun. Since I’m now reading things not just for fun, it seemed like a perfect time to add it to the list and get one more thing accomplished.

I’m treating these like the Sheckley books I read last year: I’m going to read the books and see how well they hold up today and how much I personally enjoy them. The interesting thing is that with the Bova books I might well have read some of them before, but don’t really remember it. I had a tendency to buy books and never get around to reading them (hence some of the Sheckley works, actually). I did this less when I was really young, but more as I got older and had less time to read and more time and money to buy books, and so kept getting distracted by new and old things. Part of that sorting of books was to sort out the books that I should have read at some point but probably never did. So it’ll be interesting to see which of them I remember and which of them I don’t, which wasn’t the case for Sheckley because the only book I remember reading was “The Status Civilization”, and was pretty sure I didn’t read any of the others.

So watch for comments on these to appear in the near future (obviously, these books are easier to read than 1000+ historical texts [grin]).

Thoughts on “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”

October 12, 2018

So, it took a while, but I did manage to finish reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for the third time. However, this time was interesting because I read it right after reading “The Storm of War”, and I was interested in seeing how I’d feel reading this book immediately after that one. But it worked out really well. “The Storm of War” focused more on the events during and after WWII, while “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” focuses a lot more on the lead up to the war, as one might expect. So while some of their events overlapped, they really complemented each other. In hindsight, it would have been better to read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” first and then read “The Storm of War” to fill in the details of the later parts of the war that Shirer skims over, but it works out pretty well regardless.

For such a heavy book — both in terms of content and in actual weight — “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is a remarkably entertaining and accessible read. Shirer mixes in some personal insights with detailed descriptions of events as well as copious quotes from actual memos and other documents, and yet the book rarely seems dry or technical. Shirer’s writing style works well, and he organizes the book in such a way that, in general, one set of events follow from the previous ones so you really do seem to be just progressing through history. In general, it’s a solid read.

I also recommend that people who are interested in calling other people Nazis read this book, because it gives a detailed yet mostly unbiased view of how Nazis worked and why things turned out the way they did. For example, anyone who wants to insist that one of the main reasons Nazism managed to expand was because they weren’t punched enough will note that violence was a common strategy used by all parties in the elections, and that even though they killed more members of other parties the Nazis at least claimed to have had a significant number of deaths as well. The big differentiator was the control of the media, which had been used against the Nazis until they managed to get enough government power to use those controls against their opponents. It also shows how deeply and how shallowly most Nazis adhered to Nazi values, making things more complicated than they might appear at first. For the most part Shirer avoids psychological explanations for the phenomenon and just outlines what people believed, taken at least in part from his own personal experiences, which makes them extremely valuable.

All in all, it’s a great book, and might be the best historical book that I own. Despite it being over 1000 densely packed pages, it is clear that I will eventually read it again for the fourth time.

Some General Thoughts and a Longer Dragon Age 2 Discussion

September 26, 2018

So, there was a bad storm out here recently, and I lost power for an extended period of time. Not being able to do most of my regular pass-times I instead did a little light reading: “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (I took a short break to read the entire comic series “Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man” at one point). This, of course, worked out really well for my general reading, as I went from about 600 pages before the weekend to sitting at over 1000 today, when the book was going slowly not because it was a bad book but because it is a rather heavy book — in both content and actual size, since I’m reading a hardcover version of it — and so I can only get through a relatively small number of pages in an evening. But now I’m almost finished, and then that just leaves “Guns, Germs and Steel” out of my list of historical books and then that list will be finished! Right now, after that I’m planning to turn to fiction and read my collection of Ben Bova books, and instead of going on to philosophy after that I’m thinking about going through some serious literature for a while. But that’s in the future, and the X-Wing books will have to go in there somewhere.

Of course, being without power didn’t do wonders for my watching DVDs. However, I had just finished watching Dynasty — I’ll put up my final thoughts on that Monday — and have started watching Wonder Woman. Yes, I’ve comitted to finishing it this time. I’m working my way through She-Ra, and can’t wait to finish that one, for reasons that I’ll expound on at length when I talk about the series as a whole. So that’s still going along.

If you’ve been following my list of video games, you’ll note that I’ve put the Persona games on hold and started playing Dragon Age: Origins again. So far, I’ve finished my Dwarf Noble playthrough and am now working on finishing my Dalish Elf (she’s an archer, which is a bit of a different playstyle for me. I think I might need to start bringing along two warriors instead of having only one — Alistair — and then bringing along Leiliana). But you also might have noticed that after that I mentioned Dragon Age 2 and talk about it being an “Analysis run”. What’s all that about? Well, at work I was listening to a lot of Chuck Sonnenberg’s old video game reviews while working, and that included his Dragon Age 2 run. The first time I had watched it, I had disagreed with some of his conclusions in Act 2 and Act 3, but at the the time didn’t really go into it because some of them were things that I kinda griped about in my own thoughts on the game. I think, though, that it might be worth taking a look at them again and replaying the game with that in mind.

I’ll outline the two main issues here, but will revisit them and go into more detail on them later. The first is that in I think Act 2 — I’ll look it up more specifically when I directly address it — Chuck comments that Dragon Age 2 was the canary in the coal mine for Bioware. What he means by that is that DA2 was the first game where there was a huge discrepancy between professional review scores and player review scores, with professional reviews rating it so much higher than the players did. This was only exacerbated in Mass Effect 3. While I think he’s right about that, I don’t think that it was the canary in the coal mine for, at least, the issues that led to it. I think that honour belongs to Mass Effect 2, because as outlined in Shamus Young’s massive treatise on the Mass Effect games Mass Effect 2 was the game that moved away from giving you interesting choices and having those choices matter and instead towards railroading the character into doing what the writer wanted, which in that case was work for Cerberus. Chuck laments that choice was an illusion in DA2 but at least there that your actions couldn’t prevent the times to come was itself an important part of the story, as it seems to me that DA2 definitely aimed at being far more of a tragedy than the first game was, and in a tragedy no matter what you do you won’t be able to stop the tragedy from happening, either because it is inevitable no matter what you do or else because the reactions of the characters in the story will always be ones that lead to it due to their natures. They’re just not capable of doing the things they need to do to prevent it because those things are so anathema to their own personalities and who they think they are and how they think the world should work, and thus they create their own downfall due to who they are as people.

But Mass Effect 2 was not a tragedy. The player is not forced into working with Cerberus due to their own character, and in fact their own character likely would forestall them from actually doing it. Nothing in the characterization from Mass Effect suggests that the Council would ignore the Reaper problem after one attacks them on their doorstep, that the Alliance would simply abandon their colonies that are under Collector attack, that Cerberus is interested in them, is trustworthy enough to work with, or is even competent enough to make a difference here, or that Shepard would even consider working for them and not returning to the Council anyway. ME2 derails the plot and characters to make this fit, but covers it up with cool characters that you want to play with. DA2, instead, builds the railroading into the story but doesn’t have the interesting characters to make that more palatable.

Which leads to the second issue. In Act 3, I believe, Chuck comments that given all that’s happened in DA2 he can’t understand why Hawke doesn’t just leave, and that he/she only stays because they’re railroaded into it. Shamus, on the other hand, remarks that there is no reason for Shepard to work with Cerberus at all and only stays with them because the game won’t let them quit. The thing is, I think that unless you’re a character that is mercenary to the point where even Isabella would look at you funny, DA2 actually is careful to give almost all characters plenty of reasons to want to stay. First, Hawke for almost all of the game has family that they care about in Kirkwall, from your surviving sibling to your mother. Even in Chuck’s playthrough, Hawke isn’t likely to leave as long as Bethany is still in the Kirkwall Chantry. Second, even if your family is all dead — as mine was in my playthrough — you have friends that can’t leave as easily. Avelline, for example, is captain of the guard, while Varric still has some contacts there. I’d mention Anders’ seeming attachment to the place, but does anyone consider him a friend in that game [grin]? Third, you have a family estate and history there that you’ve recently reclaimed. That’s a reason to stick it out there instead of simply giving up that thing that you did so much work to get back, and that was very important to your mother. Fourth, it wasn’t that long ago that you had to uproot yourself and begin a new life elsewhere. Now that Kirkwall is finally feeling like a home again, Hawke might not be anxious to pack everything up and start over again. And, finally, Kirkwall’s not even all that bad compared to the rest of Thedas. What we have are unstable situations and one really disastrous event — the end of Act 2 with the Qunari — in the number of years you’ve been there. Ferelden, where you came from, had a civil war in the middle of a Blight. And a lot of the simmering issues in Kirkwall are simmering elsewhere as well. Hawke has some power and authority here and so is likely to think that at least they can make a difference here, which isn’t possible elsewhere. So almost all characters can find some reason to stay and try to make Kirkwall work rather than moving on.

Compare that with ME2. The main issue is disappearing colonists that no one seems to care about and that Shepard really has no reason to care that much about either. Cerberus is at best a small-time organization from the first game, and at worst is at best incompetent and at worst evil. Joining Cerberus actually causes Shepard to have less authority — because no one trusts Cerberus and so are reluctant to help someone working with them — than they would if they went back to the Council or the Alliance. Moreover, the Reapers are the bigger threat and one that Shepard should be more interested in pursuing. Yes, the two plots tie into each other, but no one seems to know that at that point in the game. ME2 doesn’t really give you any reason to think that working with Cerberus is going to in any way help you achieve any of your goals.

When we look deeper at DA2, we can see that the motivations were actually there, while when we look deeper at ME2 we can see that the shallow motivations it gives make no sense. DA2 might have failed to make the emotional connection, but from a plot and characterization standpoint we can see that it did the work to add the things to the story that we could then use to drive us forward. However, deciding that is the point of the “Analysis run”: to play the game with this in mind and see if it does or doesn’t work and what the game itself actually does here. It’ll take a while for me to get there — I do want to finish the DAO stories first, and then pick one to start from — but that’s the goal, at any rate.

Historic Hugos

August 24, 2018

So, recently, the 76th Hugos happened, and contained a historic event: N.K. Jemisin won her third straight “Best Novel” Hugo, having won a Hugo for each of the books in her “Broken Earth” trilogy. Both “sides” in the recent Hugo/Sci-Fi conflict immediately declared victory, with The Guardian declaring that her win “signals and end to the influence of the rightwing “Puppies” groups” — despite the fact that her first win came when they were definitely active and influencing things (triggering a rules change) and her second win probably did as well — while Vox Day declared that that is what victory looks like, because her triple win shows that the Hugos have no credibility. So, with both sides declaring victory and both sides being willing to accuse the other of claiming victory only to avoid admitting defeat — or, as is more likely to be the case coming from Day, that they are too stupid to realize that they actually lost — which side is right? In my view, I think that Vox Day’s side is more right. Why do I say that? Well, as Tony Dunst might say, let’s break it down:

What is responsible for Jemisin’s historic run of Hugo Award dominance? Well, what the anti-Puppy side would like you to believe is that she won that strictly on her own merits: she really is that good. Of course, I read the first book in her trilogy and wasn’t that impressed, but let’s put that aside for the moment and think about just how good she had to be to have this historic run simply on the basis of merit. She has won three straight Hugo Awards in three years, for each of the books in her trilogy. Winning three Hugos in a writing career is pretty impressive: looking it up on Google, Roger Zelazny only won two for Best Novel in his career (although he won a number of Hugos for novellas and novelettes), and none of those were for any of the books in his most famous work, the Amber series. He also was, in his career, 6 out of 17 in terms of winning when he was nominated, while Jemisin is 3 out of 6, which is an impressive win to nomination ratio. So even over an entire career Jemisin would have had an astounding achievement. To win a Hugo for each novel in a trilogy is also incredibly impressive; I don’t think it happens very often, if at all (I’m not inclined to Google to see if it has ever happened before, but again it’s almost certainly very rare). And she managed to churn out each novel in the trilogy in the span of three years, which is what allowed her to win three years in a row. Now, the thing is, writing good novels takes work. Jemisin herself says in her acceptance speech that she “works [her] ass off”. But work does not happen in a timeless vacuum. Work takes time. There’s editing, rewriting, reworking, proofing and a ton of other things that go into creating a novel. More skill, however, reduces this time. So Jemisin was able to shorten down the writing time sufficiently to get them out at a level of quality that trumped all other novels out there, including ones that had taken more time to edit and polish their works to get them into their presumably ideal states. Thus, Jemisin was able to produce works of such high quality while arguably not taking as much time to refine them as others did … three years in a row.

To judge this entirely on merit suggests, given all of that, that Jemisin would have to be the greatest science fiction and fantasy author who ever existed by a huge amount. Sure, to return to the comparison to Zelazny, he had nominations for multiple works in the same years and had nominations for consecutive years, some of which he won in both while Jemisin didn’t seem to do anything else in those years (or, at least, nothing that was nominated this year) but to not have anything else break her streak or to have a downturn in the quality of one of the works, again, would reflect incredible talent. And that isn’t all that plausible, even if you haven’t read her works.

So, another possibility is that while she had merit, the more plausible reason for her success is that there wasn’t really all that much competition. She was good and the alternatives were mediocre, and so she managed to get there because, really, every time the voting came around there just wasn’t anything better, but she shouldn’t really be considered that much of a historic great. This, to my recollection, is what happened with Steve Nash in the NBA. He’s a great player, and deserved to win the NBA MVP awards that he won, and almost did the same as Jemisin and won three straight which would have been historic, but few consider him to be the same caliber of superstar as Michael Jordan or Lebron James or Wilt Chamberlain or any of the other greats, and of the other greats that his winning the MVP award back-to-back places him in the same sentence as. In fact, I recall that when he looked like he might win the award back-to-back-to-back there was consternation for precisely that reason: he was getting it because he was the best available in all of those years, but his winning it would place him in a rarefied position that would imply that he was more of a superstar than he really was in historical context. (Meanwhile, the Hugos seem to be embracing that, definitely trying to imply the first case for Jemisin). But his back-to-back wins were seen as more a reflection of a lack of dominate competition than a straight reflection on his overall skills and dominance itself.

Now, given what I thought of the “Best Novel” nominees for the year she first won, this could be a plausible explanation. Jemisin’s work was good — or, at least, really, really liked by a large number of people — and there was no competition strong enough to overcome that and make it a challenge. This, of course, would not reflect well on modern science fiction and fantasy, and on top of that would mean throwing other authors like Naomi Novik, Anne Leckie, Jim Butcher and John Scalzi under the bus. And I do believe that Novik, Leckie and Butcher are all better at the writer’s craft than Jemisin, at least, even if their works aren’t necessarily more interesting or better overall. So claiming that they just weren’t very good writers or their work just wasn’t up to snuff seems odd; surely someone out there somewhere in science fiction land could write a work that deserved to win and was as good if not better than hers, especially since, well, her work doesn’t seem like that much of an overwhelming classic to me.

So, then, we can go back to the overarching debate and the fight against the Puppies, and come to what I think is the most plausible reason: she won to tweak the nose of the Puppies, and especially the nose of Vox Day. It seems like far too much of a coincidence that the person who came out on top here is the same person that, out of all the candidates, Vox Day most hates. He advocated for no awarding “The Fifth Element” and almost certainly all of the books in her trilogy and nastily insulted her at one point with an insult that he keeps repeating pretty much any time he talks about her. His feud with John Scalzi — who came in second this year — is civilized compared to how he treats her. So it is reasonable to think that a large factor in her wins are people, consciously or unconsciously, thinking about how much it would tick Day off to have her, the one he most dislikes, be the one to win and, presumably, to frustrate all of his designs … at which point he replies that having someone like that win three times in a row pretty much satisfies them, showing that it isn’t talent but politics that determines who wins the awards.

And that’s the real issue here, and why I think that Day’s side is more reasonable in declaring victory. For Jemisin to win three times in a row for all three books in her trilogy simply on merit is something that strains credulity. As her works, to most people, won’t rise above “Okay” — they may rise above that for people who have a personal interest in her themes — people will see this historic win — and everyone is going to want to advertise that historic win — and if they have managed to ignore all of the things that have been going on to this point will decide to try it out, and read these historically good works. This is the result of hype, which anyone trying to sell a product loves. But the problem with hype is that it sets out expectations, expectations that a merely “Okay” work won’t be able to fulfill. And so new people will read it, see that it’s not that historically brilliant … and wonder what was wrong with the Hugos to claim that the trilogy was simply that good to deserve its historic ranking. And thus will wonder what I already wondered: can I trust that Hugo Award really indicates the level of quality that it implies or has implied in the past?

Defenders of Jemisin and of the Hugos want to appeal to the Hugo Awards she’s won as a sign that her works are good, and by extension that, as she herself said in her speech, that minority authors can produce work that can be enjoyed by people who are not minorities themselves and so can be, presumably, marketable. Putting aside that it’s sales that matter there and not awards (I tried be failed to find sales figures for those books), that only works if people think that getting a Hugo Award is really an indication of quality. To elevate Jemisin’s works to such an astoundingly high level of quality that she achieves something that even the greats couldn’t do will hurt that because I think it safe to say that while some people may indeed enjoy them to that level they aren’t objectively at that level. I mean, “The Lord of the Rings” is almost certainly not that good. “Dune” is almost certainly not that good. Zelazny’s “Amber” series is not that good. None of the classic series or authors have ever managed to hit that level, and I don’t think Jemisin’s work is objectively that good. For some, it may be their favourite series ever, but it’s not the sort of series that everyone will agree is a classic above and beyond all other works ever even if they themselves don’t like it. And that’s what the wins imply.

Thus, this will weaken the credibility of the Hugos. Most people will have no rational choice but to conclude that it was some other factor than pure merit that is responsible for her win, because even if they haven’t read the trilogy it being simply that good is too incredible to believe. And then if they know or hear about the political battles — that the Guardian and Jemisin herself are quick to remind everyone of — they will naturally conclude that that was the main factor. And then the Hugos will be seen as politicized as opposed to merit-based. And that’s what both Puppies groups at least claimed was true of the Hugos and what their main gripe was. And if that’s what they wanted, this then would have proved their case.

That sounds like a victory, if not entirely the one they wanted. And I don’t see what other victory the anti-Puppies have that could balance that.

As for me … I have hundreds of books sitting in my spare room to read, along with hundreds more less interesting ones sitting in my basement. I think I’ll stick with them.

Thoughts on “The Storm of War”

August 17, 2018

So, I finished reading “The Storm of War” by Andrew Roberts. In a way, his book is directly comparable to Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, since it seems to recount WWII in a similar way, and with at least a potentially similar dual role: give an explanation for why the various “empires” fell while describing in some detail the events that occurred during it. But, at the end of it all, “The Storm of War” is a much more accessible work.

The biggest disappointment with the work is that while it starts out by claiming that what it is going to do is argue for a reason why Hitler failed, and at times reminds us that it is trying to do that at various points throughout the work, including in the conclusion, Roberts doesn’t, in fact, spend all that much time doing that. Most of the book is a fairly straight examination of the events that occurred in WWII, with little link to his actual thesis, and so most of the time you can forget what his actual thesis is. On top of that, his actual thesis is a relatively uncontroversial one: that the main impediment to Hitler and the Nazis actually achieving their goals was their own ideology, which caused them to not properly exploit the tensions in the Soviet Union by treating its subjugated peoples better and caused a number of other errors. This isn’t all that controversial in and of itself, so to make that interesting Roberts would have had to have given new evidence or new arguments or show how it caused their failures in a new and unique way. But since he gives it so little attention, he never does. This really makes his thesis seem like a “Well, we knew that already!” sort of conclusion. Thus, it’s probably better, if that was all he had, that he didn’t focus on it all that much.

And that, I think, is partly why it works better than Gibbon’s work. Roberts focuses on telling the story of WWII and telling it in an interesting and accessible way. He doesn’t bog things down with too many details — and, in fact, at times he seems to only lightly skim over some events — but that works for the book. If you want to find out the details of various events there are lots of other books that can provide that, but here you get a deeper look than most simple textbooks will give but not so deep a look that it gets bogged down. Without having a specific focus — like, say, “War at Sea” or “The Decisive Duel” have — it can’t really be expected to do much more. Thus, it’s a pretty entertaining and easy read.

Next up is “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” for something like the fourth time. This time, though, what will be interesting is that I’ll be re-reading it right after reading another book on WWII. Will that much WWII end up boring me? Will I notice discrepancies between the two, or will they all generally agree? I’ll have to see when I get through that book.

My Lists Are Long …

August 3, 2018

So, I’ve talked about the lists I’ve updated and created to try and get things done. The three lists that are on the blog are, well, all rather long, and also aren’t entirely complete. For example, I only have three hourly shows listed on my list of shows to watch on DVD despite the fact that I do indeed have a rather large library of DVDs to watch, that contain both shows that I’ve never watched and shows that I have watched but really want to watch again. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ll return to Knight Rider after finishing Dynasty, and so it might not even be accurate (the half-hour list is pretty much right). And when it comes to my reading list, I have a large number of philosophical works listed and, on top of that, have a number of works that count as “literature” that I want to slide in there at some point. Oh, and I’ve already mentioned the six+ boxes of fiction that I want to read. Essentially, I’m setting up lists that, if I try to complete everything on them, will likely take me years to complete.

I might be overthinking this a little …

That being said, I am making progress. I’ve made good progress on the history books that I wanted to complete, and so can expect to finish the list in a couple of months or so. He-Man has stalled a little since I started slipping Dynasty in as well, but that’s only because I’ve taken time away from it to watch Dynasty, which means that I’m about half-way through it. All I really need to do is live up to my bargain and actually watch the half-hour show in the evenings, after watching one or more episodes of the hourly show and hitting a convenient time point. And I’ve still made some progress on He-Man anyway, especially in the last few days. Finishing Persona was a coup, and I’ve started Persona 2 and am making progress with it … although it turns out that games are working out the worst, because every time I play Persona 2 it reminds me of how much better Persona 3 and Persona 4 are, and a number of things keep reminding me of other games that I’d like to play. Thus, I feel the most dissatisfied with the games I’m playing, and there actually isn’t an alternative like I had with “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”, which was to read it for an hour or so and then read Deadpool graphic novels in my general reading time. I don’t have free general game playing time nor do I have a lot of games that I could play in general spare time to at least let me play a game that I want to play or enjoy. The counter to that is that for video games there are far fewer games that would make me feel that way; Persona 2 is just a special case, and only because I like the modern Persona games that much more than them that it drags down my enjoyment of those games.

However, an issue with this is that I have little programming projects in the queue as well, but the pressure to finish these things tends to distract me from doing them. It’s not so much that I consider those things more important than the programming projects, but that I consider them at about the same level, and due to time constraints it doesn’t really work to do them in the early weekend afternoons like I had planned. What I’m finding is that my morning stuff plus cooking lunch plus cleaning up takes me just past the starting point for those projects, but then that wouldn’t leave me a lot of time before I’m supposed to play games (and I only have a few days to do that as well). I don’t want to delay playing games because a) I need the hours to get through them in any reasonable amount of time and b) I don’t want to play them too late because then I might not fall asleep that well. Plus, playing them too late would also cut into the time I can explicitly watch those DVDs. So it’s just easier for me to start playing earlier and then finish earlier, and I still get my watching and reading done as well. It just ends up cutting off all of those little projects, which then makes me feel bad that I’m doing nothing on them.

I think a reshuffling of my schedule is in the offing …

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how I progress with this and how satisfied I’ll be with the whole thing as time goes by. So far it hasn’t been terrible and it has been nice to finish some things that I’ve always wanted to finish, but there have been moments when the things that are supposed to be mostly fun haven’t actually been fun. We’ll have to see if they’re fun enough for me to still have some fun with things while still feeling that I’m progressing.

Thoughts on “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”

July 25, 2018

So, I managed to finish a version of “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon that was abridged by Hugh Trevor-Roper. I found that I really struggled to read the book, so much so that I ended up treating reading it like I was reading something for a course: I read about a chapter a day, and read other things in my more general reading time. This is not how I generally read history books. And all of this is despite the fact that I am in general interested in the Roman Empire. So what was it that so bored me about that book?

I think the main issue is that the books doesn’t really seem to have a focus. Gibbon uses lots of florid and evocative language and a lot of descriptive asides, which is not a bad thing, as long as we have a context for it. But Gibbon doesn’t seem to be just writing a descriptive narrative, telling us what happened in roughly chronological order, where we can see the asides as things that happen to come up in that discussion. He doesn’t even always follow a chronological order. However, he also doesn’t seem to have an overall thesis that he’s trying to convince us of, such as giving an explanation for why the Roman Empire fell that he is trying to prove, where we can see the asides as the details of things that we need to know to understand in order to see how the events fit into his thesis. So the descriptive asides are too long and detailed to be simply ignored as asides, but don’t seem to serve either the narrative of the events themselves or the overall thesis of the work. Because of that, I think I kept wondering why they were there and so felt that they were out of place and distracting from the book itself. If I was interested in what the asides were describing, it went better, but still the book really did seem to drag at times, which is why I enjoyed it more when I limited how much I was reading it.

My opinion is that the book would work well as a textbook, but not as a book that is just read. The descriptions and language mostly work, but what it lacks is the context to keep the descriptions interesting. As a textbook, the teacher/professor and the structure of the course would provide the context and allow the reader to skip over things that don’t add to the context they’re exploring. Trying to do this yourself for the entire work is far too difficult, especially since the events described might not fit what you’re interested in and so you’d be constantly struggling to find some meaning in what you’re reading, which is, well, pretty much what happened to me, actually.

I don’t regret reading the book, but I am very happy that I’ve finished it and am almost certainly never going to read it again.