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strangefate

Tower of Iron Will

All who enter the Tower regain 100 sanity points.

Currently reading

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
Randall Munroe, James Foreman, K. Sekelsky, Camron Miller, John Chernega, David Michael Wharton, K.M. Lawrence, Jeffrey C. Wells, Vera Brosgol, Kit Yona, J. Jack Unrau, Jeff Stautz, Aaron Diaz, Matthew Bennardo, Yahtzee Croshaw, Douglas J. Lane, Brian Quinlan, Kate Beaton

Damaged Saints

Bitter Angels - C.L.  Anderson, Sarah Zettel

Bitter Angels opens when a woman suffering from severe PTSD after being tortured as a prisoner of war is called back to active service to investigate the death of her mentor by a sort of interplanetary secret service called the Guardians. The story is set in a future where medical science has achieved human immortality, but access to it is heavily restricted. It is also possible to have an AI chip implanted in your brain that provides you with lifelong companion that only you can see and hear. It is a future where colony world populations exist as indentured slaves working to pay off debts for water and air that can never be paid off.

 

The plot of Bitter Angels involves a series of extremely byzantine plots and the main characters' attempts to unravel them while be continuously manipulated by the powers trying to keep their secrets. I cannot attempt to describe the plot without spoiling it, but suffice to say it is genuinely interesting and kept me guessing right up to the last chapters.

Opposing Forces in Balance

D&D MORDENKAINEN'S TOME OF FOES (D&D Accessory) - Wizards RPG Team

Mordenkainen's is a D&D supplement book organized into chapters based on pairs of related opposites. The idea here is that Modenkainen, who was a wizard character played by Gary Gygax himself, was not a champion of good or evil but rather of balance between the opposing forces of the multiverse. The book is very heavy on flavor text, which I like, and can be used to add depth to and inspire campaigns.

 

The first chapter deals with Devils and Demons, which are very different things in the world of D&D, and the ongoing Blood War between the lawful and chaotic factions of evil. I love the idea that Hell exists as a barrier protecting the universe against something even worse. Second is a long chapter about Elves and their evil splinter group the Drow. My main takeaway from this was that Elves have a remarkably mellow pantheon of gods who ask very little of their followers and expect to be asked for very little in return. I could get behind a religion like this. Dwarves and their evil splinter group the Duergar come next, not much new here other than the authors seem to have some sympathy for the Duergar, Next comes the Githyanki and Githzerai, the opposed factions of the Gith that travel the multiverse fighting the Mindflayers and each other. My favorite detail about the Githzerai is that they live in a city built on the corpse of a dead god floating in the Astral plane. The last of the flavor chapters is about Halflings and Gnomes. Based on what had come before I was so hoping that a massive lore change was coming in which it would be revealed that Halflings and Gnomes split off from the same race and that an ancient war was fought between the two groups. Alas, it was not to be. It appears that the authors only put the two groups together in one chapter to match the structure of the rest of the book.

 

The second half of the book is a bestiary with some new monsters and some updates. Shadar-kai are now a subgroup of Elves, which is a change I don't care for. Elves are Fey creatures and all Fey originate in the Feywild. Shadar-kai come from the Shadowfell. I liked them better as their own category of shadowy humanoids. The update to Trolls is interesting, with variants based on environmental mutation. The Sibriex is extremely gross and could be fun to use with its warp creature ability. Several commentators have made fun of the Giff, but I like these hippopotamus based humanoids with their sort of colonial era British military motif. I also enjoyed the look at the second tier dukes of Hell, like Bael, Hutijin, and Titivilus, and their psychological motivations.

 

TL/DR: Probably the best 5th edition supplement to date.

Life in a Sick-Box

Lincoln in the Bardo - George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo belongs to that rarest of fantasy sub-genres, novels about the society of ghosts living in a cemetery. Like Peter S. Beagle's 'A Fine and Private Place', the inhabitants of Oak Hill Cemetery are confused about their past and have some secrets. Like Neil Gaiman's 'The Graveyard Book' the ghosts are capable of cooperating and attempting to help each other. Like C. S. Lewis' 'The Great Divorce', the inhabitants linger due to their own stubbornness and refusal to face their present reality.

 

Bardo is one of the most oddly structured novels I have read, consisting entirely of first person narration by multiple characters, interspersed with brief quotes from historical books and articles about Abraham Lincoln. The plot is about the death of Lincoln's 11 year old son Willie Lincoln in 1862. The novel is a moving meditation on death and the necessity of facing the reality of death and moving on, for both the living and the dead.

All the Lore You Need

World of Warcraft Chronicle Volume 3 - BLIZZARD ENTERTAINMENT

The third volume of the World of Warcraft Chronicle covers events from the Third War up to the Cataclysm. Lots of details here about Illidan, the Lich King, Thrall and others. It clears up some questions I had but had never bothered to look up, such as how so many Blood Elves ended up in Outland.

 

Because the book is now covering events that took place in-game, the authors have to take major historical events that were preformed by players of both factions many many times in the game and present them as singular events performed by only one group. As a result some raids are attributed to the Horde and some to the Alliance, even though players of both factions do them regularly. I have to wonder if the authors flipped coins to pick between Alliance and Horde, or if they tried to find legitimate lore reasons for choosing one over the other.

A Right Good Laugh

Bad Machinery Volume 4: The Case of the Lonely One (Bad Machinery Gn) by John Allison (2015-10-23) - John Allison;

A new student at Griswalds Grammar has all the kids eating raw onions and repeating that he is a "right good laugh once you get to know him." It is up to Shauna Winkle to get to the bottom of the onion eating weirdness and fix this minor crisis.

Shining a Light on Dark Matter

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry - Neil deGrasse Tyson

Exactly as the title implies, this collection of essays is a breezy overview of the major topics of astrophysics for a general audience. If you have watched Tyson's update of the science television series Cosmos, then a lot of this will be familiar territory. Tyson's fascinations with particle physics, astronomy, and the deep history of life on Earth are covered here. His almost evangelical love of science is on display as well. I highly recommend the chapter on dark matter which provides a very clear explanation of a very murky topic.

Expanding the Circle

The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics - Mark Lilla

Lilla argues that the Democratic Party went down a blind alley after Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980. American liberals enjoyed about 40 years of success following a political vision articulated by Franklin Roosevelt. The idea of America presented by FDR and his successors, such as Kennedy and Johnson, was one of all American citizens working together to overcome adversity. This vision perfectly suited the Great Depression and World War II, and complemented the Civil Rights Movement. That vision was supplanted by Reagan's libertarian view of an America made up of independent individuals achieving success without help from anyone else. That vision of America better suited a time of economic prosperity and America's brief status as the world's only super power after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

 

Rather than articulate a new vision of collective action, American liberals perused identity politics. In identity politics the crucial factor is not what unifies people as Americans, it is the uncontrollable factors of birth that make people different from each other. Lilla describes this as the opposite of politics. Identity politics is about marches and rallies that make people feel proud of their unique group. Real politics is about doing the no-fun work of running for county commission seats and school boards and convincing people who are different than you that it is in both your interests to work together for the common good.

 

One the most appealing ideas of liberalism is the fact that it is about expanding the circle. Through out history liberals have worked to bring more groups into the circle while conservatives work to make the circle smaller. The United States began as a democracy where only land owning adult white males could vote. Over time that circle was expanded to include all white men, then men regardless of race, then all women. The conservative impulse is to exclude, to shrink the circle back down to just white people, just Christians, just men, just my family, and then the ultimate nadir of Trumpism: just me.

 

Identity politics is about creating new circles within the big circle. The Democratic Party seems like less of a unified party and more like the Women's Party, the African American Party, the Immigrant Party, and the LGBT Party which occasionally caucus together but do not have the same agenda. The obvious counter-argument to this is to argue that the Civil Rights and the Women's Rights movements were identity movements, but they were also about securing equal rights as American citizens.

 

Many pro-identity politics critics have dismissed Liila's argument because he is a white male and therefore unqualified to speak to issues affecting women and minorities. While that is a correct analysis of Lilla's identity, it assumes the truth of identity politics in order to defend identity politics. I do not believe Lilla is actually saying anything about any group within the world of identity politics, he is saying that all the groups need to get past self absorption and return to collective action for the good of all citizens.

 

The most optimistic development to come out of the Trump catastrophe is that more liberals are realizing they have to do the hard work of local and state politics to push back against the Republican machine that has allowed unqualified extremist candidates to get elected to local and national office. It is a lot easier to take a day off from work, make a clever sign, and march in a parade, but parades do not win local elections.

Preparing for the Inevitable

Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide - Cass R. Sunstein

Impeachment is not an anti-Trump screed, nor is it a dry dissertation on Constitutional law. Sunstein's book is an engaging exploration of the impeachment clause of the US Constitution, what the framers of the Constitution were thinking when they wrote it and how it has been interpreted over the years.

 

Having just rebelled against a monarchy, many of the attendees of the Constitutional Convention were apposed to any sort of executive leader. As a compromise a system was created to remove the President from office, but the system had to be difficult enough that impeachment did not become a tool of partisan fighting. Which is not to say that it has not been used for that purpose, see the Clinton impeachment. Policy disagreement, general incompetence, and being a public embarrassment to the nation are not grounds for impeachment. Some actual crimes committed by the President do not rise to the level of impeachment, but some actions that are not legally crimes can qualify as impeachable offenses. The author also explores the 25th amendment, which added another way of removing the President from office based on incapacity, and in turn raised many more questions.

 

Although the name Trump is never mentioned in the book, the timeliness of its subject causes the current President to loom of the discussion. It increasingly appears that within the next few years we will witness another impeachment proceeding with more merit behind it than the last one. I recommend this book as an excellent and very readable overview of the history and legal thought behind impeachment and why it must not be invoked frivolously but must be invoked when there is just cause.

"No easy answers from a book"

Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier - Mark Frost

The Final Dossier was written to be read only after watching the recent revival of the TV series. If you haven't watched the show there are massive spoilers in the book and the book will not make much sense. Given that the TV series did not make a lot of sense, that is saying a lot. The book is much shorter than the Secret History of Twin Peaks and more focused.

 

The book fills in details about some characters from the old series that did not appear in the new series, such as Donna Hayward, Harry Truman, and Annie Blackburn. It explains how some characters came to be in the situations they were in, such as Dr. Jacoby and Audrey Horne. It also deals with some of the fallout from the bizarre events of the finale.

 

There are sections in which Agent Preston, the narrator of the dossier, speculates about characters like Major Briggs and Phillip Jeffries. If these sections don't match up with your interpretations of the plot, you don't have to accept them as canon, they are only Agent Preston's speculations. There are several revelations that did not match up with my head canon at all, but Lynch and Frost have made it very clear that Twin Peaks is about the mysteries, not about the solution. Anyone's interpretation is as valid as anyone else's, even if some interpretations are more coherent than others.

Les Diaboliques

Les Diaboliques (the She-Devils). by Barbey D'Aurevilly - J Barbey d'Aurevilly

Is it possible to admire a book and be disgusted by it at the same time? The stores in this collection by 19th century French author Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly feature wicked amoral women who drive men to adultery, crime, and despair. The stories are all narrated by men, usually relating their story of sin and regret to a younger man. It would be easy to dismiss Barbey d'Aurevilly as a misogynist, but he describes his "she-devils" in such enraptured detail that it is hard to believe he does not secretly admire them. In most cases the women are so wicked that they come across as caricatures, but the stories are so well told that you can almost forgive the misogyny. Reading these stories you genuinely feel transported to a 19th century French salon where an elderly gentleman sips his wine and tells you the story of the unforgettable beauty who lead him astray.

Gather Quest

Sleeping Giants - Sylvain Neuvel

A group of scientists and military types race to uncover the pieces of a giant alien robot buried on Earth thousands of years in the past. The novel is reminiscent of The Martian in the sense that it is almost entirely dialogue driven, and the plot is propelled by various successes and setbacks in the project. The story is told in the form of short interviews between the main characters and a mysterious shadowy figure who is the mastermind behind the project.

 

If you enjoyed The Martian you will likely enjoy this as well. It is science fiction as thriller, not exactly literary.

Retelling the Old Stories

Norse Mythology - Neil Gaiman

Years ago, back when Neil Gaiman was still writing Sandman, I can recall reading a magazine interview in which he was asked if there was in any superhero character at DC or Marvel he would like to write. He replied that he felt he had a great Thor story to tell but that Marvel would never give him the creative freedom he would need to tell it. When I saw that Gaiman had written a book called Norse Mythology with a big hammer on the cover, my first thought was that he had finally written his Thor story.

 

Instead what we have is a straight ahead retelling of some of the key Norse myths. Sort of an Edith Hamilton's Mythology for the Norse gods. This is clearly a topic that Gaiman is passionate about, and his description of Ragnarok is the highlight of the book, but these are stories that have been told many times. In his introduction, Gaiman laments all the lost Norse tales that did not survive into modern times. I wish Gaiman had taken it upon himself to reinvent those lost stories rather than retell the known ones. All the stories were made up by somebody at sometime, why not tell new stories of Odin and Loki and the others?

Suddenly Everything's Ruined

World of Warcraft Chronicle Volume 2 - BLIZZARD ENTERTAINMENT

Chronicle Vol. 2 starts with the origins of life on Draenor and continues through the Second War and the Alliance Expedition. Like anything to do with Draenor, the most interesting parts are about the arakkoa and the least interesting are the orcs, so of course the book is mostly about the orcs. The orcs are divided into dozens of clans with names like the Rotten Teeth and the Mad Dogs. They revere nature and violence, although not in that order. They are forced to invade Azeroth after utterly ruining their native world.

 

This last detail reflects a disturbing pattern in World of Warcraft. In chapter after chapter, every noble and beautiful thing eventually gets corrupted, everything gets ruined. We see this with individuals, races, factions, nations, even entire planets. It makes me wonder what the game designers ultimate endgame plan for WOW is. Is it just a series of small victories against a backdrop of inevitable failure?

 

I do not need a fantasy game to remind me that we live in a world where the forces of greed, ignorance, and cruelty are growing stronger every day. It is easy to be cynical and say the entropic plot of WOW is realistic. I choose to believe that society as a whole is capable of progressing as long as compassion and knowledge are valued above immediate self interest. It is a hard sell, but worth it in the long term.

Mercantilism in Space

Downbelow Station - C.J. Cherryh

Downbelow Station brings the politics of European colonialism into an interplanetary setting. The Earth Company (a private colonial firm similar to the East India Company) dominates the inhabitants of humanity’s space colonies as Earth remains the only source of food and supplies. But then Pell’s World, the first new Earth-like planet, is discovered and suddenly the colonies no longer need Earth, but earth still needs the colonies. The colonies declare themselves an independent Union and the Company begins to mass its space fleet to capture Pell’s World and re-establish dominance.

 

As part of the larger context of colonial issues, Cherryh also brings the plight of indigenous natives into the story. Pell’s World was presumed to be uninhabited when the colonists began to exploit it, but the political situation becomes even more problematic when it is discovered that a simple culture exists among the primate like inhabitants known as the Hisa.

 

The narrative of Downbelow Station is focused on the inhabitants of the space station that orbits Pell’s World, which they refer to as Downbelow. Stationmaster Angelo Konstatin is forced to deal with one crisis after another, including crowds of refugees, merchant shippers forming their own alliance, and belligerent Company officers. The other main character is Captain Signy Mallory, the commander of the Company ship Norway. Mallory is as arrogant as any of the captains, but Company tactics force her to reconsider her loyalties.

 

Downbelow Station is the definitive space station novel. It is a classic space opera and a past winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel. It is the first book in a series called the Company Wars. Fans of military Science Fiction authors like David Weber and Elizabeth Moon as well as fans of more sociological Science Fiction like that of Kim Stanley Robinson and Ursula Le Guin should enjoy this book.

The Process of Political Satire

The Daily Show (The Book): An Oral History as Told by Jon Stewart, the Correspondents, Staff and Guests - Chris Smith, Jon  Stewart

It is often pointed out that when US Presidents leave office they look like they have aged far more than the 4 or 8 years that have passed. When Jon Stewart left the Daily Show he looked like he had aged at least 30 years instead of 16. This book suggest to me that what really aged Stewart was having to go on camera after every new national tragedy and try to say something encouraging and uplifting. As much as I would like to watch Stewart's take on the Trump administration, this man has earned his retirement.

 

The book is done in the same style as Shales and Miller's 'Live From New York' about Saturday Night Live, consisting almost entirely of interview snippets with past cast and crew of the show. Unlike SNL, the Daily Show does not have a long gossipy history of drugs and backstage fighting. There are a few stories in the book from disgruntled ex-staff, but most everyone who ever worked at the Daily Show appears to have loved it, and even the disgruntled admit Stewart deserves credit for what he accomplished.

 

The most interesting parts of the book are about the process. Not just how the individual episodes were made, but how Stewart took a show with a frat boy comedy mentality and turned it into the most influential piece of political satire in the history of television. He essentially created a new TV format that is being perpetuated by half a dozen other shows.

Sweet Nellie Bly

Lumberjanes Vol. 4: Out Of Time -  Noelle Stevenson, Shannon Watters, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen

The larger mystery of the Lumberjanes begins to unfold as a blizzard strikes in the middle of summer and a monster hunter appears with ties to the camp's past. Also, one of the girls has a passive aggressive snit when a boy tries to participate in the adventure.