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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

Real Crimes to Hide Failed Crimes

The Mueller Report: The Comprehensive Findings of the Special Counsel - Robert Mueller, Allen West, Dan Boren

A lot of people invested a great deal of hope in the Mueller Report. They wanted to believe it would end with Trump being perp walked out of the White House in handcuffs. That was never a realistic expectation. Mueller explains in the introduction of the report that due to the Justice Department's prevailing interpretation that a sitting President cannot be indited, he did not prepare a traditional prosecution case as the President could not defend himself in court. This is a problematic interpretation because the special prosecutor law was passed after the Watergate scandal in order to avoid the obvious conflict created by letting an administration investigate itself. Mueller was the sole individual invested with the power to build a criminal case against the President of the United States and chose not to use that power.

 

The report is divided into three sections. The first describes the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Elements of Russian military intelligence, working through a front organization called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) hacked the email accounts of multiple individuals connected with the Democratic Party. Using other front organizations those emails were passed to Wikileaks which published them timed to distract from Trump campaign scandals. The IRA also purchased adds on Facebook and other social media sites to promote Trump and disparage Clinton. They also created faux grassroots online groups to organize rallies to promote Trump.

 

The second part of the report deals with allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Interestingly, it appears that the Russians acted by and large on their own without consultation with the Trump campaign. While there were many contacts between the two groups, it all seems to boil down to a comedy of incompetence. People with loose connections to Putin tried to get closer to him by proving they could make contact with Trump, and people with loose connections to Trump tried to get closer to him by proving they could make contact with Putin. What Trump wanted from Russia was for them to handover Clinton's missing emails which he was sure they had and would be incriminating. What Putin wanted from Trump was an end to American sanctions and a President who would ignore his occupation of Ukraine. The saddest example of this dynamic was the infamous Trump Tower meeting in which a group of Russians promised to supply dirt on Clinton and instead only delivered a speech about lifting sanctions so the adoption of Russian orphans by American families could resume. The Trump team left disappointed, their dreams of profiting from foreign espionage dashed.

 

The final section deals with obstruction of justice by the Trump administration. This is where actions go from failed attempts at crime to actual crimes. Trump did everything in his power to try and interfere with the investigation, including witness tampering through a mix of flattery and bullying, suborning perjury from the White Counsel and other aids, firing the FBI Director, attempting to fire the Special Persecutor, and demanding the Attorney General un-recuse himself and then threatening to fire him. What Trump should have done was ignore the investigation, refer all questions to his personal attorneys, and the investigation would have still concluded there was no collusion. Instead he committed real crimes by trying to hide actions that were not real crimes.

 

It makes you wonder why he tried so hard to derail the investigation. Did he think he had committed a crime? Was he afraid of other crimes that the Special Prosecutor would inadvertently uncover, such as his hush money payments to women with whom he (allegedly) had affairs? Is he so obsessed with preserving his Trump brand that he would tell lies and break laws to avoid the appearance of having been helped to win the election by foreign powers?

 

Mueller ends the obstruction of justice section was his bluntest statement in the whole report. While stressing again that his team chose not to create a standard prosecutorial case, he could clearly state if he found the President to be innocent, and he could not make that statement. While Trump may not have actually colluded with Russian, his abuse of the powers of his office to obstruct justice is a serious crime. If Congress declines to fulfill its Constitutional duty and hold the President responsible for his actions, then Richard Nixon is owed a massive apology, because obstruction of justice was what lead to his resigning in disgrace.

The Wounded Pride of an Ibsen Fan

Shyness And Dignity - Dag Solstad

Elias Rukla teaches Norwegian literature in a secondary school in Oslo. Over the years his students' attitude toward his classes has changed from bored to hostile. One day during a lecture on Ibsen's The Wild Duck one of his students lets out an exaggerated sigh and it shakes Rukla to his core. Later that day when he cannot get his umbrella to open he starts beating it against the fountain in the school's courtyard in a fit of frustration. When he realizes a group of students is staring at him he turns on them swing his broken umbrella and shouting insults. Rukla spends the rest of the novel wandering around Oslo trying to figure out how he will explain to his wife that he probably just threw away a 25 year teaching career in a moment of anger.

 

Except for the scene I described above, the novel takes place entirely in the head of the main character. Elias is a middle aged man who knows that the thing he values most in life, the study of literature, is regarded as a waste of time by his students. He justifies his classes by his belief that although the teenagers may not be able to appreciate literature now they will appreciate their Norwegian cultural heritage once they become adults. The truth is Elias is kind of afraid of his students and suspects they no longer have any context for appreciating Ibsen.

 

I must admit I kind of lost interest in the book as Elias wanders around reminiscing about his college days and his estranged best friend. The novel is very much a character study, but I was more interested in the character's situation than the character himself. As the title implies, Elias is a deeply reserved and introverted man who wants to maintain his dignity and pride but sees it all slipping away from him. If you chose to read a Dag Solstad novel you can probably relate to the feeling.

Religious Mendacity

Elmer Gantry - Sinclair Lewis, Mark Schorer

Elmer Gantry may be the most depressing novel I have ever read. Its core message seems to be that people who are willing to lie and cheat will succeed, and even when they occasionally slip up and get caught, if they lie and cheat even harder they will come out even more successful. While I accept this may be reality I tend to expect something else from fiction. In fiction you expect virtue to be rewarded and mendacity to be punished. I guess that is why they call it fiction.

 

Chapter 3 contains the best description of the high pressure Evangelical conversion process I have ever read. Lewis captures the peer pressure, the flattery, the parental guilt tripping, the appeal of membership in a welcoming community, all the elements that drive so many down the aisle. Once Gantry is converted he quickly learns how to use the church to advance his own ego and passion for womanizing. Gantry's career passes through a few phases, with ups and downs, but even when he decides to restart his career as a minister in a small Methodist church, what is most striking is his complete insincerity. He is always like an actor playing a part, even with his own family.

 

Gantry's tragic opposite is Frank Shallard, Gantry's former seminary classmate and a closet Agnostic. While Shallard is at least honest with his friends about his doubts, Lewis points out the hypocrisy of leading a church while secretly not believing the doctrines. When Shallard tries to be publicly honest he looses everything, unlike Gantry who rises higher and higher in society on the back of his charisma and stunning hypocrisy.

 

The back cover of the Signet Classic edition compares Elmer Gantry to the work of Voltaire. Lewis certainly holds his subjects in the same level of contempt that Voltaire did, but Candide remains naive while Gantry grows into his role as a corrupt fraud. Elmer Gantry is an impressive work and I don't regret reading it, but while Voltaire will make you laugh Lewis will make you sigh heavily.

Ready Player Two

Armada: From the author of READY PLAYER ONE - Ernest Cline

There is a 6 minute short in the Futurama episode Anthology of Interest II in which the character Fry uses his video game skills to fight an alien invasion. Replace Fry with the less likable Zack Lightman and pad it out to 355 pages and you have Armada.

 

The story borrows heavily from The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Contact. The author lampshades this by having the main character point out the similarities. Without spoilers, the ending feels like the ending of an average original series Star Trek episode. The novel is not terrible, it has some decent twists, but it is disappointing.

 

In Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One the main character is a teenage boy who uses his knowledge of 80’s trivia and video games to win a contest and become the richest and most famous man in the world and find true love. In Armada a teenage boy uses his knowledge of video games to save the world, become famous and find true love. It feels like Cline’s only storytelling move is nerd wish fulfillment in which an obsession with video games turns out to be extremely useful instead of completely useless and brings the nerd wealth, power, respect, fame, and love. All things missing from the life of the average video gamer.

 

I find myself wondering if Armada might have worked better if it had been the sequel to Ready Player One. Wade Watts discovers that while the human race parties in the virtual reality Oasis, an actual alien armada is preparing to attack the Earth. He considers deactivating the Oasis to awaken humanity to the threat, but instead launches a new game in which the players are unknowingly piloting real drones to fight real invaders. Maybe Zack uncovers the conspiracy and reveals to the world that the invasion is real. Maybe that is exactly what Wade hoped would happen and he ends up selecting Zack as his successor. The similarities between the works become a strength because it is a continuation of the story.

The Madness of Europe

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds - Charles MacKay

We tend to think of sarcasm as a modern affliction, but Charles Mackay's writing is as sarcastic as anything I have ever read. Extraordinary Popular Delusions is a 700 page study of what Mackay calls the Madness of Europe, up until 1841. The book is divided into long and short sections, depending on how exhaustively the author wanted to explore a given topic. Some of the long sections include financial bubbles, alchemy, the Crusades, and witch hunting frenzies. Shorter sections cover various types of medical quackery, doomsday prophets, poisoners, and dueling.

 

Every now and then Mackay pauses to praise his own age as having put such outbreaks of public madness as the Crusades and witch trials behind them. Of course Mackay did not live to see two World Wars nearly destroy Europe. As far as witch trials, it was only a few years ago that the recovered memory fad led to accusations as insane as any ever made by a witch hunter. Financial bubbles will continue as long as people are willing to risk their life savings on investments that they do not understand and are designed not to be understood. And while alchemy may be largely forgotten, modern day New Age gurus and televangelists will continue to exploit greed and fear of death in the never ending dance of the gullible and the fraud.

 

I bought a copy of this book at least 25 years ago for the title alone and it sat on my shelf unread until now. Not a lot of 19th century non-fiction gets read these days, mostly because the value of non-fiction tends to diminish the more out of date it becomes. Also because 19th century books tend to be very long and dense in comparison to modern books. Mackay's topic is unfortunately timeless and his sarcastic tone is very readable. If you try the book and get bogged down in the details of 18th century investment ripoffs, you might try skipping ahead to the Crusades and the witch mania which is more engaging.

Bodies and Dreamers

Between the World and Me - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me has been praised and criticized by many many reviewers, so I will limit myself to a couple of textual elements that struck me as odd.

 

Coates has some unusual rhetorical devices that take a little getting used to. He constantly refers to "black bodies" in such a way that I assumed he was building to some sort of dualist worldview in which oppressors could break or destroy bodies but could not steal minds or spirits. Instead he makes it clear that he is a materialist who does not believe that there is any part of an individual other than the physical body. If people are nothing more than bodies then discussing the body as if it was a thing apart from the person is an odd argument. He may be arguing that American society devalues black people down to nothing but bodies, or it may be the imbalance of power requires black people to struggle to preserve their bodies on a fundamental level of basic survival.

 

Coates often refers to white Americans as "Dreamers." He means this contemptuously, implying that white people live in a fantasy world of security and opportunity while deliberately ignoring the historic crimes on which American society is built. This is also an odd rhetorical device considering every since Martin Luther King's historic "I Have a Dream" speech, references to "The Dream" have been a staple of the Civil Rights Movement. It is surprising to see the term turned around and applied to whites as a term of derision.

 

Neither of these observations are intended as criticisms of the book as a whole or its author's message. They are just a couple of textual factors I found interesting.

Freedom through Isolation

All Systems Red - Martha Wells

All Systems Red is a first person narration by a "Murderbot," which is the narrator's term for itself and its fellow security robots. SecUnits are a mix of combat robotics with cloned human parts that make it more of a cyborg than a robot, although the term is never used. The narrator is unique in that it has managed to hack its governor unit, giving it the ability to disregard orders, an ability that it keeps a careful secret because its discovery would likely lead to a complete mind wipe or even destruction.

 

The story has gotten a lot of praise and won some genre awards, which I found a bit surprising at first because the tone of the story is actually rather old fashion SF. There is nothing about the plot or narration that would seem out of place in an old issue of Astounding Science Fiction from the John W. Campbell days. In that though is the secret of the story's subtle brilliance.

 

The narrator is a sentient being that wants to do its job with as little human interaction as possible. The bot is not an emotionless logical cliche, it has a full range of emotions with the exception of anything related to sexuality as it is asexual by design. The bot is capable of anxiety, annoyance, and protectiveness; if anything it comes across a bit tsundere. High functioning Asperger's was the term that kept popping into my head while reading it. Which brings me back to the connection to old school SF.

 

A lot of older Science Fiction from the era of the pulp magazines reads like it was written by and for high functioning Asperger's cases. The focus is on setting and problem solving, not on character development or interpersonal relationships. The characters display limited emotional range and any romantic elements are strictly background and never central to the plot. I think this is why to this day SF is often dismissed by critics and scholars as boy's literature with limited appeal for women. Of course this stereotype was never really true and is even less so today when there are many successfully women SF authors. I may be reading something into the text that the author did not intend, but it seems to be that Martha Wells is looking back at old school SF and adding a bit of psychological subtext to its cerebral focus.

 

There is also another level you can take this to and that is that Murderbot is essentially a slave. No matter how kindly or benevolent its "clients" are they are still buying and selling it for its capacity to work. Legally it is inventory and even if its owners are friendly they are still its owners. Murderbot rejects overtures of friendship because the only way it can be free is through escape, either through mental isolation or physical separation.

A Long Slog Through Icy Lands

The Kalevala: An Epic Poem after Oral Tradition (World's Classics) - Elias Lönnrot, Keith Bosley

I will write a thing and

Declare what I have done

I have read the Kalevala

49 cantos I have read

50 was the number of the cantos

 

My Mother spoke a thing and declared thus

“You cannot read the Kalevala” she said

“Such a reading is not for you.

Read the books of your home.

Not old tales of northern lands.”

 

 

I replied to her and spoke thus, I said

“I will read the Kalevala,

The great epic of Finland.

I will read the words off the pages,

Read the pages out of the book.”

 

I read one page, I read two pages.

I read steady old Vainamoinen

Old man of calm waters.

I read wanton Lemminkainen

Him the Fair Farmind.

 

I read the forging of the Sampo

By the smith Ilmarinen

The everlasting craftsman.

All the way to Marjatta

And the birth of her child

 

My Mother put this into words and spoke thus,

She declared, she chatted.

“I have spotted a fraud!

You have not read all these pages”

I answered her and spoke thus,

 

“Oh, woe is me, a luckless boy,

I read 67 pages and gave up.

I got as far as young Joukahainen

Shooting Vainamoinen’s horse.

Then I downloaded the book from Audible.

 

Based on oral tradition it was,

So an audio book seemed appropriate.

Read by the translator, Keith Bosley,

It is not bad if Medieval lit you enjoy

Or are curious about Tolkien’s influences.”

Lost Timelines

Lost Pages - Paul Di Filippo

Lost Pages is a collection of short stories linked by the conceit of taking famous 20th century authors and placing them into different historical contexts. Not different time periods, just very different situations in their own time. It is essentially nine alternate history stories, each with a famous writer as the main character. I would love to spoil them all because the premises are very clever, but I will limit myself to a couple.

 

The story that may be the best in the collection, but also the most dubious, has Anne Frank escape the Holocaust and still write her famous diary but instead it is about her rise to stardom in Hollywood. In another story Antoine de Saint-Exupery is one of the last survivors after most of humanity is wiped out by a plague and he attempts to rebuild civilization based on air power. Some of the stories are more science fictional than others and several of them featured authors who were SF writers. There is no continuity running through the stories, each exists in its own world. There are some dark twists, but over all the stories are a lot of fun.

Ignorance and Incompetence

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House - Michael Wolff

The biggest surprise in this book for me was that the book is more about Steve Bannon than Donald Trump. Wolff opens and closes the book looking at Bannon, who clearly sees himself as the true leader of the far-right nationalist movement. Of course when the book was completed neither the author nor Bannon could foresee how badly Bannon's supported candidates would flame-out in the mid-term election. Bannon made himself completely toxic within the Republican party and one of the biggest factors was this book. The detail of the reportage of meetings and private dinners that Bannon attended reveal that he was one of Wolff's primary sources and probably his biggest source. Like Trump, Bannon cannot resist boasting, taking credit for all successes, passing the blame for all failures, and generally drawing attention to himself. He could not have more perfectly shot himself in the foot with Trump's devoted cult of personality. Like Trump, Bannon always assumes he is the smartest man in the room, but considering the White House he worked for that is a pretty low bar for which to strive.

#MythToo

Circe - Madeline Miller

Circe is best known as the witch from the Odyssey who turns men into pigs, but thanks to the complex genealogies of Greek mythological characters Circe is related to dozens of other stories. Miller picks and chooses among the myths in order to tell a coming-of-age story in which the protagonist requires hundreds of years to come-of-age. The novel belongs to the modern sub-genre in which a supporting character from fiction or myth gets to tell their own story and typically the villain becomes the hero or vice versa. Miller's Circe starts out as a surprisingly naive young woman who takes a lot of abuse from her family. Only in exile does she discover her own power and identity. Isolation and a history of abuse sometimes cause Circe to drift into cruelty, but she always regrets it and tries to make amends. If anything, she falls in love too easily, but the author prevents the romantic elements from driving the plot. Circe is a promising debut novel, but I hope its success does not trap the author into a formula of retelling stories from mythology for a post #MeToo audience.

The Ballad of Kite Man

Batman Vol. 4: The War of Jokes and Riddles (Rebirth) - David Finch, Tom King

Tom King writes superhero stories about psychological trauma, not just as a plot element but as a raison d'etra. In books like Vision and Mister Miracle the psychological trauma is the engine of the plot. In his new series Heroes in Crisis an attempt to recover from trauma leads to far greater trauma. Batman: the War of Jokes and Riddles reveals a story from Batman's second year as a hero. The Joker and the Riddler go to war, not for control of Gotham City, but over who gets to kill Batman. Every name villain in Gotham gets roped into the fight on one side or the other, hundreds of civilians are killed in the crossfire, and Batman is forced to compromise his core values to try an end the war. Despite the death toll, in places it reads like an homage to the old Batman TV series from 1966, with Batman trading punches with bad guys with "POW" sound effects. In the end Batman is so traumatized he feels like his whole incorruptible persona is a sham.

 

Oh, and it is the origin story of Kite Man.

Gravity Falls Season 1.5

Gravity Falls Lost Legends - Hirsch,  Alex

Alex Hirsch, the creator of the Gravity Falls TV series, wrote all four stories in this graphic novel. It feels like a glimpse of some episodes we might have seen if another season had been produced before the series finale.

Ambitious and Abandoned

S. H. I. E. L. D.: Architects of Forever - Jonathan Hickman, Dustin Weaver

Ambitious and abandoned is how I would describe this graphic novel. The premise of this short-lived Marvel series was that S.H.I.E.L.D., the spy organization founded after WWII to hunt down Communists and other insurgents, is actually a ancient secret society which has defended the Earth from alien threats since at least 2620 BC. Every famous scientist, artist, or mystic you can think of was a member, including Da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Nostradamus, and Nikola Tesla. More modern members include Howard Stark, the father of Tony (Iron Man) Stark, and Nathaniel Richards, the father of Reed (Mr. Fantastic) Richards.

 

The plot jumps all around and throws in all manner of twists including a war between immortals Newton and Da Vinci over the fate of humanity, a time traveling Tesla who is married to a woman who can turn into a bird (or something), a Chinese scholar named Zhang Heng who hid a baby Celestial, and lots of vague references to ominous sounding things like the Greater Science, the Hidden Arts, and the Human Machine.

 

It all seems very promising, and Dustin Weaver's illustrations are excellent, but it appears not to have been the hit Marvel hopped it would be and the project was quietly abandoned. Hickman has occasionally dropped references to the deep history of S.H.I.E.L.D. in his other Marvel work, suggesting his has not given up on the idea, but we will probably never see a continuation of the series big enough to do justice to the scope of the premise.

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.