Sunday, May 22, 2016

Bookworming: The Aeronaut's Windlass

The Aeronaut's Windlass, Jim Butcher, **
As the kick off of a new series from Butcher in the loose genre of steampunk, I went in with high expectations. Too high as it turned out. I have two complaints: one-note characters and general lack of motivations. The bones are all there, the world building with its ancient constructs and crystal-magic technology provides a good backdrop. Unfortunately there just isn't much meat on them. The team of rag-tag heroes come together for the thinnest of reasons, and none of them have even a hint of character arc.  Worse, the bad guys come off as jealous jerks or simply crazy. Butcher's kinetic storytelling remains in full force, and the book is a quick and moderately enjoyable read. But that's about all. If you want me to embark on another long-running series, I'm not sure that is enough. I struggled with whether to give this one a two or three rating, but since I am generally a fan of Butcher's work and the setting is at least adjacent to my wheelhouse, I have to go with my gut and give this one a "meh".

Friday, April 29, 2016

Quote of the Moment Regarding Game of Thrones

"What sets it apart is not the monsters, the nudity, or the festering gallons of gratuitous gore, but the overwhelming sense that the plot got run off the rails three books ago and is being steered towards a terrible precipice by a bunch of bickering, power-mad maniacs. This, coincidentally, happens to be the plot of the entire 21st century so far." —Laurie Penny, in New Republic

In which I realize I like Game of Thrones so much not because it's swords and sorcery fantasy, but because it's actually existential horror.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bookworming: East of West, Vol. 1

East of West, Volume 1: The Promise, Jonathan Hickman, Nick Dragotta, and Frank Martin, **
I'm conflicted on this one. When I spotted this sci-fi western with mythological influences, I immediately grabbed the first trade. The art is beautiful, the pacing is fast, and the plot is... the plot is... well, that's were the conflict comes in. On one hand, this is a simple revenge story painted in broad strokes along the lines of, say, Kill Bill. Death and his companions are supremely effective and the tropes of the Western anti-hero are well used. On the other hand it is a mess of unexplained nonsense. Why would anyone in a position of power also be in an apocalypse cult? Why are three of the Horsemen being reborn and why are they so cranky about what Death is up to? It is so close to being something I would love, but it just does not provide enough meat to cover the interesting bones. Which takes me to an aside about comics.

I have never been a comics person. I like the art, I like many of the premises, but the format of the monthly comic is just too constraining. Thirty-ish pages just isn't enough to create the depth I want the stories to have. And this one is a case where it really detracts for me. In the end I am undecided whether to continue on in the series in spite of my interests in similar subject matters. Thus, based on the first five issues, I don't really recommend it.

Bookworming: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archive #1), Brandon Sanderson, ***
Oh my, I've gone and started in on another giant unfinished fantasy series... The Way of Kings sets the stage in a world where massive storms charge crystals with energy which is used to power magic, alchemy, and magic-tech artifacts. Most powerful and coveted of these artifacts are the shardblades and shardplate, respectively lightsaber and power armor analogs. On the good side, Sanderson does a wonderful job creating a world that is not another dark ages Europe riff. In this case, the massive, recurring storms produce a landscape that seems inspired by both desert and aquatic boundary lands. The magical elements both fit into and inform the society on display. And the characters have fairly well done motivations. Unfortunately, not everything is as well put together as the worldbuilding and magic.

As you might expect with the first of an intended ten book series, it has a serious case of not-finished-here plotting. To the point that one of the three primary threads seems to exist only to set up for the next book. The introductory chapter should have been excised for use way down the road when it will presumably have more context as it was never referred to again in the story. One glaring issue for me constitutes a spoiler so I can't go into it too much. I will just say that there are a couple moments where personal codes result in decisions that really, really don't make sense in the framework of the novel's world. One of them in particular is completely pivotal to a character's arc, and while it didn't completely kill my enjoyment, it sure did pull me out enough to see the plot gears grinding underneath.

So what we have here is an extremely well done world with some fairly well put together characters in a story that doesn't completely conclude itself within the pages. My verdict? If you enjoy swords and sorcery epics, and can tolerate the multi-year waits inherent to the multi-volume series, you will find much to like here.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

School Closed Due to Spirits

A school in Malaysia was closed for several days due to what some call a "textbook" example mass hysteria.
"But the place is a bit old, and these children can be disobedient and sometimes throw their rubbish around the school grounds. Perhaps they hit some 'djinns' and offended the spirits," she added, using a local reference to ghosts.
Due to the Islamic nature of the school and spirit references, I'm going to go ahead and call this not an attempt at viral marketing for the new Ghostbusters movie.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Watching the Watchers: Unbalanced Reciprocity

I read a thread on either proggit or Hacker News, which I naturally can't find again, wherein recruiters and hiring managers espoused about how a programmer needs to change jobs at least every five years, and really every two is better. I find this rather appalling, and the reasons for it more so. Why would one change jobs so quickly? Well, if you want more money, you have to, because raises are in the low single digit percentages, but you can negotiate 8-10% or better raises if you change. If you want to be perceived as "current" you must change jobs to get exposure to new ways of doing things. Because obviously technology moves so quickly that depth of experience means you have become comfortable and lazy. Think about that for a minute.

Then there is this from the New York Times:

"Treating workers as if they are widgets to be used up and discarded is a central part of the revised relationship between employers and employees that techies proclaim is an innovation as important as chips and software."

"Tech workers have no job security. You’re serving a “tour of duty” that might last a year or two, according to the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman..."

"Netflix views itself as a sports team, always looking to have “stars in every position.” In this new model of work, employees are expected to feel complete devotion and loyalty to their companies, even while the boss feels no such obligation in return."
Loyalty, it seems, has no place in business anymore (save as a pretty term for tracking, analyzing, and manipulating customers). The company isn't loyal to their employees, for obvious monetary reasons. If the employees are loyal to their company, that is seen as a sign of weakness. There are no more pensions, and your 401k depends on some set of companies doing well. The company owes you nothing save the salary you have already been paid. "Right to work" actually means you can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, but at least you can walk away too.

I have some hope that this poisonous nonsense is merely a result of the uber-capitalist, investor-class echo chamber centered around San Francisco. Hacker News in particular is a great place to go to find people implying that working for someone else to make money makes you a chump. Then again, maybe nowadays it does.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Bookworming: Spook Country

Spook Country, William Gibson, **
Gibson's second book set in the just-beyond-contemporary Blue Ant world fails to live up to the high quality of the first. Where Pattern Recognition was somewhat a mystery in structure, Spook Country tries on the hat of a post-cold-war espionage thriller. Unfortunately, the viewpoint characters have nearly zero agency in the story.  They are driven (often literally) by other more powerful, more in-the-know characters. That, combined with Gibson's usual brilliant and effusive descriptions, make this thriller far more languid than anything else I have read from him, and far too languid to be engaging. As much as it pains me to say it, I would not recommend this one even to Gibson fans.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Brief Diversion into Chaos

For future reference, I will store this link to a brief history of the Principia Discordia. I did have a chaotic week, and the through-line from ancient legend to modern counter-culture appeals to me.