Thoughts on “Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”

Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck” is a popular book with a catchy title and filled with lots of f bombs to live up to the title. Most friends’ reviews were along the lines of “despite the title this is actually a thoughtful and useful book”. I agree with this assessment.

The book is probably not worth $15 or whatever the retail is, but is a good reminder for the millennial generation not to be special entitled snowflakes and be intentional about what we care about.

What I really got of this is various ways in which entitlement creeps into our lives, including mine.

The deeper the pain, the more helpless we feel against our problems, and the more entitlement we adopt to compensate for those problems. This entitlement plays out in one of two ways: 1. I’m awesome and the rest of you all suck, so I deserve special treatment. 2. I suck and the rest of you are all awesome, so I deserve special treatment.

Entitlement and indignation then come hand in hand:

“Victimhood chic” is in style on both the right and the left today, among both the rich and the poor. In fact, this may be the first time in human history that every single demographic group has felt unfairly victimized simultaneously. And they’re all riding the highs of the moral indignation that comes along with it.

These kinds of topics are difficult to articulate, but Manson manages to elicit nods rather than provoke defensiveness. Instead of making the reader think “fuck you, I’ve tried this and it doesn’t work”, it made me try to map his words to situations I’ve seen in my life. At another angle, it was presented in a way that didn’t blame a global epidemic, but expressed ways to live your own life.

Aside from entitlement, the rest of the book is around values, choice, and how to handle the inevitability of death. A lot of these are relatively cliche, but do well to round out the book.

Manson’s method of operation involves stories and anecdotes from his life, history, and mythology – the stories are illustrative, but not comprehensive. Manson’s goal is not to create a perfectly defensible argument for his life guidelines, but rather to enable us to draw connections between our own experiences and his themes. It’s easy to pick out inconsistencies in his logic, but that isn’t necessarily the point.

Quotes

All the quotes I highlighted are on my goodreads, but here are a few ones that were useful takeaways for me

On uncertainty

Why uncertainty isn’t always a bad thing, and how to manage it as an asset rather than a liability.

Uncertainty removes our judgments of others; it preempts the unnecessary stereotyping and biases that we otherwise feel when we see somebody on TV, in the office, or on the street. Uncertainty also relieves us of our judgment of ourselves. We don’t know if we’re lovable or not; we don’t know how attractive we are; we don’t know how successful we could potentially become. The only way to achieve these things is to remain uncertain of them and be open to finding them out through experience.

An illustrative but not comprehensive anecdote

Here, he’s not saying Russia is the best model to follow, but that the perspective isn’t black and white.

But, in the “free” West, my Russian teacher continued, there existed an abundance of economic opportunity—so much economic opportunity that it became far more valuable to present yourself in a certain way, even if it was false, than to actually be that way.

On f bombs

An example of the litany of f-bombs scattered throughout the book. But useful ones.

What Becker is saying, in essence, is that we’re all driven by fear to give way too many fucks about something, because giving a fuck about something is the only thing that distracts us from the reality and inevitability of our own death.

On taking either no responsibility or too much responsibility

This is something that I know i do all the time – it’s good to have validation that it is a legitimate problem and to be taken seriously.

In general, entitled people fall into one of two traps in their relationships. Either they expect other people to take responsibility for their problems: “I wanted a nice relaxing weekend at home. You should have known that and canceled your plans.” Or they take on too much responsibility for other people’s problems: “She just lost her job again, but it’s probably my fault because I wasn’t as supportive of her as I could have been. I’m going to help her rewrite her résumé tomorrow.”

Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life and Others” hits hard with sharp prose and provoking worlds

Overall thoughts

I just re-read Ted Chiang’s “Story of your life and Others” this weekend after reading it for the first time 3 weeks ago. It is now upped form a 4 to a 4.5 after having taken the time to digest his stories and ideas.

Ted Chiang is 5/5 for his ideas. 5/5 for opening up my mind and exposing ideas that I would never have thought about. 4.5/5 for writing, and characters. Every bit of fantastical world-building was lived in by beautifully written characters.

I’d put him at 3/5 for storytelling and his story arcs. The stories often have unsatisfying endings. I feel they collapse in the absurdity of these worlds taken to their logical (and crazy) conclusions. But you are so sucked into the novel world that is easy to forgive the imperfect story arcs. 

Chiang’s stories are nuanced and technical in a way that if you don’t read carefully or understand the science, you can miss the point of the story entirely. I gained more by googling online after I read each story to confirm what actually happened. Chiang’s characters are pushed and pulled with flaws in moral compass, ego, ignorance, or the simply the hand they’re dealt in the randomness of the universe.

I liked all the stories, but my favorite three were the emotional power of “Story of your life”,  the humorous yet powerful “Hell is the Absence of God” and creative cross-section of our life and values in “Liking what you see”.

<spoilers below>

Short Stories

Tower of Babylon

The “Tower of Babylon” is a fantasy world of a Tower being built to reach the heavens. The Tower passes the sun and stars, but has reached a physical ceiling. Our our protagonists are miners contracted to break the barrier from Earth to Heaven. What does it mean to try to reach god? In the end, this was a solid story, and it really exists for the kicker at the end.

(SPOILER, just like the rest of this post) Apparently this Babylon world is a “three dimensional torus”. I followed some laymans explanations of what a torus is, and then gave up. (What I got was a few examples (1) imagine being walking along the inside of a donut, but in three dimensions. Or (2) basically portal walls at some unspecified, finite point in all directions. Or (3) a video game where going off the right brings you back to the left.). Thank you Ted for the TIL.

 

Understand

This is a hilarious story about the ego and contempt of overwhelming intellectualism of a superhuman benefitting from a super-drug. The lessons here are:

  1. Overwhelming intelligence can create unexpected advantages when gaming the system
  2. But overwhelming intellectual power is not invincible
  3. You can know everything in the world but still have various goals and pursuits.

One theme is the classic “intellectualism vs. utilitarianism” debate of Leon (main character) vs. Reynolds (antagonist/foil). Leon advances intellectualism for the sake intellectual curiosity, while Reynolds does it for utilitarian purposes. Leon’s intellectual pursuit seems somewhat selfish and short-sighted at first. However, Reynold’s utilitarian approach goes down a hole of moral ambiguity and despotic behavior in an effort to make the world a better place. It doesn’t seem to be worth it. This is a common theme!

The fun parts are the crazy mind-chess going on, where I think, you think, I think you’re going to do XYZ. Leon plays against amateurs in the real world, but his demise is his ego, as he walks unprepared into a trap.

 

Division by Zero

“Division by Zero”  is a tragic story of a woman who’s mentally tortured by her inability to resolve a mathematical inconsistency that undermines all of arithmetic.

The story strikes at the essence of mathematics. It is the theoretical, not the experimental that is interesting. It is the self consistent universe that creates 1+1=2 and the litany of explanations of the universe that follow.

“She, like many, had always thought that mathematics did not derive its meaning from the universe, but rather imposed some meaning onto the universe […] But no more. Mathematics was inconsistent […] and a formal theory was nothing if not consistent. Math was empirical, no more than that, and it held no interest for her. 

I think it also hits hard at the inability for people to feel the way another feels when their essence is be shook to their core. The difference between sympathy and empathy is often brought up in stories (sympathy means you understand another’s feelings, empathy is when you feel their feelings), but this one turns it on it’s head. The man’s empathy becomes his reason to let go rather than stay.

He opened his mouth to say that he knew exactly what she meant, that he had felt the same things as she. But he stopped himself: for this was an empathy that separated rather than united them, and he couldn’t tell her that.

 

[My Top 3] Story of your Life

I don’t think this was one of the top in the beginning, because I didn’t really get it. After reading some summaries, this is brilliant and beautiful in a way difficult to explain (other than through the words of the story itself).

In “Story of your Life”, Louise knows her daughter will die at 25 before her daughter is conceived. She knows the future from studying an alien language that ties past, present, and future into one. But instead of fighting her future, she proceeds to conceive her daughter, and watches her die.

The premise is elegant, and the execution is beautiful. I could read this over and over and not get tired. In a weird way, heptapod semagrams are similar to books in that you are engaging with a the future is set in stone. Why read a book when you already know the future exists? The act of a book being read is just as important as it’s existence.

For the heptapods, all language was performative. Instead of using language to inform, they used language to actualize. Sure, heptapods already knew what would be said in any conversation; but in order for their knowledge to be true, the conversation would have to take place.

Just like the headliner Ken Liu’s short stories (“Paper Menagerie”), this is by far the most beautiful and emotional of the collection.

An alternative explanation I read is that there is no time travel/precognition, but the heptapod language allowed Louise to tell her story in a way where past, present and future are interconnected. This is a very good article and highly recommend.

This is the source material for the 2016 movie Arrival.

 

Seventy-Two Letters

InSeventy-Two Letters Stratton lives in a world resembling 19th century Britain, but where automata (robots) can be given instructions with a written seventy-two letter code. He is a scientist on the verge of creating robots that can do skilled labor. This gets everyone scared of self-programming automata taking their jobs.

But what’s scarier is that politicians see the technology behind skilled robots as a path to genetically engineer humans. Chiang draws from modern themes such as AI taking away jobs, intersection between religion and programming, and ethical dilemmas of genetic engineering and reproduces them in an entirely alternate universe, similar to post-industrial revolution Britain.

What a weird but fantastical story. For me, “Seventy-Two Letters” was much better during my second and more detailed read.

 

The Evolution of Human Science

“The Evolution of Human Science” is a journal article about a superior intellectual species (metahumans) and its’ relationship with humans. Metahumans are able to neural link, and therefore have advanced science beyond any human could hope to achieve – therefore human science simply becomes reverse-engineering phenomena discovered by metahumans.

And this is “fine” to the metahumans, because this is how it should be. And this is no different than humans discovering the natural world. Basically science is not about the limits of what exists, but the steady discovery by the human species. Relatively straightforward.

No one denies the many benefits of metahuman science, but one of its costs to human researchers was the realization that they would likely never make an original contribution to science again. Some left the field altogether, but those who stayed shifted their attention away from original research and toward hermeneutics: interpreting the scientific work of metahumans.

 

[My Top 3] Hell is the Absence of God

This one is a fun story about faith.

Hell is the Absence of God” takes place in an almost normal world, but where heaven and hell have physical manifestations. Divine visitations by angels spread miracles and tragedies like pixie dust. People’s souls visibly rise or sink into heaven and hell, respectively, when they die.

The story explores individuals’ motivations for believing in god, whether it be selfish, misguided, true worship, or influenced by experiencing a miracle. Miracle sightings and statistics are rigorously recorded and analyzed – however in the end miracles are miracles, random and inexplicable.

I like it because it is fun, but deep. Nobody knows why anything happens, nobody really cares, but if any one thing is true, “Hell is the Absence of God”.

 

[My Top 3] Liking what you See

Liking what you see” is an innovative meta-documentary discussing calliagnosia, a procedure to make one unable to perceive beauty.

If there were a world where beauty were equalized, what would that mean? Individuals with natural advantages around beauty ould lose them. Advertisements would not be able abuse “beauty” as a magical spell to make people more likely to buy a product. Is this a world we could handle?

Experiments using neurostat allowed researchers to identify the neurological circuit responsible for perceiving beauty in faces, and thus essentially invent calliagnosia.

The narrative explores the limits to which we would be willing to go down this train of thought. If we want to remove beauty, why not pleasure in sound or the ability to recognize others? The latter removes our ability to be manipulated by advertisements, but also reduces our quality of life significantly.

The overarching questions becomes: where do we draw the line for evening the playing field? Is it up to an institution to enforce these kinds of restrictions? Why should they have the power to do it? This comes close to philosophies around whether you trust the institution to do the right thing for you, or whether you believe in an individual’s freedom and prerogative.

This is just the latest example of political correctness run amok. The people advocating calli are well-intentioned, but what they’re doing is infantilizing us. The very notion that beauty is something we need to be protected from is insulting.

The subjects of the documentary are a perfect mix of naive, unreliable, and thoughtful with a peek into their own lives. Chiang has taken a novel style and executed perfectly in this story.


Follow my Goodreads quote dump are here.

Even though some of Chiang’s stories are available online, I highly recommend buying or borrowing the book. I’ve gotten two full reads from it already, and am certain to come back to it many times in the future!

 

A toast to the Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories”

24885533This Ken Liu guy is good.

Historical fiction and science fiction are similar in that they allow us to live in a world that is not ours to experience. It has either passed or doesn’t exist.

Liu blends myths, historical fiction, and science fiction in a series of cutting stories that take you down a river of emotions. Some navigate you through rapids with jagged rocks, others a tranquil flow of poetry, and some are sudden waterfalls that force you to put down the book to rest your heart.

The fifteen stories from The Paper Menagerie & Other Stories show inspiration from across the board, from a spaceship powered by a solar sail to the general Guan Yu of the Three Kingdoms; from Chinese-American railroad workers in the late 1800s to the manifestation of a physical soul made of ice; from the moral decision of deciding on eternal life, to ethical dilemmas in American bases in Taiwan combating Communism in the 1950s.

The headliner is “The Paper Menagerie” short story from 2011 (available publicly), but that is just a teaser to the ride. It’s a quick read, but be warned – it will be difficult to keep the tears in. This especially hit home for me as I grew up learning english, but english was a difficult second language for my parents.

The stories can be sobering. Sometimes the stories can be “[…] like a gentle kitten is licking the inside of my heart.”

I think the writing is similar to the imagination of the Three Body Problem Trilogy (especially Death’s End) or the beauty of Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air”. Liu is known as the translator for the TBP trilogy but here he shows his dynamism in ideas.
Even if you’ve never read either, give The Paper Menagerie a shot.

Character Sympathy (+10 more rankings!)

Character Sympathy

I’ve discovered that how I sympathize with a lead character heavily influences how much I like a book.

Its not enough to simply to have empathy and understand a character’s reasoning. As I read a book, there is a part of me that wants to be a participant of the story.

*sympathy is when you share the feelings of another; empathy is when you understand the feelings of another but do not necessarily share them. (the internet)

I value humility and intellectualism. I’m averse is to cockiness and unnecessary heroics. I appreciate complex, flawed characters. I’m dislike infallible characters that dominate their opponents with ease.

This is why I could not stand Ready Player One (and a lesser extent, Name of the Wind). This is why I enjoyed the Dispossessed (and why I loved The Witcher III).

Of course, there are instances where there main character is insufficient, but supplemented by a strong supporting cast. “Kafka on the Shore” has a really amazing supporting cast that helps to promote the coming of age story of Kafka. The zombie book “Girl with all the Gifts” wasn’t really about the main zombie girl Melanie as much as the surviving humans around her.

Ranking 10 Recent Reads

In general, but also from the perspective of protagonist sympathy. These are pretty much all scifi/fantasy, to some extent (if you include zombie books and murakami’s shenanigans

Rank (rating) Book, Author Protagonist Protaganist Description
1 5*The Dispossessed, Le Guin adult scientist adult
2 5* The Fifth Season, Jemisin 1 kid, 1 teen, 1 adult nice kid, sassy teen, seasoned adult
3 5*Old Man’s War, Scalzi adult old grandpa
4 5*Kafka on the Shore, Murakami teen weirdly introspective teen
5 5*Dune, Herbert teen coming of age
6 5* Foundation, Asimov adult pretty normal people, some ‘heroes’
7 4* The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey kid crazy brilliant kid
8 4* The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams adult & alien sassy AF
9 4* Foundation and Empire, Asimov adults pretty normal people
10 2* Ready Player One, Cline teen smart but cocky

1. The Dispossessed, Le Guin (1974)

The Dispossessed is, more or less, a man’s struggles and realizations in comparing a poor but well-run Communist/Anarchist society with an ultra-efficient but highly political capitalist world. From a character perspective, Shevek is a genius physicist that is generally stable but suspect to his emotions.

This is top because I know Shevek story will stay strong in my mind as the books below get reduced to faint abstractions over the years.

The full review is in a previous post!

2. The Fifth Season, Jemisin (2015)

“And since stonelore would be harder to remember if it was full of phrases like ‘watch for the inverted fulcrum of a conical torus,’ we get centers and circles. Accuracy is sacrificed in the name of better poetry.”

I love this because it is the essence of Jemisin’s writing. She trades obscure vocabulary for colloquial thoughts and dialogue – The Fifth Season reads so smoothly that it was over before I knew it.

The characters follow common tropes. The innocent, curious young girl. The prideful, sassy teenager. The seasoned adult. I believe these tropes actually enhanced my experience.

The Fifth Season isn’t about characters taking weird, dark or unpredictable turns – rather it’s how they adapt to a world constantly changing, a world constantly on edge of collapse, and a world where you are the enemy despite how much you want to help. Decisions are generally rational, but people get carried away by emotions. These tropes make people realistic, believable, and their actions easy to emphasize with.

3. Old Man’s War, Scalzi (2005)

Old Man’s War is a mix of hilarity, somberness, and lots of guns. It gets really funky really fast, and once you adjust you realize there’s quite a bit of space philosophy to go with fighting aliens across the universe.

The protagonist is generally jaded, sarcastic and fun to introspect alongside. That being said, I think the character himself wasn’t all that memorable – the excitement of the world & story is what carries Old Man’s War to #3.

4. Kafka By the Shore, Murakami (2006)

Oh man, what a weird book. It starts unbelievably slowly, but Kafka’s story gradually becomes more complex, interesting as it gets weirder and weirder. The novel concludes with a powerful, resounding and emotional finish.

Kafka himself is intelligent, introspective, and conflicted. As a 15 year old dumped into an mystical world, he makes mistakes, suffers, learns, and powers through a cruel Oedipal prophecy.

Also Oshima (the librarian) was an absolute badass. And these fan illustrations are amazing.

5. Dune, Herbert (1965)

Dune was a great story, fun plot, and has all the shenanigans of the modern hero story (loyalty and betrayal, sacrifice, twists, yadayadaya). All around a very solid book but mostly if you appreciate it as the first of its’ kind, as a scifi/fantasy epic. It’s seen to have heavily inspired Star Wars, alongside many other story based science fiction stories.

6. Foundation, Asimov (1951)

This Asimov is one of the original scifi books (written in the 1940s). It is a brilliant story of prediction (psychohistory, which is basically macroeconomics on steroids), political heroism and the world as it could be. It is a sophisticated space equivalent of the Fall of Rome.

Foundation focuses on political relationships and world building, and less on realism/character development. The heroes are brilliant, fallible, but not necessarily complex or developing characters.

7. The Girl with All the Gifts, Carey (2015)

Brilliant storytelling and a cute first person view of a young intellectual zombie 10 y/o girl. I’m not a huge zombie reader, but this really showed how love can play a huge part in people when their brains are getting eaten. It wasn’t extremely special (hence a 4*) but no real knocks and overall a solid book

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams (1979)

This is a truly revolutionary and ridiculous book in the genre of sci-fi, and I am all the better for having read it. That being said, I can’t say it was a either a mind-altering or extremely sophisticated experience. Now I think about it, it’s pretty much the Rick and Morty of the 70s. Solid stuff.

9. Foundation and Empire, Asimov (1952)

The second book of the Foundation Trilogy is a show of inevitability of sociopolitical nature of humanity under certain conditions. It had a solid story and a few great twists, but the characters were mostly static and predictable. I think its worth a read to understand Asimov but there are better books out there.

10. Ready Player One, Cline (2011)

This is probably the single worst book I’ve read in the past 10 years.

On the plus side, it was a great page-turner. Cline crams every possible gaming and pop reference from the 80s in a action-packed “adventure”. Unfortunately, the main character is a cocky teenager that somehow just happens to be the best at every game in the world. There are no real twists, no real complexity in any of the characters (both good and bad), and no real redeeming features.

I was hoping for a book that bathes in its own absurdity. As I hoped my way for two thirds of the book, it became clearer that it was simply oblivious at its own ridiculousness.

The only consolation here is that Andy Wier (author of The Martian) did a spin-off short story called Lacero that is actually good. Give it a read!


Thanks for reading, and let me know what you are reading!

Brilliant (and useful) “What should I read” infograph

“What should I read”?

Giving recommendations, or figuring out the next book to read, is pretty tough.
  • As usual, it’s hard to give one without spoiling too much.
  • We read so few books that iteration becomes slow. Out of tens of thousands of books out there, we are lucky to get 20 or 30 in a year.
  • Because of this sparsity, we often recommend the most recent, reasonable book we’ve read.
  • Top book lists are great but often summaries are all over the place.
That’s why I love this what should i read” infograph, because it is witty and hilariously accurate. Note that these are science fiction/fantasy books on NPR’s top 100 list from 2011. Even though it’s 5 years old, most of the books are clearly popular and relevant! Especially science fiction & fantasy, where the current time has arguably little impact on the story settings.

Classic dystopias classified as religious totalitarians vs. warlords

What if I want “man vs. man?”. Nevermind, WWII books it is…

The full image in all its glory. Link below!

Book Review: The Dispossessed – Science Fiction as Art


The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a time when I was burning through a book every three days, this one took a month to read. And deservedly so. The Dispossessed is not a “fun” book. It is a work of art, a brilliant display of social science fiction.

Every sentence is crafted so perfectly with Le Guin’s idea of morality in a fictional anarchy-communist utopia (which is then compared to a technocratic capitalist world). The Dispossessed reflects upon both a diversity and complexity of themes around science, politics, religion, time, human nature, yadayadaya. It’s not all in your face, and pokes you gently in as you follow Shevek’s journey through the utopian worlds.

What I liked

Content aside, I loved that…
  • Ideas are represented as a discussion rather than fact.
  • Book dialogue between intellectuals seems to be an outpouring of the points and counterpoints inside Le Guin’s mind.
  • The main character is sometimes wrong or flawed, but his thoughts are then supplemented those of his peers or intellectual enemies. 
And then the content is phenomenal. This book is not necessarily perfect”, but  it is absolutely special.

What you might not like

Of course, we already know that this novel is…

  • Slow, brooding, intellectual, etc so if you aren’t in the mood for that you’ll never finish.
  • I also wouldn’t say it is a satisfying” book.
  • If you have one scifi book to read, I wouldn’t read this to start off. Maybe I’d suggest Three Body Problem, Old Man’s War, or Snow Crash which are just as thought-provoking but much more fun.

Finally, there are several things to watch out for.

  • Commenters point out that Le Guin doesn’t really give a fair fight to capitalism and makes them look like quite a snobby, suspicious bunch.
  • Also, it still has some patriarchal overtones (published in 1974), and there is a sexual violence scene that is heavily debated.

In the end, its the quotes that I keep coming back to again and again. They are meaningful in their own right, but even more so in the context of The Dispossessed.

On suffering, pain, and brotherhood:

In an austere society anarchist society, pain and suffering is what makes the society work.

It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. 

On Pain:

“Of course it’s right to cure diseases, to prevent hunger and injustice, as the social organism does. But no society can change the nature of existence. We can’t prevent suffering. This pain and that pain, yes, but not Pain.”

On possession and privacy

Privacy is something people have”, and thus don’t need.
…sexual privacy was freely available and socially expected; and beyond that privacy was not functional. It was excess, waste.
A goodreads review says it well  Possession isn’t just about capitalism and material goods. It’s more pervasive than that. Just think about how people refer to each other. My” son. My” girlfriend. My” mother.” When his wife is proud of him:
I confess to being proud of you. That’s strange, isn’t it? Unreasonable. Propertarian, even. As if you were something that belonged to me!

On freedom and promises in physics and society

What is freedom in a world where you have but one goal?
So he worked. He lost weight; he walked light on the earth. Lack of physical labor, lack of variety of occupation, lack of social and sexual intercourse, none of these appeared to him as lacks, but as freedom. He was the free man: he could do what he wanted to do when he wanted to do it for as long as he wanted to do it. And he did. He worked. He work/played.
If a promise restricts your behavior, how can it be resolved with freedom?
though it might seem that her insistence on freedom to change would invalidate the idea of promise or vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful.
How is a promise related to time and physics?
To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future.
(Full quote) How does ethics play into the causal reality of physics? 
“. . . chronosophy does involve ethics. Because our sense of time involves our ability to separate cause and effect, means and end. The baby, again, the animal, they don’t see the difference between what they do now and what will happen because of it. They can’t make a pulley, or a promise. We can. Seeing the difference between now and not now, we can make the connection. And there morality enters in. Responsibility. To say that a good end will follow from a bad means is just like saying that if I pull a rope on this pulley it will lift the weight on that one. To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.” 

On social behavior

On dealing with social outcasts in Annares (anarchist place)…
A person whose nature was genuinely unsociable had to get away from society and look after himself. He was completely free to do so. He could build himself a house wherever he liked (though if it spoiled a good view or a fertile bit of land he might find himself under heavy pressure from his neighbors to move elsewhere).
On being a potential social outcast:
“There’s a point, around the age of twenty, when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”
When discussing decision makers:
Intellectuals are always being led astray, because they think about irrelevant things like time and space and reality, things that have nothing to do with real life, so they are easily fooled by wicked deviationists.

On government

On revolution compared to capitalism (buying and making)
“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”
As Shevek walks through a beautiful park with lovely trees:
Wasn’t all this extravagant foliage mere excess, excrement? Such trees couldn’t thrive without a rich soil, constant watering, much care. He disapproved of their lavishness, their thriftlessness.
In a social anarchy, customs rather than laws start to govern” behavior.
The only security we have is our neighbors’ approval. An archist can break a law and hope to get away unpunished, but you can’t break’ a custom;
On government and science:
“You put your petty miserable laws’ to protect wealth, your forces’ of guns and bombs, in the same sentence with the law of entropy and the force of gravity? I had thought better of your mind, Demaere!”
Snide and representative comments on freedom:
We have complete freedom of the press in A-Io, which inevitably means we get a lot of trash.
The Urrean (capitalist world) scientist’s view on Annares (anarchy world). In many ways he’s right.
The Odonian society called itself anarchistic, he said, but they were in fact mere primitive populists whose social order functioned without apparent government because there were so few of them and because they had no neighbor states.

On the meaning of life

When Shevek asks the Hanish commander(high tech civilization) why he wants to go to Annares (anarchy):
“My race is very old,” Ketho said. We have been civilized for a thousand millenia. We have histories of hundreds of those millenia. We have tried everything. Anarchism, with the rest. But I have not tried it. They say there is nothing new under any sun. But if each life is not new, each single life, then why are we born?” 
If you are into scifi, politics, science, anything, I wholeheartedly recommend The Dispossessed as a nice, slow, and thoughtful read.

“Scifi & Fantasy Week” on Goodreads! (for what it’s worth)

Turns out BLEACH has made its way to Science Fiction canon

As much as I hate Goodreads, I enjoy that they went through the trouble of ordering their top rated Scifi books and named it “Scifi & Fantasy Week“. The week just ended.

Considering how annoying it is to run those filters right now (X+ rating, Y+ review count, deduplicating series) on the website, this is actually pretty useful!

However…

What I thought was cool was they hosted an Interview with N.K. Jemisin, author of “The Fifth Season”. Some good quotes:

(On art education)

“Probably my least-favorite interview question is the one I get most often: “Where do you get your ideas?” I’ve tried repeatedly to figure out if there’s an easy way to answer this question that doesn’t come off as patronizing or glib, and there just isn’t.”

“Here’s the thing: When people ask this question, I think they’re actually asking something else. See (gets out soapbox), there’s a fundamental failure to understand art in American society. This is partly because we’ve basically eliminated art education for all but our wealthiest class, but some of it is just endemic to a capitalist society that views everything in terms of commodities. “

(On how ideas are a dime a dozen. Sound familiar in SV?)

“News flash: Artists don’t need other people’s ideas. Why? Because ideas are everywhere. At any given time, all of us are drowning in them. The measure of an artist lies in the ability to encapsulate these ideas and give them form in a way that others can share. “

These are all very timely, since I picked up Fifth Season on sale last week. I also picked up Red Mars, which is happily on Andy Wier’s list of top space colonization books. Looking forward to both of them!

(OH SHOOT, WAS SCIFI WEEK CONNECTED TO THE SALE LAST WEEK? hmm…)

 

 

Favorite books for great prices right now ($2.99)

No musing here. I stumbled upon some of my favorite books & the season’s hottest on Amazon for $2.99.

We’re talking Hugo and Nebula winners/finalists, top of the top. Most are discussed in a previous blog post. I’m sure sales are always on and off but THIS IS A LOT OF THEM and they are VERY GOOD.

A few that I just bought (two award winners, two also highly recommended)

DO IT THEY ARE GOOD!

Proof of purchase…and my craziness I suppose.

Ranking recent fantasy/scifi reads (from this spring)

The past three months I’ve had a fantasy/sci-fi kick. I staked out Goodreads, Reddit, and few other sites for recommendations, and came out with some great books and experiences. Here is my contribution back to society – a real-ass ranking to granulize the 5 star Goodreads ratings every good book gets.

  1. Words of Radiance (#2)(Sanderson)
  2. Death’s End (#3)(Liu)
  3. Snow Crash (Stephenson)
  4. The Dark Forest (#2)(Liu)
  5. Way of Kings (#1)(Sanderson)
  6. Leviathan Wakes (#1)(Corey)
  7. The Innovators (Issacson)
  8. The Three Body Problem (#1)(Liu)
  9. Name of the Wind (#1)(Rothfuss)
  10. Ancillary Justice (#1)(Leckie)
  11. Homo Deus (Harari)

Many currently popular books revolve around modern sociopolitics, dystopias, investigative journalism/biographies, and ideas about the world. However, all this Fantasy/Scifi offers an escape, a series of thought pieces of what a world would look like with completely different variables, social structures, rules of science, and decision making criteria. Even though a lot of the genre is targeted towards young adults, here are some works I could wholly appreciate as an adult:

1 – Words of Radiance

Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, #2)Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

When I think fantasy, this is what I have in mind.

A whole new world. A patchwork political system showing its cracks through narrators of various sociopolitical classes. Novel concepts of magic, energy, and the dark underworld are never explicitly explained – you learn along with the characters.

What else? I loved the witty dialogue. The plot is unpredictable with lots of red herrings, false leads, and crushed hopes. All this is mixed in with satisfying vindication alongside shades of hopeful uncertainty.

This book is hilariously thick, but worth it from cover to cover. Also you can’t tell on Kindle 🙂

2 – Death’s End

Death's End (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #3)Death’s End by Liu Cixin

Death’s End doesn’t have much relationship romance, but it is beautifully romantic novel. When everything seems to be going wrong, there is an out against all odds. When humanity is but a bug in the grand scheme of the dark forest universe, we do not lose the glimmer of hope.

What a grand fucking finale to Liu Cixin’s “Three Body Problem” series. The series is one that just gets better and better, and this is what really got me into my reading binge this Spring.

3 – Snow Crash

Snow CrashSnow Crash by Neal Stephenson

First published in 1992, Snow Crash beautifully extrapolates the hacker, punk, pizza delivery suburban culture to their imaginative extremes. Started getting really interesting 1/3 into the book and the action just never stopped. Brilliantly sarcastic writing and loved Stevenson’s ability to take ridiculous puns from corporate marketing to the next level.

There is a bit of suspension of disbelief required with all the pseudo history and linguistics, alongside lots of crude humor and shenanigans. I can see how it’d be a turnoff to some but I loved its crass, deadpan tone.

4 – The Dark Forest (REP #2)(Liu)

In a fully rational world where the optimal decisions still result in certain defeat – what do you do?

The Dark Forest is the second book in the “Three Body Problem” series. Liu Cixin explores a story of individual ingenuity, subterfuge, mutually assured destruction, and a bit of luck in a Earth 5headed towards a dangerous future. It keeps you guessing all the way to the end, where the “Dark Forest” theory of universe (a la Fermi Paradox) does not disappoint.

5 – Way of Kings (SA #1)(Sanderson)

The first of the Stormlight Archives, the Way of Kings kept me coming back with it’s mysterious world, vague politics, and spicy characters. I didn’t exactly know where things were going, and yet I knew something crazy and relevant was just around the corner. On Kindle, you can’t tell, but this series has the fattest books in the fantasy section and I loved every word from cover to cover.

6 – Leviathan Wakes (Exp #1)(Corey)

In this book, Corey explores some seriously weird ideas but with great writing and a host of really interesting characters. It has a pretty viable future with Earth/Mars/Outer Belt solar system politics. All in all, I think this ranks pretty low in sci-fi world building, but it was really action packed and could not stop reading.

On the downside, you knew exactly what was going to happen at the end, so minus points for suspense.

7 – The Innovators (Issacson)

(This isn’t fantasy/scifi, but whatever) I think the history of modern computers and internet is wildly interesting and a must-read for Silicon Valley techies. What brilliant things can be done when the government/military, corporations and academics collaborate! What brilliant things can be done by individual hackers in their garage! There is no one place where innovation takes place, and here are some stories of that diversity.

The book is well researched, and has a similar style to Issacson’s popular “Steve Jobs” book. Unfortunately the writing can get very repetitive, with Issacson is constantly rehashing the same point every other chapter. This bumps it to the lower half and a 4*.

8 – The Three Body Problem (REP #1)(Liu)

I enjoyed this book a lot in its own right. To be honest though, books #2 & 3 (Dark Forest, Death’s End) were so good that I barely remembered what happened in this one. However, this book is critical setup for the series so I recommend the whole series wholeheartedly.

This has a “Chinese” social perspective, which might turn some people off. Many American books revolve around individual heroism, while this entire series seems to promote optimal decision for the greater good. However, that’s just the setup, and we find throughout the series that the winner doesn’t come from collective thinking at all 🙂

9 – Name of the Wind (KK #1)(Rothfuss)

Beautiful writing, beautiful poetry and songs, beautiful descriptions.

Pretty slow plot. A fallen hero recounts a story of his his precocious yet rogue-like youth. Do something dumb but calculated, get in trouble, get out of it, rinse and repeat. Each arc is very interesting, but I don’t think I will read the rest of the triology.

10 – Ancillary Justice (IR #1)(Leckie)

Ancillary Justice has a great ideas, but mediocre execution on a thinly built world. The main character has an intentionally robotic dialogue, and there is little character development or depth across the board.

It seems like Leckie built a world around her desired plot, and nothing more. There are components of tiered sociopolitical systems, religion, power dynamics, aliens, and personalities, but it all feels very artificial. All that being said, a lot of sci-fi is about interesting ideas and thought exercises. I enjoyed the read and it is great food for thought.

11 – Homo Deus (Harari)

Bringing the rear guard of a highly curated list is Homo Deus. A successor to the popular “Sapiens”, this book has great ideas on how humans are have gone from religion to “Humanism” (a Nietzsche’ian influenced idea of “God is dead, we are our own gods now”). The future, Homo “Deus”, is all data driven decision making as humanity optimizes itself for the future.

All this is great, but Harari just *has* to make constant inane, sweeping statements devoid of any nuance. He then bases his theories on these flimsy arguments, and expects the reader to blindly believe his theses. A damned shame, because so much content seems well researched and with potential to be taken for serious discussion. Instead, this becomes yet another pop culture book about humanity and its future.

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End. Would love thoughts and more book suggestions!

The Stormlight Archives – When Good vs. Evil becomes messy

1080 pages. 1.5 days was all it took to burn through book 2 of the Stormlight Archives, after powering through the first in a week.

Fantasy is a huge risk. The story will almost always be interesting, but it is tough for it to be something special, something memorable. I’ll be reading this series for quite a while.

The book had a straight set of 5 star reviews from your friends. It has 4.75 out of 150,000 reviews, one of the highest I’ve seen. It’s not perfect obviously but its pretty freaking close.

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Words of Radiance (The Stormlight Archive, #2)Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first two books in the Stormlight Archive (The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance) have the POV of a washed up general who’s trying to regain his sanity, a brilliant soldier unjustly sent to slavery, and a witty, sheltered girl who escaped an abusive household. Three entirely different perspectives on the world from three people who have something to prove, and something to learn. All of this in the backdrop of a tedious war stemming from the assassination of a king, vague hints to some sort of “Desolation” to end the world, and an opaque history of a great betrayal by an ancient order called the Knights Radiant. And that’s just the beginning.

What I liked

  • Brilliant character development/backgrounds as the author does appropriate flashbacks that explains what motivates them to move or hate.
  • The world is so well developed – different physical elements, societal roles, secret societies, various governments that characters learn about as they progress.
  • Unbelievable ups and downs, so much r/nonononoyes in book form.
  • It’s sense of right and wrong is somewhere in between Game of Thrones (honor is dead) and Lord of the Rings (a clear line of good and evil)

Additional thoughts:

  • A pleasant break from the popular human/elf/orc/dwarf/undead framework.
  • To me, this is a fantasy novel with similar quality, meaning and style to the manga One Piece. Brilliant character development and backgrounds that explain imperfect decisions in the past and allow characters to be honorable in the present. It’s world is already fleshed out, but the main characters discover more and more as they go.
  • Extremely witty conversation, especially from the female lead, Shallan. 21st century banter is applied to high fantasy (similar to The Witcher 3, a recent fantasy RPG) and I actually like it quite a bit. It doesn’t try create its own brand of fantasy banter and makes the characters relatable.

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