Friday, August 20, 2021

The Startup Wife

 


What is 'dude-bro'? It is a damaging social construct of maleness that, in moments of unreflective white male privilege, I sometimes uncritically accept, which is to say, I question whether it exists at all.  I have similar experience when watching, for example, "The Office" or "The Mindy Project", two tv shows I actually really like.  But I have also had to stop watching those tv shows when they started to make me really uncomfortable. I'm not sure if the creators of these shows are intentional in how they stereotype the 'dude-bro', the guy that is super-cool and if you have a problem with him it's you, not him, because he's so cool and laid-back, how could you not like him.  But then, for example, in The Mindy Project, a bunch of the characters (all dude-bros) will start hooting because they all went to Dartmouth, and they refer to themselves and 'D-bags', which is short for douchebags. So, you see, they are taking the piss, and it is aimed at themselves.  But this is a bit of superficial (and therefore gaslighting) reflexivity.  It only serves to strengthen the dude-bro into a position of unassailable hegemony.

The wife in question in this novel is married a real sensitive guy who is not in it for the money.  He ends up, of course, with a Zuckerberg-level of power, influence, and, of course, money, that he doesn't want, but takes anyway.  This uber-guru, the husband of our main protagonist, is an expert in world religions, is self-taught, and is hyper-technical to boot.  He leverages a team together to create the next big tech startup, one that allows users to craft bespoke rituals and religious ceremonies by piecing together the bits and pieces of various spiritual traditions into, for example, burial rites for their dog. 

This novel is really not about the site, which is a bit unlikely. It is about the dude-broishness and how it is a hegemonic feature of the tech world.  It is about what it is like to be a woman in such a world, full of sensitive new age guys who also happen to be hyper-capable capitalists.  Being the dude-bro means you get to over-ride, you get to decide, and you do it by always being the coolest guy in the room, the one who makes convincing the rest of us to do your idea look so easy. The dude-bro, however, in his hubris, overreaches, and the tragedy lies therein. People, in this book, die because of the social media site that the cool guy made. It's next-level messed up where the users take this site, which eventually, like the marriage, needs to be shut down.  So, the startup wife is just that: the experimental trial that you can mess up before you move onto the 'forever' wife/site, consequences be damned.  For the dude-bro, it's all in a day's work.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Under the Blue

 

This has been my favourite read of the summer, and I'm trying to figure out why.  A couple of things come to mind, but first it's a great story, very well told, and that is reason enough in itself to read this novel.  But what makes it exceptional for me is how it builds upon two strands of literature. The first is obviously genre, science fiction, and I thought here of Day of the Triffids, but without the plants. The irony here is that the clear blue skies of the title pervade the book and should bring happiness (both to plants and to people) where there is only sadness.  That being said, this is a great beach read, which I know from having enjoyed my hardback copy on the beach in Bournemouth.

The second strand is post-apocalyptic, but without so much of the genre elements, in which I place the work alongside Camus and Saramago.  Specifically coming to mind are The Plague and Blindness.  The only problem with this placement is that Under the Blue is science fiction, and an excellent example at that.  The novums revolve around AI and drones, and how these two technologies are inextricably intertwined in the vision (and perhaps future reality) of societies of power and control (see my previous review of Attack Surface on this blog as well).

Patrick Meier, in a humanitarian vein, discusses drones in terms of intelligent flying robots.  The AI in Under the Blue is disembodied and remains just a voice in the lab of characters that inhabit one structural half of the narrative.  It is this half in which we observe, along with some scientists, the evolving intelligence of the AI that is being 'trained'.  The way these sections are set off is almost like bare reportage, giving it a very authentically 'scientific' feel. But other sections here, with odd line-breaks, make very much akin to poetry at the same time.  A poetics of science and artificial intelligence emerges that is unlike anything I've ever seen in fiction.

One thing I questioned was how little of humanity seemed to remain alive, but this is also in keeping with the main character's (an artist) isolated, misanthropic, existence, one with which we become intimately involved in the novel's opening scenes. Here we inhabit the artist's world, and see how little time he has for a humanity he almost seems to see as separate, outside, of his own self.  At one level, this book is very much about creation and the isolation of the artist, and the necessity of such in order to maintain the 'purity' of the vision.  But the artist's life is anything but pure, from the materiality of his apartment, to the entanglements (romantic and otherwise) that we follow as the characters (more than one from the artist's apartment building) develop. 

A romantic entanglement evolves, and is complicated, as a road trip unfolds, a wonderfully evoked sense of constraint that allows certain freedoms amid catastrophic failure of the lifeworlds of humanity; and in this we have a flipped, and counter-mapped, 'road trip' paradigm that is another of this novel's many innovative features.  For so many reasons, and for the way the AI/drone nexus is represented, quite believably and subtly, this book is compelling and, I would say, a 'must-read'.  I haven't read Station Eleven yet, maybe it should be the next novel I pick up, as I've seen comparisons to it in reviews of Under the Blue

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Attack Surface

Do I have anything intelligent to say about zero days or self-driving cars? Cory Doctorow does, and after reading his book Attack Surface, I feel more confident in speaking about the social implications of these technologies. When speaking about technical aspects of hacking and coding there's always someone better than we are: hacking is in this way a lot like running.  None of us are Eliud Kipchoge.  But what we often do is overestimate how technical we are, and Attack Surface abounds with self-deluded hackers who think they are more technical or are better hackers than they actually are. Your code must be perfect.  Otherwise you are open to attack.  This is the principal driver of the idea of 'zero days' which are exploitable bugs that the programmers don't yet know about, and that allow a hacker into the program, within which it can be hijacked.  

Such a scenario plays out around the hijacking of self-driving cars which through such hacking activities become driven by interests of police control in a non-democratic state.  The targets of the now non-self-driven cars are protestors, and a scenario come in which this kind of activity is translated into Oakland, and protesting around the acquisition and use of surveillance software by its police force.  Cars are literally being driven into the protest groups.  

The main character, Masha, is the best, and she is perfect.  But she is playing both sides, initially because she can: her ability to generate revenue for herself is a product of her truly superlative knowledge of programming and the systems in which various surveillance and control tools are embedded.  But Masha's friends happen to be very savvy professional protesters with legitimate grounds for grievance.  The evolution of Masha revolves around how the weight of her loyalty shifts, over 500 pages of breathless narrative, from the power/control group to the radical democratic one.  

A fictional country, Slovstakia, offers a kind of foil, a usefully corrupt and easy-to-loathe totalitarian state for whom Masha initially works.  But through the evolution of her story, we come to see that the totalitarianism is being adopted closer to home, that the dodgy banana republic has become the model for the so-called developed territory. In fact map and territory are flipping as one becomes the other, as all subject positions come to be suspect, as Slovstakian activists become themselves totalitarian control freaks; and power/control hackers in 'democratic' states are bled into the radically-distributed ideologies of the do-good left.  

That I could be convinced of the validity of becoming a professional protester, of going on your gut, and protesting 'just because' it 'feels right' is a change that I did not foresee in myself.  Doctorow convinces me, and he has also made me just that little bit more technically intelligent, and less self-deluded about my own level of technicality.  Unless you're Masha, who is literally a fictional construct, an unobtainable essence, then forget about competing at this level.  Go out, instead, and protest the all-pervasive power of the police state; the permeation of AI into everyday lives; the indiscriminate use of databases; the squashing of the immanence of collective power of the crowd, of labour, and mutual aid.  Read this book 'just because' it's great!

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Fortune Men

Nadifa Mohamed's Booker longlisted novel is my favourite for the prize, and I enjoyed it even more than the Ishiguro novel that also appears on the list.  Set in Cardiff, we follow the lives of Mahmood who is accused of a murder he did not commit, and the lives of a shopkeeper and her family, in the aftermath of the shopkeeper's murder.  The thing I take from this novel has overwhelmingly to do with race, and the spaces in which others are judged according to dominant and hegemonic norms of the coloniser.  

The Fortune Men is a postcolonial novel that examines the impacts and ongoing effects of damaging colonial legacies on one man's life and family. Critically, Mahmood has married a Welsh woman, a fact that he believes has led to his harsh treatment by the police and the witnesses they call in Mahmood's trial. It is also a tragedy in the sense that the outcomes have a fatalistic yet entirely avoidable (in the sense of possible worlds in which Mahmood's innocence would have been recognised), yet not by hair-thin margins.  Mahmood's fate is a brutally predetermined outcome as we see by the actions of individual police as well as institutional sense of generalised policing and surveillance of race as a whole in postwar Wales and England.  

We are there with Mahmood at the end when he loses all hope, then regains it, and loses it again as his hopes fade and both appeals and pardons fail. His wife and children seemingly remain loyal and yet they feel very far away, even through visits to the jail, which is situated only across the street from the family residence.  One of the most touching scenes is when Mahmood arranges for his family to stand at the edge of their property so that he can see them and signal to them that while he cannot be with them, he is ok.  As the action moves forward we increasingly see how not ok Mahmood is, and how the various institutions with which he interacts are designed to keep him in a state of agitated subjugation.

We also go into the lives of the family members of the murdered shopkeeper, and we are helped into sympathies with the white people populating this novel. But critically we see that race is itself a tool of oppression, one that is used to its full extent and power by those that wield it, including those whose loss of a sister or aunt, feel so poignantly.  The reader here is ineluctably drawn to think about recent events that have led to raised consciousness around race and critical race theory, and the Black Lives Matter activities and visibilities that have circulated on various media platforms recently.  From the 1950s in Cardiff, with its Somali and West Indian residents; to present day US; these would seem to be overly wide in time and space, and yet, it is race that brings them together, and this novel is therefore both very timely and very much a toolbox for thinking about race, space, and power in new ways.  

It is also a beautifully written novel that is full of poetry of the places described from Somalian cities of Mahmood's earliest years; to the alternatingly bright and dreary Cardiff byways and docks in which the primary action of the novel occurs. There is such depth in the characterisation and sympathy that loses none of its effect in the critical treatment of how the prisoner is treated; of how he has lived his life imperfectly and yet is so much more believable for all that: Mahmood is deeply flawed and very human; the breadth of his knowledge of the world outstrips those whose narrow circumscribed lives end up stripping him of his humanity, of his intelligence, his sense of self. This is the tragedy at the heart of British life, and here is a unique evocation of how the tragedy continues to play out through and despite complexities of class, race, and their intersections. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Purgatory Mount

 The thing is: it's poetry.  For me, this is why I found Purgatory Mount such an effortless read. Roberts defines science fiction poetically, in terms of metonymy (one thing after another) and metaphor (the quality of showing one thing in terms of another), and the structure of this novel both embodies and performs the material in the precise terms of this definition.  Not that the structural resonances between the otherworldly mountain of the title and Otty's beehives are strictly metaphorical at all times.  There is a direct link between these things, in my mind, despite the ultimate origin of the miles-high and seemingly impossible structure with which the minds of the gods are engaged, really never being explained.  That remains the central mystery of the novel but because the mapping is so precise in the storytelling, there was really never any doubt in my mind, even before I realised it explicitly (and admittedly, through a second reading of this novel, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything). 

But Purgatory Mount touches on a staggering array of issues relevant today, and this also makes it exemplary as both a science fictional exercise in sussing out social implications (as it is the duty of serious science fiction to do), and in installing a sense of dread in the mind and body of the reader in the potentiality of those implications. It is also an exercise in examining religious issues and sensibilities here embodied the character of Otty, this story's main protagonist. Her sensibility points to the fact that there is almost a religious aspect to our devotion to technology but, further, that there is a chasm between our sensibilities and those in powerful positions more able to exploit and shape their potentialities to disastrous ends, for the sake of power.  Power is, in the final analysis, what this book is about.

This is clear in the outset, when we find ourselves in a ship made of ice on the verge of a great discovery, and uncover the motivations of its various god-inhabitants, not money but the glory associated with making the find and figuring out what it means.  That this quest (and all the book's quests) are ultimately futile is a comment in itself (on the futility of questing), not least on the power that fixed ideas can maintain in the minds of those who should know better (and who often see themselves as our 'betters').

The map of this book moves in moieties, and its halves are halved again as the main metonymies inhabit the middle, which is split into aspects of war and peace.  War is demonstrated to be conclusively bad for all involved, and we have a meditation on that badness through both description of the chaos it invokes, and the real effects it has upon characters we have come to care about. Four teens have fashioned a new kind of artificial intelligence almost by accident (by accidentally being so smart and clever that it seems they couldn't help themselves but to do so), and this drives the plot. The US government takes an interest in the recruitment of said teens (Otty, Gomery, Cess, Kathry, and Allie, the latter of whom is the AI in question), using illegal means of detention and questioning, directly resulting in the deaths of at least a couple of them. Thus, the social implications of war being not just chaos but moral and mortal degradation and unnecessary waste of life.  

The 'adults' in the room occupy the other half of the novel. They are 'gods' in the sense of being highly and extensively evolved to the extent that they have acquired near-immortality and seeming ability to turn their perceptual speeds up and down/ back and forth as though with internal 'control knobs'. This is a kind of novum that enables a time-dilation device for spatio-temporal deixis in the novel itself, one that again fairly precisely indexes it as science fiction in this mode of telling. These gods are seen by the 'pygs' (a lower form of life that would seem to be actually human so much lesser evolved that they constitute a distinct species) to be gods, almost literally so because their 'speeds' have been so attenuated as appear motionless over the vast timescales needed to traverse the spaces separating earth from Dante (the name of the planet that houses the Mount).

This differential is played to maximum effect to give play to the conflict that arises between the gods, and the leveraging of the pygs loyalty to be exclusively towards Pan, a god more sympathetic to their plight as lesser beings who are actually eaten by the other, non-vegetarian, gods.  Thus we have war in the final half-moiety of the book.  It plays out spectacularly, and the material in the bookending halves are handled just as well as in the middle, perhaps even better in some ways precisely because they are more metaphorical. There is philosophical speculation in abundance as well and the final section here contains some useful reflections on Dante, namely the time-bound aspect of middle section of Inferno, the purgatory. This section 'requires' sinners to atone through effortful movement from the bottom to the top of the mountain. What the characters of this novel cannot see (none of them apparently) is that this is no metaphor, and that their lives are similarly effortful, though it would take a Dante to make them see. Despite this, and in full knowledge of this work, only the gods do not see. And so we have hubris, and the tragedy of the novel playing out to the final seeming demise of just about all concerned.

So, it is a comment on the futility and overweening pride of those who contemplate war through the unreflective leveraging of war-potentialising technologies such as drones, phones, and guns, but also less obviously even of books. For the latter are surely technologies that when taken too literally, might quite literally result in war.  The bible is a case in point.  Here we resonate back to Otty, and her strictness around swearing, with which she cannot abide, the utterance of swear-words in her con-freres being utterly proscribed (by her). This is a kind of superstition, one that also bounds in technologically mediated discourse of which the present work is a case in point.  And so we come to see how cleverly it is constructed, and how solid that construction is.  

Compared to his other novels, Purgatory Mount rates very highly. I think I might even rate it Roberts's best book if I didn't already rate others pretty much on par, including pretty much everything else I've read by him on that par.  There is very much an evenness to the effort and result of this body of work, and here I place in top-class The Thing Itself, Bete, The Real-town Murders, By the Pricking of Her Thumb, in other words all recent output in the Roberts fiction-machine.  And machine it is, and no less artful, clever, and effective for that.  I'm even reading one of his few non-science fictional works (The Black Prince) and it almost seems that historical fiction could be his forte, his metier, if that was his thing.  But his thing is science fiction, and it is very much to the advantage of the dedicated reader to realise sooner rather than later the central place this writer will have in the genre's history. This body of work, in other words, is no small fact. On the contrary, it is a big fact, one that keeps growing both quantitatively and qualitatively with each passing novel.  I plan to continue this journey, and to keep mapping it both for posterity and for my ongoing and increasing interest. I still have a few gaps to fill (a few unread Roberts), and at the rate he writes, I feel almost asymptotically inclined, but luckily I happen to very much like that kind of thing.  Luckily, it feels effortless, and I've already reached heaven.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Top Ten Books of 2020

Why Do We Still Have the Electoral College? (Alexander Keyssar)
Does justice to the question, and doesn't just break it down into temporal boilerplate, or simplistic explanations.  It covers specific examples across time and space, including one very interesting and informative burst of partisam gerrymandering in the "Miner Law in Michigan" case.

Antkind (Charlie Kaufman)
I had just watched "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" and was completely depressed after that, so what did I do? I went right out and bought Antkind and got sucked right in.  This novel is much better than "Ending", and it is much much funnier.

It's the End of the World (Adam Roberts)
Also very funny and a useful antidote to gloomy or pessimistic thinking under lockdown.  Much more academic, critical, and literary than Bill Bailey's own lockdown-literary efforts, this is also a handbook of useful information on what you might consider reading while you've got the extra time (free of travel, vacations or family visits) over the holidays and beyond...

The Liar's Dictionary (Eley Williams)
Another Royal Holloway lecturer hits it out of the park in her debut novel that switches between present-day London and the city in 1899, just before several key words without which it is hard to imagine conducting intelligent discourse had not yet come into being.  This is wonderful storytelling and it is beautiful poetry, and it made me think about maps and their #mountweazels, as well as about language and 'the stations at which we post the word', spatialities, etc, EXCELLENT!

War of the Maps (Paul McAuley)
I mean, just look at the title, and realise that it's richer than you can even imagine, with so many different levels of not just map, but of being and estrangement coming into play that it just boggles!  This is a great book, and it has made me a McAuley true believer...a technical term indicating that from now on McAuley has a 'free pass' from Gwilym (I'll buy anything he publishes from now on).

Mordew (Alex Pheby)
I'm a bit of an outsider, but as my appreciation of England deepens I find increasingly resonant vibrations with Dickens and Peake. This book is right in that resonance, and adds significantly to the tradition, with map.

The Unstable Realities of Christopher Priest (Paul Kincaid)
I'm picking up a bit more Priest in part as accompaniment to the stellar example of academic excellence. Literary criticism will find increasing relevance on my reading lists as I deepen my own academic endeavours in this area, and this is in my top three of all time in the category of exemplary SF criticism category.

The Lost Art of Running (Benzie)
Beautifully written, and useful in terms of actual running, this book actually does something different, which is hard to do with so many running books out there.  We need to get over our fixation on VDOT02max, to realise the fascia that does free work for the runner, look at the muscles and the skeleton more, and how we hold our form. It also has the 'anthropological' take on running, but in a very good way (with map).

Exercised (Daniel Lieberman)
This book really changed my whole outlook, and I'm no longer hung up on how much I sleep, or posture (not that I was much hung on posture), and have a firm basis in the science and anthropology of running, and some sympathetic stories around how running impacts lives.

The Motion of the Body Through Space (Lionel Shriver)
A reactionary take on fitness, but very entertaining, and with some food for thought.


Friday, October 2, 2020

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

 

I sped through this book, not realising until well into it that it is what is considered a 'young adult' (YA) novel, and actually that that might be part of what made it so compelling.  The story is brisk and unencumbered with unnecessary non-action. It has dreamy protagonists, and not-so-dreamy bad guys, but most of all it has that stamp of what Stefan Ekman has examined in fantasy as a kind of landscape-agency for the production of all kinds of magical borders, territorialised agencies, and time-dilating areas that produce contrapuntalities between past and present in really interesting and innovative ways.

I admit it is my first Nix title, and I've been meaning to get around the Angel Mage for quite some time now (and I now will get around to it, very soon!).  More importantly, this is a title that fits my research profile in a developing line of thinking around how magic and landscape mutually infuse and inform within a certain strand or tradition in fantasy writing.  This obviously goes along with Faerie in general, and with Tolkien's work standing at an origin point. Think Lothlorien and the Elves, and how time moves in that part of Middle Earth (if you are familiar with it), and you will start to get the gist of the tradition to which I allude, and to which I argue Nix is a part.

I've not been to Lake Windermere, and did not know its old name until I read this book, nor did I know that a spirit sleeps beneath Old Man of Coniston, though it should have been obvious from its name. This book is a geographical treasure trove exploring ideas around various interrelated kinds of magic held not only in books themselves, but in the names of things, as communicated down through time from the old days.  I did not find any of this corny, and I think this is because the young adult reader today is an extremely discerning one. Furthermore, it could lead one to things like maps, if one were so inclined (and I am).  The magic, from what I can tell, is innovative, and avoids cliches associated with the genre. Why do knife, blood, and salt in combination result in a 'holding spell'? They don't on their own: they also require application of the combo by a person 'with powers'. And precisely how all of these characters came to have theirs is a mystery not really even worth digging into because it would spoil the fun. 

The fun comes from immersing yourself into a carefully crafted world with consistent rules and frequent application of them. What you get then, is an excellent curation of effects, alongside some psychedelic characters emanating out of a possible 1983: think paisley, mini-Coopers, London black cabs, and whole lot more firearms than we are used to stumbling across in the UK. Think tons of fun and real page turner, and then you might really want to pick up this book, regardless of your age.  It's well worth the price of admission.