Gwelf is a land far in the north peopled with Badgers, Sparrows, Raccoons, Otters, Mice, Rabbits, and Foxes. The best anyone can tell, everything further north of Gwelf is run by the Ravens and their minions, and is very unwelcoming. But the council of Gwelf would like to give tourists some idea of what to expect, and so we have this guide to the land, its peoples, its magic, and everything the interested visitor might want to know about this fantasy land, from what’s served in the tea shops to where one might find the Badger Zones. Be cautious, though: as one starts in the south with the hospitable city of Gwelf and its bookshops and inns, one might become overconfident and unready for the harsh moors and tundra of the north, with its constant struggle against the ongoing attacks of Ravenkind.
The real hero of Gwelf is the artwork – every page has some gorgeous illustration of an adorable anthropomorphic animal, or an apothecary made out of a tree stump. Larry MacDougall has done fantastic work, and there’s a lot of beauty spread around the book. It is an unusual work – a standalone guidebook to a fictional land, but the art makes it clearly worthwhile.
There’s an interesting backstory to this work as well: MacDougall was working in the role-playing industry for years, and he grew tired of producing work that became more grim and violent every year. Once he had enough of the serious and bloody work in the role-playing industry, he switched into children’s books and eventually wanted to tell his own story, which became this sort-of-a role playing sourcebook stuffed with pretty pictures, the wonders of particle candles, and a lot more sunshine. The Ravens or the ghosts might still get the inhabitants of Gwelf by night, but it’s not Mordor or Warhammer. Lots of fun to be had here, especially by those with an interest in anthropomorphic animals.
Klara is an AF (while I’m not sure that this is explicitly stated in the book, I think AF stands for Artificial Friend) and while this is a story told from the point of view of a robot, it really isn’t a robot story as we would traditionally think of one. There aren’t any immutable Laws of Robotics, orbital mechanics, or world-shaking new forms of social media; Klara exists in a world that should be familiar to us, and she may even be an unreliable narrator.
Klara has a couple characteristics that make you wonder how robotic she really is – she is very superstitious from the very beginning of the book, and she may be made from some form of fabric or have a casing that is very different from the usual plastic or steel we’d expect robots to be made from. She also has strange ways of perceiving or describing the world around her; while other characters frequently praise her skills of observation, her internal descriptions of the world around her leave the reader confused and unable to generate a clear picture of Klara’s experience – this is by design – Ishiguro does not want to leave the impression that this narrator could be mistaken for human.
The most interesting parts of Klara are her interactions with her human, Josie, a teenage girl. Josie is sick from an unspecified ailment, and Klara plays an important role as one of her caregivers. Josie’s mom, dad, and a neighbor also play vital roles that I should put under spoiler protection below. Before I get to that, Klara and the Sun is a great book – it makes you wonder and gives you a real sense of having heard a tale narrated by someone who wasn’t human – two thumbs up and recommended!
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Klara has a way of getting humans to do things that I wouldn’t expect a robot to be capable of: twice in the book, Klara asks a human for something that if I would think was unreasonable. Klara gets Rick to help her get to Mr. McBain’s barn, without even providing an explanation. Maybe she was aware that her superstition of the sun setting into the barn, making it a holy place, would be sillier than just asking without providing any explanation. I actually really enjoyed the feature of Klara’s superstition around the sun and its magical powers. Much of what people see as a reasonable belief stems from our tradition, our history, and growing up exposed to years of the same beliefs in our family and the groups of people that surround our family. If AFs are manufactured and not born, not inculcated with a belief system entrenched over the centuries and generations, they should develop belief systems about how the world works that are superstitious.
I’ve been thinking for years about how robots and computers are depicted as purely logical, and I don’t think that’s the most interesting avenue to pursue in robotic fiction, and I think it’s pretty likely that pattern-seeking machines, just like pattern-seeking animals, will be able to perceive patterns that aren’t really there, will find explanations that are comforting, even if they don’t experience comfort the same way I do. They’ll see pieces of information that could lead to an answer, and make the cognitive leap to the superstition, because a systematic examination of beliefs with doubt at the center is extremely difficult, and will be so for the pattern-seeking robot just as we observe its difficulty in the pattern-seeking human. Beliefs are often built piece-by-piece, rather than as a whole edifice: the science of skepticism is a work that must be imposed upon these beliefs that may have accreted over years and ages, and there’s no reason to believe that a machine built to see design (which AFs must be, in order to understand the motives of their human charges) will apply systematic skepticism unless there’s some need to program it to.
The other time Klara convinces a human to do something, it’s Josie’s dad, and Klara tells him that destroying the Cootings machine will help Josie. That’s outright exposure of the superstition here, but an important detail is that Josie’s dad is a fascist. I like Ishiguro’s boiling down (through a character’s dialogue) of fascism to a bunch of white guys with guns who are organized to do violence to immigrants and the powerless – while I’d prefer Umberto Eco’s 14-point definition, a novel has no room for such exposition, and the character correctly identifies Josie’s dad as a fascist despite his protestations that he isn’t. Fascists have two characteristics that are relevant to Klara’s request: they’re not overly concerned with avoiding violence and vandalism to the public good, and they have a strong weakness for Romantic narratives over rational ones. He’s both willing to destroy the Cootings machine (it’s not clear what the Cootings machine actually is, but it’s implied to be some sort of road construction equipment) and willing to risk Klara’s life/functioning to do it.
I’ve also got nagging questions about the Beggar Man from the beginning of the novel. Klara watches the police beat him terribly, and then sees him healed by the sun and getting up and walking away? Was he a solar-powered AF? Did Klara just imagine that the sun healed him to give the story a more pleasant ending? Who knows, but it is interesting food for thought.
St. Clair’s book methodically runs through a series of colors with one- to five-page anecdotes about various colors (physical dyes, not digital,) where they come from, and an interesting story or two about something historical that is connected to the color or how the color/dye is manufactured. I was fascinated by the early dyes mentioned in the book, and by just how many dyes were made by placing metals in an urn with vinegar or urine and heating for a month or so. I was actually fascinated with the process for manufacturing many of the pigments: that just seemed like a part of the history that appealed to me, especially the trial-and-error chemistry that produced so many useful colors over millennia.
There were also several neat tidbits of history that inspired me to look a little further, even if only to a Wikipedia page: Mountbatten Pink and the temptation of leaders in World War II to paint military equipment an odd mix of pink and grey. In all, I enjoyed learning a few things about colors; although the book was a little longer and less focused than I may have liked; reading more like a collection of essays than a more coherent connection between the development of chemistry and art.
Our protagonist wakes up from a coma in a spaceship where the other two people aboard are now corpses, and doesn’t know who he is or why he’s there. It’s a good start for a novel where the twists keep on coming, and I’m not going to spoil it here because there are two really good twists in the plot (and one twist that doesn’t really detract from the others.) Project Hail Mary is the best of the three books by Andy Weir that I’ve read, and as much as I liked The Martian and almost couldn’t put it down, Hail Mary surpasses it in every way.
The hallmarks of an Andy Weir book are all there – a protagonist who has to rely on their wits, scientific knowledge, and not a whole lot of help from the rest of the world. A problem that can only be solved by working the puzzle pieces intensely through a scientific process. Obstacles that more or less amount to “Yeah, I’ve done some dumb things after staying awake for thirty hours on an important project too; and, oh yes, I would not bother to double-check that I was in Earth-standard gravity after waking up from a coma with no memory of even my own name.”
I love this feature of Weir’s writing: his protagonists have very human failings. They don’t need to be opposed by a Kang the Conqueror or a Blofeld; people are really good at getting in their own way, and you don’t need evil to explain the failure of a complex project in space with very few people able to collaborate on it. Disaster is waiting in every screw not fully drilled in, on the strength of the tether in every spacewalk. I hope Weir’s future work explores this theme more; too much fiction revolves around hyper-capable phantom enemies, and not enough around our simple inability to accept that we need a Plan B worked out beforehand; we need to both firmly hold that hot tea kettle and make sure it’s not going to drop on something valuable. After ten thousand times of making tea; it’s going to drop once. There’s a rich field there because almost no one writes about this, and Weir is making it a centerpiece of his novels. It also helps build, rather than dissipate, the tension in his work. In a Bond story, you know you’re going to have a scene with the villain before everything goes very wrong. In a Weir story, that dang protagonist is on stage the whole time and you just don’t know when he’s going to mess up!
There’s a paucity of characters in most of Weir’s books, which is often a strength, but there is one character who keeps showing up in The Martian, Artemis, and Project Hail Mary: space travel. Weir has lovingly detailed the details of getting to and living on Mars, of surviving on Earth’s moon, and Hail Mary has its own ambitious, highly detailed space journey (which I’m not going to reveal, because you should definitely read this book!) A lot of work has gone into this one, it’s obvious to the reader that space travel gets half the attention of the narrative lavished on it and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The only thing I will give away is that Hail Mary has me wondering what I would bring if I had to bring my microbiology lab into space.
Double thumbs up for both thought-provoking work and writing you just can’t put down because you want to know what happens – read this book!
There’s a special kind of delight in Allie Brosh’s cartoon work – cartoons don’t have to be wonderfully detailed or lifelike, but they do need to evoke an emotional response from the reader, and Brosh’s work excels at that. I’m kind of amazed that Brosh can get me to empathize so much with someone whose head and eyes look a little more like they belong on a newt than a human. But those big eyes can say so much.
I love that we get the dog’s perspective in the middle panel, complete with the chair now having teeth and emotional indicators showing the dog’s belief that the chair has hostile intent. The pacing of this sequence is also excellent, with the third panel showing the quiet aftermath of suspicion lingering in the dog long after the chair incident.
Brosh tells a lot of autobiographical stories, effectively interspersing comics panels with small amounts of relevatory text. The vast majority of the book covers comedic tales of Brosh in unlikely situations, and justifiably plants the book in the Humor section of bookstores and libraries. There are a couple far more serious stories in Solutions and Other Problems, including Brosh working through a family tragedy. The juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in the same work is hard to pull off, but in a brazenly honest tone and with obvious care for the reader, Brosh does an excellent job of it.
I highly recommend Solutions and Other Problems and Allie Brosh’s other work (such as Hyperbole and a Half.) It’s fantastic storytelling in a rare mixed written and visual form.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it helps to think of America not as the soaring adult Bald Eagle, but as this awkward creature not yet in its best plumage, goofily trying to land on things that can’t support its weight, and trying to catch birds it can’t eat… It’s our job, as outlined by MLK, to make this America grow up into the awesome graceful adult we’d all like it to be – by rejecting racism and militarism and fighting to democratically exclude those -isms from our communities.
America is in the midst of five major crises: A public health crisis with the coronavirus, a Constitutional crisis with a President determined to remain in power despite the people electing his challenger, a justice crisis with people of color subjected to violent policing far more often than people thought of as white, a climate crisis with rampant well-funded denial of a slowly unfolding tragedy, and an economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic that adds to the suffering and feeds many of these other crises.
I’m writing this about 24 hours after the Trump rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. moved to the Capitol Building, smashed windows and furniture, and threatened lawmakers in the midst of certifying the electoral votes from the 2020 Presidential Election, in which Joe Biden defeated President Trump by 7 million votes and 74 Electoral votes. This close to the insurrection/riot (we don’t even know what to call this event just yet) emotions and fears are running high, and while I think the near-term implications are frightening, I also believe the long-term implications are even worse and interact with the other four crises.
One thing I find fascinating about yesterday’s riot (doubtless history will find a better term? Putsch? MAGAgolpe?) is the almost-immediate denial in some right-wing circles that the people who invaded the Capitol to disrupt the Electoral vote certification were right-wingers at all.
But the rioters – they were excited to let people know what they were doing. They livestreamed, tweeted, and posted:
Disrupting the orderly and fair election was exactly what this collection of white supremacists and neo-nazis want. Elections and a functioning democracy are the last thing they want. The playbook for fascists is to make the democracy no longer function, because fascism does not look appealing to people who can vote for representatives who will effectively improve their lives.
This sabotage of democracy would look bad for Trump, so right away friends of friends on facebook, and actual right-wing celebrities from Kevin Sorbo to Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL), began to deny that it was right-wing people who had gone from Trump’s rally to the Capitol, on Trump’s urging (if the crowd was antifa, why did Trump tell them to go to the Capitol, and if they were antifa, why did they obey Trump?.)
An important key here is that the construction of plausible deniability on the part of the right-wing is not sincere. There is no good-faith attempt to establish who the voters really wanted to elect. This mob wanted the man who is most clearly a liar, most clearly favors violence over peace, and most clearly corrupt, to avoid all responsibility for his actions. The way this riot unfolded, with a mostly white crowd brazenly overrunning the police and threatening Congressmembers with violence, acting with impunity like it was a giant live-action roleplaying event to be shared on Instagram and Facebook.
There is precedent for this. The Brooks Brothers Riot in 2000, the Iran-Contra Scandal of the 1980s, and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, all have in common that right-wing instigators got away with no responsibility and no consequences. For the right must create a story that permits an escape from any responsibility for the wrongs they have done.
The people who see success in the coups that ended Reconstruction 150 years ago also see success in the failure of the US to address the other crises facing us: They see the coronavirus as an obstacle to the flow of money into regular business. They see President Trump as a bulwark against cultural change and against government regulation. They see people of color as inferior and agents of cultural changes they would like to prevent. They see the climate crisis as a barrier to making money off coal and oil. They see the economic crisis as a threat to the inequities of wealth in our society.
Two weeks from now, Trump’s term is scheduled to end, and accountability is an option. If we really want to address any of these five crises, accountability for the attempted coup and the threat to democracy must be the highest priority.
Skagit County is a great place in Western Washington to look for eagles. I usually do a boat trip on the Nooksack River this time of year for good looks at hundreds of Bald Eagles, but those aren’t running this year because of the pandemic, so I took a drive up instead.
Rather than the hundreds of eagles on the Nooksack, I was able to see about half-a-dozen near the Skagit River up in the mountains (it has better road access than the Nooksack, where the road only comes close to the river in a few places.) In the afternoon, I headed down from the mountains to the flat part of Skagit County, where the Skagit and other rivers empty into the Salish Sea, and there I was able to find a few dozen eagles. Two were young eagles (that’s why they don’t yet have the white head and tail of the adult Bald,) trying to catch some Dunlin on a farm pond near Bow, WA.
In addition to the young eagles trying things out, there were a couple Peregrine Falcons taking turns diving on the same Dunlin flock. They didn’t catch anything either. They did have speed on their side, and that made it hard to photograph them.
The Raven Tower is really two stories in one – both of which are told from the perspective of a local god, which places one of the stories in an interesting second-person voice. Eolo, the servant/attendant of the heir to the throne of Iraden, comes to the capital city and gets wrapped up in a scheme reminiscent of Hamlet: the brother of the Raven’s Lease (what they call the ruler of Iraden) has usurped the position of Raven’s Lease and somehow done away with the original Raven’s Lease, cutting his nephew Mawat out of the succession.
The second story in The Raven Tower is even more interesting – the rise of a god named The Strength and Patience of the Hill. This story shows how gods and magic work in this world. The way gods are born is unclear, but what is clear is that humans can find them. As more humans start to worship a god and give it offerings, it gains power. Another feature of gods, vital to the plot: a god cannot lie – its very words are its actions, and anything it says will draw on the power of the god to make the statement true. I very much enjoy this aspect of the story, and the way Leckie sets up her gods to deal with it. They’re very circumspect in their pronouncements, and cagey with their words. Emotion does get the best of them, and that’s when they are most vulnerable. The Raven supposedly enforces some aspects of the Raven’s Lease – the Lease dies when the Raven’s physical form does, and as a sacrifice, renews the power of the Raven in its successor physical form as a younger Raven. The fact that Mawat’s uncle can claim to be the Raven’s Lease without being struck dead is considered by many of the characters a sign that the Raven blesses this succession, but there is more to that story.
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Eolo’s tale of usurpation and The Strength and Patience of the Hill’s (TSPH) rise are connected, of course. An indeterminate length of time ago, TSPH agreed to take part in a coalition of gods defending the city of Ard Vusktia from the titular Raven. In the course of that war, the Raven declared all the gods opposing him dead. The Raven of Iraden now rules his country and Ard Vusktia. TSPH is relegated to the bowels of the Raven Tower, grinding away providing much of the actual magic that fuels and sustains Iraden, answering prayers directed more to the Raven than himself. The Raven’s attempt to kill off all the opposing gods catches up to him, and that is how, with the support of skulking Xulahns (foreigners from the south with some sort of snake god with them,) the uncle was able to usurp Mawat’s succession to the throne. The Raven himself is dead, with only the imprisonment of TSPH keeping the kingdom going.
I greatly enjoyed The Raven Tower, even more than I’d liked Leckie’s Provenance, and I’d highly recommend it as a good read for anyone interested in fantasy that avoids well-worn tropes. The one thing I would have liked to see more of is more about Eolo’s crossdressing and its implications for her/them?
I get why The Overstory won a Pulitzer – it is a beautiful novel, lovingly whittled from the limbs of the natural world and our understanding of it, and part of a fine literary tradition of humanity overshadowed by the natural world, even as we fight against it. I loved this book; thought it was well-written, nicely plotted and planned, and features some beautiful prose that builds upon the themes of trees and nature. That said, this is a book written for the Pulitzer Prize, not for the enjoyment of the general reader, and I almost bounced off it a couple times in the first 150 pages.
The structure of the novel is deliberate, although I think it makes the book more difficult to read than it has to be. The sticking point for me is the “Roots” section where Powers introduces us to his characters, nine in all, one-by-one in chapters that tell us about the characters. In a few cases Powers goes back to earlier generations to tell us where they came from and who their ancestors were, which is a little intense for the novel format – hundreds of pages of introduction before we find out what these characters have to do with each other. I’m pretty sure someone as careful a writer as Powers considered interspersing some of the backstory with actual story, but he’s committed to the structure of the book mimicking the structure of a tree, or a forest. The first 150 pages are the “Roots,” introducing the nine main characters and where they come from, snippets of their family life, all with some formative experience in nature or with trees. The “Trunk” brings most of those characters together for the central conflict of the book, in northern California during the 1990s battles over logging and conservation. “Crown” brings the storylines to their climax and delivers the aftermath of those 1990s confrontations in the 21st century, and “Seeds” reveals the next steps of the surviving characters for the future.
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I also wanted to talk about the details of the book’s plot a bit, so spoilers ahead!
Our primary characters (Olivia/Maidenhair, Nick/Watchman, Mimi/Mulberry, Douglas/Doug-fir, and Adam/Maple all form an ecoterrorism ring, fire-bombing logging company sites and a resort construction area in the Pacific Northwest after being radicalized with a couple scenes of police brutality during protests in Northern California. The book was written a couple years before 2020’s eruption of protest and violence after police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, which makes the police violence seem prescient, but I’m pretty sure the nature of police/protestor interaction in northwest logging is a known quantity from Powers’ research of the era and it’s just the rest of us who have awakened. I’m really impressed by the way Powers creates sympathy for the characters in the eco-terrorism ring and their choices. We’ve gotten considerable background on the characters by now, and their transitions and awe for Olivia/Maidenhair seem realistic to me. It’s also bizarre how sympathetic the choices they make to burn down a couple buildings, a completely insufficient gesture considering the size of the forces behind deforestation, can be in the hands of a capable author.
Of course, it all ends in tears. Olivia dies (for the second time) in a firebombing accident. The group scatters to the winds and vows to never talk about Olivia’s death. Twenty-plus years later, Doug is caught when a backpacker staying at his cabin reads his journals. He turns over Adam, who is now a Psychology professor at NYU and has two kids. Adam refuses to turn on the others in the group and is sentenced to two consecutive 70-year prison sentences, his wife tragically never understanding his choice.
Mimi escapes to San Francisco, becoming a wealthy staring-contest-therapist (yes, weird, but kind-of neat) on the proceeds of the artwork scroll from her grandparents in Shanghai, she struggles with turning herself in, but will not to protect Adam’s choice in protecting her. Nick becomes a guerilla artist in Alaska(?) – working to create art that reflects his obsession with trees and their protection.
I’m sorely disappointed in the use of the Patricia Westerford (forestry scientist who discovers arboreal pheromone communication well before its time) character and the Neelay Mehta character. They exist to show a counterpoint to the ecoterrorism ring – a different interaction with the deforestation crisis, from someone with the same reverence. It seems like the only reason these characters exist is for Westerford’s attempted suicide at the end, and a tiny note of hope in a bit of a tragedy. I think this is where Powers made a mistake – either make the story even more ambitious or relate major characters to the main storyline, not in minimal tangential ways – actually involve them.
Ray Brinkman and Dorothy Cazaly are similarly poorly related to the actual storyline in The Overstory. There’s but a single reference (“Their daughter at twenty, on spring break from college, in a sleeveless tank top that reveals a horrible new baroque tattoo on her left shoulder”) which I think is a reference to Olivia, and her actual parents who are almost absent from the story. So in an alternate universe where they had kids they would have been her parents? I like the end of the Brinkman/Cazaly story, but it just isn’t really a part of this book.
I do have to finish with the thought that I do love the emphasis in The Overstory on the durability of trees and forests. Our deforestation problem is huge, and should not be minimized, but we will never ‘pave the Earth.’ There will be trees and forests in the future; the real question is what kind of humans and human societies could coexist with them.