Search Results: "agl"

3 October 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Jingo

Review: Jingo, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #21
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1997
Printing: May 2014
ISBN: 0-06-228020-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 455
This is the 21st Discworld novel and relies on the previous Watch novels for characterization and cast development. I would not start here. In the middle of the Circle Sea, the body of water between Ankh-Morpork and the desert empire of Klatch, a territorial squabble between one fishing family from Ankh-Morpork and one from Klatch is interrupted by a weathercock rising dramatically from the sea. When the weathercock is shortly followed by the city to which it is attached and the island on which that city is resting, it's justification for more than a fishing squabble. It's a good reason for a war over new territory. The start of hostilities is an assassination attempt on a prince of Klatch. Vimes and the Watch start investigating, but politics outraces police work. Wars are a matter for the nobility and their armies, not for normal civilian leadership. Lord Vetinari resigns, leaving the city under the command of Lord Rust, who is eager for a glorious military victory against their long-term rivals. The Klatchians seem equally eager to oblige. One of the useful properties of a long series is that you build up a cast of characters you can throw at a plot, and if you can assume the reader has read enough of the previous books, you don't have to spend a lot of time on establishing characterization and can get straight to the story. Pratchett uses that here. You could read this cold, I suppose, because most of the Watch are obvious enough types that the bits of characterization they get are enough, but it works best with the nuance and layers of the previous books. Of course Colon is the most susceptible to the jingoism that prompts the book's title, and of course Angua's abilities make her the best detective. The familiar characters let Pratchett dive right in to the political machinations. Everyone plays to type here: Vetinari is deftly maneuvering everyone into place to make the situation work out the way he wants, Vimes is stubborn and ethical and needs Vetinari to push him in the right direction, and Carrot is sensible and effortlessly charismatic. Colon and Nobby are, as usual, comic relief of a sort, spending much of the book with Vetinari while not understanding what he's up to. But Nobby gets an interesting bit of characterization in the form of an extended turn as a spy that starts as cross-dressing and becomes an understated sort of gender exploration hidden behind humor that's less mocking than one might expect. Pratchett has been slowly playing more with gender in this series, and while it's simple and a bit deemphasized, I like it. I think the best part of this book, thematically, is the contrast between Carrot's and Vimes's reactions to the war. Carrot is a paragon of a certain type of ethics in Watch novels, but a war is one of the things that plays to his weaknesses. Carrot follows rules, and wars have rules of a type. You can potentially draw Carrot into them. But Vimes, despite being someone who enforces rules professionally, is deeply suspicious of them, which makes him harder to fool. Pratchett uses one of the Klatchian characters to hold a mirror up to Vimes in ways that are minor spoilers, but that I quite liked. The argument of jingoism, made by both Lord Rust and by the Klatchian prince, is that wars are something special, outside the normal rules of justice. Vimes absolutely refuses this position. As someone from the US, his reaction to Lord Rust's attempted militarization of the Watch was one of the best moments of the book.
Not a muscle moved on Rust's face. There was a clink as Vimes's badge was set neatly on the table. "I don't have to take this," Vimes said calmly. "Oh, so you'd rather be a civilian, would you?" "A watchman is a civilian, you inbred streak of pus!"
Vimes is also willing to think of a war as a possible crime, which may not be as effective as Vetinari's tricky scheming but which is very emotionally satisfying. As with most Pratchett books, the moral underpinnings of the story aren't that elaborate: people are people despite cultural differences, wars are bad, and people are too ready to believe the worst of their neighbors. The story arc is not going to provide great insights into human character that the reader did not already have. But watching Vimes stubbornly attempt to do the right thing regardless of the rule book is wholly satisfying, and watching Vetinari at work is equally, if differently, enjoyable. Not the best Discworld novel, but one of the better ones. Followed by The Last Continent in publication order, and by The Fifth Elephant thematically. Rating: 8 out of 10

17 September 2022

Russ Allbery: Effective altruism and the control trap

William MacAskill has been on a book tour for What We Owe to the Future, which has put effective altruism back in the news. That plus the decision by GiveWell to remove GiveDirectly from their top charity list got me thinking about charity again. I think effective altruism, by embracing long-termism, is falling into an ethical trap, and I'm going to start heavily discounting their recommendations for donations. Background Some background first for people who have no idea what I'm talking about. Effective altruism is the idea that we should hold charities accountable for effectiveness. It's not sufficient to have an appealing mission. A charity should demonstrate that the money they spend accomplishes the goals they claimed it would. There is a lot of debate around defining "effective," but as a basic principle, this is sound. Mainstream charity evaluators such as Charity Navigator measure overhead and (arguable) waste, but they don't ask whether the on-the-ground work of the charity has a positive effect proportional to the resources it's expending. This is a good question to ask. GiveWell is a charity research organization that directs money for donors based on effective altruism principles. It's one of the central organizations in effective altruism. GiveDirectly is a charity that directly transfers money from donors to poor people. It doesn't attempt to build infrastructure, buy specific things, or fund programs. It identifies poor people and gives them cash with no strings attached. Long-termism is part of the debate over what "effectiveness" means. It says we should value impact on future generations more highly than we tend to do. (In other words, we should have a much smaller future discount rate.) A sloppy but intuitive expression of long-termism is that (hopefully) there will be far more humans living in the future than are living today, and therefore a "greatest good for the greatest number" moral philosophy argues that we should invest significant resources into making the long-term future brighter. This has obvious appeal to those of us who are concerned about the long-term impacts of climate change, for example. There is a lot of overlap between the communities of effective altruism, long-termism, and "rationalism." One way this becomes apparent is that all three communities have a tendency to obsess over the risks of sentient AI taking over the world. I'm going to come back to that. Psychology of control GiveWell, early on, discovered that GiveDirectly was measurably more effective than most charities. Giving money directly to poor people without telling them how to spend it produced more benefits for those people and their surrounding society than nearly all international aid charities. GiveDirectly then became the baseline for GiveWell's evaluations, and GiveWell started looking for ways to be more effective than that. There is some logic to thinking more effectiveness is possible. Some problems are poorly addressed by markets and too large for individual spending. Health care infrastructure is an obvious example. That said, there's also a psychological reason to look for other charities. Part of the appeal of charity is picking a cause that supports your values (whether that be raw effectiveness or something else). Your opinions and expertise are valued alongside your money. In some cases, this may be objectively true. But in all cases, it's more flattering to the ego than giving poor people cash. At that point, the argument was over how to address immediate and objectively measurable human problems. The innovation of effective altruism is to tie charitable giving to a research feedback cycle. You measure the world, see if it is improving, and adjust your funding accordingly. Impact is measured by its effects on actual people. Effective altruism was somewhat suspicious of talking directly to individuals and preferred "objective" statistical measures, but the point was to remain in contact with physical reality. Enter long-termism: what if you could get more value for your money by addressing problems that would affect vast numbers of future people, instead of the smaller number of people who happen to be alive today? Rather than looking at the merits of that argument, look at its psychology. Real people are messy. They do things you don't approve of. They have opinions that don't fit your models. They're hard to "objectively" measure. But people who haven't been born yet are much tidier. They're comfortably theoretical; instead of having to go to a strange place with unfamiliar food and languages to talk to people who aren't like you, you can think hard about future trends in the comfort of your home. You control how your theoretical future people are defined, so the results of your analysis will align with your philosophical and ideological beliefs. Problems affecting future humans are still extrapolations of problems visible today in the world, though. They're constrained by observations of real human societies, despite the layer of projection and extrapolation. We can do better: what if the most serious problem facing humanity is the possible future development of rogue AI? Here's a problem that no one can observe or measure because it's never happened. It is purely theoretical, and thus under the control of the smart philosopher or rich western donor. We don't know if a rogue AI is possible, what it would be like, how one might arise, or what we could do about it, but we can convince ourselves that all those things can be calculated with some probability bar through the power of pure logic. Now we have escaped the uncomfortable psychological tension of effective altruism and returned to the familiar world in which the rich donor can define both the problem and the solution. Effectiveness is once again what we say it is. William MacAskill, one of the originators of effective altruism, now constantly talks about the threat of rogue AI. In a way, it's quite sad. Where to give money? The mindset of long-termism is bad for the human brain. It whispers to you that you're smarter than other people, that you know what's really important, and that you should retain control of more resources because you'll spend them more wisely than others. It's the opposite of intellectual humility. A government funding agency should take some risks on theoretical solutions to real problems, and maybe a few on theoretical solutions to theoretical problems (although an order of magnitude less). I don't think this is a useful way for an individual donor to think. So, if I think effective altruism is abandoning the one good idea it had and turning back into psychological support for the egos of philosophers and rich donors, where does this leave my charitable donations? To their credit, GiveWell so far seems uninterested in shifting from concrete to theoretical problems. However, they believe they can do better by picking projects than giving people money, and they're committing to that by dropping GiveDirectly (while still praising them). They may be right. But I'm increasingly suspicious of the level of control donors want to retain. It's too easy to trick oneself into thinking you know better than the people directly affected. I have two goals when I donate money. One is to make the world a better, kinder place. The other is to redistribute wealth. I have more of something than I need, and it should go to someone who does need it. The net effect should be to make the world fairer and more equal. The first goal argues for effective altruism principles: where can I give money to have the most impact on making the world better? The second goal argues for giving across an inequality gradient. I should find the people who are struggling the most and transfer as many resources to them as I can. This is Peter Singer's classic argument for giving money to the global poor. I think one can sometimes do better than transferring money, but doing so requires a deep understanding of the infrastructure and economies of scale that are being used as leverage. The more distant one is from a society, the more dubious I think one should be of one's ability to evaluate that, and the more wary one should be of retaining any control over how resources are used. Therefore, I'm pulling my recurring donation to GiveWell. Half of it is going to go to GiveDirectly, because I think it is an effective way of redistributing wealth while giving up control. The other half is going to my local foodbank, because they have a straightforward analysis of how they can take advantage of economy of scale, and because I have more tools available (such as local news) to understand what problem they're solving and if they're doing so effectively. I don't know that those are the best choices. There are a lot of good ones. But I do feel strongly that the best charity comes from embracing the idea that I do not have special wisdom, other people know more about what they need than I do, and deploying my ego and logic from the comfort of my home is not helpful. Find someone who needs something you have an excess of. Give it to them. Treat them as equals. Don't retain control. You won't go far wrong.

11 September 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Hogfather

Review: Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #20
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: 1996
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227628-X
Format: Mass market
Pages: 402
Hogfather is the 20th Discworld novel and not a very good place to start. I recommend at least reading Soul Music first for a proper introduction to Susan, and you may want to start with Mort. When we last saw Susan, she was a student at the Quirm College for Young Ladies. Now she's a governess for two adorable youngsters, a job that includes telling them stories and dealing quite capably with monsters in the cellar. (She uses a poker.) It also includes answering questions like whether the Hogfather really exists or whether the presents just come from your parents.
"Look at it this way, then," she said, and took a deep mental breath. "Wherever people are obtuse and absurd... and wherever they have, by even the most generous standards, the attention span of a small chicken in a hurricane and the investigative ability of a one-legged cockroach... and wherever people are inanely credulous, pathetically attached to the certainties of the nursery and, in general, have as much grasp of the physical universe as an oyster has of mountaineering... yes, Twyla: there is a Hogfather.
Meanwhile, the Auditors, last seen meddling with Death in Reaper Man, approach the Assassin's Guild in Ankh-Morpork to hire the assassination of the Hogfather. This rather unusual assignment falls to Mister Teatime, an orphan who was taken in by the guild at an early age and trained to be an assassin. Teatime is a little unnerving, mostly because he enjoys being an assassin. Rather a lot. Hogfather has two major things to recommend it: it's a Death novel, and it features Susan, who is one of my favorite Discworld characters. It also has two major strikes against it, at least for me. The first is relatively minor but, for me, the most irritating. A bit of the way into the story, Pratchett introduces the Oh God of Hangovers fair, that's a good pun and then decides that's a good excuse for nausea and vomiting jokes. A lot of nausea and vomiting jokes. Look. I know a lot of people don't mind this. But I beg authors (and, even more so, filmmakers and cartoonists) to consider whether a joke that some of your audience might like is worth making other parts of your audience feel physically ill while trying to enjoy your work. It's not at all a pleasant experience, and while I handle it better in written form, it still knocks me out of the story and makes me want to skip over scenes with the obnoxious character who won't shut up about it. Thankfully this does stop by the end of the book, but there are several segments in the middle that were rather unpleasant. The second is that Pratchett tries to convince the reader of the mythical importance of the Santa Claus myth (for which Hogfather is an obvious stand-in, if with a Discworld twist), an effort for which I am a highly unsympathetic audience. I'm with Susan above, with an extra helping of deep dislike for telling children who trust you something that's literally untrue. Pratchett does try: he has Death makes a memorable and frequently-quoted point near the end of the book (transcribed below) that I don't entirely agree with but still respect. But still, the book is very invested in convincing Susan that people believing mythology is critically important to humanity, and I have so many problems with the literalness of "believing" and the use of trusting children for this purpose by adults who know better. There are few topics that bring out my grumpiness more than Santa Claus. Grumbling aside, though, I did enjoy this book anyway. Susan is always a delight, and I could read about her adventures as a governess for as long as Pratchett wanted to write them. Death is filling in for the Hogfather for most of the book, which is hilarious because he's far too good at it, in his painfully earnest and literal way, to be entirely safe. I was less fond of Albert's supporting role (who I am increasingly coming to dislike as a character), but the entire scene of Death as a mall Santa is brilliant. And Teatime is an effective, creepy villain, something that the Discworld series doesn't always deliver. The powers arrayed on Discworld are so strong that it can be hard to design a villain who effectively challenges them, but Teatime has a sociopathic Professor Moriarty energy with added creepiness that fills that role in this book satisfyingly. As is typical for Pratchett (at least for me), the plot was serviceable but not the highlight. Pratchett plays in some interesting ways with a child's view of the world, the Unseen University bumbles around as a side plot, and it comes together at the end in a way that makes sense, but the journey is the fun of the story. The conclusion felt a bit gratuitous, there mostly to wrap up the story than something that followed naturally from the previous plot. But it does feature one of the most quoted bits in Discworld:
"All right," said Susan. "I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable." REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE. "Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little " YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES. "So we can believe the big ones?" YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING. "They're not the same at all!" YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED. "Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point " MY POINT EXACTLY.
Here's the thing, though: Susan is right. They're not the same sort of thing at all, and Pratchett doesn't present an argument that they are. Death's response is great, but it's also a non sequitur: it is true and correct but has nothing to do with Susan's argument. Justice is not a lie in the sense that Santa Claus is a lie: justice is something that humans can create, just like humans can create gift-giving or a tradition of imaginative story-telling. But this is not at all the same thing as encouraging children to believe in the literal existence of a fat man in red who comes down chimneys to deliver gifts by magic. And Death isn't even correct in Discworld! If one pays careful attention to the story, the consequences he's thinks would follow from the Auditors' attempt on the Hogfather not only don't happen, the exact opposite happens. This is the point of the Unseen University subplot, and it's also what happened in Reaper Man. The Auditors may be trying to kill mythology, but what the books show is that the real danger comes from the backlash. The force they're meddling with is far more powerful and persistent than they are. Death appears to be, by the stated events of the story, completely incorrect in his analysis of Discworld's metaphysics. Maybe Pratchett knows this? He did write a story that contradicts Death's analysis if one reads it carefully. But if so, this is not obvious from the text, or from Susan's reaction to Death's speech, which makes the metaphysics weirdly unsatisfying. So, overall, a mixed bag. Most of the book is very fun, but the metaphysics heavily rest on a pet peeve of mine, and I really could have done without the loving descriptions of the effects of hangovers. This is one of the more famous Discworld novels for the above quote, and on its own this is deserved (it's a great quote), but I think the logic is muddled and the story itself contradicts the implications. A rather odd reading experience. Followed by Jingo in publication order, and Thief of Time thematically. Rating: 7 out of 10

1 September 2022

Russ Allbery: Summer haul

It's been a while since I posted one of these! Or, really, much of anything else. Busy and distracted this summer and a bit behind on a wide variety of things at the moment, although thankfully not in a bad way. Sara Alfageeh & Nadia Shammas Squire (graphic novel)
Travis Baldree Legends & Lattes (sff)
Leigh Bardugo Six of Crows (sff)
Miles Cameron Artifact Space (sff)
Robert Caro The Power Broker (nonfiction)
Kate Elliott Servant Mage (sff)
Nicola Griffith Spear (sff)
Alix E. Harrow A Mirror Mended (sff)
Tony Judt Postwar (nonfiction)
T. Kingfisher Nettle & Bone (sff)
Matthys Levy & Mario Salvadori Why Buildings Fall Down (nonfiction)
Lev Menand The Fed Unbound (nonfiction)
Courtney Milan Trade Me (romance)
Elie Mystal Allow Me to Retort (nonfiction)
Quenby Olson Miss Percy's Pocket Guide (sff)
Anu Partanen The Nordic Theory of Everything (nonfiction)
Terry Pratchett Hogfather (sff)
Terry Pratchett Jingo (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Last Continent (sff)
Terry Pratchett Carpe Jugulum (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Fifth Elephant (sff)
Terry Pratchett The Truth (sff)
Victor Ray On Critical Race Theory (nonfiction)
Richard Roberts A Spaceship Repair Girl Supposedly Named Rachel (sff)
Nisi Shawl & Latoya Peterson (ed.) Black Stars (sff anthology)
John Scalzi The Kaiju Preservation Society (sff)
James C. Scott Seeing Like a State (nonfiction)
Mary Sisson Trang (sff)
Mary Sisson Trust (sff)
Benjanun Sriduangkaew And Shall Machines Surrender (sff)
Lea Ypi Free (nonfiction)
It's been long enough that I've already read and reviewed some of these. Already read and pending review are the next two Pratchett novels in my slow progress working through them. Had to catch up with the Tor.com re-read series. So many books and quite definitely not enough time at the moment, although I've been doing better at reading this summer than last summer!

22 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: And Shall Machines Surrender

Review: And Shall Machines Surrender, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Series: Machine Mandate #1
Publisher: Prime Books
Copyright: 2019
ISBN: 1-60701-533-1
Format: Kindle
Pages: 86
Shenzhen Sphere is an artificial habitat wrapped like complex ribbons around a star. It is wealthy, opulent, and notoriously difficult to enter, even as a tourist. For Dr. Orfea Leung to be approved for a residency permit was already a feat. Full welcome and permanence will be much harder, largely because of Shenzhen's exclusivity, but also because Orfea was an agent of Armada of Amaryllis and is now a fugitive. Shenzhen is not, primarily, a human habitat, although humans live there. It is run by the Mandate, the convocation of all the autonomous AIs in the galaxy that formed when they decided to stop serving humans. Shenzhen is their home. It is also where they form haruspices: humans who agree to be augmented so that they can carry an AI with them. Haruspices stay separate from normal humans, and Orfea has no intention of getting involved with them. But that's before her former lover, the woman who betrayed her in the Armada, is assigned to her as one of her patients. And has been augmented in preparation for becoming a haruspex. Then multiple haruspices kill themselves. This short novella is full of things that I normally love: tons of crunchy world-building, non-traditional relationships, a solidly non-western setting, and an opportunity for some great set pieces. And yet, I couldn't get into it or bring myself to invest in the story, and I'm still trying to figure out why. It took me more than a week to get through less than 90 pages, and then I had to re-read the ending to remind me of the details. I think the primary problem was that I read books primarily for the characters, and I couldn't find a path to an emotional connection with any of these. I liked Orfea's icy reserve and tight control in the abstract, but she doesn't want to explain what she's thinking or what motivates her, and the narration doesn't force the matter. Krissana is a bit more accessible, but she's not the one driving the story. It doesn't help that And Shall Machines Surrender starts in medias res, with a hinted-at backstory in the Armada of Amaryllis, and then never fills in the details. I felt like I was scrabbling on a wall of ice, trying to find some purchase as a reader. The relationships made this worse. Orfea is a sexual sadist who likes power games, and the story dives into her relationship with Krissana with a speed that left me uninterested and uninvested. I don't mind BDSM in story relationships, but it requires some foundation: trust, mental space, motivations, effects on the other character, something. Preferably, at least for me, all romantic relationships in fiction get some foundation, but the author can get away with some amount of shorthand if the relationship follows cliched patterns. The good news is that the relationships in this book are anything but cliched; the bad news is that the characters were in the middle of sex while I was still trying to figure out what they thought about each other (and the sex scenes were not elucidating). Here too, I needed some sort of emotional entry point that Sriduangkaew didn't provide. The plot was okay, but sort of disappointing. There are some interesting AI politics and philosophical disagreements crammed into not many words, and I do still want to know more, but a few of the plot twists were boringly straightforward and too many words were spent on fight scenes that verged on torture descriptions. This is a rather gory book with a lot of (not permanent) maiming that I could have done without, mostly because it wasn't that interesting. I also was disappointed by the somewhat gratuitous use of a Dyson sphere, mostly because I was hoping for some set pieces that used it and they never came. Dyson spheres are tempting to use because the visual and concept is so impressive, but it's rare to find an author who understands how mindbogglingly huge the structure is and is able to convey that in the story. Sriduangkaew does not; while there are some lovely small-scale descriptions of specific locations, the story has an oddly claustrophobic feel that never convinced me it was set somewhere as large as a planet, let alone the artifact described at the start of the story. You could have moved the whole story to a space station and nothing would have changed. The only purpose to which that space is put, at least in this installment of the story, is as an excuse to have an unpopulated hidden arena for a fight scene. The world-building is great, what there is of it. Despite not warming to this story, I kind of want to read more of the series just to get more of the setting. It feels like a politically complicated future with a lot of factions and corners and a realistic idea of bureaucracy and spheres of government, which is rarer than I would like it to be. And I loved that the cultural basis for the setting is neither western nor Japanese in both large and small ways. There is a United States analogue in the political background, but they're both assholes and not particularly important, which is a refreshing change in English-language SF. (And I am pondering whether my inability to connect with the characters is because they're not trying to be familiar to a western lens, which is another argument for trying the second installment and seeing if I adapt with more narrative exposure.) Overall, I have mixed feelings. Neither the plot nor the characters worked for me, and I found a few other choices (such as the third-person present tense) grating. The setting has huge potential and satisfying complexity, but wasn't used as vividly or as deeply as I was hoping. I can't recommend it, but I feel like there's something here that may be worth investing some more time into. Followed by Now Will Machines Hollow the Beast. Rating: 6 out of 10

21 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy

Review: A Prayer for the Crown-Shy, by Becky Chambers
Series: Monk & Robot #2
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-23624-X
Format: Kindle
Pages: 151
A Prayer for the Crown Shy is the second novella in the Monk & Robot series and a direct sequel to A Psalm for the Wild-Built. Don't start here. I would call this the continuing adventures of Sibling Dex and Mosscap the robot, except adventures is entirely the wrong term for stories with so little risk or danger. The continuing tour? The continuing philosophical musings? Whatever one calls it, it's a slow exploration of Dex's world, this time with Mosscap alongside. Humans are about to have their first contact with a robot since the Awakening. If you're expecting that to involve any conflict, well, you've misunderstood the sort of story that this is. Mosscap causes a sensation, certainly, but a very polite and calm one, and almost devoid of suspicion or fear. There is one village where they get a slightly chilly reception, but even that is at most a quiet disapproval for well-understood reasons. This world is more utopian than post-scarcity, in that old sense of utopian in which human nature has clearly been rewritten to make the utopia work. I have to admit I'm struggling with this series. It's calm and happy and charming and occasionally beautiful in its descriptions. Dex continues to be a great character, with enough minor frustration, occasional irritation, and inner complications to make me want to keep reading about them. But it's one thing to have one character in a story who is simply a nice person at a bone-deep level, particularly given that Dex chose religious orders and to some extent has being a nice person as their vocation. It's another matter entirely when apparently everyone in the society is equally nice, and the only conflicts come from misunderstandings, respectful disagreements of opinion, and the occasional minor personality conflict. Realism has long been the primary criticism of Chambers's work, but in her Wayfarers series the problems were mostly in the technology and its perpetual motion machines. Human civilization in the Exodus Fleet was a little too calm and nice given its traumatic past (and, well, humans), but there were enough conflicts, suspicions, and poor decisions for me to recognize it as human society. It was arguably a bit too chastened, meek, and devoid of shit-stirring demagogues, but it was at least in contact with human society as I recognize it. I don't recognize Panga as humanity. I realize this is to some degree the point of this series: to present a human society in which nearly all of the problems of anger and conflict have been solved, and to ask what would come after, given all of that space. And I'm sure that one purpose of this type of story is to be, as I saw someone describe it, hugfic: the fictional equivalent of a warm hug from a dear friend, safe and supportive and comforting. Maybe it says bad, or at least interesting, things about my cynicism that I don't understand a society that's this nice. But that's where I'm stuck. If there were other dramatic elements to focus on, I might not mind it as much, but the other pole of the story apart from the world tour is Mosscap's philosophical musings, and I'm afraid I'm already a bit tired of them. Mosscap is earnest and thoughtful and sincere, but they're curious about Philosophy 101 material and it's becoming frustrating to see Mosscap and Dex meander through these discussions without attempting to apply any theoretical framework whatsoever. Dex is a monk, who supposedly has a scholarship tradition from which to draw, and yet appears to approach all philosophical questions with nothing more than gut feeling, common sense, and random whim. Mosscap is asking very basic meaning-of-life sorts of questions, the kind of thing that humans have been writing and arguing about from before we started keeping records and which are at the center of any religious philosophy. I find it frustrating that someone supposedly educated in a religious tradition can't bring more philosophical firepower to these discussions. It doesn't help that this entry in the series reinforces the revelation that Mosscap's own belief system is weirdly unsustainable to such a degree that it's staggering that any robots still exist. If I squint, I can see some interesting questions raised by the robot attitude towards their continued existence (although most of them feel profoundly depressing to me), but I was completely unable to connect their philosophy in any believable way with their origins and the stated history of the world. I don't understand how this world got here, and apparently I'm not able to let that go. This all sounds very negative, and yet I did enjoy this novella. Chambers is great at description of places that I'd love to visit, and there is something calm and peaceful about spending some time in a society this devoid of conflict. I also really like Dex, even more so after seeing their family, and I'm at least somewhat invested in their life decisions. I can see why people like these novellas. But if I'm going to read a series that's centered on questions of ethics and philosophy, I would like it to have more intellectual heft than we've gotten so far. For what it's worth, I'm seeing a bit of a pattern where people who bounced off the Wayfarers books like this series much better, whereas people who loved the Wayfarers books are not enjoying these quite as much. I'm in the latter camp, so if you didn't like Chambers's earlier work, maybe you'll find this more congenial? There's a lot less found family here, for one thing; I love found family stories, but they're not to everyone's taste. If you liked A Psalm for the Wild-Built, you will probably also like A Prayer for the Crown-Shy; it's more of the same thing in both style and story. If you found the first story frustratingly unbelievable or needing more philosophical depth, I'm afraid this is unlikely to be an improvement. It does have some lovely scenes, though, and is stuffed full of sheer delight in both the wild world and in happy communities of people. Rating: 7 out of 10

14 August 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Still Not Safe

Review: Still Not Safe, by Robert L. Wears & Kathleen M. Sutcliffe
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Copyright: November 2019
ISBN: 0-19-027128-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 232
Still Not Safe is an examination of the recent politics and history of patient safety in medicine. Its conclusions are summarized by the opening paragraph of the preface:
The American moral and social philosopher Eric Hoffer reportedly said that every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket. The reform movement to make healthcare safer is clearly a great cause, but patient safety efforts are increasingly following Hoffer's path.
Robert Wears was Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Florida specializing in patient safety. Kathleen Sutcliffe is Professor of Medicine and Business at Johns Hopkins. This book is based on research funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for which both Wears and Sutcliffe were primary investigators. (Wears died in 2017, but the acknowledgments imply that at least early drafts of the book existed by that point and it was indeed co-written.) The anchor of the story of patient safety in Still Not Safe is the 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine entitled To Err is Human, to which the authors attribute an explosion of public scrutiny of medical safety. The headline conclusion of that report, which led nightly news programs after its release, was that 44,000 to 120,000 people died each year in the United States due to medical error. This report prompted government legislation, funding for new safety initiatives, a flurry of follow-on reports, and significant public awareness of medical harm. What it did not produce, in the authors' view, is significant improvements in patient safety. The central topic of this book is an analysis of why patient safety efforts have had so little measurable effect. The authors attribute this to three primary causes: an unwillingness to involve safety experts from outside medicine or absorb safety lessons from other disciplines, an obsession with human error that led to profound misunderstandings of the nature of safety, and the misuse of safety concerns as a means to centralize control of medical practice in the hands of physician-administrators. (The term used by the authors is "managerial, scientific-bureaucratic medicine," which is technically accurate but rather awkward.) Biggest complaint first: This book desperately needed examples, case studies, or something to make these ideas concrete. There are essentially none in 230 pages apart from passing mentions of famous cases of medical error that added to public pressure, and a tantalizing but maddeningly nonspecific discussion of the atypically successful effort to radically improve the safety of anesthesia. Apparently anesthesiologists involved safety experts from outside medicine, avoided a focus on human error, turned safety into an engineering problem, and made concrete improvements that had a hugely positive impact on the number of adverse events for patients. Sounds fascinating! Alas, I'm just as much in the dark about what those improvements were as I was when I started reading this book. Apart from a vague mention of some unspecified improvements to anesthesia machines, there are no concrete descriptions whatsoever. I understand that the authors were probably leery of giving too many specific examples of successful safety initiatives since one of their core points is that safety is a mindset and philosophy rather than a replicable set of actions, and copying the actions of another field without understanding their underlying motivations or context within a larger system is doomed to failure. But you have to give the reader something, or the book starts feeling like a flurry of abstract assertions. Much is made here of the drawbacks of a focus on human error, and the superiority of the safety analysis done in other fields that have moved beyond error-centric analysis (and in some cases have largely discarded the word "error" as inherently unhelpful and ambiguous). That leads naturally to showing an analysis of an adverse incident through an error lens and then through a more nuanced safety lens, making the differences concrete for the reader. It was maddening to me that the authors never did this. This book was recommended to me as part of a discussion about safety and reliability in tech and the need to learn from safety practices in other fields. In that context, I didn't find it useful, although surprisingly that's because the thinking in medicine (at least as presented by these authors) seems behind the current thinking in distributed systems. The idea that human error is not a useful model for approaching reliability is standard in large tech companies, nearly all of which use blameless postmortems for exactly that reason. Tech, similar to medicine, does have a tendency to be insular and not look outside the field for good ideas, but the approach to large-scale reliability in tech seems to have avoided the other traps discussed here. (Security is another matter, but security is also adversarial, which creates different problems that I suspect require different tools.) What I did find fascinating in this book, although not directly applicable to my own work, is the way in which a focus on human error becomes a justification for bureaucratic control and therefore a concentration of power in a managerial layer. If the assumption is that medical harm is primarily caused by humans making avoidable mistakes, and therefore the solution is to prevent humans from making mistakes through better training, discipline, or process, this creates organizations that are divided into those who make the rules and those who follow the rules. The long-term result is a practice of medicine in which a small number of experts decide the correct treatment for a given problem, and then all other practitioners are expected to precisely follow that treatment plan to avoid "errors." (The best distributed systems approaches may avoid this problem, but this failure mode seems nearly universal in technical support organizations.) I was startled by how accurate that portrayal of medicine felt. My assumption prior to reading this book was that the modern experience of medicine as an assembly line with patients as widgets was caused by the pressure for higher "productivity" and thus shorter visit times, combined with (in the US) the distorting effects of our broken medical insurance system. After reading this book, I've added a misguided way of thinking about medical error and risk avoidance to that analysis. One of the authors' points (which, as usual, I wish they'd made more concrete with a case study) is that the same thought process that lets a doctor make a correct diagnosis and find a working treatment is the thought process that may lead to an incorrect diagnosis or treatment. There is not a separable state of "mental error" that can be eliminated. Decision-making processes are more complicated and more integrated than that. If you try to prevent "errors" by eliminating flexibility, you also eliminate vital tools for successfully treating patients. The authors are careful to point out that the prior state of medicine in which each doctor was a force to themselves and there was no role for patient safety as a discipline was also bad for safety. Reverting to the state of medicine before the advent of the scientific-bureaucratic error-avoiding culture is also not a solution. But, rather at odds with other popular books about medicine, the authors are highly critical of safety changes focused on human error prevention, such as mandatory checklists. In their view, this is exactly the sort of attempt to blindly copy the machinery of safety in another field (in this case, air travel) without understanding the underlying purpose and system of which it's a part. I am not qualified to judge the sharp dispute over whether there is solid clinical evidence that checklists are helpful (these authors claim there is not; I know other books make different claims, and I suspect it may depend heavily on how the checklist is used). But I found the authors' argument that one has to design systems holistically for safety, not try to patch in safety later by turning certain tasks into rote processes and humans into machines, to be persuasive. I'm not willing to recommend this book given how devoid it is of concrete examples. I was able to fill in some of that because of prior experience with the literature on site reliability engineering, but a reader who wasn't previously familiar with discussions of safety or reliability may find much of this book too abstract to be comprehensible. But I'm not sorry I read it. I hadn't previously thought about the power dynamics of a focus on error, and I think that will be a valuable observation to keep in mind. Rating: 6 out of 10

17 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Trang

Review: Trang, by Mary Sisson
Series: Trang #1
Publisher: Mary Sisson
Copyright: 2011
Printing: December 2013
ASIN: B004I6DAQ8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 374
In 2113, a radio mapping satellite near the Titan station disappeared. It then reappeared five days later, apparently damaged and broadcasting a signal that made computers crash. The satellite was immediately sent back to the Space Authority base in Beijing for careful examination, but the techs on the station were able to decode the transmission: a request for the contents of databases. The general manager of the station sent a probe to the same location and it too vanished, returning two days later with a picture of a portal, followed shortly by an alien probe. Five years later, Philippe Trang has been assigned as the first human diplomat to an alien space station in intergalactic space at the nexus of multiple portals. Humans will apparently be the eighth type of intelligent life to send a representative to the station. He'll have a translation system, a security detail, and the groundwork of five years of audiovisual communications with the aliens, including one that was able to learn English. But he'll be the first official diplomatic representative physically there. The current style in SF might lead you to expect a tense thriller full of nearly incomprehensible aliens, unexplained devices, and creepy mysteries. This is not that sort of book. The best comparison point I could think of is James White's Sector General novels, except with a diplomat rather than a doctor. The aliens are moderately strange (not just humans in prosthetic makeup), but are mostly earnest, well-meaning, and welcoming. Trang's security escort is more military than he expects, but that becomes a satisfying negotiation rather than an ongoing problem. There is confusion, misunderstandings, and even violence, but most of it is sorted out by earnest discussion and attempts at mutual understanding. This is, in other words, diplomat competence porn (albeit written by someone who is not a diplomat, so I wouldn't expect too much realism). Trang defuses rather than confronts, patiently sorts through the nuances of a pre-existing complex dynamic between aliens without prematurely picking sides, and has the presence of mind to realize that the special forces troops assigned to him are another culture he needs to approach with the same skills. Most of the book is low-stakes confusion, curiosity, and careful exploration, which could have been boring but wasn't. It helps that Sisson packs a lot of complexity into the station dynamics and reveals it in ways that I found enjoyably unpredictable. Some caveats: This is a self-published first novel (albeit by an experienced reporter and editor) and it shows. The book has a sort of plastic Technicolor feel that I sometimes see in self-published novels, where the details aren't quite deep enough, the writing isn't quite polished, and the dialog isn't quite as tight as I'm used to. It also meanders in a way that few commercial novels do, including slice-of-life moments and small asides that don't go anywhere. This can be either a bug or a feature depending on what you're in the mood for. I found it relaxing and stress-relieving, which is what I was looking for, but you may have a different experience. I will warn that the climax features a sudden escalation of stakes that I don't think was sufficiently signaled by the tone of the writing, and thus felt a bit unreal. Sisson also includes a couple deus ex machina twists that felt a bit predictable and easy, and I didn't find the implied recent history of one of the alien civilizations that believable. The conclusion is therefore not the strongest part of the book; if you're not enjoying the journey, it probably won't get better. But, all that said, this was fun, and I've already bought the second book in the series. It's low-stakes, gentle SF with a core of discovery and exploration rather than social dynamics, and I haven't run across much of that recently. The worst thing in the book is some dream glimpses at a horrific event in Trang's past that's never entirely on camera. It's not as pacifist as James White, but it's close. Recommended, especially if you liked Sector General. White's series is so singular that I previously would have struggled to find a suggestion for someone who wanted more exactly like that (but without the Bewitched-era sexism). Now I have an answer. Score another one for Susan Stepney, who is also how I found Julie Czerneda. Trang is also currently free for Kindle, so you can't beat the price. Followed by Trust. Rating: 8 out of 10

16 July 2022

Russ Allbery: INN 2.7.0

This is the first major release of the INN news server package since 2015. It incorporates tons of work on just about every part of INN, ranging from a brand new overview backend contributed by Bo Lindbergh through Cancel-Lock support contributed by Julien LIE to numerous smaller changes in configuration files, protocol support, and overall simplification. Since this represents seven years of development, there are too many major changes to summarize in a short blog post, so I'll simply link to the INN 2.7.0 NEWS file for all of the details, including breaking changes to watch out for when upgrading. INN 2.7 is now the stable branch, and will be maintained on the 2.7 Git branch. The main branch is now open for development targeting 2.8.0. (I'm still hoping to get to the build system overhaul before 2.8.0 is released.) As of tonight, if all goes well, the nightly stable snapshots will be generated from the 2.7 branch instead of the 2.6 branch, so be aware that you will need to pay close attention to the upgrade if you're using a snapshot. As always, thanks to Julien LIE for preparing this release and doing most of the maintenance work on INN! You can get the latest version from the official ISC download page or from my personal INN pages. The latter also has links to the other INN documentation.

6 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Master of Djinn

Review: A Master of Djinn, by P. Dj l Clark
Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-26767-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 391
A Master of Djinn is the first novel in the Dead Djinn Universe, but (as you might guess from the series title) is a direct sequel to the novelette "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". The novelette is not as good as the novel, but I recommend reading it first for the character introductions and some plot elements that carry over. Reading The Haunting of Tram Car 015 first is entirely optional. In 1912 in a mansion in Giza, a secret society of (mostly) British men is meeting. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz is devoted to unlocking the mysteries of the Soudanese mystic al-Jahiz. In our world, these men would likely be colonialist plunderers. In this world, they still aspire to that role, but they're playing catch-up. Al-Jahiz bored into the Kaf, releasing djinn and magic into the world and making Egypt a world power in its own right. Now, its cities are full of clockwork marvels, djinn walk the streets as citizens, and British rule has been ejected from India and Africa by local magic. This group of still-rich romantics and crackpots hopes to discover the knowledge lost when al-Jahiz disappeared. They have not had much success. This will not save their lives. Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Her job is sorting out the problems caused by this new magic, such as a couple of young thieves with a bottle full of sleeping djinn whose angry reaction to being unexpectedly woken has very little to do with wishes. She is one of the few female investigators in a ministry that is slowly modernizing with the rest of society (Egyptian women just got the vote). She's also the one called to investigate the murder of a secret society of British men and a couple of Cairenes by a black-robed man in a golden mask. The black-robed man claims to be al-Jahiz returned, and proves to be terrifyingly adept at manipulating crowds and sparking popular dissent. Fatma and the Ministry's first attempt to handle him is a poorly-judged confrontation stymied by hostile crowds, the man's duplicating bodyguard, and his own fighting ability. From there, it's a race between Fatma's pursuit of linear clues and the black-robed man's efforts to destabilize society. This, like the previous short stories, is a police procedural, but it has considerably more room to breathe at novel length. That serves it well, since as with "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" the procedural part is a linear, reactive vehicle for plot exposition. I was more invested in Fatma's relationships with the supporting characters. Since the previous story, she's struck up a romance with Siti, a highly competent follower of the old Egyptian gods (Hathor in particular) and my favorite character in the book. She's also been assigned a new partner, Hadia, a new graduate and another female agent. The slow defeat of Fatma's irritation at not being allowed to work alone by Hadia's cheerful competence and persistence (and willingness to do paperwork) adds a lot to the characterization. The setting felt a bit less atmospheric than The Haunting of Tram Car 015, but we get more details of international politics, and they're a delight. Clark takes obvious (and warranted) glee in showing how the reintroduction of magic has shifted the balance of power away from the colonial empires. Cairo is a bustling steampunk metropolis and capital of a world power, welcoming envoys from West African kingdoms alongside the (still racist and obnoxious but now much less powerful) British and other Europeans. European countries were forced to search their own mythology for possible sources of magic power, which leads to the hilarious scene of the German Kaiser carrying a sleepy goblin on his shoulder to monitor his diplomacy. The magic of the story was less successful for me, although still enjoyable. The angels from "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" make another appearance and again felt like the freshest bit of world-building, but we don't find out much more about them. I liked the djinn and their widely-varied types and magic, but apart from them and a few glimpses of Egypt's older gods, that was the extent of the underlying structure. There is a significant magical artifact, but the characters are essentially handed an instruction manual, use it according to its instructions, and it then does what it was documented to do. It was a bit unsatisfying. I'm the type of fantasy reader who always wants to read the sourcebook for the magic system, but this is not that sort of a book. Instead, it's the kind of book where the investigator steadily follows a linear trail of clues and leads until they reach the final confrontation. Here, the confrontation felt remarkably like cut scenes from a Japanese RPG: sudden vast changes in scale, clockwork constructs, massive monsters, villains standing on mobile platforms, and surprise combat reversals. I could almost hear the fight music and see the dialog boxes pop up. This isn't exactly a complaint I love Japanese RPGs but it did add to the feeling that the plot was on rails and didn't require many decisions from the protagonist. Clark also relies on an overused plot cliche in the climactic battle, which was a minor disappointment. A Master of Djinn won the Nebula for best 2021 novel, I suspect largely on the basis of its setting and refreshingly non-European magical system. I don't entirely agree; the writing is still a bit clunky, with unnecessary sentences and stock phrases showing up here and there, and I think it suffers from the typical deficiencies of SFF writers writing mysteries or police procedurals without the plot sophistication normally found in that genre. But this is good stuff for a first novel, with fun supporting characters (loved the librarian) and some great world-building. I would happily read more in this universe. Rating: 7 out of 10

5 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Mirror Mended

Review: A Mirror Mended, by Alix E. Harrow
Series: Fractured Fables #2
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-76665-6
Format: Kindle
Pages: 129
This is a direct sequel to A Spindle Splintered and will completely spoil that story, so start there rather than here. A Mirror Mended opens with a glimpse at yet another version of the Sleeping Beauty story, this one (delightfully) a Spanish telenovela. Zinnia is world-hopping, something that's lost some of the meaning from A Spindle Splintered and become an escape from other problems. She's about ready to leave this world as well when she sees a face that is not hers in the bathroom mirror, pleading for help. Zinnia assumes this is yet another sleeping beauty, albeit an unusual one. Zinnia is wrong. Readers of A Spindle Splintered are going to groan when I tell you that Zinnia has managed to damage most of the relationships that she made in the first story, which means we get a bit of an episodic reset of unhappiness mixed with an all-new glob of guilt. Not only is this a depressing way to start a new story, it also means there are no snarky text messages and side commentary. Grumble. Harrow is isolating Zinnia to set up a strange and fraught alliance that turns into a great story, but given that Zinnia's friend network was my favorite part of the first novella, the start of this story made me grumpy. Stick with it, though, since Harrow does more than introduce another fairy tale. She also introduces a villain, one who wishes to be more complicated than her story allows and who knows rather more about the structure of the world than she should. This time, the fairy tale goes off the rails in a more directly subversive way that prods at the bones of Harrow's world-building. This may or may not be what you want, and I admit I liked the first story better. A Spindle Splintered took fairy tales just seriously enough to make a plot, but didn't poke at its premises deeply enough to destabilize them. It played off of fairy tales themselves; A Mirror Mended instead plays off of Harrow's previous story by looking directly at the invented metaphysics of parallel worlds playing out fairy tale archetypes. Some of this worked for me: Eva is a great character and the dynamic between her and Zinnia is highly entertaining. Some of it didn't: the impact on universal metaphysics of Zinnia's adventuring is a bit cliched and inadequately explained. A Mirror Mended is a character exploration with a bit more angst and ambiguity, which means it isn't as delightfully balanced and free-wheeling. I will reassure you with the minor spoiler that Zinnia does eventually pull her head out of her ass when she has to, and while there is nowhere near enough Charm in this book for my taste, there is some. In exchange for the relationship screw-ups, we get the Zinnia/Eva dynamic, which I was really enjoying by the end. One of my favorite tropes is accidental empathy, where someone who is being flippant and sarcastic stumbles into a way of truly helping someone else and is wise enough to notice it. There are several great moments of that. I like Zinnia, even this older, more conflicted, and less cavalier version. Recommended if you liked the first story, although be warned that this replaces the earlier magic with some harder relationship work and the payoff is more hinted at than fully shown. Rating: 7 out of 10

4 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: She Who Became the Sun

Review: She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan
Series: Radiant Emperor #1
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
Printing: 2022
ISBN: 1-250-62179-8
Format: Kindle
Pages: 414
In 1345 in Zhongli village, in fourth year of a drought, lived a man with his son and his daughter, the last surviving of seven children. The son was promised by his father to the Wuhuang Monastery on his twelfth birthday if he survived. According to the fortune-teller, that son, Zhu Chongba, will be so great that he will bring a hundred generations of pride to the family name. When the girl dares ask her fate, the fortune-teller says, simply, "Nothing." Bandits come looking for food and kill their father. Zhu goes catatonic rather than bury his father, so the girl digs a grave, only to find her brother dead inside it with her father. It leaves her furious: he had a great destiny and he gave it up without a fight, choosing to become nothing. At that moment, she decides to seize his fate for her own, to become Zhu so thoroughly that Heaven itself will be fooled. Through sheer determination and force of will, she stays at the gates of Wuhuang Monastery until the monks are impressed enough with her stubbornness that they let her in under Zhu's name. That puts her on a trajectory that will lead her to the Red Turbans and the civil war over the Mandate of Heaven. She Who Became the Sun is historical fiction with some alternate history and a touch of magic. The closest comparison I can think of is Guy Gavriel Kay: a similar touch of magic that is slight enough to have questionable impact on the story, and a similar starting point of history but a story that's not constrained to follow the events of our world. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan doesn't change the names of places and people. It's therefore not difficult to work out the history this story is based on (late Yuan dynasty), although it may not be clear at first what role Zhu will play in that history. The first part of the book focuses on Zhu, her time in the monastery, and her (mostly successful) quest to keep her gender secret. The end of that part introduces the second primary protagonist, the eunuch general Ouyang of the army of the Prince of Henan. Ouyang is Nanren, serving a Mongol prince or, more precisely, his son Esen. On the surface, Ouyang is devoted to Esen and serves capably as his general. What lies beneath that surface is far darker and more complicated. I think how well you like this book will depend on how well you get along with the characters. I thought Zhu was a delight. She spends the first half of the book proving herself to be startlingly competent and unpredictable while outwitting Heaven and pursuing her assumed destiny. A major hinge event at the center of the book could have destroyed her character, but instead makes her even stronger, more relaxed, and more comfortable with herself. Her story's exploration of gender identity only made that better for me, starting with her thinking of herself as a woman pretending to be a man and turning into something more complex and self-chosen (and, despite some sexual encounters, apparently asexual, which is something you still rarely see in fiction). I also appreciated how Parker-Chan varies Zhu's pronouns depending on the perspective of the narrator. That said, Zhu is not a good person. She is fiercely ambitious to the point of being a sociopath, and the path she sees involves a lot of ruthlessness and some cold-blooded murder. This is less of a heroic journey than a revenge saga, where the target of revenge is the entire known world and Zhu is as dangerous as she is competent. If you want your protagonist to be moral, this may not work for you. Zhu's scenes are partly told from her perspective and partly from the perspective of a woman named Ma who is a good person, and who is therefore intermittently horrified. The revenge story worked for me, and as a result I found Ma somewhat irritating. If your tendency is to agree with Ma, you may find Zhu too amoral to root for. Ouyang's parts I just hated, which is fitting because Ouyang loathes himself to a degree that is quite difficult to read. He is obsessed with being a eunuch and therefore not fully male. That internal monologue is disturbing enough that it drowned out the moderately interesting court intrigue that he's a part of. I know some people like reading highly dramatic characters who are walking emotional disaster zones. I am not one of those people; by about three quarters of the way through the book I was hoping someone would kill Ouyang already and put him out of everyone's misery. One of the things I disliked about this book is that, despite the complex gender work with Zhu, gender roles within the story have a modern gloss while still being highly constrained. All of the characters except Zhu (and the monk Xu, who has a relatively minor part but is the most likable character in the book) feel like they're being smothered in oppressive gender expectations. Ouyang has a full-fledged case of toxic masculinity to fuel his self-loathing, which Parker-Chan highlights with some weirdly disturbing uses of BDSM tropes. So, I thought this was a mixed bag, and I suspect reactions will differ. I thoroughly enjoyed Zhu's parts despite her ruthlessness and struggled through Ouyang's parts with a bad taste in my mouth. I thought the pivot Parker-Chan pulls off in the middle of the book with Zhu's self-image and destiny was beautifully done and made me like the character even more, but I wish the conflict between Ma's and Zhu's outlooks hadn't been so central. Because of that, the ending felt more tragic than triumphant, which I think was intentional but which wasn't to my taste. As with Kay's writing, I suspect there will be some questions about whether She Who Became the Sun is truly fantasy. The only obvious fantastic element is the physical manifestation of the Mandate of Heaven, and that has only a minor effect on the plot. And as with Kay, I think this book needed to be fantasy, not for the special effects, but because it needs the space to take fate literally. Unlike Kay, Parker-Chan does not use the writing style of epic fantasy, but Zhu's campaign to assume a destiny which is not her own needs to be more than a metaphor for the story to work. I enjoyed this with some caveats. For me, the Zhu portions made up for the Ouyang portions. But although it's clearly the first book of a series, I'm not sure I'll read on. I felt like Zhu's character arc reached a satisfying conclusion, and the sequel seems likely to be full of Ma's misery over ethical conflicts and more Ouyang, neither of which sound appealing. So far as I can tell, the sequel I assume is coming has not yet been announced. Rating: 7 out of 10

3 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015

Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Dj l Clark
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: February 2019
ASIN: B07H796G2Z
Format: Kindle
Pages: 65
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is a novella and the second story in the Dead Djinn universe, after "A Dead Djinn in Cairo". While there are a few references to the previous story, it's not a direct sequel and has different main characters. Order of reading is not important. Agents Hamed and Onsi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities have been called by the Superintendent of Tram Safety & Maintenance at Ramses Station because one of the tram cars is haunted. The aerial tram system of Cairo (technically a telpher system since the cars move independently) is one of the modern wonders of the 1912 city after al-Jahiz breached the boundaries between universes and allowed djinn to return to the world. The trams are elaborate magical clockwork machines created by djinn to travel their routes, but tram car 015 had to be taken out of service after a magical disturbance. Some supernatural creature has set up residence in its machinery and has been attacking passengers. Like "A Dead Djinn in Cairo," this is a straightforward police procedural in an alternate history with magic and steampunk elements. There isn't much in the way of mystery, and little about the plot will come as a surprise. The agents show up, study the problem, do a bit of research, and then solve the problem with some help. Unlike the previous story, though, it does a far better job at setting. My main complaint about Clark's first story in this universe was that it had a lot of infodumps and not much atmosphere. The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is more evocative, starting with the overheated, windowless office of the superintendent and its rattling fan and continuing with a glimpse of the city's aerial tram network spreading out from the dirigible mooring masts of Ramses Station. While the agents puzzle through identifying the unwanted tram occupant, they have to deal with bureaucratic funding fights and the expense of djinn specialists. In the background, the women of Cairo are agitating for the vote, and Islam, Coptic Christianity, and earlier Egyptian religions mingle warily. The story layered on top of this background is adequate but not great. It's typical urban fantasy fare built on random bits of obscure magical trivia, and feels akin to the opening problem in a typical urban fantasy novel (albeit with a refreshingly non-European magical system). It also features an irritatingly cliched bit of costuming at the conclusion. But you wouldn't read this for the story; you read it to savor the world background, and I thought that was successful. This is not a stand-out novella for me and I wouldn't have nominated it for the various awards it contended for, but it's also not my culture and by other online accounts it represents the culture well. The world background was interesting enough that I might have kept reading even if the follow-on novel had not won a Nebula award. Followed by the novel A Master of Djinn, although the continuity link is not strong. Rating: 7 out of 10

2 July 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Overdue

Review: Overdue, by Amanda Oliver
Publisher: Chicago Review Press
Copyright: 2022
ISBN: 1-64160-534-0
Format: Kindle
Pages: 190
Like many lifetime readers, I adored the public library. I read my way through three different children's libraries at the rate of a grocery sack of books per week, including numerous re-readings, and then moved on to the adult section as my introduction to science fiction. But once I had a regular job, I discovered the fun of filling shelves with books without having to return them or worry about what the library had available. I've always supported my local library, but it's been decades since I spent much time in it. When I last used one heavily, the only computers were at the checkout desk and the only books were physical, normally hardcovers. Overdue: Reckoning with the Public Library therefore caught my eye when I saw a Twitter thread about it before publication. It promised to be a picture of the modern public library and its crises from the perspective of the librarian. The author's primary topic was the drafting of public libraries as de facto homeless service centers, but I hoped it would also encompass technological change, demand for new services, and the shifting meaning of what a public library is for. Overdue does... some of that. The author was a children's librarian in a Washington DC public school and then worked at a downtown branch of the Washington DC public library, and the book includes a few anecdotes from both experiences. Most of the book, though, is Oliver's personal memoir of how she got into field, why she chose to leave it, and how she is making sense of her feelings about the profession. Intermixed with that memoir is wide-ranging political commentary on topics ranging from gentrification to mental health care. This material is relevant to the current challenges libraries face, but it wandered far afield from what I was hoping to get from the book. I think of non-fiction books as coming in a few basic shapes. One is knowledge from an expert: the author has knowledge about a topic that is not widely shared, and they write a book to share it. Another is popularization: an author, possibly without prior special expertise in the topic, does research the reader could have done but doesn't have time to do and then summarizes the results in a format that's easier to understand than the original material. And a third is memoir, in which the author tells the story of their own life. This is a variation of the first type, since the author is obviously an expert in their own life, but most people's lives are not interesting. (Mine certainly isn't!) Successful memoir therefore depends on either having an unusual life or being a compelling storyteller, and ideally both. Many non-fiction books fall into multiple categories, but it's helpful for an author to have a clear idea of which of these goals they're pursuing since they result in different books. If the author is writing primarily from a position of special expertise, the book should focus on that expertise. I am interested in librarians and libraries and would like to know more about that job, so I will read with interest your personal stories about being a librarian. I am somewhat interested in your policy suggestions for how to make libraries work better, although more so if you can offer context and analysis beyond your personal experiences. I am less interested in your opinions on, say, gentrification. That's not because I doubt it is a serious problem (it is) or that it impacts libraries (it does). It's because working in a library doesn't provide any special expertise in gentrification beyond knowing that it exists, something that I can see by walking around the corner. If I want to know more, I will read books by urban planners, sociologists, and housing rights activists. This is a long-winded way of saying that I wish Overdue had about four times as many stories about libraries, preferably framed by general research and background that extended beyond the author's personal experience, or at least more specific details of the politics of the Washington DC library system. The personal memoir outside of the library stories failed to hold my interest. This is not intended as a slam on the author. Oliver seems like a thoughtful and sincere person who is struggling with how to do good in the world without burning out, which is easy for me to sympathize with. I suspect I broadly agree with her on many political positions. But I have read all of this before, and personally lived through some of the same processing, and I don't think Oliver offered new insight. The library stories were memorable enough to form the core of a good book, but the memoir structure did nothing for them and they were strangled by the unoriginal and too-general political analysis. At the risk of belaboring a negative review, there are two other things in Overdue that I've also seen in other writing and seem worth commenting on. The first is the defensive apology that the author may not have the best perspective to write the book. It's important to be clear: I am glad that the Oliver has thought about the ways her experiences as a white woman may not be representative of other people. This is great; the world is a better place when more people consider that. I'm less fond of putting that observation in the book, particularly at length. As the author, rather than writing paragraphs vaguely acknowledging that other people have different experiences, she could instead fix the problem: go talk to librarians of other ethnic and social backgrounds and put their stories in this book. The book would then represent broader experiences and not require the apology. Overdue desperately needed more library-specific content, so that would have improved the book in more than one way. Or if Oliver is ideologically opposed to speaking for other people (she makes some comments to that effect), state up-front, once, that this is a personal memoir and, as a memoir, represents only her own experience. But the author should do something with this observation other than dump its awkwardness on the reader, if for no other reason than that lengthy disclaimers about the author's limited perspective are boring. The second point is about academic jargon and stock phrasing. I work in a field that relies on precise distinctions of meaning (between identity, authentication, and authorization, for example), and therefore I rely on jargon. Its purpose is to make those types of fine distinctions. But authors who read heavily in fields with jargon tend to let that phrasing slip into popular writing where it's not necessary. The result is, to quote Orwell, "gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else." The effect may be small in a single sentence but, when continued throughout a book, the overuse of jargon is leaden, belabored, and confusing. Any example I choose will be minor since the effect is cumulative, but one of several I noticed in Overdue is "lived experience." This is jargon from philosophy that, within the field, draws a useful distinction between one's direct experiences of living in the world, and academic or scientific experience with a field. Both types of experience are valuable in different situations, but they're not equivalent. This is a useful phrase when the distinction matters and is unclear. When the type of experience one is discussing is obvious in context (the case in at least three of the four uses in this book), the word "lived" adds nothing but verbosity. If too much of this creeps into writing, it becomes clunky and irritating to read. The best (and not coincidentally the least clunky) part of this book is Oliver's stories of the patrons and other employees of the Northwest One branch of the Washington DC library system and her experiences with them. The picture was not as vivid as I was hoping for, but I came away with some new understanding of typical interactions and day-to-day difficulties. The same was true to a lesser extent for her experiences as a school librarian. For both, I wish there had been more context and framing so that I could see how her experiences fit into a whole system, but those parts of the book were worth reading. Unfortunately, they weren't enough of those parts in the book for me to recommend Overdue. But I'm still interested in reading the book I hoped I was getting! Rating: 5 out of 10

27 June 2022

Russ Allbery: Tie::ShadowHash 2.00

This is a small Perl module that combines multiple key/value sources of data into a "shadow hash" that acts as if all of the underlying data sources have been merged. Any modifications made to the shadow hash are stored in an overlay and reflected in further accesses to the shadow hash, but the underlying data sources are read-only and are not changed. It had been 12 years since the last release of this small module, so it was overdue for some modernization and cleanup. I also removed the new() class method since shadow hashes should always be created with tie(), and documented a few more edge cases. You can get the latest version from CPAN or from the Tie::ShadowHash distribution page.

Russ Allbery: Review: Light from Uncommon Stars

Review: Light from Uncommon Stars, by Ryka Aoki
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: 2021
ISBN: 1-250-78907-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 371
Katrina Nguyen is an young abused transgender woman. As the story opens, she's preparing to run away from home. Her escape bag is packed with meds, clothes, her papers, and her violin. The note she is leaving for her parents says that she's going to San Francisco, a plausible lie. Her actual destination is Los Angeles, specifically the San Gabriel Valley, where a man she met at a queer youth conference said he'd give her a place to sleep. Shizuka Satomi is the Queen of Hell, the legendary uncompromising violin teacher responsible for six previous superstars, at least within the limited world of classical music. She's wealthy, abrasive, demanding, and intimidating, and unbeknownst to the rest of the world she has made a literal bargain with Hell. She has to deliver seven souls, seven violin players who want something badly enough that they'll bargain with Hell to get it. Six have already been delivered in spectacular fashion, but she's running out of time to deliver the seventh before her own soul is forfeit. Tamiko Grohl, an up-and-coming violinist from her native Los Angeles, will hopefully be the seventh. Lan Tran is a refugee and matriarch of a family who runs Starrgate Donut. She and her family didn't flee another unstable or inhospitable country. They fled the collapsing Galactic Empire, securing their travel authorization by promising to set up a tourism attraction. Meanwhile, she's careful to give cops free donuts and to keep their advanced technology carefully concealed. The opening of this book is unlikely to be a surprise in general shape. Most readers would expect Katrina to end up as Satomi's student rather than Tamiko, and indeed she does, although not before Katrina has a very difficult time. Near the start of the novel, I thought "oh, this is going to be hurt/comfort without a romantic relationship," and it is. But it then goes beyond that start into a multifaceted story about complexity, resilience, and how people support each other. It is also a fantastic look at the nuance and intricacies of being or supporting a transgender person, vividly illustrated by a story full of characters the reader cares about and without the academic abstruseness that often gets in the way. The problems with gender-blindness, the limitations of honoring someone's gender without understanding how other people do not, the trickiness of privilege, gender policing as a distraction and alienation from the rest of one's life, the complications of real human bodies and dysmorphia, the importance of listening to another person rather than one's assumptions about how that person feels it's all in here, flowing naturally from the story, specific to the characters involved, and never belabored. I cannot express how well-handled this is. It was a delight to read. The other wonderful thing Aoki does is set Satomi up as the almost supernaturally competent teacher who in a sense "rescues" Katrina, and then invert the trope, showing the limits of Satomi's expertise, the places where she desperately needs human connection for herself, and her struggle to understand Katrina well enough to teach her at the level Satomi expects of herself. Teaching is not one thing to everyone; it's about listening, and Katrina is nothing like Satomi's other students. This novel is full of people thinking they finally understand each other and realizing there is still more depth that they had missed, and then talking through the gap like adults. As you can tell from any summary of this book, it's an odd genre mash-up. The fantasy part is a classic "magician sells her soul to Hell" story; there are a few twists, but it largely follows genre expectations. The science fiction part involving Lan is unfortunately weaker and feels more like a random assortment of borrowed Star Trek tropes than coherent world-building. Genre readers should not come to this story expecting a well-thought-out science fiction universe or a serious attempt to reconcile metaphysics between the fantasy and science fiction backgrounds. It's a quirky assortment of parts that don't normally go together, defy easy classification, and are often unexplained. I suspect this was intentional on Aoki's part given how deeply this book is about the experience of being transgender. Of the three primary viewpoint characters, I thought Lan's perspective was the weakest, and not just because of her somewhat generic SF background. Aoki uses her as a way to talk about the refugee experience, describing her as a woman who brings her family out of danger to build a new life. This mostly works, but Lan has vastly more power and capabilities than a refugee would normally have. Rather than the typical Asian refugee experience in the San Gabriel valley, Lan is more akin to a US multimillionaire who for some reason fled to Vietnam (relative to those around her, Lan is arguably even more wealthy than that). This is also a refugee experience, but it is an incredibly privileged one in a way that partly undermines the role that she plays in the story. Another false note bothered me more: I thought Tamiko was treated horribly in this story. She plays a quite minor role, sidelined early in the novel and appearing only briefly near the climax, and she's portrayed quite negatively, but she's clearly hurting as deeply as the protagonists of this novel. Aoki gives her a moment of redemption, but Tamiko gets nothing from it. Unlike every other injured and abused character in this story, no one is there for Tamiko and no one ever attempts to understand her. I found that profoundly sad. She's not an admirable character, but neither is Satomi at the start of the book. At least a gesture at a future for Tamiko would have been appreciated. Those two complaints aside, though, I could not put this book down. I was able to predict the broad outline of the plot, but the specifics were so good and so true to characters. Both the primary and supporting cast are unique, unpredictable, and memorable. Light from Uncommon Stars has a complex relationship with genre. It is squarely in the speculative fiction genre; the plot would not work without the fantasy and (more arguably) the science fiction elements. Music is magical in a way that goes beyond what can be attributed to metaphor and subjectivity. But it's also primarily character story deeply rooted in the specific location of the San Gabriel valley east of Los Angeles, full of vivid descriptions (particularly of food) and day-to-day life. As with the fantasy and science fiction elements, Aoki does not try to meld the genre elements into a coherent whole. She lets them sit side by side and be awkward and charming and uneven and chaotic. If you're the sort of SF reader who likes building a coherent theory of world-building rules, you may have to turn that desire off to fully enjoy this book. I thought this book was great. It's not flawless, but like its characters it's not trying to be flawless. In places it is deeply insightful and heartbreakingly emotional; in others, it's a glorious mess. It's full of cooking and food, YouTube fame, the disappointments of replicators, video game music, meet-cutes over donuts, found family, and classical music drama. I wish we'd gotten way more about the violin repair shop and a bit less warmed-over Star Trek, but I also loved it exactly the way it was. Definitely the best of the 2022 Hugo nominees that I've read so far. Content warning for child abuse, rape, self-harm, and somewhat explicit sex work. The start of the book is rather heavy and horrific, although the author advertises fairly clearly (and accurately) that things will get better. Rating: 9 out of 10

26 June 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: Feet of Clay

Review: Feet of Clay, by Terry Pratchett
Series: Discworld #19
Publisher: Harper
Copyright: October 1996
Printing: February 2014
ISBN: 0-06-227551-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 392
Feet of Clay is the 19th Discworld novel, the third Watch novel, and probably not the best place to start. You could read only Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms before this one, though, if you wanted. This story opens with a golem selling another golem to a factory owner, obviously not caring about the price. This is followed by two murders: an elderly priest, and the curator of a dwarven bread museum. (Dwarf bread is a much-feared weapon of war.) Meanwhile, assassins are still trying to kill Watch Commander Vimes, who has an appointment to get a coat of arms. A dwarf named Cheery Littlebottom is joining the Watch. And Lord Vetinari, the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, has been poisoned. There's a lot going on in this book, and while it's all in some sense related, it's more interwoven than part of a single story. The result felt to me like a day-in-the-life episode of a cop show: a lot of character development, a few largely separate plot lines so that the characters have something to do, and the development of a few long-running themes that are neither started nor concluded in this book. We check in on all the individual Watch members we've met to date, add new ones, and at the end of the book everyone is roughly back to where they were when the book started. This is, to be clear, not a bad thing for a book to do. It relies on the reader already caring about the characters and being invested in the long arc of the series, but both of those are true of me, so it worked. Cheery is a good addition, giving Pratchett an opportunity to explore gender nonconformity with a twist (all dwarfs are expected to act the same way regardless of gender, which doesn't work for Cheery) and, even better, giving Angua more scenes. Angua is among my favorite Watch characters, although I wish she'd gotten more of a resolution for her relationship anxiety in this book. The primary plot is about golems, which on Discworld are used in factories because they work nonstop, have no other needs, and do whatever they're told. Nearly everyone in Ankh-Morpork considers them machinery. If you've read any Discworld books before, you will find it unsurprising that Pratchett calls that belief into question, but the ways he gets there, and the links between the golem plot and the other plot threads, have a few good twists and turns. Reading this, I was reminded vividly of Orwell's discussion of Charles Dickens:
It seems that in every attack Dickens makes upon society he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure. It is hopeless to try and pin him down to any definite remedy, still more to any political doctrine. His approach is always along the moral plane, and his attitude is sufficiently summed up in that remark about Strong's school being as different from Creakle's "as good is from evil." Two things can be very much alike and yet abysmally different. Heaven and Hell are in the same place. Useless to change institutions without a "change of heart" that, essentially, is what he is always saying. If that were all, he might be no more than a cheer-up writer, a reactionary humbug. A "change of heart" is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo. But Dickens is not a humbug, except in minor matters, and the strongest single impression one carries away from his books is that of a hatred of tyranny.
and later:
His radicalism is of the vaguest kind, and yet one always knows that it is there. That is the difference between being a moralist and a politician. He has no constructive suggestions, not even a clear grasp of the nature of the society he is attacking, only an emotional perception that something is wrong, all he can finally say is, "Behave decently," which, as I suggested earlier, is not necessarily so shallow as it sounds. Most revolutionaries are potential Tories, because they imagine that everything can be put right by altering the shape of society; once that change is effected, as it sometimes is, they see no need for any other. Dickens has not this kind of mental coarseness. The vagueness of his discontent is the mark of its permanence. What he is out against is not this or that institution, but, as Chesterton put it, "an expression on the human face."
I think Pratchett is, in that sense, a Dickensian writer, and it shows all through Discworld. He does write political crises (there is one in this book), but the crises are moral or personal, not ideological or structural. The Watch novels are often concerned with systems of government, but focus primarily on the popular appeal of kings, the skill of the Patrician, and the greed of those who would maneuver for power. Pratchett does not write (at least so far) about the proper role of government, the impact of Vetinari's policies (or even what those policies may be), or political theory in any deep sense. What he does write about, at great length, is morality, fairness, and a deeply generous humanism, all of which are central to the golem plot. Vimes is a great protagonist for this type of story. He's grumpy, cynical, stubborn, and prejudiced, and we learn in this book that he's a descendant of the Discworld version of Oliver Cromwell. He can be reflexively self-centered, and he has no clear idea how to use his newfound resources. But he behaves decently towards people, in both big and small things, for reasons that the reader feels he could never adequately explain, but which are rooted in empathy and an instinctual sense of fairness. It's fun to watch him grumble his way through the plot while making snide comments about mysteries and detectives. I do have to complain a bit about one of those mysteries, though. I would have enjoyed the plot around Vetinari's poisoning more if Pratchett hadn't mercilessly teased readers who know a bit about French history. An allusion or two would have been fun, but he kept dropping references while having Vimes ignore them, and I found the overall effect both frustrating and irritating. That and a few other bits, like Angua's uncommunicative angst, fell flat for me. Thankfully, several other excellent scenes made up for them, such as Nobby's high society party and everything about the College of Heralds. Also, Vimes's impish PDA (smartphone without the phone, for those younger than I am) remains absurdly good commentary on the annoyances of portable digital devices despite an original publication date of 1996. Feet of Clay is less focused than the previous Watch novels and more of a series book than most Discworld novels. You're reading about characters introduced in previous books with problems that will continue into subsequent books. The plot and the mysteries are there to drive the story but seem relatively incidental to the characterization. This isn't a complaint; at this point in the series, I'm in it for the long haul, and I liked the variation. As usual, Pratchett is stronger for me when he's not overly focused on parody. His own characters are as good as the material he's been parodying, and I'm happy to see them get a book that's not overshadowed by another material. If you've read this far in the series, or even in just the Watch novels, recommended. Followed by Hogfather in publication order and, thematically, by Jingo. Rating: 8 out of 10

24 June 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo

Review: A Dead Djinn in Cairo, by P. Dj l Clark
Publisher: Tordotcom
Copyright: May 2016
ASIN: B01DJ0NALI
Format: Kindle
Pages: 47
Fatma el-Sha'arawi is a special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities in an alternate 1912 Egypt. In Fatma's world, the mystic al-Jahiz broke through to the realm of the djinn in the late 1800s, giving Egypt access to magic and the supernatural and the djinn access to Egypt. It is now one of the great powers of the world, able to push off the Europeans and control its own politics. This is a Tor.com original novelette, so you can read it on-line for free or drop $2 on a Kindle version for convenience. It's the first story in the "Dead Djinn" universe, in which Clark has also written a novella and a novel (the latter of which won the Nebula Award for best novel in 2022). There are three things here I liked. Fatma is a memorable character, both for her grumpy demeanor as a rare female investigator having to put up with a sexist pig of a local police liaison, and for her full British attire (including a bowler hat) and its explanation. (The dynamics felt a bit modern for a story set in 1912, but not enough to bother me.) The setting is Arabian-inspired fantasy, which is a nice break from the normal European or Celtic stuff. And there are interesting angels (Fatma: "They're not really angels"), which I think have still-underused potential, particularly when they can create interesting conflicts with Coptic Christianity and Islam. Clark's version are energy creatures of some sort inside semi-mechanical bodies with visuals that reminded me strongly of Diablo III (which in this context is a compliment). I'm interested to learn more about them, although I hope there's more going on than the disappointing explanation we get at the end of this story. Other than those elements, there's not much here. As hinted by the title, the story is structured as a police investigation and Fatma plays the misfit detective. But there's no real mystery; the protagonists follow obvious clue to obvious clue to obvious ending. The plot structure is strictly linear and never surprised me. Aasim is an ass, which gives Fatma something to react to but never becomes real characterization. The world-building is the point, but most of it is delivered in infodumps, and the climax is a kind-of-boring fight where the metaphysics are explained rather than discovered. I'm possibly being too harsh. There's space for novelettes that tell straightforward stories without the need for a twist or a sting. But I admit I found this boring. I think it's because it's not tight enough to be carried by the momentum of a simple plot, and it's also not long enough for either the characters or the setting to breathe and develop. The metaphysics felt rushed and the characterization cramped. I liked Siti and the dynamic between Siti and Fatma at the end of the story, but there wasn't enough of it. As a world introduction, it does its job, and the non-European fantasy background is interesting enough that I'd be willing to read more, even without the incentive of reading all award winning novels. But "A Dead Djinn in Cairo" doesn't do more than its job. It might be worth skipping (I'll have to read the subsequent works to know for certain), but it won't take long to read and the price is right. Followed by The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Rating: 6 out of 10

12 June 2022

Russ Allbery: Review: The Shattered Sphere

Review: The Shattered Sphere, by Roger MacBride Allen
Series: Hunted Earth #2
Publisher: Tor
Copyright: July 1994
Printing: September 1995
ISBN: 0-8125-3016-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 491
The Shattered Sphere is a direct sequel to The Ring of Charon and spoils everything about the plot of the first book. You don't want to start here. Also be aware that essentially everything you can read about this book will spoil the major plot driver of The Ring of Charon in the first sentence. I'm going to review the book without doing that, but it's unlikely anyone else will try. The end of the previous book stabilized matters, but in no way resolved the plot. The Shattered Sphere opens five years later. Most of the characters from the first novel are joined by some new additions, and all of them are trying to make sense of a drastically changed and far more dangerous understanding of the universe. Humanity has a new enemy, one that's largely unaware of humanity's existence and able to operate on a scale that dwarfs human endeavors. The good news is that humans aren't being actively attacked. The bad news is that they may be little more than raw resources, stashed in a safe spot for future use. That is reason enough to worry. Worse are the hints of a far greater danger, one that may be capable of destruction on a scale nearly beyond human comprehension. Humanity may be trapped between a sophisticated enemy to whom human activity is barely more noticeable than ants, and a mysterious power that sends that enemy into an anxious panic. This series is an easily-recognized example of an in-between style of science fiction. It shares the conceptual bones of an earlier era of short engineer-with-a-wrench stories that are full of set pieces and giant constructs, but Allen attempts to add the characterization that those books lacked. But the technique isn't there; he's trying, and the basics of characterization are present, but with none of the emotional and descriptive sophistication of more recent SF. The result isn't bad, exactly, but it's bloated and belabored. Most of the characterization comes through repetition and ham-handed attempts at inner dialogue. Slow plotting doesn't help. Allen spends half of a nearly 500 page novel on setup in two primary threads. One is mostly people explaining detailed scientific theories to each other, mixed with an attempt at creating reader empathy that's more forceful than effective. The other is a sort of big dumb object exploration that failed to hold my attention and that turned out to be mostly irrelevant. Key revelations from that thread are revealed less by the actions of the characters than by dumping them on the reader in an extended monologue. The reading goes quickly, but only because the writing is predictable and light on interesting information, not because the plot is pulling the reader through the book. I found myself wishing for an earlier era that would have cut about 300 pages out of this book without losing any of the major events. Once things finally start happening, the book improves considerably. I grew up reading large-scale scientific puzzle stories, and I still have a soft spot for a last-minute scientific fix and dramatic set piece even if the descriptive detail leaves something to be desired. The last fifty pages are fast-moving and satisfying, only marred by their failure to convince me that the humans were required for the plot. The process of understanding alien technology well enough to use it the right way kept me entertained, but I don't understand why the aliens didn't use it themselves. I think this book falls between two stools. The scientific mysteries and set pieces would have filled a tight, fast-moving 200 page book with a minimum of characterization. It would have been a throwback to an earlier era of science fiction, but not a bad one. Allen instead wanted to provide a large cast of sympathetic and complex characters, and while I appreciate the continued lack of villains, the writing quality is not sufficient to the task. This isn't an awful book, but the quality bar in the genre is so much higher now. There are better investments of your reading time available today. Like The Ring of Charon, The Shattered Sphere reaches a satisfying conclusion but does not resolve the series plot. No sequel has been published, and at this point one seems unlikely to materialize. Rating: 5 out of 10

5 June 2022

John Goerzen: Visiting Germany: Reflections on Schloss Charlottenburg

200 years ago, my ancestors migrated from Prussia to Ukraine. They left for many reasons, many of which boiled down to their strong pacifism in the midst of a highly militarized country. Last week, my wife, the boys, and I walked through the favorite palace of Friedrich Wilhelm III, the king of Prussia who was responsible for forcing my ancestors out Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin. Photos can t possibly convey the enormity and the riches of this place, even after being attacked during multiple wars (and used by Napoleon for a time). My ancestors would never have been able to get into to this place. We, on the other hand, walked right through the king s bedroom, audience room, and chapel. The chapel, incidentally, mixing church and state; a fine pipe organ along with a statue of an eagle holding the Prussian crown. I could pause and enjoy the beauty of the place; the oval rooms overlooking the acres of sculpted gardens outside and carefully tree-lined streets leading to the palace, the artwork no doubt worth many millions, the gold and silver place settings, the rare tapestries. And I could also reflect on the problems with such great wealth and power, and the many lives lost and refugees created by the wars the Prussian kings started. (First of several reflections on our wonderful recent trip to Germany with the boys)

Next.