Tag: books

books I have read

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

In fandom, at least the fandoms which I am on the fringes of, people talk about canon. Something is canon if it is in the official work, but not all official work is necessarily canon. For example, the events in the Star Wars Holiday Special are not canon because they’re not part of the main story1.

Fan fiction is definitively not canon. Fanfic is writing using someone else’s world, and often their characters. It’s actually a really good way to start writing, even though it’s almost never publishable2, because the characters and the setting are already established. I’ve written a little bit myself, although I originally conceived it as an idea for a script I would send in to the Star Trek producers.

The inevitable combination of these is called head canon, your personal interpretation of the story incorporating fan fiction elements.

All of which is to say that Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is fan fiction, an alternative version of the Harry Potter story with an adjusted premise, which enriches my head canon version of original the Harry Potter stories.

The adjusted premise3 is that Petunia Evans did not marry Vernon Dursley but instead took someone sensible as her husband: Michael Verres, a University professor and rationalist. Harry grows up as an only child, having been adopted and loved by his adoptive parents. This means that Harry is well read and already a well-developed intellect when it comes to science and logic.

The magical world is not prepared.

I would probably have read this fanfic even if it hadn’t turned into a mesmerising story because of its origins as an interesting pedagogical conceit: teach the principles of rational decision-making in a (frankly) irrational context; and investigate how someone possessed of deep critical faculties and a mysterious dark side would analyse the structure of magic and magical Britain.

But then it did turn into a good story, and many of the concepts it explores are embedded in my head canon because they make the Potterverse a great deal more sophisticated. Things like Harry and Hermione being sorted into Ravenclaw obviously aren’t compatible with the original work, but some of the other ideas improve the canonical story:

  1. Slytherin is not a house of cartoon villains, but where the most cunning are sorted. It’s not about power so much as control and manipulation, skills which can be turned to evil but then so can any of the other virtues celebrated by the houses.
  2. evil is not limited to Slytherin. In particular, bullies come from Gryffindor just as much as Slytherin.
  3. self-consistent explanations for magical artifacts and creatures. From the invisibility cloak to Dementors to the Mirror of Erised, magical things are explored and defined coherently. I particularly like the Philosopher’s Stone, but the examination of horcrux technology is impressive too.
  4. a plausible analysis of the Dark Mark.

The story can be a little dark sometimes but not gratuitously so, to the point where anyone who was comfortable with the goings on in books six or seven should be fine with the events here.

It is long, though. It took me about two weeks to work through it, and there are a lot of scenes with characters arguing: there are intense action sequences, but a lot of talking in between.

But as I say, this fanfic improves my appreciation of the original work, and that is something to celebrate.

[1] and canons can be changed. To use another Star Wars example, the Star Wars Extended Universe used to be canon, but after the Disney acquisition it was deprecated. Presumably they didn’t want to be weighed down by thirty years of continuity with the new stories they wanted to tell.

[2] Fifty Shades of Grey notwithstanding. After all, it was published as original work with no connection to the Twilight Universe.

[3] not the only change, but the one which is most significant.

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The Wayfarers Books

One of my friends at the day job did a wonderful thing recently – she started a science fiction book club, focussing initially on the Nebula award nominees. One of the early books we wanted to read was A Closed And Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, but since it’s the second in the Wayfarers series we decided to start with the first book, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet*.

These are both lovely books. This is not especially because of the writing, which is well-crafted but not spectacular (and it is better in the second book), but because of everything described with that writing: the Galactic Commons setting is Star Trek-style utopian (with humanity a recent controversial addition to the GC), the non-human species are distinct and imaginatively alien, and the values on display are gloriously inclusive**. There is real care taken with gender roles and inclusive language which shines through in the overall sense of warmth and friendliness. I would describe the sense of joyousness portrayed by these books as awesome people being awesome to each other.

The differences between the books are as instructive as the similarities. The first is definitely an ensemble piece, where the first character we meet is part of a diverse cast, while the second book takes a couple of characters from the first book and explores their story much more deeply. The biggest weakness of the first book is that there is no conflict until a long way through the book – it all seems a little too cozy, even twee, but the sense of welcome carries us through the travelogue and setting summary. This lack of conflict is certainly not the case in the second book, although the conflicts are too often resolved without cost.

One of the themes of these books is AI personhood, which is a hobbyhorse I ride a lot in my own writing. I really enjoyed seeing that issue aired, and I’m looking forward to reading more to see how Chambers develops the theme further.

Still, very enjoyable books and definitely recommended. And we love the Aandrisk and their feather families in the book club.

[*] it turns out we would have been fine in terms of comprehension if we had just dived into the second novel, but I’m glad we read the first one.

[**] apart, perhaps, from the Quelin.

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The War of Art

I am not a religious person, nor am I a duallist: I don’t believe in souls, or afterlives, or creators, or ghosts. I am an empiricist and a scientist: I value data, and I value observation, and I value replicability.

This doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally find value in religious writing or spiritualism. I don’t take either literally, but the language can be useful to talk about concepts that are hard to quantify; I don’t take the practices as forging a connection to the divine, but they can be useful in calming the mind or quieting the body. The feeling of calm and connection I feel on a hike might as well be called a spiritual experience as anything else. My sense of well-being after a yoga session is valuable whether I believe in the mystical roots of the poses or not.

I say all of this to explain that The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is an important book, but not a book I can take literally. It personifies the distraction and neophobia that sabotages our creative endeavours as Resistance, and the creative urge as Angels or Muses: the eponymous War is between the inertia of the Ego and the dynamism of the Self, personified as these malign and benign spirits.

There’s a lot in this book that is valuable, and I would recommend it for the section on turning pro above all else. The attitude of mental toughness described is powerful, and if you are going to continue your work it is essential.

But the spritualism? The invocation of higher powers? Maybe that will work for you, but I found it off-putting. I’m not going to personify Resistance or the Muse because that doesn’t help me in my writing.

What’s important is turning up and doing the work. The War of Art is completely correct there.

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The Quarry

I was very nervous about reading The Quarry, Iain Banks‘ last novel.

Banks has been one of my favourite authors for more than twenty years, one of those I always collected in British paperback editions*, and so reading his last books was always going to be a bittersweet experience. But my reading of Banks has not been uniformly positive – I roundly disliked A Song of Stone, for example – and I was worried that this, his last book, his book about cancer and with his death hanging over every page, would leave a lingering bad impression of his work in my mind.

So I cheated. The Quarry is Banks’ last book, but when I bought it I had others still unread. I have been consuming his remaining work at a leisurely, even languorous, pace. I read Surface Detail last year with much enjoyment, and I have heard excellent things about The Hydrogen Sonata** so I was fairly sure of a good read there. Indeed, since my first reading of Banks was his first M book, Consider Phlebas, it would seem wholly appropriate to close with the last Culture novel.

Thus I departed from my usual practice of reading in publication order, and took The Quarry with me on our family holiday to eastern Oregon.

In the end, my fears were at least a little misplaced. It is a sad book and a bitter book, but it is still a rollicking read and highly entertaining. It is unflinching in the face of cancer, debilitating and horrifying as the disease is once it has metastasised. The characters are distinct enough to be able to tell them apart easily, and the three main characters (the primary cast is seven strong) are warmly rendered – even when they are being used as mouthpieces for the author’s political preoccupations.

There’s betrayal and risk aplenty, as well as that constant sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop that always pervades a reading of a Banks book: there are going to horrible things, but when will the horrible things happen? Who will they happen to?

One thing I particularly enjoyed was the sense of place. The story mostly happens on and around a moor above a medium-sized Yorkshire town, much like the moors I grew up with, and his descriptions of the bleakness and unnavigability of moorland landscapes is delightful. I also found the portrayal of the point of view character particularly engaging: he is not neurotypical, and the rendering of his experience of being the only one in the room with something akin to Asperger’s Syndrome is good – it brings the clinical description to life.

It’s not a perfect book – it’s certainly not Banks’ best – but it is a book I liked and enjoyed, and I will probably read it again at some point, perhaps when I do my definitive ranking of Banks’ works***.

But it is a Banks book, and for anyone familiar with his work and his themes it will likely be an enjoyable read.

[*] the other was Terry Pratchett, but only for the main sequence Discworld books so I have no more of those to buy.

[**] it was nominated for a Hugo before all of this puppy nonsense.

[***] no, not really, although it’s a thought…

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Raising Steam

Terry Pratchett died earlier this year.

It was therefore with mixed feelings that I picked up Raising Steam, the last main sequence Discworld novel*.

SPOILER WARNING: this post discusses overarching narrative direction for this book. There’s not much in the way of specific plot detail, but your read might be spoiled if you’re not familiar with the book already.

The truth is that every book since Unseen Academicals has felt like the last Discworld novel to me, with a very strong sense of touching as many characters as possible to give them closure. They’ve been much smoother, much less risky for the characters and the world – still worthwhile stories to read, but less exciting**.

Was Raising Steam a return to earlier form?

Terry Pratchett wrote many wonderful books and some of them are among my favourites by any writer. Raising Steam is another high quality book, but it suffers from the same omnibus feeling as the other final novels. There is also an inevitability to the story – the characters are exposed to risk but seem to triumph without danger or loss, or indeed change.

The ending is satisfying, but it doesn’t feel earned: the trajectory of the story is set from the outset and never seems in doubt. Truly can it be said that this book is on rails.

Overall, it’s an entertaining book and fans of the Discworld series will surely enjoy this penultimate chance to spend time with the excellent characters that Sir Terry developed over the decades of his writing, but it’s not as good as his earlier books and I would not recommend it to new readers.

[*] there is one more Discworld novel still to be published, The Shepherd’s Crown, a final volume in the Tiffany Aching series.

[**] and in checking the bibliography I find that the fourth Tiffany Aching book, I Shall Wear Midnight, is the exception to this.

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Unexpected Rain

Unexpected Rain is a science fiction mystery, a thing less common than you would think. According to the author, Jason W. LaPier*, this relative scarcity is one of the reasons Harper Voyager took the book on. That, and it being an exciting and entertaining book with solid worldbuilding and engaging characters.

The story concerns a mass murder and the investigation of that crime. It follows a cop, Stanford Runstom, and the ostensible perpetrator, Jack “Jax” Jackson, who join forces to find out who really killed all of those people. There are spaceships, and space pirates, and all the trappings of a classic ripping yarn but with the thoughtful writing of a more modern tale. The characters have agency, and they make mistakes.

I ended up staying up too late after an exhausting weekend to finish it, and that’s always a good sign for me. I also really liked that the characters were human: they were talkative when they shouldn’t have been, and did the wrong things because of trivial personal reasons.

This is Jason W. LaPier’s first published novel and is available in ebook right now. The paperback is coming out in November.

[*] full disclosure: I know Jason. He works at the same day job that I do, and since we both write and we both have to fit that in around the exigencies of demanding paid employment we quite often talk about writing and other such things. He’s a good bloke.

Also, I should point at my review policy.

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Self-Help Characterisation

What with one thing and another, I have read a number of self-help books – particularly parenting of late. There are a few of them that have been helpful to my family in handling otherwise contentious situations, but this post is not about how to use self-help books to improve your life.

What these books are great for is demonstrating dysfunctional character traits.

There are a few ways to use these books as a resource:

  • use the negative examples. Any book which is talking about child behaviour is going to be presenting examples of children with those undesirable or inappropriate behaviours – imagine an adult with those traits, or a new-born AI.
  • use negative behaviours to escalate the situation. If your antagonist’s mental state is shading into irrational because of emotional stress, try having the protagonist attempt logic and reason then see how far that gets them.
  • use the positive behaviours to give your characters plausible techniques for “winning”. This might be as simple as being given actual insight into how a knotty situation could be resolved, but might be a specific action or way of thinking that could calm things down enough for the protagonist to gain the upper hand.

My intention is to make this an occasional recurring series here – not to review self-help books for their original purpose, but to present the kinds of character details which can be extracted from them. A couple of particular books I’ll be looking at include How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and The Whole-Brain Child, but there are a couple of ADD-related books which have interesting things to say too.

Are there any psychosocial resources you use to give your characters realistic traits?

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You Can Say That Again

You Can Say That Again by Marcia Riefer Johnston is a toothsome book, ideal for lovers of, as the author puts it, “foibled language”.

I’ve written before about Johnston’s last book, Word Up!, which I enjoyed enormously, and much of the same humour and playfulness infuses this volume.

You Can Say That Again is not a heavy book by any measure – it’s a whimsical collection of tautological expressions, whether they are repetitive noun phrases, duplicative adjectives, or verbose verbs. It’s pointed out that sometimes tautology is appropriate for emphasis or even necessary to make sense, but also that flabby tautology does a lot to put readers off – perhaps even to the point where they abandon reading entirely, what amounts to a fatal to the effectiveness of your words.

The main part of the book is a largely alphabetical listing of these unnecessary doublings, and that is also where much of the humour can be found. Who hasn’t despaired of being asked for their PIN number (or even their personal PIN number)? * As someone with a soupçon of French, I was appalled by “with au jus sauce”, but did not know how duplicative “challa bread” was until now.

Fundamentally, this book appeals to the colossal pedant in me. I very much enjoyed the phrases collected.

Whether you are amused by mis-steps in language, or wish to be alerted to where these faux pas might creep in in your own writing, I would definitely recommend You Can Say That Again.

[*] network NIC card is another one that makes me shudder, but since most folks don’t need to worry about installing such things these days it doesn’t turn up very often any more.

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Russell Stories

Bertrand Russell was a very interesting fellow, who led a full and conscious life.

The Logician’s Tale

I first came across Russell in Gödel, Escher, Bach. He was portrayed as being at the centre of a vigorous discussion on the potential for consistency and completeness in mathematics.

The story goes roughly like this.

Gottlob Frege was a logician who wrote two books about the use of set theory as the basic operations of mathematics. It was a magnificent work, but Russell came up with a counter example (generally termed Russell’s Paradox [link]) which fatally undermined Frege’s work just prior to the publication of the second volume. Frege still published it, but with an afterword that acknowledged the truth of Russell’s discovery.

Russell (in collaboration with Alfred North Whitehead) then began a related effort to build a consistent and complete proof of mathematics, taking (for example) several hundred pages to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. This effort was also based on set theory, modified with specific qualifications to rule out the paradox that Russell himself had described.

However, after the book was published, a young German mathematician by the name of Kurt Gödel then proved that the idea of a consistent and complete proof of all of mathematics was impossible: he published two papers, the upshot of which was that a mathematical system which was consistent could not be complete, while one which was powerful enough* to have a shot at completeness could not be consistent. In other words, in order to contain no potential for contradictions a system would have to be weak enough to not be useful.

I love Gödel’s result, because it (and Turing’s formulation of it in his work on the Halting Problem) says a lot about how there are some things in computing which are simply impossible. That is wonderful thing to know, because software has no physics but you have to obey the laws of mathematics just like everyone else.

This story is expounded upon in much more length in the book Logicomix which I was delighted to receive for Christmas. It’s not just about Russell but it is told with Russell as the narrator, and goes into splendid detail on the mathematico-philosophical developments of the early 20th century.

Logicomix also describes the work of Wittgenstein in a way that I almost understood. I tried to follow Wittgenstein a few years ago and got very lost. So, recommended for providing a number of useful maps.

The Public Philospher

Russell was also well known as a public philosopher, educating the public on his ideas and those of other philosophers. It is in this vein that I offer another Russell nugget, his ten commandments:

  1. Do not lie to yourself.
  2. Do not lie to other people unless they are exercising tyranny.
  3. When you think it’s your duty to inflict pain scrutinize your reasons closely.
  4. When you desire power examine yourself closely as to why you deserve it.
  5. When you have power use it to build up people not to constrict them.
  6. Do not attempt to live without vanity, since this is impossible, but choose the right audience from which to seek admiration.
  7. Do not think of yourself as a wholly contained unit.
  8. Be reliable.
  9. Be just.
  10. Be good-natured.

These seem like good rules to follow, with or without the Abrahamic ten commandments in your life.

Go forth and live well.

[*] where “powerful enough” can be broadly described as “having the potential for self-reference”.

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The Saga of the Exiles

Julian May’s series The Saga of the Exiles consists of four books: The Many-Coloured Land, The Golden Torc, The Non-Born King, and The Adversary. I first read it in when I started University and it has stayed with me ever since: I’ve reread it several times, and also greatly enjoyed its prequels (Intervention, and the Milieu Trilogy).

The story starts in the 22nd century. Earth is a member of a galactic civilisation based on mutual respect and care (the Milieu). The future belongs to those with mental powers – metapsychic abilities, as they are termed here. Inevitably, some people don’t fit into this idealised but sanitised future.

Fortunately for these misfits, someone has invented a time machine. Unfortunately, it only works in one place, and it’s one way: it carries the user back to a time six millions years ago in the south of what will become France. This is the Pliocene.

And that’s when we learn of the aliens which have colonised our past, of the mighty mental powers at their disposal, and of their decadent and barbarous cultures.

Much as I enjoy the books now, it’s not an especially easy read. Like I say, I was eighteen when I picked it up and I almost didn’t make it past the first book. There is an enormous cast – of the same scale as The Lord of the Rings – so keeping track of that many characters and their doings is pretty daunting. The world is explained as you go, and staying on top of the different technologies and mental faculties takes effort.

There’s a lot in these books, is my point. They are dense and rich and reward multiple readings. The imagery borrows liberally from Celtic myth, but the tale of Group Green and the other interlopers from the future is a deeply satisfying read.

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