A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik

I admit I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until about a week ago. I didn’t even realize that she was the author of Temeraire, a series that has been on my radar for a while, but I just hadn’t gotten around to picking up yet. That will be changing shortly because I was blown away by how well done A Deadly Education is. Stop reading this review now and come back after you’ve bought a copy.

Done? Good. On with the review.

Like I said, I have never read a book by Naomi Novik until a week ago. I had seen A Deadly Education in bookstores several times and read reviews about it, but the tipping point for me was when I saw a Twitter mutual (Bryanna Gary go follow her) post about how great the book is. So I bought it during one of my monthly therapy shopping sessions at the local book store.

The premise of the book is that it takes place in a somewhat evil magical school. A place with no teachers where students are left on their own for four years, forced to fend for themselves and survive near-constant attacks from monsters intent on devouring them in a myriad of horrific ways. The moment that everyone dreads is graduation when the senior class will be forced to fight their way through the worst of the monsters that couldn’t squeeze their way into the cracks in the school’s wards.

And all that is the best solution the magical community could come up with to protect their children from being preyed upon by the monsters in their closest.

At first glance, the book seems to promise a grimdark setting with a protagonist who is something of an antihero. Don’t get me wrong; this school seems to be a terrible place to live. But the protagonist Galadriel, rather than being an antihero, is someone who has been given every reason to believe that she will become one. Everyone around her seems to dislike her instantly, and she has an unwanted gift for casting spells of mass destruction.

All this has made her bitter and angry, and she tends to lash out at those around her, even on the rare occasions that they do try to be friends. The book is also written in first person, so we get to see that she is fully aware that she is making these mistakes as she makes them. By the end of the book, she finally begins to make friends and even seems to force some of her classmates to become better people in the process or at least try. We also get a look into a deeply fascinating new fantasy setting that includes a school that seems determined to torture its students in an almost loving way.

It’s a good book. Go buy it.

NYRA Gave My Dad A Race

Readers will probably know that my father passed away from COVID back in January. We knew he was sick, but he seemed to be getting better, until he wasn’t.

Tributes included this very touching musical tribute at Cafe Lena

In the months since, I have been busy managing his estate, and many in town have come forward to offer their condolences and to ask permission to do various tribute concerts and such. Even the New York Racing Association wanted to do a tribute at the Saratoga Race Track. They gave us a race on July 23rd and let us name it, and I got to hand the trophy off to the jockey. At least that was the plan, in reality there was a mix-up and the jockey was not brought over. But it was still a fun day and a really touching tribute.

Despite living in Saratoga my entire life, I’ve only been to the race track a handful of times, with the last time being about ten years ago. This was the first time I ever went as an adult who can both drink and gamble. I invited both my advisor and lab mates and we had a lot of fun.

Despite losing a whole $10 gambling, I still managed to smile at the end of the day

At the end, I was a little nervous. Thanks to COVID, I haven’t performed in front of a crowd in a long time so being on camera in the winner’s circle was a little nerve-wracking, but many people from the Downtown Business Association were there, and it was great to see them.

Me with the DBA. We were all looking at the tv camera in this picture

Finally, the announcer read off a short but touching tribute about my dad on the big screen. The whole thing was just a few minutes, but it was a really nice gesture and a nice break after all the time I’ve spent managing my dad’s estate this year.

A friend of ours got the event on camera. I’ll upload a video of it as soon as I can.

Edit: The video is up!

What Was The Point of Forever Peace?

If you like scifi you need to read Joe Haldeman’s Forever War. I loved Forever War. It was my first exposure to science fiction where travel between stars takes a very very long time. Seeing the characters leave Earth repeatedly and return many years late after subjective months and having to adjust to the changes they found was fascinating and induced just a little bit of existential dread.

I LOVED the first book, but I was confused when I read Forever Free. Now, years later, I think I might finally understand why Hademan wrote the two books the way that he did.

First, I will give a very truncated summary of both books.

Forever War: In the late twentieth-century humanity goes to war with a species of aliens called Taurans. Many centuries later it is discovered that the war began as the result of a misunderstanding. Because of relativistic effects veterans of the war return home centuries or millennia after they left.

Forever Peace: By the end of the forever war humanity transcended the normal bounds of evolution and is now a race of clones living in harmony with the Taurans who are also a clone race. Veterans of the war are discontent and decided to leave the galaxy and return in 2000 years. Their journey is impeded and they learn that the galaxy has all been an experiment controlled by a god-like entity who ensured that two species on the same technological level came into contact when they did. The being leaves, and the protagonist spends the rest of their life studying the changes the being made to universal constants before they left.

If you couldn’t tell already, the second needs a lot more explanation and also makes a lot less sense.

When I first read it my first guess was that the meaninglessness of it all that was revealed in the second book was a result of Haldeman’s effort to portray a feeling of pointlessness that he and many veterans of the Vietnam War experienced when they go back home.

In retrospect, I think that a slightly more nuanced view is more appropriate.

The war between humanity and the taurans was pointless. That much is clear by the end of the first book. It is made especially clear by the end of the second.

When I first read it I was extremely put off. I hated that I had watched the characters I loved struggle for nothing…and then I realized that was the point.

Did the Vietnam war have a point? Was anything made better by it happening?

That’s the point of the two books.

In the first book our MC is faced with plenty of standard scifi conflicts and returns home to find that all of them were pointless. Then he tries to live in the world he returned to. That doesn’t work either. Finally he and many other veterans tries to escape the world they came home to and they fail, all because some greater being wanted them to fight to begin with. In the end he finds joy in discovering the changes wrought by that great being. And by small I mean minor changes to cosmological constants.

When I first finished Forever Peace I was very confused and I felt a little cheated. There hadn’t been any hint before that in either of the books. What was the point of getting invested in the characters and their struggles? With time and some perspective, I think I know.

I think that Joe Haldeman was trying to come to terms with his experiences as a Vietnam Veteran. He and thousands of others were taken away from their families, forced to fight and die, and when they came home they returned to a society that had been changed by the war. A war that history would later find was largely pointless. After suffering through a pointless conflict Haldeman was left to find some kind of meaning in life. Which is exactly what our protagonist did.

I think that this is something that should feel especially relatable to those of us who have lived through the COVID pandemic. There is no reason for more than half a million people to have died except because Trump wanted them to. Vietnam can be thought of in the same way. People died for no real reason. None of the dead sacrificed their lives for a greater future, they died because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Haldeman’s work was all about understanding this pointlessness. It’s an amazing piece of science fiction and it has never been more relevant than now. At once it makes us question the society we find ourselves in and at the same time encourages us to find something to enjoy.

I think that’s both beautiful and tragic.

Do Characters Matter?

Of course, they do, but I think that some people assign too much importance to the characters when considering the merits of a given book. You all probably know by now that Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds has been my latest hyper-fixation. On a few occasions, I’ve gone over to Reddit or to the books’ wiki to see if any fanart made depicting the ships or technology in the books. During these trips, I came across a few comments from people whose main criticism of the books concerns the depth of the characters or lack thereof.

Personally, I like the characters, we may not often get to see a detailed view of what is going on inside their heads, but we also don’t need to. The novels and short stories set in the Revelation Space Universe cover a period of time extending out to 40,000 CE. The fastest a ship can go is just below the speed of light. It takes decades to travel between planets, and the characters of the novel face enemies that can tear planets apart. The scale of these stories is just too large for the characters to matter very much. Sure, they play an important role in events, but the effects of their actions will be relatively small in the end.

And there is another reason why we might not completely understand the characters; they are old. Many of the characters have already led extensive lives by the time we meet them. They’ve been traveling the stars for decades. They don’t experience time the way we do. Travel at relativistic speeds will change them; it separates them from everyone they had known before. There isn’t time to see all the past events of their lives, and the motivations of someone who has lived 400 years separated by time and space from everyone they have ever known will have a psychology that is much different than ours.

As examples, I am going to look at three criticisms that I came across online and talk about why I don’t think they are fair.

The Single Mindedness of Dan Sylvest

Dan Sylvest is one of the POV characters in “Revelation Space.” He’s about 200 years old by the time we meet him, and he is the scion of a very wealthy family from the planet of Yellowstone. When we see him, he is first leading and then loses a colony on the world of Resurgam, a colony that he founded to study an extinct alien race known as the Amarantin. There are other things about him, he resents his father Calvin, who he speaks with frequently as a computer simulation, he’s been married a few times, and he has shown a willingness to risk his life and the lives of others in pursuit of his scientific goals. I’ve seen some complain that he does not get much character development in the book and that his wife Pascal is flat and basically just someone for Dan to lecture about his discoveries.

None of these complaints are really that valid. Dan is a POV character, yes, but he is also incredibly arrogant and, as we find out later, driven by an alien memetic virus that has inspired his obsessions in order to push towards a particular goal. In that context, his behaviors and apparent lack of depth make sense. He is someone who makes everything about himself and his work. Of course his wife seems flat, we see things from his POV, and he really just likes to talk at her. Let’s not forget that he was driven by an alien virus that did its best to ensure that he only focused on a single objective. Dan is not a character who is written poorly. He does exactly what the story needs of him.

Ana Khouri’s Lost Husband and her Role as an “Action Girl”

On her home planet of Sky’s Edge, Ana was a soldier; almost everyone was. She and her husband were both soldiers who were wounded, and after they were wounded and brought to orbit for treatment. Things did not end well for the couple after this, as a clerical error caused Ana to be shipped to Yellowstone, a thirty-year round trip that ensured that even if she tried to return home to her husband, he would be either dead or remarried by the time she arrived. When we first meet her, she is working as an assassin and offered a job in which she has to travel to a different planet to kill Dan Sylvest, and in return, she will be reunited with her husband, who, as it turns out, was in hibernation on Yellowstone the entire time. She does not complete her mission because, in the process, she discovers that she has become involved in something much larger than a pair of starstruck lovers. She also realized that her mysterious employer might have lied about their ability to bring her husband back. Some have complained that Ana’s husband rarely comes up for how important he was to her, but it’s also important to remember by the time we meet Ana, she has come to terms with what happened. She has accepted that she will never see him again. He’s basically dead to her. Her husband does come in later books, however, when she initially resists taking a new lover.

Skade and the Night Council

Skade is a conjoiner, one who hears a voice in her head that she believes to be the “Night Council” and extremely classified group within the conjoiners. She is willing to do bad things for good reasons, and the things she does cause respected leaders among the conjoiners like Clavain and Remontoire to defect in order to oppose her. Eventually, this conflict evolves into a personal vendetta against Clavain. Some have said that Skade’s death was anticlimactic and that her inclusion in the story introduced unresolved plotlines. But I think that was the point. Skade may have been trying to save her fellow conjoiners, but in doing so, she strayed far from what a conjoiner was supposed to be, and it destroyed her.

Conclusion

Finally, my last argument against the criticism that these characters are flat is that a single book in the series might cover many decades. By necessity, a great deal of interactions between characters is going to take place off-screen. I’m okay with that, and personally, I think Reynolds does a great job deciding what needs to be shown and what does not.

First Impressions: The Bad Batch

I know I’m late for the party again. I’ve just started watching The Bad Batch on Disney+. I wasn’t a fan of the Bad Batch when they first appeared in an episode of The Clone Wars, but now that they’ve their own series, I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised.

Here are some first impressions.

First, the armor design is great. Clone armor is fascinating because there is so much room for customization between individual clones, and the Bad Batch’s armor is heavily customized.

Second, we get a look at the birth of the Empire. The first episode begins at the very end of the Clone Wars as Order 66 begins. Being a group of deviant clones, the Bad Batch can think freely compared to standard clones with fully functioning control chips. It’s really nice to have a canon depiction of the days and weeks directly following Order 66.

The characters are okay. I’m not a huge fan of the individuals that make up the Bad Batch, but I love the idea of clones with experimental gene sequences. It makes the Bad Batch a good focus for a series about clones since they each are visually different and have very different personalities.

Third, there is Omega. I know I said that the characters are just okay, but I think Omega might be an exception. Omega is another clone variant, and unlike the others, is female. Forcing the hardened soldiers of Bad Batch to learn how to deal with and take care of a child is an interesting plotline that I am interested in following going forward.

In my opinion, getting to see more of the Star Wars galaxy is always a good reason to watch, at least once. But enough about what I think. What do you think of the series? Is it worth a watch?

Love, Death & Robots: The Tall Grass

It’s a little early for me to say how I feel about the second season of Netflix’s Love, Death & Robots. Each episode may be short, but each presents us with so many ideas that they need a few viewings to really sink in. But I don’t think it’s too early to say that The Tall Grass is my favorite episode of this new season.

The episode’s plot is beautifully simple. A man is on a train that has run out of steam. While the train is stopped, he decides to step off the train for a quick smoke that the conductor only begrudging allows. But he soon wanders off into the tall grass beside the tracks where he is chased by strange monsters, only rescued by the conductor as the train starts moving again. We then learn that the train regularly runs out of steam along this particular stretch of track and that the conductor has had to deal with these monsters before.

It’s a simple story, and it leaves us with questions. In short, it’s a perfect short story. It gives us just a taste of excitement and mystery in a way that causes our minds to fill in the blanks. For a writer, it’s the perfect story, the kind that makes you imagine the wider world that the story hints at.

Go watch it.

Army of the Dead Review

Netflix and Zack Snyder teamed up to make a movie! And I actually liked it quite a bit.

The plot is simple. Zombies overran Las Vegas. Years later, it is still overrun by zombies kept trapped in the city by a makeshift wall. But that’s all about to change because the government has decided to evacuate the refugee/quarantine camps around the city and nuke the whole place.

Pretty good idea…maybe…probably…right?

Anyway, the bombing is imminent, but at the last minute, the protagonist (don’t worry about the names; they’re all very forgettable) is approached by a wealthy businessman who wants him to assemble a team to retrieve two million dollars in cash under his old casino. In exchange, our hero will get fifty million dollars to divide among his team as he sees fit. There is, of course, more to this offer than meets the eye, but we don’t need to get into that now.

The movie was a lot of fun, for a few reasons.

  1. No convoluted plots. It’s a simple action/zombie movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
  2. Not all of the zombies are mindless shamblers. Some of them are organized and are seen using tools.
  3. There is a zombie tiger.

Overall I’d say watch it. It’s exactly what I want in an action movie; action. There are no unnecessary side plots, no boring romances. It’s not perfect, there are certainly a few things that could have been done better, but it’s worth a watch.

What is Vancian Magic?

You might have heard that the magic used by the spellcasters of Dungeons & Dragons is “Vancian magic.” Just that is probably enough for you to discern that the magic of dungeons and dragons falls under a “type” of magic systems employed by fantasy writers and worldbuilders. But what is Vancian magic?

Vancian Magic gets its name from the speculative fiction author Jack Vance who won many awards during his life. A few of his stories include the Dying Earth Series, which has inspired an anthology titled Songs of the Dying Earth. In his works, Vance portrayed an Earth far in the future when the continents have rearranged, and the Sun has just a few million years left.

The wizards of this distant future are limited to knowing just a small handful of spells at a time. Two, three, maybe four if they work hard. Once they cast a spell, they forget it and have to memorize it again later. Why is this? It’s clear that memorizing a spell takes a great deal of mental effort, and some characters allude to these spells having a basis in math. Because only a handful of spells can be known at once, the wizards of this world spend their time creating things, and when they anticipate a need, they sit down and memorize spells that they think they might need.

From all this we can make a few “rules” to describe a Vancian magic system.

  1. Magic is a scholarly affair.
  2. Memorizing a spell takes a great amount of effort.
  3. Casters are limited to memorizing just a few spells at a time.
  4. Once a spell is cast it must be learned again.

Lastly, we have the flavor! One of my favorite things about Vancian Magic! Many of the spells in these systems will be named after their creators. I know many writers will probably use these names as throwaways without any deeper backstory, but I love the sense of history that the names imply.

Beyond the Aquila Rift by Alastair Reynolds versus Beyond the Aquila Rift from Love, Death & Robots

I was torn when I did this for Zima Blue. I understand that movies will always be different from the stories they are based on. These differences are completely understandable in many cases. Some things don’t translate well, would be too expensive to depict, or need to be cut for the sake of time. In Love, Death & Robots, the screenwriters only had about ten minutes for each story. That isn’t a lot of time to portray the complexity of even a short story. With that in mind, I think Netflix could have done a lot better with this one.

Beyond the Aquilla Rift is about a starship that finds itself light years off course. The ship’s captain emerges from hibernation to find that he has traveled so far for so long that everyone he ever knew back home is long dead. But it’s not all bad because at this remote outpost, he meets an old flame by the name of “Greta.” Greta changes her story a few times but eventually tells him that her ship became stranded in this remote locale through a mishap similar to what stranded his. This is also a lie. His ship is, in fact, the first human ship to ever arrive at this remote station. The captain, we learn, never woke up from hibernation. Everything he experienced was a simulation fed to him by the entity that took care of all the lost souls that came to it.

The animation LDR’s version is gorgeous, and like all good sci-fi, the ending both answers questions and introduces new ones. But I can’t bring myself to hold both versions at the same level as I did with Zima Blue. They are different, and that is okay, but the adaptation makes too many jumps. The protagonist’s realization that things are not as they seem is far too abrupt. Rather than spend as much time as they did on a gratuitous sex scene, I think the writers would have done the story better justice if they had shown us some of the inconsistencies in the simulation, the little details that hinted that something just wasn’t right.

If I had to give both a rating, I would say the LDR’s version would get a 2/5, and the original written version would get a 3.5/5. I am not a fan of this kind of story in general, but I think it is well done. LDR’s version is visually stunning, but it doesn’t show us enough to really understand the predicament the protagonist finds himself in.

I hope you liked this review. Because I just found out that all the short stories that inspired season one is available as a single anthology, so there are going to be a lot more posts like this.

Zima Blue by Alastair Reynolds versus Zima Blue from Love, Death & Robots

I’ve been on a bit of an Alastair Reynolds kick lately, mainly centered on the author’s revelation space books. As usual, whenever I get invested in a new series, I seek out more in search of more doses of dopamine, which led me to purchase a collection of short stories that Reynolds has written over the years. This endless search for dopamine brought me back to one of my favorite Netflix originals; Love, Death & Robots.

Love, Death & Robots is a Netflix original series consisting of short episodes that bring science fiction short stories to life. Alistair Reynolds had two stories featured in the first season, one of them being Zima Blue.

The story is about a cyborg artist in the far future named Zima. It is told from the perspective of a journalist who has finally been granted an interview with the reclusive artist on the eve of the unveiling of his final work. Zima, we are told, began his work in painting portraits of the cosmos before graduating to increasingly abstract works featuring his trademark blue color, works so large that a single mural could encapsulate a planet. But the story is not so much about Zima’s art as it is Zima’s search for his truth, and in the written version, it is also about how Zima inspires the journalist to search for her own truth.

Both versions of the story are good. Netflix’s version portrays Zima’s story in a much clearer fashion than Reynolds did. However, I can’t help but feel that the story’s message is lost in the retelling. The story is not just about Zima’s search for truth; it is also about his interviewing coming to grapple with what the truth is. Zima, for example, asserts that the falsehoods created by our imperfect memories are what allow truth to come about. Truth in art anyway.

Both versions of the story are great, and I recommend both. Both make the audience ask questions, but I recommend reading the original for a complete formulation of that question.