Category Archives: children

Books about or featuring children.

Review 149: Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card

In his introduction to the book, Card says that the main reason he wrote his most famous book – Ender’s Game – was so that he would one day be able to write this. I think this is something that probably happens a lot to authors. They get a Big Idea in their head, something with great depth and complexity and meaning, and quickly discover that they don’t actually know what they’re writing about yet. There’s too much to say, there’s too much that even the author doesn’t know yet, and to go forward from that state of ignorance will result in what is, ultimately, an inferior narrative.

Andrew Wiggin, the Speaker for the Dead, comes to the human colony Lusitania in order to speak the death of a local man, Marcão. While given the same reverence and privileges as priests, Speakers are not the same. Their job is to learn about the dead, to understand who they were and who they wanted to be, and then tell the truth as plainly and as clearly as possible. They do not give eulogies, where they try to paint the dead in as good a light as possible. They reveal who this person was, and in the process try to help those left behind understand them. It’s a calling that requires an insightful mind, great empathy for others, and the ability to tell the truth despite how hard that truth may be to hear.

As a Speaker for the Dead, Andrew Wiggin is very good at his job. It was he who was the first Speaker, who wrote a text that is as revered as the Bible – The Hive Queen and the Hegemon – in order to understand how humankind could kill the only other intelligent species it had ever encountered. The book reveals who the Buggers were and why they attacked humanity. It tells how their understanding of what it means to be intelligent led to a century of warfare and, ultimately, their own destruction. The book also reveals humanity, the dreams and fears that it faced when it met the Buggers. And it tries to understand why humans were so afraid that they took one of their own – a little boy named Ender – and turned him into the greatest monster in human history. The Xenocide. The one who destroyed an entire alien race.

This book changed the way humankind saw the universe, and themselves. With the Buggers gone, but their technology still available, humans expanded out to a hundred worlds. Though their starships could only go just under the speed of light, the ansible provided instant communication between the stars. It formed a communications network that held the Starways Congress together and allowed humanity to become a multi-system species.

Ender – Andrew – is ultimately responsible for all of this, and is therefore the linchpin of this entire universe. In order to write this book, to understand the culture and the history and the politics that would be necessary to write Speaker for the Dead, Card first had to understand who Ender was. So, with the blessing of his publishers, he was able to turn Ender’s Game into a full-length novel. Once that was done, he was able to turn back to this book and craft it into what it has become.

Question: Will the aliens wear hats that are sillier than ours? No? Good.

The colony of Lusitania is a small place, a group of Catholic settlers who live in a small and insular town. They have all the troubles that any new world would have, except for two that make it truly unique. The first is the descolada, a virus that nearly destroyed the colony and, thousands of years before, life on the planet. This illness literally unzips and recombines your DNA, ravaging your body utterly. If not for the dying work of the colony’s two great xenobiologists, everyone would have died. As it turned out, Gusto and Cida were the last to die, leaving their sad, strange daughter Novinha behind.

Even that wouldn’t be enough to make Lusitania a truly remarkable place. No, for that, we must introduce the Piggies – the third intelligent life form known to exist in the universe. They’re small, look like little pig-men, and are indisputably intelligent. They learn quickly, even despite the law forbidding xenologists from influencing their development, and present humanity with an important chance: the last time we encountered an alien intelligence, we obliterated it. Let’s not do that again.

This becomes harder, however, when the Piggies kill two of the xenologists in what appear to be a horrifyingly painful method. Now it looks like humanity may have to revert to type again, and that there truly is no way that humans can share the same space with other intelligences.

Into all this steps Ender. His years of lightspeed travel have kept him young while three thousand years have passed, and he has wandered from world to world to speak for the dead. Now he is on Lusitania to speak for Marcão, an investigation that will lead him to uncover secrets kept for decades, and to once again change the way humans understand their universe.

There’s really so much to say about this book that it’s hard to decide what to leave out and what to keep in. For one thing, Card is trying to write a very different kind of science fiction story. In his introduction, he says that a lot of fiction is adolescent in nature, science fiction especially. It’s about adventure, about people seeing a way out of their conventional lives and going off alone. It’s about being freed from responsibility and living a fast and crazy life. When that loneliness of adventure finally becomes too much, the hero settles down, but that’s usually the last chapter of the book, if ever.

Isolation. Not just for murderous adolescent geniuses.

Card wanted to go the opposite way, to take a lonely adventurer and show him trying desperately to become responsible, to become a member of a community. In class, where I’m teaching Ender’s Game, we’ve identified isolation as being one of the overriding themes of the novel. Ender is constantly taken away from those he loves or held apart from others. In the end, he becomes a solo wanderer. Even more than that, he is made into a monster, a name on par with Lucifer itself. He is virtually thrown out of humanity, and it is only because no one knows who he really is that he can travel unmolested.

So we’re seeing Ender in that stage where the loneliness and the wandering have become an unbearable burden to him, and all he wants is a place to belong. But as a Speaker, as a man speaking a death that could completely upend the lives of everyone in the colony, he has his work cut out for him.

There is also the element of redemption. In his years of travel, Ender has carried a very special package with him – the cocoon of the last Bugger hive queen. In exchange for her story, he promised that he would find a home for her, a place for her to rebuild her vast family. And on Lusitania, there is that chance. But first he has to save the Piggies, to prevent them from suffering the fate of the Buggers at the hand of a fearful and suspicious Humanity. If Ender can do this, perhaps he can make up for the horror that he unknowingly perpetrated.

There’s a lot going on in this book, to say the least. It’s a great book, better in many ways than Ender’s Game. It is more complex and adult and difficult, with moments of true emotion, a well-built socio-political system befitting a species that spans hundreds of worlds, and addressing the needs for changes in culture, politics and even language that would arise from the need to define relationships between worlds and between species.

Ender would have been a natural for the Indigo Tribe. You listening, Geoff Johns?

Fundamentally, though, this book is about what the Speaker for the Dead does best – understanding. It’s about how we deal with The Other, even when that Other is completely alien to us. Humans and Buggers, Humans and Piggies – hell, Humans and Humans, we have a hard time understanding people who are not like us. We find it very difficult to look at the world from their point of view and to see the world through their eyes. Understanding what they love and fear, what they value and honor, or what they abhor – and more importantly, understanding what they see in you and how they understand you – is the best and surest road to making peace with those who are different from yourself. And that’s a lesson that is valuable for all of us.

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“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.”
– Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the Dead

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Filed under children, colonization, death, disease, empathy, family, friendship, morality, murder, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sins, society, space travel, teenagers, women

Review 146: Otherland 2 – River of Blue Fire

Otherland 2: River of Blue Fire by Tad Williams

When last we left Our Heroes, they were caught in the Otherland – an immense virtual reality program built by people with more money than God – with no idea where to go and no idea what to do. They were lost, confused and had no way out.

Oh yes – back before Neo got his clock punched by Agent Smith, Renie, !Xabbu, Orlando, Fredericks and all the other Otherland explorers discover that they are in more danger than they realize – if they die on the network, then they’ll die in real life. And, almost right out of the gate, people start dying. Whether they’re tiny biologists living among the ants or a lifetime gamer warring against the different factions of a twisted Oz, they die in unpleasant and, ultimately real ways. And it’s up to our heroes to not only avoid death themselves, but also to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to be doing in there.

It's just like this, only different.

One of the things I like about this series is that Tad Williams openly admits to stealing – er, paying homage to the great writers of the past. At the end of book one, when all the main characters have been gathered together and are being told about the great dangers they will face, and how they are part of a plan to defeat the Grail Brotherhood and their Nefarious Scheme, most of the people there want nothing to do with it. It’s up to Orlando Gardiner, our young barbarian warrior-slash-progeriac teenager to say, “Hey, this the the Council of Elrond! We have a mission here!”

Unfortunately, while the Fellowship of the Ring gets a clear mission before leaving Rivendell, the Otherland explorers are scattered before they know what to do, and their main goal is to run for their lives. As this book progresses, they start to learn more about the vast Otherland network, what its nature is and why it was made. They also learn that it is unstable, and possibly a living thing in its own right.

Almost immediately, the group gets split up. That is, as all ensemble writers know, the best way to really build a meaty story, and it works really well here. Unfortunately, while there are three groups, the strongest and most interesting characters get put into two of them. Orlando and Fredericks get sent off into a world more bizarre than any online gaming ever prepared them for; Renie and !Xabbu end up in a horribly twisted version of The Wizard of OZ, if Oz had invaded Kansas, taken over, and started a three-way fight between the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man.

No adorable wisecracking robot, though. Can't imagine why.

This leaves us with the third and largest group being somewhat less interesting than the others. Not completely, of course – we have a blind woman who can sense the information flow of the simulation, a teenage net-freak who only speaks in online slang, a campy death-clown named Sweet William, a Chinese grandmother and an abrasive German woman. They’re not bad characters by any means, and each one is special in his or her own right. It’s just that most of them were introduced later in the first book, and so we’ve had less time to get to know them. Putting a more familiar character in that group might have made them more interesting, or it might have overshadowed them. Who knows? The good news is that they do become more interesting and engaging, so there’s really nothing lost by their being new to us.

One thing that the third group has, however, is a secret – one of them is not who he or she appears to be. One of them has been co-opted by the sociopathic assassin, Dread. The only one with the freedom to go on and offline at will, he has nearly godlike power at his fingertips. And he intends to use it.

I can imagine that Tad Williams had a great deal of fun working out these novels, mainly because he created a concept that allowed for incredible freedom in world-building. After all, on a super-powerful VR platform, any conceivable simulation can be created. So whether it is the mythical land of Xanadu, a cartoon kitchen where the groceries come to life at night, a world where people fly like birds, or the legendary land of Ithaca, the settings in these books are only limited to what Williams can think up and work with.

It's like, I'm in the story and I'm reading the story... Woah. Dude.

What’s really interesting is that he seems to take great pleasure in reminding us that we are, in fact, reading a story – he goes so far as to have one character reflect on exactly what kind of character he is. People are reminding themselves that they’re not in a story, even though they are, and at the same time recognizing that the entire structure of their virtual universe is patterned on the rules of fiction. It’s a strange type of meta-fiction that rewards the careful reader.

So, as the book comes to a close, we have some new threads to follow. The Otherland explorers begin to find their purpose and learn about their situation. We’ve met a strange type of character which exists in many worlds at once – the beautiful, birdlike woman who tries to help Paul Jonas and Orlando Gardiner find their way; the horrible Twins, whose only job is to pursue Paul Jonas wherever he may go. These people can be found around any corner, and the outcome of meeting them is always uncertain.

Slightly less complicated than this, but not for lack of trying.

Offline, real-world investigations into the mysterious comas that afflict children begin to bear fruit – a young lawyer named Catur Ramsey is trying to help the parents of Orlando and Fredericks find out what happened to their children, and the search leads him to a strange woman, Olga Pirofski, who may have a vital clue. Renie’s father involves himself with some very dangerous people indeed. The police in Sydney find themselves working on a five year-old murder case that will eventually lead them to the malicious assassin/hacker Dread. A mysterious group called The Circle makes itself known to a select few, and reveals its mission – to oppose the Lords of the Otherland and their relentless pursuit of immortality. All through this, those Lords of the Otherland struggle amongst themselves to see who will ultimately control it.

The tale becomes stranger with the telling, but I can guarantee – you’ll be good and ready to jump right into book three….

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“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shores of the Nonastic Ocean. I watched magic blunderbusses flash and glitter in the dark near Glinda’s Palace. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time… to die.”
– The Scarecrow, Otherland: River of Blue Fire
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
City of Golden Shadow on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, children, corporations, culture, existentialism, family, fantasy, futurism, gender roles, identity, internet, meta-fiction, quest, science fiction, Tad Williams, technology, transhumanism, virtual reality, world-crossing

Review 140: The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m going to have pick on Jack Nicholson here, but I’m pretty sure he can take it. If I get an angry email from him, I’ll let you know. I’m also going to take a couple of shots at Staley Kubrick, who is dead and can’t defend himself, although I can probably count on some of his loyal followers doing so in his stead. Basically my goal in writing this review is to encourage you to completely ignore the film version of The Shining and appreciate the book.

Thankfully, the original line - "DY-NO-MITE!" - was cut.

To be fair, though, the film and the book really are two different beasts. They share a basic story line, yes, and some characters, but they’re looking at the story from different points of view. The film did create some iconic moments – Danny running his bigwheel down the hallway, the elevator vomiting blood, and “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!” which isn’t outdated at all, of course. Note to filmmakers, no matter how brilliant you think you are: pop culture references have a short shelf life. Avoid them. But I think that Kubrick’s film kind of misses the point, which disappointed me greatly.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review. So let’s shut up about that for a while, shall we?

The book is one of King’s earliest, written in 1977, and like so many of his early works it’s one of his best. It’s a tale of a hotel that’s more than just haunted – it’s possessed. It’s a place that has been a witness to all kinds of evil, inhumanity, and malice, and the spirits that inhabit it are always looking for company. So allow me to present Jack Torrance. A once-promising writer, former teacher, and an alcoholic, Jack is man whose life is on the edge of collapsing. After being fired for beating the daylights out of one of his students, the job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel is, as far as he’s concerned, the only thing keeping him and his family from complete destitution and shame.

And let’s be clear about this right up front – Jack loves his family. He loves his wife, Wendy, even if she does get under his skin from time to time, and he is utterly devoted to their son, Danny. He knows that his own upbringing, with an abusive, alcoholic father, didn’t prepare him to be a good head of household. He knows that his own drinking problems led to the breaking of his son’s arm, an incident which very nearly destroyed his marriage. He also knows – or at least believes – that he can change. That’s why he took the job at the Overlook, in order to have some time to reset. Spend sober time with the family, finish the play he’s been working on – take a breather and get ready to rebuild their lives.

See? A cozy, family-friendly place.

The Overlook is one of the premiere hotels in Colorado. It’s a place that just exudes luxury, with a history stretching back to the early 1900s and everything a person vacationing in the Rockies could want. But because it’s perched in the mountains, it has to close down for the winter. No sane person would drive up there when the snow really got started, and so the need arose for a live-in caretaker to make sure the place doesn’t succumb to the elements. It’s a lonely and perilous job, miles away from help and civilization, but the right kind of person can probably do it.

Jack might have been able to manage, if the hotel weren’t the vessel for some evil, malevolent entity that thrived on the horrible things that men do to each other. For lack of a better phrase, the hotel is psychically charged – memories permeate it, making it haunted on nearly every level. Normal people can’t perceive this – they might feel uneasy in a certain room, or hear some strange sounds at night, but if you’re a garden-variety person, you won’t notice a thing.

Any kid who talks to his own finger has gotta be watched.

Five year-old Danny Torrance is not a normal person. He has the Shine, as it is called – a psychic ability of great and wondrous strength. He can read his parents’ emotions, he can predict the future and see the past. While his power isn’t fully under his control, he knows that he’s not like other children. His is a unique mind, and it is this power, this shine, that both dooms and saves him. (As a note to Dark Tower fans – don’t you think Danny would have made a great Breaker? I wish King had hit on that….)

The hotel knows it too. It wants to use Danny to power itself, to perpetuate its evil. But it can’t get to Danny – so it gets to Jack. It preys on his weaknesses (and Jack Torrance has oh so many weaknesses) and uses him as a tool to destroy his own family.

Truly this is a creepy book. The descriptions are careful and evocative, and when King wants you to be scared, you can be damn sure that you’ll be scared. It’s cabin fever in book form, and the longer you read it, the more you can feel the hotel pressing in on you from the pages. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the slow destruction of what could have been a good and happy family, had they not come to this place. To be fair, Jack Torrance was not a very good human being to begin with, and the odds are good that he would have ruined his family eventually. Under the roof of the Overlook, though, he never even had a chance. As you read, you realize that while it’s hard to like Jack, you can certainly understand him.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Shelley Duvall!

And that’s why I like the book better than the movie. The film makes Jack the villain. It makes him into a guy who snaps under the pressure of not drinking, not being able to write and having a wife played by Shelley Duvall, who could have been replaced with Munch’s “The Scream” on a stick to as much effect. In the end, it’s Jack who betrays his family, Jack who tries to murder his wife and son, and Jack who dies frozen in the hedge maze.

The thing is, that’s not how King wrote it. While Jack certainly isn’t redeemed by the end of the book, it is clear that the person who was chasing Danny through the halls with a roque mallet, the person who nearly bludgeoned Wendy and Hallorann to death was not Jack Torrance. He may have looked like him, but what was doing all the evil was the thing that had defeated Jack – it was the thing that had killed him. And I think that story, about a man who was just not strong enough to resist a far greater power, is more interesting than a story about a guy who just goes nuts. Jack’s character in the book is far more nuanced and deep than I thought he was in the film, and it saddened me to see him pressed into two dimensions. And again, I think Jack Nicholson – while perhaps adequate for the role as Kubrick saw it, was not the Jack Torrance that I saw in this book.

As an aside, I thought the TV miniseries was much closer to the book and, thusly, better. True, it lacked a lot of Kubrick’s more famous directorial panache, but since a) Kubrick ruined the movie and b) I’m not a big fan of his anyway, I didn’t hold that against ABC.

Jack is not that far from Homer Simpson, really....

The book wasn’t written, I think, with a lot of Deeper Meaning in mind. I’m sure King would be the first to admit that. It’s a kind of psychological study of how to turn a weak person into a bad person, and how much pushing it would require to make a man turn to evil. It looks at the bad choices we make, and how we fool ourselves into making them. Jack Torrance is a cautionary tale against self-pity and self-delusion. Jack views himself as a perpetual victim, held back by his upbringing, his wife, his alcoholism – nothing that goes wrong in his life is actually his fault (according to Jack). Had he taken responsibility for his actions and his errors, he might have withstood the Overlook’s attacks.

The big question for this book is this: was any other outcome possible? Did the Torrance family have any choice in what happened to them, or were they doomed from the moment they set foot in the hotel? I vote for the latter. While they certainly had their chances – many chances – to get out and escape the horrible future that was bearing down on them, it was clear that was never going to happen. Jack was a man who was far too weak, too selfish and too self-absorbed to let himself leave the Overlook. And so they were doomed. The fact that anyone got out of there at all was a miracle.

This is part of the Stephen King Required Reading set – if you’re going to read any King at all, you need to read this one. It’s a horror book that’ll stay with you for a long, long time.

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“The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”
– Jack Torrance, The Shining
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Shining on Wikipedia
The Shining on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s homepage

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Filed under children, death, family, fathers, fear, horror, made into movies, madness, murder, sons, Stephen King, wives

Review 136: Side Jobs

Side Jobs by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 14

There’s a reason that clichés become clichés. That’s because, no matter how much we may hate them, they concisely describe some feature of human existence that is common to us all. The reason everyone uses them is because they’re just so… right, and there’s really no need for us to come up with something else. It’s like saying, “Yes, I could use a screwdriver to put together my new IKEA desk, but everyone does that. I’m going to invent my own, completely new tool instead.” So we use clichés, no matter how much we don’t want to, because there’s no reason not to.

A wizard with a gun riding a zombie tyrranosaur in the middle of a lightning storm? Puh-LEEZ. Not that old thing again... (Art by Dan Dos Santos)

Having said that: Reading this collection of Dresden Files stories is like visiting with an old friend. One of those people you’ve known for ages, never get to see often enough, and always know you’ll spend a good time with. From the moment you start reading, you know where you are, you know who you’re dealing with, and you’re ready to jump right into the story without a whole lot of character building, exposition, and the nuisance of trying to decide if this is something you’ll like to read. If you’re picking up Side Jobs, odds are that you already know The Dresden Files, and odds are that you’ll really enjoy these stories.

Most of them have been published before, in one form or another, but if you don’t follow the various anthologies that are put out from time to time, these’ll be new to you. They’re not especially necessary to understand the overall series plot, but they do help to flesh out some characters and ideas that have already been presented – and hand us a few new ones as well..

The first story, “A Restoration of Faith,” is a little rough, as Butcher himself admits. In the introduction to the story, he tells us that it was written when he was still in school, before he had really built up his writing chops and figured out his voice. And it does show, but in a kind of amusing way. As if, to continue on with our cliché of the day, you got to see the high school photos and videos of a friend you’ve only known in adulthood. It’s a little awkward and a bit weird, but you can see the person he would one day become. In the same way, we get a glimpse of the young Harry Dresden, just getting his start as a private investigator. Working with Ragged Angel Investigations to get his license, Harry finds himself in one of his classic intractable positions: find a little girl whose parents don’t particularly want her found. To make it more fun, she doesn’t really want to be found either.

The story looks at what Harry does and why he does it, and how no matter how dark the world gets, he sees himself as a person born to hold a light in the darkness. He saves the girl, of course, with his classic nick-of-time timing, and the story ends with the introduction of Karrin Murphy and a rather punny ending. It’s not really the Harry Dresden that we know, but we can see the Harry Dresden that he will become.

LARPing is like this, only moreso.

The other stories are good fun, too. In “It’s My Birthday, Too,” a story written for an anthology with a birthday theme, Harry sees the worlds of fantasy and reality collide. Violently, as usual. His brother Thomas has a birthday, and Harry has so few opportunities to do “normal” things – like celebrate birthdays – that he’s determined to see that his brother gets his present. He tracks Thomas down to a shopping mall which, after hours, plays host to a LARP club. For those of you not in the know, LARP is Live-Action Role-Playing, wherein people like I was a decade ago dress up in costumes and pretend to be vampires and werewolves and wizards and things. When done well, it’s good fun, and it’s a great way to put on another personality for a few hours. Unfortunately for this group, their session gets interrupted by some real vampires. Drulinda, of the Black Court, is out for some social revenge against her former peers, and she’s willing to kill everyone she finds in order to get it. Harry and Thomas work to bring her down, of course, while also bringing the rest of the mall down at the same time.

In “Day Off,” Harry tries to take a little bit of time for himself. With no cases to work, no calls from the Chicago police, and no official duties with the White Council, he is intent on having just one day to be somewhat normal – sleep late, go out with a girl, that kind of thing. Of course, things don’t work out that way, because he’s Harry Dresden. Instead, he ends up with a group of wannabe wizards who think they can take him on, a couple of bespelled, amorous werewolves, and an apprentice who is only moments away from blowing herself up. It’s good fun, and reminiscent of Dante in Clerks, who laments that he’s not even supposed to be there.

Of course, Michael isn't nearly this adorable.

“The Warrior” is, in many ways, a response to the readers who thought that Michael Carpenter got kind of a raw deal at the end of Small Favor. Michael had been a Knight of the Cross, a literal warrior of God, who had helped Harry fight the forces of evil many, many times. He’s very different from Harry in many ways, but their differences work well together. What’s more, Michael is a genuinely good man, of the Atticus Finch variety. He is honest, dedicated, and devoted to his friends, his family and his duty. That’s why, when he was nearly killed at the end of Small Favor and forced to give up his position as a Knight, a lot of readers were upset.

Why? Well, because horrible things aren’t supposed to happen to people as good as Michael, and yet they had. What’s more, without his strength and his sword, it was hard to see how he could continue the work that he so obviously loved. This story, then, is all about how the battle to make the world a better place isn’t always about the big fights and battles against entities of indescribable evil. It’s also about small gestures, about stopping to talk to someone when no one else will. It’s about a word or a gesture or a joke, and the way that these little things can have huge effects later. Michael may not be swinging a sword around anymore, but we know that he is still part of the fight.

Two stories that really stood out were “Backup” and “Aftermath,” mainly because they were told from the point of view of someone who wasn’t Harry Dresden. In “Backup,” we get a story told by his brother, Thomas. A vampire of the White Court, Thomas feeds off emotion, rather than blood. This doesn’t make him any less dangerous, of course. More dangerous, actually, in that so many of his potential victims give themselves to him willingly. but Thomas is trying his best to stay on the side of Good. Through his eyes, we not only get to see Harry from a new point of view, but we also get to see a lot more of a world that Harry never gets to see. Because of who he is, Harry will never really get a good look at the inner workings of the White Court and the Oblivion War – a concept that is fascinating and frustrating, because we know that Harry can never get involved in it. By telling a story through Thomas, Butcher expands the universe of The Dresden Files and makes it even more interesting.

Don't say I didn't warn you....

The other non-Harry story is “Aftermath,” which takes place after the most recent novel, Changes. Told from the point of view of Harry’s oldest friend, Karrin Murphy, it’s a look at what’s happened in Chicago in the hours after Harry’s disappearance (and presumed death). Without him (and without the now-destroyed Red Court of vampires), there is a huge power vacuum just waiting to be filled. Whether it’s the mafia or mermen, the absence of Harry Dresden is an opportunity for many. Murphy gets involved in the hunt for special people, anyone with a trace of magical nature, who are to be used for their power. Without Harry to rely on, she has to use her own knowledge and resources to save her friends. At the same time, she has to face the reality that Harry is gone, maybe dead, and that is more terrifying than all the monsters that might try to take over the city.

It’s a great collection of tales, one that’s quick to get through. If you’re just itching for the new book to come out, this should hold you over for a little while.

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Harry Dresden. Saving the world, one act of random destruction at a time.”
– Jim Butcher, “The Warrior”
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The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Side Jobs on Wikipedia
Side Jobs on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under adventure, anthology, brothers, children, death, detective fiction, Dresden Files, family, fantasy, friendship, Jim Butcher, mystery, police, short stories, vampires, werewolves, wizardry

Review 126: Supersense

Supersense by Bruce Hood

Like many of you who are reading this, I can’t throw books away. Even thinking about it makes me uncomfortable, so there is no way I could possibly hold a book over a garbage can and just let it drop. Ugh.

I don’t know why this should be, to be honest. I mean, they’re just books, right? Paper and ink that anyone can buy. And not even special books – first edition, author-signed, sold to me by my beloved grandmother on her deathbed.

NOOO!! Take it down, Jimmy, take it down!!

I would be hard-pressed to throw away even bad books. Mein Kampf, Dianetics, A Series of Unfortunate Events – I would save even these from the trashpile. Not because they’re worth reading, but because they’re books.

I’m not a squishy, sentimental man, either. I can tell dead baby jokes without flinching. I’ve participated in the burning of an American Flag. I’ve flipped off the White House (it was the Bush era – I couldn’t NOT flip it off), and if you give me a photo of the Pope, I’m pretty sure I can tear it up on live TV.

So what is it about these mass-produced blocks of paper that instills in me such reverence? This question is part of what Bruce Hood discusses in his book Supersense, appropriately subtitled, “Why we believe in the unbelievable.”

Hood is a psychologist by trade, and this book is an investigation into why we persistently believe in things for which we have no evidence. This can range from religious adherence and the firm belief in things like “holiness” and “sinfulness” all the way to haunted houses, superstitious behavior, and the belief that evil acts can somehow “taint” a physical object. In one demonstration that he refers to throughout the book, Hood offers a cardigan to his audience. It’s a nice enough sweater, perhaps a little out of date, but clean and it looks comfortable. It’s the kind of cardigan you might wear on a chilly autumn evening and think nothing of it.

The Wests? Naw, they're fine people. Perfectly normal.

Then Hood tells the audience that the sweater belonged to Fred West. For those of us who are not from England, Fred West is one of the most notorious serial killers of the last century. Over a span of twenty years, he and his wife tortured, raped and murdered at least twelve girls, two of whom were their own daughters. They’re very well-known in England, and as soon as people found out that the nice comfortable cardigan had belonged to Fred West, no one wanted to touch it, much less put it on. Even though there’s no rational basis to believe so, many people believed that there was some kind of contamination linked to the sweater, and feared that Fred West’s evil would somehow transfer to them.

As someone who tries to be rational as much as possible, I have found myself wondering why I hold on to beliefs that I know are fundamentally irrational. I wonder it even more when I watch the news or surf the internet and see how many people believe in things like “healing energy,” homeopathy, guardian angels, magic spells and the like. “What century are we living in?” I ask myself as I curl up into a ball and weep. The Enlightenment was only two hundred years ago – why are we backsliding?

Thinkers and scientists such as Richard Dawkins believe that this kind of fundamental irrationality is a learned trait. Parents pass it on to children, who then pass it on to theirs. Dawkins even goes so far as to consider bringing your child to church to be “child abuse,” and believes that if only we can break the chain of superstition, a new Age of Reason will emerge.

Waiting 200 years and counting....

Hood disagrees, and he makes a pretty compelling case. He doesn’t argue for the existence of the supernatural at all in this book, but rather the sense of the supernatural – the Supersense, as he calls it. This is the feeling that someone is watching us, the belief that one object is somehow more “special” than another, identical object. It is the reason we plead with our computers when they don’t work, why we anthropomorphise so many things is our world, and why we revere the remains of saints and shun the sweaters of murderers. It is a sense that there should be a supernatural world out there, even if we can’t prove it.

Hood believes that the origin of this supersense is in the way our early minds develop as infants. In that very early stage of life, we try to make sense of the world as best we can. Babies are little scientists, testing reality against their observations again and again, and coming up with hypotheses about how the world should work. This need to understand the world is hard-wired into our brains as part of our “mind design,” and not only can we never get rid of it, it may be essential to our development into fully-formed human beings.

A smiling sun is not always a good thing.

By testing children and how they observe the world, Hood tries to see how the mind develops from birth onwards, without the years of cultural indoctrination that Dawkins and those of similar opinion decry. These tests show how children expect reality to behave, and what happens when their expectations don’t match their observations. He looks at how children imbue the world with life and purpose – the Sun, always smiling in children’s drawings, exists to give us light, trees to shade us and the grass is there for us to play on. This endowment of purpose, or telos, if we’re going to be philosophical and pompous, is something we continue to do even into adulthood.

The more we learn about the world, the more we find out that it doesn’t follow the common-sense rules that we laid down in our infancy. It’s hard to accept, for example, that we aren’t the end product of evolution – even worse, evolution has no end product in mind. What’s more, after our brains went through years and years of classifying the world into neat little categories such as “living/non-living; intelligent/non-intelligent; plant/animal,” it’s jarring to know that we’re only 5% of the way off from chimpanzees and 50% off from being bananas!

Children intuit the world as they grow, and that is part of the mind-building process. This is the architecture of our minds. More often than not, it produces a rational picture of the world and how it works, but not always – the trade-off is that some supernatural ideas come along for the ride. While the mind-building process does prepare us to exist in the greater world, it also makes us fundamentally irrational beings. Some people are more able to overcome this irrationality than others, but even the hard-core skeptics may find it difficult to put on the sweater of Fred West, or have trouble not smiling when they’re in the presence of the sweater of Fred Rogers.

Ahhh... I feel better.

In a way, this book was both a disappointment and a relief. I have always hoped that one day humanity would rise above its irrationality and start appreciating the world for what it is, instead of wasting time looking for things that just aren’t there. But if Hood’s hypothesis is correct, that’s never going to happen. As long as we are human, there will always be a streak of the irrational in us. Try as we might, we will always have superstitions, strange beliefs, and we will always be looking for things that we cannot see.

And of course, perhaps this is a good thing. This irrationality is what gives us passion, it’s what connects us together as a species and as societies. This belief in the sacred, for example, is what gives rise to shared values in a community and a shared sense of what is important and what is forbidden. Without it, we’d be a species of Lex Luthors – fundamentally selfish, sociopathic and without the ability to connect to others.

NO.

On a personal note, it means that maybe I don’t have to be so hard on myself. I mean, being rational is great and all, but when you get to the point where you find yourself thinking something like, “Yeah, what is the big deal about incest?” then you know that it’s time to give the prefrontal cortex a break. And instead of beating myself up for not being able to completely disavow all the goofy little supernatural things that I cling to, perhaps I can just accept them as part of what makes me who I am. I know there’s nothing truly special about my books, but the supersense tells me otherwise. It may not be right, but at least it gives my life a little more color.

————————————————-
“If it’s true that our beliefs can be supernatural but unconnected to religion, then it must also be true that humans will not necessarily evolve into a rational species, because a mind designed for generating natural explanations also generates supernatural ones.”
– Bruce Hood, Supersense
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Bruce Hood on Wikipedia
Supersense on Amazon.com
Bruce Hood’s blog

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Filed under Bruce Hood, children, nonfiction, pseudoscience, psychology, science

Review 112: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A little while after I started teaching literature, I thought about what kinds of books I’d like to do with students in the years to come. The texts I did last year – Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories – are all well and good, but probably not what I would have chosen to teach. I wanted something that would speak to the students, that would engage with their lives, and which ideally was some good classic science fiction. So I went over to Ask Metafilter and asked them what science fiction they would recommend teaching to high school students studying English as a foreign language.

Child soldiers in science fiction are so cute....

Just about everyone mentioned Ender’s Game, and with good reason. It’s a good story, for one, and it addresses a lot of the issues that young people have to deal with that are often left out of the literature they have to read for English class. The adults in the book are like the adults in the students’ lives – slightly removed, seemingly omniscient, and not necessarily acting in their best interests, at least not as they see it. It deals with issues of bullying and isolation, of fitting in and standing out and accepting your place in the grander scheme of things. It’s about critical thinking and moral reflection, all wrapped up in the unending carnival that is youth.

In real life... not so much.

Ender Wiggin is, as our book begins, six years old, and he may be the last, best hope for humanity.

Ender comes from a strange place. In a near-totalitarian America, families are allowed to have only two children, in order to keep the population static. If a good reason exists, however, they might be allowed to have a third. That third is destined from the beginning to have a hard life, no matter what happens, especially if that third has been bred for a very specific reason.

Ender Wiggin is a Third. His parents had two children already – their son, Peter, and daughter, Valentine. Peter is a brilliant young sociopath, and Valentine is an equally brilliant pacifist. In ordinary times, either of them could have been an historical figure, but these were far from ordinary times. Earth is at war with an insectile alien race it has named the Formics (nicknamed “Buggers”), and has survived two invasions. Everyone knows there will be a third, and if they can’t fight it off then humanity will be scythed clean off the planet. The International Fleet needs a commander, one who has enough empathy to understand the enemy, but who also has the killer instinct to be able to wipe them out. Where Peter is too hard and Valentine is too soft, Ender Wiggin could be the one they’re looking for.

Almost makes me want to have my childhood stolen from me....

Young and frightened, Ender is taken off-planet to Battle School, where he and hundreds of other youths will take part in battle games to train them in how best to one day defeat the Buggers. While Ender knows that he’s been chosen, he doesn’t know why, and his experiences in the school lead him to wonder if being a Chosen One is really worth it. In game after game, Ender manages to prove his worth to the International Fleet by defying their expectations of what a battle commander should do. He is pushed to his limits and beyond by the International Fleet, whose motives and methods remain a mystery to him until he has accomplished their goal – one which he never even knew he was aiming for.

It’s a fun book, and a very quick read, and it’s one of those “I should have read this when I was a teenager” books. While I was never put in a position where my action could very possibly save the existence of all humanity, I – like every other teenager ever – had doubts about my place in the world. I saw the conflict between what I wanted for myself and what the adults in my life wanted for me. I was given responsibility that I didn’t want, and had to make a choice about whether or not I would live up to it. In other words, while the scale of Ender’s problems are much bigger than that of the average young person’s, they are essentially the same. I am fortunate in that Ender’s Game can work to explode a pervasive and not entirely accurate belief held by all teenagers everywhere, from the dawn of time until now: the belief that there is no one else in the world who understands what they are going through.

The big question then becomes, How do I teach this? What can I do to not only get my students to read it but to also understand its relationship to their own lives? However I manage to do it, that will hopefully reveal to them the whole point behind reading for pleasure: that you can look at a book or a story and say, “Yes – life is like this.” Not all of it, but you can find that moment, that point of any story that can connect what it is saying to your own life, and thereby learn something from it.

There are also a whole host of other issues that can be brought up with this novel, not the least of which is the systematic indoctrination of young people by their educational system. Perhaps a bit self-defeating, but the anti-authoritarian in me would be vastly entertained if I could somehow encourage these kids to look suspiciously upon the very foundation of the system in which they were currently residing. There is also the greater issues of how a society teaches its children, and the limited value of truth. We tell kids that “honesty is the best policy,” but this book blows that axiom away. If they had told Ender the truth about what he was doing and why, he would have refused, and Earth would likely have been wiped out. In the same way, how do we – adults, and especially teachers – lie to young people in order to achieve a greater goal? What value, then, do these lies have, and are they worth telling?

Even Peter would be helpless against the LOLCats.

We can explore redemption and atonement through Ender’s attempt to make up for the things he has done. Even more interestingly, we can look at Card’s prediction of how the internet would shape political discourse and how citizens can easily be manipulated. Peter and Valentine put on electronic personae through which they gain immense power despite their youth, using their own innate genius to spark debate on the topics that will achieve their own goals.

Outside the text, too, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between a work and its author. While Ender’s Game is a brilliant story that is so well-written that it is recommended reading by both Quakers and the U.S. Marine Corps, its author holds some rather despicable views that don’t seem to mesh with the message he has put into his book. I speak here of Card’s public denouncement of gay marriage, including accepting a position on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage. This group has made many attempts to block the spread of queer civil rights in the U.S., and it disturbs me that an author whose work I respect is spearheading the effort.

FINE. I didn't want to marry you anyway....

What, then, is my responsibility as a reader? Should I never read his work again, lest it be seen as a show of support for his politics? Can I even read him fairly from now on, or will I always be looking for that anti-gay undercurrent, perhaps where there is none? Or should I simply ignore the author and enjoy the work? There are a great many authors and artists who are in the same position as Card, and it is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are so many topics to mine from this book that I had to stop myself from time to time and remember to enjoy it, rather than make mental lesson plans.

In any case, if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I recommend that you do. If you have a young person in your life, see to it that he or she has a chance to read it as well. If you’re really lucky, it’ll foster a lifelong love of reading. If not, at least they might walk away with the understanding that their problems are pretty universal, and that, on the whole, things could be a whole lot worse.

They could be Ender Wiggin.

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“It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren’t for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn’t fight with honor… I fought to win.”
– Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game”

Ender’s Game on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
Ender’s Game on Amazon.com

I couldn't NOT put it in....

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Review 76: Changes


Changes by Jim Butcher

“Hell’s Bells” count: 20

Well, the title promises changes, and that is certainly what you get in this book. And the first of these comes right on page one: Harry Dresden has a daughter. Surprised? Yeah, well so was he.

The mother is Harry’s old lover, Susan Rodriguez, whom he hasn’t seen in many years. The reason for their separation is pretty simple, the kind of story you’ve heard over and over again – boy and girl meet, avoid their obvious attraction to each other for a while, and finally hook up. Boy tells girl all about the world of supernatural horrors in which he lives, girl finds it more intriguing than horrible, and manages to get herself bitten by vampires. Girl is able to resist turning all the way, but knows that she can’t be around boy lest her emotions overwhelm her and she devours him whole. Boy and girl have one last night of fun together, girl vanishes into South America to join an underground cabal of vampire hunters.

Boilerplate, really.

No sooner does Harry discover that he has a daughter that she finds out she’s been kidnapped, taken as a hostage by the Red Court of vampires for some purpose that is no doubt terrible and nefarious. As much as Susan knows it will hurt Harry to find out she’d been hiding their daughter from him, she also knows that he is the only one with the power and the resources available to get her back.

After all, Harry is a Wizard, a member of the White Council, if not one of their favorite members. He has contacts within the council that could prove useful, as well as resources that reach from Heaven to Hell. A far cry from the lone wolf that we met way back in Storm Front, Harry now has connections and resources that will allow him to take on some of the most powerful beings in the world as they attempt to use his daughter for their own evil ends.

As the title implies, of course, Harry does have to make some very serious choices in this quest; choices about how far he’s willing to go in order to save his daughter, to say nothing of whether saving his daughter is even the right choice to make in itself. After all, the Red Court has been at war with the White Council for some time now, and the slightest mistake one way or the other could just make the whole thing worse. The last thing the White Council wants is their least favorite loose cannon (and, not for nothing, the guy who got the whole war started in the first place) complicating matters unnecessarily. The supernatural world is pretty much ready to fly apart as it is, and one mis-step could mean death and destruction on a scale greater than anyone has ever known.

In the end, the choices that Harry has to make in this book will haunt him for the rest of his life, if not longer. I would probably not be wrong in saying that this book marks a major turning point for the series.

If you’ve been reading this from the beginning, which you really should have, then this is going to be a rough book. I’ve made mention before of how Butcher likes to play hardball with his characters sometimes, but this book is so much more than that. This book is an all-out attack on everything that Harry holds dear to him, a scouring of his life that puts him into an entirely new situation. What this is in preparation for is anybody’s guess, but I can tell you this much without really spoiling anything – Butcher had better damn well have the next book on a fast track or he’ll find me sitting on his front porch with a torch and a pitchfork and a haunted look in my eyes. [1]

Given that, as of this writing, the book has just come out, there’s not a lot I can say about it in detail. If you’ve been following the series, you’re going to read it no matter what I have to say, and I don’t want to ruin anything for you. All I can really say is that this isn’t my favorite of the series, at least not upon first reading. It’s a little rushed in parts, and has one too many deus ex machina moments for my liking. The only thing that mitigates that is the knowledge that Butcher wastes nothing in his storytelling, and even the biggest miracles come with a price that will have to be paid. And I expect that the payoff will be something to see. Having said that, though, Changes will probably hold up as one of the most significant of the Dresden Files books once the series is done. In terms of what happens to the characters in this book, it’s really like nothing else that’s come before it.

So brace yourselves, kids. This one’s a bumpy ride. As with all the Dresden Files books, though, it’s well worth it.

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“Harry… I’ve got a bad feeling that…. I’ve got a bad feeling that the wheels are about to come off.”
– Karrin Murphy, Changes
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[1] Yes, yes, I know that, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman, the author is not my bitch. Still and all, waiting for the next book to come out will be like trying not to fart in church – interminable, impossible not to think about, and oh so relieving when the opportunity finally arrives.

The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Changes on Wikipedia
Changes on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher’s homepage

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Filed under children, detective fiction, Dresden Files, fantasy, Jim Butcher, vampires, war, wizardry