Category Archives: culture

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 145: Griftopia

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

This book made me want to get rip-roaring drunk, set a banker on fire, and kick a member of Congress square in the nuts, preferably from a running start. It put me one step closer to finally realizing my dream of living somewhere in the wilderness like the Unibomber (although without all the Unibombing). It took all of my already cynical ideas about how America works, patted them on the head and said, “You’re just adorable,” and then proceeded to tell me that Santa Claus is not only dead, but that his body was stuffed, covered in rhinestones and sold to the CEO of Goldman-Sachs to use as a towel rack in his guest bathroom.

Much like The Great Derangement, wherein Taibbi explains how Americans have built new realities for themselves based on their politics, this book really seems to be aimed right at me. My natural distrust of the government and especially of business makes me a natural reader for this kind of thing, and that sets off my bias alarms. So keep that in mind – I’m probably having a hard time evaluating Taibbi and his claims fairly, in that I think they’re all absolutely correct. They may not be, but that’s how they felt as I read the book.

"I'm sorry, but this diamond-encrusted nut-scratcher is clearly made of 14-karat gold, NOT 24-karat as I specified. I wouldn't give this to my stableboy's cheapest whore. Throw it away!"

Taibbi’s premise is disturbingly simple: the American political and economic system is set up to reward lying, cheating and grift. From the fraudsters who convinced poor families to take out loans on McMansions to the Great Greenspan himself, our economic engine has been running for years on an unstable fuel of high-octane mendacity. Every now and then, there is a hitch – the tech bubble of the late 90s, the housing crash, the oil price spike of 2008, the Great Financial Meltdown – but the engine keeps going. What’s more, the people who caused the bubbles and crashes manage to skate clear of damage and punishment, rewarded by lawmakers who are beholden to them. It’s a self-corrupting system that values short-term profit over long-term stability, and it’s probably going to be the ruin of us all.

The mortgage fiasco is well-described here. Taibbi takes us from the bottom of the financial food chain – a low-income homeowner who thought he was getting a great chance for a home of his own, and follows the chain of deceit up and up and up, from the mortgage broker who sold the deal (and, incidentally both lied about his client’s credit score and got him an adjustable mortgage in order to garner a higher finder’s fee) to the banks that put all these rotten mortgages together, to the insurance companies and financial institutions that bought them, sold them and traded them. All across the board, they lied about what they had and made sure that they passed their rotten goods off to some other poor sucker before the whole thing went wrong. And when it did, it was like some horrible chain of dominoes that started with people who discovered they couldn’t pay $1,500 a month for their home, and ended with the failure of banks that had ruled the financial sector for decades.

"Well, Congressman, I'm just going to put this down over here - it's heavy, you see - so just put it out of your mind. Don't worry about it at all."

What’s more, the US government let this happen. Under the guise of being “pro-business,” politicians have been loosening restrictions and adjusting interest rates for decades under the willful delusion that the free market can manage itself just fine. Under the direction of Ayn Rand disciples such as Alan Greenspan, the power of the government to manage corrupt banks and insurance companies is about as impressive as an elementary school crossing guard. They wanted business free of its regulatory fetters, and that’s what they got. What everyone else got, of course, was screwed.

Another example: during 2008, Taibbi noticed something weird. Gas prices were skyrocketing, but supply was keeping pace with demand. There were no lines at gas stations like there had been in the 70s, when OPEC refused to sell us oil. If you wanted to fill up, you could, as long as you were willing to pay a price that went up moments before you pulled into the station. Even people with the barest understanding of economics understands supply and demand – if the supply is lower than the demand, the price goes up, and vice versa. But here, neither the supply of gasoline nor the overall demand for it changed, yet prices were shooting up past $4 a gallon. What, as they say, the HELL was going on?

Our politicians – especially the ones battling for the White House – had pat answers ready for the cameras. Obama blamed the Evil Oil Companies and wasteful SUV drivers. McCain blamed anti-drilling legislation and environmental regulation. Everybody blamed China for its accelerating growth. All of that, as it turns out, was misleading at best, bullshit at worst.

Well how else are we going to get the bathroom redone? I mean look at it, the place is a sty!

The answer: oil speculation, the use of commodities futures to make a ton of money by driving the price of oil ever higher. Futures were originally intended to provide a safety net for buyers and sellers of commodities, so that neither one would lose too badly if supply or demand shifted unexpectedly. But a way was found to exploit this system, for profiteers to buy and sell massive amounts of stuff to each other, raising their profits to obscene levels.

While a few clever people on Wall Street were getting rich through oil money, thousands of regular people were getting boned. The higher price of gas meant people with long commutes had to quit jobs and leave schools, which put them in ever-deepening financial straits. The price of oil has a very real effect on lives, but that was all ignored so that some high rollers could get rich. The close ties between the banking sector and the US government were what allowed this to happen, after decades of “pro-business” deregulation.

The health care overhaul, the sale of American cities to foreign investors, the collapse of the stock market and the erasure of untold billions of dollars of savings and investments are all given a close, angry look in this book, and Taibbi does a good job at making it understandable to those of us who aren’t really good with the intricacies of the financial sector. He takes his time, breaking down each scam into its component parts, and makes sure you can see every piece of the puzzle as he puts it together.

But what he also does – and I don’t think this is necessarily intentional – is paint a picture of hopelessness. At least, that’s how I saw it. The “great vampire squid” of the financial sector (a metaphor he used specifically with Goldman-Sachs) is inextricably attached to our government and the people who run it, sucking the blood out of the country that we thought we had. The more you see the connections, the more it seems like that squid simply cannot be removed and will never be sated.

Such a vivid image, isn't it?

What’s more, our elected officials are doing a brilliant job at convincing the American people that removing the squid is not necessary. The Tea Party chants its simplistic message that the Constitution is all the law we need, and our leaders smile and nod and watch the money come in. Lawmakers rail against the evil of “earmarks” right up until the day they get elected, and then make sure they reward the people who got them into office. Every time someone tries to loosen the tentacles a bit, they’re attacked as anti-business or anti-capitalist or just out and out socialist, and they’re either shamed or threatened into submission. They tell us that it’s all really complicated, and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it – here’s another season of Jersey Shore.

And the American people? We are, after all, the holders of sovereignty for the country – what about us? We’re idiots. We don’t want to spend the time necessary to understand a problem as ridiculously complex as the fraud that’s being perpetrated in our names, and the leaders we elected aren’t at all interested in making sure we’re educated. We’re instantly distracted by the new shiny thing and forget what happened only a few months ago thanks to smooth talking fraudsters who want us upset about gay marriage and Mexicans in our schools. We trust a media that needs us to be angry, but only just angry enough to keep watching. We’re tied up with businesses that see us as nothing more than a resource to be exploited.

Contrary to popular belief, money does not always make it easier to get your message across.

As of this writing, the “Occupy Everything” movement is still going strong, and I think that’s great. If nothing else, it will cause people to ask questions about how the government is run and why, but I fear it will have little effect in the long run. Why? Because the Occupiers are going after the wrong people.

Corporations make money. That’s what they do. And they’ll do it good and hard if they can. Much like a tiger, they’re just obeying their nature. Chris Rock put it best when he was talking about the Sigfried and Roy incident where one of their show tigers nearly bit off Roy’s head. Everyone said that the tiger had gone crazy, but Rock disagreed – “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”

"I said GOOD DAY, sir!"

Well, Wall Street is the tiger. Chant and occupy and wave your signs all you want, you’re not going to change the fundamental nature of corporate America and how it works. Where all this energy should be going is into Washington, to the people who let the tiger run loose through our villages and happily picked up whatever it left behind. The lawmakers are the ones who can stop this, but right now it’s not in their interest to do so. The status quo has kept them safely employed and empowered, and until they see a real threat from the voters, there’s no way they’re going to turn their backs on their plutocrat supporters.

When the whole thing finally becomes unsustainable, when that final bill becomes due, they will slip away in the night with the wealth of nations in their pockets, leaving the rest of us to kill each other over refrigerator boxes and dogmeat.

See? Told you this book made me angry…

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“This story is the ultimate example of America’s biggest political problem. We no longer have the attention span to deal with any twenty-first century crisis. We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it – who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust these people to do the right thing, but we can’t, because, well, they’re scum. Which is kind of a big problem, when you think about it.”
– Matt Taibbi, Griftopia

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
Griftopia on Wikipedia
The Taibblog at Rolling Stone
Griftopia at Amazon.com

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Filed under consumerism, corporations, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, nonfiction, politics

Lost in the Stacks 09: Banned Books Week

Harry Potter
The adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A Diary of a Young Girl
Fahrenheit 451
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
The Jungle
Lord of the Rings

These are just a few books that the American Library Association has reported as being banned or challenged in American libraries, and the list grows longer every year. Sometimes it’s because it offends someone’s religious sensibilities – like Harry Potter – and other times because it offends their moral sensibilities – And Tango Makes Three for example. And then there are those that make you think banning books isn’t so bad after all – Twilight is on the list – before you shake it off and think about how it does no good for anyone.

Ban a book and its sales will surely rise in the resulting media firestorm. Tell kids that a certain book is forbidden, and the first thing they’ll do is go get it. And even if you somehow manage to keep them cloistered from all the Bad Books out there, sooner or later they’ll find out what you were trying to hold back from them. When that happens, they will not think fondly of you.

Last week was Banned Books Week – but really it should be every week. Give the episode a listen and come join the conversation!

The American Library Association’s Banned Books Week page

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Filed under censorship, culture, Lost in the Stacks, reading, society

Review 139: The Science of Fear

The Science of Fear by Daniel Gardner

Imagine, for a moment, one of our early human ancestors. A first-generation Homo sapiens, exploring his world with an amazing brain that would be the envy of the animal kingdom. If they understood envy. He, and his children, and their children and grandchildren will spread across the Earth as hunter-gatherers, the first beings (so far as we know) who can look at the world and attempt to pass on what it knows and learns. Their threats were simple: survive or don’t. Find food or starve. Hunt or be hunted. And those fantastic brains did such a bang-up job that their descendants are still walking around, thousands of generations later.

Now, take that Paleolithic man – swift of foot, sharp of eye, strong of hand – and drop him in the middle of modern-day Times Square. And, as his minder, give him a bored, easily distracted teenager – one who knows the world, but can’t be bothered to do the work to make decisions.

We are all of us Captain Caveman.

Congratulations. According to Daniel Gardner, we have just constructed a fine metaphor for how the human brain works. Part of it is very old, able to make decisions in an instant based on the slimmest of clues. The other is newer, more rational and savvy, able to put together reasoned, logical arguments, but doesn’t have the sheer speed and force that is prehistoric partner has. And as much as we want it to be true that the rational, modern part of our mind is in charge,the sad fact is that out inner caveman has far more influence over us than we care to admit.

Gardner begins the book with an interesting story about the most terrifying thing to happen in the last decade – the attacks of September 11th in the United States. By the time the towers fell, people around the world were watching, and anyone who didn’t see it live would surely see it soon enough as it was replayed over and over again. It was truly terrifying to watch, unlike anything Americans had seen before in their country, and it scared the ever-loving hell out of people. Many people, as a result, chose to forgo air travel in favor of driving.

Now, as Superman famously told Lois Lane, flying is statistically the safest way to travel. In fact, the most dangerous part of any trip that involves flying is usually the drive to the airport. But, in those days and months after the attacks, people were scared to fly. So they drove instead. And, according to a five year study of traffic fatalities in the U. S. after 9/11 by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer, 1,595 people died on the roads who otherwise would not have.

They were afraid, and that’s understandable. But they were afraid of the wrong thing. So they died.

Gardner sets out in this book to figure out why it is that people in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous nations on Earth – in the healthiest, safest, most prosperous era of human history – live in a state of near-constant fear.

As long as he doesn't insist on eating children halal, I don't care...

A lot of it, as the intro implies, comes down to the fact that our brains, which evolved over millions of years to be very good at judging risks that might be found on the savannah, are simply not prepared to do the same in a modern technological world. Our brains can’t tell the difference between risk in fiction and reality, between something that happened to us and something we saw on the news. When it comes to risk, our brains play it very safe, which is great out in nature. Is that shadow in the bushes a tiger? Maybe, maybe not, but either way it’s probably a good idea to get the hell away from it. We can’t say the same thing of that guy sitting on the bus who looks like maybe he might be a Muslim.

We also tend to assume that if we’ve heard of something recently, then it must be more common. Again if you’re out in nature and you saw a bear yesterday, there’s a decent chance that the bear is still around today and you might want to be wary of that. But what if you see constant news coverage of a high-profile child abduction? It’s on every show, being talked about on every blog – does that mean that the chance of your child being abducted has increased? Of course not, but your brain doesn’t see it that way. Your brain thinks that your child will be taken from you the moment you look away, and all the reasoning in the world won’t change its mind.

One more thing: we don’t get numbers. The news tells us that the rate of certain risks is up by 10%, but they don’t tell us what the original figure was. We hear about millions of starving children in Africa, but don’t do anything unless we get a personal story of one. We don’t understand probability at all, we can’t deal with randomness, and this lack of innate numeracy (compounded by an educational culture that makes it hard to teach kids to become numerate) costs us billions. Or more, as the recent economic Clusterthing has shown, when you have people who are good with numbers deliberately exploiting this flaw in order to profit.

Numeracy is also useful for getting certain kinds of jokes.

We think that correlation equals causation. We believe stories over facts. We think we don’t have biases that we clearly possess. We assign high risk to things we don’t like and low risk to things we do, regardless of how risky they actually are. And on top of all that, we know how to exploit others’ fears in order to gain money and power for ourselves. It’s easy to do, and it works like a charm.

Reading this book won’t make you into a magically unflappable person, mainly because all of this stuff is pretty well hard-wired in our brains. Even Gardner, who should have known better, tells a story about hunting through the slums of Lagos in the middle of the night to retrieve a photo of his children from the wallet that had been stolen from him. He had plenty more, but at that moment, his brain was convinced that losing the photo meant losing his children. Irrational, yes, and it nearly got him killed, but that’s just one example of what a powerful force this primitive brain is.

Never overlook an opportunity for a Green Lantern reference.

The good news, though, is that you can strengthen the newer, more recent brain – the lazy teenager from the initial example. By knowing how you make mistakes, how you can be fooled into fearing things that you don’t need to fear, you can better understand your own reactions to events and make better decisions. You can educate yourself about the things that are actually dangerous, and stop losing sleep over the things that are not a threat. Being afraid is not your fault – it’s an ingrained biological feature. Staying afraid, on the other hand, is something over which you have control. With enough will power, even you can overcome great fear.

Sorry. Nerd moment there.

Are there terrorists who want to destroy the United States? Sure. But they won’t, because doing so is indescribably harder than certain politicians would have you believe. Are there creepy child molesters who want to abduct and defile your children? Yup. But the chances of that actually happening are so low that the odds of any specific child becoming such a victim are nil. Are there angry teens who want to come to their school and kill everyone they see? Of course. But when you look at the incidence of school shooting compared to how many kids go to school every day, you can see that the odds of your children being caught in a school shooting are slim to none. In fact, there are many parts of the country where your children are probably safer in school than out of it.

There are real risks in our modern world, but they’re not spectacular and they’re not viscerally terrifying. A car accident, a heart attack, a diabetic death – these things don’t make the news. Imagine a 9/11-style attack happening every three days, 3,000 dead each time. It would be an outrage, a national disgrace, and people would be scared to their bones. But it would take just about 233 attacks to equal the number of deaths in 2001 that occurred from cardiovascular disease in the United States.

The nearly nonexistent chance of being killed by terrorists is enough to get people to submit to any number of indignities and intrusions on their persons and liberties when they travel, but the very real risk of death from a heart attack isn’t enough to get people to go take a walk once in a while or stop eating junk food. So enjoy that delicious moment of irony the next time you go through the TSA molest-a-thon and get a seriously overweight screener taking liberties with your person.

The fact is that we have it damn good compared to our ancestors. We live longer, we live better, even in parts of the world that are still developing, and it looks like the future will progress that way. But we still insist on needing to be afraid, even as we have less and less to actually fear. So put down the newspaper, turn off the 24-hour news, and take some time to figure out what is actually a threat. Give that bored teenager something to do with his time and let the caveman go back to his cave.

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You don't see a lot of these anymore. There's a reason for that. (photo by Steve Cornelius on Flickr)

“Anyone who has spent time in a Victorian cemetery knows that gratitude, not fear, should be the defining feeling of our age. And yet it is fear that defines us. We worry. We cringe. It seems the less we have to fear, the more we fear.”
– Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear

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Filed under culture, Daniel Gardner, fear, media, nonfiction, psychology, science, security, society, terrorism, The United States

Lost in the Stacks 8: Guilty Pleasures

Everybody has a guilty pleasure book. It might be one author or a specific series or even a whole genre – that book you don’t want to be seen reading. The book you know your high school English teacher would scold you for wasting your time with. The book you feel stupid talking about at parties because you know they’re going to say, “Really? That’s an interesting choice. I enjoy reading James Joyce in my free time and have first editions of the collected works of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in every room of my home,” after which they all laugh at you until you run out of the party in shame and swear never to read another word of anything fun as long as you live. For example.

You didn't know about Twain's little-known short story, "A Connecticut Yankee in a 30th Century Court?" It's fascinating, really....

But should it really be that way? Why do we let the bestseller lists and “Best Books of ALL TIME” lists or some knucklehead with a podcast tell us what we should read and what we should like? In this edition of Lost in the Stacks, we explore the idea of Guilty Pleasure Reading and whether or not the concept should even exist. Share your guilty pleasures with us and stand up for your tastes in reading!

Obama’s Book Club
NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Guardian’s Best Books
Time Magazine’s Top 100 Novels
The Telegraph: Top 100 Books
New York Times Bestseller List
The Comics Code Authority on Wikipedia

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Filed under classics, comic books, criticism, culture, fantasy, fiction, Lost in the Stacks, reading, reviewing, science fiction, society