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1177 B.C., A Review

The inaugural book in the The Turning Points in Ancient History series bears the subtitle: “The Year Civilization Collapsed.” The title is misleading since, as Cline repeatedly points out, there is no single year in which “civilization collapsed,” but this is representative of the problems endemic with studying the ancient world at large and the bronze age in general. Instead, Cline takes 1177, a year in which the Egyptian King Rameses III won a great battle against the Sea Peoples, as representative of the large-scale changes that were taking place in the twelfth century BCE and the beginning of the end of the networks that bound together the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. Rameses III was victorious, but the world that he knew gave way to something new and more isolated in the decades that followed. 1177 B.C. is dedicated to explaining this collapse, but, in order to get there, Cline has to spend most of the book building up the bronze age civilizations. Along the way, he intersperses the narrative with descriptions of the scholars, archeologists, treasure-hunters, and accidents (happy and unhappy) that facilitate the understanding of these connections.

The bulk of Cline’s narrative explains the international commercial and political networks that bound together Egypt, Anatolia, the Aegean, Babylon, and the (petty) kingdoms of the Levantine coast. He does not shy away from using cultural prejudices to explain political representation, but Cline emphasizes that all the actors in this environment relied on one another to create a relatively stable international community that lasted for multiple centuries. Unlike many traditional accounts, largely absent are gods and cultural clashes. This narrative is fundamentally one of royal politics, but he argues that the market in royal gifts as it circulated is representative of deeper commercial networks that our sparse evidence simply does not attest to. The resulting picture is one of vibrant commercial activity, royal communication, and general cultural understanding–wars happen, but for the usual reasons of land and resources.

So why did this civilization collapse sometime after the year 1177? Cline treats each proposed cause in turn, examining the evidence for earthquakes, famine, social revolution, external invasion, and the collapse of dynasties. Fundamentally, he argues that each one is inadequate as an overarching explanation, but that each could explain an individual collapse. Thus, in an ultimate act of synthesis, Cline posits that the stability of the system required the networks between the different locations, so, as each individual node was weakened by famine/war/invasion/earthquake/aliens/social revolution (I might have added one), the commercial ties themselves fell apart and were unable to buttress the nodes until they toppled one by one.

1177 B.C. is clearly influenced by the modern discussions of world-systems theory and the climate of globalism currently popular, but this doesn’t invalidate the point. I am sympathetic to Cline’s approach for many reasons, including that I think that bombastic literature of all ages tends to exaggerate the differences between peoples. Further, the ancient world did not comprise of Great Civilizations that sprang up in isolation, but was already engage in what might be termed proto-globalism, since globalism is technically impossible until the entire globe is included. As hokey as it may seem, this is also a useful way to approach the issues of “relevance” for the ancient world, since it makes the underlying relationships seem less alien to a modern audience. It is possible to quibble in that Cline does a better job of integrating Egyptian culture into his narrative than, for instance, Ugarit culture, but in a book of fewer than two hundred pages, that is more a problem for an instructor hoping to use this approach into a Western Civilization or Ancient Mediterranean course than it is for him. One is also led to ponder what the peoples of the Aegean, truly on the fringe of the network of civilization, thought about the relationships, but here the evidence is particularly weak.

One last thing that Cline does is to incorporate accounts of modern archeology. Initially I found the vignettes somewhat distracting, but they are not overly cumbersome or frequent and in sum I think it is important to recognize how little evidence there is and how that evidence was found because this, in and of itself, shapes how we understand the period.

I picked up 1177 B.C. as a productive fun non-fiction book to read (i.e. something I shouldn’t be spending time on, but that could come in handy later on) and it exceeded my expectations. I cannot vouch for its utility as a scholarly text, as it is written for an intelligent, non-specialist audience, but I highly recommend that anyone teaching this early period of world history pick it up. For anyone else who wants a different take on early early Mediterranean history that defies the usual solipsism of histories of Egypt, Mycenaeans, etc, look no further.

September 2015 Reading Recap

I finished three books in September, as the academic year picked up and things, as they do, got busy.

Grave Peril, Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden continues his wizarding, only, now in the third book, the decisions he made in the previous two are beginning to catch up with him. I did a little write up about the series after I finished reading this one. The general impression of it still stands, which is to say that they are fun, largely pulpy reads that can be addictive in the moment, but haven’t really compelled me to read on. The third book started to build to a larger plot that could make up for how thin the noir skin began to feel, and the cast of characters is starting to expand, but I am still taking a break from the series.

Dracula, Bram Stoker

Jonathan Harker goes to Transylvania to help a rich client, Dracula, who is moving to London. The he stumbles into a backward environment of unspeakable horror. The vampire escapes and descends on an unprepared England, while Harker, his wife Mina, Dr. John Seward, Arthur Holmwood (the beloved of the Vampire’s first english victim), the American Quincy Morris, and the Dutch doctor Abraham van Helsing combine Catholic doctrine, folk remedies, and the cleverness of modernity to hunt this relic from eastern Europe. One of my favorite things about reading classic novels for the first time is that some of them are so utterly familiar and yet completely bastardized by subsequent representations. That is the case here, where many of Dracula’s traits and various descriptions are familiar, yet this specific version is not one often portrayed. I loved just about every minute of reading this beautiful mess of a novel. It is easy to see how this book was (and sometimes still is) considered overwritten and lowbrow, with dozens of concepts and fads mashed together in sometimes bizarre ways, and how it became a classic of Western literature. I have also started posting to Twitter quotes from books I read, and have collected them into a blog post.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk
Reviewed and quotations collected.

One of Pamuk’s early works, The New Life is the story of a book and a girl that inspired young men to seek a new life, while being ambiguous about what the new life is. Most of the story takes place in shadowy buses careening across Turkey, at a time when and place where identities are transient. The men, particularly, in the story all seek a way to achieve equilibrium after reading the book, but the only way to reach this balance is to suspend themselves from a world that is racing onward. The New Life is not an easy book to describe and while it fits thematically in Pamuk’s oeuvre, it is not part of the same semi-real Istanbul that forms the backdrop of, for instance, The Black Book and The Museum of Innocence. This is also a book that I have grown more fond of upon letting it sink in than I necessarily was in the middle of it, so I’ll tentatively say it was my favorite of the month.

October is probably going to be another tight month for reading, particularly because I am starting off with an ambitious read, at least in terms of time investment. Currently, I am reading Dostoevsky’s Demons.

Live-Tweet The New Life

The collected quotations from Orhan Pamuk’s The New Life, which I reviewed here.

Previously in this series, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

“Live Tweet” Dracula

Following in the footsteps of my friend Will Mountz, I have started tweeting some quotes from books as I read them. To some extent I have always done this, but I’m now doing it in a more organized way. These are not meant to be a review of the book, but rather things that stood out as I read. Excepting the occasional typo, the only curation of the quotes is for length. These posts (since I suspect this is going to turn into series) are meant to collect what I tweeted out in one place, starting from the beginning of the book.

Standalone sci-if and fantasy – Recommendations

Last week I published a list of fantasy and sci-fi series that I recommend. This post follows that one up with set of recommendations of standalone (or near-standalone) books.

First and Last Men, Olaf Stapledon

Both this and the next recommendation are the work of a British professor of Medieval Philosophy writing in the 1920s and 1930s, who decided to eschew academic publications and instead write books designed to bring these philosophies to a wider audience. First and Last Men is the ultimate longue durée history of the human race, covering ten thousand years. Humans advance from their present form and adapt until they are wholly unrecognizable, with societies developing in conjunction with the available resources and environmental needs.

Starmaker, Olaf Stapledon

Stapledon’s other novel is an interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Visions of Piers Plowman, where a man, on a walk after fighting with his significant other, has a out of body experience that takes him to a series of alien civilizations and to ever higher planes of consciousness until reaching divine revelation. Reviewed here.

Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson

One of my favorite near-future dystopian novels. The United States has been broken down into a landscape where every corporation, church, and gated neighborhood functions as its own country, there is an digital universe built with megachurch money that can be tapped into, and there is a conspiracy that wants to use an archeological find to enslave humans. Hyperinflation is rampant and pizza delivery is operated by the mafia, and if your pizza doesn’t arrive in 20 minutes, you are allowed to kill the driver and take his stuff. Law and order are enforced at the point of a sword. Enter our hero, Hiro Protagonist, delivery driver, elite hacker, and expert swordsman…who lives in a storage unit. The world is a mess and he must save it, all the while trying to protect the teenage girl Y.T. and to stop Raven, a nuclear-armed Aleutian harpooner with a grudge against the United States.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon

In his middle years the narrator returns to his childhood home for a funeral and finds himself drawn to the Hempstock farm, where, in a flash, he remembers something that happened there when he was seven. This particular story tugs at the nostalgia strings about how one remembers childhood and about things that children know that adults don’t, begs the question of not whether, but how people change as they age, and how worth is adjudged. There is whimsy, there is sadness, and there is pettiness.

Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimon

The Antichrist has been born and the end is nigh! But the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley [formerly Crawley] have come to quite like their lives on earth in a way that their otherworldly brethren just can’t appreciate. Crowley, for instance, can’t make them understand that jamming the London freeway or killing the phone lines causes greater mayhem in the world than the corruption of a single priest. As a result they agree to keep an eye on the little guy and prevent him from choosing between good and evil. However, a mixup in the birthing ward means that the real Antichrist is on the lam. All of this has been foreseen by Agnes Nutter, but her prophecies are of little use. Bedlam and hilarity ensue.

American Gods, Neil Gaimon

America is multi-cultural. A place where cultures from around the world–and their deities–have come and made a home. A not-so-chance encounter upon his release from prison after the death of his wife launches Shadow into this world as the bodyguard to Mr. Wednesday. Once there he discovers that there is a war brewing between the old gods and the new gods of television and pop culture, but it is unclear whether the old gods will form a common front to preserve their way of life.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

The hero is supposed to be young, fit, and still learning about himself. Ahmed inverts this, so our protagonist is Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, a retired ghoul hunter who likes drinking cardamum tea. Along with some old friends and young assistants Adoulla tries to combat the increasingly frequent ghoul outbreaks and thus is drawn into a political revolution brewing in the palace over control of the Throne of the Crescent Moon–or its earlier association with serpents. Some of the tropes are familiar, but the setting is not just flavor, as the story is much more influenced by Middle Eastern stories known to Western Audiences from, for instance, Arabian Knights, rather than the knightly tales of Western Europe.

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

Reviewed here, this is a fantasy constructed along the lines of traditional Chinese epic. It is beautifully formal and weaves a conservative culture and style with a progressive narrative to create something that is new in a genre that is so steeped in tropes. The result was a breath of fresh air. Technically, The Grace of Kings is the first in a series, but it can absolutely be read as a standalone work.

The Redemption of Althalus, David and Leigh Eddings

Unlike the last two on this list, Redemption is in a lot of ways old-school fantasy, an epic showdown between sibling deities, one of whom upholds life and one that seeks to consume it. Each side has its champions and paragons who square off against their opposite number. Neither the story nor the characters are particularly brilliant, but the book is fun and riddled with clever or entertaining set pieces and has the grace to condense the equivalent of an entire epic fantasy series in a single thick book.

The Postmortal, Drew Magary

Another near-future dystopian novel, Magary asks what would happen if there was a cure found that stops the aging process at the point it is received. Diseases still happen and a violent death is possible, but aging stops. What happens to marriages if “til death do you part” starts to look like an eternity? Will the cure be legal? Will it be regulated? Will it be given to children? Will there be a violent backlash? Will the social contracts that keeps society together stay in place? Probably not.

The New Life, Orhan Pamuk

Two things happen to the narrator of The New Life, one after the other, which changed everything: he read a book and he fell in love with a girl. In his accounting of events, the reading of the book was both the first and the more important occurrence, but, really, he only read the book because he saw a pretty girl reading and was smitten. One might even say that our protagonist was entrapped by this distant and unapproachable beauty. This book changed everything and, he is told, those under its sway are wrapped up in a long-standing conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that could cost them their lives. Following Janan, he witnesses the assassination of her beloved and is immediately launched into a journey across Anatolia in pursuit of Janan, in search of answers to the riddles posed by the book, and hunting for a new life.

Most of The New Life takes place on dimly-lit bus-stops and on darkened buses that roar across the Anatolian landscape past–and sometimes into–similarly nondescript vehicles. Each bus seems to take people further back in time. Bloody crashes are a frequent occurrence, and sometimes provide an opportunity to adopt a new persona. The narrator’s obsession with Janan is Quixotic and while his pursuit of the woman sitting beside him spurs him on as a young man, the book proves a somewhat more intimate and more fruitful quest. The principle question is how one is able to reach equilibrium between the promises of the book and a changing world. There is no single right answer.

Pamuk eventually reveals that the name of the book is The New Life, and there is reason to suspect that it is the same as the novel, but for most of the story it is simply referred to as “the book” and its contents are left ambiguous. The closest comparison I could think of is the fanatical devotion inspired by religious texts, but it is emphatically a secular, subversive book. Similarly, there is an ambiguity as to what, exactly, The New Life is. Does it refer to swapping identity papers? Claiming a new name? Revolution? The process of aging? Or is the life in question not the life of the individual at all, but the life of a culture or country? Ought the new life really be an old life? Or is there another transcendence above these all? In the end, The New Life is being told from the point of view of an adult man, married and with a daughter. He has certainly found a new life, but, somehow, it hasn’t totally satisfied the hunger that the book awoke.

The New Life is an early example of Pamuk’s work and while I enjoyed the book, it is lower on the scale of his novels, ahead of only The White Castle. On the one hand, there were features that were engaging, including the two discussed in the previous paragraph, the tension between bus and rail, and the appearance of going back in time and the speedy onset of western modernity; on the other, there were aspects of the conspiracies that left me hollow because they fit in the novel but were not fleshed out. Some of this is a stylistic choice and some is the narrative style, but I wanted it to be spun out further as Pamuk does in later novels.


I recently decided that I want to prune my book collection somewhat by donating books I don’t actively want to keep around to charitable book drops and/or libraries and have already chosen six or seven volumes to give away. I am militantly against getting rid of my entire physical collection despite the hassle of moving boxes of books, so this is more about culling for space. Along the same lines, I want to be able to talk about every book in my collection either because I have read it or because it is a new acquisition and soon to be read. As such, there is somewhat of a backlog that I need to read, some of which I started once upon a time and gave up on, others I bought and never read. Right now I am read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which falls into the former category, and which I am enjoying quite a lot and thus wondering why I stopped reading it before (other that I am finding myself a more patient and careful reader as I age).

A question of sorts about tuition

College is too expensive, and for every glowing report about the financial returns of a college degree, another blows apart those numbers by showing that particular schools and particular careers that, by grace of family connections, artificially inflate the numbers. At the same time, U.S. Taxpayers are disproportionately subsidizing the elite universities with large endowments— schools that spend more money managing their portfolios than on scholarships. The jobs of Presidents hang on their ability to pull in large donations. Most colleges are simultaneously seeing increased selectivity and increased enrollment and are crafting incentives to push those numbers higher still. I don’t want to get bogged down in most of those perks and whether they ought to exist or distracted by other cost-saving measures taken by schools or even question where all that money goes. I’ve been lead to believe that universities function through dark rituals carried out by accounts and involving large piles of imaginary money. Yes, I am being glib, but since I know just enough about it to make wildly inaccurate generalizations, I will refrain from doing so. Instead, I will focus on the extension of in-state tuition and tuition freezes, because there is something I find troubling here.

On the issue of tuition freezes, I have just one comment: the phrase itself is a red-herring. Promises to eliminate or freeze tuition do not keep down the price, but adds incentive to call the bills something else, usually fees. The itemization of the bill is a nice addition, but it also represents rhetorical chicanery when some of the fees can plausibly be argued to belong in the tuition pile. For instance, in graduate education, there are instances where students with tuition waivers nevertheless pay a fee for every credit they take. Fees or tuition, the result is the same: costs rise.

My working hypothesis on the split between in-state and out-of-state tuition is that the out-of-state rate represents more or less the full tuition rate, while the in-state is a lower rate because it is subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. This is not to say that there is a 1:1 correlation, and there is the added variables of federal funding and donations, but, in general, this seems to be a reasonable model. Likewise, though I haven’t seen it stated outright, it seems likely that state taxes that go to supporting state higher education institutions are done with this sort of implicit assumption in mind. States are, by and large, reducing their financial support for higher education, for a variety of reasons, which forces out low-income students and results in more cost increases for families.

Working with the model, though, and the fact that states still do help subsidize education, there is another anomaly that has me turned around: the extension of in-state tuition to out-of-state students. The University of Missouri participates in the < a href="">Midwest Student Exchange Program, which reduces the cost of attendance for students in surrounding states and I have seen other proposals to reduce out of state tuition. The purpose, of course, is to attract ever-more students to the university in order to get more tuition dollars and, as for-profit institutions can attest to, means milking federal funding for all it is worth. International students bring in even more money.

I am sure that I am being overly simplistic with all of this, and it is linked to and symptomatic of all sorts of other issues in the finances of higher education, but I can’t help but wonder if the mad race to bring in students has the side-effect of making these institutions large businesses that happen to reside in a particular state, blurring the lines between where the students come from in order to lure them in. I do wonder if maybe it would be useful to frame the state funding for higher ed specifically as a benefit for in-state students. On the other hand, maybe I am making mountains out of molehills.

The Dresden Files

I have now, as of two weeks ago, read the first three books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and thought it would be an apt time for some reflection of the series, which I have described as pulpy, but fun.

Harry Dresden is the only publicly-listed wizard in America, with his advertisement appearing in the phonebook. He doesn’t do love potions or the like, but works as a supernatural private eye, with most of his income from a standing retainer with the Chicago police department. Lanky and dressed in a duster, with a silver amulet, staff, and hammer-action pistol, Harry strides into battle against vampires, were-wolves, ghosts, demons, and evil wizards; in this line of work he has seen–and done–some stuff that would make most people flinch. Around him are his cat Mister, the spirit Bob, the knight Michael, Detective Murphy, and the reporter Susan. Most people, including Susan and Murphy, don’t really know what is going on and Harry goes out of his way to shelter them from the worst of it.

Butcher has created a magic system that is simultaneously well thought out and ill-defined. For instance, magic has a tendency to cause technology to fail, so Harry uses the simplest guns, cars, and other technology available, but neither is there a guarantee of failure, so it can just happen to happen at the most inconvenient points. The rest of the system is built along similar lines where there are rules to how various sight abilities (eye contact, etc.) work, and how spells are constructed (circles need to be completed, potions use three ingredients that are linked to the outcome), but the specifics are often unclear even to Harry, who always wishes that Bob, the ancient spirit, was around to tell him how to make something. This mix gives a consistent feel to the books, but also allows for a great deal of variance based on the story. I also assume that Harry is leveling-up, as it were, but the general lack of specifics in that regard make it a little hard tell.

The first three books each dealt with one particular case Harry investigates, but their greatest virtue is that they serve to populate the world of the story with a growing cast of characters. This is something that typically happens as series develop, but one of the things that stood out in the first book was how few actual characters existed. Sure, there were plenty of things that needed to be attacked or dealt with and a number of individuals standing around in the background of the story, but there were really only about four real characters [plus Bob and Mister] and only Harry was actually central. Part of this falls back to the noir frame for the story, since Harry is the detective out on a dark night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets, so to speak. I got the impression early on that urban-fantasy, noir procedural was actually what Butcher was setting out to write, what with its observant first person narrative and shadowy investigations, but in the next few books noir has become more garnish than substance. In the same span, Butcher has begun to flesh out a slightly, and I do mean slightly, larger cast of characters, both those who are meant to be heroes and those who are villains in order to build a multi-book story-arc.

I like this series, but, after three books, I am still not sure how much. There was enough foreshadowing in the most recent book to suggest that they may be ready to transition into something a little more substantial than procedural, but I really don’t know. They are fun and easy to read, in contrast to some of the denser things I either have to or choose to pick up. At the same time, I am three books into a very long series and the number of actual characters is very small, particularly given how close the point of view is to Harry himself. I will probably read the next book in the series, but I can’t say when. Right now, these are feeling like change of pace books–fun, but not insistent enough to demand to be read.

Fantasy Series- Recommendations

I believe there is a lot of great fantasy books in the world today. As a result I have collected a bunch of my favorites, with this representing the first of two posts. Here are my favorite series, though, in one case, I only like the first book. There are lots of other good books out there (one of my hobby-horses), and these absolutely represent my tastes more than any sort of objective criterion. There are also other series that I think are great and/or read with zeal, and still others that I am sure would appear on many lists of this sort–for instance, Discworld, which I think is merely OK. I have a long to-read list already compiled, but if there are suggestions I will gladly take them.

The Lord of the Rings [plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion], JRR Tolkien

In many ways this is the Ur-series for the Western fantasy canon, though Tolkien himself was drawing on the Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and a host of other mythological and Romantic influences. Tolkien also set for invention high for all nerds (said affectionately) who built worlds for games, books, or fun. Call them excruciatingly boring, what with the large number of walks taken, and suffering from the drawbacks of the genre such as unnecessary descriptions of stew, there is quite a bit going on in these series. I am of the opinion that recent years have seen a literary-ization of genre fiction that has linked some of the ideas present in the past books with a craft not before seen, but I still love Tolkien for what it was. The world and the series has plenty of issues, including at times blatantly racist overtones and the general (but not complete) absence of strong female characters, but it does have a lot to give back. I also believe that it offers a better entry into this sort of writing for kids than do some of the more complex modern books.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson)

Another series that I have a soft-spot for having starting reading it in elementary school. It too suffers from a lot of flaws, but also did a lot to drive the genre forward, including that Jordan helped launch the careers of other fantasy authors such as the fellow coming up next on this list. The Wheel of Time can be tropetastic, but that is the nature of the beast, particularly in a genre which usually has the paradigm of a few intrepid individuals holding the darkness at bay, and suffers for being such a sprawling epic. The same sprawl meant that things changed quite dramatically from early on, for natural reasons, for inexplicable reasons when he was still feeling things out, and perhaps for reasons whispered about on internet fan forums. In that way, The Wheel of Time was one of the earliest book series to generate dedicated online communities–and, sadly, one of the reasons for the perpetual fears over authors dying without finishing the books. I haven’t really said anything about the series itself, but I do like a lot of the characters, and it was one of the early series to play with gender dynamics in that the most powerful force in the land are women.

The Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin

Or, as it is known, Game of Thrones. Ultimately, a re-envisioning of the War of the Roses in a medieval fantasy world where, as they say, Winter is Coming. The environment of the series flips between long summers and brutally long winters where there is a chance of the White Walkers, and perhaps cold gods awakening. There is a core struggle for the heroes to save the world from utter oblivion, whether using magic swords, blood, or dragons, but Martin’s protagonists are usually too busy playing politics and pretending to be heroes to actually get around to do anything about the encroaching doom. Actually trying to be a hero is the fastest way to die. He has said that there is going to be a bittersweet ending, so we assume that we will see spring, but the question is how will people put aside their squabbles long enough to fight back.

Kingkiller Chronicles, Pat Rothfuss

This is my favorite series right now, though I have heard several viscerally negative reviews of it. The biggest determinant, I think, is how much a reader likes the main character, Kvothe, because this series very much is about him. Functionally, the series is a story within a story, with Kvothe’s life, which has become the stuff of legend, is being narrated over the course of three days. Each day is a book, and the driving question behind the story is how did the legendary individual, whose exploits are known the world over, become an impotent innkeeper in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Rothfuss’ writing is (in my opinion) beautiful, and I also endorse The Small Regard For Silent Things, a novella written about one of the side characters in the main series.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I nearly put Dune on my list of standalone recommendations because I found the first book to be such a revelation and the subsequent books to be such disappointments. Herbert sets up a galactic civil war between the Baron Harkonnen, supported by the Emperor, and House Atreides, which gets trapped on the desert world of Dune. The story is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scale, with a messianic main character who may accidentally set in motion a military-religious tsunami that will overwhelm the galaxy.

Tao x3, Wesley Chu

[Lives, Deaths, Afterlives]. Chu’s three book Tao series is an action-romp where the alien Tao and his host Roen Tam try to save the world (and his family) from being turned into a warm primordial soup. I reviewed the first book in the series, and really enjoyed all three. There were times that I thought the later books were sloppier than the first and a little too on the nose about some contemporary issues, but those were slight irritations to what is an incredibly fun set of books that was really easy to blow through.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

When I recommend a Sanderson series, this is the one, in part because it is just a trilogy. There are a lot of things that Sanderson does to tie his entire oeuvre together as part of the larger “Cosmere,” but what is important for this trilogy is that for most people the world consists of endless drudgery, toiling away in factories and farms in a landscape where both urban and rural features are covered in soot, not unlike an extreme version of the industrial revolution. There is also a strict hierarchy between the nobility, who are tall and more athletic and blessed with magic, and the masses, who are stouter, slower, and duller. The entire system is rigidly enforced by the Emperor, who is also the most powerful magic user, and his servants. Yet, Kelsier, a thief, is convinced that he can bring down the Emperor and takes his friends, including the urchin Vin, along for the ride. Except, as you learn, the Emperor is also a lynchpin that holds the system together and the changes were not just arbitrary. Sanderson is particularly known for his magic systems, which, in this case, involves the ingestion and consumption (and other uses) of different metals, each of which corresponds to a particular ability.

The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tentatively placed here, if you are a reader who likes Sanderson’s other books and Robert Jordan, read this. Sanderson is planning the series more than Jordan did, but his writing is similar and this is in many ways his equivalent set of tomes.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Technically OMW is the first book in a series, so it is included here. Scalzi’s military science fiction series is set in a future where most people on earth live entirely recognizable lives. However, to solve the third-world population crunch, they are allowed to colonize distant planets–no first-worlders need apply. That is, until you get old. Science allows the mapping of minds onto new, genetically enhanced bodies, so the military has taken to recruiting people with an entire lifetime’s experience, giving them enhanced bodies, and sending them off to fight against alien races. Survivors get set up with a new, un-enhanced body and a position in a colony. Each of the books set in the world, including the two collections of serialized stories that I haven’t yet read, are set in this universe, but told from a different point of view. They are well thought out, snappily-written, and action-packed, as one would expect from Scalzi’s work, and well-worth reading.

Sometime later this week I hope to post the list of stand-alone novels in these genres that I really enjoy. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think I am missing.

Bizarre Dreams

I have a lot of strange dreams, most of which are the sort I’m asleep for rather than being a commentary about my ambitions in life. Among other things, I’ve been chased in airplane crashes, shot in a convenience store parking lot, and chased by dinosaurs. Sometimes there is an alignment with some particular thing going on in my life and I certainly remember the dreams more when I am stressed, something probably related to my tendency to wake frequently through those nights. Dreams are one of those things like fantasy sports, politics, and religion that one should tread carefully about because they are either boring or likely to cause a fight. Still, I had a dream last night that I want to document because it goes beyond any sort of dream logic, cinematic action sequence, or witty repartee.

In this dream I was back in one of my elementary school classrooms. The building has a first floor atrium with four rooms with tall doors and small chairs. The tall doors may be a residual memory from passing through them as a child, but the chairs were normal-sized back then. In this dream, I was back in class in the room through the near door on the left as you walk into the atrium from the front of the building. This was the room I was in for first and second grade, I think. In the dream, I was sitting in the little chairs at the little tables, but at my current age, knowing everything I know now, as the teacher lectured us on Greek history. I was in the class and going to be graded on…something. That part of the dream is fuzzy. I also have no idea why we were getting a simple, but legitimate lecture on Greek history in first grade, except that what the teacher was saying was wrong and I was getting mad. But I was in first grade and correcting what was being said was going to count against my grade. Why there were stringent grades is another good question.

Then I woke up.

This was just a strange dream that built on my insecurities and cast me back into a situation where I no longer belong. It was a strange dream that mashed together a bunch of things I think about on a regular basis, including education and Greek history. If I were to analyze this strange dream it would be that I still daily fight with imposter syndrome, except that, in this case, I knew better than the one who was permitted to speak and had all the authority and I found myself chaffing at this situation. Maybe it is all a metaphor for adult life, or maybe it was just a strange dream compiled by misfiring synapses trying to tell me I need to take a break.