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Thread: What are you reading?

  1. #4761

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    I'm about a third through Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

    It's a two-fold experience. On one hand, for people of my age who spent their teenage days in the 80ies, it's full of nostalgic memories. And the way it's written, it's a nerd's (wet) dream. Because of my age, it triggers way more buttons than it would for my parents or kids, ofc. Quite enjoyable so far.

    On the other hand, the way it's written, it's a nerd's (wet) dream. And that's the problem, because there's lots of poster child stereotypes. Hi there, Mary Sue. And as of now, it hasn't any special (social) message to send. That said, I'm just 1/3 into the book, mind you. This might.

    Conclusion: I'm enjoying it. It's pure as of now. But I don't necessarily need ground-breaking philosophical ideas in every story to enjoy them.

  2. #4762
    Donor Pattern's Avatar
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    Quoted for truth.
    http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog...these-day.html
    Why I barely read SF these days
    By Charlie Stross


    Being a guy who writes science fiction, people expect me to be well-informed about the current state of the field—as if I'm a book reviewer who reads everything published in my own approximate area.

    (This is a little like expecting a bus driver to have an informed opinion on every other form of four-wheeled road-going transport.)

    Similarly, marketing folks keep sending me SF novels in the hope I'll read them and volunteer a cover quote. But over the past decade I've found myself increasingly reluctant to read the stuff they send me: I have a vague sense of dyspepsia, as if I've just eaten a seven course banquet and the waiter is approaching me with a wafer-thin mint.

    This isn't to say that I haven't read a lot of SF over the past several decades. While I'm an autodidact—there are holes in my background—I've read most of the classics of the field, at least prior to the 1990s. But about a decade ago I stopped reading SF short stories, and this past decade I've found very few SF novels that I didn't feel the urge to bail on within pages (or a chapter or two at most). Including works that I knew were going to be huge runaway successes, both popular and commercially successful—but that I simply couldn't stomach.

    It's not you, science fiction, it's me.

    Like everyone else, I'm a work in progress. I've changed over the years as I've lived through changing times, and what I focus on in a work of fiction has gradually shifted. Meanwhile, the world in which I interpret a work of fiction has changed. And in the here and now, I find it really difficult to suspend my disbelief in the sorts of worlds other science fiction writers are depicting.

    About a decade ago, M. John Harrison (whose stories and novels you should totally read, if you haven't already) wrote on his blog:

    Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

    Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader's ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

    Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn't there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.
    I recognize the point he's putting in play here: but I (conditionally) disagree. The implicit construction of an artificial but plausible world is what distinguishes a work of science fiction from any other form of literature. It's an alternative type of underpinning to actually-existing reality, which is generally more substantial (and less plausible—reality is under no compulsion to make sense). Note the emphasis on implicit, though. Worldbuilding is like underwear: it needs to be there, but it shouldn't be on display, unless you're performing burlesque. Worldbuilding is the scaffolding that supports the costume to which our attention is directed. Without worldbuilding, the galactic emperor has no underpants to wear with his new suit, and runs the risk of leaving skidmarks on his story.

    Storytelling is about humanity and its endless introspective quest to understand its own existence and meaning. But humans are social animals. We exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we're going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists' social context—otherwise, we're looking at perspective-free cardboard cut-outs. And technology and environment inextricably dictate large parts of that context.

    You can't write a novel of contemporary life in the UK today without acknowledging that almost everybody is clutching a softly-glowing fondleslab that grants instant access to the sum total of human knowledge, provides an easy avenue for school bullies to get at their victims out-of-hours, tracks and quantifies their relationships (badly), and taunts them constantly with the prospect of the abolition of privacy in return for endless emotionally inappropriate cat videos. We're living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic. We live with constant low-level anxiety and trauma induced by our current media climate, tracking bizarre manufactured crises that distract and dismay us and keep us constantly emotionally off-balance. These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don't have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren't lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note, alienated from the very society they are supposed to illuminate.

    Now for a personal perspective. I don't find other peoples' motivations intuitively obvious: I have to apply conscious reasoning to put myself in a different head-space. I am quite frequently alienated by my fellow humans' attitudes and outlook. (I strongly suspect I have mild ASD.) For me, world-building provides a set of behavioural constraints that make it easier to understand the character of my fictional protagonists. (For example, if writing a 2018 story: new media channels lead to a constant barrage of false news generated by state actors trying to produce political change, delivered via advertising networks? And this is why my characters constantly feel uneasy and defensive, dominated by a low-level sense of alienation and angst.) The purpose of world-building is to provide the social context within which our characters feel, think, and act. I don't think you can write fiction without it.

    Now, what's my problem with contemporary science fiction?

    Simply put, plausible world-building in the twenty-first century is incredibly hard work. (One synonym for "plausible" in this sense is "internally consistent".) A lot of authors seem to have responded to this by jetisoning consistency and abandoning any pretense at plausibility: it's just too hard, and they want to focus on the characters or the exciting plot elements and get to the explosions without bothering to nerdishly wonder if the explosives are survivable by their protagonists at this particular range. To a generation raised on movie and TV special effects, plausible internal consistency is generally less of a priority than spectacle.

    When George Lucas was choreographing the dogfights in "Star Wars", he took his visual references from film of first world war dogfights over the trenches in western Europe. With aircraft flying at 100-200 km/h in large formations, the cinema screen could frame multiple aircraft maneuvering in proximity, close enough to be visually distinguishable. The second world war wasn't cinematic: with aircraft engaging at speeds of 400-800 km/h, the cinematographer would have had a choice between framing dots dancing in the distance, or zooming in on one or two aircraft. (While some movies depict second world war air engagements, they're not visually captivating: either you see multiple aircraft cruising in close formation, or a sudden flash of disruptive motion—see for example the bomber formation in Memphis Belle, or the final attack on the U-boat pen in Das Boot.) Trying to accurately depict an engagement between modern jet fighters, with missiles launched from beyond visual range and a knife-fight with guns takes place in a fraction of a second at a range of multiple kilometres, is cinematically futile: the required visual context of a battle between massed forces evaporates in front of the camera ... which is why in Independence Day we see vast formations of F/A-18s (a supersonic jet) maneuvering as if they're Sopwith Camels. (You can take that movie as a perfect example of the triumph of spectacle over plausibility at just about every level.)

    ... So for a couple of generations now, the generic vision of a space battle is modelled on an air battle, and not just any air battle, but one plucked from a very specific period that was compatible with a film director's desire to show massed fighter-on-fighter action at close enough range that the audience could identify the good guys and bad guys by eye.

    Let me have another go at George Lucas (I'm sure if he feels picked on he can sob himself to sleep on a mattress stuffed with $500 bills). Take the asteroid field scene from The Empire Strikes Back: here in the real world, we know that the average distance between asteroids over 1km in diameter in the asteroid belt is on the order of 3 million kilometers, or about eight times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. This is of course utterly useless to a storyteller who wants an exciting game of hide-and-seek: so Lucas ignored it to give us an exciting game of ...

    Unfortunately, we get this regurgitated in one goddamned space opera after another: spectacle in place of insight, decolorized and pixellated by authors who haven't bothered to re-think their assumptions and instead simply cut and paste Lucas's cinematic vision. Let me say it here: when you fuck with the underlying consistency of your universe, you are cheating your readers. You may think that this isn't actually central to your work: you're trying to tell a story about human relationships, why get worked up about the average spacing of asteroids when the real purpose of the asteroid belt is to give your protagonists a tense situation to survive and a shared experience to bond over? But the effects of internal inconsistency are insidious. If you play fast and loose with distance and time scale factors, then you undermine travel times. If your travel times are rubberized, you implicitly kneecapped the economics of trade in your futurescape. Which in turn affects your protagonist's lifestyle, caste, trade, job, and social context. And, thereby, their human, emotional relationships. The people you're writing the story of live in a (metaphorical) house the size of a galaxy. Undermine part of the foundations and the rest of the house of cards is liable to crumble, crushing your characters under a burden of inconsistencies. (And if you wanted that goddamn Lucasian asteroid belt experience why not set your story aboard a sailing ship trying to avoid running aground in a storm? Where the scale factor fits.)

    Similar to the sad baggage surrounding space battles and asteroid belts, we carry real world baggage with us into SF. It happens whenever we fail to question our assumptions. Next time you read a a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

    Some of these things may feel like constants, but they're really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn't exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygeine: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and horrible social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren't.

    Similarly, if I was to choose a candidate for the great clomping foot of nerdism afflicting fiction today, I'd pick late-period capitalism, the piss-polluted sea we fish are doomed to swim in. It seems inevitable but it's a relatively recent development in historic terms, and it's clearly not sustainable in the long term. However, trying to visualize a world without it is surprisingly difficult. Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: "advertising", "trophy wife", "health insurance", "jaywalking", "passport", "police", "teen-ager", "television".

    SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our seas and settles for draining the local acquarium, or even just the bathtub, instead. In pathological cases it settles for gazing into the depths of a brightly coloured computer-generated fishtank screensaver. If you're writing a story that posits giant all-embracing interstellar space corporations, or a space mafia, or space battleships, never mind universalizing contemporary norms of gender, race, and power hierarchies, let alone fashions in clothing as social class signifiers, or religions ... then you need to think long and hard about whether you've mistaken your screensaver for the ocean.

    And I'm sick and tired of watching the goldfish.
    Last edited by Pattern; February 8 2018 at 02:45:56 PM.

  3. #4763
    SAI Peregrinus's Avatar
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    Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: "advertising", "trophy wife", "health insurance", "jaywalking", "passport", "police", "teen-ager", "television".
    "advertising" — Pretty hard without capitalism, as it's essentially just a form of propaganda for capitalists.

    "trophy wife" — Quite easy. This one's a basic primate instinct, the most successful males get the more attractive females, tend to show off, etc.

    "health insurance" — Quite capitalist.

    "jaywalking" — Quite easy. Vehicles are dangerous, and people getting hurt or killed is an expense for society as a whole. Likely less of an issue if humans aren't the ones in control of the vehicles. Much more of an issue with a non-capitalist health care system, as then the injured are a direct burden on the rest of society.

    "passport" — These have existed long before capitalism. The Roman republic had the damn things!

    "police" — Yet another concept that has existed in non-capitalist societies. Some form of law enforcement (even if not called "police") is necessary for any society with laws. The separation of the police from the military is more modern, but isn't inherently capitalist at all.

    "teen-ager" — Puberty has existed for a little bit longer than capitalism, and having words to describe someone undergoing that process isn't exactly new.

    "television" — It's half Greek and half Latin. Bad grammar isn't limited to capitalism. There are also still several state-run TV networks, such as the BBC. The primary relation of TV to capitalism is the use of TVs for advertising.


    I agree with his points otherwise, there's a lot of really crap SF out there. There has been since its inception, but as SF has become more mainstream the overall quantity has increased and thus made it harder to sort through.

  4. #4764
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    Very interesting read.

    The best sci-fi is post capitalist theory and world building. I do my bit by laughing at corporate finance.
    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Mason
    It is absurd that we are capable of witnessing a 40,000 year old system of gender oppression begin to dissolve before our eyes yet still see the abolition of a 200 year old economic system as an unrealistic utopia.

  5. #4765
    Dahak's Avatar
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    Tangentially related, Stross has written an entire book where interstellar financial instruments created by a society without FTL travel or communication are the driving plot point.

    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/...eptune-s-brood

  6. #4766
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
    Now on to "Consier Phlebas". Been putting of Banks for too long. I know everyone says not to start with that book, but it's too late now.
    Everyone is wrong. It's an amazing spaceopera tragedy road trip around the Cultureverse from the perspective of someone opposed to the perfect socialist utopia, for perfectly rational reasons. There's way less Culture smugness than some of the later stuff and if you don't read CP, then IMO you can't put that later smugness into proper context.

    NB: I highly recommend reading Look To Windward directly after Phlebas, even though it's out of publishing sequence. Then go to Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons, etc.
    Quote Originally Posted by Keieueue View Post
    I love Malcanis!

  7. #4767

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    Been reading Elysium Fire, new book in the revelation space universe by Alastair Reynolds. Sequel to the prefect. Pretty good stuff so far, only a few chapters in, the guy is an absolute master at making his world seem believable. Big fan of the hard "realistic" approach to scifi.

    Starts with basically a parallel of brexit too which is amusing in its own way.

    Sent from my Nexus 5X using Tapatalk

  8. #4768
    SAI Peregrinus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Malcanis View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
    Now on to "Consier Phlebas". Been putting of Banks for too long. I know everyone says not to start with that book, but it's too late now.
    Everyone is wrong. It's an amazing spaceopera tragedy road trip around the Cultureverse from the perspective of someone opposed to the perfect socialist utopia, for perfectly rational reasons. There's way less Culture smugness than some of the later stuff and if you don't read CP, then IMO you can't put that later smugness into proper context.

    NB: I highly recommend reading Look To Windward directly after Phlebas, even though it's out of publishing sequence. Then go to Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons, etc.
    I wholeheartedly agree with all of this.

  9. #4769
    Djan Seriy Anaplian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by SAI Peregrinus View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Malcanis View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
    Now on to "Consier Phlebas". Been putting of Banks for too long. I know everyone says not to start with that book, but it's too late now.
    Everyone is wrong. It's an amazing spaceopera tragedy road trip around the Cultureverse from the perspective of someone opposed to the perfect socialist utopia, for perfectly rational reasons. There's way less Culture smugness than some of the later stuff and if you don't read CP, then IMO you can't put that later smugness into proper context.

    NB: I highly recommend reading Look To Windward directly after Phlebas, even though it's out of publishing sequence. Then go to Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons, etc.
    I wholeheartedly agree with all of this.
    Seconded. CP serves as the best introduction and Look to Windward is my personal favourite.

    Malc is wholeheartedly right. PM me if you want the mobis

  10. #4770
    King of the Babe Thread Donor Jolin's Avatar
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    Just finished reading Furiously Happy. I honestly did not expect it to so good. Or for me to relate so much it. I want to meet the author in person now.

  11. #4771
    SAI Peregrinus's Avatar
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    Here's a good article on why the Ian M. Banks's Culture is well thought out. It's a reasonable argument, and makes a very good case for Consider Phlebas.

  12. #4772
    HEY LOOK AT ME I HAVE A TITAN LordsServant's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Isyel View Post
    Been reading Elysium Fire, new book in the revelation space universe by Alastair Reynolds. Sequel to the prefect. Pretty good stuff so far, only a few chapters in, the guy is an absolute master at making his world seem believable. Big fan of the hard "realistic" approach to scifi.

    Starts with basically a parallel of brexit too which is amusing in its own way.

    Sent from my Nexus 5X using Tapatalk
    Holy shit I had no idea there was a new book out.

    Alastair Reynolds is easily one of my favorite authors(haven't read anything of his I haven't liked) and the Revelation Space Series is probably my favorite ever. I'll be looking this up immediately.

    I am a Lamborghini tractor.

  13. #4773
    Little over halfway through The Passage - so far an interesting read that keeps getting better.

  14. #4774
    Keeves's Avatar
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    Just finished the Gulag Archipelago. Jesus Christ, that was a ride.


    Quote Originally Posted by QuackBot View Post
    What the fucking fuck in the fuck fuck is going fucking on here?

  15. #4775
    Keckers's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Keeves View Post
    Just finished the Gulag Archipelago. Jesus Christ, that was a ride.
    What were your thoughts at the end? Kulak's deserved worse or liberals also get the bullet?
    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Mason
    It is absurd that we are capable of witnessing a 40,000 year old system of gender oppression begin to dissolve before our eyes yet still see the abolition of a 200 year old economic system as an unrealistic utopia.

  16. #4776
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    Quote Originally Posted by Keckers View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Keeves View Post
    Just finished the Gulag Archipelago. Jesus Christ, that was a ride.
    What were your thoughts at the end? Kulak's deserved worse or liberals also get the bullet?
    I'm not really sure what you mean... If I'm reading the question right, I don't think I'm nihilistic enough to answer that.


    Quote Originally Posted by QuackBot View Post
    What the fucking fuck in the fuck fuck is going fucking on here?

  17. #4777
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    Quote Originally Posted by SAI Peregrinus View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Malcanis View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
    Now on to "Consier Phlebas". Been putting of Banks for too long. I know everyone says not to start with that book, but it's too late now.
    Everyone is wrong. It's an amazing spaceopera tragedy road trip around the Cultureverse from the perspective of someone opposed to the perfect socialist utopia, for perfectly rational reasons. There's way less Culture smugness than some of the later stuff and if you don't read CP, then IMO you can't put that later smugness into proper context.

    NB: I highly recommend reading Look To Windward directly after Phlebas, even though it's out of publishing sequence. Then go to Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons, etc.
    I wholeheartedly agree with all of this.
    i read player of games first, then use of weapons and phlebas.. for no other reason then acquisiition timing- was acceptable reading material.

  18. #4778
    Dahak's Avatar
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    Finished "Consider Phlebas", not really sure why everyone says not to read it first. I found it quite interesting to have the story told from the point of view of someone opposed to the human society, which is pretty unusual for sci-fi. Usually it's the human viewpoint against the aliens. I liked it a good deal and have added the remaining books to the wishlist. Currently on "The Player of Games" since that's the only other Culture novel I had on hand at the moment.

  19. #4779
    SAI Peregrinus's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leviathan View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by SAI Peregrinus View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Malcanis View Post
    Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
    Now on to "Consier Phlebas". Been putting of Banks for too long. I know everyone says not to start with that book, but it's too late now.
    Everyone is wrong. It's an amazing spaceopera tragedy road trip around the Cultureverse from the perspective of someone opposed to the perfect socialist utopia, for perfectly rational reasons. There's way less Culture smugness than some of the later stuff and if you don't read CP, then IMO you can't put that later smugness into proper context.

    NB: I highly recommend reading Look To Windward directly after Phlebas, even though it's out of publishing sequence. Then go to Player Of Games and Use Of Weapons, etc.
    I wholeheartedly agree with all of this.
    i read player of games first, then use of weapons and phlebas.. for no other reason then acquisiition timing- was acceptable reading material.
    It doesn't matter too much what order you read the books in, though Look to Windward is a pretty direct sequel to Consider Phlebas so those two shouldn't be swapped. A few of the other later books reference the Culture-Idiran war, so they should be read after this pair. And Phlebas is a good intro to what the culture is.

  20. #4780
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    Quote Originally Posted by SAI Peregrinus View Post
    Here's a good article on why the Ian M. Banks's Culture is well thought out. It's a reasonable argument, and makes a very good case for Consider Phlebas.
    Damn good article.

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