Superfluous Matter
Books - Old Man's War Series, by John Scalzi

We've been busy with wedding planning (and wedding website design/creation) so while I've been reading, I couldn't get up the energy to blog about it. Fortunately I was reading a six book series so I pretended it would be ok to just blog about them all when I finished.

"Old Man's War" is a really fun sci-fi series where humans have made the transition to interstellar travel and exploration, only to find that the galaxy is full of other intelligent life all vying for colonization space on the relatively few habitable worlds. The humans responsible for space travel, defense, and colonization live apart from those on Earth and tightly control Earth's access to technology and travel. Earth citizens can choose to join the "Colonial Defense Forces" for a term of ten years once they reach the age of 70, but may never return to Earth. So a person can die of old age or join the space army and never come home. Of course most join the army because of the promise of extended healthy life and the ability to see the galaxy.

The book follows several characters through this transition and beyond, touching on many themes like mortality and what it means to be human. The characters were well developed and the adventures are great. The people and organizations in the books are not solely good or evil and exhibit a decent amount of complexity and realism. Scalzi is a pretty solid author.

Books - Star Wars: The Aftermath Trilogy, by Chuck Wendig

This trilogy of canon novels serves as a bridge between the Star Wars films "Return of the Jedi" and "The Force Awakens." The writing is not very good, but if you're a huge nerd it's fun to get a bit of connective tissue for the movies. The novels focus mostly on new characters, but Han, Leia, Chewie, Lando, Mon Mothma, and a few others make appearances. Thrawn even gets a brief mention.

Books - Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban

This book is awesome, but it's extremely hard to communicate why. Ostensibly it's a dystopian science fiction novel, although that is a fairly inadequate descriptor.

The book was written in 1980 and follows a set of characters living in the English countryside about 2000 years after an apocalyptic nuclear war. The technological level of humanity has only just returned to iron age status and many people are still hunter-gatherers. The story focuses on a young man, Riddley, as he comes of age and embarks on an adventure to rediscover a bit of lost knowledge from the past.

The culture of the society in which Riddley lives is an eclectic set of hybridized and bastardized myths sourced from generally misunderstood material from Christianity, antiquity, science, and half destroyed bits of leftover technology. This culture is distributed and maintained through puppet shows in the style of Punch and Judy (a British tradition I'd never heard of before, but which is a whole interesting topic in itself).

The text of the novel is written in a hypothetical version of English that has devolved from what we understand the language to be today. It's often described as almost Chaucerian, but that's a bit backwards. It's more accurate to say that the people in the novel find the pre-apocalypse version of English as difficult to read and understand as the average person today finds the works of Chaucer. Further complicating the language is the fact that the version in this book devolved from a version of heavily accented rural English that also made use of Cockney-style rhyming slang.

I've made it sound like this is a hard book to read, and it is, but it's also strangely absorbing. The characters survive despite terrible conditions, but they all seem to carry an unspoken sense of loss for knowledge that led humanity to such heights (and eventual destruction). For me the struggle to understand the text had a very neat parallel with the struggles of the characters as they attempt to reclaim that knowledge.

Here's a sample of the text (it sometimes helps to say the words out loud):

I dont think it makes no diffrents where you start the telling of a thing. You never know where it begun realy. No moren you know where you begun your oan self. You myt know the place and day and time of day when you ben beartht. You myt even know the place and day and time when you ben got. That dont mean nothing tho. You stil dont know where you begun.

This is definitely a book that warrants multiple readings. It was only at the end that I felt I had a pretty good handle on "Riddley-speak" and when I re-read it I think I'll catch a lot more. Despite the challenge I thoroughly enjoyed the story and I'm grateful for having discovered it in an article listing the favourite books of famous authors. "Riddley Walker" was the choice of Margaret Atwood, obviously.

Books - The Call of the Wild, by Jack London

When friends of mine invited us to a picnic at Jack London State Historic Park I realized that I'd never read anything by the famous author. I grabbed the eBook of "The Call of the Wild" from the SF public library and read it last Sunday afternoon. It was great!

The story is told from the point-of-view of a large dog, Buck, kidnapped from his home in California and taken to work as a sled dog in gold-rush Alaska. Jack London believably captures what might be the thoughts of a dog in such a situation, while also giving an interesting perspective on life in the north during the gold rush.

Books - Thrawn, by Timonthy Zahn

Timothy Zahn is best known for his "Heir to the Empire" trilogy of books that served as the official sequel trilogy to the original three Star Wars movies until Lucasfilm "de-canonized" them. The books are still near-and-dear to the hearts of many fans as well as to many members of the Lucasfilm story group. This is evident in the resurrection in recent "canon" works of the main villain of the books, Grand Admiral Thrawn.

That resurrection is completed with this book, which brings Zahn back to write an official, canon, origin story for this amazing character.

I liked the book, but it's not exactly high literature. I'm pretty sure that anyone who might enjoy it already plans to read it and doesn't need to read my recommendation.

Books - The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy, by Peter Temin

I can't remember what pointed me to this book, but the concept intrigued me so I bought the e-version. Peter Temin is an economist at MIT and argues that America has regressed to a dual economy situation closely resembling that of many nations in the developing world. In such a situation a minority of the population has access to advanced education, health care, housing, and employment while the majority suffers with substantially worse versions of these necessities of life.

Temin further argues that not only does a minority of America's citizens have access to the "good life" but that that same minority (especially the upper 1%) actively work to prevent the advancement of the underclass majority through control of the political system.

Each section and chapter rigorously cites other studies and focuses on pointing out facts rather than drawing concrete conclusions. However the presentation leaves little doubt to the reader what such conclusions would be. Not only is America severely broken, but the breakage was intentional and motivated by a combination of racism and blind greed. It's hard to disagree with the mountain of statistics, studies, and anecdotes. The discussion of education vs. incarceration was particularly horrifying.

It's been a while since a book left me so cold and horrified.

Working Trip to Europe

Earlier this Spring Sarah had to go to Amsterdam and London on business and so I tagged along, spending some time working out of the ILM London offices. It was a great combination of personal and professional adventure! Read more here.

Books - American War, by Omar El Akkad

Omar El Akkad is an Egyptian-Canadian journalist who has covered various terrorism-triggered conflicts around the world, as well as the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo. He clearly brings that experience to his debut novel, a story about a hypothetical second US Civil War, occurring towards the end of the 21st century.

In this plausible future the coastal areas of the country have been ravaged by rising oceans (Florida is gone and the nation's capital has been moved to Columbus, Ohio) and attempts to curtail fossil fuel usage have triggered the secession of several of the southern states. States that bristle at any infringement on freedoms despite the disproportionate effects of climate change on their territories. Secession escalates to a twenty year civil war. Drone strikes are common and terrifying, and foreign governments attempt to influence the course of the war for geopolitical advantage.

The story follows Sarat, a girl from the south born into poverty, forced into refugee camps, and ultimately recruited into service in the fight against the north. The evolution and radicalization of her character is well detailed by the author. It's interesting but also deeply disturbing because her thoughts and views are believable and understandable.

Summarized, this all sounds like a too conveniently plotted turn-of-the-tables for the United States with regard to its historical foreign policies, but it actually flows well in the story. The events successfully remind one that the distance between the supposedly "civilized" western world and the war-torn countries of the Middle East and Africa is much smaller than we'd like to think.

The book is quite gripping but definitely not spirit-lifting. Given the current political climate it hits a little too close to home. But I guess that is what makes it so good.

Books - Y: The Last Man Vol. 1-60, by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra

I've enjoyed Saga so far so I thought I'd check out another highly-rated graphic novel by Vaughan, the complete "Y: The Last Man" (I love when series are already finished). This one follows the exploits of Yorick Brown, the last man left on the planet after a mysterious plague instantly and simultaneously wipes out every mammal with a Y chromosome -- except him and his pet monkey Ampersand.

The books follow his journey with some badass women as they try to figure out what happened to all the men and how they can possibly save humanity. Yorick also spends a lot of time trying to reunite with his fiancée who was in Australia at the time of the incident.

The ultimate moral of the story is not exactly clear (at least to me), but I found the world (re)building interesting. In the early volumes chaos and violence are everywhere. Vaughan does not presume that a world without men would be a peaceful utopia. As the years pass the chaos subsides slowly as the women still alive work to bring back some semblance of civilization. The new world is different, but still has many of the same problems of the old. The worse aspects of humanity (greed, jealousy, nationalism, etc.) remain to greater and lesser degrees in the survivors.

I read the entire series in eBook format (borrowed from the SF library). This worked well for me, especially since I read most of it while traveling in Europe. Overall I enjoyed the series, but I think I maybe like Saga better.

Books - Company Town, by Madeline Ashby

This is the first book I've ever read in "eBook" format. No, I'm not a luddite, why do you ask? I read it on my phone, which was fine from a technical and readability point of view, but I think it damaged the sense of immersion I normally get from reading. A dedicated e-reader might have been better for that. Holding my phone to read constantly poked the bits of my brain that engage with all the other things my phone does, never allowing me to fully engage with the story.

So I'm not sure if my impressions of this book are fair. I enjoyed the setting and the concept and I definitely wanted to find out what happened next, but I found the actual writing and story structure to be somewhat lacking. I was regularly confused on key points or feeling like I had missed something. Again, perhaps reading on my phone messed with my brain, but I'm not sure.

The book is a speculative fiction piece set on an oil rig in eastern Canada where almost everyone has some level of cybernetic enhancement. However the main character, Hwa, is a "pure organic" and as such is seen as an asset for the job of bodyguard for the teenage boy who will inherit the ownership of the rig from his father. Because Hwa has no implants she can't be hacked or monitored by malicious actors. Then the author adds some time-travel and the book gets weird. It's all really interesting from a conceptual point of view though, and the commentary on what it means to be un-augmented in an augmented world seems particularly relevant for the future of the real world.

Books - Dust, by Hugh Howey

I finished the last book of the "Silo Trilogy" quickly, using up the book faster than was optimal given that I was stuck on an airplane for 10 hours. It was a satisfying end to the series though and I'm pleased to have read it. I won't say any more to avoid spoilers for those who may be interested.

Books - Shift, by Hugh Howey

I read and enjoyed the first book of the Silo Trilogy almost two years ago. Now I've finally read the second book (Shift) and I'm about to start the third (Dust). The most I can say about "Shift" without spoiling the story is that it is a prequel explaining how the world came to destruction and how the major characters of "Wool" reached the positions they have in that book. Again I was impressed with the careful planning and construction that Howey has put into the story and I'm eager to polish off the series.

Books - Wolverine: Old Man Logan, by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven

I saw Logan, possibly the best X-Men movie to date, on opening night. Later I picked up a used copy of the graphic novel on which it was (loosely) based and read it in an evening. It was also good, but almost nothing like the movie.

Instead of mysteriously disappearing like in the movie, almost all of the mutants were wiped out by the coordinated effort of all of the super-villains. Those villains then divided up America for themselves, resulting in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which Wolverine (Logan) is simply trying to live with his family in peace. The Hulk family rules the part of the world he lives in, and when Logan can't make the rent he's forced accompany a very old and very blind Hawkeye as a mercenary on a quest across the country to make a quick buck.

The journey is mostly an excuse to show off the fate of all the characters in the Marvel universe in this alternate, dystopian timeline. It's bonkers and a lot of fun.

Books - Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

Some people find Franzen's writing intolerable and hacky, others call him one of the best contemporary American writers. I'm not sure I can pass judgment either way, but I enjoy his stories.

I can't quite say what Purity, his latest novel, is about but it definitely entertained me. The characters are interesting and provide convenient excuses to explore a variety of times and places: cold-war-era East Berlin and Pennsylvania; the rain forests of Bolivia; present-day Oakland, Denver, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. One of the major themes is the ability of the Internet to increase the transparency of governments and corporations via Wikileaks-like organizations, and how that compares to "legitimate journalism." But more important is the book's slow reveal of the connections between a disparate collection of people and how it affects them.

If you're interested in Franzen check out his best, "The Corrections," first and if you like it then come back to this one.

Books - Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel

Sarah and Michal recently attended the San Francisco version of the Tony-award winning Broadway musical Fun Home and they enjoyed it quite a bit. So when one of our friends offered to loan us the graphic novel that forms the basis for the musical I was very interested. The story documents the author's childhood in rural Pennsylvania; her realization of being, and coming out as, a lesbian; her father's closeted homosexuality, dalliances with his male students and his eventual, apparent suicide; and the strangeness attendant with growing up in a Funeral Home (i.e. "Fun Home").

The art is great (the author took photos of herself as each character in each pose to use as reference for drawing) and the text is dense and cerebral (as an English teacher, Bechdel's father instilled a love of literature into her so the story is full of allusion). The book itself has won extensive critical praise and better yet has inspired a few campaigns to get it banned from schools and public libraries (always a good sign).

Although I did not spend a lot of time trying to understand every literary reference I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Books - The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

This book is regularly ranked in the top ten of English-language novels of the 20th century so I picked it up at a used book store last year. Unfortunately I found it to be way less accessible and enjoyable than Of Human Bondage, the other "high quality" book I picked up at the same time.

It's not that "The Sound and the Fury" is a bad book, but it is a rather challenging read. Much of it is written in the "stream-of-consciousness" style and other sections jump back and forth between two perspectives, sometimes in mid-sentence. Additionally the entire book suffers from an extreme lack of chronology.

I'm sure under analysis and dissection the novel has incredible merit, but I don't think it is great for a casual read.

Northern California Road Trip

For Sarah's 32nd birthday we took a road trip to far Northern California to see the Redwood State and National Parks. We stayed in an Airbnb and did lots of epic hiking through truly enormous and beautiful forests. Read more in my trip journal.

Photos!

I've been lax in adding content to my photos page, but now I'm caught up: I just added 43 new pictures from the last two years! Enjoy!

Books - Inside VFX, by Pierre Grage

A former co-worker recommended this book to me and now that I'm directly part of the industry as an employee of ILM I figured it would behoove me to read it. The book shuns the flashy spectacle of the art and technology behind blockbuster movies and instead dives into the business side of the film industry in general and the Visual Effects (VFX) industry specifically. Although less glamorous, I still found the topic to be quite engaging and relevant as I ponder the future of my career.

It is widely acknowledged that the VFX industry is severely dysfunctional. Race-to-the-bottom bidding wars, endlessly varying government subsidies, intransigent film studios, ego-driven directors, and many other factors all contribute to enormous instability and uncertainty for VFX companies and their employees (especially the artists). Grage outlines all of these factors in the book, providing history and context by examining real world examples of famous effects-driven movies.

Although interesting and engaging the book is far from perfect. The writing is poor, the editing is poor, and as an insider I noticed multiple inaccuracies with respect to ILM and Autodesk (I can only assume that some details for other companies examined in the book were wrong too). I also took some issue with his treatment of inflation (CPI is widely accepted to underestimate inflation, but his alternative measure from SGS is generally considered to be even worse in its overestimation, and he gives it greater standing than CPI). Finally, as a book about a tech-heavy and volatile industry, it already suffers from feeling out of date despite being published in 2014.

Despite all this, I think the general picture Grage paints is still valid. The industry is severely troubled and a major shakeup is both likely and urgently needed. I also think the book finished strong, with a high-level summary of the major problems and very reasonable predictions and suggestions for the future. In particular, the emergence of "experiential" entertainment through virtual and augmented reality systems suggests pathways to diversification for VFX companies.

For anyone in the industry "Inside VFX" is definitely a worthwhile read, simply for the historical context alone. People interested in film might enjoy it too, but I can't imagine anyone else reading it to the end.

Books - The Illegal, by Lawrence Hill

I enjoyed Hill's acclaimed "The Book of Negroes" and so when my mom gave me his latest novel as a gift I was excited to read it. "The Illegal" weaves together multiple character arcs touching on marathon running, illegal immigration, policing, government corruption and journalism all set in two fictional island states located in the Indian Ocean.

The book moves along at a good pace while still providing a ton of interesting detail and back story for the characters and the fictional countries they inhabit. Hill clearly did a lot of research and the book does a good job of introducing a person to the extreme hardships that come with being "illegal." Definitely a topical story.

I enjoyed the book, but the threads of the narrative were tied up a bit too neatly for me. Everything fit together perfectly at the end giving it the feel of something that was too meticulously planned out.

2016