Eon and π

One important spoiler! (Again, it’s a great book. Go read it.)

Another of my favorite SF books from the 80s and 90s is Greg Bear’s Eon. At one point it seemed to me that Greg Bear was looking through the SF pantheon for books with great ideas that never really went anywhere and started doing rewrites where he took some amazing concept off the shelf and wrote a story around it. Eon seemed to me to be taking the wonder and promise of Rendezvous with Rama and going beyond it in all respects.

One of the interesting things about Eon is that it was a book with a lot of Russian — or more accurately Soviet — characters written in the pre-Glaznost era. For those of you not familiar with the Cold War, our relationship with the USSR went through a rapid evolution from the early 70s, during which we signed a bunch of arms control agreements and fell in love with Eastern bloc gymnasts and things seemed to be improving, through to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the so-called “Star Wars” missile defense program where things got markedly worse, the death of Leonid Brezhnev which was followed by a quick succession of guys who were dying when they got to power, and then the appearance of Mikhael Gorbachev, who — with the help of Reagan and Thatcher — reduced tensions and eventually made the peaceful end of the Cold War possible in, shall we say, 1989.

Eon was published in 1985, which means it was probably written a year or two earlier — at the height of US-Soviet tensions, and it portrays both the Americans and their Russian counterparts as more doctrinaire, paranoid, and xenophobic than the reader is likely to be. Set around 2005, the Earth is significantly more advanced technologically than we now know it was at the time, but a lot of the timeline is ridiculously optimistic (and there are throwaway comments such as the US orbital missile defense platforms having been far more effective than anyone expected in the limited nuclear exchange of the 90s).

When I first read Eon, I can remember being on the cusp of giving up on it as the politics seemed so right-wing. The Russians were bad guys and the Americans were kind of idiotically blinkered. I made allowances for the fact that the setting included a historical nuclear exchange between Russia and the US which certainly would justify bad feelings, but which itself was predicated on the US and Russians being a lot more bone-headed than the real US and Russians seemed to be.

I should note that I read Eon shortly after it was published, and Gorky Park had been published five years earlier and adapted as a movie in 1983. So it’s not like there weren’t far more nuanced portrayals of Soviets citizens in mainstream popular culture despite increasing Cold War tensions and the invasion of Afghanistan.

The Wikipedia entry for Eon is pretty sparse, but claims that:

the concept of parallel universes, alternate timelines and the manipulation of space-time itself are major themes in the latter half of the novel.

Note: I don’t really think books have “themes”. I think it’s a post-hoc construction by literary critics that some writers (and film makers) have been fooled by.

It’s surprising to me then that something Greg Bear makes explicit and obvious not long into the novel is that the entire story takes place in an alternate universe. He actually compromises the science in what is a pretty hard SF novel to make the point clear: Patricia Vasquez (the main protagonist) is a mathematician tasked with understanding the physics of the seventh chamber. To do this she has technicians make her a “multimeter” that measures various mathematical and physical constants to make it possible to detect distortions in space-time — boundaries between universes. Upon receiving it, she immediately checks to see it is working and looks at the value of Pi, which is shown to be wrong.

Anyone with a solid background in Physics or Math will tell you that changing the value of π is just not possible without breaking Math. (The prominence of π in Carl Sagan’s Contact is slightly less annoying, since it is taken to be a message from The Creator. The implication being that The Creator exists outside Math, which is more mind-boggling than living outside Time, say.) It’s far more conceivable to mess with measured and — seemingly — arbitrary constants such as electro-permeability, the Planck constant, gravity, the charge on the electron, and so forth, and some of these are mentioned. But most people don’t know them to eight or ten places by heart and lack a ubiquitous device that will display them, so (I assume) Bear chose π.

My point is, once it’s clear and explicit that Eon is set in an alternate universe the question switches from “is Bear some kind of right-wing nut-job like so many otherwise excellent SF writers” (which he doesn’t seem to be, based on his other novels) to “does the universe he is describing make internal sense”? It also, I suspect, makes it harder to turn this novel into a commercially successful TV series or movie. Which is a damn shame.

Use of Weapons, Revisited

I just finished listening to Use of Weapons. I first read it shortly after it was published, and it remains my favorite book — well, maybe second to Excession — by Iain M. Banks (who is sorely missed), and one of my favorite SF novels ever.

Spoilers. Please, if you haven’t, go read the book.

First of all, after it finished and I had relistened to the last couple of chapters just to get them straight in my head, I immediately went looking for any essays about the end, and found this very nice one. What follows was intended to be a comment on this post, but WordPress.com wouldn’t cooperate so I’m posting it here.

I’d like to add my own thoughts which are a little counter to the writer of the referenced post’s wholly negative take on Elethiomel. First, he never tries to blurt out a justification for his actions to Livueta, despite many opportunities. Even in his own internal monologues he never tries to justify his own actions. Similarly, if anything Livueta remembers him more fondly than he remembers himself (at least before the chair). If he’s a psychopath, he’s remarkably wracked by conscience.

In an earlier flashback he wonders what it is he wants from her, and considers and (if I recall correctly) rejects forgiveness.

If we read between the lines, we might conclude that the regime to which the Zakalwes are loyal is actually pretty horrible. The strong implication is that Elethiomel’s family narrowly escapes annihilation only owing to their being sheltered by the Zakalwe’s. It has the feel of Tsarist Russia about it.

Elethiomel, for all his negative qualities seems naturally attracted to the nicer side in every scrap he ends up in. When he freelances in the early flashbacks, he’s not doing anything public, he’s quietly and secretly using his wealth and power to (crudely) attempt to do the kinds of things the Culture does.

The book is full of symmetries. If you’d like one more, the Zakalwes are “nice” people loyal to a terrible regime, whereas Elethiomel is a ruthless bastard who works for good, or at least less terrible, regimes.

So it’s perfectly possible that the rebellion he led was in fact very much a heroic and well-intentioned thing, but at the end, when it was doomed, he fell victim to his two great weaknesses — the unwillingness to back down from an untenable position (if he looks like he’s losing, he simply keeps on fighting to the bitter end) and his willingness to use ANYTHING as a weapon no matter how terrible. I think it’s perfectly possible that he did not kill Darkense, but was willing to use her corpse as a weapon because it gave him one more roll of the dice. What did he want to say to Livueta, after all?

I further submit that his final unwillingness to perform the decapitation attack in his last mission shows that he has actually learned something at long last. And this is the thing in him that has changed and caused him to start screwing up (from Special Circumstances’ point of view) in missions since he was, himself, literally decapitated.

Voldemort vs. Casmir vs. Every Asshat in the Seven Kingdoms — The Villain Problem

Here’s the tl;dr:

Please, HBO, don’t make a bunch of Game of Thrones spinoffs. I’m virtually certain they’ll suck. How about an adaptation of the Lyonesse trilogy? I’m guessing it would be dirt cheap to get the rights.

At its heart, Game of Thrones is vapid

As I watched a collection of “moments” compiled by HBO for prospective viewers of the final season of Game of Thrones it struck me how few of these “moments” had anything to do with characters anyone cares about, vs. the “white walkers” who have no discernible motivations and appear as little more than teasers and shock-vignettes. If you subtract the zombie army and Bran’s entire storyline, what’s really left?

In a nut, Game of Thrones is a story about a bunch of people viciously squabbling over who gets to preside over famine and death in an inevitable mini-ice-age — “whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne”, as Ser Davos puts it — instead of, say, stacking firewood and salting meat. When Jon finally points this out, he is met with disbelief, despite the fact that this has all happened before and is well-documented. Heck, there’s even a standing army devoted to defending against it — of which Jon was commander — but it apparently misplaced its instruction manual.

There are lots of unpleasant people doing horrible things, but in the end none of that matters because there’s an army of zombie boogeymen to contend with, and the fact that none of the interesting (but pointless) squabbling that has filled the last six seasons actually matters much, and HBO wants us to know that we need to remember a few tantalizing glimpses of “white walkers” who have said almost nothing and whose motives have never been explored (nor would they likely stand up to any scrutiny).

I started this piece before the premiere of season 7. As I revise this post before posting it, I’ve just watched the third episode of the final season, The Queen’s Justice. So far, there has been little of consequence in the first three episodes of the final season beyond the use of plot devices to tie off loose ends and weaken Daenerys’s hand for purposes of evening her odds against Circe. In essence, so far Season 7 has been The Euron Show. Euron, a leeringly obvious plot device, who since usurping his niece’s throne perhaps a year ago has assembled the “largest fleet in the world” — on desolate islands with no obvious source of timber, which just goes to show how resourceful he is — and then with stunning intelligence (and we assume favorable winds) fights and wins two massive engagements against Daenerys’s navies (and held a victory procession in King’s Landing) in the space of about two weeks.

Wait a second: shall we pause a moment to recollect that Daenerys is served by Tyrion and “The Spider” — the latter commanding a global spy network — 2/3 of the brains in the Seven Kingdoms (the missing third being Littlefinger) — and yet she seems to have no clue what her enemies are up to nor how to avoid tipping her hand to them (apparently the mysteriously empty castle she walked into with no thought to security is full of spies).

Outside of The Euron Show, Sam discovers a mountain of “dragon glass” and cures Mormont, allowing him back in the game. And Jon finally meets Daenerys and discovers that she’s an idiot. (By the way, do you find it a bit annoying that Jon can sail a single ship from the far north to the far south between episodes, but Daenerys sends two fleets which arrive two weeks apart?) And horrible things are done to minor characters to show how mean various mean people are.

Where’s Tom Riddle when we need him?

Perhaps the best major villain in a fantasy blockbuster is Tom Riddle, a.k.a. Voldemort, a.k.a. “he who must not be named”, if solely because he has two qualities utterly lacking in most major villains these days, i.e. a driving motivation (fear of death), and a goal that at least makes some sense both to him and his followers (run the world, put wizards in charge and enslave everyone else).

It all makes me think fondly of Spike, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who switches sides from Evil to Good because the Evil team wants to destroy the world, and he “quite likes the world”.

I recently finished reading the entire Harry Potter series to my twins, and it was wonderful. As a child I was so proud to read silently “in my head”; to rediscover the joy of reading as a performance later in life has been a revelation. I think that books are actually better read aloud, but it’s quite an effort to do all that reading.

Also, it’s hard to come up with voices and keep them straight (so I usually don’t bother, but the girls prefer it when I do).

Reading aloud also exposes a lot of weaknesses in a writer that reading quietly in one’s head conceals — e.g. I find Rowling to write dialog very poorly. I often paraphrase her characters for various reasons, but worse I find that she provides the wrong information in the wrong order. E.g. I’m often fooled into thinking person A is speaking when it’s person C (so I find myself having read in the wrong voice), or being told a character is speaking in a particular way too late to do any good (Hermione speaks “shrilly” all the time, a clumsy word and a dubious adverb for a feminist to constantly apply to her best female character).

Even so, my admiration for J.K. Rowling is considerably greater for having read these books aloud. For me, to read aloud as a performance is to pay much closer attention to each word than I ever do when reading to myself, and to feel the rhythm of dialog, and have to actively imagine the emotional takes of each character all the time. I notice and remember many things I missed on previous readings (or reading in this case, since I only ever read each book once before). It’s clear to me that Rowling planned the series carefully and well. I do have a lot of issues with it, but I have a lot of issues with everything. After all, I’m writing a critique of the current holy of holies, Game of Thrones.

Voldemort is, basically, Hitler

Voldemort doesn’t get to kill that many people, but in principle he is a ruthless race supremacist who plans to kill and/or enslave the “inferior” races, and he gathers about him fellow race-supremacists and opportunists. It’s not a subtle construct, but Hitler has about him a great deal more plausibility than most fantasy villains since, well, he actually existed. To understand why people might follow someone like Hitler, one can look at history books, or psychological research such as Milgram’s famous experiment. Hitler didn’t need to use mind control, he followed a well-established despotic populist playbook — presiding over a large scale criminal enterprise with all the usual systems of loyalty and reward. He offered a carrot and a stick. Ordinary German businessmen profited from slave labor (as do businessmen in the South, who use prison labor today, and as does the private prison industry from Trump’s war on immigration).

Even so, Voldemort exhibits some classic villainous behavior that is quite childish. E.g. I know of no evidence that Hitler was personally sadistic. He hired sadists. He created an environment where sadists were able to thrive. He didn’t go around gleefully torturing and murdering people. Indeed, Hitler portrayed himself and saw himself as a good-natured family man (odd though his family was). He understood the value of PR.

My single biggest disappointment with the Harry Potter books is that the resolution depends on only the least of Voldemort’s core failings (he doesn’t understand “love” — awwww) and not his others (e.g. he’s a sociopathic race-supremacist). Indeed, even in the final battle when the House Elves join the fray, it is as comic relief (stabbing people in the ankles with kitchen knives) and ignores their vastly superior magical powers (how about apparating Death Eaters into volcanoes?)

All through the seventh book I couldn’t stop thinking of the climax of Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards where the gnome-like hero faces down his magically overwhelming brother and shows him “a trick mom taught me when you weren’t around”. Harry and Hermione were both raised as muggles, and yet never use their knowledge of the muggle world to significant advantage, despite the fact that muggles have powers superior in most ways to wizard magic (e.g. cell phones, night vision goggles, 9mm handguns). Indeed, zero attention is made to “Muggle Studies” beyond its teacher being one of Voldemort’s gratuitous victims.

Scouring the countryside for evil deeds to commit

There are many wonderful and unique things about Lyonesse as a fantasy epic, but perhaps the single greatest is the central villain, Casmir. (Note that Lyonesse has quite a few antagonists, and of them Casmir is hardly the most “evil”, but none of the villains is as cartoonishly implausible as pretty much every bad guy in Game of Thrones.)

Casmir is an ambitious, calculating, and ruthless medieval monarch. That’s basically it. He’s not a sadist. He’s not a racist. He’s definitely not a religious fanatic. When he does do nasty things, he does it on the down-low because he wants to be loved and feared. Like Voldemort, he’s not a touchy-feely kind of guy, but he’s not even devoid of conscience (e.g. he only carries out unjust sentences to avoid being seen as weak, and he recognizes the truth of accusations against him for his mistreatment of his daughter, Suldrun). He is a competent and diligent ruler (because he thinks it’s important to have the good opinion of his subjects). Indeed, as a ruler he’s distinctly preferable to virtually all of his rivals.

Casmir seems a villain chiefly because of his relationship with his daughter, Suldrun, and to a lesser extent because he has a tendency to quietly murder his former spies (both to save money and avoid risk). He has many admirable traits and a dry sense of humor. In essence, to simply be a competent medieval monarch you need to do a lot of things that seem pretty evil by today’s standards, and he does them with no great gusto. (Aillas, the main protagonist, executes a lot of people, and Shimrod, one of his friends, tortures a man to death.) If we knew nothing of Suldrun, and nothing behind the scenes of Casmir’s reign, we might consider him a capable and ambitious man who had a lot of bad luck. Similarly, if we were to judge him by the people he surrounds himself with, he is not a terrible person.

Furthermore, we can fully understand why people would choose to support Casmir and risk their lives on his behalf, we can picture a world in which he is victorious, we can see why the common people might not care whether he wins or loses, and yet he is an entirely satisfying villain. Not only is this more morally sophisticated than most fantasy novels, it’s more morally sophisticated than most contemporary dramas.

Let’s do a great epic fantasy with a great villain

There are many reasons I prefer the Lyonesse Trilogy to the Song of Fire and Ice. To start with, it’s shorter and much faster-paced. The Elder Isles seem like a place people would generally enjoy living in. The plot is clever but not incomprehensible and the cast of characters large but not unmanageable. The military strategizing does not dominate the story, but the handling of strategy and tactics is both deft and on point. (The competent generals actually care about lines of supply and reconnaissance. Their navies, for example, are not constantly taken unawares.) It also manages to blend historical allusion (it’s set on an archipelago in the Atlantic that has sunk beneath the ocean) with fairytale qualities and brutally plausible pagan practices.

And, not infrequently, it’s also very funny.

Lyonesse is not without flaws — the third book feels rushed (Vance clearly wanted it done with and had worked out the plot arc well in advance), There’s casual and unnecessary homophobia, and there’s no warrior queen in the first book (Ehirme and Glyneth would need to be beefed up, Glyneth could be made a couple of years older, Yane could just as easily be a woman). Vance’s dialog is often hilarious, but over-stylized for some tastes. Nothing a good TV adaptation can’t fix.

But the reliance on faceless, inexplicably and implacably evil major villains who just want to destroy the world, and a motley supporting cast of pointlessly sadistic lesser villains, is the single catastrophic failing of Game of Thrones. I’ll watch it to the end, but seriously. Let’s have a story with actual sides.

Tech Free Saturdays with the Kids

Romilly with her iPad
Romilly with her iPad

Like many parents, Rosanna and I are concerned about our kids’ obsession with “technology”, so we tried “tech free Saturdays”, and it worked for about an hour (I — more than slightly ironically — spent that hour with the girls playing with an Elenco electronics set — something far better than the “150-in-one” electronics kit I dreamed of when I was a kid), and then gave up. Short of getting exercise outdoors — which while almost certainly a Good Thing To Do is hardly something of which I am an examplar — what was there to do without “technology”?

I don’t pretend to know what stuff is going to be important to the success of my kids. A lot of the stuff I learned in school has turned out to be useful, or at least makes for interesting conversation (apparently, most people forget almost everything they learned in school, and — having had no interest in it when they were 14, find it intriguing as adults). But the most useful stuff I learned as a kid is the stuff society — i.e. teachers and parents — made me feel guilty about spending time on. And I don’t think this is rare. I think it’s the people who were obsessed with computer games, or Science Fiction, or Dungeons & Dragons, back in 1982, who are creating the world we live in today.

We won (or, at least, we’re ahead — when we all die young from heart disease and diabetes because we never get any exercise, the jocks from high school whose knees still work can gloat).

And having won by willfully ignoring society’s ideas of what a “healthy” obsession was when we were kids, who are we to impose our ideas of what a “healthy” obsession is on our kids? Well, we’re parents, of course, and “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”. Perhaps we’re just that much smarter than our parents and teachers.

Another possibility that occurs to me is that a passion for anything — programming, role-playing games, the collected works of Jack Vance — only turns into something powerful and character-building if it involves pushing against social pressure. In other words, it’s OK for us to try to stop our kids from doing what they want to do, but it’s even better if they defy us and it anyway.

In the end, I don’t mind if my kids are obsessed with Minecraft, or even Youtube. What worries me is that its too easy to feed those obsessions, and I don’t think technology is the problem. But, having said that, my father narrowly avoided the Holocaust and my mother lived through famine and the Vietnam War, whereas I had to cope with the poor selection of science fiction in local libraries and the fact that our school only had one Apple II computer.

The Worst Recurring TV Show Plot Ever

There was an interesting story in the New Yorker (Person of Interest, the TV show that predicted Edward Snowden) that got me watching a show I had initially dismissed (I think because it was marketed as a J.J. Abrams show). It’s got the guy who played Ben in Lost — who’s an excellent actor, even if I’d like to do terrible things to the creators of Lost with a fork.

The basic premise of Person of Interest is that in the wake of “9/11”, the US security apparatus started doing exactly what anyone with a clue knew they were doing and Snowden later revealed they were in fact doing and that a billionaire hacker genius (Ben… er Finch) wrote software to analyze all the data and spit out “persons of interest” — i.e. people planning future terror plots. The wrinkle is that the software initially couldn’t differentiate between people plotting terror attacks and those plotting ordinary violent crimes, so the hacker figured out how to divide its hits into “relevant” (to national security) and “not relevant” (i.e. ordinary criminals). For some reason the non-relevant hits are always in New York, but I digress. The billionaire feels guilty about all the non-relevant people who keep dying, and tries to save them (with the help of an improbably effective ex-CIA agent).

I mention all this by way of diversion. The show is exceptionally well-made, cleverly understated, and intelligent. So it’s with considerable annoyance that — watching through season 1 on iTunes — I stumbled into the worst recurring TV show plot ever. OK, there are probably worse recurring TV show plots, but this one is egregious and not worthy of an intelligent TV show such as Person of Interest. The summary goes like this (not a spoiler — this plot cannot be spoiled):

  1. People are getting killed mysteriously.
  2. A drug company is involved.
  3. And it turns out they’re suppressing information that lots of people died horribly during the clinical trial of a drug they’re just about to release.

I think I’ve seen this plot in pretty much every episodic cop show on television, and a bunch of lawyer and doctor shows too. My memory is hazy, but I’m pretty sure it’s occurred in The Good Wife, Law and Order (and perhaps Criminal Intent as well), Bones, etc. Shows that are generally  intelligently written, well-acted, and strongly plotted. (OK, Bones has kind of jumped the shark.)

Yes, drug companies do evil things. Yes, they’re motivated by profit. But the way to make a buttload of money as a drug company is not — repeat not — to produce a drug that kills people, cover up the deaths, and then release the drug.

Now, if the bad guy were a stock market speculator who wanted to make sure a particular drug got released because he/she had some kind of weird futures contract, or was shorting a rival pharmaceutical company, or something like that — OK, that’s kind of barely plausible. But to knowingly release a drug that will get your company sued to oblivion is simply stupid.

Now there are cases of drug companies covering up deaths caused by their drugs. A recent example which got a lot of coverage is the story of acetaminophen overdoses caused by (a)  the drug being lethal at doses as low as double the maximum recommended daily dose, (b) confusion caused by infant tylenol being twice as concentrated as children’s tylenol, and (c) the presence of tylenol in many, many “cocktail” drugs that are frequently taken together. An older example I recall is a drug used to help smokers quit that was associated with a notable, but statistically insignificant, number of sudden deaths. There was also some controversy over Prozac being prescribed for kids and possibly leading to suicide. And of course there’s Vioxx. But these are all drugs that were already on the market, and the cover-ups and maneuverings were over marketing issues (can we call our drug “the safest”? or will the government put our drug on a list of drugs covered by public insurance?). This is about protecting markets and avoiding lawsuits.

Please. Enough.

Here’s an evil thing Big Pharma actually does (and the only TV show I know of that nailed this was House M.D.):

  1. Create a drug that’s just like a drug you already sell which is going out of patent (but “with a vitamin E molecule tacked on the side” to paraphrase House from memory)
  2. Conduct many clinical trials of your new drug vs. the old drug and placebo
  3. Assuming the new drug is exactly as effective as the old drug and the trials are conducted by perfectly by disinterested parties, one in twenty will show the new drug is more effective than the old drug — publish only those results (journals have a strong bias against publishing studies with no statistically significant result, so it’s not like you even need to work hard to suppress the null findings)
  4. Market the hell out of the new drug (e.g. bribe doctors to prescribe or recommend it, scare patients into demanding it)

But that probably won’t create a grisly trail of corpses for your investigators to discover.