Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is about a man who goes out on the moor to be alone. A storm hits and he becomes more alone than he anticipated. Though there’s some fixing of broken ribs and fashioning a splint, the challenges in this story are far more internal. Time passes strangely in a mostly uninhabited world. Uninhabited except for the beast, which proves elusive.
This is the kind of novel that pulled me along, not by plot but by language. And then it kept me thinking with vaguely delirious yet important digressions.
It doesn’t use made-up language like Kingsnorth’s previous novel, The Wake and generally feels like a haunted house story, or maybe The Prisoner with a less well-hinged protagonist.
This week I went to Netspeed, an Alberta library technology conference. I enjoyed myself and it was excellent to see Jessamyn West talk in person. Slidedecks from presentations are supposed to be going up at the librarytoolshed.ca if you’re interested in things more generally.
I think the biggest thing I took away from the experience was actually attending sessions with one of the people I work directly with. Our library is pretty good about not having a rigid distinction between what library assistants do and what librarians do, so having one of our main tech trainers attend was really helpful. After a session on constructivist approaches to maker education we brainstormed a bit about how to use some of those approaches in our much less makery “Getting Started with Android” (or whatever) classes. Doing it right then felt so much more useful than waiting to bring back “news from conference land.” That said, we had too many people from our library in the session on gamifying staff technology training, so I don’t think anyone attended anything else.
I went to the code4libYEG talk about the history of how they’ve set up the leaderless organization. This group was pitched as one of the good things happening in Edmonton before we came here, and now that I’ve been here a year I guess it’s time for me to start helping more instead of being a lurking leech on their good work. (Of course I say that a week before our baby is due when I’ll have tonnes of time to volunteer.)
So yes. Still here and doing things. I’m hoping that when I return to work in January after my parental leave that things will be different somehow. That I’ll be able to try things differently instead of being in the 1st year ropes course learning stage.
I don’t really need more television in my life at the moment (we’re currently watching the third season of Fargo and chugging through Angel) but there’s a space opera show on SyFy called The Expanse. I’ve been hearing good things about it, and huzzah it’s based on a book series by James S.A. Corey (the pen name for Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham). I have way more room in my life for more books than more TV, so here we go.
Leviathan Wakes is the first book in The Expanse. It’s got a couple of viewpoint characters: Holden and Miller. Miller is a detective on Ceres, and Holden starts off as the executive officer on an ice-hauling spacecraft. Things happen and soon the solar system is engulfed in war while these two are trying to do something about it.
It’s a good book. I enjoyed the politics, and the Firefly-esque nature of the ship-bound stuff. A lot more characters died than I expected, and the only alien in the book was pretty intense. I appreciated the consequences that radiation poisoning had on characters, even though they could get most of their organs regrown. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was very well executed. The plot kept the problem-solution-escalation dance spinning nicely and the bouncing between viewpoints kept me reading.
Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction is a nonfiction book about text adventure computer games by Nick Montfort. I picked it up to read for a program I did at work on digital storytelling. The ILL didn’t come in time for the program but no one came to the program anyway so it wasn’t a big deal.
The book was about the history and some of the artistic merit behind text adventure gaming, not the point-and-click stuff like the classic Sierra games I grew up playing with my buddy, but the ones where you’re given some text and you type some text and if you type the right thing you get further into the game, like Zork (although Zork isn’t depicted with as much reverence in the book as I had naively expected). The first game that started this form was called Adventure and was about exploring caves and solving puzzles with a randomly appearing pirate messing with you. Now they’re more complex.
The book was written about 10 years ago so my further research shows that some of the languages and tools used to create this stuff have moved on. It’s an intriguing enough topic that I’m doing the further research. We’ll see if the fiction I’ve been writing might work better in this weird little form.
If you are interested in how technology and capitalism and workers and consumption all interact, I’d suggest picking up Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Proletariat: Global Labour in the Digital Vortex. I got it as an interlibrary loan because of Sam Popowich talking about it on Twitter, and I found it insightful and not overly-academic. (Because I guess I don’t think of myself as a particularly rigorous thinker? I get a little intimidated talking about stuff like Marxism and critical theory around actual scholars.) Review-wise, I’d just suggest reading Sam’s text above.
I will be returning to the book because I am interested in how to apply the insights he displays in my work. A lot of what I do in my job is teach digital literacy, which practically amounts to helping people figure out how to navigate the settings app on their iPads or unfriend an annoying relative on Facebook. Helping people build up the skills to be able to do things the way digital capitalism expects them to. I often find myself teaching people how to think like the machine, and I get frustrated when they can’t or won’t.
But on reflection, and in reading something like Cyber-Proletariat, I get even more frustrated with myself that I’m not helping resist this stuff instead. Instead, I lament the state of the world and the insecurity of all things while chucking senior citizens into the volcano from my slightly more protected ad-blockery vantage point.
I get to do some collection development in my new job and my main area I’m dealing with is Adult NonFiction ebooks. It’s kind of fun to do that slightly more traditional library role (most collection development at my old library was outsourced to the company LibraryBound, who decided what users like ours wanted and then sold the materials to us). Now I get to actually scour lists and say “this would be something good for our community!” And then because of that I’m caring a bit more about things like awards and buzz and Canada Reads. This year I’m planning to read most of the Canada Reads shortlist and started with Sheila Watt-Cloutier’s The Right to Be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and the Whole Planet (which our library already owned in ebook format so I didn’t get to heroically buy it for our users).
Sadly, I didn’t really like this book. It has interesting content, and talks about how southerners tend to care more about the animals that live in northern Canada than the people. Watt-Cloutier’s stories of growing up Inuk were great. Her discussion of how climate change makes this region unpredictable, which has deadly results was great and changes the way I’m thinking about icepack.
The problem was that much of the latter part of the book was written like a retirement speech. “I tried to do this. There was this obstacle. This person helped and said this nice thing about me.” I feel bad complaining about the aesthetics of a book that had important content, but it made it a chore, like reading a very boring corporate report.
So I don’t know if I would recommend the book, simply because reading it felt so much like an “eat your vegetables” kind of task.
I’m reading more nonfiction this year and stuff like The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams is why. I mean, this is a good justification for the trend unlike the dopey baseball book I also just read (but that gave me the difference between a 2-seam and a cut fastball in a way that feels like it’ll stick, so maybe I’m too harsh).
Williams compares the writing and other work by Jules Verne, William Morris and Robert Louis Stevenson with the frame of how the three felt about and responded to the massive shift in how the world worked at the end of the 19th century when Earth’s maps were getting filled in and human empire was everywhere. Williams argues that these writers were sensitive to the idea that the imperial west and its technology was now on its way to pushing up against each other more and more and relying on interconnections and brutality in dealing with those connections. Density was going to build and things were going to get much more complicated and these three wanted to resist the way things were going. Williams doesn’t make them unvarnished heroes or anything; they were still privileged white dudes and were racist and sexist and otherwise problematic in their own ways, especially in regards to colonialism.
The idea that we’re now in a similar kind of era, when we’re anxious about the end of the world through climate change and that it’s something we caused because we couldn’t stop digging coal out of the ground so we could cross huge distances easily, made the whole thing hang together really well. It’s clearly written and doesn’t plod. It’s also nice to have words for some of what I love about Verne and science fiction in general (the distancing mechanisms for the heroes in his geographic romances). I didn’t know as much about Morris or Stevenson, but I was glad to learn.
I had to get this as an interlibrary loan, because our public library doesn’t seem to grab random University of Chicago Press books, but hooray for the interconnected apocalypse we live in where it was possible to snag.