book review: the collapsing empire

The Collapsing Empire is John Scalzi’s most recent space opera. It takes the tropes of far flung planets and space ships travelling between them and puts some interesting characters doing clever things in those ships and places of power and knowledge. Yup. Good stuff.

The collapsing part of the empire (called the Interdependency because they rely on trade between stars to survive) is that the bits of nonspace that connect these farflung worlds without having to travel actually faster than light (though the effect is pretty much the same in a Traveller-esque fashion) are shifting, and that’s shifting how power will play out on the grand scale. It’s a good ecological metaphor and I enjoyed how humanity has had to build habitats wherever they could connect to each other, rather than on planets that would be suitable for bearing human life.

I’m a bit interested in what will happen when the shifting status quo meets up with either Earth or a generationship kind of thing that didn’t use the networks that are shifting. It’s a series though, so that doesn’t happen in this book. It was a fine light read; a good popcorn book. As far as space opera I’ve read recently I like it better than The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet but not as much as Leviathan Wakes or The Stars Are Legion.

book review: only one thing can save us – why america needs a new kind of labor movement

Only One Thing Can Save Us is a book about organized labour in the United States. Thomas Geoghegan, the author, is a labour lawyer in Chicago and thinks labour is the biggest thing facing the US. This was written in 2014, so before the spectre of Trump, and focused more on the technocratic bullshit of the Obama administration rather than the existential terror circus we’re all dealing with today.

His main argument is that people need to be paid more, not just by raising the minimum wage. Investing more in workers that are not replaceable widgets through professional development and the like is what he thinks the US economy needs, not just more people going to university. Actually being mentored in your job was something that used to exist within organized labour but has been destroyed in the name of replaceable workers. He also draws attention to the fact that a future labour movement makes sense to be built with nurses, and would look fundamentally different from the remnant white dudes of the automotive industry.

My main issue with the book was disappointment with how US-focused the book was, very focused on Democrat vs. Republican party fighting rather than wholesale class issues.

book review: the stars are legion

The reason I went back to Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha stories a while back was ’cause I was getting antsy waiting for our library to get copies of her new space opera novel The Stars are Legion. Now I have read it and it was just as gooey and intricate as I’d hoped.

Legion is a group of biological worldships surrounding an artifical sun. There are many layers to these worldships and ruling dynasties for each one. Zan is a soldier who begins the novel being put back together after an attack on a neighbouring world. She has no memory, but a strong attraction to Jayd who tells her that everything is tense but fine. Even the half-memory Zan has of murdering a baby is part of the plan, apparently.

And hoo boy are there plans in this story. Because Zan has no memory she’s piecing together what it’s all about along with the reader (in among the spray-on space-suits and fighter attack runs mounted on spacefaring slugbeasts). After a few chapters we also start following Jayd, who’s working on some crazy manipulative scheme against the ruler of their own worldship. She tells Zan she’s in on the plan but Zan doesn’t remember it and might fuck it all up. Other people have guesses about the plans but they’re keeping Zan in the dark to use her as a weapon (’cause Zan is a brutally effective soldier).

Then as the schemes are unfolding, boom boom boom Zan is killed (in a sudden but inevitable betrayal) and her body is recycled. Spoiler alert: Zan isn’t actually dead and then begins the quest up from the centre of the world back to the surface where all the political machinations we’re just getting used to are happening. This is where I really loved the book because it takes the simple set-up and then shows how big a world is and how surface-based civil wars are kind of just the equivalent of White House cabinet shuffles to get ignored by the people who don’t live that life. It takes it a bit more towards a fantasy-novel quest narrative as Zan comes closer to reclaiming her memories, but by the end we do get back to the worldships hurtling through space, don’t worry.

I tried to explain this book while I was in the middle of it and it was difficult; I got immersed in the details of womb-swapping and blood-drinking bonding rituals and cephalopod guns and not knowing exactly where it was going made it hard to see the big picture. Once you’re done though, it works really well, and what appeared to be chaotic was merely complex.

If you like big scifi stories and can handle technology being mostly biological (which does make for a lot of mucous throughout) I heartily recommend The Stars are Legion.

book review: towards a new manifesto

Towards a New Manifesto is a dialogue about Marxist philosophy between Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer. They are important in Marxist critical theory and are the kinds of theoreticians I did not read enough of in my undergrad and then took “professional” graduate degrees that fled even the notion of critically examining the ways our professions think about what we do. Or I just slacked off in those classes.

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It was a very fragmented dialogue that I felt I was missing a lot of context for. I did not feel very smart while reading it, but if bits of it got lodged in my brain somewhere for the next Marxist theory book I read, then I think it’s succeeded.

book review: days of destruction, days of revolt

Some days, most days really, I want to be a journalist. Not the kind that writes press releases, but the kind that goes out into the world, sees something and tells everyone else what it looks like. Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is exactly that kind of book, created by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco. It’s about the United States and the people who are at the bottom of a destructive economic system designed to enrich only the already rich. It culminates in Zuccotti Park with a chapter on Occupy, but it gets there via coal-mining, land claims, agricultural work and for-profit urban decay.

It’s not a scholarly book, but it has data to go with its interviews. Sacco illustrates the whole thing, which contributes to the personal feeling of it all. I loved the Sacco bits where he went into the full on comics as oral history treatment, drawing the stories the person was telling them.

This was an unabashedly political and very good book about 21st-century recession-era America. Highly recommended.

book review: the eye of the heron

According to an interview in The Paris Review The Eye of the Heron was the first of Ursula K Le Guin’s science fiction novels that she felt was doing something radical, politically.

It’s a story of two communities on a colony world, the City and the Town. The City was the first wave of colonists, mostly criminals, few women and strict notions of hierarchy. The Town was made up of peace-loving anarchists who were causing trouble back on earth. Guess which of these groups is the one I was rooting for!

The plot starts when a scouting party returns to the town to say they found a great spot for a new settlement. The Town people talk to the City people to say what they’d like to do but they are accused of rebellion and leaders are imprisoned. The rest of the book is about negotiation and resistance through talking and letting that which does not matter truly slide. It’s quite good as a depiction of how Gandhi-style challenging of hierarchy and power can work. The reeds not the oak and such.

book review: homeland

I will confess that I put off reading Cory Doctorow’s Homeland for months simply because the story opens at Burning Man. Back when it came out I bought it, put it on my ereader and read the first few pages and went Ugh. I don’t know why exactly. Maybe it’s just the kind of book that needs to be read in summer. In any case this time I was ready for it and really liked the book.

Homeland is the sequel to Little Brother, but in this one Marcus has graduated from high school and dropped out of university and is trying to get by in our modern economy, which gets him involved in politics. There are plot points about leaking politically sensitive materials and surveillance and hacking party politics to reflect what real people (or at least tech-savvy San Franciscans) care about. It’s pretty great, and sadly topical.

The topicality is a big part of what I like about this book. Aaron Swartz wrote the afterword and it’s great. The book did have a bunch of Doctorow’s essayistic explanatory tics (you read a lot about cold-brewed coffee in this book) but it feels more like a novel with excited explanations than a polemic with a plot. But there’s enough information in it to be inspiring.

It’s the kind of book I’d like lots of people to read, not just high school students. It was enough of a kick in the ass for me to finally root my old phone and install Tor on it, so if you measure a book by how it changes behaviour this was a good one.