Our Declaration by Danielle Allen 📚

I have been reading this book on an off for a while, mainly because it is organized into many short sections which require thought and reflection after reading. I don’t think it is intended to be read in one sitting, as it is based on courses devoted to the text of the Declaration which the author has taught over the years. It is not a weighty tome, but it does examine each word of the Declaration and consider the meaning and implications, both original and contemporary.

The Declaration of Independence is a remarkable document, and with recent political developments it is more important than ever to understand what is actually says. It is the foundational outline for why the United States exists and describes the basic principles for that existence. Allen’s central thesis is that the most fundamental of those principles is equality, expressed at several levels: the equality of nations to determine their own destiny; the equality of the citizens of those nations to determine when their government is or is not fulfilling its purpose (in particular preserving the rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”); the equality of access to the levers of that government; and equality of input to the social consensus necessary to determine the form and processes of governing. She makes a strong case that equality is the thread which binds the document together.

There is some discussion of how the Declaration was written, but the book is firmly based on the text itself rather than being a historical narrative. It does examine the question of how a society which allowed extreme inequality and enslavement could be founded on such a egalitarian basis, and I still find it hard to understand how Jefferson in particular could manage the cognitive dissonance of expressing such lofty ideals in the Declaration while continuing to enslave and exploit others. There were many contemporaries decrying the evils of slavery, and there is no qualifying footnote in the Declaration on the phrase “all men are created equal.”

There have been many attempts at theorizing an ideal society (Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, and so on), but what has always appealed to me about the Declaration and the subsequent American Experiment is the practical, nuts-and-bolts application of idealism to the real world. It starts with some basic assumptions (the tyranny which the colonists blamed on King George, violating the rights which their social consensus expected) and proceeds quickly via a few simple arguments (based on equality) to the conclusion that we, the people, have the power and duty to determine our own form of government, and most importantly that the signers (as representatives of that social consensus) were doing exactly that, establishing “Free and Independent States.” Rather than just publishing a theory they did the experiment.

Highly recommended.

Our Declaration

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams 📚

It has been difficult for me to read new fiction these days, but this brief novel proved to be a page-turner and I finished it in just a few days. This was not because it was a light read; the prose is built out of a complex mix of words, ranging from the mundane to the obsolete to the purely fictional. The two intertwined stories are simple, the cast of characters is small, but it is really the words which are the central attraction, often witty and sometimes lyrical. The book is not a fantasy, it clearly doesn’t fall under the category of magical realism, but the main theme is the magic of words, where they come from, and the relationships they build, both in the romantic lives of the characters inside the novel and the interaction between author and reader on the outside.

The structure of the novel is also interesting, consisting of two separate protagonists in different timelines, one narrated in first person, the other in third, alternating between alphabetized chapters, and never communicating with each other directly; instead, the two are linked by the titular dictionary, a fictional multi-volume tome which is not the Oxford English but shares some historical aspects. Part of the page turning was inspired by a desire to see how these stories resolved, and each chapter reveals a little more of the links between the two. The ending did seem a bit abrupt with sudden events which knock the protagonists onto new paths. I am inclined to wish that the author had a few more letters to work with.

Not my usual genre, but still recommended.

The Liar’s Dictionary

The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking) by Katie Mack 📚

It has come to this, I’m trying to read nonfiction in the hope that it will be engaging enough to avoid the siren call of doomscrolling and the continuing failures of our government (at all levels) to deal with the combined crises of pandemic, climate, and political disintegration. And if you want to distract yourself from the possible impending end of the American Experiment, what could be better than learning about the eventual end of…well, everything?

This slim volume provides an accessible and very current overview of cosmology and high energy physics, including the Big Bang, various models both standard and alternative, the key observations which test the models, and what the implications all this has for the ultimate fate of the universe. The presented options for that fate are not appealing, ranging from fiery contraction to ever cooling expansion, or possibly the sudden evaporation of the entire works due to a phase change in the Higgs field. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the current big mysteries of cosmology, such as the nature of dark matter, dark energy, and the exact value of the Hubble constant (still a problem after all these years). The author is a gifted writer with an offbeat sense of humor (you would need that to want to write a book about the destruction of the universe) and she manages to give a good sense of how all of the puzzle pieces fit together without getting bogged down in technical details.

The best part for me was the description of recent research in the field and the expectations for future observations to help answer some of those questions, in particular those from the Rubin Observatory here on earth and the Webb Telescope awaiting launch to deep space later this year. These will allow astronomers broader and deeper coverage of the sky, and might finally nail down the elusive Hubble constant. So at least the book has given me something to look forward to other than the end of everything.

Highly recommended.

The End of Everything

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots 📚

It has been difficult for me to sit down and read a book lately, despite reading being the best way for me to escape stress and depression, to spend some time in a different world detached from the travails of so-called “real life.” The global pandemic, the ongoing attempts by racist, authoritarian extremists to destroy democracy, the acceleration of human caused climate change, the replacement of traditional media and journalism by highly biased algorithm based social feeds, all of these forces and more make any escape from doomscrolling seem all but impossible.

Recently the only way for me to make that escape is to have the secondary world of the novel be even worse than the one we currently inhabit, which Hench provides in spades. We meet our first person protagonist Anna working as a lowly temp henchman for a cut rate villain under constant threat from costumed superhumans, in effect a red shirt of the criminal world. In common with recent treatments on the small screen (such as The Boys on Amazon Prime or Watchmen on HBO Max, each based on earlier comic series) we quickly learn that the real monsters are the “heroes” themselves, who appear suddenly, wreak destruction on the henches, and vanish again, often leaving extensive collateral damage. The matter-of-fact way in which the narrator tosses off brief references to the names and abilities of these superhumans makes it clear that they are the ultimate media celebrities, supported by a vast government bureaucracy and lauded by the public at large.

Anna has fallen into her life of crime as a result of desperate economic circumstances, but after an encounter with a super where she survives a glancing blow with “only” a shattered femur she discovers that her true talent lies in data analysis, and in particular determining the effects of those super powers both in lives and property. In short order she is using her talent for pattern recognition as part of a team under the direction of a major supervillain in an attempt to limit that damage by any means necessary. The story manages the moral inversion with aplomb, using Anna’s words and experiences to present a sympathetic view of villainy, and making the fight against government sanctioned heroes a logical necessity.

Along the way terrible things happen, both to Anna and to several of her costumed adversaries, and the action becomes frenetic at times as the stakes are raised and situations become increasingly desperate. And yet each set piece flows naturally from the one before, and the comic book revelations make sense within the strange and complex world. Many loose ends are tied up by the end, but not all…there is plenty of room left for a sequel.

Highly recommended.

Hench

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan 📚

I feel as though I had already read this slim novella, and I can’t be certain that I haven’t, even though it is only a few years old; the Lovecraft Mythos basis, the dream-like interweaving of points of view (some more dream-like than others), the minimal and largely unresolved plot elements, all combine to give a familiar feel even if this is the first time I’m seeing this particular incarnation. I’ve read enough of the original Mythos, as well as more recent reconsiderations (such as the previously mentioned Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and also Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide), that it isn’t surprising to find so many familiar elements.

But that uncertainty fits in all too well with the story, which imagines shadowy government agencies contending with each other as well as the otherworldly threats to humanity, a battle of secrets in which uncertainty and doubt are among the primary weapons. In a way the Mythos has become the ur-conspiracy-theory of SF, a touchstone which only needs to be referenced in the most oblique way to bring the entire weight of cosmic otherness into a work. This can be a force for good or ill, much like those shadowy agencies, and in this case the author has exploited that weight to make her brief tale darker and heavier than one would expect for so short a book.

And there is more to come; I am now waiting for the sequal to arrive from the library. Recommended.

Agents of Dreamland

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir 📚

It’s hard to discuss this book without spoilers, but I will do my best. The story revolves around the title character, who is a warrior of mysterious origin in a far future, ancient society where power and influence are based on necromantic abilities, and as events unfold it’s not hard to see why, as the greatest adepts of the Nine Houses are gathered together in a locked and decaying palace and challenged to unravel the secrets of death in order to achieve immortality, performing feats of magic and sorcery. As the cast assembled I found it hard to keep track of who was who, and Gideon is a perhaps reliable but certainly sarcastic narrator, but as time went on there was a positively Darwinian reduction in the ensemble. Towards the end shocking revelation is heaped on deus ex machina (no spoilers!) to reach…the perfect point for the sequel to begin.

The novel is a strange combination of space opera, sword and sorcery, action and adventure, sound and fury, but in the end I felt as if I was left hanging, with a large number of the characters I had trouble keeping straight now extinct, with all the red herrings thrown against the wall left unsettled, and no recourse but to wait until the library can send me the next volume in the series. It was certainly a page-turner in the best sense, with plenty of twists and turns (perhaps too many, as I often felt a bit lost), but I was unhappy in the end (no spoilers!)

Recommendation pending until I read the next volume.

Gideon the Ninth

Or What You Will by Jo Walton 📚

“You already know the plot of Twelfth Night, right?” asks the narrator of this strange, dream-like, enchanting book, which is aimed directly at readers of fantasy who are also readers of Shakespeare, and in particular the romances, and even more specifically Twelfth Night and The Tempest. [Disclosure: I am that reader.] There are no fairies here, and only one explicit reference to the midsummer’s dream; the book is about fantasy, but the dreams are those of the writer, dreaming up the characters who populate her work, and the “real world” life of that same writer, who dreams of love and acceptance despite a lifetime of neglect and abuse from those closest to her, and the consequences of loss and mortality. There are mysteries and plots, characters who do terrible things for the wrong reasons, rebirths and self-sacrifices which change both those character’s fates and the fates of the worlds they live in. These themes are common in good fantasy novels, and this one is highly self-referential.

The writer herself is Sylvia, not to be confused with the daughter of the Duke of Milan in Two Gents, also not to be confused with Jo Walton; both are residents of Montreal who wrote novels during a visit to Florence. Or perhaps we are supposed to confuse them, as much of the story concerns the relationship between the author and the characters and worlds which the writer creates, the blurry boundary between the author and her characters, who often struggle to break free and define their own personalities. We also explore how the injection of magic and the fantastic into a work opens up strange and different places and people, and how despite those elements fantasy stories are still rooted in the life experience of the creator. In a way this book is a melding of magical realism and high fantasy, showing them as two sides of the same coin, following the two divergent paths but still meeting itself in the end.

Highly recommended.

Or What You Will

88 Names by Matt Ruff 📚

I read the author’s Lovecraft Country some time ago (and the HBO series based on that novel starts next week), so I was interested to see this take on online gaming culture in a society only slightly more technologically advanced than our own. The stakes are much lower (beating an online dungeon raid rather overcoming the combined forces of racism and eldritch horror), and even when the action spills over into real life gunplay the characters don’t really seem to have their hearts in the game; it seems like just another raid. I found the protagonist too self centered, a privileged gamer who makes a living by violating terms of service for profit and doesn’t always treat his fellow “sherpas” with the respect they deserve; because the entire story is told from his first person viewpoint I felt that the secondary characters were not given enough screen time, making them feel more like stereotype NPC’s rather than real people.

I also felt shortchanged by the plot’s meandering path to semi-resolution; I never did figure out the significance of the title (perhaps if I was a gamer myself it would be obvious?) and I have never liked an almost literal deus ex machina ending. On the other hand the action sequences kept me turning the pages, and although the style echoes William Gibson slightly it does so with a different voice. Despite having mixed feelings about this particular outing I will be adding more the author’s books to my reading list.

88 Names

Network Effect by Martha Wells 📚

If you are a follower of the Murderbot Diaries then you have already read the latest addition to the canon. If not, I suggest that you sample the original novella length installments, beginning with All Systems Red et cetera. Those bagatelles are comfort reading for the jaded SF aficionado, abounding with self referential genre tropes, and this newest entry is more of the same, the novel length allowing more of what makes Murderbot so endearing: the humans are ciphers, the artificial intelligences are heroes, and there is a great deal of action, gunplay, and binging on interstellar telenovelas.

Along the way we reflect on what it means to be human, the importance of found families, and how an artificial person (and Murderbot is most certainly people) who lacks the basic social skills of a toddler can still be so profoundly connected to basic anthropomorphic emotions. And yet I have to wonder if the longer format really adds to the mythos more than another novella would have done, and I wonder if we could perhaps have been just as satisfied, if not more, with a shorter format. And perhaps Ms. Wells would agree, as a prequel novella is planned for next year.

I still recommend the book, but then you’ve already read it, haven’t you?

Network Effect

Wanderers by Chuck Wendig 📚

Spoiler alert, this is perhaps not a book one should read during the present emergency, as major elements of the plot are perhaps a little too relevant to our current situation. But I had seen several recommendations, and I was able to borrow the ebook from my local (currently closed) library via the Libby app, so I checked it out and started reading before I really knew any details of the plot. And by the time the story revealed itself it was too late, I was hooked.

As with other books I’ve read recently the central theme is the family, starting with a scattering of literal families disrupted by the central event of the wandering, but quickly consolidating into two opposed found families, that of the wanderers and the opposing forces of, well, we can only call it evil. In fact, the opposition seems almost too evil, with no redeeming features, identifying the forces of death and destruction with right-wing gun-worshipping racist bigots.

By contrast the wanderers and their companion shepherds are a set of interesting and engaging characters, thrown together by events beyond anybody’s ability to explain or comprehend, with various strengths and weaknesses. This is the main strength of the book, following the point of views of several of these people, seeing how they change and evolve as the world is convulsed around them. That convulsion is much more extreme than what is happening out here in the “real world” (we hope) and keeps adding new layers all the way to the apocolyptic end.

Next up, The Stand.

Wanderers

The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez 📚

This first novel is a story of far future travel, found families, love, and loss. Although set on an interstellar stage, much of the subtext is drawn from current woes: environmental disaster, corporate greed, and the tyranny of valuing central authority over individual aspirations. The main focus is on the variety and interactions of the characters who enter and exit as time passes and major events reshape the narrative, often in disastrous ways; be warned that bad things happen, both to good people and bad.

The writing is excellent and the plot intricate, jumping through time both literally (as characters incur time debt due to interstellar travel) and in shifts between narrative threads following the various characters. The central relationship is between Nia, captain of of an independant trading ship, and the boy she rescues, adopts and raises, a boy who in the end transforms both her life and the entire interstellar culture through which she moves. There are echoes of Samuel R. Delaney’s Nova in the portrayal of the ship and its crew, but the treasures they are seeking are not transuranic elements but latent human abilities which are mysterious and transcendent.

Highly recommended.

The Vanished Birds