Sunday, July 7, 2024

Pandemic Journal Reboot: The Rumors of COVID's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated


My recent positive COVID test

During 2020-2022 I was posting a lot of my Pandemic Journal here on the blog. I got up to Part 25 in 2022. I didn't stop writing in that journal, and I even occasionally posted an entry on a specific topic, like this one on the Fourth Pandemiversary.

I guess just as most of the world lost interest in COVID, I lost interest in posting all of my entries here on the blog. I've also been journaling a lot less in the last year or two, often only once every couple of months.

I had a good reason, however, to start the Pandemic Journal again in earnest when I tested positive for COVID in late June! So, as both an exercise in self-indulgence and a public service announcement to get a COVID test if you have symptoms, here is a ... "sequel" doesn't sound right, so let's call it a "reboot" of my Pandemic Journal. And there are still memes, of course!

Saturday, July 6, 2024

The Lathe of Fascism: Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh


At first I wasn't sure what to think about Some Desperate Glory by Emily Tesh, then I started to really love it, then I lost the thread as the central science fictional premise never really made sense to me, and then it came back together toward the end with some interesting thoughts on fascism, gender, indoctrination, and war. This one is nominated for a Hugo this year, and I will be voting for that soon. So, what did I think?

Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Splendidly Scalzian Felines: Starter Villain by John Scalzi


John Scalzi's Starter Villain is a delight! Scalzi is as entertaining as ever. I love the cats and the dolphins.

Charlie is down on his luck when he discovers that his mysterious and recently deceased uncle left him a profitable parking ramp business. Or so he thinks. Turns out, as the dust jacket tells us, his uncle was actually a super villain, like something right out of James Bond (or really more Austin Powers). Hilarity and hijinks ensue with plenty of that patented Scalzi snark. I laughed out loud several times while reading this one.

Two points I wanted to discuss here: let's call them "evil is actually dumb" and "animals can talk, and boy, are they hilarious!"

Monday, July 1, 2024

Zones of Dogs: A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge


My initial reaction to Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep: a lot of really cool ideas, but something in the execution failed to grab me.

The cool ideas: 

The zones of thought are really interesting, although I'm not quite sure I completely understood the concept. In certain zones of the galaxy, some types of consciousness and technology are possible, while in other zones they are not. And "possible" in the sense of physically or scientifically possible. Logical possibility remains the terrain of science fiction, after all! And the borders between the zones can and have shifted, and nobody knows if they are natural or artificially created by mysterious aliens eons ago (perhaps as a way to keep the riff-raff in line?).

The main aliens, the Tines, are dog-like creatures who form "packs" of several individuals to form something like hive minds, which is a cool way to think about intelligence. Is this personal fusion? Or is each pack an individual person in some sense? You'd think this would give them an ability to work together in a way lonely individually-minded humans cannot, but the conglomerations can't get close to each other due to interference of the (maybe sonic?) methods they use to bind together. 

There are some cool ideas there about how we individuate minds, maybe even somewhat along the lines of the Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti's exploration of the coherence (or lack thereof) of the very concept of a single discrete mind separate from the rest of existence.

There are also some plant-like aliens who get around with technological assistance from a shadowy group of other aliens in the distant past. Very cool!

There's also something like a galactic internet discussion board that shows how such a system is vulnerable to misinformation, which is especially prescient for a book published in 1992.

What didn't work as well for me:

The plot starts with children being stranded on an alien planet. We learn about their struggles to survive among the Tines and the adults who embark upon a rescue mission. This is all cool. 

But then we spend A LOT of time in something approaching a Game of Thrones level of political intrigue among the Tine societies, which is interesting to a point. It also suffers from the science fiction writer's Eurocentric fallacy of assuming that the particular history of one small part of Earth (Western Europe) somehow determines the parameters of technological and social development for the entire galaxy (you also see this frequently on Star Trek, for example).

Anyway, all this intrigue became a bit too much for me, and I wanted more time exploring the cool ideas and less on all the quasi-Medieval European drama. In general, I feel like more could have been done with the cool ideas (like at one point an alien on the message board wonders whether the zones of thought have a moral meaning... and then this idea is dropped). Maybe more was done with the ideas in the other books in the series that I haven't read yet.

But your zone of thought may vary!

See also my Goodreads review.

Monday, June 17, 2024

Academic Cats and Dogs: Does Academia Need to Get Weirder to Survive?

I’ve never been entirely comfortable in academia. Don’t get me wrong. I love reading and writing. I enjoy teaching and interacting with students. I’m fond of conversation about subjects most people don’t understand or care to understand. 

But in recent years—especially with the convergence of the pandemic, my tenure, and feeling middle age—I find myself caring less and less about academia as an abstract system of disciplines. I care about my friends, my colleagues, and my students. I care about philosophy as a global human endeavor. But I don’t care about being a Very Serious Academic. I’m not sure how much I ever really did. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Your Own Personal Dittos: Kiln People by David Brin


I met David Brin (the author of Kiln People and many other novels) at a signing about a decade ago. In our small talk (awkward for me; natural for him), I mentioned that I was a philosopher and he recommended Kiln People, which I soon picked up ... and somehow didn't read until now. (If only I had some dittos to get through my to-read pile!)

The idea is really fun and philosophically interesting when it comes to the issue of personal identity (What makes you you? What is a person?). But the plot never really engaged me, and the novel falls into a common SF problem where the societal changes of time and technology are under-explored, which made it hard for me to really buy into the whole concept of dittos.