Category: Reviews

Review – Black and Brown Planets

Posted July 11, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Black and Brown PlanetsBlack and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction, ed. Isiah Lavender III

The only stuff like this I’ve read before was during my degree, when I read books on postcolonial fiction as part of my Welsh Fiction in English class. The whole topic fascinated me, particularly because of the parallels between Welsh fiction and that of other non-dominant identities, so I have kept an eye on fandom discussions, and become involved in some (on both the right and the wrong sides, sometimes simultaneously). That’s not quite the same as reading a book like this one, with references, formal language, bibliographies, etc.

So I was interested to see how I got on with academic language again, since it’s been a while. Fortunately for me, this one is on ‘read now’ on Netgalley. And unfortunately for me, as well as being an interesting exploration of race in SF, it’s also generated a list of books I want to read/reread. For example, Malisa Kurtz’s piece on Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I remember not enjoying that, but picking apart the complexities of it has made me interested all over again.

I was also a big fan of De Witt Douglas Kilgore’s essay discussing DS9, and Gerry Canavan’s referencing it as well. I remember being quite a fan of DS9 as a kid, and never realising that Ben Sisko was that revolutionary a character. I just took him for granted. The possible link Kilgore draws between Sisko and Obama becoming present seems to me like a big jump because of that, but I’ll keep my mouth shut on that one since that’s very much a US politics thing.

Oh, and I loved Isiah Lavender III’s own essay on Octavia Butler’s work; I haven’t read enough Butler yet, but she’s excellent and well worth the analysis.

I don’t know when, but I will be picking up some of the books — both fiction and non-fiction — mentioned in this collection, in future. It’s an area of literature about which I know I’ve got tons to learn, and I hate having to admit ignorance. This makes a good start.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Planets

Posted July 10, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Planets by Dava SobelThe Planets, Dava Sobel

I think I expected this to be more scientific than it turned out to be, which may be a common problem judging from other reviews. It’s actually more of a historical glance at the way humanity has envisioned the galaxy, and the way our knowledge has grown over the millennia. It’s a lot literary, with bits of science and mythology thrown in. Some parts of it were lovely for that, though I wasn’t sure about the emphasis on linking the Old Testament Genesis story with the scientific facts of creation. It seems likely to alienate a lot of readers, even if it sounds pretty.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that this is also quite behind the times now: published in 2007ish, shortly after the demotion of Pluto, it has nothing to say about more recent discoveries about the moons of the outer planets, or Curiosity, or anything like that. It’s quite accessible, but not up to date, which is a pity.

Sometimes the literary interludes really got on my nerves, with Sobel putting words into people’s mouths and anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. I like literary tricks like that as much as the next person, but it just seems ridiculous when they’re giving words and complex thought to a meteorite…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Behind the Shock Machine

Posted July 7, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Behind the Shock Machine by Gina PerryBehind the Shock Machine, Gina Perry

I’ve been interested in the Stanley Milgram experiments for a long time — the “obedience to authority” ones, more than anything else, though as Gina Perry pointed out, he did other startling and original research. For example, that idea that you’re only six degrees of separation from someone else? That was his experiment. The one about good will, testing whether people would post letters just left out, and how many would respond based on the addresses on the envelope? Also Milgram.

Anyway, my interest was piqued again more recently by Dar Williams’ song, Buzzer (lyrics), which imagine being a participant in the experiment. It doesn’t matter about the details, how closely they fit what really happened. What matters is this line: “I get it now, I’m the face/I’m the cause of war/we don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore.”

Part of Gina Perry’s focus in this book is unpacking how people felt after they were the subject in the experiments. She met some of them for research, listened to the transcripts and the follow-up interviews, spent hours with the material. And some of them really were traumatised by what happened under the experimental conditions: some of them weren’t ‘dehoaxed’ until months after their participation in the study. They didn’t know that they hadn’t really come anywhere near killing a man. Some of the ethical problems with this study are astounding, and Perry unpacks them nicely.

One of the things I think people find harder with this book is her outlook on Milgram. She started out being an enormous fan of his work: it was only when she dug deeper into it that she began to feel ambivalent, even a little horrified. I wonder if people would feel the same unequivocal admiration for Milgram if they could listen to those transcripts, all of them, and experience the way he went on with the experiments despite the distress of his subjects.

It certainly sounds from this book like Milgram’s results were nowhere near as clear-cut as he presented them. For example, everyone knows that the outcome is that “most” people would obey an authority figure to the point of killing someone — but the fact is that 65% did. That’s still the majority, but that includes people who weren’t sure if the shocks were real or not as well as people who were sure they were real, and it also includes people who protested all the way. It does show the effect of pressure by an authority figure, but the picture is a little less clear than we tend to think.

And then there’s the cherry picking of his results. For example, condition 24 showed only 10% obedience: that was people paired with people they really knew. Authority can’t overcome personal relationships. Milgram never published about condition 24. Despite being a fan of his work, Perry didn’t know anything about it until she found the records, bundled in with those of condition 23.

Given that, it’s astonishing to me that anyone defending Milgram can then claim that Perry is cherry picking her data. At the very least, she provides details of all of the conditions. She ends up with strong personal feelings about the whole situation, but she quotes both from Milgram’s private notes and his published work, showing his doubts, showing that he worried about the welfare of the subjects more than comes through in his published work. After reading one of the first major critiques of his work, he drew a little doodle and wrote beside it, “I feel bad.”

It’s true that Perry has an ideological position on Milgram, but it’s fair to say that from her account, that arises from the depth of her research. I don’t think anyone going into the impact of the experiments could avoid it; she doesn’t claim to be writing a book about the scientific principles, but about the people involved. I think she does a fairly good job of presenting various sides of all of them.

Overall, I found this really fascinating, though I do always keep in mind that non-fiction is no less ideologically charged than any kind of writing. Of course Perry has opinions, and her exploration of these and how they developed during her research are a key part of the book. It’s not the last or only word on Milgram.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Moral Landscape

Posted July 6, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Moral Landscape by Sam HarrisThe Moral Landscape, Sam Harris

I’ve had a good go at reading this without any knee-jerk reactions, but generally I find Harris’ views instinctively abhorrent — despite his championing of reason and science, I don’t think he avoids knee-jerk reactions more than anyone else. Particularly when it comes to religion.

The basis thesis that there are optimal states of well-being for humans, I accept. That science will be able to improve our understanding of that, I don’t doubt. That Sam Harris could be the person that executes this moral calculus? That, I can’t countenance. It’s partly an instinctive dislike — I haven’t enjoyed any of his lectures and talks that I’ve watched either — and partly his intolerance of anything he doesn’t understand.

I mean, he claims to be talking about universal states of well-being, and states that there may be multiple ‘peaks’ on the ‘moral landscape’ where the greatest possible well-being can be achieved. In almost the same breath, he dismisses any thought system he can’t understand, particularly if it involves religion.

Perhaps the fact that I’m a Unitarian Universalist makes this so difficult to swallow. I believe that there are many different paths to follow, whether you’re looking for an afterlife, Enlightenment, reincarnation… There are different ways to be good, and it’s hard to measure that. For example, we would accept a person who works with abused children in Britain, who kept their good as their first priority, as a good person. We would also accept a person who teaches children who are living in poverty in another country as good. Which is better? Which more worthy?

I’m not sure I’m being very coherent about this. I’m sure there’s someone waiting to jump on me telling me that Harris is completely coherent, entirely reasonable, etc; most likely some of them will have some sexist comments to make, without being aware of their own hypocrisy. For me, though, I didn’t find Harris’ argument that coherent. He seemed to argue himself round and round a tiny point without ever looking up to see the wider world and put his work in context — every statement seemed to be a reiteration of his core thesis, rather than something which expanded it.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Invisible Orientation

Posted July 5, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra DeckerThe Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker

Received to review.

Reviewing this book publicly feels kind of awkward, because I know the fact that I’ve read it is likely to make people ask questions right away. The temptation with something like this is pretty inevitably going to be asking me why I’m interested, to what extent it might align with my own experiences, etc.

To dispose of that in a single paragraph: I have no interest in sex for physical gratification. I do have a partner, and whatever we may do is between the two of us and no one else’s business. Certainly I’ve had some of the experiences mentioned in this book: wondering what is “wrong” with me that I’m not interested, being told that my disinterest can be “fixed” (sometimes quite forcefully), being told that it’s down to my medication/mental illness, etc.

So, to the extent that any single person can identify with a book about a broad issue, this book is “about me”. If you’re now feeling curious about all this, I would ask you first not to ask me questions but to read this book and the book I’m currently reviewing. Then, maybe, we can talk.

Speaking more generally, this is a pretty awesome book for acknowledging the sheer breadth of human experience. It acknowledges all sorts of levels of interest in sex and romance, all sorts of orientations on the spectrum of attraction. I know one of my friends who identifies as demisexual also found this a useful resource. It can be a means of finding information, whether you’re asexual or not; it can also be a means of finding validation, of finding a measured and sensible voice telling you that there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not strange, there are people out there like you.

The problem is that people who are opposed to the idea right away probably won’t read this, or if they do won’t be convinced by it; that’s definitely not the book’s fault, just that issue that people much prefer things that confirm their pre-existing bias. It’s worth trying, though — you never know what’s going to get through and change someone’s mind, even your own mind.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Righteous Mind

Posted July 4, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Righteous by Jonathan HaidtThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a really fascinating book. I don’t know where you’d categorise it — I’ve read people saying moral psychology, political philosophy, sociology, anthropology… As far as I can gather, Haidt gathers up research and thought from different fields in setting out this book. And what does he seek to explore? Well, not so much “why good people are divided by politics and religion”, as the subtitle would have it, but the more fundamental question: why do people make different moral decisions with the same information?

He pulls in a lot of research as he goes through this. The fact that disgust makes people more conservative; if you can portray something as dirty (Jewish people, gay people, whatever kind of sex you disapprove of, people of colour, people with disabilities) then you’re halfway to calling it immoral already. Particularly for people who tend to be more conservative anyway. In fact, more easily disgusted people are usually more politically and socially conservative. (I’m an aberration; now I think about it, I wonder if that’s because I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies causing my fear of germs and disgust responses, rather than actually thinking that way naturally.)

A lot of this, I’ve come across before, but not synthesised into a full theory like this. (Paul Bloom uses a lot of the same ideas, for example. Particularly in his Coursera course on Moralities of Everyday Life). Mostly, it worked for me. Some of Haidt’s analogies and examples are a little clunky. The elephant (emotion)/rider (rationality) metaphor gets increasingly ridiculous the more he uses it, despite the aptness of the metaphor in some ways. Likewise the ‘taste receptor’ analogy for moral issues. I don’t know how much he tested this out on people outside his field, but I think he does need to look for feedback on his imagery.

I tried to watch myself for knee-jerk reactions while reading this. Reading other reviews made me smile wryly, as other people reacted immediately to what they perceived as the thrust of Haidt’s argument without reasoning it through. The fact that Haidt divides morality up into six regions which are more or less relevant to every culture really annoys people right off, particularly when he then shows that research has liberals focusing on three of these areas while conservatives focus on all six. As a matter of fact, Haidt seems to hold fairly liberal views himself. He’s not criticising the goals of the liberal movement so much as a short sightedness that’s preventing liberal politicians making the gains they could.

It’s basically a validation of the positive sides of conservative and libertarian ethics. It’s mostly an American Democrat writing about American Republicans, and trying to uncover the way they think and the reasonable basis for their beliefs and moral decisions.

What I don’t think he’s doing is saying that liberalism is bad, that conservatism is automatically the answer, or that the core values of liberalism are wrong. He’s looking at the positive aspects of both sides, seeing them as a yin and yang system, rather than diametrically opposed systems on their own.

I’m gonna confess that my politics probably fall fairly close to Haidt’s, so I’m not the best person to pick holes in his argument. To me, some of it felt clumsy due to the imagery he employed, but most of it made sense. I’m now reading Sam Harris, who advocates reason and scientifically proven morality, which doesn’t fit into Haidt’s system well at all. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

I will just note that from this, Haidt is capable of considering other people’s views. He makes a good response to Dawkins’ atheism, for example, and does a good job of laying out Dawkins’ position. Harris, on the other hand… This may be me projecting, but he has a kind of arrogance in the way he writes (and in the way he speaks — I’ve watched both of them lecture) that turns me off. I’m having a very hard time not knee-jerking in response.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – The Brain That Changes Itself

Posted July 3, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman DoidgeThe Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge

Content note: discusses some examples you may interpret as animal cruelty.

I have pretty mixed feelings about this book. My main response, I guess, is “read with caution”. There are some parts which are reasonable, well-founded, and which don’t seem to be driven by any bias. Talking about the ways to help people recover from strokes would fall under this category; I was actually a bit surprised that all of the information about brain maps, and the brain’s “use it or lose it” approach to neuronal real estate, was actually considered surprising or controversial. I thought that aspect of neurobiology was fairly clear to people in this day and age. Certainly, the idea that you can expand areas of your brain by using them, and lose abilities by not practicing them, seemed to me obvious. The book was written in 2007, so I expected an understanding of brain plasticity to be the norm, not the underdog.

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Review – Hard Spell

Posted July 1, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Hard Spell by Justin GustainisHard Spell, Justin Gustainis

Hard Spell isn’t the best thing I’ve ever read, but it was fun — fairly typical in some ways, for urban fantasy, but still, compelling enough that I finished it and have grabbed the second book from my TBR pile. There’s a lot of male gaze-y stuff going on, with a couple of blatant male fantasy characters, but there are some surprises too — the main character starts with some prejudices pretty well fixed, but he’s able to change with the circumstances, which makes for a pretty satisfying end.

Overall, the plot is nothing new, but the writing is solid and it avoids shoehorning in sex and romance as the most important thing, which other urban fantasy can fall afoul of. In fact, that’s not a thing at all here — the leading lady in Stan Markowski’s life is his daughter, Christine, if anything. He does have a tragic past, etc, which all sets up how the story works out, but at least that all hangs together coherently. There’s some cool world building done on the premise that supernatural creatures are a part of the world for good — SWAT teams exist, but mean something else entirely, for example…

This is a pretty ambivalent review, I know. It’s pretty much a “hey, Gustainis, better impress me next time” kind of review.

Rating: 2/5

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Review – The Snake Charm

Posted June 30, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of The Snake Charm by Laura LamThe Snake Charm, Laura Lam

Another review of this said that you can read it without having read Pantomime and Shadowplay, but I’m not sure of that; I think I might’ve preferred to start with those two, after all. Still, it gives a nice taster of the world and some of the things that’re out there — and, I gather, some of the characters. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Drystan, and exploring this world more.

I did feel like I was at a disadvantage, though, not knowing the world already. You can pick up on the key terms/concepts — Vestige, Lethe, Drystan being the son of some high-class family — and maybe it’s just my love of world-building, but I felt like I wanted to know more before reading this, to appreciate it more, and maybe how it fits in with the novels.

Ah well, definite impetus to get on with it and read Pantomime and Shadowplay!

Rating: 3/5

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Review – The Movement

Posted June 29, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Movement by Gail SimoneThe Movement, vol. 1: Class Warfare, Gail Simone, Freddie Williams II

I decided to get this one on the strength of the fact that a) it’s Gail Simone, and though I don’t like DC that much, I do like her work and b) I was fascinated by the diversity of the team line-up. They’re all different — characters of colour, a girl with a wheelchair, an ex-cop… they all have different backgrounds, different motivations, and the same goal that they have to struggle against the world and each other to achieve.

Much as I love Billy Kaplan and company (Young Avengers), that aspect never came through the way it did here. These guys feel more real. I know it’s a criticism often levelled at DC, that they focus too much on trying to be dark and gritty. Well, this is, but it’s also relevant in a way that I’ve never found Batman to be: this is a group of young people getting together against injustice. Not supervillains: injustice. Crooked cops who beat poor people and POC because they can. The whole system of privilege and disprivilege. It’s a team of heroes for the Occupy Movement, for the 99%, for the disenfranchised.

And I enjoy the way they play off each other. The chirpy brightness of Vengeance Moth, the righteousness of Virtue, the struggle between Katharsis and Tremor. Mouse’s crush on Tremor is sweet. I like the fact that — like the Occupy movement itself — they aren’t of one accord, and they aren’t perfect people. Katharsis wants to beat people’s faces into pulp, while Vengeance Moth gives them hamburgers and doesn’t see the risks.

My one problem so far is that Vengeance Moth’s power takes her out of the chair. That’s twice now for Gail Simone, that I know of: Barbara Gordon gets out of the wheelchair to be Batgirl again after that stint as Oracle, and then Moth gets tipped out of the chair and suddenly can fly. It’s great to have superheroes in wheelchairs, and it’s great that Simone doesn’t limit them or think they’re incapable as too many people do, but… I wanted Moth to fight from the wheelchair if she had to.

Let’s have some badasses be badass while still in their wheelchairs, yeah? And let’s not have any miraculous cures as though they need them to be really badass. If only my AU roleplay Steve Rogers was canon somewhere (had polio, in a chair, still fights, maybe has to work a bit harder for the respect he deserves but never gives up, never puts up with any bullshit).

Still, overall, I really loved this. I like the art a lot. And I can’t wait for the second TPB, so I’ll be hitting Comixology in hope pretty darn shortly.

Rating: 5/5

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