Monthly Archives: January 2015

Writing prompt: Puzzle day

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“National Puzzle Day” (This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts.)

Cyn reached the front door at 12:03. She keyed in her entry code. Instead of turning blue, the key pad turned red and displayed a string of text. Who had the lowest average with over one hundred home runs?

“Damn,” Cyn spat. She hadn’t meant to get home after midnight. Some of the puzzles were solvable, but some, like this one, were ancient nonsense. She looked around the street. A few other bewildered people stood at their doors. It was a dangerous night to be on the street. Thousands of other people like her would wander the street. Police cars would challenge their operators too.

Every member of the city dreaded puzzle day. That’s what they called it. Exactly every 400th day, everything that worked smoothly the other 399 days would torture its users.

“Why does this happen?” the inevitable lament would arise. They lived in an ancient city of wonders. Most of the time, they took the functionality for granted. But not on puzzle day.

Cyn started toward Elbie’s house. Public transportation was out of the question. All of their questions were antique unit conversions. It was still quiet this time of night. She’d never been out on puzzle day, but like everyone else, she’d read enough.

Book review: The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin 1974)

Rating: 2/5

I first read The Dispossessed in high school. I wasn’t wild about it. But high schoolers lack knowledge of government and people and how we get along together, major topics of the book, so I figured I owed it a reread.

I wasn’t wild about The Dispossessed the second time either. It may be the talkiest modern book I’ve read. With all the talking, I never felt like I emotionally connected with the countries, the characters, or the conflicts. In contrast, Le Guin’s other Hugo and Nebula award winner, The Left Hand of Darkness, is structurally similar and is one of my favorite books.

The Dispossessed takes place on a world and an inhabitable moon, the Earthlike Urras the harsher Anarres. Politically, Urras has rich and poor and countries of different political persuasions. Anarres is inhabited by descendants of anarchists from Urras. On Anarres, the people are equal and they struggle together against the harsh climate. They don’t own anything and they are free because of it. The main character is Shevek, a brilliant physicist from Anarres. The book alternates between Shevek’s childhood on Anarres and Shevek’s visit to Urras. Shevek is the first person from either world to go to the other. The book contrasts to the two societies using Shevek’s eyes, a man who doesn’t quite fit in on either world.

Much of the book describes the society of anarchist Anarres. People work for the good of society. No one is strictly obligated to, but social shame is applied to those who don’t, those who “egoize”.  Everyone, even the physicists, is expected to spend part of their time laboring for society. Men and women are equal, the intelligent and less intelligent are equal too. The book does discuss where these ideals start to break down, but still, I had trouble believing in the Annaresti society. It felt one-dimensional, like its whole purpose was to be a foil to hedonistic, classist Urras, and moreso, hedonistic classist Earth.

Ultimately, I didn’t believe in the book. All the characters orated on social issues, and I often forgot who was who. I didn’t feel for any of the characters. The two different societies never felt real to me, just exaggerations of two extremes. Neither Urras or Anarres was shocking or insightful to me.

I wonder how the book felt in 1974. Roe vs. Wade happened in 1973. Title IX passed in 1972. A book by a female author about equality and respect was probably a breath of fresh air. Today, to me, maybe the story’s equality read a little too like a fairy tale. Too neat and tidy when we see female leaders like Hillary Clinton and Janet Reno pilloried for being ugly. There’s a lot of steps in between 1800’s style ownership of women and the ideal of female equality that the book tidily skips over.

Interestingly, The Dispossessed has a similar structure to The Left Hand of Darkness. A man who exists outside two societies visits and contrasts both of them. But for me, Left Hand has so much more feeling. I felt both cultures, and I loved the main characters. In both Left Hand and in The Dispossessed‘s Anarres, the battle against the elements forces a sort of communal behavior. Both books examine gender in society. But for me, The Left Hand of Darkness works, while The Dispossessed doesn’t.

Writing prompt: Measure your feet day

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“Measure your feet day” (Technically, today National Blonde Brownie Day, but I care zip about them and drew a huge blank. So I opted for tomorrow’s, measure you feet day. This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts.)

“Measure your feet today!” the full-page ad screamed. David had seen this ad, heard this commercial, for weeks, though he’d done his best to ignore it. It was weird that a hoax had so much money.

The shoes of Tutankhamen’s have been found! Top scientists indicate that his reincarnation is living today in our great nation. Measure your feet today… are they regal?

*

“Did you measure your feet?” Andy asked at recess before school.

“No. I’m not simple.”

“I guess there’s no way you’d be regal.”

“Nope,” David said.

Andy twitched. “Come on, where’s your sense of imagination? I’ll do your homework for a week if you measure your feet!”

David sighed. “Well, okay.” There wasn’t any advantage to buying into the hoax, but he could get behind not doing homework.

One of the other schoolboys, in the midst of this craze, of course had a tape measurer that he would loan out for a nickel. Andy paid it and gave David the tape.

As Andy instructed, David measured the length of his foot, the distance around his foot at the arch, the length of his big toe and the length of his second toe. He reported the numbers to Andy.

“Nuh uh!” Andy erupted. “You’re still messing with me!”

David was confused and growing annoyed. “I played along with your stupid game, are you going to honor your part or not?”

“You made those numbers up!” Andy grabbed the tape and David’s foot and proceeded to measure, too fired up to be squeamish now.

“Those numbers…” Andy trailed off. “You have to tell the New Tut organization immediately! Those are all the numbers!”

*

After Andy told David’s father about the measurements, there was no way he could avoid going. His mother dragged him to the regional center. The waiting room was filled with other boys, and even a few girls. Art work of feet in the Egyptian style adorned the wall.

Diversity in Science Fiction: Some Diverse Reads

Science fiction often touts itself as the genre of the future. But science fiction is a reflection of today as much as it is a dream about the future. Science fiction has been too white and too male, both in authors and in protagonists. This is a reflection of the biases in our society.

My own top 20 sci-fi novels list features 18 books by white men, and two books by Ursula Le Guin. The Guardian’s list of top 500 scifi novels featured the names of 18 women. Any scifi reader starting out will hear about Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. Too many people get defensive when someone points this out. (See: the Great SFWA Shitstorm.)

The answer is to read widely, and to continue to read widely. So in that spirit, I list below some diverse science fiction*, some of which I have read, and some of which I ought to. For further reading, here is a great article listing a lot of great authors from the LA Times.

  • Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler: we destroy ourselves with war and aliens come in and save the survivors, mostly people from South American cultures who avoided the bombs. Oh, and the aliens want weird weird sex. A fun and weird read.
  • Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi: A western man goes to future Bangkok. The native Thais and the genetically-engineered windup girl are the stars of the show, though.
  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu: One for me to read! A best seller in China, recently translated into English.
  • Downbelow Station and Cyteen by C. J. Cherryh: Distant future novels where women kick ass in militaristic and scientific settings, if you can get past the info-dumping at the front.
  • Who Fears Death by Nnedi Orakafor: Another for me to read! Far future, post-apocalyptic Africa.
  • The Miles Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold: I have looked for these for years in used bookstores. I guess they fall into that awkward old-enough-to-be-out-of-print-, not-so-old-as-to-be-reprinted phase. They won a buttload of Hugos. And they feature a disabled protagonist.

*Note: I think it’s currently easier to find diverse fantasy. Maybe this is because it’s straightforward to use alternate mythology to Western mythology. I personally vastly prefer sci-fi. I think diversity in far future sci-fi is a challenge, because our whole concept of diversity is rooted in today’s culture. Just giving everything Chinese-ish names isn’t very satisfying. In LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, Genly is black, but this isn’t relevant to the story at all. But I would like to see more female protagonists!

 

Writing prompt: National Hat Day

Time: 10 minutes. Click here to go to my list of prompts.

“National Hat Day” (It’s true, January 15th is National Hat Day! This list is an awesome source of completely silly prompts, such as the Feast of Fabulous Wild Men Day)

“That is the ugliest hat in history,” Sita giggled.

Alma giggled too. It was an exercise in atrociousness. It had scraggly feathers sticking out at inharmonious angles. The fabric was threadbare in inexplicable spots. The pattern of the fabric was a loose checker, with the pattern misaligned at the seams. At all. It was several sizes too big, and clearly meant to fit snugly.

Alma shrugged. “I guess it’s a conversation starter.”

Sita shook her head. “No. I’d take one look at a person wearing that and I’d be out of the room. A person wearing that hat has bedbugs and halitosis, and those are the better aspects of their personality.”

Alma tried to laugh, but couldn’t manage. “In all seriousness, it called out to me. I feel like it belonged to someone I knew, or that by holding it I know the people who wore it.”

Sita frowned. “Okay, whatever. Is it for a Halloween costume?”

“No,” Alma said, troubled by the depth of her feelings for what objectively was a horrific hat with nothing that should appeal. “Ah, dammit, maybe I’m just feeling the stress of exams. If an offensive looking hat should cheer me up…” she shrugged.

*

Alma set the hat on the table next to her bed. She was repelled by it, but fascinated. It still smelled faintly human, and the front band bore a section darkened inside by sweat.

She dreamt of the hat. A strange rumpled woman wore it, the sort of woman who would exist more in fairy tales than real life. Her clothes suited the hat, inappropriately threadbare and likely assembled by someone with severe sight deficiency.

“Alma!” the woman said, a command more than an address. Alma woke in a cold sweat. The hat remained on the bedside table.

Book Review: Train (Tom Zoellner 2014)

Rating: 3/5

In Train, author Tom Zoellner rides the rails of the world. He discusses the history, the current state, and the future of rail. Growing up in suburban St. Louis, I rarely saw trains. Now I live 100 feet from active rail tracks and walk along them every day. I take the Amtrak to DC and Baltimore and New York. This summer, I went to the O. Winston Link rail photography museum in Roanoke, Virginia. So I was eager to learn more about the history of rail– such a backbone to our economy, but often viewed as an anachronism.

I was disappointed by Train. It was a pleasant enough read; I didn’t have trouble turning the pages as I basked at the pool. But it felt like junk food.

At its best, the book gave interesting perspectives on the psychology of rail: how we have stories of hero sea captains, drivers, and pilots, but not of train conductors. That we both love and hate the rail, such an engine of commerce, but also hugely representative of collectivism that’s been dominated by robber barons.

I enjoyed the chapters on foreign rail much more than the ones about the U.S. and Britain. The chapter on India was fascinating and horrifying. Some rails in India corrode ten times faster than normal because the tracks are constantly covered in human excrement. This is because the trains don’t have storage tanks for the toilets, but also because people living by the tracks preferentially potty on the tracks.  As you can imagine, the job to replace the tracks isn’t nice; Zoellner’s conversations with the workers are interesting. Zoellner suggests that India wouldn’t be a single country without the railways installed by the British. This chapter solidified my view that I would rather read about India than visit it.

Overall, too much of the text was devoted to Zoellner’s conversations with random train passengers, upon which he congratulated himself loudly and often. I didn’t care about the guy taking the train to West Virginia hoping to find work in a coal mine, nor did I care about the young man reuniting with his estranged mother. I would have tolerated some of this, but the chapter on American rails was a bloated 90 pages, compared to 30 pages each for Russia, China, and Peru. The chapter on America wasn’t more informative; it was more pointless. The chapter on Britain was also packed full of useless conversations.

When I was preparing to write this review, I noticed that Zoellner is an English professor. And that’s what the book feels like: an English professor waxing nostalgic about the majestic railways and their heroic riders, with sprinklings of historic details. I hoped to read something more focused on history. Train passes the time nicely, but I found it unsatisfying. Maybe it would be a better read for someone who already knows the history and wants to read the stylish praises of another rail enthusiast.

Chester the puppy

Chester is my aunt’s new twelve week old puppy, a mix of golden retriever, lab, and wire-haired terrier. He loves people, and he’s remarkably patient and well-mannered for a puppy. He’s very inquisitive; when I was playing piano the other day, he patiently sat and watched. Right now he’s making the transition between living teddy bear and small dog.

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