may 2017

I haven't done a great job keeping up with talking about the books I've been reading in the midst of the extended travelogue that took up most of last month's entries, so I'm going to focus on catching up with that—at least until our next trip, which we embark on at the end of this week.

I went back to the sci fi genre after reading the non-fiction How the HIppies Saved Physics, and the book I chose was the well-reviewed The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley, an author I haven't read before.

The story takes place in the midst of a loosely confederated group of living spaceships/worlds called the Legion, where each organic ship is its own city-state with its own peculiarities and hierarchy. Even though all these worlds travel through space together, they are often at war with one another, and there is also disease/aging that can destroy the worlds. When that happens, the people on that world are enslaved by the other worlds, and the ship/world itself is looted for usable material.

Hurley did a great job with the world-building aspect, but there were times when it felt like the characters were a little flat, and some of the plot points were more to move us into a new setpiece than to actually move the story forward. There was a lot of perceived intrigue and mysterious, slowly revealed backstory, but none of it ended up being that surprising by the end—we spent too much time in the main characters' heads getting to know their motivations, etc., to really be caught unawares when something new was revealed.

Even the primary character who we spent the most time with and who had amnesia and didn't know her own past ended up not having a past too dissimilar from what we were expecting based on all the hints Hurley dropped about her. The plot kept moving along, and the book was never unenjoyable, but a lot of times what should have been pivotal, critical moments felt like more of a distraction or red herring.

But I did enjoy the book, especially the sayings from the Lord of Mokshi that appeared at the beginning of each chapter—I imagine those little snippets, no more than a sentence or two that had some relevancy to the chapter that followed, sometimes took as long to write and refine as the chapters themselves.

I decided to stay in the world of sci fi after Stars Are Legion, this time moving to a near-future setting in a book called Wool by Hugh Howey. I've never read him before, but the ebook was on sale for very little and the reviews were pretty good, so I decided to give it a try.

This novel is set in a period sometime in the next couple of hundred years and follows the story of a society that is entirely contained in an underground, self-sufficient silo. They can never leave because the air outside is poisoned, they have only a vague, mythic understanding of our world (which is their past), and as far as they know, they are the only people left alive on the whole planet.

Wool apparently started off as a short story, which was followed by another short story from the same universe, and so on, and this construction definitely shows in the first few chapters. We spend time getting to know a protagonist (and in turn getting to know some of the various aspects of the silo society), only to have that protagonist die, making us move on to an entirely new protagonist.

We were on protagonist number three, Juliette, and it appeared as though she would suffer the same fate as the others, but then her supposed death has a different outcome, in which she discovers that there are other silos with other similarly isolated societies within them, and that's how we transition to the other novels in this series, which I read immediately after Wool.

The second novel in the Wool series is called Shift, and it serves as a prequel of sorts, explaining how the silos came to be and giving us strong clues as to the ultimate function and purpose of the silos (which we now know are 50 in number, with a central silo that is different from all the rest).

As much fun as it was having many of the mysteries of the silos revealed and experiencing the events during their construction and eventual occupation, I didn't like that we spent a lot less time on Juliette and her story (for the moment, anyway), and it was a little disconcerting bouncing around the different time periods (I think we dealt with at least four distinct periods in this one, and it actually might have been one or two more).

But if the books had been sequentially ordered, so that these stories happened first, I'm not sure the world building would have sucked us in the way it did in the original Wool book, and certainly many of the slow reveals in that book wouldn't have been surprises (the same way that one of the most epic reveals in the history of cinema—Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker that Vader is Skywalker's father—is completely deflated if you watch the Star Wars movies in number order instead of the order in which they were actually released).

Still, there were some threads that tied back to the first novel—one of the characters we get to know is the younger version of a man who Juliette encounters in a silo different than the one she grew up in—and the book does do a good job of setting up the final novel, tying together all the still-living characters from all these different time periods (long-term cryogenics with no physical consequences is built into the tech of this world, in case you're wondering how characters born hundreds of years apart could interact directly).

Dust is the final novel in the Wool series, and as I mentioned at the end of my review of Shift, it brings together all of the previous characters (some of whom date from our century, and some of whom were born hundreds of years later) into a fast-paced climax of a novel where the literal and figurative walls between the different silos start to crumble and people start to look for a way to live beyond the very narrow boundaries that have been set for them by the masterminds behind the project.

I won't give away too much more about the ultimate plan, which is revealed in all its detail, or the resolution, but I was pretty satisfied with this set of books. Great writing, engaging characters, and reasonably plausible world building with a plot that moves along without too many MacGuffins and only your average share of don't-look-at-this-too-closely technological advances for a near-future setting.

This is probably my favorite series since The Expanse, and like The Expanse I could definitely see this universe being translated to a television series that might take four or five seasons to get through properly. And because we only got to know the stories of three of the fifty silos, there are still a lot of other possible books that could be set in this universe without needing to tie those stories directly into these events.

I'd really like to see Howey return to this world and give us more of those stories, but it looks like he may be done with it. Given that likelihood, however, he's given us a very complete, compelling narrative, and the fact that I still want more should tell you just how worth reading these books are.

Just as I was getting settled back into a routine after two trips to Ohio in April (both for business), we returned to the state for a personal trip: my brother's graduation from law school (on a Saturday), followed by his wedding (the next day on Sunday afternoon).

I had been to Cleveland for my two April trips, and although we flew into the Cleveland airport again, this time we headed west for Toledo, where my brother has been living for the past seven or eight years (I think?). We got in on Thursday night—Will had a fun few minutes playing around in the cockpit when we were deplaning in Cleveland—and ended up in our hotel in Toledo around 9.

The weather was pretty terrible—cold, windy, and rainy—on Friday, and although I had brought warm clothes, I was not prepared for the rain. So we made a quick stop after lunch so Will and I could pick up rain jackets (Julie remembered to bring hers) and then we spent the afternoon with the whole family at Imagination Station in downtown Toledo.

That was great fun for Will and his semi-cousin, James (the grandson of my brother's now-wife who they have full custody of and have been taking care of for most of his young life), and as a kid-oriented place goes, it wasn't too bad for the adults, either. I'm deathly afraid of heights, especially in that 30-50 foot range (I usually get vertigo at that height), but I was convinced by Will to ride this balance bike across an open space in the middle of the museum that was about 30 feet off the ground. The trick, as always: don't look down. I kept my eyes locked on the platform and just pretended I was riding a normal bike.

We stayed at the museum until it closed, then headed back to the hotel for a few minutes of downtime before we had a low-key dinner at Chipotle. Then it was up early the next morning for my brother's graudation...

My brother's campus was about 20 minutes away from the hotel, and then we had another 15 minute walk to the graduation location after that, but we got there in plenty of time to get good seats. Will was reasonably well-behaved given how boring it must have been for a six year old (it wasn't too thrilling for all the adults either), and he was very excited when my brother's name was called and he walked across the stage.

Afterwards he and I explored the campus for a little bit to let him work off some of his pent up energy before having a quick cookie snack at the reception and getting some pictures with my brother and the rest of the family. We had a combination celebration lunch/rehearsal dinner early that afternoon at a local italian place that my brother and his soon-to-be-wife had reserved, where we got to meet a lot of her family for the first time.

That afternoon Will, Julie, and I took a trip to the Toledo Museum of Art, which was much better than it had any right to be (it had at least as good a collection as the main art museum in Atlanta, the High Museum). We didn't have a lot of time there—only about two hours—but we got to see most of the collection. Will was particularly fascinated with the large collection of netsuke (Japanese ornaments worn on kimonos), but his favorite was a large sculpture in the modern section of a giant robot made out of old tvs.

We rejoined the family for dinner at a buffet place and then headed back to the hotel to get some sleep before the wedding the next day. That was my intention, anyway, but I ended up in the lobby of the hotel drinking with my two sisters and their husbands until well after midnight. I'm not actually sure what time I got to bed, because the gin made everything a little fuzzy after a few hours, but we didn't have to get up for the wedding especially early.

We got to know a very friendly graveyard shift assistant manager with a fascinating story: he grew up in the DC/Baltimore area, but moved to Toledo because the cost of living was so much lower. His father was in publishing, and he was saving up to open his own publishing house, which would feature his to-be-written self-help books. He walks everywhere—seveeral miles to and from work every day—and never watches tv. He had a plan and wasn't letting anything get him down, and I'm fascinated by and a little mystified by young people who have such a clear idea of how the world works and how they fit into the design.

We closed down the lobby and left our friend to his evening responsibilities, reconvening the next morning at the wedding location.

The wedding was supposed to take place at noon at a rented pavillion/lodge at one of the state parks outside of town, and although he resisted for a couple of days, my brother finally took us up on our offer to pick up some of the stuff for him. After we got a list (mostly soft drinks, potato salad, and bread—they were having a barbecue place provide the meats, etc.), we headed out early to hit the grocery store on the way to the park.

He also asked us to pick up some ice, and I thought it would be smarter to do that from a gas station or whatever closer to the park so we wouldn't have very much melting. That was a good decision in theory, but we didn't count on 1) Walmart being the only place within a few miles that sold ice and 2) everyone in the county doing their monthly shopping—groceries, clothes, sundries, whatever—when all we wanted to do was buy a few bags of ice. We waited in line (or rather two lines, since we split up to see which would go faster) for at least 25 minutes, and when it was our turn, it took less than two minutes to complete our transaction.

When we got there, my brother was there and had brought a lot of the alcohol, so we got our stuff unloaded and then unloaded that stuff too, and tried to get as many of the sodas and beers either in the fridge or on ice (nice low-cost solution: inflating a couple of kiddie pools, putting drinks in those and then completely covering them in ice). Slowly other stuff started to arrive—barbecue, cake, more alcohol—so we would help get that stuff unloaded as well while Will ran around and explored.

It got to be noon, and the bride still hadn't arrived, and when it became clear that the ceremony wasn't imminent, a lot of folks started to raid the buffet and start their meals. I think the ceremony ended up happening around 1, and it was perfect for them: a nice day outside, with short, self-written vows presided over by one of the bride's sisters.

After a couple of hours we all started to clean up—some folks made off with a decent haul of leftover food and beer—and then headed back to the hotel for a couple of hours before convening for our final meal together. We went to a mac and cheese place where you could put all sorts of toppings on different kinds of mac and cheese, but I was so full from the past couple of days of eating that I didn't feel like having any. Will seemed to enjoy his, however.

We left early the next morning to head back to the Cleveland airport for our flight home. All in all it was a pretty good trip, and fairly low stress given that the whole family was in close quarters for two significant events over three days. I don't know the next time we'll all be together like that—one of my sisters almost never travels, so we typically only see her if we go to North Carolina—but I'm glad we all got to be there for my brother's special days.

We had a busy busy busy Mother's Day weekend. It started on Saturday with one of the biggest events for our Cub Scout pack of the year—all the scouts moved forward to the next level, including the oldest Cub Scouts moving on to a new Boy Scout pack. They celebrate this occasion by having a big outdoor picnic, and even though it started raining about halfway through the afternoon, everyone got to eat by then and it wasn't a big deal to move it all inside.

My sister and brother-in-law brought my mom to that event, and then we all went out to a Japanese steakhouse for dinner. We didn't think of this until the day before, and the one we usually go to was all booked up until after 8 (not a huge surprise on Mother's Day weekend). I made a reservation for that time, but kept refreshing the reservations options throughout the day, and a spot finally opened up at 5:30, which is the perfect time to go with a six year old. It's always a fun meal, and because they were so busy, we sort of go to see two shows: as soon as our chef was finished, another chef started up at the table opposite us, so we got to see the flaming volcano, etc., all over again.

On Mother's Day itself, we did what has become our tradition in Atlanta, showing up at Rise-n-Dine prior to it opening so we could be part of the first group in for breakfast (Will took great pride in making sure we were actually the very first ones through the door this year). The rest of the day was pretty low key—Will and I made a pasta dish with sausage and roasted broccoli for dinner, and we got a heart-shaped cake at the grocery store that came with a decorating kit (to keep Julie from seeing the cake before we presented it to her after dinner, Will put a big sign on the box that said "KEEP OUT! BOMBS INSIDE!").

After finishing the Wool trilogy, I stayed with sci fi but went back to a space-oriented book set in a non-Earth universe called A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by new author Becky Chambers.

This book was a lot lighter in tone than some of the other sci fi I've been reading recently, and many of the reviewers compared the crew of the ship to a literary version of the big and very different personalities from the Firefly crew, who nonetheless were a loyal family, and while I don't find that analogy totally accurate, Chambers does do a good job of creating some unique personalities, and to the extent that she does world-building, she slowly reveals some of the quirky cultures/settlements/species linked to the crew that is the focus of this book.

It was an enjoyable read, but my biggest complaint was that there was no real plot to speak of. A lot of potential deeper/more significant plot developments were hinted at, but none of them were really followed up on in a complete way (for example, the book returns regularly to the idea of the ship's AI being transferred into an artificially constructed biological body/brain, but it doesn't happen—at least not with the AI who we get to know as a pretty significant character throughout the novel).

Most of what looks like the plot is actually just a series of MacGuffins that give us the chance to explore a certain character in more detail (something on the spaceship is busted, and the only place they can go for a replacement is a rogue maker colony where one crew member grew up, for example). It's a nice way to get into more detail about a certain culture of species, but a more experienced writer probably would have been able to make the transitions between these set pieces more seamless and driven by an actual plot, but you get the feeling that many of these chapters started off as her writing a backstory for a character that she then needed to find a way to jam into some kind of loose narrative to create a novel.

Chambers has a second book in this series which I almost started reading right away—I did really like the characters, and I was curious to see if she would have a larger story to tell after doing a lot of the groundwork to build the world in the first book—but this book, while set in the same universe, focuses on an entirely different set of characters. This made me think I was just going to get more of the same—set pieces that allow for the introduction of backstory details for each character, but no real plot. And that's just not what I was in the mood for.

I will likely read the second book at some point, and I'll definitely keep an eye on her career to see what she comes up with in future books—her characters are fun and vividly drawn—but I do usually want at least the semblance of a compelling story to keep me moving through the narrative.

The next book I picked up was Arkwright by Allen Steele. The premise behind this one was interesting: a Gene Roddenberry/George Lucas type of sci fi writer who made tons of money from the tv shows and movies based on his writing decides to use his vast fortune to set up a fund to create a generation ship that will take humans out of the solar system in an attempt to colonize a new world in another part of the galaxy.

This book took a different approach than most of the generation ship plots that I've read previously: instead of trying to make the ship a self-sustaining, closed system where humans can be born, live, and die for dozens or hundreds of years while they are in transit to a new planet, this one instead sends a smaller ship controlled by AI with the genetic material needed to create humans once they arrive at their new world, and also the ability o manipulate the DNA of the embryos in order to give them helpful adaptations for their new environment.

And we don't just jump to the ship arriving and the experience trying to set up a human outpost on another world: the vast majority of the book follows the generations of people on Earth who are descendants of Nathan Arkwright who all end up being in some way involved with the project: the building of the ship, maintaining communications with the AI as it approaches its destination, and finally interacting in a limited way with the colonists on the new planet.

The colonization itself goes much better than it typically does in these generation ship novels, and there were a few other technical areas that were more or less glossed over, but overall this was a decent read. I don't think it was deserving of the best-of-the-year accolades that it received in some quarters, but a quick, mostly enjoyable experience.

Almost caught up on posts about my reading now, and for the next book, I didn't just choose another sci fi novel, I picked another generation ship-oriented tale, a subgenre that I've ended up spending a lot of time with recently (in the past year, I've read Neal Stephenson's Seveneves, Kameron Hurley's The Stars Are Legion, Allen Steele's Arkwright, and Hugh Howey's Wool trilogy, which, while not technically about a generation ship, tackles many of the same issues and problems that you have to think about with a generation ship by exploring a series of self-contained silos that are supposed to sustain a stable human population for hundreds of years).

This book was called Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, and it turned out to be one of my favorite books in this recent string of sci fi novels. Instead of focusing on the building of the generation ship (like Arkwright), Aurora instead focuses on what happens when the current population of the ship who are descended from the original inhabitants reach their destination and attempt to colonize an Earth-like world. We also get a different spin to the story when a group of these starfarers decide they'd like to take the ship back to Earth rather than face the rigors of building a new civilization in another solar system.

The writing was good, the characters pretty well drawn (especially Freya, the closest stand-in we have to a traditional protagonist), and the concepts well-researched enough to be plausible given certain technological breakthroughs, but what really made this book stand out for me was its larger themes of systems and how they deteriorate over time and fail for reasons you couldn't have predicted no matter how good your models were. These questions were best embodied by the AI of the ship, which over the decades has been gaining more and more human intelligence and self-awareness, and who ends up narrating/writing significant portions of the text.

Some of my favorite parts, in fact, were when the ship went into an internal monologue where it pondered human language as a system, and spent a lot of time philosophizing about the nature of language, and ultimately the nature of meaning and reality considering the integral part that langauge plays in our perception of nature and our interaction with others, despite ultimately being ill-equipped to do those things in any precise or objective way.

The book is pretty pessimistic in regards to our ability to leave our homeworld and create a human diaspora they spans star systems, but it tries to end on a positive note that feels very fulfilling if you've grown attached to Freya's character. Some of the meditations about our linkage to Earth reminded me a lot of the ruminations on terroir from Jeff Vandermeer's Southern Reach trilogy—how where you come from impactssand its impacts who you are and what you are capable of becoming, and what happens when a stable biome is invaded or when a native species attempts to exist outisde its terroir. But Aurora was far less vague about how it approached asking and answering these questions, and it allowed me to think about this issue in a far more productive and less frustrating way than the abstract unexplainined weirdness of the Southern Reach.

Will won two awards in the art contest at his schools this year, one for photography and one for literature, and we knew he also won something at the district level, but we didnt' know what. Last night they had the award ceremony for the district, and it turns out that it was his story that won at that level.

He also won for his story last year, so there's some consistency, and it's especially nice given how much he can grouse about doing non-creative writing assignments. This year's story was called Jellyfish Finds a Friend:

One time there was a little jellyfish but he didn't have any friends.

He looked at other jellyfish and tried to play with them, and they wouldn't let him play with them. He was all left out.

But one day he found a fish that was all alone, too. And they decided to be friends, and then when they went home they always said bye.

But one day they went to school. He went to fish school. He wasn't at the same kind of fish school as the friend he really liked, and he was very sad.

But then he didn't know there was other fish like him. But jellyfish saw a person just like him.

So they had a three-team: two jellyfishes and one fish and they all had fun.

The End.

We weren't completely sure that everyone who had been invited to the awards ceremony had actually won something, so Will was pretty nervous when they got to the literature category, especially because his name had not been called for photography. He was so happy and proud when his name was called, and he loved going up on stage to shake hands with the presenters and get his certificate and medal.

I was supposed to go to the Atlanta United game on Saturday, and I did in fact make it to the Marta stop where I walk to the stadium, but I didn't end up going. I was unusually tired that day, and so wasn't highly motivated in the first place, and then there were thunderstorms and downpours that delayed the start of the game by at least an hour.

While I was standing near the Marta station, avoiding the rain and waiting for the team to decide what to do, I was looking at the weather forecast on a couple of different sites, and all of them said that there would be another wave of thunderstorms sometime between 9 and 10 that evening. So when they announced the game would start at 8 (it was originally scheduled for 7), I figured they would play part of the match and call it, or we would sit in the pouring rain for 20 or 30 minutes towards the end of the match.

I just didn't have it in me for that scenario, so I decided to head back home and watch the game on tv instead. And while I don't quite regret that decision—I was really exhausted that day—it was an amazing game (4-1 victory, including a hat trick from Almiron), and I'm sure it would have been an incredible experience to be in the crowd (it didn't end up raining again either).

I leave tomorrow for a work trip and won't be back until late Wednesday night, so no posts for a couple of days.

Before I left for my business conference (it was in Nashville, so I drove and had a little bit more flexible schedule than when I have to fly), Julie and I went to Will's school for his class's end of year presentation for parents. They had a little video the whole class had made where they each said what they had learned and what they liked best about first grade, and that was followed by a live presentation where groups of 2-3 students each talked about a different area they had studied that year (not surprisingly, Will did the music presentation).

It's very strange, him finishing first grade and about to turn seven. I have strong memories of that period in my life (which was a long time ago, but sure doesn't seem that long ago), and some of the experiences and interactions I had still stay with me and influence me to this day. From the outside perspective, these might seem completely random and insignificant, not life-influencing events that I'm still reflecting on decades later. That's when I had my first realization (on the playground) that some people didn't like other people who had a different skin color. And also that some people are just jerks (unrelated to the former realization, but also on the playground).

I know he's having those experiences as well, and just like my parents had no clue what I had witnessed or learned in a given day, I don't necessarily know what he thinks was the most significant thing to happen to him in a given day, or what he might consider important weeks, months, or years from now. It's a reminder that we don't really know what's going on in anyone's head at any given moment, even those we are closest to, and it makes me treasure the time I have with him and the parts of his life and thoughts he chooses to share with me even more.

Yesterday was Will's last day of school for the year, and he finished by getting to be aftercare boss for the day, a prize we won for him at the school's annual auction a couple of months ago. He got to carry around a walkie talkie, chastize kids for running, etc., and also distribute the celebratory pizza they ordered for everyone. He had a ball—he loves being in charge of things.

Once Julie got home, we headed out for what has become an annual tradition on Will's last day of school: dinner at the Peachtree-DeKalb Airport, a private airport about 20 minutes away from us. They have a little restaurant with a deck where you can sit outside and watch the planes landing and taking off, and the food is surprisingly good.

We were headed back home after dinner and stopped a red light when a very fun day took a turn for the worse: we were rear-ended by a car behind us. As these things go, it wasn't too bad: it was fairly low-speed, no one was hurt, and both cars were drivable, but we happened to be driving the car that we need to take on our beach vacation next week, and it's certainly not drivable for that distance (the back window is completely blown out).

The police came and their report said she was completely at fault, but they use a private company for their official reports, and that likely won't be available to us for another few days. So we're just going to have to rent a replacement car for our trip next week and then hope that her insurance company (we don't have a policy number or even the name of her insurance company, but the cops did tell us she had a valid, active policy) will properly reimburse us for this expense.

Again, the accident itself wasn't that bad, but it comes at a very inconvenient time, and I'm sure even if things go smoothly it will still take a few weeks to get everything settled. But I can't worry too much about that now—we're off to the beach for a week.

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