Snobbish Pretention – A Double-Standard

If someone you are talking to says, proudly, that they don’t read, what is your reaction to them? If you’re like me, it’s a feeling of slight revulsion, a bit of pity, and a smug sense that they’re deliberately ignorant. If they tell you that they do read, but it’s only things like Twilight and The Hunger Games, then you might say to yourself, “Well, what they are reading sucks balls, but at least they’re reading something!”

Now consider that you’re talking with someone else who says, proudly, that they don’t watch TV. What is your reaction then? I’m willing to bet that in the case of many people, they’ll nod, and start talking about what a vast, cultural wasteland television is. If someone says that they do watch TV, but they only watch shows like Here Comes Honey Boo-boo, then I’m willing to bet your reaction will be even more negative. Possibly with phrases like “junk food for the brain”.

Why do we have this double-standard? Surely if someone who never reads is “inferior” on an intellectual level, then so is someone who never watches TV, yes? By that same token, if all someone reads is crap novels, then they must be every bit as “bad” as someone who watches nothing but badly-done reality TV, right?

But for some reason we as a culture generally regard the person who doesn’t watch any TV as being morally superior. Why? Sure, there’s a lot of bad TV out there, but there’s also things like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and others. TV as a viable entertainment media is less than seventy years old, and is just now really hitting its stride. We’re in a golden age of television, and walling yourself off from it by pretending all TV is crap is just pretentious stupidity and likely makes you out to be a smug, hipster asshole.

By that same token, it you only read bad novels, that doesn’t say anything good about you. I would rather someone not read than have them read nothing but badly written books. I have far less respect for someone who reads bad books than I do for someone who watches good TV.

And that’s the point, really. It doesn’t matter what medium you use for your information or entertainment. It can be TV, books, radio, music, movies, whatever. The only thing that matters is the content. If you’re listening to bad music, watching only movies made by Michael Bay, listening to nothing but overly-political talk radio or the like, then you are every bit as “bad” as someone who watches nothing but reality TV or reads only books like Twilight.

You have to make a choice when you’re ingesting cultural goods. Choose the stuff that entertains, informs, and is well-crafted. Don’t limit yourself to the simple and easy, and don’t wall yourself off from an entire medium of entertainment.

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Book Review – Supervolcano: All Fall Down by Harry Turtledove


So apparently once the Yellowstone supervolcano goes off, the worst most of the west coast will have to worry about is a little snow, higher gas prices and Denny’s serving pork burgers with barley buns. That, at least, is the impression I get from the latest novel by master writer Harry Turtledove; a novel that is, sadly, a rare misfire.

This story picks up right where part one left off. Colin Ferguson and his family are dealing with the literal and metaphorical fallout of a volcanic eruption that killed about 2 to 3 million people, ejected something like 600 cubic miles of debris into the air and buried a huge part of America’s agricultural belt under several feet of ash. It’s a global crisis presented on a local scale and that’s really just part of the problem.

See, at no point do I get a real sense of desperation. Life is basically going on as normal for almost everyone in the book. Ferguson is being a cop and tracking down a serial killer (whose identity I got almost correct), his new wife wants to have a baby, his ex-wife is raising a new baby, their youngest son is helping when he isn’t acting like a jerk, their older son is stuck in rural Maine dealing with ten months of winter a year, and their daughter is stuck at a refugee camp where she does unpleasant things to make her life slightly better.

Now you’d think that, for example, the son in Maine would be living in desperate times indeed. This does not appear to be the case. We follow him through his second and third winter there (because he’s decided not to leave, even though he could at almost any point), and he makes mention, from time to time, about how the moose herds and second-growth forest are thinning out. But despite that, no one seems to be starving or freezing yet. It’s a specter that might come later, but isn’t here at this point. This removes some of the tension.

There’s a similar problem with the daughter at the camp. She could, at any point, leave. All she needs to do is contact her father and have him send her money so that she can go home. But, no, her pride won’t let her do that. Ok, I suppose I can kind of understand that, but apparently her pride doesn’t stop her from performing certain services for various men in order to make her own way along in the world. That the only men she ever meets are apparently the sort who would abuse their power in this way is a given, though I’m not clear why, since I think most men are better than that.

Mind you, the problems these two characters face are real, but they aren’t that big, and they can escape from them whenever they chose and go back to Southern California where the rest of the family are. Things aren’t perfect there, with gas shortages and frequent brown-outs, but they’re not that bad. People ride bikes in weather that now resembles Seattle, but that’s really it for the problems they have to deal with. We’re told, however, that more problems are on the horizon.

That’s the real problem with this book. We never actually see any really, major, huge problems. Life is basically just going on like normal, and we’re told all the time that problems will be coming along down the line, but they never do, or if they do, they don’t in such a way as to cause real disruptions for the main characters.

It’s worth noting that this book suffers from some other problems, too. First off, Turtledove’s strength as an author has always centered on him being able to come up with interesting worlds and/or interesting stories and go from there. His strength has never been in his characters. Here has what is basically the real world with a lot more ash, and the result is that his characters problems show through big time. Vanessa and Marshall are characters we spend a lot of time with, and neither are particularly interesting. Everyone else are basically just archetypes in search of characterization, and none of them are especially interesting.

Second, Turtledove continues his habit of telling us the same thing over and over again. This was excusable when there’d be a year between books and he’d remind us, once, of something he told us in the previous one. That’s awkward when you read them one right after another, but not a problem when there’s a break. Here, however, we’re given certain bits of information repeatedly, throughout the same book, often using the same phrases. That’s annoying, distracting and unnecessary.

The third minor problem is minor indeed, and that’s that Turtledove’s personal politics seem to be showing. It’s implied that this happens around our current time, and that would imply in turn that the president and vice-president are the current ones. The former we hear nothing from and the latter is presented as rather feckless and foolish. We also hear almost every single character complain at least once about how the government isn’t doing anything to help them, which gets annoying, and the only politician we actually see is a noble, hard-working New England Republican. Turtledove also takes every chance to bash on the media, including presenting a CNN reporter as being a vapid idiot. Now I watch CNN daily, and while I have many complaints about the way they cover the news, I don’t ever feel that the various reporters are morons.

I didn’t hate this book. I just felt that not enough happened. We basically end with everyone in slightly different places geographically and the world turning along like it was at the end of the last book. Nothing major happened. Nothing major changed. The volcano is an annoyance, but little more. I sincerely hope that the next book in the series changes all those things, but right now, I’m not hopeful.

Book Review – Year Zero by Rob Reid

You say you want your comedy sci-fi leavened with a massive dose of copyright law? Oh, do I have a book for you.

Year Zero: A Novel tells us what happens when alien societies discover Earth music; specifically the theme to “Welcome Back, Kotter”. Apparently we’re the only species in the known universe who can make decent music. Soon everyone in the universe (or at least those parts that matter), are pirating Earth music, with the minor side effect that under their laws they now owe Earth something like eleventy billion dollars, which exceeds the entire wealth of the universe. That sort of money causes all sorts of issues, and it isn’t long before one group is formulating a plan to destroy the Earth, and thus eliminate the debt.

Into this comes Nick Carter. No, not that Nick Carter. This one is a lawyer who specializes in copyright law. It’s up to him, his neighbor and a couple lip-synching aliens to put a stop to the fiendish plans of an alien parrot and a sentient vacuum cleaner.

Yes, it’s that kind of book.

For what it is, it’s decent enough. Reid is no Douglas Adams, despite what I assume are his publisher’s efforts to make us think that he is. He’s got a decent sense of humor and though I didn’t laugh out loud at any point in the book, I did chuckle a bit. The idea of alien societies getting so obsessed with Earth music is entertaining, and some of the ways they use it, like having an element named vanhaylium, is pretty funny.

Ultimately, this is decent summer-time reading fare, and I’m sure that anyone who likes copyright laws will find this to be an interesting read. For the rest of us, eh. It’s enjoyable enough.

Book Review – The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I consider Terry Prachett to be one of the finest English-language writers working today. I’ve never read anything by Stephen Baxter. So now we all know where I stand coming into this.

This book tells the tale of humanity discovering the ability to travel between dimensions. They can visit various alternate versions of Earth by going “East” or “West” from the home Earth. There they find the same geography (mostly), the same animals (mostly), and no sign of humans whatsoever. It appears that the original Earth is the only one with humanity but not, perhaps, the only one with sentient beings.

Some people view this as an opportunity to get rich fast. One of them decides to go to Sutter’s Mill in our world, then move a few worlds over, all the better to get the gold there. He arrives only to find that he’s far from the first person to think of this, and very soon the value of gold decreases dramatically.

Others view this as a chance to get away from the world; to start new lives in a new land. The Green family is one of these, moving to a world over 100,000 Earths away from ours to set up a new life. In doing so they leave behind their thirteen-year-old son, who is one of the 20% or so who cannot travel between worlds.

And others view this as a great chance for science and exploration. These include Joshua, a man who can travel between worlds naturally, without the machine that most people require. He and a sentient computer named Lobsang (he claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan man), travel across over a million worlds, dropping science probes as they go, and trying to learn about this strange new phenomenon.

I really like that the travel between worlds is done with a device so simple you can build it with parts from Radio Shack and power it with a potato. I also love that the authors explore the real-world ramifications of what would happen if people could travel like this. For example, within a day of the technology appearing, there’s an assassination attempt on the American President, and a bombing at the House of Commons in the UK. Then the cities start rapidly depopulating as people begin to leave for the new worlds. Some places end up as virtual ghost towns.

I was also pleased that they addressed the possible legal issues (ie: do America and other countries have jurisdictions over these new worlds?), dealt with the issues of those left behind and I found it interesting that they decided iron would not be able to travel between worlds. There’s no real explanation for this (except possibly a Celtic one), but I liked it.

What I liked less, frankly, was much of the story execution. The Green family is entirely unsympathetic. I can understand their desire to go out and start a new life, but the parents should have been arrested for child abandonment. You don’t leave your thirteen-year-old son behind so you can go colonize. That’s just not right. I’m not sure why they couldn’t have just waited a few years. It’s not like there was a massive land and/or resource shortage on the first Earth. I’m also not at all clear on why they couldn’t take him with them. It’s established that people who can’t travel between worlds can, in fact, do so if someone carries them. It could just be me, but if I wanted to go colonize and keep my family intact, I would have been happy to tote my son between 100,000+ worlds if that is what it took.

I also got a little bored of the travelogue between Joshua and Lobsang. The conversations and the various worlds they were visiting were interesting, but it just kept going and going and going, and the little cut-aways to what was happening with the Green family or what was happening back home were more distracting than anything else, and not always in a useful way. I also found the ending very abrupt and an event that happens in Madison just before the end to be really unnecessary.

So why the positive review with those complaints? Because while the conversations do go on and on and on, they ARE interesting, as is the travel. I also liked the various almost-humans and the possible dinosaurian civilization that are encountered. I like that some of the various problems these new worlds create with the old one are addressed. I also really liked the characters of Joshua and Lobsang, and Lobsang’s very human nature. He seems the most “Pratchettian” character. I also liked the general concept overall. It’s just interesting to think that there could be well over two-million alternate Earths, and possibly a lot more, that are out there, and of those, ours is the only one with humans.

But my favorite part of the book comes near the very end, when we learn what has been driving various non-human intelligences “Westward” over the last few years. It leads to something which reminded me very heavily of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, 2001 and various episodes of Doctor Who, and I mean all of that in the best possible way.

While this book is not perfect, and is very different from what I’ve come to expect of Prachett, it is ultimately quite good and the flaws and complaints I have with it are minor indeed. I’m not sure if this book is meant to be the start of a new series, but if it is, sign me up for all the following installments!

Book Review – Supervolcano: Eruption, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove is best known (really, almost entirely known), for his work in the alternate history field. Though he’s written extensively in the fantasy and science fiction genres, it’s his alternate histories that grab the most attention. And why not? He’s proven over the years that he’s one of the best in the business in that particular genre.

This book is not alternate history. It’s more like, “Oh, crap, I really hope this doesn’t ever happen, or at least not until I’m long dead,” future. It shows what might happen when/if the supervolcano biding time under Yellowstone explodes. The short version is: nothing good. Hundreds of thousands dead, possibly a million or more, entire states under ash, the east coast cut off from the west, cats and dogs living together…you get the idea.

The focus for our story is a family called the Fergusons and those attached to them. Colin Ferguson is an LA cop who’s recently divorced wife has started taking up with an aerobics instructor. His youngest son is (sort of), working his way through college, while his oldest is touring with a minor league band. His daughter is dating an older gentleman and winds up following him to Denver, while her ex-boyfriend (and friend to Colin), is trying to finish his doctorate in classical Greek stuff. Add into this Colin’s new girlfriend, a geologist who he meets while visiting Yellowstone, and you have an interesting and expansive set of characters.

The volcano of the title builds up slowly, and doesn’t actually go off until the middle off the book (somehow despite this being a Turtledove book, the eruption doesn’t trigger World War II), but when it does, oh, boy, what a mess. It really does end up being just about every kind of disaster movie you can picture, and something that’s made all the worse by the fact that it’s a: plausible, and b: not something we can really prepare for.

The Fergusons are an interesting group of people, and I found all their stories (except Marshall’s), be fairly compelling and entertaining. I really enjoyed this book. I think it’s a good start to a planned trilogy, and I look forward to seeing what the next pair of books are like.

Book Review – The Making of Some Like it Hot, by Tony Curtis

1959’s Some Like It Hot is, without a doubt, one of the best, funniest comedies ever put to film. It’s one of those very rare films that completely clicks on just about every level possible. Even now, over fifty years after it was first released it remains very popular with critics and audiences alike.

Of course no film exists in a vacuum. They’re all crafted by professionals, and the story of how they get made is often as interesting as the films themselves. That’s certainly the case with “The Making of Some Like it Hot.”

Curtis tells us, sometimes in more detail than we might like, all about how the film came to be. We also learn a bit about his childhood, about his relationship with Marylin Monroe, and quite a bit about filmmaking, especially as it was done in the late 1950s.

Curtis has a smooth, easy-going writing style that grips you from page one. I don’t often have trouble putting books aside to do other things, but I did have that problem here, and read the book in one go from start to finish.

Really, this is the best book I’ve read about Hollywood, and certainly the best of anything I’ve read about “Some Like it Hot,” which admittedly, hasn’t been much. If you’re a fan of the film, you owe it to yourself to read this one.

Book Review – My Best Friend, Abe Lincoln, by Robert L Bloch

Logically, famous historical figures, like everyone else, must have a childhood. For some historical figures, it’s hard to picture this childhood. One doesn’t exactly have an easy time visualizing young Hitler playing ball with his friends, or Stalin in diapers. But there are some historical figures for which this visualization works out quite well, and one of those is Abraham Lincoln.

Author Robert L Bloch uses the historical kid version of Lincoln in this tale, which is about a fictional boy who is friends with the future President as they both grow up in Indiana. You see the two boys hang out, go to school, play with Indians and generally get to know each other. You also see a visit to a slave market.

This book was well-written. It’s designed for a younger audience, but isn’t dumbed down. The artwork is also very nice, and really adds to the story. Overall, if you’re looking for a good book to introduce children to the basic concepts of history surrounding Lincoln, this is an excellent choice.