Saturday, April 23, 2016

Read It, Late April 2016

Life goes on. We've been looking at homes in Washtenaw County, working with a buyer's agent. We've seen nine homes. What we've seen isn't encouraging. Properties are coming on the market and even homes that wouldn't pass an inspection are being snapped up. It looks to me like an army of flippers and would-be flippers is trying to extract money from just about any home that comes up for sale within a short commuting distance of my workplace. Meanwhile, we have met with a seller's agent to start considering whether we can sell our home in Saginaw. That situation is not encouraging, either. The housing market here does not seem to have improved substantially, if at all.

The job is going well, and I can announce that the product line I've been working on since last June is officially announced and available -- a series of optical instruments with a common case and chassis and motherboard, running software that integrates and controls all the components. As the team's full-time software engineer, I personally wrote the bulk of this software, working closely with the electrical engineers. I did not write all of it -- I integrated work, or adapted work, or built on work, of several other engineers who also deserve credit for getting this code finished. I'm a very experienced and productive software developer, as I've been doing this kind of work for a living for decades, but even so, there's only so fast I can write and test and debug code, and we could not have reached version 1.0 of the full software suite, in under a year, without help.

Some of the boxes are optical transmitters, some are modulator drivers, and some are tunable laser sources. My group in Ann Arbor has also designed a smaller set of boxes, variable optical attenuators. I'm proud to say that we are manufacturing these devices right in Ann Arbor. So buy one! Well, if you need this sort of thing, that is.

In the midst of the working and commuting and house-hunting and budgeting and trying to spend some time with my family, I haven't gotten a lot of reading done, but I did read Stephen R. Donaldson's final fantasy novel about Thomas Covenant and The Land, The Last Dark. This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. After the three previous installments in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the four-part finale to the arc begun with Lord Foul's Bane in 1977, I was hesitant to dive back into to Donaldson's work. The first and second trilogies were important to me when I was younger, and I re-read them not long ago, and found that I still enjoyed them. This series has been a slog, though.

This site claims that the Last Chronices books add up to just over a million words, while the first trilogy is 506,000 words and the second trilogy is 548,000 words. Just to put that in perspective, The Lord of the Rings -- once often referred to and thought of as a long fantasy work -- weighs in at 470,000 words.

I get that there is some kind of a trend now towards bigger and bigger novels, and I don't completely hate that trend. I'm not afraid of big books. I've been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's six-volume My Struggle. I've read many heavyweight classics such as Moby Dick, and sometimes re-read them, for fun. But it comes down to a question of whether all that storytelling really pays off. Personally, having grown up with Donaldson, I would have pretty much been constitutionally unable to not finish the books. I've been waiting a long time to find out how the whole thing ends. And the story arc was, in many ways, quite satisfying. But getting there was needlessly painful. Let's look at a few of the ways that the Last Chronicles abuses the willing reader.

First, the length. Simply the length. The single biggest sin of this work is a near-complete refusal to elide or compress scenes to move the story along. Also, we are accustomed to the Covenant books including an enormous amount of introspection -- self-examination, self-laceration, and a lot of internal monologue. So it's not a surprise when Covenant does that. But at this point, we have three protagonists -- Jeremiah, Thomas Covenant, and Linden Avery. And all three of them do this. Endlessly.

Second, the tetralogies relies very heavily on deus ex machina. In this story arc there's an answer to every crisis, in the form of the arrival of an Insequent, or one of the Elohim, or a new gang of giants, or a new group of Haruchai. These folks drive the plot when the protagonists can't.

Third, magical travel through time. I'm not entirely opposed to the idea that the protagonists can go back into the Land's history -- this history is interesting to any long-time fans of the series. But time travel has to be very carefully handled, or it invalidates all the cause-and-effect in the story. It must be limited, and it shouldn't just feel like pointless padding, or a way to retrieve another plot coupon. In these books Donaldson lets the time travel genie out of the bottle several times, and I'm not entirely happy with the results.

Fourth, magical travel through space. There are good reasons that Aristotle's storytelling "unities" of time and place are important concepts. If characters can open up magical portals and jump out of danger anytime they feel like it, it again tends to water down the carefully constructed sense of an alternate reality, with its own different (but self-consistent) rules.

Fifth, monster mash, or indulging in a monster "greatest hits." Donaldson brings back all the monsters from previous installments, and brings them back pretty much all at once. Then, so that his entire company isn't simply killed immediately, he has to recalibrate the monsters. A good example of monster recalibration takes place in the Stargate Atlantis television series. When the producers introduce the wraith, they are nearly indestructible -- "bullets can't stop them." A whole episode revolves around a heavily armed group trying to fight a single wraith. But they quickly realize, later in the series, that this isn't very realistic, and it isn't much fun to have nearly-indestructible monsters. So they have to weaken the wraith; they become more ordinary badasses, tough but not at all impervious to bullets. Similarly, Donaldson has to make the skurj and the Sandgorgons -- originally nearly indestructible -- weak enough to fight by the dozen.

There are other problems, but I want to call out only one more -- something I'll call "George R. R. Martin's Disease." Donaldson kills of a huge number of characters in this book. In fact, he kills off so many giants that he has to introduce more, lest he run out of secondary characters entirely. So about the point where the giants Dimwit Redshirt and Tailwind Cannonfodder (it is possible I'm recalling some names incorrectly) are having limbs amputated and then running marathons on their stumps, I began to feel that Donaldson had somehow started to mistake, as Martin has for some time, sadism for the kind of dark storytelling that can allow the reader a real catharsis and caamora.

Finally, I want to point out one "problem" that, in my view, is not really a problem at all. Donaldson takes great joy in language -- his Oxford English Dictionary must be very well-thumbed, and I get the feeling he goes even farther afield to find obscure and beautiful words that may not even be in the OED. These Thomas Covenant books continue to introduce me to English words I have never read before. That's unusual, as I'm approaching the age of fifty and I have read incessantly from a very young age. Most authors never teach me any words or idioms I haven't read before. But Donaldson keeps finding intriguing words that send me to my own dictionary, and I respect and admire him for that. And not just words, but archaic but meaningful phrases and wordings of all kinds. It's a stylistic affectation, but one that I quite like. His love of language has, in fact, shaped my own.

So anyway -- the story is done. The conclusion is in many ways moving and satisfying. A number of storylines are wrapped up quite well. There are many beautiful scenes.

I've long felt that the Covenant books are not for anyone, and most people will simply self-select as to whether they are part of the books' audience or not. In the final tetralogy, Donaldson turns everything up to eleven, and in some ways that is amazing. But he also turns up the worst aspects of his writing in the Covenant books along with the best. And so I think he has, potentially, narrowed his audience further, and I'm not sure it had to be this way. A brutal round of editing or two -- cutting a few hundred pages from each book -- could have helped enormously. When a story is moving fast enough, it is easier to forgive clumsy storytelling because you are pulled along by the events. In the Last Chronicles we, like Covenant, have more than enough time to mull over our choices, especially the choice to continue reading, and many fans of the earlier trilogies will probably drop out of the million-word marathon of the Last Chronicles before reaching the finish line. In fact, I know several who have.

So, in April 2016, I finished only one book:

  • The Last Dark (The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book 4) by Stephen R. Donaldson

That's it for tonight -- I have to go read the kids a story! Meanwhile, I am working on the second novel in the trilogy by Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest. This one is translated by Joel Martinsen. The first book, The Three-Body Problem, was a fascinating and odd work. This book starts slowly, and at the 170-page mark, is drifting into some strange storytelling territory, but becoming more interesting at the same time, so I'm still reading.

I watched the end of the SyFy channel's show The Magicians. I have thoughts to share. I felt that the show was improving, but the season finale contained many suprises, most of them unpleasant. I will have to save that until next time!

Friday, April 1, 2016

Read It, March 2016

This will be a pretty short post. Not much has changed. I continue with my commuting arrangement. Grace and I are getting our act together, slowly, as far as house-hunting and examining relocation options. We're not very good house-hunters; the places we've seen in person have been discouraging, and the better-looking places we've tried to arrange to see have inevitably been sold before we even got a chance. It remains uncertain when and how we might be able to sell our existing house. The housing market in Saginaw, Michigan does not seem to have improved.

Work has been very busy, but just this week I tagged my firmware as version 1.0. This, assuming we find no show-stopper bugs in testing, is the version that will ship out. There are a lot of new features planned, but it is important to take a moment to acknowledge these milestones. There is the danger of just being pulled straight into more code changes, and never having really the fact of the completed and achieved milestone, and that is draining and demoralizing. In just a few days the product line I've been working on will be officially announced and released on my company web site. The products have been "real" for a long time. My co-workers have demonstrated the boxes at a trade show. There are "real" boxes lined up on shelves fully tested and ready to ship out, but officially they aren't "real" until they are in the virtual catalog and someone can click a "buy it" button.

I completed a couple more books in the last week of March:

  • Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood's End
  • Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 2

I finished Childhood's End in part so I could finish comparing the book to the mini-series. After reading the conclusion of the book, which is thoughtful, meditative, and troubling, I am not sure that I can bring myself to watch the third part of the mini-series. In the second part, I was disappointed to see the way in which SyFy altered the character and even the appearance of the Overlord Karellen. In the book the Overlords themselves are eventually revealed to be tragic figures, stranded in an evolutionary dead-end, fated to help others enter the promised land but never enter it themselves. In the mini-series they are ominous, manipulative, and even murderous. My children are asking if I will show them part three. I suppose I will have to preview it and decide, but the answer may very well be "no, we're going to read the book instead." The book is scary enough without adding cheap horror movie tropes; the bogeyman in the text is the mysterious abstraction known as the Overmind, towards which the human race is inexorably moving. The SyFy version is like a horror story written by a baby in which the bad guy is the obstetrician who helps deliver her from the womb.

Knausgaard's second volume, in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux trade paper edition, has been sitting on the shelf waiting my attention for some time. It is a relief to get through it. This volume feels a little episodic and uneven compared to the first one. There are some wonderful philosophical digressions, and moments when Knausgaard really nails the "living his life" thing. In particular, the story about the birth of his daughter is beautifully done. But the jumping back and forth in time tends to keep me from really engaging with the flow of the story for very long. At times painfully confessional, Knausgaard is literally self-lacerating, and so there is a recurring impulse to tell him to, literally, get over himself. But then I think back to the times when I have felt very sorry for myself and very attached to my problems, and I can't really judge. If anything he gets to the core of what it is like to feel absolutely awful about oneself even when, to all outward appearances, one is living a successful and fortunate life. The specter of mental illness is always hovering over his account.

I have now started book three, and it feels like a relief to go back to his early childhood because it feels so very much like my early childhood. This, it seems, is Knausgaard's real achievement in these books -- by making them incredibly specific, and incredibly personal, they somehow become a way in to our own lives, at least for those of us who have been sensitive and troubled and who have the patience to engage with his project.

It is April first. Have a great April!

Read It (and Watched It), Late March 2016

We didn't watch them the night we planned to, but the Potts family did watch the last two of the original cast Star Trek movies. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is pretty much as bad as I remembered it to be. It is widely considered to be the worst of the series. I think it is pretty much a toss-up between III and V, but it is pretty bad. I particularly dislike the way the film used James Doohan, portraying him as a clown. He deserved better. To add insult to injury, this film on DVD also suffers from a poor transfer and shaky color.

The last movie to feature the original cast, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country is, if anything, even better than I remember it. The script is simply much better. It is an allegory for the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, but it does not bludgeon the audience too hard with this; it becomes, in part, a murder mystery and police procedural. The acting is excellent, with the exception of a few slightly clunky line readings here and there. There are some scenes that remain just wonderful, particularly Nimoy's scenes with Valeris (Kim Cattrall). James Doohan gets to play a more dignified character and he has some excellent lines. Christopher Plummer as Chang is a very entertaining villain, over-the-top for the win, and reminiscent of Ricardo Montalban's Khan. For the most part the film looks great. There only really notable exception is the Klingon blood in zero-gravity -- an early CGI effect, it now looks odd and dated. But overall this film is really a joy. We actually watched it twice. It opens with a bang, literally ends with the cast "signing off," and in between it's a fast-paced and exciting adventure movie stuffed with your favorite Star Trek characters, a few new ones, and a psychopathic villain who quotes Shakespeare. What more could a Star Trek fan ask for?

Let's see... what's next? After the somewhat weak episode of The Magicians entitled "The Mayakovsky Circumstance," the next few episodes have been better. In particular, The Writing Room is very creepy, re-imagining the character Christopher Plover and putting us into the events in the Plover household as he wrote the famed Fillory books. It was very well-done, and creepy as hell, while remaining true to the textual cues in the book. The next episode, "Homecoming," has Penny trapped in the Neitherlands. This place was portrayed quite nicely on screen with a modest budget, and it is a good example of how such a budget can force the producers to be creative with practical sets and props. So, I am encouraged. There are three more episodes in season one, at least according to Wikipedia, and I am eager to see how they wind up the season.

I've been reading Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book 2. In this book Knausgaard writes extensively about the birth of his daughter and the struggles of domesticity. These are strange books. On the one hand, they are about the commonplace and everyday, rendered only marginally more exotic by their location and culture. But the text is like a river -- there are shallow spots, and rapids. At just about any point I can start reading, and while I might be hung up a bit in a shallow spot, the story will go around a bend and I will find myself fully engaged, living Knausgaard's life, vicariously, until I look up and realize I've read fifty, or seventy, pages. I can't convince my wife Grace to read fiction -- she generally just doesn't enjoy it like I do -- but I did read her a section of the book, about the birth of his daughter Vanja. It's a great birth story, both like and unlike our own experiences.

One thing that makes Knausgaard a bit distant from my experience, and seems conspicuous by its absence, is this: he and his wife never seem to be desperate to know where their next meal is coming from. They worry about finding and keeping a great place to live, but they never seem to worry about becoming homeless. For a text that is so detailed and direct about every detail of life, it seems that talking about money: how much the family has, how much they earn, how much they spend, etc., is taboo. He does mention spending too much on books and too much on gourmet food. I often look at the lives of musicians and writers and wonder "how are they earning a living?" Is the family living on government assistance while he works to develop his writing career? Is there other income? Is he living on inherited money, or savings? We are't told, and I remain curious, and as an American who has repeatedly wiped out my savings and risked losing my home during periods of unwanted unemployment, perhaps more than a little jealous.

Anyway, I will soon finish Knausgaard, volume 2. The Magicians will be finished for the year. There will be no new Doctor Who until the end of 2016. And my work project edges closer to release. So I expect to get some more reading done in April. Onward!