Review: The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are a lot of succulent ingredients in this book: steam power, the railroad, insutrial revolution and cultural revolution, lots of recurring characters, and of course a generous helping of the Moist von Lipwig charm we all love.
Unfortunately it doesn’t all seem to gel together much. Things just sort of… happen, one after the other, rather than be tied together with a nice bow. The characters, too, seem like recordings of themselves, either somewhat faded, slightly subdued, or over the top. Most of all they’re wordy, much more than they’ve ever been before.
I noticed many of the same things in Unseen Academicals and in The Long Earth series, so I guess it’s just the new way that PTerry writes after his illness and switching to speech-to-text.
Also, while technically a Moist book, this story seems to actively involve wrapping up several plotlines from Thud and Snuff (and a little from Fifth Elephant). Since Vimes is low on my favourite characters list and I skipped both books, I found this somewhat annoying.

View all my reviews

Review: Raising Steam

Raising Steam
Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There are a lot of succulent ingredients in this book: steam power, the railroad, industrial revolution and cultural revolution, lots of recurring characters, and of course a generous helping of the Moist von Lipwig charm we all love.
Unfortunately it doesn’t all seem to gel together much. Things just sort of… happen, one after the other, rather than be tied together with a nice bow. The characters, too, seem like recordings of themselves, either somewhat faded, slightly subdued, or over the top. Most of all they’re wordy, much more than they’ve ever been before.
I noticed many of the same things in Unseen Academicals and in The Long Earth series, so I guess it’s just the new way that PTerry writes after his illness and switching to speech-to-text.
Also, while technically a Moist book, this story seems to actively involve wrapping up several plotlines from Thud and Snuff (and a little from Fifth Elephant). Since Vimes is low on my favourite characters list and I skipped both books, I found this somewhat annoying.

View all my reviews

Hiding behind a nickname

((Hello people. Yup, not dead, just been away from blogging for a good while. If you want to catch up, I’m currently quite active on The Secret World or writing book ramblings on Goodreads.))

Anyway, reading this year’s themes for the high school graduation exams, I was once again annoyed by the reappearance of the old platitude of “people online hide behind a nickname”. Uhm, sure, some people do, just like some people hide behind a nickname in real life, because it’s hard(ish) to find the real person behind the ‘nym and make them accountable for their words. But the real issue is that these commenters, who probably never used the internet outside of Facebook, confuse or conflate pseudonymity with anonymity.

Anonymity is trying to not attach yourself to a name. Pseudonyms, especially in the case of persistent ones, are about making yourself a name – a strong, recognizable one, that says who you are.
In some cases they’re simply riffs on the birth name, like Cher, Madonna, or Iain Banks who was Iain M. Banks when writing science fiction. In other cases it’s a different name entirely: Mark Twain was born Samuel Clemens, and Charles Dodgson is better known to the world as Lewis Carroll.
Some ‘nyms are not even chosen but rather thrust upon, like the nicknames of painters in medieval times or the Renaissance: Canaletto, Parmigianino, Correggio…

No one in their right minds would say that these artists are “hiding” by using a pseudonym or a nickname. So why do they think normal people on the internet do? Is it because they’re not famous? Is it because it’s hard to keep consistency? Because everyone is (was) doing it?
Maybe it’s some sort of special attachment that we’re supposed to be feeling toward the name on our birth certificate. Traditions, especially in some countries, dictate to be named for your father, grandfather, aunt, or beloved deceased friend. Plus, your surname(s) indicate a direct heritage, the succession of your mother and father. Abandoning that name, even temporarily, is taken as rejecting all of that – immoral, in a way.
Maybe it’s that they don’t want people to have power over their own names. In a ‘nym world, you can be Dazzle, Christo, Vangelis, Atrus, Direwolf86. They’re stuck being John, Daisy, Carl – or some nickname they don’t like that they got at school or work and got stuck. They don’t understand, or don’t want to believe, they can be something else too, just by choosing.
Or maybe they don’t want to understand that you can have different names depending who you’re talking to, just like we show them different faces, without making it any less authentic.

Because using a different name is being fake, isn’t it? That’s why journalists take so much glee and pride in repeatedly revealing the “real” name of an artist when talking about them. That’s why cheap sociologists can’t wait for an excuse to say that nicknames are for hiding. That’s why Facebook and Google want you to use your ‘real name’ and only support nicknames (badly) because of external pressure. They take pride in the reveal, as if they were unveiling something shameful, as if knowing the name on your ID card somehow gave them power over you.

Well, as you can guess if you know me or have read so far, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.  A person can have as many names as they want, and persistent nick/pseudonyms can be more authentic than a birth name. The sooner society at large reconciles with that, the sooner we can get rid of this stupid ‘real name’ and ‘real identity’ fixation.

(Social) networking failure

I’m sick and tired of hearing “you can’t really know someone via the internet, you need to meet them in real life”, there are so many things wrong with that that I don’t even know where to start with.

First of all, no matter what Facebook calls them, social networks are not there to make friends. Sharing cat videos on social networks is not a ‘virtual friendship’, not because of the ‘virtual’ part but because it’s not a friendship; if listening to what someone is broadcasting is a friendship, then we’re all friends with everyone we’ve ever seen on TV. So stop saying that you can’t know someone online when you really mean you can’t know someone by following them randomly on Facebook.
To make friends or, at least, to relate to someone there needs to be a two-way interaction; you need to go where people talk and interact. In the past that was IRC, Usenet, MUDs and email groups; nowadays it’s mostly forums and MMOGs.
Sure, you’re not promised a meaningful friendship, or one that will last after you log off from the game for the last time, but hey, it’s not that different from a ‘real life’ friendship after all.

Then, who ever said that relations over the internet are less real than face to face ones? I’ve met many of my friends over the internet and, sure, I’ve met many of them offline afterwards; but there are people I only know online, either because of geographical distance (hello America!) or because we’re simply not that close, that I do consider to be real friends or, at least, acquaintances. These are people with whom I’ve shared laughs and serious moments, I’ve argued with, built stuff together with, played together, created communities.
On the other side, there’s people I’ve met offline every day for the last three years who don’t know what my hobbies are, or who insult me constantly without ever realizing, or who don’t even know my *name*. And yet, my relation with them is supposed to be more real simply because we meet face to face.

Third, and sorry if this hurts some ‘real life’-ers feelings, some guys just aren’t cut to make friends online. Hey, that’s good. I can’t make friends at parties, though that’s supposedly how you’re supposed to meet people in the real world. Maybe we can share notes. Just don’t extend you lack of social skills to the rest of the world.

Why I’m not switching to ebooks just yet…

I love the concept of ebooks, just like I loved the idea of digital music since the birth of the mp3. While it would take something major for me to even think about parting from my paper books, there is something endearing in the thought of a portable format, something you can backup, and that allows you to read hundreds of books on a device the size of a paperback.

However. Let me tell you a little story.

I have recently started reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Chalion saga starting from the second book, “Paladin of souls”, as I was told it’s the best one and it stands on its own (and it’s really an amazing book so go read it now).
I decided to read the first book as well but, since I needed something new to read on my PC during breaks, I thought to see if there was an ebook edition available that would cost me less than a paperback. Since I use Calibre on my laptop, it also had to be something without DRM.

I’m not an expert on ebook stores but I knew I couldn’t buy on Amazon, as Kindle books have DRM. So I turned to Google for help, with the simple query “bujold curse chalion ebook”. The results? About 30 download links, a PDF, and a few legit bookstores.
I tried again, this time adding “drm-free” and “buy” as keywords. Yet again no luck: the illegal results yet again overwhelmed the legal ones.
I kept at it for another half-hour, ignoring all the Rapidshare links that would give me a nice and clean drm-free epub with just one click, wading through the FAQs of several websites to see whether or not they support DRM (some work really hard at hiding the fact that they do).

The net result:
– legal drm-free ebook: none.
– illegal drm-free ebook: everywhere, 0$
– legal ebook with DRM: available for 8$, doesn’t work on Calibre
– paperback book: 6-8$

Summing up, this means that a digital edition of The curse of Chalion would cost me just as much as a paperback, only it’s harder to find, doesn’t work on my platform, and restricts my rights of use. My decision? The hell with it, I’ll go buy another book.

Now I’m sure this wasn’t an isolated case: I would’ve had the same result searching for Gaiman, or Pratchett, or anyone else. With the exception of Baen and a few others, no one wants to publish copyrighted books without a drm scheme.
However, those two little questions keep popping in my head: why should I buy a digital book for the same price as a paperback, or more? why should I buy an inferior, restricted product when a better one is available for less?

And the answer is: I shouldn’t, and I won’t. Until commercial ebooks start working like books, my library will be fine without them.

PS – The situation is not much better for audiobooks. I recently subscribed to Audible, willingly ignoring the DRM restrictions because it looks like a good software and has a wide library, only to find out that many audios are not available in my country anyway. However, I can buy those very same audios on CD just fine from Amazon, which is Audible’s owner. *headdesk*

I reject your fantasy and substitute my own

A few months ago someone suggested to me to read Brandon Sanderson’s Warbreaker, as it was available online for free on his website. The novel was pretty good, nothing to remember in the centuries to come but a nice high-fantasy based about a peculiar magic system and that reads very easily. I liked it enough that I decided to dish out some money to buy his next book, The way of kings, which is now sitting on my shelf wondering if I’ll ever finish reading it.

Because today I made a very big mistake: I read his blog. In particular I read this essay on Dumbledore’s homosexuality and this forum thread on his religion.
And I said to myself, I cannot support this man, no matter how much I like his books. This man is OK with discrimination and depriving other people of equal rights under the law because his made-up religion says so. By buying this man’s books, I support him and his church in their efforts to prevent gay marriage.

Now don’t get me wrong: belief is free, and if you want to believe in a god that says that drinking even a sip of alcohol is bad, more power to you. But when you try to pass that as law even for those who don’t believe in your religion, then we have a problem. Freedom is a very nice thing, but it should never be used as a hammer to deprive other people of theirs.

Now a very good rebuttal to Sanderson’s essay can be found here at Ask the Flying Monkey, which clearly illuminates his case of being the nicest homophobe in the room – the one that will say that gays are not all bad, and he has gay friends, but clearly they cannot be given all the rights of normal people, and he’s not a homophobe for saying that.
Except he totally is. These words have been used to stigmatize first people, black people, jews, immigrants, protestants, and so on and so forth. They probably have been used against the mormons as well, the irony of which should not go lost on anyone.

However, since his website has a contact form and it says that Mr. Sanderson tries to reply to all the contacts personally, I decided the least I could do was write him a letter. It came out as a bit of a ramble and a rant, since it was written in anger and during pauses at work, but if I waited to polish it more I know I would never have sent it.
We’ll see in the next few months if he replies, and how. I do not really expect him to change his mind in the slightest on the subject, but at the very least I’d like for him to acknowledge that there are real life consequences to his words – even something as small as losing a reader.

Here’s the rambling, incoherent text:

Dear Mr. Sanderson,
I am one of your readers who will be your reader no more. This because your positions on homosexuality troubles me, and I actually find it far more problematic than those of your more conservative fellows.

I’ll try to express why in the rest of this post but, since it’ll probably descend into an incoherent rambling, I’ll just link to this article which expresses opinions similar to mine and much more clearly: http://www.afterelton.com/askmonkey/11-15-2010

I believe everyone is entitled to his way of life, be it based on a faith, religion, philosophy, or whatever. I myself am a person of a christian faith, more or less (but not exactly) like the Waldensians.
So I have nothing to say to the concept that, if someone is gay *and* a member by choice of the LDS church, they would have to repress their urges, never act on it and find some measure of happiness in their forced celibacy, because that’d be their choice.

As an extension of this, I cannot agree with the points where you say that you would extend this religious choice into a law for all.
Law should apply to everyone, and defend everyone. It should give equal rights and equal responsibility, and it should stand proud against discrimination.
A law saying “gays can’t marry because a religion says so” is not such a law.
Religion and its tenets should be a choice, not an imposition.

You’ve probably heard this example to death but, imagine if the roles were reversed. Imagine if someone passed a law saying that Mormons can’t marry and, even if you don’t agree with it, it’s really in your best interest, because their holy texts said so.
I think you would be devastated. I think you would fight it. You’d probably call them hateful and hypocrites for imposing their world view to someone not of their belief.
However, when saying the very same things to the GLBT population, you ask somehow to be given a free pass, and say that of course you’re neither.

The only difference is, being a white, straight privileged male, religious in a strongly religious part of your country, you have the upper hand. No one’s telling you to repress your love, or your faith, because they don’t agree with it. No one says that your opinion on gay marriage is simply crazy and not even worth serious discussion. You never had to defend your very existence in front of an hostile society, you’ve never been compared to a murderer, a paedophile, a sick person, an epidemic.
When your cousin says he would have chosen not to be gay in this society, what I really hear him say is that he wishes this society were different, not himself.

I will conclude by saying that a ban on gay marriage is not just offensive, discriminative and bigoted, but also useless.
Because if you really feel so strongly about some person that you want to marry him/her in front of the law and/or god, then you’re already married in each other’s eyes. The act of marriage, the contract, is just a way of formalizing something that already exists in order to get the same rights and recognition. You can force love into clandestinity, make it illegal, but you can never stop it.

Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with your ability as a novelist. I stopped reading Orson Scott Card, an old favourite of mine, for the very same reasons.
I quite liked Warbreaker and, when the anger has passed, I’ll probably find it in me to finish reading The way of kings. I’ll just be a little sad that I’ll never know how the series ends.