Summer Reading List Challenge 2020: The also-rans

(I never did write this, even though I promised it two months ago. Here goes.)

Through the summer, I challenged myself to read three new books, including at least one in a genre I don’t normally read or write. You can see in my earlier posts (part one and part two) that I did complete this challenge. Humble Pi, Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom, and even Verity were all interesting works. I learned from all three, whether it was how to avoid common math errors, the history of a very interesting place to which I have a very slight ancestral connection, or just how to be a better author.

These were not, however, the only books I tried to read. As I stated in “Politics and the escape”, I attempted to read two others during the summer. These books I found interesting to start, but I was quickly turned off by the nuisance of politics—particularly politics I strongly oppose—shoved into otherwise decent works of nonfiction.

So here are my thoughts on those abandoned entries in the challenge.

A hopeless history

Title: Humankind: A Hopeful History
Author: Rutger Bregman
Genre: Sociology
Year: 2020

Bregman is, from what I gather, a bit of a media darling. He’s one of those random Euros who doesn’t really do much, but gets invited to TED talks and things like that because he says what some people like to hear. And the description of Humankind does sound inspiring. It’s supposed to be all about how humans have evolved to be fundamentally good and social, which is true.

What isn’t true, however, is the dichotomy the author paints. It’s a rotten foundation for a book that could have otherwise been great for everyone. But Bregman sets up the argument that society must choose between Rousseau’s “return to nature” and Hobbes’ Leviathan. Your choices are green socialism or authoritarian socialism.

This is a common theme in European politics, and it’s one of the fundamental disconnects between that entire continent and the United States. In the European view, individual liberties are always subservient to the nebulous idea of the public good. That’s why they have things like GDPR, burqa bans, and “hate speech” laws, while we in America have barred such measures in one of our founding documents.

But in Bregman’s world, there’s no room for libertarianism, or indeed liberty at all. In his view, people can only progress by working together under the strictures of a state. Because we’re too dumb to care for ourselves. No, really. He spends an entire chapter claiming evidence that humans have evolved to become stupid as well as social. We’ve “domesticated” ourselves, and mentally we’re no better than puppies. This, of course, ignores the individuals who have, because they were individuals, changed the world. Tell Einstein or Newton that they could have done more if they’d only made more friends.

I didn’t finish Humankind, as I was so disgusted with this unending statist screed that I had to put it aside. Supposedly, the last part of the book sketches a new vision for the future, centered around things like basic income and open borders. A restatement of another of the author’s books, and one I obviously can’t endorse. Not because I’m against such notions—I think a universal basic income system could work, for example, but only if done properly—but his version of utopia strikes me as very dystopian. In the great social future, there’s no room for individuality or personal growth or opportunity. It’s the extreme opposite end of Franklin’s famous quote: those who sign on to this vision are giving up all liberty in exchange for the safety of never having to make their own decisions.

Huh. I guess those people are like puppies.

Treason of thought

Title: The Contact Paradox
Author: Keith Cooper
Genre: Science/Astronomy
Year: 2019

This is another one I went in really wanting to like. I’m a space enthusiast, to put it mildly, and SETI has always fascinated me. So when I saw a book that claimed to challenge “our assumptions in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence,” I had to check it out.

Indeed, there’s a lot of good science in this text. It shows how our current SETI approaches ignore a vast search space. The reasons we do that, of course, are all financial, not from a lack of technology, knowledge, or will. And The Contact Paradox doesn’t really address that.

In fact, one section places the author squarely against increasing SETI spending. And, indeed, spending on any kind of science. A section on environmental matters, beyond preaching the usual global warming dogma, insults those of who choose to look at the evidence themselves, calling skeptics “traitors of humanity” whose opinions aren’t even worth arguing against.

I’ve had emotional reactions to books before. A few novels have made me cry. Some left me feeling a sense of enlightenment and inner peace. Nonfiction doesn’t normally inspire the same emotions, but it can; anybody who saw the 50+ pages of notes I took for my CBT workbook could detect the gamut of emotional responses. Never before, though, have I felt such a visceral anger at an author for the words he wrote. I immediately closed my reader app, and the only reason I didn’t delete the file was because I wanted to remember the name of it, in case I ran into it again and thought about reading it.

We skeptics are not the traitors. Far from it. We are the ones following the scientific method. The alarmists who claim the Earth will become uninhabitable within the decade unless we stop driving, stop using plastic, stop eating red meat, and essentially stop doing anything productive at all, those are the true traitors. They are the ones standing in the way of humanity’s progress. Without them and their cult-like mentality, their constant denigration of those they consider heretics and apostates, we could solve the actual problems facing us today.

It’s the opposite problem to what Bregman runs into, if you think about it. In Humankind, the stated assumption was that humans have become lesser. We’re not as smart, on the whole, as we should be. And his thesis is that this stunting of our mental growth means we need a strong state supporting us, because we’re just too dumb to be left alone.

Cooper, on the other hand, echoes the alarmists’ claims that we need to become lesser. That progress needs to come to a screeching halt, if not a total reversal to the nasty, brutish, and short lives of agrarian societies before the Industrial Revolution.

What both authors share is the anti-individual mentality that has seeped into every part of our modern culture. In this view of humanity, no man is an island, as the saying goes. Instead, we must all be chained to the mainland, never allowed to ask the question, “What’s beyond the horizon?” It’s a limiting view, but I posit that this is by design. By keeping us small and scared, these people believe they can keep us controlled.

No dreams of becoming better than we are. Those can’t be allowed. Creativity and imagination must only follow prescribed lines, as well. It’s cultural thought control on a level even Orwell couldn’t imagine. And authors such as Bregman and Cooper are supporting it. They’re enabling it.

When I write a novel, I do it to escape. I do it to imagine a world that isn’t necessarily better than ours, but one which is different enough to be interesting. Some of them include my vision of utopia, yes. Every author does that. What I don’t do is claim my vision is the only one allowed, that anyone who disagrees is not only wrong but heretical. That’s not the point. I’m not writing a persuasive essay or political tract. I’m telling a story.

And in my stories, the people who try to control others are rightly considered the villains.

The mind and I

As I stated in a previous post, I’ve been undergoing therapy for my depression and anxiety. Of course, being in my financial situation, my options for this would be limited even without the Wuhan coronavirus scare. Thus, I had to turn to internet-based modes of therapy. And, as you know, some of the “cognitive behavioral” set actually did show results for me. It has helped me understand my mental state better, so I can recognize the hallmarks of deepening depression and prepare for them. It’s made me see the triggers for my anxiety, which lets me know how to plan around them.

The next step was to try something called “mindfulness”. I’ve been giving it a shot, and…I have to wonder if I’m wasting my time.

The problems are many. First and foremost, though, is that mindfulness is connected to meditation, and most meditation sources are geared toward India and Zen. No joke. Don’t believe me? Look up the phrase “mindful meditation” and see how many hits you get talking about monks, referencing Buddhism, quoting people most of the West has never heard of, or throwing in random Sanskrit terms.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Obviously, the practices have some benefit for some people, or else they wouldn’t have endured. But I think they’re given way too much credit simply for being exotic.

In roleplaying circles, there are a lot of running jokes, but one of the most familiar involves the katana. Strictly speaking, half the people talking about them don’t know which Japanese sword the word refers to, but they all agree that it absolutely must be the best. Why? Well, because it’s a katana, silly! No other reason than that. It’s from a different country, a different culture, and most Americans don’t have direct experience with that culture. Instead, we hear ninja and samurai legends. We watch anime or read manga. We play JRPGs. And that gives us a stilted, ahistorical view of Japan.

It’s the same way with India, and indeed Buddhism. Look at the popularity of yoga, or curry, or chai. Look at the way Tibetan monks are portrayed in the media. (Except that they’re mostly called “Chinese” to placate the Communist Party nowadays, despite Tibet historically being an independent nation.)

In the West, of course, we have the Abrahamic faiths, which provide a much different sort of mind-body-spirit breakdown, and so many of the culture contrasts flow from that. We think of ourselves differently, and that’s inherited. When we see an entire people—essentially a whole continent—so unlike our own, we might idolize it. That’s normal and natural. After all, ours sucks in a lot of ways. The problem is, theirs does, too. It just sucks in different ways.

But we never see that. We gloss over the downsides and fixate on the upsides. Think about the cuisine, for instance. Sure, a lot of people like Chinese food, but how many Americans would be willing to eat some of the things rural Chinese eat? Andrew Zimmern made an entire series based off this very notion: Bizarre Foods.

Religion and spirituality are no different. What we see as exotic and intriguing is, to the people who were born into it, the normal way of the world. Nothing special about it, not from their perspective, so why do we feel the need to idolize?


Okay, but the whole point of mindfulness is supposed to be that it isn’t Buddhism. It just takes some inspiration from it. But that, I think, has some bearing on why it just doesn’t click for me.

At least in the guides I followed, so much of the instruction revolved around frankly New Age notions. Look at your thoughts gently. The only moment that matters is now. You have to switch from doing to being.

I get that some of it is intended to combat the very natural internal criticism that leads to self-loathing and, ultimately, depression. It’s supposed to distract you from thinking about all that by focusing all your mental power on something else, something…trivial. Like your breathing.

This is where I ran into problems. Believe it or not, I’ve tried some things like this before. Hypnosis, for example. It doesn’t work well for me, and I know why. My mind is very, very analytical. I’ve always been a thinker. It’s only in recent years that thinking has led so often to worrying.

Since I’d give anything to make that stop, I thought I would try a system that promised to quiet the disturbed and disturbing thoughts. But it really doesn’t. Not mine, anyway.

It’s not that I can’t focus. As anyone who knows me will attest, I can get so focused on a task that I forget about everything else around me. However, that task has to have a purpose, or I get nothing out of it. I’ll get distracted, or I’ll think of some other way to spend my time, something more productive.

One of the biggest problems I’ve recognized with my thoughts lately is that I have developed a skewed sense of purpose. The things I should be focusing on fall by the wayside because, well, they’re too hard. Too hard, with too much risk of failure. So I get less done overall, and I end up making next to no progress, but inertia is powerful. And I’m just so tired of being frustrated at every turn. You can only fall so many times before you decide it’s not worth it to get back up.

I’ll admit, the mindfulness guides do directly reference this problem. They call it out, and they promise a way to fix it. I really wish I could make that way work, but I don’t see how I can do it. To do so, as I understand it, would require me to change everything about the way I think, decide, and act. I would have to reinvent myself. On a philosophical level, I have to wonder how much that’s even possible; surely, if I change too much, I’m not me anymore, right?

In the more personal (and familiar) sense, altering my behavior and thought patterns to that extent seems like an awful lot of effort for very little gain. I’d be giving up most of what sets me apart, the analysis, the thoughtfulness, the way I can often anticipate what someone’s going to say. And for what? Maybe relieving my depression and anxiety? (Not even that, really. The stated goals of mindfulness aren’t to “cure” the low moods and persistent worries. Rather, you’re supposed to learn to accept them and move on. Which sounds nice in theory, I guess.)

Again, I’m not saying this is a complete failure, or that nobody should try this sort of therapy. All I want to say is that I find it a poor fit for me. It goes against everything I’ve done for 37 years. It runs counter to the way I know my mind works. I think this “impedance mismatch” is a large part of the problem, but my natural skepticism adds to it.

Something isn’t better just because it comes from the other side of the world. It’s different. Nothing more, nothing less. As always, your mileage may vary. I’m an odd person in many respects, and that cultural skepticism is one of them. I don’t like anime. I’m not big on “ethnic” music.1 You probably won’t catch me at, say, a Thai restaurant. That’s just who I am. Trying new things, exploring, that’s fun. I love it. But they’re not always special simply for being exotic. Remember, the things we see as alien are, to those who live with them every day, normal. And to them, we’re the aliens.


  1. Okay, I will make an exception here, because “Baba Yetu” is an amazing song no matter who’s performing it. 

37

(I’m writing this a day early. I hope nothing bad happens in the intervening time.)

37 is not a very interesting number. It’s prime, and that’s about all it’s got going for it. Oh, and it’s one-third of 111, which is cool, I guess.

Becoming 37 isn’t much more interesting, as far as I’m concerned. And the last 12 months have taken a lot out of me. They’ve worn me down, as anyone who dares to look through the PPC archives will attest. My depression reached new depths at numerous points over the past year. Worse, it stayed there far longer. These weren’t the two or three days of past episodes, but sometimes weeks.

For most of 2020, I felt like I was living through a waking nightmare, and I just wanted it to end. The bad dream, the year, my life…whatever worked. I wasn’t suicidal at any point, mind you. Nor was I a danger to myself or others around me, apart from the negative mentality and lifelessness that I’ve felt so often since March. But there were days as a 36-year-old where I would lie in bed and just not care what happened to me, solely because the effort it took to get up, to live in this fallen world, was too much for me to bear. I became something else, someone else.

I hate that someone.

I’ve been in therapy for about two months, though the primary phase of it ended a couple of weeks ago. It’s helped, as I’ve described in recent posts, but I know there’s a long way left to go. As I attempt to celebrate the 37th anniversary of my birth, I’m hoping for a rebirth, a return to the man I once was. Or a better man, even, one who is wiser with age, but also with the experience of knowing what it’s like to go all the way to that edge and step back.

The world is still broken. My county remains under effective lockdown indefinitely, and there’s the very real chance that, two and a half weeks hence, a man will be elected whose goal is to extend that to the entire country. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people suffer just as I have suffered, some of them pushed as far as taking the ultimate step I have refused. Cities burn in what the media calls “peaceful” protests, while those defending themselves and their liberties are labeled as murderers and extremists. 2020 is Bizarro World writ large, and it seems as though it will never end.

I don’t often talk politics on here. The subject is too demanding, too demoralizing, especially for one such as myself, someone who doesn’t take sides in the grand game of Red vs. Blue. For this birthday reflection, though, I have to look at the state of my life and see how much of it is dominated by politics, by forces beyond my control. That, more than anything, has contributed to my depression, I feel. And it has soured me on entire swaths of the political spectrum. I never fit on that to begin with; now, “a pox on both your houses” is too mild to describe my feelings.

On a more personal level, I feel like I’ve been set up to fail. This time last year, things weren’t great, but they seemed to be improving. I’d finished writing a great novel, I had others on their way, the job search was picking up, I had made friends…I was starting to get a small but perceptible feeling of positivity. Then I began to falter. My relationship with my beloved got rocky, to say the least, and mostly because of my mental health problems. Last December, I endured a sickness that, I now recognize in hindsight, was most likely caused by the Wuhan coronavirus. A month after that, my uncle passed away after a long struggle.

Then came the pandemic, which we now know to be greatly exaggerated. For seven months, a normal life has been denied to all of us outside Sweden and South Dakota. I took that harder than most, I think. At times, I felt as though everything in the world was arrayed against me, all its forces singling me out as their target. I may try to be rational, but in this case, I started wondering if I’d been cursed, if this was my punishment for stepping out of line by trying to reach for the life I wanted, rather than the miserable existence I’d been given.

Today, I still can’t definitively say that’s false. By the law of averages, I should have some positive results, right? As far as I can tell, I have one, and I can’t keep making her wait. She’s not getting any younger, either.

So, while I may have other goals for 37, they all come back to that. Getting my life back on track, taking it where it was supposed to go before the world went mad. Becoming the man I want to be, the man she deserves. Living, rather than simply existing.

“Happy” birthday. Yeah.


Addendum: I wrote this around 2PM on the 15th. A few hours later, I learned that my mother’s best friend passed away. I…think she was 60? I’m not certain, and I can’t find an obituary online yet. Strictly speaking, that doesn’t go down as yet another awful thing to happen on my birthday, but it’s more evidence in favor of an October curse.

I didn’t know her well enough, but my mom and aunt both considered her the next best thing to a sister. Despite her failing health, she stayed with my uncle in some of his final moments back in January; if nothing else, she deserves to be remembered for that.

Although I’m not as affected by her death as someone who was closer to her, hearing about it, especially on the day before my birthday, shocked me more than I expected. One of my first thoughts was relief that she hadn’t waited another day. Then, when I realized what I was saying, I felt incredibly selfish. What right do I have to ask that another human being die a day early to spare me hearing bad news on my birthday?

More than anything, that has left me troubled as I write this at 9:20 PM on the night before it posts. I’m not shedding tears for a woman I usually saw once or twice a month. They’re for me, because what kind of monster have I become?

The storm within

I think it’s pretty well established at this point that I’m an unrepentant metalhead. I grew up on the hair metal of the 80s, and some of my earliest memories are of my mom blasting Bon Jovi, Skid Row, and similar bands. (I was also told not to talk about Warrant around my father. Only later did I learn that was because he’d spent time in prison.)

I loved that kind of music. I loved the amazing guitar solos, the epic vocals, and everything about the sound. I really never stopped loving it, even as 80s metal gave way to 90s grunge and hard rock. “High Enough”, “18 and Life”, and “Silent Lucidity” were anthems for me long after their sell-by date. I tried to get into Metallica, but that fascination was cut short when they decided they’d rather sue their fans than make music. S&M is still a great album, if you ask me.

Of course, once I started looking into the genre, I found so many more artists to love. Nightwish, Blind Guardian, Avantasia, Borealis…the list could go on forever. They all have something in common, though. All of my favorite metal bands share that same feel. When I listen to music, I want to be moved, and this kind of music moves me in a way like no other.

Most of all, I think that comes from the lyrics. Too much modern music ignores them, or makes them incomprehensible. Nobody’s listening to rap for the words. You can’t even make out what somebody like Billie Eilish is saying!

Not so in the kind of metal I prefer. Here, the vocals are clean (if sometimes accented, because so many of the bands are European), and they aren’t drowned out by bass or compressed into a muddy mix fit for Spotify’s lowest quality. And they tell a story. That’s something a great song does. It’s why so many country, folk, and early rock standards became standards in the first place. Oh, I can lose myself in an instrumental track, but give me lyrics that tell a tale, and I’m hooked.


One band has utterly enthralled me for the past year or so: Evergrey. Like so many of the best metal acts, they’re from Sweden, which 2020 has shown to be the smartest country in the world. Their style is considered progressive, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. A lot of progressive metal artists are hard to listen to, but not this one. If anything, they’re one of the most accessible bands in the genre today.

Not only are they accessible, they’re relatable, at least for me. The lyrics move me. They ring so true in my mind that I sometimes feel as though Tom Englund is singing my life. I love that, even when I don’t. (I’ve also used a lyrical phrase as a post title here on PPC. If you’re curious, I’ll tell you which one.)

The topics of their songs are varied. Their The Inner Circle is a concept album about cults and child abuse. Hymns for the Broken strikes me as a rebellion against an authoritarian dictatorship; if the Democrats win next month, I’ll be listening to it a lot more. Last year’s The Atlantic was a little forgettable, in my opinion, but still not bad. Recreation Day left me in shock the first time I listened to it, because it was just the right album at the right time.

And then we have The Storm Within. It’s a few years old now. If anything, though, it’s more relevant to me than ever before. The opening track, “Distance”, sets the tone:

It’s not over
We’ll soon be closer than before
Can’t let this distance
Keep our distant souls apart

Being in a long-distance relationship, those words struck me every time I listened to them. They were a hope and a prayer for a man who doesn’t pray and had lost hope. I even let my partner listen to this song —her tastes are entirely different—and her response was simply, “That sounds a lot like you.” She was right.

“Passing Through” follows that, and it’s a nice, upbeat “live in the moment” song. There are things I’d like to tell the version of myself from ten years ago, so I could be, as it goes, “better, wiser, and not as blind.”

Next is “Someday”, a hard and heavy track that, to me, speaks of depression, failure, and the struggle those of us who suffer from those must endure. “I can’t do this alone,” the lyric says. These past few weeks, the message has been especially important.

“Astray” is one where the words are sometimes hard to understand. It’s about giving up, and these lines are awfully close to some I’ve said in my weaker moments:

I used to be stronger
I used to want this more
Is everything meant to hurt
And leave me alone?

After a few heavy songs comes “The Impossible”, a slower, softer track. The piano is strong here, something that always makes metal better, but the pathos overshadows it by far. Sometimes asking someone to change really is asking the impossible. We don’t mean for it to be that way.

“My Allied Ocean” is complex in multiple senses. It’s drum-centric, with a few good guitar riffs thrown in for good measure. The bridge of the song involves a spoken-word section (another of my guilty pleasures) that briefly became a mantra for me: “You have got to do it for yourself. You have to make the decision whether or not it’s worth it for you to live.”

That’s the halfway point of the album, but it doesn’t go downhill from here at all. One of my favorite things about metal is the sense of community. So many of the artists I love cross over, collaborate, and join supergroups. In the case of “In Orbit”, the seventh track, the guest is Floor Jansen, lead singer of Nightwish and one of my absolute favorite female vocalists. Even without her, though, this would be an amazing listen. It just has a tempo and an energy.

Track 8, “The Lonely Monarch”, is another one that’s hard to describe. It’s mainstream-accessible, not overly epic, with a guitar wail that grabs your attention. The underlying message, of a man who’s trying everything he can to keep his life from falling apart, well, that’s too familiar.

Next up, we have another collaboration, this time with Carina Englund, lead singer Tom’s wife, and a great vocalist in her own right. The song, “The Paradox of the Flame”, is a ballad, and I’m one of those people who believes that an album is no good if it doesn’t have a good ballad. This is of the best. Every line is emotional. The music hurts from its tragic beauty. The interplay between male and female singers tells a story everyone knows in a way you can’t help but feel.

Right after this slow, almost sensual ballad, we jump right back into the heavy end with “Disconnect”. From the opening lines, you know where it’s going:

Gone, she’s gone
How am I supposed to make it alone?

If the album as a whole is telling a story, it’s of a man whose mental problems get in the way and prevent him from having a healthy relationship. “Disconnect” is the point where he realizes the enormity of his mistake, and he’s doing everything in his power to make amends. Or maybe I’m biased because I’ve been at that point. “I never meant to be indifferent. I never wanted you to feel irrelevant. You were never insignificant.” Anyone who’s ever (accidentally or intentionally) treated their partner this way should listen. And so should those partners, because it’s what we all want to say.

The “main” album wraps up with the title track, “The Storm Within”. For some reason, this song is a chameleon in my mind. Every time I listen to it, I hear something different. I pick up parts I swear I’ve never heard before. It has an air of finality to it, a climactic sound that doesn’t really bring restitution. In a way, that’s poignant. We don’t get over these things. We merely learn to live with them. So there’s no real end, just a moment when we say, “This is it. From now on, I’m going to be better.” We can brave the storm within, or we can let it blow us away.

This aural feast closes out with a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. I’d heard that song for years, but I never really listened to it closely. For one thing, Ozzy’s voice is essentially indecipherable. But the music also didn’t lend itself to any serious lyrical evaluation. With Evergrey’s version, that’s different. I was able to listen and hear, and I found that the song has the wrong title. It’s not about paranoia at all. It’s about depression, and about how it colors our perception even as it causes us to push away the ones we love. There could not be a better cover for this album.


That’s why I’ve listened to The Storm Within a couple dozen times in the past year. It’s good music, first of all. It’s everything I like in metal, and really nothing I don’t. No harsh vocals, no grunts or growls, just good, strong music. Better yet, there’s a story in it, a story I can relate to on the deepest level. Twelve tracks, and I can connect to almost every one of them. I wish I didn’t have to, but such is life.

Solitary shell

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental disorder lately. My own, of course, are at the top of the list.

Seven weeks ago, I embarked on a guided, if self-paced, program of cognitive behavioral therapy. (CBT, but be careful when you’re searching for the acronym!) I’d heard good things about it, that it can, for some people, help treat depression and anxiety about as well as the medication and professional psychiatric help I can’t afford. So I thought I’d give it a shot. I had nothing to lose. If it didn’t work for me, I’d be back where I started, and the only cost would be two months of my life. A fair trade, if I’m honest.

The program is based around a book called Retrain Your Brain. It’s made of seven weekly sessions, each covering one “step” of the therapy. The first step, logically enough, is identification. What’s wrong? Why do you think you need therapy?

For me, that was fairly easy. I suffer from depression and anxiety, and those have only grown stronger as 2020 has progressed. Watching the world burn isn’t as fun as the Joker makes it seem.

The impetus for starting this program came in early August. I’d gone through a few rough weeks. I was sleeping 15 hours a day and still feeling like I couldn’t get enough rest. I was just lifeless, and it affected everyone around me. It strained my relationship with my mom, my brother, the woman I love…everyone most important to me. Worst of all, I felt like giving up. Waking was a chore. Even writing was all but impossible. I hated myself and the world around me, and there were times when I was ready to join people like Kyle Rittenhouse in the fight against tyranny. Sure, it might cost me my life, but maybe I’d be able to make more of a difference in dying than I believed I had in living.

That was when I realized I had to make a change, so I started looking into getting help. Problem is, I’m poor. I’ve been trying to find a steady job for two years without any luck, and a white man isn’t going to get financial help from the state in 2020. Going to a therapist, then, was out of the question. (I’m a little glad. I don’t like the thought of getting on antidepressants.) Fortunately, the internet has resources for the downtrodden.

I took advantage of those resources. I sat down on a Friday evening seven weeks ago and started following directions. Reading, writing, soul-searching. That first week didn’t seem like much, but it was a start. I identified my strengths and weaknesses, I got a diagnosis (moderate depression, but of the atypical sort, as well as generalized anxiety) and a plan of action. In painstaking detail, I explored how my mental problems have affected every part of my life.

A lot of people make light of depression, or simply don’t understand it. “Just be positive,” they’ll say. “Look on the bright side.” It’s not that easy. When you’re depressed, there isn’t a bright side. Everything’s dark and bleak. Combined with my anxiety and a deep, deep fear of failure, that kind of thinking is crippling, because not only were things bad, but I couldn’t even imagine a way to make them better!

The natural progression of the therapy program helped somewhat. After identifying my problems, the next step was to set goals for myself. Nothing much for me; I’m about the humblest man you’ll ever meet. I wanted to lose a few pounds, because who doesn’t? I’m still trying to get a job, still working hard on Rhea, the programming language I’ve been developing for almost a year.

Having the goals in black and white has been beneficial. I’ve made more progress on Rhea in six weeks than I had in the six months before. I started a set of online courses on edX in an attempt at padding my resume, I’m working out (almost) every day, and I even wrote a song. I went looking for a new hobby, something I hadn’t tried before, because you know how much I love learning new things.

Part of this CBT program involved keeping track of my activities. Scheduling them beforehand, then recording on a scale of 1-10 how I felt while I was doing them. I did notice that the early 3s and 4s gave way to 7s and 8s. And that’s honest. I wasn’t padding the numbers like a state health board with coronavirus deaths. I was writing down my true feelings, and they were better.

Retrain Your Brain has a number of case studies, supposedly by the author (he’s a therapist who specializes in this kind of therapy), which it uses as examples of how to do it. So a woman in one study was feeling old and useless because she was out of work and childless at 37. A man had lost his job and was scared he wouldn’t be able to support his family. At times, I felt like I was reading a biography of myself. The similarities were striking, and that got through to me. These are people just like me. They have the same problems I do. And they must have conquered them, or else the author wouldn’t be holding them up as examples. For once in this horrible year, I had a glimmer of hope.

Now, one of the core aspects of CBT is learning to challenge negative thoughts. Depression and anxiety create a lot of those, and I’m no stranger to the dark side of my mind. My “irrational” self, as I’ve come to call it. Training myself to argue against that other self has been hard, but I can say it paid off.

Last Saturday, I was in the middle of a long and winding message to the woman I love (more on that in a moment) when the lights flickered. They then went completely out for a few seconds. “Ugh,” I thought. “I’ll have to turn my computer back on once it’s safe.” I finished the short essay I was writing, which I figured would be enough time for things to settle down, and I booted back up. So far, so good, right?

Lately, I’ve started using the Brave browser for a number of sites that have decided to stop supporting my beloved Waterfox. So Brave came up first, and I loaded up my fediverse refuge, Free Speech Extremist. (See my post from June 7, “Moving On”, for more about that.) As soon as the timeline began to load, the browser froze. No, everything did, except the mouse cursor for some reason kept responding. Even the light on my Caps Lock key didn’t toggle, a sure sign that I was dealing with a hard freeze.

No problem. Handled that before. Let’s reboot and…uh-oh. Now, the freeze came in the middle of booting my KDE desktop. Same symptoms, but now I can’t blame the browser, can I? Well, maybe. Another reboot got me to the desktop, where I started Brave, loaded FSE, and watched my computer grind to a halt yet again. What’s going on here?

“Much wailing and gnashing of teeth,” goes the saying. I didn’t gnash my teeth, but there was literal wailing. Because I was sure that something awful had happened when that power outage occurred. Something got damaged, and now I was dealing with the failure of my one connection to the world at large. I wasn’t scared. I was terrified. This was a full-blown anxiety attack, the likes of which I hadn’t had in almost two years. Everything came together at just the right time to make this perfect storm of fear and stress, and I hated it. I was less than an hour removed from congratulating myself for finishing Week 7 of the therapy, and now this? Where’s the justice?

Okay, Michael. Breathe. Remember the whole point of the therapy. So I challenged the negative thoughts with, as the meme goes, facts and logic. I’m a gifted problem-solver. I can work this out. It’s probably just the video card, because this looks a lot like when I found that shader bug in Star Ruler 2 a few years ago. If I turned off Brave’s hardware acceleration, no freezes. What about Waterfox? No problems there…until I loaded up Shadertoy. A very graphics-intensive site, if you’ve never been there, and it locked my computer up hard. So it has to be the video card.

I resigned myself to finding a new GPU—rather, a slightly older one compatible with my hardware and out-of-date OS. I explained the situation to my mom, since communication is a part of therapy. And then I took a shower. While I was in there, I had an epiphany. What if it wasn’t the card failing? What if it was a bad firmware update instead? When was the last time I did one of those? Back upstairs after the shower, I dug through the system logs and found an update from September 6. That should’ve shown up by now, or so I thought. But Linux, unlike Windows, doesn’t mandate a reboot after system updates, so I never did it. I kept telling myself I’d get around to it.

The power outage did that for me. When I rebooted, it loaded the updated firmware, which was buggy. A downgrade has, as far as I can tell, fixed everything.

The moral of this story isn’t that the latest firmware for an RX 460 on Debian 9 has a serious bug. No, what I’m trying to say is that I was able to work through this problem despite first thinking it was the end of my world. I broke down, but then I followed the steps I’d learned, and the result is that I found a solution. And that really made me feel better. Not that it was possible to feel much worse than I did during the anxiety attack, but I came out of it proud of myself for my diagnostic skills.

One of my goals was to feel more positive about myself and my abilities. I proved that I can do that. If only the rest of them were so easy.

The hardest, even beyond the life-changing goals I’ve set for myself, is also the most important. Depression and anxiety are not my only mental problems. I also have a sleep disorder of some sort, and this has a serious effect on my mental health. Again, the CBT process helped me identify the trouble and work to fix it.

At the beginning of last week, I had shifted into a nighttime schedule. I’d go to bed around 9 in the morning, wake around 6 PM, and stay up through the night. And I felt awful. Back to the lazy, lifeless, irritable thing I’d been. A thing, not a man, because I really did feel less than human. I hid in my room for most of the week, rarely talking to anybody. I also hid from the woman I love; the message I was composing when the power went out was the start of my attempt at…apology? Penance? Contrition? I’m not sure what word works best, but it doesn’t matter yet.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that I identified both my self-defeating behavior and the underlying cause of it. When I’m “off track”, as I’ve come to call it, I suck. I spent last week feeling worthless. Today, by contrast, I got up before 6 AM, and I feel like I could run a hundred miles. Two weeks ago, when I was waking around 9 or 10 in the morning, I was fine. Once I got off track, I went downhill. There’s no other satisfactory explanation.

CBT isn’t supposed to help with sleep disorders. Retrain Your Brain flat-out gives up on that one, regurgitating the tired old anti-insomnia spiel. But it did help me find the problem, and now I can work on tackling it. Another goal I’ve set myself.

Therapy: when it works, it works. This kind has, on the whole, worked for me. It hasn’t solved all my problems. It hasn’t even given me the tools to solve them myself. Despite that, I believe it has been a net positive. Thanks to CBT, I’m better than I was seven weeks ago, and I feel that’s only the start. I know it’s not a quick fix. It’s a process, a path I have to keep walking, but now I can at least find the path. Before, I was just lost. Now, I’m found.

I only hope I didn’t find myself too late.

Release: Destiny Fulfilled (Tales of Two Worlds 5)

We’ve come a long way. Some of us more than others. And in the case of two characters from this installment of Tales of Two Worlds, the distance is unimaginable.

For some, the other world is home, and ours is the alien land. A man on a mission discovers that the land he believed a paradise is instead something else entirely. His sister, happy in the life she has made, fears for him, yet she wants him to experience the same wonder she had a year ago. And her husband would gladly forget about the other world altogether, but he knows he can’t. The bonds of family are strong, even when pulled to their limit.

Since it’s an Otherworld story, you know it’s exclusive to my Patreon. And you know it only costs you 3 bucks a month to pick it up. So I don’t need to say that…except that I already did.

Well, no matter. The next in line is also the last. Tune in this November for the Tales finale, “The Price of Freedom”. Until that day comes, keep reading!

Thoughts on: The Lightbringer series, by Brent Weeks

I don’t often do book reviews. There are a lot of reasons for this, but it’s mainly because I feel I get too immersed in a novel. For things like the Summer Reading List Challenge, I’ll do my best. Otherwise, I’d rather talk in more general terms than a single work.

Well, let’s do that, then. Instead of reviewing a book, I’d like to offer some thoughts on an entire series. Specifically, the Lightbringer series, written by Brent Weeks, which I just finished reading.

This fantasy novel series consists of five entries, making it as much of a trilogy as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Lately, it seems that five-part series are gaining popularity, as this is the fourth I’ve really delved into in recent years. (The others, if you’re wondering: Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle; Django Wexler’s Infernal Battalions; and The Dagger and the Coin, by Daniel Abraham.) I will say that I like this better than the traditional trilogy for genre fiction. It allows more room for expansion, more detail, and an overall slower pace. Some of my favorite things, in terms of reading.

The rundown

As this isn’t a book review, I won’t go into great detail about each individual novel, but it helps to know something about the story.

First off, the list:

  1. The Black Prism
  2. The Blinding Knife
  3. The Blood Mirror
  4. The Broken Eye
  5. The Burning White

Each has its own story, but they are by no means self-contained. Later installments directly continue storylines started earlier, and The Burning White begins with an author’s note that some of its events are concurrent with the conclusion of The Broken Eye. So it’s very much a series, not an anthology.

The overall story revolves around a war between the corrupt, bureaucratic Chromeria and the anarchic White King. In the first novel, those seeds are planted, and they grow throughout the series, coming to a climax in The Burning White. Along the way, we follow a small cadre of characters who play various parts on both sides. Almost all are larger than life, or else they become so. There’s magic, cloak-and-dagger politicking, lots of humor, and an incredible number of battle scenes. Something for everybody, assuming you’re into epic fantasy.

And I would call it epic. Lightbringer features world-changing magical powers, godlike entities, ancient secrets, and anything else you might look for. Weeks builds the tension and the stakes as the series progresses, so it feels natural that the farm boy grows into a hero for the ages. It’s “The One” told in a good way.

Worldbuilding

In my opinion, the absolute best part of this series is its worldbuilding. You know I love that. (If you don’t, just read, oh, anything else I write on here.) As we’re dealing with fantasy, that includes what I consider the most innovative aspect of Lightbringer: its magic system.

The whole thing is based on light and the spectrum, hence the “Chromeria” name above. Magic users in the setting are able to draw on light to activate their powers, which manifest in one of two ways: an effect or a physical substance called luxin. Different colors have different powers, though the people of the setting divide the rainbow into only five colors—indigo and violet are left out. So blue is the highest, and it covers intelligence, rationality, and general left-brained thinking. Not bad for my favorite color.

Going down the line, green is mainly for raw strength, yellow covers a nebulous sort of balance, orange works on fear and similar emotions, and red covers “passions” such as anger and lust. But here’s where the trick comes in. Some of those who can use these powers also have access to other parts of the spectrum. They can literally see into the infrared (“sub-red” in the text, to represent their lower state of advancement or something) or ultraviolet (“super-violet”) parts, even though this is physically impossible for human eyes.

Believable it is not, especially when you get into the rare magic users who have access to the forbidden “colors” of paryl (high-frequency microwaves) and chi (long-wavelength X-rays). Still, it’s fun, and there’s a lot of deep thought behind the lore. Yellow is supposed to be the balance color, for example, but it’s the most unstable when brought into material form, meaning that the spectrum is a source rather than a sink. Tetrachromats exist and are known; they’re the only ones who can properly stabilize yellow, and (this is accurate) they’re almost always women. One of the main characters is red-green colorblind, which comes into play. Infrared magic controls fire and allows one to see heat, naturally enough. Despite the fantastical parts, it’s logical, something I believe is the hallmark of a good magic system.

Downsides are necessary to explain why magic hasn’t taken over the world, and Lightbringer gives a pretty good one. People can only use a finite amount of color magic in a lifetime. They even have a visible manifestation, in the form of “halos” of the color they’ve drawn on that slowly grow to fill their irises. Once they burst through, that’s a sign that the magic has begun to take over the user’s mind. Responsible people go to a willing sacrifice. Those who don’t become “wights”, and are often hunted. And this forms the central conflict of the series.

The Burning White gives a midichlorian-like explanation for the process, but that’s not necessary. What matters is that it all comes together. Using too much magic drives you insane, says the common lore. But what if that’s wrong? What if you could reverse the process? Some people are immune, so it makes perfect sense that these would reach positions of power.


Beyond the magic system, Lightbringer offers a somewhat atypical fantasy world. There’s a mishmash of influences from Europe and the Middle East, with the primary empire called the Seven Satrapies (satrap comes from Persian). Religious and magic-related terms and names tend to be Latin or Greek. Fallen immortals all have names drawn from Near Eastern mythology, such as Abaddon and Belial. One territory is full of Irish influences; another uses Hebrew. Very little fantasy, though.

Technology is another important part of a fantasy setting. Here, Weeks bucks the traditional trend of the High Middle Ages, instead placing his world in a kind of early modern era. Gunpowder weapons are common, from cannons down to pistols. A number of mechanical devices exist. And the technological progress is deftly interwoven with the magic system: lenses, glassmaking, anything to do with light is far beyond the circa 1600 feel of the rest of the world.

Magic and religion also tend to have a curious relationship. With Lightbringer, they’re again combined in a reasonably intelligent manner. The Chromeria represents a monotheistic (and very Catholic) faith, while the enemies are often described as pagans. Cosmic beings lesser than the creator deity exist. Many of them are called “fallen”, mirroring Christian legend. Prophets abound on both sides, and some of them even have a true gift. The sacrificial ceremony for magic users who have gone too far is a sacred one. And so on. Again, smart, and a good use of existing pieces.

The culture, much like the naming, shows a number of influences. Fortunately, modern identity politics doesn’t seem to be one of them. One minor character is a confirmed lesbian (the text uses the term tribadist, another of those little details I like). The protagonist is described as having darker skin, but it seems to be closer to Mediterranean or Arab than African. But that’s about it. Races and sexes mix freely. Merit and magic are the ideals for advancement, although political connections often overshadow them. It’s refreshingly escapist.

The characters

An innovative magic system, a sensible cultural context, a lack of annoying modernity. The setting for Lightbringer comes closer to my preference than anything I’ve read not written by Brandon Sanderson or, well, myself. But setting does not a story make. We need good characters, too.

Well, here’s where things start to get a little hairy. Yes, this series has some great, memorable characters. The protagonist, Kip, begins The Black Prism as…not one of them. He’s an overweight loner who spends his days being bullied by neighbors, his nights abused by his mother. Beaten down, no friends, the object of mockery. Hmm. That sounds awfully familiar.

When I started reading The Black Prism in 2011, I saw a lot of myself in Kip. He quickly became one of my favorite main characters in fantasy, simply because of how real he was. This was the escape I needed: someone like me becoming better. By the time I finished The Burning White nine years later, I have to say that my opinion hasn’t changed. The character did, yet so many of the more mundane changes mirrored my own.

Specifically—and I realize I’m digressing here—Kip gets forced into a political marriage, then comes to love his new bride. She started out in the first book as just another bully he had to face, the stereotypical “mean girl” at school who sabotaged his entrance exam and made fun of him for being fat and awkward. Later, we learn that she has plenty of her own problems. She’s highly intelligent, but people consider her a bit of an airhead because she’s, well, busty. Her sister’s orientation brings her further mockery, and events conspire to bring her low at the same time Kip’s rising.

Kip thinks he’s unworthy of someone so beautiful; I think the same. His wife tells him it’s okay, that they can make things work as long as they have love and trust; my partner says the same. Some of the moments they share in The Burning White rang so true to me that I was almost brought to tears. “I have to help her help me,” Kip thinks at one point, words I needed to read at the perfect moment. “I believe in you,” she tells him at a pivotal point, “but that’s not enough for you, is it? You have to know. For you.” We’ve had that exchange almost word for word. During the final book’s climax, Kip tries to find a way out of a…predicament, and he reflects on all the things he could have done better: “If. If. If.” I wrote those exact same words in a therapy workbook last Friday.

So I’m emotionally invested in the protagonist, far more than in any other series I’ve ever read. But the rest of the main cast is strong. Karris goes beyond the “warrior princess” angle to become not just the strong, independent woman Hollywood wants, but a true leader. Teia has a winding story arc that only ends after a series of epilogues to make Peter Jackson blush; she embodies loyalty and angst and even teenage hormones in a way that leaves her endearing, if a little insane. In later novels, Kip’s soldier bodyguards grow into heroes in their own right, while the head villain of the tale is a proper megalomaniac.

That’s not to say everybody hits the right note. The secondary protagonist is Gavin Guile. The Prism, leader of the Seven Satrapies and the Chromeria, commander of the victorious forces of the civil war a generation before. He’s an interesting man, for sure. His dark side is creepy, but you can see that he tries to hide it as best he can. But Gavin is one of the main problems with the story as a whole, and here is where we enter spoiler territory, as well as my biggest problems with the Lightbringer series. If you don’t want to know the big twists, skip the next section.

The twists

Brent Weeks is a good writer. He’s a master at worldbuilding. He can describe cinematic action scenes in a way I envy. But he can also come up with some of the most ludicrous plot twists I’ve ever seen. The kind of thing even writers of fanfiction would call unbelievable. His other series, the Night Angel trilogy, became legendary for this. I’ve never read it, so I can’t say whether it’s worse than Lightbringer in that regard, but I dearly hope it’s better.

Mostly, the fault I find is that everyone is related, and the relations are downright convoluted. Kip discovers in The Black Prism that he’s Gavin’s son. Except that Gavin isn’t actually Gavin. He replaced his twin brother at the final battle of the civil war they fought twenty years ago. One brother or the other slept with a random woman from the town nearby, and thus Kip was conceived. Except that Gavin’s father claims he actually did that. Meanwhile, Gavin’s other son, Zymun, is a psychopath. Oh, and Karris is his mother. And her brother is the main bad guy.

It only gets worse from there. The real Gavin is alive, we find out in the first fifty pages of The Black Prism. He’s being held in a secret dungeon underneath the Prism’s tower. Except that the fake Gavin goes to kill him one day, only to find he was never there at all…despite a dozen or more chapters from his point of view! The whole thing is a trip, and you can’t blame it all on magic. Some of it has to be the author’s fault.

It’s as though Weeks stopped seeing the forest for the trees. The set-piece reveals are excellent. On their own, I’d eat them up and clamor for a movie version. Too bad they don’t fit into the narrative.

I could say the same for the entire climax sequence of The Burning White. All told, it takes up about a third of the book, almost 300 pages with barely a break to breathe. And it feels like a snowball that turns into an avalanche of insanity. Magic flying everywhere, a conspiracy unmasked, people on all sides looking for whatever advantage they can find. Climax, for both the novel and the series as a whole.

But Gavin’s storyline goes in a different direction. He’s been tasked by assassins with an impossible mission. I’m not making this up. He’s sent to kill God. It makes more sense if you’ve read the books, but not a lot more. Problem is, he’s fully willing to do it. He’s an avowed atheist due to the benevolence paradox, so he wouldn’t even mind succeeding. Then he meets a figment of his imagination in the form of his dead younger brother (this series has a ton of those) who causes him to have a complete change of heart and a renewal of faith. That transformation felt so forced that I almost started rooting for the bad guys. The most skeptical man in the world suddenly becomes the most zealous? The swiftness with which it happened made me think far less of both Gavin and the writer who created him.

So much else happens in that novel-within-a-novel that it’s hard to keep track, and the carefully crafted setting tends to go out the window. Just about every main character ends up going full-on Super Saiyan, none so much as Kip and Gavin. There was always an element of the mythic in the series, but this sequence ramps that up to absurd levels. It left me turning pages frantically, wondering what would happen next, yet dreading how it would be written.

The verdict

That, I think, is an apt description of Lightbringer as a whole. It’s a flawed masterpiece. There is a great story in there. The magic system is top-notch, and the setting as a whole just clicks. I found, after years and years of searching, a character that truly felt like me, who even grew with me. A million and a half words over five books and almost a decade, it’s still what I’d call time well spent.

Yet I’m troubled, because I feel it could be so much more. Some of the red herrings were too predictable. Not all of the twists made sense. A few plot threads were left incomplete. I cringed at the prose more than I have for any other book. The whole thing is ambitious, but that ambition sometimes comes out a mess.

That said, I loved it. Flawed though it is, Lightbringer is epic fantasy, with heavy emphasis on the “epic” part. That seems to be the Brent Weeks style, which is fine. (I tend to write “lower” fantasy, and I do like to read it more, so maybe that bias is coming through in some of my criticism.) Often, I wish a series wouldn’t end. In this case, I’d gladly read ten more books in the setting. Because, no matter our preferences, we could all use an escape from time to time.

Politics and the escape

Seems like we can’t get rid of politics these days. It’s an election year, combined with a manufactured crisis, a race war, and whatever else is going on in the world. No wonder stress-related health problems have skyrocketed in 2020. Not just for me, but for the whole country.

In times of trouble, when the real world is an awful place to be, I normally turn to fantasy or science fiction. Some people have other escapes, but my strongest has always been my imagination, aided where necessary by the words of “genre” fiction authors. The past decade has allowed me to make my mark, and I have consistently stated that I write what I do because I am, at heart, an escapist.

But it’s getting harder and harder to avoid the thorny political problems of the world around me by diving into a novel. That isn’t because I’m having trouble reading. Oh, no. Since being placed under effective house arrest in March, I’ve read more than a dozen different books. Most are nonfiction, history or science books that caught my eye. A couple were fiction, part of my ever-growing “books to read” pile.

I have others in that. I started reading Brent Weeks’ The Burning White this week. Blood of Empire (Brian McClellan) still waits. The Infernal Battalion? Still untouched. And so on.

Why haven’t I been reading as much speculative fiction? If you asked me a while back, I’d say it was because I didn’t have enough time. Or I didn’t feel like committing to it. Those are both lies, of course. I’ve got nothing but time. I have no problem rereading my own novels. I don’t mind checking out an archaeological history of England, a humorous account of mathematical errors, or a study of idioms originating in the King James Bible.

No, my present problem with fantasy and sci-fi boils down to politics. As part of my treatment for depression and anxiety, I’ve been tasked with a series of introspective exercises, and those have helped me come to terms with this.

In a nutshell

It isn’t politics per se that turned me off fantasy. I don’t mind a novel with political wrangling, as long as there’s a good story in there. But I feel like I’ve read all of those. Martin has basically stopped writing. So has Scott Lynch. Jim Butcher needed six years to come up with a new Dresden Files entry, and the reviews I’ve seen of Peace Talks say it’s incomplete at best.

I’m not even opposed to political allegory, if done properly. I mean, I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise. My Nocturne, written in November-December 2016, was unabashedly political. (Funny how its themes are still relevant now.) I don’t mind exploring an important topic through the metaphorical lens of fiction.

But there are good and bad ways to go about it. Lately, I see too many authors—prominent, professional authors who really should know better—taking the bad route. It’s one thing to write a character, even a central character, to hold a firm opinion on an issue. I’ve done it often. In my Otherworld series, Ashley starts out as a stereotypical feminist, while Damonte is openly socialist. Martevis, a protagonist of my Hidden Hills novels, might have common friends, but he retains an aristocratic view of social class. The Modern Minds short stories feature a character whose mother is a very…zealous evangelical.

Too often, the pros I once idolized have made the decision not to write characters like those. Instead, they preach. It’s not enough for the characters to believe in a cause. No, the narrator has to believe in it, too, even when that narrator has no connection to them. And the cause has to be front and center at every possible opportunity, whether or not it contributes to the progression of the story.

Most of the examples I see in fiction today are of the leftist bent. As I’ve stated in prior posts, I’m, well, not. “Classical liberal” is the closest label I’ve found to describe my leanings, and it’s far from perfect. But I’m not complaining because I disagree with the politics. I’d say the same thing if the narrative preaching were progressive, conservative, libertarian, authoritarian, anarchist, or any other form you could imagine. (Seriously. Ask me about Ayn Rand sometime.)

No, it’s not that I don’t like what you’re saying. It’s that I can’t stand how you’re saying it. Berating the reader is never a good recipe for success. Beating me over the head with political theory in what was supposed to be a fun, relaxing escape from reality takes away any joy I might have gained.

Illustration 1: The Expanse

It wouldn’t be a PPC post without some illustrative examples, so here’s what I’m ranting about this time. First, The Expanse, by James S. A. Corey. I enjoyed the opening book, Leviathan Wakes. It got me back into space-based sci-fi after a decade away. And the series continued to impress. Cibola Burn had some major plot holes, Babylon’s Ashes was forgettable, but the whole thing was just so fun and refreshing.

In the seventh book, Persepolis Rising, I became thoroughly disillusioned. It was around that point that I noticed there were no stable, monogamous, heterosexual relationships anywhere, except for the villains. Holden and Naomi are content to FWBs. Alex is coming off one failed marriage when the series starts; he adds a second in the 30-year jump between books 6 and 7. Amos is a psychopath who avoids commitment. Holden’s “parents” are a group of seven people who did some genetic trickery to have a baby sharing DNA with all of them—mostly for tax purposes, not because they wanted to perpetuate their lineages.

Yet there are plenty of…alternative arrangements that take center stage. In Abaddon’s Gate, we see a lesbian couple whose names I can’t remember. Babylon’s Ashes has Pa and her polyamorous crew. The only “traditional” family that gets more than a brief mention is that of Duarte, in Persepolis Rising. The megalomaniacal Martian who (spoiler alert!) ends up conquering the entire solar system with the help of alien technology is just about the only man with any serious screen time who has a wife and a child. Earth’s population had somehow reached fifteen billion by the starting point of this series, and I’m left wondering how.

The Expanse’s political browbeating doesn’t stop there, alas. Early books were fairly neutral. Earth has its share of good and bad. Belters very naturally develop a terrorist wing due to their constant persecution. As the series progresses, however, it takes a hard left turn. Corporations are ubiquitous in the setting, but they are rarely, if ever, shown in a positive light. The idea of “consent of the governed” is widely viewed as fringe, if not crazy.

The killing blows, in my opinion, are twofold. Persepolis Rising introduces the new bad guys, and I couldn’t help but imagine the authors (James S. A. Corey is a shared pseudonym) saying, “Why don’t you understand that we’re talking about Trump?” It’s okay to base a foe off an important historical figure, but this is much too transparent. Adding insult to injury is the way essentially every male character has been marginalized or emasculated. In the future, apparently, boys aren’t allowed to have heroes.

Illustration 2: Demon Cycle

Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle series is another one I liked to start. The Warded Man was a great book, and I’ve sung its praises on this site before. Brett has a great worldbuilding mind. He can handle dialect, something few others bother to try. And he made a great antihero in Arlen Bales.

It’s everything else that’s the problem. The enemies of the setting are the Krasians, who are best described as Muslim ninjas crossed with the Bene Gesserit from Dune. Arlen’s first meeting with them is as a trader who joins their fight against the nocturnal demons who haunt the world. He leaves in disgrace, beaten and raped, and this seems to be a common theme in the series. Okay, that happened in history. Not so bad, right?

But it goes downhill from there, in my opinion. The patriarchal, indeed misogynistic (and I, unlike your average Twitter user, do not use that term lightly), Krasians are secretly controlled by their women. Their emperor’s wife uses blood magic to control his mind—when sex doesn’t work, anyway. His daughter secretly creates a women-only assassin squad. The whole thing is more full of holes than the official coronavirus narrative.

It takes away from what was otherwise a decent, innovative fantasy series. The whole message at every turn seems to be “White men can’t do anything right unless they’re helped.” Arlen was a prodigy, but he’s about the only one. Rojer comes across as somewhat bumbling, and ends being manipulated by women. Jeph, Arlen’s father, is just plain pathetic. Every other white male character is an oaf, an opportunist, or a cuckold. Meanwhile, the women of the setting rule everything, whether behind the scenes or out in the open.

Go broke

If that phenomenon were limited to a single series in fantasy or sci-fi, I wouldn’t have much to say. I’d just not read those books. But this is pervasive, and it all goes in only one direction now. It’s the same problem Hollywood has. It’s the same problem video games have. Story so often takes a back seat to diversity, yet diversity of thought is never allowed. The good guys must never be just guys, for instance, because that’s sexist. Capitalism always results in dystopia. Religion is only ever tyrannical, unless it’s tribal shamanism, in which case it’s the most powerful force in the world.

But that’s not an escape. If I wanted to read about the black transgender heroine facing off against the evil colonial corporation that’s all-white, I’d just go on Tumblr, or Reddit, or Twitter, or Mastodon, or…you get the idea.

Fantasy worlds aren’t ours. They don’t have our problems; they have their own instead. I’ve written scores of articles about this very thing, but it’s only getting worse. The political cancer has spread into my last refuge. Is it any wonder I’m depressed, or that I’ve switched to reading history and science books?

I don’t care what you believe. If you want to think that communism is great, fine by me. I vehemently disagree, but that’s your right. Think that America should expel anyone who isn’t a white Christian? I’ll oppose you with all I’ve got, but I won’t stop you from expressing your opinion. Until your ideology infringes on my rights, it’s none of my business.

That said, is there any reason to force it into your writing? The answer, of course, is a resounding no. Nothing should be forced. That’s just poor writing. You may pat yourself on the back for making your characters so “woke” that you get all the internet points, but it doesn’t make them deeper. Cardboard cutouts are boring no matter where they fall on the Political Compass.

No, if you can’t be subtle about it, leave the real-world politics in the real world. I didn’t come to your book for a lecture on how awful the conservatives/progressives/whatever are. I came to get away from that.

Summer Reading List 2020: Finale

The past few weeks have been utterly miserable for me. What reading I’ve done has mostly come while I was eating, because that’s the only time I can keep my mind focused on something other than how awful I feel. That I managed to finish two more books despite the depression, the anxiety, and now the dissociation boggles my mind.

But enough about that. Let’s see the other two entries in the Summer Reading List Challenge for the worst year ever.

History (non-fiction)

Title: Northumbria: The Lost Kingdom Author: Paul Gething and Edoardo Albert Genre: History/archaeology Year: 2012

I’m an archaeology nut. Ever since I started writing my Otherworld series, I’ve found a passion for studying ages past. More recently, I became enamored with the series The Last Kingdom, first by reading the Bernard Cornwell book of the same name, then watching the show. It’s gritty, it’s fun, it’s epic, and I love the setting for multiple reasons.

Well, the protagonist of The Last Kingdom, Uhtred, hails from the English town now known as Bamburgh. Long ago (before the ninth century, when the series is set), Bamburgh, with its imposing castle overlooking the North Sea, stood as the seat of a kingdom: Northumbria. And the castle has offered up a wealth of archaeological findings that help us better understand life in Anglo-Saxon times. How the people there lived, what they ate, what they wore.

Gething and Albert explore the strange world of ancient Northumbria in this book. They call it a “lost” kingdom for many reasons. It’s obviously just one corner of England now. It was the first Saxon kingdom to fall to the Viking incursions. And we simply don’t know much about it. But now I know a lot more than I did, and I find myself even more interested in that long-gone world than before.

To be fair, there are problems with the book. At times, the authors come across as overly preachy. They do the usual politically correct dismissal of the term “Dark Ages”, which is entirely appropriate for a period of centuries with social and technological stagnation, if not regression. They’re always quick to go on about ethical concerns. On the whole, though, it’s not too obtrusive. The faults are minor, and they don’t distract from a lively, humorous, and above all informative journey through Anglo-Saxon times.

Suspense (fiction)

Title: Verity Author: Colleen Hoover Genre: Suspense/mystery Year: 2018

Rules are rules, and one of my self-imposed rules was to read something from a genre I don’t normally read or write. Fortunately, my partner had talked enthusiastically about a novel she read some months back. She’s big into mysteries and thrillers, neither of which normally tickle my fancy, so I thought right then and there that her suggestion would make the perfect addition to the Summer Reading List.

Verity was a short novel, but a hard read for me. Partly, that’s from parts hitting too close to home. The protagonist, Lowen, is an author. She’s had a lot of family troubles lately. She lacks self-esteem and pride in her work. She suffers from anxiety. The parallels are obvious, but they end pretty soon. Lowen actually has things I don’t: a publisher, an agent, a portfolio that gets her a job ghostwriting for the preeminent author in her genre, Verity Crawford, who has suffered a major accident that leaves her unable to continue writing. Thus begins the mystery, because something is up with the whole situation.

Without going too far into spoiler territory (it’s a mystery, people!), I’ll say that I was somewhat hooked. The way the story is told left me jarred, as it cuts between the first-person perspectives of Lowen and—through an autobiography manuscript Lowen finds—Verity herself. Even I couldn’t pull that off in Nocturne. Credit where credit is due, because Hoover managed it. The autobiography parts left me feeling unclean from the sheer depravity that sometimes came out, while the “main” narrative eventually veered into some quite explicit romance that made this red-blooded American male a bit uncomfortable.

I’m constantly comparing myself to “professional” authors of fiction. I can’t help it. Lately, in my preferred genres of fantasy and science fiction, I’ve judged my own efforts equal to, if not better than, the pros more and more often. As I’ve never written suspense or mystery stories, I’ll withhold judgment here, apart from a couple of nitpicks. Hoover’s prose is occasionally…off, in some way I find hard to explain. She repeats herself too often for my tastes, and I almost wonder if that was padding a word count for what was already a fairly short novel. The final twist also left a bad taste in my mouth. It doesn’t come completely out of nowhere, but it was definitely a blindside hit. In all honesty, I feel it’s the weakest part of what was otherwise a great, if unconventional, novel.

Conclusion

Another summer is in the books, but I’m not done. Later this week—assuming nothing else goes wrong—I want to look at a couple of my aborted attempts at the challenge. There’s a very good reason, one I’m not going to tell you just yet. Always leave them hanging, you know?

I hope you enjoyed the last three months more than I did. If you participated in the challenge, I can only thank you from the bottom of my heart. Win or lose, you’ve done a great job. If you’re just here to read about me, then I have two things to say. One, you probably need your head examined more than I do. And two, I did have fun with these books. Maybe they aren’t perfect, and they might not be to my exact tastes, but they were worth my time. I’d like to think I’m worth yours.

Thank you again, and remember to keep reading!

Thanks to all

To Samuel, Mary, Luis, Karl, Henri, Ali Abdullah, Renee, Enrique, Brother Bernhard, and Father Alonso: Thank you for starting me on this journey. You were my first, and I will never forget you.

To Jay, Jane, Max, Agosto, Sienna, and Vance: Thank you for letting me dream. I needed it so badly at the time, and your nightmares led to my peace.

To Dusk, Captain Varens, Hella, Porter, Princess Leliya, and Tod: Thank you for providing catharsis and vision. Because of you, I learned more about myself.

To Shade, Kellis, and Artoran: Thank you for being my best. You’re still on my mind, and the world still needs you.

To Asho, Chei, Gallan, Martevis, Jarra, Taniss, Issa, Madon, Leli, Kagen, Deena, and Yanna: Thank you for the wide expanse. You let me explore my favorite theories.

To Rick and Drew, Thomas and Mira: Thank you for being in the right place at the right time. Yours may not be my most notable works, but I still remember and cherish them.

To Levi, Justin, Gabriel, Nic, Hanna, Mika, Lucas, Ed, Malik, Reza, Tori, Derry, and Alicia: Thank you for the sheer fun you bring. I can’t not smile when I think of you.

To Jessie, Dirk, Tabitha, and Isaac: Thank you for the window to the past. I know my grandparents would have loved to meet you in your own time.

To the other Lucas: Thank you for showing a side of me I didn’t know I had. I’ve found my own angel to love; I hope the rest of your tale can come true for me, too.

To Cam, Cassie, Lana, Anthony, Charlotte, Angie, and Britney: Thank you for fighting back the darkness. I fear the monsters in the real world aren’t so easy to tame.

To Ian, Steph, Blake, and Trish: Thank you for playing this game. You almost killed me the first time, but I’ll get back to you soon, I promise.

To Benit, Lia, Coss, Raneph, and Ketah: Thank you for showing both sides of a conflict. Yours is too gritty for me right now, so hold on a little while longer.

To Alex, Amy, Ryan, Jenn, Jeff, Ashley, Lee, Sara, Ayla, Ramon, and Damonte: Thank you for the world you opened. It’s been a great escape.

To Nimiesa, Irai, Niel, Egas, Desva, Cambi, Asirii, Nisha, Jeidis, Donyalei, Chaerys, Etanya, Direlmas, Nateya, and Chahin: Thank you for letting me into that world. I wouldn’t mind living in it…as long as you don’t worship me.

To William, Tyler, Emily, Jeanette, Joel, Phenom, Taos, Donny, Cristina, Zach, Damian, Kyle, and Jordyn: Thank you for carrying the torch. You brought fresh blood to my magnum opus.


Wow. I thought I was over a hundred total narrated characters, but I wasn’t sure of the final tally until this. The magic number is 114, apparently. A hundred and fourteen different points of view. That many other voices in my head. Nothing special about the number at all. I just wanted to know. Call it a census, because that’s a thing this year.

I consider all my characters to be something like my children. Now that I see just how many I have, I’m…proud. And I really do thank them. By speaking through them, I’ve been able to say things I would otherwise keep to myself. By looking through their eyes, I’ve seen many strange and wonderful sights.

For those wondering, here are the specifics. I only included characters whose perspectives I have written, whether in the first or third person. The list is grouped by story or series, for the most part. The Otherworld group takes up three slots: the first season’s expedition team, the natives, and everyone else. They’re just too big to treat together. Except for them, it’s mostly chronological order, but that’s not perfect—I can’t remember exactly when I wrote some of these!

I haven’t published Heirs of Divinity, Shadows Before the Sun, or “Satellites” in any fashion, and “Miracles” has been rescinded until I can edit it. The fourth Orphans of the Stars novel, Time in the Sun, is unfinished, but the points of view are set, so I counted it. I did not count Blue Mesa, as I have no plans to go back to it; it’s ten years old at this point, and it was frankly awful to begin with.

I did have to double-check the epilogue characters from Heirs of Divinity (the last four in the first group). Everyone else was from memory except Ketah. 109 out of 114 is a pretty good score, I think.

So much has happened since I sat down on a warm November afternoon and started typing out a scene of a seventeen-year-old young man from 18th-century York running for his life after a failed gunpowder bombing. My life has taken some turns. I don’t know if I’ll still be writing in 2030, but if I am, I’d like to come back to this post. How many new names would I be able to add to the list?