Imagine a spherical apocalypse…

I’m connected on this lovely site called BookBub — they watch the booksellers and send email notifications of all the free/cheap e-books offered that day, so it’s a way to build up a fine collection of reading material at little cost, and also get introduced to new authors. Except for a few quirks…

I signed up to be notified of any science books that are bargains. There never are any.

I signed up for the science fiction category. There’s a regular flood of those — but I’ve noticed a familiar and tiring theme: so many books about the end of the world, zombies, plagues, etc., all about doughty heroes and heroines bravely surviving the aftermath and boldly going forth to battle the undead/bad humans who are now infesting the depauperate world. So not only is the story about 99% of the human population dying horribly, but then the story swirls around the protagonist marching about, fighting and killing other survivors (see also The Walking Dead). It makes no sense (ditto, The Walking Dead).

There is an apocalyptic novel I’ve enjoyed: Earth Abides, by George R. Stewart. But that one isn’t about a battlin’ hyper-competent survivalist type who defeats his enemies and rebuilds the world by conquest — it’s about a lost soul numbed by the deaths who builds a cooperative community to survive, and that community rarely acts as an arm of the hero’s will. That’s a lot harder to write about than slash, slash, slash, as David Brin discusses.

No, the plague of zombies and apocalypses and illogically red-eyed dystopias has one central cause — laziness. Plotting is vastly easier when there are no helpful institutions or professionals, when power is automatically and simplistically evil, when there’s no citizenship and the hero’s neighbors are all bleating sheep. Relax any of those clichés? Then suddenly an author or director has to put down the joint (s)he’s smoking and think. That is why “competence porn” – about folks taking on tomorrow’s problems with energy, focus and good will – is so rare. It is also why a cliche-fatigued public is starting to turn eyes, raising them from fields of undead, looking not toward demigods, but toward engineers. See this explicated in my article, The Idiot Plot.

The yearning for more engineers in stories is Brin’s, not mine — I’d like to see more human beings struggling with complexity using a diverse toolkit, rather than pulling a soldering iron, a 3-D printer, and a rifle out of their back pocket, and solving all human problems by reconnecting the hydroelectric dam. But the laziness and simplification idea is dead on, and probably explains why a cheap book service is telling me about works by novice authors trying to build an audience and a reputation. Not that there is anything wrong with that — it’s good for new writers to have an outlet. But it’s bad news when genre writing digs itself an even deeper subgenre rut.

I am also cliche-fatigued and turning my eyes to new fields. Not engineering, though. I just logged in to BookBub and closed my eyes and clicked randomly on the page of preferences. We’ll see what happens.

The Scopes Monkey Trial

The cool things I find in my mailbox…I just got a copy of The Scopes Monkey Trial by Moore and McComas, and it’s a fun read. It’s a slim book, and it is almost entirely photographs from around 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. It’s a visual record of a time and a place and an event, well worth reading.

Now I’m thinking that someday I have to make a trip to Dayton.

What are your comfort books?

thefararena

The Bloggess brings up an interesting question about comfort books — those books you read multiple times, because they inexplicably make you feel good.

I was just talking with Victor about comfort books…those books that you read over and over because you find them comforting even if you don’t understand why. He thinks I’m insane and possibly I am, but there are certain books I turn to when my head is in a weird place and I need to go somewhere I’ve been before and relax. I’d tried to explain it to him and he almost understood until I started listing a few and then I realized that most of my comfort books are full of murder and angst and bizarreness and are not really what anyone in the world would consider to be a happy or relaxing read. Books like Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and Geek Love and From the Dust Returned and The Stranger. Worn copies of Bloody Business and Stiff and The 3 Faces of Eve and Alice in Wonderland and pretty much any of the Sookie Stackhouse series. Books that may not make it on my top ten list, but that I compulsively read again and again.

I thought about it, and I mostly lack anything like that — I like newness, so I keep digging up new authors and new stories, and I don’t do much re-reading. But there’s one exception, one book that I dredge up every few years to re-read. It’s probably one you never heard of.

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Commies everywhere!

I’ve just discovered the literary works of Mildred Houghton Comfort, a woman who wrote a number of biographies of Important Men of American Capitalism, back in the good old days of the 1950s. William L. Knight, Industrialist. Walt Disney, Master of Fantasy. John Foster Dulles, Peacemaker. Little Punk, the Baby Elephant. She was a prolific supporter of the conservative status quo.

These aren’t exactly popular books any more, but you can still find a few old used copies for sale. She also wrote J. Edgar Hoover, Modern Knight Errant, and there are a few pages from that scanned and available on the interwebs. It’s horrifying.

jedgar

Disclaimer: I was born in the 1950s, but I was tiny and innocent and unaware and had no idea what was going on. I became conscious in the late 1960s, a much more copacetic decade. This kind of crap was more the product of The Greatest Generation, which I’ve heard was perfect and admirable in all ways, unlike all other generations of Americans.

I haven’t been able to find out much about Ms Houghton Comfort, other than when she lived: 1886-. That emptiness after the en dash is rather disquieting, and lacking in closure.

A word of warning about Hits & Mrs.

hitsmrs

I’ve read Karen Stollznow’s new book, Hits & Mrs.. It’s fiction, a novel about a skeptical detective. But I need to warn you about two things.

It’s got sex in it. Not the kind of explicit recounting of urological details you’d find in pornography, but the characters are boinking regularly, and enjoying it.

One thing it lacks is reverence for organized skepticism — many skeptics are portrayed as jerks. It’s almost as if the author’s insider familiarity with the skepticism movement has disillusioned her.

Gosh. I imagine every one who reads this site is now horrified and is going to avoid the book.

Local author does good

Chrissy Kolaya, who teaches writing here at UMM, go a nice write-up for her new book in the Chicago Tribune. Her book is Charmed Particles: A Novel, and it’s about people and super-colliders.

You should read it, and then you should come to the Cafe Scientifique in Morris on 26 January, because she’s the speaker and she’ll be telling us all about it, and taking questions. It’ll be a great start to a new semester!

What? Another book I don’t have to read?

It’s true: there are far more books in the world that I have not and will not read than books that I have read. I scratched off one yesterday, and here’s another one I can toss in the trash: Rafael Cruz’s promo for his son Ted’s candidacy.

Rafael talks about the dangers of secular humanism and makes a glancing reference to Seven Mountains dominionism, the belief that conservative Christians must gain control over the “seven mountains” of American culture.

In no way, shape, or form was Jefferson implying that the church should be restricted from exerting an influence upon society. On the contrary, the Bible tells us that we are the salt of the earth and light of the world…Doesn’t that suggest that our influence should touch every area of society – our families, the media, sports, arts and entertainment, education, business, and government?”

Like Barton and Lane, Rafael makes his case for the Christian nature of the U.S. government by conflating the Pilgrims and Puritans with the founding fathers who gave us the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution more than 150 years later. Rafael declares that “the concept of separation of church and state is found nowhere in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States of America,” which leads into this:

To understand this clearly, we need to go back four centuries to the time of the first settlers in America. If you lived in England in the early 1600s and were not a member of the Church of England, you would be considered a heretic and subject to persecution. So the early settlers immigrated to the New World in order to freely worship the Lord their God. What a remarkable heritage of religious freedom this exceptional country gives us! The only country on the face of the earth founded on the World of God!

It looks awful and inane. I’m satisfied by a small taste to know that I’d rather not consume the whole feast.

But all the Sam Harris fans who spent the evening dunning me with demands that I have to go read his book, who accused me of intellectual bankruptcy because I dismissed his pompous nonsense out of hand, well, I’m sorry…to be consistent, you now have to go read Rafael Cruz’s A Time for Action. You can’t possibly criticize it on the basis of a few ahistorical quotes snipped out of context, don’t you know.

Saturn Run

saturnrun

Yesterday was Christmas, so I did nothing much at all. Well, I did a few things.

I have rediscovered the joy of a pair of good thick wool socks. Seriously, people! Warm wool on a cold day? You cannot go wrong.

We spent the evening in the big city of St Cloud, having a traditional Christmas dinner with our son at a Chinese restaurant.

And I spent most of the day reading a book. Not any of the science books piled up on my desk, but a thriller. I felt a bit guilty about it, but then decided that nah, I get to take a full day off and screw around. It’s good for the brain to take a break. Also, cozy warm feet take an amazing amount of tension out of your life.

If you’ve visited the Pharyngula store, you may have noticed that one of the items on my “What I’m reading now” is Saturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein. A little backstory: my daughter knows Sandford’s son (he was at her wedding, for instance), and he has indulged us with his father’s books. We got sent the whole catalog of Sandford’s novels several years ago, and I went through them all like popcorn. Going on a trip? Grab a random paperback out of the Sandford box. They’re a good, fast read: serial killers and maverick detectives, you know the genre, set in Minneapolis.

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