I will judge a book by its cover

And this cover reaches out with a supple and sexy tentacle to wrap around my neck and draw me in closer, where it whispers “buy me.” It helps that the author is very, very good, so I can trust the content will be excellent, but oh what a hook.

Phallacy: Life Lessons from the Animal Penis will be available on 22 September. You can get in line now.

Finally! A book that will truly understand the male condition.

Amazon is cancelling a planned adaptation of the Banks Culture series

I am totally fine with that. These are books that I like very much, and I’m not confident that anyone could pull off the video adaptation, and even if they made a good movie/series, it would be a different experience. It could have been a great experience, but there are ten books and only ten books, and Jeff Bezos is skimming off enough profit from them without also owning a video adaptation.

Never go back in time to read old books

Things change. You change. You can never go back again. Over the last few months, I’ve been on a time-travel reading jag, and I revisited some books I haven’t looked at in at least 30 or 40 years, and sheesh, was I disappointed. I guess my lesson is that if ever I do manage to travel backwards in time, I shouldn’t do it, because everything old just sucked.

First up, Hawksbill Station, by Robert Silverberg. It was published in 1968, and it shows. Hawksbill Station is a penal colony in the Cambrian, time-travel is one-way so you’ll never get home again, and the government was casting all the hippie-type “revolutionaries” there. Silverberg has some odd ideas about what 60s era protesters did; his protagonist reminisces about casually raping women (no, that’s not what he’s being punished for) and how his apartment was “stacked with sprawling exhausted naked females”. There are no women in the story — the powers that be keep men in separate penal colonies, separated by millions of years — so Silverberg doesn’t have to write any women characters. Nothing really happens in the story, except that they eventually learn that two-way time travel has been perfected. It’s a time-travel story that doesn’t actually use the time-travel concept, and could have instead been set in a prison in the middle of the Pacific or the Sahara, so I was disappointed that there wasn’t even the slightest attempt to pursue the magic of seeing what the Cambrian was actually like. It was ploddingly written, too, and was a slog to get through, even though it’s short.

Please, please, please, if you’re going to write a story about going back to a distant time, use the time period. That’s the whole point!

I thought the next one would have to be better: Mastodonia, by Clifford Simak. I have more respect for Simak as a writer than I do Silverberg, but again, he makes the same mistake. In this one, a semi-retired professor and his archaeologist girlfriend have bought a farm in Wisconsin that has a mysterious crater on the property — it’s the site of an ancient spaceship crash. Their time-travel method is a bit of a reach. One of the aliens survived, and has been living there all this time, and it has the power to open time-tunnels to anywhere in the past. The magic alien is just an arbitrary gimmick to give them time-travel capability, but otherwise that particular aspect of the story goes nowhere.

But hey, it starts out fun! The protagonist accidentally stumbles into one of the time-tunnels, and sees a herd of mastodons before stumbling back. This is where I’d expect a professor-type to be excited about the ability to study the past, and a host of ideas to light up behind his eyes — at least, that’s what would happen to me. But no. No, not at all.

They start trying to figure out how to get rich off this discovery. Most of the novel is taken up with the pair jetting about the country trying to set up lucrative deals to use the time-tunnels. Primarily, they make arrangements with a safari company to send rich clients back to the Cretaceous with elephant guns to shoot dinosaurs. There are no ethical concerns expressed. There is no consideration of what one could actually learn from the Mesozoic. Nope, it’s all wheelin’ and dealin’, and complaining about how the IRS was going to take their money and how terrible it was that the government was stepping in to regulate their business when one expedition of rich fucks gets eaten by a pack of giant carnivores.

Jesus. Capitalism really does ruin everything. It certainly made this book boring.

Now I’m thinking that there are few good books about time-travel. One exception is Bones of the Earth, by Michael Swanwick. Most of the story is about the machinations of the people who police time-travel, but it gets one thing supremely right, the wonder and awe of scientists who actually get to sample the biology of the past. They recruit researchers by just showing up at their lab with a small dinosaur head in a cooler, and that’s enough to get them excited and whip out their scalpels, to start drooling over the possibility. They have conferences on dinosaur systematics, physiology, and anatomy! That rings true. Swanwick actually captures how his protagonists would think.

Another exception is The Anubis Gates, by Tim Powers, which I consider the very best time-travel novel ever written. This one isn’t focused on the science, though, but will instead appeal to anyone who fantasizes about using a time machine to explore 19th century literary history. Come on, you know we all want to have a conversation with Lord Byron and Keats, right? It does get a little (OK, a lot) twisty with a plot about trying to achieve immortality via a body-jumping magical werewolf, but at least in that one the rich capitalist is most definitely the bad guy.

Have you got a favorite time-travel story? My primary conclusion isn’t that time-travel is a terrible premise for a novel, but that any SF novel written before about 1980 has a high probability of being total crap. Prove me wrong.

Sheesh, I missed the worst bit of the Hugo awards

Since I didn’t watch the awards presentation at all, I missed George R. R. Martin making a colossal flaming ass of himself. Here’s a summary:

The host for this year’s festivities was George R.R. Martin and he spent an awful lot of time talking about John W. Campbell, noted fascist and racist. Pretty sure that between Martin and Bob Silverberg, Campbell (noted fascist and racist!) was mentioned more than the aggregate of the folks being honored. I aged approximately 67 years during Silverberg’s segment.

We were treated to tales of how Martin is Just Like Us while he was broadcasting from the movie theater he owns for funsies. I lost count of how many times he mentioned that fandom used to be so much smaller that Worldcon was in a hotel and that there was a banquet with rubbery chicken (no one cares).

Because it’s such a goddamn fucking shame that fandom is so much larger and diverse than it was 50 fucking years ago. Because the people nominated for and winning awards aren’t exclusively white and male. The first woman to win a Hugo Award–in any category–was Anne McCaffrey, who tied with Philip José Farmer in 1968 for her novella, “Weyr Search.” The first Hugo Award was given out in 1953. It was fifteen years before a woman won. Four-time nominee James Davis Nicoll has done more work in this area than I have, and I recommend that y’all look very closely at that giant table of doom.

I’ve done a bit of searching–not much–and I can’t find a comparable analysis around race and the Hugos. But I can say that N.K. Jemisin was the first Black person to win the Hugo for Best Novel. In 2016. In 2016.

Speaking of Jemisin, Martin made the decision to first mention her unprecedented accomplishment of winning the Best Novel three years in a row–no one else of any race or gender has ever accomplished a Best Novel hat trick–and then attempt to undermine it by talking at great length the time Heinlein won three Hugos in nine years, culminating in some sort of shaggy dog story involving a white dinner jacket and Stranger in a Strange Land. I’ve forgotten the details because Heinlein is irrelevant to the discussion.

What I haven’t forgotten is this: George R.R. Martin repeatedly mispronounced the names of nominees and, in one case, a publication which was nominated. All the nominees were asked to provide pronunciations for their names in advance. The fact that Martin chose not to use that information is disgusting and racist as fuck, as nearly without exception the names he mispronounced were Black and brown. He mispronounced FIYAH, a publication owned, edited, and written by Black people.

This is thoroughly beyond the pale, especially since those segments were pre-recorded and CoNZealand could have asked him to re-do those segments and pronounce peoples’ names correctly. Names are important. They have power.

Read The Whole Thing. There’s more, much more. I’m rather appalled at his behavior, and the fact that he chose to go on and on praising Campbell, after the award that used to be called the Campbell award was explicitly renamed because of his terrible behavior (cancelled!), and when one of the awards he was handing out was to Jeanette Ng, who had called out Campbell.

Jeanette Ng took the best related work award, for her acceptance speech last year at the Hugos upon receiving the John W Campbell award for best new writer, in which she called Campbell a fascist who set a tone “of science fiction that still haunts the genre to this day. Sterile. Male. White. Exalting in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.” The prize was later renamed the Astounding award.

Imagine a dumpster fire in a train wreck. That’s what this awards ceremony sounds like. The organizers who made a whole chain of stupid decisions have apologized; Martin has not.

In conclusion, let us shoot George R.R. Martin and Bob Silverberg into the sun where they shall bother us no longer.

That’s too much work, and far too expensive. How about never allowing those two to speak at a con ever again? Simply never inviting them, either? I expect it’s inevitable that Game of Thrones will get another nomination, if he ever finishes it — how about not?

By the way, I have good memories of reading Silverberg, and a couple of years ago I re-read Hawksbill Station, one that I’d last read as a teenager. It’s a time-travel story, and Hawksbill Station is set in the Cambrian! On re-reading it, though, I discovered that it is the most sexist, awful piece of crap, a real shit-show of a story, and I was so ashamed of Teenaged Me, and I don’t think I could ever read another Silverberg story.

Hugos announced!

I’d noticed the nominees earlier, and I was dismayed to see that I’d read relatively few of them. You’d think with being a virtual prisoner at home since March, I’d have had plenty of time to get a lot of light reading done, but no…increased teaching responsibilities ate up the spring, and this summer has been a slough of despond consumed by worries about teaching in the fall. I was able to muster some cheers for Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade, but mostly I didn’t know the competition. Now I learn the winner was Arkady Martine for A Memory Called Empire, which now has to go on my list. Will I have time to read it? Unlikely. It’s August. Classes start early this year.

Most of the news sites that mention the Hugos seem to be focused on George R.R. Martin, because he had promised the latest Game of Thrones book by this date. He has since said it will be next year. Do you care? I have long been discouraged by the sluggish pace within the books in addition to the ridiculously long delays (and accompanying excuses) between the books that I gave up on them a few volumes back, have mostly forgotten what happened in them, and am not interested in re-reading them to catch up enough to want to touch the next one, which might be out in 2025 at this rate. Besides, the last season of the HBO adaptation was so godawful bad that it has fouled the whole series.

Bye bye, George. Your novels have procrastinated themselves into oblivion, and I’ve got some Arkady Martine to read. Also, Nnedi Okorafor has a graphic novel? And I still haven’t read Amal El-Mohtar’s and Max Gladstone’s This Is How You Lose the Time War, despite meaning to get around to it for ages? At least I did read Jemisin’s Emergency Skin, so I’m not a total loser.

The comprehensive summary of the implosion of RWA

I am impressed with this detailed dissection of the recent collapse of the Romance Writers of America. Not only does it cover all the bases, it reveals a lot of the blatant racism in this country. One thing that surprised me is that the RWA was founded by a black woman, yet there were all these policies put in place that made sure black authors were handicapped in the struggle to succeed. Like this:

This discovery grew into a widespread Twitter discussion about the important institutional role that Grimshaw had played as the romance buyer for Borders, at a time when Borders commonly shelved all African American authors in a separate section together, away from specific genres, like romance. It raised questions about how she’d made her decisions in such an important gatekeeping role, and whether she had given African American writers a fair shot at prominent placement. (Though, to be clear, the policy was the case across Borders—not just in romance.) Milan weighed in, but she was far from the only participant.

Wait, what? Black authors were segregated in bookstores? This is very white of me to admit, but I didn’t have the slightest idea, yet for years they had this discriminatory policy in place. Were they afraid some delicate white lady might accidentally buy a novel that had two black people falling in love? Let’s not even discuss the possibility that she might pick up something with queer characters in it.

These are practices that I would have thought a writer’s organization would have been at the forefront of challenging, but no, they just simmered for decades because they had an unwritten policy of only saying nice things about romance books. They refused to recognize the conflicts, suppressed all complaints, kept everything tightly bound up, until there was no other option but a messy, damaging cataclysm that has all but destroyed the organization.

There’s a lesson there for all of us, even if you aren’t a romance novel fan.

When librarians turn to the dark side…

I thought all librarians were perfect saints, champions of goodness and openness, and then I read that the New York Public Library had banned Goodnight Moon for decades, because of the fact that an influential librarian, Anne Carroll Moore, didn’t like it. She apparently thought children’s books ought to have a “once upon a time” feel to them, and she was the Authority in charge of deciding what children should like.

Anne Carroll Moore was not a fan of Margaret Wise Brown’s work. Brown, with her Bank Street training, was “looking at the mind of a child, operating at the level that a child understands,” says Bird. “She was trying to get down on their level, whereas Anne Carroll Moore placed herself above the children’s level, handing what she viewed as the best of the best down to them.”

Yet Goodnight Moon is a book I read repeatedly to my kids, to the point where we wore it out and had to buy multiple copies. Just this week, I saw my granddaughter carry a copy to my wife and demand that she read it. She’s 15 months old. I can’t even imagine why a librarian would block stocking such a sweet, innocent story. Moore was apparently progressive in other ways, but I just don’t get it.

Then I read this little aside about Margaret Wise Brown.

So no one was pressuring the NYPL to stock the book, least of all Brown, who died in 1952. (Recovering from surgery for an ovarian cyst in a hospital in France, she playfully kicked her leg up, cancan-style, to show a nurse how well she was feeling; the action dislodged an embolism from a vein in her leg, which traveled to her brain, killing her nearly instantly.)

Huh. Should I go out of my way to tell my granddaughter that story? Should I wait until she’s old enough to no longer be quite so attached to Goodnight Moon before she learns about reality? Am I now policing the content she is allowed to see? I could probably turn her into a little Goth girl if I made it a point to tell her how the authors of all her favorite children’s books died.

There clearly is big money in self-help books and pick-up artistry, though

I think I first heard about Peter Boghossian years ago when that “street epistemology” fad swept over atheism, and I thought that sounded like a good idea — being able to communicate about key concepts in atheism and skepticism in a casual, informal way? Sign me up. Then I witnessed some of it at meetings and on YouTube and was quickly de-impressed. It mainly seemed to be a game of leading questions calculated to trap uninformed people into contradictions, not into thinking, and to leverage their discomfort into considering alternatives. Proponents hate me when I say it, but Ray Comfort figured this out before they did, and he’s not exactly a brilliant philosopher.

My disenchantment only grew as I learned more about this Boghossian fellow. He’s an obnoxious ass! Are you telling me he’s a master of the gentle art of persuasion? If so, he doesn’t practice what he preaches.

Now he’s come out with this book, How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide, which is just nuts. What next? Trump writing a book on modern physics, Deepak Chopra writing about mathematical rigor, PZ Myers becoming an Instagram model, Uwe Boll producing a movie classic? Boghossian and his coauthor, James Lindsay, are temperamentally and intellectually incapable of writing a guide to handling challenging conversations. They’ve always relied on simply pandering to the biases of their right-wing friends.

I’m never going to buy their book and have no interest in reading it. Oliver Traldi has written a review…a charitable review, even, although it does reject their approach, and notes that a lot of it is rehashed pablum from the self-help genre.

All in all, How to Have Impossible Conversations was better than I expected. If you do as Boghossian and Lindsay say and not as they do, you’ll probably be more successful in persuading people during contentious conversations — as long as you have enough common sense to exclude the weird shit as well.

That “not as they do” is important. Boghossian and Lindsay are just the worst.

Traldi also brings up another criticism that I’d felt worming around in my guts in all my encounters with this “street epistemology” stuff, but he expresses it well for me.

If, as Boghossian and Lindsay seem to indicate, the readers’ own beliefs are as brittle as anyone else’s and rest on as shaky a foundation, why should they be in the business of trying to persuade anyone of anything? If we are really masters of doubting everything we believe, why would persuasion techniques be a rational thing to try to engage in? What would we be trying to persuade people of… stuff we ourselves don’t think is true? Who in the world would that help?

That’s a fundamental question. What, exactly, are we atheists trying to do? Answer that first, before you try to tell others how they’re supposed to be like you.

Dramatic wars begin with a grievous setback that makes everyone desperate to fight back, right?

I isolated myself in a coffee shop, buckled down, and pounded straight through my grading. I got it done! Early even! The students…well, umm, there were some rough spots. The mean was about 65%, brought down by one specific page where they had to do some math, and it was a massacre. I was imagining that page soaked in blood, with more pouring out of my wicked pen, and was getting a little uneasy. I know what we’re going to be going over in the next class!

Now, though, I get to go home, where my wife has some chore involving the picket fence I’m supposed to do, but once that’s over, I’ve got to honor the completion of one onerous task (if not the outcome).

I’m thinking I’ll sit back and read the new Joe Abercrombie, A Little Hatred. It seems appropriate, very grim-dark, with lots of close-fought bloody battles. For that 65%, you know, which is barely passing and means half the class is getting Ds or worse so far.

(The title does not reflect my feelings towards the students, who are my brave compatriots in the struggle to master cell biology.)