Thursday, April 3, 2014

Race in America: An Update

Race and the persistence and extent of racial prejudice continue to be subjects of disagreement in the United States (at least, between members of different races).  One of the most eye-opening viewpoints I experienced as a child appeared in Black Like Me, whose white author John Howard Griffin used dermatological interventions to pass as black in the Deep South and kept a diary.  When a white man's framework for normalcy is applied to the daily life of a black man, a real opportunity exists to assess differences, their extent, and their personal impact.  The book is a must-read for anyone interested in race in America.

Black Like Me wasn't written this century, however.  "It's not like that anymore" – ever hear that one?  Is it true?  Surely the extent to which it reflects local experience changes with time and geography.  A recent report from New York City is educational: The Atlantic published a white man's thoughts about his observations of his own black son growing up in America.

It's worth having a look.  The Emancipation Proclamation sounded great but is insufficient to the ideals behind it.  When I think about Chris Smith's son, I think about the child I imagined in the last-linked article: "Are we free yet?"

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Go Read The Goblin Emperor

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076532699X/ref=as_li_qf_sp_asin_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=076532699X&linkCode=as2&tag=thejadcon-20Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor is a coming-of-age story set in an Elfland empire during a time of airships and mechanical clocks. The titular Emperor – an outcast youngest son – finds himself not only unprepared for a position none thought he would inherit, but beset on all sides by opposition fueled by class, race, sexism, ambition, misinformation, ignorance, greed, tradition, and every other force acting on the empire and those who shape its future. The story's scope slowly broadens from one boy's bewilderment to an enormous intrigue involving the Empire's relations with foreign nations, the internecine competition within the Empire, political disputes over infrastructure development, and a host of prejudices.

Why You Want To Read The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor depicts an empire entangled in a complex web of internal politics, personal pride, public corruption, conflicting philosophy, international tensions, technological innovations, family ties, social customs, class division, economic competition, educational divides, and imperial traditions. The author weaves ignorance, greed, and hatred into a rich tapestry; opponents can't simply be murdered off or dismissed because many of them are perfectly good people in need of a few true facts.  The protagonist must choose whether to surrender or fight every time he's confronted, and the reader learns who he is by the battles he picks.  Along the way, he teaches himself and those about him who he is.  (At least, those who bother to look.)

Told in close-third, The Goblin Emperor follows Maia's ascent – from an ignorant boy under the fist of an exiled drunken bully, to a minority-race Emperor surrounded by courtiers who would happily see him sink into a soft life as prisoner in an imperial residence.  By actively involving himself to ensure the competent investigation of last emperor's death in an airship wreck, Maia makes himself  the target of those whose last assassination brought him to the throne.  Maia isn't drawn into defending all his dead father's policies, but he's brought to discover just what a complex world he's joined.

The prejudices that drive so much of the conflict in The Goblin Emperor aren't trite character tags, but plausible-seeming convictions as variable as the characters are diverse. As characters learn more from each other, the reader learns which quickly abandon false ideas, and which cling to their views despite the facts like the small-souled bigots the author clearly intends them to be.  Maia distinguishes himself not because he's got a magic wand (he's useless at magic) or because he was born to fulfill some great prophesy (he was born to die in exile). He also doesn't distinguish himself as a warrior (he gets the worst of every physical confrontation).  His distinguishing characteristic is that he possesses and maintains his humanity.  The coming of age story culminates not with a coronation or a marriage but with a decision to do something big for the people he rules despite the headwinds he faces getting it off the ground: he makes good on something that matters to strangers.

Traditional Jaded Consumer Content Alert

The Jaded Consumer generally includes a note or two on aspects of a reviewed work for readers whose peculiar sensitivities may be upset by some otherwise innocuous aspect of a fictional work.  For example, some readers may be sensitive to the appearance of genuine belief in real-world religions, such as appears in Eliza Crewe's Cracked.  In Steven Brust's and Skyler White's The Incrementalists, the Jaded Consumer noted a reader would find politicsMyke Cole's Shadow Ops series offers optimism about the human condition.  Naturally, none of these are fatal. A reader with the certain senstitivities may be, shall we say, mismatched to a book.  Content alerts are for these less-than-fully-omnivorous readers.  If you're made of tougher stuff, feel free to skip this part. The content alerts here are based on speed and politics.

Until the protagonist – Maia – becomes embroiled in the Empire's complexities, the reader sees nothing but his personal worries and fears.  The reader learns about the world no faster than the main character.  If you enjoy only action sequences, and lack patience to watch characters discover their world and themselves, this book is not for you.  This isn't a story about a conquering hero or a successful warlord.  The protagonist inherits his title when everyone ahead of him in succession unexpectedly dies.  The meat of the story is about what Maia does after inheriting – the choices he makes while dealing with people and exercising power.  This isn't to say Maia does nothing; his decisions have a enormous effect on the allies he makes and the success of his reign.  Without these decisions, he'd never keep his throne.  There's conflict, and there's decision, and there's change.  But if you require a heavy diet of fight scenes and chases, this is not the nail-biting thriller you were looking for.

Readers used to a breakneck pace may find this story's pace more stately than they are accustomed. The pace has definite causes.  Sentences are not whittled to their barest parts.  Facts are not bare; even pronouns are occasionally given long discussion. The non-English language of the Elves apparently has a formal first person (depicted as "we"; it's not the royal "we" because characters other than the Emperor employ it), a normal first person, and second-person pronouns that vary with familiarity.  Speakers of European languages may find this circumstance more familiar than English-only speakers, but the author spends time describing the effect of these pronouns' use in dialog between characters whose relationships are changing. This isn't surplussage or waste, but it's a level of detail that has an effect on the speed with which anything can be described: things can take a while. This doesn't mean they're boring to persons of normal sensitivity, but the fact may be of interest to readers who know they demand things move at top speed. 

Then, there's politics. [SPOILER] The Goblin Emperor drops lots of details on the reader to illustrate the brokenness of the empire Maia inherits.  Inequity in educational opportunity, gender rights, and all kinds of areas are all dropped on the reader as on the new emperor, and we sense the emperor intends working on all these things.  The protagonist articulates no promise or plan for them all, but the reader is given a clear idea that there's much work to be done in the empire, and plenty of evil to be had in unconcerned government.  The Goblin Emperor advocates social reform by condemning gender roles, bullies, and the apparatus of established power.  To the extent the reader wants Maia to succeed, it's because the political necessities suggested by the author resonate with the reader: we want the empire's victims saved from the laws and customs that drive artisans blind weaving fine silks, ruin women's educational opportunities over socially-assigned roles determined by gender, and oppress the working classes to the point the emperor is unable to fault a villain's conclusion that all the good accomplished by the protagonist has been made possible by an establishment-toppling multiple-murder just before the opening curtain of Chapter One.  [/SPOILER]  The Goblin Emperor is, therefore, political: it not only urges that genuine humans are needed in power (implying that the kinds of oppression depicted in the book prove they are not), but it comments on the role of violence in these reforms in ways that could easily upset persons of tender sensitivities.

I certainly enjoyed The Goblin Emperor, but those readers with peculiar sensitivity to pace or politics should be aware how each work in this book.

Details

The author spends considerable time showing the reader details.  for example, the outrageous ostentation of the top tier of society in the Empire is depicted in recurring descriptions of dress and adornment and the conduct of servants.  The author's recurring discussion of personal pronouns signals a willingness to examine minute details in the interest of painting The Goblin Emperor in full color for the reader. Despite clear willingness to slow to provide detail to readers, The Goblin Emperor did surprise with non-detail in two places.  Near the beginning of the book, Maia looks from an airship at a "beautiful" view of the sun on the horizon.  Later, he looks on a "surprising" gift clock. The build-up to each event engendered an expectation of some description why the adjectives were warranted. What sort of beauty? What kind of surprise? Colors? Shapes? Movement?  These things weren't important to the story, but the detail painted for the hair accoutrements and carriage attendants and jewelry and so many other non-critical things led me to blink in surprise that these descriptions were omitted.  But, they didn't affect the story, so what does it matter?

Readers who want to get all the information encoded by the author in her writing may wish to note that the book has a useful appendix.  "Extracts from A Handbook for Travelers in the Elflands" – purportedly a Crooked Stair Press product printed for the Royal Merchants Guild of Porcharn – may be worth bookmarking by those who want to understand when the author uses a family name to describe the whole family and when the author intends using a family name to explain the gender and marital status of an individual.  The author divulges the system for decoding the endings affixed to family-name roots, and this may be of real help to people hoping to keep straight which of two related people are being described (which could be disambiguated by gender, for example).  I personally found myself hard-pressed to keep straight the large number of long and alien-looking Elf names, but at least decoding them into gender and marital status is a help.  In a paper edition, dog-ear the "Handbook" at the end.

Conclusion

The Goblin Emperor is an exciting look at a near-orphan coming of age in a hostile environment with nothing about him but his (largely uneducated) wits.  It's an underdog story.  Sure, the "underdog" is Emperor, but he's surrounded and outnumbered and bewildered, and his only "ally" in Chapter One is the drunk who beats him.  We want poor Maia to succeed, and we're interested to see his humanity as he declines to become the monster his accession to power permits.  We want him to succeed not only in the sense of overcoming enemies, but in the sense of overcoming the urge to descend to their level to do it.

The Goblin Emperor comments on family, government, privilege, discrimination, and all kinds of things – but it's about the triumph of humanity on the only scale humans can really feel: one on one.  Maia must teach individuals he's worth taking seriously as a human, and he must rescue others from misery, one at a time.  There's a nation to save – perhaps a whole world – and it's too big for one person to fix.  But Addison's emperor shows us the only success that matters: one individual's triumph against despair by doing better for others than one's been offered one's self.  The victory of The Goblin Emperor is survival without losing one's soul.  It's a journey that's wonderful to see in print, just as we long to see it in the waking world.

The Goblin Emperor is well worth reading, and I'll look forward to more from Katherine Addison in the future.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Use Garamond and Save The Planet

A middle-school student's science project demonstrates that changing the font used in the government's annual publications can save so much ink – which has twice the per-unit-volume cost of imported French perfume costs – that $400 million could be saved from the federal budget alone.

In my own letterhead, I've used Garamond for years. Now I feel even smarter.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Russia Booted from G8. Um, G7.

Following Russia's propaganda-laden invasion of the Crimea, Western powers ejected Russia from the G8.  For the foreseeable future, the organization will presumably be called the G7.

This follows a series of tit-for-tat sanctions in which Russia banned various foreign officials' travel to the country after its own officials' visas and foreign accounts had been impounded.

For those just tuning in, Russia is a thugocracy led by the former KGB head Vladimir Putin, who claims not to remember meeting the owner of a diamond-encrusted Superbowl ring, and not to remember taking the ring from him in 2005.  (And whose Ph.D. thesis he directly plagiarized from KGB translations of earlier Western publications.)  When Russia's effort to reincorporate the Ukraine through a puppet government failed in the face of a popular uprising, Russia invaded the Crimea to obtain direct control of the port there.  Russia's story? The did it to protect Russians in the Crimea from dangerous Ukranians.  Putin has officially declared that the collapse of the totalitarian dictatorship once known as the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century" and he appears to be well on the way to re-creating it. On concerns that Russia could backslide on democracy and human rights, Putin said "our place in the modern world will be defined only by how successful and strong we are."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Look at 'Lovecraft's Monsters'

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/161696121X/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=161696121X&linkCode=as2&tag=thejadcon-20Come tax day 2014, Tachyon Publications will offer even greater horror.  On April 15, it will to loose Lovecraft's Monsters upon the world.  The collection celebrates Lovecraft-crafted horror with short works that play in his sandbox.  H.P. Lovecraft's tales generally relate one narrator's exposure to new-discovered clues of looming supernatural threats from awful gods. This collection showcases diverse authors' depictions, from wildly different points of view, of different slices of life in a Lovecraftian community.  The result is a delightful array of little pieces that range in mood and subject.  Unholy sacrifice, forbidden love, a private dick on the trail of a murderer – there's something there for everyone.

The eighteen tales' breadth is sketched briefly through a few samples.

Niel Gaiman's short "Only the End of the World Again" offers traditional European horrors of folklore hunting the same world as Lovecraft's beasts and their awful worshippers. Werewolves may be the bane of man, but are they also the only thing between our world and the ascendance of unpronounceable tentacular horrors from the deep?

Laird Barron's "Bulldozer" follows a Pinkerton on the trail of a wanted man. Well, maybe not entirely a man. The salty feel of the hired gun is nothing like the prose of Lovecraft or the authors who cleaved to his style.  The tale gives a feel of Deadwood while it depicts how the weird world looks, approached from the outside.  Watching a normal drawn in a descend is quite a ride.  There's damned, then there's damned.

CaitlĂ­n R. Kiernan's "Love is Forbidden, We Croak and Howl" gives a glimpse of love from the wrong side of the tracks – in a town where the elite aspire to consort with demons.  It's a beautiful romantic sketch, made horrible as one imagines the aspirations of the town's youths. Ugh. But … a happy ugh.  Come, read this, and wish good things on inhuman beasts.  It's not like they don't have dreams, too.

It you're a fan of the weird, this is your book.



Review: Wheeler's Fireblood

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/161218720X/ref=as_li_tf_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=161218720X&linkCode=as2&tag=thejadcon-20
Jeff Wheeler's novel Fireblood is the first volume of his Whispers of Mirrowen series. Like his Muirwood series, it spans three books.  Unlike the Muirwood series, its three volumes didn't share a single publication date: readers wanting the whole tale will have to wait until the third volume is published in the future.

This leads to my first gripe: like Connie Willis' time-travel story comprising Blackout and All Clear, no one volume tells a complete story.  When I read Blackout, I immediately realized that without access to its sequel I'd have been incensed to have been led into a book thinking I was getting a story, only to find it cut short with no resolution to any part of it.  I felt I'd been sold the result of one good book being fed through a buzz saw and vended in halves.  That's not to say the story isn't delightful and moving, but for safety's sake don't pick up Blackout without easy access to All Clear.  To be fair, cutting stories into bits and selling them in different volumes isn't new in fantasy. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy may have enshrined the practice from the genre's very beginning.  But it's this reviewer's fervent hope that writers will see what Jim Butcher has proved with his two separate fantasy series, each of which is comprised only of novels that tell satisfying and complete stories: people love to read reliably good stories and will buy them if you prove you can write them reliably, especially if you keep the same characters alive and evolving and interesting for fifteen volumes (and in the Dresden Files, heading past twenty).  But this is a gripe.  People read the Lord of the Rings, and they read the Oxford time travel books, and they'll keep reading volumes that don't tell complete stories so long as they feel confident the whole story will satisfy.

What's Right
Fireblood does several good things.

Unlike so many fantasy worlds, Whispers of Mirrowen decouples race from culture.  This doesn't sound like a big innovation, but the result is a much more complex social fabric in which national politics, social competition, and racial tension give a full-color feel to motives and enmities that in other worlds are simplified into elf/dwarf rivalry. Mind you, elf/dwarf rivalry worked okay for Terry Brooks in Wishsong of Shannara when readers were already committed to the story and distracted with other concerns, but the fewer things one must suspend disbelief about, the easier it is to get lost in the story. And isn't that why we're reading it anyway? (What did Brooks' elves and dwarves do to each other that we believe it?)

Whispers of Mirrowen offers interesting magic.  Many types exist, each with different costs and limitations. Since races and cultures cross boundaries of politics and faith, the powers that work for protagonists also work in equal measure against them. What readers learn about magic when it's working for protagonists hangs over the reader, creating tension as we see antagonists access the same kinds of powers.

Characters have believable conflicts, including among protagonists.  In several places one wonders whether villains will derail protagonists, or their own squabbles and fears.  Wheeler's third-person narrative shifts of focus between characters so readers can see enough of what characters secretly think and dream when they're alone to help them understand the collision of motives, but it leaves enough unexplained to raise tension when the collisions occur.

Content Alert
Jaded Consumer fiction reviews traditionally contain a variety of "content warnings" regarding various aspects of works. The warnings aren't for everyone, and need not keep people from finding work an enjoyable read. Whether it involves politics or religion or merely an optimistic outlook on the human condition, content alerts aren't intended to damn work but to alert people whose tastes run in another direction.

As intimated in the note above about the story-incomplete volumes in this series, it's the Jaded Consumer's conclusion that Jeff Wheeler read Tolkien.  Maybe … maybe the wrong way.  Here, the Jaded Consumer refers to the pace of the work. For instance, the first chapter introduces a character whose band of adventurers has been slaughtered down to a single ally and left stranded in the deepest depths of hostile territory, just as they're found by undescribed awful clawed things.  One would think his lost-ness and desperation would lead the chapter – they are what makes it interesting, and what must draw the reader if anything does.  They're the hook, right?  But, no. Fireblood opens with the weather.  This appears an intentional artistic decision – apparently for structure; the chapter closes with the weather, to which the scene outcome is attributed.  Once the real problem in the scene became evident, I wondered why it was I didn't care about the protagonists' desperate plight.  It felt buried in description to which I had no emotional connection.  The rest of the book picks up.  But as in Tolkien, sentences avoid quick subject-object-verb structure; the ideas curve lengthily about dependent clauses and description that feel like they insulate one from the story's grip.

And it's got a grip.  This is a story I'd like to see finished (see above; this is not the first story in a three-story episode arc, it's the first segment of a single story cut into three pieces).  People who require modern stories' fast pace may not want to stick with something written with the slow description of a book from another age.

Toward the end of the book, the story's grippiness takes another blow as the big mysteries behind the current conflict are revealed to the protagonists (and the reader).  It comes as description, with long dialogue giving secondhand encapsulation of facts that sound like they'd be exciting to see firsthand.  When Rowling faced the burden of heavy exposition in her Harry Potter series, she invented a fantasy gizmo that allowed him to see events firsthand – so the reader would see the action with the protagonist, instead of merely hearing about it. Fireblood's pace takes a hard blow under the weight of heavy exposition.

Culture Shock
I enjoy the multiple fantasy cultures depicted in Fireblood, but one bothered me.  Fireblood depicts a "Romani" people that appears to echo the worst stereotypes of the real-world Gypsies/Roma/Romani, down to child-stealing, human trafficking, misogyny, and an ostensibly pervasive culture of criminal enterprise.  This is a fantasy world; why do we need to trade on prejudices against a real-world ethnic minority?  It'd be easier to hate them as the author wants, if we weren't worried we were being urged against a real people nearly exterminated in some parts of the world by people preaching their difference.

Back To Our Scheduled Programming
Fireblood's sympathetic characters' intractable problems lead them not only into each other's orbit, but into inevitable conflict.  It's not trivial conflict, but feels important – not just to the characters, but their world.  If the characters weren't interesting, one wouldn't care. If the stakes weren't interesting, one wouldn't care.  Wheeler gives readers a real invitation to follow the story he weaves.

Conclusion


If you're suited to the pace, Fireblood offers a complex world full of interesting problems for characters that are easy to like.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Another Bogus Conviction Based on Prosecutorial Concealment of Evidence

Gloria Killian was freed after years behind bars for a robbery-murder plot in which she was utterly innocent.  Unfortunately, this isn't a story about justice being served. It's a story about yet another  prosecutor intentionally concealing evidence to dupe a jury into conviction.

In Killian's case, the conceal evidence showed the state's star witness traded leniency in his own case for testimony spreading blame to Killian.  The hired witness agreed, and happily claimed under oath (to save his own skin) that Killian – whom he'd never actually met – masterminded the whole thing.  Sigh.  Normally, when a witness is paid for testimony – in money, or in freedom – the jury gets to consider how the fact and extent of payment impacts the jury's decision what it will believe.  By hiding the fact the "star witness" was a paid rat, the State bolstered his credibility and prevented the jury from understanding his real motive to testify.  Under our system, when a witness informs the prosecutor "I even lied my ass off on the stand for you people", the wrongly convicted don't automatically go free. Instead, the reports I've seen suggest the letter ends up in a drawer.

In the U.K., I understand the government doesn't have barristers on salary. The government's solicitors engage barristers to try cases from a pool of available barristers who try criminal matters, and the barristers who work on a particular case may have worked for the defense the prior week and may work for the government the next month.  They have no career need to get convictions, and their perspective on their cases has the breadth of seeing both sides.  Their objective isn't to advance the office of the prosecutor.  Ideally, the United States would not have prosecutors bent on getting convictions of innocents in order to improve their scorecards, but our system is broken.  The convict-at-all-costs culture of many prosecutors' offices has been noted before.

The American Bar Association's rules applicable to prosecutors – widely adopted by state bar organizations – explicitly state in Standard 3-1.2(c) that "The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."  But have you ever heard of anyone being promoted in a district attorney's office for seeking justice?  It's the conviction rate you see measured.  And you get what you pay for.  So if you measure nothing but convictions, what do you expect?

Let's stop paying for empty convictions, and start motivating people to get the right people behind bars. Or – and here's an idea – keeping people from ending up offenders.