Unique Critiques

The Banneret: Blood of Kings Book 2

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

I love most of Duncan Hamilton’s books.  I’ve reviewed a number of them here before.  His new series, the Blood of Kings, takes place in the same world as all of the rest that Hamilton has created with his other series, the Wolf of the North, the Dragonslayer, and the Society of the Sword. The world is not too far off from our own which adds the believability of any good myth. He has a knack for creating cultures and putting the reader on the left shoulder of the characters as he tortures them in the various, delicious ways.

In the first installment of the series, The Squire, we are introduced to the main character Conrad.  As a child, Conrad is a victim of a demon attack that kills his parents.  He is rescued by a motley group of sell swords from a range of different cultures and fighting styles.  There’s not enough angst in the group to make a nineties grunge band jealous but there is enough conflict to make them interesting.  The band is loosely led by a banneret of the grey by the name of Nicolo.  He runs a democratic outfit which is already outside the norm for this type of company but it fits the personality and cultures of the group. Left with very little options, they take Conrad under their wing and make him a squire for their small company.  Along the way, they teach him the basics which runs the risk of formulaic fantasy.  Thankfully, it doesn’t turn into one.  Hamilton twists it into a mystery where he invites the reader to uncover who’s behind the demon threat for the crown.

The Banneret picks up eight years later.  Conrad is fresh out of the Academy and he now holds a Banneret title of his own.  In Hamilton’s world, this means you have earned the right to wear a sword in the bigger city and amongst gentlemen.  It’s like being certified a badass.  Hamilton doesn’t waste much time in the set up, doing us all a favor by throwing us back into the mystery.

Conrad’s nemesis from the first book (1st book spoiler incoming), a duplicitous little prat with the well fitting name of Manfred, is down on his luck after Conrad exposes his father at the end of the first book.  Manfred and his family lose everything except for a small chest of seemingly useless junk, some papers and an amulet.  Manfred is smart enough to establish himself as a get shit done in the shadiest way possible character with some elements of the criminal underworld.  It doesn’t take long for him to discover that the amulet is the key to the communication with these demons that gave his father a serious edge in all his negotiations.  Manfred quickly discovers this same power and starts carving out a small empire of his own.

In the eight years between books, the demon activity has sputtered out, leaving the crown to minimize its importance and quit dedicating resources to the problem.  In actuality, the demons have been upping their game behind the scenes.  When they do make their second book debut it’s with a lot more chutzpah.

They uncover a bit more about what the demons want and what they need to do to stop them from getting it.  At the end of the book, Conrad gets a bit of an upgrade which gives him a real chance of standing up to these powerful foes.  It’s a good story.

The thing that stood out is the undercurrent of loss throughout the books.  Conrad is heavily defined by the people he loses.  One of my complaints is that the losses appear to be painfully random, the result of crappy luck.  I think this is the author’s intent but when I’m reading epic fantasy I have this little kid side of me that wants there to be more meaning behind each loss.  But there isn’t.  Fantasy imitating life I suppose.  It leaves you feeling a little empty.

My other complaint is that there is a pretty small cast of characters and while they have been well developed, you don’t build a ton of sympathy towards any of them except the protaganist.  Again, I think this is the author’s intent.  Since his new life since losing his parents is defined by loss, his relationship with others is a bit standoffish.  This is a more mature theme than some of Hamilton’s other books.  Or, maybe I’m just reading too far into it.

Either way, I look forward to the conclusion of this trilogy.

The Unspoken Name

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

The Unspoken Name is a beautifully written fantasy novel by A.K. Larkwood.  She builds a very unique world populated with very unique characters.  There are some excellent experiments with language in these imagined worlds.  The author introduces us to cleverly constructed names of people and places along with a pronunciation guide.  It feels a little like Tolkien’s studies in Elvish. 

Unfortunately, the novel didn’t draw me in.  I found myself struggling to care about the characters or their fates.  This was due, in part, to the slower pacing.  Our current world of fantasy feels like it is competing with streamed shows that are forced to deliver maximum impact in under an hour.  Characterization is ruthlessly replaced with action masquerading as relationship building.  Today’s stories have replaced the interesting elements of getting to know a character and how that character might react to others with a made for Netflix, Tinder-esque style of swiping right into relationships.  I don’t like it, but it certainly colors everything else I read.

Why not spend a goddam minute investing in the characters themselves so that we care?  Someone like Robert Jordan would never make it today.  His towering epic comes in at the monumental sum of 4.4 million words.  Reddit trolls love to bash his work as something that should have been cut down to a trilogy to satisfy today’s moth-like attention spans.  Those of us that did read this once upon a time felt like we really knew those characters (despite many of their puritanical roots), and became friends with them.  I don’t get that in a lot of fantasy I read today.  Characters are far more disposable, mass produced paper plate Redshirts meant to impart the seriousness of a situation.  They often succeed in that goal but their disposability also makes them entirely forgettable.  Perhaps character development is yet another casualty of social media.

To be fair to Larkwood, she spends time on her characters.  The problem I had was relatability.  These characters were so fantastic, so alien, that I couldn’t imagine myself in their place.  My only other character complaint was that two of the primary characters (Sethennai & Shuthmili) had similar enough names that I often confused them.  This led to several – why the hell would he or she do that moments.  This is a risk authors run when experimenting with language, the reader can get lost in those experiments.

The final critical thing I’ll share is that I spent a fair amount of time reading the book and I don’t really know what it was about.  I believe it’s about the journey that ensues when one chooses not to follow the paths that have been laid down for them by others.  This discovery of choice leads to a path to self actualization and awareness.  I may be reading too much into it but I also think there are subtle undertones of deeper meaning that I’m not picking up on.

The novel starts with an introduction to our protagonist Csorwe, best identified by the tusks that jut from her lower jaw.  She plays a critical role in the religious institution on her world.  Before she is set to meet her fate, a mysterious stranger, Sethennai, sweeps in and offers her a different choice that gives her an out from her religion without anyone, but her god, being the wiser.  She takes it and Sethennai becomes a mentor / father figure for her.

He has her trained in martial skills and she effectively becomes an agent for this erudite man of leisure.  Sethennai is the master of playing it cool but he has his own ulterior motives.  He is trying to claw his way back into power by getting his hands on the reliquary, an object of historical importance that will bring him some unknown, mysterious knowledge and capability.

Csorwe has a contemporary by the name of Talasseres Charossa (Tal), who was also taken in by Sethennai.  The two met on one of Csorwe’s first mission where Tal proved himself to be talented but an incredibly self-serving jackwad.  The two loathe each other.  Tal is an unlovable rogue but he is my favorite character of the book.  While he is narcissistic and filled with resentment and spite, he is also the most relatable and interesting character of the cast.  Later in the book you find out that a large part of his shitty personally originates from the hurt of unrequited love, not of Csorwe but another member of the cast.  This doesn’t excuse his behavior but certainly garners him some sympathy.

On another mission, Csorwe meets Shuthmili, another woman bound by her religion.  Csorwe offers her a similar choice to the one Sethannai offered her.  Shuthmili struggles with the choice which leads to some healthy introspection and a budding relationship with Csorwe.  The first book ends with both Csorwe and Shuthmili forced to confront the religions and choices of their past to in a showdown battle for the reliquary. 

It’s obvious that this book is the first in the series but the revelations at the end didn’t feel like enough of a conclusion for the story thus far, or a tease that had me wanting to come back for more.  Larkwood’s mastery of the language is obvious and evident and I often found myself envious at the beauty of her prose.  It was the narrative that I found lacking and because of that, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next installation of the story.

The Kaiju Preservation Society

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

Scalzi has crafted some pretty amazing, award winning science fiction.  The thing I love most about all of his writing is that he never takes himself too seriously.  The Kaiju Preservation Society is more tongue-in-cheek than most of his stuff and that includes Red Shirts.  Yet, he can take an idea that is a little ridiculous then add a Michael Crichton pacing to it that completely drags you in.  You happily chase him down each absurd rabbit hole and find yourself wanting more at the end.

In the Kaiju Preservation Society, our protagonist is a motivated young professional marketing / customer service director that is taking the corporate world by storm.  He works for one of the hot new delivery service companies, by the name of füdmüd, which puts the mood in food.  I can’t imagine having to type all of those umlauts while writing the book. I had to look up how to put one in the text ( Ctrl :  – then type the vowel if you’re wondering).

Anyway, he is a young corporate hotshot for all of the first half of chapter one before getting fired by his douchebag CEO, a Travis Kalanick clone, by the CEO offering him a job as a deliverator.  That’s the other great thing about this book.  Scalzi assumes that you are well read in all the nerd greats like Snow Crash and he lavishly spreads the references around like a sci-fi Easter Bunny.  He doesn’t make you work too hard for it as the main character or some side character will inevitably call out all references somewhere in the text because the author wants you in on the joke.

After he gets fired, thanks partly to the pandemic rolling in, our main character swallows his pride and starts deliverating food.  This is where he meets an old buddy of his from college who offers him a very black ops role that he refuses to tell Jamie (protagonist) anything about.  This is when the fun begins.  Jamie and the others who sign up with him get a baptism by fire of sorts where they are introduced to the kaiju firsthand.  The Kaiju Preservation Society (KPS) has found over time that this is only the real way to convince people that the kaiju are real.

For those unfamiliar, the most famous of the kaiju is Godzilla.  This was followed up with movies like Pacific Rim (surprisingly good) and several other poorly thought out and horribly Americanized Godzilla sequels.  The primary question is: if these things are real, where could they possibly be hiding?  The easiest answer – another dimension.  Sometimes, due to interesting circumstances detailed in the book, the barrier between dimensions can be breached and that’s how Godzilla pops in on Tokyo like some terrible monster in law.

Scalzi doesn’t spend a ton of time on the science that would make all this possible but he spends enough.  Namely, he talks us through how the square-cube law is not broken by their unique biology which actually makes these creatures their own walking ecosystems.  It’s a stretch, but it’s a fun one.

Things go great for Jamie in the other dimension.  He loves the job and he loves who he is working with.  The whole concept of the kaiju is fascinating enough that he completely forgets about the pandemic.  I think this is a nod towards staying busy by finding something you can be passionate about.  This approach always pays far greater dividends than sitting on your couch watching Tiger King.

Everything is going great until the bad guy with the money shows up.  The sleaze that oozes from this character is Carter J Burke (Paul Reiser’s annoying character in Aliens) worthy.  There’s always an ulterior motive and that motive is meant to make cash even if it means some or a lot of people are going to die.  The bad guy becomes the turd in the KPS’s stew and the main characters are all forced to make difficult decisions.  Lest you worry, there is great schadenfreude to be had in the end.

Just read it.  It’s no David Foster Wallace because it’s too damn fun.  There’s not a ton but there is deeper meaning to be found here.  You get the sense that this was the book that helped Scalzi get through the pandemic, the insurrection and every other turd sandwich that 2020 and 2021 shot at us even before he confirms this in his author’s note at the end.  I’d look forward to a second one even though I don’t think it’s coming.

LitRPG – Defiance of the Fall

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Apologies for the five of you who read this blog on a regular basis 🙂  It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review.  It’s been even longer since I posted a review for a fantasy or sci fi book.  I hope to change that over the next several months as I’m diving deep into the genre again just as the writing bug is beginning to burrow its way into the ol’ grey matter substrate.

The book I’ll review here is Defiance of the Fall by JF Brink.  Before we dive in, I’d like to start with a discussion of the LitRPG genre.  I’ll admit the LitRPG genre fascinates me.  I’ve played my fair share of RPGs and I’ve read loads of fantasy and science fiction.  The appeal is simple.  The story starts with someone in our mundane world who gets swept up into a new world.  This is not so different from other fantasy genres out there.  What is different is that they are almost always presented with some type of gaming interface.  This interface shares the progression of the main character with the reader in a discrete and structured progression.  This progression is often presented in Excel type charts that mimic what you’d find in a video game.  The character goes up levels, gains new skills and tackles harder and harder challenges.

It’s a similar appeal to a Twitch stream.  These are most commonly enjoyed by watching someone else play a video game.  Many from my generation (Gen X) and worse, the Boomers, will never understand this.  They pillory the younger generations for watching Twitch. 

“Wait, you’re watching someone else play a video game?  Why don’t you just play the game yourself?” 

I’ve seen this said, without a whiff of irony, by a dad watching football while sitting on the couch with one hand down his pants.  When I drew the obvious parallels, he said – “Yeah, but these are athletes in their prime playing at the highest level.” 

I then explained the concept of esports and how professional gamers also make millions for playing a game without destroying their bodies and buying into the gladiator culture of the NFL.  He refused to even look it up until there was a twenty dollar bet on the table.  Easiest twenty bucks I’ve ever made.

The buy in to a LitRPG book is a lot lower than traditional high fantasy.  The minute the interface screen appears in the text – you’re in on the joke.  Sure, the author still needs to do a fair amount of world building but they can employ lots of shortcuts because most of the readers are familiar with RPGs.  The reader can imagine themselves inside the world more easily because they already understand the general framework about how the rules of this world will be revealed.  This often creates an interesting second level of abstraction where the reader can imagine an avatar they’ve created in the past and can then imagine being transported to this new land as that avatar.  It’s a cool new mental architecture the author helps you to build.

I would argue that the shortcuts too easily make the world flat over time.  In the early stages of discovering the rules, like any reader does in a fantasy world, the charts and numbers satisfy that nerd itch that each of us has somewhere deep in our souls.  Over time however, as we are continuously exposed to the innards of the system the author has built, it becomes less interesting.  It starts to feel like reviewing math notes before a final.  All of those little discoveries that were so wonderfully crafted early on start to feel like a computer program rather than the fantastical world you wanted to escape into in the first place.  This may turn all the dials to keep some readers interested but this is where most authors of the genre lose me.  I start feeling like I’m listening to some ex World of Warcraft player tell me about a raid he participated in five years ago.  Sorry, not that interesting dude.  Same thing when an ex jock starts telling me about a football game he participated in twenty years ago when he was in his prime.  It feels a little sad.  Bring me something new and more interesting or you lose me.

Compare that to some of the great works of high fantasy.  They require a lot of buy in early.  I, the reader, understand almost nothing and you’ve tossed a ton of new terms and new environments that I’m struggling to even picture.  Once the author gets me there, they’ve done so through engagement, character development and feeling.  I’m much more willing to follow along as they continue to world build exactly because I don’t know the innards of the system.  It continuously opens the door wider to further exploration where the LitRPG world seems to narrow that aperture as the story progresses. 

There are exceptions.  Some LitRPG authors transcend into higher fantasy or science fiction due to the brilliance of their character development, world building and prose but I didn’t find that to be true with Defiance of the Fall.  It was an enjoyable romp but it didn’t transcend.

It starts off with our main character, Zac, winning a lucky die roll that allows him to survive Earth’s merging with the multiverse.  This lucky die roll and the corresponding luck attribute ends up being his primary advantage in the new Earth.  He finds himself isolated on an island out in the ocean where he has to fight for his survival against an invading tribe of demons.  He progresses through a series of difficult encounters that lead to several boss fights.  Ultimately, he builds some level of peace with the invaders and begins to build his base on the island.  Near the end of the first book he has built an interesting community and is starting to explore outside of it to visit other parts of the war torn and massively changed Earth.

The action scenes are numerous and gratuitous as Zac runs from one conflict to the next.  It feels a little like an 80s action movie with the non-stop violence.  With that said, it is fun to read even if the conclusion of each sequence feels inevitable.  Even as our protagonist is getting abused you don’t really get the sense that he will run into something he can’t defeat.

The character development continues the video game trend.  I felt like I could hit the skip button on each of the character cutscenes and feel like I wasn’t missing that much.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel like the author wasted my time and I got almost exactly what I expected from it.

Being Mortal

Science / Biz Book Review

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Atul Gawande is one of my favorite authors.  I loved the Checklist Manifesto and was able to take a lot of those ideas to improve business processes in pretty much any venture I’ve been involved with.  Gawande has the gift of identifying an obvious truth where others see only complexity.  In Being Mortal, he takes on the topic of death.  Knowing his background as a surgeon, I was concerned that he would tackle the topic as the medical establishment does today, clinically.  I needn’t have feared.  Not only is he a master storyteller that knows how to utilize emotion to make a point, this idea of medicine failing when death is inevitable is a major premise of the book.  He makes it clear that the clinical approach is failing and we have to look outside the numbers to empathy and understanding the person rather than just fighting the disease.

He starts by looking back, to the glory days of when we all died peacefully, surrounded by family.  He then destroys that myth.  Many people, especially the poor, would end up in poorhouses which were essentially elderly orphanages right out of some Dickensian nightmare.  For those lucky few elders that did have the opportunity to live with family, once the opportunity presented itself, they chose independence over veneration.  “Whenever the elderly had the financial means, they have chosen what social scientists have called ‘intimacy at a distance.’  Whereas in early-twentieth-century America 60 percent of those over age sixty five resided with a child, by the 1960s the proportion had dropped to 25 percent.”  He concludes that “The veneration of elders may be gone, but not because it has been replaced by veneration of youth.  It’s been replaced by the veneration of the independent self.”

Death and medicine have an uneasy relationship.  The more effective medicine becomes at healing us, the less accepting it becomes of death.  Clinicians go into medicine to fix people and “we often regard the patient on the downhill as uninteresting unless he or she has discrete problems we can fix.”  Finding and fixing a problem makes everybody feel good, yet talking about death seems like an acknowledgement of failure.  A sad byproduct of this is that the geriatrics field is going away.  “When the prevailing fantasy is that we can be ageless, the geriatrician’s uncomfortable demand is that we accept we are not.”  What young kid coming out of medical school wants to play Debbie Downer when they can be the hero?  “97 percent of medical students take no course in geriatrics, and the strategy requires that the nation pay geriatric specialists to teach rather than to provide patient care.”

He then dives deep into how we are dealing with the infirm.  How did we go from the poorhouse to today?  “Our old age homes didn’t develop out of a desire to give the frail elderly better lives than they’d had in those dismal places.  We didn’t look around and say to ourselves, ‘You know, there’s this phase of the people’s lives in which they can’t really cope on their own, and we ought to find a way to make it manageable’.  No, instead we said, ‘This looks like a medical problem.  Let’s put this people in the hospital.  Maybe the doctors can figure something out.’  The modern nursing home developed from there, more or less by accident.”  Sadly, medicine ended up with caring for the old by default.  They were so competent in fixing other diseases that they got the inevitability of death foisted on them as well.  So what happened?  Pretty much what you would think.  Independence and living were replaced with safety because that is what works in a hospital.  Add a litigious society where cover your own ass starts to play a role and the nursing home becomes a bubble wrapped, baby-proofed nightmare existence.  As our author puts it, “our elderly are left a controlled and supervised institutional existence, a medically designed answer to unfixable problems, a life designed to be safe but empty of anything they care about.”

So what do we care about, especially when we know we only have a finite time left?  The studies Gawande mentions all seem to point to one universal fact – facing your own mortality changes your perspective.  “How we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive ourselves to have.”  Ambition and vanity start to fade away and comfort and companionship become paramount.  Interestingly enough, age doesn’t play any role in this, the amount of time you have left is the determining factor.  There are some cool tie-ins to positive psychology here as happiness also seems tied to keeping the end in mind.  My own conclusion is that facing your mortality, however you decide to do it, is a critical element in finding purpose.

The good news is people both outside and inside of the medical community are starting to deal with the purpose element of mortality.  There have been large movements that focus on assisted living.  The key word being living.  What the folks at these centers found was that their residents needed a reason to get up in the morning.  They needed a cause.  For some this was taking care of animals or plants for others it was community.  For none was it safety.  “The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society.  If you don’t, mortality is only a horror.  But if you do, it is not.”  This naturally leads to legacy.  Legacy is in many ways our lasting connection to that ‘something greater’.  “Yet while we may feel less ambitious, we also become concerned for our legacy.  And we have a deep need to identify purposes outside ourselves that make living meaningful and worthwhile.”  Outside of purpose, the two other big factors to living out a good life(not in a hospital or nursing home) were autonomy and connectedness.  The ability to still make your own choices and not withering away in isolation were critical elements to accepting the downward slope of requiring assistance.

Gawande also tackles the brutal subject of when we should consider if enough is enough.  The medical community, by default, will do everything they can to prolong life.  Doctors become myopic by looking for that one in a million cure and they are so focused on fixing the problem that they miss the big picture.  From our own research we have found that doctors hate having the ‘maybe it’s time to consider quality of life’ conversation as much as the patients do.  “The fact that we may be shortening or worsening the time we have left hardly seems to register.  We imagine that we can wait until the doctors tell us that there is nothing more they can do.  But rarely is there nothing more that doctors can do.  They can give toxic drugs of unknown efficacy, operate to try to remove part of the tumor, put in a feeding tube if a person can’t eat: there’s always something.  We want these choices.  But that doesn’t mean we are eager to make the choices ourselves.  Instead, most often, we make no choice at all.  We fall back on the default, and the default is: Do Something.  Fix Something.  Is there any way out of this?”

That’s where the conversation comes in.  Too many docs bias towards the most optimistic outcome because they hate giving bad news as much as we hate hearing it.  The problem is: “the people who opt for these treatments aren’t thinking a few added months.  They’re thinking years.  They’re thinking they’re getting at least that lottery ticket’s chance that their disease might not even be a problem anymore.”  There is a huge disconnect in our hopeful thinking and the average results of these treatments.  The fascinating thing is, if we have the real conversation, the one that leads to acceptance and often hospice the results can be stunning.  “The result: those who saw a palliative care specialist stopped chemotherapy sooner, entered hospice far earlier, experienced less suffering at the end of their lives – and they lived 25 percent longer.  In other words, our decision making in medicine has failed so spectacularly that we have reached the point of actively inflicting harm on our patients rather than confronting the subject of mortality.  If end-of-life discussions were an experimental drug, the FDA would approve it.”  This conversation is no picnic and it can’t be rushed in to.  In fact, it will take a number of different tries with the patient and the family.  There will be a huge amount of anxiety and fear.  But it is possible.  As one of the palliative care docs said, “A family meeting is a procedure, and it requires no less skill than performing an operation.”  Only this operation requires emotional intelligence.  The key point to pull out of the meeting is how much the patient is willing to go through to have a shot at being alive and what level of being alive is tolerable.  One patient said, “Well, if I’m able to eat chocolate ice cream and watch football on TV, then I’m willing to stay alive.  I’m willing to go through a lot of pain if I have a shot at that.”  That simple description gives the family a wonderful roadmap of the difficult decision that will need to be made as the treatments and surgeries continue.

Gawande gives a great outline of how to have this conversation with a loved one by describing his conversation with his father when they had to go through this.  First, “I asked him what his understanding of what was happening to him.” Then, “what were his fears if that should happen?”  Next, “What were his goals if his conditioned worsened?”  Finally, “What trade-offs he was willing to make and not willing to make to try to stop what was happening to him.”  Then, it is up to you as the family member to get the real information from the doctor.  Ask, “What’s the shortest time you’ve seen and the longest time you’ve seen for people who took no treatment?”  Then ask, what are those same time frames with treatment?  Too often, the difference is negligible.  Remember, the doc hates giving this news.  They want to continue to focus on fixing the problem where they have been trained and not on quality of life where they have not.

A truly wonderful book.  Gawande closes with remembering the value that death can bring.  “Technological society has forgotten what scholars call the ‘dying role’ and its importance to people as life approaches its end.  People want to share memories, pass on wisdoms and keepsakes, settle relationships, establish their legacies, make peace with God, and ensure that those who are left behind will be okay.  They want to end their stories on their own terms.  This role is, observers argue, among life’s most important, for both the dying and those left behind.  And if it is, the way we deny people this role, out of obtuseness and neglect, is cause for everlasting shame.  Over and over, we in medicine inflict deep gouges at the end of people’s lives and then stand oblivious to the harm done.”  We can only hope that we can all experience this level of self-awareness as we contemplate our own mortality.

Designing your Life

Science / Biz Book Review

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans designed a pretty amazing book with Designing your Life.  They are both professors at Stanford but each of them had pretty amazing careers pre-Academia.  The way they write and the way they use their own goals comes across as two guys who have figured out quite a few things about life.  At least their own lives.  Not only does their communication style come across as very comfortable, both authors have that tone of calm competence that you always get from people who have mastered their craft.  The book comes from concepts that were pioneered and tested in the classroom and the boardroom.  The class they offered had the same title and it quickly became one of the most popular classes at the school.

You can see why this would be so popular.  So many kids get their first taste of freedom when they head off to college/university.  With this freedom comes some new accountabilities that can easily pile up to a massive oh shit question.  What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?

Up until this point, most kids have a pretty clear idea of what they are supposed to do next.  There is a fairly unambiguous scorecard that comes in the form of grades or scoreboards or even social pecking order.  Once you get into college, your previous standing in all these things becomes irrelevant.  Not only do you have to recreate who you are, you typically have to do it by yourself.  Sure, you have advisors throughout the process, but the road ahead is no longer obvious and your parents aren’t there for the day to day stuff.  Burnett and Evans help kids figure this incredibly difficult transition out.  Now that all this knowledge is in a book, they can help you figure it out too.  I don’t want to leave you with the impression that this is just for kids.  No matter how old you are, if you are contemplating any type of change in career, relationship, health, etc. the knowledge in these pages will help.  We should all actively work to design our lives no matter where we start in the process because the alternative is to let the world do it for you.  That’s how the victim mindset begins.

Our authors start with sharing some facts.  First, only 27% of college grads end up working in something related to their majors.  Second, “two-thirds of workers are unhappy with their jobs.  And 15% actually hate their work.”  With just those two statements it becomes obvious we are not doing a good job of designing our lives.

They then take us through their definition of design.  Design requires radical collaboration, talk with many people from many disciplines to design something amazing.  Designers are also great tinkerers.  “Designers don’t think their way forward.  Designers build their way forward.”  To design your life effectively, you’re going to need “curiosity, bias to action, reframing, awareness, and radical collaboration.”  They also take on the passion mindset a bit and that you can’t just fall into it, “people actually need to take time to develop a passion.  And the research shows that, for most people, passion comes after they try something, discover they like it, and develop mastery – not before.  To put it more succinctly: passion is the result of a good life design, not the cause.”

Step 1: Start where you are

They outline an amazing roadmap of how to start this design.  Step 1:  Start where you are.  This is figuring out how to place the ‘you are here’ pin.  They ask you to break down where you stand in four critical pillars of life: health, work, play and love.  They walk you through creating a dashboard of how you stack up in each of these pillars.

Step 2: Building a compass

In this stage, they ask you to define true north.  They ask you to build a Lifeview by asking some fundamental questions: “What gives life meaning? What makes your life worthwhile or valuable? How does your life relate to others in your family, your community, and the world?  What do money, fame, and personal accomplishment have to do with a satisfying life?  How important are experience, growth, and fulfillment in your life?”  None of these questions have easy answers and each of them deserves serious introspection.  It’s worth it.  They ask you to do the same for your Workview which is a similar exercise but focuses on your craft.  The goal of both of these exercises is coherence.  You want to be able to articulate an internal compass to guide you through the many shades of gray that life tosses your way.

Step 3: Wayfinding

In this stage, the goal is to understand what makes work fun.  One of my favorite quotes from the book came from this chapter: “Flow is play for grown-ups.”  Wayfinding takes you through a set of exercises to understand what flow means for you.  In their words, “Work is fun when you are actually leaning into your strengths and are deeply engaged and energized by what you’re doing.”  They provide you with a good time journal that asks you to track what you’re doing at work for a couple of weeks.  When you scribe the task, they ask your engagement level while the activity was happening.  They then ask you to record your energy level for the activity when it was complete.  This starts identifying those tasks that bring you to flow already or point the direction for the work that can take you there.  If this does not become obvious after a couple of weeks, you can dive deeper using the AEIOU method.  You can look at each task/experience then ask: what Activities were actually involved?  What was the Environment like?  What was the Interaction like – people or machines, new or old?  What Objects were you interacting with?  What other Users were involved?

Step 4: Getting Unstuck

This section was all about brainstorming where they walk you through effective ways to build out a mind map which is essentially a post-it note guided brainstorming session.

Steps 5 & 6: Designing your life and Prototyping

They then ask you to take some of your results from the brainstorming exercises and to build out three five year plans.  These are three completely different things that you could see yourself doing over the next five years.  “We call these Odyssey Plans.”  Once you build these plans, it’s time to start doing some prototyping.  A lot of prototyping involves just getting out there and talking to people that have done something similar to what you’re trying to do.  Figure out why these folks love or hate what they’re doing.  Get their story and try to superimpose some of it on yourself.  Is this something you could really see yourself doing?

These first steps are the ones that resonated for me.  Like a lot of these personal development books, it started very strong but faded a little as it went on.  The authors continue with really good advice on designing and landing a dream job, but most of this was not as fresh or new as the earlier parts of the book.

They close with some great thoughts on how designing your life will actually create an immunity to failure.  If you are constantly designing your life, if you are constantly self-improving, any failure you experience is just part of the process.  That’s what life is after all, a constant trial and error experiment.  The big difference is that if you choose to design your life, you’ve decided to own that experiment.  You’ve decided to call the shots and play an active role in it rather than passively let your external stimuli control it for you.

The choice seems obvious to me.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Neal Stephenson.  I was completely blown away by Snow Crash.  But then, who wouldn’t be entranced by a cyberpunk pizza delivery ninja?  I was just as enamored with the Diamond Age and even Cryptonomicon both of which launched Stephenson onto my must read author list.  Then he came out with the Baroque cycle which I slogged my way through, wondering the entire time: what am I missing here?  In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t much.  I believe that this series was simply Stephenson performing a little academia fueled intellectual masturbation where he forgot the one crucial no-no of storytelling – don’t bore the shit out of your readers.

After that snorer of a series, I gave up on him for good.  I felt justified by that decision when he released Anathem which looked like more of the same.  I refused to even pick that one up and removed Stephenson from any and all novel release alerts.  Then he wrote REAMDE which people I trust said was a must-read.  It wasn’t bad.  It was similar to Cline’s Ready Player One albeit quite a bit darker.  It wasn’t good enough to restore him back on the must read list.  After losing faith in Stephenson, I don’t touch his books unless they come with a great recommendation.  Right before the holiday, I met up with my old college roommates and one of them gave the rec that the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O was worth the read.  So here we are.

The concept of the book is excellent.  It’s got all the physics nerd themes you could ever hope for.  Being a physics nerd, this really worked for me.  He dives deep into quantum theory using the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment as a starter reference point then evolves the ideas from there.  That was one of the things I loved about the book, the science was on point.

The style of writing was pretty cool.  He constantly went back and forth between journal entries, email conversations, wiki posts and the more traditional third person view.  All told, it felt more like an experience than reading a book.  This was a good, modern way to experience literature.

The plot starts in a somewhat Jurassic Park fashion with a strange military dude looking for an expert on ancient languages.  You get the clear sense very early on that Dr. Melisande Stokes, our walking anachronism, will be put to good use and quickly.  The plot doesn’t disappoint.  You quickly discover that our military dude, Tristan Lyons, is part  of some covert government group looking to understand what happened to magic.  That’s right magic.

These two characters quickly form a much larger group of scientists, operatives, and witches that dive into the mysteries of magic and time travel.  It gets weird quickly.  But it’s a good weird.  The magic elements continue to be somewhat believable especially with the strong ties to quantum paradoxes and multi-universe theories.  Stephenson does a good job of implying these scientific elements instead of forcing them on us.  This keeps all these concepts well available for non-physics nerds.

As our characters start jumping back and forth through time, Stephenson finds his groove.  He definitely gets a lot of pleasure from historical fiction but this time around he does a good job of making these forays enjoyable for the reader as well.  Historical integrity is obviously very important to him and you can tell he did his research.  Each fall back into time felt authentic and he uses the time locked characters well to breathe life into each of these scenes.

As they pass through time, they realize that there are competing factions doing the same thing.  This has the smell of a really interesting rivalry but sadly nothing ever really happens with it.  That was the impression I got with most of the book.  There were a lot of really good ideas without any great resolutions.  Except for one brilliant Vikings in a Walmart scene near the end of the book much of the wrap up was disappointing.  Even the ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic.  I don’t want to ruin the ending by providing spoilers because some of those crazier scenes as well as the underlying theme still make it worth the read.  It just wasn’t one of his best.

Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try

Science Book Review

Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try hits you like a firehose of knowledge.  Dr. Srini Pillay looks into the depths of the brain and asks the central question – what are our brains doing when they are not focused?  Why is unfocused time important?  The zeitgeist, at least in Western culture, is that focus is king.  If you haven’t started down the path of focused world domination by the time you’ve finished that first cup of coffee, you’re doing it wrong.  And if you are not still focused on that goal of complete self-improvement by the time you’ve finished you’re second power scotch of the evening then you are an utter failure.  How we acquired this attitude is the subject of countless other books.  This book talks about why focusing all the time is a bad idea.

Fair warning: this book is not light reading.  Dr. Pillay does his best to sprinkle antidotes and lightness throughout the book, even adding little sidebars that have the smell of a ‘for dummies’ book.  For Dummies it is not as any green Jedi master might tell you.  When reading the book it feels as if the author has too much to say and was told by a publisher somewhere that he had to fit all of these cool ideas into a book that’s under 200 pages long.   This makes the transitions from chapter to chapter a little stilted.  The flow from idea to idea disjointed.  Please don’t let this discourage you from the read though because Dr. Pillay has a lot to teach.  I took more notes in this book than I have in a long time.

Pillay opens the book by taking on the ‘cult of focus’.  One of the examples he brings up is the famous gorilla suit experiment.  This is the one where participants are asked to focus on a team passing a basketball back and forth and is asked to count the number of passes.  Almost all participants miss the dude in the gorilla suit that walks right through the basketball game because they are so focused on counting passes.  Dr. Pillay posits the right questions here: “If focus makes you miss seeing a gorilla, what else are you missing in life?”

Another interesting fact shared is that when we are hyper-focused we lose the ability to care.  “Hyperfocus depletes the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), which helps us make moral decisions.”  I can’t imagine a scenario where that is a good thing.  Pillay goes on to talk about the importance both focus and unfocus have on the brain with a great analogy.  “Focus and unfocus are two different settings.  Focus is the close and narrow beam that illuminates the path directly ahead.  Unfocus is the beam that reaches far and wide, enabling peripheral vision.”  Both are important to living a valuable life, so why don’t we give ourselves the chance to let go more often?

One of the things I liked about the book is that Pillay had zero hesitation about diving into the science.  The part of the brain that manages unfocus is called DMN or the default mode network.  At first we did not understand much about this circuit and before the value of unfocus was discovered it used to be referred to as the ‘do mostly nothing’ circuit.  After quite a bit more study, we discovered that this DMN circuit is actually one of the greatest consumers of energy in the brain.  Pillay shares a laundry list of things that it is used for:

  • It acts as a distraction filter
  • It builds mental flexibility
  • It connects you more deeply with yourself and others
  • It integrates the past, present and future
  • It helps you express your creativity
  • It helps you dredge up intangible memories

These are all traits we would be lost without.  Pillay’s advice is take the focus with the unfocus.  His personal experiments have led him to “strive for fifteen minutes of unfocus for every forty-five minutes of focus.”

He next dives into creativity and our first of the title topics, dabbling.  He starts by talking about two of the great polymaths in recent history, Einstein and Picasso.  Both men were great dabblers.  “Einstein was strongly influenced by aesthetic theory and was fascinated by Freud’s work.  Picasso was strongly influenced by photography and X-ray technology.  Neither man felt he had to become expert in these side interests.  Both indulged their curiosity, mulled over their responses, and discussed the resulting ideas with their respective think tanks.  The results changed the world.  Deciding to dabble can be a profound choice.  It means being willing to try something out and be a student again.”  Who doesn’t want to go back to beginner’s mind?  Anytime you try a new sport or hobby, you typically gain huge strides early in the process.  More importantly, trying something new opens the brain to new experience and lets a tsunami of new thoughts in.  This is where breakthroughs are made.  If you’re not trying new stuff, you’re not learning, you’re not expanding.  Being static in this day and age is a recipe for disaster.

He dives more deeply into learning, specifically dynamic learning.  Dynamic learning is “to own up to, talk about, learn from, and correct errors rather than following a hypothetical ‘right’ way.”  If anyone thinks that there is only one right way to learn these days, they are eons behind the times.  We have even started acknowledging failure as a big part of that learning – “As long as you ‘fail forward’, ‘fail fast’, and recognize that ‘done is better than perfect.’  When you do, you ostensibly avoid intellectual stagnation and overcome fear of failure.  Put more simply. Talk is cheap, so keep on doing what you’re doing until you get it right.”  This is more of his tinkering mindset shining through.

He dives into doodling through the side door of multitasking.  Multitasking is not something I believe is ever effective but he makes an interesting argument about doodling.  “One way to activate your unconscious brain and release yourself from the clutches of focus is to doodle.  As we have previously seen, it activates the DMN and gets your focused, conscious brain out of the way.”  He segues this nicely into play by talking about how play actually helps your brain become less distracted.  Play is where we figure stuff out without the risks of commitment.  Play is basically just another form of doodling.

He also draws some interesting parallels between authenticity and possibility.  This naturally contrasts intrinsic rewards with external rewards.  When we are naturally curious and solve things using that curiosity, the rewards we gain are often deeper than an external pat on the back.  Yet we cannot find what will bring these intrinsic rewards without tinkering and finding what is meaningful to us.  That’s where authenticity comes in.  You’ve got to tinker your way down enough paths to find those that are authentic to you.  This is also a great way to find purpose.  He quotes Lao Tzu – “Lao Tzu once said, ‘When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.’  Possibility is about being and letting go; tinkering is the process of becoming.”  Powerful stuff.

 

 

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

To understand who we are, it’s always a good idea to look at who we were.  It’s certainly cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true.   Yuval Noah Harari has written a masterpiece on the history of our species in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  He brilliantly takes us on an anthropological journey that defines who we are as a people.  This book has taken its place on my shelf as one of the all-time greats.

He starts from the very beginning.  2.5 million years ago, the humans evolve into being in Africa.  We were weird: big brains, skinny, we walked upright, we used tools.  The world didn’t know what it was in for.  Since we walked upright, women had a really tough time of it when it came to giving birth.  The upright gait required much narrower hips which constricted the birth canal.  Big brains required big heads and death in childbirth was a huge problem.  So we evolved to give birth to very premature babies.  If you look at other species, like horses, or even giraffes, they start walking within days.  It takes us over a year, but we’re vulnerable for far longer than that.  This required us to evolve communication and communities to take care of our young.  That’s what got the ball rolling towards world domination.

Harari breaks the book down into four sections: the Cognitive Revolution, the Agricultural Revolution, the unification of humankind and the Scientific Revolution.  There are a ton of insights in each section of the book so I’ll do my best to capture the ones I found most interesting in this quick review.  There is so much more in there though, so please do yourself a favor and read the book.

Cognitive Revolution

The Cognitive revolution started about seventy thousand (70K) years ago.  This is my back of the napkin math, not Harari’s, but if we consider that over history there was roughly five generations per century, this means that we started serious cogitation about thirty five hundred (3,500) generations ago.  That’s a lot of chance for evolutionary mutations but nothing compared to the roughly 2.4 million years before that time started that it took for us to figure out the tools and weapons to take us from the middle of the food chain to the top.  During that much longer period of time, sapiens weren’t the only kids on the block.  There were the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, Homo ergaster and several others.  The evolution to sapiens wasn’t a serial progression from these other species.  There is DNA evidence that we did the nasty with Neanderthals and we didn’t drive them to extinction until about thirty thousand(30K) years ago.  It wasn’t until about thirteen thousand years ago that Homo sapiens were the only humans left.

So why did sapiens make it when the rest of the competing human species didn’t?  The conclusion that Harari draws is fascinating.  He claims that our big edge was our ability to create fiction.  In his words, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.”  There are natural laws like the law of gravity that would exist even if humans were not on the planet, but “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of the human beings.”  All of those things exist only because we made them up.  Our ability to create these fictions allowed us to “revise our behavior rapidly in accordance with changing needs.  This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution.”  When everyone believes in a similar idea or concept, it builds trust, which allows us to work effectively in much larger groups than chimps or Neanderthals.

The other really big step we took in the Cognitive Revolution was when groups of sapiens near Indonesia figured out how to build ships and leave Afro-Asia.  This was a monumental advantage over other creatures because we didn’t have to wait to evolve flippers and fins.  Instead, we built boats and sailed to Australia.  “The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.”  As soon as we got there, we wiped out 90% of the megafauna.  All of the big animals there didn’t see us as a threat until we stuck them full of spears.  They never had the chance to evolve a fear of sapiens and they were destroyed, by us, long before that could happen.  Sadly, this was true with every other landmass we migrated to.  We migrated there and wiped out all of the big animals.  This is a disturbing trend of our species.  We move in, we pillage and destroy, and we completely change the ecological environment.

Agricultural Revolution

The Cognitive Revolution was followed by the Agricultural revolution which started around 9500-8500 BC.  Harari calls the Agricultural Revolution the biggest con job in history.  “The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return…Moreover, the new agricultural tasks demanded so much time that people were forced to settle permanently next to their wheat fields.  This completely changed their way of life.  We didn’t domesticate wheat.  It domesticated us.”  Farmers got a raw deal and were pretty miserable.  Bigger communities meant a lot more violence and a ton more disease.  As a species though, it was great.  We banged like rabbits and our population went through the roof.

The Agrarian society also had us thinking about the future for the first time.  Since we were no longer foraging, one bad crop could wipe everybody out.  This drove us into planning for the future and accelerated things like trade with other communities.  With that many humans now living together there was a ton of bloodshed.  “The problem at the root of such calamities is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals.  The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”  This made fiction and the shared myths even more important, especially when it came to organized violence like armies.  “At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honor, motherland, manhood or money….How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism?  First, you never admit that the order is imagined.  You always insist that the order sustaining the society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature.”

The other big advance that came out of the Agricultural Revolution was writing.  “The human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases, for three main reasons…. First, its capacity is limited.  Secondly, humans die, and their brains die with them.  Thirdly and most importantly, the human brain has been adapted to store and process only particular types of information.”  These were things like what plants and animals it was safe to eat.  With all these people living together it became important to process large amounts of data.  Writing and math were an inevitable progression so the whole system didn’t come crashing down.

The Unification of Humankind

The next stage he covers is the unification of humankind which started about 5,000 years ago.  Harari posits that the three great unifiers were money, empires and religion.  “Money is based on two universal principles: a. Universal convertibility: with money as an alchemist, you can turn land into loyalty, justice into health, and violence into knowledge. b. Universal trust:  with money as a go-between, any two people can cooperate on any project.”  There was a serious dark side that came with money.  “When everything is convertible, and when trust depends on anonymous coins and cowry shells, it corrodes local traditions, intimate relations and human values, replacing them with the cold laws of supply and demand.”

Our current liberal societies don’t relish the idea of Imperialism.  However, empires were incredibly effective in unifying people.  “Ideas, people, goods and technology spread more easily within the borders of an empire than in a politically fragmented region.  Often enough, it was the empires themselves which deliberately spread ideas, institutions, customs and norms.”  They did this for two reasons.  This made life easier for those running the empire but a common culture also brought legitimacy to their rule.

Religion was the final unifier.  This is how Harari defines religion, “Religion can thus be defined as a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”  All religions had two big rules, “First, it must espouse a universal superhuman order that is true always and everywhere.  Second, it must insist on spreading this belief to everyone.  In other words, it must be universal and missionary.”  Two pretty powerful rules, they knew their marketing.  It’s not a huge surprise that the idea of religion became such a unifier.

The Scientific Revolution

The Scientific Revolution started about 500 years ago.  Science was very different from the traditions that came before it in three primary ways, “The willingness to admit ignorance…The centrality of observation and mathematics….The acquisition of new powers.  Modern science is not content with creating theories.  It uses these theories in order to acquire new powers, and in particular to develop new technologies.”  This led to my favorite quote of the book, “The Scientific Revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge.  It has been above all a revolution of ignorance.  The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to the most important questions.”

One of the kickers for science is that it needs an alliance with an ideology to flourish.  The ideology is necessary to justify the cost of research.  The two big allies for science were imperialism and capitalism.  One of the primary reasons why Europe dominated the Scientific Revolution was, in Harari’s words, “The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset.  Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’  They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries.  And they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.”  This quote reminded me of the Patrick O’Brian books where Captain Jack Aubrey was always accompanied by Dr. Stephen Maturin, conqueror and naturalist going hand in hand to take over the world.

This ultimately led to the Industrial Revolution.  “The Industrial Revolution turned the timetable and the assembly line into a template for almost all human activities.”  This led to a great story he told about time.  All local communities used to track time in their own unique way.  Based on how they calculated time, It might be 8 AM in London but 8:04 AM in Liverpool.  This was true until trains starting making their way across Britain and the train timetables were getting all screwed up.  So, in 1847, the train companies set all of their timetables to Greenwich time  Thirty years later, the British government followed suit and that is how the world got Greenwich Mean Time.

The Industrial Revolution came with a serious downside.  “Yet all of these upheavals are dwarfed by the most momentous social revolution that ever befell humankind: the collapse of the family and the local community and their replacement by the state and the market.”  Neighbors used to work on barter agreements.  Your fence falls down, I help you fix it.  My wall topples, you help me.  With the Industrial Revolution all of this changed.  “In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.  The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused.  ‘Become individuals.'”  Study after study shows that when we are surrounded by family and community we are happier.  We love to describe ourselves as rugged individuals but the cost turned out to be a whole lot of happiness.

Harari is a bit of a cynic when it comes to happiness.  He broke happiness down into three theories.  The first is that happiness is in the hands of our biochemical system.  Once we can regulate that machine like a well-tuned air conditioner we can engineer our way into happiness.  Meh.  The second is that “perhaps happiness is synchronizing one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusion.  As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.  This is quite a depressing conclusion.  Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?”  He didn’t like that idea either but this seems to be the Facebook fallacy.

Know Yourself

His third theory comes down to ‘Know Thyself!’.  This is the one I prefer.  He uses Buddhism as a way to describe this knowledge.  In Buddhism, “People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them.”  He goes on to add, “In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are.  Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes.  When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry.  This is my anger.’  They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others.  They never realize that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.”

I like his systematic approach to analyzing happiness.  He seems to come to no conclusion on what theory is the best approach allowing us to draw our own.  He closes by bemoaning that we really don’t have any historical study of happiness and that is a huge gap in our collective knowledge.  “Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists.  They have much to tell about the weaving and unraveling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies.  Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals.  This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history.”  Lacuna, cool word.

The Land: Founding

Fantasy Book Review

Aleron Kong has pioneered a new genre of fantasy.  This is something called LitRPG.  This was my first foray into the genre and I  didn’t even know it existed until after I finished the book and found a whole host of others writing in the same style.

LitRPG is, what I presume, short for a literature role playing game.  The author takes you into an RPG world of their creation and lets you perch on their shoulder while they ‘play’ this game of literature.  This is a shockingly simple concept and I’m pissed that I didn’t think of it.  It should be boring but it isn’t.  You get sucked in quickly because the rules of the world are familiar to any gamer and therefore inviting.  From the first chapter on, it’s like sitting down to a hot meal of comfort food.  There’s not a whole lot of kale for your brain within these pages, but who cares if it tastes good.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this is successful.  I am constantly shocked that my kids spend 20X the time watching other people play video games then they spend watching scripted shows.  There’s a reason that Twitch was sold for roughly $1 billion.  One billion dollars!!!  Watching other people play video games is an absurdly profitable business.  LitRPG is a logical progression that, in hindsight, seemed inevitable.

The character development is…analytical.  You get to see the literal D&D style character sheet in many different flavors as the character progresses throughout the world.  As far as emotional development goes, it’s almost nonexistent.  I actually just finished the fifth book in the series, so I obviously can’t judge this too harshly, but there is no emotional growth at all in the main character.  He has the emotional intelligence of an unripened kiwi fruit but, for the genre, it works.

Our main character is known by his RPG handle, Richter, after the first couple of chapters.  I’ve forgotten what his real name is at this point and since we never revisit his past, it becomes irrelevant.  This is an area where color could have been added to the character and it feels like a bit of a miss.  Does he miss his mom?  How about friends or family at home?  Unlike Cline’s book, Ready Player One, you are in the game with Richter all the time.  Richter has all the complexity of a frat boy that gets to play with a bunch of medieval toys.

One of the elements that I loved about the book is Richter is not just leveling himself up.  He quickly gains the opportunity to start and level his own town.  So now we are combining the elements of RPG with turned based strategy.  That was always one of my favorite types of games so it resonated with me.  While the character himself is not that complex, the world that Kong builds is rich with detail.  The skill trees presented to Richter are satisfyingly deep as are the complexities of the town.

Knowing that you are in a game the entire time removes a layer of  the suspension of disbelief that I typically look for when I dive into high fantasy.  However, knowing the rules before you jump helps create the world for you as you read through it.  I didn’t want to like these books as skipping the whole world build part almost seems like cheating.  Like I said earlier I’m five books in, so they’re not all bad.  Feel free to add the series to your guilty pleasure list.

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