Reviews and Features

This is a blog devoted to thinking about the future. I review books and movies related to this theme or those that otherwise have a strong tie to subjects touched upon in d4.  I am preserving those reviews on this page, with the most recent first.

If you are interested in a review from me:  I am willing to review both non-fiction and fiction. Please do not ask me to review dystopian novels involving zombies, romance novels of any kind, or stories which promote any particular religion. If you would like to be considered for a review please comment here or contact me at Ariel (dot) Zeitman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Please understand. I write real reviews. I read your entire book, although I skim parts I don’t enjoy. I tell you and others what I liked best about it, liked least, and to whom I would recommend it. I try to be generous, and I avoid snark that would entertain others at the expense of insulting you. However, if I don’t like something, I say so.

I rate the book on a scale of 1 to 5 and I use decimals because I need a lot more bandwidth. If the rating is 2.4 or lower I will not post it in conjunction with a blog tour but will add it later. If the rating is 2.5 (or anything point five) I will round up on other sites. I cross post my reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and Library Thing, and will post elsewhere upon request.

I am also open to doing an occasional feature of a relevant book without a review.


Review: The City & The City

July 24, 2018

Summary: I’m in awe of this book, and I like to think that I don’t awe easily. It has stuck with me since I finished it; the surest sign of an effective story. I give it a 4.8/5, the highest rating I’ve given since I started this decimal point thing.

What I liked least:

  1. The quotes and reviews on the cover and at the front. That may seem an odd complaint, but this book was given to me as a gift a couple of years ago and I put off reading it because everyone made it sound so depressing. Anything billed as a Kafka-meets-noir-crime-novel doesn’t go to the beach with me, yet this book could have and should have. I wish I’d read it years ago.
  2. The end. I might as well get it out here at the start. I’ll say no more about it, but there were so many ways for this story to go and while I can think of much worse endings, the one that happened wasn’t one of the possibilities I wanted. So it goes.
Author China Mielville

What I liked best:

  1. Everything else, but I’ll try to be more specific.
  2. The author takes an absolutely ridiculous premise, answers your every objection to it while telling the story, and leaves you accepting an alternate history wherein two independent city states exist in the same geographical place, each refusing to see the other.
  3. Once you make that leap, you start to realize how believable the premise is because it touches on ways real humans behave. Then you start to find examples of unseeing all around you and I don’t know how long that goes on for because it’s been a week now and I’m still doing it. I may never stop.
  4. The book is not depressing, at least to me. The reason is that many if not most of the characters have a shred of human decency in them and the main ones hide kind hearts under their tough and expletive laden exteriors. Yes, the overall style is crime novel noir, with a touch of cold war spy and splashes of absurdity, but any time we actually get good guys and gals trying to do what’s right, I’m willing to stand up and cheer.
  5. Main characters are well fleshed out given the author’s sparse strokes. Inspector Tyador Borlu of the City of Beszel’s Extreme Crime Squad, the book’s protagonist and narrator, won my sympathy during the opening scene as he looks out for the young drug dealers who come forward when they find a body. He cemented my high regard when he met the dead girl’s parents and noted how “Grief made them look stupid. It was cruel.”
  6. When Borlu is forced to meet and work with his counterpart, senior detective Qussim Dhatt of the ignored city Ul Qoma, one sees through Borlu’s eyes and is lead to think the man is a jerk. We discover, along with Borlu, how much the two detectives have in common.
  7. I’m female, and I judge how a writer handles his or her women characters. Mr. Mieville treats them all as people, a refreshing delight. In particular, constable Lizbyet Corwi is a tough capable detective, no less female for not being some man’s love interest.
  8. The book is a mix of ingredients one would never expect to work as well together as they do. There is humor, as residents of each city joke about how their weather is better and visit their local Starbucks, which of course has shops in both cities. There is mystery and suspense, some of which surrounds a 2000 year old archaeological dig that may hold the secret to the origin of this bizarre arrangement. Some things are never solved or explained, others reach a satisfying conclusion.
  9. Finally, this author won me over with his dedication. It’s to his mother, which is common enough, but he adds that he “wanted to write a book that my mother would have loved.” Wow. I wish I could have met his mother.

I often get asked to name the writers who inspired me as an author, and I have trouble coming up with a list. Part of the reason is I tend to be inspired by specific books, rather than bodies of work, and the other is the degree to which the list has morphed as I’ve aged.

My approach is to keep a short list of books I can point to and say “I’m trying to write that well.” The City and the City has placed itself at the top of my list.


Review: The Three-Body Problem

March 8, 2018

I received this book as a gift from someone who knows me well and shares my tastes in science fiction. He kept eagerly asking if I’d started it yet, but something about the book held me back. It’s big, it’s translated from Chinese, and has physics and geometry all over the cover. “I’ll read it next,” I kept saying.

Next finally came, and I loved this book. I loved the unexpected ideas, the unusual perspective and the way it made me think about issues large and small. I have a fond spot for stories that give me insights into other parts of the world, and for characters who plausibly behave in ways I cannot imagine myself doing. This book has all that and more.

What I liked best (besides all of the above):

  1. I’m not so big on historical fiction, but the window into China’s cultural revolution of the 60’s was fascinating, and it shows some chilling parallels to the wave of populism currently sweeping the west.
  2. The author allows this tale to develop at it’s own pace. He tells it in a non-linear fashion, going back and forth in time more than once, letting the reader learn more with each visit. This worked well for me and I appreciated the lack of gimmicks often used by other authors to grab and hold the attention of a reader. Cixin Liu has a tale worth telling and he knows it.
  3. The science is amazing, and to the best of my limited knowledge, accurate.
  4. The number of women scientists in this story is unusual and refreshing. I wonder: does this reflect reality in China, or the needs of the story, or the desire of the author? Why-ever, it was a pleasant plus for me.
  5. I had little appreciation for the challenges of translating such a story, bridging not only the gulf between vastly different languages, but between different perspectives, backgrounds and knowledge of history. The translator, Ken Liu, does an excellent job with subtle, short footnotes intended to provide just enough context to the western reader.
  6. Most significantly, just when I thought there could not possibly be a significantly new variation on a first contact story, this came along. I feel like blurbs on this book already give away too much of the story, so I will only say I’m impressed with the originality of Liu’s approach. It will leave you thinking.

What I didn’t like so much:

  1. Liu doesn’t spend a lot of time inside his character’s heads, showing the reader the emotional motivation for their behavior. This sparseness works, for the most part, but a little more would have been nice.
  2. I said the science is amazing, and it is, but some narrative devices used at the very end pushed my limits of credibility.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes stories that inform while they entertain, and/or books that encourage them to think.

Two personal notes:

  1. Having written d4, a book of my own about the survival of the human race and how our behavior now could impact our fate in a few hundred years, I felt something of a connection with this tale and it probably resulted in my liking this book even more.
  2. I was impressed by both the author and the translator’s postscripts for the American edition at the end of the book. Both were insightful, but this particular passage from the author sticks with me:

But I cannot escape and leave behind reality, just like I cannot leave behind my shadow. Reality brands each of us with its indelible mark. Every era puts invisible shackles on those who have lived through it, and I can only dance in my chains.

Yeah. What he said.

After I read the passage above, I would have liked any book the man had written.


“The Big Short”: a review and a look at modern investing

BS3In 2007 I took over managing all the money my husband and I had saved over our lifetime, even though I knew nothing about investing. Most of the money was in a 401K plan with my employer. I got laid off, was damned sure I didn’t want to keep that company’s stock, and so I had to do something else with it. We’d already had bad experiences with professionals too busy to answer the questions of folks with our meager level of savings, and twice we’d been directed into investments clearly not in our own best interest.  There wasn’t going to be a third time. Not when everything we had was on the table.

B8So I spent the rest of 2007 figuring out how to buy stocks myself and, hopefully, how do it well. The jargon was overwhelming and the websites intimidating and the calls from other people who wanted to handle my money for me were relentless. I think it was the tenacity of those who wanted to get their hands on my savings that pushed me to persevere.  I mean, if they were all that eager to do this, it couldn’t be that good for me, right? Then, well…..

I guess you all heard about what happened to the economy in 2008, didn’t you?

BS1“The Big Short” is an emotional movie for me for many reasons, but the biggest is the way it attacks the veil of complication draped over modern money management. In an attempt to get the average viewer to open their minds the movie uses techniques like having a champagne-drinking blond in a bubble bath explaining what a sub-prime mortgage is and letting chef Anthony Bourdain tackle describing a Collateralize Debt Obligation as he makes a fish stew. Even after nine years of studying this stuff, there are parts of the movie that I still did not understand, so I can’t say they were totally successful making all of this simple, but it is an impressive attempt.

BS7The movie is really three stories told simultaneously. Each one is engrossing and would have made a fine movie of it’s own. In fact my biggest criticism of the film is that I would have liked to have known more about each of the characters and more details about their story. The tales never really intertwine, and while I applaud the writers for honoring reality and not forcing connections where there were none, it does leave the viewer with the feeling of having watched three movies about a related subject at once.

That aside, I enjoyed the movie immensely. It is well written, well acted and a compelling look at how something could go so wrong with so few people noticing. The housing collapse itself is well explained; I just got lost in the nuances of how each of the characters ending up making money on the collapse. The wide variety of people shown profiting from the system makes the fair point that it wasn’t only greedy Wall Street bankers that brought this upon us. Pretty much everyone who had a chance to make hay while the sun shone tried to get theirs from a system that was spinning out of control, and this makes the whole mess all that more more understandable.

BS4One can’t help but cheer on the movie’s three groups of small time investors who discover what is going on, who try to sound an alarm, and who are all ignored. It is hard to begrudge them their profits in the end. The movie does raise legitimate questions about why so few were punished for what eventually turned into fraud, and why the very richest experienced so few consequences while so many others down the food chain had their lives turned inside out.

BS9In spite of these worthy themes, I feel that there is a bigger one here, and it is best voiced by Brad Pitt’s cynical former trader. Why does this system exist as all? I mean the question seriously.

Why doesn’t a stock exchange simply exchange stocks? You know, buy and sell them.  Why can one short (bet against) a stock? That adds no value at all. Why can one trade options? Why can one use the stock market to engage in a host of other, far more complicated methods of gambling that add no value to the underlying companies but only serve to provide an increasingly convoluted casino? Does no one notice that this casino has rules that tilt in favor of those with much more to invest? Why have games been devised that are too complicated for the average player to understand? Is it primarily to provide income to those trained specifically to manage money?

BS6If we are going to have corporations, let’s invest in them, not use them like sports teams for some kind of complicated fantasy football gambling fest. Worse yet, let’s not use them like a complicated fantasy football gambling fest in which you have to hire an expert to mange your team for you because the rules have become to complicated for you to understand. Isn’t our economy too important for this kind of nonsense? Most of the folks who lost their homes in the mess of 2008 surely agree that it is.

BS5I could so easily have been one such person. I took a life savings and put it into a system I barely understood, trusting that the system would behave reasonably. What saved me was my own timidness. I split my sum into tiny parcels, directed most of the money to a variety of cautious endeavors, with all of them scattered across the spectrum of investments I was qualified to make. Basically, I drove like my grandmother. It was a good time for that, and I’m just plain lucky that I did. (I don’t always.)

At the very end of the movie, there is a hint as to why these convoluted games are not to our collective advantage. We all know that they provide for endless paths by which one can figure out a way to cheat the system. The movie is nice enough to point out a “new” investment vehicle which basically does what the Collateralize Debt Obligations of 2007 did. But hey, it’s now called something else. No one will notice the similarity, right?


Save “Minority Report”, an intelligent look at seeing the future in the future

surfing rainbowsThe little boy in the desk next to me in first grade insisted that there were other earths. I thought that the little boy was cute but crazy, and I went to the school library to investigate his strange claim. Yup, these things were called “planets” and they were real. Wow. Who would have thought. My attraction to him only lasted another month or so, but I have been fascinated by outer space and by science fiction ever since.

Today, I have a degree and years of work experience in the field of science. When it comes to reading and writing, science fiction is my first and greatest love, even though I am probably overly critical of sci-fi based on bad science. Mind you, I don’t object to no science. If the writer gives me a soul searching story of love and growth and in the process invokes a barely explained phenomenon called, I don’t know, whiskey holes and they are what allow the story to happen, I’ll go with it. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them. What I can’t handle is explanations that are just plain stupid or wrong.

For example: the Back to the Future movies. Fun, but such bad science. The universe doesn’t get unraveled by time travelers. People vanishing into nothingness as their adolescent parents consider not marrying does not fit with modern physics of the past fifty years. In fact, most of the time when the story involves either predicting the future, or traveling to the past or future, modern science gets thrown under the bus to accommodate improbable plots.

I’ve been pleased to run across a few television exceptions recently, and then been distressed to discover that the ratings people do not share my tastes. Last year I found the short lived show “Almost Human” to be a fascinating look at the near future. It brought both brains and heart to the question of when does artificial intelligence become a life form and not a machine. What a shame it was cancelled, while sillier shows with more action or name recognition were kept.

This year, I was dubious about a TV series based on “Minority Report”, an okay film of several years ago. The pilot episode quickly established that the writers had found a clever way to pick up the story years later. While some things, like clothing, show a suspicious lack of change, other elements like the ubiquitous advertising, are clever and ring true. Episodes are spiced with amusing references to the past, like the photo of Obama that shows up on the money.

minority-reportThe plot itself revolves around the three “precognitives” once used by the police to predict and stop murders before they happened. Freed and given new lives, the three precogs part ways in a believable fashion. One uses his gifts for wealth and pleasure, one remains hidden and fearful, and the third is driven to help people. This last precog, Dash, joins forces with a cop and is the hero of the series.

I gave the original movie bonus points for postulating that the near future is almost set in stone but not completely. The possibly that a would-be murderer might change his or her mind at the last minute is the basis of the famed minority reports that the police chose to ignore in the movie. In the TV version, this probability curve idea plays a larger role, as Dash and his newfound friends set out achieve a less likely outcome than murder, time after time.

I really like how there is no angst about altering timelines. No one starts to vanish into thin air because Dash has changed the future. The writers understand that a lot of different things can happen and only the most likely one is murder. I appreciate that the show keeps this clean and simple, much as I believe the universe does.

I was hopeful that this series would continue to provide intelligent food for thought about both our near future and about how seeing ahead into the future might work. However, once again whoever rates sci-fi shows on TV has different tastes. Ratings are low and falling according to a fascinating blog about science fiction TV likely to be cancelled. I don’t know how one goes about trying to save a show, but this post is my contribution. If you like thoughtful sci-fi and haven’t seen Minority Report yet, consider watching it. And if your TV set is one of the few used to determine what shows live and die, please, just turn it on to Fox on Monday night  9 PM EST. You’ll be doing the rest of us a big favor.