Review: The Long Cosmos

The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett

I think I might be getting old – or my reading is too eclectic, everything I’m reading is becoming ‘hard to review’

Let’s start with a (brief) recap, the ‘Long’ series is a Sci-Fi colab between Baxter and Pratchett and explores the discovery of The Long Earth, basically the ability to travel to alternative timeline Earths (possibly infinitely) simply by ‘Stepping’ between planets.

The interesting twist of this series is that this isn’t a Multi-verse type concept – more of an infinite mystery type scenario, in that the majority of the Earths have no human or other intelligent species on them, so effectively the human race is gifted with endless planets to dabble with.

The series of books mostly explores two angles of the concept – 1. being the strange mysteries of the ‘Long’ situation such as the Gap (an Earth that previously got destroyed) and the rare occurrences of intelligent and other bizarre life among the Long planets. The second concept is the impact, social and political and personal of this situation for the human race.

My experience of the series was mixed, I loved some of the bizarre concepts, and I thought the political exploration was hard-hitting and intriguing, where the series I felt was a let down is often the most interesting plots seemed to get dropped and there often felt like a lack of overarching story, just series of interesting points about the Long Earths.

So come the conclusion, overall I felt like the last story wasn’t too bad, it featured a lot of main character Joshua, and plenty of unusual musing on the Long situation coupled with the main plot driver a mysterious “JOIN US” message coming from sources unknown.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Where the story fizzled was in that overarching conclusion. While the final few scenes felt like they had the potential to give us one final intriguing sci-fi hit about the Long concept, I feel like the ending was just a little too open ended and thusly dull. I did initially think perhaps I was too foolish to grasp the conclusion but (and not saying I’m not dumb) it seems like a quick Google isn’t bringing up too many answers either. Basically it felt like Stepping was revealed to be a sort of metaphor for intelligence and imagination, but I couldn’t tell if the moral of the story that stepping is only limited by intelligence or imagination, or that intelligent life is the meaning of the universe, or if just the end of the story was that the human race (and others) can now step across Earths and the Cosmos.

I guess my frustration is there was so much potential to this series – potential for bizarre alien contacts, potential for conflict between the Next and the Dim-bulbs, potential of Long Earth tyranny or further conflicts. I’m not unhappy that I read the series, nor are they bad books by any stretch, but I just find they prompt wishing for better I guess.

If anyone has also read this book and series could enlighten me as to the final meaning of the conclusion I would be very welcome to hear about it!

On Writing: “Bad” Good-Guys

Been a while since I actually blogged something rather than just reviews… so

Top 10 Bad Guys Gone Good in Movies | WatchMojo.com

Something that is almost instantly recognizable about the story landscape of recent decades is the ubiquitous nature of stories about ‘bad-guys’. Sure its hardly a new thing in history to tell a tale from a traditionally wrong side, however over the past while (in my opinion) I would say generally the popularity and acceptance of stories told has increased to the point where its borderline the norm. We’ve got stories about vampires, werewolves, serial killers, corrupt politicians, drug dealers, gang and mafia members, super-villains… the list goes on.

In some respects this shouldn’t be totally surprising, books more-so than movies and shows I would say have long been about explaining human nature, and wrong-doing is a common intrigue of human nature. What interests me today though is some of the tips and tricks that writers use to make bad-guys ‘good’ and manipulate our emotions to make sure that keep bought into a story that is ostensibly ‘bad.’

These points are not necessarily requirements, or always used exactly as I think they should, but my argument is that any story with a character who is ‘bad’ needs something along these lines to work.

(By the way by saying ‘bad’ all the time I’m really referring to characters with either stereotypical bad-guy professionals or vocations, or people with genuinely immoral actions or characters not trying to be judgy about any particular behaviour or action and I’m also going to give up writing “bad” in scare quotes.)

Make the “Good Guys” bad

On the one hand, writing about bad-guys provides almost instant intrigue and good story fodder, actions that cause conflict, intuitive tension and natural protagonists.

There is a pitfall however, if law-enforcement or heroes are the MCs main antagonists and the MCs are doing all the bad things then audiences may quickly start to relate to and root for the wrong side. What I’ve noticed very many televisions shows do is ensure that the traditionally ‘good’ character are highly flawed, unrelatable or downright worse than the bad-guys (more on that final point later)

For example in Sons of Anarchy, a show about a motorcycle gang that dominates small town Charming, there are a series of law-enforcement characters that take them on. They are however shown to be generally corrupt, overly ambitious, reckless, or even in some cases borderline psychopathic. The interesting thing about this strategy is not necessarily to make audiences effectively weigh up the morality of the characters and flip them, its a subtle manipulation to make the traditionally good-guys more unrelatable and thusly not lose the audience to them. For another example in Breaking Bad, a lot of character drama occurs between Walter and his Brother-in-law Hank a DEA agent. While as the show progresses there are some definitely morally bad decisions made by Hank, in the early seasons the dynamic I mentioned is really just created by having Hank be the very image of toxic masculinity, its effectively enough to make us disengage from him so we don’t particularly want him to succeed (at first anyway)

Family Focus

It seems no co-incidence to me that stories that focus on bad-guys often have increased family focus. Admittedly its hard to separate as often part of the story is the impact of dubious morality of people’s family but I also think its a valid strategy for ensuring bad-guys remain relatable. In the Netflix Series ‘Start-Up’ all the MCs have family connections and relevant story lines, however I would argue Ronald Darcy’s tale is almost drenched in family – in fact if my memory serves his introduction scene involves a sequence of greeting his various family members before leaving the house to take-over the torture of a rival gang member. It’s not hard to imagine how differently the scene would impact if the family sequence hadn’t been included, and we’re just greeting to a character engaging in torture.

Worser and Worser

As well as making ostensible good guys bad, a good bad-guy is almost always juxtaposed with an even worse individual. In the above example we see Darcy eventually show mercy to the rival gang member however also are introduced to his chief, a violent hot-head with no mercy whatsoever.

This technique is also used in Breaking Bad, where despite Walter White becoming increasing horrible himself, there is always a more unethical, more diabolical character nearby.

Dexter almost had this (along with the next point) down to a formula, because Dexter used his serial killer tendencies to hunt other murderers, the story was almost essentially about showing people worse than Dexter getting their comeuppance.

Having a Code

Another common technique is presenting bad guys with some sort of code. Whether this be loyalty to family, as mentioned Dexter having a set of rules, or in the case of Sons of Anarchy a set of guidelines the gang tends to stick to or limits they don’t cross makes bad guys tolerably good (usually)

The code is an interesting stratagem because in real life such an approach probably wouldn’t be too redeeming (how reassuring would you find Dexter’s code in real life) however in fiction its almost like a get-out-of-jail-free card, in the sense that in a fictional world we just need some sort of moral high ground to cling to, even if it doesn’t make much sense IRL. Its almost more about the characters having some redemptive traits to consider rather than anything we actually agree with.

Exceptions

While I think the above points (and I’m sure some I’ve missed) are important for good bad guys, I also think there are some exceptions. House of Cards seems a good example of the character Frank being almost completely rotten through and through. In my opinion only the very beginning of the series where we see Frank get shafted by the new president, so we have a momentary underdog thing going on, is Frank relatable. Otherwise the series is very much full of secondary characters who range from decent to semi-decent, but never as evil as Frank. I guess there is no denying that even deplorable characters are intriguing without any fancy strategies as above.

A few final points

I think the above strategies are also useful for redeeming previously bad guy characters, and also oddly I guess also techniques for making ‘good’ guys stand out!

For this post I’ve largely focused on TV shows, in part because I think that is where the bad-guy trend is more noticeable, as I think novels usually have a lot more grey-area narratives as a general feature, but it would be interesting if anyone had any examples of similar stories in books?

Review: Sourcery (Discworld)

So you want to be a ‘Wizzard’

LIFE AND LEGACY OF SIR TERRY PRATCHETT PRATCHETT WROTE SOURCERY FOR THE FANS. A Discworld novel ,Terry Pratchett The first two Discworld books featured the fan-favorite character, Rincewind, and Pratchett soon realized that people wanted more of him. So he wrote Sourcery. I didn't particularly enjoy writing Sourcery, but it stayed on the best-seller list for three months. And then I said, 'Sod the fans, I'll do what I like. CRACKED.COM

So apparently Pratchett didn’t much like writing Sourcery, thinking the book was more for fans (wanting Rincewind back) than his own interests.

And in some respects one can see that in the book, the plot while still awesome does feel a bit like a rewrite of Equal Rites, in fact it seems that earlier book is retconned from the series (although I see on Wikipedia that Eskarina does reappear later so will address that then) basically rather Sourcery still contains an 8th son of an 8th son and an older Wizard zapped into a staff, but instead of looking at the gender politics this time Pratchett explores the power.

Despite being ‘for the fans’ Sourcery is a pretty darn good book, like most of the early Discworld novels its actually fairly short, but in my opinion has a bit more depth and detail than the first few books, and feels like the Discworld is becoming much more of a ‘World’. Sure Rincewind has already zapped all over the Disc with Two-Flower but something about the descriptions of Ankh-Morpork etc feels more developed.

We also see more recurring characters like the Librarian, and a fairly brief time with the Patrician again, who as mentioned in my earlier reviews of the first Discworld novels has yet to develop into the benevolent manipulator of later novels.

The ending of Sourcery is pretty bad-ass and I can’t image what people thought at the time!

Review: Sandman’s Vol 3-5

Raced ahead on reading through Sandman’s so will post all the reviews at once:

The Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country 30th Anniversary Edition

What to say about Sandman Vol 3? Those looking for ongoing epic plots will be disappointed, however those looking for an intriguing range of tales will not. I have to confess I thought I was in the former group at first but in reflection there is something memorable and hard hitting about these individual stories. I think while at first they seem fairly fantastical there is something about all the stories that makes you think twice about the world and life.

Something I’m wondering is how the upcoming series will go on with Sandman comics, my initial assumption (which could easily be wrong) is that the first season will cover the first volume. Possibly though stand alone episodes will be peppered throughout? Really looking forward to see what happens though.

Sandman Vol. 4 by Neil Gaiman

Sandman Volume 4 is one of the more memorable epic storylines, we see a return to some earlier threads with Sandman attempting to right a past wrong and returning to a Hellish setting first seen in Vol 1.

The story is quite fascinating in that rather than leaning into metaphysical action, its very ‘political.’ We see a whole lot more of the other Endless as well as a massive expansion on the mythology of the world (if I have my sense correct this is also where the Sandman universe is revealed to be splintered off from the DC universe). It’s almost impossible to discuss further without some form of spoilers. All I will say is the ending is very satisfying but also hints at more to come.

The Sandman Vol. 5 by Neil Gaiman

I confess I can’t really rate any of Gaiman’s Sandman at less than 5 stars, but also I can say that Game of You was probably one of my least preferred Volumes so far. I think its just an odd mix of story. It was an overarching plot very similar to Vol 2, except rather than a ‘Dream Vortex’ there is some sort of ‘Islet’ (or something can’t remember the word right now) and a ‘Cuckoo.’ These dream issues create quite a harrowing and bizarre tale for a collection of misfits, again very similar to Vol 2 (in fact centered around one of the eccentric characters from that collection)

The tale doesn’t feature much of the Sandman himself and what it does feature I wouldn’t say has a of development, there are some strong human(?) storylines but this volume mostly had me wanting another epic Endless story.

Review: Sandman Vol 2

We’re all dolls

Doll’s House is an interesting second Volume for the Sandman. perhaps better targeted for a more patience audience (or one that enjoys the weird diversions and ‘slice of lifes’) this volume doesn’t actually feature much of The Sandman. Instead we follow the mortals (and others) affected by the Sandman’s absence in the previous volume. There are a couple of segues/stand alone stories which build the character of Sandman – however the majority of the tale is about the mysterious ‘dream vortex’ and four creatures missing from The Dreaming. We are also introduced to a couple more of the Endless and learn some pieces of lore for the ongoing story.

Overall the story maintains a level of gruesome that the first volume did, however is perhaps more grounded, in the sense we see much more human evil and evil the odd dreams are character based rather than Sandman zooming off to Hell, or to battle super-villains stealing his powers.

Review: Sandman Vol 1

Endless(ly) Classic

Re-reading (although huge confession, I haven’t read all of Sandman YET) Sandman in anticipation of the upcoming Netflix series. I’m partially anxious as far as adaptions go I think its generally accepted that they can be a mixed bag. Especially a story like Sandman…

Gaiman’s Sandman captures so many things its hard to do it justice in a review. Dark, mysterious, timeless, yet nail-biting. I think what I love most about Sandman is how Gaiman manages to create the mythology to feel like our protagonist is indeed Timeless, but also fallible, and ‘human’ in many respects. It’s easy to take for granted, but somehow through a mix of genuine mythology, original creations and balanced story-telling the universe of the Sandman and the Lord of Dreams himself feels both supernatural and not OTT.

Strangely as a side note Sandman is based in the DC Universe, although if I have my facts straight I think its considered its own universe or a unique cannon.

Rereading Sandman in the era of ‘gritty reboots’ its interesting and mildly disturbing to be reminded that dark AF stories have existed for a number of decades and in some respects stories like Sandman seem way more intensely grim than modern stuff.

So at any rate I’m deeply curious about the upcoming TV series, and looking forward to working through the graphic novels too.

Review: The Last House on Needless St

Weird and Twisty (I think this is a compliment)

The Last House on Needless Street – Signed Copy | Booka ...

Picked up The Last House on Needless Street (after various misspellings and disordering of the title words) at the recommendation of a friend, and didn’t read any blurbs or information beforehand so came in with a totally open mind.

And the experience was well, interesting. It’s difficult to say too much about the book without some sort of spoiler so I’ll have a light spoiler half of the review later. without revealing anything, Last House on Needless St is definitely a psychological deep dive, don’t expect sweeping vistas of landscape or action sequences, prepare for strange, humane ruminations and mental peril.

The last thing I’ll say without spoilers is that the narration style is quite quirky and odd (or stronger words I guess) which might not suit all readers, luckily from page one you can see what I mean so if it isn’t your cup of tea you’ll know straight away.

MILD SPOILERS

So I’m not really going to ‘spoil’ anything here, but more than kind of “saying there is a twist is spoiler” type stuff. Needless St certainly brings the concept of unreliable narrator to 11, and throws a lot of red herrings throughout the story. It’s the kind of tension where you know something is going to get revealed but you don’t really know what, there are moments that suggest a supernatural theme, others that suggest the obvious (and horrific) things are actually what happens. The final thing I will say is when you have such a mix for a story its hard to actually have a satisfying ending because in a way one can’t top one’s own horrified imagination as you try to make sense of the story.

Overall definitely happy to have read Needless St, don’t think I will put it on any top ten lists but for sure is memorable and interesting.

Any of y’all read The Last House on Needless St, what did you think of the ending? Satisfying? Frustrating? Happy/Sad?

Review (Non-Fiction): The Human Swarm

Read The Human Swarm Online by Mark W. Moffett | Books

It’s very difficult to put together a review that does this book justice. Admittedly not only is the topic right in my wheelhouse at the moment, but Human Swarm fits well with having ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ as precursor reading… (Not saying you have to have read those pieces just that it was worked well for me.)

Reasoning for my above comments is that many historical analysts express confusion over exactly how and why large scale societies emerged for the human race and how do modern States fit in with our natural social instincts. While Human Swarm doesn’t necessarily answer every question on the topic, as some will likely remain a mystery for some time, Moffett provides a strong thesis on Society.

But that is not all that is brilliant about this book, while is it a little daunting in its density, Human Swarm explores almost every aspect imaginable about human societies. This means chapters on kin relationships, comparative psychology with primates, ants, whales, racism, warfare, hunter gatherer cultures, slavery and so on.

What I particularly like is that Moffett is both optomisitc and progressive, while also being real and concrete about the world, he doesn’t sugarcoat some unpleasant aspects of society but acknowledges the problematic nature of some elements. I imagine for some this could be hard reading especially chapters about slavery and racism, however as said I believe they are presented with the intention of truth-telling and shining a light on the ugly parts of human society.

The variety and useful of insights from this book would be too many to list, but I think I can safely say that Human Swarm is one of my favourite Non-Fiction reads in 2021 and will problem sit on my top-ten for a while!

Review (Non-Fiction): Range, By David Epstein

Good first Read for 2022

Range by David   Epstein
Just moments for posting this I realized what the image is about (I might need more help than just being a generalist!)

Epstein’s Range is quite a clever book, although first thing off the bat I think the title is slightly misleading, or perhaps easy to misinterpret. The book is not as much about the issues with a highly specialized world (e.g. ever more specific job tasks) and more about the issue with the theory that one needs to be highly specialized to be highly successful in modern times. The key opening examples being a constrast between two athletes, one who basically had their sport drilled into their DNA from age 3 and the other who dabbled most of their childhood and still became a world champion.

The book covers multiple examples and studies to make the point, and actually covers a suprisingly amount of ground looking at topics such as the Flynn Effect, learning theories, NASA and more. Epstein mixes up the narration, sometimes using individual case-studies and personal stories, other times using more general approaches and also dabbling in a little of his own experience to explain points.

Overall Range was a very intereting and reassuring read. On reflection this is very much the sort of book that will leave a reader with dozens of insights across a “Range” of topics that will surely serve them well in future situations.