Micro Review: The Road

I’ve watched a bunch of post-apocalyptic content when I was a kid.

I grew up with post-apocalyptic anime of the desert kind and of the non-desert kind (Italy in the ’80s was a weird place where everything animated was supposed to be for kids).

And post-apocalyptic movies were a staple in ’80s and ’90s: the Mad Max movies sure, but also The Salute of the Jugger, Waterworld, The Postman, 12 Monkeys

I think this was mostly related to the fact that film makers back then had been really, really scared of atomic bombs growing up.

I think my generation was afraid of ecological collapse of some kind, but not as much. Might be the reason why we didn’t get a nuclear war, but we are getting an ecological collapse.

Mild spoilers ahead!

Anyway, The Road by  Cormac McCarthy is the story of a man and his son living in a post-apocalyptic world, trying to go south hoping not to die of cold.

It’s incredibly bleak. If you watched any Mad Max movie, the world is generally fucked up, dried up, and life only survives in a few spots dominated by violence and such. But you see, life goes on, it’s our current world which is fucked. We don’t consider ourselves a post-apocalyptic dinosaur story§.

In this book, life does not go on. Everything is dead. There are no surviving trees, no animals, no fish. Mankind survives on tin cans, and you know those will run out too, and so do they.

This would be sad and depressing on its own, but the hardest thing of the book is that this is the story of a father and a small boy.

The father knows they’re going to die too, and so does the boy. They go through the motions of surviving, but they know (or, you do) that canned food won’t last forever. Maybe they’ll find a cache of some sort of nutrition). But then what happens when that is over?

They have a gun with two bullets, and they have to choose whether to use them to protect themselves or kill themselves when things get too bad. But as a father, what do you do? You can’t kill your kid while there’s hope he won’t die.

And there’s always hope. In Italian we say “la Speranza è l’ultima a morire” (~ “Hope dies last”), and one wonders who died before her. The answer is You. You die before Hope dies.

So the father goes through the motions of living, teaching the kid that they are The Good Guys, and they Carry The Fire. The father does not generally lie to the kid, but you can feel he’d like to.

Well, I‘d like to at least. Lies are bad, but what do you tell a kid when he cries at night? I’ll be there for you, I’ll protect you forever, I won’t let anything bad happen to you. But you don’t have the power to hold that promise.

By chance, I also happened to be reading a different book to my son yesterday, and it’s an amazingly good book§, with many good stories, and one had this bit:

– how much does a teardrop weight?

– it depends: the teardrop of a spoiled kid weighs less than the wind, the teardrop of a hungry kid weighs more than the whole Earth.

And we sometimes forget this, but it is true.

This is a perfect book. It’s short, it’s well written, the story is gripping, the characters are three dimensional and faceted. I believe it’s also part of the free library for Audible subscribers, so if you have a subscription go check it out.

Vote: 10/10, I wish I had read this before having kids.

Micro Review: Permutation City

This book by Greg Egan  had been on my todo list for years, I kept forgetting it and rediscovering it and thinking it sounded great, but then not reading it anyway.

In short, it’s a story about virtual worlds, uploaded minds, the meaning of consciousness, what it means to live in a simulation, and how to know if you do.

These are topics which are very fashionable in the 2020’s, but this book was written in 1994, the author was way ahead of his time.

It is not a super-easy read, but it will give you a lot to think about. Some of that lot is deeply tragic and depressing, but I guess it depends on how you read it.

Maybe don’t read it if you’re depressed.

I listened to this in audiobook form from Audible, and tbh I hated the narration. But hey, maybe it’s just me.

Vote: 7/10, read it before uploading your mind.

Micro review: Neutrino by Frank Close

I read this book by accident. It was shared on some forum, I thought it was a small pamphlet or something like that. I thought it’d be a few pages.

A day later, I had read the whole 180 pages book, which turned out to be a fantastic history of the people who participated in building the theory and the experiments around Neutrinos.

It’s an easy pop science read, although some bits may require a couple re-reading, but I think what makes it special is the sheer passion that gets through.

I had not read anything by Frank Close before, and I am now eager to get more of his books.

Vote: 8/10, I’d read it again.

Micro review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I really enjoyed this book.

I like Neil Gaiman quite a bit, but this book felt somewhat different: it felt somehow like a Stephen King story.

Mild spoilers ahead.

The book is written as the main character, as an adult, visits the place where he grew up. There’s a pond there, but he knew, as a kid, that it was no pond, it was the ocean. And there was a girl, somewhat special. And a man, who killed himself.

See? Isn’t this your Kingesque coming-of-age/did-we-imagine-it-or-was-it-real plot?

It also feels pretty intimate, you are led to immediately visualize young Neil in the story, not a random kid. It’s a good book, well written, with a good story and characters.

And a big difference between King and Gaiman is that Stephen is not very good at endings, but Neil is great.

Vote: 8/10

Mini review: Bobiverse audiobooks 1-4

I am not sure how I got into these audiobooks, but I think it’s because the premise was pretty great: Bob is a software developer that gets his mind uploaded into a Von Neumann probe, a spacecraft that travels the universe replicating itself.

This poses a few interesting issues: how does such a human survive as disincorporated mind? How does he deal with the solitude of space? How does it deal with clones that have his exact thought process?

It also creates interesting issues for the writer: how do you write about traveling through the endless vacuum in an interesting way? How do you create contrast between copies of the same character? And if Bob is now just software, when it gets copied to another machine, is it the same?

Hic Sunt Spoilers

Well, the plot issues are handled easily: you Marty Sue the shit out of them. Bob builds its own virtual reality. Its own AIs. Its own faster than light communication and drives. He masters computer science, material science, physics, biology, agronomy, astronomy. He terraforms, creates life, alters solar systems.

Most problems boil down to being barely an inconvenience, except for the issue most males have struggled during the ages: getting the girl. Women, uh?

(This is ironic, don’t lynch me please)

The writing issues are often sidestepped: there is no void of space, Bob just never gets bored or just sleeps. There are never N copies of the same character, since there is always some drift. You can’t copy a Bob.

I liked the idea that you can never have two copies of the same personality (because “quantum“), but if you turn one off, then you can move it to another machine.

It’s a good enough solution for the well known issue that the teleportation is incompatibile with a unique soul, which I expect will be tackled by some future interstellar council (I hope the ensuing schismatics/heretics will be called Renziani, whatever their position).

Anyway, the books are entertaining, Bob acts as God to some creatures, screws up some stuff, fights battle, kills aliens, deals with conspiracies. The various incarnations of Bob are likeable, no doubt due to a good performance on part of the narrator.

There’s also a certain amount of “here’s a new chapter and a new issue, and here’s how I tackle with my smarts” which can either get on your nerves or entice you depending on how much you identify with the character.

The author winks a lot to a certain reader, filling the book with nerd references which can be nice, but it gets boring after a while. Not as bad as Ready Player One anyway.

My ending is better

I liked the fourth book the most. The Bobs go looking for a lost Bob and find a giant space structure where an alien civilization is kept in a permanent state of low-tech development. Not wanting for anything, but stagnating, ignorant of their status, and slowly devolving.

Here the Bobs go on an adventure and find a giant computer mind that manages the whole civilization for their own good. Having incarnated into robots, the Bobs travel the planet, meet people, do stuff, start revolutions and so on.

This is my favorite book as the author seems to have abandoned the somewhat gimmicky nature of the first three, and gives us a cool space adventure, interesting world building, characters with mode depth. I think it might have made a good standalone book even leaving the Bobiverse aside completely.

My only disappointment is that I really, really, really wanted the evil computer mind to be the lost Bob. This would have cast a shadow on previous choices the Bobs did, forcing the reader to face hard ethical choices. Alas, we just get a “everybody is happy” ending.

Still, it’s nice to have happy endings now and then, and I look forward to the next book.

Vote: 7/10

Micro review: A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

This is a book published in 2020, and I decided to read it as it’s quite short, it has been recommended a few times in many forums, and let’s be honest, it has a pretty fantastic title.

The book is credited as being written by T. Kingfisher, but that turns out to be a pseudonym for Ursula Vernon, and is supposedly a young adult publication.

I actually did read something from Ursula before, the Digger comic § and I quite liked it! But it has a completely different vibe.

The book tracks the adventure of a young magicker girl who works in a bakery and specializes in, well, bread magic. It is quite entertaining, light hearted, and I feel a movie might be objectively great.

Of course, I am not the target audience, so to me it seemed perhaps a bit simplistic and predictable, but hey, it was fun.

Vote: 6.5/10

Mini review: MIND MGMT

Last year I read this comic by Matt Kindt, I put off writing a blog post about it for a long time, but I really wanted to do it, as this is one of the best thing I have ever read.

I read the three-volume omnibus, which was pretty complicated to get §but it was worth it.

MIND MGMT Omnibus
MIND MGMT Omnibus

The comic book tells the story of an eponymous government agency which specializes in training and handling agents with psychic powers, sending them to operate all over the world as you would expect from any proper spy agency.

Now, Dear Reader, you may be thinking this is just another instance of the Super Children School, as seen in Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, The Umbrella Academy, and many, many others. You’re way off.

Common classes here are subliminal messages in advertisement, mass hypnosis via books and music, predicting the future, and becoming immortal. And there are monks in charge of recording the actual history of the world, to keep the agency honest.

Most of all, these are not super-heroes with super-problems with larger than life fighting scenes. These are problematic government officers working in a paranoid spy world reminiscent of the cold war, while also having god-like powers, with conspiracy theories thrown in.

The story is about a woman, Meru, who ends up discovering the existence of MIND MGMT, meeting some of its members, learning about herself, and showing by example why the agency is either a terrible evil or an absolute necessity.

But this is not what the book is about. The essence of the book is to give depth and concreteness to this world, which it does in every possible way. The pages are printed as field report forms, including dotted lines and “please write here” notes. On the page borders, you find excerpts of the MIND MGMT Field Guide, in-universe novels, songs, poetry, fourth-wall breaking messages from the characters, and so on. Also, we get “personnel files” in each number, which are small masterpieces on their own.

The faux advertisement interspersed in the book will regularly contain hidden content, in-panel text is always meaningful, and while most of this is obvious you will get stuck trying to extract information from everything.§ If a book makes you paranoid, it means it’s good.

The art style is somewhat off-putting at first but improves as the books go on, and at some point it becomes implicit communication itself, which is pretty great.

The story gets meandering about 2/3 of the way, and IMO it could have been shorter and little would have been lost, but this is saved by one of the best ending I read in my life.

I regret not having read this at the time it was being published, not knowing it existed, but this comic is so good I ended up also buying a four-issue spin ogg mini series recently published, MIND MGMT: Bootleg§ and heck, I almost bought the board game too.

So, go read this, you won’t regret it.

Vote: 8/10

Mini review: Stand on Zanzibar

I just finished reading (well, listening) Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. It won the Hugo Award, and has often been mentioned both by casual readers and by SF authors a must read, so I decided to give it a go.

I didn’t like it very much, but read till the end. Some minor spoilers included.

stand on zanzibar (audible thumbnail)

The Good & The Bad

The world building is pretty good, and the author uses the trick of having whole sections of jumbled up snippets, like zapping through TV channels, so that you get a bunch of advertisement, news reel and so on.

This is of course a common trope (my favourite Shaun of the Dead scenes plays on this) but it allows the writer to just give a ton of depth while avoiding character infodumping. It does not work too well on an audiobook, alas.

The plot lines are much of the same tho. We have multiple things happening, only tangential to each other.

There’s the megacorp that wants to develop something huge in Africa. There’s the afram (sic) manager which has risen quickly in the company ranks using his ethnicity. There’s the super-AI owned by the megacorp which is unable to approve the plans because they’re based on what it thinks are invalid assumptions. There’s the rising power of China with its own super-AI. There’s government-enforce eugenics, genetic manipulation, buying kids and baby farming in underdeveloped countries. The rise of a new power in south-east Asia. There’s the media controlling narrative and people living in their own bubble. There’s the truth-sayers which speak of the dangers of everything and are not censored, but they are basically ignored.

But, again: there’s so much stuff, and so little unity. I am not saying it’s badly written. It’s written perfectly. It’s just that I have not cared for this style since I hit 30.

The awesome

But wait, let’s go back to the worldbulding: it’s a really good world, and it holds together, and it feels very predictive, and modern and speaking a lot about our society.

But it was published in 1968. This means it is closer to World War I than it is to today. It’s a time when computers were in their infancy, and black&white TVs were still outselling the Color ones.

The author hit so many targets that it’s honestly mindblowing. And the writing still feels fresh and not dated at all.

So, I didn’t like this book very much, but I have to say: maybe read it anyway.

Vote: 6.5/10

PS

The AI, Shalmaneser, refuses to predict the economic results of the company’s projects in Beninia. I tried asking ChatGPT, and, alas, it also refused. So, mark one more point for the author.

On Adaptations and Empathy

Recently Netflix aired the first season of their adaptation of The Sandman, and I finally got a chance to watch it.

I loved the original comics, it’s one of my favourite works. I also listened to the audible production and I liked that one too.

So, like everyone on the internet, I am going to share my opinion on the tv series, and also on other adaptations, geopolitics, and everything else.

I mean, it’s a blog.

For those that don’t know anything about The Sandman, feel free to skip this part. Be warned, spoilers ahead.

Netflix’s Sandman

The important thing to know about the Netflix adaptation is that it saw the direct involvement of Neil Gaiman, the original author of the comics. This is, in theory, great.

The problem is: usually, when a work is adapted to a different media you can be angry at whoever ruined the thing you loved, but in this case that would be the same person who created it!

In particular, people got angry for a few specific reasons, and I’ll try to review them.

Woke casting

People accused the produces of changing characters to fit recent diversity-satisfying trends. This is the “Death was a goth with pale skin, she can’t be a black girl!“. This is, generally speaking, a pretty stupid objection, even if it is true.

The original comic was “woke” before the expression existed, sporting trans and non-binary characters, gays and lesbians, mixed ethnicities…

Generally having that typical ’80/90s “we should love each other even if we’re different” brand of good sentiments that you may remember from We Are the World or successful ads.

So, Gaiman did more of the same, intentionally. I don’t feel it’s reasonable to be upset about this.

But personally: we didn’t get John Constantine! I don’t mind that we got a Johanna, but I do mind that we went from a loser kind of guy with bad hair and a shitty trench coat to a fancy lady with a white immaculate one. Still, I don’t think it matters much.

Also, I didn’t particularly like Lucifer’s casting, nor Dream itself, nor Lucien. I did like Death a lot, and Desire, and John Dee, so I hope I’m not just being an old fart.

Plot changes

This relates to changes small and large, such as Dr. Dee not killing the lady who gave him a ride, his mother helping him, Dream recovering part of his powers by uncreating Gregory, the diner episode being vastly different, the battle with Lucifer instead of Choronzon, the Burgess story being somewhat different etc.

Overall, I don’t think these changes matter nor do they bother me much, but I feel many of them share a common trait: this version of Sandman, both tale and character, is kinder.

As an example, consider the Calliope episode. The original story is a lot more harsh, showing her always(?) naked and making the rape and abuse feel very real. I can understand why that might not fly on general audience TV. Also, using raped women as props is not great anyway, so she got more characterization for TV, which is good.

But then, at the end of the TV episode, she goes “to inspire the world anew” while in the comics she just goes on to fade from the world, the era of greek muses long gone. I liked the old ending more.

More importantly, the relation between her and Dream differs. In the original story Dream is very cold to her, as essentially he’s a dick.

The same is true for the story of Nada, which was omitted from the TV show. That story is great, because it shows Dream falling in love, and being angry and unfair and egotistical.

This was great, because Dream needs to be a piece of shit at the beginning of the story, or it will not matter to us that he needs to change.

Gaiman famously summed up the comic with the line

The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.

But in the TV show he’s just.. grumpy? By making the character less unlikeable, we automatically get a less interesting development. I don’t understand what the producers were going for.

Missing DC references

The original comics were firmly set in the DC universe. This meant that there were a ton of DC characters all over the place, some you may not even have noticed (Cain, Abel, Eve , Lucien…).

Many important ones, like Batman and Joker have been omitted from the TV adaptation altogether. This seems more a case of avoiding legal trouble than anything else, and I honestly didn’t miss them at all.

Am I lost in Translation?

So, yeah, I think the Netflix Adaptation is ok, but I do have a few gripes with it. But one may wonder: am I just an old fart who hates change, and I would never be happy with any adaptation?

Dear Reader, I think I am not. In fact, I believe the Audible’s audio adaptation is almost perfect. It has incredible cast, great production and is 100% better than Netflix’s, and in some ways better than the comics.

It only has 3 defects

  • some of the background sound effects are too loud
  • some of the special effects on voices make them too hard to understand
  • for some reason they dubbed Death so it sounds like a 13yo who can’t speak properly

Maybe I have a specific issue with screen adaptations? Let’s review some.

A triptych of screen adaptations

As evidence that I do like screen adaptations even if they deviate from the source material, I will list 3 where I liked both the comic book version and the screen one, as I (re-)watched or (re-)read these recently.

V for Vendetta

The 2005 movie is quite faithful to the source comics, and I love it. There are some fundamental differences (e.g. the Leader in the movie is an a-dimensional bad guy; V in the comic is darker, crazier and less likeable) but it’s pretty great anyway! In fact, I think I enjoyed the movie more than I enjoyed the comics.

Bu I have seen the movie before the comic, maybe that tinted my opinion? Let’s try another one.

All you need is kill

Here, I read the manga after I watched the movie The Edge of Tomorrow. Interestingly, they are both adaptations, the original source being a light novel.

I think they are both good, but the manga has a better plot, with a nicer ending. The movie devolves into standard hollywood good-kill-bad happy ending, while the manga/light novel keeps you on your toes with an ethical conundrum and leaves you once that is solved, the ongoing alien invasion remaining in the background. Once the battle for the character’s soul is done, we don’t really need to care too much about aliens.

But ok, this was a manga, what about western stuff?

Watchmen

I loved the Watchmen graphic novel, including the squid bit. But I loved the movie too!

First, it has gorgeous photography and great casting.

Second, it has one of the best intro ever made for a movie, managing to sum up an entire backstory in 5 minutes of stunning imagery and perfect soundtrack.

Third, the changes from the original material are there and not always good (Rorschach becomes a positive character, the sex scene is far too long, the lack of squids disappointing), but they don’t really impact the plot.

Is it the same as the original graphic novel? Nope, but it’s still good.

The problem with people

So, I don’t think I’m particularly biased against adaptations, but I just don’t think The Sandman on Netflix was very good. I would watch another season, but heck, I watched the Cuphead show too.

But the whole kerfuffle was interesting to me. A lot of people got pissed off by the adaptation, and Neil Gaiman has been kind of a dick to some of them, much like they were being dicks to him.

I have seen people get upset at adaptations for a long time, and I have been upset myself. When the revolution comes, people who produced The Dark Tower movie will be the first against the wall.

But why do people get upset? Some of the people who make noise about media products do it out of general politicking: they don’t care about the material, and are just looking for an excuse to spew their favorite opinions. Shit there’s people arguing about a homosexual couple in Peppa Pig these days.

Some others get upset because they love the material, and feel betrayed. It’s easy to frame everyone who got upset about Death being black as being a racist bigot, but I think some of them genuinely just loved the specific representation of the character and wanted to see that.

Did you notice it? I did the same about the audio version of Death.

If you spent a bunch of time with anything it becomes part of your identity, and when someone makes an adaptation which does not match your interpretation you perceive it as an attack on you.

This is essentially the reason why italians get mad at foreigners’ faux italian food.

Fans are people

And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter if the consumer of a work is aligned with the author. Alan Moore famously said

[Rorschach] is what Batman would be in the real world.

But I have forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans, ‘smelling’, ‘not having a girlfriend’, these are actually kind of heroic!

So Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I made him to be a bad example. But I have people come up to me in the street and saying: ‘I AM Rorschach. That is MY story’.

And I’d be thinking: Yeah, great. Could you just, like, keep away from me, never come anywhere near me again as long as I live?

For those people, Rorschach is good, and he’s part of their identity. Changing it would upset them.

Dear Reader, I know what you’re thinking: but Gabriele, these are idiots, and we should tell them to fuck off.

Well, I agree in part. But I think it’s worth exercising some empathy anyway. Yes, some people hold opinions that I find reproachable, but I think we should try to be compassionate. It’s easy to be nice to those you like, but we should be nice to those we don’t.

As the saying goes, do not judge someone until you walked a mile in their shoes.

Authors are people too

At the same time, fans should try to show empathy to authors too. Yes, maybe an adaptation is not a good as the original, but have you considered the author’s reason?

This could be the best they could do, and you would have done the same.

Or maybe the author changed over time? I’m pretty sure Gaiman@2020 is very different from Gaiman@1980.

Or maybe, they were trying to stick to a theme, and they have just produced a different representation of the same message.

Yes, sometimes people just make money-grab adaptations of something, which basically only share a name with the original (looking at you, I Robot).

In those cases, i recommend keeping your hopes up, and just consider this stuff as random productions you don’t care about.

Understand this does not damage your self. The thing you loved is still there. They made a shit job, but they also had reasons, you just don’t know why.

The problem with geopolitics

I am too incompetent to discuss about big themes, but I wanted to share a last thought: in Europe, a lot of attention in 2022 went to the Russia-Ukraine war. Maybe now we will now start paying attention to the Azerbaijan-Armenia war.

Wars are a terrible thing, we should help the people who are being attacked in every way, and condemn the attackers. There is no argument about this.

I just have a thought on talking about the war. You may unintentionally upset someone, and be hurt in return. Try to be tolerant and empathic, you don’t know what the others experienced.

A lot of good things start from empathy, maybe peace too, in the very long term.

Summer readings 2021, part 3

Last summary of my summer readings! Fitting, as the summer is over. I did not read a lot of fiction this summer, but hey, I did read some good stuff!

Hearts of Oak

A short novel by Eddie Robson, which features a weird city made of wood in constant expansion. I would be providing spoilers by adding anything else about the plot, so I will just say that it’s pretty original, and I’ve enjoyed it, after a couple false starts (the beginning is somewhat… dull).

Also, I read the MacMillan paperback edition , which for some reason has the most pleasant paper I’ve experienced in a book, feels like silk. OTOH, the cover has a rubbery feel to it, which is kinda annoying.

7/10: I would like to read more of this universe.

The Flying Sorcerers

An anthology of comic fantasy stories by Peter Haining. I acquired this book, together with The Wizards of Odd, simply because it contained some Terry Pratchett. I sort of hoped the rest of the stories would be good.

On average, they’re not. Neither good, nor fun, and they’re not even about flying sorcerers! Yet, a couple of the stories are quite nice.

5/10: there are probably better anthologies in which to spend your time.

The Wind Through the Keyhole

Ah, yes, a Dark Tower novel. You see, I read the first book of the Dark Tower saga, The Gunslinger, about 30 years ago. Most of it in a single afternoon, while going to the dentist. I loved that strange world, mutants, cowboys, and people singing Hey, Jude. When the Man in Black described the Tower, the Beast§ , the Door, my curiosity reached at the stars.

So I proceeded to read the second book immediately after, and I liked it even more.

And… to read the third book I had to wait years! I found it during a summer vacation, in a small library in a mountain town, and when I got it my father wanted to read it too. He loved it, and so every time a new one came out, I would buy it for him, and read it as soon as he finished it. Fun fact, my father had read The Talisman years before, and I had not.

Me, Sai King, and my dad got to the end of the journey many years later, and while I did not love the last book as much as the earlier ones, it was nice to reach it.

Then The Wind Through the Keyhole came out, again many years later. I didn’t read it for ten years, and I only realize as I write, it’s because my dad had died shortly before it came out.

You see, I never got the chance to buy it for him, so I never read it myself.

As Stephen King says

For longtime readers, this book should be shelved between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, which makes it, I suppose, Dark Tower 

and content wise it’s also half way: I loved Wizard and Glass, but didn’t particularly enjoy Wolves of the Calla§. And yet, this book is a much better book than the (chronological) last book, maybe because the author wasn’t so worried about dying before finishing the tale.

Reading this book was like going back to my home town, visiting familiar places, meeting the faces I grew up with. Oh, hey Ronald and Jake!

And the book is good. The plot is good, the structure is good, and for once, the ending is good. Also, as Ronald would have it, it seems I remember the face of my father.

8/10: I really wish there was more of this.