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Advance Book Review: The Genius Plague by David Walton

September 21, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s no secret that I love science fiction. I haven’t reviewed many science fiction books on this blog (with the notable exception of Dark Matter by Blake Crouch, an excellent read), but I have a treat today.

I have a UAC (Uncorrected Advanced Reading Copy) of The Genius Plague by David Walton. The books official release is on October 3, 2017, and I highly suggest that you spare the $14.95 list price (though I’m sure Amazon has it cheaper) to read this book. It’s published by Pyr Science Fiction & Fantasy, an outfit that has been producing some really great work by amazing authors.

I’ll provide a much more in-depth review of the book when it is released, but for now I want to give a shorter advance review. So, first off, I want to say that Walton does an excellent job highlighting real science involved with mycology, as the book is about the spread of a fungus from the Amazon that enhances the intelligence of the people that it infects. In nature, this is seen in species of fungus like cordyceps, which Walton references without naming. Incidentally, the video game The Last of Us features zombies created by cordyceps infection in humans.

Walton obviously writes from a place of deep knowledge, and where he doesn’t have specialized knowledge, he does a fairly decent job with researching. The scientific aspects of the book are believable, as are the sections involving the NSA and Alzheimer’s. I won’t lie: by the time you get to the halfway point of the book, you’re turning pages without being aware of it. Walton has a gift for pacing and knowing how to construct a narrative such that you’re sucked into the novel and reading with increased fervor the deeper into the story you get.

He also has a talent for writing believable characters, for the most part (I’ll talk about some of the issues in the longer review). The dialogue he writes is often engaging, with such gems as “Good to know there’s someone waiting in the wings in case I turn into a fungus zombie.” I laughed out loudly at that line. Another thing that I like about the book is how cryptography plays a role in the action, and Walton does an interesting job of making that fresh.

The Genius Plague is a quick, but excellent read, and deserves a place on the shelf of any lover of science fiction literature. Tentatively, I rate if 4 out of 5 stars (for reasons which I’ll explain in my expanded review).

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On Mass Effect: Andromeda and BioWare’s Abandonment of its Fans

August 19, 2017 Leave a comment

I haven’t written about video games in a while, but I simply can’t let this go without comment. First of all, I quite enjoyed Mass Effect: Andromeda. The game isn’t without issue, and though none of the glitches that I encountered were game-breaking, they were distracting and hilarious. Obviously BioWare dropped the ball with Andromeda, and it’s not hard to see where they jumped from one concept to another, leaving ends untied and stories hanging in the air.

I did expect, apart from standard after-release game patching, to get some story-based DLC to expand the story of the Pathfinder and the universe of Mass Effect: Andromeda. There were mysteries left unanswered, stories left unfinished, and it was obvious that the original plan was to offer such DLC to tie things up and set the stage for a sequel. Mass Effect, after all, has established that as a pattern and I think the games are good enough to justify such extravagance.

But what we got was BioWare throwing in the towel and pushing their best franchise over a cliff and wiping their hands of it. They received sharp, and rather deserved, criticism for their release bungling. And they should have taken their lumps, taken their ratings, and taken the backlash and used all of that to redouble their efforts to make the game better. That’s how much potential that I think the game has.

On the Mass Effect website, the Mass Effect: Andromeda Team released a statement called “Update from the Studio.” In it, they confirm that they are not releasing any story-based DLC, and will instead focus on the APEX missions, as well as novels and comics.

Let’s look at the salient points of the letter.

Early in development, we decided to focus Mass Effect: Andromeda’s story on the Pathfinder, the exploration of the Andromeda galaxy, and the conflict with the Archon. The game was designed to further expand on the Pathfinder’s journey through this new galaxy with story-based APEX multiplayer missions and we will continue to tell stories in the Andromeda Galaxy through our upcoming comics and novels, including the fate of the quarian ark.

I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that this did not include story-based DLC. Surely they planned on a single-player mission to find the quarian ark, and to solve the mystery of the death of Jien Garson, the leader of the Andromeda Initiative. The stories are just too big and full of game potential for these things to be left twisting in the wind as BioWare airs out its other dirty laundry.

Further, the APEX multiplayer is a poor way to expand the story as, in my opinion, it’s not actually that enjoyable. This is a personal bias as I don’t really like multiplayer aspects of the Mass Effect games, because its strength lies in its narrative and how you interact with the game. This, to me, seems like BioWare just hand-waving away their abandonment of the game and their fans.

It’s also telling that they want to shift from exploring huge in-game issues with comics and novels, which is largely a departure from their previous games, comics, and novels. Sure, you could get the comics to supplement the narrative if you cared, but they were not necessary to enjoy and understand the narrative in the game. If they ever do produce a Mass Effect 5, and if it is a continuation of this story arc, it’s possible that there will be large chunks of the narrative that will only be accessible through the comics and games, not to mention the crappy APEX missions. This negatively impacts the experience of the narrative.

It’s also significant, I think, that they’re putting more resources into the most baldly monetized aspect of the game than any other. Of course, that’s where their priorities really are–pay for a game, then pay more in the multiplayer to get better weapons and characters so you can effectively fight against other players who spend more money.

Our last update, 1.10, was the final update for Mass Effect: Andromeda. There are no planned future patches for single-player or in-game story content.

I take this as an admission that they’re done fixing glitches and that they’ve given up developing the story in the game. They dissolved the Montreal studio and merged it with EA, so that might be a part of why they’re giving the fans the middle finger. The Mass Effect property was moved back to Edmonton, so it’s unlikely that the series is done for good.

So Mass Effect: Andromeda is, for all intents and purposes, essentially dead on a developmental level.

We appreciate all the millions of people who came with us to the Andromeda galaxy. We hope to see you again in the Mass Effect universe.

Well, they sure aren’t acting like it. Seriously, I hope to see them devote the time and care that a game and narrative like Mass Effect deserves.  Their treatment of Andromeda, and it’s rushed and bungled development, should be a lesson on what to avoid the next time they decide to pick up the series.

It’s very highly unlikely that I’ll spend any money on the APEX missions, the comics, or the novels. I just don’t care anymore. If they don’t want to put any energy into further developing the game, then they’ll get nothing more from me for it.

I honestly figured that BioWare learned their lesson after their disastrous response to critics of the end of Mass Effect 3: don’t anger your fans or abandon them. To some extent, they fixed that with the extended ending DLC and definitely with their Citadel DLC. And that’s what they could have done here with Andromeda. The story has potential, and the characters are, generally, rich and interesting. But they decided, instead, to throw them away.

Thanks for nothing, BioWare.

Moving to Philadelphia

August 5, 2017 Leave a comment

Despite almost two months of exploration, Philadelphia remains enigmatic. I didn’t really have a clear idea as to what I was expecting when I moved here from Lansing, Michigan in early June, but the city does have a storied reputation. Certain persons familiar with the culture warned me that my special brand of Midwestern charm wouldn’t play well in the land of cheesesteaks and cracked copper bells. This proved to be true in part, but I think that’s just a consequence of large cities with a lot of people (assholes) living closely together.

It’s a city that, in many respects, stands outside of time even as new buildings rise in the skyline. A visit to the Independence National Historic Park is a trip to the past. You’re greeted by actors in period garb who speak in a language fitting the time, and you’re treated to fairly awe-inspiring artifacts of American history. The charm of Revolutionary America is juxtaposed against a modern metropolis, but as you learn more about the city you see the facade slowly drop. If the “historic” buildings weren’t rebuilt based on the originals, they languished for many years in various states of disrepair. And, sadly, this aura permeates the city in one form or another.

I don’t mean to be too critical. I have really enjoyed living in Philadelphia so far, and compared to where I came from in Michigan there’s always something to do or to see. The fact is, however, that Philadelphia is also trapped by time. From the rows of houses that are over a hundred years old to the disrepair of the roads and sidewalks, the city needs a fresh coat of paint. Beyond modernizing some of the older parts of the city, I don’t know what that means. I think that the city would lose much of its character if it were to bulldoze older buildings to rebuild. However, it would be nice not to trip and hurt yourself because the bricks on the sidewalk jut out at odd angles.

The actual move here was a comedy of errors, built on a foundation of inexperience and some bad luck. My fiancee, Anastasia, who is finishing her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, provided the main motivation to transplant myself. Prior to this move I had never lived in a city as big as Philadelphia, and had never moved beyond the borders of Michigan.

In the past I had thought about moving. Lansing felt stifling, and though it is the capital city of Michigan, it doesn’t have that much going for it. Back in the day, before Michigan lost much of its car manufacturing base, Lansing was home to many General Motors plants and factories. Several other factories that supported the automobile industry also flourished, and the rails that now sit rusty and unused transported materials through the city and the state. Maybe it’s just time playing tricks on me, but the promise of Lansing seems a relic of the past. It felt so much bigger and alive when I was a child growing up there. If anything symbolizes Lansing now, the corrupt state legislature that finds its home there wins the prize. The legislative body’s infamy brings us such fine examples of healthy democratic debate as the time that they censored a female State Representative for saying the word “vagina” during a women’s health discussion.

Obviously, I needed something more. I didn’t really get the kick in the pants I needed until April of 2016, when I was diagnosed with nonrheumatic mitral valve stenosis. Initially I shrugged my shoulders and threw it into my collection of heart conditions. In late 2016, after suffering from bouts of tachycardia, hypertension, and fairly severe chest pain I started taking the beta-blocker metoprolol. All of this is to say that a black hole spaghettified any doubt or reservations I had about leaving.

Last October I took a trip with Anastasia to New York City, where I proposed next to the USS Intrepid. We had thrown around the idea for a while. I asked her before we took the trip, and I told her about my plan to give her a suitable amount of time to ponder her answer before I presented the ring and asked. Tethering your life to another’s is a huge decision, obviously, and I wouldn’t want anyone to make it on the fly in a situation where they’re put in the spotlight.

My proposal did not go as planned for two reasons: 1) New York City was soggy (as can be seen in the picture on the left) and 2) I do not like to do things in front of other people (which is strange for someone who ran for public office and used to perform stand-up comedy). My plan to propose on the flight deck was scrapped on account of the proposal-hating precipitation. I altered the plan to propose in the Star Trek Academy Experience in honor of our nature as irredeemable geeks. Sadly other people had the impudence to explore the Academy.

So I proposed next to the Intrepid at twilight, under the faint orange glow of light emanating from posts on the pier. I removed a ring box from my pocked with the Starfleet Insignia on the top, and as I opened it I asked “Engage?” The ring I presented was in the shape of the Starship Enterprise. Yes, the weather and the annoying people sharing the museum with us rued the day they tried to foil my plans.

At this point I didn’t have any solid plans about moving to Philadelphia, despite the engagement and the newfound bond I shared with Anastasia. At first we kept the whole enterprise hidden in fear that people would disapprove (I also kept the engagement hidden from everyone but my mother and Anastasia for the same reason, which proved to be entirely unnecessary). As future husband and wife, we conspired together to make the move to the City of Brotherly Love happen sometime within the next year.

Now we’re skipping ahead to early June to avoid boring you with tedious issues. I had given my boss a month’s advance notice of my departure, said my good-byes, and packed most of my junk. I made the trip with my mother and her boyfriend, and despite what I thought was a sufficient plan the trip was plagued with problems from the start. A few days before, I had paid a mechanic to change my oil and serpentine belt and take a look at the engine. Pretty responsible, right?

Wrong. I apparently forgot to ask them to rotate the tires and look at the brakes. Oh, how this would come back to haunt me. Most of the trip was uneventful. Pennsylvania’s splendor suitably impressed me, sure, but it’s a long trip from Lansing, through Ohio, and across the entire state of Pennsylvania. Somewhere outside of Harrisburg I heard a mysterious whine issuing from the front left area of my car. Great, I thought. It’s either the brake or a bearing. I had a definitive answer when the whine turned into a grind just an hour away from Philadelphia. At this point I grew anxious and hoped, vainly, we could get the car to my house before the rotor took any damage.

We had entered Philadelphia, and were a mere half a mile away from my house, but luck was not on my side. Right by Independence Hall the car lurched to a stop as the wheel locked up. A sound not unlike the wail of a moose with laryngitis emanated from the car, attracting the attention of several pedestrians. The stop and go traffic of the city, and the ensuing use of the brakes, had led to the gouging of the rotor. We resolved to drive the car to the house, whether or not it wanted to, and it did not want to go. I had to drive it around the city for a few days while I googled mechanics to have it repaired, and apart from the shrieking protests of the brake grinding against the rotor, the car suffered no additional harm. Total damage: about $735 to have the rotors, brake pads, and calipers replaced.

We manged to get the car fixed before we had to get to a wedding near Boston. Our route took us through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, and finally Massachusetts and we suffered no incident. Anastasia and I both enjoyed the wedding, a version of a traditional Hindu ceremony, in which we witnessed the joining of a very close friend of mine from the University of Michigan, Nidhi Shrivastava, with her long-time boyfriend. We stayed over night and gorged on delicious Indian food.

Our path back to Philadelphia copied the route there fairly closely, but in reverse. Somewhere in New York, Anastasia’s Google Maps app took it upon itself to decide that because the New Jersey Turnpike had a four minute delay, we would need to reroute to bypass it. Anastasia said at the time, “this route takes us closer to New York City than I’d like,” but we essentially shrugged our shoulders and continued to drive. I’m sure that my astute readers can tell where this is going. As we ventured further into New York traffic started to get thicker and slow down. A sign caught my attention: we had entered the Bronx.

Uh-oh.

I turned to Anastasia and I said, “We’re in the Bronx. Why are we in the Bronx?” She looked at the cursed Google Maps app. The damn thing had noted that small delay on the turnpike and decided, “Hey, you know what would be a gas? Let’s route these innocent Midwesterners through the Bronx and Manhattan. That won’t be terrifying at all.”

I dreaded the idea of driving through Manhattan. I fretted as I drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic, next to a guy in some late-90’s convertible who loved his expletives. But Anastasia threw me a lifeline: I only had to drive along 9A by Hudson Heights, get onto the George Washington Bridge, and cross over the Hudson River and into New Jersey. How hard could that be? I need only to go through a small northern chunk of Manhattan, not anywhere near the rage–inducing streets of the island proper.

Let me tell you something, dear reader. I have a head that has more white hair than my youth might suggest. That short drive through that sliver of Manhattan easily added more salt to my pepper. Two problems plagued me, the first of which involved the colossal number cars on the road in an unfamiliar place. I had only been to Manhattan once before, and I certainly hadn’t driven through its hellish avenues. The second problem revolved around my lack of aggressiveness, and I barely made it into the lane I needed for the lower level of the bridge.

I found my spine as I wound the loop to get on the bridge and imposed myself between two cars with what might be construed as a lack of politeness, but definitely comfortably below the threshold for malice aforethought. We crossed Martha with the skyline of Manhattan to our left and New Jersey in front of us, my impolitic maneuvering soon forgotten. Dear reader, I made a promise to myself and to my 2002 Pontiac Bonneville: never again.

I drove easier on the New Jerkey (oops, that totally wasn’t intentional, I swear) Turnpike, and along the way we spotted a Lamborghini. I’d like to say that I was an adult, possessed of a mature outlook on life. But that would be a lie. I pretended to race the Lamborghini, and cheered myself when I pulled into the lead. So now I can say that I raced a Lamborghini with a fifteen year-old Pontiac and won. It’s my personal fish story. “The Lamborghini was thiiiiiiis fast,” I’ll say, waving my hand from left to right as fast as possible. I come from a long line of people who love their fish stories.

Shortly after our hair-raising drive back home from Boston, Anastasia and I took a trip to Long Beach Island, which I wrote about here. The next great adventure, my first trip to Paris, will be documented in a future installment.

For now, I want to thank you for reading my blog. I welcome any feedback in the comments, or by email at arushedjoke@gmail.com.

Book Review: Invisible Planets Part 2 (“The Year of the Rat”)

February 4, 2017 Leave a comment

Greetings, folks!

To start my review of Invisible Planets I’ll be delving into Chen Qiufan’s “The Year of the Rat” and exploring the story in detail. To be frank, the story unfolded in a way that both surprised and stunned me, and I hope that, should you read this entire review, you’ll understand why. I get the feeling that this wasn’t just because of my admitted ignorance of Chinese culture, or the limits of trying to interpret this story from the perspective of a Westerner. The narrative is suggestive of a greater ignorance, in fact, not just on the part of the reader, but of the characters’ own confusion at the developments in the plot.

For this review, we’ll be looking at the human element of the story, since that seems to be what’s front and center; more specifically, the relationship between humanity and the themes of the story (economics, maturing, and technology, for instance).

This will be a long review, closing on about 5,500 words, examining several different elements of the story that I think are worth noting. It will also serve as a quick analysis of some aspects of the story from my perspective. Many of these thoughts are preliminary, and if you have any ideas you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

To avoid potential spoilers for people who would rather read the story first (and there will be spoilers aplenty as the entire story is discussed in detail), the rest of the review can be read by clicking the “Read More” link below.

Read more…

Book Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

February 3, 2017 Leave a comment

“I’ve seen so many versions of you. With me. Without me. Artist. Teacher. Graphic Designer. But it’s all, in the end, just life. We see it macro, like one big story, but when you’re in it, it’s just day-to-day, right? And isn’t that what you have to make your peace with?”

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a novel that is particularly concerned with two important questions: 1) Who are we? and 2) What if? Like any good science fiction novel, it uses science (in this case some really abstract concepts from quantum physics) to explore not possible consequences of the science, but the ways in which it impacts humanity. Basically, science fiction explores how these concepts relate to us.

The novel opens with Jason Dessen, his wife Daniela, and their son Charlie in their home on family night. Jason contemplates the choices he’s made in life leading him to this point–having a wife, a son, and a mediocre job as a small college physics professor–when he could have stuck with his career and made world-changing discoveries. There’s regret, yes, but I also suspect resignation on the part of himself and Daniela, who also gave up her dreams for her family.

Jason goes out to congratulate an old friend, Ryan, at a local bar for winning the Pavia Prize, awarded to people who make breakthroughs in science. On the way back home, he’s held at gunpoint, kidnapped, and taken to an abandoned power plant where a mysterious man drugs him. He awakens in a hangar he doesn’t recognize, surrounded by people who are familiar with him but who he doesn’t know, and later learns that he invented a kind of machine that allows a person to travel between different universes (along the lines of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics).

“I don’t know. I could see it getting to the where it didn’t feel real anymore. Because it isn’t. The only thing that’s real in this moment is this city. This room. This bed. You and me.”

What I appreciate most about this novel is how it takes complicated ideas and weaves them seamlessly into an extremely compelling narrative, following Jason (or the Jason that is the most familiar to us), as he deals with the situation he is unwillingly thrust into. The complicated ideas don’t weigh the novel down or make it hard to understand; it flows naturally from the characters’ dialogue. In this, Crouch creates a novel that is, at its core, a thought experiment. Given the idea that for every decision we make universes split off to encompass every possible outcome, and given a kind of technology that allows people to travel to these other universes, how might humans use this technology and how might they interact with it?

In a word: badly. But Crouch’s exploration is deeply illuminating because it shines a light on us. When Jason explores “his” house in another universe, he takes stock of the many differences between that house and the house he actually lived in. “In my house…” sets up a contrast between what he knows and what he’s currently experiencing. He wonders if he’s going mad, or if someone’s playing a prank on him, but he cannot square his knowledge with his current experience.

As the novel progresses, Jason visits different universes where he sees several different versions of himself, of Daniela, and of Chicago. He acknowledges that, the more he travels, the less he thinks he understands about himself. “As I shave my beard, the questions of identity keep haunting me.” In one universe, another Jason drops money into this Jason’s collection box, and narrates, “There’s no danger. I’m unrecognizable.” If there are an infinite number of other universes, with infinite other Jasons, what do you really know about yourself? Throughout the novel there’s this theme that your decisions make you who you are; the Jason we’re familiar with made certain decisions that made him a family man, and the Jason that invented the device that allows travel to other universes made other decisions. So which Jason is the “real” Jason?

There’s probably no way to answer that question, because the question itself is absurd. They’re all the real Jason, but they come from different contexts and they have different histories. They’re not only the result of decisions that they make, but of the history and developments in their universes that are different than our universes. None of them have any kind of priority over any other, and this fact assaults our sense of self and the idea that we all hold that we’re special and unique. Jason has to come face-to-face with the fact that there are versions of himself that are capable of great evils in desperate circumstances.

Further, it turns out the being able to travel the universes depends on your own conscious and subconscious mind. Essentially, your thoughts and emotions direct your travel in the space between dimensions. In effect, by exploring the multiverse, you’re actually exploring yourself.

I suppose we’re just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.

Dark Matter has an interesting structure. Most of the narrative is first-person perspective in the present tense, from the point-of-view of Jason. However, the story shifts to third-person when we move to the original Daniela and her time with “Jason2,” which is an interesting shift that makes Jason2 feel really alien–like an altogether different person. Jason’s narration has a very stream-of-conscious feel to it, which reinforces the present-tense, and really makes you as a reader feel the emotions, fear, or sense of panic that the character feels.

Crouch’s writing style is descriptive without being too detail-oriented. It’s original and engaging, and unlike Inferno, it uses ellipses and dashes sparingly and only when they’re called for. The way he describes characters is fresh and real. For instance, “Her breath is wine-sweet, and she has one of those smiles that seem architecturally impossible.” His writing style also has hints of a wry sense of humor, such as the following sentence: “Whole Foods smells like the hippie I dated before Daniela–a tincture of fresh produce, ground coffee, and essential oils.”

The pace of the novel almost never falters, and I found myself losing track of time as I turned the pages. You really lose yourself in the story, and in the images that Crouch draws through witty writing and a profound imagination. During Jason’s travels through the universes, Crouch uses what I call the “ampoule countdown,” tracking the number of trips Jason has left to make. That combined with the truly infinite nature of the multiverse creates a sense of utter hopelessness, especially as we see Jason struggle to figure out how to tune his mind and emotions so that he can find his way home (and fail desperately).

Overall, Dark Matter has a solid story, excellent writing, characters that are fleshed-out and real, and an original idea with a fantastic twist ending. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, and by the end of the story you find yourself questioning your own sense of identity.

I give Dark Matter a 5 out of 5, and highly recommend it to anyone who lives mind-benders, techno-thrillers, or science fiction.

Book Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

January 30, 2017 1 comment

inferno-coverEvery now and again I decide to venture out of my bubble and read something that’s not exactly typical of my usual literary fare. In the past, Dan Brown had been able to tell a relatively entertaining tale (if not reliably researched or well-written), so I took up Inferno with the hope that Brown would live up to his mediocre writer / good storyteller reputation.

I can tell you that he did not. Inferno, despite being a decent page-turner, didn’t really leave me wanting to read more about Robert Langdon. Actually, about three-quarters of the way through I just wished it would end. Unlike his previous books (with maybe the exception of The Lost Symbol)Inferno feels like it drags on forever, with serious disruptions in the pacing of the plot throughout with endless description of setting that, in some areas, seem completely extraneous. Indeed, it is obvious that this was a book conceived from the ground up as a movie.

Let’s start from the beginning: Robert Langdon, Harvard symbologist, wakes up in a Florence hospital with a bullet wound and amnesia. Soon, he is being chased by an assassin, and helped by the beautiful Sienna Brooks to figure out how he got there and where he was going. Pretty standard Dan Brown fare, honestly. The assassin works for a mysterious group called the Consortium, headed by a man only known as the Provost, who are trying to keep Langdon from accomplishing his goals aboard the good ship Mendacium, which essentially means falsehood or illusion (sigh…obvious symbolism is obvious). Yes, he did simply call the antagonists “the Consortium” and “the Provost,” in a fit of what I can only describe as a habitual lack of originality. Just to knock it up a notch to pathological, the Provost, in several instances, steeples his hands when he talks as bad guys are wont to do.

Before I tear into this book, I want to talk about something from TV Tropes. An official entry exists for the term “Dan Browned,” and TV Tropes describes it thus: “Have you ever picked up a work by a creator who claims (or strongly implies) that his writing is based on thorough and careful research, only to discover what you are actually holding is a steaming pile of lazy assumptions or outright lies?” You can find a page on the website here dedicated to Dan Brown’s loose history with fact. So anything that Brown asserts as true in the book should be taken with a grain of salt as a general rule.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but it should be noted that for as much grief as I’m about to give this book, I think that Brown still somehow manages to create a book that, for the most part, is a page-turner that manages to keep your interest. Further, he peppers his novels with these little insights and discoveries that let you feel like you’re in on them.

First off, I think Brown’s writing is getting worse. Or, at least, from what little I remember of my readings of the other three Langdon novels, it seems to be getting worse. Maybe lazier is a better word. On the first page, Brown sets up a pattern that will be repeated ad nauseam: he overuses ellipses and uses esoteric words like dolant and chthonic. This takes me out of the action and makes me aware of the act of reading, and I think it makes the book poorer. Later, he’ll start other annoying writing eccentricities: the overuse of italics to express inner monologue, the overuse of dashes to add information (which creates jarring, awkward sentences), and perhaps most annoying of all the overuse of the interrobang (!? or ?!, Brown uses them interchangeably), making the dialogue come off as a college freshman’s creative writing project you just have to read, man.

Here, I’ll ding myself for the overuse of the word “overuse” just to maintain consistency.

Unfortunately, the problems with Brown’s writing don’t end there. Apart from the problems already listed, a lot of it is clumsy and awkward. Take, for instance, this horrid image: “…a powerfully built woman effortlessly unstraddled her BWM motorcycle…” Unstraddled? I searched high and low for other references of the existence of that word and the only things I could find after strenuous google searches were other people discussing Brown’s use of this word. Look, we’re not dealing with Shakespeare-level creativity here, and I don’t think Dan Brown is anywhere near justified in using a “word” like unstraddled when the English language is replete with good words to describe the action he intended. Now excuse me while I get off my high horse, dismount my stool, hop down the stairs, and go for a walk.

Brown’s work also suffers from the “show, don’t tell” problem. Often he uses insipid words like “surreal” and “unique” where detail would not only enhance the flavor of the text, but offer more memorable descriptions of the events, locations, and character attitudes. Another instance of the “show, don’t tell” problem is exemplified by the following sentence: “Sienna quickly outlined a plan. It was simple, clever, and safe.” Okay, Dan Brown, I’ll just take your word for it. There’s no need for me to have the ability to judge that on my own as a reader with a brain. That can judge things. You know, like I’m judging you right now. I have a suggestion. It’s simple, clever, and droll. Write better.

Another issue I have with his writing style is that he breaks everything up into small, easily-digestible chapters, as if he’s spoon-feeding the reader. Sure, this may contribute to his ability to turn mediocre novels with terrible writing into page-turners, but after a while it gets about as irritating as the muscle fatigue I experienced rolling my eyes. Chapter eight is one page, front and back! One page! For the sake of all that is good and just in the world, stop that man from splitting a book that could be trimmed by about one hundred pages into 104 chapters and an epilogue.

As I skim my notes I become aware of another damned pattern: repetition. At one point I wrote, “Yes, we know the Consortium does shady things. Yes, we know they fulfill tasks.” And perhaps that repetition was contagious: “we know, already,” “this is such a goddam repetitive novel. We already know,” “This is getting tiresome,” “and now we get Vayentha telling us what we already know,” and finally “Chapter 64 is pretty much a rehash [spoilers removed]…We know what’s on the video! Come on.” The repetition is actually present throughout the entire novel and, had I wrote notes on all of it, I would never be able to finish this review.

Worse than that, however, is that this idiosyncrasy of Brown’s writing spares not his characters. He constantly refers to one character by what he’s wearing and his damn skin rash (“the man with the rash”), when his name would suffice. Nobody is going to forget that man’s damn rash or his nerd glasses or his ugly paisley tie. A violent twitch developed in my eye from how often Brown called the Provost some variation of a “deeply tanned man.” I am the deeply annoyed man.

Brown seems to abuse his characters more severely than George R.R. Martin. Langdon’s relationship with women in the book should be held up for ridicule by teachers of creative writing. Two of the most powerful and intelligent women in the book, Sienna Brooks, his young, blonde companion, and Elizabeth Sinskey, the director of the World Health Organization, describe Langdon as handsome several times. Perhaps the most egregious example of Langdon’s supernatural powers of attraction over woman is the following: “She knew it was probably just adrenaline, but she found herself strangely attracted to the American professor.” Uh-huh. Strangely, I am not surprised. Brown’s stories always follow the same pattern. Langdon teams up with some attractive, professional woman, and we learn later–big surprise–that she’s got a troubled past, holds Langdon as an object of desire (and is held as an object of desire in the narrative), and holds secret knowledge.

And Langdon himself doesn’t come out from under Brown’s overbearing weirdness unscathed. Even as he struggles to figure out what the hell he’s doing in Florence, he whines about losing his damned Mickey Mouse watch. Langdon even comes off as a pompous hipster when Brown writes, “As Langdon stared into his own weary eyes, he half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.” Danny boy, buddy, don’t character assassinate the man responsible for that fat bank account. You’re not listening to me, are you? You’re…going to give Langdon a weird relationship with penises in statuary, aren’t you? Langdon’s going to focus on it and even note how he cringes at a “penile grip” in a famous statue. *Sigh*

The predictable twist ending doesn’t really pay off in any significant way, and I even had to backtrack to make sure that my impressions of the events were colored only by my own assumptions. In that, Brown was actually kind of clever because he sort of pulled off a trick to impart Langdon’s amnesia onto you, the reader. But, like I said, it doesn’t pay off because it feels cheap and doesn’t really seem to hang together well. Eh, don’t listen to me about that. I’m still deeply annoyed about that goddamned deep tan.

All in all, I give Inferno 2 out of 5 stars. Despite the many issues the novel has, it does manage to eek out a passable plot that manipulates you into turning the page.

Red Ink

January 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Red Ink

I have a love / hate relationship with red ink. That seems really cliche, but the fact is that the red pen sits on the table in front me, and I imagine it is taunting me. See, the red pen is both critic and muse; a force for destruction and creation.

The pen sits on a stack of papers, themselves covered in red ink. Scribbles, symbols, lines, and words speak of the surgery I have performed on it. We don’t like tearing apart that which we destroy create. When I was younger, I built castles made of legos, and I dreaded the time I had to take them down. But that force of destruction is also a way to build.

First drafts suck; there’s no way around that. Typically they are nothing more than idea vomit on paper, at least for me. Sometimes my stories go through several revisions (I label these by letter, and the furthest along I’ve ever gotten in the alphabet so far is “H”). I have binders full of drafts–or rather–the dry bones of drafts that are covered in crimson.

I keep them because they’re instructive. I can learn from them, and I can see how my writing evolves over time. And I come to see that the red ink isn’t my enemy, it’s my tutor. Learning isn’t always a fun process. Often we are asked to unlearn things we thought were true, and more often demanded that we venture outside of our comfort zones.

Creativity is fragile, and it must be nurtured. But it is also prone to stagnation, so it must be challenged, not just by others but by ourselves. Maybe the things we create have no value to anyone but ourselves, but the act of creation itself demands change and growth.

An artist refines her techniques, life evolves from generation to generation, and humans learn from their mistakes. Creation and change are on the same coin, and maybe even the same side of that coin.