Saturday, June 12, 2021

Review: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

This wasn't a deep or profound book. It didn't change my perspective on the ethics or sociology of Silicon Valley and 21st century capitalism. But it was a very cathartic read. 

Like Wiener, I moved from the East Coast to the Bay Area around 2012. I also joined a <20 person business-to-business software start-up in a non-software engineering role. Wiener relates few anecdotes that I couldn't have also lifted from my own life. She responded emotionally in many of the same ways I do or did. Reading her memoir helped me contextualize my own experiences.

The book, which is a longer form version of her n+1 article and her Atlantic article, is at its best when describing the weird cult(ure) unique and endemic to Silicon Valley. It's a bit of a miss for me when decrying "very online" culture. It was a little limited in its analysis of the forces at work that created surveillance capitalism, disgusting amounts of inequality, efficiency hacking, monopolies and oligarchies, and disdain for art and empathy that she describes. (For example, she briefly recounts getting excited about Marx and unionization, only to be shrugged off by some worldly SWE brought up in a blue collar family who tells her that software engineers already have enough privilege and bargaining power—what would they ask for? The topic is not revisited.) It's a "safe" read, but still a recognizably "insiders perspective."

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Review: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus

Frankenstein has been re-imagined and referenced so extensively in pop culture that I thought I knew all about it. Castle, bolts of lightning, a mad scientist yelling "it's alive!", protesting peasants armed with pitchforks and torches. Probably out of boredom with the tropes, I put off reading this book that otherwise thematically aligns very well with my interests - bioengineering, ethics, Regency Era literature by female authors

I was pleasantly surprised to instead find a very introspective and emotional story about two men, linked by a unique relationship. Rather than a climactic event marked by lightning occurring at some late part of the book, Frankenstein's wretch comes to being at the start of Chapter 5 during mundane meteorological conditions:

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

Frankenstein waxes poetic to himself for a paragraph or two about the sacrifices he made during his two years of study and his feeling of disgust and emptiness having finally achieved his goal (not unrelatable to a graduate student), then immediately goes to bed with nary a thought for the well-being of his creation. After one brief innocuous encounter during the night, Frankenstein tries his hardest to pretend he never created a man at all, and falls into a months-long illness so deep he can't even write a letter to his family in response to their imploring.

(Frankenstein suffers lengthy illnesses on two occasions, and I wondered at the author's reasoning. Was the dramatic and interminable depression supposed to signal how emotionally wrangled Frankenstein felt? Were such languid wallows in despair so commonplace among the aristocracy that the contemporary reader would not have remarked upon them at all as unusual? Was it merely a convenient device for explaining why Frankenstein did nothing at all for a long stretch of time while she needed the Wretch elsewhere?)

Frankenstein eventually recovers enough to read a very long letter from his adopted-sister-raised-to-be-his-wife, Elizabeth, which serves mostly to extol the kind nature and excellent nursing credentials of one Justine. Justine, nanny to Frankenstein's brother, is so perfect and virtuous that reader knows she will soon die. Surprisingly, it is the brother that shuffles off this mortal coil first.

In the long-awaited dramatic flash of lightning, Frankenstein encounters the Wretch on his way home and deduces it was he who murdered his brother. Regardless, Frankenstein continues his behavior of outwardly pretending he never created the Wretch—keeping quiet even as Justine is accused of and eventually executed for his brother's murder. Inwardly, of course, Frankenstein monologues extensively about the guilt, and how no one could possibly believe him and he had no way to save Justine.

A thousand times rather would I have confessed myself guilty of the crime ascribed to Justine, but I was absent when it was committed, and such a declaration would have been considered as the ravings of a madman and would not have exculpated her who suffered through me.

Frankenstein seems to think that deeply experiencing these feelings of guilt absolves him to some extent of the crime. I thought of Silicon Valley wringing their hands about about privacy, misinformation, addiction while continuing to change absolutely none of that. There is a lengthy scene where sister-slash-fiancée Elizabeth comforts Justine on the eve before her death, exhibiting her purity and virtuousness so extensively that the reader is sure that she too will soon die. 

To help process his feelings, Frankenstein goes on a solitary hike in the Alps, the lush descriptions of the beauty of nature serving as a foil against the horror of his creation. He encounters the Wretch, and reacts with an unreciprocated hate and fear:

“Devil,” I exclaimed, “do you dare approach me? And do not you fear the fierce vengeance of my arm wreaked on your miserable head? Begone, vile insect! Or rather, stay, that I may trample you to dust! And, oh! That I could, with the extinction of your miserable existence, restore those victims whom you have so diabolically murdered!”

“I expected this reception,” said the dæmon. “All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life? Do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends.”

The Wretch tells his tale of how he spent the intervening months. He is introspective, and sensitive. Teaching himself first how to survive in the forest alone, scared of the reactions of villagers to his ungainly form, he next forms a sort of parasocial relationship with a family of cottagers. By watching them from afar, he learns of companionship and society, and recognizes that the sadness in himself is loneliness. His attempt to form a real relationship with them fails, and he is driven out. He by chance encounters a drowning woman and saves her life, only to be shot by her partner. Despairing of ever finding a home in society, the Wretch resolves to ask his creator for a mate—in a monologue that is uncomfortably reminiscent of incels.

I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create. (...)

I am content to reason with you. I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind? You, my creator, would tear me to pieces and triumph; remember that, and tell me why I should pity man more than he pities me? (...) I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear, and chiefly towards you my arch-enemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. (...)

What I ask of you is reasonable and moderate; I demand a creature of another sex, but as hideous as myself; the gratification is small, but it is all that I can receive, and it shall content me. It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another. Our lives will not be happy, but they will be harmless and free from the misery I now feel. Oh! My creator, make me happy; let me feel gratitude towards you for one benefit! Let me see that I excite the sympathy of some existing thing; do not deny me my request!

Frankenstein begins to make a female companion for the Wretch, but worries about the possible consequences of enabling procreation of a new race of Wretches.

[Y]et one of the first results of those sympathies for which the dæmon thirsted would be children, and a race of devils would be propagated upon the earth who might make the very existence of the species of man a condition precarious and full of terror. Had I right, for my own benefit, to inflict this curse upon everlasting generations?

He decides to destroy all progress he has made on the female companion, and making good on his threat, the Wretch responds by murdering Frankenstein's best friend (also noted to have excellent nursing credentials), and Frankenstein's sister-slash-wife—on their honeymoon, no less.

Frankenstein realizes the only way to end the horror is to kill his creation, and he chases the Wretch across the Arctic. The two form a sort of odd adversarial intimacy in their chase, the Wretch leaving messages and food behind for his creator to consider and consume. At the brink of death from exhaustion, Frankenstein is picked up by the self-absorbed, self-important Captain Walton, whose letters to his sister form an epistolary framing device for the novel. Frankenstein dies onboard the ship, but not before first chiding the sailors in wanting to give up and go home rather than pursue their scientific dreams, and not before making it quite clear that he felt he had done no wrong in any way since the creation of the Wretch:

In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature and was bound towards him to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty, but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature. He showed unparalleled malignity and selfishness in evil; he destroyed my friends; he devoted to destruction beings who possessed exquisite sensations, happiness, and wisdom; nor do I know where this thirst for vengeance may end.

The Wretch sneaks on board the ship to gaze upon Frankenstein's corpse, then with this closure achieved, disappears into the night.

“I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace, or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.” 

He sprang from the cabin-window as he said this, upon the ice raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

What I loved most about the book was its comfort in straying from realism. No explanation of the science behind Frankenstein's creation was offered. The Wretch's experience learning about humanity and society was completely implausible from a practical standpoint. And this rejection of the need to explain minutiae allowed for much more interesting introspection and exploration of themes.

However—I feel the themes were a little murky, or perhaps they just didn't ring true for me. Frankenstein is an ambitious, confident, solitary genius who views himself as the sole person who can make ethical decisions about his product despite its societal ramifications, and who views others as being incapable of understanding his advances. This archetype feels familiar in 21st century Silicon Valley. But Shelley presents Frankenstein's fatal flaw as having played with creating life in a quest for knowledge, as opposed to refusing to seek help or advice from others. This is evident in Frankenstein's insistence on his deathbed that he "did right" in his decisions. It is a darker view of scientific progress than one I espouse; I think all areas of Science can be developed, provided we carefully assess and publicly debate the social ramifications. 

Which brings us to Frankenstein's second hamartia: his inability to recognize his Wretch as a human with emotional and social needs. Relative to the Promethean theme, this one hasn't seeped as much into the popular conception of Frankenstein. This theme, too, feels very relevant today; current debates on social ramifications of technology include the dehumanization of Amazon fulfillment center workers, the insistence that gig economy companies will finally become profitable as soon as we can automate away those pesky human gig workers, and the omission of human impacts (or indeed, playful delight in adverse impacts) when optimizing social media Key Performance Indicators. However, I felt that the way this theme was explored itself ironically neglected the humanity of the Wretch. The Wretch was abused and traumatized and socially isolated, and so he had no hope but to become a murderer and then kill himself? A depressing attitude towards survivors of difficult childhoods.

I could envision a satisfying script doctoring in which Frankenstein confides in Elizabeth, and although Frankenstein dies, refusing to ever acknowledge the Wretch's humanity and potential for redemption, Elizabeth reaches out to the Wretch and together with Frankenstein Sr. supports him in his introduction to society. This ending would also provide a very welcome opportunity for a female character to do anything other than display purity and virtuousness and then die.

I enjoyed the dramatic, elaborate prose. Although at times I felt that the author believed the word count used must be proportional to the emotional turmoil described, overall I had a lot of fun with the unironic melodrama. I would love to see a Frankenstein-themed black metal album.

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Review: The White Castle by Orhan Pamuk

I picked up this book because I thought it would be interesting to read some literature from a non-Anglo/Northern European author, and because the audiobook was available from my library. I was caught quite by surprise by the role the plague played in this book - what timing to read it during the coronavirus pandemic. It was a little uncanny to see concerns of social distancing/contagious disease play out, written from the 1980s and set in the 1600s yet read in 2020: people anxiously following social distancing norms, other people decrying the whole thing as a hoax, others frantically trying to trace down all data they could in hopes of understanding the disease, the strange love and resentment that builds from being cooped up so closely with another person, the fear of a second wave, the concerns about economic collapse if the markets are not re-opened...

The White Castle reminded me of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in that it was chiefly about a relationship between two men, that ranges from a hierarchical relationship, to one of collaboration and productive research, to an antagonistic relationship. Jonathan Strange does go through his "candles in heads" phase of madness and The White Castle's Hoja goes through a similar "why am I who I am" search. However what I love so much about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the dry sense of humor, the strange fantasy world, and the absurdity of some parts. The White Castle lacked these elements. Further, there are ways I worry I am like Mr Norrell, ways I wish I was more like Jonathan Strange, and parts of Jonathan Strange I see in myself. Except for a drive to understand myself, and an appreciation for science, I didn't really identify with the narrator nor with Hoja. Because the story was so driven by character arcs and so little by plot, I think this diminished my enjoyment of the book.

The question of identity at the end of the book was interesting. I think I like the interpretation better that it was the Italian man that returned to Italy. The actions of the "narrator" work better if carried out by Hoja (and indeed also the actions of the sovereign, who seemed to take great joy in understanding two men as independent and very different people, also suggest as much). It doesn't make sense to me that the Italian man would seek company in a slave.

The pace was meditative, but not tediously slow. It was a relaxing read, if not gripping.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Review: Black Against Empire by Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin

Black Against Empire is well researched and approachable as an introduction to the Black Panthers. As implied by the full title (Black against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party), it is very much a detailed history of the organization - there is little examination of the philosophy of the organization. The prose is a little functional - unlike, for example, Race, Women and Class, there are no particularly memorable or inspiring or emotionally wrenching passages. The authors aim to inform, not to incite. I think for these reasons, it serves as a good introduction or supplement. But as far as a call to action, or even really understanding what the Panthers were fighting for, it works best in the context of other readings particularly those that form the philosophical basis of the Panther party, like those by Malcolm X or Mao or Marx.

Still, the authors make a compelling case that the unprecedented political power of the Panthers relied on both their revolutionary tactics of armed self-defense against state oppression and the receptive political context of anti-war activism. They also clearly present how social movements gain power and build community, how the State targets social movements, and how social movements splinter.

The authors conclude:

No revolutionary movement of political significance will gain a foothold in the United States again until a group of revolutionaries develops insurgent practices that seize the political imagination of a large segment of the people and successively draw support from other constituencies, creating a broad insurgent alliance that is difficult to repress or appease. This has not happened in the United States since the heyday of the Black Panther Party and may not happen again for a very long time.

At times during the summer of 2020, in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter protests after the police killing of George Floyd it seemed like perhaps the frustrated, pandemic-stricken public's imagination was seized to create this broad alliance. But now, nearly a year out, change seems incremental particularly relative to the change effected during the ~2 year period described in Black Against Empire. I feel like perhaps the recipe for success is therefore even more complicated than that presented by the authors, a daunting prospect.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Review: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

Science fiction "First Contact" stories typically have two main threads: how do we define humanity or consciousness, and how would we politically respond to the discovery of a new intelligent race? When I picked up The Three-Body Problem, I had just finished The Left Hand Of Darkness, also a First Contact story, and although the theme was unintentional, the contrast was interesting. In The Left Hand of Darkness, gender is alien, and the main thread is the first type: what is it like to be human without gender? The main character's difficulty in adapting to this notion and his ingrained misogyny results in political difficulty in his diplomatic response.

The Three-Body Problem emphasizes the second thread: how would we respond to the discovery of a new race? It presented some new (to me, at least!) speculations: what if the first people to discover the existence of aliens were so despairing of humanity that they wanted humans to lose against an invading force? Having read a few books about the development of social movements recently, I got a bit of a kick seeing the author muse about the development of the Adventists versus the Reformist factions within this Earth Trisolaris Organization (ETO). Conversely, ironically, the first alien to learn of intelligent life on Earth was a pacifist who realized the best outcome for him or her personally would be to continue to eke out a meager existence at their watch post, and desperately warned Earth that to respond would likely be to bring on its own destruction.

Although this second strand was emphasized, there was a little of the first thread. The final reveal is that despite establishing continued contact with the ETO, the aliens view humans as insects: small beings to be quashed so that the Trisolaris people can survive. The main villain of the novel's climax decries humans' sense of superiority over other races:

Why does one have to save people to be considered a hero? Why is saving other species considered insignificant? Who gave humans such high honors? No, humans do not need saving. They’re already living much better than they deserve.

But it all felt a little hollow: all the characters were just paper cut-outs placed on a table, so that the author could present these ideas. There was no love, no warmth, no joy, no celebration of the things humans create or achieve outside of their scientific discoveries, no one to care about. Family members were introduced, then forgotten about or killed off when convenient. Even the main character was little more than a camera through which the reader could watch these ideas be discussed, the time to the end of the novel ticking down in the corner of their vision. Given this vantage point, I felt as indifferent towards mankind as the ETO Adventists.

I was disappointed! As the first Chinese novel I've read, it was a new perspective for me (although you might not guess it, with the American military swooping in at the end to defeat the villain, and the prominence of Western scientists). Indeed, the story started strong, hooking me with some fun mysteries. What was Red Coast Station really for? What was the timer Wang saw ticking down to? What caused the unusual, unpredictable chaos/stable cycles in the alien world? How can two photons block scientific progress? But I felt robbed of the joy of these discoveries. Wang's solution of the chaos/stable cycles was simply presented with no build to how he figured it out. The timer was just a psychological attack. The photon unfolding system was hypothesized by Shi Qiang with no explanation of why he would have any idea what subatomic particles might look like when unfolded, and the reveal of how they were unfolded is simply presented, without space for the protagonists to react. 

Outside of the mostly fascinating virtual reality sequences set in a fictionalized version of Trisolaris, the main camera character just bounces from Quest Giver to Quest Giver, with answers and questions presented to him. Join this organization. Watch microwaves at this time. Look at the sky with these goggles. Go visit this old lady. Ahh, are things confusing? Why don't you get drunk then take a nap. It was like watching someone play a science fiction Skyrim with a slightly better story.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: My Brilliant Friend & the rest of the Neopolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

I almost gave up on the first book of the series about ten percent of the way in. It starts slow: character sketches of Neapolitans. This man was a fascist, was feared by the neighbourhood, and made his money on the black market. This woman loved a married man and went crazy when he left her. The stories were all so disconnected, and I didn't get the sense that I "got" the characters. The language was simple. The story-telling was straightforward and yet so incredibly detailed. Sometimes I wondered why they mattered at all. How could this exegesis on a single elementary school exam possibly be so important that the narrator dedicates this many pages to it? I continued reading only because I had the audiobook, and the meditative cadence suited my mood on a late-night run.

I'm so glad I finished the first book. I'd intended this review to be a review of only the first instalment, My Brilliant Friend, but I devoured the next three novels over just a few weeks, and when I tried to type up my thoughts, I realized it didn't make sense to review My Brilliant Friend as a standalone novel. The series is very much one single story - indeed the first and second book both end on the very same days their sequels start. 

In a way, I felt like this story makes many other tales about the inheritance of trauma obsolete. Through Elena Grecco's own experience as a novelist, we learn that if you haven't done the work to understand people, and the way their environment and their choices influence their lives, it's just exploitative or navel gazy or moralizing or posturing as worldly. Formative experiences can't be captured in a few flashback scenes - how people recover or respond to their hurt, and how they come to understand the ways they've been hurt, is often as impactful for how a character is shaped.

The story was a perfect character study of the two women. On the one hand I feel like I have never read a novel that so perfectly captures what it feels like to be me before. Elena's thought patterns, particularly her self criticizing, her admiration of her role models, and her introspection, were so like my own. It felt almost intrusive. I've felt the same complicated pull of wanting to leave home and explore the world, then, having left, wanting to return. I've also felt dazzled by a room full of smart people talking about enticing politics ideas. I've felt the same type of love for a friend - admiration, but also competition. I felt uncomfortably betrayed when Lenu began her affair with Nino; he was so obviously a jerk and not worth her affections, and I would never do this. At one point, Lenu asks herself if she was just another woman to him, and would be strung along (or something to that affect) and I, in my frustrating screamed exasperatedly "yes!!" - this elicited a surprised look from the person I passed on my run.

On the other hand, I feel like there's a paradoxical sort of lesson here: that it is impossible to adequately portray the fullness of a human being using words on a page. Lila is painted through Lenu's eyes, somehow so real, and yet also unknowable. 

I loved the political threads. The union-building plot at Lila's sausage factory was a stand out arc. I particularly loved that politics was woven throughout, a constant backdrop in conversations and decisions and relationships. It felt very real. I wondered a little what the author's persuasions are - socialist/communist I think, but she plays a little coy about how she envisions it fitting into the world outside of a disapproval of guerrilla violence and assassination, I think.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

It's impressive that a book written fifty years ago (1969) still seems to have fresh ideas to examine about gender identity and gender dynamics. Gender and sexuality was a key theme of a lot of media I grew up on: Friends (1994-2004), Sex and the City (1998-2004), How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). These shows are hard to watch now; it is cringe-inducing how many jokes in Friends have the punchline of "a man did something stereotypically feminine." Even in more recent media that discuss gender identity, such as Orange is the New Black (2013-2019), the conversation starts premised on the idea that the social construct of gender exists and will always exist.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, we explore a world where the very concept of gender is literally alien. In Gethen, the humans are ambisexual, sometimes taking the male role in reproduction and sometimes taking the female role. Genly Ai, the alien envoy to Gethen from the rest of the human race, is a man who grew up steeped in the sometimes toxic social constructs of gender dynamics, and isn't able to recognize the bias he brings to his ambassadorial attempts. The people of Gethen call him a 'pervert' because he is always fertile and always in a male form, but even this term doesn't have quite the same amount of negativity as it would in our world. They're suspicious of him from a political view, but overall quite accepting of his physical differences. The people of Gethen make social mistakes too but they are in assuming that he has the same concept of honor and shame as their own.

I loved this exploration of a gender-free society, and the implications this has for social organization. If anything, I wish we saw a little more of it. Fewer political dinners, more Genly hanging out with the common folk, particularly with Gethenians in stereotypically womenly positions. I found the choice to use male pronouns for all the Gethenians to be a little odd; it isn't simply Genly imposing male identities, Estraven uses these too. (Although, I suppose, it is Genly translating Estraven's diary; perhaps there is a reasonable in-world explanation for this.)

Woven in with the commentary on gender, there are also meditations on nationalism and loyalty, and on "first contact" and how to approach it thoughtfully. For example, a single envoy is sent, which Genly realizes is not just because a single person is nonthreatening, but because if an envoy is sent with colleagues, there is always an "us" and a "them." When a person is sent alone, they must to some sense integrate into the social organization of the new world, and allow it to change them along the way.

I was lukewarm on the story itself until Estraven and Genly began their trek across the wild from the labour camp to Karhide. The story of the two people, both exiles and aliens in a sense, learning about each other and forming a friendship was beautifully told. Their intimate conversations in the tent about their experience of gender reminded me of similar conversations I've had with guy friends. I was a little heartbroken at Estraven's death. I was surprised that at the end Genly hadn't fully shed his own notions of gender norms. For example, he sees a young child that hes describes as looking feminine but remarks that no girl would be so untalkative. Perhaps the commentary here is that your social training is hard, if not impossible, to unlearn.

This is not to say the book aged perfectly. There was a line about how sex drive is necessary to be human (although it was the flawed Genly who posited this, I think). The use of male pronouns also seems a bit dated or odd. But overall, I thought it was an excellent read.