Meanwhile in Civilized Space

Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancilary Justice book cover

Ancillary Justice is an awesome book. I know I’m not the only person with that opinion because it won a Nebula Award and an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Instead of focusing much on the plot (although I will address the plot because it is good, too), I want to talk about what makes this novel interesting.

Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen also known as Breq is an ancillary. Ancillaries are human bodies that belong to a space ship. Ancillaries are mentally networked with their ship. Essentially, they are people with AI (artificial intelligence). Large ships, like Justice of Toren of which Breq was an ancillary, have multiple crews of ancillaries who work together to take care of the ship and support the human crew.

The plot hinges on the concept that an AI occupying multiple bodies can have conflicting opinions. Even though the AI’s bodies are technically all the same person, none of them really individuals, they can fragment. Breq belongs to a group of ancillaries called One Esk. Among many other campaigns, One Esk serves planetside during the annexation of another culture by the dominant civilization, the Radch. Events on the planet make One Esk realize that she does, perhaps, have the ability to hold internally conflicting opinions. Later, One Esk Nineteen is isolated from One Esk and Justice of Toren and she must adapt to acting individually.

That is the barest introduction to the story. I like the way AI works in this novel. Holding it together is the ancillary system, whose brutality is barely acknowledged by the Radchaai people. Radchaai seem to find it inappropriate to discuss what ancillaries are, insisting that they are not people, but equipment, part of the ship. Ancillaries used to be people themselves. It seems that most of the bodies ancillaries inhabit were formerly those of enemy combatants or citizens of the Radch who did not fit well into the social order. The origin of the ancillaries is not much discussed, but it does seem like the sort of horror that may be exposed in the series’ next book.

A lot of aspects of Radchaai civilization (this is a redundant phrase since in Radchaai, Radchaai means “civilized”), are like that: intensely brutal, but people work hard to ignore the brutality. The Radchaai people are relentless in annexing as many other civilizations as possible. The novel eventually reveals that the Radch are so focused on annexation because annexation drives the whole economy and the system of wealth acquisition for prominent families.

I appreciate the social structure in the Radch and the detail apparent in the way the culture works. It was different enough that it had a feeling of otherness, but many of the concepts were recognizable. The Radchaai structure themselves into family Houses, with certain families being particularly wealthy and prominent. These Houses participate in a kind of patronage system, called clientage in the book. Houses with less influence can be “clients” of weather houses. Of course, this kind of system puts poor people at a disadvantage, as ever. People with influence can get better placements in the military and are assumed to just be better people. People of “low” birth are at a major disadvantage in this system.

The Radchaai demonstrate their civility through outward symbolism. No Radchaai would be caught dead without gloves, for example. I like the idea of gloves as a marker of civilization, personally. They also make public displays of worship in temples, exchange pins and jewels to affix on their uniforms, and drink tea (like all civilized people in every era, clearly).

Radchaai pins, via

Ancillary Justice made me think about how I perceive gender when reading. In the Radchaai language, there is no gender binary. Everyone refers to others as “she.” Children are automatically daughters. Women are simply people. There are both men and women, of course, but the civilized Radchaai tongue does not acknowledge them as different. Neither are there explicit performative actions for femininity and masculinity; anyone can present themselves in any (socially acceptable) way. Gender presentation is not tied to propriety. When the protagonist is on a backwater world, she has to use the local language, which includes referring to people with the correct gender pronouns. Our protagonist, as an AI and former part of a ship, finds it difficult to distinguish male from female and she is at constant risk of offending others.

This un-gendering of everyone is awesome. I did not realize how strongly ingrained it was for me to see male as the default. When the author introduced a new character, I considered him to be male. There are a few biases here that made me assume everyone was male: this is a militaristic civilization (many of the main characters are lieutenants, captains, etc.) and much of the story takes place on space ships, which are also stereotypically a male thing. But when a character inevitably referred to other characters as “she,” my brain did a double take. I didn’t even realize I was imagining characters as male until I was confronted with the female pronoun. Of course, the way the novel is set up, any character could be a man (technically speaking), but that person is still referred to as a woman, and that is the civilized thing to do.

I applaud Leckie for writing a civilization that treats gender this way. Seeing how gender can be irrelevant is fascinating. Even though I am educated about many gender-related issues, I still have this male-default bias. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I hope to see more books that play with gender so skillfully. Ancillary Justice challenged assumptions I did not know I had.

What to read next:

  • It is not being released until October, but obviously my suggestions include the next book in the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Sword. You have four months to catch up. Get on it!

  • Want to read more about artificial intelligence (I do!). Try Our Final Invention by James Barrat. This is a non-fiction book about the coming-soon technologies leading to AI.

  • Somewhat unrelated, but I read this recently and liked it: Lexicon: A Novel by Max Barry. This novel does not challenge the linguistics of gender like Ancillary Justice does, but language and how it is used drives the plot. It was an interesting read and I recommend it.

How to Give Good Interview: A Post That Goes Beyond Getting Dressed

Today, a friend told me that her 18-year-old daughter wanted my advice for job interviews. My knee-jerk response was “Why does anyone want my advice?” Then I remembered that I have interviewed a ridiculous amount of times in the last few years. Hence, I write this post.

This afternoon, I clicked one of LinkedIn’s many clickbait articles about job interviewing. I always want new advice about interviewing because it was difficult for me to learn how to interview well. It frustrates me that most interview tip articles read something like “Wear clothes! Know where things are! Don’t offend people at the office!” These tips are insulting. Of course you should know where you’re going before you go there. Yes, you should wear appropriate clothes. Do people not know this? There are literally thousands of articles about this. We can move past telling people to dress appropriately for job interviews.

Interviewing is a skill. It is a skill that you learn. Like most skills, you improve by practicing. The year I got my first teaching job, I went on approximately 15 interviews. It might have been as many as 20. I lost count. The next summer was more of the same: I went on a lot of teaching interviews and some State of California job interviews too. Now I interview for all kinds of jobs. I am definitely positioning myself in librarianship and writing, but you never know who might be interested in what you have to offer.

You can prepare for interviews. An interview is not a spontaneous presentation. It is not a test of quick thinking and wit.  When I realized that I could prepare for interviews, my strategy changed completely. I used to show up for interviews hoping that it would not be horrible, thinking there was not really anything I could do to prevent it from being awful. Now, I show up for interviews ready for battle.

Before we continue, I have to admit something: interviewing is hard. It is hard emotionally. After an interview I am tired. I analyze the things I said and the things I did not say. I usually schedule interviews such that I don’t need to return to work after. I spend the time afterwards sleeping, playing video games, and eating baked goods.

The preamble is over. This is what I do when I have an interview.

Phase 1: Preparation

Analyze the Job Description

Knowing the job description is the most important factor for interview success. The most common opening question in an interview, in my experience, is “Describe your education and experience as it relates to this position.” If you know what is in the description, it is much easier to answer this question.

If your English teachers ever made you annotate a text, recall those skills now. Print out the job description. Yes, print it, like physically on paper. Get your hands on that job description! As a former English teacher myself, I go over mine in red pen, but you can use a rainbow marker or whatever makes you happy. Get ready to mark this business up.

Read the job description. I underline key things like what they want me to do in

the job. I circle skills they want. In the margins, I write a one- or two-word note about what I did or learned related to this. If the description mentions “presentations” I make a note like “teaching.” If it says “MySQL” I write “MLIS classes, Stanford MOOC” because I took a database management class and a MySQL/PHP class during my MLIS (masters in library and information science) and I did a MOOC (massive, open, online course) from Stanford University called Introduction to Databases. Sometimes I don’t have a good note, but I can mark something so I can think about it later. Go through the whole description making notes.

Start Your Notes

When I make notes for an interview, I usually write on paper because I remember what I write better than what I type. However, typed notes are neater and can be easier to read in an interview. If you have bad handwriting, try writing your notes first and then type them later. Then go learn how to write properly!

I start my notes by writing what kinds of tasks a person in the job has to do and what information a person in the job needs to know. For an example, I did a screening interview for a technical writing job today. According to the job description, the employee needs to:

  • Learn the product.
  • Write product descriptions.
  • Define standards.
  • Interview SMEs (subject matter experts).

And the employee needs to know or have:

  • Analytical skills.

  • Strong communication skills.

  • PHP, MySQL, C++, or Perl.

That is an abbreviated list, but hopefully you get the point.

Research the Company

This part can be the trickiest, depending on what the company is. I have interviewed at a lot of public agencies (schools, libraries), which have a lot of easy-to-locate information online. If you are searching for a privately-owned company, this is more difficult. Some things you want to know because they help you frame your responses (think mission or vision statements) and some things you want to know so you can understand what you might be getting yourself into. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of the types of things to look up:

  • Mission and vision statements: You want to know what the organization’s goal is. This seems like a straightforward concept, but there is a lot of variance. A school’s mission, for example, is generally to educate people, but the mission statement might include something about fostering diversity, creating life-long learners, or preparing students for college. Whatever the things are, you should talk about them. Work them into your responses when interviewers ask why you want to work there.

  • Strategic plan: Where is this organization heading? What are its specific goals? The strategic plan tells you this. Again, strategic plans are usually online for public agencies. They may not be online for private agencies. I have found strategic plans to be helpful when preparing for library interviews, in particular.

  • People: Who works here? This is where a LinkedIn account is handy. I look up people doing the job I want to do at the organization and look at their LinkedIn page. Try not to look at their LinkedIn page more than once or twice because LinkedIn tells people how often you look at them. You don’t want to look like a stalker (I worry about this. I’m not sure if others really care). If you can, look for blogs written by the employees. You might not find exactly the people who you end up facing in an interview. That’s okay. This research can give you an idea of the type of people who work at a place. It can help you decide if you think the organization is a good fit for you.

  • Blogs and social media: What does this company say about itself? They almost certainly have a blog. They probably have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, and maybe even a Pinterest or YouTube channel, depending on the field. Read the blog. How does this company portray itself? Reflect those values back to the people interviewing you. It will make you look like a good match for the company.

  • Glassdoor and related sites: I like to check Glassdoor when I prepare for an interview. Glassdoor does not have data on every organization, but it can help you figure out how much people get paid. There are sometimes reviews of the company by employees. Remember that people tend to review only when they are really impressed or really distressed. Consider the reviews, but do not take them too seriously. File them away in your brain. If you see any warning signs in your interview that the organization is as bad as people say, feel free to run in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

Research the Job

You will not be the first person in the history of the internet to interview for your type of job. Use the internet. What is the job title? Google “Interview questions for [job title].” I searched for “interview questions for technical writers” and found a ton of pages full of questions. This can be overwhelming. My advice is to skim the questions and think about the kind of answer you would give. I don’t write answers to everything because I take writing too seriously and I overdo it if I write practice answers, but I do put a few sentences together in my head and then say them out-loud. This helps me remember what I want to say and it keeps me from stumbling over the words in an interview.

There are way more potential questions than there are questions employers actually ask. Think about your specific job and what they are likely to ask (note: guessing accurately takes practice and you will still be wrong most of the time). Also consider some common, general interview questions. One I like to be ready for is the “What are your greatest strengths/weaknesses?” It is difficult for me to answer this question spontaneously. My real greatest weaknesses are not something I want to tell an employer (reveal nothing to the enemy!). I like to be ready with things that are true but not crushingly accurate. It’s also a good idea to discuss how you overcome your weakness when you answer this question. I usually go with noisy environments and perfectionism as my problems. For noise, I say that it is hard to work in a noisy environment, but I get around this by wearing my headphones or sometimes even earplugs. For perfectionism, I say that it can be hard for me to get started writing or to finish something because I want to do so much research to be sure I have not missed anything. I solve this problem by setting a strict project schedule, moving on when I know approximately 80% of what I need to know. Your answer to this question should be personal, but know that it isn’t cheating to have something in mind in advance.

Finish Your Notes

Now that you are done with your research, you can finish your notes. I list the stuff I need to do and stuff I need to know for the job and next to those things I write something to remind me what to say. I also note the basics of the mission and vision statement, strategic plan, or any other relevant organization-related concepts. Don’t get too crazy with this. I keep my notes to one or two (hand-written) pages at most.

I sometimes write a list of “talking points” in my notes. This is a spot where I note anything that I think I should focus on or bring up in my interview that is not necessarily related to the job description. My talking points are usually based on what I find in the mission statement or strategic plan. For example, if a strategic plan mentions that the organization is updating its policy handbook, I would mention that I am studying technical writing and just finished a class on policy and procedure writing. This is something that might not come up in the course of, say, a librarian interview, but I would want to point out because it is a skill they probably want and can use.

Make sure your notes look decent. You will be sitting at a table with the interview panel. They can see your notes. If you have drawings of weird things or anything unprofessional, they will notice it. Type your notes if you need that to have things look tidy and don’t scribble on them!

Phase 2: Interview


Try to take some time to relax before you head to the interview. Listen to some upbeat music, play a video game, go for a run. Do something that makes you calm. I don’t think I need to tell you what to wear or to show up on time. However, be aware of what you take into an interview. You don’t need a big purse or backpack. I take a folder or notebook (I have this folder from Staples) with my notes in it, three or more copies of my most recent resume, and a pen. Do not bring your phone. Leave your phone in your car. Personally, I do not want a potential employer to see my on my phone first thing when they walk into wherever it is I’m waiting for them. Spend the time in between when you arrive and when they summon you to review your notes and practice saying things in your head.

The Actual Interview

Interview! It is upon you! Shake hands with everyone and say things like “It’s nice to meet you.” I am not good at pleasantries, so I stick with the basics. After everyone sits down, hand the people interviewing you a copy of your resume. I say something like “Before we get started, here is an updated copy of my resume.” Just keep it simple.

They will ask you questions. In my opinion, the best interviews are when they provide a list of the questions. It is a lot easier for me understand questions that I read than questions that I hear. It is okay to ask the panel to repeat questions! You can ask for them to repeat it whether you really need it or if you just want some time to think.

One of the best realizations I made about interviewing is that you do not have to say everything perfectly if you know when to stop yourself. When I start answering questions I want to say a lot. If I feel like I am getting off track when answering a question, I stop myself and say, “I feel like I’ve gotten off track. Can you repeat the question?” It’s okay to do this. I think it looks good when you have the self-awareness to know when you’re not really addressing the issue anymore. I have not received any negative responses when doing this. I do not recommend using this strategy for every question, but if you do it two or three times, that is okay.

Your Questions

After the panel is finished with their questions, they ask if you have any questions for them. You should always have questions ready. This is something you can research in advance. I have some questions that I use in most interviews because there are certain things I want to know about. My questions usually include:

  • How do you train new employees?

  • Tell me about the organizational culture here.

  • What is your management style (especially good if they asked you about what type of manager you work well with)?

  • How do you see this position developing over the next few years?

  • What do you do to support professional development?

  • What does success look like in this position?
  • What is your first priority or the first project you want done by a new employee in this position?

Asking questions is important not because you care about the answers (you probably do though), but because it gives you more chances to respond. Take the management style question. If the manager’s style is different than what you said you like, you can take some time to clarify. You can explain how you would work with this manager. Interviews are a process. Both parties want to know more about each other. You have to look for places where you fit in. You cannot passively let others decide you are a good choice.

After you finish your questions, you need to ask one more to close the interview. There are several ways to phrase this, but you want to ask something resembling, “Based on what we discussed, do you have any concerns about my ability to do this job?” This gives you one last chance to make an impression. Going into an interview, you probably know what your weak points are. For me, I know that a lack of experience in the field is my worst thing, so I expect an interview panel to say they are worried about my lack of experience. They could say anything though, so be ready. If they have a concern, explain why it is not a problem and why you are great anyway. Tell them how you will overcome it and why you are worth hiring.

Finally, say thank you to everyone one more time. Tell them that you are really interested in the job and you hope they will choose you. If you didn’t already, ask when they expect to contact you with their decision. Try to get at least one person’s name or business card on the way out so you have someone to contact with questions later.

Phase 3: Decompression


After the interview, get some lunch (or whatever meal you’re on), go home, and relax in whatever way suits you. Interviews are draining as hell, so you should take the rest of the day off and not feel bad for doing it.

Follow Up

The next morning, send an email to the manager or contact person. Remember that business card you maybe grabbed on the way out? Use that to get in touch with someone. In your email:

  • Say that you appreciate that everyone took the time to talk with you.

  • Reiterate your interest in the position.

  • Ask if there is anything else they need from you. I typically offer more writing samples. What you suggest varies based on your field.

Forget Everything

I say this because I do not want you to go crazy. I go over everything in my brain after an interview, but after a day or so of that, I try not to think about it. There is no guarantee that anyone will call you or even send you a rejection letter (I know, it’s incredibly gauche). I assume that if I have not heard anything in a week, I will probably not hear anything ever. Do not maintain high hopes for long periods of time. This results in sadness.

The End

There you have it. My comprehensive guide to interviewing. I am sure there are other strategies, but I find this to be effective. I welcome questions and constructive criticism.

58 Days Later

Book Review: Notes from the Internet Apocalypse: A Novel by Wayne Gladstone


book cover
Cover: Notes from the Internet Apocalypse

Notes from the Internet Apocalypse is the diary of one man who chronicles the worst thing that could ever happen: the internet ceases to exist. Gladstone—both the author and the narrator, who goes by Gladstone—intermittently chronicles the first 58 days of post-internet society as it grapples with various stages of grief. The novel is amusing for people like me who spend a lot of time, perhaps too much time, online (presumably the intended audience). Even though it was an easy, entertaining read, it did get me thinking some deeper thoughts.

Gladstone (the author) wrote the story as an alternate-reality version of himself in which he is not a columnist for Cracked, but works for the State of New York (bureaucracy time—I feel for ya, Gladstone!). Gladstone uses two characters to represent the facets of himself, the eponymous Gladstone, and Gladstone’s friend Tobey who spends his time writing fart jokes for the internet. Gladstone (the narrator) starts taking notes in earnest on the state of things approximately a week into the so-called apocalypse, right around when people start getting really desperate for something to masturbate to. In fact, Gladstone depicts the stages of grief, starting with denial (everyone frantically slamming ctrl+alt+delete), but not quite reaching acceptance.

To cope with the new reality of a de-networked existence, bands of “zombies” take to the streets, forming circles based on their former affiliations—Digg, Reddit, YouTube, etc. 4Chan plays a role in the story as well, both through their group headquarters and, indirectly, in the Rule 34 Club (if you don’t know what “Rule 34” is, I do not recommend you Google it if you don’t want to find porn).

The plot of the story centers on Gladstone’s attempts to find out what happened to the internet. He ventures forth with Tobey and they find Oz, manic pixie dream girl and former camgirl who made money by streaming video of herself in the shower. As I write this, it sounds like everything in the story is porn-related. The book isn’t that sex-centric, but it does acknowledge the reality that it the internet is … an outlet for many people.

Over the course of the narrative, Gladstone also deals with the loss of his wife Romaya.

This is the paragraph with serious spoilers, if you care about such things. Romaya is, it seems to the reader, dead, but it is later hinted that she perhaps left due to Gladstone’s inability to do anything interesting, thanks to the internet paralysis that is so common among modern humans. This aspect of the story is actually what makes the narrative compelling. The story is punctuated with flashbacks to the at-times idyllic past between Gladstone and Romaya. The reader learns that the couple wanted to have a baby, but were unable to do so; Romaya had several miscarrages. The novel’s climax happens when, spurred by a memory of Romaya, Gladstone climbs to the top of the Statue of Liberty and confronts himself. At this point, the reader wonders whether the internet apocalypse is real, or a psychotic break as is suggested by several aspects of the narrative. I, for one, appreciate the psychotic break theory of the novel because it puts a personal tragedy on the level of a worldwide catastrophe. Basically, this book is like Gladstone saying “my wife left me and it hurts so bad that it feels like there is no more internet.” On its own, that sentence wouldn’t be that powerful, but backed by 212 pages of the written word, I get the picture.

I liked that this book outlined the world conditions well. Only the internet is gone. Computers still work, there is still television and everything else. The world is simply without networking abilities. It’s almost like it’s the early 1990’s, except you have a whole generation of people who have no idea what life is like without the net and at least two other generations who have forgotten how to live without it. Of course, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse made me think about life without the internet, as terrifying as that is (side note: when I picked up this book, I thought it might be more of a campy horror story, but I was wrong). On the one hand, I would be distraught without the internet because I rely on it for my job search, finding stuff out, disseminating my opinions in blog form, and putting holds on more library books than I can possibly finish before they are due. I also use the internet for a lot of shit though, like many people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with binge-watching Netflix, reading Reddit all day, or whatever your version of using the internet looks like. The trouble is that when we do this all the time, we can lose touch with business that actually matters.

Spending too much useless time online has been something I’ve been thinking about over the last few months, which is probably why I appreciated the message of the book. I have been trying to get in the habit of quitting my computer when I’m not actually doing anything. I remind myself that going through page after page of Reddit is not doing anything for my life. I at least force myself to make the conscious decision to vegetate online or go do something else. I’m not saying that we should all quit the internet, but I think there is something to be said for conscientiously choosing what to look at and how long to look when it comes to the web.

In short, this book is a light read and fairly entertaining. It had a number of good quips like the day eight comment that “Most offices are back in session, relying on faxes, phone calls, and the realization that 50 percent of all e-mails never need to be sent.” As someone working in an office right now: AMEN. Another piece of wisdom: “Trying to make a point online is like playing a game of telephone with fifty friends. All of whom are deaf. And neurologically impaired.” I liked that there was an undercurrent of philosophy to it. I recommend it to people looking for fun speculative fiction.

What to read next:

  • Since we endured a world without internets, I will suggest its opposite: cyberpunk. The Otherland series by Tad Williams (book one: Otherland: City of Golden Shadow) is long—not Wheel of Time long, but definitely substantial—and describes the plight of a number of people in a virtual world. It’s pretty awesome. Tad Williams is one of my favorite authors.
  • Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum is a non-fiction book that describes the history of the internet and goes into how it works. Let’s get some perspective on our internet-having world.
  • The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr also deals with the internet’s effects on modern life. I reviewed it last year (almost exactly a year ago, now that I look at it). While I didn’t agree with all of it, I do think it was an interesting perspective.

Married to the Sea

Book Review: Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler

Sea Change book cover
Sea Change book cover

Sea Change is a delightfully written coming-of-age fairy tale, but the old school kind of fairy tale in which there is not really a happy ending and although everyone learns something about his or herself, no one is really better off than they were at the beginning of the story. What I’m trying to say is, this is my kind of fairy tale.

I finally got around to borrowing Sea Change from the library a few weeks ago. I greatly appreciate Wheeler’s writing style and I enjoyed the flow of story. Lilly, the protagonist, is raised by her merchant father and her formerly-giant-serpent-loving mother. Lilly’s best friend is a kraken. There is also a troll, witches, and bandits. If you’re not interested yet, your sense of fantasy may be defective. Schedule an appointment with your local librarian to set up a treatment regimen.

As I mentioned, this story is a fairy tale in the classic sense. Lilly, an only child, has had a lonely sort of childhood that seems to be unique to a certain class of protagonists and to people who never quite feel connected with the rest of humanity. Of course, in Lilly’s case, she is raised in a wealthy household and there are rumors that she is a witch. Lilly is not a witch, but she does spend much of her time by the sea, chilling with her kraken friend, Octavius (“Octavius? That’s a damned stupid name for a kraken,” grouses Lilly’s father. I find it an amusing name for a kraken, however.). Lilly is also witness to many parental fights in which her father accuses her mother of making him a cuckold. When Lilly’s mother is finally driven off by her father, a step-mother joins the family (bringing the hope of a son), and Lilly’s kraken goes missing, Lilly leaves the family home, beginning her quest to locate Octavius. Lilly’s life is mirrored by her mother’s teachings. It is mentioned that Lilly’s mother gave her “practical, frightening knowledge,” but did not tell her fairy stories until she was older, “in the reversal of the usual parental pattern.” Lilly sees a harsh childhood, only to follow it up with a heroic adolescence.

I am reluctant to give away too much of the story, but I do want to open a window into the magics used to propel the narrative. Lilly, seeking Octavius, trades her womanhood to a troll who offers her information. Octavius, we learn, had been captured and was being held by a circus-owner and a witch. The cost of freeing Octavius is to bring the circus-owner a magical cloak. At this point, anyone who has read a few books or played a few video games can guess that one fetch-quest leads to another. Lilly bargains and works her way through the story until finally she can reclaim Octavius. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the reunion is bittersweet because people with magic are jerks.

Release the kraken.

The theme that stood out to me in this novel is that everyone must change, or to borrow the name of a certain webcomic, a lesson is learned, but the damage is irreversible. Lilly, of course, goes through the most drastic sea change in really every way possible. Her body is changed. She must learn to work—something she did not need to do growing up. Eventually, her mind is irrevocably altered as well. But it is not just Lilly who changes, her parents both make major changes: her mother by finally leaving and her father in a way that I will leave for the reader to find out. Lilly’s step-mother, Mary, we learn late in the story, also had to adapt to survive. Even Octavius and Lilly’s eventual sidekick Horace (a bit of an indulgence, but I will call Horace a sidekick) change. The root of storytelling is conflict, but I like that Sea Change also recognizes that major changes must be made for people to develop. The story also takes, in my view, a neutral tone towards change. Some books seem to argue that change has a positive or negative value, but it seems that in Sea Change, change simply is. Life continues heedless of the goals and wishes of humanity.

Sea Change is full of quality wordsmithery and is written in a style that does not resemble anything else I have read in a while. Wheeler is miserly with her words, but when she does lay down descriptions, they are wonderful and sometimes humorous. One of my favorite lines came from the story of Lilly’s mother and the giant serpent she loved. A woman in town is telling Lilly the story and she says, “’Against his cheek your mother leaned, saying whatever on says to the serpent that has stolen your heart.’” There is a lot of enjoyable language here. Another snippet I liked was the metaphor of “campfires too far off to reach on a cold night;” I will leave the context of this one a mystery for the reader, but I thought it was a beautiful way to render the concept.

Since Wheeler can be stingy with the words, I sometimes got the impression that I had skipped a paragraph and would need to re-read the preceding segment. This is not an indictment of Wheeler’s writing, but I will say that her style is different. I think that since the language used is so tight—Wheeler uses one word where other writers might use four—the reader has to pay attention and really value what words are used. I saw a review on LibraryThing in which the reviewer stated that s/he could not figure out what she didn’t like about the book, but there was something of the writing style that irked her. I would guess it was this. It took me nearly the whole book to put my finger on it. Personally, I find it a refreshing change, but I can see how others may not feel the same. For an example, of what I’m describing, consider the following passage:

“Lilly put the man out of her mind; words were on her tongue, but they were insufficient. She had become proficient at opening trousers since that first awkward fumbling on the slope of Three crones Mountains. She bared herself, asked ‘Are you still interested?’”

There is so much that is communicated in this short paragraph, but little is actually written.

Finally, and unrelated to the quality of the writing, I love the cover art for this book. The cover is actually what caught my eye in the first place. Now that I’ve read the book, I like how the cover manages to represent the work without falling on any of the contemporary clichés of book covers.

In any case, I do recommend this book, especially for people who enjoy fantasy or for people who are looking for a fresh writing style.

What to read next:

What to read next is a hard question here. This book seems unrelated to everything (I mean that in the best way), but I’ll attempt some suggestions.

  • Because probably everyone needs more kraken in their life, I suggest Kraken by China Miéville. Kraken, like Miévelles work usually does, has a certain other-worldliness. It’s a bit of an urban fantasy, there’s a strange cult, magics, and all that stuff you want from your fantasy books.
  • The Dresden Files is a series by Jim Butcher about a wizard in Chicago who does freelance and consulting detective work. I’ve read a few of these stories and I classify them as “popcorn” books (tasty and quickly consumed). Some of the same magical concepts in play in Sea Change show up in The Dresden Files. There are quite a few parallels between the one I just read, Grave Peril, and Sea Change.

A Special Request and a Long Rant: Coda

After the response I received to last week’s post, I feel I am obligated to pen some form of update.

First, I want to say that my network of friends/acquaintances/people who read my internet ramblings is pretty chill. When you post a piece that is emotionally honest like that, a lot of people respond to it. I know there are a lot of us who are in this job-seekers’ purgatory. I feel for all of you. I hope that we can collectively get out of this one day.

Second, I want to tell the rest of the story. As I had stated, it seemed that my workplace was jerking me around in regards to the matter of a full-time job. Their apparent lack of communicative acumen was too much for me. I almost didn’t even interview for the position, just out of disdain for the system. After I was done feeling miserable, I decided to go to war over it. I was mad that I was being treated this way. I studied up on some of the aspects of the new position. I decided I would give a damn good interview. I wanted to make it difficult for whomever they had decided to hire.

I interviewed on Friday morning. I thought I did a good job. I’ve probably been on more interviews in the last three years than most people have in their entire lives, so I do have a significant amount of practice and at this point. I typically give good interview. I closed my interview by asking if they had any concerns about my ability to fill the position. The response was a “no” delivered with zero hesitation. I found that odd, since I don’t really have any experience with the work of the position. I thought there would be some concern (there is always something). I left the interview unsure of how to interpret things. I knew I had done well, but I thought the final comment could either indicate that they had no reservations and intended to hire me, or they had no reservations and it didn’t matter because they were hiring someone else.

Two irons on stage
Searched for dramatic irony. The internet did not disappoint.

Well, with an almost predictable sense of dramatic irony, they offered me the full-time position that afternoon. Although, not until after telling me that it was a stressful position and that I would have a big learning curve. I’m not daunted by that. I accepted.

This is good because I’ll be making a little more money (I can pay off my student loans faster. Yay?) and I’ll be getting benefits (finally).

But as with basically any development that would be construed as positive by a normal human, I have some mixed feelings. I am glad I got the job because that means I can be a bit less stressed about my life. I question whether I really want to become entrenched in the State bureaucracy (spoiler alert: I don’t). A lot of people at work have been congratulating me on the new position, but that feels awkward to me. I don’t feel like I actually accomplished anything. I am still in the same classification. I convinced people they should let me work full-time, but a few of the administrators there had already been pulling for that anyway. In any case, it is more money and it is an opportunity to evaluate how I intend to move forward with the job search.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs plus WiFi
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and WiFi

So, in the ongoing quest to find a job that I actually like and that fulfills me in some way, here’s the current plan. I’m still applying to library jobs (obviously) and pursuing professional development opportunities when I find them. I’ve stopped applying to writing jobs, since they don’t seem to be taking me anywhere. However, this week I started classes for a technical writing certificate, which I am taking through the University of California, Riverside extension. I had been planning to do this since the beginning of the year. As my Plan C, I am still working at the State, and I’m planning to move up as rapidly as possible, assuming I stay there. After another six months, I can ascend to the next classification and make more money. I guess working for the State wouldn’t be the worst thing, assuming that I can get into something that is research- and writing-focused.

I know there are people who see moving up in my job as unequivocally a Good Thing. I get where they are coming from and I wish I could just let my brain calm down and see things that way too. I have this deep and abiding need to be true to my own sense of self. Anything less makes me feel like a sell-out. I really just want to be in a job where I can research and hook people up with information. I think that would be awesome.

So, there it is. I hope the fact that I got a full-time job does not diminish the righteous anger of the last post. My feelings were genuine and my exhaustion was real. In fact, I would say that I still feel that way about the job search in general, but those feelings have been somewhat mitigated for now.

In Which Time Travel Is the Hip, New Thing

Book Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (translated by Nick Caistor)

Cover for The Map of Time
Cover for The Map of Time

The Map of Time weaves together the stories of three 19th century London characters: a wealthy young man who loves a common prostitute, a woman who is certain she cannot enjoy life in the present, and a science fiction writer who becomes embroiled in a number of schemes. You see this? I’m practicing my gripping introductions.

I have this problem with novels in which I can never muster up the enthusiasm to write about the novels I think I’m going to write about. Then there are other novels which I have no intention of discussing that I am compelled to write about. The latter scenario is what happened with The Map of Time (and the former with The Golem and the Jinni, which I finished a week or two ago and have been contemplating since). I read The Map of Time without making a point of thinking deep thoughts about it; rather I allowed the florid Victorian prose to bear me along in its current.

For the first two sections of the novel, I was not enthralled. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Palma’s work, but neither was I especially focused on reading it—I had to renew my loan for it twice (the library is your friend, people) although that is partly because it is a pretty long book. But once I made it to the book’s third and final part, the story came together and things became significantly more interesting. The promised map of time was revealed. Time travel conventions were explored. Threads of the story were connected. Indeed, it was art.

One of the things that impressed me about The Map of Time is that Palma clearly has a strong knowledge of early science fiction and the late 19th century—the novel’s setting. One of the novel’s protagonists is, in fact, H.G. Wells himself (I don’t know if any of you watch Warehouse 13, but I always want to picture Wells as a woman now, thanks to the show’s influence. Helena!). It takes skill, and a certain amount of chutzpah, to write a real person into the story. I am no Wells aficionada, but it seemed accurate (if we are to believe Wikipedia) and I felt it was well done.

H.G. Wells writing
H. G. Wells, keeping it real

This is one of those stories that is really about writers being writerly. Wells is brought into time travel schemes—hoaxes really, but for the best of causes. In both, Wells’ supplicants are seeking closure for issues in their lives. And since time travel is in the cultural zeitgeist, they believe traveling through time can really solve their problems. Why would normal people believe in time travel? In the parallel universe of the story, a man name Gilliam Murphy has opened a time travel experience in which a form of performance art is staged to make people believe they have traveled through time. Coupled with the recent popularity of Well’s The Time Machine, people begin to think that, well, anything is possible. In any case, Wells resolves his problems through, of course, writing and story telling. One involves creating a believable story for a heartsick young man. Another involves an epistolary tale told between lovers. Finally, Wells gets his due as a main character in the last section. Letters are again involved. Wells also gets the opportunity to be the subject matter expert on time travel. I think writers love nothing more than the fantasy of writing saving lives and solving problems.

I also enjoyed the way the rules of time travel were applied in the story. In the first two sections of the story, it seems like time travel is probably just a scam. No one actually time travels, but scenarios are crafted such that a number of people believe that time travel is happening. The reader gets to be in on the secret. However, in the final episode, there really is time travel, but after a novel full of fakeries, the reader hardly wants to believe it. In the end, there is some good discussion of parallel universes and such like. I quite liked where the story ended up.

The last thing I want to comment on is the quality of the translation. The Map of Time was originally written in Spanish and was later translated to English. I obviously cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation, since I have not read the Spanish edition, but the spirit of the work is amazing. I am impressed at how well the translation captures the feel of the story’s period. I can only imagine what reading this in Spanish would feel like (that’s not true, I could go find the book and then I wouldn’t have to imagine. Dear reader, you know what I mean).

Okay, I am going to keep this review a little shorter than usual, but I do recommend this book if you like things like steampunk, alternate history, the rules and conventions of time travel, or just well-researched fiction.

What to read next:

  • The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma is the sequel to The Map of Time. It is apparently centered on Well’s The War of the Worlds in the way that The Map of Time is based around The Time Machine.
  • H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life by Michael Sherborne is a biography of Wells. Reading The Map of Time, I realized I did not know that much about Wells’ life.
  • Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer is an anthology of steampunk-themed stories. If you like the setting of The Map of Time and have realized that you want more steampunk in your life, this short story collection should get you going.

A Special Request and a Long Rant

On behalf of job-seekers everywhere, I would like to make a request. If someone you know is looking for work and describing to you the ongoing struggle involved in doing so, if you immediately have an idea, if you just know it would really help this person’s life …


Yes, don’t say it. Close your mouth. Listen. Think. I hear you thinking, “but my idea is so good! I just want to help.” We know. I know you just want to help, but here is the situation. There are a lot of people in my demographic who are in the trenches, so to speak, as I am. This is what I am going through, what I have gone through, and what I suppose, I will continue to go through (I know I am presumptuously making this request for job-seekers everywhere, but I will illustrate with my own life).

I quit teaching last February. I threw myself into the unwelcoming embrace of the economy. I started looking for work immediately. I applied for jobs in librarianship, in writing, in California’s state bureaucracy, in anything that looked remotely promising. I put out at least 500 applications, I estimate, in a six-month period. During this time, I finished my masters degree (I graduated last May) and I worked as a freelance writer, which ended up being a lot of effort for not a lot of money. I did some phone interviews here and there for writing jobs in Seattle. I went on probably a dozen interviews for state jobs. Inevitably, no one called back.

In July, I was offered an “intermittent” position in one of the many offices that comprise the State of California. Intermittent jobs are essentially part-time. You can work 1,500 over the course of the fiscal year (July to June). For comparison, the state defines a full-time “year” of work at 1,920 hours. I didn’t want to take the job. I took it anyway because trying to hustle up writing clients was more exhausting that I had expected, no fairy godmother of librarianship had appeared to me to turn me into a real librarian, and the due date for my student loans was looming.

Hermes Conrad, bureaucrat in
It’s bureaucracy time.

I started working for the State. I didn’t (and still don’t) have health insurance because when you’re intermittent, you don’t qualify for insurance until you work a certain number of hours (I could qualify now but I have been informed that it is “hella expensive.”). I eased up somewhat on the job applications. This was partly due to exhaustion and partly due to a prospect. I had been invited to interview at the University of Virginia Library for an excellent librarian position. I spent time preparing myself for the interview and presentation. I was somewhat optimistic.

Predictably, I did not get the UVa job. I spent a month being reluctant to apply for things and make a real effort, but soon after I traveled to Seattle to interview for the librarian pool at the Seattle Public Library. I was accepted. I have since received approximately two notifications of open jobs. I have not been asked to interview for either. Sometime amid all this I also interviewed at the California State Library. Within a week, I received a letter saying I didn’t get the job. As is common in state service, I suspect they already knew who they intended to hire.

Since I am creating a litany of job-market lamentations, I suppose it is only fair to include the one about New Mexico. I did a phone interview for a position at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. They called my references and decided they wanted to interview me in person. Only when my librarian mentor, Kathleen, told me that it was a paraprofessional position did I realize why I was seen as such a good candidate—and also why the pay was so low. I declined a second interview.

At this point, I re-evaluated my application carpet bombing strategy. I realized that I could not afford to take a job that paid less than $40,000 (or more than that, depending on the location). I also realized that I did not want to move somewhere that I would want to leave immediately because one day I would like to stop living like a gypsy, make friends where I live, and buy a house (in any order). I narrowed my parameters for job searching. While I limited my scope geographically, I expanded it in terms of work type.

By December, I realized that I had about a year of freelance writing experience. This, I reasoned, could help me get a full-time writing job. Despite numerous applications, I don’t have a writing job beyond the ongoing part-time gigs I already had. I nearly got a junior technical writer position in Seattle, which is exactly what I want if I can’t get a library job, but it fell through when I told the recruiter I would need a week or two to move. He said that they needed someone sooner. I revised my stance and told him I could move immediately, but a week later, I found out that they had hired someone else. How dare I not be available to start a contract position with three-day’s notice! It is really my own fault I don’t have a proper career.

Since then? I continue to apply. Every weekend I send out at least five applications, but some weeks it can be as many as 20, depending on what’s available. I have about eight active job alerts from and myriad alerts from other services that occasionally surface in my inbox. I check LinkedIn weekly. I browse INALJ (I Need a Library Job) and the ALA JobList, plus several library job-related Twitter feeds. I now have my resume listed on Mensa’s job board, for what that’s worth. I check certain organizations to find out, specifically, if they are hiring. I browse through a list of every librarian job in the country that has been posted in the last week. And I do this EVERY WEEK. It is exhausting. It is like running a marathon except instead of being done after 26 miles, you will be done when you reach some as yet undetermined distance. You don’t know what it is. You get tired and want to quit, but then you remember that the end could be just another mile away and you wouldn’t want to have stopped when you were so close. So you keep running.

But the final indignity, the last straw, the gust of wind that tipped me over the edge this week was back here at my stupid state job. I treat state work as a tertiary career plan. If all else false, my father reassures me, I can move up in state service (because it is full of complete idiots, he tells me). In February, I interviewed for a position that was in the next classification up from my current one (the state takes is classifications very seriously) and in the office where I work. It turned out that I was not yet qualified for this particular bureaucrat level, which was irritating, but something I could live with. Finding this out also brought forward the information that my experience doesn’t actually count as much as I think it does. One way to move up is to accrue a year of experience in my current class. Well, a year for me at my limit of 1,500 is only about 78% of a real year as the State counts it. Again, could have lived with this information, even though I was seething that no one felt the need to me. The hiring manager for this position told me I could have a different full time job, within my current class. They wouldn’t even need to interview me. This seemed like an appropriate consolation prize. It didn’t come out until this week that they were actually scheduling interviews for this position and that they “unintentionally mislead” me regarding my path to full-time, health insured bliss. I am scheduled to interview, but apparently there are some very competitive candidates, which I understand to mean “We like these other people more.” Even that would have been fine, had my administration had the emotional maturity to let me know this could be a problem in the first place. I can’t tell if they are being malicious or incompetent, but I am at a point where tolerating either is just too much to bear.

the California State Library building
California State Library, a magical place that provides jobs to all the worthy, newly-minted librarians

So, when I say that I am frustrated with the job market and that I just want to be a librarian or maybe a writer. When I say that I am a bit cynical, having a rough go, exhausted, or somewhat depressed and people respond with comments like:

“Have you tried the state library?”

“Have you looked at any of the UCs?”

“Is the Sacramento Public Library hiring?”

“What about volunteering?”

“Why don’t you talk to some people in the field?”

“Did you look online?”

I have a strong urge to kick the shit out of them, no matter how nice they are trying to be. What you don’t understand if you haven’t tried to get a job lately is that it is god-damned near impossible. I have done everything “right.” I have experience in more than one field (teaching, writing, and now … bureaucracy?), I have two bachelors degrees, a teaching credential, a masters degree, I have published academic work, I go to professional development, I participate in library organizations, I prepare thoroughly before interviews if I am lucky enough to get one, I have an active social media presence that promotes me as a person of note in my field, I apply for SO MANY JOBS.

So, when people try to “help” by offering the first idiotic thought that occurs to them, it is, to be blunt, fucking insulting. For the last year, getting a job has been my job. I have applied for things that I never would have imagined I would apply for. I have interviewed. I have networked. I am exhausted with my life. I would never have thought it would be so difficult. If I had a time machine, I would tell my 18-year-old self to get an associates degree, get a full-time job and get my education while I work because I would probably be better off right now.

Next time one of your friends or loved ones is telling you about their job search-related suffering, stop yourself. Choose your words carefully. Please don’t offer advice. Listen to what we have to say. Commiserate with us. Tell us that you support us and ask if there is any way you can help. Offer to take us out for frozen yogurt. But for the love of whatever god you subscribe to, don’t fucking make suggestions.


On Fluency: Spanish, BYU, and All the Words

My first Spanish class in college was during the fall. It was my second year at Brigham Young University (a year which was unexpectedly abbreviated due to having my “ecclesiastical endorsement” revoked for lack appropriate levels of Mormonality). I had taken some placement test that seemed remarkably easy, but it turned out that without taking a much more intense test, the best I could place was in the high-intermediate class. I had taken three years of Spanish in high school, but decided to roll with it.

At this time in my stint at BYU I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore, but I was telling people I was “taking time off” to evaluate my positions. Participation in Mormonism is not measured on a spectrum, but uses a binary. You are Mormon or not. Something is of God or of Satan. So, things were not going that well in terms of interpersonal relations. The problem with being halfway out of Mormonism at BYU is that there are so many ultra-Mormon things happening that everything begins to grate.

And so it was that I was in this Spanish class. It was, naturally, taught by a returned missionary and one of the requirements for the class was to get a hymn book in Spanish. I seem to recall buying a tiny one. It probably matched my scripture set. In BYU language classes, it’s customary to pray at the top of the class in the target language (as we did in my intermediate Arabic class, much to my annoyance—Arabic is not the language of Mormon god, in my view) and sometimes there are hymns. What better way to immerse yourself than with church? It really engages the students, I’m sure.

This class had one of those people in it, as all classes do. So self-important and self-assured, she would act the expert and make claims about things like always using the subjunctive mood at the appropriate times in English. Predictably, I found myself contradicting this girl with frequency. What can I say, it was a rough time and there was little to lash out at. My anti-prescriptive grammarian nature obligated me to that I tell her that it was highly unlikely that, were she to even use the subjunctive in English, she would always apply it where prescribed. She didn’t like that.

cover of the
The offending textbook

The worst of her pronouncements, and the one that I remembered today which spurred this post, was the time we had a chapter’s worth of vocabulary about banking. I won’t defend banking vocabulary as interesting. It’s hard to make much out of terms like ‘checking account’ or ‘mortgage’, but I will defend the importance of such terminology. If you want to be fluent in a language, well, you better know how to get money to and from the bank.

So when she indolently raised her hand and asked “Why do we need to know words about banks? I mean, seriously?” I obviously could not ignore it. “Are you serious?” I called from my back-of-the-classroom perch at the very moment the thought entered my mind. With my now much-improved swearing skills I might have said “Are you fucking serious?” because that’s the level of ridiculous it was. I probably also would have rolled my eyes and mentally appended “This bitch,” but I still had a lot of catching up to do with the vulgarisms of English.

This Bitch (I wish I remembered her name, but for narrative purposes, we’ll go with the aforementioned) was stunned. She turned around to look at she who would dare issue a challenge to someone righteous enough to sit in the front row. I, probably really assholishly, said, “Do you think you won’t ever need to go to a bank?” We engaged in mutual scoffing and class continued. I think our instructor ended with a scripture about Joseph Smith’s first vision. Typical BYU.

What I like about this story (other than everyone, myself included, being a bitch) is that even though I had only just started studying linguistics, I feel like I had a pretty good attitude about fluency. In fact, my basic attitude still hasn’t changed. For me, the goal is to know as many words as possible. Duh, that’s being fluent. However, I will say that I have added some depth and contour to my opinions in the intervening eight years. Banking terminology is pretty essential if you want to be a functioning adult in a society. If you ever moved to Ecuador, you would probably have to deal with money and the bank at least once in a while. I mean, if you wanted to be able to eat and stuff.

But here’s the thing about fluency that a lot of people miss: you don’t know every word in your native language. If someone asked you to explain how the brain works, you might not have the terminology to do it, unless you’re a neuroscientist, psychologist, etc. That’s okay because you can live your life without ever having to understand your brain (if you like to live ironically). The same is true when you learn another language. You probably won’t have to discuss the intricacies generative grammar or economics. So you can be fluent and still not have all that terminology. The goal is to have a general lexicon on which you can build. As such, if you want to learn how to talk economic theory, you have the words in your brain that let you understand the definitions. You don’t have to know everything.

But banking? Every bitch is going to need to bank.

New Work, Old Work, What’s the Difference Once Your Head’s Blown Off

Book review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers book coverEver since I read Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson last year, I’ve been captivated by the maker movement. I was going to link to my awesome review about Anderson’s Makers, but then I remembered I didn’t write it (I always want to review everything, but few reviews make it out of my head). I picked up Makers from the library on a whim and thanks to name recognition of Doctrow whose Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom I’d read some years ago on an Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle.


Makers is a near-future/cyberpunk/science-fiction published in 2009 that strikes me as fairly prescient. I mean, I don’t know what the future holds (I hope it’s monstrous alien creatures), but given the state of things, Doctrow’s vision feels on point. The story takes place approximately 20 years from now (by my reckoning), the characters at the intersection of several groups of people coming together in the brave new economy.

The character who most resonated with me (for perhaps obvious reasons) is Suzanne Church, a journalist. She starts the story as a writer with the San Jose Mercury, an actual newspaper. Her coverage of Silicon Valley events leads her to Florida, where she meets tinkerers extraordinaires Perry and Lester. Perry and Lester live in an abandoned mall in Florida, making interesting junk out of the world’s inexhaustible supply of useless crap, utilizing our surplus of Boogie Woogie Elmos. Suzanne begins documenting Perry and Lester’s inspired madness as it gives way to the New Work movement, a sort of maker revolution that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite last for the long term.

I don’t want to summarize this book because that is boring and pointless. Go read the book. I do really like some of the concepts that percolated in my brain while I read this, so I’ll talk about those instead.

First, I liked Suzanne a lot. She quits her stable, grown-up journalism job to follow what she perceives to be the real news of the day. She reports on stuff that is simply too cool to not write about and her readers clearly respond to it, since she manages to stay in business with her site’s ad revenue. That is something I really admire, especially since, regardless of intent, writing seems to be developing into something of a career for me. I don’t think I have the ovaries to up and move to follow a story (maybe I will eventually), but the idea of just taking off after awesome things to chronicle them is fucking cool to me.

In her own way, Suzanne embodies the story’s New Work movement with what she does. Although she isn’t tinkering and creating things or using 3D printers to improve people’s lives, she is creating based on what’s around her. She still makes an important contribution to the movement, especially since it isn’t logistically feasible for everyone to be an engineer. I think the way of the new economy, as Doctorw foretells it, is that everyone is essentially their own business. And honestly, life already feels that way to me a lot right now. Many jobs I consider treat employees as independent contractors. You are a contractor and you are your own brand. So, seeing Suzanne in the novel is like reading about someone who is doing a great job managing her brand and just making her own way, fuck the rest.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated was the nature of community and how it can be configured using the Web. In the second act of the novel, Perry and Lester’s tinkering results in “the ride.” The ride is a series of scenes composed of bricolage, staged in an abandoned WalMart. Riders upvote or downvote scenes based on whether they like them or think they belong in their personal vision of the ride. Eventually, The Story emerges. Online communities begin discussing and dissecting the story. A segment of the Florida goth community becomes particularly involved after Death Waits (né Darren) gets laid off by Disney World (of course there is Disney, this is a Cory Doctrow novel) and then has the shit kicked out of him. After word of the ride spreads to the Web, rides spring up in other cities, each with its own style and engendering its own community.

Finally, as a novel of things-to-come, I like it. The United States, it is indicated, is essentially a third world country (not hard to predict at this point, to be honest), but people make do. Consider all the empty real estate there will be—it’s put to good use by people creating their own sort of slum towns or filled with things like the ride. 3D printers play a significant role in the economic liberation of these ad hoc communities. By the end of the book, people are even making bicycles with them thanks to tireless tinkering and open-source sharing.

It always feels difficult to review novels because I want to distill my feelings and the new thoughts that I had when my brain interacted with the story. I hope this makes some kind of sense. Doctrow is definitely a prophet of the coming tech age.

What to read next:

  • If you want the non-fiction version, check out Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. It talks about the cool stuff 3D printers are doing now. If you’re a would-be librarian like me, you can read it and think about the cool things you would do with it in a library. There are a few books about the maker movement, maker spaces, etc., but this is one that I have read and enjoyed. At this point, I have to reference my favorite Twitter feed, Fake Library Stats:
  • If you want more Cory Doctorow, I recommend Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Not only because this is the only other Doctrow book I’ve read, but because I like the cyberpunk, techie aspects of the story.
  • My third recommendation is Oryx and Crake byMargaret Atwood because I feel like this is the opposite kind of universe from Makers and because you should read Atwood. Everyone should read Atwood.

Sweet Dreams are Made of Monstrous Alien Creatures

I think that I normally have shitty dreams. I don’t know this for certain. I cycle through phases of dream-remembering and dream-forgetting. Perhaps it is connected to the waxing and waning moon, for arcane reasons beyond my understanding. I think I have shitty dreams for two reasons. One: I wake up with no memory of my dream self’s actions, but a distinct feeling of emotional shittiness. Two: Kirk tells me that I cry out in the middle of the night. He reported that several nights ago he heard me—while he was in a different room and wearing headphones—shout “I don’t want it!” I can’t imagine that was the function of a dream in which I was suddenly granted my most sincere wishes (unless the genie added ironic consequences, which genies like to do).

This morning I woke up with an unusual sensation: I recalled having a good dream. It was interesting. I was enjoying the dream and I knew that it was a dream at the same time. My brain was telling my sleepy self a story as it ventured out into the dreaming. I felt like I was making friends maybe, but also like I wanted to know the rest of the story.

I am going to describe this dream, but know that I partially don’t want to. You know how dreams are. The image renders beautifully in the mind, but comes out of the mouth like pictures shoved through a speaker.

The other thing you have to know about this dream is that I dreamed I was in the world of a book I recently finished reading. Last week, I read A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge. It’s the second work in the Zones of Thought trilogy. I was engrossed with it last week, probably more so than the first one. It’s a space opera that focuses on two groups of people. There are the Qeng Ho—traders who go spacefaring for the sake of commerce and maintaining relationships with customer civilizations. There are also the aliens of Arachna. Vinge is an amazing sci-fi author because he humanizes his aliens so effectively. He manages to give a slow burn introduction on them, gradually throwing in details that would not make sense were humans being discussed (like referring to a character’s ‘eating hands’). When the true nature of what otherwise might be a monstrosity is revealed, you already love the characters and you don’t care that they are giant spider people. Yes, a race of giant spiders (duh, their planet is Arachna).

Okay, right now you are probably thinking something like get a grip, Lindsey, how did you have a good dream about giant spider people? That’s a valid question. The goodness or badness of dreams seems to be bound to the emotional feel much more than to what actually happens. This had pleasant emotional feel, and I don’t think I can explain it more than that.

Now that you’ve had sufficient preamble, I will relate the tale of my not-shitty dream.

I was hanging out with a spider/person. I knew it was one of the spider aliens and I was in the world of this novel (these spidery aliens are described as being about waist-high and having 10 legs in A Deepness in the Sky). I wasn’t freaked out, as one might expect to be in a world of spidery folk. We were chilling outside and there was a cool view of a mountain. I think my friend (I guess my friend?) was telling me about how to not be an idiot in a realm of spider folk. I imagine I would need a lot of schooling on this issue. This spider friend was wearing a dashing cloak with a fancy cloak pin. Do giant spiders wear cloaks? This one did. Even though I knew I was among spider folk, I was seeing everyone as human people. Why? Who knows. It is a thing of dreams. So, I was going somewhere with my spider buddy and he introduced me to someone he knew. I tried to shake hands, but it was awkward (duh, spiders don’t have hands). Then I realized I was seeing the spider folk as people, not as spiders, so I asked why that was. It turned out my spider buddy was using a device (of science or magic, it is not clear) to make me see human-y people and him see me as a spidery person. He turned it off and we both recoiled. I decided that I was going to need to ease into seeing spider folk as spiders.

Thus did I dream.

Why was this a good dream? I guess everything is relative. I was interested in the story I was apparently living. How did I end up there? Was I a a refugee or a prisoner of war? Was I stranded? Did I go insane? What was going to happen? How will I learn to live with the spider folk?

Maybe the promise of living some crazy, impossible story made this a good dream.

When I woke up, I spent the next few hours in a dreamy haze, pondering the dream that was. Hey, giant spider folk are more interesting than work.