“The One Device,” or, “I’m amazed this man didn’t get arrested”

Brian Merchant
It’s rather fitting that I’m writing this review on my iPhone. Parts of the book were written on an iPhone, I suspect, and the author mentioned that a good deal of the interview recordings and photos were made on his iPhone.
Structurally, the book is interesting — there are two through lines, and they’ve got the same writing style but different feels. The more story-like one is the historical aspect, going from the beginning of the project through to the keynote where Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. And it’s a story, for sure: there’s a narrative to it, characters being introduced, politics and inventions, failures and triumphs. It’s the best telling of the story I’ve read so far, though admittedly I don’t think I’ve actually sat down to read the full story before.1
The other part is more of the ‘now’ aspect, which explores the impact of the iPhone as a product, focusing on the manufacturing process. The author tells how he… made his way into the Foxconn plant where iPhones are assembled; predictably gets hacked immediately after arriving at a hacker convention; goes on a claustrophobic tour of a tin mine; under-details an agoraphobic tour of the salt flats that produce most of the lithium used in the iPhone’s battery; and a few other stops along the way.
All told, it’s an interesting read. Some of the historical context was new to me—the history of ARM was inspiring, for example—and while I already knew a lot of things—photos of those lithium flats are pretty striking—I’m glad I took the time to read it. If you’re at all interested in the history, I can recommend the book.

  1. Creative Selection is on my list to read, so I’ll get there eventually. 

“Post-Capitalist Society,” or, “hindsight is fun”

Peter F. Drucker
This book was published in the early 1990s, and it’s kinda gained something by being dated. Drucker has quite a few “by the 2010s” lines in there, which are about half “wow, how did he know?” and half “oooh that’s not how that went.” To me, at least, there’s a good amount of comedy in that sort of thing, and I rather enjoyed the read.
Beyond that, I don’t have a lot to say about it, so I’ll throw out a couple quotes I pulled while I was reading it.
“Power must always be balanced by responsibility; otherwise it becomes tyranny.”
“The future may we ‘post-Western’; it may be ‘anti-Western.’ It cannot be ‘non-Western.’”
Like I said, a good deal of what he talks about has come to pass, but a good deal hasn’t, and some of what hasn’t is the sort of thing that I wish had. It’s a fun read, give it a go.


James Baldwin’s Collected Essays

James Baldwin
This is ostensibly supposed to be a book review in the way I normally do them, but that doesn’t feel like the right way to go about it. For a variety of reasons, really: firstly, because most of what I review is fiction, and this was only partially that, if at all; and secondly, because it’s just a different sort of book than I usually do.1
James Baldwin was, I’ve learned, a Figure in the civil rights campaigns. To be honest, before I started the project of reading this book, I hadn’t really heard of him. The first references I got to his work were as quotes in essays I proofread for a friend of mine; it took me a while to catch on to the fact that I was seeing the same name come up over and over. (That friend went on to write a thesis about Baldwin; I believe it’s available online, and I’d recommend reading it, if only so you get a better look at Baldwin’s work than I’ll be able to give here.)
The Essays cover a variety of things, but the core component is the relationship between Black and White in America. Which I’m hardly qualified to talk about; again, I’ll point you to that thesis, or just directly to Baldwin’s writings, because both are far better takes than anything I can come up with.
Content aside, Baldwin is a great writer, and a powerful speaker; if you get a chance, check out some of his speeches, they’re certainly on YouTube by now.
The one caveat I’ll give this book is that you shouldn’t plan on finishing it in one sitting, or even a handful; it’s a book that demands effort. Even just from the physical standpoint — it’s 800-plus pages, in the edition I have, fine print on the Bible-like thin paper. It demands endurance, and you can’t really power through it like I tend to with books; after, at most, 100 pages, I had to put it down and give my brain time to process through things, because after a while you start to feel like a river is pouring through your head, in one ear and out the other.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, because you absolutely should. I’m glad I put the time into it, and I suspect I’ll be budgeting time for another run at it again sometime in the future.2

  1. I’ve reviewed one other collection of essays, that I can remember: “The Control of Nature”, which I adored. But that was also different; the essays were about Man’s relationship to Nature, and not Man against Man and Society, or whatnot. I dunno, I’m trying to remember terminology from the last literature class I took, which was either three or four years ago, depending on how you count things. 
  2. And, tacked on here as a footnote because I couldn’t leave it out, but I also couldn’t work it in anywhere else: a couple people who’d read his work before had lead me to believe that he was queer in the way that Shakespeare was — rumored or hinted at, but never really confirmed one way or the other. I can only assume, from that stance, that they hadn’t read the last two essays in the collection, because the final essay includes a description of a young man that begins with “We were never lovers: for what it’s worth, I think I wish we had been.”
    The essay before is even more explicit, I’d say, in that it devotes several pages to talking about Baldwin’s experiences in what are, today, equivalent to gay bars and bathhouses; perhaps my favorite part is the little editorial note at the end that consists of the year it was published and the fact that it was first published in Playboy

“Openly Straight,” or, “just let this idiot be happy”

Bill Konigsberg
I was genuinely surprised to find this book on my Kindle; I knew it was one I’d been wanting for a while, but I didn’t remember actually buying it. Still, I’m on vacation, trying to work my way through the backlog of books a bit, so I shrugged and started to read.
Here’s the concept, containing no more spoilers than the Amazon blurb: Rafe is an openly gay young man living in Boulder, Colorado. And by ‘openly gay,’ I mean very; he came out in middle school, his parents threw a coming out party, his mom became president of the local PFLAG chapter, and he’s got, like, an internship kind of thing being a speaker at other high schools in the area. Not bad for a sophomore in high school.
That’s where the book starts, and it quickly leaves that point, because Rafe isn’t happy with this life. Sure, everyone accepts him as The Gay Kid, but that’s all he is. He scores the winning goal in a soccer game, and the local newspaper runs a story: “Gay Student Wins Game!” And who really likes being boiled down to one aspect of their personality?
So he leaves; gets himself accepted to an Ivy-prep boarding high school over on the East Coast somewhere. Not mentioned to the very-supporting parents and friends? The fact that he’s not going to be gay there; he’s going to let the ‘straight until proven gay’ aspect of heterosexism1 take over and get to experience life from the other side.2
Which is, honestly, a very interesting concept, but in execution, I didn’t enjoy it all that much. It felt, to me, like the book was trying to be two different things at once, and as a result, failing at both. The beginning and end are in a more literary bent, exploring some of the stuff I’d mentioned earlier. Which is a valid topic to be explored, and the way it’s handled is sufficient that, at the end of this point, I’m still going to recommend the book. Where it falls apart is in the middle; the book gets a bit distracted from that literary style and turns into a bit of a teenage romance fluff pile.
Again, not a bad thing, but the two aspects don’t work well together; the conflict of the book should be either the literary ‘man versus society’ kind of thing, or the romance ‘man versus his own idiotic self being mad at romance’ deal. Instead it’s ‘literary aspirations versus the plot arc of a romance novel,’ and both portions lose out for it. The romance novel falls apart because that’s what the literary aspect demands, and the meaning of the literary component feels cheapened by the collapsing romance.
I wish I could’ve liked this book more, but oh well. Still, it does have some valuable things to say, and I’m going to go ahead and recommend it.3 Give it a read, and maybe do a slightly better job than I did at engaging with the more thought-provoking portions.4

  1. If you don’t know what the word means, read the book, it does a better job explaining it than I can. 
  2. The first few chapters of this are actually very anxiety-inducing; minority stress is a real thing, and imagining going through it without a support network is a stressful concept. 
  3. Because, y’know, this has been such a glowing review. 
  4. Part of the issue for me, I suppose, is that all the thoughts it’s trying to provoke are conclusions I arrived at a while ago; I’m not really the target audience, I suppose. 

“Smoketown,” or, “post-eco-apocalypse, but weirdly uplifting”

Tenea D. Johnson
I’m normally not a fan of post-apocalyptic stuff, because, y’know, if I want to be depressed about the world I’ll just turn on the news. This, though, wasn’t as depressing as things usually are — things have fallen apart as compared to what we’re used to, but people aren’t letting it stop them. Life goes on, even if that means city-states throughout the remnants of the US cooperating on carbon sequestration projects to try to keep Idaho from sinking.1
This was also one of those books that does an excellent job of setting up a fascinating setting without dropping into mountains of exposition. There’s never an explicit reference to what’s happened, but you can pick things out from background details pretty well; it’s tantalizing, to see little hints of things but not get a full explanation.
The story, too, is interesting, because it doesn’t treat the overall ‘apocalypse’ as the Big Problem. It’s hinted at that the various governments of the world are continuing to adapt to and prevent further problems, but the story focuses on two levels: a personal dilemma, and one enveloping just the city where the story takes place.
The personal is weird and convoluted and makes sense, eventually; the city-level is more neatly tied together. It’s quite satisfying, all told; as I was getting towards the end of the book, keeping an eye on how much of it was left, I wasn’t expecting everything to tie up as well as it did.
And I think I’ll stop there; I don’t like giving away spoilers, and this book did a better job of keeping me from guessing the ending than I usually do. Give it a read.

  1. I believe that’s an incorrect reference, technically — Idaho was mentioned as having become entirely desert, I think, and somewhere else (Louisiana, presumably) had effectively sunk into the ocean. 

“The Control of Nature,” or, “there’s nothing like finding out 100,000 tons of concrete has no foundation left whatsoever”

John McPhee

I’ve actually had this book for quite a while; one of the essays in it was required reading for a class I took, oh, two years ago or so? Something like that. I quite enjoyed the read at the time, but somehow never thought to read the other essays in the book. I found it again in the whole mess of moving out of campus housing after graduation and decided to toss it into the to-read pile, and I finally got around to it.1

And I’m glad I did; while “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” wasn’t quite as fun to reread as it was to read the first time around, the other two essays were both just as enjoyable on first read as I’d hoped. McPhee’s writing style is beautiful; very visually descriptive, deeply informative, and with well-timed flashes of humor throughout.

I’m going to split this review up a bit and include some excerpts from each of the essays, to try to give you a sense of not only McPhee’s voice, but also the content of the essays.


The first essay, “Atchafalaya,” follows the US Army Corps of Engineers and their work on the Mississippi River; it’s far more involved than I’d ever thought, and the project is fascinating.

On the outflow side—where the water fell to the level of the Atchafalaya—a hole had developed that was larger and deeper than a football stadium, and with much the same shape. it was hidden, of course, far beneath the chop of wild water. The Corps had long since been compelled to leave all eleven gates wide open, in order to reduce to the greatest extent possible the force that was shaking the structure, and so there was no alternative to aggravating the effects on the bed of the channel. In addition to the structure’s weight, what was holding it in place was a millipede of stilts—steel H-beams that reached down at various angles, as pilings, ninety feet through sands and silts, through clayey peats and organic mucks. There never was a question of anchoring such a fortress in rock. The shallowest rock was seven thousand feet straight down. In three places below the structure, sheet steel went into the substrate like fins; but the integrity of the structure depended essentially on the H-beams, and vehicular traffic continued to cross it en route to San Luis Rey.

Then, as now, LeRoy Dugas was the person whose hand controlled Old River Control—a thought that makes him smile. “We couldn’t afford to close any of the gates,” he remarked to me one day at Old River. “Too much water was passing through the structure. Water picked up riprap off the bottom in front, and rammed it through to the tail bed.” The riprap included derrick stones, and each stone weighed seven tons. On the level of the road deck, the vibrations increased. The operator of a moving crane let the crane move without him and waited for it at the end of the structure. Dugie continued, “You could get on the structure with your automobile and open the door and it would close the door.” The crisis recalled the magnitude of “the ’27 high water,” when Dugie was a baby. Up the alley somewhere, during the ’27 high water, was a railroad bridge with a train sitting on it loaded with coal. The train had been put there because its weight might help keep the bridge in place, but the bridge, vibrating in the floodwater, produced so much friction that the coal in the gondolas caught fire. Soon the bridge, the train, and the glowing coal fell into the water.

One April evening in 1973—at the height of the flood—a fisherman walked onto the structure. There is, after all, order in the universe, and some things take precedence over impending disasters. On the inflow side, facing the Mississippi, the structure was bracketed by a pair of guide walls that reached out like curving arms to bring in the water. Close by the guide wall at the south end was the swirling eddy, which by now had become a whirlpool. There was other motion as well—or so it seemed. The fisherman went to find Dugas, in his command post at the north end of the structure, and told him the guide wall had moved. Dugie told the fisherman he was seeing things. The fisherman nodded affirmatively.

When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he looked at it for the last time. “It was slipping into the river, into the inflow channel.” Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. Its foundations were gone. There was nothing below it but water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that this was when the Corps became “scared green.” Whatever the engineers may have felt, as soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish. (28-30)

“Cooling the Lava”

The next essay is set in a very different clime: a volcanic eruption in Iceland, with occasional detours to a similar eruption in Hawaii. The way he describes these immense forces is amazing; it feels as if he’s trying to make sure you feel the same sense of awe that he does.

The university installed [the seismometer] on Einar’s farm about a year before the Heimaey eruption, its primary purpose being to sense the threats of Katla, an unusually dangerous volcano only fifteen miles away. Hekla is in the area as well—the stratovolcano that appears in early literature as one of the two mouths of Hell. Groans from dead sinners have been heard in the crater. But Hekla is out in the open, observable under the sky. The baleful Katla is covered with ice It lies under Myrdalsjokull—a glacier field of two hundred and seventy square miles. When Katla erupts, as it has about twice a century, it creates a vast chamber of water under the ice. When the water reaches a critical volume, it lifts the ice cap, and one or two cubic miles bursts out as a violent flood—a blurt of water twenty times the discharge of the Amazon River. The outwash plains these floods have left behind are as desolate as the maria of the moon. A town, villages, and farms lie between Katla and the sea. (113-114)

While I’d probably call “they saw fish” my favorite line of the whole book, probably the best example of his sense of humor comes from this description of a golf course:

In 1801, it came down off Hualalai, a lesser volcano eight thousand feet high, and poured into the sea. There on the leeward side of the island, where rainfall is ten inches a year, the lava has remained essentially unchanged. Resorts have sculpted it like movie sets, landscaped wit imported soils. The bunkers of designer golf courses are not concave and full of sand but—lovely in the green surrounding turf—solid black islands of undisturbed basalt. Use your wedge on that. Your hands sting for a year. If a long approach shot lands on one of those, it bounces to Tahiti. (152)

Finally, from a portion of the book where I could feel myself mentally adding a few things to my bucket list:

The rock, being essentially glass, was very sharp. It was also hot, particularly where a tube lay below and molten lava was running there. We came to a skylight and inched toward it. Steam swirled above it but did not close off the view—of the racing orange currents of an incandescent river. By an order of magnitude, this was the most arresting sight I had ever seen in nature. The time spent gazing into it could not be measured.

Gradually, I began to think. Out of curiosity, I asked Christina if we were looking down into the near side of the tube or were standing over the middle and looking at the far side of the tube.

“The far side,” she said.

If my legs still had knees in them, I was unaware of it. (155)

“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

The last essay of the book is the first one I read. It was interesting; at the time, I found it fascinating, and since that first reading I’ve come back to it again and again in my mind.

Los Angeles is overmatched on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by very high mountains. With respect to these principal boundaries, Los Angeles is done sprawling. The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an act of aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results. (184)

It follows the Los Angeles Flood Control District, or, as the locals call it, Flood. Now, controlling floods seems like it’d be easy in Los Angeles, the city of perpetual doubt, but that’s far from the truth; not only is there the occasional bit of torrential rainfall, but also something much more difficult: rockfall.

Many people regard the debris basins less as defenses than as assaults on nature. They are aesthetic disasters. To impose them on residential neighborhoods has been tantamount to creating a Greenwich full of gravel pits, rock quarries at either end of Sutton Place. The residents below Hook East were bitter when the basin was put in. Months later, the bulldozer tracks were still visible, they said, meaning that nothing had happened—no debris had come, and not even enough rain to obliterate the tracks. So why had the county used taxpayers’ money to build something so obviously unnecessary? A form of answer came when the basin overfilled in one night. Afterward, people criticized the county for not building basins of adequate size. (246)

What was most interesting to me, though, wasn’t just the concept of trying to fight against these rockfalls; it was the interrelationships between everything.

When fire comes, it puts the nutrients back in the ground. It clears the terrain for fresh growth. When chaparral has not been burned for thirty years, about half the thicket will be dry dead stuff—twenty-five thousand tons of it in one square mile. The living plants are no less flammable. The chamise, the manzanita—in fact, most chaparral plants—are full of solvent extractives that burn intensely and ignite easily. Their leaves are glossy with oils and resins that seal in moisture during hot dry periods and serve the dual purpose of responding explosively to flame. (209)

It burns as if it were soaked with gasoline. Chaparral plants typically have multiple stems emerging from a single root crown, and this contributes not only to the density of the thickets but, ultimately, to the surface area of combustible material that stands prepared for flame. Hundreds of acres can be burned clean in minutes. In thick black smoke there is wild orange flame, rising through the canyons like explosion crowns. The canyons serve as chimneys, and in minutes whole mountains are aflame, resembling volcanoes, emitting high columns of fire and smoke. The smoke can rise twenty thousand feet. (210)

If you walk in a rainstorm on a freshly burned chaparral slope, you notice as you step on the wet ground that the tracks you are making are prints of dry dust. In the course of a conflagration, chaparral soil, which is not much for soaking up water in the first place, experiences a chemical change and, a little below its surface, becomes waterproof. In a Forest Service building at the foot of the mountains Wade Wells keeps some petri dishes and soil samples in order to demonstrate this phenomenon to passing unbelievers. In one dish he puts unburned chaparral soil. It is golden brown. He drips water on it from an eyedropper. The water beads up, stands there for a while, then collapses and spreads into the soil. Why the water hesitates is not well understood but is a great deal more credible than what happens next. Wells fills a dish with a dark soil from burned chaparral. He fills the eyedropper and empties it onto the soil. The water stands up in one large dome. Five minutes later, the dome is still there. Ten minutes later, the dome is still there. Sparkling, tumescent, mycophane, the big bead of water just stands there indefinitely, on top of the impermeable soil. Further demonstrating how waterproof this burned soil really is, Wells pours half a pound of it, like loose brown sugar, into a beaker of water. The soil instantly forms a homunculus blob—integral, immiscible—suspended in the water.

In the slow progression of normal decay, chaparral litter seems to give up to the soil what have been vaguely described as “waxlike complexes of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons.” These waxy substances are what make unburned chaparral soil somewhat resistant to water, or “slightly nonwettable,” as Wells and his colleagues are won’t to describe it. The the wildfires burn, and temperatures at the surface of the ground are six or seven hundred centigrade degrees, the soil is so effective as an insulator that the temperature one centimetre below the surface may not be hot enough to boil water. The heavy waxlike substances vaporize at the surface and reconvenes in the cooler temperatures below. Acting like oil, they coat soil particles and establish the hydrophobic layer—one to six centimetres down. Above that layer, where the waxlike substances are gone ,the veneer of burned soil is “wettable.” When Wells drips water on a dishful of that, the water soaks in as if the dish were full of Kleenex. When rain falls on burned and denuded ground, it soaks the very thing upper layer but can penetrate no further. Hiking boots strike hard enough to break through into the dust, but the rain is repelled and goes down the slope. Of all the assembling factors that eventually send debris flows rumbling down the canyons, none is more detonative than the waterproof soil.

In the first rains after a fire, water quickly saturates the thin permeable layer, and liquefied soil drips downhill like runs of excess paint. These miniature debris flows stripe the mountainsides with miniature streambeds—countless scarlike rills that are soon the predominant characteristic of the burned terrain. As more rain comes, each rill is going to deliver a little more debris to the accumulating load in the canyon below. But, more to the point, each rill—its naturally levees framing its impermeable bed—will increase the speed of the surface water. As rain sheds off a mountainside like water off a tin roof, the rill network, as it is called, may actually triple the peed, and therefore greatly enhance the power of the runoff. The transport capacity of the watershed—how much bulk it can move—may increase a thousandfold. The rill network is prepared to deliver water with enough force and volume to mobilize the deposits lying in the canyons below. With the appearance of the rills, almost all prerequisites have no sequential occurred. The muzzle-loader is charged. For a full-scale flat-out debris flow to burst forth from the mountains, the final requirement is a special-intensity storm. (212-214)

And, again, there’s always that sense of awe, for nature and all the forces involved. But he tempers it well with human stories:

The Harkness house projected from the hillside and had a carport beneath the master bedroom. The debris tore off the master bedroom with Sara and the baby inside. The bedroom fell on the family station wagon. With the bedroom on top of it, the station wagon went down the driveway and on down the street. In what remained of the house, the twins and their sister Claudine were unhurt. Sara and the baby came to the end of their ride unhurt. The station wagon suffered considerably. When the bedroom was taken off it, the car was twenty-six inches high. (263)

At this point, if you’re still reading, I think it’s safe to say you’re as interested by these clips of the essays as I was by the whole things. I can absolutely recommend that you give it a read.

  1. Technically it was the second item on the pile, behind Baldwin’s “Collected Essays”, but that’s a rather dense book that I’ve been working on for a while, and I needed a bit of a break.

“Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives,” or, “less existentially upsetting than you’d think”

David Eagleman
I believe I added this book to my wish list back when CGP Grey talked about it, either on Hello Internet or Cortex. It’s an interesting concept, explained succinctly in the title: a collection of (very) short stories about what happens after you die. I’d actually read one before, way back when it was published as the one-page science fiction short in the back of Science magazine.
To be honest, the book was an enjoyable read, but a very quick one; for the price, I think I’d recommend checking it out from your local library.1

  1. Also, y’know, I recommend supporting your local library in general. They’re a wonderful resource. 

“An American Princess,” or, “how is this woman not a gay icon”

Annejet van der Zijl
I’m not a big history person; if you haven’t noticed from the sort of things I tend to review, I like my books distinctly fiction. This one was a bit of an accident — as a Prime subscriber, I get a free Kindle book a month, and this seemed the most interesting of the available choices. Which, to put it lightly, was pretty accurate.
Since it’s a biography, it’s a bit weird to try to summarize at all, because anything interesting feels like it’d be spoiling a surprise. Rather than doing that, I think I’ll just leave you with the title of this post, the title of the book, and a note that I can happily recommend it, because it was a heck of a read. She had a wild life.


“Automate This,” or, “Wall Street is slightly more terrifying than I thought”

Christopher Steiner
At some point, I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a computer guy. If not, hopefully you’ve been able to figure it out just by reading along; it’s probably a safe bet that only a computer nerd would make an app.1
Fairly often, this means I get to explain things to people in a less incensing way than they’d first heard about it.2 This book… did not do that. It was intended to be calming, but as a person who lives in a capitalist society, it’s a bit unnerving to see how quickly things that used to be jobs are being eaten by computers.3
That said, it was a fascinating read — I’d never heard of some of the things being talked about, not because they failed and disappeared, but because they succeeded but are borderline invisible.4
And, of course, it’s an interesting history of how the finance industry made themselves entirely redundant, all while arguably slowing the pace of human progress. Ah, banks.
Anyways, go read the book.

  1. Yes, I am still in shameless self-promotion mode, thank you for asking 
  2. Looking at you, “Apple is making your iPhone slower” thing 
  3. And yes, I say this as somebody whose entire career path is basically going to be “helping the computers eat more jobs, faster.” 
  4. Call center software that picks which agent to route you to based on your personality type so that you’ll be a happier customer at the end? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just read its origin story. 

“What Dreams Shadows Cast”, or, “the cave isn’t haunted, but it does hate you”

Barbara J. Webb
So, a year and a half ago, I read the first book in what I assume is an ongoing series. At the time, I was quite clear on the fact that I loved the setting of the book. If you want all the explanation, hit up that link; for now I’ll just say it’s a new take on post-apocalyptic, where the apocalypse was being abandoned by the gods who’d previously been quite happy to intervene on people’s behalf.
That gap between reading the first and the second wasn’t the greatest thing for my enjoyment of the second — I spent a bit too long trying to remember where we’d left off, and some of the references back to the first I gave up on trying to remember. Things are in a slightly better place than they were in the first, though in order to avoid spoilers I’m not going to explain how, but you still get the sense that the world is deeply broken. Which, true, it sorta is; they’d based their entire economy and governmental system around an external force, which one day decided to up and leave. Maybe not the best way to have done things.
Honestly, I’m a bit annoyed with the handling of business in Miroc, the city where the first book took place; in the aftermath of that one, it’s set up to begin recovering from the Abandonment. In this book, we’ve skipped forward six months, and aside from a couple references to tentative recovery, nothing much seems to have changed. Sure, it’s only six months, but it’s also a metropolis that just finished making itself entirely self-sufficient, there should be more happening.
Which is rather the crux of my opinion on the book: “there should be more happening.” There’s background details — mentions of an influx of immigrants, as well as an increase in emigration — that aren’t explored very well.1 Instead, there’s a digression, ignoring the leftover villains from the first book to go have an Indiana Jones adventure in the desert.
This book feels like it was supposed to be either the second of two books, or possibly the second of a trilogy, but halfway through someone decided they wanted it to be an ongoing series. And to match the expansion in scale, they tried to expand the setting — the already compelling villains from the first book are almost entirely ignored, despite having been clearly set up to be the main antagonist throughout the series, and what was set up as the background for the whole setting got awkwardly retconned.
It just didn’t work as well as the first book. Which is a shame, because that first one was amazing, and this, while still captivating, left me disappointed at the end. Nonetheless, here’s the link; that said, if you haven’t yet read the first one, go do that instead.

  1. That specific example is actually a huge plot thread that’s just… entirely dropped partway through. Everyone is all secretive about where they’re emigrating to, and then something new comes up and the characters decide to leave that Chekhov’s Gun just sitting on the table, ignored. 

“The Somniscient,” or, “how has nobody here ever heard of a union?”

Richard Levesque
This book was a wild ride, and it was awesome. There were twists and turns everywhere, but at the end I was like “okay, yeah, that all made sense” – it never hit the “what is even happening” level, y’know?1
It’s set a bit less than 200 years in the future, and I do quite enjoy the way that changes in technology are integrated. Basically, someone went ahead and finished up Elon Musk’s Neuralink technology. It’s a mix of augmented reality interfaces for doing things and the ability to record and replay dreams, with direct control of the body’s sleep cycle built in. Which sounds handy, except it was made in a realistic world, which means it was funded by venture capitalists, which means it was turned into the most horrifyingly capitalist version of the technology possible. After the technology made it possible for people to cheaply entertain themselves, the world’s economy started slowing way down… so the company, with some backing by the government,2 set it up so it costs money to sleep.3
And, as I pointed out in the title of this post, apparently nobody has ever heard of forming a union, because the workplace environment is pretty abusive. The main character starts off in his Cube, which is roughly a dorm room with the aesthetics if a cubicle, where he pays extortionate rates in order to… not die. As a fun bonus, the Cube is owned by, and in the headquarters of, the company he works for – the same company that controls the technology that’s in everybody’s heads. It’s basically straight out of the nightmares of the people who pushed through the first worker’s rights laws.
And… I’m going to leave it there, actually. That’s a good amount of background, and anything else I can say would spoil some of the fascinating plot. I definitely recommend giving it a read, though – I’ve read a couple short stories that Levesque wrote, and I think I liked this one better than either of those, to be honest. Either way, though, go have a read.

  1. that was a terrible sentence, Grey, why are you trying to write a book review after having gotten up at 3 am, Grey 
  2. The book only ever specifies that the US government was involved, but I assume the rest of the world would’ve done something similar, otherwise the geopolitics of the situation would be different. 
  3. The relationship is a bit different, of course – after a while the company realized they could cut out the middleman and wound up replacing all the currencies with ‘Z’s, their own currency that’s just a measure of how many hours of sleep you can get. 

“Wonder City Stories,” or, “it’s like Oprah ran around handing out queerness to everyone”

Jude McLaughlin
I’m going to start off with a quote from the teaser for the sequel that’s in the end of the book:

“How did your mom keep hold of a device like that anyway?” Megan said, tossing the end of her rainbow-patterned scarf – knotted for her by her gay vampire landlord Zoltan – over her shoulder. He told her that vampires have a lot of free time at night, and knitting was one way he used it. I’m not sure I believe that.

This book was delightful. I read it in one day, and I’m genuinely sad that I finished it because I want there to keep being more.1 It’s basically my entire aesthetic rolled into one thing, and I can summarize it with two words: queer superheroes!
Expanding a bit, though, because it’s actually mostly about people other than superheroes. The cast of main characters includes the vehemently-not-a-superhero daughter of an infamous heroine, a retired WWII-era superhero, the (unpowered and) almost-divorced-wife of a comatose current hero, and quite a few other folks around the edges. It’s a delightfully diverse cast, and it does a really fun job of playing around with some of the ways that superheroes interact with a society that isn’t too unlike our own.2
Plus, y’know, it’s Hella Gay. And, as a nice bonus that takes it away from the annoying majority of LGBTQ-inclusive media, the LGBTQ characters get to do things other than be in the background or die!3
So yes, I absolutely recommend it, go have a read.4

  1. There’s some good news, though – evidently it’s the first volume of an ongoing web serial, so I’ll just go ahead and keep reading once I’m done with this review. 
  2. Really, those sorts of interactions are what I want from my superhero media; it’s unrealistic to expect things to be entirely the same, with a layer of cool battle scenes on top, because there’s so many implications in all that- just think of the economics of car insurance in a world where “yeah a villain threw my car at a hero” is a normal occurrence
  3. No, I’m not bitter at all, why do you ask? 
  4. A final note, here because I can’t attach footnotes to the actual title: having a whole group of queer people like this isn’t ‘unrealistic, considering the percentage of the population that’s queer,’ Twitter Rando: we group together. Safety in numbers, and all that – to be honest, the ‘token gay friend’ thing is more unrealistic, especially in a metropolitan area. 

“Bartleby and James,” or, “is… is the Queen a zombie?“

Michael Coorlim

“I may be able to calibrate my Forensic Viewers and attune them to his particular N-Ray signature.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“My science goggles can track him.”

I own a lot of books that are basically riffs on the concept of Sherlock Holmes, and this is another one. But it’s also one of the most fun that I’ve read – the characters interact well with one another, and I rather identify with the narrator-protagonist.

“All we are is meat, Bartleby. Flesh and bone.”
“What of the soul?” Bartleby poured his own cup.
“Oh, do grow up.”
“I’m serious. There’s something indefinable that separates man from the animals.”
I spoke with a slight singsong while pouring a dollop of cream into my cup. “A sense of pretension about it, perhaps. Delusions of gods, of spirits, of magic, and other humbug.”

Beyond that, the story is pretty interesting – it’s written in a sort of anthology style, so it’s more a collection of short stories than anything else, but they’re put together in chronological order, and good lord do they have some fun stuff going on with the background. I spent the whole second story entirely wrong about who did it, muttering “realpolitik” to myself.1
In looking up the link to put here, I see that it’s an ongoing series, and boy am I ever tempted to get the rest of them. I’ll wait until I’ve finished the rest of my bits of reading that I need to do, but oh, these are going on the wish list. I definitely recommend this one.

  1. To be fair, I wasn’t too far off the mark, but still, I was wrong. 

“All These Shiny Worlds II”

I’ve read the first anthology in this now-series, and I’m finally getting around to the second one. As I usually do with anthologies, I’ll be splitting it up so that each short story gets its own short review. And, before we launch into that, I’ll give a quick review here: it’s worth getting. Here’s your link.

Out in the Dark

Meryl Stenhouse
Oh, I’m already enjoying the focus on science fiction in this anthology. And these days, I’m also a big fan of stuff being realistically concerned about the impact of climate change – like the ever-increasing importance of naval superiority as the seas rise, and the sorts of defenses you’d need to keep a city from drowning.

Alter Ego

Russ Linton
See, I kinda get where the whole “fourth person perspective” thing was going… but I’m not sure if it worked for me. I mean, superheroes, so a plus in my book, but still, told a bit oddly.

The Silk of Yesterday’s Gown

Misha Burnett
Oh, that was darker than I was expecting, and the opening paragraph makes it pretty clear that it’s going to be fairly dark. Yikes.

A Rough Spirit

Dave Higgins
For a bit of a ghost story, I do enjoy that I had to stop to laugh at the main character’s obliviousness at one point:

“If it pleases Hiroto-sama, I am called Anew. I have some skill in massage if the noble lord has woken with any stiffness?”
He tried to keep his gaze on the small bowl and not the scrubbed skin beyond it. “A little rice and a sip of water will suffice.”
“My brother has strong fingers if-“
She’d noticed something was wrong too. He needed to distract her. He slid the tray closer. “Tell me of Hayabiro while I eat.”

Other than that, I’ve gotta say, this whole thing is “stuff happens to this guy and he overthinks it,” but it was surprisingly entertaining the whole way through.

The Apprentice Appears

Bryce Anderson

Elsie pressed the trigger, sending a taxidermied squirrel flying through the air.

Need I say more? It’s hilarious, as is everything of Anderson’s that I’ve read. On this one alone, it’s worth reading the entire book.


Simon Cantan
This is the short story version of this comic, and I think it works even better than the actual comic did. To be fair, it’s a bit more hopeful than the comic – there’s robots outside the simulation, so things are still getting done, but still.

Without a Care in the World

Richard Levesque

Then he cleared his throat and said, “I am now officially invoking the Asimov Act – uh, I mean the Sentient Technology Emancipation Act, under the conditions of which you are obligated to release this independent being from servitude immediately.”

The Lancer

David Kristoph
Okay, remember when I said Merge was dark? This was darker. Yikes.

Bodies of Evidence

Jefferson Smith

“Okay Lou, I can squeeze you in. And how will you be paying?”
“On account. Maladein Industries.”
“One moment, please.” She was gone for over a minute. “Hello, Lou? I’m not showing any accounts under that name. The closest match I have is for SKULL International Consortium of Evil, Local Rep: Sheldon Maladein.”
“Damn, I forgot about the merger. That’s us. Sorry.”

I’m a big fan of “daily life in a world with superheroes” kind of things, and this definitely delivered on that.

Borrowed Lives

I.A. Watson
The editor’s note did a good job of covering it: it’s an exploration of how a new technology would fit into everyday lives. (The actual plot contains a bit more intrigue than that, but still.)

“The law hasn’t caught up with this, Mik. Why would there be a law against something nobody knows is possible?”

The Earth Ship

Graham Storrs
Imperialism is always the same, isn’t it?

Digital Commander

J.S. Morin
Oh, I liked this. It’s a pretty possible future, and the way the world-changing advances in technology were being handled as they were being developed? Downright responsible.

The Traveller

Christopher Ruz
Oh, this is not what they should’ve ended on, my heart can’t take it.


“Piranha,” or, “that’s not actually how the Spanish language works”

I’ve had a bit of a soft spot for Clive Cussler for a long time. I started reading his books pretty young – distinctly younger than you’re really supposed to be reading his books, I’m sure, but oh well. It’s not like waiting until I was an actual adult was going to make me find the stilted romance subplots less awkward.1 Of his series, the Oregon Files have always been my favorite – at first it was just because it mentioned my home state, and I like when things do that, but after that it’s just because I enjoy the concept more.23
Piranha delivers on what I want from a book in the series; a touch of history, a baddie with a high-tech schtick, and a whole lot of cool fight scenes. Plot-wise, I didn’t really have any problems with it; everything tied together pretty well, I thought, and I had fun trying to figure out what the aforementioned high-tech schtick was before the book revealed it.4
To be honest, I don’t really have a whole lot to say; Cussler books are somewhat formulaic. But so is, say, cooking; it’s the little variations that make it interesting. I enjoyed reading it, and I’m comfortable recommending it to people if you want an airport-bookstore novel.5 Go have a read.6

  1. Seriously why does there have to be a heterosexual romance in everything, it’s ridiculous 
  2. I still occasionally devote some time to mapping out how I’d build it if I were to create my own version of the Oregon
  3. There’s also a good bit of devotion to the series just because it’s how I found one of my favorite authors. ANECDOTE TIME: when the Kindle first came out, I was in the middle of reading Cussler’s Dark Watch. A family friend had a Kindle and offered to let me try it out; rather than dig around in their books, I pulled up the Kindle Store and tried to download the sample of the book I was reading at the time. I misremembered the name, though, and wound up downloading the sample of Night Watch by Terry Pratchett. I read the whole sample and, the next time I went to the library, checked out the book so I could finish reading it. Since then, I’ve read almost every novel Pratchett ever wrote. (I also wound up buying one of those original Kindles; I’m still sad that it broke, the PaperWhite is nice but just isn’t as good as the original was.) 
  4. I also really appreciated the lack of a stilted romance subplot; the book thought about doing it, at one point, but only made it as far as “he thought she looked good in her outfit” and then dropped that whole thing, which was nice. 
  5. That’s not intended as an insult; I think it’s a pretty valid description of the category of books that Cussler writes. 
  6. I just realized I didn’t actually explain the title of this post; long story short, there’s a scene in the book where the difference between “he said” and “she said” is used to move the plot along… except the characters are speaking Spanish, a gendered language, so that kind of slip-up wouldn’t actually happen. It irritated me disproportionately.