Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

A Timely Quote from The Diamond Age

One summer, as he was living in Ames and working as a
research assistant in a solid-state physics lab, the city was actually
turned into an island for a couple of days by an immense flood.
Along with many other Midwesterners, Finkle-McGraw put in a few
weeks building levees out of sandbags and plastic sheeting. Once
again he was struck by the national media coverage—reporters from
the coasts kept showing up and announcing, with some
bewilderment, that there had been no looting. The lesson learned
during the Sioux City plane crash was reinforced. The Los Angeles
riots of the previous year provided a vivid counterexample. Finkle-
McGraw began to develop an opinion that was to shape his political
views in later years, namely, that while people were not genetically
different, they were culturally as different as they could possibly be,
and that some cultures were simply better than others. This was not
a subjective value judgment, merely an observation that some
cultures thrived and expanded while others failed. It was a view
implicitly shared by nearly everyone but, in those days, never

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 12, 2011 at 13:52

Posted in Books, Culture

Review of Surface Detail by Iain M. Banks

Surface Detail CoverCritics are calling it “Singularity Punk” – stories about societies so advanced, even death becomes a lifestyle choice.

Imagine being able to copy, download and store a human mind – to be able to move it around like a computer program and run it inside a simulation that is absolutely indistinguishable from reality — a society where citizens are encouraged to “back themselves up” regularly so they can be resurrected in new bodies if they die.

If you had the power to store individuals in elaborate virtual environments, what would you do with it? Some societies in Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels have decided to create virtual Heavens to reward the faithful. But does a virtual Heaven need to be balanced with a virtual Hell?

That’s the argument at the core of “Surface Detail” – the 9th Culture novel — where these myriad artificial afterlives have divided themselves into pro and anti-hell factions and gone to war. In these vast technological utopias, politics continues after death.

The factions agree to settle their differences with a virtual war, arbitrated by a race of natural referees. But when the anti-hell side starts losing they decide to cheat. First they try hacking the simulation, and when that doesn’t work, they decide to build a fleet of warships and settle the question in Real Space, destroying the hardware that Hell runs on.

The dead come “back to life” and threaten to intrude on mortal politics, while the “Level 8” societies choose up sides. The Culture is determined to stay neutral in this conflict, even if their sympathies tend to lie with the anti-hell side.

Readers will find it impossible to stay neutral as Banks brings us into a virtual Hell and chronicles the depravity in soul-numbing detail. Banks has always been fascinated by the dark side of human nature. He has such a gift for observing and describing human evil, I can only assume he created the Culture as a Utopian antidote, to soothe the nightmares in his own brain.

This flair for darkness, this balancing of perfect good with unspeakable evil is what keeps these novels from descending into Roddenberry territory. The Culture is never too sweet, never too cute, never too simplistic to be overwhelmed by the requirements of mundane reality, even if they have abolished money and turned their society over to a ruling class of benevolent AIs.

The Culture is run by its Minds – artificial intelligences so advanced they are as far above “normal” AIs as a super-computer is from a Commodore 64. The machines are remarkably human — as quirky, emotional and flawed as the humans that spawned them, even if they do have the literal power of gods.

There’s something very Greek about The Culture – a feeling of wry anticipation as machines take on the roles of Athena, Zeus and Aphrodite – alternately tormenting, toying with and rescuing mortals from their folly.

The Minds may toy with their human instruments, but you know it’s ultimately for the best – that all wounds will be healed and all indignities will be rectified, if not quite in the way you’d expect.

Banks’ vision of The Culture is becoming more complex and more organized as his stories progress. What started as a vague technological utopia is becoming more accessible and more “realistic” as Banks nails down the details.

Surface Detail introduces us to a variety of Culture factions, each specializing in a different aspect of alien society; the way branches of the military specialize in different kinds of threats. And just like in a conventional military, inter-service rivalry can be the worst enemy.

Banks rebels against his own sickly-sweet Culture stereotype by focusing the action on the avatar of an Abominator-class warship – a kind of trickster Ares who maintains a core of decency, even as he torments and murders mortals who get in his way.

The ship’s avatar revels in destruction and cruelty the way a child enjoys burning ants with a magnifying glass, but always within the Culture’s benevolent framework.

The ship really is a god in the Greek sense, cheerfully explaining things to his human champion as he fits her with tools, weapons and magical armor for the fight ahead.

That’s what surprises me most about these novels. You’d expect the Culture to be a stagnant society, but there’s a real sense of technological progress here, as the Abominator explains why he’s superior to the poor old Torturer class he’s pretending to be.

Iain Banks is famous for his dark humor, emotional complexity and light-fingered social commentary, but there’s a bit of gadget porn thrown in here too. Who wouldn’t want to live in a world of gelfield suits and intelligent tattoos?

There are plenty of sci-fi tropes in here, but the Culture books don’t read like space opera. They read like mythology, with technology filling in details that used to be described as magic. Surface Detail is an epic novel that actually seems more light-hearted and accessible than Banks’ previous efforts. This isn’t the first Culture novel you should read. (Start with The Player of Games.) But this is a fine sequel to Excession and Use of Weapons.

And yes, I’ll confess to making a little squee sound when I saw the first Mind-to-Mind email exchange in here. Banks may be stingy with the fanservice, but he gets to it eventually, if you wait long enough. He even gives us a solid ending, wrapping up the far flung plot threads in a way that doesn’t seem forced or tacked on.

If humans ever do figure out how to create a technological afterlife, I hope they will remember this book, and leave Hell on the drawing board.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 18, 2010 at 10:43

Posted in Books

38 Candles with Sarah Vowell

I decided to spend my birthday with Sarah Vowell on Tuesday.

Specifically I went to the Allen Theater and got her to scribble “Happy Birthday” on an issue of GO!

A Sarah Vowell reading in Lubbock turned out to be a great choice on my birthday. The crowd made me feel young. Average age was below 40 but definitely above 35. Grad students in jeans, professors in bow ties, soccer-moms in shoulder pads with sharp Southern cheekbones and one gray-haired man with a pony tail. I think I dropped his English class, many years ago. Or maybe that was the one I passed.

This was not a typical Lubbock crowd. This was like a band of expatriates, huddled together in a foreign land. In Lubbock, Sarah Vowell’s name is a litmus test. Most natives won’t know who she is, but one in five people who hear her name will nod and wink.

These are the NPR people — a dot of blue in a sea of red. We’re working on a handshake.
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

March 3, 2009 at 23:48

Posted in Best Of, Books

Life lessons from the author of 'Stuff White People Like'

The Internet can’t change your life.

It can’t take an idea you had on a coffee break, lift you from obscurity and make all your dreams come true in six months.

Except when it does.

That’s what happened to Christian Lander, the creator of Stuff White People Like. Lander, an aspiring comedy writer from Toronto, was discussing “The Wire” with a friend from work when the conversation took a turn that changed his life.

He started with an obscure WordPress blog read by 25 friends, then his site got noticed by Comedy Central, creating a media avalanche that turned it into a overnight viral phenomenon.

Christian talked about his success in an utterly charming YouTube video recorded at the Google compound.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Michael B. Duff

January 9, 2009 at 16:43

Posted in Books

Steve Martin, on comedy, loneliness and women

I read his biography first, so I guess that makes it okay.

Steve Martin’s autobiography, “Born Standing Up” is a must-read for anybody who wants to perform, containing lessons that every artist should expose themselves to, even if they don’t entirely sink in.

Steve’s jokes aren’t funny anymore, and that makes it work better. You feel what a terrible uphill climb it was, to be recognized for his comedy, to refine his act in a thousand brutal nightclubs.

Steve can teach you about courage and persistence. You get the impression that Steve was not meant to be funny. He was born to be insanely quirky smart, and comedy was the only outlet he could think of.

I don’t think Steve Martin was born to be funny. I think Steve Martin was born to write books, and that comedy was a 40-year tangent. He was born to write books like “Shopgirl” — a tender, neatly-constructed novella that reads like a love letter to every young woman in the world.

I’ve never been a young girl, and neither has Steve Martin, but his portrayal of a lonely young woman named Mirabelle has a wonderful poignancy and ring of truth to it. I’ll confess that although I’ve written extensively on the topic of male loneliness, I don’t know much about the female equivalent.

Female loneliness feels different, the way he writes it. Softer somehow. While men tend to burn out, lash out and melt down, women just kind of…suffer. Quietly, delicately, until loneliness makes them do something stupid. Usually that “something stupid” is a man.

I’ve barely cracked the cover on this book, barely stepped in to Mirabelle’s world, but Martin has already defied my expectations and taught me something. We all know that young women who enter into relationships with older men are signing up for a kind of devil’s bargain, but Martin reveals that entering into a relationship with a young man is a devil’s bargain, too.

Each case involves giving up something, risking and sacrificing in hopes that emotional needs get met, praying that boys can put aside their natural selfishness and blindness, just long enough to be real and human, if only for a couple hours at a time.

“Shopgirl” is a wonderful book — using intelligence and insight to tell us about ourselves and explore the fundamental nature of romance and compromise. It’s a mature book, looking back on youth with adult eyes, analyzing things that most people just live.

Maybe some people would be happier not analyzing the mechanics of loneliness and youth, but so far, it’s been worth the trip.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 8, 2008 at 06:18

Posted in Books

Dumbledore is gay. Does it matter?

I'm late to the party on this one. Scott Slemmons already covered this in his Hero Sandwich blog but the Internet is still buzzing about it, and I wanted to weigh in.

First, it's not a publicity stunt. Rowling doesn't need more money and she didn't invent this overnight. These books were planned out years in advance, and J.K. left out more detail than she put in. Check out any random interview and you'll see her reveal fascinating story bits that weren't quite important enough to make it in print.

So when she says Dumbledore is gay, I believe he's been gay from the beginning. This revelation actually explains a lot and fits with the character. The biggest mystery in book 7 is how could Dumbledore be blind to the influence of a villain who started as a close friend. Now we know.

He was blind because he was in love, a situation that anyone with half a heart or half a brain can relate to.

The usual suspects are furious, of course. Bad enough that HP promotes Satanism and Witchcraft, now reading it can give your kids The Gay!

I'm delighted to see Rowling throw this curve ball into our national debate. A big chunk of the world population thinks homosexuality is evil, and we need to confront that. We need to talk about it and deal with it.

I think 20 years from now, prejudice against homosexuals will seem just as shameful and old-fashioned as the Jim Crow laws seem today.

Of course the Bible denounces homosexuality, but the Bible has been used to justify all kinds of crazy prejudices throughout history. Biblical interpretations fall in and out of fashion just like anything else.

In the 18th century, Bible verses were routinely used to justify slavery. Those interpretations fell out of fashion as the culture changed, and I believe the 20th century prejudice against homosexuals will vanish as well.

Religious movements establish culture, but they also respond to culture, and once society starts to accept homosexuality as natural and normal, the message from the pulpit will change as well.

This is a debate we need to have and Dumbledore's outing is a step in the right direction.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 24, 2007 at 10:21

Posted in Books, Culture, Politics

Harlan Ellison vs. Janna St. James

I could write a hundred entries about the dangers of Internet romance, about the dangers of mixing in too deeply with people you've never met. I could write those hundred entries or I could just link this one, which is like a hundred awful Internet fables rolled into one.

You know those urban legends about people getting their kidneys cut out in bathtubs? This is the emotional equivalent.

The funniest part? In this emotional horror story the day is saved by Harlan Ellison. Scifi fans know Harlan as the smartest, meanest, toughest hombre who ever put pen to paper, but imagine how much fun that is when he's on your side.

Written by Michael B. Duff

October 15, 2007 at 14:02

Posted in Books, Culture