Review: Too Like The Lightning by Ada Palmer

too like the lightningHow can you go wrong with a book that has been officially permitted by six governmental agencies, certified nonproselytory, and has a page full of detailed trigger warnings for sex, violence, discussion of religion, and opinions likely to cause offense?

Too Like The Lightning isn’t a book set in the future or a book about the future, but a book from the future – and what a clever conceit it is!  This is the cleverest book I’ve read in ages.  I honestly can’t tell the author’s positions on any of the topics she addresses in it; in fact, I can’t figure out the narrator’s positions on most of them – though that may be because this is just the first volume, so BE WARNED, it ends right in the middle.

The middle of what? is the question.  Or rather, if it’s the question you might be frustrated by this book – because for this book, being in the middle is the whole point. Don’t pick it up if you want a clear quest carried out by a relatable protagonist with virtuous motives; if you want identifiable heroes and villains; if you want anything that fits into your current thinking.  Because this is a book from the future, and its point is to drop you into the middle of that future — a future clearly grown out of our current preoccupations, serving as an ambiguous commentary on them for those who wish to take it that way, but really its own thing whether you like it or not.

In short, this is a worldbuilding book.  But saying that minimizes it, because this isn’t one of those books that reruns themes from history in a postapocalyptic *yawn*, or one of those books that creates a new culture from mediaeval *yawn*, or a book which incorporates the most exotic, incomprehensible traditions from other *yawn*. This is a book populated by people who’ve consciously built every detail of their culture on first principles, who care nothing for tradition, who read Voltaire and would find current postmodern discourse amusing if primitive.

Imagine a world where …

  • gendered pronouns are verboten (but our narrator finds them useful, so he applies them based on what stereotyped role the person appears to be taking)
  • religion can only be discussed in private, with a government-certified professional
  • convicted criminals become slaves for life, forbidden to own so much as a sandwich
  • you’re not the citizen of any country, but of the supranational collective of your choice – or of none, if you really want to live without protection of the law
  • knowing another language is a grievous breach of the speakers’ privacy
  • the police can’t just tell where you are at any moment, they know your heart rate…

All seen through the eyes of one of those convicted criminals, a man who may be shoveling out a sewer one minute and called away to advise a head of state the next. Because Mycroft Canner is no ordinary person, no ordinary criminal, and his problems are no ordinary problems — especially the child he’s trying to protect (or does he really do protection?) in between hopping from continent to continent to deal with his noble masters’ flurry about the yearly ten-best lists, on which they may or may not appear, and about which they seem to care way, way too much.

Those lists are the weak point of the plot, for me. Why does anybody care? I certainly don’t, but that just allows me to ignore them in favor of pondering the worldbuilding and admiring how well the author jerks me around. Are all those permissions and trigger warnings on the first page satire, or are they demonstrating that this would be a good thing? How about Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns, with which the reader argues occasionally? Do they demonstrate that gendered pronouns can really be done away with, that they should be done away with, that they leave a vacuum into which gender stereotypes will slip, would we or not, that Mycroft is messed up?  And what about slavery? Is Mycroft getting a good deal, or a raw deal?

In the last third of the book (just about the point I was saying to myself Oh CRAP, this thing is moving too slowly to wind up in one volume) the book begins to live up to those trigger warnings, so don’t skip over them.  But that in itself is a game-changer, throwing everything you’ve begin to assume about this culture and the characters into a cocked hat – which somebody is sure to be wearing, in this Enlightenment-worshipping future. And by the time it ended, all I wanted was the second volume.

It’s been three weeks since I finished this book, and I still haven’t a clue what the author thinks about anything.  I couldn’t be more satisfied.







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Complicity and Naming Buildings

When I joined my current school, we only had one building named after a person. It was named after St. Clare of Assisi, who I knew only as the patron saint of television.

In recent years, the school has gone through a bout of renaming buildings. We have three more named after nuns and one named after a person I honestly know nothing about, and this has happened at the very time when students at other schools have started protesting buildings named after people they disapprove of.  So I’m wondering what the point is of naming buildings after people, anyway. I never see a defense of some historical name that explains why the person chosen was memorialized in the first place.

It would be pretty interesting to have truthful explanations of why buildings have the names they do. I’m betting the plaque would usually read ‘This person gave us a mess of money and we didn’t ask how they made it. You wouldn’t have this building without their tainted money, so suck it up. You’re complicit.’

That is not the case at my school, of course, since we’re naming buildings after people who’ve taken vows of poverty and obedience. A time will come when that’s viewed as problematic in itself, I’m sure. I hope we will then be honest enough to put up our own plaque: ‘This person gave countless hours to run the school, and we didn’t ask or care whether she wanted to spend her time that way or not. You wouldn’t have any of this without her. Suck it up, you’re complicit.’

What are we trying to accomplish when we take names off buildings? Are we trying to hide from our own complicity? ‘I’m not too good to benefit from this thing I deplore, I’m just too good to admit it.’

Today’s Memorial day, one of the few days in the year when we all unite, or at least seem to, in celebrating the ways we benefit from something we deplore. This is the day we all suck it up. We’re complicit. But tomorrow we will start anew looking for ways to deny that.

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The Charms of Discourse

That was the subtitle of Advice From Pigeons, but only Sofia Samatar got the reference. Maybe Matt Bruenig would have: he has an interesting post up today about how The Discourse marginalizes the people.

I always agree with Matt completely the first time I read his stuff, and then begin to accumulate second thoughts and concerns and objections as I go on. I certainly agree with his critiques of identity politics in this one. He is arguing that the combination of The Discourse and Identity Politics creates a seamless barrier between the working class and the pundit class.

  • Lower class people, almost by definition, cannot engage in The Discourse. They do not have the education, credentials, or jobs necessary to do so.
  • Upper class people (broadly construed) can engage in The Discourse, but if they do so as a partisan or advocate of the lower classes, they are dismissed because they are not themselves lower class.

This is pretty obviously true. But when I zoom out or in, I have disagreements.

Zooming out, I see Matt’s piece as accepting that the liberal academy and intelligentsia, and The Discourse, are important to social justice. If there’s anything the Trumpening should be making us ask about, it should be this. Working class people have not gone away just because The Discourse has not included them, any more than creationists have gone away because The Discourse doesn’t include them. Matt points out clearly that pundits and practitioners of TD (I am tired of typing The Discourse) are different, become different, from the groups they rose from. What he doesn’t consider is the possibility that they become irrelevant; that TD is simply a way of keeping academic types occupied with themselves, so the rest of the country can go on its own way.

Zooming in, I ask myself if the entire process of education isn’t legitimately about changing people’s approach and language, teaching them to take analytic approaches. TD is the language of analysis, of technical experts who weigh alternatives using abstract terms that apply to all of them, rather than of advocates who are arguing for one alternative over another on far less abstract bases.

Perhaps the problem is not that TD shuts out the people, but that TD speakers insist on bothering the people. If advocates want analysis, after all, we technical experts are available for hire or pro bono; why should we assume that we are assets to movements that have not sought our services? I do not assume that I’d be any use on a hospital floor, even though I could draw a fine flow chart of the patient’s pathophysiology.

I think a lot of what comes out of the academy these days is about our own insecurities and ego issues. The rest of the country is lucky if it gets to ignore our flurrying around as we try to figure out how working in the ivory tower imparts value to ourselves and society, and what to do about the fact that when we come up with an explanation that satisfies our souls, it is usually phrased in The Discourse – so nobody outside the tower either understands it, believes it, or cares about it. Is the answer to require outsiders to learn our language before they can participate in the discussion, or to go and find out through honest research just what our discourse is good for in people’s lives?

In Advice from Pigeons, Charms of Discourse are used to summon demons by flattering them – defining them in ways that lure them into a charmed circle and keep them trapped there, listening to their own stories, until they figure out how to refute the assumptions embedded in the charms.  It was true when I wrote it, and it’s still true today.

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Forget ‘Wellness,’ let’s Do Stuff

Here’s an interesting article about debates on the concept of ‘wellness’ from the latest Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, behind a paywall!) One of the things I like most about it is that the author welcomes vigorous debate about the underpinnings and worth of ‘wellness’.

Intellectually, the arguments of wellness skeptics excite because they question our most dearly held assumptions: What do you mean, healthy isn’t superior? How can a focus on wellness suggest social malaise?


The arguments she points out include that wellness diverts responsibility for people’s welfare from society onto the individual, adding health maintenance to an endless list of tasks that government could help with but has instead foisted onto us; that the people promoting wellness are often insufficiently trained and their maxims unreflective and self-contradictory; and that it’s faddish, classist activity for those with extra time and money.

I’m surprised that none of the people criticising wellness seem to have raised the critique my father always made – that it was “a G-d waste of time.”

My father did more exercise than ten other men. When he was in his sixties he could out-work men half his age. Not because he believed in wellness; because he believed in Doing Stuff. Yarding wood all summer, cultivating a two-acre vegetable garden, collecting wild food along the highways and byways, mowing the lawn with a hand scythe and raking it with hay-rakes; building log-cabin sheds and corduroy trails, hand-splitting fence rails, bringing groceries up the hill in a pedal-powered car, snowshoeing out into the woods to drag home Xmas greenery on a toboggan; even, for a brief but unforgettable period, hand-milling the family’s flour. I get a real hit of nostalgia, watching the losers’ punishments in Hell’s Kitchen.

Doing Stuff and Exercise were opposites. Doing Stuff meant that you ended up with Stuff! Exercise meant that you ended up with wasted time and nothing to show for it. It was acceptable as rehab,  but the point of getting rehabbed was that you could then finally quit the exercise and go Do Stuff.

Coming out of this worldview, I see corporatized ‘wellness’ as just one more way we’re encouraged to make peace with the fact that society does not want most of us to be Doing Stuff for ourselves. All kinds of laws forbid us from Doing Stuff in our communities. We’re supposed to pay licensed people to Do Stuff for us, or buy our Stuff from corporations. And to make up for the fact that we no longer get to Do Stuff, we pay to pedal on the exercycle.

In her article, Dr. Petrezela points out the advantages of wellness activities for building social groups, supplementing inadequate medical services, empowering the overlooked. Yeah, I think, I suppose so, but where’s the Stuff? Does this kind of empowerment result in any real change? Or does it distract, for just a little while, from the fact that so many avenues for Doing Stuff have been closed off? When I read about more and more people in our country chronically unemployed, getting depressed, getting addicted, committing suicide, I can’t convince myself that what they need is Zumba.

What if in the end, for human flourishing and well-being, there is really no substitute for good old-fashioned Doing Stuff?

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Not to be Politically Incorrect, but…

There’s this thing going around on Facebook.  Some guy posted a whole mess of his opinions under the heading: “I feel the need to drop a little truth on y’all. So buckle up…I’m about to be politically incorrect.”

You can read it if you want, I’ll wait.

Back? Yeah, I know, that took a while. But tell me, is there a single word in that post that is not politically correct to the nth degree? So why does the poster label it as ‘politically incorrect’?

While this irritates me on one level, it cheers me on another. It tells me that at least one person doesn’t want to be politically correct. Good! However, the answer is not to just call our politically correct opinions ‘politically incorrect.’  The answer is to actually challenge parts of the big list of politically approved opinions, when we feel they aren’t adequate, and to take the flack that comes with doing so.

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Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home – a modern Hausa novel

51aYUsVCGFL._UY250_I just read what’s supposed to be the first book translated from the Hausa into English: Sin is a Puppy That Follows You Home by Balaraba Ramat Yakubu.

CORRECTION: Carmen McCain, author of the articles I linked to below, tells me that there have been several other Hausa novels translated – though this one may be the first one by a woman to be translated into English.

I enjoyed the book in the same way I enjoy Victorian-era novels like Pink and White Tyranny. It was obvious from the first sentence who the good people were and who the bad people were, and that the bad people would come to grief.

Marked you not how retribution, like a poisèd hawk, came swooping down upon the wrongdoer? Oh, it was splendid! (W.S. Gilbert, Patience)

The real thrill though, wasn’t what seemed familiar but what was completely new to me. In this novel, a man who wants to marry an additional wife brings the current senior wife a bag of gifts and makes the announcement. If he decides to divorce one of his wives, he simply gives her a letter with his declaration written three times in it. There are no legal battles over child custody; the bad husband tells his wife to take their nine children away with her, while the good one brings his divorced wife’s children back to his house one at a time, giving them to the current wife to raise.

Then, the things the characters had to pay for or not pay for. I recognized the divorced wife’s need to stay in her children’s school district, and sympathized with her selling off possessions to pay for the older childrens’ boarding schools. But when she told her eldest son to attend University because it wouldn’t cost anything, I did a double-take. Free higher education! And when the bad husband ends up in hospital, there’s no mention of who will pay his bill but much discussion of who is bringing him his meals. I recognized this from a visit to a hospital in Tanzania, but had not known a similar system applied in Nigeria.

Marriage negotiations amazed me. The book follows a good marriage through the lovers’ first sight of one another on the street, the proposal at his first visit to her house, the formal visits from female relatives (during which the bride-to-be stays modestly hidden in another room), negotiations and gifts, the furnishing of the wife’s room. All of it new and fascinating to me, but obviously routine to the author and her target audience.

What I liked most about this book is that it did not cater to me at all. It was not written for Western eyes. For maybe an hour I was in a world where the opinions of people from my country simply didn’t exist, being given moral advice that went contrary to many of my assumptions and values. This is just the kind of challenge I want from literature!

So how much of what I think I picked up about Nigerian culture from this book is accurate? I have no way of knowing. But the book is itself a part of Nigerian culture, and I picked it up… I can say no more, except that I wish more books from this gigantic body of literature had been translated into English, and I will be watching for them!

Here’s an article about the author’s life and work

Here’s one about the Hausa-language literary tradition from the 1300s to the contemporary littatafan soyayya novels (of which this book is an example).


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The Anatomy of a Jack-ass Argument


My students were analyzing a case study and I went over to bother them, the way you do. “Here’s my hypothesis,” one of them said.

I recognized my own words coming out of her mouth.

I ask students to form hypotheses rather than theories. I do it as lip service to an argumentative strategy from my discipline that I think is bullshit, inane, counterproductive, and deserving of scorn; but I also think my students did not sign up to be cannon fodder in my personal crusade, and ‘hypothesis’ is a perfectly good way for them to sidestep the whole nonsense.

The argument I refer to is, of course, the ‘Scientists don’t mean what you mean when you say theory‘ argument for evolution. This offensive demand that English speakers reinterpret what they mean when using their own language has been trotted out for far too long as if it were going to convince somebody of something, some day, if we only said it often enough.

Back in the ’80s, when a whopping 48% of USians rejected evolution, I was in grad school studying evolutionary biology. So I got to be in on alarmed discussions in the field, and was taught this foolproof argumentative strategy.

Here’s how it went:

Creationist: Evolution’s just a theory.

Evolutionary Biologist: That’s not how scientists use the word theory! We use it to mean something that’s established by multiple lines of evidence. After all, we call gravity a theory too. You don’t think that’s in question, do you?

Creationist: I know what ‘theory’ means. I’ve been speaking English my whole life. You can pretend it means whatever fool thing you want, but I know my own language!

Well, this has been going on for thirty-plus years, and I’m happy to report that the percent of people in the US who disbelieve in evolution is now … 33%. Our side is winning at the rate of 0.5% per year. Which is, frankly, better than that argument deserves.

I’m an evolutionary biologist, but my sympathies lie entirely with the creationist in the dialogue above. Re-defining people’s language to make it mean what you want it to mean is not cool. It’s arrogant jackassery. It was arrogant when evolutionists tried to redefine theory to mean ‘something we’re sure of,’ it was arrogant when economists tried to redefine rational to mean ‘self-interested,’ and it’s arrogant when social scientists try to redefine racist to mean ‘breathing in a biased society’.

If you think a concept is really important, you’ll create a language that allows you to talk about it precisely. Like metastasize, or atherosclerosis, or eutrophication. Those are examples of working language, used by people who want to accomplish something other than messing with folks’ heads and picking fights. And they are the kind of words that will eventually get into the public vocabulary on their own merits, be recognized as describing something important, and actually change people’s opinions and behaviors.

Or hey, we could all just call whatever we’re working on virtue, truth, and beauty. We’d feel good about ourselves, have lots of invigorating fights with the public, and move maybe 0.5% closer to our goals per year.

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OMG CSS! And what does it mean for teaching?

Screenshot 2016-03-12 11.59.04It’s taken years, but I’ve finally come around to cascading style sheets.

I was introduced to them in the absolutely worst way, when a Dreamweaver update suddenly refused to accept half the commands I was used to putting into my web pages. I couldn’t just make a word bold, I had to define bold in a different pane and then apply it to the word.  Half the stuff I wanted could be coded through the html panel, and half through css.  I had to search around to find a way to accomplish things that used to be simple.

Who were these invisible commisars interfering with my established dreamweavering?  What was the point of defining bold, when I would have to do it all over again on the next page? Where were those definitions even stored?  How were they related to templates, and why did my templates never apply to any of my pages anyway?  I wrestled with all this for a few months, and then basically gave up using Dreamweaver.

My brother came to the rescue.  He taught me what css was over Xmas vacation and showed me how to design my fiction website with it, coding in notepad.  That was neat, but didn’t solve my larger problems – that the whole of my academic website, with hundreds of tutorial pages, had been made in Dreamweaver and now seemed impervious to any rational analysis.

Then this year, the light finally dawned. I can keep the site’s look stable by setting it up in css!  I can keep the shared content for each tutorial — page titles and footers — in tutorial-specific css ‘after’ commands! (This is discouraged by css police, but I don’t care).   I can keep commonly used hyperlinks in php files!  I can call other people’s css files online (eg Bootstrap)  and use their coding for tricky stuff like popovers!  It’s become a game to see how much of a page’s content I can outsource to a css or php file.  I can’t wait to start rewriting the site this summer.

Learning how to code isn’t my business, though.  Teaching is my business.  So what can I learn about teaching, or not teaching, from the fact that it took me six years to learn how to code in css in spite of the fact that I spent time coding in css during every one of those six years?  Why did I not learn to do what I was learning to do?

After all, students do this all the time.  They perform an analysis in the first hour of class and then look at you big-eyed,  like so many plates of fried eggs, when you ask them to do it again in the second hour.

Here are some of the reasons that Dreamweaver failed to teach me about css.

  1. I already had a perfectly good way of doing what I wanted to do, and it introduced css as an impediment.
  2. It never explained what the css definitions were for — that what I defined on one page could be applied to any other pages.  This isn’t uncommon.  The folks writing documentation for such programs usually take the purpose of their procedures as given, never bothering to explain it to the lumpenusertariat.
  3. It solved a problem I didn’t know I had.  It wasn’t until 4 years later when I got a wide monitor that I realized my web pages kept changing width, and that I needed to correct something on every single page.
  4. It did the interesting work for me.  I couldn’t see the css file, where it was, what it was, or how to apply it to a page.  I couldn’t tweak the css and see how it affected the page.  I could just enter mysterious stuff into the black box and hope the gremlins inside would allow me to design a web page.

I applied some of these insights to my class on heart failure this week.

  1. Students already have a pretty reasonable understanding of heart failure, so why should I complicate it? Instead of my usual focus on distinguishing lots of different kinds of heart failure, I admitted that RHF and LHF would lead to one another.  We defined those two types and how they led to congestive heart failure.
  2. I need to make clear what problem the new categories solve. Instead of introducing systolic and diastolic heart failure right away, as categories students need to understand for some unstated reason, I introduced them after CHF as ways to tell whether a patient will benefit from one treatment or another.
  3. Am I doing all the interesting work for them?  Instead of telling students what murmur would be heard during what valve defect, I  just gave them case studies — patient with CHF and preserved ejection fraction has diastolic murmur over mitral valve.  What’s going on?  Then I had them write their own case studies – choose a valve defect and predict what would happen with the patient.  Next week we’ll work on the further consequences of the valve defects they chose, and flesh out those case studies.

I knew these were better instructional principles.  We all know that.  But we drift away from them, over and over again.  That’s why faculty should, every now and then, try to learn something that challenges us from people who aren’t particularly good teachers — to remind ourselves of what we need to do and why we need to do it.

Otherwise we, like everybody else, fail to learn what we’ve been doing all along.



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Christ in the ears

I don’t post much religious stuff on here, but my church has been using hymns by Richard Bruxvoort-Colligan this lent. We tend to use the same songs and texts for many weeks in a row, so I’ve had a chance to sing  ‘Oh, Christ Surround Me’ quite a lot.

Yesterday I was struck by the last verse.

Christ in the eyes of all who see me,
Christ in the ears that hear my voice,
Christ in the hearts of all who know me,
Oh, Christ surround me.

Christians are usually exhorted to see Christ in the people we meet, treating them as if they were as important as he is.  That puts us in the position of ‘doing unto,’ which can be a little self-inflating.  But these lines put me in the position of the person being done to, hoping for charity in those who hear and see me.

This verse makes me think about people being silenced, scorned, or having the worst possible constructions put on their words. Or of people who actually have done shameful things.  What are we Christians being asked to see and hear in those people?

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Subversion Junkie

Pathophysiology is about things going wrong.  Every day I focus on things going wrong, from the moment I open feedly and scan my articles to the last student assessment I put down on my desk to the next doctor’s appointment I keep.  It leaks into every aspect of my life; as I read literary criticism this morning, coming across the word ‘subversion’ in every second paragraph, I realized that pathophysiology is essentially about subversion, and that my attitude toward subversion in pathophysiology probably explains a lot about my attitude towards it in literature.

I think subversion is cool, I must admit.  My response to a new disease mechanism is always “Cool!  I mean, I’m so sorry that happened to you, that really sucks, but — cool!”

The problem with liking subversion for its own sake, as an intellectual exercise and a frisson, even when it’s killing somebody … well, as soon as you add that last clause, the problem is obvious, isn’t it?  Subversion is an amoral concept.  The thrill of intellectual challenge has no correlation with whether that challenge helped you solve a problem, cause one, or just sit on the sidelines eating popcorn.  Subverting a noble cause is just as big a thrill as subverting a horrific cause.  We subversion junkies are nobody’s allies.

So, literature.  Subversion of conservative tropes has been the flavor of the week since I was a pup, and that’s a long time for the flavor not to change.  Culver’s has gone through every conceivable ice cream flavor three times in that period and finally resorted to chocolate strawberry walleye, or so Facebook tells me.   Evolution is changing faster than literature is; bacteria do new stuff every week, brand new diseases have risen, killed, and moved on, but literary critics are still applauding people for ‘subverting’ tropes from the 1950s.

This simply cannot meet my need for constant thrills.  I want books that will subvert CURRENT pieties, challenge TODAY’S conventional wisdom.  When my authors’ group does writing exercises, I’m the one asking for stories in which the rebel is wrong, or the traditional approach turns out to be grounded in fact, or the [insert under-represented group] character is actually the villain.  It’s not because I disagree with current morals or hate diversity; it’s because I am BORED BORED BORED with the literary consensus of the day.

I am bored with the fact that there IS a literary consensus of the day.  For heavens’ sake, there are people out there voting for Donald Trump!  There are people who never heard the word subversion, people who don’t read, people who raise bees and carry out honor killings and build machine guns.  What business do writers have forming a consensus, when the world hasn’t?

I feel so alone in SFF.  Everything in the political scene of current SFF is against the subversion junkie.  On the one hand we have a huge group of people trying to redefine subversion as ‘criticism of 1950s tropes,’ to keep the cutting edge from slipping out from under them.  On the other hand, we have a bunch of people trying to dodge the whole question of subversion and celebrate good ol’-fashioned blood and thunder.

It’s a sad, sad situation when I can find more subversion in IFL Science than in speculative fiction.  Or maybe it’s not.  Maybe I need to subvert my assumptions about speculative fiction.  After all, has it ever done more than follow where science leads?

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