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Book Review: The Broken Earth Trilogy, by N. K. Jemisin

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Stone_Sky
Link to Series on Amazon

(Putting this on the third and final book of the series because spoilers but it’s a review of the series as a whole, not just The Stone Sky)

I’ve never been a huge fantasy guy. Tried a couple of times to get into The Lord of the Rings as a kid; always bounced off within the first 100 pages or so. I’ve never read it, or seen the movies. Never got into D&D at all. Harry Potter, I’ve read not a word of nor seen even a minute of the movies. Game of Thrones, the books, I tried and got through like two of them and had to just bail. I do enjoy the show still, but the actual fantasy elements, like the Dragons and the White Walkers, are the least-interesting part to me. I prefer the politics and the personalities of the humans involved.

So, even though over time I’ve gotten a little more tolerant of Orcs and Dorks, it’s still not really my jam. Which explains why I just got around to reading The Fifth Season this year instead of when it came out in 2015 and won every award for fantasy worth winning. A solid review from my friend Smeebs put it over the edge and I finally grabbed and started reading the first book of the series.

And here we are, less than two weeks later, and I’ve finished reading the entire trilogy. It’s that good.

Even though it’s considered firmly in the fantasy camp, there’s a wonderful lack of the usual tropes; no dragons, no elves, and the world refreshingly resembles 14th-Century England not in the slightest.

Instead of all of that, we get a bracingly original set of conceits to revel in, many of which make the world seem thoroughly exoctic and foreign, instead of the more-typical fantasy trope of “like Earth, but older, with a touch of magic”.

Magic does exist in this universe, but in a more defined, important way than the usual “it just exists” manner we’re more familiar with. It is generated by the Earth itself, and interacts with its inhabitants in different ways depending on what type of inhabitant they are.

And those inhabitants are a varied, creative lot. The main protagonist and many of the main characters are Orogenes; humans who can detect and manipulate the tectonic activity of the Earth itself. They can therefore unleash crazy amounts of hell in this hyper-tectonically-active world, and are therefore despised by the majority regular humans, called “Stills” by the orogenes for their inability to feel the near-constantly moving Earth. On the flipside, a properly-trained and/or powerful-enough orogene can also deflect or even stop earthquakes locally, which makes them very valuable, if they can be controlled.

Author N. K. Jemisin is VERY subtle about this, but she makes some inciteful commentary and analogies between how the orogenes (who are commonly referred to by the Stills as “Rogga”, a word that’s basically the N-word of this universe) are treated in this world and how African-Americans are treated in ours. Again; it’s SUBTLE. She does not beat you over the head with it, which is appreciated in a work of fantasy fiction. But there’s some meat to chew on here.

Orogenes are either bred by the ruling society in creches heavily guarded by, well, The Guardians, a wonderfully creepy class of overwatches/parental surrogates who have… complex relationships with their charges, or they are “feral” and only discovered as having their unique powers when, typically as children, they lash out with their uncontrolled powers in a moment of fear or anger and Everybody Dies. This complex interplay between utility, power, and threat colors every bit of their existence and relationship with the society they inhabit.

My favorite of the invented races in her universe are the Stone Eaters. Much of what they are besides the obvious feature you can deduce from their name would ruin the story, so let’s just say that they’re… super fuckin’ interesting.

These races interact in a world where the Earth itself is basically ripping itself apart. Every so often, a cataclysmic event happens that fucks up the weather so bad the inhabitants call it The Fifth Season, and much of their cultural lore concerns how to just survive through these periods of horrific climatic and environmental upheaval.

Even in between the Fifth Seasons, the planet is much more active than ours, and it basically prevents society from advancing beyond its essentially late-medieval level of wealth and functioning, even though there is much evidence of “deadcivs” lying around that indicates that, at some point in the past, their ancestors had effectively reached our own “modern” level of advancement. And even in calm periods, people have to prepare and set aside any excess wealth into storage to help them survive the next Fifth Season, which can strike at any time.

The story has elements of the classic fantasy “quest”, but it’s also more than that. It’s a grand rumination on how a society chooses to function, the cost/benefit analysis that has to occur in moments of extreme strife and privation, and, most essentially, what makes somebody “human”?

On a closer level, there’s an examination of what it means when a society’s well-being depends on the forced labor of a specific subset of it. This is where the uncomfortable analogies to our own society are strongest, and, again, without spoiling anything, I like how the author covers this aspect.

The hard part of reviewing a series like this is that the reviewer can’t go too deep into the world or what happens without spoiling the journey, which I don’t want to do. That said, let’s examine a lot of the aspects of the series I found particularly rewarding:

  • The protagonists are mostly female. This is refreshing, and I don’t give two shits what the Sad Puppies (Google it, I’m not covering these shitheads at any length here other than to say that these guys whine about any book that doesn’t feature a white male lead, and go about their complaining in absolutely vile ways) have to say about it, and they’ve said more than enough. Morons.
  • Most of the “good” characters are brown. Most of the “bad” ones are white. Just by description; our world’s color dichotomy doesn’t exist in this one. Again, tough shit to whoever’s feelings are hurt by this. It’s good to not instantly feel comfortable and familiar with the protagonist of a novel, which is the default state of a white male reader of fantasy fiction. It’s certainly more interesting, and isn’t that something we WANT in our books? To be clear, the brown=good, white=bad thing isn’t absolute, and this is not a universe where ANYONE gets through without making some morally dubious choices. But, from a purely literary standpoint, it’s just fuckin’ refreshing.
  • One of the dominant themes is the nature of parenthood, particularly in times of societal upheaval, that is not at all the norm for books of this genre. I like her examination of this, even if it often verges on absolutely heart-breaking.
  • There are elements of sci-fi as well, but only via the aspect of “ancient” civilizations having existed thousands of years before the book’s present-day that were way more advanced than that present-day culture. This isn’t a particularly original idea, but her treatment of it, is.
  • I like that she doesn’t go too crazy with inventing words to replace things that already exist and have names in English. There’s a bit of that, which is just plain necessary to worldbuild and remind the reader that it’s not _our_ world this story is taking place in, but I like that even her invented words tend to be sensible enough to be immediately understandable by the reader. A child is a child, not a “birthling” or some dumb shit.
  • That said, people and place names are wonderfully foreign but have their own internal consistency that is pleasing and believable. A lot of books fuck this up.

Overall, The Broken Earth is an absolutely rewarding read. There’s more than enough original ideas in the series to make it feel much fresher than most fantasy, many aspects of the series are wholly original, and the emotional flavor and impact are deep and not in the usual ways we are used to from the genre. Basically, if you’re at all a fan of fantasy or sci-fi, you’re a fool if you don’t read this series.






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codersquid
4 days ago
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I agree with most everything you say.

(except that I like dorky fantasy too.)
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Supporting Int 1696-2017 for Source Code Transparency in New York City

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The principle at stake in California v. Johnson: due process requires that we be able to examine the evidence used to convict someone. Kern County got a $200,000+ grant and started using closed-source software to perform a new kind of DNA testing for criminal forensics. You are not allowed to audit the software to check for bugs, but the company founder will fly in and testify in court to say he attests to the validity of the results it finds. Uh, no, we need to check, and the ACLU and EFF have just filed amici curiae* briefs before California's Court of Appeal for the Fifth District, saying so.

Man at lectern in front of screen displaying 'Winning Raffle Numbers: 12345 12345 12345 12345', photo (used by permission) by Mike Pirnat at the PyCon PyLadies auction in 2017As I've written and even testified, we need more auditability, transparency, and security in software governments use in laboratories and field tests. Heck, we need it in software governments use to make decisions more generally -- lotteries for visas, school assignments, parole and prison sentencing, and so on.

So I was delighted to learn of bill Int 1696-2017, currently before New York City's City Council. Summary:

This bill would require agencies that use algorithms or other automated processing methods that target services, impose penalties, or police persons to publish the source code used for such processing. It would also require agencies to accept user-submitted data sets that can be processed by the agencies' algorithms and provide the outputs to the user.

I applaud James Vacca, chair of the council's Committee on Technology, for introducing and sponsoring this bill, and for citing/shouting out to danah boyd, Kate Crawford, and Cathy O'Neil as people whose work has shaped this legislation. The New York Times says: "As a committee chairman, he plans to convene hearings before he leaves office in December." I'm looking forward to attending those hearings.

If you live in New York City, you can contact your councilmember and suggest they cosponsor this bill. If you live elsewhere, consider telling your local elected officials that they oughta introduce legislation like this. When writing or calling, if you're a programmer or other technology expert, say so -- our voice matters.

I have more links in the algorithmictransparency tag on Pinboard.


* Many years ago, Seth Schoen made me an illustration that we still have somewhere. Reconstructed from memory:

[one smiling stick figure, male, near a courthouse] Sum amicus curiae.
[one smiling stick figure, female, near a courthouse] Sum amica curiae.
[many smiling stick figures of various genders, near a courthouse] Sumus amici curiae.
[one stick figure, male, holding a finger to his mouth as though shushing you, near a courthouse] Tacit! Sum inimicus curiae!

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codersquid
7 days ago
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Cockatoos Are As Crafty As Crows

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A new study groups cockatoos into the “innovative tool makers and users” club alongside crows and chimpanzees -- leaving human children far behind. Again
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codersquid
11 days ago
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What if Everyone Stopped Talking about “Political Correctness”?

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I’m not going to tell people to stop talking about “political correctness”, because that would instantly cause some internet denizens to label me a member of the SJW thought Gestapo for daring to express an opinion about what people should do that can’t be reduced to “suck it up, snowflake!”  

Instead, I encourage us all to engage in something essential to both philosophy and science fiction: a thought experiment.  Imagine a world in which everyone woke up tomorrow and stopped talking about “political correctness.”   If you find that too far fetched, imagine you are a human, alien, or robotic historian in the year 2117 trying to understand the Culture Wars of the late 20th and early 21stcentury.  

While I’ve grown weary of discussing this issue online and may not engage with comments (especially those veering into troll territory), if you feel the need to comment on this post, I ask that you keep in mind that these are questions.  I honestly don’t know how I would answer some of them.  One of the most obnoxious things about online discussions these days is that a lot of people assume they know what I think better than I do.  Please don’t be one of those people.


So I’m asking you to join me in a thought experiment: what if everyone stopped talking about “political correctness”?

  • Would we see that the whole thing is largely based on a hasty generalization that extrapolates from what is in reality a small set of isolated incidents into some allegedly pervasive phenomenon?
  • Might we notice that much of the media coverage of these issues is based on bad reporting and click bait headlines, which leads to pervasive straw man fallacies?
  • Would we see that there’s a difference between arguing about what people should do as reasonable and compassionate human beings and arguing about what they should be legally allowedto do?
  • Might we notice that many people in our society have failed to distinguish between being “edgy” and merely being a callous jerk?
  • Would we see that a lot of the anti-PC narrative simply assumes certain ideas are bullshit without actually inquiring into what they are or what rationales are given in their favor?
  • Might we come to re-evaluate whether “boutique issues” like basic rights for transgender people, “identity politics,” and the relationship between police and people of color are actually about the safety and dignity of our fellow human beings even if some on the left could do a better job articulating this fact?
  • Would we see that there is no real threat to free speech, at least not compared to real issues like net neutrality, corporate-controlled media, etc., and to the extent to which there is a problem, it’s not based on any pervasive conspiratorial campaign of “political correctness”? 
  • Might we see that there never was a PC conspiracy, but that like all conspiracy theories, there can be no evidence that counts against it for true believers?
  • Would we see that, for all the legitimate issues on the left side of the political spectrum, the very use of terms like “political correctness,” “SJWs,” etc. is, whether intentional or not, to cede huge swaths of territory to the right in the Culture Wars by endorsing the right’s framing of cultural issues?
  • Might we understand how the anti-PC narrative contributed directly to the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election?
  • Could it be seen that leftists and libertarians who talk about "political correctness" merely embolden the right, or even worse that doing so creates partial legitimation of and avenues into everything from MRAs, Gamergaters, and Rabid Puppies to the type of white supremacist hate groups that converged on Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017? 
  • Given recent statistics on Republicans and conservatives who think higher education is harming the country, could it be seen that by endorsing the anti-PC narrative, the right furthers its own descent into a self-defeating anti-intellectualism, or worse, a cynical use of anti-intellectualism as a political weapon to keep elite conservatives in charge?
  • Would we notice that critics of “snowflakes” often turn into “broflakes” -- easily outraged, intolerant of different views, etc., thus becoming what they claim to hate?
  • Would we see that the whole thing was at best a waste of time based on next to nothing and at worst a corrosive framework that has been actively harming some of the most vulnerable members of society?
  • Would we notice that the “PC has run amok” narrative is most vociferously supported by straight white dudes and almost always targets women, LGBT+ people, or people of color?  Would we wonder why that is? 
  • Could it be that the larger problem is that the internet has turned everyone across the political spectrum into a smug know-it-all, which makes us incapable of having nuanced adult conversations about these issues?  Maybe everything everybody says about “political correctness” makes this situation worse and distracts us from deeper issues that actually matter?  If this were true, does it apply to this post?  Should I shut up now?


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codersquid
11 days ago
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Question: Will Bridge City, TX be flooded due to dam B release at Steinhagen Lake?

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My parents have evacuated their neighborhood (Bevil Oaks outside of Beaumont) and are staying with family in Bridge City. How will dam releases affect the water level where they are? Should I ask them to evacuate?

I don't know how flooding works. What should I track?

I have family in Lumberton and Bridge City with houses that are above water.

Here are readings from usgs for Pine Island Bayou as of this time.

Should I mainly track the Neches River data to know when Bridge City would be flooded more than it has already been this week?

So far, my family's house in Bridge City has not taken on water, but roads have been impassible at times.

My sister says that Dam B at Steinhagen Lake between Woodville and Jasper is of concern, but I don't know how much to be concerned. How will it affect areas downstream?

Should I argue with everyone to evacuate even more?
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codersquid
24 days ago
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By: bl1nk

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I was a disaster relief and construction volunteer in Mississippi for Katrina and in New York for Sandy. The groups that I worked with were embedded in their communities for months, and I visited and revisited these places multiple times in that span. Miko gets a lot of it right. There's little in the way of centralized coordination of disposal because cleanup decisions are largely at the hands of individual property owners. Your home gets flooded, you have to find out if your insurance will cover it and if your policy will pay for, say, construction and cleanup or just construction but cleanup is up to you. Sometimes you just say fuck it and sell to a developer who will just bulldoze your house into a dumptruck.

We were usually brought in by folks who couldn't afford to pay for cleanup or (in later cases) paid a carpetbagging contractor who just took their insurance payout and did a scam job. Sometimes our volunteer group took jobs that the pros turned down because of poor return (ie. cleaning out a hoarders basement). A team lead and housing inspector will do an assessment and define what is salvageable and what has to be rebuilt. Start with letting the owner remove everything of value then everything else gets brought to a dumpster. Fridges are taped up and brought to a curb. Rest of the damaged rooms are demoed down to studs. All of the debris goes in the dumpster. Sometimes a bulldozer comes out to compress the debris.

There's trucks and vans that do salvage patrols of neighborhoods. If you put a cast iron bathtub on the curb or a radiator, odds are someone's going to sweep it into their van in a couple hours. At night some of them will break into demoed houses to strip the copper from the pipes. That's a thing.

Once demoed, you remediate for mold. Sometimes this is bleach, sometimes this is painting with kilz, sometimes this is aggressive air drying and quarantine. Sometimes it's replacing studs wholesale.

You could pick through stuff but there's not much point. Every day spent salvaging is a day that the house isn't being stripped, dried, and remediated for mold. It's time consuming to triage damaged property and that's time that someone is spending being homeless. I don't doubt that somethings went to recycling center where possible, but I am also sure most of it went to landfill.

There's a heavy initial surge of volunteer groups and the area will be flooded with the usual suspects in the first couple of months: Salvation Army, Red Cross, church groups, Habitat, etc. Sometimes you'll see Red Cross trucks going around delivering meals to people and relief workers. There are shower trailers and dozens of community centers operating as shelters and local donation distribution points. Come in and pick through bins of clothes and toiletries for what you need.

Also there are carpetbaggers. On my trips to Mississippi, I'd usual change planes in Atlanta and that leg was likely 80% dudes with carpenter jeans and tape measure belt accessories. Construction crews love a rebuilding and there are customers with all kinds of budgets.

About three months in most of the heavy charity work starts to fade as the funding surge tapers off. Shower trailers go away. Meal trucks make fewer rounds. But more restaurants and hotels are back in action so that's an ok trade-off? Six months in, most of what's going on for volunteers are super lean orgs that rely on local help and a few dedicated church groups. For all of their faults, Mormons are awesome at hanging around and helping out. They're like disaster relief Spartans.

There's usually a surge of aid around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then January and February, it's a weird kind of half normal. More people are in houses that look fixed and more businesses are reopened, but there are the places that never open back up because their employees moved to another city or there are houses who are always under construction because of red tape. Sometimes it's people who moved to stay with relatives and tried to coordinate their rebuild long distance. You have fewer volunteer and construction crews making the rounds but it still happens and then you realize that you're in the long tail of the recovery and that tail will go on for years.
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codersquid
24 days ago
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