Off the Bookshelf: Early Summer 2018

My 2018 Summer Reading List is under way. It’s been a mixed bag of inspiration, drudgery, endurance, and wonder.

Personal Kanban

I started off with Personal Kanban (Amazon) by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry. It’s the first-ever non-fiction book on my summer reading list and it was a useful one. The book’s all about using the kanban project workflow tool to visualize one’s work and limit how many things you’re working on at once. The Phoenix Project’s (Amazon) use of kanban boards inspired me to read the book, and I’m glad I did. While I haven’t set up a personal or family kanban board at home, I’ve implemented a kanban at work for my team’s projects (with each person effectively having their own kanban). It’s helped tremendously with focusing me on my essential tasks, and helped me better understand what everyone’s working on. That in turn has made our weekly one-on-one meetings a lot more productive.

Willful Child

I went to the Jersey Shore in June intending to read the new Timothy Zahn Thrawn novel (Amazon) but when I went to download the book I discovered it’s not available until July 24. I ended up going with Willful Child: The Wrath of Betty (Amazon) by Steven Erickson, which continues the Star Trek (and other SF shows) satire begun Willful Child.

I had mixed feelings about the original book — it was amusing, but it often felt like Erikson was trying too hard. Throttling back the cheekiness about 20% would have greatly improved the book. The same holds true for the follow-up which isn’t half as amusing as its author thinks it is.

Foreigner

The setup for C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner (Amazon) is an intriguing one: an unexplained stellar event causes an interstellar colony ship packed with humans to go catastrophically off course, dumping them into an unknown alien star system. Desperation compels the humans to establish a foothold on a planet already occupied by intelligent humanoids who’ve just entered the Age of Steam. While the humans are able to make the linguistic breakthroughs necessary to talk with the aliens, fundamental cultural differences lead to a short and brutal war between the two species.

In the detente that follows, the humans are granted a single island on which to live as long as they give the aliens a steady stream of technology. A single human — the “paidhi” — is assigned to live among the aliens and serve as cultural and political emissary. It’s a near-impossible job because the aliens world view is so, well, alien. Power relationships are essential among them, with trust and friendships being as alien to them as Earth itself. Betrayals are expected and assassination is an accepted engine of political change (assuming you filled the proper paperwork with the assassins guild).

That all breaks down when someone tries to assassination the previously untouchable paidhi, leading to a cascading crisis as political alliances are suddenly strained or outright broken.

It’s a great concept with mediocre execution. The book’s written in the third person, mostly from the prospective of the aforementioned paidhi, Bren Cameron, who spends far too much time ruminating on what he did wrong. This book would have been great as a novella; as is stretches of it were tedious to read. That said it ended on a high note that might just be compelling enough to get me to read the second book in the series.

Oathbringer

Brandon Sanderson settles down for some serious world building with Oathbringer (Amazon), the third book in his Stormlight Archives series. I enjoyed the first two books in the series more than this because they focused on the more personal journeys of Kaladin (the brooding warrior turned slave turned Knight Radiant) and Shallan Davar (a schemer with far too many secrets who also becomes a Knight Radiant).

It’s not that Oathbringer doesn’t have some great reveals and impressive battles; it certainly does. And there’s some solid world building here, particularly with regards to the nightmarish Unmade, demon-like “spren” who infect the minds of commoners and heroes alike. It’s just that the first third of the book gets bogged down in Shallan’s continuing efforts at self delusion (which becomes self-discovery by the novel’s end) and political maneuverings as Dalinar Kholin — a high prince and leader of the Knights Radiant — tries to forge a world-wide alliance against the Voidbringers.

The Voidbringers themselves remain an empty shell. Odium, the dark god they serve, is a much more potent and compelling force than in the earlier books, but the Voidbringers remain cookie cutter bad guys. That starts to change at the end of the book, which includes a huge reveal about the true nature of the Voidbringers, but they don’t feel like the truly impressive threat they should be.

Tales from the Loop

Over the last few years I’d come across Simon Stålenhag’s  beautiful illustrations  forTales from the Loop, an art book featuring children investigating strange relics of an alternative 1980s. That changed when I read Gnome Stew’s review of the Tales from the Loop role-playing game. It was there that I realized that the game — and the book that inspired it — was set primarily in Sweden.

My family’s  from Sweden — my grandfather Hans immigrated from there when he was a teenager — and the thought of an RPG set in my family’s homeland fascinated me. So did the setting, which draws inspiration from the “Kids on Bike” genre of speculative fiction (The Goonies, E.T., Super 8, Stranger Things).

The setup is straightforward. In an alternative universe two particle accelerators — known as the Loops — are built, one in Sweden, the other in the United States. Activating these accelerators causes strange ripples in space time, leading to artifacts from the past and future manifesting in our reality. At the same time, technology has advanced in different ways in this timeline. Bipedal robots were invented in the 1950s and while they are not omnipresent in the setting, they aren’t all that unusual. Another notable invention is the magnetrine anti-gravity technology, which gives rise to massive sky-going freighters known as Gauss ships.

I asked for (and received) Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop  art book (Amazon) for Father’s Day. I spent much of the following week slowly paging through compelling combination of beautiful artwork and tightly written microfiction. I also picked up the RPG and have been slowly working my way through that book all summer.

As in our world, by the time the 1980s roll around, some of this wondrous technology has fallen into disrepair and been abandoned. This leaves all manner of secrets lying out in the open for enterprising young people to find … and experiment with.

Both the art book and the RPG are worth checking out. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a chance to play the RPG — I’m hoping I might have an opportunity of MEPACon — but this is the sort of game I enjoy owning even I never play it.

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Cover art for Willful Child: The Wrath of Betty. Credit: Tor Books

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