The Books of 2016, #5: Ancillary Mercy, by Anne Leckie

See my previous thoughts on this series to date here.

This goddamned series... I am trying, and failing, to think of a series I've read in my life that started out so promising and then disappointed me so greatly. I'll be honest: I straight-up didn't finish this fucker.

To briefly recap: first book, YAY! Grand in scope, a galactic emperor at war with herself! The concept of gender does not exist for the main race wowzers, that's got some weird and interesting implications! Ships are people! Action takes place across multiple worlds and many decades! 

Phew! THAT'S how you start a goddamned space opera!

Book Two! You've got... um... well, a LOT of talk about the class implications of tea pottery? Ship person is sad and distant. 90% of the action takes place on a space station that might as well be any current modern city on Earth, for all of how alien and space-y it is (isn't). The rest of the action takes place on what might as well be a 19th Century Indian tea plantation. There's literally not a single thing that happens on that fucking plantation or station that implies "SPAAAACE OPERA!!!!". 

The brilliant removal of gender as a language concept that helped make everybody in the first book actually seem _alien_? Now just an annoyance, one that is literally tossed aside at the one point in the plot where gender actually would matter. So why fucking have bothered in the first place?

That crazy mad space-empress at war with her own self? I dunno, she was absent almost entirely in book two and hadn't shown up in the first 120 pages of book three and I punted at that point. 

So, then Ancillary Mercy picks up right where Ancillary Sword left off, with Breq, our putative protagonist, recovering from "her" boring injuries incurred in the boring conclusion to the boring second book. The Mad Emperor Mianaai may or may not have shown back up in the system, I dunno, they mention her ships possibly coming through a gate but they're a few weeks out from actually being able to interact with anyone and I didn't read the book long enough to find out if she ever actually shows the fuck up.

While we're waiting for the Space Lord to arrive and theoretically start some semblance of action, we must first read through another hundred pages of Thinly-Veiled Future Space Analogy To Current Day Racism and Classism That a Goddamned First-Year English Major Would Have the Decency To Be Embarrassed About. 

That's where I gave up. 

To be clear: I'm not opposed to Sci-Fi As Social Analogy for Current Events AT ALL; that's one of the strengths of the genre, its ability to cast current events into an interesting alien future in a way that possibly seeds some thoughts on how to deal with said problems now. And Lord knows there have been many very interesting takes on oppression, classism, racism, etc., done by many, many authors in the genre.

I just don't find Leckie's take on this interesting at ALL. She was going someplace wonderful in that first novel, but then scoped it down to something that hardly needs to be sci-fi in the next two, and then fails to do anything with the interesting premises setup in that first novel.

And that REALLY bums me out. 

Leckie is still a pretty "new" author, this series started with her actual debut novel, and I wonder if she just ran out of steam on it. I can see having added a bigger conflict between Breq and Mianaai to the end of the first novel and just having ended the whole story _there_. Shifting to a whole new location for books two and three that, as of ~120 pages into the third, served NO purpose to highlight or advance the conflict between the various sides of the Lord of the Radch's personal meltdown war, just makes no sense. Particularly since that conflict was setup in Book One as the Primary Plot, the pivotal event around which all other events should be viewed in relation to.

I dunno. Maybe I'll finish the book someday, I can't have more than an hour or two left in it. But I am just so disappointed in where this series has gone; it's quite obvious that Leckie has got some stellar ideas in her head, she can do some solid if, so far, monochromatic world-building, but seems to struggle with fleshing out good base ideas into an entire series of books worth reading. I'll keep an eye out for what she does in the future, but for right now, I'm setting this aside.

Books of 2016, #4: The German War: A Nation Under Arms, by Nicholas Stargardt


For most of the Cold War, the popular consensus regarding "blame" for World War II and the Holocaust ran something along the lines of "well, there were good Germans and bad Germans, and most just wanted to get by, but Hitler and the Gestapo were very bad and willing to hurt people who didn't do what they wanted, ergo, thus, six million Jews somehow WHOOPS died and an entire continent went up in flames".

This was obviously a very simplistic look at things, but when you combined a West German willingness to toss a LOT of money Israel's way to make up (in some small, unsatisfactory manner) for things along with the United States and NATO's need to have "good" Germans that they could rearm and park on the front line against the Soviet menace backed by their own "bad" Germans, well... everybody basically went along with this view.

Even though it was bullshit.

The first big revision to this viewpoint came after Germany reunified, the Cold War ended, and, instead of there being a binary "good vs. bad" German theme, there just being, well... _Germans_ again. And a Harvard PhD candidate named Daniel Jonah Goldhagen didn't care for the traditional narrative and therefore dropped a bomb on it called "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" in 1996. Disagree or not with his premise that a majority of ALL Germans very much wanted all of the Jews dead (as he doesn't prove this to my own or a lot of other people's satisfactions), what he DID manage to do here was prove that there was really no way the common belief that most Germans had no idea what was going on with the Jews held any water. The gist, and it's hard to believe that this was ever controversial, is simply this:

You cannot kill six million people (and change) without a very large number of people knowing about it and helping to make it happen.

What "The German War" attempts to do, then, is show what average Germans felt about both the Holocaust and the war in general as it happened, via private letters, diaries, the public opinion polls taken by the SD regularly throughout the war almost to the very end, etc...

It is a much better _book_ than Goldhagen's, which read like what it was: a PhD thesis barely edited into narrative book form, and therefore dry, dense, and repetitive.

Stargardt's book, however, is a fantastic read, though, admittedly, that feels like an odd adjective to use for a book on such a grim topic.

Overwhelmingly sourced (it often feels like every paragraph has a footnote), Stargardt tells the story of a number of Germans, mostly regular people, soldiers, wives, doctors, mothers, but specifically tried to seek out those who a) lasted at least into the war's middle years if not through to the end b) left a record of multiple entries along the way. Basically, he wanted to track changes in how regular Germans felt about the war and the Jews as the Germans went from winning and conquering all before them, from arresting to then deporting to then killing the Jews, and then to being on the defensive, bombed, invaded and, finally, conquered.

There's a brutal melancholy in watching a young wife go from a loving new wife scared of what the war will do to her husband but convinced that Germany needs to defend itself from the assaults of Global Jewry to bombing victim convinced that the bombing is the revenge of the murdered Jews (and thus, somehow unfair) to widow.

The soldiery, as is often the case, figures out faster that what they're doing is indefensible but generally rationalizes their actions as being what must be done if the nation is to survive. It's possibly even sadder to read their stories than the housewives, particularly the more sensitive ones who quickly realize that they're doing unconscionable things that only future generations _might_ benefit from. And, regardless of the terrible things they're doing, it just gets depressing at how many of these stories end with a hard stop when the soldier in question dies.

The details of the individual lives traced here gives this book its narrative thrust, and its emotional impact. To reinforce the author's main point, though, these stories are reinforced with a lot of weight from the popular opinion surveys and mood studies the German SD did throughout the war, almost up to its very end. Goebbels wanted his propaganda to be effective and, to do that, he needed to know what the people actually thought in order to shape it to his ends. Thanks to this urge, we have a lot of data on what the people actually believed as well as what the German State wanted them to believe.

In the final analysis, I believe Stargardt makes his point well. While the reasonings and self-justification changes depending on which person's words are being reviewed at any given point in the book, the inescapable larger conclusion reached is simply that a) most Germans were very well aware of what was happening to the Jews (and Poles, and Russians, and Ukrainians, etc....). Furthermore, most (but by no means all) Germans were pretty much okay with what was going on, particularly when the German star was in the ascendant. Once fortune turned, many Germans believed that what was happening to them was either retribution for what they had done to the Jews; the main difference seems to be whether a given person thought that this was fair or unfair.

What this book shows is this point: regardless of how a given German felt about what was happening to the Jews and the other victim races, they _knew_ it was happening. And this is a very important point as it goes against what we were led to believe for the many decades of the Cold War era here in the West.

I believe this book has become and will remain the standard regarding contemporary German knowledge of and feelings towards the Holocaust and Germany's part in World War II for years to come.

One Messaging App To Rule Them All

Facebook Messenger. Google Hangouts. iMessages. Pushbullet. What'sApp. Snapchat. Slack. SMS. AIM (lol).

I am fucking sick and tired of Messaging apps. Not because I hate messaging folks; NAY! I much prefer it to having to actually (ick) talk to people like, in person or, worse, over the phone.

No, I'm sick of how fucking MANY of the goddamned things I have to keep installed to stay in touch with everyone, everywhere. And I'm further sick of the ones I use most not existing on all platforms I need to use them on.

At the most, I would think two of these fucking things would suffice; the one you use to talk to family and friends, and whatever work inflicts on you. But no; some co-workers fear change so they're using AOL still because that's what IT approved in 1997 and that's that. Other co-workers will use Slack with you but IT doesn't trust it so you can't do a general roll-out because some guys don't have admin rights to install anything on their machines because why would you trust the guys who build the stuff that makes all of the company's money with any level of control over their personal work machines?

Over on the personal side of things, iMessages is great and you can use it on your iPhone, your iPad and your Mac but WHOOOPS! Apple likes to pretend PC's somehow still don't exist so you get nothing on Windows (well, iTunes exists there because they can directly make money from it but let's not pretend iTunes is anything but a brutally painful experience on any platform and that's a post for another day...) so have fun typing on your phone while you're at work and your wife needs to know how to get Netflix to work on your mother-in-law's TV. Meanwhile, Pushbullet is every bit as good if not better than iMessages if you're rocking the Android lifestyle 'cuz it's got great apps for phones, PC's and a fine browser plugin for Safari on the Mac but BZZZZT what if you're in that common boat of having an Android phone but an iPad tablet? Go fuck yourself, that's what, because Apple will dig up the corpse of Steve Jobs and let Bill Gates have sex with it live during their next keynote before they'll allow a non-Apple app touch the messaging stack on their iOS devices.

Facebook Messenger could allllllmost fill this niche as it exists for every possible platform up to and including your toaster, but then you have the problem of, if you're a middle-aged white guy like me, of having a lot of folks you actually want to talk to who don't have Facebook accounts because they think Mark Zuckerberg is an Illuminati or Freemason or they somehow think that not using FB prevents a single goddamned thing when it comes to corporations and/or the government building up a profile on them (SPOILER ALERT: it doesn't; you're fucked, coming and going, always, without exception) and so nope, that can't do.

Google Hangouts is such a shitty app that even Google doesn't use it anymore.

I don't even understand what the fuck Snapchat is but the only way I can get my dealer to respond to me is to send him a picture of my dick with my order written on it in glitter via that app so I have to keep it around and come to think of it that's kinda fuckin' weird of the guy, no?

I just want one messaging app that does all of the following:

  • Works on EVERYTHING. Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, WinPhone... I guess Blackberry can fuck off at this point, but that's about all I'm willing to forsake. And I prefer dedicated apps on the desktop, but would settle for a robust webapp that properly integrates with Chrome or Safari's desktop push notifications.
  • Can talk to all of these other stupid formats. Remember Adium? Pidgin? You had ONE app and could Instant Message people on MSN, AOL, Yahoo, IRC, one app that spoke to all the other popular platforms... I realize this is probably a dead letter at this point, because Adium and those others cared primarily about helping people communicate, whereas today every commo platform cares most about being able to harvest as much of your information as possible, locking you into their platform, and selling your profile to advertisers. So, I'd settle for just "if I have a valid phone # or email, this app should be able to communicate with you from me over text messaging".
  • Syncs properly. If I read a text from my wife on my phone, I don't want the desktop app to still think that message is unread. This should be simple. For some reason, it is not. IMessages does decent with this, but sometimes it gets confused about what device I'm actually on and never shows me a new text when I'm actively using, say, my iPad, but the app on my phone, which is on a desk somewhere far away from me, is showing the red notification pip just fine. Dumb. And infuriating.
  • I'd prefer if these apps never showed me emoji. Like, EVER.
  • But they should easily show me attachments or pop out links to the browser on whatever device I'm looking at.

It feels like this will be possible one day soon; Pushbullet is basically there, but only for folks who are all-in on Android for their phone and tablets. I am not, and switch around, so it's just close enough to be infuriating when I bump up against the edge cases where it's not.

Then again, maybe not. I have adult friends these days who literally don't bother with any sort of actual computer in their life. They have a smartphone and that's it, so native SMS covers them entirely. So maybe this will never happen and I should just go fuck myself.