Review: Speaker for the Dead

Rating: 8/10

As 2018 approaches I’m suddenly remembering all the resolutions that I made back in January that I have been somewhat lax in implementing. One of those was that I would write a review of every book I read, so here’s my review of Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card: read the damn book.

If you’ve ever read a science fiction book and liked it, you should read this book. If you’ve ever read a fantasy book and liked it, you should read this book. Actually, if you’ve ever read character-driven fiction and enjoyed it, you should read this book.

Speaker for the Dead is not the greatest book I have ever read, but it is very damn good. When I was thinking of giving it a rating my mind automatically went to 7/10, and then my brain remembered Tim Ferriss saying that rating things at 7/10 isthe shitty pacifist way to rate things that gave you an out on actually saying anything. I thought about it more and decided Speaker deserved at least an 8, maybe even a 9. Probably not a 9, but maybe. Definitely a 4/5.

Ranking systems are anxiety provoking for me.

Speaker is ostensibly a sequel to Ender’s Game, the novel for which Orson Scott Card is probably most known, but the two are wildly different. Card says in the introduction:

“It was my intention all along for Speaker to be able to stand alone, for it to make sense whether you have read Ender’s Game or not. Indeed, in my mind this was the ‘real’ book; if I hadn’t been trying to write Speaker for the Dead…there would never have been a novel version of Ender’s Game at all.”

If you haven’t read Ender’s Game you should stop reading this review and go read it. Honestly if you haven’t read it at this point I really don’t know what you’ve been doing with your life. It is stupendously fun.

Speaker for the Dead is about a group of humans and aliens thousands of years after the events of Ender’s Game. The aliens are the first species that humans have met since (spoilers) they killed every single alien in Ender’s Game. Humanity has to deal with that alien civilization and with its own emotions at the meeting. It’s about the actual people researching the aliens, who live actual lives outside of meeting aliens and have actual human conflicts like whether the boy with the robot eyes is a fair judge of children’s games. And it’s about trauma: how people and societies cope and wrestle with trauma, how they eventually move on from it, and ultimately how inescapable that trauma is for the traumatized and those around them.

In case this book isn’t sounding super fun, Speaker for the Dead is also a little bit a murder mystery.

I’ve never really loved Card’s writing style, and that remains true for Speaker. He’s always felt a bit infantilizing to me – for instance, the alien species in the series so far are named ‘buggers’ and ‘piggies’. It isn’t a major problem, but it’s enough to make the book a strong 8 rather than a weak 9.

Other than that, Speaker is strong in exactly the way that good science fiction always is: you take regular people, put them in a setting where technology has somehow fundamentally changed the world we know, and you watch what happens. It’s sort of a written documentary. I haven’t written fiction before so I don’t know how this differs from the kind of stuff that Jonathan Franzen writes, but it seems like the process is more about watching your characters do what they do on their own rather than making them do anything.

Speaker for the Dead is very, very good. The characters are distinct and believable. The new species humanity discovers, the planet they live on, and the culture of the human colony living there are all interesting and very non-hokey. The ending is particularly good: it refuses to take the easy route and not everyone is happy when the story ends. This is exactly as it should be in a story with interesting characters that grow and change.

So go read the damn book.

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Review: Worm

Rating: 7/10

From the official summary:

An introverted teenage girl with an unconventional superpower, Taylor goes out in costume to find escape from a deeply unhappy and frustrated civilian life. Her first attempt at taking down a supervillain sees her mistaken for one, thrusting her into the midst of the local “cape” scene’s politics, unwritten rules, and ambiguous morals. As she risks life and limb, Taylor faces the dilemma of having to do the wrong things for the right reasons…Readers should be cautioned that Worm is fairly dark as fiction goes, and it gets far darker as the story progresses. Morality isn’t black and white, Taylor and her acquaintances aren’t invincible, the heroes aren’t winning the war between right and wrong, and superpowers haven’t necessarily affected society for the better. Just the opposite on every count, really. Even on a more fundamental level, Taylor’s day to day life is unhappy, with her clinging to the end of her rope from the story’s outset. The denizens of the Wormverse (as readers have termed it) don’t pull punches, and I try to avoid doing so myself, as a writer. There’s graphic language, descriptions of violence and sex does happen (albeit offscreen).

 

Worm is a serialized superhero web fiction written the way all good fantasy and science fiction should be: it starts with a basic fact about the physical world and extrapolates that fact outward to create all of the other facts of the world (morality, politics, culture, etc.). It also happens to be an amazingly addictive story filled with easily the most imaginative, diverse set of powers that I’ve ever read. The excellence of the powers comes in two flavors:

  • It’s not just that Hero X can fly or that Villain Y can create fireballs – it’s the different ways in which the characters actually use their powers, with individual variation for each character based on their personality, intelligence, situation, etc.
  • The powers and people you would expect to come out on top in the real world come out on top in the Womverse. The capes with world-breakingly powerful abilities but without two brain cells to rub together wind up flailing around and losing out to smart capes or capes with more mental, informational, or precog abilities.

To be clear, while the powers are sexy and I’m happy to drool about them forever, they’re hung on a framework of incredibly strong writing and plot development. The dialogue in particular is top notch – it takes up much of the writing space itself and the characters’ voices were so strongly and consistently written that I never remember feeling lost or confused.

My chief complaint is length: Worm comes in at about 1.75 million words. Book length varies a lot but Wikipedia cites 175,000 as an outside estimate on average novel word count, which makes this one at least 10 mass-market fantasy books back to back. By the time I’d finished the whole thing, I was tired. Tired of the length, tired of the stress the plot was causing me, tired of how deep that rabbit hole went down. I binged Worm, and I suspect a lot of my weariness comes from the fact that the book was originally written as a serial and that the author’s intended experience is very different from what I went through. But 1.75 million words is still a lot of words. Fights definitely blended together for me. There are some arcs I’m having trouble remembering. At the very least I feel like the story could’ve lost a good amount of fat in the middle, maybe added a bit more at the end, and it would’ve been fine.

But I want to be clear in saying that the main reason I was so worn out at the end is that the plot is just so well written. I was tired like I’m tired after I run a marathon. It was a huge emotional and mental commitment because the story just demanded that from me. It didn’t even ask to take over my life really, it just sort of moved into my room and started throwing out all of the things that threatened to take me away from it. Hobbies like showering and having normal human relationships – all this went out the window. You move from crisis to crisis in the story so believably that the stress and weariness and numbness that the characters experience become yours. In a good way (if that’s possible).

I’ve already written too much so I’ll say: read Worm. It’s not perfect, but it’s great, and you should read it.

Review: Eichmann in Jerusalem

I’ll repeat Scott Alexander’s disclaimer at the beginning of his review of the book: “Content warning: Holocaust. This is a complicated and emotional subject and I make no claims to know much more than what I read in the book, nor to be 100% certain I am representing Arendt’s views faithfully.”

 

First off I’ll say that I highly, highly recommend this book. Arendt covers a ton of ground and there is a lot to unpack. I’m not going to cover all, or really much, of it because there are a couple specific things I want to write about here. Arendt covers two big topics that I won’t write about here: the resistance (or lack thereof) to the Nazis’ implementation of the Final Solution in different Nazi-occupied countries in Europe and David Ben-Gurion’s desire for a show trial and the twisting of jurisprudence for moral/political reasons.

What I do want to talk about relates to the subtitle of the book. The book’s main thesis is summed up by one short sentence in the introduction (written by Amos Elon): “Evil comes from a failure to think.” In this one sentence is Arendt’s disgust for the flagrantly theatrical trial; her contempt for Eichmann’s strangely one-dimensional and feckless character; and her horror at the crimes committed by such a shallow man. Elon goes on to say:

The Israeli court psychiatrist who examined Eichmann found him a ‘Completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him,’ the implication being that the coexistence of normality and bottomless cruelty explodes our ordinary conceptions and present the true enigma of the trial. In a similar vein, Simon de Beauvoir said that at his trial after the war the French Nazi Pierre Laval seemed commonplace and inconsequential, an unimaginative and feeble little fellow.

As I was reading I started talking to people about the book, the question that I kept coming back to was, “What do we mean ‘evil’?” Even though we adults like to pretend that we have sophisticated worldviews with plenty of room in them for all sorts of shades of grey, the way we talk about evil is still cast in the same terms as most Disney movies, i.e. “this is good, that person is bad, and here is the line between the two.” The way it seems to me is that most people seem to think that you can be a good person who occasionally does bad things up to a certain point, after which they turn completely bad/evil and are beyond redemption. There are plenty of connections that I can see between this worldview and the way we live our lives and construct our societies.

But I’ve always struggled with this view. It’s not just that we hear plenty of stories of former criminals who “learn their lesson” and go on to become productive members of society; it’s not just that massive starting disadvantages that many of the people we call “bad” have; it’s not just that I’m some sort of vegan-hippie-liberal-academic type who doesn’t believe in evil. The basic thing is that when I do bad stuff (which I do!) I have a pretty ready explanation in my head for why I did that thing (even if it’s a crap reason like I didn’t enough sleep), and I’m normally pretty ready to concede that even though that thing that I just did was bad, I’m not some sort of irredeemably evil person. Nor do I think that if I do enough of those bad things I’ll feel like I am evil. This isn’t to say that internal feelings are always a good judge of whether or not you’ve turned into a Dark wizard; Arendt goes out of her way to show that Eichmann thought of himself as a basically decent guy who just got the short end of the bureaucratic and historical stick. But I do assume that other people feel at least similarly to me, i.e. that they have an internal narrative that has room in it for making mistakes and changing behavior to update for those mistakes.

Again I want to stress that I don’t mean to say that we have no room to judge other people:

[Arendt’s] position was that if you say to yourself, ‘Who am I to judge?’ you are already lost.

Ethics is hard. But saying that killing (and it’s disgusting older brother, genocide) is bad is not. We can, and should, judge other people in some situations.

But what I took out of this book and what I want to say here is closer to some combination of the fundamental attribution error (we know our own narratives and forgive ourselves but fail to see other people’s and so assume that the way they act in a given situation is reflective of a fixed part of their identity) and David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water.” That not only do we make a fundamental mistake when we see someone doing a terrible thing and put them in the box labelled “bad,” but that we miss out on what real evil looks like. Because the simplistic definition of evil gives us a pass on all of the small bad things that we all do every day! No one is perfect: you get tired, hungry, scared, or any other combination of things you wind up yelling at the cashier at your grocery store, or you say shitty things about people behind their backs, or you’re a little impatient with your kid and make them cry.

We all do these things. And it doesn’t make us evil. It just makes us people, trying to live our lives as best we can. The problem with the simplistic definition of evil is that it exonerates us from responsibility for the bad stuff and condemns literally everything that a “bad” person does, which is an erasure of 1) their identity as people just like us and thus 2) their ability to change.

Evil comes from a failure to think. A failure to be present and aware of the things we’re doing. A failure to fully engage with the world. This definition is liberating for me. It makes us all responsible in each moment for doing all that we can to be good and to hold ourselves and each other accountable when we inevitably fail. And to then change and grow.

Cash Transfer Apostasy

Robin Hanson writes:

Let’s say you have been promoting some view (on some complex or fraught topic – e.g. politics, religion; or any “cause” or “-ism”) for some time…

Imagine, if you will, that the world’s destruction is at stake and the only way to save it is for you to write a one-pager that convinces a jury that your old cherished view is mistaken or at least seriously incomplete.  The more inadequate the jury thinks your old cherished view is, the greater the chances that the world is saved. The catch is that the jury consists of earlier stages of yourself (such as yourself such as you were one year ago).  Moreover, the jury believes that you have been bribed to write your apostasy; so any assurances of the form “trust me, I am older and know better” will be ineffective.  Your only hope of saving the world is by writing an apostasy that will make the jury recognize how flawed/partial/shallow/juvenile/crude/irresponsible/incomplete and generally inadequate your old cherished view is.

I studied international development at university and got a pretty uncharitable view of the field while there. My views are a bit more nuanced now but on the whole I still find much to criticize in the way that we spend money and work in other countries. For my money though, development has gotten two things as right as right can get. Global health is one. Global health successes are one of the great un(der)told success stories today – for whatever reason the New York Times doesn’t run articles titled, “122 Million Children Saved in Last 25 Years, More to Come.” Vaccines, bed nets, sanitation work, and our responses to health emergencies (e.g. Ebola) are all things of which we should be proud.

The other thing we’ve gotten right is cash transfers. Cash transfers are exactly what they sound like: an organization gives money directly to people. That’s it. The best of these programs use mobile payments so there are no middlemen to take out a portion and low overhead. Just people getting money. Recipients use the money to pay for things they normally wouldn’t be able to afford because of the nature of poverty: food enough for their families, tin roofs that don’t need to be constantly repaired, business inputs to create future income, and even savings. And despite many peoples’ misgivings, cash transfers are rarely if ever used for “sin” goods like alcohol, tobacco, or gambling.

Besides health interventions, cash transfers are the poverty intervention with the strongest evidence base of them all. I’m very much in love.

I’ve been looking for an excuse to write my hypothetical Cash Transfer Apostasy for awhile now as a way to refine my ideas and to be honest with myself about where cash transfers fall short. It’s important to note that I wrote this as a critique of GiveDirectly’s cash transfer model specifically, though many of the criticisms can be applied more broadly:

While unconditional cash transfers (UCTs) are one of the most well-studied poverty interventions and a hugely important tool in the poverty-fighting toolkit, there are still several issues with the model. These issues can be broken broadly into two categories: 1) issues with the UCT model itself and 2) issues with the UCT model in the context of other poverty interventions. In addition, because GiveDirectly uses a specific model that is itself only small subset of the larger UCT world and evidence base, there’s a third category of issue that I’ll label epistemic.

The first category of issues has to deal with general problems of the UCT model itself. First, many cash transfer programs cast as wide a net as possible and so potentially miss out on targeted benefits that could accrue to those most in need, e.g. women, youth, and other marginalized groups. This undermines to some extent the utilitarian argument in favor of UCTs over other forms of poverty alleviation; that is, increasing someone’s daily living wage from $1 to $2 seems a priori more beneficial in a purely utilitarian sense than increasing it from $10 to $11. Spillover effects on non-recipients are also not well understood and there is some evidence to suggest that there are moderate negative effects on non-recipients’ economic indicators and an increase in hostility towards recipients of cash transfers. Finally, while there is solid evidence that UCTs increase consumption in beneficiary households, recipients may not have access to supplies or other interventions which UCTs are meant to enable them to purchase. This is an argument in favor of, for example, purchasing and distributing malaria bed nets, vaccines, or other medical supplies that have dramatic long-term benefits but may not be available in recipients’ domestic markets. And while part of the benefit of UCTs is the lack of donor paternalism, it’s not clear to me where the line falls here on the value of local knowledge versus donor technical expertise.

Second are problems that relate to UCTs in the context of other poverty alleviation interventions. GiveDirectly largely markets itself towards individual donors and grassroots fundraising. As it grows however it will have to grapple with the different marginal benefits of UCTs for small donors versus wealthy philanthropists (e.g. Bill Gates) or traditional development institutions (e.g. USAID). If I’m the first of those, it may make sense for me to give all of the money set aside for donation to GiveDirectly to use for UCTs because the absolute size of that donation means I just can’t do all that much. But if I’m Bill Gates, I can leverage my giving for things like funding for research, catalyzing private sector investment, or tackling some of the most persistent development challenges. This last is really where UCTs fall short: while UCTs make for a great portion of overall poverty alleviation tools, the evidence that they address the long-term, complex, and multifactoral sorts of problems that differentiate the success of, e.g. South Korea versus the DRC, is weak. This isn’t to say that there is strong evidence for other interventions, but that generally our understanding of what creates for a successful transition from a developing economy to a more developed one is not clear.

Finally, epistemic problems are those that have to do with how little we really know about how the world works. GiveDirectly and other proponents of UCTs at least partially advocate for the model because of the wealth of evidence of the model’s efficacy. They argue often that in a world where so much is uncertain and development impact is so vigorously debated, UCTs can serve as a baseline of comparison for other interventions (e.g. the statement: “If your intervention can’t beat cash, then you should just be doing cash.”) But this framing often focuses too strongly on the question, “What intervention works in development?” instead of, “What does the world look like and how does it work?” Yes, UCTs have a huge evidence base. Yes, they address some of the fundamental issues in the traditional aid model. But between different country and local contexts; different amounts in different installments to different beneficiaries; different methods of collecting and analyzing data; etc. the research just isn’t strong enough to say specifically that UCTs really are gold standard of poverty alleviation that some of its advocates want it to be. We just don’t know enough. Questions we still need to answer include (and this is by no means an all-inclusive list): are thatched roofs a relevant indicator of household poverty? If transfers are given out in installments versus given in a bundled payment up front, how does that affect recipient consumption patterns? How does the implementation of cash transfer programs impact expectations of recipients and non-recipients into the future?