Review: Seveneves

SevenevesSeveneves by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Buy a copy: Kindle/Print

If there’s a cardinal sin for a novelist, it’s to fail to recognize when he’s trying to combine too many stories into one. I understand that Stephenson is known for packing in lots of ideas rather than building great characters, and that’s fine. But I was deeply disappointed, after blazing happily through the first ¼ of the book, to find myself marooned in a bog of details one moment and then whiplashed forward to some other subplot in the next as he attempted to drag us all through an Epic Story About The Survival Of Humanity.

He really should have listened to his editor. And if the man doesn’t have an editor with the balls to stand up to him and say, “Dude. Either turn this into a series or cut out half this shit,” then he’s being poorly served by his publishing house.

I’d have to describe this novel primarily as “overwritten.” I am stupidly stubborn when it comes to finishing books so I slogged through 20 pages on a future humanoid setting up her glider. What. The. Hell. It didn’t further the story, it didn’t connect me to the character. It was Stephenson showing off that he’s done a lot of thinking about gliders. Great. Good for you.

The novel’s premise isn’t new, but Stephenson sets it up pretty well. But then the story diverges into too many directions at once. Is this a book about an apocalyptic ending of the earth? about survival? about the role of genetics in determining behavior? about how humans are pretty shitty most of the time? about future space tech? I’m not sure. I think it’s all of those. I call this “Chappie Disease” — potentially good stories are damaged by their authors when they bury them under the other 19375646328 ideas they forced into the narrative.

Mild spoilers ahead:

I have to comment on the odd decision to co-opt character development in some cases by inserting currently famous people into the novel, yet not as their actual selves, but as a weird form of archetype or stock character. Thus, Neil deGrasse Tyson becomes a sort of stereotype of “the popular astronomer” in the form of Doc Harris, a man in the book that I liked quite a bit, but only because I couldn’t escape seeing Tyson’s face, imposing my opinions of him as a real person, and hearing his warm voice. It was kind of creepy actually, as if someone I knew got possessed by a totally different soul. Harris was Tyson but not. Ditto the Elon Musk “tech guy who takes matters into his own hands,” the Hillary Clinton-esque asshole/paranoid woman president (kinda offensive really), and — perhaps the most potentially objectionable — Malala (“Camila”) the Famous International Woman who gets a ride away from death only to be duped by the Evil Female President into hatching her Ridiculous Plan which never shows up again. Gah. The “real” Malala survived the Taliban, and now she’s going to be turned into a foolish, quavering stooge to fit Stephenson’s narrative? >.<

This kind of writing strikes me as lazy. He didn’t have the space (due to the sprawling plot structure) to build his own characters, so he grabbed personalities we would recognize, and hung some new clothes and faces on them. It’s also going to date his novel terribly within a few years. And in 50, no one will get the comparisons.

While I’m on a rant …. Does anyone else find the constant references to genetic predispositions in the new seven races a bit…. racist? I mean, we have races now and through natural processes, differences between them (as we consider specific examples) can be pretty stark. But Stephenson’s races are so stereotypically predictable that I’m actually uncomfortable reading the last portion of the book. If his story-scientists had bred blacks and Asians instead of Mourns, Ivans, and Teklans, he would written about “insatiable, instinctive hunger for fried chicken” or “a strange affinity for math,” and acted like that was totally ok. (It’s not.)

There was a lot of potential here, and Stephenson did build a story that kept me coming back to find out what happened in the sweeping arc of the narrative. I mourned the death of some people, and I was strangely gripped by some of their dilemmas (and bored to tears by others). I’ve learned about orbital mechanics and I understand much better why meteors probably destroyed the dinosaurs.

But that doesn’t make up for the fact that Stephenson’s novel is, structurally, a mess.

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Shotguns as Sacrament

I’m not going to wade into the deep aftermath of Orlando – that space is already thick with people screaming at each other, and surrounded by those weeping too hard to read the political debates about gun control, immigration reform, definitions of terrorism, the interplay of race and fear, and how tone-deaf Donald Trump can be at a time like this.

I’m pretty sure you can find all of that for yourself thanks to Google.

But a friend of mine said something on Facebook that stopped me cold: “For some people in the discussion, guns are tools. For the others, guns are a sacrament.”

She went on to point out the Messiah-like thinking that many Americans attribute to gun ownership:

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See, I think she’s on to something there.

In the American Religion of Individualism, we have rituals and liturgy. We bear the marks of the faithful on our bodies and in our lifestyles and in our encultured practices of what we purchase and support. (I *highly* recommend James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to unpack that idea further.)

And many of us have fallen into the trap of seeing the Right To Self-Preservation as one of the highest virtues. Just as John Piper, who was viciously slammed by many conservative Evangelicals when he dared suggest that Jesus did not intend us to shoot home intruders dead should the unthinkable happen.

The issue is not primarily about when and if a Christian may ever use force in self-defense, or the defense of one’s family or friends. There are significant situational ambiguities in the answer to that question.

The issue is about the whole tenor and focus and demeanor and heart-attitude of the Christian life.

Does it accord with the New Testament to encourage the attitude that says, “I have the power to kill you in my pocket, so don’t mess with me”? My answer is, No.

Source: John Piper: Why I disagree with Jerry Falwell Jr. on Christians and guns – The Washington Post

Piper went on to reasonably suggest 9 reasons why retaliation isn’t a Christian response, and taking another human life – even when that action would be justified – may not be the most Christian response. And ooooohboy did that set off a klaxon resounding across the Internet, calling every gun-owning pastor and theologian to write a counterpoint.

Why is gun ownership such a rallying point for conservative Christians?

Is it because we have succumbed to the idea that we deserve political and personal power, never mind the New Testament promises that Jesus’s Kingdom is not of the sword?

Is it because we Christians refuse to be the minority? Because we refuse to give up our rights so that others may share in power?

Is it fear? Are we so afraid of non-WASP people and gay people and immigrants and “terrorists” that we cannot even consider that Jesus may call some of us to love others to the point of sacrificing our right to own an assault rifle (a weapon created solely for the purpose of murdering humans)?

Are we unwilling to follow God’s commands to “Honor the King” and “Obey the rulers who have authority over you” and to recognize that the government is an agent of good in the hands of God to bring justice to evil doers?

Just, uh, go back and read that sentence again. Because the Bible calls government an agent of righteousness. Setting out to destroy government in the name of God (as a cultural value, at least) may not actually be biblical.

Is it because we, too, worship at America’s altar of Individualism?  

We may preach grace for salvation, but we sure live as if succeeding in this life depends entirely on us, as if protection is entirely a quotient of gun ownership, as if mass shootings are merely a failure of an individual to be mentally healthy or subscribe to the right worldview tenets, as if personal responsibility is all that’s needed for someone to bootstrap their way out of poverty.

Karl Barth wrote a meaty essay about The Church and the State. As you might expect from a man who survived Nazi Germany, the idea of the Church gaining political power and military might made him start twitching.

Here. It’s a long read but you should give it some attention. Because Barth forces us to consider the limitations of the Church in grasping power in the political sphere. We are not here to build a political partnership with the Republicans (or Democrats). We are not here to write gun policy. We are not here to demand our rights above others (like the children slaughtered at Sandy Hook, or the night club dancers in Orlando, or the movie theater victims in the West, or…..)

Barth, Community, State, and Church (PDF)

And when we Christians lose sight of our mission, when our Americanism clouds our judgment so that we cannot remember the Great Commandments, we do a disservice to our countrymen.

Am I arguing for pacifism? No.  And before you jump all over me, I own guns. Always have.

But you are not a Savior. Your gun is not a Savior. You are not going to be the Hero in some medieval morality play where a Bad Guy walks in and threatens your family or people in your ChikFilA during lunch, and you protect everyone else by pulling out your concealed pistol.

No. While you may save lives that day, you also fed into the insistence that weapon ownership is more important than having a conversation about whether our “rights” have gone to far. And that inability to even consider that we Americans might be wrong in our approach to gun ownership is the biggest problem we’re having right now.

When really sensible, expected limits on weapons like assault rifles have become to taboo to discuss, we must acknowledge there is a problem.

But hey, don’t take my word for it…

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Music Monday: Rap is art

Some of you will hate this video, but you should watch it anyway.

I do need to point out that hip hop and rap usually contain references to violence and strong language. I’m not condoning the content of the lyrics. But the artistry of the words — that’s impossible to deny, especially when it’s presented this clearly.

I’ve said for a long time that if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be hanging out with street artists and rappers, because they handle language the way Shakespeare did, with an incredible understanding of the beats in the syllables and their effect on the ear. (And let’s be honest—Shakespeare’s content is pretty bawdy in places. I don’t think these albums would make him blush.)

Seriously, tho. Watch this. 

 

Music Monday: Beyonce made more than Lemonade

They say true love’s the greatest weapon
To win the war caused by pain, pain
But every diamond has imperfections
But my love’s too pure to watch it chip away
Oh nothing real can be threatened
True love breathes salvation back into me
With every tear came redemption
And my torturer became a remedy

~”All Night Long,” Lemonade, Beyonce

I didn’t expect to be absolutely floored by Beyonce’s album Lemonade…. but I was.

More precisely, by the film, which was the first way I encountered the music. You’ll have to search the dark underbelly of the internet to find a free stream; legitimately, sign up for a free 1-month trial of Tidal and make sure you cancel in time.

beyonce_Lemonade_1024_1024

Beyonce created an album I’ll be listening to for years. Why?

Because ultimately this album isn’t about infidelity. It’s about forgiveness. Restoration.

I don’t really care so much about the swirling cloud of questions – did Jay-Z cheat on Bey? is this a breakup album? is it just a story? – because nobody has those answers. Story truth is sometimes more real than the actual truth, to reference Tim O’Brien, and in this case, the arc of anger and betrayal in the album melts into a sober-faced reconciliation.

Along the way, Beyonce explores what it means to be a black woman in the USA. I’m not a black woman, so I watched and learned. The mothers of slain black boys hold photos of their sons. The lyrics take us sometimes into the workaday life of a woman trying to hold everything together, or a little girl scarred by the hardness of her father.

How can I watch Lemonade? Did Jay Z cheat on Beyoncé? Who is ‘Becky with the good hair’? Are Jay Z and Beyoncé even married? It’s not too late to catch up

Source: Beyoncé’s Lemonade album explained, from beginner to ‘Beyhive’ | Music | The Guardian

Musically, the album is interesting, fostered by collaborations with a huge variety of artists (ranging as far as Jack White) and plenty of cool samples (including Led Zeppelin’s “The Levee’s Gonna Break”). It would help if you’re a fan of hip hop, or at least capable of appreciation.

But even if you aren’t, find a way to donate an hour toward the film. It’s rough at parts, cutting at parts, raw most of the time, but also honest and beautiful and worth your time.

The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

*****
I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.

 

Review: Uprooted, by Nina Novik

UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not usually a big fantasy reader, but this book is commendable and ought to be on your list if you’re at all interested in the genre. Many people seem to bail out after only a few chapters; don’t do that. Give Novik the opportunity to spin her tale for you – it takes about 50-60 pages to really get rolling. From there, it builds to a strong ending.

In fact, I’d say even if you don’t like fantasy very much, this novel merits at least an attempt.

This isn’t a fantasy story built from worn-out tropes. While many familiar elements make their way into the narrative, Novik reworks them to give them value. I felt the familiar worn edges of strong themes from centuries of good stories; I saw plenty of familiar fantasy elements. But I also enjoyed the rich and thick development of new meanings for what could have been tired and boring – the girl who learns to control her magic, the aloof wizard, the budding romance, the courtly drama, the forbidding enchanted wood.

Novik turns these tropes sideways so they work to her advantage. She turns the story too, not in a “cheap shot” yank-you-around kind of way, but artfully, shaping the reader’s journey through what seems like a familiar landscape to find what’s actually something new and rewarding.

So yeah. It’s a solid book. It’s up for a Hugo Award. That’s not a fluke. I’ve found myself thinking about this story even after I read the final pages, and I think it’s because Novik understands that good stories aren’t created by the trappings of the setting or by cheap plot devices; they’re built from the backbone of realistic characters grappling with credible problems, clothed in fluid prose. I don’t think this will be my top Hugo pick, but it’ll fall above the “no award” line for sure.

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Good reads this week

I fell out of the habit of cataloguing the stuff I run into as I traverse the ‘Net for work and pleasure. It was a good habit; I’m going to restart it.

An old one (from 2014), but still very good. Rape culture is borne out of the idea that men need sex to be happy, he argues, and that’s bullshit.

Nerdy guys aren’t guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick as long as we work hard. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by getting the girl.

Source: Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds – The Daily Beast

*****

I read this, and then I got angry. Perhaps you will too.

I was not only told that I was assaulted, I was told that because I couldn’t remember, I technically could not prove it was unwanted. And that distorted me, damaged me, almost broke me. It is the saddest type of confusion to be told I was assaulted and nearly raped, blatantly out in the open, but we don’t know if it counts as assault yet. I had to fight for an entire year to make it clear that there was something wrong with this situation.

Source: Here’s The Powerful Letter The Stanford Victim Read To Her Attacker – BuzzFeed News

*****

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One of my recent games of Arboretum. Isn’t it lovely??

If you like beautiful card games, you should try to get a copy of Arboretum. It’s one of my favorite games of 2016. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to find a copy these days. So while you’re waiting, and if you like game mechanics, read this:

Source: Meaningful Decisions: Dan Cassar on Design Choices in Arboretum — Cardboard Edison

*****

Gawker has been running a series of stories told directly from adjuncts in higher education. It’s an ugly, unfair, horrible mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into.  College now rests primarily on the backs of these underpaid and under-resourced junior faculty. At some point, the house of cards will fall. In the meantime, it’s grossly unfair to the adjuncts and it shortchanges students too.

The Educated Underclass – series (Gawker)

*****

I don’t usually post sports stuff, but everyone around me remembers Clemson kicker Jad Dean missing the field goal that cost CU a key game about a decade ago. I think you could hear the roar of anger across the entire Upstate.

Well, here’s the rest of the story:

Former Clemson kicker Jad Dean’s life has been a journey through football and faith.

Source: Former Clemson kicker finds peace in faith – Reignite My Story