Book Review: The Circle

David Egger’s The Circle is a fun take on a fictional evil version of Google, a company obsessed with knowing everything to the point where it actively villifies privacy and anonymity. Our protagonist Mae takes a job at the tech giant and is slowly indocrinated into their crazy kool-aid corporate culture. The prose was snappy and the pacing was pretty great – it’s a very readable and clever take on privacy issues and how readily we’re willing to trade off our rights for security and service personalization. I really enjoyed this one and have recommended it to friends.

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Hard to have too much discussion about the mechanics of the book without spoiling things, but Mae is subjected to a kind of “slow boil”, where she’s willing to give up more and more of her privacy for nifty benefits like real-time healthcare monitoring and office prestige. At first the trade-offs are sneakily sensible, Eggers decribes cameras saving lives in conflict zones, and kidnap-proofing babies with microchips. By the third act she’s deeply embroiled in transparency culture, but I felt like Eggers lost me along the way – I had hoped he’d continue to rationalize away her resistance but at one point she chugs the kool-aid with such gusto it’s difficult empathise with her decisions through the rest of the novel. In fact, Eggers needs Mae to make a series of ridiculous decisions to let The Circle’s menacing master plan unfold, so I get why things unspool the way they do, but I think there was a missed opportunity to seduce the reader into playing along a little further than he did.

The only ‘voice of reason’ in the novel is her semi-paranoid survivalist ex-boyfriend, which I think was a clever calculated move by the author to make rational arguments feel a bit over the top and easy to dismiss. In fact it’s hilarious how insular and co-operative Egger’s world for Mae is – even the most innocent products offered by The Circle would have real-life modern-day privacy advocates storming the barricades with wirecutters to shut the whole thing down.

The book has inspired me to consider a bunch of privacy-themed art projects, but it’s been a busy summer – I’ll see if I can get any actually done. ūüôā Online privacy is something I think about often and there’s so many discussions we need to have about what we’re okay with as a society.

Missed opportunities on Smallville

I know I’ve been gone from the blog for a while and this is a weird way to come back, but for over a decade I’ve been harbouring really strong feelings about how Smallville, the CW’s Superman-as-a-teenager show, squandered two storytelling opportunities and I need to finally express myself. ūüôā

Smallville had two common licensed television problems; the pacing and writing was sometimes awful because they had to stretch their¬†dramatic arcs¬†out over a season and hurry to produce the shows on schedule, and they weren’t allowed to mess with the DC¬†properties very much resulting in pretty weak character development.¬†They maybe should have committed early on to only running three seasons – their high-school years seem interminable and most of the actors were in their 30s by the time it finished it’s run. But I suppose being¬†renewed endlessly because you’re¬†a hugely popular show is a good problem to have.

Missed Opportunity #1:

There’s an Episode midway through Season 3 called Shattered, where Lex Luthor, who to this point has been scheming and nasty but not “evil”, is being manipulated by some conspirators to believe he’s losing his mind. The episode comes to a head when someone (who is actually trying to kill Lex, it’s not just in his head) tries to run him down in a car. Clark shows up at the last moment and saves Lex, debris and twisted metal everywhere, and finally Lex knows that his suspicions about Clark’s powers were true. Nobody believes him, and minutes later he’s whisked away to a mental hospital¬†where the final, poignant shot is of Lex, straight-jacketed in a cell, while Johnny Cash’s Hurt plays us out.

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In the next episode Asylum Clark feels bad for Lex being in the hospital but does nothing – he doubts Lex’s sanity and leaves him in a dangerous situation “for his own good” – but also to protect¬†Clark’s identity. Clark and his friends eventually discover that Lex may hold a key to unraveling the conspiracy, and only THEN Clark goes to save him, but it’s too late and Lex’s short-term memory has been erased through drugs and torture.

From there the story continues, with Lex reset to the plot points of the previous season, only rarely making references back to this situation. But what we saw play out was huge for the mythos of Superman. Clark is basically an omnipotent being, and can accomplish anything set before him. What makes Superman an interesting character is not the struggle to lift the biggest boulder, but what he choses to do with that¬†power. ¬†And in these two episodes he intentionally leaves his friend to suffer. It’s not just inaction or confusion that prevents Superman from doing the right thing, but his own self-interests. This is a very dark morality play!

The writers missed a chance to turn the whole Superman-Lex relationship on it’s head here. Had Lex’s memories started to trickle back,¬†we¬†would have had a chance to empathise with Lex. Not only were his family and friends actually out to get him, but his best friend was really a malevolent god, an unstoppable monster who can tear cars apart and smash through walls, who chose to allow (and partly caused) Lex’s torture, among a litany of other tragedies that Clark could have stopped in the preceding 3 seasons.

This would have been huge because it justifies everything we know about Lex – that he obsessively hates Superman, that he’s threatened by Clark’s great power, and often (in the comics) believes he’s doing the right thing for humanity by bringing an end to our caped hero.

But no – we dive into a love triangle for a few episodes and everything is forgotten.

Missed Opportunity #2:

At the end of the 5th season, for their 100th Episode, there’s¬†a full-on Lex/Lana/Clark love triangle happening, so Clark finally makes a stand, reveals everything to Lana, flies her to the Fortress of Solitude and proposes marriage. A little later she tells Lex, who’s upset to lose her, and moreover to Clark, the aforementioned¬†malevolent god-monster. He has a freakout. She races away in her car, but Lex follows her to apologize. She calls Clark to warn him that Lex knows everything, but just as Clark is racing to her, a schoolbus (making the rounds after dark?) comes out of nowhere and plows into her, killing her.

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Lex stands there astonished, while Clark races up at super speed only to find he’s too late.

Lex again believes Clark is a dangerous monster who’s indirectly responsible for her death, and Clark knows Lex was chasing after Lana when she died – THIS is a set-up! It’s all out war – the pretenses of friendship can finally be dropped,¬†paranoid and well-prepared Lex can go toe-to-toe with an outraged god – and there’s still 6 episodes left in the season! They’re going to tear Smallville apart brick by brick! Can Superman learn to forgive? Can Lex admit his own failings?¬†Are we all doomed?

But a commercial break later, everything is re-set by a time-travel crystal, and Clark changes the timeline so Lana lives and someone else dies. The incredible momentum this could have lent to the show is thrown away for (I assume) actor’s contractual obligations – but how amazing would it have been if they killed off a tentpole character on a Christmas episode?! This would have been an unprecedented move on primetime television, a decade before Game of Thrones made character-cide a popular pass-time.

There were so many places the writers could have gone without this deus ex machina reset to the status quo that infuriates me Рdespite a number of strikes in previous episodes, this is where I finally gave up on Smallville in frustration and dropped it off my must-watch list.

 

We’ll Never Have Paris, Issue 13

At this year’s inaugural Ottawa Zine Fair I was delighted to meet the charming¬†Andrea Alefhi from New York who edits and publishes “We’ll Never Have Paris“, a tiny (only 4 x 5.5”) but incredibly curated zine of short stories and essays loosely arranged around the experiences of¬†people displaced¬†between the east and west coasts of America.

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I’m clearly going to have to order and read all the previous issues because this¬†Zine spoke to me in a huge way. I’ll admit I’m probably biased because like so many of the writers, I’ve also hopped around between coasts and felt very far away from home. But impartially, the writing in this book is consistently exceptional and I was caught up in all of the essays.

A few notable highlights include Jaime Borschuk’s hilariously guilt-steeped admission¬†of accidentally¬†running down¬†an endangered California Condor on a birthday yurting trip gone awry, a poignant look at a pre-Youtube¬†viral VHS discovery that becomes an obsession for a whole town by Dave Cole, and Joshua James Amberson’s identity crisis behind the wheel of his 1988 Ford Mustang 5.0.

“We’ll Never Have Paris” issue¬†13 is 48 pages, features 7 short works, and is available to order on their website www.wellneverhavepariszine.com

Review: Celeste by I.N.J. Culbard

On a lark (mostly because there was an astronaut on the cover) I¬†borrowed the graphic novel¬†“Celeste” by I.N.J. Culbard¬†from the library. The premise is really clever – it follows three people who suddenly discover they’re the only people left on the planet.¬†There’s a¬†particularly lovely¬†Powers-Of-Ten opening that starts at the edge of the universe and slowly zooms into earth.

The setup and the settings and characters are all really interesting, but the third act¬†of the storyline (in all three character’s storylines) just went totally over my head. I have the feeling that for the artist the ending is full of meaning, but I found it really difficult to make any sense of the abstract narrative that unfolds. I felt like maybe I could hit up the internet for some answers, but discovered that I’m not the only person who found it confounding.

I wasn’t in love with the art (it was well executed, but the style didn’t appeal to me), and you could make some valid criticism that the nudity felt a bit gratuitous, but I’d still¬†recommend it for the experience of reading¬†a storyline¬†that doesn’t go anywhere you think it will.¬†It felt a bit like an unsatisfying dream, and that was weird to get from a book.

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Review: The Martian

I managed to get my hands on a copy of The Martian before the movie adaptation starring Matt Damon hit the theatres. ūüôā The trailer for that film is full of spoilers, by the way – so best be avoiding it if you’re interested in the book or the film.

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In the book, astronaut Mark Watney is accidentally left behind on Mars when a sandstorm threatens to overwhelm the crew of the Ares 3 Mars mission Рthe book follows his struggles to stay alive in an unrelenting environment while he tries to figure out a way back to earth.

Set in the near-ish future, the book is a gold-mine of details for anyone who hopes to someday spend some quality time on the red planet. Although much of the technology is made up, it feels plausible Рcertainly the author Andy Weir has been doing his homework.

There’s a few stretches where the¬†details¬†get in the way of the plot (there’s some tediously long math bits) but there’s enough constantly going wrong in Mark Watney’s life that the pace stays pretty brisk throughout the book.

This is a book that celebrates intelligence, resourcefulness, and preparedness. Definitely a recommended read if you’re into hard sci-fi.

Tindervox at Raw Sugar

Over the Easter break I dropped into Raw Sugar on Somerset, a little cafe with a consistently awesome lineup of bands cycling through their calendar. The band I was there to see were awesome (more about them later), but I was also very happy to discover a new band I really like – Tindervox. Kara Askwith’s dark guitar magic and moody vocals were really exciting, and Justin Black backed her up with fluid accompaniment.

Their set was a stripped down acoustic version of their usually very distorted power-chordy sound, which was good because at the tiny cafe we were sitting pretty much right on top of them. When I got home I looked them up right away, and I really dig their electrified sound too – I almost hope they release an acoustic album soon because their stuff sounds really amazing both ways. ūüôā

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Semi-related story – I met another Jason after the show who’d just purchased an album, and offered him a sharpie from my pocket to get it signed (because I once couldn’t find a pen anywhere at a Yamantaka concert and vowed it would never happen to me again). He looked at me like I was some kind of concert MacGuyver (I also had earplugs, just in case) and told me “You’re the kind of Jason I wish I was!“. I think maybe he was drunk. ūüôā