Short Impressions of “JPod” by Douglas Coupland

I don’t know if Douglas Coupland changed my life. If not, he came close.

Douglas Coupland is the author of Microserfs, a fictional tale of life at Microsoft in the mid-1990s. I had to have read Microserfs before December 1998, because according to my Amazon’s history that’s when I read Coupland’s Girlfriend in a Coma. I read Microserfs, and wanted to be with those people, to know those friends, to live that life.

Now I work there.

JPod is an update that takes place a decade later and two hours to the north, in Vancouver, British Columbia. JPod is not a copy of Microserfs, but the books definitely ‘rhyme.’ JPod also takes place in the world after the 9/11 attacks, which are never directly mentioned, but appear to lurk behind the surface. Microserfs was a work of techno-optimism, and ends with the what might be the most moving description of transhumanism I ever read. The world of JPod is subtly darker and more violent.

We no longer live in a world where the young do not have a war to support, oppose, and think about. They now have too many.

But JPod’s tone is funny, the antics more absurd than in Microserfs, and follows a stream-of-consciousness style. There’s plenty of geek humor too — if a technical manual that identifies .cpp (C++) files as “containing information about films that won an Academy Award” is hilarious, this may be the book for you.

JPod is recommended for fans of Douglas Coupland and Microserfs.

Short Interview with Jeff Carlson, Author of ‘The Frozen Sky’

Jeff Carlson, author of the famous Plague Year novels, was kind enough to drop me a note after I posted a review of his novella, The Frozen Sky. After a short back and forth I asked if he would answer a couple questions by email. He kindly obliged, and with that — five questions with Jeff Carlson:

1) Could you describe “The Frozen Sky” in your own words?

At a glance, this novella is a First Contact story €” man meets monsters. If I was pitching it in Hollywood, I’d say, ‘This is a high concept cross between Aliens and Pitch Black. It has a strong heroine caught in a cinematic labryinthe of ice, rock, and mysterious lifeforms.’

But I like to think there’s more going on. I’m fascinated by environment and how our surroundings affect us.

Yes, ‘The Frozen Sky’ is a sci fi action-adventure story. There are freaky little intelligent starfish that hunt in packs, and people get their faces ripped off in a dark, spooky world, and yet the underlying theme is Why are we what we are?

When and if humankind makes contact with extraterrestrial life, I personally bet against discovering that the galaxy has evolved on the Star Trek/Wars model, i.e., everyone else also will be bipedal air-breathers.

There are going to be some weird, scary aliens, dude. So I imagined we found €˜em nearby on one of Jupiter’s moons.

2) The Frozen Sky strikes me as a story of conflict, with the principals being by turns profoundly disabled and profoundly disturbed. Is this a fair description?

Aha ha. You’re only being half fair!

The main focus is Alexis Vonderach, a human explorer in over her head. We see the story through her eyes, and my hope is everyone will agree Vonnie is a bright, capable, tough-minded hero who remains as grounded as possible in horrific circumstances.

But if you’re talking about her opponents, yes. By our perspective, the lifeforms deep inside the ice of Europa are savage, stunted nightmares, blind to many fundamental human traits like curiosity or fear. And yet their reactions aren’t only sensible. In their ecology, violence and greed are survival mechanisms.

3) The reason ‘The Frozen Sky’ caught my eye relates to John Boyd’s idea of the OODA Loop. The acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, but the trick is that people rarely decide, and when they do, they are likely to make mistakes. Being proficient means you’re oriented to act in the right way without going through conscious decision-making…

Intriguing stuff.

My guess is most people capable of such proficiency are either highly trained or highly intuitive. In a crisis, they don’t use their conscious mind. They go on instinct. And yet our strength as a species is our ability to evaluate, study and outwit threats and obstacles.

Sometimes that works against us.

Physiologically, human beings are virtually identical all over the world, and yet we couldn’t be more diverse. Why? Our perceptions and beliefs, our very senses, are shaped by where and how we live. Maybe that seems obvious, but especially in politics and religion, I hear people speak as though their subjective ideas are absolutes. In reality, each of us is extremely small and we comprehend only a fraction of the influences on our personalities and our decisions. Too much of the time, we operate on biased data.

Trying to overcome our own handicaps is a common theme in my best short stories, like ‘Long Eyes’ and ‘Damned When You Do,’ and in my Plague Year novels, which begin with a runaway nanotechnology plague that devours all warm-blooded life below 10,000 feet elevation, leaving only a few survivors in the highest mountain peaks. In that storyline, the problems of isolation and limited resources are critical €” but at least we have hope, imagination, and the memory of something different.

In ‘The Frozen Sky,’ the natives of Europa have never conceived of the possibility of escaping their world.

4) You’ve become an international bestseller with the Plague Year trilogy. Who is the least known author we should be reading?

Me, dude! Ha ha.

The truth is I barely read for pleasure any more at all (it’s write, write, write, edit, research, write), which is a crime, because I got into this crazy business because I love to read and grew up as a serious bookworm.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any hidden little gem authors who I should recommend. When I do read for pleasure, lately it’s been mostly P.I. and legal thrillers by folks like Robert Crais and John Lescroart, neither of whom is a secret.

5) What advice would you give to aspiring fiction writers?

Do the work.

The greatest thing about writing is also the worst. Every writer is his own boss. Every writer has to find his own way. There are no short cuts. Do the work. That means learning the craft from the very basics of grammar and sentence structure to developing plot ideas to more advanced nuances like character arcs and subplots.

Read a lot. That certainly helps. Study your favorites and the greats. See what works for them, then try to use those tools yourself. For me, when it’s going well, writing is extremely gratifying. It’s not only similar to playing both sides of a game of chess. Even though I’m the good guys and the bad guys, I’m also the board! I build the world. Then I move the players. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed a great puzzle knows what I’m talking about.

Interested? Read The Frozen Sky, and read Jeff Carlson’s blog.

Review of “Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958 – 1962,” by Frank Dikotter

After some books, I have the impression of having fleshed out my understanding with a broader knowledge of a subject

Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe by Frank Dikotter is definitely one of these books. A “social history” in the best sense of the word, Mao’s Great Famine focuses on the leadership, the implementation, and the consequences of the man-made famine that killed at least 45,000,000 Chinese. Dikotter convincingly argues that the Great Leap Forward had a higher death-tool and was more disruptive than the Cultural Revolution, as the Great Leap Forward primarily targeted farmers. The book is a useful addition to my library.

Unlike most histories of the Chinese Communist Party , Mao’s Great Famine is primarily a social history concerned with the experience of common Chinese during the autogenocide that killed approximately one out of every ten Chinese people.

The book begins, and ends, on the top. All the usual suspects are there.

There’s Lin Biao, the perpetually ill (But with what? PTSD? acute anxiety? fibromyagia) marshall, who realized that the secret to success in a system built on lies is to just lie through your teeth:

The thoughts of Chairman Mao are always correct… Chairman Mao’s superiority has many aspects, not just one, and I know from experience that Chairman Mao’s most outstanding quality is realism. What he says is much more realistic than what others say. He is always pretty close to the mark. He is never out of touch with reality… I feel very deeply that when in the past our work was done well, it was precisely when we thoroughly implemented and did not interfere with Chairman Mao’s thought. Every time Chairman Mao’s ideas were not sufficiently respected or suffered interference, there have been problems. That is essentially what the history of our party over the last few decades shows.

And there’s Liu Shaoqi, a man whose temperament would have been perfectly fit for the post of, say the East German Minister of Agriculture

So many people have died of hunger.. History will judge you [Mao Zedong] and me, even cannibalism will go into the books!

And there’s Zhou Enlai, Lin’s mentor, lying through his teeth

This was my mistake… the shortcomings and errors of the last few years occurred precisely when we contravened the general line and Chairman Mao’s precious instructions

And there’s Mao himself, as profoundly alone as a man can be:

The Three Red Banners have been shot down, now land is being divided up again… What have you done to resist this? What’s going to happen after I’m dead?

Dikotter does introduce new facts about the high-levels of government during the Great Leap Forard. For instance, Dikotter documents that the massive grain shipments to the Soviet Union during the Great Leap Forward, which are often cited by Chinese as a reason for mass death, but traditionally denied by western historians, actually did happen, Likewise, Dikotter at least implies that Mao’s paranoia of Peng Dehui‘s cooperation with Soeviet authorities wasn’t entirely baseless. But Maos Great Famine does not end there. Indeed, it just begins.

In a recent article on Chinese student applications to American colleges,” the New York Times had for a while a multimedia feature, showing full-page scans of “admission brochures” prepared by Chinese high school students. A page of one brochure had this sentence:

My philosophy: The God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

This sentence, combined with the National Exam mentality and the scholar-bureaucrat tradition, go a great deal of the way to explaining the Great Leap Forward’s death toll of 45 million people. In sum:

To obtain a promotion, excel at meeting a simple, well-known metric
To keep your position, simply obey your superior

In the context of the Great Leap Forward, the way for a bureaucrat to be promoted was to report an increase in one of the few metrics that mattered (say, grain produced in the county). The way not to be fired was to simply obey the instruction to collect farm taxes in the form of, say, 30% of the reported harvest. The logical end-point of this is reporting a harvest 300% larger than the actual harvest, and collecting 100% of the actual harvest to pay in taxes.

This is exactly what happened.

But in another sense, this hides what happened. The story of Mao, Zhou, Liu, and Lin is the story of the leadership. The mundane world of the bureaucrats is the world of the mechanism. The section of the book titled “Ways of Dying” is what actually happened.

I won’t describe that section, except to say it brought to tears, and it involves a simple formula:

The motivation of a starving worker to work is his fear of torture less his weakness from malnourishment.

That is exactly what happened.

Mao’s Great Famine, especially the ways of dying section, was a hard book to read. It is also a hard book to review. It is written by a European, and thus the style is different from either the nostalgic nature of Chinese histories, or facts-first nature of American histories. This is a good book to read, and it makes a persuasive case for a minimum death toll of 45 million.

Mao’s Great Famine is best read along with The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers. One tells how the Party reacts in bad times, and the other in good, but it is the same party, the same mechanism, the same people (or their children or grandchildren) — only the leadership has changed.

This is a disturbing book, and not a comfortable one to read, but critical for understanding the nature of Mao’s rule.