Tag Archives: Books I Read

No Coloring Outside The Circle

Secrets are Lies!
Sharing is Caring!
Privacy is Theft!

They are watching you.  At least in Dave Eggers‘ novel The Circle they are.

The Circle starts off with Mae, an Ivy League graduate who has come back to her home town after graduation to fall into a job at the local utility company.

She does not fit in.

The utility company is straight out of the 1960s and simply having grown up using technology as an every day thing make Mae stand out even amongst the IT department.  Her talents and education are clearly being wasted in that position.

Then her college roommate Annie throws her a lifeline in the form of an opportunity to come and work at The Circle.


The Circle is mash-up combo of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever other variations on social media you can think up.  But their real break-through, their “secret sauce” as it were, is TruYou.  This requires anybody who uses the services of The Circle to do so only with their verified, real world ID.  This of course completely cleared up all of the bad stuff on their services (because nobody ever says anything mean, stupid, hateful, or whatever using their real name!), making them the front runner and allowing them to buy up all the competition.  So if you want be involved in social media, you have to go to The Circle, which means using your real identity.

Annie is a rising star at The Circle, so her word gets Mae in the door and into a position in customer support where she quickly goes to work and does well.  She enjoys the immediate feedback that the company rating system gives her and the company offers a vast array of perks and benefits.  It is every Silicon Valley fantasy campus you have ever imagined.  But she stumbles a bit as the requirements of the job are made clear to her.

The company expects her to be an active participant in their social media at all times.  She is called to her bosses office when she disappears for a weekend because of a medical emergency at her parent’s house.  He understands the need to be with family and is primarily critical that Mae made no social media posts along the way.  This is framed as selfishness as he asks if other people facing similar situations wouldn’t benefit from reading her experiences in dealing with the medical issue.  Mae meekly agrees and promises to do better.

Mae continues to stumble as she is introduced to each aspect of being a part of The Circle, the social media requirements, the corporate ranking based on employee activity, the conversion rate that indicates how much her activity has influenced buying habits, all of these become challenges for her.  By I was that far along in the book, the progression of the book was pretty well charted out in my mind.

You and I might find the requirements of The Circle far beyond the pale, but young Mae… and The Circle favors hiring young, just out of college employees that they can mold… just like real Silicon Valley… reacts like Boxer in Animal Farm and vows to work harder at being a good employee of The Circle and spends nearly all of her waking hours toiling in the social media fields.

Meanwhile, The Circle has other plans.  The have a tiny, low power, inexpensive, high-def camera system that they plan to produce by the millions.  This will let anybody set up cameras anywhere that can be watched by anybody on the net.  The Circle is interested in absolute transparency and predicts that once every action is seen and recorded by the cameras… all their data is stored away in data centers run by The Circle… crime will be a thing of the past.

They get their local congresswoman to wear such a camera at all times, making everything she does available for view on the internet.  She has gone “transparent.”  Soon there is popular pressure for politicians in general to go “transparent” and the cry becomes loud enough that many fear they will be seen as hiding things.  There is a waiting list to go “transparent.”

Of course, some oppose this sort of thing, citing a right to privacy.  The Circle sticks to the well worn line used by nascent totalitarians everywhere, that you have no need to fear transparency if you have nothing to hide.  And, sure enough, any public figure that speaks out against The Circle is discovered to be involved with child porn, illegal drugs, gambling, or some other serious crime that discredits their objections completely.  Mae’s Luddite ex-boyfriend notes how convenient this is for The Circle.

Mae will have none of that and her journey into the depths of The Circle are far from over.  The Circle doesn’t want anybody… individuals, governments, corporations… to have any secrets.   Well, except for The Circle itself.  Proprietary information… trade secrets… you understand, right?

Every discussion of this book I have seen heads pretty quickly towards Orwell and 1984.  Cameras everywhere, enforced orthodoxy, the ruthless destruction of all opposition and the co-opting of all fellow travelers… that all lines right up.  But unlike 1984, where this was all in the furtherance of an endless war to consume resources and keep people poor and afraid, The Circle offers safety and happiness and freedom from worry while promising a world of consumption and distraction.  That gets us more into Brave New World territory.

So the ideas behind the book are in no way new and if you have read much in the dystopian genre (throw Player Piano and Fahrenheit 451 on the fire as well) the book is going to evolve along a pretty predictable path for you.  The setup of each scene in the book seemed to telegraph the results.  If you are looking for surprises, The Circle won’t deliver.

What The Circle does bring to that genre is a fresh coat of possibility/plausibility.

The book takes place in the not too distant future and the technology that is brought up to accomplish the goals of The Circle feels all too easily reached from today.  1984 requires permanent war and a ruthless tyranny.  Brave New World revolved around strange technology and the wholesale replacement of religion with consumerism as mandated by the government.

The Circle just has social media and a few gadgets that don’t seem that far off.  Its power grows much more organically, and plays on things we already wonder about.  Is that Xbox One watching you day and night through the Kinect features?  Doesn’t your smart phone know where you are at all times?  Are you sure that, when you tell Google not to track your web searches to be stored away and analyzed, that they aren’t just doing it anyway.  Add in the fact that The Circle feels a lot like the HR-strangled, youth oriented, “everybody mouth the politically correct party line about work-life balance” while the company demands access to all of your waking hours attitudes that pervade the big companies in the valley these days, and it feels very close to being real.

So Mae travels further into The Circle.  Her own actions set her up as a pioneer at the company and she ends up going “transparent,” carrying one of The Circle’s cameras on her person at all times, becoming the tour guide to the world inside The Circle.  That is, in essence, her new job.  Everything she says or does is recorded and broadcast live and she wanders The Circle campus.  She can turn the camera off while she sleeps and can mute the audio for up to three minutes while using the restroom, but otherwise everything she sees, hears, and does goes out live.  She is streaming her life all waking hours.

This makes Mae incredibly popular.  Millions follow her at key points during her day.  Feedback is immediate and almost universally positive.  Her influence is huge.  If she mentions a product or a person, they are immediately inundated.

Of course, this comes with the common issues we know from the internet.  She is popular, but many people feel that they now “know” her.  They offer up opinions and feedback on everything she does.  A small subset of people ask for favors, demand acknowledgement, and otherwise act entitled.  But Mae always responds, representing The Circle as she does.  And when she reads aloud a note from her ex-boyfriend critical of Mae and The Circle, the backlash is immediate.  Discussion of him and all his flaws surges and  it is clear that her followers would make his life hell (or more hellish) if Mae just gave the word.

In the bubble around her, everybody is obviously aware that they are on camera.  People’s behavior changes.  The Circle wants to create a better society and knows that people are always on their best behavior when watched, so that is good.  However, Mae’s friends avoid her and her family dreads her visits.  Her friend Annie stays well clear of Mae and her audience.  Even Mae feels the pressure of being always on, though she thinks that must be something wrong with her.  How can always being her best… because that is what people do when they know they are being watched… cause her so much stress.

And The Circle’s various initiatives to correct the ills of modern society… when you have limitless video cameras, more surveillance is always the answer… go further and further.  The only question is, where will things end?

For Specific Definitions of “Kindly”

In which I attempt to get a “serious” book out of my system.

A few years back Anthony Beevor, whose historical works I respect and enjoy, had  a list up in the Wall Street Journal of what he considered to be the five best works of World War II fiction.  The list included Life and Fate, Catch-22, Sword of Honor, Fortunes of War, and The Kindly Ones.

Since I had read, or at least attempted to read, the first three on the list (Life and Fate, bookmark in place, is still on my nightstand), I figured I ought to dive into the over two.  Fortunes of War represented a commitment to a new series, while The Kindly Ones was a single novel, newly out in paperback, and available at a discount from yet another local bookstore going out of business.  Plus it was by the son of another author I like, Robert Littell.  Decision made.

The Kindly Ones is a disturbing book.  I could not recommend it in any general way.

I feel compelled to write something about the book, yet at a loss as to what to say.

The book is, by turns, fascinating, disturbing, bizarre, dull, and maddening.  Full marks to the author for evoking emotional responses.  But what was it really about, why would Anthony Beevor recommend it, and why was it even written in the first place?

On the surface, the book is about Max Aue and what he did during the war.  It starts with an address to the reader from Max about his post-war life and his purpose in writing what is, within the frame of the book, his autobiography.  He wants to write out his tale for his own benefit and strives to be… claims to be… as close to the truth as he can, since he is not trying to justify his actions for anybody.

The tale of Max tells begins in Nazi Germany, where he is a bright young man with a doctorate in law.  He is of mixed German and French origin and spent much of his youth and schooling in France.  He is fluent in both German and French.  AMax is also a homosexual, which puts him at great risk in this time and place.

Max is fervent Nazi as well and believes fully in the vision of the future put forth by Adolf Hitler.  His German father disappeared after the First World War when fighting with the Freikorps in the east and assumes a legendary role in Max’s personal beliefs.  He resents his mother for remarrying, and all the more so in that she chose a Frenchman and moved him and his sister to France.  He sees his future in Germany and moves back there as soon as he can.

He ends up in the SS after a shove in that direction from a benefactor who bails him out after he is picked up loitering at a spot known to be used by gay men to hook up.  Max is a diligent, dedicated, and thoughtful officer in the SS and is exceedingly bad at the bureaucratic games in the organization.  He ends up at various points in the war… in the Einsatzgruppen in Southern Russia, at Stalingrad, helping administer the deportation of the Hungarian Jews, and at the fall of Berlin… and runs into various famous names… Himmler, Speer, Eichmann… while trying to get his various assignments done.

For example, with the Hungarian Jews, Max is working with Speer who wants slave labor to support the war effort, but that means keeping the Jews in good health.  Meanwhile, Eichmann, who is running much of the operation, just wants to make quota and stay under budget.  So conditions for the Jews are hellish and most arrive unfit for work and are sent to be gassed.  Max accepts this with the same level of disappointment a shopkeeper might show if he received a shipment of fruit that had gone bad and needed to be thrown away.

Max isn’t completely immune to the horrors.  He begins to be physically ill when part of the Einsatzgruppen and is sent off to recuperate.  But he is mostly worried about himself, doing his job well, some close friends, and whether he can seduce some Wehrmacht officer or another.  Add in his being a suspect in a bloody double murder, the nature of his relationship with his sister, and the astronomical act of betrayal he commits to survive the war and you want to grab him, shake him, and scream about seeing the bigger picture.

Which is, of course, quite easy in hindsight.  We know how the story in the bigger picture ends, who wins, who loses, and can make judgements on right and wrong from the comfort of our living rooms as we go about our lives, swimming with the current of history and barely making any sort of ripple.  And it goes towards the author’s stated intent in writing the book, which is spelled out in the Wikipedia article on it; he wanted to explore what he would do in that situation.  I am not sure that he shared the result of his exploration.  It was left with the reader.  What would Nazi Germany and the SS be like from the inside at the time and how would different people react?  And in Max’s career he runs into a wide variety of motivations, fervent Nazism being in the tiny minority.

Fine, each author has his or her own motivation.  But why would Anthony Beevor, a noted and respected historian, recommend this book?  It isn’t a book of history any more than Gone with the Wind.  I can go to my bookshelf and pick up Martin Gilbtert’s tome The Holocaust and find a different, and well documented, narrative around events through which Max passes.

I suspect that the book was recommended because of its portrayal of individuals.  Anthony Beevor’s work is full of references from individual observers, each with their specific point of view.  This adds both flavor and a human layer to his work that helps make them approachable by layman like myself.  So I think the portrayal of Germans, Nazis, SS members, and the occasional member of the Nazi Party elite as individuals, each with their own point of view motivation and what not… just like any human being… as opposed to a jackbooted army of identical cardboard cut-out monsters that were completely unlike us, is the key.  The latter notion, that the Nazis were some sort of alternate breed, is comforting in its way.  It means we’re different and, thus, could never be involved in such crimes.  It is practically part of the mythos of Nazi Germany.

It just isn’t true.

Which is what I think was the point of the exercise.

Thrawn Dies at the End

I have a pile of partially finished… or in some cases barely started… posts about books saved on this blog.  Every time I finish reading a book or listening to an audio book, I feel some minor compulsion to write about it.

It is obviously not a major compulsion, since I rarely ever finish those posts.

Well, that and I have never really been good at the book report thing.  When I get to the end of a good book I want to talk about it with somebody else who has read it, not write a spoiler avoiding summary that cannot discuss the meat of the book.  Such is life.

Anyway, in an attempt to clean up my drafts folder, I am going to take what I have and try to hammer them into something I can post and throw them out there as Sunday posts.  Quality not guaranteed.

I am going to start with a pair of books, the wrap up of a trilogy, and I apologize for the spoilers.  Even the post title is a spoiler, done in pursuit of a dubiously humorous allusion.  But there is worse below.  And the series is over 20 years old now.  Anyway, on to whatever it is I am doing.

Two years ago I wrote up my feelings after reading Heir to the Empire again on its 20th anniversary.  I was somewhat serious in that post.  I am less so here.  Anyway, earlier this year, realizing I needed to pick my two titles for the month at Audible.com, I decided to finish off the series.  So I started in on Dark Force Rising and The Last Command.

Han looks really old...

Han looks really old…

My picks could have been better spent.

Much of what I wrote about Heir to the Empire applies to these two titles.  The production values are excellent.  The narrator is spot-on with voices 99% of the time.  But the good guys… Luke, Leia, Han, et al… remain as glued to the past as a middle aged guy who feels his life peaked in high school.  Everything they do ends up getting a reference back to the original movies.  Hell, Luke’s big plan of the second book is to break into the detention center of a Star Destroyer via the trash compactor.  And, like anybody who seems to live solidly in the past, they become dull and predictable.  I played “shout out the next line” in the car every time there was a dramatic pause, and for the the regular crew I was right every single time.

And it wasn’t just that I had read the books 20 years back.  This was just some tired writing.

But that was pretty much the case in the first book as well, so no change there.

What did change was that the master villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn, couldn’t pick up the slack the way he did in the first book.  In the first book we were learning about him.  He was new and fresh and interesting.  However he didn’t evolve much after that.  He looks at some culture’s art, figures out their weakness, and devises a plan to exploit it.  He is wise and insightful, except when the plot needs him to be arrogant and blind.  He is the master of every engagement and thinking two moves ahead, except when the plot needs the New Republic to win.  And his every plan comes to fruition, unless it involves Luke, Leia, Han, et al.  In that case he is constantly thwarted by those meddling kids.

Seriously, rename the Millennium Falcon to the Mystery Machine, make R2D2 an incomprehensible talking dog, and C-3P0 a Maynard G. Krebs knock-off with a constant case of the munchies and the rest writes itself.

Meanwhile, the story is telegraphing the ending from the middle of the second book.  Really, the only big question is why it takes 600 more pages to get to the inevitable result.

The second book, Dark Force Rising, revolves around two key things.  The first is the mysterious “Dark Force” or “Katana Fleet” or “Lost Fleet” or “MacGuffin Fleet.”  This is a a fleet of 200 dreadnought class destroyers (Which seem to be about cruiser size in a fleet composition, since they are formidable but smaller than an imperial Star Destroyer.  Way to mix ship classes into a complete mess!) that went missing back during the clone wars.  The Old Republic was working on automation to save on crew requirements, so had linked all these ships together.  Then the crews were hit with a bout of space madness or some such, jumped the whole fleet off to some random location, died, and were never seen again.  Only somebody has found the ships and the race to collect them starts.

The second is the relationship between the martial but primitive Noghri and the rump Empire that seems content to use them as suicide commandos while manipulating them to keep them dependent on, and loyal to, the Empire.

For the first, Thrawn wins, grabbing 185 out of 200 ships.  But the New Republic is pretty relaxed about it because where is the Empire going to find crews… even with the automation reducing the requirements… to run 185 big ships?  Then somebody points out the whole “Empire able to make clones” thing and Mon Mothra (intentional error) shits a brick.

As for the second bit, enter meddling kids.  And we close wondering how long it will take Thrawn to die.

The Last Command opens up with Thrawn barreling to the peak of his mastery of the galaxy.  He is knocking over planets and taking whole sectors.  The New Republic is in a panic.  Grand Admiral Thrawn, dramatically lit, red eyes flashing, and laughing maniacally, stands at the gates of Moscow, his triumph at hand.

Enter meddling kids and some pissed off Noghri and the late Grand Admiral Thrawn is carried off by the chorus.

Close on Admiral Pellaeon, crestfallen at this turn of fortune (but secretly relieved at no longer having to look like a half-wit child next to Thrawn), taking over command of the rump Empire and forming a blue ribbon committee on unified paint schemes for all Imperial warships before retiring to the officer’s club to reminisce about the good old days when the Emperor was running the show and a man of his mild talents could rise to the rank of Admiral by just shuffling papers and avoiding any responsibility.

Or at least that is how I am calling it.  I couldn’t make it to the end of the last book, even with a professional voice actor reading it to me while in the car where I had nothing but traffic to deal with.  My mind kept wandering off… or perhaps it was running away to hide… and I would realize that I had missed great chunks of the narrative.

I am being unfair of course.  Part of the reason I lost interest is that the books are really in the “young adult” category at best and were written at a time when we were starved for anything Star Wars related.  Context is ever important.  These books were like mana in the 90s.

I did enjoy spotting the places where the books diverged from the eventual stories put forth in Episodes I, II, and III.  Things like the nature of the Clone Wars (a clone revolt), dark Jedi (no mention of Sith), and how Darth Vader lost his hand (no mention of Obi-wan sadistically leaving Anakin burned and dismembered on whatever industrial sweatshop world that was) spring to mind.  That was a fun game at times.

In they end, they are not bad books when you factor in their time, target audience, the constraints and demands that Lucas no doubt put on them, and the other titles from the 90s Expanded Universe collection.  These are still the best of that bunch and deserved to be best sellers back then.  But times have changed and so have I.

Heir to the Empire – 20 Years Later

It has now been over 20 years since the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Heir to the Empire was first published.

Old Cover and New

And I will admit right now that, for the last 18 or so years, I thought the novel was titled Heir to Empire.  At least that is the way my brain stored it away.  I prefer it without the definite article, but that might just be me.

Anyway, back to 1991, a dark time for Star Wars fans… this is long, and not game related, so I won’t flood the front page with it.

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