The decline and fall of a written empire

I finished reading The Long Sunset yesterday, the eighth and final (for the moment) book in the Academy series by Jack McDevitt.

It was dire. The prose felt like it was written by someone with only the most basic grasp of English, full of repetitive sentences and “of course”s that were anything but. I toughed it out, because I’ve read all of the previous books in the series. And because the book I read before it, Starhawk–book seven in the series–was actually worse.

This was all prompted by the fact that one of my old coworkers had finally gotten around to one of my recommendations: The Engines of God, the first book in the series. That spurred me into checking on if there were any new books in the series, and hence the two novels sitting on the Library Stack next to my oversized recliner.

My reading of Starhawk and The Long Sunset, along with a comment by that friend about the repetitive way McDevitt introduces characters, prompted something of a crisis of faith: were these books always bad? Did I just read the first few when I was less of a critical thinker, not as prone to actually judge the quality of the prose I consumed? Because if the most recent books were anything to go by, I never should have recommended McDevitt in the first place.

My copies of the early books are hiding in a box somewhere, but this morning I managed to find excerpts from the first few books in the series on HarperCollins’ website. My current conclusion: they may not be perfect, and still show some signs of that later decline into third-grade reading material, but there’s no question that Deepsix and Chindi are much better written than the more recent books.

So: what happened? Has McDevitt lost the command of the language he once had, or does he simply care less about carefully crafted sentences now that he’s published twenty-plus novels, or is it something else entirely? I don’t know, obviously. But it’s made me think about this sort of decline, and how it is very much not limited to this one author.

Another series that I loved to pieces at first, then got deeply saddened as it went on, is Stephen King’s Dark Tower sequence. The first three books are some of the best horror/sf I’ve ever read. The long-delayed fourth novel barely fits in the sequence at all–it’s mostly an extended flashback–and the fifth through seventh novels rush through a bunch of important plot points and resolve the story in what may be the most unsatisfying ending I’ve ever experienced1. It’s so bad that I strongly recommend people simply stop reading after the third book, because everything after it is fundamentally not worth the time.

Now, I think that some of Stephen King’s best works are his earliest; The Stand is one of my favorite novels of all time. But he’s managed to write interesting, vital stuff much later in his career too. I actually reviewed the Mr. Mercedes books last year on this blog, and while they were hardly his best, they were perfectly enjoyable tales. The same for The Outsider. So: is it something about long series, specifically, that causes this problem?

I could give many more genre examples. Dune. Harry Potter. The Wheel of Time, although most of my knowledge of that series’ decline is second-hand. As much as I love the Culture series, there’s no question in my mind that its best books were early in its run, although the dip in quality across the series as a whole is much more shallow than the list above.

Counter-examples are hard to come by, even with series that were written in rapid succession, rather than dragged out over decades. I’ve heard very good things about N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, and all three of the books won the Hugo Award (with the last also snagging the Nebula), so I should probably add those to my reading queue tout suite. And I wouldn’t say that Charles Stross’ Laundry series has gotten better as it’s gone, but I would say that it hasn’t gotten worse either; they’ve been impressively consistent throughout. I’d be curious if any readers can suggest other series that actually get better all the way to the end, because I’m mostly coming up blank.

This ties into the theme I wrote about last week: endings are indeed hard. But it’s not just that. Maybe it’s simply authorial fatigue of writing in the same setting, over and over again? Maybe it’s the writing equivalent of the sophomore slump, where most of the great ideas get shoved into the early books, leaving only dregs for the later stuff? I’m not sure, and the fact that we read series because we want more, more, more makes that decline only that much more bitter.

Anyway, this kinda-sorta review mostly-really rant is already way too long, so I guess I’ll finish it with this: stop reading The Dark Tower after The Waste Land. Stop reading Dune after, well, Dune, although you can read Dune Messiah if you absolutely must. And if you read McDevitt’s Academy novels at all, you should probably stop after Chindi. Don’t let the long fall of the series bring you down.

Weekly status update [0068/????]

Even quieter than last week. Maybe next week I’ll just sleep for seven days.

  • I’m most of the way through Origin, which continues to be a perfectly fine version of The Thing in space, but not a lot more. The only other television-y thing I’ve watched since last time was the series finale of Game of Thrones, which, uh, yeah. It prompted me to write a thing, at least?
  • I finished Starhawk, which was dire, and made the mistake of continuing to another McDevitt novel, The Long Sunset. It’s not as bad but it’s still not great, and having it as my on-the-queue book has sapped my reading speed pretty dramatically. Ugh. On the plus side, a random suggestion in an AVClub thread about GoT led me to a (completed, thank goodness!) seven-book fantasy series. I put all of ’em on hold at the library–thanks, Cardinal system!–and they’re winging their way to the local branch as I type.
  • Borderlands at night, Portal Knights on Thursday evenings. I also put a lot of time into Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Future Tone, which is both the best rhythm game I’ve played in many years and one of the most uncomfortably Japanese games I’ve ever played in my life. What a combo. I’ve beaten every song on Easy and Normal and am alternating between songs on Hard and boosting my completion percentages and perfects on the lower difficulties. One thing you can’t criticize the game for is lack of content; it has well over 200 tracks, which I’m pretty sure is the most I’ve ever seen in any single rhythm game ever.
  • I’ve played quite a bit of Dominion on this week after a bit of a hiatus. The person I play the most with is starting to get pretty good; it’s a hard row to hoe against me, with my nearly 900 plays, but they’ve gone from usually losing big to usually just losing, or even winning. In fact, they had their first “big win” night Wednesday, beating me in three of the four games we played.
  • I did a bit of streaming this week. My biggest stream was playing through one or two puzzles each of Everett Kaser’s “Sherlock” series of logic puzzle games. It forced me to revisit some titles I hadn’t touched in a while, and two of them I’m not very fond of, Baker Street and Mrs. Hudson. I still don’t like the latter very much at all, but I’ve found myself doing quite a few Baker Street puzzles after grousing about them on stream. I still don’t love them, but I do like them quite a bit more than I did. See, people can change. (Also, Mycroft’s Map is still ridiculously overwhelming. I don’t see how people play that game.)


On endings

The last thing the Internet needs is another think-piece on the last season of Game of Thrones… but that’s not to say that I’m past using said event as a jumping-off point1.

Endings are hard.

One of my favorite authors is Neal Stephenson. Cryptonomicon is an amazing book, packed full of details and fascinating characters and interesting twists. And then, about thirty pages from the end, it just sort of… becomes something else? And ends, kinda sorta? Given that it’s a 700+ page novel of itty bitty print, the ending doesn’t feel so much abrupt as it does not an ending. Similar problems plague several of his other otherwise-excellent novels, like Snow Crash and Anathem. Amazing writer, Stephenson, but he has more than a little trouble sticking the landing.

And, hoo boy, so do I. Most of my novels aren’t even complete, really; I just write until I hit 50K, because I’m doing it during November, and then finish the sentence or paragraph and leave it there. I recently went through all of my own novels to see what my “actually wrote an ending” ratio was: it’s either seven or eight out of fifteen, depending on how you want to count a book that was intentionally written as the first of a trilogy (and, no, I never wrote the other two). And several of those endings are, to put it mildly, utter trash. In one case it was a rushed summary of what should have been more of the book, and in another it wasn’t the ending that’s the problem so much as the missing third of the book right before the end.

So, yeah, endings are hard. They’re particularly hard when the ending is of something that has a deep cultural resonance, or heavy buy-in, or however you want to describe the couple-of-times-a-decade phenomenon that has people tuning in like Game of Thrones or reading like the Harry Potter series2. We as consumers of media hate to see a thing we love end, so we are already predisposed to dislking however it is the author or writers’ room or whoever actually goes about wrapping things up. We all have a mental map of questions we want resolved, characters we want to see succeed–or get their comeuppance–and when the ending inevitably doesn’t address All The Things we feel disappointed. It’s only natural.

I’m not justifying the (myriad) issues with the ending of Game of Thrones, mind you, although I think a lot of the problems with the show are covered by this excellent thread on Twitter that explains the difference between pantsers and plotters and what that meant for the last couple of seasons3. I think that, with more breathing room and some showrunners that were more interested in the show they were making rather than the shows they’d rather be making, we could have gotten a better ending. But it was never going to be a great ending, the sort of thing we’d smile and feel smug about and go “yes, that was exactly what we wanted.” There was too much investiture into the show to be happy about its end, no matter how well done it was.

So, yeah, endings are hard. Look, I’m even struggling to come up with one for this ramble. I think I’ll just let it trail off… like… yeaaaaaah…

Weekly status update [0067/????]

This was an impressively uneventful week, even for me.

  • I wrote a short short story (what I tend to call a “vignette”) over the weekend; you can read it here and the story of writing it here.
  • I did some more Twitch streaming a couple of times across the week. I wasn’t in the mood to continue playing Live-a-Live, so I broke out an updated fan translation of Final Fantasy IV–the game we got here in the US as Final Fantasy II back in the early ’90s–and put in quite a few hours. It was quite fun; the game’s a sentimental favorite of mine, and the translation’s surprisingly high quality. I don’t know if I’m going to continue streaming it or not, but it felt good.
  • My car’s Check Engine light came on a couple of weeks ago, and replacing the gas cap didn’t fix it. I finally met up with one of my old coworkers to try resetting the lamp, but it turned back on the next day. My particular county in North Carolina doesn’t require emissions testing, so we’ll see come next year whether or not I pass the inspection despite the lamp…
  • I finished up watching the second season of Westworld, which was actually considerably better than the first, with a more coherent plotline that seemed to be saying more than just “look at these pretty visuals and ignore the mess this mystery box has made.” My follow-up show is Origin, a YouTube original that is solid (if derivative) so far.
  • Evening gaming sessions are still mostly Borderlands with the Thursday game slot taken by Portal Knights. We actually beat the main game of Borderlands this week and are working our way through the DLC. Whoever thought that making one of them effectively require making use of the awful driving engine needs to be firmly re-educated.
  • State Tectonics was fine, if not as interesting as the previous two books in the series. I’m now reading Jack McDevitt’s Starhawk, part of a series of SF novels I remember enjoying a bunch (and recommending on occasion). It’s… not good. Not good at all. I’m wondering if the book itself is a major dip in quality, or if I’ve become a more critical reader, or… ugh. I dunno. I’m going to finish it, because despite the not-greatness it’s a quick read, but it’s definitely a disappointment.

And just because it’s been a while: nope, still not bored.

Eat Your Peas: Notes

(If you missed it somehow, the story is here.)

A thought started nagging at me on Friday evening. What if I wrote a short story, or at least a vignette… live on Twitch? I tried to ignore it, particularly given my current sentiments when it comes to actively streaming, but the idea just wouldn’t. go. away. So I figuratively threw up my hands and succumbed to the concept on Sunday evening.

It turns out, surprising no one, that the theory of doing it was considerably better than the practice, but isn’t that life?

Back in 2010, I tried to write a million words. I didn’t come close, but I did manage to crank out over three hundred thousand words over the course of that year. One of the ways I came up with ideas for stories, or at least short little blips, was to hit the Random article button on Wikipedia’s sidebar and hope for the best. One of the rules was that I wasn’t allowed to just keep hitting it until something interesting popped up; I had to write about whatever dumb thing the database threw up at me.

I actually got some relatively nice short stories out of the process. One, “The Calendars of 2008,” was from just that: a page with nothing more than a big list of the days in 20081. The story was about a mall kiosk–you know the ones–that sell calendars, and time travel, and love and loss. It was short and bittersweet.

“Eat Your Peas” followed the same process. I ended up here, and while I had no interest in writing a story about a comedy duo, the title of the article sent me down some interesting paths. I should note that the story that resulted is workmanlike at best; I probably wouldn’t have bothered posting it if it weren’t for the experiment at all. But the experience of writing it was rather different than I expected (not that I was really expecting anything too specific), hence me writing this too-long-for-a-footnote side article.

When I’m working on longer-form stuff, like NaNovels, I keep a “notes” file open with ideas that I want to incorporate. I don’t usually bother with shorter stuff, but in this case I figured it’d be helpful as a way to expose my inner thought processes to anyone viewing the stream. And then I thought, well, shouldn’t those notes be available the entire time I’m writing? So, in classic yak-shaving form, this led me to learning at least the rudiments of tmux, live on stream, since I couldn’t find my old writing-specific screen configuration. Conclusion: I could probably switch to tmux pretty painlessly, and probably will the next time I reboot my computer2.

That’s well and good, but what about the actual act of writing? Turns out that it involves a whole lot of staring silently at the screen while you’re thinking about what happens next. Ceci n’est pas compelling viewing. I wrote quite a bit slower than I do during NaNo, partly because I kept checking chat (and finding it a useful-slash-shameful distraction) and partly because I did way more “in the act” editing than I usually do when I write. I’m very much a “blast out a zeroth draft” sort of guy, but I knew that I was going to be posting the story immediately after finishing it, so I took a little more care than usual with wording, flow, and the like.

The story’s still a first draft, and I don’t think it’s good enough to warrant another pass, so it’ll be a first draft forever. And I doubt I’ll write on-stream again. But it was an interesting experiment, and it shut that little voice in my head up for the time being, so I’m going to call it a qualified victory. Plus, hey, an extra non-blip blog entry for the week! It’s been a while since I’ve done that.

Of course, that little voice is already piping up again for a different story idea… -sigh-

Eat Your Peas

“You need to eat your peas.” He can hear the smile in her voice, the calm insistence of someone who Knows What’s Best, even though he’s not looking at her. He’s looking anywhere but at her, anywhere but at the plate sitting in front of him on the dining room table, anywhere and nowhere.

“I don’t want to.” It’s a whine, and he knows it. Hates himself a little for it. He’s not a whiner. He’s a big boy, and big boys don’t whine. They obey their mothers when their mothers tell them what to do.

But. But but but.

“You need to eat them, Sammy. If you don’t, you’re not going to grow up to be big and strong like your father.”

“My father? My dad’s–” He bit his tongue, literally bit it, to keep the next words from coming out. If he didn’t say them, maybe they weren’t true. Maybe things would be better. He closed his eyes, shook his head. “I’m tired of peas. I’ve been eating peas forever.” And he hated when she called him “Sammy.” Sammy was his little kid name, and he was a big boy now. He started to say something, stopped. He was still whining. Winners don’t whine, his father would say, in his stupid dad joke voice. Sammy never laughed at all those stupid sayings, but that had never stopped them. So very dad.

His mother was silent for a long moment. He almost opened his eyes, but he knew what he would see: her standing next to the table, perfectly still, watching him closely with those bright blue eyes. And the peas. He didn’t want to see the peas. He didn’t want to see peas ever again, as long as he lived.

“You need to eat your peas.” The same invisible smile in her voice, like he hadn’t even said anything. Like everything was fine. But it wasn’t. It hadn’t been, for a long, long time.

“I’m done eating.” He sat up from the table, eyes still squeezed shut. Now he was thinking of it like a game: could he get back to his bedroom with his eyes closed without stumbling into anything? He could.
He knew every room, every corner, every shelf and table and cabinet and chair and he wouldn’t trip on any of them. He reached out; the wall was– there, no, there. A shuffle-step forward, then another, more confident, until he almost went sprawling down the two steps that separated the kitchen from the living room. A stumble, but he didn’t fall, and he didn’t open his eyes either. That would be cheating.

“But you didn’t take a single bite,” his mother said, her voice with just the faintest tinge of pleading. “You need to eat your peas.”

“I’m done!” he said, nearly shouting, as his fingers found the corner to the hallway–yes!–and then he nearly ran, ran down the smooth stone floor, socks skidding, fingers trailing on the wall. Past the first door, to the second, in, and slam!

He could open his eyes now, which was good, because he had almost stepped on his latest construction, the biggest one yet. Those pegs hurt even through his socks. And he had been working on it for weeks. He lay down on the floor, the stone cold through his thin clothes. Up close he could see the seams between the blocks, the places where he had to use pieces of different colors that didn’t quite match, although he tried to hide them as best he could. There just weren’t enough for what he wanted to build, and so he had to make do.

He always had to make do.

It was coming together, though. The shipwreck was nearly complete– if anything, he needed to take more of it apart, make it look more, well, wrecky— and the island was pretty simple anyway, just a bunch of yellow and tan blocks. It was the village that was giving him the most trouble. It used the same brown that the ship did, and there just weren’t enough pieces for it to look the way he wanted. He had tried this way and that, looked at it from every angle, and nothing quite satisfied him.

His stomach grumbled. He ignored it. It grumbled even when he ate his peas. He was used to it by now, although it hurt more than usual.

It was too big, the ship and the island and the village, too big for the floor of his bedroom, but he couldn’t build it anywhere else. The cleaning bots would just disassemble it as soon as he fell asleep, the pieces placed back in their little stacked bins on the shelf in his bedroom. His father used to be able to tell them not to do that, was supposed to show him how, but…

He shook his head. It was fine. He just had to be careful.

He dug through the bin of pieces, hoping to find just one or two more browns, knowing that there weren’t any but trying anyway. The blues were all gone too, but he had finished the water, didn’t need any more. Reds? Lots of reds, even after using a bunch of them on the internal structure, places that no one would ever see. Whites too. But no browns anywhere.

He sighed, stood up. He just wasn’t in the mood to work on it anyway. It hadn’t been very much of an argument– and hadn’t he won that? He didn’t eat his peas, after all– but he was still upset about dinner. Why did it have to be peas all the time every time? He could remember when it hadn’t been, kinda, could almost taste the sweet syrup that coated the peaches, sharp and tangy on his tongue. The grassy snap of kale, never his favorite, but right then he would have given his left arm to have some again. Anything but peas.

Maybe talking to his father would help. It didn’t, usually, but anything was better than feeling like this.

He turned towards the door. His mother could be waiting right outside, ready to coax him back to the dinner table, and that almost stopped him right there. He couldn’t face her, not right now. But, no, he would have heard her through the door, right? The whirr thunka thunka whirr of her busted wheel was unmistakable. She hadn’t been able to sneak up on him in years. Not that she did much sneaking.

Still. He pressed his ear to the door, like he had seen in movies. Nothing, no sounds other than the constant background thrum of the ventilation system and the thump thump thump of his own pulse like when he lay on his pillow in just the wrong way.

A deep breath and a twist of the handle. There was just enough room for the door to open without hitting the yellow-and-tan island. And his mother wasn’t out there waiting for him, waiting to guide him back to the kitchen table and those same damn– darn– stupid peas. He had been worried for nothing.

But he could hear her now, hear the whirr thunka thunka whirr coming from the kitchen. He sprinted further down the hallway, down to the big gray door at the end, sliding the last few feet in his socks. He thumped into the door, not hard, but the sound seemed loud in the quiet of the evening.

“Is that you, Sammy?” his mother called. “You need to come back and finish your dinner.”

Stop calling me Sammy,” he yelled, confusion and frustration and hunger flashing over into anger. “My name’s Samuel!” Yank, slide, slam.

If she answered, he couldn’t hear her. His mother never raised her voice. It just wasn’t in her programming.

It took a moment, like always, for his eyes to adjust. His father liked it dark in his room for some reason, a sharp contrast to the bright lighting everywhere else in the suite. For the first time, he thought that maybe he understood, maybe it was because of all the brightness. It felt like somewhere else, somewhere totally different.

He had been holding his breath out of habit, and he let it out, a soft phh. Took a shallow breath, then a deeper one. He could barely smell the sick any more. That was good. That was real good.

“Hey, dad,” he said. “I… Mom’s mad at me. I mean, she’s not mad, she’s never mad–” he knew, somehow, that that was wrong, that mothers were supposed to get mad sometimes– “but I just. I just couldn’t.”

He sat down in the chair next to the bed. His feet actually touched the ground, now; he didn’t have to climb up into it like a little kid any more, legs swinging as he sat there. That made him smile.

“It’s just… the peas. I’m so tired of the peas. It’s peas for breakfast, peas for lunch, peas for dinner, and I just can’t eat another pea. I’d rather…”

He stopped before he said too much, went too far. It wasn’t true anyway. He wouldn’t rather die than eat another pea, even though it sure felt like that sometimes. He hadn’t finished the village, for one. And The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was just starting to get interesting.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice low. “I know you don’t like it when I whine. Winners don’t whine, right?”

He sighed, scooted back in the chair, so that his legs dangled again like when he was younger. Swung them back and forth a bit. Took a deep breath. “I wish… I wish Mom were here.”

There. He had said it, said something he had promised himself he’d never say. His memories of her were fuzzy, like one of the blurry photographs his father would sometimes get when the motion-compensation on the camera didn’t work quite right. He couldn’t remember her voice, could barely remember her face. Just her eyes, green and sparkling. And her smile.

“You told me that I banged on the outside door for hours, when we first came here. Crying for her. That I slept on the floor there for weeks. That you slept there with me.” He rubbed his hand across his face, wiping away tears. “I wish I could remember. Remember her more.”

His stomach grumbled again.

It was harder to curl up in the chair than it used to be, but he managed somehow. It wasn’t very comfortable, but there was something about it, something about the room, that made him feel more at peace there than anywhere else.

“I miss you too, Dad,” he said, half-mumbling, as he drifted off to sleep.

Most days, his morning shower was the best thing that happened. The splash of the warm water on his skin, the white noise of the spray, the feeling of getting clean. Everything felt new again, full of promise and excitement and adventure.

As always, he ignored the carefully-folded shirt and shorts and put his pyjamas and socks back on. Who would ever wear anything else if they had a choice? he had often wondered.

But then. He took his time brushing his teeth, rinsing and spitting and rinsing again, reluctant to leave the bathroom. Drank a gulp of water from the sink, then another, but that wasn’t enough to quiet the near-constant growl from his stomach.

It was time for breakfast.

He sighed, scuffled his feet as he went down the hallway, made the turn into the living room. Looked up towards the kitchen, the table.

She was already there, of course, her bright blue eyes glowing. And on the table, a plate, steam rising.

He could smell it from there. Peas.

His mother moved towards him, whirr thunka. “I’m sorry about yesterday, Samuel,” she said, her voice more grave than he could ever remember. “You’re right. You’re a big boy now, and I was wrong to treat you the way I did.”

“It’s okay,” he said, looking down at his feet. “I was whining. And winners don’t whine.” He gulped. “I’m sorry.” He couldn’t bring himself to call her Mom, not right then.

“It’s all right.” He heard her move again, closer still, thunka whirr. “Samuel. I need to tell you something important. I’ve been waiting to tell your father, but he hasn’t left his room in one hundred and ninety-five days. He hasn’t used any of the suite’s systems since then either. Is he all right?”

“He’s fine.” He wiped his arm across his face, shook his head. “He’s fine.” If he said it enough times, maybe it would come true. “You can tell me,” he added.

“The food stocks are critically low. We would have run out already, if your father hadn’t stopped eating one hundred and seventy-eight days ago. But even with that taken into account, there isn’t very much left.”

He gulped. “How much?”

“Assuming three meals a day, and accounting for your continued growth, there is only enough food for another seventeen days.”

“Seven– /seventeen days?/” He was whining, but he couldn’t help it. “Just seventeen days until I starve to death?”

“Yes, I’m afraid,” his mother said.

Then, after a moment: “You need to eat your peas.”

[Later edit: Notes about writing this short story can be found here.]

Weekly status update [0066/????]

A surprisingly game-y week, even for me.

  • I ended up at Fercott on both Tuesday and Wednesday evening for boardgames, which was quite nice. Tuesday we played New Frontiers, which is the “traditional board game” version of Race for the Galaxy, one of my favorite games of all time. It was fine, but felt… unnecessary? That could be my huge bias in favor of Race speaking, though. Or the fact that I lost. We also played some Hokm; it was nice to get some traditional card gaming in. Wednesday had us playing a couple of Lost Cities/Keltis-family games, plus Grifters Nexus (which seems more interesting than the original) and proper Race. That last game was a tie broken by cards in hand, a very rare outcome. I got to hear someone say that they finally felt they actually understood the game as well, which is definitely one of the biggest hurdles it has.
  • Besides the real-world tabletop gaming, I’ve also continued to make fairly heavy use of If I were still gainfully employed I’d buy a subscription, but as-is I’m actually pretty okay with my base set + Renaissance set-up (thanks, rulebook!), to be perfectly honest.
  • After finally finishing A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (which I wrote about earlier this week), I’ve moved onto State Tectonics by Malka Older. I’m enjoying it quite a bit, but I keep putting it down to do other stuff. It’s a fast read, it’s just not quite… engaging enough to make me sit in my chair and tear through it. I’ll be done soon anyway, though, given how zippy it is.
  • I finally decided to start watching season 2 of Westworld, mainly because of how terrible the most recent episode of A Game of Thrones was. It’s been enjoyable, more coherent than the first season, and still gorgeous as all get-out. I’m about halfway through and curious to see where it’s going to end up with several of the plot threads, along with wondering just what a third season of the show will look like.
  • On the videogame side, I went from playing Monster Hunter World heavily to becoming disenchanted with the game pretty abruptly. It started to feel way more mechanical than genuinely interesting, and I’ve put it aside for the time being. That still leaves Borderlands and Portal Knights, both of which are also pretty repetitive in their structure, but for whatever reason they don’t bother me as much.
  • I’m back on keto for the most part. I treated myself to the amazing “molcajete” at the local Tex-Mex place last night, a skillet full of delicious sizzling meat, onions, and even cactus. I ate every bite. Plus some tortillas, I’m afraid, hence the “for the most part.”

If this next episode of A Game of Thrones is as bad as episode four was, I may have to break out my emergency TV rations and finally start watching Fargo season 2 or The Deuce. Here’s hoping I don’t.

How can you have your pudding

I finally, finally finished reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius today. It was really good, absolutely deserving of the plaudits it received, and by the end I really, really just wanted it to be over already. I kept checking how many pages I had left, closing the book so I could compare “distance before the bookmark” to “distance after the bookmark,” and in general feeling like reading it was much more of a chore than anything I really wanted to do.

And yet.

I’m actually happy that I read it. Not in a “I’m glad I made it through that tortuous ordeal” sense, although there’s definitely a bit of that; as difficult life situations go, reading a book that you’re just not really feeling ranks very low. It really was good, and had a lot of interesting things to say about life in the nineties and the genuinely tragic situation that Dave Eggers found himself in. My life is better for having read it. But it was also clearly not the right book for this moment in my life, which made it painfully slow going. For someone who has been known to read three or four novels in a day, taking weeks to read a single normal-length book is a sign that there’s some deep mismatch between the two of us1.

I tend to be one of those people that like to finish novels I start, or at least ones where I get past the first ten pages or so. Part of it is because the majority of fiction I pick up I know is good; I’m basing my picks off of recommendations or reviews, and I’m a pretty easy-going reader in the first place, perfectly content to read a popcorn novel if it’s fun, so surely it gets better, right? Surely by the end I’ll be happy that I stuck it out. Honestly, though, most of it is just sheer cussedness. I have a habit of dropping projects once they get tough, but damn it I’m gonna finish this stupid novel even if it kills me. Figuratively.

I wrote a bit, ages ago, about how many of the novels I’ve tried to write during NaNoWriMo over the years end up discarded somewhere around the 4,000 word mark, when I realize that they’re less interesting (or harder to write) than what I’m willing to tolerate during the accelerated churn-out-as-much-as-you-can time period of November. My hard drive is littered with these “4K corpses2.” A few years ago I forced myself to finish one despite the overwhelming feeling that I should scrap it and write something else instead; the resulting novel is a hot mess, filled with boring anecdotes from my life (with various levels of fictional-ness slathered on top) until I hit the 50K mark and could put the damn thing away for the year. In that case, the pride of finishing is basically all about making it through the tortuous ordeal, and nothing to do with the “pleasure” of writing. It’s garbage and I know it.

But other people’s books are different, thankfully. If I still bought novels with any regularity, I’d just set it aside for some other time, but nowadays I try to get most of my reading material from the library, and keeping a list of “stuff I tried but couldn’t get into” would extend my already-near-infinite backlog that much further. So I force myself to eat my vegetables3 sometimes, and for the most part it works out for the best. Even though I feel the pain of having that backlog pushed back further and further, as days that could have contained me reading a book or two now see me barely making it a tenth of the way through some difficult work.

Fortunately I already have some delicious popcorn reading lined up next, ready to be torn through at maximum speed. At least until I hit the next weird roadblock and once again slow down to a crawl…

(Seriously, though, if you haven’t read it, you should read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s good!)

Weekly status update [0065/????]

In some ways, this week felt like more of a recovery period than last week, which makes no sense, but there you have it.

  • Speaking of which, I’m basically completely recovered from the surgery, other than my sweet sweet new scars. (I’m only being slightly facetious; the scar in my belly button is actually kinda cool, and the others are small enough that, once they’re no longer raised due to being so recent, they’ll be pretty much unnoticeable.) I’ve been taking a lot of naps and otherwise feeling pretty lethargic, which could partly be due to the surgery… or just because I’ve been eating like crap.
  • Also speaking of which, I’ve been eating like crap. I went back on keto for a couple of days and then pretty much immediately jumped back off of it. I’m giving myself until this Sunday to once again enjoy the delights of fatty starchy foods before trying to climb back on the wagon.
  • Most of my spare time has been playing videogames, and for that matter co-op stuff with friends. I played a bit of Monster Hunter World over a year ago, but the group I’ve been playing EDF with has pivoted to it and we’ve been playing it a ton. So much so that I didn’t go to bed until after 5am this morning, putting in something like ten hours last night. I also played Portal Knights for the first time on Thursday with my other co-op group, which was a fine, inoffensive take on “Minecraft with classes and levels.” And there’s still Borderlands several nights a week. It’s been really nice, actually, playing games as a socialization thing on top of the joy of just, y’know, playing.
  • There was a bit of Dominion Online this week as well, although not nearly as much as last week. That was the only boardgaming I managed to fit in.
  • Along with poking at several Everett Kaser logic puzzle games off and on throughout the week, I continued chipping away at Picross 3D Round 2. One day…
  • …and I finally made some headway in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. My plan is to read a bunch more of it today, after posting this, in hopes that I can mostly get through it and move onto the more interesting science fiction that’s hiding underneath it in my stack. If I find myself still stymied by the end of the day, I may move on anyhow, which feels a bit like defeat but more like acceptance that I’m just not that into the book.
  • My car threw a Check Engine light up last weekend. That obviously scared me, but a quick visit to Auto Zone and its OBD reader informed me that there’s something up with the gas cap. I bought a replacement; no dice. Apparently the gas cap sensor is broken. Eh. As issues go, I can live with it.
  • My new friend LisaLiisa just hit affiliate on Twitch. She was my one non-personal-friend subscriber, and she plays more regularly (and more interesting stuff) than I ever did. Check her out.

What else should I be

Sorry, folks, but I’m just not feeling up to writing something up this week. Some combination of my allergies and my recovery means I’ve been very low energy for days now, and I have my follow-up appointment tomorrow morning so I have to go to bed at a reasonable hour. (Honestly, the real challenge will be to go to bed late enough to make sure I don’t wake up at 5am.)