Today’s Stack Overflow may be a bit scrambled, a reflection of the state of my mind this past week (and, perhaps, the state of the world). In addition to everything that’s happening in the wider world, this week my family experienced high windstorms, an internet outage for a couple of days, a house fire next door to us (thanks to the the fire department, our house only suffered some blistering paint), and now smoke from the wildfires that’s making our air quality among the worst in the world. These are strange times indeed, and my reading bounces between things I hope will educate and inform me and things that let me escape into another world for a bit.
Everything Is an Emergency: An OCD Picture in Words & Pictures by Jason Adam Katzenstein
The title of this book feels pretty appropriate right now, when everything does feel like an emergency, but it’s intended to be a description of the author’s almost-constant mental state. Katzenstein has OCD, and his mind generates many different fears, including a fear of things being dirty or messy. In this book, which is sort of like a comic book with extra text passages, he explains what it’s like inside his head: what sort of compulsions he has, and the relief he gets from doing these repeated tasks that, on some level, he understands aren’t really necessary. He traces his OCD from childhood through adulthood, showing some of the various things that would trigger panic attacks, and the way that it affected his relationships and his ability to function.
Katzenstein manages to tell his story in a way that is both sad and funny—his humor is sometimes an expression of his anxiety and spiraling thoughts. I don’t have anxiety myself, but I have a daughter who suffers from panic attacks, and although her specific symptoms aren’t the same, I could see some similarities in what she describes and what Katzenstein says about himself. And as he talks through the ways that he’s learning to manage his OCD, through therapy and medication and practice, it ends on an optimistic note that things can get better, too.
Iron Gods and Stone Clock by Andrew Bannister
I mentioned the first book in the Spin trilogy, Creation Machine, last year, and said that I wondered what would come next. And then I misplaced the second book until this summer when I reorganized my reading queues, so I’ve finally gotten to finish the trilogy.
As it turns out, the three books take place across a huge span of time. Iron Gods takes place ten thousand years after Creation Machine, and Stone Clock takes another huge leap forward in time as well. So while all of the stories are about this artificial galaxy called the Spin, the stories are not necessarily connected the way many trilogies are. In that, it reminded me a little of the Three-Body Problem trilogy, in which there are huge temporal leaps and you just get a new set of characters.
Iron Gods follows a couple of characters whose stories wind around each other and eventually cross paths. Seldyan is from the Hive, a huge forced-labor unit that hires out its people throughout the Spin—but she and a group of others have managed to escape, stealing an ancient warship that had been converted into a pleasure cruise ship. In the meantime, we also follow Vess, a Harbour Master who is held responsible for the theft of the ship by the Board, and is pulled in many directions by several entities trying to play puppet master. Finally, halfway across the galaxy, a string of events sets off ancient machinery, turning a planet into a blazing green beacon—but nobody knows what it means.
In Stone Clock, we meet Skarbo, an insect-like being who has been alive for hundreds of years and has studied the Spin from the outside—and has determined that it is winding down and dying. Within the Spin, many of the inhabitants now live in the accelerated vrealities while those in the real world barely scrape by to keep the power running. Time is running out, and there’s a huge Warfront approaching that is assimilating or annihilating everything in its path.
While I liked the world that Bannister created, and enjoyed the mysterious origins of the Spin, I often found it difficult to relate to many of the characters. Bannister comes up with a lot of twisted ways in which the rich and powerful entertain themselves, often through extreme cruelty to less fortunate creatures. They’re just unpleasant to think about, and while they do establish how soulless some of his villains are, it sometimes felt like he reveled in these descriptions. I did enjoy Skarbo and his relationship with “the Bird,” a strange figure who isn’t what it seems; the rest of the characters, maybe not so much. If you like sweeping epic sci-fi stories, you may enjoy the trilogy, but you do have to put up with a lot of despicable people.
How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford
The subtitle of this book is What Our Genes Do (and Don’t) Say About Human Difference. Rutherford is a geneticist from England, and he states in a note right up front that terminology used in discussions of race is often not scientifically well-defined. I’m sure you’ve heard the statement “race is a construct”—and Rutherford would probably agree in part, because much of his book talks about how “race” is pretty murky once you try to look at it in terms of genetics, but at the same time it’s a construct that many people use to talk about the world.
The book is Rutherford’s attempt to challenge many common claims made by race, comparing them to science to see how well they hold up. As you can see from the title, there’s no hiding what Rutherford’s stance is: he wants to combat both overt racism and wrong assumptions made by well-intentioned people, and he’s against white supremacy. Many of the scientists who developed the science of genetics were racist, as Rutherford details in the introduction, and they made many assumptions and claims that were not actually backed up by the facts.
The four parts of his book deal with skin color, ancestry, athleticism, and intellect. He describes the way that people have talked about skin color, particularly the way that it is one of the primary ways that we group people into “races” because it is such a visible feature. But these groups are quite often less homogenous than the descriptions, and also do not get at the genetics underlying skin color. Regarding ancestry, one of the biggest takeaways is that a “racial purity” is a myth, something that can be shown mathematically. You actually don’t have to go back very far in time before you hit the point where people now are all descendants of a shared group; the global isopoint—”the year in which the population of Earth was made up of the ancestors of everyone living today”—was only about 3,400 years ago.
The last two parts dig into the genetics behind physical and mental prowess. Are Black people somehow better at sports because of evolution, or adaptations due to being enslaved? Are Jewish people just genetically smarter in part as a response to persecution? Rutherford examines these claims and others that are sometimes made with pseudo-scientific reasoning, following their arguments and showing how they don’t hold up when you dig into the numbers. While it’s obvious that people within a population will have varying advantages and disadvantages caused by genetics, Rutherford refutes the idea that, for instance, Kenyans as a whole have simply evolved to run faster than others.
In the book, Rutherford is particularly focused on the ways that people try to use science to support racist ideas, and uses research to show where the science doesn’t hold up. But one quote from the book really stood out to me: “As Jonathan Swift said in 1721: ‘Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.'” Arguing with racists based on scientific principles is “fruitless,” he says, because their opinions weren’t actually based on scientific principles to begin with. With that in mind, it’s hard to say exactly how I should use the lessons I learned from this book, other than to bolster my own internal thinking with evidence. Having read this, I’m not sure I necessarily know how to argue with a racist, but I do think I learned some things that will keep me from falling for some unscientific claims.
Castle in the Stars by Alex Alice
Here’s a comic book series that has been gradually growing on my to-read pile, but I hadn’t gotten around to it until now. The English edition of the first book, The Space Race of 1869, was published in 2015; the fourth book, A Frenchman on Mars, was just released this month. These graphic novels are large-format hardcovers, looking more like picture books (though longer, at about 60 pages each), and the illustrations are elaborately detailed paintings that remind me a little of Little Nemo in Slumberland. It’s a great fit for the 19th century setting and feels like something from Jules Verne.
The story centers on the theory of aether—in this case, a mysterious energy high in the atmosphere. Claire Dulac attempts to reach the aether layer in a specialized balloon, but never returns. Her husband, Archibald, has given up on dreams of flight and boundless energy, but her son Seraphin carries on the dream. But then they get word that her logbook has been recovered, and they are summoned to a palace in Bavaria, where a young king yearns to escape to the stars.
The series follows Professor Dulac and Seraphin as they build an aether engine and a vessel that can take them into space, even as Prime Minister Bismarck of Prussia builds his empire and seeks even more conquest in space. Dulac and Seraphin are joined by two other kids, Hans and Sophie, who worked at the palace and have taken it upon themselves to serve the king and protect the secrets of the aether from the Prussians. It’s a fun, imaginative journey inspired by the understanding of space and other planets at the time, a “what if?” story about flying to the moon in a giant swan-shaped ship and finding an invisible castle. I really enjoyed these first four books, and look forward to the further adventures of Seraphin and his friends.
Steven Universe: Art & Origins by Chris McDonnell
I first mentioned this book back when it was released in 2017, but at the time I hadn’t watched Steven Universe yet and so I didn’t want to look too closely to avoid spoilers. I spotted it on the shelf a few weeks ago, and now that I’ve watched the series, I pored over the book and all the details in it. While it has a similar appearance to many “art of” books, this one doesn’t settle for pages of concept art and a few anecdotes. It has those, but is packed full of so many more details about how Steven Universe was made, from initial sketches and scribbled notes to how character designs evolved to how the Cartoon Network team worked with animators in South Korea. You get to see little details like how they want line widths to vary, or how a knee or elbow should bend, or which features get dropped when the character is seen from a distance and very small. There’s a look at the way that the composers aivi & surasshu built sound palettes for each character.
The book also has interviews—lots and lots of interviews. What struck me while reading it is how much the Steven Universe crew put themselves into the show, and how that was eventually reflected in the characters and stories. The descriptions of how the show came to be seem almost impossible, and it’s surprising to me that the show even exists as it does, but I’m glad. I’ve written already about watching the first season, and the show grew on me even more in subsequent seasons. It was awesome to see a show with a kid whose greatest strength was the way that he cared about other people and always tried to understand them—that’s a lesson that’s more important now than ever. If you’re a fan of Steven Universe, this book is a fantastic deep dive into its origins and process, and I highly recommend it.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books.