29 April, 2019

Review: Judge on a Boat

Judge on a Boat Judge on a Boat by Alan Manuel K. Gloria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Historically, science fiction has been big on setting. Characters and dialog are important, too — otherwise it's unlikely to be well written — but the key signifier of science fiction is that setting is much more important. Sci-fi is all about transporting you to a wondrous place and making you believe that you are there. All too often this means that authors of sci-fi will spend way more time on setting than authors of other genres. Think Hal Clement going pages upon pages about gravitational minutiae in A Mission of Gravity; or Asimov insisting on describing at length complex social structures in his Foundation series. These are great stories, and they are what makes good sci-fi so memorable to me. But Gloria bucks this trend beautifully in Judge on a Boat.

Judge on a Boat is undeniably sci-fi, but instead of describing a wondrous place as its setting, Gloria instead describes a world where rationality already won. It is a vision of the future that's as alien as, well, Alien, yet it isn't the description of space travel and drop pods that makes this sci-fi. It's the casual description of LessWrong-esque ideas from the rationalist community that makes this short text stand out. Reading this transports me into a world that is alien by virtue of its ideas, rather than by its technology.

At heart, Judge on a Boat is a mystery novel. Clues are interspersed within and commented on throughout. But, again, it stands out because the mystery itself doesn't adhere to common mystery tropes — and this is explicitly pointed out in-universe, so that the reader can fairly understand the rules of the game and play along, trying to solve the mystery before the end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it to anyone well-versed with the rationality community. However, the density of jargon is such that if you aren't already at least loosely acquainted with these ideas, then going through this text will be a slog. I hesitate to make the comparison, but imagine reading Joyce's Ulysses without having first read the classics. It would be impossible to enjoy, because at nearly every step you'd need to look in the margin for notes, or, in the case of this text, you'd need to refer to the Sequences.

The bottom line: if you don't know what the Sequences are, then you probably won't enjoy this book. It's just not written for you. But if you are aware of the rationalist community (even if you don't self-identify in that group), then this short mystery novel is a great way to spend a few hours of fun. For the correct audience, it deserves this 5 star rating (and, more impressively, was so good that it got me to avoid my akrasia and post a review on goodreads for the first time in several years).

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