27 February, 2020

Review: Unsong

UnsongUnsong by Scott Alexander

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Imagine that Judaism is actually true, and this becomes glaringly obvious when the Apollo mission bumps into the firmament and miracles start happening across the world.

Author Scott Alexander takes us on a wild ride in this alternate-history-esque story, filled with puns galore and references to all the kinds of things that people in the effective altruism and/or rationality space care about. While the story is not an example of rationalist fiction, people who like rational fiction will probably really like this novel.

Some of the revelations in the book are especially excellent, and the philosophical positions portrayed as truth in this world make for excellent world-building. Without spoiling anything, the position taken on the problem of evil is exceedingly close to my actual favorite response IRL (minus p-zombies for fairness reasons); and the various descriptions of what the cognates of our real-world people are in this fictional universe is beyond compelling.

The book doesn't take itself too seriously, preferring to set up puns constantly, but while that would be annoying in other books because other authors would be sacrificing the story to make those puns, Alexander actually weaves these puns as actual story points. Kabbalah is real here, so knowing how to make links between things by using their names and connections to other things is a real part of this book's world. Chapters that at first may seem to only be written for the sake of a pun are thus revealed to be information that legitimately propels the story forward. I've never read another book that did such a good job with this.

I recommend this book to anyone who pattern matches to any two of the following:
you like puns;
you're fascinated by sephirot/kabbalah/jewish mysticism;
you like rational fantasy, but are okay with reading something rational-adjacent;
you are interested in fiction that has effective altruism as a plot device; or
you already read Scott Alexander's excellent fiction and/or non-fiction.

A word of warning: Alexander has written some great nonfiction short stories, and while none of them are a part of this book, it would be better to read Unsong first, and only then read his short fiction. Usually when I'm recommending a new author to someone, I tell them to read a short story first to see if they like the author's style, but Alexander has a tendency to re-use great ideas. So things that should come as big surprises at various points in Unsong will be spoiled if you read his other fiction (and sometimes even his nonfiction!), some of which have the same surprise as their climax. So if you are new to this author, read Unsong first. Then you can look at his other works, almost all of which I'd consider excellent as well.

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13 February, 2020

Review: Mother of Learning

Mother of LearningMother of Learning by Nobody103

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hard sci-fi pioneer Hal Clement once said that science fiction is all about the setting. Mother of Learning is fantasy, but it really takes this idea to heart.

Mother of Learning has excellent worldbuilding in terms of how things work. Everything feels interconnected in ways that most fantasy authors fail. There are some notable issues, though: the author has a tendency to use occasional metaphors that don't make sense in this setting, some characters seem to be sexist and homophobic for no real reason. (In a fantasy setting where females are equally good at magic, it makes no sense that 1950s era ideas about females would be in _any_ character, and what is the point in making any characters anti-gay when this is a brand-new world that doesn't require that kind of prejudice? (If prejudice is desired, make a new prejudice! It's fantasy, after all, and the anti-gay sentiment was never a story beat.) (Thankfully these anti-gay/anti-female sentiments only occur four times in the story and could easily be removed.))

While these seem like strong objections to the story, and they definitely took me out of the story when they occured, they only happened four times in a story so long that, if the story were published, they would only appear less than once in each book of the series. The author has already said that they intend to go back and fix these issues (and the many typos throughout the story), so I do think that these problems will be fixed before too much longer. Ultimately, I am easily able to overlook these issues in favor of the excellent rational story and awesome worldbuilding. This is easily my favorite read in 2020 so far and has earned a place in the top ten rationality stories I have ever read.

If I had to complain about something that can't easily be fixed, it would be the lack of diversity of thought among major characters. If you blacked out the name of who is speaking, there would be several points where dialogue could be coming from any of a number of characters. But Hal Clement had the exact same problem: his dialogue was atrocious, and yet he was able to write some of the best hard scifi stories anyway just from worldbuilding alone, and the same is true here for Mother of Learning. Its flaws do not take away from the fact that this is a great story that I would recommend to anyone interested in rational fiction or hard fantasy.

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