Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What Are You Reading Wednesday

Posted by risma wanti at 2:46 PM
What are you reading?
By the time you read this, I will probably already be done with Fledgling by Octavia Butler. The worst thing about this book is that it was the last book Butler wrote before she died, so there aren't any sequels and there will never be any sequels. Fledgeling sets up a fascinating universe, and its hero, Shori, is an amazing person who deserves to have more stories... but the universe that we live in sucks sometimes.

Butler tackles a bunch of ideas that are usually swept under the rug in vampire novels. If vampires are tall, pale, fantastically old people of European descent, what does their racism look like? Because some of them must be, to some degree. What does the vampire's ability to hypnotize her prey mean for consent? In Butler's novel, the bite of a vampire (and the vampire's presence) are physically and mentally addictive. A vampire only has to bite a human once in order to establish a hold over that human's mind. Shori wants to be an ethical vampire, but it's hard -- and it might be impossible.

Like the people she bites, though, I've fallen in love with Shori. She's fierce and she's smart. The way that Butler writes Shori's love, her rage, and her grief is visceral and true. I love her, I love Fledgeling, and I want to live in an alternate universe where Butler wrote a dozen of these books.

What did you just finish reading?
It seems like I missed the boat on the brutal SF manga -- everyone else is reading Attack on Titan, while I'm reading Knights of Sidonia. In this book, humanity has been driven off of earth by giant aliens who seem to mindlessly destroy anything they touch. The people of the generation ship Sidonia use giant mecha armed with special spears -- the only thing that can kill the aliens. The third volume starts to explain the history of the Sidonia and our hero, Nagate Tanikaze. I love the atmosphere of this manga -- from the huge infrastructure that makes human life possible in deep space, to the small ways that people find to keep living their lives. Laundry hung from windows.

I also just finished listening to Sleights of Mind by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde. This is a fascinating book about perception and consciousness as seen throught neuroscience and magic tricks. One of the downsides of listening to a book like this is that I can't see the illustrations -- fortunately, all of the static illusions and most of the magic acts that they describe are available online.

The authors systematically dismantle reality as we are used to perceiving it. Everything, they announce, is filtered through multiple brain pathways. Starting with the eye itself -- eyes aren't little video cameras looking out at the world. At best, they only have about one megapixel of resolution in the center of our field of view. Everything around that central focus is blurry -- but it doesn't look blurry, because our brains fill in the details based on guesswork and prior experience.

A magician with a shiny coin can reflect a flash of light into your eyes. Your eyes react immediately to the bright light. In that fraction of a second, before the afterimage of that flash fades, the magician can slip the coin into his other hand. Your eyes will continue to see the coin for a moment after it is gone. As your eyes adjust, the coin seems to fade from existence.

We have all learned that the universe follows certain rules. Things that are dropped must fall; we all learn this or we never learn to walk. Objects continue to exist even when they can't be seen. If I can see the top of the spoon, and the bottom of the spoon, then I can infer the middle of the spoon -- I have years of experience with spoons and partially-hidden objects to draw on. The idea that the magician might have bent the spoon while I was distracted and is hiding that fact shouldn't occur to me -- the spoon looks straight, so I assume that it is straight.

I am, of course, complicit in the magician's tricks. I adore magic acts and I want to be fooled. There used to be a magician at my local Renaissance Festival who did the same basic routine every show, every year... and every year I watched him do it. I clapped as he poured salt from one apparently-empty hand to another, laughed at his terrible puns and worse poetry, and cheered when he successfully skewered his latest volunteer's card on the end of a sword.

The only thing I love more than watching a magic show is learning how the magic is done. This book reveals tons of magic secrets (including one way to do the salt-pouring trick). I find that learning the trick behind the magic makes me appreciate the magician's skill -- instead of just being delighted when he makes an orange appear during the cups-and-balls routine, I can admire his use of a trick that goes back to ancient Rome. Magicians are artists, actors, inventors, capable of astounding feats of memory and manual dexterity. This will always be true, regardless of whether I know the trick behind a particular magical effect.

Sleights of Mind runs off the rails a bit at the end, as the authors indulge in a lengthy description of their own magical routine and, at the same time, try to grab for a larger context for their research. They are right about a lot of things -- confirmation bias, the predatory nature of psychics and faith healers, the way that magical lessons can be applied to everyday life. The one derailment that I particularly appreciated was a note about why all the magicians in the book were men. There are hardly any female magicians in the US. The authors provide a sampling of the bigotry that was exposed when they asked why. "Women can't lie" and "women can't do math" are my particular favorites.

(I, for one, had a magic kit when I was a kid.)

What are you going to read next?
Wheel of the Infinite by Martha Wells. Because Martha Wells.

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