Reading

Crichton Risk (n)

Crichton Risk (n) – A plausible, yet improbable risk scenario that could easily serve as the premise for a Michael Crichton novel, such as space junk crashing to earth carrying lethal viruses; nanobots running amok; genetically engineered dinosaurs eating theme park visitors. E.g. The Large Hadron Collider accidentally turning the Earth into a black hole is one hell of a Crichton risk.”

See also: tail risk, Black Swan theory.

Throne of the Crescent Moon Review

Throne of the Crescent Moon coverMost of the sci-if I’ve read comes from white dudes: William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Isaac Asimov… the list goes on. Even the score-if writers I know who set novels in other cultures, such as Ian McDonald (River of Gods, The Dervish House) and George Alec Effinger (When Gravity Fails) are still written by white dudes.

I don’t normally read fantasy novels. Certainly not sword-and-sorcery fantasy. But what attracted me to Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, were its unique voice and setting. This is a fantasy novel set in an Islamic world, written by a Muslim author (and written quite well, I might add).

The novel ‘s central character is Adoulla Mahkslood, the world’s last ghul hunter. Ghuls are zombie-like creatures created by sorcerers (or ghul-makers)   via magic powered by human sacrifice. Mahkslood and his young, fundamentalist assistant, Raseed, find themselves confronted by an evil of a magnitude not seen in millenia — a ghul-maker powerful enough to enslave the world.

Others join them on their quest. There is Zamia, a young woman with the ability to change shape into a lion. And Adoulla’s old friends, the sorcerer Dawoud and his potion-maker wife, Litaz.

All of Ahmed’s characters struggle with the role of religion and faith in their world. Adoulla is clearly a spiritual man — but he’s come to view his work more as a grim burden than a noble calling. Toward the very end of the novel (SPOILER ALERT), he observes:

He and his friends had faced their most powerful threat yet, and defeated it. And everything and nothing had changed. The sky had not split open to reveal the Ministering Angels singing that all ghul-makers were dead. There was no shower of flowers from a forever-safe populace. Tomorrow, or the next day, or a month from now, some fishmonger or housewife would come to Adoulla with more terrified tales. God had not rewarded Adoulla with retirement in a peaceful palace full of food and friends.

Adoulla clearly believes in God. But his faith is far from blind obedience. Contrast that with a group known as the Humble Students:

The Humble Students were charged with chastising those who needed to be chastised, helping men and women to walk the path of God. But Raseed had learned that some Humble students did this more out of greed or cruelty then righteousness […] Unsurprisingly, Raseed’s mentor was among their despisers. “I don’t trust anyone who claims to serve God by beating up dancers and drunks,” the Doctor had growled once.

For me, the pleasure of reading Throne of the Crescent Moon lay not so much in getting from Plot Point A to Plot Point B but in exploring a nuanced world through the eyes of its characters. All credit to Saladin Ahmed for a wonderful journey.

The reason sci-fi (or speculative fiction) dominate my fiction reading list is that when I read for pleasure I read to escape. Between working in financial planning and studying for the CFA Level II exam, I get a healthy dose of “reality” on a daily basis. It’s refreshing to discover a new world created by someone other than a middle-aged white dude. And frankly I can’t wait to discover more.

2 + 2 = 5

Yes, we shall set them to work, but in their leisure hours we shall make their life like a child’s game, with children’s songs and innocent dance. Oh, we shall allow them even sin, they are weak and helpless, and they will love us like children because we allow them to sin. We shall tell them that every sin will be expiated, if it is done with our permission, that we allow them to sin because we love them, and the punishment for these sins we take upon ourselves. And we shall take it upon ourselves, and they will adore us as their saviours who have taken on themselves their sins before God. And they will have no secrets from us. We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient – and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity. Though if there were anything in the other world, it certainly would not be for such as they. It is prophesied that Thou wilt come again in victory, Thou wilt come with Thy chosen, the proud and strong, but we will say that they have only saved themselves, but we have saved all. We are told that the harlot who sits upon the beast, and holds in her hands the mystery, shall be put to shame, that the weak will rise up again, and will rend her royal purple and will strip naked her loathsome body. But then I will stand up and point out to Thee the thousand millions of happy children who have known no sin. And we who have taken their sins upon us for their happiness will stand up before Thee and say: “Judge us if Thou canst and darest.” — Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor

Suppose we could destroy an idea.

Should we?

Take sexism for example. Or homophobia. Or fascism. I think most of us can probably agree that these are Bad Ideas, and that the world would be better off without them. Suppose we could line the isms of our choice up and have them shot — erase them from human consciousness, never to return. Who gets to decide what stays and what goes? How would we justify the legitimacy of their decision? Is it desirable, or even possible, for human society to continue to evolve without Bad Ideas?

I am sure you can guess what the Grand Inquisitor would have to say on the subject.

Modern technology is often seen as a democratizing force. However, I would argue that the same technological infrastructure makes it possible to brainwash people on a scale never before imagined. It is tempting to believe the internet offers pure, unfettered access to information. In reality what most of us call “the internet” is a whole bunch of pages indexed by a search engine. The search engine mediates access to information. The search engine quite literally shapes our perception of reality.

Take a look at Hidden From Google. There is a fine line between the Right to Be Forgotten and the Power to Alter Reality. In a sense they are one and the same.

Again, the Grand Inquisitor:

We shall allow or forbid them to live with their wives and mistresses, to have or not to have children according to whether they have been obedient or disobedient – and they will submit to us gladly and cheerfully. The most painful secrets of their conscience, all, all they will bring to us, and we shall have an answer for all. And they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death.

A Colder War

shoggoth

A shoggoth

So you’re saying the Russians have these, uh, Shoggoths, but we don’t have any. And even those dumb Arab bastards in Baghdad are working on them. So you’re saying we’ve got a, a Shoggoth gap? A strategic chink in our armour? And now the Iranians say the Russians are using them in Afghanistan?
–Charles Stross, A Colder War

It takes a lot of nerve to write a paragraph like that with a straight face. What’s a shoggoth, you ask? If you don’t already know you ought to quit reading now. Neither A Colder War nor this review are meant for you.

Charles Stross’ novelette (available online here) imagines the Iran-Contra scandal in a world where H.P. Lovecraft’s entire Cthulhu Mythos is real. Not much more to it, really. Rest assured there is a plot. I won’t describe it here because frankly A Colder War is at its best sketching the impact of Lovecraftian horrors on Cold War politics. Readers ought to have the pleasure of discovering that for themselves.

Stross combines a strong voice with deadpan humor and more Lovecraft references than you can shake a shoggoth at. The quote at the top of this post is one example. If you’re not satisfied with that, here’s another:

“It is not the Russians that we quarrel with,” Mehmet says quietly, “but their choice in allies. They believe themselves to be infidel atheists, but by their deeds they shall be known; the icy spoor of Leng is upon them, their tools are those described in the Kitab al Azif. We have proof that they have violated the terms of the Dresden Agreement. The accursed and unhallowed stalk the frozen passes of the Himalayas by night, taking all whose path they cross. And will you stopper your ears even as the Russians grow in misplaced confidence, sure that their dominance of these forces of evil is complete? The gates are opening everywhere, as it was prophesied. Last week we flew an F-14C with a camera relay pod through one of them. The pilot and weapons operator are in paradise now, but we have glanced into hell and have the film and radar plots to prove it.”

If there is a downside to all this it’s that A Colder War is essentially one big gimmick (albeit a very enjoyable one). The story doesn’t feel fully fleshed-out, especially in comparison to Stross’ later Laundry novels. The novelette also ends abruptly, as if afraid to wear out its welcome.

Finally, it requires at least passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s fiction to enjoy. I can’t imagine someone ignorant of “At the Mountains of Madness” and “Call of Cthulhu” would get much out of A Colder War. As I mentioned above, half the fun is spotting the Lovecraft references. The average reader may simply find the whole thing bewildering.

If history and Lovecraft are up your alley, however, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with A Colder War.

Barbarians at the Gate Review

Barbarians at the Gate cover

Barbarians at the Gate

I literally just finished Barbarians at the Gate, by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. I mentioned it previously in my “five favorite business books” post. On the face of it this is a book about KKR’s $25 billion leveraged buyout (LBO) of RJR Nabisco in 1989 — the largest such deal in history at the time.

Really, though, Barbarians at the Gate is the epic, sweeping tale of a seismic shift in American corporate culture. It’s the Game of Thrones of business books. Minus the creepy incest subplot, of course.

The LBO had its heyday in the 1980s. For those unfamiliar with the term, an LBO involves a partnership of some sort, usually involving private equity in some form, buying all the outstanding shares of a public company to take it private, in many cases with the help of a sympathetic management team. “Hostile” deals happen when management is not so sympathetic.

In this context “leverage” is really just a fancy word for debt. The idea is to take a strong company with a “low” stock price (e.g. a stock price management and others feel is undervalued) and buy it back at something more akin to its “true” (higher) value. Obviously this can get expensive in a hurry. So you fund the deal with debt. Lots and lots of debt. In the ’80s when the RJR deal happened, the bulk of this debt came in the form of high-yield bonds, more commonly referred to as “junk bonds.”

On the face of it everyone wins. Investors get a premium for their shares. Friendly management often gets a handsome payout — and sometimes keeps control of the newly-private firm. The investment banks and law firms that advise on the deals and line up the financing get massive fees for their efforts. In the RJR Nabisco deal, for example, Drexel Burnham Lambert earned over $200 million for arranging a $3.5 billion bridge loan.

As much as Barbarians at the Gate is about a specific deal, it is also about a massive shift in coprorate cultures that occured in the 1980s. It was no longer okay to simply run a stable business with a steady hand. Investors and managers wanted to earn. Barbarians at the Gate tracks an enormous cast of characters with varying ambitions. In fact ambition is the common denominator for all cast members. RJR Nabisco’s CEO, Ross Johnson, lived by the motto “a few million dollars are lost in the sands of time.”

This excerpt pretty well sums it up:

In its final decade Reynolds had become less a great copmany than a great dream machine. Its torrent of tobacco money allowed egos to run wild and fantasies to become true. Paul Sticht could walk with kings. Ed Horrigan could live like kings. Directors could be treated like kings.

Hoisted onto the auction block, the company became a vast prism through which scores of Wall Streeters beheld their reflected glories. Jim Maher could restore First Boston’s greatness. Ted Forstmann could pursue his final jihad. Peter Cohen could go from administrator to merchant-banking prince. Henry Kravis could have an empire’s crowning touch. John Gutfreund could get the left side of the ultimate tombstone.

The founders of both RJR and Nabisco would have utterly failed to understand what was going on here. It is not so hard, in the mind’s eye, to see R.J. Reynolds and Adolphus Green wandering through the carnage of the LBO war. They would turn to one another, occasionally, to ask puzzled questions. Why did these people care so much about what came out of their computers and so little about what came out of their factories? Why were they so intent on breaking up instead of building up? And last: What did this all have to do with doing business?

This reads a lot more ominous in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It’s precisely the kind of thing that gets people’s blood pressure up: the idea that Wall Street is a casino run for a few insiders’ and egomaniacs’ benefit.

Perhaps then it’s instructive to note that the RJR Nabisco LBO marked the high water mark in most of the key players’ careers. From the book:

“The great money machine behind LBOs — junk bonds — sputtered and for a time virtually stopped. Mike Milken went to jail; Drexel Burnham went bankrupt […]

[…] Henry Kravis ceased stalking big game, preoccupied with the care and feeding — and debt service — of RJR. John Gutfreund was ousted as chairman of Solomon Brothers in 1991, after a treasuries trading scandal. His president, Tom Strauss, also resigned at joined Peter Cohen in obscurity at a hedge fund.”

It may be a bit over-egged, but reflecting on Barbarians at the Gate now I am reminded of a quote from Akira Kurosawa’a Ran:

We too are children of this age…weaned on strife and chaos. We are your sons, yet you count on our fidelity. In my eyes, that makes you a fool.

“Welcome to Carcosa:” Awesome literary references in True Detective

true detective poster artI finished Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective this past weekend. Let me say first of all that this show is worth watching for Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s performances alone. The basic gist of the story is it follows the men over a 17-year period as they investigate a spate of disappearances with occult overtones. Their efforts are complicated by the fact that the perpetrators may be influential figures in Louisiana’s political and religious landscape.

This probably makes True Detective sound like a plot-driven cop story in the vein of The Killing. It is partly that, to be sure. But what sets it apart is the literary quality of the overall atmosphere.

The show heavily references the King in Yellow and Carcosa — both from Robert W. Chambers’ fiction (which in turn influenced some of H.P. Lovecraft‘s most famous stories, notably “The Whisperer in the Darkness”).

True Detective is unusually literate television.

As far as I can see the whole point of drawing on Chambers’ is to introduce cosmic horror to the proceedings. Some off-the-cuff observations:

  • McConaughey’s drug-induced visions seem to reference the otherworldly landscape of Carcosa.
  • True Detective often plays with the concept of text or imagery that can drive the viewer insane, as is the case with the fictional play, the King in Yellow. The two examples that spring readily to mind are a video tape of a murder that seems to cause the viewer physical pain (it is never shown in its entirety). The face of the “man with the scarred face” seems to have a similar effect on his victims.
  • McConaughey’s character is obsessed with the insignificance of humanity’s place in the universe. He sees no solace in religion. In fact the show as a whole adopts his viewpoint at times. One character appears as a fire-breathing tent revival preacher in the early episodes and a broken alcoholic later on. He’s clearly lost his own faith. If that’s not Lovecraftian I don’t know what is.

These literary references are what I like best about True Detective. Personally I am a huge fan of Lovecraft. While I don’t particularly care for Chambers’ writing style I did enjoy the substance of the few of his stories I read for this post. Hopefully the show will help spark more mainstream interest in these authors. I also have a recurring fantasy of the Cthulhu Cult appearing in Season 2. Does that seem too heavy-handed?

James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard on authors making money

Something that’s always driven me crazy is writers who think of writing as a “calling” and not a business. Sure, you may think of writing as a passion. But if you want anyone else to read what you’ve written your passion is eventually going to collide with someone else’s business interests. Elmore Leonard put it this way:

I think any writer is a fool if he doesn’t do it for money. There needs to be some kind of incentive in addition to the project. It all goes together. It’s fun to sit there and think of characters and get them into action, then be paid for it. I can’t believe it when writers tell me ‘I don’t want to show my work to anybody.’

Perhaps predictably, James Ellroy expressed his opinion even more colorfully:

L.A. Confidential, the movie, is the best thing that happened to me in my career that I had absolutely nothing to do with. It was a fluke—and a wonderful one—and it is never going to happen again—a movie of that quality.

Here’s my final comment on L.A. Confidential, the movie: I go to a video store in Prairie Village, Kansas. The youngsters who work there know me as the guy who wrote L.A. Confidential. They tell all the little old ladies who come in there to get their G-rated family flick. They come up to me, they say, “OOOO… you wrote L.A. Confidential…. Oh, what a wonderful, wonderful movie. I saw it four times. You don’t see storytelling like that on the screen anymore.” … I smile, I say, “Yes, it’s a wonderful movie, and a salutary adaptation of my wonderful novel. But listen, Granny: You love the movie. Did you go out and buy the book?” And Granny invariably says, “Well, no, I didn’t.” And I say to Granny, “Then what the fuck good are you to me?