Profundis: Two Serpents Rise

Caleb Altemoc is an associate risk manager at Red King Consolidated, a Craft firm overseen by a powerful, undead skeletal sorcerer. When a demonic infestation in Bright Mirror reservoir threatens the water supply of Dresediel Lex Caleb is sent in to investigate. There he encounters a mysterious woman named Mal, and his pursuit of her brings him face-to-face with power-mad witches, murdered deities, twisting plans laid thick through the years, and his own tortured past as the son of Temoc, known fugitive and the last Eagle Knight of the old Gods. Beneath it all things vast enough to tear the world asunder begin to stir.

The twin snakes Aquel and Achal have been asleep for generations. And they appear to be waking…

“Two Serpents Rise” is the second installment of Max Gladstone’s “The Craft Sequence”. It follows in the same enchanting mold as “Two Parts Dead”, wherein the forces of technology and economics are analogized as magical processes.

Desalinization is accomplished not with pumps and membranes but by running salt water through the body of the God Qet Sealord. Contracts are magically binding things and running water is paid for with bits of soulstuff.

Besides making for compelling fiction in the “urban fantasy” genre this transmogrification forces us to confront how little of our own world we really understand. The kind of high-finance trickery that set the global economy reeling in 2008 might as well be magic for all I understand it. But quotidian examples illustrate the point just as well: I doubt many people could give more than a cursory explanation of how an internal combustion engine, an air conditioner, and a desktop computer work.

The fact that we are privileged enough to be this ignorant is by and large a good thing as it facilitates one of the greatest drivers of material progress in the history of Earth: the division of labor. But it can also be a little unsettling. How much of our collective lives depend upon the operation of machinery completely unseen to us? How stable is the infrastructure upon which our world rests? If it breaks, how many of us could fix it, or even be able to comprehend a solution if one were given to us?

“Two Serpents Rise” is a more mature book than its predecessor, both in its literary expressiveness and in the depth to which it explores themes of alienation, the tension between tradition and progress, and what it means to live in a world filled with things far more powerful than any one individual. I highly recommend it, and have already ordered the rest of his books.

Profundis: Steve Jobs

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s late CEO is a powerful, unflinching look into the life and mind of one of the great technological visionaries of modern history.

In 2016 it can be hard to remember that Macintosh and Microsoft computers are just machines for acting on and storing bits, but that’s because Jobs successfully made his devices a fashion statement, all while doing remarkable work in the markets for portable music players, digital music, smart phones, and tablet computing.

And something I didn’t know before reading Isaacson’s book was that Jobs was also the CEO of Pixar for a time, overseeing the development of films like Toy Story which were completely revolutionary at the time.

But the above shouldn’t be taken to mean that Isaacson shies away from Jobs’ dark side. Despite being an adopted child himself and struggling with the concomitant abandonment issues, Jobs also had an illegitimate daughter that he spent years neglecting. There’s compelling evidence that he deliberately swindled Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak in the very early days of their joint venture, and he gained some notoriety for his habit of blatantly taking credit for other people’s ideas. His manners were atrocious, he had body odor because he believed (incredibly!) that a diet of fruits and vegetables obviated the need to bathe, and though we’ll never know for sure whether he would have survived if he had listened to his doctors from the outset, there is a real chance that his stubborn insistence on trying to treat his cancer through diet contributed to his early demise.

Nevertheless, he stood a Titan at the intersection of the humanities and technology, and cast a shadow in which anyone that wants to work in the same space will be forced to stand.

When I read biographies like this it’s with an eye toward traits and habits that I can use to cultivate greatness in myself. There are a few things about Jobs that stand out as especially worthy of emulation:

  1. He had an astonishing devotion to craftsmanship and cared about every detail of Apple products down to the screws used in the cases and the layouts of circuits on the internal components.
  2. His attention to detail was almost preternatural. Isaacson relays a story wherein Jobs was reviewing an advertisement that was getting ready for shipment, and he noticed that the agency in charge of production had removed two frames from the ad which caused the changing images on the screen to be ever so slightly out of time with the accompanying music. He ordered the frames reinserted, and the commercial was better for it.
  3. He understood that computers are devices meant to be used by humans, and not just programmer humans. The haptic feedback of a touchscreen, the sleek aesthetics of the Apple product line, the ruthless simplicity, the aggressively intuitive user interfaces, and everything else that make Apple distinctive, exist in no small part because of his grasp of this fact.
  4. He cared passionately about art, artists, and design. Just because a computer is a tool doesn’t mean it should be quotidian, ugly, or poorly made. The Jobs family spent weeks agonizing over the decision to buy a common household appliance because for Steve it was a priority to be surrounded by things he could admireA dishwasher may not be a sculpture, but it’s also not an entirely different thing, either. Since reading this biography I have come to better appreciate the fact that there is a continuum, not a barrier, between things that are meant to be contemplated or admired and things that are meant to be used.
  5. Much of the success he had as Apple’s CEO was due to his ability to spot the highest-return opportunities available and to narrow the list down to just a handful of great products. Shortly after returning to Apple as the CEO, he gutted huge swathes of the product line and re-oriented Apple towards building just a handful of great products for specific niches.

Like many captivating personalities Jobs was a bundle of contradictions. He was a Zen enthusiast that obsessed over the tiniest aspects of the products made by his company — the most valuable on Earth as of this writing. His callous willingness to hurt and even betray the people closest to him was legendary, but so was his profound understanding of what consumers wanted and needed when they interacted with their devices.

Jobs set out to build a truly great company that “made a dent in the universe”. There’s simply no denying that he was a man of many flaws; but for those of us who are still alive in a world that feels as though it’s lost its swagger and its sense of the possible, Jobs’ life is a testament to what can be accomplished through focus, drive, and a fanatical devotion to excellence.


Profundis: The Nexus Trilogy

Feeling a little like a set of thrillers coauthored by Tom Clancy and Greg Egan, Ramez Naam’s “Nexus” trilogy follows a scattered group of hackers, ex-soldiers, government officials, and artificial intelligences as they struggle to cope with the implications of a world changed by a powerful new technology.

Nexus is a drug comprised of nano-scale robots that bind with the nervous system, allowing individual people to interact with their brains via a command line interface and groups of humans to share thoughts and emotions.

Naam does a good job of painting a realistic portrait of the secondary and tertiary ripples of having such a drug in play: Near the beginning of the trilogy we observe genetically enhanced supersoldiers becoming vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors. In between, autistic children are healed by being able to feel the minds of other people, mothers connect with the budding consciousness of their unborn children, and sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.

I found this seriousness refreshing, because too often science fiction is confined to riffing on one or two implications of a new technology while leaving almost everything else unchanged.

The 2014 film “Her”, in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a writer who falls in love with an advanced AI operating system, is a good example. While it may seem far fetched that a human could form a romantic connection with a disembodied intelligence, if such a being were advanced enough to be capable of passing the Turing test, would being in love with one be that different from being in love with a person living on the other side of an ocean?

The problem, though, is that other than this we don’t see much change as a result of extremely advanced AIs being turned loose. A few people become attached to them and complications arise which serve to move the plot forward. But where is the vastly accelerated research in mathematics and computer science, where are the internecine struggles between AIs competing for resources, where are the panicked reactionary  governments trying desperately to cling to power?

I realize the film wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive meditation on the changes human-level AIs will usher in, but I still found it’s extremely limited scope unsatisfying.

The “Nexus” trilogy explores these questions and much more besides. It doesn’t convey the vast, smoldering existential horror of Peter Watts’s “Blindsight”, nor does it quite live up to the narrative majesty of a Vernor Vinge book, to whose “Rainbow’s End” it is comparable, but it is an ably-crafted, fast-paced international spy story filled to the brim with plausible near-future technology centered around advances in neuroscience and nanotechnology.

There is a decent chance I’ll reread the whole trilogy at some point in the future, which is a high recommendation indeed.