What I'm Reading and Listening to Right Now

Real talk - the world seems crazy stressful right now and so I find myself sucked in to the Law and Order (original recipe) marathon on WE TV. It's weirdly comforting despite almost always being about murder. Many many writers have opined on why the show is so addictive. I suppose it's the predictable rhythms of a procedural that alters it formula so infrequently. It's nice to have something we can count on, right?  Also, Jerry Orbach was a treasure.

I am trying a few new things, the most notable of which are:

336 Pages

Published 2017

The Interdependency Trilogy

Science Fiction

The Collapsing Empire (first book in a series) starts with a description of the legal ways a space crew can stage a mutiny. I found the idea of putting rules and standards around an historically lawless act hilarious, so obviously I read on. In this instance, the mutiny is strictly extra-legal. But it's disrupted by [science fiction complications] and we're off.

Science fiction is not necessarily my genre of choice. I don't seem to be wired to understand the complexities of things like space travel and all the other world building that is required to create a compelling alternative universe. If you asked me to describe the mechanics of why the "empire is collapsing" it would go like this: "Something something something SCIENCE something something FLOW (jazz hands!)". I'm hoping understanding *all this* gets easier after reading more sci-fi. I've definitely gotten more comfortable with magic after having read a lot of fantasy through the years. If you, too, have similar challenges processing super science-y details, don't worry. The Collapsing Empire is thoroughly gripping and enjoyable even if you skim through all that stuff (I did). Roxane Gay, an author I revere, loved this book. But in her GoodReads review she took exception to some of the ways Scalzi handled exposition, such as explaining the universe to kids on a field trip. I, however was THRILLED and found that tone just my speed. It gave me a rudimentary enough grasp of the science that was necessary to appreciate the plot.

After we leave the mutiny, chapters jump from the perspective of one character or another. We meet Cardenia Wu-Patrick, who is attending the death bed of her father, Emperox of the Interdependency. In another chapter we spend time with Kiva Lagos, who is running into trouble trying to unload cargo at End (literally the end of the galaxy). These women are our primary gateways (see what I did there?) into the story, although at least one more major character is introduced (Marce) but we spend less time with him.

What I like about this book is how vividly both Cardenia and Kiva are drawn, and how quickly we're invested in the obstacles they're confronting. Cardenia is a more obviously sympathetic character - she gets a huge problem dumped on her, not to mention a power struggle to navigate, and even though she doesn't know exactly what to do she takes it all on and doesn't let the different factions push her around. Kiva is initially harder to get a read on, although I deeply appreciate her commitment to vivid profanity no matter what the company. But like Cardenia she is smart and observant and quickly starts stitching together the conspiracy that is affecting her business and, it turns out, much much more.

What both women are dealing with is a ton of political intrigue, which is fascinating to unwind. This is my first John Scalzi book, and I think his writing is dynamic and often funny. While I admittedly got confused time to time with the particulars of space life, the human storylines were much easier to follow and once I settled in I was thoroughly entertained by this space opera. I'm starting the next installment (The Consuming Fire) this week.

In the meantime, I'm also listening to the audio recording (performed by Wil Wheaton who is very good!). I got this great tip listening to a podcast guest who often listens to audio books AFTER she has read the book itself. At first I thought that was weird, but now I realize it's brilliant, especially with a book like this. The first time I read a book, I'm mostly focused on the critical plot details, and without realizing it miss a bunch of cool details and sometimes even essential character or story developments. Listening to the audio book forces me to slow down and tune in to all that and more. Side benefit - I learn how to pronounce the coined language. (Emperox, for example, is Emper-oh. You're welcome!)

Buy The Collapsing Empire on Bookshop. Disclaimer - I am an affiliate of Bookshop and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

Podcast

When I used to drive to work I listened to a lot of NPR, which is when I first became aware of Shankar Vedantam. I would occasionally be lucky enough to catch his segments as social scientist correspondent. He would generally be interviewed by either the Morning Edition or All Things Considered hosts. I was always struck by how effectively Vedantam was able to explain complex concepts in a totally accessible way, a skill that is pretty rare and therefore all the more precious. Hidden Brain is Vedantam's full-length version of those quick bites.

While the podcast has been in production for years, I've only just started exploring the vast archive of episodes. The first title that drew my attention is "Broken Windows", a concept that was a huge part of my own introduction to social sciences, The Tipping Point (by Malcolm Gladwell). On the podcast "level of production spectrum" (an idea that I think is a PCC original but maybe everyone thinks in these terms), Hidden Brain is peak level produced - it is carefully scripted, timed and scored. It makes each installment polished and professional and, when combined with the talents of Vedantam, is a completely immersive listening experience. Episodes tend to start with an illuminating anecdote or example, and then shifts to speak with one or more experts to help explain the story. What I love best about Hidden Brain is how measured and well-rounded the examination of issues is. More than once, when a powerful data point is introduced, Vedantam will insert an aside to help put that data point in context and even offer contrary evidence. I appreciate the respect he has for the complexity and nuance of the subjects he's examining. Data can so often be used to mislead and it's gratifying to see the effort Hidden Brain makes to avoid that trap.

Another strength of Vedantam is the white space he allows during episodes for listeners to process the information being presented. When I was listening to the Broken Windows episode and also "The Fee-for-Service Monster" episode (about US health care), I noticed that often after one of the experts finishes speaking there would be at least a beat of silence. At first I thought it was a recording glitch, but now that I've heard more episodes it's clear that Vedantam is actually pausing and reflecting a moment before responding. This is much more rare than you might realize - even my favorite interviewers answer immediately or often interrupt their experts. Vedantam's approach conveys someone who is listening carefully, considering what he's heard and only then moving the interview forward. That ends up creating space for a real discourse and provides us a much richer comprehension of often intricate concepts. The Hidden Brain website has a vast archive of episodes, and the show notes often include links to further research and reading, which I always appreciate. You can also find it on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other platforms. Episodes range from 30 minutes to an hour.

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