Thursday, June 01, 2023

Source Code

Ever since reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I've been on an endless quest to Learn More about the topics it raised. This has led me down the path of more Piketty books, but as there are a finite number of these, I'm increasingly branching into Piketty-adjacent writing. The latest stop on my journey has been The Code of Capital, which examines the same fundamental questions of the nature and behavior of capital and wealth, but from the perspective of a lawyer rather than that of an economist or political scientist. This results in a fascinating and really compelling argument that supplements and explains the more purely economic and social aspects I've been focusing on.


It isn't too surprising that the author Katharina Pistor brings a new perspective to this. She's a law professor, and it's natural that she would think that the legal system is a crucial aspect of capitalism. While reading this book I mused about how a farmer or a miner would probably argue that natural resources are the only true form of capital, how an architect or building tradesman would argue that human improvements are the only true way to grow capital, or how a software developer like me might claim that ingenuity is the primary component of capital expansion.

Katharina Pistor seems equally inspired by two things: digging into the root causes of the 2008 financial crash, and digging into a phenomenon that Piketty raises in Cit21C. In his grand tour of the last 2000 years of wealth, and in particular the last 250 or so since the French Revolution, he examines the forms that wealth has taken over time. There has been a drastic shift during the last 100 years: prior to that, most wealth was held in the form of land, particularly rural farmland. Over time, there has been a strong increase in the total value of urban real estate. In modern times, though, the vast majority of our planet's total wealth (as valued by the market) is held in financial instruments, especially stocks and bonds.

What's remarkable to Piketty is how consistent wealth has been: whether you're valuing a patch of dirt that has existed for billions of years and will exist for billions more, or valuing a handful of bits in a computer register that we've agreed to pretend is worth something, the way that capital accrues wealth to its owner hasn't changed, nor the patterns in how it is accumulated and passed down to heirs.

Pistor, though, is curious about how those new forms of wealth were created: it seems like a really big deal! Her thesis is that only the law (that is, the civil legal system) can create new systems of capital. Lawyers function much like priests. They take an unadorned asset, like a loaf of bread; they endow it with legal encodings that are recognized by the state, much like a prayer; and the asset is then transformed into capital, like bread into the Host.

Pistor is writing to a general audience, and I really appreciated the time she spends going through fundamental questions. One that she spends time on is a question that I feel embarrassed to ask: what is capital? I needn't feel embarrassed, because it turns out that there's a great deal of debate on the topic, and she gives a good survey about how various factions would describe it. In her view, though, capital is simply an asset that provides guaranteed income for its owner. Examples could include a house that you rent out, or money in a bank savings account, or a patent that pays you royalties.

Not every thing that exists in the world can generate income, of course. People won't pay you for merely owning a musical instrument, or for inventing a new dance move, in the same way they would pay you for owning an acre of farmland or for inventing a gadget. Why do some things get the special status of capital?

In the author's explanation, capital doesn't depend on what kind of asset it is: traditionally only physical assets were considered capital, but today most capital value is intangible. Rather, an asset becomes capital once it is "coded" with certain properties. These include:

Priority. There needs to be a way to determine who has the rights to declare themselves owner of the asset. Something that is held in common, like fresh air or the historical record, can't be owned by any individual and is thus worthless as capital. If there are multiple claims to a specific asset, then there needs to be a way to determine whose claims are the strongest. If a landlord owns a house, and the bank has a mortgage over that house, and a tenant occupies the house, then whose interests will be protected?

Durability. The asset and its ownership needs to continue existence for a long time. Something that is only temporarily "owned" isn't capital, nor something that will rotate its ownership.

Universality. The owner's, er, ownership, needs to be recognized broadly. It isn't enough if you and I agree that our parody songs are worth billions: the whole country, and other countries, need to agree that parody songs are valuable and that we are the sole owners of them. 

Finally, Convertability. A capital asset needs to be able to be sold for something of actual value: in particular, government-backed currency.

So, how does new capital (in particular, new categories of capital) get created? By high-priced private lawyers. They use the legal code to designate assets with the above properties, using existing tools from areas such as contract law, property law, trust law and bankruptcy law. Two parties might enter into a contract with one another in which they agree to recognize certain claims and obligations, and code the asset in such a way that they can exchange it with others not party to the original contract. These contracts will likely invoke existing statutory law to protect and defend the new aspects of ownership, taking law that was originally created for one type of asset and claiming it applies to a new one.

Throughout the book, Pistor returns to a central irony of the creation of capital. Ultimately, capital completely depends on the coercive powers of the state. At the end of the day, only the state has the authority to arrest people or enforce massive fines, and only the state will defend certain rights against the interest of people abroad. And yet, the actual creation of capital takes place entirely in the private sphere, and seeks to avoid involvement with the state as much as possible. Particularly in common-law jurisdictions such as England and the State of New York, new law may be drawn up in private agreements, and never face the scrutiny of a court, at least not until some catastrophic event occurs. By that time, such law may have been de-facto followed for decades: it will likely be blessed by the courts, and if not, the "owners" will still have reaped decades of gains.

I think that Pistor and Piketty came to many of the same conclusions from their varying journeys, with Piketty's more recent thoughts in Capital & Ideology often lining up with the arguments in The Code of Capital. In particular, both of them emphasize that the state has enormous powers to regulate capital that are currently going entirely unused or actively abused. Piketty sees this through a democratic lens: we, the people, collectively get to decide what kind of a society we want to have, and that includes the role we want wealth to play in society. Pistor sees it at an even more fundamental level: regardless of whether we're in a democracy or not, at the end of the day the coded wealth of capital won't be worth anything unless the state's police force and courts are willing to defend that capital, and the state provides a stable currency that allows the capital to be converted and used: capital could not exist without the state. And yet, we've seen endlessly that the masters of capital want to enjoy the benefits of state protection while providing none of their gains, or as few as possible, to support the state. They'll use the apparatus of the state to invent new wealth, but also code it in such a way that it avoids taxation, such as placing it "overseas" (while enjoying the benefit at home), or deferring obligations indefinitely, or refusing to let transactions settle, or any other chicanery. Anyways, Piketty has an enduring fear that, if capitalism isn't reigned in and wealth continues to accumulate in fewer and fewer hands, the end state won't be an eternal oligarchy, but rather a violent revolution that destructively redistributes wealth from outside the system. Somewhat similarly, Pistor sees that brilliant legal minds are moving more and more wealth beyond the reach of the state; but if they succeed, the end result won't be unlimited capitalism, but rather the end of capitalism: the state will shrivel, and with it the underlying coercive power to enforce the legal code, and with that capitalism itself.

Both are also acutely aware of the ills of globalization and have provided a lot of detail on how the liberalization of capital flows have enabled a race to the bottom, as more and more money is supposedly placed in tax havens while actually being spent elsewhere. Piketty seems to focus more on the economic measurements and impacts of this trend, while Pistor focuses more on its mechanics: the combination of treaties and domestic laws and contractual arrangements that enabled the status quo, as well as how those changes were accomplished. She even attempts to answer why states would voluntarily cede their sovereignty in such a way. Like Piketty, the overall analysis feels very bleak, but she holds out hope for reform. Piketty's plan seems to be broadly populist; Pistor's is compatible with populism, but she also makes solid arguments for why this trend is so dangerous and why a country's political and even economic elite should work to gradually reverse it. Also like Piketty, she acknowledges that a broad multilateral approach would in the best case take a long time and in the worst case never complete, but that in the meantime there are very strong moves that nations can take on unilateral or bilateral bases, which could break the chain and restore guardrails to our entangled financial system.

The penultimate chapter covers the rise in crypto, and more specifically the "code as law" idea. She takes this very seriously, tracing the origin of the blockchain and how its promoters envision it working. Crypto offers a potential alternative to the legal system: rather than writing a contract in human language and relying on the courts to enforce it, you can write a contract in code and have it automatically executed: the contract IS the transaction. As she shows, though, this has only been demonstrated to work for instantaneous transactions, which are a tiny fraction of all contractual arrangements. And furthermore, the binary nature of code isn't a good match for the uncertainties of reality. Natural language can occasionally be vague and messy, but that is part of its power: when unexpected details develop, as they inevitably do, courts can interpret the intent of that language in coming to a decision. There's no such wriggle room in crypto, so transactions will either fail without termination, or they will need to be thrown to human mediation.

And furthermore, even if we did perfect a computer-based system for contracts and mediation, there's still the fundamental problem of how we determine who owns what in the first place. Our current system is labyrinthine; for example, there's no central registry of who owns every parcel of land, but rather, each locality maintains its own roster of ownership. And these claims can face dispute: does a parcel of land belong to the indigenous tribes who occupied it for centuries, or the settlers who took it from them? The crypto system can't judge the rightful ownership of the assets it oversees, only trace the movement of those assets since they were entered into the system.

Prior to reading this chapter, I was thinking about crypto a lot while reading this book, but not so much about the cryptocurrency stuff Pistor addresses: rather about the NFT movement. This book was published in 2019, shortly before the NFT craze really took off, so it isn't addressed much here, but I think it's extremely applicable to Pistor's main thesis and NFTs make a phenomenal case study. We were all, in real time, witnessing the attempt of the creation of a new category of capital asset. The underlying asset is famously just a kilobyte or so of code, basically a signed URL, arguably "worth" an infinitesimal fraction of a penny. And yet, thanks to a big marketing push and the endorsement of celebrities, the founders hoped to establish that these assets were investments, worth thousands or millions of state-backed currency.

So, let's take a look at how the code of capital was applied to these assets!

Priority is arguably the main selling point. One of the virtues of the blockchain is that at any moment in time, anyone can verify the ownership of an asset through the public registry. In the case of NFTs, this is an incredibly strong and unbreakable priority system, even in the presence of fraud or theft. "All my apes, gone!" As endless internet commentators have noted, the law-less quality of NFTs means that there's no legal appeal to the state to reverse a movement of assets, which is arguably terrible, but does reinforce the stability of the Priority system for an NFT.

Durability. On the one hand, NFTs are infinitely durable: they only exist in the digital space and will never decay. And the blockchain registry will also endure, so ownership of the asset is permanent until transferred.

Universality. This seems to be the category where NFTs fail as capital assets. Within the NFT community, members can agree to treat one another's claims with respect; outside of that community, though, there is no recognition that the claim means anything. We've all laughed at people online who say that only the "owner" of an NFT has the "right" to display their ugly monkey image: it's a JPEG, and anyone can right-click and save the image. When someone's "property" is "misused", there is no recourse or enforcement available. They can't sue someone in the courts to make them stop using "their" image, or send a sheriff to reclaim "their" property. 

Finally, Convertibility. There is a fairly robust system in place to exchange state-backed currency for NFTs and vice versa, so on the one hand, they are highly convertible. But they run into the same issue as crypto, in that the market is extremely volatile and a terrible store of value. As the market has crashed, they are less and less desirable assets.

So, overall, it seems to me like NFTs failed to be successful capital assets precisely because of what they were advertised as: assets that relied on computer code (blockchain) rather than on the legal code (copyright) for their value. You can see what an incredible amount of influence it takes to truly mint a new form of capital, and in particular, how to ensure that the state will use its courts and police to enforce the private interests of the holders of capital. Just take a moment and imagine what that world would have looked like: if your apes were stolen, the thief would be thrown in prison; if someone used a hexagon image as their Twitter profile pic, they would be forced to pay millions in damages. Well, that's the world we live in when it comes to derivative securities, or Mickey Mouse, or Scrabble. A century or two ago, those examples would have seemed as ludicrously unworthy of state protection as a Bored Ape does today.

But, who knows? One possible, if unlikely, future might exist where those "rights" do become embedded in law; the depressing surge in Crypto-friendly members of Congress may be a harbinger. That would follow the path Pistor predicts at the end of her chapter on Crypto, suggesting that in the end law will win out over code and crypto assets will be enveloped and absorbed by the current masters of capital. The alternative might involve NFTs or their descendants becoming entangled in other, protected assets, such that harm to them causes harm to others. That could result in them belatedly being coded with universality, even in the absence of statutory law, as existing holders of capital would feel compelled to recognize and uphold them. Either move would probably move NFTs firmly into the realm of a true capital asset.

So, yeah! This was a really wonderful, fascinating book, with a whole lot to chew on, including quite a few topics I didn't get into here. I really appreciated Pistor's approach through the book; as a total novice in legal matters, I was able to follow what she was talking about, and follow into what becomes some relatively complex structures. That complexity isn't an accident; one of her observations is that much of what high-priced lawyers do is deliberately obscure, hiding important information behind impenetrable jargon, more or less explicitly to remove these actions from the public democratic sphere and make them exclusively available to the wealthy elite. So it's really important to know exactly what is happening and why. Globalization wasn't just some sickness that struck the world overnight and we all have to live with now. It was the result of a series of calculated legal maneuvers in order to achieve a particular outcome. And we don't need to live with it now that we've seen its catastrophic consequences. Those same tools of law can undo it. That won't happen naturally, or easily: greed is an incredibly powerful motivator, and such actions would be fiercely opposed. But it's an important job to do, and one I hope I see completed in my lifetime.

Thursday, May 04, 2023


I just finished reading Susanna Clarke's latest novel, Piranesi. I adored her earlier "Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" and "Ladies of Grace Adieu". She popped up in a recent missive from Failbetter Games, noting that the staff there had enjoyed reading this book. In an odd bit of synchronicity, Pirenesi is also the name of one of the ports in Failbetter Games' most recent game Sunless Skies. The two Piranesis don't seem to have influenced one another at all, but both of them draw on an older inspiration from large, mysterious, labyrinthine structures.



Piranesi has basically nothing to do with Clarke's earlier work. I suppose it's possible that it's set in the same alternate reality, but there aren't (to my recollection) any references shared between them. The voice is also completely different. JS&MR had a wonderful Austen-esque impersonal narrator, while Piranesi's first-person narrator has a very specific Voice and a unique Way of Speaking that communicates his particular Character and Way of Thinking.

Piranesi is written as a series of journal entries, and through them we come to learn about the titular character and the world he inhabits: deeply strange to us, deeply comforting and meaningful to him. They are the Halls: a vast, perhaps endless, but varied and distinct series of rooms, connected by doorways and stairways. The Lower Halls are usually submerged, depending on the level of the tides: they bring in fish and seaweed that provide food. The Upper Halls feature windows that open to the sky; when it rains, fresh water pours in. The Middle Halls lie between the two and are the most temperate and livable area, filled with birds and other living things. All of the halls are filled with statues: enormous, towering things, depicting people and animals in a variety of poses and scenes. Piranesi feels a sense of mythical significance towards these, but they're also friendly and familiar connections.


The book unfolds pretty delightfully, and we follow along as Piranesi's worldview is challenged and we learn together about what's really going on: who he is, why he's here, what it all means. The novel starts off very sparse and intimate, with only Piranesi and The Other, but by the end we've gotten to know a dozen or so characters; almost none of them ever actually appear, but we learn about them and their forgotten impact on Piranesi's life.

To recap my own understanding of the situation:

Long ago, there was magic on Earth. There is no magic today; so where did it go? It seeped away into something else. It went somewhere; then it moved on from there. But it left traces of where it had been. An analogy: when it rains, water collects on the surface of the earth, then seeps below the earth, then flows down or out. Over thousands of years, this seepage can create immense caves. When you visit the cave, you won't see any water in there: but everything that you see was created by the now-absent water. Likewise, there isn't any magic in the Halls, but the Halls were created by the magic seeping out of the Earth.

Laurence Arne-Syles, a controversial British professor, theorizes about these spaces and is eventually able to physically visit them. He collects a circle of devoted admirers who share his interest in the occult and mystical. Laurence is deeply unpleasant: intentionally transgressive and perverse, he'll do anything to annoy or hurt others for the fun of it. Along the way he murders and imprisons some who come into his orbit, eventually going to prison for his crimes. (The reality of his accomplishment isn't ever understood or accepted by society as a whole, but they can see the evidence of his victims.)

Laurence moves on to other interests, but one of his erstwhile disciples, Ketterly, wishes to continue. Ketterly captures a doctoral student, Matthew Rose Sorenson, and imprisons him inside the Halls. (As I'm writing this, I realize that the Laurence->Ketterly transition is much like the Earth->Halls or the Magic->Mundane transition. Laurence is no longer present or active in Ketterly's actions, but Ketterly was shaped by Laurence, much like the Halls were shaped by departing magic.) Besides being strange and awe-inspiring, the Halls are also dangerous because, if you spend too much time in them, you'll forget about the world outside. This happens to Matthew, who loses track of his former life, and becomes Piranesi.

The book ends with a lovely, thoughtful epilogue: Matthew is back in the world, still remembering the Halls, and bringing that knowledge with him as he goes about life on Earth. There are some touching moments in the final pages where he sees a person and connects them with a particular Statue in the Halls. The significance of this is unclear: are the Halls reflecting lives on Earth? Predicting it? Is there some higher cosmic truth that is being expressed in different ways on Earth and in the Halls? Piranesi angrily rejects the idea from Raphael that the Statues are "merely" depictions of the "reality" on Earth; from his perspective, the statues are closer to a Platonic ideal, and what we see on Earth is merely an imperfect recreation of the pure expression of the Halls.


Piranesi didn't feel as ambitious as JS&MR, but it's a great book: still dealing with the mixture of the magical and the mundane, this time on a more personal level. It has a wonderful voice and clever (but not cute) structure that guides you on the journey and causes delight as it unfolds a mystery.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Older Ring

PHEW. Now that I've finally set EU IV aside, I can get back to playing other video games. The first big one I'm picking up is Elden Ring. I've been hearing about the Dark Souls games for years, and have been a little intrigued by them, but also put off by their reputation for brutal difficulty and action-heavy gameplay. I've heard universal praise for Elden Ring, though, and many suggestions that it's a relatively entry point to the series. I'm maybe 15 hours or so into the game and really enjoying it so far.


I'm avoiding any walkthroughs or spoilers of the game, but I am permitting myself to look up a few specific things. Some of these are mechanics that aren't really explained within the game; I also looked up the location of a better Staff for my Sorcerer to wield.


These days I'm pretty ambivalent about open world games, especially open world RPGs, but Elden Ring has been my favorite for a while. It hits the sweet spot of being both vast and dense: there are visually interesting things to stumble across, and you never go very long before stumbling over something intriguing and worth exploring.


Exploration in particular is a strong suit of the game, though I could also see it being overwhelming. I think this game has less direction than any game I've played since Baldur's Gate I: from the start you can go pretty much anywhere and do pretty much anything. There are some descriptions of past events and the world, but not much in the way of plot or goals delivered to you. There's no quest journal, no quest markers (except icons you can manually add to your map), very minimal dialogue and waypointing. There totally are quests, but they're stripped from the UI we've been accustomed to seeing for the last four decades of RPGs.


I'm way too early to have any opinions of the story or worldbuilding, but it's firmly in the dark-fantasy vein. Everything is decaying and falling apart; great battles were fought in the past, and you see the ruins all around you. There are a few spots of light and grace along the way, but they're definitely in the minority. It isn't exactly grimdark; so far there's nothing like the Baron's storyline in The Witcher 3, for example; if anything it kind of reminds me of Tolkien, with a strong sense of decline from a grander time in the past.


Like I said above, I'm playing as a Sorcerer, which is a ranged character. It's been relatively easy so far: I can attack enemies from a fairly safe distance, and usually evade by rolling out of the way. I know that classic Souls play tends to focus more on blocking, parrying and counters, but I'm glad that I can mostly ignore those for this initial playthrough.

 As in many modern RPGs, there are a variety of tools you can have to overcome challenges in the game. The most Souls-ish technique is to "git gud": no matter what your stats are or those of your foe, everyone has their own moveset and strengths and weaknesses, and if you practice enough and study your opponent's behavior, you can beat them. It's hard, though! Another approach is to level up. Keep playing the game, fighting smaller enemies or bigger ones, and you can increase your stats to take more hits and deal more damage, and a harder fight will become easier. A third option is to get better gear. I'll write more about this below, but finding new gear, swapping out pieces or adding upgrades can make a difference. Fourthly, you can craft consumables that will give you a potent short-term boost, long enough to fight a difficult boss. Finally but most importantly, you can just skip it! This is truly an open-world game, with almost no critical challenges: in almost every case you can just go somewhere else and ignore a fight that's too annoying or difficult.


I have a well-documented antipathy towards the economic systems of RPGs, which are especially terrible in open world RPGs with respawning enemies; I griped at length about Mass Effect Andromeda, which had a whole bunch of overlapping currencies and resources and nothing worthwhile to spend them on. Elden Ring goes in the exact opposite direction, taking the bold step of essentially combining XP and GP. You only have a single resource "Souls", that you get from beating enemies, and you spend on leveling your character or on buying equipment. It seems crazy to cross those streams of money and experience, going against everything Gary Gygax taught us. After adjusting to the shock, though, I really love how it works in practice. Instead of forcing certain activities to achieve certain outcomes, you can do anything that's enjoyable to you and reward yourself as you see fit. And really, at the end of the day anything you spend Souls on has the same effect of improving your character. If you spend Souls on increasing your Vigor, you'll get more hit points and become more survivable in combat; if you spend Souls on a defensive piece of equipment, you'll increase your defense and become more survivable in combat.


Along the same lines, equipment in Elden Ring is very different than I'm used to. Most RPGs follow a steadily increasing path: as you get later in the game, enemies drop more powerful equipment, and/or you have enough money to buy more expensive equipment. As I've noted in the past, though, this can lead to player paralysis: you don't want to spend a little bit of money on a mediocre weapon when you know you'll get better weapons for free in a few hours. In Elden Ring, though, the equipment you get at the start of the game can last you through pretty much the whole game. Everything is basically equivalent in absolute terms, and just trading off various pros and cons: you might find a helmet that offers more resistance to piercing damage, but is more vulnerable to bludgeoning; or a heavy metal cuirass that has higher physical defense stats, but weighs more and will prevent you from effectively dodging during combat. Weapons may have a special ability, but any given weapon can only have a single ability. So really, as you play the game and acquire more gear, you aren't replacing old bad gear with new good gear: instead you're just acquiring a broader arsenal of available gear. For a min-maxing player, this may mean swapping out your loadout before a challenging encounter: heavy poison defenses if you're facing a poisonous boss, or switching to lighter armor if you need to be more mobile. For most players including me, you'll occasionally replace a piece in your loadout with something that better matches your preferred playstyle, but overall not sweat it much.

You can also upgrade your equipment in the game, mostly by spending Smithing Stones to increase their level. Again, this is a way to keep equipment pretty equivalent. I'm currently wielding a Meteorite Staff, which is noticeably more powerful than my starter Astrologer's Staff. But the Meteorite Staff can't take any upgrades. From my understanding, by the end of the game a fuller upgraded starter Astrologer's Staff with an appropriate Ash of War applied could be at least as powerful as the Meteorite Staff.

I spent a little time online trying to find the best armor for a Sorcerer, only to learn that it doesn't really matter. Unlike most RPGs, armor isn't all that important in Elden Ring: there's a difference between having a light encumbrance and a heavy one, but armor doesn't carry enchantments or give stat boosts, so Talismans and Weapons (including Shields) are a lot more important. Which, again, I think is great. Another common annoyance I have in modern RPGs is sorting through an inventory, checking the stats and abilities on every piece of armor I've looted, and deciding what to wear, what to keep and what to sell. I pretty much never do this in Elden Ring.



Let's see, I think that's all I wanted to write about in this first post! It's a beautiful game, often oddly relaxing to play at times, wandering through the world and seeing the sights, interspersed with challenging boss fights that, at their best, feel more like puzzles to solve than quick-button-mashing fests. I know it's a big game and I'm not sure if I'll maintain this enthusiasm through the whole journey, but at least so far it's been very compelling.

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Perhaps Absolutely

I'd enjoyed reading Roadside Picnic and was looking for more work from the Strugatsky Brothers. The next book I picked up was "Definitely Maybe." Slightly more slender at around 150 pages, this work is less obviously science fiction, but does ultimately inhabit that space.




The book focuses on a scientist named Malyanov, working at home alone on a research project. As the story continues more and more interruptions come into his life: incessant phone calls, mysterious deliveries, his wife's old friend. He gets increasingly agitated at the situation, eventually drawing into his orbit a cluster of other scientist friends who it turns out are going through their own, not necessarily similar, struggles.

There's a pretty delicious feeling of unease and uncertainty that seeps into the book as it continues. It felt a bit familiar and I've been trying to think of what it reminds me of: maybe the paranoia of Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus Trilogy or Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49. In these works, there's a lot of compelling circumstantial evidence that piles up, and the protagonists are struggling to try and understand how to make sense of it all. These could all just be coincidences, but the odds of it happening strain credulity. Perhaps there is a sinister conspiracy operating behind the curtain, orchestrating these events for some nefarious purpose. Or it could all be a put-on, someone playing a practical joke to make the victims believe in a conspiracy. Or maybe there's some metaphysical dimension to these events that transcend our limited comprehension. The characters variously consider these theories, unable to definitively prove just what the reality is, and the books themselves let the ambiguity extend through to the end.


Something kind of shocking happens about halfway through the novella, not with the book's plot but with its structure: it abruptly shifts from third person into first person. Malyanov had just been the most prominent character, but then he suddenly becomes the narrator, continuing the story as if nothing had changed. Everything else stays the same, including the chapter and section intros. I'm honestly not sure what to make of this, but it's an arresting change.

Near the end of the book, it seems like the hypotheses narrow down to two main possibilities. One kind of reminds me of the Dark Forest hypothesis from Three Body Problem: some intelligent civilization is out there in the universe, and sees humanity as a threat, so it uses its advanced capabilities to block us from crossing the threshold to become a supercivilization. The other is the "homeostatic universe" hypothesis: this is a bit harder to follow, and Malyanov himself admits not completely understanding it, but the idea seems to be that the natural laws of the universe seek to maintain an equilibrium between the forces of entropy (another great Pynchon analogue!) and the forces of creativity, so when something moves too far in one direction, it inevitably returns to the other: not through any guiding intelligence, but because of the universe's fundamental laws.

The edition I read included two afterwords, one from an author and the other from the translator, giving some context to the book's creation. The Strugatsky Brothers wrote in the Soviet Union and always had to deal with censors and government interference in their book; the translator notes that their work was intensely political, but they had to smuggle in their political messages to be able to publish their work while staying out of jail. In a separate afterword, an author notes that the censors' biggest objection was to the concept of the "homeostatic universe", which I found really interesting. I wonder if it's a coded reference to the rigidity of the Soviet Union as a whole: anything that got too far out of line would need to be hammered back into place in order to maintain social order.


This was a much faster and easier read than I was expecting, and I liked it a lot. I do think that the original title of the book, "One Billion Years Before The End Of The World" is more compelling, but on closer reflection, "Definitely Maybe" probably gets more at the feel of the book: uncertain and uneasy, balanced between possibilities and unable to commit to a single view of the world.

Monday, April 17, 2023

And I Told You

It's felt nice to build up more of a reading habit again. For a while I was spending most of my commuting time playing crossword puzzles and word games on my phone, which is nice and all (especially when I only have a couple of minutes to kill between transfers), but I realized felt a lot less satisfying than getting through a book.

I recently picked up "Let Me Tell You," a collection of writing from Shirley Jackson. I mostly know her through her fairly Gothic chilling stories like The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived In The Castle: novels set in modern times that are invaded by more magical, unsettling forces. Jackson was a very versatile writer, though, and this collection was a great chance to get acquainted with other tones of her voice. There are a handful of similarly unsettling stories, but also a nice collection of her very early writing from the 1940s, revolving around the experience of young men going overseas and then returning home to anxious young wives.


It's probably the nonfiction that I responded to the most, though. Jackson was the mother of four children, and wrote a lot of really funny articles about her experience overseeing a very bustling household. In her own writing she comes off as somewhat frazzled, doing her best to maintain some level of order while being badly outnumbered.

The book ends with some thoughtful essays and lectures on the craft of writing. In one essay she seems to be arguing against the sparse voice of Hemingway-inspired writers, and makes an argument for the (limited and intentional) use of embellishment and symbols in a short story. She has a funny perspective of seeing the author and the reader as mortal enemies, with authors needing to take advantage of any dirty trick they can find to seize the reader's attention away from the television set and the dozens of other books at their fingertips. Other essays provide really intriguing glimpses into her in-progress work on her famous novels, and how she and readers interacted with one another.

Let Me Tell You wasn't exactly what I was expecting, but I'm glad that it is what it is. I liked seeing more of her range, enough so that I'm tempted to check out