Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambers has more than proven herself to be a writer to watch out for but I really only enjoyed 50% of this book.

The story moves tangentially from the previous book, A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Leaving the crew of the Wayfarer behind, the ship’s AI Lovey has illegally embodied herself in a synthetic body (for reasons explained in ALWTASAP) and is going to live planetside with Pepper – an incidental character in the previous book. It is an interesting set-up for a story about an AI both hiding their nature and learning how to be a person.

Pepper reveals that part of her motivation for helping Lovey (who takes on a new name ‘Sidra’) is that Pepper herself had been raised by an AI and here the story takes a turn.

The novel splits into two alternating accounts. Firstly the story of Lovey/Sidra learning to live in a human/alien society but also a flashback account of Pepper’s childhood as a cloned worker (called Jane just like her numerous siblings) in an industrial scrap heap.

Jane’s story of survival is compelling. It has tension, pathos, adventure and is well paced throughout. Sidra’s contemporary story?

Sidra’s contemporary story? Hmmmm, I found it too dull for my tastes. Well executed but primarily about fitting in. Yes, there was some tension from the fact that in this otherwise hyper-tolerant society AI’s are not recognised as people, and Sidra’s kit body is highly illegal but…well that never really rings true mainly because everybody we meet is so very nice. Well thought out alien cultures abound but this, in turn, creates character interactions that tend towards infodumps.

Very quickly, I found myself trying to get through the Sidra chapters to get to the next instalment of Jane’s attempts to escape her plight. I suppose that then made me take even less interest in Sidra’s quest to find a way to reconcile her former disembodied existence with her new life in a complex society.

Definitely an interesting novel and like A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet it has a focus on personal relationships and personal journey’s of self-discovery amid a complex universe with aliens that are more than just humans-but-different. Maybe not a story for me though.

Is It OK to Thump People?



I’ve watched several times a video of a guy thumping another guy recently. There is, naturally several sides to consider here:

  • Whether the violent act undermines free speech.
  • Whether, even if provoked by the objectionable views of the person punched, the act lowers discourse in general.
  • Whether violence is ever a justified reaction to a dialogue even with somebody obnoxious.

Having said that I think most people agree that the person doing the thumping was justified. Here is the video again (you’ve probably seen it already).

Yes, naturally I am talking about that time Buzz Aldrin hit lunar-landing denier Bart Sibrel in the face after Sibrel harassed and insulted Buzz and called him a coward and a liar. After multiple provocations, Buzz then, wack, thumps Sibrel in the face. What can one say? It is OK to both deplore violence AND accept that people have actual emotions and that when repeatedly provoked will react accordingly. Buzz doesn’t beat the guy up, he thumps him once.

The LA County District Attorney did not lay any charges on Buzz Aldrin and, according to Wikipedia, Sibrel (the man punched) later apologised to Aldrin.

So there you go. Yeah, maybe sometimes it is OK to thump people – you know if you are provoked enough it would be weird if people DIDN’T react that way. You know, like in the example above in which Buzz Aldrin is repeatedly harassed and called a liar by a guy whose ideas are based on stupidly elaborate conspiracy theories. Just don’t make a habit of it.



Oh, and apparently alt-right pro-genocide shit Richard Spencer was thumped the other day also. Whereas Sibrel was just a rude guy with an omnifallacious theory that in itself harms nobody, Spencer is a guy who promotes race hate and genocide. As far as I can tell the major ethical issue people have with this is that it wasn’t Buzz Aldrin who hit him.

Weird Internet Ideas: Yeah back to Nazis and left right spectrums again


I wrote this post in June 2015. At the time the rise of a quasi/neo/ohwhattheheckactual-fascists was mainly seen as a European thing and the US centre and right was still seeing US politics as naturally immune. In the meantime, the forces of the American right have decided to rally behind a demagogue who has surrounded himself with extreme nationalists with zero interest in quasi-libertarian window dressing.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, I was presented with a live example:

Libertarians have kind of liked this idea for a long time. I assume it germinated in to a truism sometime in the 1970s but as I pointed out in the earlier post, it probably dates back to Hayek in the 1940s.

Of course, you can align political movements and ideologies onto any axis which you can think of an ordinal variable to describe…but more government v less government simply doesn’t work as a way of describing how left-right spectrums work in 20th and 21st-century Western politics. You can use that spectrum if you like but it will fail as a predictive model in describing who aligns with who and it fails as a descriptive model of who aligned with who in history.

In the earlier post I concentrated specifically on the notion of the Hitler-era Nazis being leftists (this is also the context of the Tweet quoted above) but in the post I thought I’d spend a bit longer looking at this more/less government thing in general.

To do so, consider counter-examples. Which ideology would be at the furthest end of the more/less axis? Anarchists! Now anarchists aren’t one thing, there are many different flavours and most believe in some kind of social structure that provides cohesion independent of government e.g.

  • anarcho-syndicalists believe in a society where trade-union like organisations provide the organising principle of society.
  • anarcho-capitalists believe in a society where the free-market (and some protection of individual rights) provide the organising principle of society.

Anarcho-syndicalists have, historically, been part of left wing movements. Anarcho-capitalists have, historically, been part of movements associated with individualism – not necessarily right-wing but not obviously left-wing and often critical of the left’s anti-individualism.

Ah, yeah-but! The anarcho-capitalists are even MORE against the government than the anarcho-syndicalists! – says an imaginary person. Hmm, I’m not sure that is true and anarcho-capitalists never amounted to a significant movement whereas the anarcho-syndicalists do actually have a track record of literally fighting fascists but, whatever, let’s imagine that is the case:


Let’s throw in some other cases. Milton Friedman flavoured conservative-libertarians. Not as anti-government as your classic Libertarian but supposedly more anti-government than those nasty leftists.


Now, how about Margaret Thatcher? A vocal enemy of socialism who famously said that she would “roll back the frontiers of the state”, privatised several government-owned industries, was a believer in monetarism (at least nominally) but also increased centralisation of the British state, increased police powers, was militaristic, increased surveillance of citizens and attempted to enforce new government powers such as the “poll tax” (aka community charge). OK, we can still fit her into the scheme, just further along that whole more v less government thing:


And let’s add in Augusto Pinochet – a friend of Thatcher’s and an authoritarian military dictator. Not a totalitarian dictator so technically less government than say, Stalin or Mao but definitely way over on the ‘more government’ side of things.


I haven’t defined a centre, and it is only an ordinal axis, so I can’t say where the left half begins and the right half starts but I have a bunch of political positions listed below the line that cover a gamut of more (Pinochet) to less (anarcho-capitalists) government.

Let’s go above the line. How about, hmmm, George Orwell. A man with strong views on personal liberty, outspoken about excessive government control and, oh, a man who described himself as a socialist…Here maybe?


We are well into apples & oranges now. Arranging the people below the line was relatively easy because one principle was relatively fixed – each of the positions nominally accepted that a laissez-faire approach to the economy was correct. Given that it becomes easier to look at how each position differed in terms of other aspects of government.

However, there isn’t a simple way of comparing libertarian-conservatives with Orwell’s libertarian (in a different sense) socialism. Less of what kind of government are we talking about.

Let’s add some more confusion to the mix. The 1945 Labour government. The not-entirely-post WW2 government nationalised industries (or kept them nationalised as a consequence of the war effort) and famously introduced the National Health Service. It also pursued a policy of decolonisation essentially ending the British Empire. Now if we compare with Thatcher, she privatised industries but not the NHS (although I suspect she would have liked to). Is the 1945 Labour government further down the more government end that Thatch or the less government? No idea. This is a silly scheme which can only function by cherry picking. Still, I’ll throw in Hitler and Stalin for good measure and assume that AT THIS RESOLUTION we can’t spot the difference (Stalin probably more government than Hitler I guess for those playing at home).


The scheme does not help us sort left aligned positions from right ones but instead could be used for discriminating between different strands of left or right ideologies. How come? because more/less government is orthogonal to left-v-right as traditionally used.

Truth is we can make up all sorts of axes on our preferred issues. Take the issue of free trade unions. How might that look?


But left-v-right is never a single issue. Indeed if it was a single issue there would be no need for the notion of left-v-right. The whole point of the intuitive left-v-right model is to bundle multiple issues and alliances and trends together to work out rough correspondences on a wide range of issues that may even wander over time.

Oh, and Nazis? Still not socialists, and still not left wing.


BtC 22/22. Message Fiction, Religion and Beware the Cat

If you’ve read the previous posts then you should now have a good sense of what Beware the Cat is like. However, if you are like me, you are probably still trying to make sense of it.

The English Reformation was social, political and theological. It happened in the wake of an information technology revolution (the printed book), an increased centralisation of the state and a Marxian shift from feudalism to capitalism. It exists at a time of conflict and to readers now it is a conflict that is difficult to identify with.

At one level it is about the modern (Baldwin) versus the pre-modern (Thomas) and scholasticism (Streamer). There is a secular, sceptical and rationalist element to it that presages later thinkers (or near contemporaries such as Frances Bacon).

At the same time, it is an argument for the oppression of ideas, dismissive of folk tales, Catholic traditions and regional distinctions. The Elizabethan era that the book anticipates was a time when Englishness was standardised and enforced and essentially when English nationalism (and imperialism) was invented and codified. Religion, language and monarchy were all part of that mix.

State-sponsored violence in the name of religion would dominate England for centuries after. Europe would become engulfed in wars of religion. In this context, Baldwin’s funny cat-story mockery loses its humour.

Yet looking at it another way, there is a humanism to the book that is charming and positive. The mocking is mostly gentle, even when targeted at the occasional priest. Mr Streamer is richly drawn and more than just a figure of mockery – you could imagine him to be entertaining company in small doses. Mouseslayer is also given depth and character and there is something powerful in the way the most complex character is somebody who would be otherwise marginalised – a common household pet.

I see this as a book full of optimism – much of it misplaced given events but still optimism. Baldwin is siding with rationality over superstition and humanity over tradition and he sees that in his protestant cause. Reality isn’t so simple. Within months of writing the book, his expectations of a more rational protestant future were thrown on their head by the death of Edward and crowning of Mary.

Above all this is a subversive book. It lets ideas run where they will and out of control of each of the narrators. In an almost post-modern twist, the final moral arrives in the form of a post-hoc rationalisation using the same kind of reasoning as the servants discussing Thomas’s tales of swindling Irish witches and their red swine.

The cliche is that herding cats is nigh on impossible and the narrative of Beware the Cat has that same cat-like quality. It goes where it wants to and defies the expectations of the reader and (probably) the author. By avoiding direct allegory, the story can slip out of any simple propagandised reading. By making all the narrators unreliable or marginalised, Baldwin makes the whole text resistant to any single reading.

For example, I doubt Baldwin had any feminist thoughts while writing the book and the book covers some of the most misogynist tropes in literature – specifically that women may be witches responsible for all manner of ills (a trope with parallels in the myths exploited in anti-Semitism or anti-Romany campaigns of violence). Yet while drawing on these tropes, which are still familiar today, the nature of the story is to pull them apart and subvert them. The belief in witches is shown to be absurd. Demonic apparitions are church bells, or cats and the mass panic of crowds is shown to be true danger.

Even as message fiction it is subversive. So what can we make of anti-Catholic tract whose anti-Catholicism is tied so tightly to a crowd of cats running across the roofs of Tudor London? I doubt many present-day Catholics would find it threatening. Its power lay in being overtly disrespectful to ideas and people that pre-reformation held great political and social power.

Look, really the only thing we can say is that we should all just behave ourselves just in case our cats are talking about us behind our backs. Beware, as Baldwin reminds us, the cat.

BtC 21/22. The End of the Book

Previously on Beware the Cat: Mr Streamer has entertained his friends with a story about he gained superhuman hearing, discovered an assembly of cats and listened to a series of stories from Mouseslayer the cat.

Layer 1: framing narrative spoken by Baldwin

We finish with a moral. Baldwin has apparently forgotten about the original argument and instead focuses on a key lesson from Mouseslayer: cats see what we do, can understand what we say and tell all the other cats about it. As a consequence he says:

I would council all men to take heed of wickedness, and eschew secret sins and privy mischievous counsels, left, to their shame, all the world at length do hear of it. But if any man does put away his cat, then shall his so doing testify his secret naughty living, which he is more ashamed his cat should see than God and his angels, which see, mark, and behold all men’s closet doings.

Well it is his story but he does seem to have wandered off topic.

The main thing, it seems, is to live a life that your own cat won’t be ashamed of. Which is a good moral so long as you have a good cat.

This is the final part of the book. There will be one more post to conclude the series.


I KNOW these things will seem marvellous to many men that cats should understand and speak, have a government among themselves and be obedient to their laws; and were it not for the approved authority of the ecstatically author of whom I heard it, I should myself be as doubtful as they. Yet seeing that I know the place and the persons with whom he talked of these matters before he experienced his wonderful and strange confessions, I am the less doubtful of the truth.

Seeing that Mr Streamer has in his oration proved that cats do understand us and mark our secret doings, and so declare them among themselves that through help of the medicine by him described any man may, as he did, understand them. I would council all men to take heed of wickedness, and eschew secret sins and privy mischievous counsels, left, to their shame, all the world at length do hear of it. But if any man does put away his cat, then shall his so doing testify his secret naughty living, which he is more ashamed his cat should see than God and his angels, which see, mark, and behold all men’s closet doings.

That we may take profit by this declaration of Master Streamers, let us so live, both openly and private, that neither our own cat, admitted to all our secrets, be able to declare aught of us to the world save what is laudable and honest ; nor the devils cat, which, will we or nil we, sees and writes all our ill doings here, ought to lay against us afore the face of God, who, not only with shame, but with everlasting torments, will punish all sin and wickedness. And ever when you go about anything call to mind this proverb, “Beware the Cat,” not to tie up thy cat till those have done, but to see that neither your own nor the devils cat, which cannot be tied up, find anything there in to accuse you of shame.

Thus doing, you cannot do amiss, but shall have such good report through the cats declamation, that you shall in memory of Mr Streamer’s oration labour, who gives you this warning, sing unto God this hymn of his making.


WHO gives wit to whales, to apes, to owls,
And kindly speech, to fish, to flesh, to fowls;
And spirits to men in soul and body clean,
To mark and know what other creatures mean.

Which hast given grace to Gregory, no pope,
No king, no lord, whose treasures are this hope,
But silly priest, which like a Streamer waves,
In ghostly good despised of foolish knaves.

Which have, I say, given grace to him to know
The course of things above and here below;
With skill so great in languages and tongues,
As never breathed from Mithridates lungs.

To whom the hunter of birds, of mice, and rats,
Did squeak as plain as Kate that thomneth hats,
By mean of whom is openly bewraid
Such things as closely were both done and said.

To him grant, Lord, with healthy wealth and rest,
Long life to us to unload his learned breast ;
With fame so great to ever live his grave,
As none had erst nor any after have.