Monday, July 23, 2018

Reading Reflection: The Shadow Rises (Wheel of Time 04)

Hello, readers! Each time I finish a book in 2018, I will be dropping a Reading Reflection. These not-reviews are just a collection of thoughts I have after reading a book. Give me a shout in the comments if you agree (or disagree). Warning: spoilers for each of the books I reflect on may be discussed.

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It's hard to believe that nearly 3,000 pages into The Wheel of Time, and four books in, I haven't even gotten a quarter of the way through the series. I still have so much to read, see, and learn about this immense world that Robert Jordan constructed. Like its predecessors, though, The Shadow Rises took me to new and interesting locations, thickened the plot, and added new layers onto relationships and dynamics that I had expected to be squared away.

In a lot of ways, The Shadow Rises is a book in three arcs. There's Rand's story, in which he fulfills the Aiel prophecy and becomes the carn'a'carn, or Chief of Chiefs, ala the Dragon Reborn. Theere's Perrin's story of revenge and rebellion in the Two Rivers' region. And there's Elayne and Nynaeve's cloak and dagger intrigue in Tanchico. Yet, there are many other threads that weave these two together; it's no wonder there are so many books in the series.

Reflecting on the book--which I finished last week, as of writing this--I think that Perrin's story still stands as my favorite of the three. As with The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn, I struggle with Rand as a character; he's a bit boring, and for pacing purposes can't really be as openly introspective as the other characters. Additionally, because he's so dangerous, Rand is self-isolating. And while Elayne and Nynaeve's arc is definitely fascinating--their hunt for the Black Ajah is almost worthy of its own series--they definitely were in a place of lesser prominence to Perrin and Rand this time around.

Perrin's story of returning to his home, bringing his new skills--and some companions--with him to save them from evil, is a classic culmination of the hero's journey. It's the first moment of "closure" we've had in the series thus far, even if it doesn't feel like closure because A) the result is unwelcome to him and B) he is still under threat, and as far as we know still ta'vern, and thus likely to be sucked in by the next book. More importantly, I think, the stakes for Perrin's arc were just clearer. The Two Rivers is his home--and Jordan pulls no punches in giving him a motivation for defending what's left of it for Perrin. The resulting exploration of what it means to be a ta'vern, and how a rural region might defend itself, is a plot full of danger, heroism, uncertainty, and real victory. I liked it a lot.

I didn't care so much for Rand's journey to Rhuidean (how do I pronounce that?), even if it ultimately advances the plot, and is interesting from a top-down sense. The connections between the Tinkers and the Aiel gives a sense of age and dynamism to the narrative world that really makes you wonder how many rooms of paper Jordan had filled with notes and histories by the time he got around to writing the books themselves. I got bored in the desert, though, and Mat's relative silence through the book was a bummer. Aside from almost getting hanged by devils, in a very Odin-like fashion, Mat's sole job is to complain about his fate, and plot fruitless escape attempts that eventually piddle into whining. Boo. Give me gambling-addict Mat and some life in his step!

Familiar faces abound in The Shadow Rising, and new narrative perspectives open, too. Bayle Domon, the put-upon captain with the goofy accent (FORTUNE PRICK ME), Padan Fain, and a host of other side-characters from the previous three books arrive and push or pull the narrative forward. Min's subplot, in which she learns to love being a girly-girl in disguise, and ultimately has to free Aes Sedai upon the fulfillment of her Viewing, was interesting as well; but what is the purpose of her powers? I hope it amounts to vague but visual foreshadowing. Most of the other "power sets" in the book are proving to have many utilities, so I hope the series has something up its sleeve for her!

Finally, I wasn't very surprised by the end of the book's structure. Plot, plot, plot, oh a big fight happens that's a bit abstract and Rand prevails. That's fine. I was surprised by the capture of the Forsaken on his end, but given the drama of Nynaeve's prior fight with a Forsaken--in which she also throws something at the Forsaken to distract them, because she is cooler than Rand--I was hoping he'd actually sever the prick. Oh well. Four books in, I'm hoping the format on the shape of the plot begins to evolve soon.

I'm going to continue reading the series. Indeed, I've already started book five. The cliffhanger with Asmodean, and the uncertain ending for Min, the Amyrlin, and others, was a bit too potent for me to just pass up on. However, I'm thinking of taking another break on the series after that, to give myself time to read some non-fiction and "breathe" from the high drama of Jordan's series. What do you think? Agree or disagree? You can drop comments below--which I will respond to!--or you can chat me up on Twitter @TravisOKnight!


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Reading Reflection: Mars (Grand Tour #1)

Hello, readers! Each time I finish a book in 2018, I will be dropping a Reading Reflection. These not-reviews are just a collection of thoughts I have after reading a book. Give me a shout in the comments if you agree (or disagree). Warning: spoilers for each of the books I reflect on may be discussed.

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Mars (Grand Tour #1)

So I read Ben Bova's Mars almost five years ago when I was still in college. I loved it back then, and since my wife is a big fan of the series--and I stopped reading it for reasons I can't really articulate--I decided to return last year. I began with Moonrise, which was a new-to-me read, and then Moonwar, which I've reflected on here. Mars is technically between the two, but I wanted to read something new before I returned to Mars.

The basic gist of the story is that humanity's first mission to Mars is plagued by a bunch of set-backs and re-writes due to emergencies. It's a story of people learning to work around one another's shortcomings, if not get along, and to survive against tall odds. Jamie Waterman, a Navajo geologist, is a last-minute replacement for a more politick choice, and becomes the de facto leader of the expedition once the ground team is on the ground. Waterman's chance sighting of water vapor, and what he thinks is an arroyo-like settlement along the walls of the Valles Marineris--the biggest canyon in the solar system--leads to the entire mission being rewritten to check it out, in case there are signs of life there. Due to complications, they're all very ill by the time they get to the valley...and while they find signs of life, they are unable to follow up on the "ruins." Quick thinking and some seriously brass nerve save them, but at a cost.

The story is not as straight as that, however. Interspersed through the book, particularly in the first half, are flashbacks and "dossiers" meant to flesh out characters in a way that the story, staffed by professionals with a mission and on a schedule, can't do very well. These flashbacks tell the story of how Waterman came to be on the mission, what training was like, who is important to him, and lay out the groundworks for the trickle political situations surrounding the last-minute changes. The book has tons of characters, but Albert Brumado and Kris Cardenas both make appearances in the book, and the Stravengers/Mastersons from the Moon books also get a frequent nod. In the second half of the book, the interruptions take place as side-steps back to Mars orbit, or Earth, where the supporting cast deliberates over every decision Waterman makes, weighing implications and giving the entire mission the kind of mythic feel you'd expect the real deal will have.

Mars keeps the reader engaged throughout. However, it is showing signs of wear. Every character is effectively a national or racial stereotype, sanitized enough to be palatable, but not enough to get rid of the laziness of relying on sour shorthands. All the computers use floppy disks, as well, which is fun. Last, and perhaps by biggest complaint, is that the book's final conflict--a breakout of scurvy due to oxygen-deterioration of the crew's vitamin pills--doesn't make sense in today's food climate. Every meal they would have had packed for them would be rich in vitamins. If my college campus can manage to provide wedge fries with 300% vitamin C, NASA can work it in, too.

So, with a few complains about the characterizations, and the slightly limp scientific basis for the book's final conflict--which, to be fair, is grippingly and painfully rendered--Mars is still a win. I recommend it as a book about the planet, because it has a lot to teach readers about our baleful, dead neighbor. Or maybe it's not so dead...we'll have to follow up in the sequel!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Reading Reflection: Dead Men Walking


Hello, readers! Each time I finish a book in 2018, I will be dropping a Reading Reflection. These not-reviews are just a collection of thoughts I have after reading a book. Give me a shout in the comments if you agree (or disagree). Warning: spoilers for each of the books I reflect on may be discussed.

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So this is an interesting one for me, because I have an dim but constant fascination with Warhammer 40,000, the grimdark grandaddy space opera setting of the Games Workshop tabletop game. I was drawn to it by some older guys at my mom's church as a teenager, and my friends got into it. My brothers, too, have had relationships with the game, but only one of them is a lifelong penitent of that far-away deadly galaxy. My brother Kyle has long been a fan of the Necrons, the sci-fi version of the skeletal-zombie armies of the undead. He suggested I read Dead Men Walking, and since he was kind enough to lend me his own copy of the book, I did.

Dead Men Walking's essential plot is a chronicle of the disintegration of Hieronymus City, on the human world Hieronymus. Buried deep beneath the city is a Necron vault. The humans' digging eventually disturbs the Necrons and they rise up to kick the upstart apes off their world. Of course, this goes terribly awry, because the human inhabitants have no idea who the Necron are, and the undead scouting force is punishingly more powerful. It's what Iain M. Banks would have called an Excession, except that the folks who do know a bit about the Necron show up right in the nick of time. Before the entire world can fall to the new 'Iron Gods' (a seriously metal title), a contingent of the Imperial Guard arrives and assumes control. Thus begins a long, slow, losing siege.

The Necron advance is slow, and at first seems underpowered, until the reader and characters realize that they've only been using out runners and scouts. By the time the real Necron forces show up, marking ten abreast from the Crypt's deep portals, the Imperial Guard are already so overwhelmed and over-extended that they have no choice but to retreat. Ultimately, that's what the book's narrative is: Necrons show up, and everyone gives ground, counter-attacks and gives ground, and are driven steadily back, until the only place to go is back into orbit and as far away from Hieronymus as possible. Maybe they'd have been able to buy a few more weeks if they had some Space Marines, but alas, not this time.

Supporting this tragic structure is a cast of half a dozen humans in various functionary roles. It's diverse enough to keep the plot interesting even at slow moments, and also to give a very round picture of the deterioration of the city and civilization. Chief are a former mine surveyor whose emotional collapse goes from a hopeless romantic to a battle-hardened conscript determined to blow himself and as many Necrons up with atomic fire as possible; the niece of the Planetary Governor, who winds up a slave at the foot of the Crypt, and whose story is ultimately one of finding herself and her redemption; and an Imperial Guard Commissar burned out by the entire ordeal, who struggles to find a purpose in a hopeless conflict. There are others, but they merit little screen time and won't be mentioned here.

These characters have a lot of ups and downs (mostly downs) throughout the novel, related to side-quests. The author does a solid job of "so close they almost touch" style interwoven plots, and uses side-arcs to great effect. My favorite of these involved a cult of Necron-worshipping weirdos who try to trade the aforementioned Governor's Niece to the 'Iron Gods,' which goes all wrong. 

In the end, Dead Men Walking is a title with a lot of meanings, and it's a book with a lot of levels, though at first blush you might not expect it. It's one of those rare sci-fi novels that manages to be just a pop-corn read, but with enough dimension to allow readers to get something more out of it. I actually think the plot was quite well crafted, if a bit basic in its discreet parts. How those are wound together is where the interesting ideas emerge. As far as Black Library books go, this is definitely one of the best I've read. With as quick a read as it is, if you're into the darker sides of the WH40k universe, it's a no-brainer recommendation, though I think diehard fans of the Necrons will be disappointed at the restraint they show, and with which they're explored. But then, those aren't the dead men walking. That's the humans.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Reading Reflection: Essential Thor Vol. 3

Hello, readers! Each time I finish a book in 2018, I will be dropping a Reading Reflection. These
not-reviews are just a collection of thoughts I have after reading a book. Give me a shout in the comments if you agree (or disagree). Warning: spoilers for each of the books I reflect on may be discussed.

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ESSENTIAL THOR Vol. 3

Oh boy, I went right back to the well here, didn't I? I know my reading has been chock-full of Thor for the last few months, but it's so hard to stop. It's fantastic, heroic, and exploding with Jack Kirby action. I'm going to take a break from it, now, I promise--I've picked up a bunch of other Marvel Essentials to read for the next few months--but let me tell you a bit about what the Essential Thor's 3rd volume taught me.

First, and foremost, it's that the entire premise of Thor as a magi-techno fantasy is gloriously insane. It seems crazy when you look at the MCU how Thor and Asgard exist alongside iPhones and spaceships, but let me tell you, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee brook no tolerance for realism. You've got goblins with matter-phasing guns who pull Thor through Asphalt, you've got telepathic, nearly omnipotent aliens from other universe who are afraid of fire, you've got Galactus riding around in a box and yelling at a giant living planet. Thor doesn't care what you expect, it will throw every damn thing it can at you, True Believer, so gird thy loins!

I picked up Volume 3 on the recommendation of Mike, my local comic shop owner, because it included the first-ever Ragnarok Storyline from the Thor comics. Being a Norse mythology aficionado, I couldn't turn that down. He did warn me, however, that it was fairly different from the movie's version, and that I'd have to check out Walter Simonson's later Ragnarok storyline for something more similar to the movie (yet still pretty different). I took him up on it.

The Ragnarok storyline is one of several arcs included in the collection. It follows Thor's run-in with Urik, a troll who is the strongest of them all, which he often shouts. After several run ins, Thor tosses Urik down an infinite hole in the cave of the nefarious Queen of the Norns, dusts his shoulders, and heads home. Urik's a troll, though, and trolls bounce. He manages to save himself and climb a ways up, defying fate and Odin, and discovers the lost tomb of the MANGOG, the last survivor of a dead race Odin devastate. Thinking he can master MANGOG, Urik frees the beast, which immediately begins a relentless march on Asgard. It's coming for the Odinsword, a gigantic sword that, when drawn, will end the universe. Of course, Odin falls into his Odinsleep at the same time, and so Thor has to team up with friends and foes to hold MANGOG back, which they can't do, because as MANGOG yells over and over again, he has the power of a billion billion beings. Yes. That is the line.

It actually turns out that MANGOG is all billion billion beings formed into one plot device for the purpose of an easy out, so when Odin wakes up from the Odinsleep (in the Odinbed in his Odinpajamas), he just releases the prisoners in time to save Asgard. Whoo, close call. Kinda dumb, though.

So that was a let down. There are a few other storylines that are interesting, though, including Thor's quest with his friends to free and avenge Hogun the Grim's people from the evil sorcerer Mogul. It's packed in as a serial epilogue for the first ten issues of the volume, the last of the "Tales from Asgard" storylines, which sadly goes away. Another interesting story is tied to Thor and Balder's mutual affection for the Lady Sif--which is actually how they get to the previously mentioned Queen of the Norn's cave. Some of the high points of the book do a great job fleshing out the other characters and showing Thor not as a super hero, but as a fellow warrior and friend to other Asgardians. And if even answers the question of who is Donald Blake? You might not like the answer, but they're bold enough to field the question.

Then there are the crappers, like when Odin strips Thor of his powers, and he joins a circus of crime that hypnotizes him into stealing art from the Met. Or when Loki accidentally manages to get a common criminal called "The Wrecker" superpower like Thor, and he goes on a rampage. Or when Pluto, the lord of the underworld and part of the weird Greek pantheon Marvel doesn't often acknowledge anymore, steals an atomic research center and Zeus (yes, Zeus) has to intervene by shouting at his brother in the form of a face in the sky and then fixes everything. I'm...not sure why that doesn't happen more often, actually.

Essential Thor Vol. 3 builds on a lot of what made the first volume so interesting. Thor's heroism, his life as Blake, Asgard's function and role in the universe. It does so while shedding the "monster of the month" that dogged Volume 1, and mostly dropping the adolescent soap opera drama of Blake/Jane, largely by dint of Jane being totally absent from the book. Further, and for me more importantly, you can see Kirby's art style really in full force with the weird armor, the disorienting backgrounds, the evolution of faces and form into more and more dynamic, emotive, and narrative images. It was a joy to study his art throughout the volume, even when the storytelling was exceptionally stupid.

I'm going to read Volume 4 at some point in the future...but I'm going to stop and read Captain America and the Avengers before that, I think. I'd like to study other characters and flesh out my understanding of the Golden Age of comics before I go any further with Thor.

Note: I did not read Volume 2, as Mike did not have it in the shop. It's my understanding that Thor and Hercules (and so the Norse and Greek) pantheons have a go in Volume 2, but as I don't own it, I haven't read it. Perhaps at some point in the future. I did not feel that my having not read Volume 2 impacted my reading experience at all, except that it was not explained until near the end of Volume 3 where Jane Foster was. Since I didn't care for the way she was treated alongside Blake (to say nothing of her character, but of her role), I didn't care, and didn't even think to ask.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Reading Reflection: Age of Ultron

Hello, readers! Each time I finish a book in 2018, I will be dropping a Reading Reflection. These not-reviews are just a collection of thoughts I have after reading a book. Give me a shout in the comments if you agree (or disagree). Warning: spoilers for each of the books I reflect on may be discussed.
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AGE OF ULTRON

I'm going to be short and to the point on this one. I went into Age of Ultron expecting something similar, if not the same, as the MCU movie with the same title. Tony Stark revives a dead Ultron (who was created by Hank Pym in the comic-verse) with good intentions and it goes wrong, and the world-wide Avengers forces have to meet and barely stave off robopocclypse. I did not expect a time-travelling Wolverine story centered on the brutal and short-sighted murder of a founding avenger.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD: I'm going to try and summarize the plot of Brain Michael Bendis' storyline to demonstrate how convoluted it is: Ultron returns from banishment in outer space, is reactivated by some evil idiots who don't recognize it, and immediately seizes control of the world. Shortly thereafter (back to this in a second) most of the superheroes in the world are dead, and Ultron is working his way from city to town, annihilating humanity for Plot Reasons. I'm sure there's method and even character to his madness, but Ultron actually has about six lines in the entire storyline...so who knows? The result of his conquest is to drive the Avengers to time-travel: Cap and the standard crew head to the future, where Ultron is (somehow) controlling Vision in the present and (somehow) masterminding the holocaust on Earth. Wolverine decides that's not a good plan, and time-travells (with Sue Storm) back in time to just kill Hank Pym before he can invent Ultron. Simple, right?

Well, it's time travel, and the butterfly effect is, to quote Spiderman, "insane." So when they kill Pym, and return to the "present" they find that without Hank Pym, the Avengers are the Defenders, and Iron Man has become some sort of cybernetic techno-emperor and leader of the Starkguard in its decades-long fight against Morgan Le Fey and the forces of magic. (I'm lost here; I know historically who Le Fey is, but not in comics. I was like; dragon fantasy lady???)

This is, of course, untenable, so Wolverine travels back in time to stop himself from killing Hank Pym. Then there are two wolverines, and OG Wolvie gives Pym the idea to code a time-sensitive virus into Ultron (an idea obtained by Overlord Stark in the alternate future which now doesn't exist). Since there can only be one Wolverine at a time, because Time is a sensitive creature, I guess, and time-fugitive Wolverine can't go back to the future he came from since he unmade it twice, only one can survive. So the Wolverine he travelled back in time to stop from killing Hank Pym in turn kills him. Then he and Sue Storm, the only living witness to this insanity, travel back in time and discover Ultron at the moment of his previous conquest suddenly unable to coordinate with the future Ultron and they kick his ass.

OK. So, comics are weird, right? But that's incoherent. It's confusing. During the reading process, Age of Ultron is definitely engaging, in the conspiratorial sort of left and right hand jack knife twisting it brings. But with a little remove, it's full of weird contradictions and narrative echoes that look sloppy. This is a story about Ultron--and I've read a few I really liked with Ultron and time travel--with almost no ultron. This is a story based around the Avengers--and the Avengers are not really in it. In fact, it's an X-Man and a Fantastic Four member that really hog the book.

More, because of the time traveling antics, a lot of plot threads are opened that become literally impossible to close. What happened to heartbroken Cap, murder-y Hawkeye, and babbling Iron Man? What happened to Doctor Strange, the Avenger who seemed to still have his head on straight? They go into the future and get totally ignored. Indeed, the comic doesn't seem to have a sense of time at all; when I said Ultron shows up and just conquers everything, I couldn't figure out how long that took. The book simply said "Now." But the prologue never hinted that it was set previous; did Ultron conquer the Earth in a single day? Knowing Ultron exists, did the government and corporate agencies of the world not built air gaps into critical network infrastructure? Ok, I know I'm nit-picking there.

While I was into the story while reading it, as soon as I finished it I realize how glum and dreary the story was. It's predicated on murdering Hank Pym, but we also see a great number of heroes brutally executed: She-Hulk is shot through the head, Captain America is beheaded, Task Master is smashed viscerally by the Red Hulk. There are others, but I don't feel like leafing through the book. Indeed, the  visuals we're giving are uninspiring and often flat; much of the backdrop is rubble, or war-torn grimness. Little of the characters' personalities are allowed to show through, despite the long, winding dialogue that pushes the story forward in uneven paces.

I don't normally criticize the art in graphic novels--I'm not an artist, though I do draw--and I don't really understand the process of paneling a comic book. I am amazed and drawn to it, but how it comes together, I don't know. However, Age of Ultron is one of the worst-paneled books I've read in recent years. The writer and art team favored a kind of long, thin panel that sometimes stretched as a two-page spread, and sometimes didn't. These wide-screen sequences didn't adhere well to their own logic, and so many times I was lost trying to pierce together Bendis' windy dialogue, wondering who said what to whom. A lot of characters show frustration or hopelessness by pinching the bridge of their nose, also. Like, a lot.

So, I don't know who this book is for. It's not a family-friendly book. It's not for Avengers or X-Men or Fantastic Four fans, though it involves (and offends) all three. It's not for Ultron fans, since Ultron seriously only speaks as he's dying at the end. Age of Ultron feels like a weird aberration, a missed opportunity to do something like the Age of Apocalypse, but with less fury, less gall, and a lot less effort. Don't bother; the movie is a hell of a lot better than the comic.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Reading Reflection: Moonwar (Grand Tour #3)


Hello, readers! Each time I finish a book in 2018, I will be dropping a Reading Reflection. These not-reviews are just a collection of thoughts I have after reading a book. Give me a shout in the comments if you agree (or disagree). Warning: spoilers for each of the books I reflect on may be discussed.

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MOONWAR (Grand Tour #3)

As part of my ongoing quest to tie myself into a bajillion projects, I started re-reading Ben Bova’s Grand Tour series in March. I’ve read about half of it, scattershot, over the last five years, but got driven away for a myriad of reasons. My wife, however, is a big fan, and it’s always nice to be able to read and share a book. So I went back to the beginning (well, close, anyway), and read Moonwar.


Following Moonrise, which I actually read last year, Moonwar is a direct sequel within a trilogy that took more than two decades for Bova to complete (the third book is Farside). The plot of the novel is fairly simple and it’s bolted around that premise: after the UN forces the world to agree to nanotech ban, Moonbase runs afoul of the law. The mostly-autonomous base uses nanotechnology to manufacture goods and mine fuel. In a political and corporate gambit, the UN sends peacekeepers to take over Moonbase and shut down their nanotech  labs and operations. Moonbase declares independence. Things spiral out of control.


The book primarily follows Douglas Stravenger, who has grown up since Moonrise and is the CEO of Moonbase. It’s his plans and persistence that keep the base running through several attacks, though his mother’s political maneuvers and the series-hopping reporter, Edie Elgin, are ultimately what allows Doug to succeed.


The book’s biggest strength is that it doesn’t linger on any one scene or idea too long, with the exception of the initial UN landing (chapters are literally titled around it) and the latter, more devastating attack. Chapters are punchy and well-arranged, and hop viewpoints often enough to tie together what is, frankly, a busy book.


There are many plot threads uniting the two main strands: Doug’s defense of Moonbase, and his mother’s pursuit of political support for Moonbase’s independence. Interweaving that are at least a dozen lesser threads--some only take up a few pages through the novel, while others, like Jack Killifer’s quest to kill Joanna Stravenger--are almost busy enough to be main threads. In all, this is a book with a cast of several dozen fairly complex characters--about half of whom are holdovers from the previous novel.


The book’s biggest weakness, however, is the flimsiness of the overall conflict. The UN’s treaty makes sense enough, but the flagrant hypocrisy of selling nano-made goods on Earth pushes credibility. The unhinged director of the UN pushes credibility. The shadow government of religious zealots, which supports the entire Killifer subplot, breaks credibility. The scenes where Killifer is at his worst rely on so many people being so stupid that the worst of his actions is just nonsense. In short, Killifer attacks, rapes and then kills the head of a major corporation AND the head of a country in sight of her own beach house. While a witness watches in VR. And he’s not even stopped. It’s nonsense.


Effectively, the best part of Moonwar is why I love Ben Bova’s Grand Tour stuff: moderately hard SF based in the solar system, with a bit of a political bent. But the worst part of Moonwar is why I ultimately left, the last time: the anti-religious fanaticism that breaks credibility and requires the entire world to be an Idiot Plot.


I’m going to push through that fearmongering guff this time and just enjoy the SF aspects, because it doesn’t mangle the series. It’s just there in the background like a dead pixel on your screen, sometimes more or less irritating depending on what’s going on around it. I’ve already started reading Mars, which I now realize I should have read BEFORE Moonwar, but oh well. I’ll drop my thoughts on Mars when I’m done with it, which should be this weekend or thereabouts.


Wednesday, April 4, 2018

I Just Paid Off My Student Debt. Here's How:

I PAID OFF MY STUDENT LOANS THIS WEEK. Well, actually, I submitted the payment on Good Friday 2018, but they just cleared today. Same difference, right? My student loans totaled $48,500. I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 2012, and spent a year in repayment before heaping on the pile and going to graduate school from 2013 to 2015. Most of that was on loans. Since 2015, I’ve been diligently repaying them with my wife’s help. However, until 2017, I’d made less than $2,000’s progress. Here’s how I went from $48,500 in student debt to $0.

Have a focused, shared budget


THE “B” WORD is one that stresses a lot of people out. People my age, younger, and older. Budget means responsibilities and limits and not “being able to live for today.” It’s those things, but also more: it’s a ledger of your life, spread month to month, or week to week. The budget is a PLAN TO BUILD WHO YOU WANT TO BE, not who you can’t be. Develop a budget that gets you to where you want to be in two years. Want to be student debt free? Want to pay off that car or your house? (I do to all three.) Set up a detailed, written budget, and check it daily.

This is a blank version of the monthly sheet I use. Note the EFUND: Always have an emergency fund!
I started by tallying our total income, and then creating a list of bills that are steady (mortgage, cell phones, car payment, cable, insurance, etc), and then creating a second list of bills that flux: power, water, pet care, auto care). Then I looked at what I had left, created several spending categories: FOOD, GAS, PROFESSIONAL, HOUSE, and MISCELLANEOUS. Each category has a set capacity; we can’t spend more than $350/month on groceries, for example. We can’t spend more than $130 on gas. We can’t spend more than $100 on hours and professional stuff. We have about $150 each to play with in misc a month. This is a focused, thorough budget that accounts for all the money coming in, and all the money going out, AND all the money left over. We’ll get to that third category in a second.

This wasn’t just my project, however. It was a shared project that I led, but did not dictate. It took a few months of tinkering and compromising with my wife on. I would set the grocery budget lower than she wants, and reduce house/professional to near zero. Or even roll them into miscellaneous. Turns out I was wrong to do that. We communicate daily on spending (and most days, we actually don’t spend anything at all). We communicate on shopping lists, miscellaneous expenses, things we want to set aside for Communicating with your partner, or a budget-buddy, helps keep you accountable, helps you see things you overlook, helps prevent burnout, and helps keep you reasonable. You need to buy deodorant, friend. Set $2 a month aside for it.

Give yourself two or three months to define these guidelines. You need to find realistic but low margins to keep for each of these categories. That’s how you’re going to build a bigger shovel.

Stretch those dollars


DAVE RAMSEY, whose plan I (mostly) followed, talks about debt as a hole, and your income as a shovel. Your income is your most powerful wealth building / debt destroying tool. By minimizing your expenses, you maximize that left-over category and can apply that to your debt at the end of each month. To do this, though, you really need to stretch your dollars.

This looks different for everyone. A lot of the time it looks like sacrifice or compromise--temporarily. Here are some of the things we compromised on to maximize our debt-shovel: We got rid of subscriptions, including Amazon Prime, HBO Go, and settled for Netflix, which my sister-in-law pays for, except for one-at-a-time months as treats. We settled on eating out once a month, rather than weekly, and plan each week’s meals in advance, and do a single shopping trip. Often these meals have cheap ingredients that can work for multiple meals. Cooking at home means repetitive meals--unless you take yourself down to the thrift store and buy a few different cook books.

For about $8 total, Lindsey and I got a vegan cookbook, a vegetarian cookbook, and an Irish pub cookbook. In fact, we generally reduced meat and moved to more lentils, beans, and veggies. Over the course of about six months, we’ve learned to make dozens of new meals, and have actually settled on a fairly healthy diet: vegetarian during the week and some meat on the weekends. This worked alongside our health goals: we lost 65 and 35 pounds doing it.

We also cut in lifestyle. We don’t buy many games, movies, or books. These get rationed through the miscellaneous budget, so there isn’t a freeze, but it’s also not willy nilly. Over the course of many months, we’ve learned to spend more time together, and to seek experiences rather than consumption. My favorite purchases have been things we can do together; buying books we read together, or the ukulele, which she plays and I tinker with. I play my bagpipes, which is an endless supply of frustration and challenge for me. The NYS Empire Pass for hiking, and our summer camping trips. These expenses keep our OTHER, boredom-based expenses low.

Boredom expenses are what you need to beware; they might be material (junk or content you don’t need to own, or impulse buys through Amazon Prime), or they might be consumable (food, drink, etc). Diligently updating your budget keeps you aware of how you’re using your resources, and when to slow down or curb them. This helps you stretch your dollar, giving you the maximum whackamole leverage on your debt. As you make more progress you’ll likely spend less, because you put yourself into a positive feedback loop.


Apply left-over cash to debt, and visualize Progress!


REVISITING Dave Ramsey, we worked the snowball method of debt repayment. This is one of several schools of thought regarding financial freedom. At its core, the snowball method entails using all of your left-over money at the end of the month to pay down the balance of your SMALLEST debt. When you have paid if off, you roll that freed-up cash from the monthly minimum you were paying on the repaid loan into your debt snowball. Every time you pay a debt off, the snowball gets larger, and your repayment accelerates.
This isn’t the only debt plan. However, it worked best for us. The largest debt we have, aside from the mortgage, is a consolidated loan that represents almost half my salary. It’d take forever, and be exhausting, to pay that off. So we opted to snowball up, smallest to largest, instead. That meant that my smaller loans were lined up like ducks before all but one of hers. Unfortunate, but effective. Now that we’ve plowed through my loans, we’re thundering downhill towards hers.

Every month, you need to account for what income and cash you haven’t spent, and apply that over to the debts you want to be free of. It’s easy to slide and excuse a $20 purchase one week, a $50 dinner another week, and another $30 game the next week. But you just spent $100, on things you don’t need, that don’t bring you lasting value, and which don’t meaningfully improve your life. Use the budget to contain those expenses, and apply the left-over to your debt. You’ll build financial independence and a tangible sense of security by reducing your expenses.

Lastly, take care to visualize the process. For us, that meant making $112,000 worth of construction paper rectangles labelled “1k” and “2k” and taping them to the wall by our front door. Hard to miss. The brightly colored squares keep the goal on our mind, and become a satisfying ritual of taking them down. We even built-in encouragements by writing out small rewards on the back of most of the “2k” tickets, like seeing a movie, visiting a particular restaurant, or buying a book guilt free. Thus, we were able to watch our progress drop from one and a half walls down to just one wall over the last 12 months. Other people draw the old thermometer on a long piee of paper and strap it to their fridge, and pencil in progress top to bottom. Others create a bar graph, or line graph, and display it proudly. The goal is to be able to visualize your progress, and have the goal front and center.

And you knows? Maybe you’ll be able to inspire some other people to take steps towards financial independence, too.

Live the life you want to lead


FINALLY, but not lastly, take the steps required to lead the life you want to live. The odds are that you don’t want to be a couch potato always stressed about making ends meet, but never knowing why your income never seems to match your outgo, who fights with their partner about money, who is always being muttered about for being an over-spender or a big-hat-no-cattle (another Ramsey phrase).
Decide who you want to be, and use the budget, mindful spending, and the right debt repayment (or savings) plan to get you where you want to be. You can wander into debt, but you can’t wander out, and that means you need a plan. Start building that life today, and you’ll be there before you know it.

THESE ARE, broadly, the steps I took to pay off my student debt in a year. Obviously, it would have been impossible without the combined income and a singularly focused household budget. It also took a lot of communication, a few arguments (and reconciliations), and several months of trial and error to get our budget, goals, and process right. I can’t discount the sacrifices or compromises required to make it happen, but I can definitely high light that it was worth it to go through this process. And I can’t wait to see it through to the other side, next year, when we’re completely debt free.