Hugo Nominee Review: A Desolation Called Peace – Arkady Martine

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine from the back of the book: “An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options. In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for an envoy. Now Mahit Dzamare and Three Seagrass – still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire – face an impossible task. For how can they communicate with a hostile alien entity? Their failure would guarantee millions of deaths and an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction – and allow the Empire to continue its rapacious expansion. Or success might lead to something far stranger.”

World-building: 5/5
I adored the first book in this duology; probably the best thing I read last year. Much of the world-building is a continuation of that, so it’s difficult to judge this one on its own merit. I found the descriptions a bit less awe-inspiring than A Memory Called Empire, but much of that is the difference between a city-scape and a lot of ship-board scenes. However, the almost effortless space opera atmosphere, with the jumpgates, the relentless presence of the Teixcalaan empire, and the overwhelming otherness of the aliens was spectacular. While the first book felt more poetic, the emphasis on language, communication, and how to establish true dialogue was no less genius.

Characters: 5/5
Mahit and Three Seagrass are just as wonderful as in the first book. I’m glad we get the overlap but I’m most excited about the addition of Eight Antidote (what a great name) and the two new main characters in the Fleet. Arkady has a way of getting us into their thoughts, even when they’re not POV characters, that highlights the intrigue and cultural exchange of the text. I was particularly glad for the addition of Twenty Cicada, who represents the breadth of the Empire, both with his personality and religion, but also with how he interacts with those around him and the aliens.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 5/5
On a second read, this one is much faster than the first book. Perhaps it was because Memory had to establish the world/city/empire and so the entire narrative took a ways longer to get going, but somehow the pace worked better here. I’m not sure I quite buy how easily Eight Antidote was able to convince a Shard pilot and a messenger of what he needed from them, but I’m willing to gloss over that for how well Arkady manages to intertwine all of her story-lines without them even being in the same sectors of space.

Overall: 5/5
The first time I read this duology, I liked this book but didn’t think it quite stacked up to the first one. Now, I think this one is just as good. To distinguish between minds and memory, to hold in tension the sheer desire to belong to an alien place while attempting to maintain some sense of identity, and to play so subtly with the ideas of collective vs individual is the work of a master storyteller. I’m in awe of what Arkady has done here and if it were up to me, I’d hand this book the Hugo right now, just like the first one won it two years ago.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: the galaxy, and the ground within – Becky Chambers

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of the galaxy, and the ground within by Becky Chambers from the back of the book: “When a freak technological failure halts traffic to and from the planet Gora, three strangers are thrown together unexpectedly, with nothing to do but wait. Pei is a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, torn between her duty to her people, and her duty to herself. Roveg is an exiled artist, with a deeply urgent, and longed for, family appointment to keep. Speaker has never been far from her twin but now must endure the unendurable: separation. Under the care of Ouloo, an enterprising alien, and Tupo, her occasionally helpful child, the trio are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they might be to one another. Together they will discover that even in the vastness of space, they’re not alone.”

World-building: 5/5
While this is book 4 in a series (all of which has previously won the Hugo award for best series), it can stand mostly entirely on its own. Only one character of those present appeared in one of the previous books, and then only for a few scenes. Having read the previous three, it is difficult to gauge how accessible this one would be as a stand-alone, though I found that Chambers’ descriptions and explanations would likely allow entrance to anyone that wanted to only read this installment.

I’ve read a lot of space opera, so I’m fairly picky. What Chambers has accomplished is a plausible universe, grounded in—but not focused on—science. She presents a well-fleshed out history, has slopped humans and earth into a dynamic relationship with alien races, and uses the resulting worlds to situate her characters. Gora is nothing special, which actually works well since none of the characters are originally from there, letting Chambers explore them and their origins within their current context.

Characters: 5/5
I don’t know that I’ve ever come across such character-centric story telling in speculative fiction. Chambers is an expert in creating unique, individual, and dynamic characters that all take on a life of their own. Her characters grow, reflect, interact with hardships, and rub against each other, but never lose their unique voices. The journey each character is on is far more important than the plot of the story.

What I’ve also never encountered before is a book with no human protagonists. It’s been a long quibble of mine how much science fiction ends up being human-centric. The rest of this series still was, but in this book, every single character (bar the appearance of one human in one scene) is from an alien race. They are still fairly anthropomorphized, though Chambers has distinguished ways of thinking, anatomical details, and cultures so that they are quite believably alien.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 3/5
And yet there’s almost no plot. I knew going in this would be the case, because that’s Chambers’ trademark style. The hyper-focus on characters and their development essentially comes at the expense of plot. In the first book, the balance just about worked, and in the second, Chambers crossed a very tricky tightrope really well. Book three already was tenuous at best with how the characters’ developments were held together, but this one had almost nothing. The inciting even feels fitting, but insignificant, and the only other event of note is pure happenstance.

This meant that the flow of this particular novel was not as immediate as the other three. Despite my connection to all of the characters, the beauty of Chambers’ writing, and my love of the ideas and themes of this series, I didn’t feel compelled to pick the book up between chapters. This needed more tension and more external motivators.

Overall: 4/5
Very entertaining, super well written, a joy with regards to characters, and a deft exploration of diversity, acceptance, learning about difference, and choosing to set aside prejudices. And it’s mostly just really sweet. But I needed a little more to be happening. If books 1 or 2 in the series were up for the Hugo, I’d give it to them, but not this one.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: Project Hail Mary – Andy Weir

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir from the back of the book: “Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission – and if he fails, humanity and the earth itself will perish. Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it. All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company. His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, Ryland realises that an impossible task now confronts him. Hurtling through space on this tiny ship, it’s up to him to puzzle out an impossible scientific mystery – and conquer an extinction-level threat to our species. And with the clock ticking down and the nearest human being light-years away, he has to do it all along. Or does he?”

World-building: 4/5
I knew what I was getting into with Andy Weir, having previously read The Martian, so the setting and the type of world-building was familiar. With his first novel, I almost struggled to call it science fiction as it was set so close to our time and was mostly plausible. This is definitely science fiction, not because it isn’t technically plausible, but just because it’s set a bit further out and Weir has taken a few liberties to simplify his storytelling.

The science is the cool bit. Weir really has a knack for making complex science and calculations accessible and from what I can tell and have read, it seems accurate. I liked that the ‘Hail Mary’ never felt like an SF spaceship but always remained something that we might recognize from our current space programs (even if more advanced) and the SF liberties Weir took were always scientifically plausible.

I have one major world-building issue, but it’s related to a character, so I’ll mention that there.

Characters: 4/5
Ryland Grace is a great narrator for the most part, because we get all of his second-guessing and in-the-moment reactions. It works particularly well to see not only his perspective but to follow his thoughts and reasoning as he solves the many complex issues surrounding him throughout the story.

Rocky, without giving too many spoilers, is my favorite. The interactions between Ryland and Rocky are pretty adorable and I like how Weir has characterized the little guy. They must both be linguistic geniuses though, otherwise I’m not sure how the communication sequence works.

Stratt is a problem, however. Her character makes sense from the perspective of needing someone to be in charge of a critical, world-important project that can pull all the strings. Temporarily setting aside the plausibility of that ever happening (Stratt acknowledges that humans don’t tend to work together when she discusses the food crisis), her approach is very dangerous. She seemingly realizes that her methods aren’t always good but justifies them because she’s ‘saving the world’. I get that through Ryland’s perspective, Weir is not entirely promoting an ‘ends justify the means’ approach to the world, but since it doesn’t really find a resolution, that’s in essence what the book ends up meaning. I think we’ve seen enough times in our history when someone decides that this approach is justifiable and the dangerous ramifications.

As to the world-building aspect, Stratt’s character doesn’t make sense. I get that it’s necessary for the story to get the mission off the ground in such a short time-frame, but it makes her character rather unrealistic—not her personality, but the fact that she has this almost absolute power to requisition trillions of dollars worth of materials, divert whole industries, get Russian and Chinese militaries to do whatever she wants, etc. That’s a bit of wand-waving from Weir and it’s because otherwise this story doesn’t work. That’s a bid heavy-handed for my taste.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 4/5
The story moves along at great speed most of the time. The opening is moving from one question to the next, each problem seamlessly leading to a whole host of others, and before we know it, we’re a third of the way into the book. In part, that’s due to Ryland’s amnesia so we discover things as he does, but also his narration makes it work well. The final third of the book was excellent from a tension perspective, though I felt the middle third lacked the tension of the beginning and end. I can see why it was necessary and I did enjoy that part of the book very much as well (because of Rocky) but it didn’t have quite the relentless pace or tension as the rest.

My major quibble has to do with the flashbacks. Weir chose to include flashbacks as his way of providing information about what went on before the moment that Ryland wakes up. That’s a great method of telling a story. However, these flashbacks are also Ryland regaining his memory, so they’re still in first person (good) and in each flashback we read, we gain more information about what happened previously, as does Ryland who can then use that in the present time-line. And yet, it’s far too neat. The mind doesn’t work like that—there are way too many crystal clear details in these flashbacks for them to be memories returning and they certainly wouldn’t return in chronological order like they did, almost always skipping over the mundane stuff and revealing crucial information at just the right time. It makes the whole story-telling structure feel very contrived. Weir is great on the hard sciences like biology, chemistry and physics, but squiffy on the psychology and neuroscience aspects.

Overall: 4/5
The near-plausibility of the scenario, the narrative voice, Rocky, and the pace are what make this story work. It’s an entertaining read, at times nerve-wracking, at times adorable. I enjoyed this despite what I felt were story-telling unsubtleties. I think Weir is very good at some parts of telling these types of stories but the writing often feels functional and so doesn’t really reveal itself as anything remarkable. In that sense, I find this less a work of speculative fiction, than a fun story set in the future. Worth the read, but probably not the Hugo.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: Light From Uncommon Stars – Ryka Aoki

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki from the back of the book: “Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six. When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate. But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline. As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.”

World-building: 4.5/5
The eclectic mix of a transgender girl who just seeks acceptance and love, a space-traveling family looking for a new place to call home, and a powerful violin teacher who’s made a deal with a demon works far better than it at first glance might appear. I like books that fall between categories and genres and this one definitely does, merging the various elements, characters, and motivations quite well.

I felt that at times the boundaries where the supernatural elements came up against the interstellar ones didn’t quite mesh smoothly. Lan and Shizuka accept each other’s ‘secrets’ way too quickly, even considering they’re both fairly open-minded and accepting characters. A sequence towards the end that involved both the demon and a starship just didn’t quite sit right—the boundaries between soft SF and murky fantasy not quite well enough defined.

But I did really like that this was set primarily in the mundane, normal world, and that the supernatural/sf elements were an integrated part of the story but didn’t steal the show. The regular world, with its donut-eating ducks, violin music, fresh produce, and caring humans is the real highlight. Which is amazing for a fantasy/sf novel.

Characters: 5/5
The strength of this book was in the characters. It was highly readable, and each main character had a distinct arc, even while the similarities between them allowed for clear resonances. Katrina, Shizuka, and Lan (and Lucia to a lesser degree) are out of place, seeking for belonging and purpose, and trying to protect something important. While I don’t normally relate to angsty teenage protagonists, Katrina’s character, situation, experiences, and choices worked really well and I didn’t find her becoming annoying (which I often experience with similar protagonists). Lan isn’t quite alien enough for my taste, but maybe that’s because I’m used to reading weirder SF. My favorite character is Shizuka, because her internal struggle is primarily a moral one and so watching her wrestle with self-worth, past actions, and the bind she finds herself in, were quite rewarding.

Most remarkable was the characterization of the secondary characters, from Astrid who is just delightful, to Lan’s children. I really appreciate that in order for each character to find purpose, they had to think outside themselves and work for the good of those around them.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 4.5/5
The pace of this book was excellent. There was no drag, nothing extraneous, and despite the many details (particularly about food) it never got bogged down in them. Each chapter brought a new turn, an added complication, or heightened confrontation. I didn’t find the ending to be very climactic, but it was satisfying and fit the story as a whole.

What didn’t work quite as well for me is how each chapter was chopped into little chunks, with numerous scenes, sometimes from different character’s perspectives. By itself, that would be fine, but then each scene was split by numerous page-breaks, often making scenes and chapters feel a bit choppy. While it didn’t detract from the characters or the story, it felt a bit like poor planning rather than intentional meshing.

Overall: 4.5/5
This book was very sweet and endearing, while simultaneously dealing with some very horrid and disturbing topics (particularly around how Katrina is treated by some strangers, society, and online after she begins to become famous). I felt a few scenes early on were needlessly explicit; I don’t get squeamish when I can see the purpose of a scene, and while I see the importance, I think it ended up being more than necessary, considering the role it plays in Katrina’s character arc.

I’m also a bit baffled by Tor. This needed another pass by a senior editor, because there were a number of typos, missing words, grammatical issues, and even a short scene where a character shows up and speaks another’s lines erroneously. From a publisher the caliber of Tor, I’d expect better.

And yet, this is probably my favorite of the three I’ve read so far.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: She Who Became the Sun – Shelley Parker-Chan

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan from the back of the book: “In a famine-stricken village, a seer shows two children their futures. For the boy, greatness. For the girl, nothingness. But China in 1345 is under harsh Mongol rule—and for the peasants, greatness only appears in stories. The Zhu family is mystified as to how their son, Zhu Chongba, will achieve such success. In contrast, an early death for a mere daughter is only to be expected. Yet when a bandit attack orphans the two children, it’s Zhu Chongba who dies. Desperate to survive, his sister steals his identity to enter a monastery. There, disguised as a male novice, Zhu learns she can be ruthless to avoid her fate. But when her sanctuary is destroyed, Zhu is cast back into the war-torn world. To change her ending, there’s only one thing she can do: claim her brother’s great destiny as her own.”

World-building: 5/5
The map in the front was crucial in helping maintain a sense of place, and Parker-Chan’s descriptions brought clear images to mind. I liked the subtle infusion of the fantastical, evidenced primarily in Zhu’s ability to see ghost and how both she and Ouyang have a ‘sense’ of their fate and how certain moments crystallize for them. In some ways, this felt similar to R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, though with the more subtle magical elements and less time spent journeying, the world felt richer.

I appreciated how well Parker-Chan was able to convey the clashing of cultures, especially since we get characters from both sides. This also plays out well in the political intrigue in both factions which helps to set this story within the confines of a larger history. The explanation at the beginning of the novel of the real-world events that make up the backdrop of this story allow for a feeling of grandness.

Characters: 5/5
Zhu makes for a compelling protagonist, especially since we get to know her as a young child. It’s fascinating to watch her journey, development, and how the moments and people she encounters alter the trajectory of her path. Ouyang is similarly interesting, though it took me a while longer to warm up to his perspective.

The strength of this book lies in the different portrayals and performances of masculinity throughout, with Zhu taking on her brother’s name and hiding her female body, Ouyang the eunuch, Esen who seems incapable of producing a son/heir, and Wang who chooses to eschew the masculine forms that his father would praise. Ma’s presence as the compassionate woman stands in parallel to all the rest of the characters, which allows Parker-Chan to so well explore the gender dynamics of her created world.

The respective relationships between Zhu/Ma and Ouyang/Esen are probably the highlight of this book. There is a subtle dance to their interchanges, and the tension between their respective desires and motivations adds the interpersonal tension that lifts this work above just another fantasy epic.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 4/5
While I see why it was necessary, the first chunk of chapters felt jumpy, a bit aimless, and were not as gripping. By starting out with Zhu as a young girl, we’re drawn into her story, but short of characterization, it does little for the rest of the story apart from establishing her poor, peasant roots. While her crucial decision to take her brother’s name happens during these initial chapters, the story doesn’t really feel like it has begun until she is admitted to the monastery.

Otherwise, the pace and structure worked really well. Once the other point of views are established, Parker-Chan is able to weave them well, showing the multiple perspectives while never getting bogged down in scenes (such as long journeys) that hold little significance. The ending was resolved enough to leave the reader feeling satisfied, but this is clearly set up to be the first in a series.

Overall: 4.5/5
I highly enjoyed this, will definitely be reading more as they are published, and can easily see why this was nominated for the Hugo. I’ve tried to read more Asian-inspired fantasy in recent years, and this is definitely near the top. It’s got a clearer structure than Neon Yang’s Tensorate series, more intricate characterization and subtle storytelling than R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War trilogy, and feels more thematically purposeful than what I’ve read of Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty (though I’ll admit I’ve only read book one). Would highly recommend.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Hugo Nominee Review: A Master of Djinn – P. Djéli Clark

This year, I’m reviewing all of the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award. My hope is to provide a brief overview, an analysis of world-building, characters, and narrative pace/structure, and what I feel its strengths and weaknesses are. I will attempt to avoid any major spoilers but will necessarily be dealing with some specifics.

Overview of A Master of Djinn by P. Djéli Clark from the back of the book: “Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie. So, when the members of a secret brotherhood are murdered, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. The murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, who transformed the world fifty years ago when he opened the veil between the magical and mundane realms before vanishing into the unknown. Using dangerous magical abilities, he instigates unrest on the streets of Cairo that threatens to spill over onto the global stage. Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…”

World-building: 5/5
I adore what Clark has done here. Alternate history is hard to do, especially in fantasy when it is important to maintain connections to the real world while also providing something new. Clark effortlessly drops us into a new Cairo that at times plays with our preconceptions and gives off a vibrant and exciting setting for the story to play out in. The presence of the djinn, forms of magic, other mythical creatures, and the supernatural are woven in very well to present a compelling world. My favorite details are some of the architectural ones, the explorations of the different types of djinn and their temperaments, and how Clark engages throughout with post-colonial themes and discussions.

Characters: 4.5/5
Fatma is an excellent character to guide us through this story. She’s likeable, smart, at times funny, and very good at her job. Some of the other characters are likewise distinct and have clear motivations of their own, in particular Hadia, Fatma’s rookie partner on the job. My favorite character is Siti, though I felt her presence was underused at times and I would have liked to know a lot more about her history and motivations. The antagonist was uninteresting and almost cartoonishly power-hungry once revealed.

Narrative Pace/Structure: 3/5
The first two thirds were excellent. The mystery keeps readers intrigued along with the world-building. The beats of the story progress seamlessly from one to the next and the revelation of both the world and the mystery are such that each answer brings with it just the right number of questions to draw us further in.

And then it all fell apart. The reveal of the antagonist was predictable, the tension in the final third was supposed to be building but each subsequent section felt too formulaic, was closed out too easily (feeling a bit more like video game levels), and the grand finale was more like a poorly choreographed superhero showdown. Clark was unable to match the carefully crafted subtlety in his characters and world building to the story he was telling.

Overall: 4/5
I’ll definitely be trying to find the short stories set before this one; I look forward to more of Clark’s writing, and just hope he can work on the pacing of his longer fiction because the rest of it is so good. Enjoyable, but would not give this a Hugo award.

Other 2022 Hugo Nominee Reviews:
Hugo Nominee Review # 1: A Master of Djinn
Hugo Nominee Review # 2: She Who Became the Sun
Hugo Nominee Review # 3: Light From Uncommon Stars
Hugo Nominee Review # 4: Project Hail Mary
Hugo Nominee Review # 5: the galaxy, and the ground within
Hugo Nominee Review # 6: A Desolation Called Peace

Expertise and Humility

Every year, when research paper season rolls around, I always have a few students that want to cite themselves, use their own ‘knowledge’, or consider themselves experts in their chosen topic. It takes a bit of convincing before they’re willing to acknowledge that maybe they’re not experts in their field at the age of 16 or 17. And yet, something about being a teenager often combines a few years of experience at something and a cocksure attitude and turns out a world full of young ‘experts’. I know this not only because I see it in my classroom, but because I was exactly that same kind of teenager.

I tell students that there are two things I remotely consider myself to be an expert in now that I’m in my mid-thirties, and even then only a beginner expert: teaching secondary English at American curriculum international schools and the field of Octavia Butler studies (within which I wrote my masters thesis). For one, those are very specific fields, because the more expertise we gain, the more specialized we become. Also, while these are the fields I know the most about, have the most experience in, and could readily hold an in-depth conversation with other experts in, they’re also the ones I best know my own deficiencies and areas of necessary growth.

Through the ages, those that we consider the greatest thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and other brilliant people, almost always hit upon this truth. The more we learn, the more we realize that we don’t know. Socrates, Aristotle, Einstein, John Lennon, and so many others came to this realization. We’ve got the Dunning-Kruger effect that charts this phenomenon, and so it only makes sense that teenagers especially often fall into a place where it is easy to overestimate their knowledge and understanding; they’re not young children anymore, after all.

Unfortunately, way too many adults don’t grow beyond that either. I know that in some areas, I fall into this category as well. If I’m watching a parkour video, part of my brain is saying, “yeah, I can probably do that” or I’m very convinced that I could have easily scored that goal that the striker so blatantly missed. I was certain it couldn’t be that hard to drive a Formula 1 car until I saw Richard Hammond (a guy who earns his living driving cars) barely manage to get one around a track. I was also convinced I knew how economics worked and what each country was doing wrong, right up until I read up on some basic economics and realized how little I actually knew. We see this happen in everything, from governance, economics, health, and business, to the arts, athletics, and religion. It all seems so simple from the outside.

This is where humility comes in. Maybe we should all approach new topics or areas where we have little experience with a posture of humility. It’s very hard for most of us to admit we don’t know something and so we bluster our way through. Often, we teachers have been very bad at modeling humility for students; I’ve had to be very intentional about responding to student questions with integrity and saying “I don’t know that yet” or “I’m not sure, maybe you should look it up and then tell me.” Because my natural instinct is to answer each question with my gut intuition and make myself seem more knowledgeable than I am. Humility is a prime virtue and we’re not always doing a great job of teaching it.

Similarly, there is a glut of pseudo-experts in every shadowy cranny willing to hammer half-reasonable theories and skewed knowledge into unquestioning minds. When we don’t acknowledge the relevance of expertise in all areas, we easily become puffed up demagogues. A friend of mine recently re-posted this and it rang very true:

“Confirmation bias exists, and only fools think they are free of it. To paraphrase Asimov, your ignorance is not the same as their experience. Genuinely smart people look for answers from people who are smarter than themselves. Only ignorant people believe their guess is as good as anyone else’s.”

Appreciation of expertise then allows us to hold our beliefs and convictions more loosely. In so many areas, it’s not what people think or believe that bothers me, but the way they hold that belief. When our ‘Truth’ is oozing out, dead and bloodied, from clenched fists, there can’t be much life left in it, no matter what it once was. Instead, we should hold our values and beliefs in open palms, with humility, so that there is room for our understanding and faith to grow, expand, change, and become better. That’s how we hold with humility.

Student Autonomy and the Vulnerable Teacher

I had to have a little chat with my eleventh graders last week. I decided to take the first 10 minutes of class and explain to them two core convictions of my teaching philosophy and how there is often a tension between them.

We had gotten to one of my favorite units, in which we read Lorraine Hansberry’s spectacular play A Raisin in the Sun. It is the only play we read in the American Lit. class and I firmly believe that drama is meant to be performed. So, first we read it as a class, having different students and myself reading the parts, and then we watch a film adaptation (the 1961 version with Hansberry’s screenplay and the amazing Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee).

Over the years, I’ve taught this unit numerous times and I recognize that there are many students who are reluctant to read out loud. Perhaps they don’t feel confident, or they are shy, or they had a bad experience with being required to read in a previous year. But I’ve always had enough students volunteer that we’ve had someone for each character. I tell students they’re not stuck reading that character the entire play and that we’ll switch it up between acts. I tell them that I hope everyone will read at list a little bit, but that no one will be forced to and that I will not be putting anyone on the spot.

This year, I didn’t get enough volunteers when we started Act 1, across both of my English 11 sections. In both, finally one student reluctantly raised their hand to take the final role. But I was already dreading the beginning of Act 2 when we would be reassigning roles and there would be more characters that needed reading.

So I explained to them why I did it this way, and how that is rooted in those two core convictions I hold about how my classroom should operate.

Firstly, I believe we learn best in community. Humans are communal creatures; we like being around each other (even those of us who are more introverted don’t do well in prolonged solitude), and we build on and feed off of each other. The classroom is a prime example of what that can look like and explains in part why online-learning was so difficult for many students and for myself. Each section I teach has a different feel, a unique atmosphere, and it’s because there are different people in the room. We contribute to that culture through our actions, our words, and the choices we make in each moment. I explained to my students that in many ways, they are in charge of the classroom atmosphere, and that the communal learning is beneficial to us all. Nothing encapsulates that quite like a dramatic performance which is an intricate blending of individual performances into a collective production. When we act with our neighbors, our community, our classroom in mind, rather than only looking to our own individual preferences, we can be far more than the sum of our parts.

Secondly, I believe in student autonomy. I hated being called on when I was a student, so I vowed not to be that teacher. Students must have choices, must be allowed to have a say in what and how they learn, and must be allowed to determine their level of investment. That’s how we get intrinsic motivation, rather than carrot/stick education. There are numerous assignments I’ve designed so students can choose how they want to meet the requirements, which topic they want to focus on, or whether they’d like to work individually or in a group (that last one is especially tricky to do well). There are minimum requirements I need from all students in my classroom, and if a student is not meeting them, I will push into their autonomy and obligate those minimum requirements. But beyond those, their level of investment, engagement, and motivation are up to them. And while some students skate through my class doing the bare minimum, others have discovered a love of literature and critical thinking and gone on to study literature in university. I’d say that’s more than worth the trade-off. Because that’s student autonomy.

But student autonomy can be very risky for the teacher, and is often a lot more work. I confessed to my students last week that I’m a person who has to be prepared, to have a plan (and then several backup plans and contingencies in place), and I don’t like like uncertain situations. And when I’m standing in front of a room full of students, asking for volunteers to read, that’s a very vulnerable position for me. There’s no plan B. I’m standing in the tension between the communal aspects of learning and student autonomy and it’s not a comfortable place. But I value them both so highly that I know I need to let go of the control and hand it over to my students, hoping and believing that they will choose to invest in the communal learning.

I think we as teachers foster disengagement, lack of motivation, and an apathy for learning when we hold on to the reins too tightly in our classrooms. Of course how tightly or loosely we hold them is determined quite a bit by the age of our students and the particular needs of each individual class. But many of us (particularly those of us that like to be in control of our surroundings and know what’s going to happen) need to learn how to give an appropriate amount of that control over to our students. Because only then can the learning be truly authentic and intrinsically motivated. We’re the adults in the room and so we should model that vulnerability, rather than being yet another authority in their lives that only ever tells them what to do and doesn’t let them grow into their burgeoning autonomy.

The students heard me. I got numerous volunteers after that, some from among my very quiet students. And I don’t think it was because they felt guilty or pitied me, but because they saw and valued why I had to lean into that awkward moment of waiting for volunteers. They want to be treated as individuals, as human beings with autonomy, and many are willing to overcome their own experiences and inhibitions when we give them the freedom to choose.

Your Brain is Lying to You

I want to know things, understand them, poke and question them until they make sense. I rarely accept something as-is and instead have to critically examine it from multiple angles and determine what it is and how it functions. My mind puts together a complex web of interconnected ideas and there is so much satisfaction when something new slots into place. I place a lot of value and weight on thinking and what my brain tells me. And the more reading I do on how the brain works, in psychology and neuroscience, the more I’m having to admit that my brain lies to me—all our brains do.

Once upon a time, I was completely convinced that I liked the cold. I had a friend who liked the cold, and I hadn’t had any particularly negative experiences with cold (growing up in Kenya near the equator will help with that) and so I just assumed I disliked heat as much as those who complained about it and that I liked cold. Then I moved to western NY for a while with its abominably long winters and realized that I despise the cold: scraping ice off the car, blue fingernails, gray skies, icy roads, and getting up in the morning. After moving first to a desert in the UAE and then to the tropical island of Penang, I’ve realized I love warmth. But if I could tell that to teenage Jens, he’d think I was crazy. He was convinced he liked the cold and his brain would not let him believe otherwise.

We can convince ourselves of a lot of things. Brains are very malleable and have this amazing capacity to make sense of a very confusing and complex world. I’m so thankful that my brain filters out stuff that I don’t need (sometimes, I wish it would filter out a few more things, like annoyingly loud motorcycles and high-pitched whining sounds). But this filter also means we miss stuff, sometimes crucial information that might alter how we see the world. It’s like when I learn a new word and then suddenly see if several times the following week while being convinced I’d never run across it in my life up to then. I used to think that was a crazy coincidence (or providence) but now I know that word had been around all the time but my brain had just been filtering it out.

How many important details has my brain filtered out? And how many erroneous frameworks has my brain detected, then reinforced, because the brain likes patterns? This sort of confirmation bias—the tendency the brain has to readily adopt information that confirms something we already think and reject things we don’t think—shapes the pathways of our thinking, our choices, and our personality.

The problem is we’re all so convinced that the way our brain has taught us to make sense of the world is right. I know I often think that.

And so learning more about how malleable the brain is has actually been very freeing. It has allowed me to question not only the world around me but my own response to it. I’m learning to not take my own thoughts as a base-line but to distance myself from my instinctive reactions. I really like how my brain works, but I also need to keep learning how to tell when it’s lying to me.

I may like the sunshine more than an overcast sky, but when my brain tells me it’s going to be a terrible day because of this, I can call BS. When a piece of information seems to confirm something I already think, I now know that I need to dig just a little deeper. And when something seems really hard (like trying to sit still and NOT think) I know that I can train my brain to become better at it.

I Run ‘Because’ I’m Skinny

“Why do you go running? You’re already so skinny.” I’ve heard that sentiment, in a variety of forms for many years now. The assumption implicit in the question is that exercise, particularly longer-distance running (though I probably wouldn’t count my 5ks as ‘long-distance’), is primarily about weight/metabolism control.

I’ve always been skinny, scrawny even. And I never participated in any concerted sports or exercising up through high school that required me to be in any sort of physical or cardiovascular shape. Every year in middle school, the day of the one-mile run was bound to fill me with dread.

No, I don’t go running three times a week to stay skinny. No, I’m not training for any fund-raisers, fun-runs, or marathons. No, I’m not running off the ice cream I eat. In fact, the reasons I go running several times a week have little to do with any of those. Of course I know I that getting some form of exercise is healthy, and that plays into it as well. But I have primarily two purposes for running. The first, is the mental space it provides while my body is occupied. I explored this a few years ago: https://jmhieber.wordpress.com/2019/09/14/the-non-physical-benefits-of-running/

The second is more complex in that it seems counter-intuitive.

When I get busy, when I experience more stress than usual, during times of transition, and sometimes just because, I lose my appetite. The idea of eating seems repulsive, nothing really seems like it would be tasty or nourishing, and the whole process of finding food, ingesting it, cleaning up afterwards seems like a big waste of time. And when it’s for a single day, it’s not a big deal. But when it happens for days on end, it can get dangerous.

When we moved to Al Ain in the UAE in 2012, I didn’t eat for about a month. I’m sure it was partly the heat, but the transition to a new country, the stresses of being a first-year teacher working under less than ideal conditions meant that every bite felt like trying to swallow a dry sponge. I knew I had to eat something; the human body doesn’t function well without food. I lost a ridiculous amount of weight and my frame can’t really afford that. I looked pretty haggard and gaunt for a while there and it wasn’t until I was able to settle into our new home, school, routines that my appetite slowly came back.

I also wasn’t running then, partly because it was difficult to make the time and because of the intense Al Ain heat. But once I was able to take it up again, I realized perhaps one of the most significant benefits of going running: it means I have an appetite. When I regularly go out and physically exhaust my body through running, my appetite doesn’t disappear. It may ebb somewhat, but it doesn’t go away entirely, because the physical activity reminds my body of what it needs.

So no, I don’t go running to become or stay skinny. I run because it assures me of having an appetite. Which is why comments about my skinniness in relation to my running are not entirely welcome. I mean, it doesn’t really bother me, but it is part of a pattern in which people assume the motivations of others. We all have our own goals, hurdles, motivations, and journeys to go on. And it’s generally not advisable to put our own expectations (even implicitly) onto the actions of others.