random book reviews: psychology and phenomenology in science fiction and fantasy

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

I’m giving myself between fifteen minutes and forty minutes to do this, so it’s going to be shitty. I want to describe what I like, and what you might like, about a few written works. The goal is to do that in a way that doesn’t mischaracterize them and also doesn’t give anything away.

So, sweeping generalization time. Science fiction, speculative fiction, and even fantasy explore human potential in ways that both reflect upon the current times and also point towards future possibilities. This is by far not always true, but this tends to be at the expense of psychological sophistication. More awesome, less psychological sophistication.

More literary stuff is more likely to be perspectival, internal, psychologically complex, but again this is by far not always true.

Ideally, I like my awesome and my psychological sophistication at the same time.

I don’t know how I made this connection or whether it influenced my choice of books, but I’m aware of two psychologists-turned-fantasy-and science-fiction authors who are pretty great. I guess it’s not an accident that their works contain both psychological sophistication and awesome.

I claim that reading these works will exercise your perspective-taking skills more than the average science fiction or fantasy book, at least slightly increasing your range of what you can see and experience within yourself as well as potentially grasp within other people. And it will be fun.

The first work I want to mention is actually a series, specifically the Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko. Lukyanenko is a Russian psychologist-turned-science-fiction-and-fantasy author (child psychiatry and psychotherapy in his distant past?). The english translations or this particular series are excellent, by some dude who’s known for his Russian-to-English translations. You’ve got this trope I love, of a low-level analyst, generally intelligent, competent, and mature, who also has no idea what he’s doing, thrown into the field with minimal training. Think urban fantasy, vampires, romance, magic, secret, world-scale societies, locked in battle for millennia, light versus dark, with reasonable use of modern technology, and fairly evenly matched unimaginable power, with everyone trying to inherit the earth and reshape it with their values.

The world-building is dribbled out with deft strokes, you’re never beaten over the head with it, and along with the protagonist, you slowly come to understand the coherent, consistent rules that hold everything together and explain the current state of affairs (or do you?). The style reminds me a little bit of Diana Wynne Jones, where little details, throwaway lines, a couple sentences of description every once in a while, add up to extraordinarily vivid imagery, character implications, and a sense finely-graded, satisfyingly titrated, majestic scale, seen through one person’s eyes, who’s also trying to grasp the whole picture in the back of his head with every ounce of his brain.

And it’s just funny, and not in a campy way, in a psychologically realistic way. Most of the humor is psychological. This guy, this adult, amidst distinctly Russian bureaucracy, dealing with his “manager,” his colleagues, other “managers,” trying to not look like an idiot, trying to make executive decisions out in the field, when human lives are at stake and you’re walking amongst creatures, coworkers, superiors, and nonaligned operatives, who aren’t especially psychologically stable or unstable, who could turn you to ash.

And people have to deal with loss, and existential revelations, and relationships, and the realistic possibility of realistically [sic] becoming completely psychologically unhinged and dead after doing lots of damage to good people and maybe realizing you did it before you die. And spy-vs-spy action. I might even be talking it up too much. Anyway, the protagonist: the gears are whirring all the time in his head, he does realistic, in-character, psychological reasoning on himself and others,  and you feel like you could have a lots of long, really interesting, and funny conversations with the guy.

Ok, next!

Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh. McIntosh has a Ph.D. in social psychology and has some research and teaching under his belt. The themes here are relationships and technology, the costs of post-scarcity, wealth, cryonics, sexploitation, power, body horror, and romance. The tone here is some genuinely unsettling horror, combined with characters struggling to understand the permutations and gradations of relationships and love. It’s terrifying, warm, funny, and over-the-top, bold strokes without being toooooo cartoonish, and story elements turn on tacit and explicit psychological struggles, sexism, classism, morality, powerlessness, and agency as characters wrestle with existential and emotional threats and try to figure each other out amidst lots of shiny surfaces.

Boom. Done. Perhaps more to follow with fiction that wrestles with phenomenology and identity in science-fictional and fantastical settings. Let me know if interested.

See also for non-fiction:



2016 timesheet

(General content note: A lot of my thinking has really changed since the old days of this blog. There’s some weird, mean, and polemic stuff in there.)

For those of us who like the affordances of paper. For some things.


Direct pdf link

Timesheet page

It’s not as pretty this year. Google drive has messed with their formatting. If someone wants to make a pretty one…

In a few weeks I’ll probably post some of my timesheets for the past year.

TL;DR Nutrition Recommendations v1.0 (Nutrition for people who don’t want to think about it AT ALL.)

  1. At Your Own Risk: I am not a doctor. This is not health advice. Use at your own risk. I do a more complicated version of all the below, for whatever that’s worth. But, if other things are messed up, more saturated fat will kill you. If you have kidney issues, more Potassium will kill you. If you have cancer, more glycine can make it worse. Too much iodine will mess you up. Most supplements, if overused or used in the wrong ratios, will shorten your lifespan. And so on and so forth. I can’t take all that into account, here, nor do I fully understand it. This is for entertainment purposes only. (You might like to look at this, too. I do not fully endorse this link or the reasoning behind it, either.)


  1. Micronutrients: Take one serving of each at the end of this document (pill/teaspoon/pinch), every weekday. Skip Sunday unless you have a large build. Skip Saturday and Sunday if you have a small build.


  1. Potassium: Use Lo Salt (=potassium+sodium) instead of normal table salt (=sodium only). Avoid salted prepared foods. Eat fruits and vegetables. (No one gets enough potassium. And, sodium isn’t bad for you; you need it. But, extra sodium makes not getting enough potassium worse. And, eating more saturated fat, as per below, speeds up potassium excretion.) [It’s worth it but not essential to try getting the iodized version.] http://www.amazon.com/LoSalt-Iodized-Salt-12-35-Ounce-Pack/dp/B005F3I8O2/


  1. Animal Saturated Fat: No one eats enough. For the faint-of-heart, eat lots and lots and lots of unsalted butter instead of vegetable oils. For the adventurous, fry with (and mix into carbs) beef tallow, lard, unsalted ghee, heavy whipping cream…


  1. Glycine: It’s a powder. It tastes sweet. Sprinkle it on/tap it out to taste. Because people don’t eat enough organ meats, bones, and cartilage. Don’t eat it if you have or are at risk for cancer. http://www.amazon.com/BulkSupplements-Pure-Glycine-Powder-Kilogram/dp/B00EOXU0MM/


  1. Exercise: Once per week, exercise hard enough to lose your appetite for 30 – 240 minutes afterwards. Especially at first, have food ready to go for as soon as you get hungry; then, eat as much as you want. Best exercise: repeated sprinting outside (be careful) or jumping rope. If your shins, back, or knees are messed up, use an elliptical machine, or jog up hills or climb stairs. (This gets way easier, way fast, if you do 1-5.)


  1. Timing: Don’t eat closer than three hours until bed time. Try skipping some meals on the weekends (not dinner). (This gets way easier, way fast, if you do 1-5.)


THE ~WEEKDAY [see number 2, above] MICRONUTRIENTS (in no particular order):


  1. New Chapter “Only One Multivitamin” (1 tablet) e.g. http://www.amazon.com/New-Chapter-Only-Multivitamin-Tablets/dp/B004X96JH2/
  2. Magnesium (1 tablet; 200mg/day) e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Now-Foods-Magnesium-Citrate-Tablets/dp/B000BV1O26/
  3. Choline (1 tablet; ~500mg/day) [ignore if you a few eggs that day] e.g. http://www.amazon.com/NATURES-WAY-Choline-500mg-Tablets/dp/B00024CRC8/
  4. Calcium (1 tablet; 500mg/day) e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Natures-Way-Calcium-Citrate-Capsules/dp/B000I4C7MW/
  5. Cod Liver Oil (1 teaspoon/day; for retinol and omega-3s;) e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Carlson-Norwegian-Cod-Liver-Lemon/dp/B003B3P4PO/

Main Coast Sea Seasonings Kelp Granules (one liberal pinch/shake per day; for iodine) e.g. http://www.amazon.com/Maine-Coast-Seasonings-Granules-1-5-Ounce/dp/B001EQ5FV8/ [Note to buyer: these last forever]

modulation and domination

[Regarding this post, someone asked about CO2 and the immune system. Here is my reply.]

I don’t know what the mechanisms are, but, yeah, my impression from not-well-supported Buteyko practitioner claims is that low CO2 = overactive immune system. I think I read this in the context of eczema and autoimmune diseases. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s plausible to me because low CO2 = generalized autonomic arousal. I can imagine that an overstimulated sympathetic system = overactive, over-general immune response. But, I can also imagine the exact opposite and lots of mechanistic qualifiers. I just don’t know off the top of my head.

I do put a bit of weight on Buteyko practitioner and teacher claims.


I have a lot of thoughts about when and whether to act on particular claims.

One thing to keep in mind is the concept of “modulation versus domination.” What I mean by this is that, yes, doing X might help with Y. That is modulation. But, doing Z might fix Y completely. That is “domination.” Furthermore, X might only help temporarily until homeostasis rebalances Y right back to where you don’t want it.

When I’m exploring interventions, and lots of people of people are recommending things, I try to separate out what’s wrong, what will move the needle temporarily (modulation), and what will move the needle permanently (domination). In other words, what’s the move that I can pick that will completely take my body out of this regime, possibly fixing a bunch of other stuff at the same time?

That’s really general, so, for example, I prefer experimenting with macronutritents to micronutrients. I prefer experimenting with micronutrients to experimenting with random plant extracts. I prefer upstream metabolic supplements to downstream metabolic supplements (i.e. I give my body more opportunities to make it’s own decisions on how to utilize whatever I ingested). I prefer full-body movements to single-joint movements. I prefer HIIT to Buteyko.

The above are generalizations, though. Sometimes you need the latter of all those cases above to give your body the first initial nudge. Sometimes you need to sequence little interventions to prepare your body for the big interventions.

I had to fix all sorts of little stuff in my muscles and joints, and I had to change my diet for energy and healing rate, before I could safely sprint. And, I had to do some initial Buteyko breathing so that I didn’t just continue to over-breathe during sprinting.

Sometimes the actual fix you should make is very counterintuitive or “remote” from where you think you should intervene, based your current understanding.

Like, a magnesium deficiency makes one more stressed out and stress can exacerbate all sorts of immune stuff (via causal links I haven’t looked into at this time). Sometimes someone will exercise, meditate, do breathing exercises, go see a therapist, and it all seems to work a little bit, for a while–when maybe instead they can just take a magnesium supplement and maybe eat some more protein or something–and that just solves it, without all that other expensive and time-consuming stuff. Basics first.

In any case, I think about homeostasis, regression to the mean, hormesis, positive and negative feedback loops, upstream and downstream in metabolic pathways, metabolic regulatory cycles, biochemical mechanism chains… And what will actually move the needle, and what do I need to do to set things up so I can move the needle…