2 reviews: The Star Wars and Dinotopia

The Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


The dialogue is bad, the plot feels more like an arbitrary series of events, the characters are alternately cruel or cold regardless of whether on the side of good or villainy, and motivations and personalities shift without any clear character arcs to explain them. Jedi and Sith are just buzzwords without any clear philosophy. There’s a rebel kingdom, but it seems that the issue is less with the Empire and more that it conducts itself differently than the Empire that preceded it. And yet, this is a fascinating artifact, a fully illustrated chance to see what The Star Wars was at first, before George Lucas refined it and improved it with a collaborative team of fellow creatives. (Turns out it feels a lot more derivative, wearing the influences of Flash Gordon and Foundation and Dune on its sleeves without really synthesizing them into something truly new and fresh just yet.) How much of this miniseries is representative of that original draft, though, versus what writer Jonathan Rinzler did to adapt the story for a comic book narrative? Either way, while I found the resultant comic art to often be rather cold and sterile, I am still impressed with how illustrator Mike Mayhew managed to make the story feel familiar yet distinct, a combination of new forms and old concept art and familiar images from the films.

This isn’t a vital Star Wars story, but it’s interesting–charming, even, if you look at it in just the right way.


Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I adored this book as a child. Returning to the fascinating world of Dinotopia as an adult, I’m just as delighted and eager to escape to this hidden realm. Gurney’s beautiful fantasy art is the star, but his story of a father and son surviving a shipwreck and finding themselves now part of this land where the descendants of castaway humans have come to live with prehistoric creatures in harmony is quite delightful in its own right. The narrative device that this is the explorers’ lost journal recounting their adventures, with abundant sketches and calligraphic notes, serves the story and art well. And there are so many fascinating details about everyday life in this fantasy setting that Gurney manages to incorporate throughout.

The smallest of nagging thoughts crossed my mind at times while rereading this as an adult: how do the characters know, in the 1860s, the scientific names of dinosaurs that had not yet even been discovered at the time? Turns out, Gurney had the same thought when creating the book, and his explanation is contained in the insightful behind-the-scenes afterword he’s provided for the 20th anniversary edition: “After giving these concerns serious consideration, I had to sweep them away, because adhering to them would muddy the waters.” Given that we’re already dealing with a story on a nonexistent colossal island where dinosaurs, extinct mammals, humans, and more all dwell together and can communicate intelligently with each other, this is a pretty valid way to address it. We’re in another world anyway; surely in this alternate reality, they just happen to be a bit further along in paleontology than we were in our own reality. It’s delightful fantasy, is what I’m saying, and worth suspending your belief for–which is easy enough to do when looking at the beautifully conceived double-page spreads. And it helps to know that Gurney already thought through all the concerns one might want to raise (yes, he thought through quite a lot, and his process as remembered in the afterword makes this edition worthwhile). But it’s really beside the point.

The point is that Dinotopia is fantastical, delightful, inspiring, memorable, and worth your time.



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Review: The Empire Strikes Back From A Certain Point of View

From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back by Elizabeth Schaefer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This is another great Star Wars short story collection, now offering 40 new perspectives on the events in The Empire Strikes Back. I hope they continue this project, because I love this format and the opportunity to have so many writers, both new and familiar to the franchise, contribute something unique to the saga. Basically all of my praise for the original volume applies for this sequel, so I won’t recap that. And once more, I found that I appreciated something from every story. No bad stories yet again.

To return to the format of my original review for the first book, I’ll highlight one story that I loved and then outline my top ten (once more a very difficult decision). So, number one story I’d recommend? Tougher this time, because there’s not a single story that soars in my mind like “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” did, but there are nonetheless at least a handful that I’m quite fond of and would rather like to read again. To settle on one, I’d pick “Due on Batuu” by Rob Hart. Of course there was going to be a story about Willrow Hood, the “Ice Cream Guy.” And it’s not very surprising that a reference to Batuu would appear prominently at some point, given the heavy multimedia efforts built around Galaxy’s Edge. But blessedly, one need not know who Hood is or where Batuu is located to enjoy this little adventure. Willrow, it turns out, is an overworked, underpaid systems monitor for the gas mines who dreams of something bigger. He decides a dishonest living at smuggling is the way to beat the odds and finally become rich, so he pesters perhaps the only smuggler he knows into finally giving him an easy assignment. Things quickly fall apart: a couple betrayals and the Imperial occupation of the city throw everything into chaos. There’s a lot of fun reversals between Willrow and his erstwhile pilot partner Bexley. Their frenemy status keeps things interesting. Ultimately, it reads like a low-stakes heist bungled by a bunch of losers–no wonder I’m so fond of it.

The total top ten are still difficult to pick, but here we go (once more in order of appearance):

1. “Hunger,” by Mark Oshiro, which impressively manages to make the wampa into a sympathetic figure wronged by the Rebellion.

2. “She Will Keep Them Warm,” by Delilah S. Dawson, which provides a heartbreaking swan song for the tauntaun who carries Han in search of Luke.

3. “The Final Order,” by Seth Dickinson, which provides a name, backstory, and personality for the Imperial Star Destroyer captain lost in the asteroid belt but also examines the ugly nature of fascism and the unhealthy obsession with Imperial aesthetic held by at least some fans.

4. “This Is No Cave,” by Catherynne M. Valente, which gives the space slug a truly alien perspective on the events of the galaxy.

5. “Tooth and Claw,” by Michael Kogge, which manages to portray Bossk as a lethal and cruel hunter even as it also throws a wrench into his sociopathic lifestyle and forces him to reconsider strongly held beliefs.

6. “STET!”, by Daniel José Older, is quirky and funny and plays with style. It’s a draft of an in-universe magazine article with notes and corrections made by the editor, where both author and editor become uncomfortably inserted into the events of the story being told.

7. “But What Does He Eat?”, by S.A. Chakraborty, imagines Lando’s top chef, who must consider carefully how to handle a dinner hosted for Darth Vader–and the risks she’d be willing to take to eliminate the Emperor’s brutal enforcer.

8. “Faith in an Old Friend,” by Brittany N. Williams, brings L3-37 back, showing that she hasn’t just preserved her own identity within the Falcon‘s computer but actually drawn out the identities of the some of the other personalities loaded into it over time.

9. “Due on Batuu,” by Rob Hart, on the list for reasons explained earlier.

10. “Right-Hand Man,” by Lydia Kang, makes medical droid 2-1B interesting in his own right while allowing a quiet moment for Luke to work through some of his trauma after his fight with Vader, even while displaying the empathetic, curious traits that make him a hero.

Finally, I want to acknowledge some of the other stories for what they’ve brought into the new canon. “Ion Control,” by Emily Skrutskie, brings back Rebel sisters Toryn and Samoc Farr. “The Truest Duty,” by Christie Golden, provides a clear canon personality for General Veers and establishes for the record what happened to him on Hoth. “Rendezvous Point,” by Jason Fry, offers some old-school Legends Rogue Squadron storytelling centered on Wedge and Janson. And “No Time for Poetry,” by Austin Walker, manages a pair-up between IG-88 and Dengar that I never knew I wanted, perfectly capturing Dengar’s new-canon persona and opening up some new questions, like is that still IG-88’s ruined body on Cloud City in the new canon?, given how screwed up Dengar and IG-88’s efforts to track Solo have become, do they still track him to Bespin?, and does that mean that charming old Dengar is ultimately the one who kills the assassin droid now? I wouldn’t mind further adventures following any of these stories.

I certainly wouldn’t mind further stories From A Certain Point of View.



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Review: Surviving Death

Netflix’s Surviving Death, a docuseries adapting the nonfiction book by Leslie Kean, presents a variety of accounts of the afterlife that will not convince skeptics but are sure to provide a genuine perspective on the varied ways in which people look for answers and assurance when facing death and the loss of loved ones.

I’ve not read Ms. Kean’s book, although her UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record is essential reading on the contemporary UFO phenomenon, not to mention her reporting on the subject. If nothing else, this new series makes me want to read what she actually wrote on the pursuit of evidence of consciousness after death, and I can only imagine it would be similarly informative. Ms. Kean does appear quite a bit throughout the series, offering her perspective on various phenomena–especially on the subject of mediums, for some reason.

Each episode of the series covers a different phenomenon: near-death experiences, a two-parter on mediums, alleged signs from the dead, ghosts and end-of-life visions, and reincarnation. While everyone might react differently based on their own biases, my own worldview made the stories about near-death experiences, end-of-life visions, and reincarnation most palatable. Even though the first two categories have many alternative explanations, they’re still interesting phenomena; conversely, the really good and verifiable examples of alleged reincarnation are very compelling, and the alternative explanations about as extraordinary as the idea of reincarnation itself. Even if you reject the (admittedly difficult to reconcile and impossible to prove) paranormal components, the universality of certain themes and narratives across generations and cultures is fascinating in and of itself. At its core, parapsychological studies of these types of stories read to me as a sort of anthropology, just focused on a type of folklore taken as true. So even if you reject them as true accounts of an afterlife out of hand, you’re still left with true accounts of belief and lived experiences that are remarkable even under the most normal of explanations.

Having two episodes devoted to mediums was hard, though. The show repeatedly acknowledges, through some of its interviewed subjects, that spiritualism and mediumship have long histories of fraud. And yet. And yet, two episodes are spent on what can only be read as an attempt to convince us that some level of mediumship must be legitimate. Nothing changed my mind, although I was rather fond of the man who went from medium to medium, attempting to communicate with his dad, celebrating the sessions that were eerily accurate and emotionally on-point, yet even then noting how they could be faked or otherwise staged. For someone to continue to engage with mediums with an open mind, yet never shutting out his critical thinking, well–that’s a man after my own heart. But most of our time is spent with a succession of mediums and true believers. They even have a physical medium, someone who claims to be able to produce physical forms of spirits through the use of ectoplasm. In 2021, a documentary is giving serious space to a woman who claims to use ectoplasm! Oh, sure, all those other physical mediums were frauds or at least highly suspect, but this one’s different? This one who leads seminars to train others to be mediums? Wild! Don’t get me wrong–if you were on the fence, or susceptible to believing in mediumship, this might push you over the edge with some of the more compelling readings, but there’s nothing here that proves mediums are real or that counteracts the obvious non-mystic explanations for all their stunts.

The episode on signs from the dead was fascinating because it really showed how desperately people look for comfort and reassurance when they lose someone. I felt for them. This episode was especially hard on my wife, because it’s basically a nearly hour-long presentation of people’s very raw grief. While it was not compelling evidence for taking signs seriously, it was a nice reminder that if you can take comfort from a perceived sign, there’s no harm in doing so, and a lot of people, even otherwise non-spiritual and rational people, can find comfort in this. In other words, it was just a very human story.

Finally, the episode on end-of-life visions also had a segment on ghosts and ghost hunters. The woman-of-color ghost hunter the series follows is more interesting than the jackass white bros we normally see; rather than pretending to be scientific (and they never are), she actually seemed almost like a shaman, someone who felt that her hobby was sacred work. She was still over-fond of tech gadgets that don’t ever detect or react in exactly the ways the ghost hunters think they do, but it was still a more sentimental and reflective segment than I was expecting given the usual ghost hunters on TV. The proposed “evidence” is all the same, though, and very non-conclusive.

While the episode quality varies, I did stay engaged throughout, even if scoffing at the people onscreen (which was rarer than I might have expected). It was compelling television, with a refreshingly human focus that showed the value in the experiences for the living, regardless of what those experiences actually said about the dead. As an intimate look at how humans respond to death and attempt to adjust to loss in the modern era, I would highly recommend this show.

What I want to read in 2021

It’s been a stressful year for just about everyone. I don’t need to get into that, right? Some of us developed new hobbies and interests. Some of us focused on the familiar. Some of us read more than ever before; some of us could barely crack open a book due to constant mental buzzing. Unfortunately, I leaned more toward the safe and familiar in my down time this year. And I was lucky to stay employed, in a job that gradually took more and more of my time and attention, so it was very difficult to read more. At this point, I’ve accumulated quite a number of books to read that I just haven’t gotten around to. While my ambitions may simmer away to nothing, I’d still like to reassert a focus on reading.

Looking at my shelves right now, there are several books I’m eager to get around to. And while it might be blind hope, it looks like some of the added demands of the job should calm by the end of February at the latest. Maybe listing some of those books here will keep me motivated. So here are some of those books I hope to have finished by the end of 2021:

  1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back: From A Certain Point of View, because I loved the first anthology of stories for A New Hope, and because I’m reading it right now. I better finish this! There have been some phenomenal stories already. This is the first example of why I just need to set more time aside for reading–I’m actually enjoying this collection! There isn’t yet a story that I love like “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper,” but several I’ve liked rather a lot, especially the most recent one I finished, Seth Dickinson’s “The Final Order,” which finally gives a name and personality to the Star Destroyer captain who dies in the Hoth asteroid field but also provides a searing reflection on the nature of fascism and (although this is probably an instance of my own worldview strongly influencing how I interpret the story) some fans’ unhealthy obsession with Imperial aesthetic.
  2. The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David Shipler. This is another book I’m currently reading and want to finish. I’ve been reading an ebook version, though I prefer print, so it’s just something I pick up in rare idle moments. It’s also a book I skimmed through back in law school, and I’m finding it generally more interesting than I remembered. It remains unfortunately timely.
  3. Star Wars: Master & Apprentice and Star Wars: Dooku: Jedi Lost, because I’ve become rather fond of Old Republic and Clone Wars content and because they’re books that I’ll enjoy discussing with my wife. She already finished Master & Apprentice for the Qui-Gon content and, while she doesn’t tend to read licensed fiction like this, she was thoroughly engaged.
  4. The Dinosaur Heresies and Raptor Red by Bob Bakker, because Dr. Bakker’s role in promoting the image of dinosaurs as smart, fast, warm-blooded, and closely related to birds was key to my early infatuation with dinosaurs becoming so dominating in my life ever after. He was a regular presence in many of the dinosaur documentaries I loved as a kid. But I never got around to his books, and they’ve been a little harder to find over the years. I’ve got both of these books now, though. While science has marched on, I’m still excited to read his popular nonfiction argument for the updated image of dinosaurs and his fictional companion novel that attempts to demonstrate what those dinosaurs might have actually acted like.
  5. Digging Dinosaurs by Jack Horner, for similar reasons to the above. He was similarly everywhere when I was a kid, for his discovery of Maiasaura and their nests, his theories on nurturing dinosaurs, and his influence on the Jurassic Park films.
  6. Michael Crichton’s Dragon Teeth is on my list for more nostalgia. Another posthumously published novel, this provides a fictionalized account of the Bone Wars. I was surprised to discover that I rather enjoyed his Pirate Latitudes, especially after finding his later technothrillers to be somewhere been jumbled and formulaic and unfortunately influenced by increasingly anti-science attitudes, and I would expect another historical fiction period piece to be similarly delightful.
  7. My Beloved Brontosaurus by Riley Black (though her former name is still used on the print copy I have). I’ve been meaning to start this book forever! She’s been a tremendous science writer with a paleontology focus who hooked me back when she was writing under the B. Switek name. And she has several more books out at this point that I want to read, too.
  8. Victor Milan’s Dinosaur Lords trilogy (well, it’s looking more like a series, but I have the first three, so that’s what I’m focused on). I read the first book when it came out. It was…fine, but I’ll keep reading for more knights-and-dinosaurs fantasy.
  9. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. I’ve slowly been watching the television adaption, and the setting was engaging enough for me to want to read the source material. I’ve been interested in more recent attempts to challenge and interrogate the racism and xenophobia in Lovecraft’s works, so this is a starting point for me (recommendations requested, though!).
  10. Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael Stackpole. I started this a while ago when I was reading a lot of the old EU, but I never finished it. Jason Fry’s “Rendezvous Point” was very fun and apparently loaded with references to the Rogue Squadron books, though, so I want to try again. We’ll see if I get through it or any other books in the series. Pretty good timing, what with a Rogue Squadron movie coming out!
  11. Last for the list, Star Wars: Darksaber and Planet of Twilight, just to round out the Children of the Jedi trilogy of EU books.

There are other books I want to try to read this year, including several books stuffed away elsewhere in my house or currently only remembered thanks to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list. We’ll see how far I get, but if I even get through most of this list, I’ll be doing better than I did in this pathetic reading year of 2020. Fingers crossed!

Now, shall I do a similar post for games I want to try to get through in 2021? Hm…probably not. There’s a tension between time spent on video games and time spent on books, as both are time-consuming hobbies that demand my focused attention. Still, there are games I want to get to for next year. And no, I won’t be doing similar lists for TV shows and movies–sadly, I get more than enough of that in.

And don’t worry, I don’t see this “things I want to get to” post being annual. (Have I done something like this before? Uh…maybe?) Just trying to set some positive goals for next year, after such a dreary 2020.

Review: The Guilty Die Twice

The Guilty Die Twice: A Legal ThrillerThe Guilty Die Twice: A Legal Thriller by Don Hartshorn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a potential review. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of writing a review that is ultimately unfavorable, even though it’s more likely than usual that the publisher or, even worse, the author might read this. I don’t think I was the target audience for this book after all. If you like legal thrillers or law dramas, I think you should stop right here. My review isn’t going to do you any good! You might well enjoy this book, especially as a breezy weekend read! But if you tend to find your tastes might align with mine, then feel free to continue on. (Note that some spoilers will follow.)

The eye-catching synopsis on the back of the book begins, “Two bullet-riddled corpses. Two attorney brothers. Two sides to the story.” One would anticipate family rivalry, high drama, courtroom antics, and perhaps a morbid tale of murder and moral compromise. But the book sketches this in only the broadest strokes, and at the end of the day, there is really only one side to the story.

The two brothers are Jake and Travis Lynch. One’s a prosecutor, and the other’s a struggling attorney handling mostly pro bono work in private practice. They had a falling out over ten years ago because of the events surrounding a capital murder investigation and trial. Now they’re forced back together, as Jake prosecutes the cringingly named “Rich Kid Murders” and Travis defends the kid from the other side of town charged with their deaths. The book is basically split between the perspectives of Jake, Travis, and the alleged murderer, Sam. Its central tension revolves around two mysteries: who actually killed the “rich kids,” and what happened between Jake and Travis? As you might imagine, a novel hung on mysteries that are easily answered by the three viewpoint characters reads as annoyingly drawn out. And it’s not much of a mystery about the murders, as we have everything that happened but who pulled the trigger early on, and Sam is an unrepentant sociopath. So my primary motivation in reading was to figure out what exactly happened between Jake and Travis.

Here’s the thing, though. Travis is presented as a moralistic crusader who refused to compromise his conscience even though it cost him his family. But the truth is anything but that. Spoiler: as a law clerk, he began to doubt the justification of the death penalty, and he used that doubt as its own justification to unethically obtain and conceal evidence from his brother to fruitlessly attempt to prevent the conviction and execution of an irredeemable sociopath. Ten years later, he once more finds himself handling another irredeemable sociopath, having decided that this was somehow important and uniquely his responsibility. Never mind that he has never prosecuted or defended a capital murder case in the intervening years, or that he seems in way over his head, or that he desperately needs paying clients and his pregnant wife is increasingly anxious because he’d rather devote himself to every pro bono cause (to the point that he puts off a scheduled appointment at one point because some non-paying walk-ins showed up!), or that there are surely better choices for a defender in Austin. And by the end of the book, without much reason to do so, he finds himself questioning his opposition to capital punishment after all, while dropping his self-enforced exile from his family and considering getting into the family business. In other words, the final moments show that he’s been engaging in a bit of poverty tourism for a decade, living in a poor part of town by choice and forming romantic notions about the lives of the impoverished, only to be prepared to jump right into the benefits of his family heritage as soon as anyone from his family makes more than a half-hearted gesture to bring him back into the fold. His bitterness about his family’s lifestyle chafes even more in retrospect, knowing where he ends up by the end–especially since he also spends quite a bit of the book denying the substantial privilege of his upbringing that even a life of pro bono work simply would not erase.

You’d think that I had something against a person like Travis, or that I’m perhaps fervently pro-death penalty. No, I have my own family drama, and I too can be a bit of a bleeding heart with an opposition to the death penalty. But Travis’s pigheaded, narrowminded perspective made him a drag to read.

On the other hand, Jake is initially presented as a raging asshole prone to heavy drinking. He is those things, but he’s also a devoted husband, father, and son. He’s clever, he’s analytical, he’s good at seeing through motivations. He’s surprisingly willing to see the talent in others, including a transparent ass-kissing lackey in the office and even his own brother. By the end, Jake had become my favorite character. Still, I was tired of the toxic masculinity oozing from Jake, Travis, and Sam. They all were arrogant, overconfident, and prone to expressing only anger openly.

The moments where Jake and Travis interacted with their family were probably the best in the book and felt the most honest. Family dynamics are complicated, even when they shouldn’t be, and author Don Hartshorn does a good job of portraying that. But even though they are the most interesting and have the most emotional stakes, they unfortunately don’t occupy as much of the novel as sections engaging with local politicking and the murder case.

Hartshorn almost inadvertently wrote two potentially very interesting women. One is Christine Morton, a hard-as-nails reporter who unfortunately is mostly described as blonde and attractive, even as she does a great job as an investigator, and she is treated with hate and derision by both brothers, although the novel never provides a great motivation for that hate. Toward the end, Christine and Jake almost become allies, and I imagined a more interesting relationship for them in which they were professional rivals (bloodhound journalist versus prosecutor with an iron grip over his office) but had a reluctant, almost weary respect for each other. That never quite materializes, and even though Christine helps Jake, she’s left to seem “foiled” by him in the end. The other interesting woman barely appears at all. Bonnie Wong occupies a single scene as a defense attorney for one of the other kids charged with the murders. She’s presented as antagonistic, at least from Travis’s viewpoint, but she offers a good if obvious strategy, while Travis enters the meeting apparently deciding the best way for his client to win is to simply blame everything on the co-defendant without much support. Bonnie doesn’t like Travis. She clearly views him as an inferior attorney. She remembers how he withheld the evidence, and he obviously hasn’t made any waves since then. But she still tries to treat him with courtesy and tries to extend an olive branch to build a better case for both defendants. She’s not actually allowed to do anything else in the book, though, as her defendant quickly exits the picture for reasons I won’t disclose here, one of the few twists I won’t touch on in case you do decide to read this.

Most of the other characters are forgetful, though I mostly remember the women–unfortunately, especially the brothers’ wives–as deceitful, manipulative, and interested in vicarious power and wealth. Not great. There are other problematic moments. Hartshorn, who is white, largely writes white characters, but he has depicted Sam the killer as Korean. We don’t get to know Sam that well, and we don’t really understand his family background; his parents are supposed to be sympathetic, and yet they somehow raised not one but two sociopathic criminals who end up entangled in the criminal justice system for crimes they gleefully committed. Hartshorn makes awkward choices in how he describes Sam, for instance having Sam observe early on his “unmistakably Asian features in the rear window” of a car. More broadly, Hartshorn seems interested in making stabs at complicated issues like socioeconomic and racial inequities and the imperfect nature of the justice system, but the only one really taking any time to reflect on these issues is Travis, whose views are remarkably shallow and self-centered (as I’ve described above), and the individuals allegedly crushed by an unfair society who are now lashing out in rage are both portrayed as sociopaths with no particular motivation for their violent lifestyles.

Another bizarre element is that the book almost feels like a 2000’s period piece, even though it appears to be in the present day. The law offices are very reliant on paper still, for some reason, and at one point a character literally closes a cell phone, like it’s an old flip phone. The bizarre, amorphous time period stuck out to me. But it doesn’t warrant more comment than that.

The Guilty Die Twice isn’t painfully bad; while I didn’t often have much motivation to keep reading, it wasn’t a struggle to turn the pages when I made time for it. But its weak points crowd out its strengths, and when we all have such limited attention spans and so many sources of potential entertainment, I just don’t think that I can recommend this particular one.

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A genetic determinant for encountering the paranormal?

I would highly recommend Phenomena, which I reviewed in my last post, but I also wanted to quote at length from one of the passages toward the end of the book. It’s speculative, and does not reflect Jacobsen’s personal opinion. It’s not verified. But it really tickled me. I’m intrigued. Consider it an incentive to read the whole book. Here you go:

“We are also mapping [DNA and immune systems of] people and their families who claim to be remote viewers or have anomalous perception,” [Garry] Nolan [of the Nolan Lab at Stanford University] confirms . . . . “Whether real, perceived, or illusion, there appears to be a genetic determinant.” And while Dr. Green maintains that his patients’ injuries may have come from high energy devices or their components, both Green and Nolan think there is more to it than that. “Some people [seem to] repeatedly attract the phenomena or the experiences,” Nolan says. “They act like an antenna or are like lighthouses in the dark.”

Review: Phenomena

Phenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government's Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and PsychokinesisPhenomena: The Secret History of the U.S. Government’s Investigations into Extrasensory Perception and Psychokinesis by Annie Jacobsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phenomena is an improvement by leaps and bounds over Annie Jacobsen’s earlier Area 51. Both books detail histories of covert government projects that have otherwise been awash in misinformation, classified projects, and the whiff of the paranormal. Both books are heavily researched and well-cited, benefiting from substantial FOIA requests and interviews conducted by the author herself. But I found a reliance on an off-the-wall account of the Roswell crash harmed the overall credibility and plausibility of the otherwise well-worth-reading Area 51. In contrast, Phenomena avoids overextending into speculation.

Jacobsen has quite the niche, writing meaty tomes about formerly classified military subject matter. At this point, I trust her as a writer and researcher. But even if you had no knowledge of the author, Jacobsen keeps to an open-minded yet grounded approach in recounting the military and intelligence community’s adventures in psychic research; she builds the needed trust in her relative objectivity throughout. This leads to the sort of writing about paranormal subjects that I love: fact-focused, invested in its human subjects but unwilling to blindly accept their claims, and comfortably probing the edges of unusual fields of study. She competently writes about the history of research into extrasensory perception and telekinesis without ever jumping onto the bandwagon of critics or true believers. And the accounts she produces, pulled from formerly confidential reports and verified in a variety of interviews, indicate that something unusual is certainly happening, that there might actually be some form of ESP and TK, even if it’s an unreliable ability that can’t be consistently trained to manifest in just anyone. Jacobsen does not shy away from discussing instances of fraud and failed scientific controls, especially in the civilian side of research, and yet there are moments that defy rational explanation–especially some of the stories revolving around characters like Ingo Swann, Pat Price, and Angela Dellafiora. I’d often read aloud to my wife a shocking story about how one of these remote viewers could, for instance, accurately detail a covert military installation that was so classified even the observer was not initially aware of it. Of course, I’m not observing these events myself, and I think it would be easy for a skeptical reader to suggest that perhaps some of this represents government disinformation efforts past or present, but there are still some wild accounts in here that can’t be confidently explained away. I enjoy reading about paranormal subjects, it’s true, but ESP has always seemed somewhat boring and inconsequential even if it could be determined real; so what if someone can apparently bend spoons when rubbing a finger over them or can sometimes guess a basic shape on a card more often than the standard rate for blind guessing? Furthermore, skeptics have so firmly branded the subject with stigma that I’d accepted hand-waving dismissals of the subject matter as absolute truth without bothering to take a second glance until now. But this book made me interested, both because sometimes these powers produce more fascinating results than would otherwise be expected (some might even say that some of the results appear “miraculous”) and because so many of the characters involved in this research are interesting in and of themselves.

I don’t think this book will get a true believer to question their cobbled-together paranormal beliefs, and I don’t think it will convince a hard-nosed skeptic that ESP (whatever that really represents) might be real, but it’s an engaging text about an unusual field of military study, and if you can set paranormal stigma aside and approach the book with an open mind, I suspect you too will be thrilled, amazed, and curious to know what this all might signify and why exactly the military remained interested in it for so long.

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Just a little ESP

The book I’m primarily reading right now is Phenomena by Annie Jacobsen (who also wrote Area 51, which I found to be well-researched and quite interesting though too much space was devoted to a rather bizarre Roswell theory), and the game I’m primarily playing is the 2017 version of Prey developed by Arkane Studios. Naturally, paranormal phenomena and ESP are on my mind a lot at the moment.

I’ve always really enjoyed reading books and articles or watching shows and movies that involve the paranormal, whether fiction or nonfiction or that in-between spot of heavily produced, heavily spun “documentary” that follows real people and real events while offering very little truth–like your typical ghost investigator show. Like Mulder, I want to believe, but since my teen years I’ve become quite the skeptic, far more a Scully (although as seen recently on this site, some think I’m ignorantly bullheaded about my skepticism, so they might see me as more of a Doggett). Still, while I take it all with a grain of salt, I’ve never stopped casually exploring the subject. Not a hobby or a passion, just a casual interest. I like when I find sources that also seem to love the collection of subjects that fall into the general category of “paranormal” but approach it with skepticism, like Jacobsen or the ever-delightful folks behind The Spooktator (which I am quite far behind on at this point).

All that said, it’s kind of funny that my attention is currently focused on ESP. I’ve never been that interested in this particular topic. I’ve never looked that closely; the most intriguing claims of lab results never seem that remarkable to me, even if I were to accept them outright. But I don’t know enough about the subject to really have that strong of an opinion. I do know that I have no time or patience for mediums and the like that grew out of the spiritualism movement; so many have been proven charlatans, and even those who genuinely believe what they are doing can’t offer anything all that convincing to me.

Set all that aside, though. The big reason that I don’t really care about ESP one way or the other is that it’s one of those things that doesn’t seem to make much of a big impact on the world. Let’s say that people can exhibit extrasensory perception, and that this means that they can sometimes correctly identify what someone else is thinking. What does this mean? Not a whole lot. It doesn’t seem like a very consistent or reliable ability. The over-the-top telekinetic powers of movies or games are obviously not realistic. So what if you can sometimes correctly intuit the symbol on a card at a rate that is slightly higher than expected for someone purely guessing? It doesn’t reshape how anyone thinks about the world. And I imagine that we’d eventually be able to come up with a theory for how ESP operates, if it were seriously documented, and I’m not sure that theory would require a radical reconception of our understanding of the natural world.

In contrast, what if extraterrestrial life not only existed, but it had evolved into intelligent, technologically advanced cultures that surreptitiously visited and monitored Earth? That could require a radical new understanding of our place in the universe and of our own limitations as humans. Perhaps an anthropocentric view of the world just couldn’t be preserved any further. Perhaps, to understand how the aliens could travel such vast distances and maneuver and hide their craft in such unique ways, we would see dramatic shifts in physics. It seems like a big deal, in a way that correctly predicting card faces isn’t.

Similarly, if ghosts are real, or if near-death experiences actually show glimpses of an afterlife, or if reincarnation accounts were verified beyond any doubt, then that would be proof of life after death. That would be a remarkable thing! We might never understand anything about what consciousness is like after death. But we would have an assurance that there is more than what happens in this life, and that we continue on somehow. I think this would be an amazing reassurance to the vast majority of people. In my experience, even religious people have moments of doubt, so even for those with an established faith, this could give peace of mind. It could also upturn some religious beliefs–what are Christians supposed to do if reincarnation was an undeniable reality? For that matter, for those who tend to focus on the material, provable nature of reality, how do you react to that? That there is something larger and perhaps unobservable or immeasurable that we will all some day experience but that can’t be objectively analyzed? If you’ve spent your life as a hardened atheist, what does this news mean to you? At the least, it would seem like more people would have to seriously concede the limits of what the scientific method can reveal about our world, even as those who are fervently religious might face another challenge to their literalist adherence to a particular faith tradition.

Even the capture and display of a cryptid could be more interesting, if only because you’ve presented an animal that might not really fit in with a particular ecology, or that might seem impossible to exist in a particular habitat without detection for so long. I like animals. A new, strange animal would just be cool. And it would be something that you could reach out and touch, so to speak.

So that’s why I’ve never been overly interested in ESP, psychic precognition or retrocognition, telepathy, psychokinetics, or anything else like that. Even if some of these things could be established as undeniably real, they would seem mere oddities to me, rather than signifiers of something world-shattering. That said, psionic powers in video games are another thing entirely. PreyBioshockMass Effect, and Deus Ex have all delighted me with the powers on display. And while the Force comes with its own mythology and fantasy science source, the central unseen power of the Star Wars universe has resulted in entertaining and intriguing abilities in movies, shows, games, books, comics, and more. These over-the-top powers, and their sci-fi explanations, certainly would leave more of an impression.

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Anyway, I’m sure I’ll post reviews of Phenomena and Prey on this site when I’m done with them. For what it’s worth, I’m enjoying them both rather a lot so far! And as a final thought, if you have any suggestions on books or documentaries that explore ESP with a skeptical bent (or that at least show something more restrained than breathless credulity), consider sending them my way. I wouldn’t mind taking a more serious look at the history of parapsychological study of this field.