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CDK Speer, PhD

Novel Hot Take: The Vanished Birds

This is part of an experimental periodic series of posts with quick reactions to various novels. Rather than a full review, I’m pulling out one or two things that I think are interesting.

To be honest, The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez isn’t exactly the kind of book I usually read. While I love the argument of it, as I’ll get to in a moment, both a space setting and the dreamlike writing style is not usually my preference. One other challenge is in the structure: the first chapter has a fascinating premise and gives you the reader just enough to hook you on the characters, only to have the second chapter segue into a nearly entirely new set of characters. Chapter three switches again to another character’s story that is initially divorced not only in place, but also in time. And, while these tales eventually weave together as I would expect, for me it takes some deliberate determination to work through three sets of sequential character bonding like that.

But, in spite of that slow start, it really pays off. The threads come together across the middle and ending of the novel in unexpected ways. The novel translates social critiques from big picture to the personal. It demonstrates how individual choices are subject to the social forces around them.


To do this, each of the threads demonstrate a way that profit motives victimize people: In one thread, the people of a distant planet find their local culture a tourist attraction, bringing income but diluting their way of life. In another, a captain finds herself caught between those she cares about and a long-term contract, losing what she values most to her responsibilities. In another, a scientist has become the nothing more than an appendage to the company she serves, her own attempts to move outside of the prescribed path resulting in tragedy. And in the most definitive, one young man’s powers of freedom are transformed into a corporate service, involuntary servitude that can liberate others… for a price, of course.

While the ending doesn’t give us a neat resolution, the striving, the connections, the steps that lead to that ending allow the reader to become invested. The emotions of the characters making difficult decisions build to an ultimate conclusion that has impact, one that leaves me with something I’ll continue to think about for a long time.

Categories: pontificating, social, sociology

Tags: hot take

Year in Review 2022

It’s that time of year for the retrospective, where on the cusp of a significant switchover from year to year, we look back on recent times and reflect. I haven’t done one of these in a while but it seems like a good idea now, both as a means of jumping into more writing and because, in spite of 2022 being a real slog, it was a slog with purpose. It was the final grueling steps on big quests and, well, that’s worth remembering.

There were two major culminations of decades of work that happened this year: finishing my PhD and finishing a co-written novel. The doctoral program I started in fall 2015, and I’d been steadily working on while employed full time, while living through the pandemic, while experiencing all the challenges that being a human in the 2020s entails. It was a delight, an opportunity to grow, to meet others with passion for their research. It was also exhausting, a grueling crawl at times, finishing projects while balancing so many other aspects of life. At the end, it was such a relief to present to my committee and have that chance to just talk about where I’d been and where I might be going. And of course there are no words for hearing the words from my excellent advisor Dr. Wood: “Congratulations, Dr. Speer.”

The novel has been a work in progress across the past few years, one that has given me space to be mentally elsewhere, taking pieces of life and twisting them into threads of narrative. It was an opportunity to consider my own anger over the last few years and to distill it down to the core, and sublimate it into a fictitious form. It was also a period of real growth learning how to build up events and the core of a character into what makes a story. It was an exercise in revision, weaving the pieces, zooming out to look at the whole, and then reworking the components until the many elements of the linguistic collage clicked into place.

Last Monday, I submitted the novel as a query to two amazing agents. While I recognize the lottery ticket levels of statistics stacked against us in the publishing arena, I’ve been pleased to see at least one of the agents has been actively screening other queries out but has not yet screened ours. I don’t have an expectation that the second agent we query is going to be one that results in an offer of representation, but nonetheless, it’s heartening to see that at the very least all of the research and drafting and redrafting of our letter, pitch, bio, and opening pages has made for a query that doesn’t result in a rejection out of hand. It’s an exercise in humility to be asking for this kind of consideration, but also an act of hope.

This December, I received a fluffy commencement update that included a quote from the undergraduate student rep: something about believing in yourself and in your dreams as you venture out into the world. My initial reaction was to smile, remembering the optimism of that age. And then I had a moment of reflection, thinking about the reflexive cynicism that can become so second nature over time. I’ve spent so much time over the past few decades striving, pressing forward, making incremental progress without necessarily having the end in sight. Now after all this time I’ve reached those ends, those bright points of completion came into view and I’ve passed over those horizons. Going into this next year is an opportunity to remember where those successes have come together, even as I look ahead to question what paths to trod next.

Here’s to hope in 2023.

Categories: pontificating, social

Tags: retrospective

On Writing Downhill

One especially helpful term that I’ve heard for creative writing is to “park your writing downhill”: never leave your writing at the end of a scene because it’ll be harder to start up from a dead stop. Instead, write a few lines into the next scene to give yourself somewhere to start. In the way that parking your car pointed downhill is easier than pointing uphill, giving yourself somewhere to start makes getting going easier.

And yet in blogging, I’ve always tasked myself with sitting down to write from a deadstart. Each time I went to write, I started in a blank document, the essay that seemed so clever in my mind needing to translate in its entirety to a finished project in one go. No wonder finding the time and energy to blog became more limited over the years.

What’s odd is that I rarely write like that in other contexts. While I do enjoy the phase of fiction and academic writing that is noodling on a topic until it becomes a meditative focus of my shower thoughts, both of those types of writing still usually involve at least simple outlines and multiple sessions. Both include future rounds of editing, time permitting.

And yet, for some reason, blogging had become a practice that required completing each essay all in one go, like popping a whole uncut roll of sushi in my mouth. A pleasant thing made unpleasant by form.

The good news is that, having recognized the mindset, this is an easy adjustment. I simply need to start drafts on topics as I think of them. So, I set out this morning to do this and, more than the content of this post, having started some of those draft documents is what was the most meaningful accomplishment of my morning. And with that simple Google Drive folder, I now look forward to moments of quick notes and outlines as well as writing that starts pointing downhill.

Categories: pontificating, writing, social


Another Day, Another Update

After a bit more work, the blog page is switched over to the version with a ProcessWire backend. It's been an interesting challenge to hook the pieces up, and has included learning some common CSS tricks that aren't difficult but that I've just never motivated myself to learn. For example, styling an unordered list to create a navigation menu, code that was included in the page numbering for ProcessBlog. Always nice to learn something "new".

I still have a few things to do to finish the transition:

  • Finish updating the image links to the updated URL
  • Limit the image width on posts so they don't extend off the screen
  • Update category and tag descriptions labels so they are readable
  • Update the RSS feed to include images
  • Update the link to the RSS feed link used by the icon in the navigation for the site
  • ...
  • Profit

Categories: social, updates


Site Update: RSS Feed

Also, I'm in the process of updating features of the site to use options like a new RSS feed that draws on ProcessWire to generate. I'll update the public link and what feeds into Micro.Blog once I've finished testing.

Categories: updates


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