The universe is so large that it's inconceivable that we'd be the only form of intelligent life in existence, but in the words of Physicist Enrico Fermi, "Where is everybody?" If there's lots of intelligent life out there, some far more advanced than we are, why isn't there any evidence that they exist? This contradiction between probability and evidence is known as the Fermi Paradox. There are potential explanations, but the implications of the Fermi paradox are often not very comforting and sometimes downright depressing.

In science fiction, first contact stories usually deal with this in some way, at least implicitly (if not explicitly). In The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu lays out one reason first contact should be carefully considered. Spoilers for all three novels follow! In that novel, a Chinese scientist, disheartened by her Communist upbringing (during the Culural Revolution, her father is killed, she is persecuted for reading a banned book, other family members joined the Red Guard, etc...) and general cruelty of humans, basically invites a nearby alien race to come and "purify the human race." The Trisolarans live in an inhospitable star system and the relative comfort of a planet like Earth is attractive to them, so they naturally begin invasion procedures. Interstellar travel being what it is, even for a civilization more advanced than we are, it will take their invasion fleet 400 years to reach earth. To clear the way for the invasion, the Trisolarans send and advance party of Sophons (basically a computer/AI embedded into a single proton in a handwavey but bravura sequence in the book) that will spy on the humans and also halt human scientific research and development by interrupting experiments and giving false results, etc...

The Three-Body Problem won the Hugo award a couple years ago, thanks in part to its absence from Puppy-related slates (and yet, being the type of story that Puppies seem to like). The follow up, The Dark Forest, picks up where the first book left off: Trisolaran fleet on its way, Sophons blocking technological progress, whatever shall humans do? After some speculation on the general impact such events would have on society and politics, the book settles into an examination of a human plan called the Wallfacer project. The UN selects four individuals and provides them with unlimited resources in order to devise a counterattack to the Trisolarans. However, thanks to the surveillance of the Sophons, these four men must keep their true plans secret. The Trisolaran response, carried out by human traitors in an organization called the ETO (Earth-Trisolaris Organization), is to designate four individuals in opposition, the Wallbreakers.

Due to the need to keep these plans secret, they all appear to be rather simplistic and silly on their face. However, as the novel progresses and the Wallbreakers study their opponents, the true nature of the plans come to light. Wallfacer Frederick Tyler, the former US Secretary of Defense, has a public plan to create a fleet of mosquito ships with kamikaze-like pilots that will swarm the attacking fleet and detonate nuclear bombs. His Wallbreaker reveals the true plan, which involves bringing a huge amount of water into space and using it to fuel a massive hydrogen bomb (this plan was never all that clear to me). Wallfacer Rey Diaz, famous for repelling a US invasion of Venezuela, has a similar public plan of creating huge nuclear bombs, but his true plan, to use the nuclear bombs to launch Mercury into the sun, thus destroying the entire system (including Earth), is exposed by his Wallbreaker. While this might have been an effective deterrent, it was revealed too early and the rest of humanity wasn't too keen on the plan. Wallfacer Bill Hines, a British neuroscientist, wants to use genetic modification to improve the human mind. His true plan is subverted by his Wallbreaker, who is also his wife. Details are a little unclear, but it turns out that the "Mental Seal" device he created actually instills defeatism in its users. Fortunately, the process was never fully adopted.

Finally, there's the most unlikely Wallfacer, Luo Ji. If this book could be said to have a protagonist, it would be him. He immediately refuses the honor, but his refusal is taken to be part of his plan. Resigned to his fate, he simply adopts a hedonistic lifestyle, finding an isolated home, drinking expensive wine, and using the UN as a dating service to find an attractive woman (who, for some reason, goes along with this?) Eventually, he reveals a public plan to transmit a "spell against the planets of star 187J3X1" into the universe. He says this will take at least one hundred years to work, but he predicts that his spell will be devastating. For their part, the Trisolarans seem the most afraid of Luo Ji, and rather than assign a Wallbreaker, they simply try to assassinate him. Luo Ji escapes barely, and manages to make his way into hibernation.

200 years later, he awakens to a changed world. Environmental degradation has lead to large underground excavations. Despite the Sophon block, technology has increased dramatically, and humanity now sports a fleet of thousands of spaceships. Observations of the Trisolaran fleet show trouble for our enemies, as the size of the fleet dwindles (presumably due to accidents or damage sustained during high speed travel). Humanity seems to regard the Wallfacer program a failure and is now seeking to establish diplomatic talks with the Trisolarans. Despite this, Luo Ji has to dodge a series of assassination attempts after he awakes, so clearly the Trisolarans are still scared of him.

All's well, right? Well, not so much. The arrival of the first Trisolaran probe results in a devastating attack on humanity's space capability (dubbed "The Battle of Darkness"). If such a tiny probe is so advanced, humanity has no chance against even a weakened Trisolaran fleet. That is, until Luo Ji's spell finally takes effect and star 187J3X1 is destroyed. His Wallfacer plan is thus finally revealed, and it relies on one of the more depressing explanations for the Fermi Paradox: While intelligent life may be plentiful in the universe, if you reveal your location, at least one of those civilizations will be both more advanced than you AND be a scary, predatory culture that will only see you as a potential threat. The strategy of such a civilization would be to preemptively strike any developing civilization before it can become a true threat. Luo Ji had sent out a message indicating that it came from star 187J3X1. This message was presumably received by lots of alien civilizations, but it eventually reached a more predatory species who simply destroyed the system. The title of the book comes from a metaphor: The universe is a dark forest where every civilization is a silent hunter. Any civilization that announces itself becomes a target.

Phew, that's a lot of plot, and believe it or not, I'm greatly simplifying here and leaving lots out. Like its predecessor, this book is stuffed with plot, ideas, and little thought experiments. This makes for interesting reading, and the overarching conflict is tense and exciting, but in execution it does feel a bit scattershot. The concept of the Wallfacer project is great, but it takes a bit too long to get at the hidden plans, and we spend a lot of time with characters who are closed off and focused on seemingly tangential plot points. It turns out that in deceiving the Sophons, the Wallfacers also have to deceive the reader, which is a great idea, but Liu only barely clears that bar, making this an entertaining read, but one that feels like it has a lot of filler. By design and for good reason, but filler nonetheless. That being said, I was surprised that it didn't manage to make the Hugo ballot last year. Then again, it's not like I read it back then or nominated it, so I don't have to look far for an explanation.

So finally we get to Death's End, the conclusion to Liu's trilogy and one of the nominees for this year's Hugo Awards. Naturally, this one starts with a segment set during the Fall of Constantinople. Without spoiling details, it ends millions of years in the future. Inbetween, we get some other approaches to the Trisolaran threat that parallel the Wallfacer project (a timeframe referred to as the "Crisis Era"), such as the Staircase Program (an attempt to send a lone human emissary to meet the Trisolaran fleet). We eventually get to the "Deterrence Era" in which Luo Ji is known as the Swordholder and deters the Trisolarans with mutually-assured destruction. But Luo Ji is getting old and must be replaced. His replacement is Cheng Xin, who worked on the Staircase project. Unfortunately, at the moment of transition, the Trisolarans immediately attack (using their probes and Sophons, etc...) and it's revealed that a new invasion fleet, capable of light speed, has set out from Trisolaris and will arrive in 4 years. Cheng Xin does not initiate the Dark Forest broadcast (because that would kill both civilizations) and the Trisolarans start colonization procedures, allowing humanity to collect itself in Australia (while the Trisolarans will take the rest of the planet). When the full implications of this emerge (the Trisolarans expect only about 50 million humans to survive), humanity gets all uppity and ends up broadcasting the location of Trisolaris into the Dark Forest, resulting in its quick destruction. It's only a matter of time before that same scary, predatory race intuits Earth as the origin of these broadcasts, so the Trisolaris fleet changes directions and flees into the galaxy. Humanity works on ways to counter the predatory race, either by hiding from it, escaping to interstellar space, or a few other tricks. Will they succeed?

Once again, what we have here is a novel that is overstuffed with ideas and thought experiments. Liu has a knack for naming things to evoke archetypal characteristics. Wallfacer/Wallbreaker, Staircase, Swordholder, and even the various Eras referred to throughout (Broadcast Era, Bunker Era, etc...); all of these lend a certain feeling of universality and scope that make this seem classical and enduring. High ambition, high stakes (that are actually earned), and a willingness to confront uncomfortable ideas and take them to their frightening but logical conclusions. I won't spoil the ending, but it's bittersweet at best, and existentially terrifying at worst. There's a reason that Fermi Paradox folks like to say "No news is good news" and this novel nails why that statement works.

Those ideas that evoke the fabled SF goal of Sense of Wonder are what make these books work. The more sociological and philosophical aspects of the story are a little less focused and successful, leading to some inconsistency in terms of characters and pacing that perhaps make the series too long and pull the books down a peg or two. I suspect some things are lost in translation here, but this is not meant as a slight on Ken Liu (who translated the first and third books in the series), just an acknowledgement that translations naturally produce, for example, awkward dialog and pacing. I'll put this on me too, as reading a book from another culture always presents challenges that I'll readily admit I'm not always equal to. However, most of my complaints are far outweighed by what this series gets right, and this will rank high on my Hugo ballot, though I don't know that it will unseat my current frontrunner (which remains Ninefox Gambit). This isn't quite the diamond-hard SF of Greg Egan or Peter Watts, but it's fully in the tradition of "literature of ideas" and even if some of those ideas don't land for me, it's definitely my kinda SF.

Leave a comment...

Link Dump

I've run across some links of such importance that any and all other thoughts had to be postponed so that I could just point to them:
  • Things full of beans that shouldn't be full of beans - Um, ignore the intro above.
  • If Guardians of the Galaxy was DC - Marginally better than beans, but still completely frivolous. A fun takedown of DC's humorless approach though.
  • Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing - This one is actually a pretty useful list of writerly tidbits:
    A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

    My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

    If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

    Man, I'm really going to fall back on this when reviewing Hugo finalists that are "perpetrating hooptedoodle" (of which there seems to be a lot).
  • The Conceptual Penis as Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies - These stunts are anecdotal, but remain a little troubling anyway. The reference in the subtitle is from physicist Alan Sokal's famous nonsensical parody "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". Sokal was pretty thorough, but this most recent effort should have been embarrassingly easy to spot. For example, their references were mostly fake:
    Not only is the text ridiculous, so are the references. Most of our references are quotations from papers and figures in the field that barely make sense in the context of the text. Others were obtained by searching keywords and grabbing papers that sounded plausibly connected to words we cited. We read exactly zero of the sources we cited, by intention, as part of the hoax. And it gets still worse…

    Some references cite the Postmodern Generator, a website coded in the 1990s by Andrew Bulhak featuring an algorithm, based on NYU physicist Alan Sokal’s method of hoaxing a cultural studies journal called Social Text, that returns a different fake postmodern “paper” every time the page is reloaded. We cited and quoted from the Postmodern Generator liberally; this includes nonsense quotations incorporated in the body of the paper and citing five different “papers” generated in the course of a few minutes.

    Five references to fake papers in journals that don’t exist is astonishing on its own, but it’s incredible given that the original paper we submitted had only sixteen references total (it has twenty now, after a reviewer asked for more examples). Nearly a third of our references in the original paper go to fake sources from a website mocking the fact that this kind of thing is brainlessly possible, particularly in “academic” fields corrupted by postmodernism.
    Again, it's anecdotal, and there's plenty of pay-for-play type journals out there that don't have any integrity (see this guy who got an article published in a medical journal about Seinfeld's fictional urology disease "uromycitisis"), but that this seems to keep happening isn't exactly encouraging...
  • Ever wonder what happened to Kirk Van Houten right after he was fired from the cracker factory? - An excerpt that didn't make it into a Simpson's episode... Very funny. Introduction above reinstated.
That's all for now.
Leave a comment...

SF Book Review: Part 27

Clearing the decks before we get into this year's Hugo nominees, here's some stuff I've read recently:
  • Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement - There are various approaches to establishing a setting for a science fiction story. One is to have the story in mind and let that dictate the details of the setting. Another is to extrapolate basic scientific theories in order to generate a realistic setting, which can then drive a plot. Mission of Gravity is very much the latter. Based on some newfangled data about the star 61 Cygni (that turned out to be inaccurate, but that's beside the point), Clement created his world from reasonable extrapolations. Mesklin is an oblate planet with extreme gravity: 700 g at the poles but only 3 g at the equator. Then he posited a centipede-like alien species that could survive such extremes, cooked up a human crisis (a satellite has crashed at one of the poles), and chronicles the collaboration between the humans and a native ship captain and explorer. The story is rather simple, but it's the setting and its various implications that really make this a winner. You get a lot about the Mesklinites' perspective, much of which is interesting but makes perfect sense when you think about it. For example, they all have a crippling fear of heights, since at 700 g, even a tiny drop can cause death. Less obvious is their perception of the world around them. It makes sense that, for example, they'd have trouble conceptualizing the concept of flight or projectiles, but their view of the world as a giant bowl takes a little more work to get there (though it makes sense once you do). The story is episodic and a little repetitive, but it's still one of the more enduring creations from the 50s that I've read. As an aside, I will be naming my next homebrew after Barlennan. It's a good name, and it has the semblance of "barley" which also works. What? Oh, yes, the book is great and recommended for fans of SF from this era (it may be too advanced for newbs, but it's short and approachable too).
  • Mira's Last Dance by Lois McMaster Bujold - Another Penric and Desdemona novella, this one picks up right after the previous story, Penric's Mission, left off. Despite nominating that earlier work for the Hugo (as it turns out, it's not eligible for the novella award because it's a hair too long), I never really wrote much about it. Penric is a scholar, but was recruited for a covert operation. He is to travel to a foreign land an help a disaffected general defect to Penric's side. However, he's immediately betrayed and thrown into prison, while the object of his mission is arrested and punished in horrible ways. Penric must find a way to help the general (and his loyal sister) escape, and this being Bujold, there's lots of great detail in how this is accomplished. Mira's Last Dance finishes off the escape, and goes to some weird places, but is just as tightly plotted and fun as the previous Penric and Desdemona novellas. Well worth your time (though you'll probably want to read Penric's Mission first!)
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis - This is the second novel set in Willis' Oxford Time Travel universe, but I'm having a hard time conceiving of how it could be any more different than the first novel in the series, Doomsday Book. They share some side characters, notably Professor Dunworthy, but are otherwise completely disconnected (and you can read this one without having read the first). They are both about time-traveling historians, but while Doomsday Book displayed almost none of the consideration for paradox and other time-travel tropes, To Say Nothing of the Dog is chock full of time-travel theorizing, paradox, and full-blown explorations of the mechanics of time-travel. Without giving anything away, Doomsday Book has some unbearably sad moments, while To Say Nothing of the Dog is an outright comedy. A romantic comedy, even. Ned Henry is assigned to recover the Bishop's bird stump, a large piece of Victorian bric-a-brac for an overzealous recreation of Coventry Cathedral in 2057. It was last seen in the early 40s, but he's made so many trips to that time period that he's developed a serious case of "time lag". The aforementioned Professor Dunworthy, knowing that Ned's condition would be ignored, decides to send him to Victorian England, where he can hang out for a while and shake off the effects of time lag. Meanwhile, Verity Kindle has nearly destroyed the space-time continuum by accidentally bringing a cat from Victorian England back to 2057. Naturally, Ned and Verity must find a way to repair the timeline, ensure that the cat returns and survives, and that a certain other couple gets together. It's all very Back to the Futurey, and it's a lot of fun. I will say that it's a bit on the overlong side, but as these things go, it's quite enjoyable. The time-travel machinations are much more interesting here than they were previously, and it's just fun spending time with some of these characters. Other characters are somewhat more annoying, but they work in the context of the story. Well worth checking out.
  • Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert A. Heinlein - It strikes me that I still haven't read all of Heinlein, so I added a few of his books to my queue and got to this one first. An above average example of Heinlein's "juveniles", this one tells the story of Thorby, a young, scrawny, defiant slave-boy who isn't fetching very much at the slave auction... such that a local beggar, Baslim the Cripple, is able to purchase him for a tiny amount. However, Baslim is not all that he seems. He almost immediately frees Thorby, but also offers to teach him languages, mathematics, etc... Baslim eventually runs afoul of the local authorities, and thus Thorby executes a contingency plan to escape the planet, ending up on a Free Trader ship at first, then moving on to a quick military assignment until his true identity as the heir to a wealthy business empire. As it turns out, these business ventures are nearly as dangerous as his other occupations. Again, a pretty solid example of the juveniles, not as good as Have Spacesuit, Will Travel or Tunnel in the Sky, but a good, quick read that hits on a lot of Heinlein's typical notes.
And that's all for now. Stay tuned for some Hugo nominee reviews coming in the next few weeks or so...
Leave a comment...

Problematic Influence

Movies can be judged along many spectrums. One is the influence it has on the world. This is difficult to measure, but it seems ridiculous to say that a popular movie will have no influence on its audience. Unfortunately, this influence is often used to justify some of our baser censorious instincts. In doing so, I feel like our would-be censors often exaggerate the influence a film has. They also tend to assume that because a movie can be interpreted in some harmful way, that it always will be interpreted that way. By that logic, the Bible is the most dangerous book in the world (that might be a bad example, because there are some who might actually believe that, but I digress). Another spectrum to observe is that a movie is merely reflecting the culture it was created in. This one is particularly weird because it messes with causality. When someone does something horrific that resembles a movie, was it the movie that caused that? Or was the movie merely another expression of the same thing that caused the horrific event in question?

A few years ago, I read a book called Crystal Lake Memories: The Complete History of Friday The 13th. It's a fascinating book, and not just because I'm inexplicably obsessed with that series of movies. It's basically set up like an absurdly comprehensive Oral History (only it was published a few years before the concept was repopularized) of all the films. One of the interviewees was Tom McLoughlin, the director of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI (a Kaedrin favorite).

Jason is confused
Jason is confused by our puny mortal form, but also by his influence
At one point, he discusses the two sides of the coin about doing a Friday the 13th movie:
A number of years after I did Jason Lives, I was watching an HBO special about teens who kill. They had this boy on there who was about 14. They asked, "Why did you kill your friend's mom? What could have possibly been going through your head?" And he said, "Jason, man. I was thinking like Jason." It really affected me-could a movie like this truly influence somebody?

The other side of the coin was that I was once directing a play in San Francisco, an all-out comedy. One night, after a performance, somebody was waiting for me, this very professional guy. He says, "Are you the director?" I said, "Yeah." He says, "I noticed on your credits that you did one of the Friday the 13th movies." And I immediately started making excuses. "You know - it was a fun thing, blah blah blah." And he said, "I didn't see the movie, but I just wanted to thank you." I was stunned for a second, and then I asked, "Why?" He says, "Well, I'm a psychologist and we have a clinic up here in San Francisco where we work with disturbed kids. We have them put on these Jason masks and they take out their aggressions on stuffed dummies. By not being themselves and venting what they feel through this character, we've had a lot of wonderful breakthroughs. I just wanted to thank whoever is responsible for all this."

Boy, was that something I didn't expect to hear. I was just so blown away that somebody of authority and experience thought that Friday the 13th was a positive thing.

I was reminded of this anecdote because I read Yoon Ha Lee's recent post, The Problem With Problematic:
"But is it hurtful?" you ask.

I feel this is the wrong question.

Individuals are hurt by whatever hurts them. And that's not always something an author can predict--given the number of individuals in this world that's a losing proposition, to try to write a work that never hurts anyone. I was not hurt by Palmer's exploration of gender and society and use of pronouns, but again, trans people are not a monolith; and I want to be clear that people who noped out of the novel because of the pronouns (or any other reason) are entirely within their rights. I do think she was doing something interesting and definitely science fictional and that that's fine, and that she should not have been prevented from writing with this device.

Let me tackle this from another angle. There is a class of narratives about trans people that hurts me, personally, that I avoid the fuck ever reading if I have a choice in the matter. But that does not mean that this class of narratives should not be written, or even that there should be content warnings for this class of narratives. Because that class of narratives is "trans stories with happy trans characters and happy endings." I actively find these stories painful to read because they remind me of the suck aspects of my existence and the fact that I'm not getting a happy ending. But does this mean these stories shouldn't be written? Fuck no! These stories are important and vital, and other readers should get a chance to read them.

All this just to say--readers are so individual in their reactions that "never write something hurtful" is untenable.

I think this is related to the going trend these days, which is to ask authors not to write works that are "problematic." But what do we really mean by that? Analysis of, say, racist or sexist elements in media is valuable, and we need more of it. But sometimes what I see is not that, but "don't write problematic works" in the sense of "don't write things that I consider hurtful."

The funny thing about this, and the thing that I think surprised McLaughlin is that the opposite is also true. To paraphrase: But is it helpful? Individuals are helped by whatever helps them. And that's not always something an author can predict. Sometimes it even comes from the most unlikely of sources, like trashy Friday the 13th movies.

Leave a comment...

The Collapsing Empire

"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space." - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Space is so big that it's difficult for us puny humans to really internalize the distances involved. Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object from Earth and a few years ago, it became the first spacecraft to enter interstellar space. It's not pointed at any specific star, but for the sake of illustration, let's say that it's headed towards our closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away. At its current speed, it would take Voyager 1 over 70,000 years to reach it.

Again, space is big. Some science fiction takes advantage of this and even manages to generate the fabled sense of wonder from the scale of the universe, but a pretty sizeable portion of the genre is dedicated to shrinking the universe down to a more manageable scale. To accomplish this, science fiction writers wave their hands really, really hard, and we're left with a class of travel known as Faster Than Light (FTL). The special theory of relativity implies that such travel is basically impossible, but science fiction authors need FTL to make certain stories possible. So up yours, Einstein! We've got some exciting space opera to write.

John Scalzi's latest novel, The Collapsing Empire, posits a FTL method called "The Flow", which allows humanity to spread out through the universe to establish colonies on tons of other planets. But the Flow isn't quite as stable as it seems, and thanks to the interdependency of all the planets in the empire, a collapse of the flow system would be catastrophic to the empire. Spoilers, I guess, but hey, it's right there in the title of the novel. As FTL fables go, this isn't exactly original, but Scalzi leverages the tropes well, and spins a fun little space opera yarn that's filled with his usual snappy, page-turning dialog and characters.

I always enjoy Scalzi's novels, but I found something wanting in his past couple efforts. Both Lock In and The End of All Things, enjoyable as they were overall, fell prey to some glaring problems with exposition and info-dumping. This isn't exactly unusual for science fiction (that hand waving that enables things like FTL takes its toll), but even accounting for that, there were some egregious examples of this sort of thing in those books. Lock In was particularly bad, opening the book with a bald, encyclopedia-like explanation of his worldbuilding that is almost completely superfluous (i.e. you could have picked up the majority of that information through context as the story unfolded). Thankfully, with The Collapsing Empire, Scalzi has reversed course and at least achieved normal SF exposition standards. The story introduces us to the Flow during a mutiny (that is entertaining and well executed), and it even foreshadows the collapse that the rest of the story fleshes out.

Speaking of which, the book is populated with your typical cast of Scalzi characters. There's a family of scientists studying the Flow, one of whom is tasked with traveling to the empire's capital to inform the freshly minted Emperox (who, naturally, wasn't expecting to ascend to the throne, but has to deal with it because her brother died in a freak accident). The Emperox, of course, has to deal with all the attendant nonsense that every new emperor encounters. Then there's a starship captain (or business owner, or whatever) who says "fuck" a lot. Like, really, every other word out of this woman's mouth is "fuck". A little excessive, but she's a pretty cool customer, a little on the shrewd and unforgiving side, but good at handling the various crises Scalzi puts her in. Finally, there's a clan of villains that are vying for power in this new empire, and they're all suitably nefarious. The POV changes around a fair amount (moreso than usual for Scalzi, but right on the nose for Space Opera) and while this is the first in a series and you can clearly see future potential, the ending brings enough closure and satisfaction that I wasn't annoyed (as a lot of first-installments tend to do for me). Apparently some have complained that the novel is short, but I thought it was fine, and indeed, one of the things I like about Scalzi's books is that they tend to be around 300 or so pages of pretty tight plotting. Not a lot of filler or bloated literary wanking, which I like.

You know what's funny? Scalzi writes Nutty Nuggets. Spaceships, blasters, competent heroes, space pirates, all on display here. These are fun page-turning books that focus on ideas and storytelling. Yeah, he's an opinionated guy and his politics are on full display at his blog, but he writes good books. That's all I really care about, and The Collapsing Empire is pretty darned good. I'm looking forward to more in this series.
Leave a comment...

Link Dump

As per usual, interesting links from the depths of ye olde internets:
  • The Stats of the Furious - A thorough accounting and visualization of a series that only kinda-sorta-deserves this kind of scrutiny. Also of note, Sonny Bunch's ranking of the Fast/Furious films. All of which is to say, these are fun films, but let's not overthink it.
  • The Silence of the Lambs as a Romantic Comedy - This sort of thing is old and I don't think anyone will ever approach the already-produced Platonic ideal of Shining, but this one works pretty well.
  • seriously, the guy has a point - You know that "Fearless Girl" statue that appeared in front of the famous "Charging Bull" on Wall Street? It turns out that it's a cynical advertising ploy, while the original "Charging Bull" was actually guerrilla art.
    In effect, Fearless Girl has appropriated the strength and power of Charging Bull. Of course Di Modica is outraged by that. A global investment firm has used a global advertising firm to create a faux work of guerrilla art to subvert and change the meaning of his actual work of guerrilla art. That would piss off any artist.
    Indeed. This is one of those questions that has many answers, all right. Art doesn't exist in a vacuum, but you can detach it from its context to interpret it in interesting ways. The "Charging Bull" is an interesting example, most people interpreting it in ways the original artist didn't intend. Similarly, the "Fearless Girl" seems to have taken on a life of its own. But origins are origins, and I don't think either piece should ultimately be able to shake their context completely, which is a good thing.
  • Dyatlov Pass Incident - The mysterious unsolved deaths of nine ski hikers in Russia under suspicious circumstances.
    One victim had a fractured skull while another had brain damage but without any sign of distress to their skull. Additionally, a female team member had her tongue and eyes missing. The investigation concluded that an "unknown compelling force" had caused the deaths. Access to the region was consequently closed to amateur hikers and expeditions for three years after the incident (the area is named Dyatlov Pass in honor of the group's leader, Igor Dyatlov).

    As the chronology of events remains uncertain due to the lack of survivors, several explanations have been put forward as to the cause; they include an animal attack, hypothermia, an avalanche, infrasound-induced panic, military involvement, or a combination of explanations.
  • The Incredible Intuition Of Professional Chicken Sexers - Some professions are weird:
    ...the strange nature of chicken sexing. This is the valuable process of separating female and male chicks as soon as possible, because each sex has different diets and endgames (most males are just destroyed). The mystery is that when you look at the vent in the chick’s rear, some people just know which are female. It is impossible to articulate, so the Japanese figured out how to teach this inarticulable knowledge. The student would pick up a chick, examine its rear, and toss it into a bin. The master would then say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on his generally correct observation. After a few weeks, the student’s brain was trained to masterful levels.
    A lot of what we do comes down to intuition, and I'd be curious how much of it could actually be more formally defined. This is going to be a thing in the next century, as we all start training our robotic AI overlords how to do stuff like chick sexing. Or maybe our intuition can't be replicated. Only one way to tell, and I guarantee someone will do so in the nearish future...
  • The Black Knight satellite conspiracy theory - I'm generally not too keen on conspiracy theories, and this one doesn't exactly change my mind, but it's a pretty fun one. Basically, there's a satellite in a near-polar orbit of the Earth that UFO enthusiasts believe is of extraterrestrial origin. Tons of stuff out there about this, most of it unconvincing... but fun! At the very least, a good way to see how conspiracy theories work...
And that's all for now...
Leave a comment...

Weird Movie of the Week

Last time on Weird Movie of the Week, we covered some Holiday Horror (a film that turned out to be not quite as weird as desired, alas). This time, we return to the Bigfoot realm with a movie that has one of the greatest titles I've ever heard: The Man Who Killed Hitler and then Bigfoot. Produced by indie statesman John Sayles (who is probably best known for his serious work like Lone Star or Eight Men Out, but got his start with trash like Piranha or Alligator) and starring Sam Elliott, this premise sounds like a hoot:
The story follows a legendary American war veteran named Calvin Barr (Elliott) who, decades after serving in WWII and assassinating Adolf Hitler, must now hunt down the fabled Bigfoot. Living a peaceful life in New England, the former veteran is contacted by the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to lead the charge as the creature is carrying a deadly plague and is hidden deep inside the Canadian wilderness.
Sounds glorious. These things don't always pan out that way, but I think this one is worth the stretch.
Leave a comment...
The 2017 Hugo Award Finalists were announced this week, so I guess it's time to start the bitter recriminations and whining. Assorted thoughts below:
  • The novel ballot looks pretty good and indeed, I've already read three of the nominees, all of which were pretty good (and two of which were in my nominations). Ninefox Gambit is the clear front-runner for me, with its intricate worldbuilding and simple, pulpy plot. A Closed and Common Orbit ranks a distant second, but I liked its focus and positive attitude enough to throw it a nomination. All the Birds in the Sky has a great, whimsical tone to it, but of the novels I've read, it's the one that could fall behind some of the things I haven't read yet. Speaking of which, Cixin Liu returns to the ballot with Death's End, the conclusion to the story begun in the Hugo-winning Three Body Problem and the one I'm most looking forward to catching up with (even if it requires me to read the second novel, which I never got to last year). Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning has been on my radar for a while, but I never pulled the trigger. It sounds like it has potential for me. N.K. Jemisin's The Obelisk Gate rounds out the nominees. A sequel to last year's Hugo-winning The Fifth Season, a book that I have to admit that I did not enjoy at all. Well written and executed, but it felt a little too much like misery-porn for my liking, and thus I'm not particularly enthused about reading the sequel. I realize this puts me in the minority here, but it's got me seriously considering not actually participating this year. I really don't want to return to that gloomy world of suffering and despair, as well written as it may be...
  • For the shorter fiction categories, the only thing I've already read was Lois McMaster Bujold's Penric and the Shaman, which I enjoyed, but which I feel is inferior to its sequel, Penric's Mission (perhaps because that came out late in the year, not enough people caught up with it?) In fact, now that I've caught up with the latest Penric & Desdemona book, Mira's Last Dance, I can say that Penric and the Shaman is my least favorite in the series. And yet, I'll wager that I'll like it better than most of the other nominees. Only one way to find out, I guess.
  • The only out-and-out trolling nominee (in the fiction categories) is Alien Stripper Boned From Behind By The T-Rex, which, ugh, why bother? I'm so over this Rabid Puppies trolling and I really don't get it. Their point was made, now they're just being gluttons for punishment. We know exactly how all the Rabid Puppy nominees will fare this year (at least there were less of them). The Sad Puppies seem to have faded away, which is fine I guess, but while I never really joined forces with them, I did have a certain sympathy with the type of fiction they claimed to enjoy. Of course, many of their nominees didn't really bear that out, but the idea was solid. Except that this whole three year affair has ended with a really polarized field of nominees, which again makes me wonder if I should participate again this year. A good amount of the nominees in short fiction categories are available online for free, which is nice and could allow me to get a better feel for the tenor of these categories.
  • The Best Series award is new and experimental this year (and could be made permanent next year if people like it) and they've generated some interesting nominees. Chief among them is Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, which might be my favorite series of all time. Of the other nominees, I've only read one book from James S.A. Corey's The Expanse, which frankly did not impress me very much. I've recently had Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence recommended to me by an independent observer, so I may get to that at some point. I really enjoyed Naomi Novik's Uprooted last year, so I'd wager that her Temeraire series could also strike a chord with me. That Seanan McGuire's October Daye series made the list is interesting because I don't think any of them have previously been nominated for a Best Novel... The Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, by Ben Aaronovitch is the only one I wasn't really familiar with at all, but it sounds interesting enough. Those last two are both Urban Fantasy, a sub-genre I'm not a particularly huge fan of, and not something traditionally awarded by the Hugo crowd, so this is an interesting list... That being said, this category has some rather high logistical hurdles facing it... If you haven't already read these books, it'll be difficult to pack them into the next couple of months (along with other Hugo reading). Some of these series are short, but most are very, very long. I'm a huge Vorkosigan fan, so I have something to root for here, but I don't think it'd feel right to vote on this award without giving a fare shake to all the nominees, which is probably not going to happen...
  • Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form has a clear winner for me in Arrival. Deadpool and Rogue One made the cut, neither of which is particularly surprising. Season one of Stranger Things showing up here (as opposed to one of the episodes in the Short Form category) is a pleasant surprise. Ghostbusters is a profoundly mediocre blockbuster and it's surprising that it made the ballot. I'm disappointed that The Witch couldn't draw enough nominations, but it's not your typical Hugo fare either...
So there you have it. Still not decided with whether or not I'll actually vote this year, but I will probably read a bunch of stuff on the list in any case, so look for some reviews in the next couple of months...
So this meme has been going around for a while and I thought I'd throw my hat into the ring because this could be interesting. N.B. the meme sez "favorite" and not "best" and also, I've got a moderate amount of years to get through here, so I wasn't particularly choosy, picking the first movie that really jumped out at me. Sometimes I'm really boring, sometimes... not. I appear to have some biases. That was harder than expected and I'm absolutely positive that I'm leaving out tons of great films that would probably have made the list if the quick searches for each year revealed them (particularly foreign films)...
Leave a comment...

SF Book Review: Part 26

Just recapping some recent Science Fiction reads... Some Hugo nomination phase fodder here, but mostly just catching up on older SF.
  • The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers - The Wayfarer is a hyperspace tunneling ship that's seen better days. We join the crew through Rosemary Harper who has the exciting job of... clerk. But she's trying to escape a checkered past and the boring and relatively peaceful work of a hyperspace tunneling job hits the mark. Things are livened by a diverse and alien-filled crew. So this was sorta billed as Firefly meets Ursula Le Guin, which is a comparison that doesn't really do this book any favors. It's not that this is a bad book or anything, just that expectations were probably set too high. To be sure, what we really get is character-driven and episodic in nature (not too far off the mark there), but it doesn't quite cohere into more than the sum of its parts. Each character is well drawn and most experience some sort of conflict, it's just that many of these episodic elements just sort of fizzle away. The crew does exhibit a refreshing lack of gritty cynicism and angst, and it's very nice to see a group of people be supportive and nice to one another, even if the close quarters and cross-cultural differences can cause some friction. Even though I felt the stakes of most conflicts were underwhelming, I was having a pretty good time hanging out with characters I genuinely liked. The ending setpiece is the best in the book and actually does manage to generate some stakes and tension (where most of the preceding do not); this strong finish does help a bit too. Ultimately, this is a very enjoyable read that bucks a lot of negative trends in the SF genre, but it never quite reached the dramatic heights I was looking for. A nice introduction to the universe though, and I was curious enough to revisit the series with the most recent entry:
  • A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers - This novel tangentially picks up where The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet leaves off, focusing in on one character (and a former side character) instead of following the crew of the Wayfarer. Spoilers for the previous book! But this could also be a standalone! Lovelace was the AI of the Wayfarer, but got some circuits fried during a particularly dangerous mission. While her core functions were saved by a total system shutdown and reboot, her memories have all been lost. As a result, relationships with her crew have degraded, particularly with the Engineer Jenks, who was in love with her. Not wanting to cause such disharmony, Lovelace is loaded into a new body (unusual for an AI meant to live as a ship) and takes off with her new friend Pepper, a specialist in this sort of thing. Lovelace needs to adjust to her newfound mobility and independence while finding her place in the universe. Meanwhile, Pepper is struggling with her own conflicts, and the Lovelace sections are crosscut with her backstory, detailing her difficult childhood and affinity for AIs. Chambers manages the same optimistic, positive, and supportive character-driven tone for this novel, but the focus on two characters with dovetailing themes really benefits the story. The stakes still aren't sky-high and I miss some of the characters from the previous book, but the story is overall more cohesive and entertaining too. Not exactly diamond-hard SF, but it's still a pleasure to read and an improvement over the meandering of the previous book. I liked this enough to throw it a Hugo nomination, though I think there's probably only a low to middling chance that it'll become a finalist...
  • Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp - American archaeologist Martin Padway is visiting 1938 Rome during a peculiar thunderstorm. So peculiar that when it's over, he finds himself in 535 AD. As an archaeologist, Padway is intrigued by living through history, but quickly accepts his fate. As he does not want to spend the remainder of his life watching the Dark Ages fall upon Italy (as happened in our timeline), Padway adopts an ambitious course of technological improvement. Starting small with copper stills and distilling brandy, he eventually works his way all the way up to printing presses and even telegrams. Of course, Padway's mysterious inventions and enlightened attitudes eventually necessitate political wranglings... It would be another millennium before Machiavelli wrote The Prince, but it turns out that politics of this era can be just as cutthroat at this time. While not the first Alternate History story, this appears to be among the most influential. John Campbell is famous for his work editing Astounding Science Fiction magazine, but he also edited Unknown, a magazine for more fantastical flights of SF and Fantasy. This is where Lest Darkness Falls was originally published, what with it's simple time travel premise. That being said, once that premise is established, de Camp does a remarkable job keeping things grounded. Yes, Padway is able to accomplish a lot in very little time, but he's beset by complications at nearly every turn. He doesn't just invent the printing press. He does so and then realizes that no one makes ink that will work for it. Then he uses up all of Rome's paper supply to print his first newspaper, so he has to invent better paper production facilities. And so on... Comparison with Mark Twain’s 1889 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is inevitable, but despite the similarities of their premise, the books are quite divergent. Twain was more interested in satire and social commentary of his own time, while de Camp was more interested in getting the history and technology right. Both stories will make you think, but de Camp's will obviously appeal more to the hard SF mindset. It's a short and entertaining read that holds up well and might make a good introduction to SF for younger readers. The book I bought featured several additional stories inspired by de Camp's work, by authors like Frederik Pohl, David Drake, and S. M. Stirling, but these are somewhat less successful in my mind. Still worth the purchase for the original story though!
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - The story of Offred (literally Of-Fred), a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic dictatorship established in what used to be the United States. In this society, human rights are curtailed and women's rights are even more restricted. Handmaids are a class of women kept for reproductive purposes and assigned to various bigwigs who want children. She is currently assigned to a man named Fred, referred to as "The Commander", and she tells this story in first person. She describes the world as it is now, occasionally remembering what it used to be like before the revolution, her failed escape with her husband, and so on. These sorts of dystopian visions rarely strike a chord with me, and while that's also the case here, it does have some interesting speculations. Atwood claims that the grand majority of the book is based in reality, whether it be from history or from current theocracies in the world. I'm always wary of the criticism of "that couldn't happen here", but at the same time, while Atwood has created a chilling society, she doesn't do the greatest job describing how that society was created or maintained. It is mentioned offhand that an attack on the government, killing the President and most of Congress, led to a theological revolution that immediately suspended the Constitution under the pretext of restoring order, but it feels pretty flimsy. There are a couple other mechanisms discussed, but we don't really get much about how power is maintained in this theocracy, instead focusing on personal relationships within the household. This is well done, of course, but then, there's not a ton of plot going on here either. This does call to mind Orwell's 1984, which this book is clearly indebted to (right down to the structure, with the epilogue establishing that the story we just read took place in the past, and that we've moved on from that dystopia, though Orwell's epilogue is less direct in that notion). I suspect both books are seeing an uptick in sales due to our new orange-skinned overlord. While neither book really explains what's going on today (we live with stranger problems), it's still worth a look. Personally, I prefer 1984, but you could do worse.
  • Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm - In the wake of environmental disaster (global cooling you guys!) and global infertility, a large family sets up an isolated community in an attempt to survive the coming apocalypse. To combat the infertility, they resort to cloning with the thought that after a couple generations, the clones will regain the ability to have children the old-fashioned way. The only problem is that the clones don't really see it that way, rejecting the plan and researching ways to keep the cloning viable indefinitely. Soon, it emerges that the clones have an abnormally strong emotional and mental connection with each other, such that they lose a certain sense of individuality. This makes travel and separation exceedingly difficult, and the realities of post-apocalypse society begin to impinge on the clones' plans. They find themselves losing creativity and unable to maintain much of the equipment they use to survive, and so on. Enter Mark, a child of sexual reproduction and individual to the core who threatens the clones' way of life. I don't know why I went through this period of reading dystopias and post-apocalyptic novels, but hey, I actually really enjoyed this one. It helps that there's some actual science in this fiction, coupled with an actual plot. It's not the most page-turning narrative, but it's got a lot of interesting ideas that kept me reading. This novel won the Hugo in 1977, so it has that going for it as well.
  • Starplex by Robert J. Sawyer - Ah, now this is more like it. Space opera comfort food. Humanity has made it to the stars with the help of a giant network of "short cuts" (basically wormholes), made contact with two other races (and a third that wants nothing to do with anyone else, called the Slammers), and set up a cross-species exploration vessel called Starplex. After mysterious green stars begin floating through the shortcuts, the crew of Starplex is about to encounter revelations about the shortcuts and who set them up, along with a host of other challenges. So this is basically throwback Golden Age SF adventure, and it's a lot of fun. There's not a ton of character development, and what there is kinda misses the mark (notably Keith Lansing's midlife crisis and desire to cheat on his wife or something - fortunately, this resolves itself and winds up not being as much of a drag as I initially thought), but the ideas are great and they just keep coming. The alien races are well drawn and thought out (and indeed, their relationships are a lot more interesting than the human ones). You could argue that the story goes a bit too far and makes everything work out a little too pat, but after having steeped myself in misery and disaster with the last two books, this one was a real breath of fresh air. It captures that sense of wonder that makes SF so exciting and it's got quite a few well-executed setpieces and action sequences. Well worth checking out, and I'm most certainly going to read more Sawyer when I can...
I have a few others in progress right now, but we're also heading into Hugo season, so I'll probably start in on the fiction categories shortly after they're announced in April...
Leave a comment...