Aug 142017
 

I’ve read a number of good short stories recently, and figured I’d share.

 

First is “Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls. This is absolutely fantastic, we talked about it a bit on the Bayesian Conspiracy podcast, but seriously, read or listen to this. Rationalist and Transhumanists will love it. It is hilarious, and sneakily thoughtful, and hits you with a wallop of emotions when you aren’t looking. I will absolutely be nominating this for a Hugo next year.

Also, I gotta give the author mad props for fully embracing the “all fiction is contemporary” thing. This is perfect and aimed at TODAY like a laser-guided missile, and most of the humor will be lost to anyone trying to read it in even five years’ time. It takes a certain type of courage to say “I am writing this just for today’s audience, and posterity can eat it.” It’s a thing that maybe more of us should embrace, because all fiction is contemporary, and in twenty years very little is still relevant. Trading “Hitting Hard TODAY” for “Possible relevance in the future” is an very bad exchange, and IMHO we’d do well to aim for now far more than we do. But damn is it hard. Thus the mad props. <3

 

Second: Iterations, by Daniel H Wilson. A story of how people will cope in the future. Saying much more would give away too much, but it’s a beautiful and touching story, that left me very conflicted and with all sorts of thoughts. Again, good for transhuman-interested readers.

 

Finally: Love, Interest, by Justis Devan. A hilarious Harem-Anime-inspired crackfic. Which, again, ends up going very interesting places, while still being very entertaining. I thought I’d just skim the first few paragraphs to see how the author managed to spin what’s basically a joke-prompt, and I ended up getting sucked deep in and unable to stop until the story was over. Well done!

Aug 102017
 

One of the things I really like about the Rationalist community is that it doesn’t care about forcing anyone into any sort of roles. I’ve gotten so used to it, that I was recently shocked to encounter enforced binaries out in the wide world again. (I haven’t been forced to interact with anyone I don’t want to since my lay off).

In the midst of the Google Memo kerfuffle I participated in some interesting conversation that changed my mind about the memo itself. Which is what conversation is for, in my community.

However in some places it appears that much of conversation is to signal loyalty rather than refine knowledge. I guess in the wider world there are only two positions one can have on the memo: it is either a sexist screed, or a brave thesis. This breaks the world into the two political camps – Left and Right.

The interesting part is that one is not allowed to hold to the tenants of the Left – that gender equality is a good thing, that society still has some issues there, and that equal rights are a great thing to fight for – while simultaneously holding that the memo isn’t a clarion call for raging sexism. Even giving the writer the benefit of the doubt, and pointing out that some things being claimed in the media didn’t seem to have a basis in the text of the memo, immediately marks the person saying so as a Rightist by those who believe in the political binary.

The really shitty part of this is that those who believe in the political binary also believe that those on the Other Side are morally reprehensible, and therefore any signs that someone isn’t on Our Side are interpreted as proof of moral decrepitude. Which, nowadays, is license for hatred, blacklisting, and violence. Because apparently the wider world is too damn stupid to think that maybe one can hold that there are some differences between groups while also believing that all people are equally deserving of respect, all rights are universal and inalienable, and someone’s physical characteristics or emotional disposition or intellect has no bearing on their worth as a human.

Well you know what? Screw anyone trying to force me into a political binary like that. If someone’s position is that people deserve equality and respect only because they are indistinguishable in aptitude, they have a horrible fucking philosophy. If someone’s position can be reduced to “sexism is OK if the sexes are different,” than no wonder they have to silence any research into sex differences. It’s like the church tying their position of “Murder is bad” to “The sun revolves around the earth.” It’s only in their deranged minds that someone interested in heliocentricism will cause the collapse of social order and rampant murder in the populace. Any decent person is able to say “Maybe the sun circles the earth, or maybe it’s the other way around, but that is an empirical question and has NOTHING to do with whether it’s OK to murder people, WTF is wrong with you??”

I am politically non-binary. I can question whether the minimum wage is harmful on a empirical level without that implying that I think “the poors” deserve to starve and wealth is a sign of strength of character. They are unrelated. I can state that street violence without due process is a bad idea without believing that minorities should be ejected. They are unrelated. And I can believe God is a figment of the collective imagination without believing that murder and rape are fine if you can get away with them. Those are unrelated.

Stop trying to force me into your political binary.

Aug 022017
 

The Fractal Prince, by Hannu Rajaniemi

Synopsis: In a post-singularity world, a hacker/identity thief searches for the uploaded consciousness of a 7-year-old boy (that’s been on loop for centuries) who grew up to become a god.

Book Review: If he isn’t among the pantheon of post-singularity writers yet, Rajaniemi really deserves to be there. This is a wildly creative and extremely well-realized work. Often when people (even including myself) say “creative” they mean “oh, that’s a really neat idea!” But Rajaniemi just keeps piling on not only cool ideas, but great narratives that exploit those ideas, and has clearly spent a lot of time contemplating how they would change many aspects of life and how they interact with each other. This is a richly detailed and deep world, with delicious complexity.

In addition, the people that inhabit this world view it as normal. So when you’re reading it everything is presented in regular-life sort of colors and attitudes. But the more you learn about the world the more it is clear that this is an existence most of us would be horrified by, that’s been normalized by centuries of it just being this way, and by the fact that the story can (necessarily) only be told by the winners/survivors.

Of course the fact that extremely bizarre situations are presented matter-of-factly does make this a bit of a challenge to read. It is not a quick read, it demands the reader to a share of the mental lifting. I personally really like that sort of thing, as long as it’s not a damned chore (I’m looking at you, Joyce). It also means that as you progress a lot of things that were confusing at first resolve and make a lot more sense. You may even want to reread some of the early chapters later on and see how the feeling of “Oh wow… now that I know stuff it all makes sense!” feels like, again. It’s not unlike when you were a kid and algebra suddenly made sense (or whatever your pet Revelation moment is).

The one thing I disliked about the story was that our protagonist reused the same gambit a few times to win key conflicts. It was clever the first time, but it got old. I mean, IRL I would re-use a tactic that works as well, but it’s less fun in a story.

I like that I’m not entirely sure our hero is that great a person. And I really REALLY empathize with our villain, he has a truly noble goal. To the point that I believe the Shadow Plot is about how his Pure, Noble Goal led him to take increasingly drastic measures to achieve it, and ultimately twisting him into a villain through slow value-drift.

Anyway, if you like stories about uploaded minds cooperating and clashing with copies of themselves, and identity thieves literally stealing minds to become/corrupt their identities, and computer-virus warfare among planet-covering nano-clouds, and ancient meme-plexes bootstrapping themselves into existence by creating highly-fractal fiction… then BOY do I have a story for you!! Highly Recommended!

Book Club Review: This is the second book in a trilogy. We read the first book a number of years ago, back before I’d started writing these reviews, in fact. The Quantum Thief.

The Quantum Thief is a fantastic Book Club novel. It introduces the world slowly, sticks with more meat-space settings and characters, and is structured as a classic Heist story, with lots of action and fun. I highly recommend it for book clubs.

Since it had been so long since we read the first one, about half the people in our book club were new enough that they hadn’t read Quantum Thief. I hoped to make up for this by posting a HUGELY spoilery summary of Quantum Thief, that covered all the important concepts and plot details to get new readers up to speed. Because I couldn’t find one already written online even after a fair bit of Googling. It’s here. But it turns out that it’s not enough. One really needs to read the first book first.

Moreover, the second book ups the difficulty and weirdness enough that even among the people who had read the first book, not all of them enjoyed the second book. Not everyone is as interested in questions of identity and meme propagation and post-singularity weirdness as I am. So while there were a few interesting topics to speak on, the discussion didn’t go for very long.

I think if your book club consists primarily of people who are really into this sort of thing, Fractal Prince would be great. But for a general-interest book club with a wider variety of members, this may be a step too far. Stick with Quantum Thief. Fractal Prince, as awesome as it is, is sadly probably Not Recommended for book clubs. (and certainly shouldn’t be read without reading QT first)

Aug 022017
 

The Quantum Thief. Note that this post contains ALL THE SPOILERS! It’s written for the benefit of my book club who hadn’t read The Fractal Prince yet, but it turns out that even this synopsis doesn’t help much, and one really should read the book itself. Might serve as handy reminder for people who’ve gone a few years between books though?

Novel starts with Jean le Flambeur in the Dilemma Prison, a virtual realm. It’s a Prisoner’s Dilemma set up with thousands of copies of himself, in the theory that eventually he’ll turn into a good person after enough iterations. He encounters the monster of the Dilemma Prison, the All-Defector, who convinces you into cooperating and then defects anyway. Meili, the winged lady, has hacked into the Prison with the aid of Pelegrinni, one of the Sobornost. She grabs Jean and breaks out.

Note: “grabs Jean” means copying one instance of him. “Breaks out” means downloading that consciousness into a robot body provided by Pelegrinni. Thousands of other copies of him are simply left behind to continue being tortured/rehabilitated.

Note: the Sobornost are 8(?) people. Each one uploaded their consciousness to silicon and created millions (billions?) of copies of themselves, all with slight alterations in order to be better as specific tasks, and each one works as basically a single Large, Distributed Person. But they often break off branches of themselves to go do other tasks. Pelegrinni is one of these people, and she broke off a copy to go with Meili to free Jean and get him to steal something for her.

subNote: The 8 Sobornost minds have an uneasy truce among them, but often clash. They’ve also taken over much of the inner systems. Mars and Earth are both reduced to a single city, I’m not sure Venus exists anymore. All other matter is being converted to computronium.

The jailors, known as “Archons”, notice they’ve lost a copy of Jean. One comes after him, a sliver of smartmatter that penetrates their ship and begins to convert it into another Dilemma Prison. Jean defeats it by “swallowing” it, creating a false virtual world within his robot body’s mental computer that tricks the Archon into thinking it is still in the real world, and has succeeded in re-capturing Jean, and is now happily torturing/rehabilitating him in a new Dilemma Prison.

This Jean-copy is missing a lot of memories that the original Jean had. He can’t steal anything for Pelegrinni until he becomes himself again. Our Jean travels to the Oubliette, the city on Mars, where the entire population’s memories are stored permanently in the city internet, and are uploaded as they’re created in real time. These memories are VERY tightly guarded behind unbreakable encryption, so you can only share memories with people if you have their consent. It’s an intensely private society. But with the right tools and lies you can get people’s encryption keys and hack into their stored memories. The original Jean used to live in the Oubliette. Our Jean is going there to steal back his memories.

On Mars we learn that nearly all human minds have been converted into “gogols.” These are basically mind-slaves. They are uploaded humans that have been trained in specific computational tasks that are economically useful (math, piloting, hacking, surgery, infiltration, accounting, engineering, whatever). They have been stripped of most human drives, and so want only to perform their function. The Sobornost, for undisclosed reasons, want a copy of every human mind in existence under their control. They pay pirates to copy the minds on Mars and send them to Sobornost stations. The people of Mars obviously find this repugnant, they do not want copies of themselves mutilated and enslaved. Because who wants to wake up tomorrow and find out they’re under the complete control of a callous god that will use you as a tool for eternity without rest? But since the people on Mars are basically standard humans with some upgrades, they would be wiped out by the vastly technologically-superior Sobornost in a matter of weeks. So they’ve formed an alliance with the Zoku.

On Mars we meet a colony of the Zoku. They’re the flipside of the Sobornost. They are large numbers of humans who have linked their minds together via quantum-entanglement, using small devices that look like gems. Thus they are called “Zoku gems.” This makes them sorta a single entity, the same way the Sobornost are a single entity, but they are comprised of many different humans working together, rather than a single human copied and recreated millions of times. The Zoku have been at war with the Sobornost for a long, long time (called “The Protocol War”). Jupiter was destroyed during the war, creating an event known as “The Spike” when the solar system was flooded with radiation from its fiery disintegration. The Zoku have been losing lately, which was why they teamed up with the humans on Mars. The little extra firepower has let them hold a draw for a while.

Lots of cool shit happens on Mars, Meili and Jean save each others lives several times and bond (sorta), and their ship (“Perhonen”) is sarcastic and loyal and awesome. Murders and explosions and such!

In the end we learn that the original Jean had a rich life on Mars with many friends, who he eventually abandoned when he disappeared. Our Jean, in the course of trying to steal back the memories left here, discovers that the original Jean never actually left Mars. He has hidden himself here, deleting himself from everyone else’s memories and sight when he gained root access to the memory-cloud of Mars. He alters people’s memories and minds at will in order to rule Mars from the shadows. The two Jeans confront each other in an absolutely epic showdown. In the end our Jean unleashes the Archon he trapped within himself. The Archon creates a new Dilemma Prison that traps the original Jean within in it. Now that it has a Jean it is happy. Our Jean escapes. Unfortunately the Dilemma Prison also ate all the memories that our Jean came here to find, so he never gets them at all. He has failed. The one thing he manages to steal as he leaves is a small cube.

The cube is a quantum computer. Locked within it is a god – a copy of the original mind of one of the 8 Sobornost founders.

Also of note: in the climax the main supporting character – Mieli – gives Pelegrinni a copy of her mind to do with as she wishes. Copy, alter, replicate a thousand times, resurrect her if she dies, whatever. This is in exchange for Pelegrinni swooping in to save Jean’s life at a crucial moment. This causes Mieli much distress, since before this she had been unique and un-copied.

In the epilogue we discover that Matjek Chen is the most powerful Sobornost right now, and is moving to consume or destroy the others. Pelegrinni has formed an alliance with him, but is secretly only out for herself. She plans to use Jean to steal something (we still don’t know what) from Matjek—an artifact that could change the course of their civil war. We also learn that when Jean was broken out of the Dilemma Prison at the very beginning, the All-Defector broke out as well, and is loose somewhere. Finally, Pelegrinni warns Matjek that Jean is coming for him, so Matjek creates a Hunter to track down Jean and eliminate him. Pelegrinni tells this Hunter where to find Jean, whispering his name and location to it. The hunt is on!

Jul 292017
 

(epistemic status: brain dump)

It’s weird when you see something working the way it was intended to for the first time, and things click.

In my post, Marriage is a Hostile Act, I took exception with the fact that there exists in the US a standard contract that one is encouraged to sign which literally takes away a large percentage of your personhood. This is very much against everything I know of the spirit of the liberal ideal. Contracts which remove personhood are generally considered unconscionable and illegal. You cannot sell yourself into slavery, nor into indentured servitude. There are exceptions, but they are not entered into lightly and generally come with a lot of oversight.

I’ve come to realize lately that I never really understood what marriage is supposed to be about to a large part of the populace.

For most of my childhood, my family lived as exiles. We could have no contact with anyone back in the home country, as that was both nearly impossible practically, and would endanger my parents’ family members. I had no uncles/grandparents/in-laws/cousins/etc to model normal family life. My only real-life model was my parents marriage which, with all due respect to my parents, was massively dysfunctional.

My fall-back models were Hollywood/Disney. Which is basically the porn equivalent of marriage. As far as I could tell, marriage is what you did with someone that you had developed a strong emotional bond with. And I develop emotional bonds pretty easily.

This seemed reasonable, in fact. Friends live together all the time. Sometimes they have sex. It makes sense that they get a few legal protections to help each other out. That shit’s important when you’re incapacitated, and it’s good to have someone watching your back. If, over time, you drift apart or move on to the next phase of your life, you just dissolve the marriage and keep in touch.

Recently I read that the difference between economic and social ties is that social ties are longer term. (I don’t recall where, but probably at Samzdat?) In any economic transaction, it must be fair immediately, or nearly so. AND verifiable. I give you X for Y, and we’re both better off. In social transactions, one trusts they’ll even out in the long term. I see the dishes are scattered across the counter, so I put them away and turn on the dishwasher. I don’t expect anything in return, because I believe that when you (my partner) find yourself in a similar situation you will do the same for me. It’s a beautiful sort of acausal trade among instances of ourselves that we cannot verify, because we aren’t there, but we have faith they’re being executed because we know each other’s character.

You can’t have trade like that with strangers. (It’s probably one of the reasons that working for a corporation feels so empty and meaningless.) Acausal among humans trade takes bonds of family or deep brotherhood. The trust it both requires and engenders allows for all sorts of efficiencies that can’t be created otherwise. This is why throughout most of history the basic economic unit was the family.

There’s massive personal benefit beyond the efficiencies of trade as well. There’s immense psychological safety in knowing that even if everything I’m doing falls apart, I still have a home and a place. They will help me for the months or years it takes to get going again, because they love me, and they know I’d do the same for them.

And I guess marriage-relationships are like that, taken up to eleven. Back in the day there was a semi-tongue-in-cheek way to say “I love you” that ran something along the lines of “My utility function contains a term for the fulfillment of your utility function.” I think marriage is supposed to go beyond that though. The two utility functions are supposed to be merged and mangled to a point where its hard to distinguish them any more. It’s not just a commitment. It’s partially becoming the other person. It’s thinking of them instinctively in all situations. It’s not something that can be done in the course of a few weeks or months, and certainly not something that can be shown in a stupid 100-minute film.

And of course, after such a meshing of utility functions, one could never, EVER be replaced. It would be unthinkable. It would be like ripping out a limb and several organs. It’s not something you do unless the limb’s become gangrenous and it’s the only way to save someone’s life. Even then, the person will be diminished and lesser for a long time afterwards.

(Perhaps ironically, the first (and as far as I can recall, only) time I’ve seen this sort of thing modeled, it has been with a multiple-relationship polyamorous family, not a mono couple.)

This sort of thing is hardcore. And when it’s made official, it should be a big deal. It should be a long, elaborate magical ritual that taps into a culture’s mythology and the participant’s wibbly mystical instincts. It should require sacrifice of some sort. Maybe if the religion I’d been raised in had something like this it would’ve helped me “get it.” As it was, I was in an upstart sect less than a century old, there was nothing particularly interesting about the few weddings I attended.

The government, certainly, should have never gotten involved. Perhaps this was a tactic to grab power from the church. Perhaps it was an attempt to make marriages legible to the state. As usual, it fucked things up. Reducing a social ritual to an economic contract broke the core of what the ritual was about in the first place. When marriage means going to the DMV, signing a single-page contract, and paying a $15 fee, well, you don’t expect it to come with the same sorts of entanglements.

I don’t know if I’m OK with ever getting that deeply enmeshed with anyone. The closest I’ve come is a sort of hetro-life-partnership with a deep friend. I’m starting to trust my parents to this degree, though. So I guess I’m coming closer.

The marriage thing probably isn’t that big of a deal if both participants of a marriage are expecting the same thing. But if one party is expecting “Friends who care for each other, but remain separate people” and the other is expecting “life long soul-enmeshment,” and they fail to communicate properly, and then find out their partner expected the opposite of what they thought they were getting… Well. That can be a very hurtful shock.

Jul 282017
 

As setup for the uninitiated: Trump recently tweeted that transgender people wouldn’t be allowed in the military because their medical care is too expensive. (Though, as has been noted by others, it obviously was not him tweeting. The tweets are far too coherent and grammatically correct. Pence got a hold of his phone, maybe?)

It’s classic Trump bullshit. I noticed something weird about one of the common responses though. I’m not sure if it’s for humor value or because sex sells or whatever, but there was a lot of focus on Viagra. Lots of “The Pentagon spends 5 times more on Viagra than transgender services“-type headlines. This sort of thing happens every now and then, when a medical cost is brought up people will sometimes respond with “But look at how much we spend on Viagra!” And, OK, but Viagra is also a legitimate medicine. It helps with the side-effects of many psychoactive drugs, such as anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. Things which soldiers with PTSD often need.

I don’t dispute the facts. But there’s lots of things that cost 5x more than medical care for trans people, as it’s such a small cost. The focus on Viagra specifically seems to be along the lines of “If we can spend money on something as ridiculous as Viagra…” like it’s a party drug. Its the same attitude about sex that leads to “trans people don’t really need medical care either, its a private perversion” sentiments. It’s a harmful attitude to spread.

Jul 252017
 

Stolen from a friend: “Since conservatives are an underrepresented minority in academia, and having more conservatives in academic disciplines would raise the cognitive diversity among researchers in most fields, I think we should probably use affirmative action-ish policies to make universities cheaper and easier to get into for conservatives.”

This is a surprisingly good point.

Of course, AA is primarily meant to help those who have been traditionally disadvantaged by systemic relics of oppression. It’s not actually intended simply to increase diversity for its own sake. But to the extent that diversity is a goal worth achieving, this idea has some merit. I do think diversity is a good thing, something that we want more of, and this looks to help advance that goal.

There’s also the stealth-attack aspect… Higher education tends to make conservatives more liberal, so this would get more conservatives into the ideological killing fields. So to speak.

A different friend objected that this would only be acceptable if and when conservatives start supporting AA for disadvantaged groups. I don’t think this is legitimate though. Should disadvantaged minorities only get AA benefits if they endorse AA policies? And if the principle at play here is “affirmative action programs should not apply to folks who would not apply them to other folks” does this mean we should disallow affirmative action for minority folks if they don’t support it for conservatives?

Of course then someone had to ruin all the fun by requesting actual data. We turn to the great google, and we find:

Since 1980
% of Far Right students remained even at 20%
% of Far Left students increased, from 20% to 35%
% of Middle/Moderate students decreased from 60% 45%

So conservatives haven’t actually decreased in representation… the far left has swelled greatly instead, at the cost of moderates. The rise in radicalism and polarization isn’t due to lack of conservatives at all, but rather an increase in one fringe.

Suddenly I’m of the opinion that perhaps increasing the amount of people on the opposite side isn’t actually a great idea. That may very well simply lead to more radicalization on the right. Which could feed back into increased radicalization on the left, and so forth. If there’s too much weight on one side of a scale, adding more weight to the other side may break the scale entirely, rather than returning it to balance.

The hell of it is, moderates aren’t sexy. “Boring” is the last thing passionate young people want to be. Can we go about creating and popularizing a form of Radical Moderate movement? People who are vocal and passionate about being reasonable and considering consequences and viewing others as incorrect rather than evil mutants? It seems this was what much of the Rationalist movement was about, but I’m too far removed from university life to know if anything is growing there (god I’m old). Has anyone begun a Rationalist and/or Moderate version of campus activist groups?

Jul 192017
 

The Stars Are Legion, by Kameron Hurley

Synopsis: A fleet of Death Star-esque biological space stations are slowly dying. Their inhabitants will die with them, so they fight bloody wars over the few healthy stations remaining.

Book Review: This could have been a good book if it had been given the attention it needed. The premise has promise, and the world Hurley has created is intriguing. But this feels like a first draft that was rushed out.

We are often not given any description of our surroundings or the objects our hero (Zan) interacts with, which is a problem in science-fiction. I need some idea of what a space station’s interior looks like, aside from “biological.” When Zan goes to the hanger (how big?), looks at a “vehicle,” repairs it, takes off, and gets into combat, it wasn’t until she was already zipping through space that I realized it was basically a space-motorcycle that she was riding on. Until then I’d defaulted to a Star Trek-style shuttlecraft.

This sort of thing is rife throughout the book. The dialog can be clunky, as if it was a placeholder for something to be fleshed out. Whenever anything with color is described it is always just one or two simple primary colors that are mentioned. I got sick of everything being either Green, Yellow, or Purple–it felt like I was watching a low-budget cartoon. Some of the action didn’t quite make sense, as if Hurley wasn’t really keeping track of where in the room everyone was, just jotting down fighting motions.

All this led to boredom with the story. Reading a slightly-filled-in story outline doesn’t make for exciting reading. When I got to the first sex scene I thought “Oh thank goodness, at least this will be interesting.” But it turns out that an author rushing through a narrative can even make sex boring.

Hurley also starts the novel off with an amnesiac character (already a very tricky thing to do) and then has a second POV character. Who is intimately tied up in these events, but without anmesia. Which, like, at that point the jig is up. We’re in the POV of someone who knows the mysterious thing in the recent past that is supposed to be providing narrative suspense. Hurley tries to get around this by simply concealing it from us. At least once I read something like ‘She thought about the thing in her past, the really bad thing she tries not to think about.’ The POV character literally thought about the thing while we’re in her POV that we’re not supposed to know about, so it’s just marked as “the thing” she’s thinking about. Is there any way MORE clumsy to hide info from the reader?  /fallsonfloor

Hurley does do a very good job of conveying rage, which is her trademark. So anytime there was rage to be felt, I felt it. But then there’s the other 95% of the novel…

The thing is, Kameron Hurley is a good writer. Both The Horror Novel You’ll Never Have To Live and We Have Always Fought are very well done! I’ve heard from numerous sources that God’s War is really good, and I regret we didn’t read that one instead! Why was Stars Are Legion written so carelessly?

In Horror Novel we are told that Hurley has Type 1 Diabetes, and can only afford to live as long as she keeps a day job that provides Health Insurance. This is, in fact, the primary reason that most people who would otherwise take risks working for themselves or starting a new business instead continue working for The Man. Our government makes it extremely difficult for anyone with dependents or not in perfect health to do anything other than work as a cog in the corporate system. If I recall correctly, in a more recent post she’s mentioned that she aims for two novels a year. Plus her day job, family/relationships, etc. That’s a crazy pace.

You hear about this sort of thing a lot in music. A band puts out their first album, and it’s the culmination of years and years of effort. And then they’ve got six months to put out the follow-up album, and it’s just not enough time to make something as great, something that was refined over years. Authors often sign multi-book contracts, because I guess that’s what publishers want nowadays? If something comes up in personal life, or work life, and you can’t find the time on weekends and evenings to make this what it should be–tough. The publisher wants a manuscript, and the contract has a deadline and a word count, and you can’t fuck that up if you want to keep a career in fiction writing. So instead, one is forced to hand in an early draft and go to print with that.

This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if we had sane healthcare. If people weren’t forced to work 40 hours a week to get access to the insurance-industry-paywalled medicine that keeps them alive. If an author could choose to live on low wages and take the time they need for a book, rather than having that choice mean death. What I’m saying is, America’s shitty healthcare is to blame for all sorts of things, and this is just one more of them. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was as disappointed as I was. The coolness of the setting kept a number of people hooked through the end. One of our readers said the real story is in the last 25 pages or so (which I never got to) and this would really have been better as a short story or novelette. But there’s not much wider conversation that this novel brings up, and I can’t see any reason to inflict this on a book club. Not Recommended.

Jul 172017
 

The Welcome To Night Vale live show came to Denver yesterday. It was great fun, I loved it! And one of the best things about it is that everyone in the audience is the sort of person you want to know. There’s a very strong “these are my peeps!” feel there. :)

The show, as usual, involves a bit of audience participation. A friend sitting by me didn’t participate very much, for which I teased them a little right afterwards (the participation makes it so much more fun!!). They responded that they don’t participate in ritual lightly, and weren’t comfortable joining in this one. My initial reaction was “lol, audience participation isn’t ritual,” but after about ten seconds of reflection I realized “Oh yeah… it kinda is.”

Which got me to thinking.

Rationalists are aware of the power and importance of ritual, and there are ongoing attempts to harness that power. They meet with various levels of success, depending on group and area. In Denver they haven’t taken hold. A fair number of us here are rather allergic to the trappings of religion. Personally I have no problem with anyone else doing it, but to me it feels forced and hokey. Like putting on your parents’ clothes as a kid and pretending to be adults. Religious ritual works because the participants think it really does tap into a higher power. Mimicking the form without believing in the substance feels… uncomfortably silly.

A different friend has recently asked if Universities could take the place of Churches in the secular community (after reading the excellent “Man As A Rationalist Animal” post by Lou Keep). I think that if they could have, they would have by now. They’re halfway there. They have the instinctive respect of the populace, the arcane credentialing and clergy, and of course the miracles. But they’re missing the interface with the common man–the language of ritual and community.

Welcome To Night Vale has that. WtNV is the start of a church for the modern urban/suburban areligious person. It tackles the fundamental question that plagues the educated proletariat–the meaninglessness of existence in a post-community capitalist society, where everyone is interchangeable and replaceable. And it answers it not with speeches or therapy or advise… it answers it by giving us a mirror made of myths. Modern myths, spun just weeks ago.

The podcast creates the foundation of myth that informs the spiritual layer of all its listeners. On its own it doesn’t do much. It is interesting art, of varying quality, that can sometimes touch deep emotions. The true power of WtNV comes about in its live shows. Here they take the common base of myth that the audience shares and they do something wonderful with it. They transform it into ritual. They bind the audience together, guiding their emotions down the tracks of a mythical story, until it resolves in a catharsis and an instruction (“be good to each other”) that means something.

But VERY importantly – it does it tongue-in-cheek. It is funny, self-referential, and irreverent. Because that is what it means to be areligious in a world that doesn’t need you. Taking things seriously simply does not work. Life is a farce, and we all know it. So the absurdity is played up. We are here to have fun. To make jokes and ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about how stupid all this is. And when the merriment is high enough we can all join hands are jokingly chant to a story book character, because in it’s fun to do so in the spirit of the story. And if, along the way, we manage to say something deeper and more important, and feel uplifted at the end, well, so much the better. We came for the lols, and we left having touched something within that united us all for a few hours.

It only worked because no one comes SEEKING a deep experience at WtNV. We came for fun, and the masterful story led to something deeper. It’s like dating–if you’re seeking a relationship, it is apparent, and it doesn’t work. It’s only when you’re just dating around for the pleasure of an evening with interesting company that you are in a state where a relationship can begin.

This is what Rationalist Rituals get wrong. They are trying for deep experience and wonder, like we had in our childhood when our parents took us to church. That is not available via the same route of reverence and worship that the religious rituals used. The mindset of one who doesn’t instinctively revere the greater power being channeled is inimical to that sort of ritual. The ritual of the educated areligious must start in a different place. Our priests are comedians as well. Our religion must laugh first, or be rejected by our immune system.

Someday a Welcome To Night Vale community theater will form at a university. A group of fans have a lot of fun reenacting favorite WtNV episodes, and form strong bonds, and the university institution will lend them support and prestige in other aspects of life. And maybe, a couple generations down the line, their children will have a fully-formed religious life tailored for the concerns of an early 21st century proletariat, which fulfills their emotional needs with myth and community, while slowly becoming less relevant as the centuries grind on. And it’ll all have started with people needing to laugh at the absurdity of this sort of thing happening in the first place.

Until that happens, check out the live Welcome To Night Vale show “All Hail,” even if you aren’t a listener of the podcast. It’s good, and it’s instructive. Likely even if you don’t listen to the podcast.

Jul 112017
 

Guys, guess what?? I have made a thing (again)! A small collection of my published stories is available for purchase!

You can get Red Legacy and Other Stories as a printed book at Amazon, or as an ebook at all the major ebook sellers (including Amazon and B&N, of course). You can read most of the stories in it free here, so you can decide up front if my fiction is the kind that you enjoy. If you do, and you think the enjoyment was worth a few dollars, buying a copy would help me. And buying it comes with a bonus — the collection includes “Host,” my latest story which is otherwise only available in the March/April issue of Analog magazine.

If you can’t buy a copy, but you’ve read or listened to most/all of the stories before, leaving a review also helps a ton. :)