Aug 152018
 

After interviewing Alexander Wales and Daystar Eld for The Bayesian Conspiracy podcast, I put together a Rational Fiction Online Anthology. It consists of links to nine Rationalist short stories, with brief introductions explaining what aspects of Rat Fic I believe they demonstrate.

The intros aren’t really necessary, these are all really awesome short stories that I think just about everyone will love. But they do provide a bit of a snap shot of just what Rat Fic is.

I hope some people find this cool and/or useful. :)

Shut Up And Do The Impossible: the rational fiction online anthology

Aug 132018
 

A less tech-savvy friend recently needed help uploading a file into a Slack channel. I posted the above pic with a line of explanation. And it occurred to me that a lot of software use, as well as website use, is searching the damned screen for icons that might, conceivably, be useful for what you want to do. Because software nowadays is designed like shit. Everyone wants to be special and look unique and slick, rather than being functional. Take the Slack “+” for example. It breaks both the “looks like a paperclip icon” rule for attachments, and the “is on the right-hand side” rule.

I swear, I thought all those “Find the hidden object in the picture” puzzles from my Highlights magazines was just a way to waste my time as a child, but it looks like they actually taught me the valuable skill of figuring out modern user-interface “design.”

The worst offender is the Ribbon, of course. The team that invented that godless abomination should all have a fingernail ripped out, or spend a full year experiencing 100% sexual rejection; their choice. (Or something just as unpleasant for any asexuals in the group). This monstrosity takes up way too much screen real estate, lacks any sort of organizing sense, has buttons of random sizes scattered everywhere in a way that doesn’t allow your eyes to simply scroll in a straight line, uses arcane short-hand icons rather than words so that as much bullshit junk can be crammed in those boxes as possible, randomly includes drop downs and expansions, doesn’t show any hotkeys by default, and freakin’ changes with forced updates! It looks like a hostile act against info-worker productivity, likely perpetrated as sabotage by Soviet agents!

WTF is this shit

(Flames! Flames, on the side of my face!)

Aug 082018
 

Deepsix, by Jack McDevitt

Synopsis: A crew exploring alien ruins is marooned on a planet about to be destroyed by natural events, and must be rescued by quick seat-of-the-pants engineering both on their part and the support team in orbit.

Book Review: Did you like Apollo 13? Would you like Apollo 13 if it had survival-adventure-archaeology (kinda Indiana Jones-esque) mixed in? Then this is a great book for you!

Tons of fun, LOTS of created engineering/hacking to pull off a rescue, and things constantly going wrong. :) And, importantly to me after the last several books, every chapter feels necessary. There is always something interesting happening! No filler or dragging. This was some of the most fun I’ve had reading in a while.

It’s not a perfect novel. The characterization is either not done, or done poorly. When the over-the-top moustache-twirling villain does a heel-face turn it comes out of the blue, and none of the motivations or implications are explored. He basically feels like two different characters.

The overall view of humanity is one of “everyone is dumb and shitty.” I guess that comes from spending one’s life trying to work in the navy bureaucracy (if what my fellow book clubbers tell me of McDevitt is true).

The novel kinda lives up to the older stereotype of SF authors who are fascinated with ideas and aliens and space and tech, but don’t do people very well.

But none of this matters that much, because the book isn’t really about those things. It’s about exploring cool alien ruins, and amazing planet-smashing set pieces, and genius engineering hacks. It delivers those things with gusto, and for once, I don’t really need much character exploration an angst. The characters work pretty well as humans caught in a shit situation and trying to live through it, and if there’s no time for exploring their inner turmoil, well, it’s all good, we got a planet coming apart and our only surface-to-orbit vessel is demolished!

Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not bad! There would’ve been less to talk about, because you can’t really discuss cool engineering feats all that much in a discussion… there’s only so much to say, I think? Maybe that’s just our group, I can see other groups getting into technical debates on just how plausible something may be. But the weird characterization actually led to a bit of discussion on its own (Just what was McDevitt trying to do with that heel-face turn? And how can he be so down on humanity as a whole, but then portray lots of individual humans as rocking so hard? Is it slightly sexist, or slightly liberated?). I don’t think everyone will love this, but there was conversation to be had, and it was a refreshing change. Recommended.

Jul 272018
 

 

I’m gonna be in San Jose on Aug 15. Anyone reading this there who’d like to meet up for dinner or drinks or something?

 

Woman gets 20 boyfriends to buy her iPhones, then sells them to buy a house. If you’re bringing joy and comfort into the lives of 20 people, that’s a full time job. It deserves some remuneration. :)

 

23 Things No One Ever Tells You About Becoming An Adult. A rare collection of twitter joke-observations that I actually enjoyed!

 

Steven Universe: The Movie Official Teaser. I guess this explains the sudden stop mid-season

 

How to Survive America’s Kill List
“Kareem did what the system asks a law-abiding American citizen with a grievance to do. He sued, filing a complaint in district court in Washington, D.C., on March 30th, 2017, asking the U.S. government to take him off the Kill List, at least until he had a chance to challenge the evidence against him.

It’s not a stretch to say that it’s one of the most important lawsuits to ever cross the desk of a federal judge. The core of the Bill of Rights is in play, and a wrong result could formalize a slide into authoritarianism that began long ago, but accelerated after 9/11.

Since that day, we have given presidents enormous power – to make war, to torture, to detain indefinitely – and our entire legal system has been transformed on a variety of fronts, placing huge questions about illegal searches, warrantless arrest, indefinite detention, torture and other matters behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy, outside the reach of courts.

And yet, nobody is paying attention.”

At least three innocent people have died in failed drone strikes on this guy. Maybe countries with Kill Lists should stop and ask “Are we the baddies?”

 

Genetically modified babies given go ahead by UK ethics body. I didn’t expect this. We’re getting there, guys!
(unfortunately this is just a recommendation, and doesn’t actual alter any existing laws)

 

Are ethical asymmetries from property rights? An interesting argument that “ethical intuitions seem to just be property rights as applied to lives and welfare.” Note that it’s not trying to argue property rights are good, and in fact asks if maybe we should write off some moral intuitions and reason directly on consequential grounds if, indeed, our morality is an outgrowth of instinctive property-rights intuitions.

 

I will join this religion! Brutalist Web Design
“…the entirety of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is 708 kilobytes. To download this much data using a very slow mobile connection would be around one second (try it for yourself by reading it on Project Gutenberg). Pride and Prejudice is over 200 pages long, and would take over three hours to read. Certainly a news article, tweet, or product catalog can be downloaded and rendered in a comparable amount of time to a novel.”

 

U.S. Announces Its Withdrawal From U.N. Human Rights Council. I know, it was ineffective, etc. But FFS. I just can’t.

 

I find it interesting that Cyberpunk 2020 was set 32 years in the future (from it’s publish date), but Cyberpunk 2077 (which is the reboot of 2020) is set 58 years in the future. We’ve become less optimistic about how quickly our tech will advance. But, perhaps, less pessimistic about how quickly society will spiral into shit! :)

 

In-Groups, Out-Groups, and the IDW
“scientists depend on what rationality researcher Keith Stanovich1 calls “cognitive decoupling.” Decoupling separates an idea from context and personal experience and considers it in the abstract…

The contrary mode of thinking sees every argument embedded in a particular context. The context of an idea includes its associations, implications, and the motivations and identities of those who advance it.

…To a decoupler, contextualizers are fighting a losing battle against facts…Who would defend a morality that can be discredited by a single study?

Defending a position without regard for the evidence supporting it is at best a failure to think straight, and at worst a naked power grab. A contextualizer will usually invoke higher motives, such as aiding the oppressed. But, in reality, they are simply promoting their in-group. So runs the decoupler argument.

…To a contextualizer, decouplers are allowing themselves to be manipulated. Science is biased by the motivations of scientists, and decouplers betray their lack of morals when they surrender to odious ideologies cloaked in a veneer of scientific authority.

Decouplers rarely admit to being driven by tribalism or identity politics, but the virtues of decoupled and ‘rational’ thought are promoted mainly by white and Asian men who are good at math…A decoupler can always claim higher motives, like the objective pursuit of truth. In reality, they are simply promoting their in-group. So runs the contextualizer argument.

…Quietly expressing one’s admiration for the group is cheap. Instead, the best signal of commitment to an in-group is attacking the out-group, loudly and publicly.”

 

I’m going to share this with any deathists I run into from now on:

 

The quick hack guide to watching only the best of Babylon 5. I am gonna do this thing… eventually.

 

7 Ways to Maximize Misery. A good reminder ^^

 

 

Resolved: The Government Should Cut Off All Funding to Colleges and Universities. A fantastic debate with great points on both sides. I left it feeling more educated, and less sure of my previous position.

 

This is the visual aesthetic of Legion? Why haven’t I been watching this the whole time???

 

Jul 242018
 

The most annoying minor thing about the Social Justice movement now that it’s gone fully rabid is that I can never take my SJ friends at their word.

You know that friend of yours that’s going through a break-up? How every day they tell you how awful their ex is, and all the horrible things they’ve done, and why you should shun them forever? Like, really heinous things, that should get one kicked out of any civil society? Of course you nod along, and you comfort your friend, and you say “Damn… that is really awful.” But when you see that ex again, you don’t shun them. You don’t treat them any differently than you would have last month, because they are still the same person you always knew. And all those stories that their ex has been telling you, you realize that they are the worst possible spin (and potentially mis-remembered) by a very hurt person who is grieving the loss of their best friend. If at all possible you stay friends with them.

(This is assuming you knew the ex well, of course, and have an independent opinion of their character)

I’ve seen people who jumped into full hate mode at the ex, with shunning and calls for others to do the same, etc. And they get burned by it when the couple inevitably makes up, and now they have two enemies. Whoops.

I basically feel like everyone deep into Social Justice is running that same dynamic. I can’t trust their judgment, by default, because they have such a strong emotional bias towards seeing things in an aggrieved, victimized-vs-victimizer way, that none of their perceptions are trustworthy. When an even-keel friend tells me “I don’t know what that person’s problem is, but I always see them being a dick to minorities,” I update to thinking it’s more likely the person has got some level of racism going. When an SJ friend tells me “I saw that guy cat-calling someone,” I instead think “Did he though? Or did you see two friends interacting in a joking way they’ve had going for years?” But since the SJ friends are still friends, I have to nod and pretend like I’m updating. Just like when I’m in a Friend Going Through A Breakup scenario.

Except it goes on forever.

I really dislike not being able to take some of my friends at their word, it’s emotionally stressful. Yet another little way the culture wars ruin everything.

And yes, I’m sure that this exact same phenomenon also plays out for people who have alt-right friends and have to question/discount all of their opinions as well. But I’m left of center and I don’t have any alt-right friends, so my complaints are about those friends I do have. Sorry.

Jul 202018
 

The Raven Stratagem, by Yoon Ha Lee

Synopsis: A rouge general seizes a space fleet to defend the local populace and build support for a coup.

Book Review: The book starts out great, dropping you right into the middle of the fleet being taken over and characters resisting their biological programming (or failing to!) while a madman plays them like puppets.

And the last third of the book is also great, with tons of action, lots of fantastic revelations and intriguing back-stabbery. It’s exciting and enticing.

Unfortunately the middle half of the book is mainly holding patterns that do nothing. On the one hand, I really sympathize with the author. He has a story to tell, and he has a contract with a minimum word count, and if his story doesn’t fill that word-count, his publisher will sue him for breach of contract. Then who knows if he’ll ever get another one? Business always ruins art. On the other hand, as a fellow book club member said “It’s not my job to pay his mortgage.”

I almost stopped reading, because the middle is such a slog. A chapter here and there stood out, but they were diamonds in a lot of rough. The book could’ve easily been 1/3rd shorter.

Also, cutting all those extra words would’ve let in some room for physical description! I didn’t really notice this in the first book, because I was so enchanted with the cool “laws of physics can be altered by coordinated mass-belief” thing, but there is basically no physical description anywhere. Throughout the book I felt like I was in an empty grey room constantly. It was really depressing.

Raven Stratagem does have a lot going for it. The universe is still really cool, and the bizarre characters fit great in a bizarre universe. I’m really torn on this. I feel like it should have been great, but something about it just didn’t hit for me. Maybe the lack of description, or the slog in the middle, or the fact that the physics-by-consensus was kinda a background fact and didn’t really effect anything in this novel. It’s only real use was in the climax, and that was somewhat underwhelming and felt more like a footnote.

Honestly, this is another middle book. One of these days, someone’s gonna come up with a formula to make middle books good. Until that day, they will continue to just sorta drag and feel disappointing. Raven Stratagem is interesting, and I don’t regret reading it. But I can’t excitedly push it into someone’s hands and say “You gotta read this!” So, a borderline Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is a book that’s enhanced by gathering to talk about it. It’s neat to hear everyone’s individual takes on what’s going on, and it’s fun to relive the really cool plot turns. That being said, the meeting went pretty fast, there wasn’t a lot to chew over. Also, this is absolutely not a book you can read on its own. If one hasn’t read the first one, they’ll be completely lost picking this up. Anyway, same basic verdict on this – not bad, but also Not Recommended.

Jul 172018
 

This post is gonna sound kinda dumb to most people. I figure it’ll be a lot like finding out that a friend is scared of leprechauns. And you’re like “Really? Leprechauns??” But here we go.

I find the short story “Steve Fever,” by Greg Egan, horrifying–and here’s why.

(spoilers below, so go read it first if you’d like. It’s not too long, introduces a cool idea that will get you thinking, and most people will consider it mostly fun)

Steve is a tech genius/entrepreneur, signed up for cryo, that creates an AI hive-mind and dies shortly thereafter. He’s constructed the AI so it’s primary goal is to revive him in the future. Unfortunately he died in a fiery car accident, and there’s no brain left to preserve. But the AI’s utility function is robust against corruption or drift, so it sets about trying to revive him. Steve left a ton of personality data behind. Lots and lots of personal writings, recorded public appearances, social media posts, interviews, etc. So the AI creates a best-guess approximation of his mind, installs it on a currently-living bran (temporarily hijacking a person’s life in the process), and then tests to see how good of a fit it is. It does this testing by recreating the initial conditions of an event in Steve’s life, and seeing if their Model Steve reacts the same way that the Original Steve did historically. If so, great, try with another scenario! If not, abort, tweak the model, and try again. Iterate until a functionally-identical Steve can be recreated.

This terrifies me in two ways. The first is that (when I think of it) it scares me to post anything anywhere. Every trace I leave narrows the range of successful Eneasz-recreations, making future-reviving harder. I guess that’s a good thing overall, because it means revived-me will be that much closer to original-me. :) But I’m extremely aware of the fact that there’s a lot of stuff I *don’t* post or make a record of. And those things are also parts of me. The reasons for that are mostly embarrassment and social sanctioning… there’s some things I’d just rather not share with the world. And also the majority of it is boring, nobody needs to hear all my stupid little worries or daily thoughts. But recording some things and leaving out others leaves a skewed record, and since the skew is mostly in one direction, any future recreation based on these will be twisted away from who I am now. Is that a good thing? Should I mostly post the stuff that makes me happy, and shows off my abilities, so future-me will be well-adjusted, happy, and good at stuff? I’d want to keep all my deep fears and neurosis as hidden as possible in that case. But then am I even recreating myself, or just a creating an idealized child/successor?

(and is this why some people seem like super-happy half-people?)

The much more horrifying worry is that I might be the Model Eneasz. I may be running through a simulated historical scenario right now. Am I reacting the way Original Eneasz did? If I slip up in any way, the simulation is aborted and I get deleted, to be replaced by a higher-fidelity Eneasz. My continued existence depends on taking the action that isn’t the morally-best or financially-best or socially-best, but the most like an no-longer-existing-person who I may only partially resemble and whose motivations and psychology I can only guess at. And *not* doing something (like not posting this) might be just as bad, if the Original Eneasz did post it. Do I just do the best thing I can, and hope Original Eneasz was a basically good person? He can’t be that bad, if the future is willing to bring him back, right?

Plus, if I am being simulated to refine a model, it means Original Eneasz probably did something interesting or momentous enough in his life to be deemed worthy of recreating. (unless future society is altruistic enough to want to recreate everyone <3 ) I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that noteworthy yet, which leads me to think… what the fuck is looming in my future?

(Of course, I could just be the first-run of Eneasz, a pleb who will never amount to enough to be worth recreating in the future, and all this worry is for naught. Which may be even worse, because then I die forever. >< )

It’s all very stressful.

Jul 122018
 

I’m coming out as a single-issue voter, and this is my coming-out post.

Scott Alexander recently defended the use of disproportionate action to defend settled bright-line norms. I recommend reading the whole article, it’s short and explains it very intuitively. The short version is that constant war is costly, and having a very strong taboo against certain actions means you don’t have to constantly be fighting wars and can use that energy for other things/battles. Strong taboos require disproportionate response to their violation, almost by definition.

The strongest taboos should be those defending the principles that make our society possible. There are some principles so vital to society that without them our way of life would be impossible. The Rule of Law. Prohibition of Slavery. Freedom of Speech. Freedom of Religion. Freedom of Association. Reproductive Self-Determination.

And by Reproductive Self-Determination, I mean unrestricted and unrestrictable access to both contraception and abortion, without caveat. Yes, our way of life depends on this.

I.

The past is another planet, and generally a horrible one. As I learn more about the environments our ancestors had to survive in, I find myself slightly less disgusted with their societies, and pity them more instead. Because most (if not all?) social adaptations are forced by the environment.

Starvation was a real fear for most people fairly frequently. The average pre-industrial laborer would spend half or more of their daily income just on food. “If I have another child, how will I be able to feed them?” was a legitimate fear for many. Simply having children could people populations locked in a cycle of poverty for generations. Patriarchy is primarily about male control of the womb, and it flourished because men who didn’t take draconian measures to make sure they only gave resources to their actual genetic offspring were out-competed by those who did. This is how you turn half your population into property. All you need is Malthus and Azathoth.

Women also had incentives to perpetuate patriarchy. Medicine was rudimentary. One in ten pregnancies were lethal to the mother. Half of children born wouldn’t survive to adulthood. While pregnant one can do far less physical labor, and this is in a world where most labor productivity is already directly correlated with physical strength. Child rearing is a huge burden, and securing the full productive output of someone who can’t get pregnant is a huge boon. With the health risks and physical handicaps that come with pregnancy, and the general lack of ways to prevent or treat STIs, sex is always a risky proposition.

So we get cultures that treat women as the property of men, either their fathers or their husbands. Young women are a hot commodity. Children can be disavowed by fathers who don’t believe they are theirs, and abandoned to die. Women can be legally put to death for suspected infidelity. Sexuality is suppressed throughout society, which is drastically bad for mental health. Sex is a need for most people, as strong as the need to eat (although not inherently lethal if denied). Poor young men have it the worst, because older/established men have enough resources to be able to find a mate. In the interest of attracting a mate, or seizing enough resources to do so, young men are willing to go to extreme lengths. It’s entirely likely much civilizational advancement is due to men being willing to toil in awful and/or dangerous conditions, and take lots of risks, for the purpose of securing a mate. But it also leads to all sorts of neurosis, and often violence. The survivors of a war come home with lots of riches. To a lesser extent, so do the survivors of a raid. Or a robbery. Incel may be a new term, but only because it is now rare enough that we see it as a horrible failure, rather than the terrifying norm that surrounds us all.

II.

Industrial advancements have reduced many of these pressures. The most productive labor is now completely decoupled from physical strength. Our society is so rich that no one fears death by starvation (even if people do sometimes go hungry). Medicine has reduced child mortality to below 1%. People expect to live through pregnancy. All of these have paved the way to loosening the stranglehold that society had on sexuality.

But none of these alone is enough. Child care is now an even greater burden. In the past, children could care for themselves after the age of nine or ten, and could even contribute productively to the family by that age. Now they are massive investments of time, energy, and money, until the age of 22 (or longer). Forcing a child upon someone is akin to a light form of slavery.

Pregnancy still isn’t easy. I’m seeing the pregnancy process first-hand for the first time, and it’s fucking terrifying. Tendons and ligaments are loosened and elongated. Organs are compressed and pushed out of place. The placenta fights for control of the woman’s body like a hostile invader. Hormones are dumped into the blood which make it harder to concentrate and think, literally impairing the mother’s mental functioning! Many of the changes to the body are permanent, and all this is before we even get to delivery.

Complete control over one’s own fertility is what gives us the society we have today. It allows women to pursue whatever life they wish. It makes the investment in education worthwhile for all. It allows the entire populace to engage fully in the workforce, if they choose too. Which means that every person can now be an independent, self-sufficient, autonomous person. Not beholden to another or dependent on their good graces. Everyone has the ability to exit a relationship and know they can survive and even prosper, and no one has to stay with a rapist or child molester ever again. Men have to be actual good people worth having a relationship with, rather than simply controlling enough resources to ensure the compliance of a mate.

Furthermore, women are more free to have sex with whomever they wish (or not to!). Much of the pent-up frustration over repressed sexuality is defused. The warlords and bishops have one less thing to use to control those under them. People are happier. Society is less violent.

All of this is because the biology of reproduction is brutal, and forces society into brutal, desperate measures to fight it. A society without contraception is a slave society.

III.

Our contraception, as good as it is, is not flawless. Sometimes it fails. When it does, safe and effective abortion is the back-up that keeps us free. Only with unrestricted, on-demand abortion is there true Reproductive Self-Determination. Without that, all sex is still taking a risk. It may be far less of a risk. But those underlying forces, which pushed us into those hellish societies of the past, are still there, subtly pulling like a slow tide. There is a risk your body can be distorted without your permission, and the next two decades of your life redirected to labor you do not wish to undertake. That twists everything. It alters all of society for everyone.

I think that the anti-abortion forces know this. They want to revert us to an older, sicker society. They know that an environment of reproductive fear is one that favors their society, and erodes ours.

There are likely many people who think it’s dumb to focus so much on Reproductive Self-Determination. It’s certainly not the only principle that our society depends on. Freedom of Speech is even more important, because without it the only way to change things is with violence. Rule of Law is paramount, without it we don’t have any society at all. But neither of those is under the same level of threat that Reproductive Self-Determination is. Neither of those has several of the world’s most populace and wealthy religions working to destroy it. Neither of those has been declared an enemy by half the US government!

All the other principles I listed in the preamble are protected in the US Constitution, our most important political document. I firmly believe that if the Founding Fathers had access to the same level of safe and effective contraception and abortion that we have, they would have protected access to it in the US Constitution as well. To attack that fundamental right is to attack the very thing that makes us Americans. The love of liberty. The hatred of tyranny. The desire for a better, more peaceful, and more prosperous tomorrow.

Stripping the populace of reproductive self-determination is the first step towards totalitarianism. It’s far more important to a modern potential dictator than stripping people of their guns ever could be. Forcing us back into the environments that made such violent, patriarchal states the best answer our species had to that situation is the only thing they need to do. The rest is the inevitable grinding process of survival in a hostile world. As has been said (also by Scott Alexander I believe, but couldn’t find the direct quote) — if you take ten thousand modern, enlightened, educated Americans and drop them into the Nile delta with Bronze Age technology, they will have reverted to worshiping a god-emperor within one generation. Given those conditions, that is the social system shown to work.

So this is my bright line in the sand. I will judge every political decision I make based on how strongly it supports the rights to reproductive self-determination of the American people. Up until the point that something else becomes a bigger threat to our way of life. I get the feeling it’ll be a long time before that happens, though.

To head off any questions of why I’m focusing on my own society when there’s so many in the world that live in much worse conditions — our society is in a position to help those others as long as we are healthy and strong. We should do so as we can. But we must stay vigilant, or the forces that wish a return to the horrors of the past will sicken and destroy us, and we can’t help anyone when we’re crumbling into totalitarianism.

NARAL

Center for Reproductive Rights

Jun 282018
 

Hugo AwardBy ancient tradition, our book club reads the online-available Short Stories and Novelettes that have been nominated for the Hugo Award every year. Here’s my reviews.

 

Best Short Story Catagory

“Carnival Nine,” by Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2017)

Well written, with a fantastical world-of-toys setting. I loved the creation of children from spare parts, the daily winding-up of the springs, etc. Visually, it reads very much like a Tim Burton movie, ala Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline. The metaphor of a toy that gets very few turns per day being analogous to disability (what we often call spoons nowadays) was very well done. But ultimately, this felt like an overly-smaltzy Hollywood tear-jerker.  Like the SF lit version of Oscar Bait. You’re supposed to feel very sad but uplifted, sorta bittersweet. And you do. But it’s not authentic, it feels like you’ve been guided through a maximally-sympathy-inducing construct. For example, the mother indulges her child in getting him significantly heavier arms than he should have, because it would make him happy. This is an extra strain upon his spring, and further adds to the mother’s burden of care-giving, but it’s soooo worth it because it makes her disabled kid smile and she has the heart and determination to give him the best life, etc. Yeesh.

 

“Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny, September 2017)

My favorite Short Story of this year. Absolutely gorgeous prose, to the point of being poetry. I fell in love almost immediately. Moreover, it expects some work from the reader. You have to think as you’re reading, and interpret what’s being presented to uncover the story below the surface. At first I thought maybe this was a metaphor for a sexual relationship. I was wrong. This is about the anger of society’s misfits at being maltreated. The autistic, the disabled, the ugly. The “freaks”. The title refers to the stomach-churning disgust of seeing a dispassionate researcher calmly lettering notes about their anatomy’s after doing things to them that hurt, hurt deep, he should be shaking from the atrocities he’s just committed in the process of dissecting his subjects, unable to write a word, but instead he simply labels them as if they aren’t even feeling beings. The story is beautiful and grotesque and brings you directly into experiencing this emotion in a powerful way. This is the sort of story that awards were created for.

 

“Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny, September/October 2017)

A delightful piece about an obsolete robot finding a place in the world by writing fanfiction. This is very much a love letter to fanfic readers/writers, with lots of jargon and in-jokes. And it’s an absolute pleasure to read. The portrayal of the robot as a non-neurotypical person slowly making sense of all the bizarre human creatures around it, and coming to connect with them, fills me with warmth. And it was hilarious. :) I want to write some fanfic of this story now. The one downside to this story that that it doesn’t have a strong arc, and thus it just kinda peters out at the end, instead of actually Ending. Kinda disappointing, but since this is such a light/fun story anyway, its easy to overlook that. My 2nd favorite of this year.

 

“The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com, July 19, 2017)

Technically well written, but boring. The portrayal of a world that’s coming to an end because humanity has collectively gotten too frustrated to continue and decided just to give up on living made me roll my eyes. The possible moral dilemma was no dilemma at all, and the ending feels like it was written by committee. Meh.

 

“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon, (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

The concept of a Chosen One getting a magic sword and deciding “No, I really don’t like adventuring, I’m going to stay and farm instead,” sounds great on paper. What happens when the Hobbit stays home? But despite being somewhat charming, there’s not really anything here. It felt like a filler episode in an animated series.

 

“Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex, August 2017)

There comes a point about halfway through this story where you realize just how literal the title of this story is. This is a dark supernatural story, verging on horror, that takes you through the historical experience of the entire Native American peoples through the personal events of a couple months of the protagonist’s life. When you come to that realization you say “Oh shit. This is gonna suck.” You read on, because it’s a compelling plot and moves quickly and you want to see the story play out. As a parable, it works.

As a story, there is something lacking, and I can’t quite put my finger on what. The writing is good. And yet, I find myself not being hit very hard by it. I should be much more affected, and I don’t know why the story didn’t quite land. I’m still thinking about it, on an intellectual level, and I admire the strength and skilling of the story-weaving itself. The emotion just isn’t quite realized, though.

 

Strongly Recommended – “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand”

Recommended – “Fandom For Robots,” “Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience™”

 

Best Novelette Catagory

“Children of Thorns, Children of Water,” by Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, July-August 2017)

“Extracurricular Activities,” by Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, February 15, 2017)

Putting these two together, because I have the exact same comments about both.

I understand authors writing short works in the universe of their current novel series. It’s a treat for their fans, who are very important for authors. It keeps the universe fresh between novel releases. And maybe it’ll get some new people interested in the novels if they find the stories interesting.

What I take great umbrage with is the fans nominating these interstitial stories just because they love the series so much. Neither of these stories are good. They’re barely even stories. They’re just a thing that happened in the author’s given universe. Neither of these should’ve been anywhere near the Hugo Awards. They’re good for what they are, but what they aren’t is award-worthy works. Anyone who nominated either of these should be embarrassed of themselves.

 

“The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2017)

The most adorable thing I’ve read all year. The tiny, ugly-duckling-style robot goes to battle against a rat-bug thing that’s eating his ship’s insulation, and winds up saving the human race. Everything about this story made my heart happy. I love the characters, I love the tiny little bots and their whisper network, I love their non-neurotypical thought processes, and I love their overly-literal humor. Life-affirming and extremely enjoyable. I expected to cry at the ending, and I cheered instead, and honestly I’m more of a tragedy guy so I think I would’ve preferred to cry? But that’s not what Palmer was doing for this story, and that’s fine too, this also works. :) My favorite of the Novelettes, though Small Changes is really close.

 

“A Series of Steaks,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld, January 2017)

I read this just a few days ago, and honestly, I’ve already almost forgotten it. Not bad, but nothing here that interests or sticks with me.

 

“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara (Uncanny, May/June 2017)

O_O INTENSE. Gritty, angry, powerful, sexy. It does amazing things using an act of vampirism as an analog for both actual rape and rape fantasy, and then follows its aftermath. Using the vampiric transition as a reflection both on mortality and gender transition, the death of the old identity and the loss that comes with it. And then the vampiric bloodlust as an analog for the intense hormonal urges and desires of first-time testosterone use. It explores how quickly power can change you, how easy it is to go from prey to predator, and how good that feels. By the time the protagonist’s sire tells us ‘Don’t forget what you felt yesterday, when you were human’ we’ve already forgotten it, and it honestly feels hard, as a reader, to conjure up those intense emotions from just a couple pages before. Because that’s how fucking talented Szpara is. This story is amazing. And then, on top of all that, it snatches everything away again with the horror of realizing our body is turning against us, and we are going to be trapped forever in a fucking nightmare.

And then in the last third all that evaporates. The protagonist’s problems are quickly and neatly solved (in a manner that felt, emotionally, like a deus ex machina), the growth arc is aborted, and instead we get a cliché power-fantasy wish-fulfillment ending. This was extremely disappointing. The story was sooooo good up until that point. It feels like Szpara lost faith in his ability to tell this story, or realized how much longer it would be and flinched away from all that work. So he just snapped to quick resolution and cut it short. I understand that fear. This should be at least a novella, and could easily be a full novel. Which is a fuck-ton of work. At least a year of life for someone holding down a regular job as well, all for something that may turn out to be not worth the effort. That maybe no one will ever see, and no one will care about. I wish I could tell Szpara to revisit this, and take it to completion. That it would absolutely be worth all the work to me, and probably for thousands of readers like me. Because this was so utterly amazing right up until the fail point. I hope that the Hugo nom (and maybe win?) will demonstrate this, and re-energize him. Because – wow.

I’m very torn on my vote. I don’t know if I should vote for Small Changes first, or Secret Life of Bots. They do such different things, it’s impossible to compare them. Normally I’d go for the wrenching, angry, powerful tale. But with the disappointing ending, man, I’m really torn. In either case, this is also very good.

 

“Wind Will Rove,” by Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s, September/October 2017)

A meditation on cultural history, and what it means to have yours wiped away. On how much we build on the past, and the dangers of letting reverence for it become overly stifling, and strangling future creativity and growth. But while acknowledging how much we depend on it for who we are. As well as a few things about responsibility to future generations and how are choices are taken away from us by the past. A slow-paced, but ultimately well-done and thoughtful piece. While this isn’t my favorite type of story (see previous, I enjoy the ones that scream at you), this is definitely award-caliber writing. This is the sort of thing I’m happy to read, and fully get behind its nomination.

 

Strongly Recommended – “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” and “The Secret Life of Bots”

Recommended – “Wind Will Rove”

 

Book Club Reviews: As always, I highly recommend doing this once per year. You’re exposed to a lot of disparate things at once, and you get to learn a lot about the tastes and even (sometimes) values of your fellow book clubbers. The reading goes fast, as there’s much less word count than a novel. And basically everyone will find something they like. It was interesting to see how we differed on several of these.

Jun 202018
 

New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Synopsis: A tour of New York in the year 2140.

Book Review: Kim Stanley Robinson is famous for his Mars trilogy, a Hard SF trilogy that explores how to realistically terraform Mars. He continues the ultra-realistic very-sciencey tradition with New York 2140. If you are into Hard SF, KSR is absolutely your man.

Robinson isn’t shy about his infodumps. He knows that the realistic portrayal of a physical world is why his readers are here. There is an entire chapter that is literally about the geological history of the New York bay area. I like learning stuff, and Robinson is a good writer with decades of experience, so I found this interesting. But it’s really slow.

In fact, being set in an existing city, and being so dedicated to realism, there were several times I forgot this was science fiction. It felt like Earth Fic – normal, contemporary narrative fiction without a speculative element. On the one hand, that is extremely impressive for a novel set over 100 years in the future in a flooded New York. On the other hand, I don’t really like Earth Fic, I read Speculative Fiction for a reason!

The characters are as rich and deep as the setting is. Everyone feels like a real person, with a real personality, and real motivation. Their problems all feel like real-world problems too. All of this makes for a gorgeous tapestry, that feels like a mix between biography, narrative non-fiction, and well-written textbook.

But it takes its time. It really, really takes its time. Last I heard, KSR is a Buddhist. And this novel feels very much like what a (western stereotype of a) Buddhist would write. It is sedate, taking every step deliberately and with consideration, and absolutely will not accept your sense of urgency in anything. It’s over 600 pages, and by the time I hit page 200 I still didn’t know what it was about, which is why my synopsis doesn’t mention any sort of plot. The last book-club book I read was Collapsing Empire, which covered a rollicking adventure and several life-shattering (and world-changing) events in the course of 240 pages. In the time that Scalzi managed to tell an entire story, KSR still hasn’t finished his exposition, and I’m not sure we’re actually going anywhere.

I was assured by those in my book club who did finish NY2140 that it does actually have a plot. It’s peaceful to read, interesting, and well-written. If I had all the time in the world, I would read this this novel. But sadly, I do not. I have to prioritize my reading, and I can’t wait this long for something to get started. I can see why Hard SF buff love this novel. But in my case – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Woooooah momma! I was pleasantly surprised by just how much conversation this sparked! Just how realistic is the portrayal of future New York? Why would people still live there, and is New Orleans/Detroit or Venice a better reference class for comparison? Are the infodumps an embrace of SF tradition, or self-indulgent showing-off of research at the reader’s expense? Are the dialog-chapters between Jeff and Mutt cool and experimental, or obnoxious? Was this a morally-accusatory work scolding the present for making the future so awful, or was this a demonstration that things will be mostly fine, life goes on, and people adapt and live full lives even after water levels rise? Is this a relaxed, accepting view of the future, or a rant that’s 10 years too late? And where the heck did KSR’s vaulted dedication to realism go when he had a human lifted from the ground by trash bags full of helium?

We went on about all sorts of things, back and forth, for a long time. The debate was lively, and you didn’t even have to read the whole book to join in! In fact, half our group had also finished less than half the novel by the time of our meeting (seriously, so long and slow!), and yet participated fully. Given that one doesn’t need to read the whole thing, and the discussion was so good – Recommended!