Aug 012015
 

THIS+IS+FINEI just read “Three Bodies At Mitanni” by Seth Dickinson.

Oh my god.

At first you think it’s about Hanson-style Ems. Then you think it’s about p-zombies. Then you make the connection to Meditations on Moloch. Then you realize it’s the story-fication of the picture to the left. And then, in the end, you realize it isn’t about any of those things. Or rather, it isn’t *just* about those things. It is about you.

This is Rational Fiction by a Rationalist that is a Cautionary Tale About Rationalism. And it’s really fucking good. Seth Dickinson continues to be one of the most important writers of our generation.

I only wish it was available in a format that people in my generation could ACTUALLY READ. Right now you can only get it by tracking down a June 2015 dead-tree copy of Analogy Science Fiction (the special 1000th issue!).

But if you get a chance, I highly recommend it. Hopefully Seth will make it available online someday.

Jul 292015
 

v2-explodingThis year has been extraordinarily bad in terms of fiction nominees for the Hugos, which I blame primarily on the Puppies campaign. However it’s not a total loss, there is at least one work in each category that I genuinely liked, and would vote for. Which puts me in a bit of bind, because now I have to decide if I should No Award or not.

There are two major objections to the Puppies’ campaign (aside from plain old bad taste, which is a venial sin at worst).

  1. Block Voting. Three men chose a slate of works (based on inscrutable criteria) and encouraged adherents to vote a straight ticket without considering other works. It seems highly likely that most people didn’t even bother to read the works they voted to nominate. This overwhelms the normal scattered popular vote, and reduces the Hugos to a party-system. Right now there’s only one party (the Puppies) but even if there were multiple parties I would still be unhappy with this result. Having winners chosen by the leaders of whichever party can attract the most loyalists is distasteful. It’s the same political machine that runs US politics, and everyone hates it. Why would we want to adopt that system for anything?
  2. Dark Arts. The Puppies gathered members and fired up their base by using the tried-and-true method of tribal hatred. It’s simple red-vs-blue antagonism. The Puppies’ message is that an evil leftist cabal of “Them” have been oppressing “Us.” Every single thing that really pisses off the right about the left was painted onto the image of “Them.” And we can defeat “Them” and really rub their noses in shit simply by paying $40 and exploiting the very system they have so much faith in! The Puppy Triumvirate found a pressurized reservoir of discontent and resentment that was straining to explode, stoked it further, and tapped some of that energy for their own purposes. All this does is turn the Hugos into another contest of who can hate who harder. All other considerations (such as artistic quality, or personal integrity) get thrown aside when we’re engaged in an existential struggle against the Other Tribe. That is not what I want the Hugos to be about.

So this use of Dark Arts must be discouraged. I cannot ignore the consequences of what would happen if the Puppies’ tactics were to propagate. And they will propagate if they’re seen to be successful. Regardless of how much I personally enjoyed a couple of these nominees, I cannot rate any work that was on a Puppy Slate above No Award.

If you have a Hugo vote this year, I urge you to consider the ramifications of the Puppies’ tactics, and vote No Award as well.

Jul 282015
 

mosterbookIt’s weird that governments enforce contracts. I’ve been reading some upcoming changes to a few details of a subset of contract law, and that fact just struck me in the face again.

Say I’m a representative of the government. Two people come up to me, hand me a piece of paper they both signed some time in the past, and complain to me that one of them isn’t sticking to their agreement. Why the hell does that concern me? You are two private individuals that made a private agreement. Don’t try to get me mixed up in your private affair! What kind of egomaniac thinks “Well, obviously this is something I should stick my nose into! I’m glad they came to me!”

My first instinct would be to tell them to bugger off. I was never any part of this, they can resolve their dispute on their own. I suppose if they want my advice as a disinterested third party, and they feel I have expertise in the area, I can offer advice for a fee. But I’m not going to get involved and enforce anything with violence.

If they wanted me, as the government, to act as an arbitrator and give them Violence Vouchers – which is a legitimate request IMHO – they should bring the contract to me beforehand so I can look it over and agree that I’m willing to give Violence Voucher for this. They don’t get to come to me after the fact and request that they be granted retroactively!

And yet the government does this all the time. Hell, it’s one of the core functions of government – enforcing contracts people entered into privately without any prior knowledge from the enforcing party!

I do see why this is better than all the alternatives. You don’t want people resorting to private violence for enforcement. Preserving the government as the only legitimate user of violence is the single most important function of government. And you don’t want to require that every proposed contract come before a magistrate for review first, as this would slow economic activity to a crawl. Reviewing those private agreements that have become contested for reasonableness, and then siding with one party or the other after the fact, just seems like the most rational and efficient way to deal with this problem in the real world.

But damn, the basic premise is just so freakin’ bizarre.

Jul 242015
 

300x300xhugo-awards.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AsqaLzncTzThese reviews got long, so I’m breaking them into two parts. Novelettes yesterday, Short Stories today, as that’s the same order we discussed them in my bookclub.

Overall Puppy Note (preemptive!): It’s impossible not to talk about the Puppies heavily when reviewing these stories, since the Puppies vandalized the Hugos this year. As such, many of my reviews address them directly. Based on the readings of the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominations, there are two things I think can be definitively said about the Puppies. The first is that they don’t much care about thinking through the implications of their worlds or spending mental effort to make them make sense.

The second is that (to quote an esteemed bookclub member) they are heavily invested in their own moral superiority. In retrospect, the second should have been obvious simply by taking their own rhetoric at face value, but I guess sometimes the obvious eludes me unless I really have it hammered home by reading the same moral over and over in a group’s fiction. Perhaps I was fooled by their claims of “Hating Message Fiction” and “wanting to nominate works that aren’t message fic.” As a reminder, the Puppy leadership complained about Message Fiction by saying:

 

These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.

Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

 

But let’s let the works speak for themselves…

 

Short Stories

 

On A Spiritual Plain”, Lou Antonelli

Much like yesterday’s Ashes to Ashes, this is an bland tale with mediocre prose. At first I was intrigued by the premise – a planet whose physical properties demonstrate that souls exist! After someone dies their consciousness remains localized near their point of death, due to (ahem) the planet’s magnetic field. It is a fully functional person, able to think, feel, learn, communicate, and weakly interact with the world!! Holy shit guys, the afterlife is real, and it’s on this planet! Immediately I was snapped into Awesome Transhumanism mode. This is obviously where all humans will rush to now, when they are close to death, so they need not be annihilated by the destruction of their body! How will society change when Death has finally been defeated, at least locally? How long before our scientists can create a device that mimics the (ahem) magnetic field of the planet in other places, allowing us to achieve immortality anywhere in the universe? THIS IS GREAT!

Oh wait, no. It turns out that the moral of the story is that DEATH IS GOOD. And by not dying all the way, the poor bastard is being denied the awesomeness of death. The goal of the rest of the story becomes to kill him again, because it didn’t take the first time. You did not die enough! Die more! The kindly chaplain has no qualms about resorting to trickery to achieve this, but fortunately(?) his victim is cool with dying, so when he finds out what’s happening he doesn’t put up a fight. Apparently “he would rather be nothing, than a ghost on a strange wold.” Cuz fuck strange worlds man. Death is so much better than novelty! Arrrrrgh.

If you like poorly-written BLATENT Deathist propaganda, this is the story for you. I find it morally repugnant.

Puppy Note: Wow. The novelettes hinted at this trope with Ashes to Ashes (“Death is the solution to all your woes!”), but it’s really hammered home here. The Puppies embrace Death, and seem to want their fiction to demonstrate the moral superiority of Deathism. Every character’s goodness and/or wisdom is proportional to how gracefully they accept their own voluntary extinction. A purposeless extinction at that. And they call themselves the culture of life. O.o

Anyway, this is obviously Message Fiction. The Puppies actually love Message Fiction, as long as it’s their message.

 

The Parliament of Beasts and Birds”, John C. Wright

Wright intended this as a Sunday School sermon, and that’s basically what it is. You can read it as it’s intended – another way of presenting Catholic Dogma to the laity – and roll your eyes. Yes, as written this should never have been accepted into the Hugo’s because it isn’t Sci-Fi or Fantasy or Horror or anything, it’s just straight-up religious indoctrination. But here’s the wonderful thing about really old religions – they are horrific. The most effective tool for conversion to atheism is (IMHO) simply taking off the blinders and reading the Old Testament as it is written, taking it all at face value. It is the story of a Lovecraftian Eldritch Horror which men have been worshipping to gain advantage over others on Earth. Wright’s story, by staying true to the source material, tapped directly into that. If you ignore his intentions and just read it as a straight horror story, you’ll find an excellent piece of existential horror that will leave you terrified. See my full post about it for more on why, if you’re interested.  It is easily my favorite story on this ballot, and I’ll be voting for it to win. I’m with you Fox! We must kill God!

Puppy Note: Sermons are the original Message Fiction. This story is literally nothing but a very thin veneer over what is 99% message. There is almost nothing here EXCEPT the Message. Any Puppy who ever claims that they’re against Message Fiction again will be exposing him/herself as a liar. You can interpret it as a pro-God message (boring) or a death-to-God message (Yeah!!) but either way, it’s Message Fiction. I personally don’t have any problem with Message Fiction. I think Message Fiction is the best kind of fiction (because if you aren’t trying to say something, why are you bothering to write?), as long as it’s done well. I thought this was well done, so I enjoyed this a lot. :) But the Puppy Hypocrisy is stunning.

 

A Single Samurai”, Steven Diamond

This is a Basic Story in the most basic sense of the word. It is literally “Warrior gives his life to save his people. Yay!” with nothing else. This isn’t bad, of course. Every one of us needs to read stories like this when we first start reading fiction. These sorts of stories are the bedrock on which our literary taste grows. All the nuance and subtle play of complex works depends on the reader already being familiar with the basic warrior ethos story. And this also has Kaiju in it, which we all need to experience for the first time at some point. You can’t fully appreciate Evangelion without knowledge of the Giant Robot genre. You can’t fully appreciate Magica Madoka without knowledge of the Magical Girl genre. You need to build up to great works by starting with the simple stuff.

And as a simple story, this works great. It’s competently written. Unlike the other pro-death stories, which are pro-death purely for the sake of being pro-death, in this story death is shown to be a bad thing, but one which it is noble to accept when it leads to the greater good. A warrior who sacrifices himself to save his people. That’s inspiring, it’s a good moral.

But it is undeniably Simple. It is a Basic story. We all read this story dozens of times when we were children. There is nothing new here for anyone over the age of ten. Why is another version of such a simple story on the Hugo ballot? There is absolutely nothing new to see here. I am absolutely flabbergasted.

Puppy Note: Do the Puppies simply not understand what awards are for? The rehashing of childhood tales is not an award-winning endeavor.

Message Fic – yup. It’s a good message: “Heroes will lay down their lives to save others, if they have to. Be heroic!” But it’s still message fic.

 

 

Totaled”, Kary English

I’m very torn on this story. It is easily the best written of the five, by far. The premise is great, and the story was interesting. But it focuses on the wrong story. I guess the author wanted to tell a touching story of a dying mother letting go of her children, and she completely missed the implications of what she’s writing.

When the worst people in our society do horrendous things, and we lock them up in the worst places we can create, and they keep doing terrible things to other prisoners and guards even within those prisons, how do we punish them further? We lock them up in solitary confinement. Because forced isolation is painful to humans. Painful enough that many jurisdictions consider long-term solitary confinement to be cruel and unusual punishment, equivalent to torture. So when I learned that the protagonist in this story is a brain in a jar, essentially someone suffering from Locked-In Syndrome I figured it was going to be somewhat horrific. But the author skims right over this, and never gives us any indication that the protagonist is on anything other than an extended no-phone vacation.

Worse than that, it quickly becomes apparent that her co-workers and boss at the brain-research facility are FULLY AWARE THAT SHE IS CONSCIOUS, and don’t give a damn! Instead they use her as slave-labor to advance their research. So we have a story of someone in constant isolation, unable to interact with the world aside from simple yes/no responses to one other person during regular working hours, being used for slave labor, with the understanding that she will die in six months and nothing can be done to alter that.

And somehow this isn’t a horror story??

I am horrified that the author was able to take those circumstance and try to write it out into a touching story of a dying mother saying her final goodbyes. I mean… it’s a good story. It’s well written and emotionally touching. But it seems like focusing on the story of a conflict with your in-laws when two blocks over there’s a genocide being carried out.

Puppy Note: I don’t quite know what to make of this. Again, it seems to be a story about accepting death, but at least this time death is portrayed as something to be sad about, rather than something to be welcomed. A surprisingly good entry, considering the Puppies’ track record so far.

 

Turncoat”, Steve Rzasa

Pure drek. The villain is one-dimensional, the hero is invincible, and tech-jargon is used as a replacement for anything that might be thought-provoking or compelling.

I said before I like Good Message Fic. This is the opposite of that. It is the worst kind of message fic. It is actually The Worst Argument In The World, put into story form. It is very simply “My ideological opponents are Hitler. If you agree with them, you are as bad as Hitler.” I’m not kidding. The author doesn’t use the name “Hitler”, but the antagonist is a genocidal, racist, megalomaniacal dictator.

There are interesting stories to be told of people trapped in situations where they have to behave horrendously or suffer terrible consequences (turning over the Jews in their attic or be killed themselves). These stories are full of tension and drama. Fortunately, our Turncoat protagonist doesn’t have to make any such hard decisions. The moral of the story seems to be “If you aren’t really onboard with literally committing genocide, and you can easily switch sides, turn the tide of battle, and not have to worry about taking any sort of risk to yourself… then heck, why not?” It’s not really inspiring.

Puppy Note: The most outrageous example of “heavily invested in their own moral superiority.” Message Fic with nothing to say. Seriously, you complained about the Hugo’s promoting “Message Fiction” because gay characters are portrayed positively, or a spacefaring society doesn’t make gender-distinctions and refers to everyone as “she”, but then you nominate a story whose sole purpose is yelling “my opponents are Hitler!” without even bothering to try to portray your own arguments sympathetically? What is wrong with you?

 

Book Club Note: As I said yesterday: I strongly encourage all book clubs to do something similar to this once a year. Reading shorts is a nice change of pace. Also, it provides immense reading-time-to-discussion value! Reading all the Hugo nominated Short Stories and Novelettes took half the time (or less) of reading a single novel, and with ten shorts there is SOOOO MUCH to talk about! We went significantly over time. A very favorable ratio, even compared to the best books.

 

Let’s hope there’s less Puppy Poo next year though.

Jul 232015
 

300x300xhugo-awards.jpg.pagespeed.ic.AsqaLzncTzThese reviews got long, so I’m breaking them into two parts. Novelettes today, Short Stories tomorrow, as that’s the same order we discussed them in my bookclub.

 

Overall Puppy Note (preemptive!): It’s impossible not to talk about the Puppies heavily when reviewing these stories, since the Puppies vandalized the Hugos this year. As such, many of my reviews address them directly. Based on the readings of the Sad/Rabid Puppy nominations, there are two things I think can be definitively said about the Puppies. The first is that they don’t much care about thinking through the implications of their worlds or spending mental effort to make them make sense. The second is less flattering, and so I’m putting it off until tomorrow’s post, where it is much more thoroughly supported (due to it being more strongly represented in the Short Stories).

 

Novelettes

 

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium”, Gray Rinehart

A decent, if fairly unremarkable tale. An example of “didn’t bother to think through the world-building.” The basic premise is that a technologically- and militarily-dominant alien species is oppressing a human settlement on a planet they both colonized, and the humans chase them away by exploiting a simple superstition in their religious beliefs. “Drive Away Your Alien Overlords With This One Weird Trick!” They have a fear of bodies buried under the earth, and so are willing to give up military dominance of billions in infrastructure to get away from those scary buried corpses. If anyone bothered to think on this for more than ten seconds they’d realize any such belief system would have been weeded out of the memetic ecosystem aeons ago. No expansionary society can have a belief system so easily hacked. If one guy with a shovel can overthrow any size military occupation in a single night, your belief system will not propagate.

The story itself failed to strike much emotion. No one seemed particularly harmed by the alien “oppression”, as far as I could tell we were supposed to be cheering for the humans merely because they are human. That’s OK, I guess, but it’s not compelling.

Puppy Note: The story’s basic premise is remarkably stupid (but sadly not the stupidest thing the Puppies nominated). But it had to be stupid, to get across the moral of the story, which seemed to be “Your religion is stupid. Look how stupid it is, we can exploit it so easily! It’s important to have a non-stupid religion, like ours!” /sigh

 

Championship B’tok”, Edward M. Lerner

Oh dear lord. Remember how much I hated The Dark Between The Stars? THIS IS THAT BOOK, IN STORY FORM! Just apply everything I wrote in that review to this story. To recap: “as much emotion as reading a bad history textbook” and “there is not a single person in this book. There are a bunch of plot-advancing devices that have names. But they are empty husks, whose only purpose is to get us from Event A to Event B to Event C, and give us no reason to care about any event or any person.” Holy cow is it bad.

Puppy Note: Let’s get the obvious out of the way. This is not a short story. It’s a novel excerpt. For the Puppies to have nominated this is an insult to the Novelette award. There is no character building, plot arc, anything, because there can’t be! It’s one chapter out of a novel. This is like nominating a movie trailer for Best Short Film. This is a clear example that either the Puppies didn’t bother to read their slate before they voted on it, or that they have no idea what these awards are supposed to be recognizing. It took a Novelette nomination away from an actual novelette, which is a damned shame. That alone puts this below No Award. The awful quality is just the kicker.

 

The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator

A gorgeously written surrealist piece, with extremely evocative prose. While reading it I actually experienced vertigo, and felt like I was somehow reading upside-down, even though the words were still right-side up. The premise was fascinating, and the survivors’ struggle to simply exist without flying into the stratosphere was fantastic. I absolutely loved most of it.

But I hated the protagonist. He is an extremely creepy stalker, who spends the entire story hunting down the girlfriend who broke up with him because he refuses to accept her breakup. When he finally finds her at the end of the story, trapped with a broken leg in her house, he again confesses his undying love and complete stalker-tude. To her credit, she reiterates that they broke up and it’s over, even in her position! He refuses to accept her breakup (again!), then goes into her bedroom and discovers that she is totally over him and started dating someone else. So he goes into a slut-shaming tirade and leaves her to die.

I generally like damaged characters. And I love villains! Villain stories are among my favorites. But I really despise entitled misogynistic assholes who we’re supposed to sympathize with and consider the heroes. That is not a villain story. So this piece didn’t leave me with the delicious sense of evil and tragedy that a good villain story leaves you with, it just left me feeling slimy and gross. Ugh. I’m kinda torn on this work, as the wordcraft and world is so evocative. But ultimately I just can’t like a piece that reads like it’s glorifying something this ugly.

Puppy Note: The only non-Puppy work on this ballot!

 

The Journeyman: In the Stone House”, Michael F. Flynn

A very welcome surprise! This is a fantastic piece! The prose is superb and the voice is extremely strong! You cannot read this without immediately knowing just what the protagonist is going through, and feeling every single bit of it right along with him. And smiling the whole time. :) I especially love the banter between Teo (the protagonist) and Sammi (his travelling companion). Teo is a very old-school “honor and glory” type. He does what he does because it is awesome, and he is awesome, and he wants to be remembered down the ages and sung about, because we’re all going to die and that is true immortality, etc. It’s inspiring and exciting and swells the chest with pride. Sammi is a barbarian who speaks in broken English, but is obviously the smarter of the pair. He’s got a razor wit, always ready with a snarky quip, and always does the practical, smart thing in any situation, even if that would be seen as “cowardly” by the bards. He doesn’t give a crap about someone singing about how heroically he charged into the mouth of a dragon, he’d rather sneak up on the dragon, poison its food, and live to tell about it. Sammi is also incredibly admirable in this regard, and I would honestly consider him a Rationalist character. The interplay between the two of them really makes the story, and it was fantastic to read! Plus the storyline was pretty engaging too!
Oh! And did I mention the budding romance between Teo and the guy who’s been hunting him down? It is adorable, especially because it seems that right now Sammi is the only one who realizes what’s happening between the two of them… those two still think they hate each other! /squee!! It’s masterfully done, and I tip my hat to Mr. Flynn.

It is interesting to note that this appears to be an entry in a serial story (a previous story in the same storyline having been published in 2012, and the main storyline obviously not even close to resolution at the end of this novelette). However this isn’t just an excerpt, it really is a full story in the serial style – it has a beginning, middle, and end, and leaves you feeling satisfied. It’s much like a single episode in a season of Buffy – advancing the main arc of the season while still being a good self-contained narrative on its own. I’m happy to see serial works coming back in print form, I had assumed they were dead outside of cyberspace.

Puppy Note: Michael Flynn is an old hand in the Hugos, having six previous nominations. It’s a good thing the Puppies came along to right the injustice of him being shunned by the SJW circles and Hugo elitist conspirators, who had kept him from getting his due recognition…

Also, I get the feeling that the Puppies aren’t great at reading subtext, because I suspect that many of them would not have nominated a story with an budding gay romance. Either that or they didn’t bother to read their slate before nominating it *cough cough*.

 

The Triple Sun: A Golden Age Tale”, Rajnar Vajra

This started out strong, and I thought I was going to like it just as much as The Journeyman. The prose is good, and it’s written in that clever modern style that’s so fun to read. You know the one, you see it in most urban fantasy and some steampunk, very Whedon-esque. I was cruising along, having a good time, when we got to The Puzzle. I really like puzzles in my fiction! Some of my favorite works are basically very elaborate puzzles for the reader to figure out, with narrative and character, so I was excited. And this puzzle was introduced as something that a team of scientists had been working on for 30 years! And if they failed at it, they lost their home planet and had to move back to Earth! Wow, this is gonna be awesome. I am looking forward to some intense Insight Porn, because that’s half of what Rationalist Fiction is about, right?

While he’s describing the puzzle, halfway through the second paragraph the solution is obvious. He’s not even done setting it up yet and already I can tell what the answer is. Seriously a team of highly motivated scientists couldn’t figure that out after 30 years???? It’s not even a good puzzle!!! In fact it’s almost insulting to my intelligence how simple it is! I thought maybe I’d just been spoiled by the Insight Porn that is LessWrong and Cracked and SSC, until I got to the solution the author wrote…

Which was even stupider than I could have imagined, because I graduated middle school. I’m gonna spoil it for you, but don’t worry, you aren’t missing anything. The cows on their world, that have spent 30 years eating, reproducing, and doing nothing else, but are all wearing Apple Smart Watches? The Smart Watches were actually made by the symbiotes living on the cows, who have spent 30 years eating, reproducing, and doing nothing else. Oh, and did I mention this is a pre-industrialized world? Let me take that back… this is a pre-agricultural world.

That’s right. The symbiotes created those Smart Watches (using stone tools??) on a world without any industrial development at all. No factories, no refineries, nothing. I’m not the world’s smartest person. But I am aware that to build a Smart Phone/Watch takes literally centuries of industrial development, as we bootstrap up the tech ladder to produce the high-precision machinery needed to make such things. You don’t chisel one out of stone. It would take a society of hundreds of thousands of people (at least) all in extremely specialized careers to have the infrastructure needed to make this. That sort of society is impossible to hide, especially for thirty years! And it would collapse is suddenly everyone within it stopped acting like a modern society and instead hung out with cows, eating and reproducing and NOT GOING TO THEIR DAY JOBS IN THE FACTORY FOR 30 YEARS!!

I was personally insulted by this story’s lack of respect for my intelligence. It assumes I am a drooling idiot, and I’m willing to read whatever this author will shovel out on a whim without bothering for one second to think through the implications of the world he’s created. I actually hate this story. >:(

Puppy Note: Again, it seems the Puppies can’t be bothered to think through any of the implications of their world, or spend even two thoughts on world-building. Also, how did this get published in what is supposedly a Hard SF magazine? Doesn’t the “Hard” in “Hard SF/Hard Fantasy” mean “took time to think about what is being proposed so that it makes some damn sense”?? This story is not SF, because for the cow-parasites to have “made” the Smart Watches basically means they magic’ed them out of thin air. It is a fantasty story with conjuration magic, that is dressed up with techno-babble. Really? Adding techno-babble to your fantasy story is all it takes to be considered SF for Analog’s purposes? That is a low bar.

 

Book Club Note: As I do every year, I strongly encourage all book clubs to do something similar to this once a year. Reading shorts is a nice change of pace. Also, it provides immense reading-time-to-discussion value! Reading all the Hugo nominated Short Stories and Novelettes took half the time (or less) of reading a single novel, and with ten shorts there is SOOOO MUCH to talk about! We went significantly over time. A very favorable ratio, even compared to the best books.

 

Short Stories tomorrow!

Jul 142015
 

sucking at somethingA number of times people have asked me for some podcasting tips when they’ve decided to give this podcasting thing a shot. It just happened again, and I’ve decided to compile all my beginner advice into a post I can easily point to, rather than having to retype everything each time.

I will not be repeating the things that are already found on How To Podcast pages. Please follow their advice on setting up a WordPress Site, creating an RSS feed, and registering with iTunes. It’s much better than what I could give, and probably more up-to-date.

I will repeat a few things I said at my “Voicing A Character” page though, since that one is kinda hidden unless you’ve wanted to voice a character for HPMoR.

First, I want to reinforce anything you’ve read that advises you to create your RSS Feed through Google FeedBurner rather than using whoever your site host is. DO THIS. You will very likely want (or need) to switch hosts one day. This will make your life sooooo much easier when you do, with very little extra effort right now. I learned this the hard way.

For publishing, I use PowerPress from BluBrry. Simple and free, which is what I want.

Second, if you plan on doing more than a dozen episodes, it’s worth it to shell out the money for a mid-grade microphone. They make a hell of a difference. I use an Audio Technica 2020, with a USB converter.

Cheap hardware essentials that I didn’t realize were essentials until later: A microphone stand, so you don’t have to hold the mic and it stays a constant distance from your mouth. A sheet-music stand to hold my source material, so I don’t have to hold it in my hands and have the paper rustle in the mic. A pop-filter, to prevent the worst of those annoying pops and cracks.

I’m less sure of the spider-mount. I’ve found it helps just enough to justify the cost if you’ll be doing this for a long time. Some come with a pop-filter integrated, which helps defray the cost.

Minimize all background sound, these mics will pick up everything. Refrigerators, HVAC, even loud computer fans. Be aware of noise you can’t control, a truck driving by outside can be picked up. You’ll have to wait until it’s gone and then redo that sentence. Likewise, take a full breath when you reach the end of a page before flipping it.

Echo is the devil! It’s a stealthy degrader of audio quality that you don’t notice when you record, it’s hard to eliminate IRL, and it’s almost literally impossible to eliminate via software in post (some of the extremely high-end audio software claims to be able to get rid of some echo).

The best fix is recording in a closet. All those hanging clothes do *wonders* to absorb sound. Put egg-crate foam on the wall opposite you to nullify echo from that direction. For real. If your living quarters were to be picked up and shaken by vigorously by a giant, you should emerge unscathed.

For software, do your recording and editing in Audacity. It’s free, and plenty powerful for anyone who isn’t an industry professional. Save every now and then while you’re recording. Keep the raw file when you’re done, and do all your post-production work in a renamed copy, in case you screw something up real bad.

First thing you do before you start anything else in post-production is to run a Noise Reduction on the entire thing. It’ll make every type of editing easier, as the background hiss will be reduced.

The BIGGEST THING I WISH I KNEW FROM THE START is this: Whenever making edits in Audacity, always “jump to zero” after selecting the section you want but before doing ANYTHING ELSE. The hotkey for this is “z”. It’s the *best thing ever*!! Seriously, hit Z anytime you highlight any amount of track for any reason, or are about to paste something in. Make it a habit. Find yourself accidentally hitting Z after selecting text to copy out of an email or webpage, because you have such entrenched muscle-memory of “Releasing Mouse Button After Selection -> tap Z.” It’ll put a stop to so many of your post-production pops/clicks.

In terms of technique:

Keep you mouth about a foot away from the mic (experiment for best results. Getting closer pics up more bass in the voice, which might be what you want). And do not speak directly into the microphone. Have it off to the side a bit, so your words go past it. This helps greatly in reducing pop, even moreso than a pop-filter.

Modulate your breathing. That’ll save you a ton of post-production work. Plan when you will breath before hand, make sure it’s only at natural breaks in a sentence, like commas and periods.

Beware of throat phlegm, do your best to keep it clear, unless that’s the sound you’re going for. You’ll eventually figure out what works best for you to accomplish that.

When you flub a word and have to redo it, go back AT LEAST a few words. You need to get a nice flow and find natural breaks in speaking to splice the lines together, and in practice these very rarely occur between words. They’re more common between vowels and hard consonants. Best practice is to go back to the last natural pause – either a period or a comma – and continue from there. I always do so, and it’s invaluable.

Don’t be afraid to do a few takes if something doesn’t feel right and cut out all but the best one.

You’ll probably read too fast. Most people do. You should probably slow down.

Don’t worry about over-acting. That’s almost impossible when you only have your voice to convey emotion, rather than face, body, etc. It’s far more likely that you’re being too flat than that you’re overacting.

But the biggest piece of advice – realize that you will get better. And the only way to get better is to keep doing this. So don’t give up! You’ll never learn how to walk if you’re unwilling to wobble around like a flibbity-jibbit for a few months, figuring out how these “leg” things work. :)

Jul 102015
 

Dark_Between_the_Stars_2014_1st_edThe Dark Between The Stars, by Keven J. Anderson

Synopsis: A “space opera.” War among the stars, as humans are attacked by The Darkness (not the band).

Book Review: First, a minor quibble. This book isn’t SF, it’s Fantasy In Space. You will have to make a conscious effort to forget any physics you know to preserve the suspension of disbelief. It’s interesting that sometimes these things work and sometimes they don’t. I’m a fan of Star Wars and Warhammer 40K, and both of those are known to laugh at the idea of being constrained by basic common-physics-sense. But they have a flair, a certain bombast, that makes you eager to play along. This novel lacks that, and the result is groan-inducing.

But to get to the heart of the matter… Guys, I tried with this book. I really did. I felt the Puppies deserved a fair shake and I did absolutely everything I could to give them my fairest. After all, they have to their credit Warbound which was good in parts and wasn’t bad overall, and Parliament of Beasts and Birds which I quite liked. I can’t just denounce something without actually reading it. But after slogging through 220 pages of this abomination I could not read a single page further, and I was only about 1/3rd of the way through.

This is not a story. This is an outline of a story with a few physical descriptions fleshed out. You know those “Here’s a refresher of what happened last season” 5-minute clips that come out when a new season of a TV series begins nowadays? Imagine nothing but an entire book of that. Events are summarized, but no details are filled in. The result is a story with as much emotion as reading a bad history textbook. Allow me to demonstrate:

“Elisa was so furious and indignant she could barely think straight” is used to display anger. Can you feel the anger radiating off the page? Me neither. But it’s nothing compared to this next line, delivered after a mother witnesses her son die:

“That meant her son was dead! Anger warred with her grief.”

Let me be very clear – I’m not taking two sentences out of context of a greater tapestry. That is literally the entire effort that Anderson put into showing us the grief of a mother watching her child die before her. The paragraph before this was things blowing up, the paragraph after is exposition telling us things we already know (how her son got here), and the paragraph after that is descriptions of how damaged her ship is. The entire book is like this! The author does not give a single fuck about his writing, so why should I? Other examples:

“The survey ships orbited the small moon, and the readings were unusual enough that Keah decided they warranted a hands-on surface investigation. Adar Zan’nh agreed.”

“Sparks showered from control panels throughout the command nucleus, and the life-support systems shut down.”

Dry narrative that fails to evoke emotion, and the most-mocked cliché in Star Trek, at the same time!

“Sendra gave Garrison a gaze full of meanings, regrets, questions, and not-so-subtle flirtation.”

HOLY SHIT GUYS!! The only time I’ve read a line like this before is in fanfics that are parodies of bad fanfics!

But the complete lack of emotion and terrible writing aren’t the worst of it either. By far the worst part of all this is that there is not a single person in this book. There are a bunch of plot-advancing devices that have names. But they are empty husks, whose only purpose is to get us from Event A to Event B to Event C, and give us no reason to care about any event or any person. This book is empty. Not Recommended.

Also, in the glossary at the back there is an entry for “Black Robots: intelligent and evil beetlelike robots…” Yes, it says ‘evil’ in their description. Seriously, was this book written by-and-for eight-year-olds? I was surprised no one cast Magic Missile at The Darkness.

Book Club Review: Hahahahaahha! No. Not Recommended.

Puppy Note: Seriously guys, what the hell? Are you just trolling us? This is one of the worst books I’ve read in years. Apparently simply putting words on paper is enough to get a Sad Puppy Hugo nod. No wonder Brad had to go full post-modern, it’s the only refuge left to him now that he hitched his wagon to this turd.

On the plus side, it really puts into perspective the other books that were nominated. Skin Game and Three-Body Problem and Goblin Emperor all had their faults, and I can’t say any of them were really good. But now that I’ve been reminded what a BAD book looks like, I feel a lot better about those.

Jul 092015
 

System Shock ShodanOn Facebook someone asked for fiction with good AI. They said “My problem with most fictional presentations of AI is that they’re like dorky humans in metal suits.”

I think part of the problem is that when writing for humans, you need some human-relatable characters. In most works that include an AI, it’s gotta be at least recognizable as a person. That leads to a lot of “dorky human” characters. Or, perhaps, human-style intelligences that are different in certain ways, but still recognizably human. Such as GLaDOS from Portal, or Prime Intellect from “The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.” I assume what you’re looking for right now is truly alien intelligences. Thought processes not like our own.

Those are fascinating, but it’s very hard to include them as characters. The best treatments I’ve seen of genuinely non-human intelligences are nigh incomprehensible, and it makes for great horror writing. Such AIs are basically Lovecraftian gods – powerful, inscrutable, and not really characters. The aliens from Peter Watts’s “Blindsight” are my favorite example. Absolutely fascinating, and absolutely unrelatable even in principle. At the furthest extremity these sorts of intelligences are like The Thing Behind Area X in the Southern Reach Trilogy (altho I haven’t read the third book yet, so I may be wrong). Based on the first two books, it is hard to say that there is even a thought process there. Is The Thing sentient, or just a force of nature? Is it a babbling incoherent force at the center of all things? Another great example of this (taken from real life!) is Yudkowsky’s short “An Alien God”.

But if you’re going for a happy medium – an intelligence that is mind-warpingly alien, but still comprehensible, and able to interact with humans on human terms – than I think your best bets are Peter Watt’s “The Things” and Peter Hamilton’s “Pandora’s Star”. In both cases the Intelligence is an alien rather than a machine, but really, what’s the difference when it all comes down to it?

Jul 072015
 

reading rainbowIt bugs me a lot that I generally cannot answer the question “Why am I even here?” Last week’s series of posts was me taking another stab at that question, which – I know – has been bugging people since people became people. There’s been no shortage of times that I’ve wanted to just ragequit the entire thing. Part of the problem is that I don’t want to be evil.

What I want to do is write fiction. I come from a working-class family, and it was pretty well hammered into me that fiction is a waste of time. It doesn’t create anything of value, it simply steals the time you could be using to make your life better. It is wireheading. I’ve spent my whole life feeling guilty about reading fiction, watching fiction, or playing video games, and 20+ years feeling even more guilty about wanting to make it. I’ve always felt like a drug-pusher. I want to create a destructive thing that makes people feel good temporarily at the cost of their own well-being.

The subverting of this guilt is perhaps the thing I like most about Rationalist fiction. The stated purpose of HPMoR (and supposedly all Rationalist fiction) is to teach the reader how to better apply Rationalism in their own life. This is a thing I think will make all of humanity better. It was like a huge carbon-offset for fiction. It’s not a drug that hurts the reader, it’s a tool that makes them better, so it’s OK!

But when I actually read Rationalist fiction, what I like most isn’t that which teaches the best, it is that which makes me feel emotions the best. (Although the teaching is a huge bonus.) And when I write, while I incorporate themes of the Rationalist movement, I don’t actually set out to try to teach something. I’m just trying to make people feel emotions. Which means that at best I’m a drug pusher that says “Using my drug correlates with decreased heart-disease!” when I damn well know my intention is to get people high.

Unless, of course, feeling emotions is the raison d’etre of humanity. In which case maybe what I’m doing isn’t so bad. Maybe it’s even something valuable, in its own way.

I would like to think that. So I’m gonna try thinking that for a while, and see how that works out.

Jul 022015
 

lainRecent comments about the previous post regarding valuing how brain-states are achieved are deserving of reflection and reply.

 

 

Rowan:

how is the process of playing Doom without cheat codes distinguished from the process of repeatedly pushing a button connected to certain electrodes in your head that produce the emotions associated with playing Doom without cheat codes? (Or just lying there while the computer chooses which electrodes to stimulate on your behalf?)

If it’s just the emotions without the experiences that would cause those emotions, I think that’s a huge difference. That is once again just jumping right to the end-state, rather than experiencing the process that brings it about. It’s first-order control, and that efficiency and directness strips out all the complexity and nuance of a second-order experience.

See Incoming Fireball -> Startled, Fear
Strafe Right -> Anticipation, Dread
Fireball Dodged -> Relief
Return Fire -> Vengeance!!

Is strictly more complicated than just

Startled, Fear
Anticipation, Dread
Relief
Vengeance!!

I think the key difference being that in the first case, the player is entangled in the process. While these things are designed to produce a specific and very similar experiences for everyone (which is why they’re popular to a wide player base), it takes a pre-existing person and combines them with a series of elements that is supposed to lead to an emotional response. The exact situation is unique(ish) for each person, because the person is a vital input. The output (of person feeling X emotions) is unique and personalized, as the input is different in every case.

When simply conjuring the emotions directly via wire, the individual is removed as an input. The emotions are implanted directly and do not depend on the person. The output (of person feeling X emotions) is identical and of far less complexity and value. Even if the emotions are hooked up to a random number generator or in some other way made to result in non-identical outputs, the situation is not improved. Because the problem isn’t so much “identical output” as it is that the Person was not an input, was not entangled in the process, and therefore doesn’t matter.

 

Billy:

I may be misunderstanding how you use the term “wireheading”, but a sufficiently advanced machine could stimulate the right parts of your brain at the right time to give you the experience of watching a movie, and there would be no way to distinguish between the “real” experience and the “wired” experience. (Or substitute any of your other examples.)

So before we start, I want to state that I don’t think there’s anything bad about simulated experiences per se. “Wireheading” is commonly defined as directly activating the end-state that is desired. In the classic example, by running a wire to the joy-parts of the brain and stimulating them. What you seem to be describing is more of a Matrix-style full sensory replacement.

I actually don’t have much of a problem with simulated-realities. Already a large percentage of the emotions felt by middle-class people in the first world are due to simulated realities. We induce feelings via music, television/movies, video games, novels, and other art. I think this has had some positive effects on society – it’s nice when people can get their Thrill needs met without actually risking their lives and/or committing crimes. In fact, the sorts of people who still try to get all their emotional needs met in the real world tend to be destructive and dramatic and I’m sure everyone knows at least one person like that, and tries to avoid them.

Of course I think a complete retreat to isolation would be sad, because other human minds are the most complex things that exist, and to cut that out of one’s life entirely would be an impoverishment. But a community of people interacting in a cyberworld, with access to physical reality? Shit, that sounds amazing!

Perhaps you meant something different? A “Total Recall” style system has the potential to become nightmarish. Right now when someone watches a movie, they bring their whole life with them. The movie is interpreted in light of one’s life experience. Every viewer has a different experience (some people have radically different experiences, as me and my SO recently discovered when we watched Birdman together. In fact, this comparing of the difference of experiences is the most fun part of my bi-weekly book club meetings. It’s kinda the whole point.). The person is an input in the process, and they’re mashed up into the product. If your proposed system would simply impose a memory or an experience onto someone else wholesale* without them being involved in the process, then it would be just as bad as Rowan’s “series of emotions” process.

I have a vision of billions of people spending all of eternity simply reliving the most intense emotional experiences ever recorded, in perfect carbon copy, over and over again, and I shudder in horror. That’s not even being a person anymore. That’s overwriting your own existence with the recorded existence of someone(s) else. :(