Jan 082020

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland

Synopsis: A poorly-run government agency with a time machine attempts to alter history, and hijinks ensue.

Book Review: This will be a short review, because there isn’t terribly much to say. This is a well written, fun romp through time. It’s almost like a very intellectual Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. We have a team of scrappy underdogs that are very easy to relate to and to fall in love with. I absolutely ADORE the “witch” from 19th century Prussia, every single scene with her is the best thing ever. <3 The government is both powerful and incompetent in the ways you come to expect as you get older. The villains are so deliciously easy to hate. The scenes set in the past feel incredibly realistic (which one would expect with both Stephenson and Galland at the helm). There is an extended scene with a raiding party of naked Vikings pillaging a Wal-Mart which is hilarious and makes perfect internal sense.

The book is also written with the fun gimmick of being a collection of archival evidence that is being presented to the reader, so every single bit of it is either an excerpt from a journal, or a letter that was intercepted, or an email that was leaked, or a PowerPoint presentation, or something. It’s a cool constraint, and it’s fun to see how the authors pull off telling a great story in an entirely epistolary format.

That being said, there isn’t much of substance here. It’s a fun trip, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it doesn’t really have much to say about humanity or the world or whatever. I like my fiction (even the comedic romps) to have a deeper motive as well. So not something to rush out for, but good if you’re in the mood for something well written and fun. Mildly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Overall people enjoyed the book, although nearly everyone else thought that it really dragged in the middle. I don’t see it, but if everyone else thought so, it’s something to consider. We had a fun time talking about the characters we loved and the scenes we enjoyed. But there wasn’t any deeper discussion either. Fun for a get-together, but again, not quite what I look for in a book club meeting. Also, it’s a typical Stephenson-length novel, so about twice the length of most novels, which is a lot to ask for a book club, and can bring down attendance. Mildly Not Recommended.

Dec 292019

I saw the first episode of The Witcher on Festivus, and boy did that unintentionally fit the holiday theme. tldr is that the writers are just phoning this in, and hoping the strength of the fight choreography will keep people watching.

Full Spoilers below.


The problems start right out the gate, where we see a stranger fighting a monster. Why do I care about this monster, and whether it wins or not? Or is it the stranger I’m supposed to care about, because he’s human? There are no stakes in this fight, I don’t care about either participant, so I’m already bored. Also, since I know that’s Geralt, I also know I’m *supposed* to care if he wins (lazy writing!), and that he will win because they aren’t killing off the lead in the first 4 minutes of a series.

Geralt struggles to reach his sword when it’s been knocked from his grasp, but fails to do so, and must go back to grappling. I guess this is suspense? He then reaches for it, and fails to get it, AGAIN. Oh my god. I was on pins and needles, seeing a close up of a hand failing to close around a sword for several grasps. How many times will this incredibly suspenseful gambit be reused? *At least once more*, because we have run time to pad!

Most of the rest of this episode is mumbled exposition in boring locations while two characters look at each other. This also fails to draw me in. I don’t know what kingdom you rule, or why I am in support of it. I don’t know who the Nilfgardians are, why they are coming, or what bad things will happen if they are not thrown back. Sure, the nobility will likely have some bad times, maybe execution, but they’re nobility–they probably deserve it. Sic Semper Tyrannis! Like, I really just can’t feel any anticipation at the revelation that the enemy army is already within your borders if I don’t give a damn about you or your borders yet.

Same for your weird dissection of people born during an eclipse. That could’ve been spiced up with ominous music and flashbacks, or something. Just having two dudes mumbling at each other stoically about mutations had me actually zoning out.

Lets talk about the big skirmish between the two… armies? First of all, I don’t know where the hell it happens. Is this nearby? Just outside the city? Several days’ march away? Does this field even exist in the world? Because I swear before all the gods that if felt like a Green Screen Room that everyone was teleported to, and then later teleported back from. It’s implied the battle goes on for at least a couple days, but I have no sense of time passing as well as no sense of location. And the CGI is the worst I have seen this decade. When we got distance shots of cavalry moving, or infantry rushing each other, it almost looked like I was playing Myth again. Well, ok, maybe not that extreme, but it was really bad.  The CGI in the Witcher 3 video game was strikingly better, which is just not something I expect from a Netflix show.

There were two really good things about this show, however. The first was Renfri, the maybe-demon lady. She has an actual personality, with motivation and everything! Her dialog is fun, she gets our sympathy very quickly, and she’s a freakin’ bad-ass. The actress portraying her does a fantastic job. I was willing to keep watching this series on the strength of what would be done with this character and her arc alone — and then they killed her at the end of the episode. Y’all removed the only good thing about your show in the pilot, dammit. Screw this whole thing.

The other really good part was the two fight scenes we get at the end. They were beautiful. A high-budget call back to the ridiculously over-the-top Xena-style fighting from my childhood. It was pure bombast and awesome eye candy. I had so much fun watching them.

(I did hear a friend say that someone told him this was “very realistic fighting,” which made me choke on my Comed-Tea. This is the opposite of realistic fighting. I don’t care, because it was wonderful and super fun. But the only universe were someone could think this was realistic is if their only exposure to fight scenes is Marvel movies.)

Unfortunately, this is 2-3 minutes of screen time at the end of a 56 minute slog. It is not worth the loss of 1/16th of my waking hours for the day. I will be watching the fight scenes on YouTube, and that’s it. I’m disappointed that a series with such potential was tanked by people who don’t care to do any writing work.

Nov 112019

Aftershocks, by Marko Kloos

Synopsis: Years after an interplanetary war has ended, insurgents from the losing side are starting to show up.

Book Review: I’ve written before about my dislike of the Series Trend. ie: everything is a series now, rather than a single book, because that’s the only way most writers can make a living. But Aftershocks is really taking this problem to a new level.

Aftershocks is a prologue to the real story. That’s it. It is the equivalent of taking the opening crawl from Star Wars and inflating it to a novel rather than a few paragraphs that set up the movie. You can see the beginnings of a story coming, and it looks like it’ll be a good one. The world building is good, the writing is intelligent, the characters are interesting. But the main action of the story literally doesn’t even start, it’s all just set-up.

One might say that this is fine, because Marko Kloos is a proven author with a solid track record. His prior series is well received, and even people who don’t like Military SF say that his series is a stand-out exception. I can believe it, because like I said, the writing really is good. One could very well just trust the author and settle in for a ride. Isn’t this what I do anyway when I read web serials?

The prose is particularly good at quickly and efficiently building visuals. Where other authors take pages describing something, and you still aren’t quite sure what’s happening, Kloos manages to play a fully realized scene in your mind on every page. Everyone is accounted for and the environment feels rich, and he does this all with just a few lines. It’s an extraordinary power!

The characters, likewise, are relatable, and each one feels like a different person with a unique personality. I, personally, also really appreciated the recognition of human sexuality. Much like real-life people, these characters have libidos. They recognize when someone is attractive, and the effect it has on themselves. I’ve been seeing this less and less in SF/F, as novels either become directly about sex/sexual relationships, or completely ignore it. It was neat to actually see a character feel sexual attraction to a stranger, but just not act on it, like almost everyone IRL does almost every day.

Still, I can’t get past the fact that nothing happens. When I reached the halfway point of the book and realized that I hadn’t even get to the part where the author makes a promise to the reader, and probably wouldn’t until the last chapter because Everything Is A Series, I felt disappointment lapping at my knees. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: It really is good prose. It reads fast, and the novel is short, which helps with turnout. There’s even a few things of interest to talk about, regarding the (rather intentional) parallels between Aftershocks’s world and post-WWI Germany. If anyone in your book club has experience with military bureaucracy and/or military culture, they’ll bring a fair bit to the discussion. So you can get talking for a while. But the most common refrain was “It felt sorta… empty.” I guess I’d wait until at least three books are out and then read them all in one go, so there’s something to sink one’s teeth into, story-wise. Until then, Not Recommended.

Also… I had a ridiculously hard time getting hold of an ebook version of this. I wasn’t allowed to simply give Amazon (or any other online retailer) my money in exchange for the book! I had to put in a lot of work to get it, and if I wasn’t reading it for my book club I would have given up early in the struggle. WTF, Capitalism? What is going on here?

Oct 252019

I had a saddening encounter this weekend. On a panel about civil verbal disagreement, an audience member asked what to do when people use terms that are viewed by one side in a debate as slurs (such as “climate-denier”) and was told that in such a case, rather than getting upset one should stay quiet and introspect on their situation and see if they can understand why the other party would say such things. So I turned to my fellow panelist and told her that sounded very self-serving. Yes, we all dislike climate-deniers and don’t find anything wrong will calling someone literally what they are. But by way of comparison, if someone called me a “fag,” should I also introspect on my situation and see if I can understand why someone would say such a thing, rather than getting upset? She said of course not, and there was some concession that maybe this wasn’t the most fair-handed advice, but the topic was quickly moved past because panels are fast-paced and many people had questions/comments to get to.

(I know that “climate denier” is obviously drastically different. No one’s ever been kicked out of their house or beaten to death for being a climate denier. But after a failed attempt using a more analogous example, I found this was the only one that could get my co-panelist to consider how someone from the outside would view her call to ponder “why am I so bad?” rather than anything remotely realistic.)

Importantly, afterwards the panelist told me privately that she didn’t mean to be unfair or anything. It’s just that the person who asked the question was a White Man, he obviously needed to reflect on himself. And implicit both in her words and the “you know…” look she was giving me was that white men can have no legitimate complaints about how they are treated, and that was the basis of her answer. They are a class that can only ever do violence, and no verbal abuse can be visited upon them that is not morally justified. The only thing she knew about the question-asker was that he was white and male and somewhere north of his 40s, and that was enough.


Oct 162019

The Freeze-Frame Revolution, by Peter Watts

Synopsis: A group of engineers living in a total-surveillance spaceship decide they must overthrow its near-omniscient sovereign AI, and have to figure out how to do so while also only being awake a few days every several thousand years.

Book Review: I continue to love everything Peter Watts writes. He is a super-stimulus to my taste in fiction.

The premise of the book is already interesting. A covert revolution with ridiculous constraints on action, against a tyrant that can decide to never wake you up every time you go to sleep if he finds out what you’re planning. Watts then rockets us directly into Kafka territory, as the crew almost immediately loses all contact with the rest of humanity due to sleeping away eons between their shifts to create wormhole gates. Why do they continue to make gates for a humanity that may not exist anymore? Why are eldritch monstrosities erupting from these gates and trying to destroy their ship? Why does anything matter? It doesn’t, just keep making gates, that’s your sole purpose, so latch onto it.

After reading a number of works by an author, you come to see common themes between them. Watts’s books are always incredibly lonely. The characters within them are singular and alone. The rest of humanity either doesn’t exist, or may as well not exist anymore. Their peers are all distant, strange creatures, whom one can’t form bonds with. Everything is cold, and quiet, and isolation is all-pervasive. (yes, I love this)

Also, Watts loves non-sapient intelligences. Things that behave as if conscious, but which are not. They are generally incredibly creepy. One of the major themes in Freeze-Frame is the protagonist slowly coming to accept that the AI she speaks with isn’t a person. It’s a series of flow-charts and equations meant to mimic human interaction. And this hurts, because due to the previously-discussed isolation, the AI was the only friend she had. Not only is she losing her friend, she’s realizing she never had one to begin with.


The mark of a good book is, of course, the drawing together of mood and theme into a compelling plot that moves the reader through the story, and Freeze-Frame has that too. The changes that occur over deep time, and the insane level of engineering that was bent to the task of making a thing that would remain stable over so long (and the interesting ways it fails) tie into the covert revolution plot as well. There’s just so much to love here for fans of dark SF.

The two main complaints I have is that the protagonist is the only developed character, everyone else is a bit one-dimensional. I’m not sure that’s a valid complaint though, because the fact that no one else feels fully real is to be expected when you are so isolated and have no connections to anyone. The other complaint is that this is too short. Not just in a “Hey, I want more!” way (although there’s that too!), but in a “This is basically a novella being sold as a novel,” way. It only barely squeaks into the lower bound of a novel in length. However this does force Watts to keep his prose tight, there aren’t nearly as many ponderous descriptions of objects and actions, and much more getting-to-the-point, which I appreciated. And to be honest, if it was a novella it wouldn’t have been read by our book club, since we only do novels.

Regardless, definitely Recommended!

Book Club Review: A good book for book clubs as well. The fact that it is so short meant no one had trouble finishing it, and we had very high attendance. Not everyone is the Watts fanboy that I am, but most everyone found it interesting. There were quite a few things to talk about, and a bit of speculation about the nature of the reveal near the novel’s end. For that matter, there was speculation about what happened to humanity, and how realistic certain aspects of the story were/weren’t. This is a dense book, and like all of Watts’s books, it expects a lot from the reader. There’ll be just as much discussion about this as there are in most books triple its length. Recommended.

Oct 082019

After sharing this link, I was informed that Stallman has had a history of maybe defending sexual relationships with minors. I didn’t know about this. That is bad. I am less certain now that he shouldn’t have lost all his positions. On the other hand, as the link points out, the worst allegations against Stallman involve him being a socially clueless aspie. That makes me worried.
In Defense of Richard Stallman
“Stallman made some technically-correct-but-utterly-tactless comments on a private mailing list, mostly in defense of his late friend and colleague Marvin Minsky. Someone leaked those comments to the public. He was then forced to resign from pretty much every position he held….He is now likely homeless and his friends (such as Eric Raymond) have had trouble contacting him.”


Libertarian leaders debate the direction of the Libertarian political party. This was one of the more interesting and passionate debates I’ve heard in a long time. And I’m still very torn. Passionate idealism, vs pragmatic realism? I don’t know dammit!


The economic case for fighting pollution to boost productivity

pseudoaddiction is the most obviously true medical concept this side of Hippocrates. The denial of its existence is a failure of national epistemics that deserves more scrutiny than it’s getting.”
AKA: My friend almost died because a doctor refused to feed his addiction to insulin.


Natalie Wynn is amazing, I love her videos in general. But this one is the most overwhelmingly “This is everything I ever wanted in a video, I can’t even begin about how great it is.” It summarizes everything I’d like to say but can’t. It doesn’t have any solutions, but at least it identifies the problem.

(for the uninitiated, Wynn is a social commentator, and this video is about the state of Men in modern society. Also, it takes a while to get started.)


“Here’s yet another reminder that our memories are reconstructed fabrications our brains use to reinforce existing narratives. A new study of 3,140 participants finds that exposing people to fake news created false memories of the depicted events in about half of subjects.”


Humans are fascinating. Real-life Persephone :)


E-cigarettes are so dangerous they give people heart attacks — even before they start using them.


Planned Parenthood to stop taking Title X funds rather than comply with abortion ‘gag rule’. Y’all remember to up your donations a few bucks the coming years. :)


The best thing about HPMOR is it’s a perfect example of how an intelligent, outside the box thinker can direct millions of dollars toward their goals in ways you’d never expect.”


We regret to inform you that all the Fast & Furious stars might be candy asses. “each of the leads has negotiated with the studio to ensure they never look less badass than any of their costars for even a single round of ass-whooping”


I keep forgetting that in Rowling’s Potter, Harry gets married to freakin’ Ginnie Weasley. But then, I also keep for getting that in Rowling’s version he’s a jock. ><

“Harry Potter had a crush on Cho specifically because she was good at Quidditch, and could go toe to toe with him as a seeker. Harry Potter started developing feelings for Ginny after she joined the Quidditch Team, and their first kiss happen as a celebration of winning a important match for the house cup, and she will later become a freaking professional quidditch player.
Harry Potter is into jocks. Harry Potter is into jocks that, specifically, could kick his ass at his favorite sport.
I feel like this is an important thing to know about the guy.”


most of the people interviewed had a similar path to getting so deep into flat eartherism
1) They sorta believed that the earth was flat.
2) They told their friends, who either blew them off or mocked them or both.
3) They found a group of flat-earthers online, who were very welcoming and happy to find a fellow flat-earther.
4) Slowly, these people abandoned their old friends and converted to the new folks, who’d never tell them they were wrong about the flat-earth. Which had the side effect of making their flat-earth beliefs the most prominent part of their personality.
5) Eventually, the rejection becomes the proof that they’re on the road to truth, and no amount of evidence will convince them because this is no longer about logic – it’s about using their own logic to build a shield to protect them from rejection.
[…] the most telling part was at the end, when they interviewed one of the most devoted flat-earthers and asked him (I’m paraphrasing):
“What if you got irrefutable proof that the Earth was round? You’d lose all your friends. Could you walk away from this culture you helped create?”
And to his credit, he answered honestly:
“No. No, I don’t think I could.” […]
… the internet has made wrong people folks to be courted. In fact, the more wrong people you can get on your side, the less you’ll be lonely. And the only cost to be a part of these groups is that you can never question the beliefs at the core of it, because that wrongness is what binds you, and any evidence that contradicts that wrongness must be either discarded, attacked, or humiliated.”

The ridiculous beliefs of religions are a feature, not a bug. You can’t have a religion without at least one obviously ludicrous thing. I used to think this was an argument against religions. Now I’m starting to think it’s an argument in favor of one Big False Belief.


“Did anyone notice how quickly the internet turned into a Lovecraftian horror scenario?
Like we’ve got this dimension right next to ours, that extends across the entire planet, and it is just brimming with nightmares. We have spambots, viruses, ransomware, this endless legion of malevolent entities that are blindly probing us for weaknesses, seeking only to corrupt, to thieve, to destroy.
Add onto that the corrupted ones themselves, humans who’ve abandoned morality and given up faces to hunt other people, jeering them, lashing out, seeing how easy it is to kill something you can’t touch or see or smell.
…Some of our best and brightest are going to create an army of four winged bats hovering throughout every city and we are going to connect them directly to the dimension where the nightmares live.
I’m not saying it’s all bad, but I am saying Cthulhu lies deathless dreaming in this web we built him and he is waking up.”


TIL that the most important things to recycle are metals. So rinse your aluminum and tin cans and put them in the bin.
Paper is iffy, and anything that’s touched food or has glue/sticky on it will contaminate other recycling or damage the machinery, so throw that in the trash.
And plastic should not be recycled at all, always put those in the trash.


The Website Obesity Crisis

“[author tweeted] “text-based websites should not exceed in size the major works of Russian literature.”
If you open that tweet in a browser, you’ll see the page is 900 KB big. That’s almost 100 KB more than the full text of The Master and Margarita.

In May 2015, Facebook introduced ‘Instant Articles’, a special format for news stories designed to appear within the Facebook site, and to load nearly instantly.
Facebook made the announcement on a 6.8 megabyte webpage dominated by a giant headshot of some dude. He doesn’t even work for Facebook, he’s just the National Geographic photo editor.
Further down the page, you’ll find a 41 megabyte video, the only way to find out more about the project.”

I kinda suspect that at least part of it is class-signalling. One demonstrates that one is rich enough to live in a high-bandwidth area and therefore higher class than those rural and third-world people by insisting on pages that are visibly obese.
Yes, it’s probably not a conscious thought, but it’s there nonetheless. Why does poor fashion instinctively hurt the sensibilities of the rich, even if “they aren’t classist?” Because everyone has completely absorbed the subtleties of status markers to the point that they are mostly subconscious aesthetic taste.


Sometimes I get pleasure out of the stupidest things. Like, this is the first Pitch Meeting I ever saw. I’ve now watched over 100 of them. They are all basically identical, with a few details swapped out as appropriate. And yet, I love them. Every single one just brings me joy. I am ashamed, I feel like the 5-year old that keeps saying “Again!” and watching the same episode of his favorite show over and over and over and over. And yet…. <3


“Civil religion” is a surprising place for social justice to end up. Gay pride started at Stonewall as a giant fuck-you to civil society. Homeless people, addicts, and sex workers told the police where they could shove their respectable values.

But there was another major world religion that started with beggars, lepers, and prostitutes, wasn’t there? One that told the Pharisees where to shove their respectable values. One whose founder got in trouble with the cops of his time.

In a hundred years, will social justice look exactly like Christianity does now? No. The world’s changed too much. Even if every religion converges on the same set of socially useful values, the socially useful values change. We don’t need to push chastity if we have good STD treatment and contraception; we don’t need to push martial valor if all our wars are fought by drones. The old religions are failing partly because they can’t adapt quickly enough; social justice won’t need to imitate their failures. … But I expect it to recapitulate the history of other civil religions in fast-forward. Did you know “pagan” is just Latin for “rural”?”


Don’t Hire Assholes. “removing an asshole (or converting them to a non-asshole) enhances productivity more than replacing an average worker with a superstar”


Sometimes the world is good. :) Jurors refuse to convict activist facing 20 years for helping migrants


Obituaries For The Recently Cancelled. “Matthew Edwards, 41, was canceled early Friday evening after he was seen in his car singing along to “Remix to Ignition.” Mr. Edwards has not watched the R. Kelly documentary, but colleagues say he was aware of its existence and general content. He leaves behind his intersectional feminist wife Julia and two woke children.”


Netflix’s re-translation of Neon Genesis Evangelion is drawing backlash for queer erasure. Fuck Netflix. This was the most formative work of art of my young adult life, and I hope they burn in the same hell as the guy who was hired to draw pants/cloths over the genitals of all the famous renaissance works.

I am forced to re-link The Remarkable Queerness of Shinji Ikari


Casually Explained: Life as a Video Game


Planet of Cops. “The single greatest accomplishment of 21st Century leftism is distributing the culture of surveillance and snitching. Intersectionality gave nearly everybody a weak spot to be exploited by the right self-appointed enforcer and a lens to turn any innocuous opinion into kompromat. It couldn’t have worked better if designed from the ground up to work like this.”


Watch out! I’m on a Kontext Machine Kick!

Today I learned that pre-Reagan Republicans used to be Batman? O_O
“Hell, for a while, the Republicans were even the more abortion-friendly party. The Democrats were the Catholic party after all. The Republicans were the Protestant-as-humanistic-heritage-charity ones, the ones who eugenically spaced their three children two years apart unlike those grubby Papists, the ones with mistresses, the ones with bourgeois life courses to even be diverted from. Not to mention the doctors who cleaned up after amateur abortions or offered black-market ones themselves.”

“the framework that I’ve found productive for understanding The Big Lebowski is that it’s a Raymond Chandler tribute.
…That’s why the cowboy’s there as chorus/narrator, because the brilliant thing about The Big Lebowski is that it isn’t a stoner comedy, it’s a stoner tragedy.”


“the internet in general was pretty wealth-marked in 1998 (far more than we realized, with our American mythology of universal white suburban middle-classness and “global village” Internet mythology) … And if the Anglophone internet is ::gestures:: like this now maybe it’s cause it’s less of a professional-class preserve? The dividing line maybe being smartphones where “people on the internet” went from “people who specifically spend $X/mo on it as luxury” to “people with telephone service”? That’s a real possibility, that for all the “Global Village” stuff the wondrous effect of the ‘90s internet was to create a cultural space that was MORE gatekept by wealth and education.

That’s… kind of depressing, though. “Haha you thought the world was getting better because you were eliminating elitist barriers but actually it’s cause you were making them higher, which is good because the poor and non-elite are disproportionately idiots with worthless ideas and to the extent they’re on top of things the thing they’re on top of is undermining the basis of a good society, and anyway those times were a phenomenon of a narrow early adopter base and you’ll never ever get them back unless you make the non-elite economically and politically irrelevant.”

Depressing but very well precedented, that’s exactly the arc newsprint, radio, and TV followed before.”


“Proposed: the 1980s farm crisis (which was where family farming finally died in America) at some level fed into the development of anti-abortion activity and identity in the same period, by way of agrarian-magical fertility rites.
It’s a recurring notion among human agricultural societies that the health of the land, and of the crop, rely, through sympathetic magic, on the enactment of human fertility, in ritual or actual childbearing
These fertility cults constitute a folk religion symbiotic with any variety of nominal official religions, if not actively parasitic and tending to supplant
At some fundamental level the failure of the agrarian economy is understood or at least felt as a result of the failure of women to bear children, and for them to return to fertility will renew the golden age
To perform abortions is, essentially, to perform black witchcraft, cursing the crop and ruining the harvest; if a witch has cursed your crop the solution is to kill the witch.
This would explain the origin of Operation Rescue in the mid-1980s, and why it would choose Wichita of all places for its Summer of Mercy, this would explain the geographic distribution of the most intense anti-abortion sentiment and violence, this would explain why if you drive too far into farm country the cultural footprint consists of decaying human settlements and roadside signs condemning abortion or beseeching women to give birth”

Oct 012019

A number of years ago I was in a friend’s living room. We were setting up to play boardgames. I was up and looking at his bookshelf when I saw the book “Bloom.” It wasn’t by one of the super-famous authors you see everywhere and I had just read it a while ago myself, so I said “Oh hey, you have Bloom! That was a good book, I liked it.” Behind me a voice said “Yeah, I wrote that.”

I turned around and there sat a man I’d been introduced to just that day for boardgaming, looking at me in dead seriousness. I had this intense feeling of vertigo, because somehow a published author had just randomly snuck into my life and was hanging around in a mutual friend’s living room like this was a perfectly normal thing that just happens. I was initially at a loss for words.

That was Wil McCarthy, and since then we’ve gotten to know each other quite a bit more. He took about a decade off from writing to do the tech-entrepreneur thing, but now he’s back into the word-slinging game. His latest novel drops today, and I’m hosting a guest post from him in support, because he greatly overestimates the reach of my blog. :) I mentioned that hearing about tech entrepreneurship would be something my readers are interested in, so he wrote to that. Without further delay:

Hi, my name is Wil McCarthy, and I’m a writer. Eneasz was kind enough to lend my this platform for a day, because I’ve got a hardcover science fiction novel out from Baen this week. This is actually the twelfth book in my publishing career, and yet still a really significant milestone for me, because the last time I released a book was in 2005, and if you’d told me then that there’d be a gap of fourteen years before my next book, well, I wouldn’t have believed it. Seriously, I used to work a full-time job whilst writing a book a year, and I still had enough leftover time and energy to attend to my family and maintain an active social life. Then I gave up the full-time job to concentrate exclusively on my writing, and that went well. For years. So what happened?

In a way, the writing was a victim of its own success; in my 1999 novella “Once Upon a Matter Crushed” and subsequent novel THE COLLAPSIUM, I posited a type of programmable matter called “wellstone”, whose optical and electrical and even mechanical properties could be adjusted in real time through the application of minute electrical signals. This was based on real science, and I said so in the book’s appendix, but even so I got a flood of annoyed fan mail saying the idea was nonsense and had no place in a hard science fiction book. I responded with a series of increasingly detailed, increasingly specific nonfiction articles on the subject, culminating in a long WIRED magazine feature that spelled out, in engineering terms, how such a thing could actually work.

That turned out to be a patentable invention, which I patented and made the subject of a nonfiction book, HACKING MATTER, that was basically a much longer, more detailed, more self-indulgent version of the article I’d written for WIRED. This resulted, in early 2004, in one of the co-inventors of the Blackberry smartphone (remember the Blackberry?) calling me up out of the blue and saying he wanted to give me (or rather, the company I had founded when I filed the patent) a million dollars, just to see what happened.

Saying yes to that resulted in my being the president and chief technology officer of a tech startup, which attracted still more investment from other high-net-worth individuals. Which was fine and fun; what better way to succeed as a science fiction writer than for people to pay you to make your crazy ideas real? One caution I received at the time was that the thing we actually discovered would be different than the thing we set out to invent, and this turned out to be sage advice indeed; after multiple pivots triggered by unexpected results in both the lab and the marketplace, I ended up co-inventing a type of smart window that tinted when it got hot.
Sounds useful, right? Want some for your own house? Yeah, me too. Unfortunately, while we almost succeeded in selling the technology to 3M, and then really almost succeeded in selling it to Dow Chemical, the 2008 meltdown in the economy kiboshed all that, and we eventually concluded we would need to build our own factory and develop and sell the product ourselves. This involved raising many more millions of dollars, which sounds great but was actually the downfall of basically the entire life I’d so carefully built for myself.

One caution I didn’t receive, but quickly figured out for myself, was that venture capitalists don’t want you fucking around writing science fiction novels on the side. They expect (and arguably deserve) your undivided attention. Up until this point, I’d still been dabbling in the world of science fiction, writing novellas for Analog and Asimov’s, and I was also the toastmaster at the World Science Fiction Convention one year, and guest of Honor for Apollocon during the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. Oh, and I was still writing for WIRED, and had a monthly column over at the SciFi channel (later SyFy). But yeah, between 2008 and 2013 all that went away. I didn’t consciously kill any of it, but it certainly died through inattention and starvation. After that, I was no longer a writer — just another tech company entrepreneur.

Another caution I didn’t receive was that tech company founders are basically cannon fodder for the venture capital industry. Once they’ve got 51% control of your company and its IP, you basically become the most expensive and most expendable employee on the roster, and if they can scheme a way to get rid of you and still keep the enterprise afloat, they will frequently do so. I’m not going to say that’s exactly what happened to me. There were negotiations, and a settlement of sorts, and a mutual non-disparagement agreement. What I will say is that in 2014 I found myself out of a job, and with a much-diluted ownership stake in the company I had founded in my own basement. Much diluted. That’s not a disparagement, just a numerical fact. I won’t name the company, but I will say it still exists, and has lost a lot of money over the years. Whether it would have succeeded with me at the helm is hard to say, but it certainly has not so far succeeded without me, in five and a half years of trying.

Over the next year I would suffer both a nasty divorce and a nasty car accident, both of whose aftereffects continue to reverberate in my life. All of this set me back, and made it hard to get back on my feet as my actual self, Wil McCarthy the science fiction writer. However, in 2016 I dusted off a book proposal I’d written all the way back in 2004, right before all the craziness began, and called up Baen’s Toni Weisskopf to ask if she’d like a peek at it. She had, years earlier, given me a standing invitation to write for Baen, so this wasn’t a huge stretch, but still I was grateful when she liked the proposal enough to offer me a two-book contract. I was a writer again! Now all I had to do was actually, you know, write a book. For the first time in more than 10 years. Piece of cake, right? Well, it took a year, even though I was doing it full nearly full time, with just some part-time consulting on the side. And then there were the revisions, and the copyedits, and the page proofs, and the marketing copy, all of which stretched out over another agonizing year.

Okay, but now it’s late 2019, and I’m actually a professional novelist again, in the most fundamental sense of having written and published a novel. Whew. Now, as I obsessively scan the web for reviews and scrape my Amazon page for real-time sales rankings, I feel whole again, in a way that I haven’t for a long time.

How do I feel about my ten years in startup land? That’s a hard question to answer. As badly as it all turned out, the experience still furnished some of the most memorable times of my life. I traveled the world in Business Class, and solved hard problems side-by-side with people who loved what they were doing as much as I did. And honestly, I do not see how I could have forgiven myself for refusing that first million dollars, and all that came after. Just because the tiger eats you doesn’t mean it isn’t worth riding. I have a lot of regrets, but “doing it at all” isn’t one of them. Still, would I do it again if I had the chance? Again, it’s hard to say. The easy answer is no, of course not, but I also know that if the right idea and the right situation came along, I’d still be sorely tempted to see where it might lead. Which may simply mean that I’ve learned nothing from the experience, except that being a writer isn’t something I’m eager to give up again, anytime soon.

Do I have any advice for people thinking about following in my footsteps? Yeah, kind of. Be careful with your founding documents; make sure they don’t lock you into a situation you can’t escape from, and make sure they do protect you as much as possible from involuntary ejection. Build that golden parachute right into the foundations of your company. Also, don’t trust anyone. That may sound harsh, but with enough money in play to make a company appear, nobody is your friend, and literally anyone (no matter your history) could be tempted at times to stab you in the back and run away with the treasure. You can work with people you don’t trust (in fact, you’ll need to), but don’t hand them the knife to stab you with, and don’t turn your back. Most importantly, don’t give up your other dreams, because at the end of the day, they may be all you have to fall back on.

Wil McCarthy’s latest novel is Antediluvian, get it here.

Sep 272019

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett

Synopsis: When a young witch is given wizard powers, she and her grandmother must find a way to get the all-male wizard university to acknowledge and accept her.

Book Review: This is one of Pratchett’s early works, and it’s interesting watching someone you know will become a grandmaster slowly coming into his powers.

The story is entertaining, but it was thematically confusing for me. The girl-witch doesn’t really do a whole lot, and her grandmother, while being absolutely awesome and someone I’d love to know, its rather inconsistent. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book until I went to the bookclub and someone dropped a revelation on me – the protagonist of this book isn’t really the girl, she’s just the inciting incident. The protagonist is the grandmother!

After that it all made sense. The grandmother starts out very cynical and jaded. She practices “headology,” which is mostly psychology and the use of ritual and expectation to help guide people’s lives and actions. She is obviously very aware of how powerful ritual and expectations are, but she’s also extremely cynical about it, mostly viewing other people as befuddled fools who need to be lead through life because they’re too dumb for their own good.

She grows, though. The grandmother’s character arc is of someone who comes to see that ritual can be overemphasized and sometimes needs to be jettisoned when human interests are at stake… and that some humans are actually kinda alright.

Now, I say Pratchett hasn’t quite come into his own yet in this book, because that’s not the clear focus of the story, and it’s a bit inconsistent. Also, he doesn’t engage my emotions at the anger level when showing the witches’ fight for equal rights. The wizards seem more befuddled and incompetent than actually unlikable. There was only one moment when I felt any animus towards them, and it passed quickly. It made the whole “sexism” thing seem like not a big deal, just a misunderstanding, and kinda gave a lie to the title. It’s certainly nothing like the rousing political statements and declarations of his later works, which have you on your feet cheering for human rights and swearing to strike down any tyranny and corruption you see.

Likewise, neither his humor nor his socio-political statements really flowed with the story. It seemed like story, humor, and political stuff always had to stop for each other and interject, rather weaving seamlessly into a majestic single melody like his later books.

But still, his prose is eminently readable! When you read Pratchett it always feels like he’s a mischievous uncle sitting in the room and telling you this story himself, weaving this epic yarn with a twinkle in his eye. He’s snappy and funny and doesn’t belabor anything.

And honestly, it feels a bit churlish to say this work doesn’t measure up to his later works, after he’s had thousands of hours more experience. Is it really fair to compare someone to their refined, future self?

So, all in all, a fun read. Pratchett in general is a Strong Recommended. I would recommend his later works first. But if you’ve already gone through those, this one is pretty good too.

Book Club Review: You can’t go wrong with Pratchett for a book club, y’all already know this. Plenty to talk about, even moreso if people are well-read in his universe. Obviously recommended, with the same caveat of “later works first” as above.

Sep 252019

I’ve spoken at length with a few people about the non-binary gender stuff over the last few weeks, and I’ve made a few updates.

First, and most significantly, is I find I resent non-binary people far less now that I’m honest about disliking (and not holding myself to) using neutral pronouns. Neat.

Second, I withdraw most of what I said in “Reducing the Spectrum to a Binary.” The people who most have their spectrum options reduced have them reduced by rightist bigots, not nb folks. And giving people more options doesn’t take away their previous options. I was mainly feeling like my allies in “taking back masculinity to mean many, many things besides Macho He-men” were being stripped away as they got removed from the category of “male”, but they really weren’t, and my feelings of dwindling support were misplaced.

Third, I have firmed up a position I didn’t quite have the words to express before. I don’t like being press-ganged into a war I don’t support. To explain: Declaring oneself to be of a non-sex is the equivalent of declaring oneself non-racial. (ie: I don’t identify as any race, and therefore I am non-racial.) Fine, you do you — but then asking that others use non-conforming pronouns for you to publicly identify you as non-racial (or non-sex) serves the sole purpose of drawing everyone around you into an culture war that they don’t necessarily want to be in. Either they use your pronouns and show that they have joined your side in the culture war (with all that entails), or they don’t, and they have joined the Other Side in the culture war (and all that THAT entails). Which, quite frankly, is bullshit.

This is hopefully my last post on the issue for a long time. :)

Sep 182019

Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Synopsis: The last remnants of humanity flee from a destroyed earth to colonize a previously-terraformed planet. Unfortunately the human AI set to guide and protect the sapient spider species living there ain’t having none of it.

Book Review: This is a Big Idea book. It has a sweeping scope, and lots to say about the human condition. The desperation of the refugee humans, as their colony ship degrades over the centuries and things get worse and worse, is palpable. The value-drift of both the humans and the AI is fascinating to watch. Their culture mutates, their personal drives become maladaptive, and behind this all is the beating drum of survival counting down to extinction.

And that’s just for the human half of the story! The chapters alternate between the plight of humanity, and the ascension of the intelligent spiders on the terraformed world. With a social system based on half their species being born expendable, and vastly different morphology to a human, their cultural evolution is mesmerizing to watch. The fact that their religion is actually real, with a literal god orbiting their planet and guiding them, brings an interesting twist to events. Their shortish lifespans mean we go through quite a few generations of them in the novel, but Tchaikovsky uses a neat SF trick to give the reader continuity with the characters.

This was a pleasure to read. It reminds one of the sci-fi of old in that it explores grand ideas over an epic setting, while still being full of tension and conflict so it remains exciting. With the major difference that it was written just a few years ago, so it has modern sensibilities and feels comfortable to read now. Like, you won’t run into any cringy sexism or racism, and it incorporates the story-telling advances writers have made over the decades. Not to worry though, it doesn’t have any wokeness in it, it’s just… good.

There are a few short-comings, IMHO. The first is a common among epic-scope novels – characters aren’t fleshed out as much as they are in character-driven novels. They’re still pretty good, but the focus is more on the events than on character growth or getting deep into the protagonist’s psyche.

The second is that the ending feels too pat. It almost feels Deus Ex Machina-ish, in its sudden turn-around via a non-signaled power. I was left with a feeling of loss of agency among several of their characters, are their problems were solved for them rather than via conflict/resolution.

And my final gripe is that the prose isn’t nearly poetic enough for my taste. I like Grand, Big-Idea books to have florid, lyrical prose, that reaches in and grabs me by my artistic balls. Things like Palmer or Duncan or Valente write. I want the words to sing for me. However that’s a matter of personal style, and it’s hard to hold that against a book.

On the whole, these complaints are overshadowed by the fantastic exploration of humanity, and the creativity of the story. One can tell just by reading this novel that it took serious work. Recommended.

Book Club Review: A darn good book for a book club. It’s long, but we had a great turn out anyway. With as much as the book has to say about humanity, our flaws, and the things that make us great, there was something for everyone to comment on or bring to the discussion. I don’t think it makes its statements with as much force or eloquence of some other works, but it makes many of them, and it never does so poorly. Y’all won’t be wanting for discussion topics. Recommended!