embrodski

May 122019
 

Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

Synopsis: An immortal loner operates a secret way-station on Earth for aliens using it as a stop in their galactic teleportation hops.

Book Review: I would say this award-winning book has aged poorly, but it’s hard to imagine it was ever good. The majority of the action is an old loner wandering the old woods with his old dog and being really stoic about everything. He takes almost no action, says very little, and emotes even less. In almost every scene he could be replaced by a block of styrofoam that’s learned how to whittle wood and nothing would’ve changed.

Fear not, though, as the author is equal-opportunity with his lack of characterization. The primary female character is literally deaf and dumb, and exists solely to let the protagonist feel good about saving her, and then saving the universe through her in-born magic power. She is completely infantile and pure.

The aliens and government agents are likewise either idiotic or just there to chat about folksy stuff with the protagonist.

(spoiler in this paragraph, but I hardly think it matters) — In the end, the entire universe is stripped of all agency because we’re all just warlike or peaceful based on who has control of a magic peace-radiating artifact. Fortunately the evil alien that absconded with the evil artifact comes to earth for no reason at all, and our Magical Female who is the purest and most innocent and, coincidentally, most powerful magic user in the galaxy, can take the artifact from him and make everything cool again. —

If all this wasn’t enough, the book is also just about the worst sort of message-fic there is. I like message-fic when it’s well done, and this was not. It’s message is never given any sort of emotional narrative to make us feel it. Nor does it present a world in which the message is important to the plot and characters. It basically simply states “If you all believed in this philosophy, we’d have universe peace.” And that philosophy is… “Hey man, it’s all good. We should all just chill out and like, get along. Make love, not war.”

It reminded me of The Man From Earth, a horrible movie that seems to have been made by a hippie just to say the same thing. A super-old and super-wise professor reveals that he was a caveman and just never aged or died, and discovered over the millenia that if we would all just, like, get along, everything would be groovy, man. And also, he was Jesus, but he didn’t die of the crucifixion. So like, even Jesus agrees that we should all get along. Take that, viewers!

Not recommended.

Book Club Review: Nobody else in my book club found this nearly as offensive as I did. I think that’s primarily because I like message fiction, and so I take it as a personal slight when it’s done so badly. To them it was just a short, outdated old book. A few of them even appreciated the easy-going pace, and considered it an interesting window onto early-1960s culture.

There was a bit of conversation around the book, but it was mainly driven by its various flaws. That sounds worse than I mean it… the flaws aren’t that glaring (for most people). But they’re the only really interesting things to talk about, because where the book isn’t flawed it’s just pleasant. (Again, in the view of those who enjoyed it). And there’s not much to say about something that’s pleasant. You sit out on a porch and watch the clouds go by with an iced tea, and that’s nice, but you don’t talk about doing that, you just do it and enjoy it.

So, while the book itself is an interesting waystone in the evolution of SF literature, and it’s short and reads quickly, I don’t really think it has enough to it to recommend it for a book club. Thus, not recommended.

Apr 262019
 

I had always thought Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” was kinda cheesy, due to a lack of scientific knowledge. Like, while the concept of a new, gross color that no one has ever seen before and therefore can’t describe in words is nicely creepy in principle, it just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get over that color is just frequency of the EM spectrum, and we see all the frequencies in our visible range. There is no unused frequency of light that a color could be hiding in which we’ve never seen, so the idea just kept kicking me out of the story.

This was another example of “a little knowledge is worse than none.” Because it turns out that there IS an alien color. One which we see, but which doesn’t correspond to any frequency of light in the visible spectrum. A color out of space actually exists!

We’ve even known it was special, different from all other colors, on some sub-conscious/psychic level. This is demonstrated by the fact that this color has, through much of human history, been reserved only for the ruling elite. It’s known as the royal color, and protected as such. Any lesser humans that dared to wear it could be punished, and in some places even executed.* Even to this day there are people who have such a powerful unnatural attraction to this color that they define themselves by their love of it.

That color is Purple.

Seriously, I had no idea that there is no wavelength of light that corresponds to purple, and it is an interpolation of our brains.** Our brains are freakin’ magic.

Which means “The Colour Out Of Space” is easily salvageable. Same psychic properties that drove people insane also messed with the cones in their eyes that created unique activation patterns which didn’t match any wavelength of light. Solved!

Yes, this was all a fancy way of sharing a cool video about how we see color, your welcome. :)

 


* the alternate hypothesis, that purple dye was very hard and costly to produce and so only the most powerful/wealthy could afford it, and in time it became a status symbol of that power/wealth and so lower classes were legally prevented from using it even when they could afford it, and has nothing to do with psychic phenomena, is clearly ridiculous and will not be entertained here.

** I also had no idea that violet and purple aren’t the same thing. This is why I’m not an artist of the color-using variety.

Apr 252019
 

I got a lot more comments than I expected for a mostly tongue-in-cheek 3-line post. So, to quickly clarify:

I like Andrew Yang on a personal level. With his tech background and his liberal (but not leftist) views, he feels like the candidate that most represents my values. Furthermore, his identification as a goth in his younger life makes me grin madly, as I also love the goth aesthetic. And really… can one truly be an ex-goth? Or is that just going back into the closet for a while? :)

I like Andrew Yang on a political level. I know this is outsider-bias…. but business-as-usual is coming off the rails, and the establishment seems to have no idea how to handle it. The Republican party failed so badly that it was hijacked by Trump, and the Democratic party failed so hard that they lost to Trump! Most politicians are morally nauseating. I cannot vote for most of the current front-runners, as they supported Fosta-Sesta, and anyone who supported that abomination obviously would gladly usher me into the ovens if it was a necessary price to pay to win political office. Yang comes from the world of entrepreneurship, which looks to solve problems with innovation and isn’t tainted with the stink of politics. I know that this will quickly change once he gets into office. I know the position will drag him down to its level. But I’m hoping he can break/fix a thing or two during his struggle on the way down.

I like Andrew Yang on a pragmatic level. I think he’s the only candidate who both sees the onrushing culture shock of mass technological unemployment, and has ideas and policy proposals about what to do about it. I suspect he’s the only candidate likely to take AI Alignment to be a serious problem. He is addressing the same problems that propelled Trump into office, but by looking forward for solutions, rather than trying to burrow into the past with failing defensive maneuvers. If modern society is to survive the coming upheaval without a bloody revolution, I think he is the candidate most likely to steer us through that pass.

I’m most concerned that his lack of political capital (what I called the stink of politics) will mean he won’t be able to make effective changes, given the rest of the political system. That being said, I think the other contenders are even worse because while they might (MAYBE) have the means, they have neither the vision nor the motivation to do so, so their means don’t matter anyway.

I don’t literally think people who don’t vote for Yang are Bad People. :)

Apr 192019
 

I gotta say, I love the character of Cersei. I adore characters that are completely destroyed by the world, and refuse to take it anymore.

All her life Cersei has been a thing used by other people. She never mattered. She was marriage-material to be traded for alliances. She was a mare to be bred. Her opinions and feelings about her life didn’t matter.

The most poignant example of this is during the battle for King’s Landing, when Cersei, Sansa, and the other royal ladies are sheltered in an inner room while the fighting goes on outside. Cersei lets Sansa know that the executioner isn’t there to protect them. He’s there to kill them all should the city fall, because it is more merciful for them to suffer a quick death than to be slowly raped to death in the sack of the city.

The one thing the world has said over and over to her is that unless she has absolutely power, she has none at all. Even as the wife of the King, she is a thing foremost.

And then the High Sparrow really brings this home with the torture, degradation, and ultimately the public humiliation of the Shame! scene. All the while no one came to save her, because she was being weighed for her usefulness. Her safety and dignity were being traded around like so many pounds of wheat.

She’s decided this will never happen again. She’ll take any steps to prevent it. I love that.

I’ve seen this type of anti-hero before. Most recently, Syenite of The Fifth Season. I love that character as well, for the same reason. There comes a point where you’d rather see the entire world destroyed than condemn yourself to such an existence. Where you’d rather kill your own child than let them live such a life. Where you no longer care who dies, because everyone, EVERYONE was fucking complicit.

So I understand why, for Cersei, remaining in power is more important than saving Westeros. If either the undead or the humans are destroyed at Winterfell, but the opposing side is weakened enough that Cersei’s army can destroy what’s left and secure the continent under her rule, that is ideal. Humanity gets to continue to exist, all her enemies are dead, and she will never be used like a thing again. There is the possibility that the undead will win and destroy all life on Westeros, yes. But that is preferable to returning to life as chattel. If humanity has such a problem with extinction, maybe it shouldn’t have made life a living hell for so many.

Not that I agree with this, of course. I’m very pro-humanity. It’s just that this type of character speaks to me on such a deep emotional level that I can’t help but feel every single ounce of rage and despair with them. <3

Apr 162019
 

For the use of my book club, plus whoever else would like a linked list. These are the short stories and novelettes that are up for a Hugo, and also available free online. This year, that’s all but one.

This is the first awards season since I predicted No Print Magazine Will Publish a Hugo-Winning Story Again. Since no print magazine even got a nomination this year, I’m not wrong yet. :) We’ll see what future years bring, though. Of note is that one of the nominees isn’t available free online! While I didn’t specify that as a criteria in my post, it surprises me nonetheless. The whole reason I predicted print magazines are out is because they cannot be shared like online stories can, and thus can’t capture enough attention-share. While Bolander’s story is online at Tor.com — the current clearing house for online commercial SF — I would’ve thought that the paywall would prevent achieving the number of readers needed to make the nominations. It’s a shame I won’t get to read it. :(

 

BEST NOVELETTE

BEST SHORT STORY

Mar 292019
 

Every now and then I post a reminder about my ongoing novel. In the most recent chapter:
Despite a burgeoning famine and chaos in the streets, the emperor will not see his week of revelry and gladiator games interrupted. But he gets more than he expected when a demonic embodiment of Pride materializes in the Colosseum.

Read it as it’s being published at WhatLiesDreaming.com

You can also vote for it up to once per week via this link to Top Webfiction.

And, for those waiting to get it all at once, the full version will be purchasable in early July!

Mar 262019
 

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Synopsis: Having infiltrated their ruling elite, Baru begins working to destroy the nation that conquered her homeland.

Book Review: I’ve been a fan of Seth Dickinson for many years, so I was expecting something pretty good from him. I read the prologue and I was not disappointed! Good stuff! Then I read the first chapter, and I put the book down. And I went and got a drink, and then another one, and ended up just drinking way too much that night, and not coming back to the book for a couple days. Because I realized while reading it that I will never, in my life, write anything this beautiful and this moving… and it’s kinda crushing.

I don’t want to over-hype the book, because nothing kills a story like insane expectations that no work in the real world could actually meet. But this is astoundingly good writing, and gorgeous prose, and I love it. It’s the first time I’ve read a middle-book in a series that I liked more than the first book.

As always, Dickinson does a great job of bringing you into the mind of the protagonist. You don’t just feel her emotions, you follow her thought patterns. Everything is translated into the logic of economics and capitalism. He explains what a hash-function is, in a fantasy setting, in a way that is both easy to understand AND completely in-character for the setting, AND is a moving and relevant part of the story, which I wouldn’t have believed was possible if I hadn’t seen it done myself. Without ever saying anything about the modern era, Dickinson says a lot about neoliberalism and the Molochian forces grinding away our humanity.

And in the occasional chapters where he goes into a different character’s POV, Dickenson shows us the world from their startlingly-different but instantly relatable view. I was surprised how quickly and intimately I felt my perspective on what was happening change by having it presented in such a viscerally relatable manner. Dickenson is a master of putting himself (and the reader) in the mind of someone different and also correct in their way. Call it steel-manning or call it true empathy, it’s awesome either way.

The biggest issue with this story is the large cast. There are a LOT of people who matter, with many existing relationships, and some of them with multiple names. It was sometimes hard to remember who was who. I recommend taking quick notes. It is absolutely worth it.

One of my favorite books now. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was as thrilled with this book as I was. Dickenson doesn’t coddle his reader, and expects you to put in effort. One fellow club member said he’s almost like Peter Watts in his attitude of ‘Keep up or drown, I don’t have time to talk-down to you,’ except “not as bad as Watts.” :) I don’t think they meant it as a compliment, but…

Another member felt that Dickinson was a bit over the top in some respects, and absolutely relentless in others. Be ye warned – the title of this book is accurate. Baru is not called “The Monster” without reason. If you do not wish to feel the things that would drive a monster, this probably isn’t a good read for you. There is nothing gratuitous, but there is a lot of Grim here. I, of course, love this. And there is absolutely a point to it, it is worth taking this journey. But I can see how it could be overwhelming.

Given the beauty of the prose, and the interesting twists that will spark conversation, and the things the author is saying/implying about what we value today and what we sacrifice in the pursuit of it… this makes for a lot of good talking. It’s work, and it’s not easy to read, which probably makes it a harder sell for book clubs. Check in with your group first to make sure they’re up for a harder read. Nonetheless: Recommended.

Mar 252019
 

In my previous post Guys, Take A Knee, I had several people express confusion as to what I was talking about. I turns out I’m taller than average, and most people cannot take the action I was recommending.

I realize that, at nearly 6’3”, I am statistically taller than average. But aside from rare occasions when my tallness is being called on for a specific purpose, I never feel tall. I simply feel like a standard-issue human.

Back when I was overweight, I never felt fat either (surprisingly, that came after I lost the weight). I just felt… normal.

I have two exceedingly short friends who both have told me they never feel short. They feel like they’re on par with everyone else, and are surprised to see themselves in pictures standing next to taller people and being significantly smaller. Or about the rare rude shocks of being reminded of their shortness when a typical task for everyone else is beyond their reach.

I wonder if this is a similar phenomenon to the Typical Mind Fallacy? They don’t seem like they’re the same, as TMF often is a result of the fact that no one is explicit about their mental processes (most of the time), and since we can’t read other people’s minds we can only assume they work similar to ours. TBF doesn’t have that problem, since we CAN see our bodies, and how they compare to others nearby. How the heck would one miss the fact that they are taller/shorter than most people around them? But they seem to both tap into a sort of invisibility-of-the-self, a lack of awareness of oneself as a distinct thinking unit (or physical object). I am not a body in the physical world. I am not a brain running a prediction engine. I simply am.

I think this is also why I can never remember what the protagonist of a story is supposed to look like. They become the Invisible Self, a Me by other means, and so physicality drops away.

Except, of course, not everyone is like that, as another commenter pointed out. It’s fascinating that there are so many ways to be human. :)