Aug 012016
 

IMG_20160731_152605860I have been published again, this time in an anthology! My story “Of All Possible Worlds” appears in the Swords v Cthulhu anthology which is available now. You can get it from Amazon, or the publishers website (which has it in electronic version as well as paperback), and likely many other book sellers. I am very proud of this story, so I will talk about it a bit below. But first – what other people have said (both about the anthology, and about my contribution)


Aksel Dadswell said: “One of the best Lovecraftian anthologies out there, and one of the best anthologies this year in general” & “The truth is, there are a lot of Lovecraft-inspired anthologies oozing out of the woodwork every year, and it’s just a matter of statistics that not all of them are going to be as original or scary or fun as they could be. Some of them, though, exceed all expectations, and Swords v Cthulhu is one of them.”

He does mention my story specifically at one point, noting “Just as the protagonist walks through the world as if in a dream, so the story feels like a waking haze. Dreams ooze into reality and back again with sickening ease. At one point the narrator proclaims that “every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick,” and I certainly felt that way, vicariously experiencing the horror myself. There’s a pleasing kind of bloody circularity to the story that gives it that little bit of extra weight, too.”

 

Teodor Reljic reviewed every single story in the anthology here!  I think that means he liked it. In the review of “Of All Possible Worlds” he says “A story with grit and teeth, told by a surrealist street performer who would just as soon slit your throat for all your cash rather than simply accepting your busking tips.” :) I take that as praise! To dispel any doubt he mentioned on twitter “Loved this Ancient Roman mindfuck”, so there’s that.

 

This is the teaser from my story that the editors posted on Facebook:

“Darkness flickered at the edge of my vision. A shadow swooped through the air, movement where there should be none. I strained to look at it but there was nothing to focus on. An inexplicable presence descended to the savage’s side, and as it touched the sand, it finally resolved into a discrete thing with surfaces and heft.

Its body was that of an ox-sized crow, but bare of any feathers. Black skin stuck tightly to jutting bones. A jagged beak took up the entire face, its upper mandible curving down from the top of the skull. The wings consisted of long arms webbed to the body in the manner of bats. Cricket-like legs folded beneath it.

The Colosseum grew still. Even the gladiators gaped at this intruder. With a shout of glee, the barbarian wizard hopped on the monster’s back, throwing his arms around its neck. It leapt upward with a beating of its wings, a deafening squawk piercing the sky.”


Alright, so about writing the story itself. I’ll make this brief and spoiler-free.

The primary plot driver is my fear and loathing of dreams. Not just nightmares—all dreams. Every dream is an epistemic nightmare to me, because they implant events into my memories that NEVER ACTUALLY HAPPENED. This is extremely disturbing to me. My memories are me. They are the most personal record I have of what I am, and I’m already well aware that they are a shitty, corruptible record. I’ve always had a poor episodic memory. I can’t recall names well. I often embarrass myself in conversation by re-asking things that people have already told me which were fairly important events to them. I’m pretty sure I will lose everything I am via Alzheimer’s some day. So the absolute last thing I want is to start generating random, non-real events on the fly and sneakily implanting them into my self-archive. You know that fear transhumanists have of an outside entity hacking into your brain and rewriting your memories to alter you? It was nicely portrayed in the opening scenes of Ghost In The Shell, to use a well-known example. I have that, all the time, and the outside entity is my own fucking brain!

Sometimes the dreams are so unrealistic I’m able to brush them off as obvious forgeries (one of them is retold almost exactly as it happened within the story). But many are realistic, and I only discover them out of luck. I don’t know how many of my memories are like this. I assume/hope only a very small percentage. But that fear is always there. How much of my life is a lie?

I tried to demonstrate that fear in the story, and maybe make the reader feel a little bit of it as well.

Influencing this fear is also the common transhumanist “What if this is all a simulation?” fear,  which I consider very related. “Wake up, Neo.”

Finally, if this is all a simulation, why is it such an awful one? Why is violence the final arbiter of all things? God could have made a world where humans were physically unable to harm each other, and he didn’t. That was just one more thing in a long litany of things that led me to doubt the God hypothesis in the first place. But if there was a God… the fact that the world is as it is says a lot about Him/Her/It.

 

My copies just arrived, so I haven’t read any of the other stories within yet, but a lot of them sound awesome, and I plan to over the next month or two! That being said, I’m kinda side-eyeing our publisher. The book seems to have had two different release dates (July 12 for Amazon, Aug 1 for all other wholesalers? Was that intentional?), and there still aren’t electronic versions available at Amazon or B&N. /shrug. Hopefully an oversight that will be resolved soon.

Jul 112016
 

sidewise logohome2007Hey, you know the short story I wrote last year, “Red Legacy”? It’s a finalist for the 2015 Sidewise Award for Alternative History!!!

It’s interesting… I didn’t originally intend for this to be an alternative history story. I was just going for supervillain origin story. But I’d long been enraptured with Lamarckian evolution. It is the perfect evolutionary theory for communism, because it’s so damn optimistic! Darwinian evolution is a horror, as I expound on in the story. You get born with random genes, and then you find out if they’re good enough by being killed by nature (or, if you’re lucky, avoiding that). The selection process is needlessly cruel, and the determination of your worth (fitness of genes) is capricious and beyond your control. It’s a lot like Calvinism. You’re already saved or damned before you’re born, which one is the case is entirely beyond your control, and you have to go through this entire painful BS “life” thing just to find out which one you were fated to. :(

Lamarckian evolution, OTOH, is quasi-fair! If you work hard, you are rewarded. It closes its eyes to the cruel nature of reality, and embraces a comforting fantasy, because that fantasy is the way the world SHOULD work. Which, IMHO, is exactly the same thing communism does. And both failed for the same reason. Reality doesn’t care about what you think is fair.

Anyway, I wrote before about how much I love that Ted Chiang takes apart the world, changes one thing, and then puts it back together to see how it would run with that one thing changed. I don’t think I did quite that, I cannot aspire to Chiang-levels of writing. But I tried. If Lamarckian evolution is true, that’s a big change. It affects a lot more than just my one scientist in her laboratory, it alters how everything on earth works. I can’t get into all of them in a short story, but how does the world look different in ways that are relevant to the plot? If societal structures stayed similar to what we’re familiar with, what effect would that have? If the world looks like how the Soviets of the 50s envisioned it, how could that be explained in Lamarckian terms?

And so you get things like Europe’s aristocratic killer-elite. :)

Anyway, I am thrilled and honored to have been selected as a finalist for this award, and I look forward to meeting my fellow nominees at WorldCon next month!

May 092016
 

philosoraptorSo um… being immersed in non-stop Hugo Controversy and Tinglers over the last two weeks does weird things to one’s brain.

Last year I wrote Amazing Man as a satirical take on the 2015 Sad Puppies fiasco, with the titular character acting as a mash-up of Larry Correia and Brad Torgerson. I never expected to re-enter that universe. But two days after reading this Tingle interview, a story of how REAL LOVE would redeem Amazing Man invaded my brain, and wouldn’t leave.

I pounded out the following story – Amazing Man 2: Love Conquers All – over the weekend. I tried to start with the violence-porn of Amazing Man, and move it into the dinosaur-porn of Tingle. I think it’s OK! I wish I could have gone with First-Person Present-Tense, as that seems soooooo ideal for erotica! Ah well.

This world isn’t very deep in the Tingleverse, so it’s not as absurd as a lot of Tingle’s stuff. I still wanted a redemption for Emilio, after all. It also assumes familiarity with Amazing Man 1. It’s 4400 words, but 1500 of it is gay erotica, so the non-erotica part comes out to right about the same length as Amazing Man 1.

Of course it does not even compare to the Tinglers of The Master. But it was a damn fun use of my weekend. :) And it makes me feel better about getting back to my novel. I’ve been hung up on it for a while lately, barely sputtering out a few hundred words a week, and this feels like it rammed clear much of the junk clogging up my brain-pipes. Sometimes you just need to have crazy, consequence-free fun with your writing!

Amazing Man 2: Love Conquers All

Jan 202016
 

star-wars-force-awakens-rey-bb8-daisy-ridley1(minor spoiler for The Force Awakens below)

I broke down and saw the new Star Wars movie, in large part so that I could participate in conversations with my friends. I was hoping I’d be surprised, but I didn’t expect to be bored. I left confused, because there’s all sorts of really great things to like about the movie, but when you put them all together, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Why was it so damn boring?

After days of pondering, I’m pretty sure the movie lost me very early on, in one fatal scene. That being the scene where Rey steals BB8 from a fellow scavenger.

Not because I have a problem with the action itself, but rather because the scavenger doesn’t react. Ray runs up, yells a few mean words at the scavenger, then rips BB8 from the scavenger’s mount to claim him. She scoots away a few steps and starts inspecting her new-found loot. The scavenger scowls and goes about his business.

This is utterly unbelievable. No way is someone going to run up to me while I’m driving, take valuables out of my car, and then wander away a few steps before settling down, without SOME SORT of reaction from me. Especially if I’m a desperate scavenger barely eking out a living. The scavenger presented in that scene is there soley to deliver BB8 to Rey. He didn’t exist before that moment and he won’t exist after it, and he knows this and accepts it.

To make matters worse, Rey is also aware of this. She doesn’t bother to flee or take a defensive position or even keep an eye on the scavenger. She accepts that his role is complete, and he can now pass gracefully from this mortal coil.

In those few seconds, the movie told me everything I needed to know to completely destroy my enjoyment. The director (or writer?) has no respect for his audience. He doesn’t care to speak with them. This is not a story. This is merely a number of set-pieces, loosely strung together. All action loses meaning, because there are no people in this movie. There are only philosophical zombies, progressing through a chronology of events without intention or awareness.

This is not a narrative, it is a 2-hour toy commercial. Made by people who have forgotten how to play with toys.

I realize that all stories are predetermined narratives, all “freely chosen actions” are contrived by the author to suit his goals. But those goals are supposed to include causing his audience to generate a model of a person in their head, and empathizing with that person. When it is clear that the author’s model of the characters aren’t living people, but rather of empty dolls that fill in the people-shaped holes in a spectacle, it becomes impossible to empathize with them. And so, watching hollow plastic pieces being continuously re-arranged in dramatic poses for the camera, I was bored.

It could have been a good story, had anyone cared to tell one.

Jan 042016
 

henry goldblattEntertainment Weekly took a GIANT SHIT all over the very concept of writing fiction of any sort, let alone fanfiction. “Submit your best fanfic” they say. From the terms and conditions: “Entries become sole property of Sponsor and none will be acknowledged or returned.” To quote Rachael Acks:

“if you EVER see anything that says anyone other than you becomes the sole owner of your writing, unless it comes with a fucking enormous check (and it better be HUGE), you say NO.

In non-abusive contracts, it’s all about the assignment of extremely specific rights (eg: first world electronic rights) with rights not negotiated still remaining with the writer. The writer still retains copyright. You as the writer still own the story; you are negotiating with the publisher for their use of it.”

It’s worth reading the rest of her post, it’s short. This is an abusive contract so bad the people who proposed it should be fired and never let near the publishing industry again. Yeah, I know, “It’s just fanfic”, right? No, screw that. It’s not about the content. No contract offered by a professional publisher should ever contain such a ridiculous rights-grab unless both parties are very aware what is going on, and there is a big payout. This is pure exploitation, and the callous indifference it requires to offer such a contract to excited new writers is disgusting. Anyone with a shred of professional integrity or self-respect would have stopped this dead in its tracks on principle.

At the very least, the person who approved this has a lot of answer for, and a hell of an apology to make. This sort of contempt of the rights of writers shows a contempt for fiction in its entirety.

EW’s editor is Henry Goldblatt, on facebook and twitter. Does he know what’s happening at his magazine?

Dec 182015
 

the-traitor-baru-cormorantThis post contains MASSIVE spoilers for The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson. Please note that this is one of the few books were that is actually a really big deal. The ending changes a lot about what you thought you knew, and knowing that beforehand changes how you will read the book. If you have any desire at all to read the book, turn back now.

If you don’t have any desire to read the book, but have time to read a short story, consider reading the short story before you continue. Because, again, the spoilers I’m going to be getting into are really big, and I would hate to deny anyone the opportunity to read such an amazing piece of fiction unspoiled.

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You know those people who go to see a movie adapted from a book, and then turn up their nose afterwards and say “The book was better”? Everyone hates those people. Of course the first medium you experienced the story in will always be better! Get over yourself! I really, really hate to be that person. But the Traitor Baru short story was better than the Traitor Baru novel. The novel was still good! Just not as good. I’ve been trying to figure out why. And I succeeded.

Well ok, I have a half-assed theory. But it’s something.

The Traitor Baru short story takes place after The Twist. We only see Baru after she’s betrayed everyone she loves for the greater good. Everyone who ever cared for her despises her now (if they’re still alive), and the populace of the country she was fighting for consider her a villain. This is all conveyed indirectly, via precision-guided sentences that get the point across as emotionally as possible with as little word-count as possible.  This leaves us to fill in all the blanks. And what do we do when we fill in the blanks? We fall back on Tropes. Or Cultural Myths, or Archetypes, or whatever you want to call them.

What this means is that Baru was the Rebel Princess in my mind. The Leia or the Xena – a shining leader, beloved by her lieutenants and loyal soldiers. When she betrayed them, it was like Leia killing Luke, Han, and Chewie in cold blood, and giving their corpses to the Emperor. It was all the people of those planets, fighting for the Rebels, suddenly under the Empire’s heel again, and he is NOT happy with what’s been going on. Seriously bad times for all.

Likewise, I filled in Baru’s relationship with her lover as deep and passionate, having withstood all the typical fantasy trials. When Baru gave Tain Hu up, Baru was The Dread Pirate Roberts/Wesley, handing over Buttercup to Humperdink.

That was why the brain injury was such a central part of the short story. It was Baru’s escape mechanism. She could turn her blind side on her betrayals, and she would forget about them. She could turn away from her lover, and she wasn’t there anymore. It was the Novocain for her soul, the past-annihilating numbness that allowed her to live with what she’d done. Without that escape mechanism, she likely would have killed herself already. At the very least, she’d be an ineffectual infiltrator, since her guilt-wracked conscience would give her away.

And that was what made the ending so simultaneously heart-wrenching and gratifying. In the end, Baru turns toward her lover. She could look away, have the execution erased from her mind, but instead she watches as Tain Hu is dashed against the rocks over and over. It is an acceptance. An acceptance of Tain Hu’s sacrifice, and her love. It it’s Baru’s moment of growth, where she realizes she is strong enough to continue forward. It is her reaffirmation that her goal (freedom from the evil empire) is worth the price she has paid and is paying. Fuck them. She can overcome even this. They will have nothing to use against her.

(I also love this story because it acknowledges that love for your loved ones is a weapon that your enemies can use against you, which is a deep and unreasonable fear of mine, and which is why I’ve kept myself emotionally isolated much of my life. This story is an affirmation that you can love, and have that love used against you, and still not be destroyed. It’s like the counter-thesis  to that Iain Banks novel that I won’t name because I don’t want to spoil yet another novel. Point is, I love this story, and I love Seth Dickinson for writing it.)

The “problem” with the novel is that it doesn’t conform to the standard fantasy tropes.

“What?” you say. “How is that a problem? I’m sick and tired of all the standard fantasy tropes!” I agree, I am too. And obviously Seth Dickinson was as well. Can you imagine sitting down to write 100,000 words of fantasy to pound out another cliché Rebels vs Empire story? Ain’t nobody want to do that, least of all an aspirational rising talent! So instead he wrote an interesting plot, full of interesting characters, with lots of intrigue and political wrangling, and very shrewd and intelligent gambits. It’s a good story, and it would make a good novel, except it is supposed to bring us back to the Baru of the short story.

I had come into the novel expecting to see some sort of Star Wars-like story, with strong bonds between the rebels, and a passionate ongoing romance with Tain Hu. Instead we see rebels that are constantly infighting, suspicious, looking to back-stab each other, and are clearly using Baru simply to further their own agendas. I don’t mind as much when these people are betrayed. The empire, rather than being typical Fantasy Nazis, are distasteful and sometime horrifying, but ultimately more pragmatic than pure evil, and they bring a lot of good things to the people they conquer to offset some of the evil & oppression. Tain Hu, rather than being the love of Baru’s life, is kept at a distance the entire book, and they don’t even confess their love to each other until just a few pages before the betrayal. That’s not Wesley and Buttercup. It’s more akin to Trinity’s confession to Neo.

I was asked in my book club “What was the brain injury in the last chapter for?”, which I think is a great encapsulation of the problem with the novel. In the short story it is a crucial aspect of the story, the characters, and the resolution. In the novel it shows up so briefly that it doesn’t have any narrative weight. It feels extraneous. The short story depends, ultimately, on a subversion of classic fantasy tropes. We already have the entire Rebel Princess story in our minds, and Traitor Baru takes that story, turns it upside down, then puts it right-side up again, while stabbing you repeatedly and telling you “This is what it takes to win in the real world. If your fantasy stories were real, these are the choices your heroes would be facing. Isn’t this a better story?” AND IT IS! When Dickinson wrote the novel, he kept that Rationalist view. He wrote a fantasy story that would make sense if it was in the real world. Not Fantasy Nazis and Shining Heroes, but real people and realpolitik. And that blunts what made the Traitor Baru story such a knife-in-the-heart to me. The betrayal at the end of the novel didn’t feel like someone amputating their own limbs. It wasn’t a loss of everything good. It was just another manipulation in a book full of manipulations and treachery. A bigger one than any we had seen previous, of course. But not unusual. It was true to character, rather than a betrayal of our ideals. I didn’t feel it would lead to suicidal levels of guilt and self-hatred.

That being said, I HATE to have said all this. I contemplated for many days before posting this. Because (as Seth has said in the past) nowadays no one engages short fiction. Traitor Baru is excellent, and I’ve recommended it a few times to people. But I’ve never posted about it at length deconstructing what made it great, until the novel came out. The Traitor Baru novel has been mentioned many times on many “Best of 2015” lists, but was the short story on any such lists? Even though the short story is better? For that matter, do you recall seeing very many “Best Short Story” lists ever, at NPR or IO9 or wherever you get your news? Nope. People simply value novels far more than short stories, and it’s a damned shame. It’s likely that the Traitor Baru novel has gotten far more reads than the Traitor Baru story, even though the story is less than 1/10th the length, has been out far longer, and is freely available to everyone online! (and IMHO is better)

I even feel guilty trying to point people at the story rather than the novel, because Dickinson has got to pay his rent and buy food, and short stories don’t pay. If you want to make a living writing, you have to write novels. Each person that I convince to read the short story instead of the novel is money I am taking out of Dickinson’s pocket. :( And, if I was given the choice to read either the story or the novel, I would tell past-me to read the story instead, and pay more for the privilege than I would have paid for the novel. It is a far more efficient use of my time, and I am willing to pay extra to get the same emotional payoff (“entertainment” as I call it) in less time. It leaves me more free time to pursue my other pursuits.

So, if you really like the Traitor Baru short story, please do not punish Seth Dickinson for his genius. Buy the novel, to say thank you, even if you don’t read it. And, next time you read a truly amazing short work, please consider purchasing something from the author, even if you’ll never read it, to support their work.

Oct 222015
 

interview-with-the-vampireA literary agent I’m acquainted with recently posted “we’re getting wind that publishers are extremely wary of buying diverse books by “non-diverse” authors because they don’t want to deal with readers’ accusations of cultural appropriation.”

If I can only ever write white male middle-class characters in my stories, I will kill myself.

It’s just plain bad art too. I remember reading a book where every character read like a middle-aged Canadian male, (yes, including the teenage girl and the alien intelligence) and I was bored to tears. I want multiple perspectives from various people in my novels, and most of them will not match that of the author.

And do the people pushing this not bother thinking about the consequences of their own agendas? If gay authors can only write gay characters, women authors can only write women characters, black authors can only write black characters, etc, this hurts everyone. There will be less interesting fiction to read, and far fewer stories that any author can tell. How does it help women authors to tell Anne Rice that only men are allowed to write male POV sections?

Ugh.

Aug 042015
 

more-carved-book-sculptures-by-guy-laramee-oTldr: What really matters is connecting to our readers. And you can’t connect to people if they can’t even read your work.

There are three major Speculative Fiction periodicals in the USA that still print on dead trees – Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog. They’ve been around for a very long time, and due to their longevity and physical presence, they are considered the most prestigious to be published in. Most of the authors I know want to be published in them more than anywhere else, and send their new works to them first.

I respect this and I’m impressed when friends make sales to them.

But they are not my first choice for publication. None of them are even in my Top 3. Because when I get published in a print magazine NONE OF THE PEOPLE I LOVE CAN READ MY STORY!

It isn’t easy getting a copy of one of these magazines. I have to find a Barnes & Noble in my area (or one of the very rare non-B&N brick-and-mortar bookstores), root around in the neglected corners of their hidden magazine racks for a half hour (seriously, the SF lit stuff is almost impossible to find), only to find out that the June Issue of the magazine doesn’t actually come out in June!! (wtf print publications?) I’m too late! Then I find out I have to pay an amount approaching the cost of many eBooks for what is in effect a single short story, since I don’t care about any of the other stuff in there. And then on top of all that, I’m doing all this for a story I haven’t even read yet. I may not even LIKE it!

And no, I can’t buy an e-copy of a single issue, at least not without spending a half hour trying to figure out how to do that without buying a full-year’s subscription as well, and I’m not gonna be hassled into that.

So, how many authors am I willing to go through this process for? Exactly three: Chiang, Watts, and Dickinson.

I hate that I can’t recommend some of my favorite stories to my friends, because there’s no way for them to read them. I didn’t bother posting about “Three Bodies at Mitanni” at /r/rational,  because how would anyone there get to read it anyhow? I have the same problem with “Liking What You See”. I am insanely happy that I can recommend “The Things” to everyone, because that’s available online! I do so all the time, and it always makes me all excited inside, imagining what they’ll be feeling the first time they read it.

For that reason I generally go with the online publications first, whenever I can. Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Tor.com, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If I get published in one of these, I can actually link to it. I can tell my friends, my family, my podcast listeners, and even the sometimes the guys on /r/rational, that I have written something, and here it is! Come take a look! :) I can’t do that with the Big Three paper publications.

Perhaps even more to the point – paper disappears quickly. It’s on the shelves for one month, and then it’s gone forever. The internet offers some modicum of permanency. Your story will still be available for people to read after two months, or two years, or even fifteen years later!

So yes. I respect the prestige of the paper publications. I am honored to have been in one. But I think that given another decade, maybe two at the absolute outside, paper and subscriptions will lose their luster. More and more authors choose to have their works appear in the free-to-read online publications whenever they can. Because for most of us, what really matters is connecting to our readers. And you can’t connect to people if they can’t even read your work.

All of which is to say – now that the rights for the story I sold to Asimov’s have reverted to me, I’ve put it online so that people can read it.

 

Although I will give print publications this – they are willing to look at works longer than 7,500 words. It is really hard trying to find a home for anything longer than that online. :(

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?