Reading ‘Corrosion’ so you don’t have to

complqiningtrashfireOh, if only this WAS a parody:

“It was worrisome that the Human League had declared him “a traitor to Galactic Man” and was offering a bounty on his head. Still, this wasn’t the first time he’d been targeted by crackpots, though, and as a technocrat, he found it hard to be Praton as a sacrifice to his furious fellow council members.”

So with the tune of ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’, running in my head I descend into ‘Corrosion: The Corroding Empire Part by Johan Kalsi and/or Harry Seldon Edited by Vox Day’.

Servo is a robot working in a cocktail bar, when we meet him. Again, if only this book was a pastiche of new-romantic pop lyrics but it isn’t – I mean how would it have been to have included a cocktail bar in the story?

Instead, we get a bunch of connected not-exactly awful stories set in a technological society run by ‘algorithms’. The style is one I shall now christen ‘Puppy Clunk’. If you read some of the less appalling slated works in 2015, you’ll recognise the style. It’s not illiterate or wholly unreadable but it just sort of goes ‘clunk’ in every sentence.

This style is one I shall now christen ‘Puppy Clunk’. If you read some of the less appalling slated works in 2015, you’ll recognise the style. It’s not illiterate or wholly unreadable but it just sort of goes ‘clunk’ in every sentence.

“It had been ten months since the first time Servo made contact with the First Technocrat, and since then, things had gotten increasingly out of hand. The drone’s behavior had arguably become more erratic than the theoretical algorithmic anomalies with which he was obsessed.”

The premise is that this high-tech space-faring human civilisation is totally dependent on ‘core algorithms’. The civilisation doesn’t depart much from a bog-standard space-future (robots and vid-screens) and the importance of the ‘algorithms’ is just waved around a lot.

For reason unknown, this advanced society has apparently no understanding of boundary conditions or chaos theory or any one of the many ways humans have known that deterministic computation will depart from empirical data without regular correction. As a consequence, humanity is suffering from ‘algorithmic decay’ and only ex-surgeon turned rogue robot ‘Servo’ (no not the one from MST3K) can see the truth.

“He had been allowed enough visitors in prison to gather that the Human League were planning to do through legal means what they had failed to do illegally: assassinate him. His only chance was to win over a Technocratic Council that was not only looking for a sacrificial lamb to throw to the frightened public, but would be presided over by Harraf, his would-be successor as First Technocrat.”

Civilisation is heading for a crash!

OK, that was gratuitous. I’ll let Caden Jarris, First Technocrat infodump a summary of the dangers of algorithmic decay:

“As far as I know, there is nothing that is going to halt this mysterious, gradual corrosion of both the galactic and planetary infrastructure on its own. The trend may be slow, one might even describe it as glacial, but even so, the long-term trend is clear. If algorithmic decay is not arrested, interstellar transportation will be the first sector to fall. That will doom dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of populated planets and colonies to stasis if they are fortunate, and extinction if they are not.”
“We know all this, Caden,” the Sixth Technocrat complained.

I think we all sympathise with the Sixth Technocrat – nobody likes a gratuitous infodump.  The decay is a handy wavy substitute for Hari Seldon’s prediction of galactic Empire collapse from Asimov’s seminal Foundation stories. ‘Corrosion’ is supposedly some sort of parody/pastiche/homage to Asimov but it fails to capture any of his magic. Nor does it compensate by addressing Asimov’s failings: the characters are as thinly drawn as the plot. The book is short and yet still mainly waffle. It’s a bit like eating packing material – if packing material could go ‘clunk’ (which it can’t by design).

[NOTE: starch based packing ‘peanuts’ can be digested but are not produced in conditions that are food-safe. Also, they are intentionally stripped of useful nutrients so as not to attract vermin. You can learn more about packing peanuts here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foam_peanut#Starch-based_packing_peanuts No, this isn’t the most interesting article on Wikipedia but yes, it’s less dull than reading this book]

Speaking of peanuts, after the trial of First Technocrat Caden Jaggis, we are whisked away to see more of this amazing future society. We meet a farmer, called The Farmer, sitting on his future tractor: “Ontanso-44 tractor-processor, manually correcting bad readings and attempting to factor a uniform set of correcting algorithms. ” See, this society is all based on ALGORITHMS and so the Farmer has an algorithm-tractor, possibly an algorithm-combine harvester as well and an algorithm-chicken coop.

Nah, that would be silly. Instead, he has his trusted Intrepid-Abundance Class biogenetic tractor-combinator. But things are going badly because of, you know, ALGORITHMS.

“It was that fragile moment in the growing season when blight or insectoid plagues still threatened, but the natural algorithmic defenses of the crops were not yet a full strength. Every class of every crop he mastered — polito, chomats, paradagas, corbolini, purple crone, zaim, yossa beans, and even the hardy gang roots — were going wrong. They were behind schedule, maturing poorly or in several cases, mutating inconsistently.”

The poor old farmer has a bad time of it and…well then we jump forward in time and the empire has collapsed.

the-human-league-empire-state-human-single

Three stories in we meet another man with a vehicle Scot Farmerson who has 00198 Burneck-made truck. That’s nice. You know what Foundation lacked? Trucks and tractors. Nothing says hard sci-fi like a decent agricultural vehicle.

Any Scot dies horribly because of bad algorithms. Not even his truck could save.

Then things go a bit milSF but we are still in the same story because they have gadgets and complain about ‘algodecay’. Then we wander. Things get dull. I can’t even make Human League jokes anymore. People don’t want jokes, people love action.

human20league20love20action See?

Skip, skip, skip, oops I’m at the epilogue. This starts with a binary code because ROBOTS! Robots that communicate in ASCII (not Unicode? darn – no emojis). The super secret messages in binary says:

The machines have developed a sense of morality. The galaxy is ours.

Morality? Perhaps but the book still hasn’t developed a sense of humour.

Yeah, anyways, war is good, robots plotting stuff etc. You know the drill. If you read the Castalia MilSF compilation in the Hugo Packet it’s basically the same stuff.

What can I say? The opening chapters were clunky and the rest were formulaic. It is almost like output generated from some deterministic sequence of rules and operations – why, it is almost ALGORITHMIC…

Using Twine @TwineThreads

A recent piece at File 770 pointed to this SFWA blog article on interactive fiction using the authoring tool Twine. Intrigued, I downloaded it and went off on small wild tangents with the resulting output here: https://camestrosfelapton.neocities.org/Bortsworth%20Quest.html

The software doesn’t present you with much: a simple screen with limited menu options. However, this really encourages you to jump straight in, start a story and start typing.

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Even a relatively short story will generate a complex web of interconnected passages.

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But you can easily reposition the passages on screen and the connecting arrows follow fairly neatly. Although I did note some passages that do have connections didn’t always show them if they were connected to a passage with lots of other connections.

You can zoom out as well.

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I can see this being handy for sketching out a network of relationships – shame there is no graphical export for these views.

Authoring passages is fairly simple. There are some different markup/code systems available but I just used the default (Harlowe 1.2.3) and haven’t tried the others.

twine06

Start with a passage title. These are used to reference the passages. You can create a complex story just with links between passages that are formatted as:

[[some text to display -> Name of Passage]]

General formatting (bold, italic etc) is via a mark-up system – which is a bit old school but which wasn’t onerous.

There is also a set of commands you can add. The documentation here was a bit stuck between two stools – some of it pitched for people not used to coding and then some of it just sort of assumes you are already familiar.

It’s easy to attach conditional statements to a bunch of text and so you can fairly quickly make your passages display text conditionally based on where somebody has been or just on random numbers.

The finished story can be exported as HTML and can then be hosted on a website.

No bells or whistles in terms of using the program but easy to start and then build in more interactions as you go.

Easily Impressed?

Brian Niemeier (the guy who got a Dragon Award and who thinks demons are controlling the left) is up in arms that Amazon pulled Castalia House’s ‘Corroding Empire’ book. This book was Vox Day’s latest expression of his deep-seated resentment of John Scalzi (or Tor or Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden or, who knows, some kid who was mean to Vox in pre-school). http://www.brianniemeier.com/2017/03/tor-gets-desperate.html

Naturally, for Brian, this is ‘censorship’ because literally anything is to the right these days but his defence is that the Castalia house book was clearly parody:

This is what used to be called “parody” before the Left turned into control freaks with zero sense of humor.

The cover is a parody but that’s the problem – that’s only an argument if the book itself is a parody and Vox already undermined that defence:

“This isn’t a lame Bored of the Rings-style parody, it is, quite to the contrary, a legitimate Foundation-style novel that effectively demonstrates how hapless Tor’s latest imitative mediocrity is by comparison.”

This comment section style of switching positions mid-argument is common among the alt-right. Arguments of the ‘this is X except it isn’t X but actually it is X but no it isn’t’ are annoying on the net but when it comes to legal niceties, they are just self-defeating. I’m reminded of the Trump-regime’s own self-sabotage of its legal defence against its recent visa bans on some majority Muslim countries. Trying to argue A & not-A simultaneously isn’t going to cut it when it comes to actual courts or business relationships with a major corporation.

However, Brian is deeply impressed by Castalia House re-releasing their book with a new cover:

“While I was writing this post, Vox Day unveiled the new cover for CH’s censored book.

Let that sink in: they got a new cover done in less than a day.

The updated book should be back in the Kindle store tonight. This is why the small, fast mammals are taking down the dinosaurs.”

A generic spaceship against a background cover in LESS THAN A DAY! Gadzooks! Hmmm. I think I can do that in under an hour to Castalia House standards…

CORWALRUS

Undergraduate Career Advice!

Yeah, but seriously if you are planning your post-school studies, seek proper professional advice and not this blog post.

Via numerous Twittery things, the question of what degree a young person intent on Higher Education should study has been doing the rounds in various ways. One source was a snarky comment about English degrees from a successful writer, a second one I ended up Tweeting about was somebody claiming that STEM students can cope with Arts/Humanities degrees better than vice-versa. I’ll get to the specific question of writing & the humanities v STEM in a bit but I want to look at things more generally first.

More after the fold – as this goes on for awhile.

Continue reading

My Hugo Novel Best Picks

Nominations have closed for 2017. I’m not going to list other categories because I feel less confident about my choices. Short fiction, in particular, can be hard to pick favourites. Also, I don’t like listing the awards for people rather than works.

  1. The Obelisk Gate by N K Jemisin; – maybe not the same punch as The Fifth Season but still a stand out work and a strong promise for the concluding volume.
  2. City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennet; I was late arriving to City of Stairs (pushed off the 2015 ballot by Puppy shenanigans). Another solid mid-trilogy fantasy that breaks fantasy conventions.
  3. Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee; Didn’t blow my socks off initially but worked its way into my head and I discovered sometime later my socks were missing. Perhaps the socks were never there or maybe the reality with socks was a heresy.
  4. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; A story about genre fiction in the form of genre fiction. I suspect it won’t win because of its many marmite qualities but my favourite of 2016 I think.
  5. The Liberation by Ian Tregillis; I really like Tregillis’s books despite their tendency to go to some dark places. This alt history Franco-Dutch war of alchemical clockwork versus chemistry, plus duelling women spies, hides deep ideas about free-will. Concluding volume in the Alchemy Wars series.

Looking at that list I see:

  • they each do an SF/Fantasy crossover thing in quite different ways. Each of them have a liminal quality to them: the reality warping heresies in the Ninefox space opera; the quasi-magical Orogenes of Obelisk Gate; the post-divine world in City of Blades; the alchemic robots of the Liberation; and lastly an overt conflict/romance between two characters – one rooted in fantasy tropes and one in SF tropes.
  • One series start, one series end, two mid-series and one stand-alone. Is modern SF/F too series dominated? Maybe, the investment in world building makes trilogies a wise investment in time for both readers and authors. I don’t think a mid-series book has a won a Hugo aside from Harry Potter (may be wrong there).
  • Looking at other round-ups (http://file770.com/?p=33861 ) Ninefox Gambit is looking like a strong contender as is All the Birds in the Sky. However, both novels have strong marmite factors – nominations self-select for the people who liked (or weren’t turned off by) whatever thing it was that other people didn’t like. Final votes depend on the finalists winning over some readers new to the book – I suspect both Ninefox & ATBITS will generate some lively debate.

Speaking of round-ups, thank you to the people who have nominated me for Fanwriter. I was a bit freaked out when people began suggesting it but I’m coping – I don’t generally handle praise well.

Lastly, you might not believe this because of the number of typos and solecisms in my posts but I run Grammarly over my blog posts. It made this helpful suggestion:

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