Review: Night Without Stars – Chronicle of the Fallers part 2

Technically, this is the second part of a longer story but in many ways it is structured as a stand-alone novel. This is seventh of Hamilton’s Commonwealth set novels, part of a second set of novels set around the ‘void’ – a mysterious space anomaly inside of which humans are both trapped and have access to psychic powers but outside of which is a star consuming threat.

I say ‘set around’ but in this case, the setting is actually a planet that has been expelled from the Void and anyway the Void was eliminated in an earlier series and…look, there is an AWFUL lot of back-story here. So while the book mainly deals with a new(ish) setting and mainly new characters, it would be a weird read for anybody who hadn’t read the previous volumes.

And that is sort of a shame but understandable. The previous Commonwealth books amount to a lot of universe building. The Void allowed Hamilton to embedded a more unusual fantasy like story within a space-opera in his Void trilogy and The Abyss Beyond Dreams let him revisit that with a story of a revolution in a quasi-Victorian society with a surrounding threat of invasion-of-the-body-snatchers like aliens. Having built a big shared universe, Hamilton is having fun finding different stories to tell.

So you have to wade through back-story at the start – reminders about his central Commonwealth characters first (unflappable investigator Paula Myo and physicist/plutocrat Nigel Sheldon) and then a return to the characters on the planet Bienviedo shortly after the end of the previous book. Then (mercifully) the story leaps forward…

The planet Bienviedo is stuck in a star system, deep in intergalactic space. The population are all descendants of a colony ship from the technologically advanced Commonwealth but time, the Void and vast distances mean that they have no hope of contacting the Commonwealth. They are ruled by a Soviet-like quasi-socialist government which has become paranoid about social change. The paranoia and social control are also fed by the existential threat of ‘Fallers’. The Fallers are another alien species that assimilates, mimics and often eats other lifeforms. Bienviedo is surrounded by Faller Trees – spaceship-factories that periodically eject eggs onto the planet below which spawn more fallers. Using the remnants of Commonwealth technology and records the government has built its Soyuz-like programme, which periodically sends up ships to fire nuclear missiles at the alien trees. Within this society are also a minority population who have inherited some of the more advanced genetic modifications of their Commonwealth ancestors – including a kind of built-in internet access – a fact that only further fuels the government’s paranoia.

Hamilton has taken a convoluted path to this set-up but I like the place it ends up in. A kind of Cold-War zombie-monster thriller with a side serving of cyberpunk rebels. Also, there are alien fish people – who are nice.

As the pace increases and the threat from the Fallers mounts, the setting and characters give way to more running about and blowing things up. Also, the connections to previous Commonwealth stories becomes more overt.

Fun, but a really bad place to start if you haven’t read a Hamilton book before.

Margins of error

I suspect most people who read this blog know all this already but I’ve met the same misunderstanding at work recently and also in the context of the opinion polls around the POTUS election. So here is a simplified explanation.

Imagine I have a great big jar of jelly beans, which are the favoured confectionary of probability explanations. There are exactly 500 red jelly beans and 500 blue jelly beans and nothing else – no Jill Stien jelly beans or exotic Even McMulberry flavours. A jelly bean pollster doesn’t know this, though. The pollster wants to estimate the proportion of red and blue jelly beans in the jar BUT is only allowed to look at some of the jelly beans.

The pollster grabs a handful of jelly beans from the jar and looks at the relative proportion of jelly beans. Naturally, I don’t want the pollster to do this very often because they’ll put their germ-ridden hands all over my beautiful jelly beans. So pollster only has this handful to look at. They have to make a key assumption – that the jelly beans were well mixed so that their handful is a random pick of jelly beans in the jar.

The pollster looks at the proportion of red to blue jelly beans. Let’s say they have 5 red and 8 blue jelly beans. The pollster says that the proportion of red to blue is 38% to 62% BUT they also report a margin of error that is quite large. They can’t be sure this figure is right because they know they may have been unlucky. With only 13 jelly beans in their handful, it isn’t wholly impossible that they could pick out nothing but blue jelly beans if the true proportion was 50-50. Now note if they did pick out nothing but blue, this could happen by chance.

Margins of error address only this aspect of errors in polling – that the proportion in the sample was to some extent an ‘unlucky’ pick. Both the reported figure and the margin of error BOTH assume that the picking was done correctly. In our jelly bean example the assumption that the beans were well mixed together.

Now it so happens that I didn’t mix the jelly beans well (although the pollster can’t tell)*. There are actually MORE red towards the top and fewer red towards the bottom of the jar. So the pollster’s assumption was wrong. A clever pollster might try to find ways to deal with this methodologically (e.g. by grabbing beans from both the top and the bottom) but the principle still applies: the reported estimate and the margin of error assume that the sampling methodology was valid. The margin of error doesn’t (and can’t) account for the probability of what in common parlance would be called an ‘error’ (i.e. a mistake).

MetaReview: Dave Truesdale Reviews Diabolical Plots #21

Let me talk briefly about dehumanisation. There are many examples of this in politics and there are many examples of specific kinds of dehumanisation – of women, of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, immigrant communities, people of various kinds of sexualities or gender identification. However, I’m going to focus on a least-worst example. I say ‘least worst’ not because some kinds of dehumanisation are OK but because the general target is political. However, the nature of this kind of dehumanisation means it often encompasses specific targets listed above as well.

So, I’m talking specifically about the dehumanisation of the left. By this, I mean a repeated attempt to deny that people on the left have genuine anger, that any display of emotion is either fake or socially unacceptable. And yes, people on the left do it to the right as well – it is a pernicious habit among all humans to dismiss the feelings of their opponents and reject empathy. The difference is how entrenched this rejection of the legitimacy of emotion has become among not only the right but also the centre and the media when discussing the left. It is as if, the left are now meant to be a parody of some kind of Vulcan species or perhaps Romulans, in which all reactions are either calculating or a violation of social norms.

I said ‘least worst’ because I’m phrasing it in terms of the left as a political grouping but do not doubt that this rooted in the wider attempt to suppress broad groups of people – specifically those historically subject to oppression. For example, the notion that the righteous anger that arises from police violence toward the Black community in the USA is illegitimate is a form of this dehumanisation. People are told by earnest voices that protest is either illegitimate or inappropriate – even if it is simply a sports player respectfully kneeling rather than standing during a national anthem.

We can see the same attempts to deny, trivialise or delegitimize the concerns among not only the Muslim community but other religious minorities in the face of proposed ‘registration’ of Muslims by the Trump presidency. The self-appointed serious people attempting to portray legitimate fear as unfounded or premature or ‘hysterical’ (a word itself that is rooted in attempting to delegitimise the emotional reactions of women).

So let me encapsulate it, the dehumanisation is this: for you (a person on the left or a person who sees themselves as an ally towards a range of groups facing systematic oppression or a person within one of those groups who thinks enough is enough) your feelings are merely a pose or virtue signalling or animalistic irrationality or inappropriately expressed (so not worthy of consideration) *AND* you are not being sufficiently considerate to the feelings of X, who may get angry at you as a consequence and whose feelings are genuine and should be respected, acknowledged and accommodated regardless of how they are expressed.

There are those who wish to perpetuate this meme, this lie, to advance a false narrative, even unto a review of a piece of fiction . In this case, the reviewer (Dave Truesdale of Tangent online) rigs his review so that the weight of his criticism can revolve around whether the author of the story has paid sufficient attention to a real-world case of police violence. By doing so the true thrust of the review is crystal clear. It is not the reviewer’s dissatisfaction with the story itself, but the advancement of an agenda.

That the reviewer frames his review around a comment by the author—the “unjust violent death of Michael Brown”—and then gives the reader of Truesdale review a totally different narrative that is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty. Truesdale’s review fails on literary grounds (the shift of focus from a fictional story about emotional pain in the face of perceived injustice and violence to Truesdale’s evaluation of whether the author is justified in feeling angry about a real-world event), and from an error in judgment by Truesdale in attempting to justify a judicial killing, which not only reveal the weakness in the review itself, but which highlights how the reviewer’s own strong prejudice in the matter clouded his thinking, and obstructed his capacity to give a professional review.

Consider what it could mean when a reviewer of fiction says:

 The author allowed strong emotions to bubble over, to overwhelm her desire (and ability) to pen a professionally written story with her obviously heartfelt message.

Note that this attack on the professionalism of the writer arises because the author of the story mentions the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in an afterword to the story. This becomes ‘strong emotions’ that ‘bubble over’ – that is a case of the second way of trying to delegitimize the feelings of the writer as being inappropriate to the space in which they are being expressed.

The story in question by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali is short and powerful and can be read here:

What Khaalidah appended to here story is this:

Author’s Note: The unjust violent death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer was the specific impetus for this story. I tried to imagine what his mother must’ve been feeling upon learning about her son’s death. This wasn’t difficult because I have a son as well. I tried to impart the feeling of rage and horror I, any mother, would feel upon learning that her son was taken away in such a violent horrific way.

What Dave Truesdale effectively identifies as unprofessional (and later ‘amateurish’) is that Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali calls the killing of Micahel Brown ‘unjust’. Indeed he goes further and says that  saying “unjust violent death of Michael Brown” is a lie. As he neither disputes the ‘death’ nor the ‘violent’ it is a necessary conclusion that Dave Truesdale regards the death of Michael Brown as just. He admits no possibility of nuance or perspective on this (e.g. that the shooting of an unarmed man by a police officer is inherently unjust) but rather spends his time trying to re-prosecute the details of the shooting. Truesdale displays a classic error of ethical reasoning by attempting to portray the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer as not an attempt at murder and then leaping to the conclusion that it was somehow JUST or right and proper. Even if we were to accept that somehow this killing was a tragic accident of circumstance and misunderstanding to the extent that the officer involved is absolved of blame (which itself is problematic), the intentional killing of a man innocent of a capital crime is not in any reasonable society JUST. Anger in the face of injustice is a virtue – even if (as Truesdale appears to contend) the source of that injustice was somehow unintended by accident.

[I will let readers draw the other obvious connections between Dave Truesdale’s own emotional reactions to what he regards as injustice towards himself in other circumstances]

Critical reviews of stories with diverse themes and viewpoints should be encouraged in literary magazines, especially when dealing with hard-hitting or controversial material—even more so in science-fiction—and by any and all practitioners. Controversial or heartful topics shouldn’t be above informed criticism. The more the merrier.

Dave Truesdale should hope that this amateurish review of his should be quickly forgotten (or perhaps used as an object lesson is what not to do), and I doubt that Tangent will live up to its obvious potential in future efforts by showing more skill and sophistication than shown here. The scalpel cuts cleaner than the axe but more importantly righteous anger is not unprofessional nor illegitimate.

Possible Cabinet Appointees Spotted


11/18/2016 by Timothy the Talking Cat: Lead Fake News Reporter

Likely appointees to the President Elect’s cabinet were spotted in the lobby of a Trump-brand hotel early yesterday. The sighting has led to excited speculation about the incoming government.


Governor Bob Sameguy is seen by many as a moderate choice. In his time as Governor he pulled back on election promises to make the State Metaphor “a boot stamping on a human face forever”.

His policies of rounding up members of school boards who didn’t agree with controversial textbook changes and locking them in dark oubliettes until they conceded that “cigarettes clear the lungs of toxins”, was seen by some as “controversial”. However, others praised Governor Sameguy’s tough, no-nonsense attitude.

His hobbies include standing in store front windows pretending to be a mannequin.

trt02 RZXT-1002.02 is a prototype human head life-support machine. Topped by the cloned head of Vladimir Putin, RZXT-1002.02 is the brain child of researchers employed by an anonymous Silicon Valley billionaire.

Partly a puppet of Russian hackers and partly a barely living testament to human hubris in the face of mortality, RZXT-1002.02 has been described as “a walking repudiation of medical ethics”.

His views of involuntary organ donation have been called ‘not mainstream GOP policy’ by some Republican critics. However, friends of RZXT-1002.02 say that he is deeply misunderstood and his habit of staring at people’s bellies and whispering ‘I need your pancreas to be whole’ are just playful hi-jinks.

trt03 Stephen ‘Steve’ Bollocks. Editor of the outspoken web magazine Boll-Ocks which has championed a new and more exciting take on conservatism with headlines like: “They Are All Whispering About You Behind Your Back” and “You Know in Your Heart All Your Friends Hate You” and “OBEY, OBEY, OBEY”.

Critics have repeatedly said about Steve that “He literally is one of those guys from that movie They Live! Seriously, look at him! Can’t you see it?” Steve takes this viewpoint in his stride. “I’m really just a good old fashioned libertarian. Using alien mind control techniques is just my way of expressing myself. I’m just trying to protect the first amendment by making sure SJWs are driven underground. Maybe into dark, dark caves.”

trt04 Eldritch inter-dimensional horror shows some of the complexity and depth of this set of picks. The commitment of the new government to the social views of the late H.P.Lovercraft are well known but by appointing Eldritch to the State Department, the new government will put the USA on track to better relations with the unspeakable horrors that wait at the gates of infinity to consume our minds.

Eldritch was regarded as an early possibility for a cabinet post but sources close to him had indicated that he had been undecided. “He finds some of the other choices to be a bit creepy,” a personal friend of Eldritch has indicated.

trt05 Mannequin Mike is an off-shelf product display unit for the use in the retail merchandising of menswear. Fully articulated, Mike can be put in a wide variety of poses and is a popular choice among many leading department stores.

Mike is thought to have come to the attention of the transition team, after a group of college students stole him and dressed him up a Rudolph Hess.

Mike’s hobbies include standing in state legislatures and pretending to be a GOP lawmaker.

trt06 Spiderling Nest #200 is the hollowed out husk of a human being, within which a silk encrusted ball of preternatural scions of a spider god, chitter and scitter and feast on the dark thoughts that surround them. In the presence of hatred they grow and grow, consuming dark emotions as if they were the internal juices of corpse-maggots.

Spiderling Nest #200 is hoping for Education or Environment positions. Regarded as the most sympathetic to multilateral trade deals, Spiderling Nest #200 has a reputation as a policy wonk and is said to be looking forward to playing racquet ball with Paul Ryan.

trt07 Literally, just a bunch of internet trolls standing on each others heads and then covered in a suit.

Possibly being considered as Secretary for Memes or as Head of Ethics in Political Journalism, some have suggested that what is actually just a set of clothes animated by Twitter eggs, might not pass Congressional approval. Others have called on Democrats lawmakers to “Give them a chance” and that to not endorse this walking comment section would be “censorship and anti-freedom and like, totally not fair”

Review: Class -wait, what? Mid-season finale already?

The peril of trying to import some US TV series sensibilities onto a UK television show is that those sensibilities are shaped by more than aesthetics. Notably, a UK ‘season’ is typically much shorter than a US one and in this case Class Season 1 is 8 episodes long. So Episode 4 is the middle of the season and that means a mid-movement rise to a crescendo.

Unfortunately, while Class is attempting to be different from Doctor Who but occupy a similar genre of SF/F-horror-weird, the Episode 4 & 5 two-parter inherits all of the basic Doctor Who problems.

Part 1 “Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart” starts fairly strong but suffers from the central character (April) being still relatively new to us. It is only three episodes ago that she became accidentally linked to the King of the Shadow Kin via her heart and the show really hasn’t had any time to develop that as an issue. Consequently, the growing link between April and the Shadow Kin has to be crammed into this episode. Likewise it was only in the previous episode that we learned that April’s mother lost the use of her legs in car crash that was a failed suicide attempt by April’s father – and that he had ended up in prison.

April’s story in Part 1 unfortunately feels rushed as a consequence. Her romance with Ram is also new from the previous episode, her relationship with her mother (even her mother as a character) is barely established and so the piling up crisis of her life in this episode feels more shallow than it should be.

Still the episode manages a degree of humour and emotional depth. The rising tension still works and the addition of a wholly separate threat (blood thirsty blossoms) adds to the feeling of crisis. The Charlie/Quill dynamic continues to be interesting and the additional threat is used to further explore how Charlie’s ethics are themselves flawed and tend towards moralistic rather than moral.

Part 2 “Brave-ish Heart” (Part 2) has a bad case of Doctor Who two-parter disease. The set up of Part 1 can’t really be delivered. The crowded story of Part 1 now needs to be padded out in Part 2 and Part 2 needs a visit to an alien planet and an epic duel – which the low-cost effects can’t deliver effectively.

Time is filled by the assembled characters and character’s parents spending a lot of time talking about what kind of people the characters are. That all feels a bit clumsy and it also pulls the tension out of the plot.

Not appallingly bad but definitely half-baked. To work, we needed to have spent more episodes learning about the character dynamics and a more gradual impact on April of the link to the Shadow Kin. The story itself didn’t have an additional 40 minutes of plot after the episode 1 cliff hanger and the budget wasn’t going to deliver the climactic duel.

And now I’ve caught up! New episode on Monday in Australia, Sunday in the UK and Americans have to wait because you’ve all been very bad people.