Picard: The Impossible Box

In the Borg’s first appearance there are neatly done details that add to how terrifying they are. Q-Who is a ‘Q’ episode as the name suggests and after briefly kidnapping Picard, he returns him to Ten-Forward where he and Guinan meet on-screen for the first time. Q is clearly alarmed by Guinan’s presence and vice-versa and while there is no epic battle it is made abundantly clear that Guinan has the capacity to at least attempt to take on Q with nothing more than her fingers. It’s only later that we learn that the Borg nearly completely wiped out her people. We don’t know what the Borg are at that point but by a kind of transitivity of bad-assness they are up there with the almost omnipotent Q. Even the end of the episode in which Picrad is forced to ask Q for help, the Borg are undefeated. Instead Q sends the Enterprise hurtling back to a region of space a long way from the Borg. No story featuring the Borg will end with them being that singularly frightening again (although they will have their moments mid-story) because after that point they will suffer defeats and setbacks and reveal vulnerabilities.

There’s no way of ever recapturing that level of fear, however Episode 6 of Picard “The Impossible Box” makes a solid attempt by making the Borg the stuff of nightmare. I should confess that as a child I had nightmares about the minotaur (perhaps why I am fascinated by labyrinths). There is something dreadful at the heart of the maze. The monster at the centre of the largest “impossible box” in the episode (the ruined Borg artefact, being picked over by the Romulans like Victorian archaeologists at Knossos) is long gone but it is fitting that the episode ends in the chamber of the Borg Queen.

Enter the maze, confront the monster, discover the prize. For both Jean-Luc and Soji the monster is fear and the prize is truth. Jean-Luc is at least aware of the nature of what he is confronting but on teleporting onto the cube he is overwhelmed by the horror of it all. His rescue by XBs (ex-Borgs) and the emotional meeting with Hugh (the former Borg from I, Borg) is genuinely moving. So much of this show has focused on Jean-Luc’s failed attempts to help others and the unhealed wounds of his career, personified by the emotional ruin of Raffi who even-so still pulls her shit-together to get Jean-Luc safely into Romulan space. Hugh provides a counter to that, the messy, morally compromised decisions Jean-Luc had made when the Enterprise rescued a wounded Borg drone have not ended in further misery but rather in Hugh leading a huge project to help the core victims of the Borg, who are the Borg themselves.

Soji has a far more dangerous journey. The customary flashback that opens the episode is replaced by Soji’s nightmare. Her personal subconscious maze are the corridors of her childhood home and at the centre the fear is personified by her father and some secret in her laboratory. Knowing what we know about Soji, we have reason to doubt all of this. She is a Blade Runner style replicant and like Rachael in that film, unaware of her true nature or that her dreams are not what they seem.

Narek, a Romulan so deceitful that he may be plotting against himself, understands that Soji’s dreams may serve a purpose as a means for Soji to resolve the discrepancies between the history she believes about herself and the reality of her past. Narek’s fidget toy is a Rubik cube like puzzle box which he uses as a metaphor for the process of unlocking Soji’s memories. The objective being the location of Soji’s home.

Exploiting, Soji’s emotional crisis as she discovers more and more about her past is false, Narek takes her to a genuine labyrinth. Devotional labyrinths are a feature of gothic cathedrals, a single twisted path that has only one route to follow. A feature of Romulan culture is a meditative practice that appears to follow a similar idea. A room with an inlaid path on the floor with turning points marked out in lanterns. Soji follows the path under Narek’s guidance, revealing the truth about her nature to herself and the features of her homeworld to Narek and his sister. At the centre of the labyrinth is not just the truth but also death and betrayal.

Possibly Narek’s murder attempt is intentionally flawed. In the true spirit of Romulans being the galaxies drama queens he delivers Soji’s death via his own puzzle cube. Yet he can’t not have known that any attempt to kill Soji would result in her turning into a super-powered android assassin. A plot hole or Narek aiming to cover himself while enabling Soji’s escape?

Labyrinths have another feature: they are compact. They hold a long journey within a small space. The Borg build their ships as cubes or spheres for similar reasons, they are both shapes that within limitations maximise what they can contain. Likewise, this is an episode that defies its running time. Somehow it does all of the above and yet finds time to give us insights into the rest of the cast. Chris Rios, Raffi and Agnes all get moments and insights into their character. Elnor does what Elnor does best: be the nicest, sweetest character in the show and a machine of death.

I’m not expecting the following episodes of Picard to be quite as good as this one but they won’t need to be. The show worked its way to its centre and it delivered a wonderfully paced story full of insights and emotion. I wanted to applaud.

Stray observations

  • The shot of Picard staring through the display at the image of Locutus so that their faces merge was nicely done but…it’s a cheat. The photo he would have been looking at would needed to have been reversed for it to look that way.
  • Elnor is the Tilly of Picard.
  • I thought Agnes was going to confess. It’s hard to like her given her actions but she is clearly suffering. Elnor’s observation about her being haunted was also very nicely done.
  • I had given up on the whole Chris-is-a-hologram but having watched more of Voyager, I note that the Doctor had a mobile emitter that allowed him to go other places. Just saying. In the final episode of Voyager, the Doctor (now called Joe) is casually wandering around Earth and has also got married to a non-hologram.
  • Also, apparently the gizmo that Picard escapes via appeared in Voyager as well but I haven’t seen that episode.

The Next Few Days Are Nebula Shorts Days

Scattered among Picard and Doctor Who reviews will be reviews of the Nebula Finalist Short Stories. Just like last year but without the odd interruption from a shouty man.

The finalists are:

More BookBub numbers

In the comments to the previous post on this topic, Johan P raised some really interesting points. I’d said rather glibly that the categories with more subscribers will obviously have more free-downloads and sales. As Johan points out this is counter-intuitive as the figures given are AVERAGES i.e. (I assume) the number of downloads/sales per book rather than the total number of downloads or sales in those categories. However, it really is true that the bigger categories have bigger downloads/sales but I haven’t explained it properly and I did use misleading terms like ‘crowded’.

The graph plots the totals of free-downloads + discounted book sales (horizontal axis) against number of subscribers. The relationship is quite strong. I plotted a line of best fit courtesy of Excel. Now a linear relationship is probably not the best way of describing the data. I assume that underneath all of this is some sort of power-law type thing going on with sales (i.e. some books sell HUGE amounts and shape the averages accordingly). How that all plays when comparing subscribers to sales would require more detailed data than we have. Even so, the line gives use something to compare the data we do have and an r-squared of 74% is enough to justify my claim that more subscribers=more downloads/sales as a broad statement.

Flipping this round, we get a different way of looking at the data: which genres deviate most from that line and in which direction? If I’m right and the sales figures are distorted by bestsellers, then a newbie author should stay clear from those genres ABOVE the line because these genres have more subscribers than we would predict from the number of downloads/sales. Genres below the line have more sales/downloads than we would predict from the number subscribers and that sounds like a better bet or at least those averages maybe closer to a ‘typical’ value rather than a distorted average.

Here’s a similar graph but this time looking at sales only and unfortunately done using Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet rather than Excel:

There are many ways we can quantify how much a data point deviates from that line but within the limits of the tools on this laptop, I’m just going to find the difference between the actual number of subscribers and the number predicted by the equation of the line. Negative is better here I think but I’ve sailed off into generating numbers whose meaning is unclear. I *think* that the genres near the top are less impacted by a few bestseller and the books near the bottom are more impacted but…I wouldn’t swear to that and I’m just guessing.

Women’s Fiction-1,166,549
Historical Romance-573,940
Christian Fiction-451,331
Erotic Romance-427,329
Romantic Suspense-418,864
Christian Nonfiction-397,638
True Crime-392,253
Paranormal Romance-391,022
Historical Fiction-372,395
Advice and How-To-358,251
Supernatural Suspense-347,481
Politics and Current Events-213,950
Dark Romance & Erotica-186,103
American Historical Romance-153,023
Time Travel Romance-62,258
Religion and Spirituality-55,485
Science Fiction-36,711
Chick Lit-6,255
Literary Fiction104,064
African American Interest104,971
Contemporary Romance115,599
Middle Grade122,818
New Adult Romance209,591
Cozy Mysteries309,753
Historical Mysteries317,139
General Nonfiction499,596
Psychological Thrillers600,214
Biographies and Memoirs631,754
Action and Adventure697,134
Teen and Young Adult968,973
Crime Fiction1,047,144

Catching Up

So I took a few days off aside from blog posts about beer, Picard and Dr Who and there’s a few things I missed that I probably would have covered if I’d been paying attention.

  1. So I did already catch-up on Dave Freer’s odd post on BookBub numbers (see here) but if I must check out Dave’s column’s again, it would be remiss of me not to point out his piece on the Covid-19 virus and how he spins that: “All those Cons the mean girls of SF and SJW spent so much politicking effort to control… may go on hiatus, if not die.” Hmmm. (https://madgeniusclub.com/2020/02/24/some-thoughts-on-pandemics-and-their-impact-on-writers/ )
  2. Nebula finalists have been announced and Cora has an excellent summary here: http://corabuhlert.com/2020/02/20/some-comments-on-the-2019-nebula-award-finalists/ I’ll do reviews of the short fiction starting soon.
  3. Larry Correia is apparently blogging again by hurling invective at his keyboard. Not going to link to it as it is the usual libertarian-hates-free-speech nonsense but a side effect is assorted trolls come out of the woodwork and get all agitated. There’s a sort of side backstory here though that I’ll get to in the next point.
  4. Mad Sad Pups. The Sad Pups (see above) are mad at Mary Robinette Kowal mainly because they need to be mad at somebody because Larry is worked up. This is a tad convoluted….see below

Brad Torgersen was Guest of Honour at the Life, the Universe & Everything writer’s workshop (LTUE) in Utah. LTUE last year had a pro-Sad Puppy presentation (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/02/17/back-to-the-revised-history-of-a-debarkle/ ) but in the past has had presenters such as Mary Robinette Kowal (via Writing Excuses). The current spin by the Sad Pups is that she was totes unprofessional and had a loud boycott and a rival event because Brad T was GoH. Unpacking that proved interesting. Back in January MRK posted this Tweet in a conversation about Courtney Milan etc:

So…backtracking. MRK was original invited by LTUE to be GoH, turned them down and suggested alternatives (three black women). LTUE chose Brad Torgersen instead. No wonder Brad (and hence Larry) was feeling a bit sensitive about things and needed to very loudly assure everybody how great Brad was.

The stuff about MRK running a rival workshop was because the FutureScapes workshops at Utah Valley University (which she’s been involved in since 2016) where on that weekend. This is all being drummed up into a thing in Puppy circles about how unprofessional etc etc. Because they never link to anything and avoid details, the claim just becomes free-floating and hence in the comments sections of Puppy outlets it’s become a legend about how MRK tried to boycott Brad Torgersen out of spite, even though the actual facts are quite different.

[ETA the LTUE website appears to be down, hence why I couldn’t find links to it. Looks like it’s had a malware attack.]

Some Book Bub numbers and petunias

My attention was drawn to a set of numbers from BookBub available here: https://www.bookbub.com/partners/pricing?fbclid=IwAR1mMlf6nO5oAS5QN0pD-9V-NRAxkdNz6AQMNOJurGT1NnD_DQEjiPzOEL0

Some major caveats before we go into them. Firstly these are for marketing purposes and as they say “averages are based on historical data, but are only meant as a reference and are not guaranteed”. The book figures also only apply to free downloads and discounted book sales. Lastly, these are BookBubs numbers and other retailers of books may show different patterns.

A broader caveat to add when considering any kind of average sales within books (or other media) is the dreaded power-law distribution. A small number of books account for a large number of sales and conversely a large number of books account have small sales individually but account for a lot of sales together. The arithmetic mean has many flaws but it is particularly flawed in such circumstances. One huge hit (e.g. The Da Vinci Code) will have an outsized impact on the average book sales even if other books are selling poorly.

Tables and things after the fold…

Continue reading “Some Book Bub numbers and petunias”

Short Review: Doctor Who – Ascension of the Cybermen

Part 1 of this two part finale to the season is very, very much a ‘part one’ sort of story. As a single episode it is barely coherent and difficult to evaluate. The most pertinent observation is that there is a lot going on, including a fascinating side story set in 1950s Ireland about a foundling who grows up to join the Garda.

Like the over-wrought Lone Cyberman, the episode also has the appearance of chunks of other stories welded together. In particular there are elements from the Utopia/Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords triple that ended season 3 of nu-who.

I’m going to leave the review at that for the moment until next week and I’ve seen the whole thing.

Exciting* Dragon Award News**

In a stunning development, the Dragon Award website is exactly the same as it was on January 30. Nominations will be open soon (they opened in November 2019). Stay tuned for more exciting* developments**.

*[no guarantee users will experience any level of excitement.]

**[no actual news or development are implied by the use of these words.]

Trek Tuesday (but it’s Monday): The Measure of a Man & The Offspring

With the return of Bruce Maddox on Picard, I thought it was time to re-visit his previous appearance. I thought he’d been in more than one episode but while he is name-checked in other episodes, this is his only appearance. I thought he’d also appeared in the season 3 episode The Offspring (the one where Data makes a daughter) but rather like Harry Mudd not being in Trouble with Tribbles, a different character (Admiral Haftel) plays a similar role (and follows a similar arc).

What strikes me on re-watching is how weak the episode is but this is still The Next Generation finding its feet. Later episodes (for example the fore-mentioned The Offspring) make better use of the wider cast, present more subtle dilemmas and have a greater emotional impact.

Even so, The Measure of a Man still stands out as a milestone in the TNG’s attempt at humanist plots: presenting ethical challenges as the driving force of a story. Even for TNG, this is an episode that is mainly people gathering in meeting rooms but it is powered by the basic unfairness of the situation.

Admiral Nakamura brings Bruce Maddox aboard the Enterprise giving the impression that there is a routine matter to be dealt with. Maddox reveals he is there to take possession of Data so that he conduct some experiments on positronic brains with the hope of making more synthetic people like Data.

Data is sceptical about Maddox’s methods and is concerned that his offer to back-up Data’s memories will be insufficient to preserve him as a person. We’ll fall quickly into confused terms about ‘life’ in this episode but what Data is pointing at is the idea of death as a loss of identity. Data can be literally switched off (Riker does so later in court) which for a living organism would be effectively death but as he retains his self when switched back on, he is not dead-and-gone. It’s a distinction that the recent Star Wars film The Rise of Skywalker, fails to make when C3PO has to face a wipe of his memories. To Maddox’s credit, he has thought about this but purely from the pragmatics of wanting Data to be functional.

The issue appears to blind side everybody from the crew, to Picard to Starfleet in general. For the episode to work, it requires nobody to have really thought through what Data’s status is. To the crew he is a colleague and hence a defacto person with the rights of a person (but this is a logical implication that is implied by their behaviour rather than one they have thought about). To Starfleet, Data is equipment.

Clearly this can’t be the case and Maddox (who we are told argued against Data being graduated from Starfleet academy) is the only one who appears to have been consistent in his position. At some point Starfleet gave Data a rank and a job (and crew quarters and a uniform and the authority to give orders etc). The question of Data’s status has already been established by Starfleet, what we are seeing is an attempt to undo his status.

The matter is taken up by the JAG of the local starbase Phillipa Louvois, who had prosecuted Picard in a court martial in his past and who regards Picard as very sexy. I think the we-hate-each-other-but-want-each-other aspect of the Picard/Louvois aspect of the plot just comes over very odd, as if the writers were just begin to grapple with the idea that Picard could be sexy one of the Enterprise crew but weren’t sure how.

The trial is simply a farce. Riker is bullied into being the prosecution by Louvois, even though Riker is manifestly unsuitable and has an inherent bias. The pretext is that he’s the only officer available even though we had just met an admiral earlier. Riker argues that Data is a machine and pushes Maddox’s line that Data is not sentient i.e. is not self aware and lacks inner feelings. Neither Maddox nor Riker address why that matters, after all lots of animals are sentient in this sense but are not normally accorded human rights. That Data can’t demonstrate he has an inner life is an absurd argument for a Federation that has encountered a diverse range of aliens (none of whom we hope have been declared property). There is zero case to answer and Riker’s demonstration that Data can bend steel and has an off switch is all irrelevant.

However, for plot purposes Picard has to regard Riker’s argument as devastating. He seeks advice from Guinan, who makes the only observations of real depth in the episode. She points to the desire of society for disposable people — people to do the dirty work, whose inner lives can be ignored. She lets Picard make the leap to the concept of slavery and even plays it down. This is treated as revelation by Picard and it re-invigorates his defence but oddly he doesn’t re-iterate Guinan’s point in the second half of the trial. Instead he points to Data’s keep sakes and his obvious sentimental side including a small hologram of the deceased Tasha Yar.

Data’s performance of sentiment sways the judge and even sways Maddox, who for the first time uses “he” rather than “it” in describing Data. While moving, this is also absurd. Picard and Data have not disproven Maddox’s point which remains as valid or as wrong as it did before hand. Maddox’s hypothesis would be that when people perceive feelings from Data they are firstly projecting their own feelings and secondly Data is simply mimicking human interaction. That was already his position and nothing Picard did disproved it. The judge, on the other hand, should have rejected Maddox’s argument precisely because it could equally applied to aliens. Heck, Vulcans TRY not to show emotion and a skilled Vulcan should FAIL Picard’s approach to show that they were sentient.

We can forgive Riker for not making use of a simpler demonstration of a lack of interiorty for Data — calling Troi to stand and have her testify that she can’t sense emotions from Data or simply have Data state that he doesn’t have feelings*. Likewise, Riker could have dragged everybody to the holodeck and demonstrated that ‘feelings’ can be simulated. Picard could have countered with examples of beings that were weird energies that could possess machines or entities that were just a big puddle of evil. If puddles can have a moral dimension (all be it a evil one) then why not very human machines?

The Offspring feels like an attempt to do The Measure of a Man but better. The basic situation is similar: Starfleet wants android technology and Data’s rights are in the way. Instead of an admiral bringing Maddox along, we get a single character Admiral Haftel. The extra layer is Lal, a daughter constructed by Data. The dilemma is shifted a little. Underneath is the same issue (Starfleet wants to make synthetic people and doesn’t really regard Data as a proper person) but the situation allows multiple characters to dress up their issues with complications.

Specifically Lal is regarded as a child and so Admiral Haftel can cast his desire to have her taken to a research facility as care for her well being. Unlike in The Measure of a Man, there is no talk of disassembling Lal for research only studying her development. Likewise Data’s rights here are those of a parent and placed more ambiguously as it requires a genuine extension of the concept of ‘parent’ to see that this really is what Data is to Lal.

This extension of a concept to establish a moral status is nicely done. Picard is initially angry with Data for constructing Lal and he also attempts to persuade Data to obey Haftel. Picard has to educate himself and reconsider his own concepts in the course of the episode in a way that The Measure of a Man can’t match.

There are clumsy moments. Gender is handled in a poor way that is almost positive (Data makes Lal gender neutral so she can can choose her own gender expression later) but which trips over its own feet with Lal saying she is “incomplete” negatively without a gender.

The greatest failure of the episode is a lack of a moral resolution. As Lal was not going to be a new regular cast member, the story has to end with Lal no longer on board the Enterprise. The option taken by the story is for Lal to die tragically, as she begins to develop emotions which cause a cascade of failures in her positronic brain (ironically demonstrating that for the purposes of the court judgement in the earlier episode, androids can have feelings and that Data does not have them yet).

Haftel assists Data in trying to save Lal but neither of them can rescue her brain.

It is a sentimental episode with its own take on robotic lack of social awareness. Riker is off the ship for most of the episode primarily to set up a joke where Lal is serving in the bar having just learned about kissing and forces a big kiss on Riker’s lips, thus narrowly avoiding the creepier joke of Riker hitting on the new bartender who the show has gone to some lengths to establish is a child.

There is a power even in inadequate stories. The Measure of a Man really does no justice to its topic and while The Offspring offers more depth, it too avoids examining the ideas too deeply. However, both set off chains of thought around the issues that they sketch out. Some of those chains are dead-ends (the issues aren’t “life” nor “sentience”) but even considering the failings is thought provoking. As always with The Next Generation, episodes were gifted with a strong cast that could add depth with small gestures. There’s a well done moment when Maddox first appears on the bridge and Data is at the controls — he gives just a little nervous side glance at Maddox, establishing before we’ve been told that Data is why Maddox is there, that they have a past history and that Data has reason to be concerned. Acting! Or how people create the impression to other people that a fictional being has an inner life!

*[I don’t think this is true based on how Brent Spiner plays Data but it is a claim Data keeps making.]

Picard: Stardust City Rag

Any complaints about the slow pacing of Picard episodes fall apart with this episode which is all about stuff happening and often gory & disturbing stuff. We are off to Freecloud, the physical equivalent of the Galaxy’s Dark Web, full of criminal gangs and dubious trade practices. However, this is an episode full of plot twists and stuff happening, so big spoilers in this review after the fold.

You are crossing the neutral zone into spoiler space