Category: Reviews

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.

twine01

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.

twine04

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.

Review: Empire Games by Charles Stross

Stross’s older Merchant Princes series gets a revival in Empire Games. Whereas Merchant Princess was a story in search of a genre, starting with what appeared to be a portal fantasy and then running off into a story of shenanigans in a family business (with bonus parallel world), Empire Games adheres more closely to a spy thriller. Stross has played Len Deighton pastiche for laughs in the Laundry novels (or at least on of them) and the ALLCAPS project names are overt reminders. However, Stross is aiming for a more sensible tone as he sets up a cold war involving parallel universes so that he can have a cold war thriller in a near-future America.

In an odd similarity to Peter F Hamilton’s recent novel, Stross also uses some science fiction devices to create a kind of ‘soviet-punk’ sub-genre. In the later novels of the Merchant Princes series, the main character had found herself in an alternative-universe North America run by a hidebound British Empire in exile on the verge of a leftist revolution. In Empire Games, the revolution has happened and technology has leapt forward thanks to the world-walking remnants of the ‘Clan’ creating a collectivist industrial society with nuclear weapons and the beginning of a space program.

Meanwhile, what was our reality in Merchant Princes has now become its own splintered reality. The USA is aware and deeply paranoid about neighbouring parallel universes and is intent on tracking down the few remaining Clan members left. At the same time, the US is busy exploiting the natural resources of neighbouring realities.

Into the mix is Rita, a young woman with an untapped capacity to move between worlds, a secret intelligence agency hidden within the Department of Homeland Security, an ageing East German spy and hints that Scientologists are up to something.

No real surprises are offered but it is as well executed as you might expect from Stross. Laundry fans will miss the humour but should enjoy the intrigue. For those hoping for some more science fictional content, we learn nothing more about the world-walkers’ ability or about the mysteriously advanced civilisation that has left behind trans-dimensional ruins in one reality. Instead, Stross uses this book to re-establish these mysteries from previous books.

I guess the book could just about stand by itself but reading the original series is probably wise. Having said that, there is enough recapping of past events to ensure you don’t have to re-read Merchant Princes to catch up if you haven’t read them recently.

SFWA announces the Nebulas

Award nomination season is upon us. A time when fandom puts on new fashions and reads entrails and mixes metaphors. And to warm things up here are the Science Fiction (and silent F) Fantasy Writers of America (or Anywhere else) Nebula Award nominees! With my comments appended:

Novel

  • All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
  • Borderline, Mishell Baker (Saga)
  • The Obelisk Gate, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
  • Ninefox GambitYoon Ha Lee (Solaris US; Solaris UK)
  • Everfair, Nisi Shawl (Tor)

No surprise with All the Birds in the Sky, Obelisk Gate or Ninefox Gambit. I thought City of Blades might be on the list.

I haven’t read Borderline, so that’s a nice extra to look out for. Likewise, Everfair wasn’t really on my radar (I recognise the cover, which had caught my eye). Too many books and not enough time to read them.

In terms of a diverse set of authors, that’s a notable mix that I hope won’t be notable in the future because we’ll just expect a broad mix of voices. Different genders, male and female, cis and trans. Different ethnic backgrounds but having said that, quite US heavy (all born in the US?).

Novella

  • Runtime, S.B. Divya (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson (Tor.com Publishing)
  • The Ballad of Black Tom, Victor LaValle (Tor.com Publishing)
  • Every Heart a Doorway, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “The Liar”, John P. Murphy (F&SF)
  • A Taste of Honey, Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor.com Publishing)

Or a category that screams “You haven’t caught up on your novella reading”. Heavy on Tor.com entries – which isn’t a surprise given their output of novellas. A Taste of Honey, Every Heart a Doorway and The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe are sitting impatiently on Mount To Be Read. Three other new names I’m not familiar with to catch up with as well.

Shorter fiction categories:

Novelette      

  • “The Long Fall Up”, William Ledbetter (F&SF)
  • “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea”, Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed)
  • “Red in Tooth and Cog”, Cat Rambo (F&SF)
  • “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories”, Jason Sanford (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
  • The Jewel and Her Lapidary, Fran Wilde (Tor.com Publishing)
  • “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay”, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny)

Short Story

  • “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies”, Brooke Bolander (Uncanny)
  • “Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit Wood)
  • “Sabbath Wine”, Barbara Krasnoff (Clockwork Phoenix 5)
  • “Things With Beards”, Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld)
  • “This Is Not a Wardrobe Door”, A. Merc Rustad (Fireside Magazine)
  • “A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers”, Alyssa Wong (Tor.com)
  • “Welcome to the Medical Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station│Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed)

Now an increasing sense of growing Catholic guilt redirected into the quasi-secular pursuit of fiction is growing. I mean I knew I hadn’t read enough because of yet to be filled spaces on my Hugo ballot but….Like novella, there is stuff here I’d *meant* to have read already.

I did really like “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong and “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander but there are other sources of stories beyond Uncanny! Talons has gathered some marmite reactions – I guess because it is so short that it doesn’t have much narrative but I really liked the punchy anger of the piece, rather like a story refusing to be a different story.

Hugo nominations close soon: must read some more short fiction!

No suprises in the Bradbury (Dramatic Presentation) section

Bradbury

  • Arrival, Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Screenplay by Eric Heisserer, 21 Laps Entertainment/FilmNation Entertainment/Lava Bear Films/Xenolinguistics
  • Doctor Strange, Directed by Scott Derrickson, Screenplay by Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill, Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
  • Kubo and the Two Strings, Directed by Travis Knight, Screenplay by Mark Haimes & Chris Butler; Laika Entertainment
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Directed by Gareth Edwards, Written by Chris Weitz & Tony Gilroy; Lucusfilm/ Walt Disney Studio Motion Pictures
  • Westworld: ‘‘The Bicameral Mind’’, Directed by Jonathan Nolan, Written by Lisa Joy & Jonathan Nolan; HBO
  • Zootopia, Directed by Byron Howard, Rich Moore, & Jared Bush, Screenplay by Jared Bush & Phil Johnston; Walt Disney Pictures/Walt Disney Animation Studios

Haven’t seen the Westworld TV series. Still haven’t seen Kubo and the Two Strings 😦

Norton Award (the YA award)

Norton

  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon, Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers)
  • The Star-Touched Queen, Roshani Chokshi (St. Martin’s)
  • The Lie Tree, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan UK; Abrams)
  • Arabella of Mars, David D. Levine (Tor)
  • Railhead, Philip Reeve (Oxford University Press; Switch)
  • Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies, Lindsay Ribar (Kathy Dawson Books)
  • The Evil Wizard Smallbone, Delia Sherman (Candlewick)

I haven’t read any of these so far but some interesting titles in the mix.

Review: Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

I could have sworn I’d written this review already but apparently not. So a bit less than fresh, as I read this several weeks ago. Sorry.

It is the ancient future! Humanity lives among the stars on strange space habitats of unfathomable age, populated with other aliens, inscrutable technology and eccentric robots.

Between the artificial worlds, space ships catch the solar winds on the massive sails and plough the depths of space in search of treasure! Secreted across the trade routes, booby-trapped citadels hold incredible secrets – alien technologies, some benign and some effectively cursed. Humans with special talents read the thoughts of eldritch skulls that speak across the vast distances between worlds.

Humans with special talents read the thoughts of eldritch skulls that speak across the vast distances between worlds. While other humans follow a more traditional profession – PIRACY!

Yes, swash your buckles and hoist your mainsail! This is a bloody tale of pirates and revenge on the high seas, um, spaceways.

Reynolds is a dab-hand at space opera and Revenger helps show his range. The strange habitats and deep future have a little in common with his book House of Suns but otherwise, this is an unusual setting for Reynolds – with a bit of a Gene Wolfe feel and a classic pirate story of an innocent who learns to become a woman to be feared.

There are twists but few surprises as if Reynolds wants to fit in everybody’s expectations of a dark tale of one sailor’s encounter with a notorious, almost mythical pirate ship. The setting is decidedly space fantasy with technology that is unapologetically close to magic.

Dark escapism told impeccably well.

Is Hidden Figures Science Fiction?

I’ve actually written a longer piece on this film, which is still unfinished and may be unrescuable because of far too many tangents (less obvious ones including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a toilet, and the nasty rightwing Christian ‘Focus on the Family’ group). In the meantime, this is an attempt to address the question I intended to address in the other piece but never actually reached. Somehow Ludwig Wittengstein* ended up in this one. Sorry, he gets everywhere.

Continue reading

Review: Hidden Figures

Go see @HiddenFigures ! No, really you’ll love it if you have a soul. Heck, I don’t have a soul and I loved it.

Firstly and primarily, the central trio Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe have such a sparkly chemistry together that they could have easily carried a lesser film. Yet each in their turn bring life and depth to the individual stories of the three women.

It’s the early 1960s and the USA is playing catch-up in the space race. A ‘computer’ at this time is a person (primarily women) employed to do manual calculations. Katherine Goble is a mathematical (and arithmetical) prodigy, Dorothy Vaughan is the unrecognised supervisor of the ‘coloured’ computers and Mary Jackson is a frustrated engineer – unable to access the qualifications she needs to be recognised because of the segregation of Virginia’s schools. Over a backdrop of growing cold war tensions and civil rights struggles, they each play a vital role in NASA’s attempt to get a man into orbit.

Yes, the social politics, the gender politics, the race politics, the orbital mechanics and the algebra all get heavily simplified for the purposes of plot BUT you get a film with all those things in them that simplifies without trivialising. There is only one scene where I winced (Jim Parsons explaining what going into orbit means to a bunch of NASA scientists) but plot exposition appeared to demand it.

And mathematics is heroic! Taraji Henson is utterly convincing as a mathematician tasked with solving the problems of safely bringing an astronaut back from orbit and there is some actual maths shown.

Yes, it’s a feel good movie but what it offers is the chance to believe that three women can solve complex problems by using their brains and tenacity – and that’s an idea I’d like to feel good about.