Review of “Fandom for Robots” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad

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This story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards, and was published by Uncanny Magazine. Prasad is Singaporean. This review includes spoilers.

Computron is an obsolete robot built in 1957 that resides at the Simak Robotics Museum. Every day he appears in the Robotics Then and Now show and answers questions. He also answers emails from school children, but otherwise has no duties. After a girl comments that he looks like Cyro, a character in the Japanese anime Hyperdimension Warp Record, Computron discovers online bulletin boards and then fan fiction. Taken by the story of Cryo and his human companion Ellison, Computron tries his hand at fan fiction and eventually finds a collaborator who wants to produce a comic. There are plenty of resources at the museum. Should Computron provide these for use?

Good points: This is a sweet story of how an obsolete robot with no emotion circuits can still find happiness and fulfillment creating art with a human girl. It seems to be spot on as far as popular culture and online boards go. Plus, we get a subtle reflection of how Computron sees himself romanticized in Cryo. It’s very touching, and reflects humans, moreso than robots, and how they find acceptance in online society, regardless of being a little different.

Not so good points: Of course, this is rationally impossible. Computron might be sentient, but he’s got no emotion circuits so he won’t understand happiness and fulfillment. I don’t quite buy that his creator stumbled on the sentience, but was unable to reproduce it. Also, there’s no really serious conflict here, which leaves the story with plot events but no depth of content. We get a little bit of narration and interaction on the boards, but the humans there are just screen names, so we know nothing about them, or the setting, or the world where this takes place.

Regardless of the emotion circuits issue, I was pretty taken with the main character. I’d love to see this developed further, where Computron gets in trouble for passing along the museum’s schematics and we actually get to know some of his online buddies.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse

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This story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula, the 2018 Hugo Award and the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Apex Magazine. Roanhorse is biracial Native American and African American and lives in New Mexico. This review contains spoilers.

Jesse Turnblatt is a Native American working at a business that provides “authentic” Native American experiences to tourists through virtual reality. His boss isn’t really concerned about how his employees feel about the offerings, but Jesse really needs to keep his job, as a recent bout of unemployment has strained his marriage. Luckily, most people just want a simple Vision Quest. Jesse has a customer, so he enters virtual reality, presenting himself as a noble savage with muscled abs, and goes into his routine. However, this doesn’t seem to be what the customer wants. Instead, the man is waiting for him at the neighborhood bar afterward. The man looks white, but thinks he’s part Cherokee, and just seems to want to talk about Native Americans. They become friends, meeting a couple of times a week at the bar to talk. Then Jesse catches cold, and when he recovers, he finds “White Wolf” has taken over his job, his friends and his household. Jesse falls into depression, goes on a bender. Is there anything he can do about this?

So, the big question here is about what’s reality and what’s not. It might be hard to figure out, but Roanhorse has given us plenty of clues: a quote from Sherman Alexie at the beginning and a disconnect at the end that suggests it’s VR. But then, it’s the author’s reality, too. You can read this as fantasy, if you want, as reality that’s suddenly dropped into surrealism, or as SF, where it’s all just a virtual reality experience. Whichever, Roanhorse’s message is clear.

Good points: It’s very well constructed, and the meaning slips up on you gradually. There’s a feeling of foreboding about it when Jesse starts meeting the guy in the bar, so you suspect things aren’t going to go well.

Not so good points: This is a social justice message, but the narrative seems mainly intellectual, and it only skims along the surface. It’s not deep or disturbing enough to represent the disadvantages Native Americans actually face (or worse, have faced in the past). Roanhorse let us off the hook at the end.

Four stars.

Review of “Utopia LOL?” By Jaime Wahls

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award, published by Strange Horizons. According to the biography with the story, Wahls works for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a nonprofit corporation that does basic research on the question of how to make super-intelligent machines safe and beneficial. This review contains spoilers.

Kit is the Tour Guide to the Future and full of enthusiasm for her job. When Charlie is thawed out after “like billions” of years in cold storage, she is there to towel him off, get his cancer fixed and give him an introduction to life as it is now. She introduces him to the AI Allocator and offers him simulated Universes to live in. Charlie is unhappy with life as a bird and rejects Kit’s recommendation that he try floor tiles, and chooses a LOTR universe instead. After a few years, Charlie is bored silly, and Kit and the Allocator have to find something else to fill his need to be productive. Would Charlie be interested in a star probe?

In case you can’t tell from the summary, this is humor. Kit is a total airhead, and likes to be a floor tile because it allows her to form complete thoughts. The story also pillories social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other unproductive devotees of popular culture. There is also a serious side, as the Allocator is in charge of providing for humanity. It is constrained by its programming and facing the issue of overpopulation and the ongoing destruction of Earth. If they’re all like Kit, maybe humanity is well on the way to self-destruction, too. The stock of humans in cryostorage represents a resource to deal with these crises. This is pretty clear, but then the story goes off the rails into vagueness at the end when they start talking about a memory wipe for Kit.

I didn’t understand this, so I went looking for other opinions. The best explanation I found was that Kit is valuable for her total air headedness and her enthusiasm, and Allocator wants to preserve this for its next candidate for revival. Presumably this is because of its programming, which requires that humans have to want something from it and provide affirmative consent to its recommendations, and that Kit has a predictable effect on the old-timers. This doesn’t quite hold water for me.

Humans in this future (except the cold storage ones) are post-Singularity, only an uploaded digitized consciousness. I can accept that Allocator’s resources are running low to support the human population, but I don’t see how a digitized consciousness can reproduce at all, much less at an unmanageable rate. Also, I don’t see how Allocator can memory-wipe a digitized consciousness without altering what she is. Couldn’t it just produce a disposable copy? And what’s the deal with sending just one person off on a star probe? If they find a great place, how is one person going to procreate? Cloning? Who’s going to be in charge of this? Hm.

Regardless of the niggling logical failures, this is a hugely successful story because of the scope and humor.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards, and was published in Uncanny Magazine.

The doorperson takes the dime of curious patrons. If she determines you are worthy, she will tell you how to open the panel and let you have a look and a souvenir. Past the Entrance is A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed, A Radium Room, A Room of Objects That Are Really People, Our Curator’s Special Collection, A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp, The Hall of Criminals and Saints and then the Exit. Can you get out of the exhibit whole and in once piece?

Nothing is clear in this story. The scenario sounds like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the bizarre and unusual. There are whispers and giggles in the shadows, a few clues in the narrator’s account. She isn’t especially reliable, but we gather that the curator is missing and the freaks are now running the show and looking for revenge. Enter at your own risk.

Good points: I would guess this falls into the category of experimental lit. You have to study it, something like a puzzle, to put together things like comments about beautiful hands, sticky carpets and the taste of brine. It’s also very surreal and atmospheric, the prose creating images and sensory experiences something like an art installation.

Not so good point: This is pretty much just an experience, like an art installation. There’s not really a story here—no characterization, no setting, no plot, no conflict—only revelation. Because of the puzzle quality, it’s pretty opaque, too. There are a couple of events/situations in there that I can guarantee as pretty likely, but I’m not really sure.

Most likely appreciated by literary horror fans.

Three stars. It’s very literary, but I can’t recommend it as a story.

P.S. This story was the recipient of the 2018 Eugie Foster Award presented at DragonCon.

Review of “The Last Novelist (or A Dead Lizard in the Yard)” by Matthew Kressel

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com.

Reuth Bryan Diaso is an elderly novelist who is suffering from a fatal illness. He arrives on Ardabaab, where he hopes to finish his last novel before he dies. There he is discovered by Fish, a girl-child who becomes totally fascinated by what he is doing. He takes her on as an apprentice, showing her how he writes with a pen and paper, how to draw, and how he sets the type and prints his novels on a fabricated press. She is talented as an artist and begins a set of drawings to illustrate his novel. However, her mother finds out about the relationship and calls out Diaso as a predator. He is heartbroken, and his work on the novel falters. Will he ever see the child again? Will he finish the book before he dies?

Good points: This is artfully constructed. The narrative and characters are absorbing and the imagery is enjoyable. From the dead lizard at the beginning to the final resolution, we’re caught by Diaso’s story, where he putters with a story (mirroring his own?) and enjoys passing along a dying craft to one final young fan. There’s a nice tension in the plot when her mother intervenes, and a satisfying resolution. This is also metafiction, of course, about writing a novel. (I can see this could make it very popular with a group of writers.) We get excerpts of the novel sandwiched within the narrative. We also get nostalgia about the old days when real writers used a pen and paper and real printers set type, got ink on their fingers and produced high-quality hardbound novels. We get magical world-building and bits of Yiddish dialect. The elephant in the room Kressel has addressed is how men can’t be friends with children anymore. The dead lizard is a really nice touch.

Not so good points: The world building used some bad science and produced some pretty fantastical effects. I really enjoyed the exotica, but it was a little jarring—breaking me out of the story for brief moments. I also thought this was a bit too overtly sentimental and a bit too meta for a general audience. I can’t complain too much, though, as it looks like Kressel is a publisher and editor as well as a writer. He may well be feeling what he wrote.

Four stars.

Review of “Carnival Nine” by Caroline M. Yoachim

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards. It was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Zee has a silver key in her back that the maker uses to wind her up every day. She has a strong mainspring and so a lot of energy. She lives in Closet City with her Papa, who never has any turns left over for adventure because he works so hard to help Granny and Gramps. When the carnival comes to town, Zee meets a carny boy named Vale. On her 200th day, she gets adult limbs and new paint on her face, and soon afterward Granny and Gramps wind down for the last time and are recycled. Since her Papa has only himself to take care of now, she leaves with Vale on carnival train 9 to make a life for herself as a carny. The two of them build a child they name Mattan, but the boy has a weak mainspring. Vale refuses to accept the child’s disability, so Zee takes Mattan back to her Papa in Closet City. Can she find a way to support her special needs child?

Good points: This is a very creative idea. I’m visualizing a toymaker somewhere with a whole village of windup dolls and model trains. The story, of course, takes us into the life of the dolls, limited as it is by the number of turns their mainsprings will hold. It has an inspiring message, as Zee gives up her dreams to care for her disabled child.

Not so good points: The world building here is limited, and I don’t end up with much of an idea of what the setting looks like. I gather there are carnivals on at least nine trains, houses for the dolls and recycling centers. Because of the limited background, the characters also tend to be flat. Mattan, especially has little personality because of his disability. Winding down is fairly matter-of-fact, and there’s not much investigation of the emotional issues behind the characters’ actions. True, these are dolls, but I’d like to understand their motivations, regardless.

Three and a half stars.

Are negative reviews politically incorrect?

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A recent discussion about reviews has caused me to Google about on the subject. In the last couple of blogs, I’ve noted opinions about the trend toward positive reviews, but there are some more pointed opinions out there on the issue of negative vs. positive reviews. This is the third and last blog on the subject.

Rafia Zakaria, writing for The Baffler, has thrown her support firmly behind critical reviews. Unless it stings, she says, then it’s not worth anything. She also has some interesting ideas about why and how the current trend has emerged.

First, she notes that the tone and style of contemporary book reviews reads like ad copy—generally including a summary and some non-conclusions, but nothing of critical engagement or analysis of how the work might relate to the environment it emerges from. Her conclusion is that this style is based mainly on a political ethics that requires non-judgement. In other words, all readers are expected to “check their biases and privilege” before reading and not make any kind of judgement about the content or quality of the book. Ergo, writing only positive reviews is a commitment to equality and fairness for all.

However, this raises questions about affirmative action. According to Zakaria, the purpose of limiting negative reviews this way is (implicitly) to assist underprivileged and marginalized authors, whose work may be hard for readers to relate to. She suggests that critical reviews are seen as a kind of “textual violence” and therefore “a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.” As a marginalized minority writer herself, she feels this is a matter of the privileged taking offence on the behalf of the marginalized while at the same time suggesting that minority authors’ work is too sub-standard to stand up to a real review.

Does she have a point? Are reviews now required to serve marginalized writers through non-judgement? Is this a tacit statement on the poor quality of their work?

Then what about the other side of this? Because of the pressure for positive reviews, many reviewers won’t read something when they feel they can’t give it a good review. This means people who have written something truly different are shut out of the market. Because of the current publishing climate, this could include people with unpopular political viewpoints, people who are expressing an uncomfortable reflection of society, or people who are too rooted in their own cultural viewpoint to suit the current marketplace. Of course, minority writers who are accepted and heavily promoted by big name publishers are going to get reviews in big name publications, but what about everybody else? Is the emphasis on only positive reviews shutting out reviews of all these other works?

Review of “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata

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This story is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Awards. It’s hard science fiction and was published in 2017 by Tor.com. Note: review may contain spoilers.

The Earth is dying and the Martian colonies have been abandoned. Financed by the wealthy Nathaniel Sanchez, architect Susannah Li-Langford is building a monument on Mars, using remote machines to clothe a spire in sparkling, white tiles. In a surprising development, the machines notify her they’ve received a signal. Could there be life still on Mars after all?

This is a pretty dystopian setting. With the Earth devastated by climate change and biological warfare, its people have lost their dream to move out to the stars. Instead, they are slowly dying in place. Li-Langford is nearing the end of her life but keeps plodding away at her monument, hoping to leave something lasting behind.

Good points: First, this is science fiction, somewhat on the hard side, but not technical enough to put anyone off. Next, the message is hope. Even with all that’s gone wrong, Li-Langford is willing to abandon her dreams to give someone else a ray of hope.

Not so good points: This reminded me very strongly of Weir’s The Martian, so I didn’t take it as highly original. I thought the characters were flat and not well developed; plus, there was a lot of exposition—I really didn’t end up feeling the devastation on Earth. I didn’t really feel Li-Langford’s dream, either. Why waste all the time and money on a monument when it seems like Earth needs it instead? Then she abandons it without a second thought and dismantles way more than seems necessary for the situation. And how are a few tiles going to help castaways? The plot didn’t quite hold water for me.

Two and a half stars because of the believability issues.

The Pressures for Positive Reviews

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Here’s the second installment on the subject of reviews and what’s expected from the contemporary book or film critic. There were a few more interesting opinions that came out of my recent readings on the subject, generally related to those explored in the last blog.

Writing for Salon, Laura Miller describes the traditional model of literary criticism where critics pretty much made the classics by pointing out which books should matter for a cultivated, educated audience. This meant the critics were the arbiters of taste, and the audience took their advice because they wanted to be seen as cultivated and intelligent. Publishers were also, presumably, swayed by these critics’ opinions which slapped down anyone unsuitable who thought they could write a novel. Miller thinks this is an outdated model, and that critical readings should be saved for the classroom. Her view of the critic’s role is to point out the books he or she likes in particular so the audience can find them.

Of course, the problem with this is that authors and publishers quickly get the idea they should offer inducements for critics to point out their books. Writing for The Baffler, Rafia Zakaria calls reviewers an “extended marketing operation” who are expected to “arrange the book in a bouquet” like blooming flowers to help attract an audience.

Writing for Slate, Ben Yagoda gives us a current classification of critics:
• Over-intellectual nitpickers – Try to rate popular books as something they’re not.
• Soft touches – In the pockets of publishers.
• Quote sluts – Write notices for display ads.
• Chummy logrollers – Relentless enthusiasm for the blogosphere.
• Careerist contrarians – Try to stand out with unpopular opinions.
Yagoda also suggests a reason for large audience vs. critic discrepancies in ratings. He thinks this means the work is unpleasant to sit through in some way. In other words, reviewers will hold out because they’ve got to write a review, while causal readers or film viewers will take off and find something better to do.

Also writing in Slate, Jacob Silverman describes the “safe space” atmosphere of the Twitter/blogosphere where all books are wonderful and every writer is every other writer’s fan. He calls this shallow, untrue and chilling to literary culture. After all, he says, what critic will write an honest review in an environment where authors are valued more for their social media following than for what they write? What he doesn’t say is how fast this social media following can turn into trollish attack dogs. Silverman says it’s not publishing that’s threatened; instead, it’s the body of reviewers who are trivialized and endangered by this system.

Another issue Silverman doesn’t identify in this analysis is generational characteristics at work. Everyone likes praise, but a constant need for it is fairly well identified with millennials. Writing in the New York Times in 2015, Alex Williams points out some of the tendencies we can expect from Generation Z (aka post-millennials), now displacing the millennials as the largest, richest and most sought-after generation of consumers. Gen Z is generally the children of Gen X, who are coming of age post Millennium. Compared to millennials, this group has grown up in uncertain times, so they tend to be more conservative than millennials and heavily concerned with privacy, risk and safe spaces. They tend to be less binary and more biracial, are heavily oriented toward technology and social media and tend to lose interest in things more quickly.

Is this the group Silverman has identified as so intolerant of critical reviews in the Twitter/blogosphere? When will the upcoming Gen Z start to change what sells in the marketplace?

Review of The End of the Day by Claire North

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I really liked Claire North’s WFA winner, so am looking at more of her books. This novel is fantasy. It was published in 2017 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 403 pages.

Charlie is humble and unassuming. He’s just taken a job as the Harbinger of Death, who mysteriously goes before, as a warning, a courtesy—we don’t know which. He often takes small gifts to particular people, chosen to have special meaning just for them. A few assignments are heartwarming. He meets an old woman, the last speaker of her language, helps a father and daughter who have lost their housing. Sometimes his experiences are more jolting and dangerous. He visits Lagos and finds that not only is Death rampaging through the world, but also the other figures of the Apocalypse—Famine, War and Pestilence. Meanwhile profit reigns and the Doomsday Clock ticks toward midnight. Can Charlie keep his sanity and his relationship with Emmi intact?

I really liked North’s last couple of novels. The thriller plot line kept things moving through a lot of bad stuff, and an upbeat ending made it all worthwhile. I can’t say that about this book. It moves slowly, has no structure and gets bogged down in depressing scenes of torture and death.

This is well-written; the characters and settings are well-developed. The book had something important to say—humanity is self-destructive, we’re all just a step away from oblivion, we need to be more thoughtful. However, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It presented warnings but no solutions, and not much in the way of hope.

Three and a half stars.

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