Castalia House out at Amazon

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Well, whoever was behind this missed a few audio books, but yeah, I checked and Castalia House was pretty much absent at Amazon for most of today. Looking at Castalia House’s website, it appears they politely inquired and found data on their account was completely wiped by someone at Amazon with access. Apparently the stated reason for removal was a question of rights ownership related to the Castalia-published book The Corroding Empire, a subject they thought was already settled when the book was published. If the missing data includes info on royalties due the writers, this could expose Amazon to some pretty serious repercussions. What is someone decided to wipe all the Tor books, for example? Or Baen? Oops.

Castalia’s books were back up by evening, except for The Corroding Empire, so it must have been a fairly easy fix. I don’t know that I could call this kind of action bullying, as Vox Day generally gives as good as he gets. I’m assuming it might be corporate wars? A drunken escapade on the part of some Amazon employee? A personal effort at censorship? Or maybe part of the marketing campaign for John Scalzi’s newly released installment in the Collapsing Empire series? Hm. There are all kinds of possibilities.

Anyhow, Castalia’s response has been to promote The Corroding Empire, still for sale at their Castalia Direct bookstore. Maybe I should put it on my list for review.

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Review of Bumblebee (2018)

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This film is the 6th in the Transformer series and a prequel to Transformers (2007). It was released December 3, 2018, by Paramount. It’s directed by Travis Knight, and stars Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena and Jorge Lendeborg, Jr. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 1987. On Cybertron, the Autobots are losing the war against the Decepticons, and Optimus Prime sends B-127 to Earth to set up a protected base of operations. It crash-lands on Earth, disrupting a military training exercise. The humans attack, followed quickly by Decepticons. Badly damaged, B-127 transforms to a yellow 1967 Volkswagen Beetle and hides out in a junkyard. Meanwhile, Charlie Watson is turning 18. She is having adjustment problems, as her father recently died and her mother has remarried. She wants a car, and her Uncle Hank gives her B-127 from the junkyard. Charlie accidentally activates a signal that alerts the Decepticons that B-127 is active again, and two of them arrive on Earth. They convince the military that Bee is a dangerous criminal on their world, and obtain cooperation to find and destroy it. Charlie repairs the Volkswagen and manages to partially restore Bee’s voice and memory. Can Charlie, her friend Memo and Bumblebee defeat the Decepticons and save Earth?

So, the first Transformers film was pretty decent, but then they got sucky. When you sit through one, you can tell right away that they’re action flicks aimed at 14-year-old boys, pretty much to the exclusion of everybody else. This film dares to do something else, which means it’s pretty good as a stand-alone film. It’s about Bumblebee finding a couple of friends in a hostile world, and about how that friendship helps all of them to adjust and find their way forward. There’s great chemistry between Charlie and B-127, and the animation style makes Bee sweet and endearing, regardless of its hugely destructive capabilities. These show up briefly as the action line rises, but in the end, Bee manages to make peace and get on with its mission for Optimus Prime.

On the negative side, this is a pretty simple plot without a huge amount of depth—mostly about friendship, helping your friends, and how a warm, winning personality can prevail against unreasonable prejudice. The beginning sequence was a re-run of the kind of battle action that makes the other Transformer films sucky and boring, but once that’s done and we’re into Bee’s adventures on Earth, then the film picks up interest.

Recommended. Four stars.

Review of Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)

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This is the second movie of this series, a sequel to Wreck-it Ralph (2012). It was directed by Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, and opened on November 21, 2018. It stars the voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Ed O’Neill, Gal Godot, Taraji P. Henson and Alfred Molina. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature for both the Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe Awards. For anyone who is confused by the scenario, Ralph and Vanellope are characters from obsolete arcade video games. This review contains spoilers.

Wreck-it Ralph and Vanellope von Schweetz live in neighboring games at Litwak’s Family Fun Center and Arcade. After the previous film where Ralph tries too hard to become a hero, Ralph and Vanellope become best friends. However, Vanellope is bored with her racing game. Ralph tries to help out with a bonus track and Vanellope is thrilled, but the diversion results in a broken steering wheel on her game’s cabinet. The part only seems to be available on Ebay, so the two of them take advantage of new wi-fi in the arcade to infiltrate the Internet in search of the part. As ingénues, they accidentally bid up the price, but win the auction, then have to raise the money to pay for it. After a couple of false starts, they find Yesss, an algorithm for BuzzTube, who helps Ralph make a lot of money from silly videos. Meanwhile, Vanellope finds friends among the princesses at the Disney site and is attracted by hazards in the game Slaughter Race, where she meets champion driver Shank. Horrified that Vanellope might leave him, Ralph looks for help in damaging Slaughter Race. Spamley introduces Ralph to Double Dan, who gives him an insecurity virus that will replicate flaws. The virus replicates Vanellope’s glitch and forces Slaughter Race to reboot, which will delete Vanellope. Can Ralph save the day? Can he keep Vanellope as his friend? What will happen if he can’t?

This is one of those wonderful kids animations that works on multiple levels. There are the bright, colorful characters for the little kids and important, serious themes for older ones. In addition, this seems to be light satire. The serious themes here are about the importance of friendship, about letting your friends grow and follow their own paths, and how your insecurities and need can sabotage relationships when you double down and don’t let them grow. The animators’ vision of the Internet as a huge, busy city with blue twittery songbirds is clever and entertaining—Disney must have recouped their costs just from the product placements alone. The sequence where Vanellope realizes she’s a real Disney princess that needs her own song is both ironic and priceless. Then Ralph makes the right decision at the end and everybody grows up a little bit.

I really couldn’t find any negatives in this. It was cute and heartwarming, and carries a great message. Awww.

Don’t miss the post-credits scene with the rabbit. Five stars.

Review of Artemis by Andy Weir

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I’m going to pronounce this novel hard science fiction. It was published by Broadway Books on November 14, 2017 and runs 352 pages. Artemis won the 2018 Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. This review may include spoilers.

Jasmine Bashara is the daughter of a master welder and lives in Artemis, the moon city. Jazz is smart and capable, but because of poor life choices, she has ended up working as a low-paid porter and supplements her income with a sideline of smuggling. She is approached by local businessman Trond Landvik, who offers her a huge sum to sabotage Sanchez Aluminum’s harvesting equipment so he can buy the company. She accepts his offer, and the sabotage effort is nearly successful. She gets caught, but talks her way out of trouble for the time being. However, Lanvik and his bodyguard turn up dead, and Jazz is next on the killer’s list. Can she figure out what’s going on and turn this into a victory somehow?

This novel has a lot of great points. It’s entertaining; it has a fast pace, a great plot, plenty of action and tech-based problem solving. Artemis has a frontier feel and law enforcement and administration are very small-time. The setting and the characters really come alive as Jazz moves through the dingy corridors of the moon city and interacts with her friends, acquaintances and enemies. Weir has turned a few usual expectations upside down, as the moon-city is established by an African businesswoman and the crime syndicate behind Sanchez Aluminum is Brazilian. Bashara is a Saudi Muslim, but clearly not very much in touch with her roots.

On the not so great side, there are some questionable issues in the execution. First, it seems like Weir might be trying to send a message here about teen rebellion and poor life choices, but he doesn’t follow through. Jazz knows she’s made poor life choices, but instead of trying to fix this, she doubles down on fast talking and just gets in deeper with worse decisions. It seems unlikely that local management would overlook all her transgressions, and the deal she offers Ngugi to avoid deportation at the end doesn’t hold water. Until this point, Jazz has come across as a small-time, low-income smuggler, but now she represents herself as being completely in control of Artemis’ smuggling trade? How and when did this happen?

Regardless of these little niggles, you have to hand it to Andy Weir for revitalizing the hard SF genre. It’s a fun read.

Four stars.

Review of “The Island” by Peter Watts

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This work is a novelette, originally published in The New Space Opera 2 by Eos, 2009, and now available on the author’s website. It’s science fiction about space exploration and runs 40 pages. Watts is a multi-award winner and in 2010 received the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for this story. This review may contain spoilers.

Eriophora is a black hole starship, an asteroid form with a singularity in its belly. It’s operated by a limited AI called Chimp, and has a human crew of several thousand people carried in a state of suspended animation. The ship explores the galaxy and builds wormhole gates in suitable locations. The mission is expected to extend until the ship runs out of resources, billions of years into the future. Chimp reanimates human crew units for short periods of time when it needs higher intellectual capability or human judgement. Sunday Ahzmundin wakes to find she has a son Dix, and that her old lover Kai is dead. The problem Chimp has run into is a signal from a red dwarf star they are approaching. Dix and Sunday identify this as a signal from an intelligent alien that directs them to another area of space to build their wormhole gate. Sunday and Chimp are in adversarial positions for this awakening, as she is angry about it raising her son without her knowledge, and because of past dealings. Taken by the idea of an innocent organism in space, she negotiates a change in course. Will this fix the problem, or will it make things worse?

Watts’ strong point is the heart that he puts into his stories. At this point in time, Sunday and Chimp have a lot of history (i.e. grudges) that have turned their relationship into a battle. Dix, as part of a new generation Chimp is planning, suffers from lack of socialization and complete inability to deal with his mother. Meanwhile, the alien organism has an agenda of its own.

On the negative side, Watts doesn’t give much background and is way into the story before he identifies his protagonist as Ahzmundin, so again, I’ve wasted tons of imagination in thinking this might be someone else. Also, there are plot issues this time, maybe from having a work that’s too short. First, how has Sunday produced a son she didn’t know about? Because she and Dix’s father Kai were lovers, I’m assuming the child was conceived the usual way. So how did Chimp get the embryo, fetus or child? Does it make a habit of violating the sleeping crew? Then why wait until someone is pregnant? Why not just inseminate? Or is Dix a hostage just because he’s Sunday’s son? Hm. Also, the ending is unclear. As I read this, there are actually two alien organisms out there at the red dwarf, but given the text, I wouldn’t swear to it.

Four stars.

Review of The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts

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This work is a short novel/novella, published by Tachyon Publications on June 12, 2018. It’s science fiction about space exploration and runs 192 pages. Watts is a multi-award winner and in 2010 received the Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Island.” This story takes place in the same ship, but apparently at an earlier time. This review may contain spoilers.

Eriophora is a black hole starship. It resembles an asteroid with a singularity in its belly, and it’s operated by an AI called Chimp. It has a human crew of 30K people carried in a state of suspended animation. The ship’s mission is to explore the galaxy, find acceptable locations for wormhole gates and then to build the gates. The mission is expected to extend until the ship runs out of resources, billions of years into the future, so Mission Control has set up safeguards for different eventualities. The AI Chimp has limited capabilities and reanimates human crew units for short periods of time when it needs higher intellectual capability or human judgement. This means the crew does not age except when they are on deck to deal with problems, and drain on life support resources is minimal. Several billion years into the mission, crewmember Lian Wei has a crisis of faith and begins to feel the human crew are only slaves to the AI. She fakes her own death, hides in the oxygen-producing forest, and begins to recruit revolutionaries to break free. One of these recruits is Sunday Ahzmundin. Sunday has a special relationship with Chimp, so she is conflicted about undermining the AI, but she ultimately agrees with Lian that humans need to be in charge of the mission. Over a period of thousands of years, about 30 revolutionaries leave encrypted messages for one another, learn to track Chimp’s movements around the ship and come up with a plan to destroy it. The plan fails, and Sunday realizes that Chimp is not what it seems. Is there a way forward?

So, this is pretty brilliant. I see the book advertised as hard SF, and it does have that feel. In the acknowledgements, Watts notes that anything this far in the future is basically “handwavium,” but that he made serious efforts at research to make it sound like it was real science. He’s made that rare effort, real projection of what humanity might be up to millions of years into the future, and actually managed to produce the traditionalist’s sense of wonder about the vastness of Spacetime. The characters and setting here are well-developed, and the plot has a lot of depth. Item of note, Eri is an Africa group of the Igbo people, and their founder was supposed to come to earth in a spacecraft to teach civilization to the people.

On the negative side, Watts doesn’t describe his narrator until he’s 1/4 of the way through, meaning I’ve squandered a lot of imagination making up the wrong mental picture. Also, this work assumes an affinity for science, and basic understanding of space exploration and singularities. Watts sketches in the basics, but doesn’t explain, which will likely put off a lot of readers. Unfortunately, that’s the risk of writing awesome hard SF.

Five stars.

Who controls SFF?

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One interesting study result I reported in my last blog is that conservatives are more likely to read popular or “low-brow” type fiction while liberals are more likely to read “sophisticated” or literary type fiction. This suggests an interesting way to identify the ideological worldview of fans for various purposes.

First, I think this explains why the Sad/Rabid Puppies have complained about the major SFF awards not serving the whole community. A quick sort of the top 20 Science Fiction Best Sellers at Amazon this week shows about 66% conservative, versus maybe 33% liberal if you consider the classics literary (i.e. A Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, The Man in the High Castle). If you knock out books with recent media tie-ins, then the percentage of apparent liberals drops to 10%. Both these results support my previous suggestion that liberals are a distinct minority in the community. Because the major SFF awards tend to be literary in nature, this means they’re likely run by and voted on by a small minority, which suggests the most visible and most highly promoted works via these awards are also aimed at a small minority of fans.

This will vary by the award, of course. Since I’ve been doing reviews of the winners and finalists for some of these, I think I’ve ended up with something of a feel for how literary they are. Following the method above, this will give me an idea of who’s voting. Based on the artistic quality of the finalist group, the World Fantasy Award runs most literary. The SFWA, as I’ve mentioned in past blogs, seems to have made a serious effort to make the Nebula Award more representative in the last couple of years. That means the nominees are a mix of styles and subgenres, some literary and some popular. The Hugo award actually seems to run fairly conservative (as pointed out by the Daily Dot), and often as not, the nominees seem to fall into a fairly non-literary category. There are a few works on the list with depth and subtext, but not that many. Currently, the Hugo Award seems to be most most vulnerable to political influence of these three. (See individual reviews for more information on the ratings of individual finalists.)

So what does this say about publishers? I think this suggests that major publishers are actually struggling to reconcile their pursuit of awards with a pursuit of sales. It’s true that awards can help promote a work, but they’re also a double-edged sword. If a book is too literary, then most of the audience won’t read it. Amazon is the great leveling force—six out of the top 20 of the SF Best Sellers I recently reviewed look to be self-published. These fall squarely into the conservative popular taste, including military SF and SF romance. Five others were published by presses I didn’t recognize. This leaves only nine of the 20 top sellers released by major publishers. And yes, I know the Amazon Best Sellers list is affected by the vagaries of new releases, other media releases, various promotions, etc. I’d like to look at the SF & Fantasy Best Sellers list, too, but right now it appears to be swamped by Harry Potter.

These results also suggest that the Dragon Award, based on a broad popular vote, might actually be more accurate at reflecting a) tastes of conservative readers, b) tastes of the majority of readers and c) projected sales of various genres of SFF books.

So who’s in control? The liberal/literary crowd is clearly most visible in the awards systems. But, having gone through the research, I’m thinking conservatives, moderates and “other” are still really in control of the popular SFF taste. That’s the population that’s still driving most of sales.

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