Winston crosses the Rainbow Bridge

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This has been a really bad couple of years for our family pets. RIP sweet Winston. We’re all the better for knowing you.

Winstonsmall

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Review of Echopraxia by Peter Watts

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This is Book #2 of the Firefall series, sequel to the Hugo finalist Blindsight. It was released by Tor Books in August, 2014, and runs 384 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Daniel Brüks is a biologist and a baseline human, which is a serious anachronism at the end of the 21st century. He’s collecting samples in the Oregon desert, looking for baseline DNA, when he gets caught up in a firefight between the hive-mind Bicameral monks and a squad of zombie soldiers. He wakes onboard a spaceship, along with some Bicamerals, a female vampire Valerie, a couple of her zombie bodyguards, and various transhumans including the pilot Sengupta, looking for the man responsible for her wife’s death, a friendly jargonaut Liana Lutterodt, and an old soldier Jim Moore who lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition. The Bicamerals seem to have a plan and Brüks is stuck going along. They travel to the Icarus power station, where they find an alien slime infesting the facility. Brüks takes samples and investigates its biology. Too late, he realizes it’s intelligent and trying to capture humans as biological samples of its own. Most of the crew is lost, but Brüks, Moore and Sengupta manage to undock from the station and escape. They find that Valerie has fastened onto the outside of the ship, but expect reentry into Earth’s atmosphere will burn her up. Can they make it back alive? What will humanity do without Icarus station?

This book continues in the same vein as Blindsight. The plot is thin, and most of the pages are taken up with theme and discussion. I didn’t get the feeling of alienness from this book like I did from Blindsight. Instead, this seems to be about God, the nature of transhumanity, the blind success of evolution and how everyone eventually becomes extinct through natural selection. This may all seem fantastical, but Watts has written an addendum at the end that includes references for all the science behind the story. It’s kind of scary that this really is a projection from research and ideas already out there in the human knowledge base.

On the negative side, I didn’t like any of these people. Plus, this novel suffers even more from the high density, disturbing quality and poor readability that went on in Blindsight. The description isn’t really descriptive, as it tends to metaphor, and I ended up without any idea what these people look like and not much better idea of what the ship looks like, even though most of the story takes place within it. Readability is so poor that a quick Google suggests most readers didn’t understand the ending. Huge spoiler alert here: Brüks thinks he dealt with the problem, but he’s infected, and he’s about to be the agent that infects every living thing on Earth. (In my humble opinion, of course.)

Again, this gets a good score for the science and the ideas, but not for the execution.

Four stars.

Review of “The Colonel” by Peter Watts

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This novelette was released by Tor.com in July of 2014. It’s hard SF, serves as a bridge between Watts’ novels Blindsight and Echopraxia and features some of the same characters as Echopraxia. This review may contain spoilers.

Colonel Jim Moore has lost his son Siri on the Theseus expedition and his wife Helen has retreated to existence in Heaven, a repository that links human minds for computing, while allowing residents their own virtual landscape. Moore is in charge of monitoring private hived human intelligences, and is awakened to a threat when one of these attacks a commercial compound in Ecuador. He approaches Dr. Liana Lutterodt, a representative of the Bicameral hive he suspects is behind the attack, and she gives him a copy of a faint transmission that may have come from Theseus. Should he conduct a military op against the Bicamerals? Or should he hold off and try to get more info from them about his son?

As usual with Watts’ work, the projection and world building are way out there, and his vision is of humanity post-singularity. He’s definitely a 5 on the Ideation Scale with the question of whether we might actually link consciousnesses to produce a human super brain. There’s a bit of furry interest here to humanize the story. Moore has taken in an abused and mutilated feline named Zephyr that lives mostly alone in their apartment with an automated kibble dispenser. When the Colonel comes home, he works on cutting down the distance he can approach before Zephyr runs to hide. Talk about loneliness and estrangement…

This story moves along fairly smartly. Because of its length, Watts is unable to make the lengthy digressions that slow down Blindsight and Echopraxia, so the readability score goes way up. There’s not much plot here, either, but it does seem to be enough for a story of this length. There’s no real ending because it leads directly into the events of Echopraxia, but it’s satisfying enough, and I’m sure it served well as promotion for the novel’s release. The prose and the science are still a little dense—I had to check a couple of definitions to find out the Ecuadorian compound is likely a pharmaceutical plant.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Blindsight by Peter Watts

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I enjoyed The Freeze Frame Revolution, so I thought I’d try a couple of Watt’s older novels. Blindsight is Book #1 of the Firefall Series. It was released by Tor in October 2006 and runs 294 pages. It is seriously hard SF and was a finalist for the Hugo Award in 2007. This review contains spoilers.

In 2082 a mysterious array circles the Earth and flashes, seemingly taking readings of some kind. Then an old space probe picks up a signal from a distant comet. Earth sends out fresh probes, then mounts an expedition, sending a live crew of transhumans on the ship Theseus to investigate. They include a super-intelligent vampire recreated by paleogenetics, a linguist with multiple personalities, and a combat specialist, a biologist and a synthesist augmented with electronic implants. There are other crew in ship’s storage in case of loss. The ship’s AI bypasses the comet and follows the signal to the Oort Cloud, where the crew wakes from hibernation to find a gas giant too small to ignite into a star, orbited by some massive artifact under construction. They board the artifact and take “samples” of the alien life forms, bring them back to Theseus and try to analyze their biology, intelligence and use of language. Quickly they find themselves under a terrifying counterattack. Can they destroy the alien artifact? Get word of what they’ve found back to Earth?

I’ve been asking for science fiction with more ideas. So, here it is. The plot in this novel mainly serves as a vehicle for theme and discussion, and the main theme seems to be alienness. Our protagonist is Siri Keeton, the synthesist, who lost half his brain to a childhood illness and had it replaced with electronics. He experiences no emotion and has no feel for real social interactions, mimicking behavior patterns instead. The other crew members are also radically different from baseline humans, and the aliens on the artifact are orders of magnitude different. We get some character development as background for the crew, but this serves mainly to point out the pressures and results of transhuman advancement. There is also an ongoing discussion on the nature of intelligence and consciousness.

Negatives: The worst problem here is with readability. The plot is actually very thin for the length of the novel, and Watts fills up the pages mostly with description and discussion. This makes the narration very dense and the story hard to get into. There’s no fun or adventure here; it’s all very cerebral, nihlist and disturbing–I had higher hopes for the future of humanity. Watts tends to belabor the points, too, forcing the characters to come to them in successive stages. As he points out in the acknowledgements, these are hardly warm, fuzzy characters, either, which makes it hard to care about what he’s saying. He gets points for brilliance in the ideas, but loses audience on the execution.

Four stars.

Review of Aquaman (2018)

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This film is from the DC stable of comics, with Aquaman already introduced in the recent Justice League films. Here he has his own movie. This was released November 21, 2018, by Warner Brothers Pictures, and it’s the 6th installment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) films. It was directed by James Wan, and stars Jason Momoa as Aquaman, with Amber Heard, Willem Defoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Nicole Kidman. This review contains spoilers.

Princess Atlanna of Atlantis washes up during a storm and carries on a romance with lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry that produces a son, Arthur. Atlanna is forced to return to Atlantis, leaving her son behind. However, she sends her advisor Nuidis to see that he is trained in underwater arts. Although Arthur is Atlanna’s firstborn and has a claim on the kingship, he is rejected by Atlantis for being a half-breed and makes a life on the surface instead. Arthur fights off a group of pirates attacking a Russian vessel and makes an enemy of David Kane (Black Manta). Orm, Arthur’s younger brother and current King of Atlantis, contracts with Kane to attack Atlantis as a pretext for war with the surface world. Orm’s bethrothed Mera refuses to accept the idea of war and goes to the surface world to find Arthur. Reluctantly, he sets out with her to find the symbolic Trident of Atlan, which will allow him to depose Orm and claim the throne of Atlantis. Can Arthur find the trident and defeat Orm to prevent the war?

This film has done really well at the box office (currently $1.1 billion worldwide), maybe just because people like to watch Jason Momoa do his thing. It’s CGI heavy, as you could expect from the heavily underwater setting, and it moves right along, without any slow spots where you might fall asleep. There are some thrilling fight scenes. The ending is emotionally satisfying, and the audience at my showing actually applauded at the close.

However, as often happens with high-budget action movies, the special effects here take a toll on what the movie can accomplish. I wasn’t thrilled with the script, or the vision of Atlantis as a high-tech underwater city. If it’s that scientifically advanced, then why are its social and political structures so backward? I got the feeling that the CGI displaced the human storyline here, which ended up being pretty thin. There was something of a whiplash effect at the beginning as the director tried to quickly lay out the background, jumping from Princess Atlanna to the pirates without any transition. Plus, the editing was really poor, where in one shot Arthur is bare-chested and in the next he’s got his shirt on. This budget was actually on the low end for DC, so maybe they didn’t have enough money to reshoot scenes like that. And last, I gather that Mera and Curry are supposed to develop a romantic relationship, but instead we get a sort of annoying-kid-sister vibe from the two of them. Atlannta and Orm are cold fish. There’s just not a whole lot of chemistry anywhere in this movie. And who came up with that hair color for Mera? It’s a sort of hot, hot, hot pink. Ick. This is watchable and maybe satisfying, but actually pretty messy.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi

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This book is science fiction, released by Tor Books on 16 October 2018. It’s Book #2 of the Interdependency Series and runs 320 pages. The Collapsing Empire, Book #1 of the series, was a finalist for a Hugo Award in 2018. This review contains spoilers.

This book picks up immediately where The Collapsing Empire leaves off. Flow physicist Marce Claremont is offering his father’s research for review, which predicts the collapse of the Flow streams in the very near future. This will mean that transportation and commerce along these pathways will soon also fail. The only habitable planet in the Empire is End, and the various space habitats will soon be isolated. There is already a civil war going on for control of End. Emperox Grayland II is having prophetic visions about the collapse, which is convincing to the public, but not the Church hierarchy or the nobility. Grayland is planning to put Nadashe Nohamapetan on trial for treason for attempted assassination of the emperox, and has assigned Kiva Lagos as caretaker of her estate. Meanwhile, the Wu family is plotting with the Countess Nohamapetan to take over the throne. Claremont’s data attracts a challenge from Flow physicist Hatide Roynold. The two of them put their work together and predict the Flow will reestablish after a period of instability, which has already reopened a path to the lost Dalasysla habitat. The Emporox sends an expedition there to check for survivors, and Claremont is surprised to find evidence the Flow was manipulated in the past to isolate the Empire. Meanwhile more streams are failing. Can Grayland II keep control of the Empire? How can she plan for the future?

Like The Collapsing Empire, this is a quick, entertaining read. Scalzi’s strong point is in the plotting and the politics, where he plays the different factions against one another in a cat and mouse game for power and influence. The dialog tends to the snappy and cynical, and the nobility comes off as self-absorbed and somewhat hedonistic. The power players are mostly women and Emperox Grayland II shows considerable growth in this installment, moving from an inexperienced girl to a woman controlling the reins of power.

On the not so great side, this is all brash, surface-level entertainment, which means there’s no depth in the characters. The snappy dialog really is great in producing interesting players, but then Scalzi treats them as expendable—don’t get attached to any of them. Kiva Lagos seems almost a caricature, and her sexual exploits seem slyly contrived as a hook for some readers. Also on the negative side, Scalzi hasn’t done much in the way of projection into the future. We meet a couple of advanced AIs, but most of the population is still using “computers” and “tablets” the same way we do now. Surely a space-going population like this would have better technology.

A fun read, but not much depth. Three and a half stars.

Militant progressives take aim at “brown” authors (a.k.a. more on author bullying)

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It’s been a little while since I checked in on the author bullying scene. A quick review of articles this week shows it’s an ongoing problem, and that the environment for young adult novels is currently well into the toxic range. Here’s a Vulture article that names Twitter and Goodreads as a source of much of the problem, where a certain militant group uses social media to police upcoming or newly issued books that might “harm” teens through what are deemed inappropriate social justice messages.

What’s actually going on here? Censorship? Book burning before the fact? Jealousy? Experts seem to think it has to do with ongoing culture wars. YA continues to be mainly driven by white authors, despite calls for more diversity, and some people of color continue to report rejection due to a sort of quota system. So, looking at the specifics of this, mostly the authors (and their publishers) being attacked this way are white women. That suggests a certain “mean girls” culture could be involved, but still, the attackers use progressive clubs to beat their victims. The Vulture article quotes a NYTimes Best-Selling author as saying there is, “a sense shared by many publishing insiders that to write outside one’s own identity as a white author simply isn’t worth the inevitable backlash.” You could think that this backlash might be an effort to shut down white authors so publishers will have to publish more acceptable POC writers, but interestingly, the community sometimes turns on authors of color who don’t toe the line, as well. For example, I’m curious about what Jamaican author Nicola Yoon did to get lambasted. Is the YA community really trying to shut her down?

So, you must be thinking something happened recently to provoke another blog from me on author bullying. You’re right. This week’s victim is Amelie Zhao, a young Chinese immigrant to the US who recently scored a three-book publishing deal with Delacorte. Her debut book Blood Heir was due for publication on June 4, 2019, but she has pulled it from publication due to attacks from the YA community. Apparently this has to do with a slavery theme where “oppression is blind to skin color.” Here’s a comment by “Sarah” from Twitter: “I’d love it if somebody who looks critically at what they read would write a detailed review that proves all the bigotry in this book so white people and Asians finally start listening because I’ve seen a lot of systematic shutting down of any brown person who brings up concerns with this book.”

This is an interesting comment because of the expectations it reveals. Sarah is soliciting bad reviews of the book? How does she know it’s “bigoted”? It’s not even published yet, so has she actually read it somehow? And what’s wrong with Zhao’s theme? Do people with a particular skin shade now own the rights to oppression? Also, notice that Sarah has lumped whites and Asians together on this in opposition to “brown persons.” Sorry, I missed something here. Are Asians not considered “brown” any longer?

Well, apparently not. Asians are apparently successful enough that they’ve got white backlash now.

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