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.

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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.

So, who reads science fiction anyway?

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The last blog generated a discussion of whether science fiction can be called conservative at all because of its nature as speculative fiction. Following up online, I see opposing opinions about whether science fiction is inherently conservative or inherently liberal. There’s not nearly as much research on the demographics of the speculative fiction market as there should be, but in this post, I’ll try to have a look at some results.

First, what kind of people in general read science fiction? One writer-conducted market survey found that science fiction readers account for about 20% of the US population, are wealthier than the average, are about 57 percent male and tend to reduce their reading volume between the ages of 45-65. Also—no surprise—SF readers are people who read a lot. One study found that speculative fiction fans consistently consume high volumes of books, TV and films, which the authors considered “cognitively beneficial.” This study also found that SF as a genre has a strong effect on the way the public perceives and accepts science. Another study showed that science fiction in popular culture has a real effect on public attitudes. The authors suggest this is a literacy effect, where consuming scary media about “killer robots,” for example, affected opinions about development of autonomous weapons.

Other research shows that science fiction readers are more mature in their social relationships than readers of other genres. Fans who scored as knowledgeable about SF on the Genre Familiarity Test also scored higher on the Relationships Belief Inventory, while romance readers scored lower. In contrast, another study found that readers of romance and suspense/thrillers had higher interpersonal sensitivity/empathy scores than science-fiction/fantasy fans. Again, this isn’t really a surprise.

People read fiction for a variety of reasons, and escapism seems to be high on the list. Education is likely up there, too, where people are interested in broadening their horizons—science fiction is supposed to be the literature of ideas, after all. However, most of us would still like to read texts that reaffirm our beliefs and values rather than something that challenges them. That leads us to the question of worldviews (i.e. politics). So how do worldviews affect reading habits?

Here’s an interesting study that found a preference for different disciplines in science reading material. For example, liberals tend to like theoretical disciplines including anthropology, biology, astronomy, physics and (surprise) engineering. On the other hand, conservatives tend to prefer applied disciplines including medicine, law and (surprise) climate change. Analyzing the results, the authors conclude that “scientific puzzles appeal more to the left, while problem-solving appeals more to the right.”

Another study conducted on Goodreads found that conservatives tend to prefer escapist, “low-brow” genre fiction and recent book-to-movie titles, and liberals tend to read more “high-brow” novels that win prizes. According to the authors, these results support the worst, polarizing stereotypes of “sophisticated” readers (liberals) versus “simple-minded” readers of formulaic fiction (conservatives). However, the authors also discovered a sizable number of non-partisan books that bridged the gap between liberals and conservatives. And, it turned out to be generally conservatives who were more engaged in producing this space for cultural compromise.

I didn’t find anything at all about the relative size of the conservative versus liberal audience, which suggests it’s a topic for original research. Anybody?

Review of Souls and Hallows by S.R. Algernon

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Souls and Hallows is S.R. Algernon’s second collection of short stories, released November 1, 2018, by ReAnimus Press. Algernon was a Hugo award finalist in 2016 with the short story “Asymmetrical Warfare.” This new collection runs 342 pages.

There’s something to be said about the short story form. This isn’t normally a hugely profitable venture for the writer, but it does provide particular opportunities. Short stories allow busy writers to explore thoughts that might not be workable for a full novel, or maybe small meanings that reveal themselves suddenly. A well-developed short story can broaden our horizons, tug at our heart-strings or tickle us with humor. It can also provide for psychological investigations.

As with Algernon’s last release, you get a lot for your money here, including 36 short stories, some previously published and some brand new. As usual, these tend toward the thoughtful and psychological rather than the emotional, and offer a lot of variety in style, genre and subject matter. The collection is divided up into themes, including Spirits, Ghosts in the Machine, Creatures and Creations, and From Outer Space. Standouts for me include “The Eye of the Gods” where residents of a world come to term with their gods, “The Palimpsest Planet” where a extremophile planetary scout tries to rescue the residents, “A Nose for Emily” about a pair of augmented reality glasses looking for a human host, and “One Slow Step for Man” about microscopic tardigrades that take over a colonization effort.

As with Algernon’s last collection, I was impressed with his willingness to write stories about alien characters and environments. The stories often include a dry, ironic humor. On the other hand, I didn’t get much in the way of strong imagery or description of the settings, and the characters tended to be a little flat, without much in the way of background or emotional depth. This meant the stories were a little shorter and had a little less to say than what they could have presented.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the World Fantasy Winners!

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As usual, I’m running behind on this. The winners seemed to run heavily to dark work and horror, as was suggested by the list of nominees. For diversity, fiction winners include African American, Asian, LGBTQ and Jewish writers, plus the international Theodoridou. Special congrats to Tachyon, a smaller publisher which has done very well recently in the awards cycles.

NOVEL Winner (Tie): The Changeling by Victor LaValle (Spiegal & Grau) and Jade City by Fonda Lee (Orbit)

LONG FICTION Winner: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages (Tor.com)

SHORT FICTION Winner: “The Birding: A Fairy Tale” by Natalia Theodoridou (Strange Horizons, Dec. 18, 2017)

ANTHOLOGY Winner: The New Voices of Fantasy, edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman (Tachyon Publications)

COLLECTION Winner: The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen (Tachyon Publications)
ARTIST Winner: Gregory Manchess

SPECIAL AWARD – PROFESSIONAL Winner: Harry Brockway, Patrick McGrath, and Danel Olson for Writing Madness (Centipede Press)

SPECIAL AWARD – NON-PROFESSIONAL Winner: Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, for FIYAH: Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS: Charles de Lint and Elizabeth Wollheim

Should writers be ready to present a pedigree?

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Recently I mentioned a friend whose literary agent told her major US publishers are no longer interested in books about black characters written by white writers. Is this a paradigm shift in the marketplace—publishers backing off prior requests for diversity of characters because of concerns about authenticity and cultural appropriation (i.e. members of a dominant culture taking cultural elements from an oppressed minority to use in their work)? It could be a market trend toward segregation by ethnic heritage.

So, assuming we’re headed in that direction, how are we going to define it? In the larger culture, there’s been a movement toward more strict definitions of ethnic heritage because of questions about affirmative action benefits. Recent examples include Nkechi Diallo (a.k.a. Rachel Dolezal) who is accused of falsifying African American heritage and Elizabeth Warren, accused of fabricating Native American heritage. The discussion about Warren’s status is especially interesting. She recently released DNA results that indicated native heritage somewhere along the line, but this was met by jeers that one ancestor didn’t entitle her to call herself Native American—that she had to show tribal membership in order to be a “true” Native American.

Jewishness is tricky, too. Because of benefits available to Jews, there are requirements for documentation. DNA testing can identify Jewish markers, but an mitochondrial DNA test is necessary to identify the required matrilineal connection. This is important in Israel, but hardly ever mentioned in the US. People with matrilineal Jewish heritage in the US may know it—but maybe not, as their names may not be traditionally Jewish—while people with traditionally Jewish names may not have the required matrilineal DNA. Confused yet?

Less tricky, the Jim Crow “ one drop” rule means that anyone with any African American heritage at all is considered black in the US. This makes it very easy DNA-wise to be recognized as African American. Many “white” folks who have run their DNA recently have found they actually qualify as non-white under this rule. Sure, there may be squabbles about black culture and not being black enough, but that’s beside the point. A rule is a rule. Right?

So, how are publishers going to sort this out? Do they take the word of writers about their ethnic heritage, or is greater documentation going to be eventually required? If my DNA shows I had an African ancestor somewhere along the line, can I claim that heritage for special consideration from publishers? What if I have a Jewish gene? What if my name is of Latin origin? Or does the fact I look mainly white mean I’m out in the cold?

Several times I’ve hosted arguments in the comments section about whether Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt qualify as Hispanic and/or minority. Should we also have a conversation about Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American heritage? The African American part is easy because of Jim Crow, but is she really a tribal member? A “true” Native American? And should she be writing about Navajo culture and not her own? Or is that cultural appropriation?

Should I start work on documenting a racial heritage pedigree? I don’t want to be left out of the “own voices” paradigm shift. Ah, what to do…

So, what is cultural appropriation, really?

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Since I’ve been discussing cultural appropriation, I had a quick look around to see what kind of opinions are out there on the subject. First, it looks like most commentators are really adamant that cultural “appropriation” is bad, while cultural “appreciation” leading to real cultural exchange is good. The problem is in deciding which is which.

Checking the definition, I found that Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. According to the article, it’s power imbalance, historically caused by colonialism and oppression, that makes something actually cultural appropriation rather than cultural exchange.

Next, how does this work in practice? Well, there are a few issues. Some writers point out that the definition describes what is generally a local or national problem, while things can look very different on a global scale. In the US, the dominant culture is defined as “white” and the oppressed are considered to be minority persons-of-color like African Americans, LatinX and Asians. These writers also note that “white” is really just a social construct used to describe the currently dominant culture in some regions like the US and EU, because the collection of ethnicities within the term is anything but uniform. “White” in the US currently includes Jews, Arabs, North Africans and East Indians, for example, along with previously oppressed groups like Irish and Italian immigrants, who were at one time defined as “non-white.” And what about Polish jokes? Is this an indication that “white” Poles are oppressed in the US the same way they traditionally have been in Europe?

This is a caveat that dominant cultures are not always just “white” as the current knee-jerk reaction assumes, but vary by time period and region. More clearly, what would be considered the dominant culture in the Middle East, for example, South America, Asia or Africa? These areas have a lot of diversity, but the dominant culture could never be defined as “white.” Is all of African culture off limits to “whites” because of colonialism? Or what about Asia? Much of it was never colonized by “white” Europeans at all.

Actually, the definition of “white” can be dangerously misapplied. For example, the 2018 Eurovision contest provided an instance where a “white” woman was vilified for appropriation of Japanese culture. Netta Barzilai performed the song “Toy” while dressed in a kimono and backed by maneki-neko cats. If you assume Barzilai is part of a dominant “white” culture that oppresses the Japanese, then the charges might be accurate. But is this true?

Well, no. Where’s the power imbalance in this case? On a global scale, Barzilia is Jewish and from Israel, a small, perpetually endangered and persecuted country, while Japan has always been a military, cultural and economic juggernaut. The problem is the assumption that light-colored skin automatically means “oppressor” and a darker complexion means “oppressed.” The end result in this case was wide-spread bullying of a light-skinned, oppressed minority woman who actually put on a great show.

Shouldn’t we be paying better attention?

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