Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three stars.

Review of Numbercaste by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

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I was sort of taken by “Messenger” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and R.R. Virdi, a finalist on the 2019 Nebula ballot, so I went looking for more of Yudhanjaya’s work. This novel was originally self-published in 2017 and runs 300 pages. It was the winner of the 2017 Virtual FantasyCon Award. Yudhanjaya is Shri Lankan and has worked as a programmer, tech journalist and social researcher. This review contains spoilers.

It’s 2030 and Patrick Udo lives in Chicago where automation means jobs are scarce. At his mother’s funeral, he meets Julius Common, who wants his father to do marketing and publicity for NumberCorp. About the same time, Patrick’s banking app asks him to log in with his number and UN-ID, and to supply social media accounts. When he checks to see what’s behind the app, it’s NumberCorp, a six billion dollar financial tech company based in Silicon Valley. The UN-ID is a global blockchain-based ID system, and the number rates your social worth. Fascinated, Patrick takes the job instead of his dad, where he goes to work in the Communications department. They do battle with Facebook and win, go on to capture America. Patrick is transferred to a project in Sri Lanka, where he helps launch the number in South-East Asia, then Europe. Patrick becomes the company’s man as they launch campaigns to take India and China. The number will build a new world order, but is what they’re doing right?

This book isn’t exactly a page turner, but it’s well-written, inquiring and a little scary. It’s the flip side of Claire North’s The Sudden Appearance of Hope , but instead of the protagonist looking at the elitist rating system from the outside, Udo works for the company that’s building it. The plotting, world building and characterizations here are excellent, as the author outlines the people, events and campaigns that build the company into world dominance, and then shows its dark underbelly. Another item of interest: Although this is initially based in Silicon Valley, it doesn’t have an America-centric feel. Instead, it’s very global. Commons is an immigrant, and much of the story takes place in Europe and Asia. It ends, as it began, with the UN.

On the not so positive side, there’s not much of an action line here. The story just cooks along at a leisurely pace as the characters interact and the company mounts various campaigns that finally prevail. What is probably the climax passes, and Yudhanjaya, maybe needing to fill out more length for the manuscript, adds articles at the end that Udo wrote about the founder Julius Commons. In the end, this just gives you something scary to think about.

Recommended. Four and a half stars.

Writer Walter Mosley Quits Star Trek: Discovery

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So, this is still a very interesting cultural collision that I think is worth discussion. Again, here’s my comment that was censored by Mike Glyer at File 770: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Why did Glyer think this would generate an uncomfortable discussion? One comment on the story at File 770 suggested Mosley’s reaction was about privilege and entitlement. Is this the problem we can’t talk about?

There have been previous issues with the use of abusive language at this particular studio, which may have set up, at least, encouragement by Human Resources to report any language that might lead to discomfort among the writers, if not a mandatory reporting rule. Next, Mosley has a very light complexion, so it’s possible some onlookers may not have realized he considers himself African American (and therefore, by US custom, entitled to use the N-word without sanction). Accordingly, here’s what he says about it: “If I have an opinion, a history, a word that explains better than anything how I feel, then I also have the right to express that feeling or that word without the threat of losing my job.”

If neither of these issues above supports why someone reported him to HR, then is it possible the issue is something similar to the NRA suing the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for calling them terrorists, or Ahrvid Engholm filing a complaint about Jeanette Ng’s Hugo-acceptance speech where she seemed to associate white males with the word fascist? In other words, backlash. Was the reporting co-worker annoyed that Mosley was exercising some sort of special privilege and entitlement in using the N word?

Some prominent discussions have recently emerged about the success of minority groups in American culture, in particular, and how this generates backlash. For example, over-achieving Asian students recently sued Harvard University for discrimination in Affirmative Action admissions. Jews are perennially targeted for their economic success. And, likewise, black Americans are becoming concerned that backlash from other groups will curtail some of the gains they’ve made. Some sources frankly called the Mosley case an example of cultural backlash against a minority writer. Mosley, himself, called it an action of the political culture, writing: “I do not believe that it should be the object of our political culture to silence those things said that make some people uncomfortable.”

So, how do we sort this kind of conflict out? Is Mosley responding from a position of privilege and entitlement, or does he have a real case that the N word is necessary to express his life experience? Comments?

More on Suppression of Speech

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Suppression of speech is always a danger signal that any republic is headed in the direction of totalitarianism. Control of a national conversation is one of the requirements for total power—because speech actually is dangerous. The reasons are 1) that saying something can make it real, and 2) asking questions reduces certainty and makes people think about the issues.

The reason this topic has come up again in my blog is that more examples have accumulated recently about US groups trying to 1) control public perceptions through particular speech, and 2) to control what’s said and who can say it through suppression of speech. First, here’s an example of a government entity trying to frame an activist group (with a membership of 5.5 million) as a terrorist organization. On September 3, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring the National Rifle Association a “domestic terrorist organization.” The officials then went on to urge other cities, states and the federal government to follow suit. So, not only has the San Francisco government body said something fairly radical about an interest group that peacefully advocates, but they’re also encouraging other government entities to say it, too (trying to make it more real). The NRA, always responsive, filed an immediate lawsuit for defamation and infringement on their constitutional rights.

Next, here’s an interesting article on the state of free speech at colleges. This is an opinion piece at Bloomberg, written by Steven B. Gerrard, who teaches philosophy at Williams College in Massachusetts. Concerned by contemporary issues in suppression of speech, Gerrard offered a course in the fall of 2018 called “Free Speech and Its Enemies.” Although he was pleased with the results among the students enrolled, he was later attacked during a faculty meeting on freedom of expression by a student group that named him an “Enemy of the People.” This group presented a letter that said: “‘Free Speech,’ as a term, has been co-opted by right-wing and liberal parties as a discursive cover for racism, xenophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and classism.” Notice that this student group is attacking both right-wing and liberal parties with their condemnation—this suggests they see themselves as neither. Does this mean they’re anarchists? The student group went on to present demands including reparations and segregated housing.

My last example is more related to the SFF community. Walter Mosley is an African American writer most noted for mysteries, but he also writes occasional science fiction. After finishing a writing stint on the FX show Snowfall, he was hired to write for CBS’s show Star Trek: Discovery. After using the N-word in the writer’s room, Mosley received a call from Human Resources telling him he was free to write this word into a script, but that he could not say it because it had made one of the other writers “uncomfortable.” Rather than accept this attempt to “silence” him, Mosley quit. Apparently he forgot to mention this to the studio, which learned about it by way of Mosley’s op-ed piece in the New York Times detailing his experience.

This was reported at the SF newszine File 770, where editor Mike Glyer immediately applied his own suppression of speech. Intrigued by the issues in this example, I submitted this comment: “Normally African Americans are given a pass on the N word. The question is why someone complained about his use of it. Did they not realize he identifies as black? Is there maybe a mandatory reporting rule at the studio? I expect he’s gotten huffy because he feels entitled to use the word.” Alert readers may notice that the comment was never posted at File 770. It was edited out by Glyer, who said it “amounted to trolling.”

Irony, anyone?

So, I’ll end with a quote from Mosley, “The worst thing you can do to citizens of a democratic nation is to silence them.”

Review of The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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Tchaikovsky is an Arthur C. Clarke award-winner. This novella was published by Tor.com on July 17, 2018. It is science fiction and runs 176 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Handry lives in a primitive village called Aro with his sister Melory. When he is 13, one of the village men transgresses, and the Lawgiver brews a potion that will exile him from the community. The Lawgiver is old and his ghost is unreliable, so he fails to watch the brew closely enough, and Handry stumbles over the pot and gets some of the potion on himself. The villagers try to clean him off, but he is permanently damaged. He lives a half-existence, unable to digest the village food and somehow separate. Even the local insects avoid him. When the old village Doctor dies, the ghost takes Melory as the new Doctor, and then exiles Handry as unrepairable. Wandering, starving and scared, he finds a band of fellow exiles led by the prophet Sharskin, who leads him to a place called the House of the Ancestors. Sharskin talks to a presence in the House, and he thinks the Severed aren’t really damaged, but instead are released from the tyranny of the ghosts. When Melory comes looking for Handry, Sharskin captures and tortures her, trying to get information from her ghost. Now Handry has to make choices about his future. What will he choose?

This is light reading that starts off like fantasy, but as it develops, we get clues like technical language coming from the ghosts and the House that suggest it’s really science fiction about a society that’s forgotten its origins. This is character driven and Handry’s relationship with his sister is heartwarming. The world-building here is also pretty creative, and the development gradually reveals how the tech behind it all works. The author manages to describe what’s really a fairly horrific life disaster for Handry and Melory and still keep the narration pretty positive.

On the negative side, what Handry and Melory end up with is just knowledge of other possibilities, and no real answers about how he’s going to survive as one of the Severed. This is more about the reveal than about what they can do with the information. Although the novella has a hopeful ending, they haven’t really solved anything. I’m also suspicious about Melory following Handry into the wild–I don’t see how her ghost would allow her to leave the village. And what’s she been eating all this time?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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This novel is science fiction and was released by Vintage on January 9, 2018. It runs 689 pages. For anyone wondering, gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts a shadow. It also has implications about shadow secret societies. This review contains spoilers.

London in the near future is a surveillance state where a Witness System monitors and records everything. The government operates as a type of perfect democracy where all citizens are polled to vote on issues at regular intervals, and a vote is upcoming on whether implants should be inserted into individuals who need special monitoring and possible adjustment. In this environment, the elderly Diana Hunter, an eccentric Luddite writer and suspected dissident, is brought in for questioning through the invasive method of reviewing all her thoughts and memories. She dies after an unsuccessful interrogation, and Mielikki Neith, an Inspector of the Witness System, is tapped to investigate. Neith reviews the recordings of Hunter’s neural activity during the interrogation and finds a blockade of fictions, apparently presented to defeat the system. Three different narratives emerge: Athenian financier Constantine Kyriakos who is being stalked by a shark; ancient Carthagenian scholar and alchemist Athenais who is attempting to resurrect her son; and brilliant Ethiopian artist Berihun Bekele whose daughter Anna and partner Colson are designing a digital game called Witness. In her own reality, Neith meets a mysterious presence who introduces him/herself as Regno Lönnrot, who seems to be invisible to the Witness system. As Neith works through the neural recordings, she begins to put together clues and symbols that indicate a shadow group controlling the Witness System. What can she do about it?

So, this is interesting and mildly entertaining. It’s another of those brilliant works that presents the questionable benefits of surveillance and government control in the interests of national security, all in general terms related to the story, of course. It’s also a SF mystery story, plus a narration where one reality blends into another and you end up not being sure of what the “true” reality is. As we work through it, we start to wonder whether Neith is a reliable character or not. Actually, Bekele’s narration sounds pretty attractive, too. And then, there’s Lönnrot. And a demon? Hm.

On the negative side, there is a serious readability problem here. First, this is waaay too long. On the initial attempt, I gave up midway and later started over. It took me DAYS of dedicated work to slog through it. I understand this is part of the author’s literary device—it mirrors how Hunter dragged out the fictional narratives in her efforts to block the Witness’ invasion of her brain, but still, it’s just not gripping enough to justify nearly 700 pages. Second, these narratives don’t add enough to the story to support their length and detail–we could have gotten the idea with a lot fewer words. Each one of the stories could have been a novel on its own, and together they crowd out the minimal plot where Neith carries out her investigation and reaches a decision. The realities all come together in a muddle of resolution at the end, and the author just leaves us hanging there. This is followed by a very nice discussion about consciousness and reality in the last chapter, but that didn’t make the effort worthwhile for me.

Four stars for the brilliance and the message, but read at your own risk.

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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