Review of Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

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This is the fourth novella in the series titled The Murderbot Diaries. It was released 2 October 2018 by Tor. This has been a highly successful series, including the Hugo and Nebula winner All Systems Red, followed by Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol. A full length novel continuing the story is scheduled for release in 2020. This review contains massive spoilers.

At the end of Rogue Protocol, Murderbot has safely escaped Milu on Ship. Since Ship isn’t all that bright, it monitors Ship’s inputs as they approach HaveRatton Station. When Ship is directed to divert from its usual dock by Port Authority, Murderbot uses an evac suit to leave through the cargo module airlock and enters the station through another docked ship. The diversion turns out to be about a large security force waiting for some rogue SecUnit. Hm. Safely on its way, Murderbot checks the newsfeeds and finds that GrayCris has charged its owner Dr. Mensah with corporate espionage and that she is now missing. Intensive research suggests this is about the data Murderbot collected on Milu, and that she’s being held on TranRollinHyfa Station where GrayCris has its corporate headquarters. Murderbot uses an ID chip and a hard currency card it took from hired killers Gerth and Wilson and catches a fast passenger transport for TRH. Once there, it identifies a bond company gunship sitting off the station. Pulling a status report, it finds the ship has been refused dockage by the station, but a shuttle from the ship has docked. Drs. Pin Lee, Ratthi and Gurathin are on the station attempting to negotiate Mensah’s release. Can Murderbot get her out of GrayCris’clutches without getting caught itself? If so, then what?

This continues the story arc with the same great features of the other novellas. The world building is notably excellent, as are the characters. Because it’s written in first person, we have the advantage of Murderbot’s wonderfully entertaining viewpoint. Not only is it getting much better at impersonating a human, but I’m suspecting that “comm interface” component ART made up for it provides a lot of extra processing power. We’re also finally seeing why rogue SecUnits really are dangerous, as Murderbot casually hacks its way through the station’s protected systems while simultaneously outwitting GrayCris’ security force and carrying on an apparent love affair with Dr. Mensah (just like on the media shows). Once it’s trapped, the violence escalates, and it doesn’t want to shut the aggression down. Only Mensah’s tenuous hold on it keeps things together. There’s been a rising action line through the whole series, and this caps it off nicely.

On the not so great side, I’ve got some nits to pick with the whole story arc at this point. I suspect the series was written fairly quickly, as Wells has said it’s a short story that got out of control, and after the huge success of the first novella, she quickly got in gear to produce the rest. Tor was also in a hurry to follow up on the initial success, and went light on the editing. That means there are some inconsistencies in the content. 1) ART’s modifications included reducing Murderbot’s height by either one or two centimeters; we’re not sure which. 2) The sampling device that tried to capture Don Abene in Rogue Protocol snatched her helmet away, but later she has it again. 3) In Exit Strategy, the Preservation group plans not to mention Murderbot is a SecUnit so there will be no questions about citizenship, but somehow Mensah’s daughter knows. Also, the plan to produce a documentary (presumably what this series is) will also reveal this issue. Hello? 4) At the end of Exit Strategy, what happened to Murderbot’s projectile weapon? I can’t believe it left that behind, but it just sort of disappears. 5) At the end of Exit Strategy, was it struck by shrapnel or a projectile? It says both in different places. 6) In Exit Strategy, I didn’t quite believe the scenario that led to system failure. It seems like a processing overload would have just led to burnt out capacitors. Extending into a different system should be done with copied code, right? Like a virus? And that shouldn’t jumble up the original code, right? Somebody who knows about AI architecture help me out on this one.

Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Review of The Changeling by Victor LaValle 

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s dark fantasy, published by Spiegel & Grau and runs 431 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Apollo Kagwa lives in Manhattan and works as a vintage book dealer. He finds his true love Emma Valentine and becomes the doting father of baby Brian, named after Apollo’s father, a white man who disappeared mysteriously when Apollo was a child. Emma develops postpartum depression, and when Brian is about 6 months old, she starts to insist the boy isn’t her baby. She chains Apollo to the steam pipes, cooks the baby with boiling water and then disappears. Apollo serves a stint in Rikers for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage, and when he’s released, he starts a search for his missing wife. He finds a coven of witches living in the East River, minions of a troll living in Queens, and finally locates his wife, who has staked out the troll’s cave. Can the two of them destroy the troll and rescue the real baby Brian?

So, this is a pretty impressive novel, including multiple themes and motifs. It’s a post-modern work and also feels slightly surreal. The story is apparently based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Outside Over There, which makes recurring appearances in the novel. In the Sendak book, Ida’s little sister is stolen away by goblins. Her parents don’t notice, so Ida enters the magical world herself to bring her sister back.

Accordingly, the first hundred pages of The Changeling are a pretty normal, positive story set in New York City, covering themes of marriage and family, work and missing and present fatherhood. Then it suddenly plunges into an alternate reality and we start to see the underlying currents of magic. This is socially and technologically up-to-date, with the troll’s minions hacking through Facebook into the private lives of families, watching their children. The troll’s minions have a contract to provide children to the troll in return for prosperity and white privilege. They make alt-right noises and oppose the witches, symbols of female power. There are also themes of living while black, and how parents damage their children. LeValle makes a few casual comments in the book that are really cutting. One that really struck me was how magical glamours hide the suffering of the weak. Apollo’s name is symbolic. He is the involved father, the sun god against the forces of darkness.

On the not so great side, LeValle doesn’t employ much in the way of style here, meaning we don’t feel a lot of foreboding, threat or suspense. The prose is fairly straight-forward and matter-of-fact, as are the descriptions and narrative. Some of the detail seems really unnecessary, like a section on breast-feeding. Touches of humor are very mild, mostly associated with being black in the wrong place. The post-modern approach is sort of scattered (as always), and takes away from the power of the story.

Final impression: Smooth, easy read. The social commentary here is first rate. Best for lovers of horror.

Five stars.

Review of “Old Souls” by Fonda Lee

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published in the anthology Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction and Fantasy and runs about 8800 words. This review contains spoilers.

Not only does Claire remember her past lives, but she can read the past lives of others when she touches them. She has just had her 20th birthday and knows she has never seen her 21st. She visits a fortune teller, hoping for help, but finds the woman is a fraud. Pearl, a woman in the waiting room, follows her out of the business. Pearl has no past lives because she is one of the Ageless. She is searching for the soul of a man she knew in a previous life and she wants Claire to help her find him. Claire agrees, and is surprised to find the man is Kegan, her boyfriend Ethan’s brother. She lets Pearl know, and then finds Pearl has lied to her. Can Claire deal with Pearl’s deception? Can she break the pattern that has always taken her life before age 21?

This story is plot driven and moves along fairly smartly to a fairly violent climax. The characters are adequate, but not really deep, regardless that we know something about their past lives. Pearl’s deception isn’t a complete surprise because of foreshadowing. As Pearl says, everybody sets up a pattern. The details about student life add depth to the plot and the ending is emotionally satisfying.

On the not so great side, I’m not sure that satisfaction is justified. Claire thinks she’s broken her pattern, but it’s still a while before her 21st birthday, and Pearl is still out there. Maybe she’ll go on thinking she’s accomplished her goals, or maybe not. Also, what kind of pattern will Kegan follow now? We’re led to believe he’s an innocent, but could Pearl have been right about him?

Patterns aren’t really world-shaking, but you have to give Fonda credit for saying something a little different.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Shades of Magic (series) by V. E. Schwab

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Tor sent me a free ebook, so I went on to read the series. This is a fantasy tale consisting of three novels, A Darker Shade of Magic (2015), A Gathering of Shadows (2016) and a Conjuring of Light (2017). This review may include spoilers.

The City of London exists in four different realities, identified by color. Grey London is an ordinary place with scant magic; Red London is a place where magic is abundant; White London is ruled by tyrants and evil magic, and Black London is dead and sealed off, consumed by dark magic. Each living world has an Antari, a person born with blood magic that allows them to pass between worlds. These are Kell, fostered by the royals in Red London; Lila, a pickpocket with no idea what she really is in Grey London, and Holland, enslaved by the tyrants in White London. Kell is well treated, but feels unmet needs. As a result, he tends to compulsively collect artifacts from the different worlds which he keeps in a private room. He is targeted by a plot and accidentally carries dark magic into Red London. This sets off a struggle to contain the evil, and eventually he and Lila managed to send it, along with Holland, into Black London. They think they’re rid of the threat, but Holland negotiates with the dark magical presence in Black London and carries the evil back into Red. Can the residents of Red London find a way to save their world?

The best thing about this series is the concept and the world building. The series is very character driven, and Schwab expends large amounts of text in setting up the characters, with all their strengths and weaknesses, and in building relationships. This works very well in the first couple of volumes, while we’re becoming familiar with the setup and the characters and their ties to one another. For example, book 1 is mostly about Kell, how he works as a liaison and his relationship with the royals, especially his “brother” Prince Rhys. Book 2 is pretty much about Lila’s discovery of who she is and how she learns to work magic.

Book 3 is about 600 pages, dealing with the dark magic invasion, and here it appears that Schwab runs out of plot. There is a huge mid-story sag, running maybe 200-300 pages, where she fills up space by inventing past experiences for her characters and rehashing events for emotional effect. For characters with such huge responsibilities, various royals, plus Rhys, Kells and Lila, turn out to make very immature and poorly thought-out decisions. They also turn out to be the kind of people who repeatedly torture and abuse chained prisoners. Plus, there seems to be no rule of law here. I was not pleased.

I’ll have to split the rating. Books 1 & 2 get four stars because of the concept, but Book 3 gets a two. I almost quit half-way through it.

Are Hugo finalists suffering from affirmative action?

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Now that it looks like the cat is out of the bag on how WorldCon members feel about the Hugo finalists, maybe we can analyze what went on with the programming. For anyone who missed it, WorldCon staff sent out the following about finalists who weren’t included on the program: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Then I had a conversation with a WorldCon member who admitted she didn’t really read anything, but actually nominated and voted based on the authors’ minority status.

Because of the volume of material out there, I suspect this is a standard practice for WorldCon voters. You feel obligated, so you look through the lists of recommended works, check the biographies and pick out the writers who advertise the most minority status. This discharges your responsibility as a progressive, and then you can spend your time at the con enjoying activities and authors you really like. (In this case, that looked to be panels full of white men.)

The problem is, this leads to a reality gap. It means that various authors are being promoted by a literary award system based on who they are rather than the quality of their work. It also means that quality now means pretty much zilch in the award. Certainly as a faithful reviewer of Hugo finalists, I’ve noticed wide variance in the quality of works nominated (both by Puppies and “organic” WorldCon voters). So, do members ever get around to reading these books at all? Will they get bored and impatient if they have to listen to too much from those darn finalists? After all, they got voted in, right? What else do they want?

Meanwhile on the other side of the story, a group of authors thinks they’ve been recognized because people appreciate their work. They’re excited to go to the con and interact with their fans, and instead, they’re being brushed off into back rooms by the programming committee. This is disrespectful considering their status as finalists for a prestigious award—and they feel like their careers will suffer as a result.

So, are these finalists actually being harmed? Affirmative action has been around long enough for people to judge the results, and a few research studies have investigated both the short and long term affects. The conclusion is that affirmative action policies do generally work in increasing diversity within a population, but not always how you’d expect. For example, the most noticeable result is that affirmative action tends to strongly benefit white women. Meanwhile, minorities who are targeted by the worst discrimination, like black and Hispanic men, may actually lose ground.

Currently there’s some soul searching going on because of an Asian class-action suit against Harvard University alleging discrimination in admissions. This has brought up the topic of “mismatch,” a theory that suggests some minorities might actually be harmed by promotion into an environment where they don’t really have the skills to compete. This would be beginning authors, for example, who are nominated before they’ve really gotten control of their skills as a writer. This means people might lose respect for them, stop reading their work, etc. So, is this happening to minorities who win the Hugo?

So far, it doesn’t look that way, complaints from this year’s finalists notwithstanding. They still get the name recognition, and appealing winners have gone on to become poster children, nominated again and attractive for film and TV deals. For example, see recent winners Nnedi Okorafor, Nora Jemisin and Victor LaValle. There’s also at least a small bump in readership.

Maybe it’s a question of whether the ideas actually stand up?

WorldCon’s Voting Problem

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WorldCon has considered itself a bastion of the progressive in the face of the recent Sad/Rabid Puppy traditionalist siege, so the recent programming crisis has blindsided a lot of people. For anyone who’s missed it, some of the high points played out on Twitter like this:

  • Bogi Takács complains about errors representing their name and gender in the WorldCon bio.
  • After responses from the WorldCon team, the staff is accused of lying about the errors.
  • Some guests complain about bios and photos being taken from their private accounts.
  • The programming schedule is issued and several Hugo Award nominees are not represented, although some members of the staff are listed on multiple panels.
  • WorldCon issues an explanation about programming as follows: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.”
  • JY Yang calls out WorldCon staff for not providing program space for #ownvoices (later amended to not a good enough space).
  • Management continues to apologize and promises to rework the schedule.

A lot of this likely has to do with standard inefficiency and delegating the work to clueless but enthusiastic volunteers way down the food chain. Dealing with the nominees and panel applicants also looks like a matter of herding cats, where potential guests, in time-honored fashion, totally fail to RSVP. However, there are a couple of interesting issues that showed up in the discussion about this at File 770.

The first is the revelation that out of 4630 attendees to the con, 2000 of them applied for positions on the program. This is 43%, or almost half. This suggests that these 2000 are either industry professionals with something to promote, or else they consider themselves professional fans with an opinion worth listening to. Of course, this means the staff in charge of programming have a huge pile of applications to wade through, trying to sort out who might be interesting to the larger body of attendees.

The real mind-bender from the above, of course, is that comment: “There’s a generation of new Hugo finalists who are exciting to the nominators but completely unfamiliar to attendees.” Since this comment was not well considered, I think we can assume it represents an unfiltered assessment of the situation from someone on the programming staff who is struggling to sort out those 2000 applicants. The reason it’s not well considered, of course, is that it strongly implies the WorldCon attendees either haven’t read or don’t much care about the work of the Hugo finalists.

This is a huge crisis of faith. At File 770, it led to questions about the reliability of the new EPH voting system installed last year, which was meant to ensure “diversity” by reducing the impact of slate voting. But actually, this isn’t a problem in reliability of the nomination and voting system, or even a question of cheating. I talked to a WorldCon member who told me what she does. Because she’s very busy, she doesn’t really have time to read ahead of the vote, so she just checks lists of recommendations and chooses prominent minorities and women for the ballot. I’d like to suggest this is why the WorldCon membership isn’t really excited about the work of this years’ finalists. They were chosen for who they are rather than for what they wrote.

At this point, I hope this isn’t a surprise to anybody. After all, isn’t that why people put up those biographies that describe their minority status in such detail?

Identity politics bullies versus SFF Con management 2018

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At the end of July, WorldCon became another in the list of SFF conventions that experienced partisan conflict this year about programming, guests or treatment of guests. Special interest groups have apparently moved on from insisting on strict Codes of Conduct for the conventions to insisting on excluding certain guests and demanding particular programming as part of the same agenda. The complaints flying around are the same ones honed for use in the Code of Conduct campaign, words like “unsafe,” “disrespected” and “harassment.” These loaded words are apparently based on such ordinary things as fiction releases and errors in biographies. It seems mostly a problem on the progressive left, but after conservative author Jon Del Arroz didn’t get what he wanted from a kerfluffle at BayCon, he filed suit for defamation—an indication of how far people will go to get their way.

Most of this problem is just victim/identity politics, where people maneuver for advantage through bullying tactics. If you’re a minority and want recognition, then the best way to do it these days is to make noise about being victimized and disrespected and otherwise causing a stink. Progressives are trained to respond with abject apologies and to jump to make adjustments that give you what you want. Because the cons have limited resources and can’t afford massive disturbances and bad press, most have folded to demands. This has led to complaints from other groups harmed by the changes, such as conservatives or older writers. This must have been a particularly aggressive group of activist bullies at WorldCon. See Mary Robinette Kowal comments on trying to work with them. The only failure of this strategy so far seems to have been DragonCon, which ignored guest withdrawals and fired agitators from their positions on staff.

Whatever, WorldCon management busily tried to accommodate the complaints and save their reputation as progressive. There was quite a scramble going on in the last weeks before the con, where the staff completely tore apart the programming and started over. Sensitive guests withdrew to make room for minorities. Teams were called in to help. But, the truth is, they can’t satisfy the demands because it’s not just about appearing on a panel. The progressive ground has moved out from WorldCon members’ feet. An article in the Daily Dot actually classifies their standard demographic as “overlapping” with the Sad Puppies. Who would have thought?

Next, interesting questions about the Hugo voting that emerged in the crisis.

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