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?

Jemisin vs. Silverberg: Defining Culture and Race

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Since I discussed ethnicity and culture in the last Daredevil post, maybe this is a good time to go back to the Silverberg/Jemisin issue that played out after the events of WorldCon 2018. For anyone who’s been under a rock and missed the whole thing, Silverberg was displeased by Jemisin’s acceptance speech for her 3rd Best Novel win. In a discussion group he thought was private, he commented that he thought her conduct at the ceremony had been graceless and offensively political. He was immediately attacked as a sexist and racist. He made various attempts to defend himself against these charges, which were labeled just more evidence that he didn’t recognize his own shortcomings.

This is a fairly common occurrence these days, where someone makes a comment they think is a reasonable opinion, or even a private one in this case, and then is mercilessly attacked. I’ve commented before that the accuracy of the charges doesn’t really seem to be a question, only that it’s taken as an opportunity to attack, generally by the enforcers of a particular political agenda. I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to say who’s right in the Silverberg/Jemisin fuss. What I want to look at is the cultural conflict that’s playing out behind this kind of conversation.

Because cultural norms and expectations are permanently in the process of negotiation, researchers consider them to be a contested zone. Culture is something that moves and changes, sometimes very quickly and sometimes hardly at all. It can be based on specific locale, with different norms just a few miles down the road, or it can be based on group membership, when a person’s expectations about how other people should behave is defined by social groupings within their culture. This means that when Silverberg, a past award winner, complained about Jemisin’s speech at the Hugo Awards ceremony, it meant she hadn’t met his expectations about how an award winner ought to behave. In particular, he seemed to be complaining about the political content of her speech.

Presumably if Jemisin had said something supportive of the SFF community’s history and values, praised its elders, etc., everything would have been just fine. However, she apparently considers herself a political activist and uses her speaking opportunities to attack institutions for their shortcomings, rather than saying things that show her support of the group—in this case she accused the SFF community of grudging acceptance of minority aspirations, i.e. racism. This tactic is meant to be provocative, as Jemisin is calling attention to the fact that the community doesn’t meet her standards. Her comments did trigger a conversation of sorts, but basically a disruptive one that generated hard feelings all around.

Actually, the reception for Jemisin’s speech seemed to be fairly warm at the time, and folks like Silverberg who were offended remained polite about it. It was only later when he thought he was in a private venue that he revealed his offense. So, were her comments appropriate? There’s where the question of culture and the “contested zone” comes in. It’s been fairly common in recent years for award winners to take an opportunity for political statements. See the Academy Awards, for example. However, there is always a backlash. This tactic is a matter of trying to force cultural change, rather than encouraging it. Why not have a conversation about solidarity instead?

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.

Review of Netflix’s Daredevil Season 3

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This MCU show premiered on Netflix in October of 2018, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Erik Oleson as the showrunner. Principal stars include Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock, Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page, Elden Henson as Foggy Nelson, Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/Kingpin and Wilson Bethel as Poindexter/Bullseye. This review contains spoilers.

Daredevil is thought to have been killed in a building collapse (see The Defenders review), but a badly injured Matt washes out of the city storm sewer and is found by a passer-by. He refuses to be taken to the hospital, and takes sanctuary at Clinton Church, where Father Lantom places him with Sister Maggie, back in the orphanage where Matt grew up. He makes a slow recovery, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and eventually starts going out as a vigilante again. Results are poor at first, but as he gets stronger, he finds that Fisk is gaining power again as an organized crime boss. Convincing the FBI he is a valuable informant, Fisk has moved into a penthouse apartment in Manhattan where he gives out enough information to eliminate other crime bosses, while working to establish a new protection racket. He subverts the agents guarding him, including Nadeem and the psychopathic Poindexter. Meanwhile, Foggy Nelson is still working at his job with a new firm and Karen Page has taken a position as a reporter for The Bulletin. The two of them continue to pay the rent on Matt’s apartment, but they are losing hope that he’s still alive. After Fisk’s release hits the papers, Foggy is surprised by a sudden encounter with Matt, who steals his wallet and uses the IDs to gain entrance to Fisk’s prison. He is identified and manages to escape, but is intercepted by a taxi driven by Fisk’s man and plunged off a dock into the river. He escapes there, too, and when Fisk sends the FBI to get him, they find only wet clothes in a pile on the floor of Matt’s apartment. Foggy and Karen insist that they need to work through the law, and Matt joins them to try to find witnesses to turn on Fisk. The stakes continue to rise, as Fisk gains more power and outfits Poindexter with a fake Daredevil suit to make trouble for the trio. Eventually Matt decides that the law won’t prevail, and that he needs to kill Fisk. He misses once because Fisk has Page cornered at the church, but with Karen safe, he crashes Fisk’s wedding with his love Vanessa in order to try again. Confronted with the dark Daredevil, Matt has to make a final decision about how his life will go.

So, this season is absolutely brilliant. Completely reduced by events, Matt Murdock has to totally rebuild his life from nothing. He lurks around in a parka and a baseball cap, and he’s back to basic black for his vigilante work. He’s got no friends, no ID, no money, and depends on charity at the church to eat. He’s haunted by his father’s ghost, his missing mother, an ephemeral Fisk, and a fake, sneering, evil Daredevil that’s exactly what he could become. However, he’s shed Matt’s disability, too—now he’s just himself. In this season, the black of his mask is relieved by a touch of white lining, though at the end we see a red edge peeking out from under his tee-shirt. On the action side, Matt’s escape from the prison is pretty awesome, and all shot in one take. Plus, in the unrelieved grimness of the series so far, suddenly this season presents some completely hilarious moments.

Check it out on Netflix. Five stars.

Review of Netflix The Defenders miniseries

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I’m also going to review this miniseries, as there’s a gap in the Daredevil seasons without it. The Defenders superhero group includes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. This MCU show premiered on Netflix in July 2017, produced by Marvel Television in association with ABC Studios, with Doug Petrie and Marco Ramirez acting as showrunners. It stars Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Finn Jones as Danny Rand/Iron Fist, all reprising their roles from their individual series, plus Sigourney Weaver as the Hand’s Alexandra Reid. This review includes spoilers.

Luke Cage has been released from prison, and during an investigation encounters Iron Fist Danny Rand and his friend Coleen Wing, who have arrived in NYC from Cambodia. PI Jessica Jones takes a case where an architect has gone missing, finds his apartment filled with explosives, and is present when he commits suicide in his office. Jones is taken in by the police and Foggy Nelson sends Matt Murdock to get her out of trouble. Meanwhile, the Hand’s excavations at Midland Circle are causing earth tremors. Cage, Jones and Murdock continue investigating, and Rand tries using his corporate ties to find out what’s going on at Midland Circle. His meeting with the board goes poorly, and the Defenders end up together fighting their way out. They hold a meeting at a Chinese restaurant where Matt’s old martial arts instructor Stick arrives, and Matt and Jones refuse to get involved. The Hand is onto them now, though, and arrive at the restaurant. Cage captures Sowande, one of the Hand’s fingers, and they find that the Hand wants Danny/Iron Fist to open a portal for them at the bottom of their excavation. The Defenders gather their friends and send them to the police precinct station for protection. Stick kills Sowande and means to kill Danny, but Elektra arrives, kills Stick and steals Danny away. The Defenders wake from unconsciousness at the police station, but break out and head uptown to rescue Danny. Meanwhile Cage’s friend Claire Temple and Colleen Wing have stolen the explosives and the architect’s plans out of the police evidence room and set the explosives at Midland Circle to bring down the building. Elektra kills Alexandra Reid and takes over the Hand’s organization. Madam Gao takes control of the reanimation substance the Hand is mining. The Defenders rescue Danny and head out, but Matt goes back for Elektra. The explosive goes off. Is there any way Matt and Elektra can survive?

This story continues the second season of Daredevil. It’s something of a mash-up of stories, but it also includes bits of ironic humor and generally moves along pretty well. There are a couple of big plot holes. For example, if the police find unconscious people at a crime scene, they’ll take them to the hospital, not to the police station, even if they’re identifiable as superheroes. The resulting scenario is fun, but not real likely. Also, even female superheroes have to deal with physics. Even if Jessica Jones is super-strong, she will still need to deal with mass, and even if Alexandra Reid has mystical powers, she will still need correct body mechanics to throw her opponents. This is an obvious problem given the gifts of Élodie Yung as Elektra and the 75-year-old Wai Ching Ho as Madame Gao, who does an awesome job of channeling her mystical powers.

Very entertaining and watchable. Four stars.

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