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 Wilken 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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Rating the Literature of Ideas

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One reason given as to why fiction written by women is suddenly so much more popular in the awards is that tastes in fiction have radically changed over the last few years. In the bad old days when men dominated the market, hard SF was the in thing. This term “hard science fiction” was apparently originated in 1957 by P. Schuyler Miller, book reviewer for Astounding/Analog, who was looking for a way to describe stories with a strong science base. This caught on, and Miller’s legacy term is still broadly used. A while back, I wrote some posts on how to rate SF on the “hardness scale” to determine how well based it is on real science.

However, since the 1950s, the popularity of hard science stories seems to have dropped off considerably, and it’s getting harder and harder to find this kind of story. I’ve written some posts on the decline, and I notice these were joined by various others suggesting the obsolescence of hard SF. Here’s Jasyn Jones, for example, at Castalia House blog who calls it a “delusion.” Tor.com also published a discussion by various authors. I recall there was one publisher (Somebody help me—Superversive? Amazing?) which announced they would no longer even use the term.

So, if we’re not going to rate SF stories on the science content any longer, then what remains to help us pick out which are really the important stories? For one thing, the notion is still hanging out there that science fiction should be the literature of ideas. So, maybe we need to come up with a scale for this? Maybe the Ideation Scale? That would work for fantasy, too, or actually any kind of speculative fiction.

Using the new Ideation Scale, we could rate stories from 5-1 based on what kind of ideas they present:

1 Our heads are empty
2 Political message fiction
3 Rehash of common themes
4 Decent points here
5 World shaking ideas

Next, having a look at the 2018 award finalists on the Ideation Scale.

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Review of “Utopia LOL?” By Jaime Wahls

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award, published by Strange Horizons. According to the biography with the story, Wahls works for the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a nonprofit corporation that does basic research on the question of how to make super-intelligent machines safe and beneficial. This review contains spoilers.

Kit is the Tour Guide to the Future and full of enthusiasm for her job. When Charlie is thawed out after “like billions” of years in cold storage, she is there to towel him off, get his cancer fixed and give him an introduction to life as it is now. She introduces him to the AI Allocator and offers him simulated Universes to live in. Charlie is unhappy with life as a bird and rejects Kit’s recommendation that he try floor tiles, and chooses a LOTR universe instead. After a few years, Charlie is bored silly, and Kit and the Allocator have to find something else to fill his need to be productive. Would Charlie be interested in a star probe?

In case you can’t tell from the summary, this is humor. Kit is a total airhead, and likes to be a floor tile because it allows her to form complete thoughts. The story also pillories social media, cos players, over-obsessive fans, smug perfect people, gamers and various other unproductive devotees of popular culture. There is also a serious side, as the Allocator is in charge of providing for humanity. It is constrained by its programming and facing the issue of overpopulation and the ongoing destruction of Earth. If they’re all like Kit, maybe humanity is well on the way to self-destruction, too. The stock of humans in cryostorage represents a resource to deal with these crises. This is pretty clear, but then the story goes off the rails into vagueness at the end when they start talking about a memory wipe for Kit.

I didn’t understand this, so I went looking for other opinions. The best explanation I found was that Kit is valuable for her total air headedness and her enthusiasm, and Allocator wants to preserve this for its next candidate for revival. Presumably this is because of its programming, which requires that humans have to want something from it and provide affirmative consent to its recommendations, and that Kit has a predictable effect on the old-timers. This doesn’t quite hold water for me.

Humans in this future (except the cold storage ones) are post-Singularity, only an uploaded digitized consciousness. I can accept that Allocator’s resources are running low to support the human population, but I don’t see how a digitized consciousness can reproduce at all, much less at an unmanageable rate. Also, I don’t see how Allocator can memory-wipe a digitized consciousness without altering what she is. Couldn’t it just produce a disposable copy? And what’s the deal with sending just one person off on a star probe? If they find a great place, how is one person going to procreate? Cloning? Who’s going to be in charge of this? Hm.

Regardless of the niggling logical failures, this is a hugely successful story because of the scope and humor.

Four and a half stars.

Rocket Stack Rank Site Predicts the 2018 Hugo Winners

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For anyone who’s somehow not noticed, Rocket Stack Rank is a fairly new short fiction review site established by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong. The site posts short reviews and rankings of long and short fiction from major pro magazines and anthologies (no novels) during the year, and also compilations of how other reviewers rated the stories. The wrap-up at the end of the year shows three clear leaders for the Hugo Award, based on this system:

Best Novella – Nexus by Michael Flynn from Analog
Best Novelette – “A Series of Steaks” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad from Clarkesworld
Best Short Story – “The Martian Obelisk” by Linda Nagata from Tor.com

In comparison, here’s what the Nebula Reading List predicts, based on the number of recommendations from SFWA members:

Best Novella – And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker from Uncanny Magazine
Best Novelette – “Small Changes over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara from Uncanny Magazine
Best Short Story (tie) – “Carnival Nine” by Caroline Yoachim from Beneath Ceaseless Skies and “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience (TM)” by Rebecca Roanhorse from Apex Magazine

Interestingly, Nexus rated right at the bottom of the Nebula Reading List, and “A Series of Steaks” rated fourth in its category. I don’t see “The Martian Obelisk” on the Nebula list at all. Does this suggest a bias toward hard SF among reviewers? A bias toward fantasy among SFWA members?

The Locus poll results will be available soon, so I’ll have a look at those when they come out. A quick skim of the ballot right now shows no sign of Nexus or “Small Changes over Long periods of Time.” I wouldn’t expect they’d rate as write-ins.

Review of Death’s End by Cixin Liu

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Okay, I’m finally done with this novel. It’s a finalist for the 2017 Hugo Award, translated by Ken Liu and published by Tor. It runs about 600 pages.

Cheng Xin is an aerospace scientist. The Earth has been in contact with the Trisolarians and has benefited from their science, while a program of dark forest deterrence ensures the two civilizations will respect one another. The Trisolarian fleet is on the way to Earth, and scientists there send out a probe with the brain of the cancer patient Yun Tianming. Cheng Xin goes into hibernation and wakes to find the probe has gone missing and the deterrence Swordholder Luo Ji is retiring. Cheng Xin is elected the new Swordholder, but when the Trisolarians launch an invasion, she falters, setting the human race up for extermination. A backup system on an interstellar ship acts, and the Trisolarians flee. This it to no avail, as their home world is destroyed by a dark forest strike against their sun. The interaction also exposes the Earth’s position to dark forest cleansers. A surprise contact with Yun Tianming provides possible defenses against a strike, so scientists start to prepare. Will the human race be ready in time?

This is a narration that crosses centuries to the end of time, addressing Earth’s attempt to join the community of outer space and the challenges that have to be overcome. It’s a tour de force of theory and ideas, as Liu imagines threats and technical responses on a grand scale. There’s probably still a lot lost in the translation, but some of the elegance of Liu’s prose comes through in this novel. His imagery is front and center this time, including descriptions of technical matters and some moments that are just for pure enjoyment. It’s definitely hard SF, as the problems, solutions and developments are all based on hard scientific theory.

On the negative side, Liu’s characterizations still tend to be weak, as he’s clearly more interested in the historical sweep and the technical details. Cheng Xin feels passive and doesn’t seem personally involved in any of the conflicts. I can’t see why people defer to her, as she seems to have no particular authority and tends to pass off responsibility or obligation. I suspect this might be a Chinese view of modesty and selflessness, but I think she needs a stronger power base in order to be the main protagonist.

Four and a half stars. Recommended.

NOTE: The dark forest is explained in the previous volume of this series, titled, appropriately, The Dark Forest. It’s based on the Fermi Paradox, i.e. there should be other civilizations out there, so why haven’t we heard a peep out of them?

Notes on Accomplishing Greater Diversity

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The current initiative for diversity falls out of the policy of multiculturalism. In recent decades, this policy has replaced assimilation, where individuals give up their cultural values to take on those of the dominant culture. Under multiculturalism, the expectation is that society will celebrate the diversity that different cultural values bring. All has not gone well with the effort to incorporate diversity within the dominant culture. In other words, there’s a lot of friction.

One of the big complaints about the issue has been that people talk about diversity a lot, but in practice, the dominant culture remains rigid and unaccommodating. For example, here’s a 2008 blog post where writers of color complain about being forced into writing stereotypes in order to get published. In the SFF community, it’s true that we see a greater variety in races, religions, sexual orientation, disability status, etc., among writers, but there’s actually a difference between counting beans (i.e. publications, statistics on the awards ballot) and establishing real diversity. So, what is real diversity? How would this look on the award ballots, for example? I have a few suggestions to throw out there.

For one thing, I’d expect a broad difference in content and theme. I’ve complained before about the preference publishers seem to have for emotional content over intellectual inquiry. As I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog, there were entirely too many stories out there this year on the theme of child abuse. This tends to crowd out serious SF in favor of emotional stories with a minimal SF or fantasy setting. The quantity of blatant political message fiction in contention for the awards this year is also troubling.

Second, I’d expect settings from different cultures and viewpoints. Real diversity should include more writers from outside the Western dominant culture, for example, writing stories based on Chinese, African or Pakistani culture. It’s true that there are more diverse names on the awards ballots in recent years, but has this really resulted in a diversity of viewpoint? And one of the Sad/Rabid Puppies’ complaints has been the dominance of liberal/progressive themes. Shouldn’t real diversity include other political viewpoints, as well?

Third, I’d expect diversity to include a broad sampling of ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations, both among the writers and the characters. One of the characteristics of recent ballots is the complete absence of white men, for example. Hispanics and Native Americans are also consistently shut out of the awards ballots. In some cases, preference for LGBTQ writers and characters may be at the point of displacing the straight and cis-gendered.

A while back, I got comments that recommended I look at the diversity on the Hugo ballot this year. So, how does it stand up under this kind of analysis? There are some good points here. First, there are four black writers and two trans writers on the ballot, both of which are under-represented minorities. There are also both men and women on the ballot, even if they’re not arrayed according to demographics. There are writers with disability. There is variety in the type of works, including fantasy, science fantasy, dark fantasy, space opera and hard SF.

On the critical side, this ballot tends to lack in intellectual diversity, suffering the usual preference for emotional over intellectual content. Although 8 of the works are nominally SF, Cixin Liu provides the only serious, hard SF, and is also the only writer from outside the dominant UK/American English culture. The contenders lean heavily to women writers of fantasy or science fantasy, and without Vox Day’s activism, there would be no white men on the Hugo ballot at all. Half the finalists were published by Tor, which means the company’s particular brand dominates, shutting out small presses and independents that might be publishing more diverse and cutting edge work.

The Hugo is a fan-based award, and by now it’s clear the rules allow particular groups to dominate the voting. So how could WorldCon increase the diversity of the results using these criteria? Broader participation?

Award Winners that Don’t Hold Up over Time

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In her 2014 article on literary awards, Barbara Cohen notes: “Cultural prizes notoriously reward the wrong works for the wrong reasons: On the long list of worthies deprived of the Nobel for literature are Tolstoy, Proust, and Joyce.” I’ve been discussing influences on the awards over the last few blogs, and of course these issues are likely to result in some winners that don’t hold up over time.

Checking around, I found The Hugo Award Book Club (HABC), which has a page discussing the issue of poor choices. The group awards the “Worst Hugo Award” title to 1973, when Isaac Asimov won his first Hugo for a novel with The Gods Themselves. Here was the lineup of finalists that year. As was standard in those times, there were no concerns about diversity, so the finalists are all white men.

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov [Galaxy Mar/Apr,May/Jun 1972; If Mar/Apr 1972]
When Harlie Was One by David Gerrold [Ballantine, 1972]
There Will Be Time by Poul Anderson [Signet, 1972]
The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg [Scribner’s, 1972]
Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg [Galaxy Jul/Aug,Sep/Oct 1972; Scribner’s, 1972]
A Choice of Gods by Clifford D. Simak [Putnam, 1972]

The HABC briefly reviews all these works, along with some other worthy contenders that year. Asimov’s winner was a three-part series published in Galaxy Magazine where aliens in a different dimension steal energy from ours, causing the sun to go nova. The HABC notes that the physics is interesting, but that the end result was dull and boring and the book has not aged well in comparison to the other contenders that year. In the comments Steve Davidson mentions that the work was recognized at the time for its risks with sexual content, but that isn’t anything exceptional these days, so the novel’s shortcomings are what stand out.

So what affected the WorldCon membership that year to make this choice? Asimov’s reputation as a short story writer? Frederik Pohl’s reputation as the editor of Galaxy? The ascendancy of hard SF? Promotion? Some kind of groupthink issue? Whatever it was, the vision affected the Nebula and Locus voters, too. The novel also won the Nebula in 1972 and the Locus Award in 1973.

Getting back to the present time, which of recent choices in the awards will hold up best over time? It’s an interesting question, eh?

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