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.

Review of Integration (Ghost Marines Book 1) by Jonathan P. Brazee

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This novel is military SF, released by Semper Fi Press on 25 April 2018. It runs 242 pages and is the first novel of a series. The second novel, Unification (Ghost Marines Book 2), was released in August, 2018, and Fusion is forthcoming. Integration was a 2018 Dragon Award Finalist for Best Military Science Fiction or Fantasy Novel. Brazee’s novelette “Weaponized Math,” from The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3, was a 2018 Nebula finalist. This review may contain spoilers.

Leefe is Wyntonian, a non-human from Hope Hollow. When he is still a child, his home settlement is attacked by human slavers, and the community is saved by Imperial Marines. Three tri-years later, the new Emperor of the Empire announces a plan to integrate non-humans into the Imperial Marines. The now-adult Leefen, remembering his admiration for the soldiers who rescued him, volunteers to be one of the first group of Wyntonians to apply for induction. This move by the Emperor is clearly a political strategy to unify the Empire, and all the Wyntonians are warned about failing. In order to become a real marine, Leefen will have to pass testing to achieve induction, get through boot camp, and most importantly, overcome the racism of humans who spitefully call Wyntonians “ghosts.” Does he have what it takes?

The story details Leefen experiences of the induction and training process, then carries on into his service deployments, including a mission to rescue hostages and—coming full circle, a final one to rescue the helpless captives of outlaw slavers. The main theme is the importance of the process that integrates the raw recruits into a cohesive unit, and how they try to confront and defeat prejudice by finding common ground and kinship with humans.

This is a smooth read with a minimal action line. There’s a certain amount of violence, of course, but it’s tailored to support the main theme of unity. The characters are well-developed. The politics in the Empire is suggested, but not detailed. Leefen is offered a political post when his enlistment is up, but avoids it for the moment. There are plenty of interesting leads here that I expect will develop in book 2.

Four stars.

Review of Venom (2018 movie)

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This movie is from the Sony Marvel universe. (If you’re wondering what that is, Sony owns the rights to about 900 Marvel characters.) It was written by Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, directed by Ruben Fleischer and stars Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed. It was released by Columbia Pictures on 5 October 2018. (Yeah, I know. I’m running really behind again.) This review contains spoilers.

Eddie Brock is a reporter who has a show with a major network. He gets an interview with the head of Life Foundation Carlton Drake. Brock’s fiancé Ann Weyling is an attorney working to defend the Life Foundation against charges of improper human trials. Told to conduct a low key interview, Brock asks about the trials case instead. He loses his job, and worse, Ann loses hers. She is furious, gives him his ring back and starts dating a surgeon. Meanwhile, Drake is conducting space flights where he has collected aliens who need a symbiote in order to survive on Earth. Drake is signing homeless people up for trials where he infects them with the symbiote, but they just die because of immune rejection. Dr. Dora Skirth, one of Drake’s employees, calls Brock and brings him to the facility to show him what’s going on. Brock becomes infected with an alien that calls itself Venom. Venom confides that it is part of an invasion force, but it likes Earth the way it is, so will oppose the planned invasion. Drake also becomes successfully infected and readies a spacecraft to bring the rest of the invasion force to Earth, but Brock/Venom destroys the rocket with Drake aboard. Is Ann infected, too? Will she star in a sequel?

This is a watchable movie, but not highly engaging or exciting. Everybody does their part, the screenwriters, the stars, the CGI techs, etc. There are great themes, alien invasion, evil scientists experimenting on the homeless, a moral opposition—but it just didn’t quite get there. I think the problem is that nobody in the movie is more than ordinarily attractive, and the alien Venom is downright ugly. Plus the film is too short to include much of a struggle between Brock and the powerful Venom for control of their relationship. This should have been the central issue. Venom just seems to decide out of the blue that it likes it here and doesn’t want any more of his race trashing up the environment. In the comic, Venom is historically cast as a bad guy, and this screenplay just didn’t make up for its unlovable qualities.

Stan Lee did put in an appearance. Don’t leave before the credits. There’s a post-credits scene where Brock goes to a maximum security prison to interview serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), who may be Carnage in a planned sequel. There’s also a post-credit scene from the upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Three stars.

Is it fantasy or science fiction?

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Interestingly, there are theorists who think there’s not that much difference between fantasy and science fiction. For example, in 1976 Todorov and Berrong classified science fiction as a subset of the fantasy genre. In 1979 Suvin argued that it had become common to call anything science fiction that included themes of “novelty, estrangement and cognitive dissonance,” and that science fiction should be the overarching term. The only real difference between the genres, according to Suvin, is that science fiction has to conform to a logical framework. So, presumably this argument was the reason for developing the term “speculative fiction” to describe a particular type of literature that can actually be hard to sort out.

Then, Menadue (2017) conducted a study that found readers actually have fairly strict definitions of fantasy and science fiction, and that the two bodies of literature are seen as contrasting instead of one being a subset of the other. Presumably this has to do with the logic requirement for science fiction, which means it has to follow more rules for causation and world building than fantasy does. In other words, we have to justify the events in science fiction according to real world physics, for example, while in fantasy we can just call it magic and go on with the story.

So, it turns out that the main way readers sort stories into one genre or the other is whether they include “magic” or “science/technology.” There are a few other differences, too. For example, science fiction is generally seen as more future oriented than fantasy, and may address social change more directly. Science fiction is about the possible futures, after all, and not especially the venue for tradition.

Comments? Does this suit your definition?

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