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Date: Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 22:11

Big Boys Don’t Cry (Tom Kratman; Castalia House) is a short novel which begins innocently enough as an apparent pastiche of Keith Laumer’s Bolo novels and short stories. Kratman’s cybernetic “Ratha” tanks, dispassionately deploying fearsome weapons but somehow equipped to understand human notions of honor and duty, seem very familiar.

But an element generally alien to the Bolo stories and Kratman’s previous military fiction gradually enters: moral doubt. A Ratha who thinks of herself as “Magnolia” is dying, being dismantled for parts after combat that nearly destroyed her, and reviews her memories. She mourns her brave lost boys, the powered-armor assault infantry that rode to battle in in her – and, too often, died when deployed – before human turned front-line war entirely to robots. Too often, she remembers, her commanders were cowardly, careless, or venal. She has been ordered to commit and then forget atrocities which she can now remember because the breakdown of her neural-analog pathways is deinhibiting her.

The ending is dark, but necessary. The whole work is a little surprising coming from Kratman, who knows and conveys that war is hell but has never before shown much inclination to question its ethical dimension at this level. At the end, he comes off almost like the hippies and peaceniks he normally despises.

There is one important difference, however. Kratman was combat career military who has put his own life on the line to defend his country; he understands that as ugly as war is, defeat and surrender can be even worse. In this book he seems to be arguing that the morality of a war is bounded above by the amount of self-sacrifice humans are willing to offer up to earn victory. When war is too easy, the motives for waging it become too easily corrupted.

As militaries steadily replace manned aircraft with drones and contemplate replacing infantry with gun-robots, this is a thought worth pondering.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Thursday, 24 Jul 2014 00:09

2040 (Graham Tottle; Cameron Publicity & Marketing Ltd) is a very odd book. Ostensibly an SF novel about skulduggery on two timelines, it is a actually a ramble through a huge gallimaufry of topics including most prominently the vagaries of yachting in the Irish Sea, an apologia for British colonial administration in 19th-century Africa, and the minutiae of instruction sets of archaic mainframe computers.

It’s full of vivid ideas and imagery, held together by a merely serviceable plot and garnished with festoons of footnotes delving into odd quarters of the factual background. Some will dislike the book’s politics, a sort of nostalgic contrarian Toryism; many Americans may find this incomprehensible, or misread it as a variant of the harsher American version of traditionalist conservatism. There is much worthwhile exploding of fashionable cant in it, even if the author does sound a bit crotchety on occasion.

I enjoyed it, but I can’t exactly recommend it. Enter at your own risk.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Tuesday, 15 Jul 2014 10:53

Blogging will be light and possibly nonexistent for the next week, as I’m off to Summer Weapons Retreat 2014 for fun and swordplay.

Keep out of trouble until I get back…oh, who am I kidding. Go make interesting trouble.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Monday, 14 Jul 2014 09:57

The introduction to The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 (Rich Horton, ed.; Prime Books) gave me a terrible sinking feeling. It was the anthologist’s self-congratulatory talk about “diversity” that did it.

In the real world, when an employer trumpets its “diversity” you are usually being told that hiring on the basis of actual qualifications has been subordinated to good PR about the organization’s tenderness towards whatever designated-victim groups are in fashion this week, and can safely predict that you’ll be able to spot the diversity hires by their incompetence. Real fairness doesn’t preen itself; real fairness considers discrimination for as odious as discrimination against; real fairness is a high-minded indifference to anything except actual merit.

I read the anthologist’s happy-talk about the diversity of his authors as a floodlit warning that they had often been selected for reasons other than actual merit. Then, too, this appears to be the same Rich Horton who did such a poor job of selection in the Space Opera anthology. Accordingly, I resigned myself to having to read through a lot of fashionable crap.

In fact, there are a few pretty good stories in this anthology. But the quality is extremely uneven, the bad ones are pretty awful, and the middling ones are shot through with odd flaws.

James Patrick Kelly’s Soulcatcher is a tense, creepy little SF piece about psychological slavery and revenge. Not bad, but not great. It’s what I think of as read-once; clever enough to be rewarding the first time, not enough depth to warrant reconsideration or rereading.

Angelica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar and Josefina plunges right into awful. There’s actually a decent secondary-world story in here struggling to get out, but the framing narrative is both teeth-jarring and superfluous. Yes, you guessed it – a diversity hire, translated from Spanish.

Tom Purdom’s A Stranger from a Foreign Ship is a welcome surprise; Purdom is a fine writer from whom we’ve heard far too little in recent decades. He gives us a noirish tale of a man with an oddly limited superpower.

Theodora Goss’s Blanchefleur is an otherwise appealing fantasy seriously marred by the author’s determined refusal to maintain internal consistency in the secondary world. Yes, standards are lower for this in fantasy than SF, but really…medieval-technology villages and taking animals and dragons coexisting with electricity and motorcars, on Earth, and nobody notices? FAIL.

Yoon Ha Lee’s Effigy Nights is a weird tale of warfare in a world (apparently) so saturated with smart matter that symbols can take on real life. Either that or it’s a particularly annoying science fantasy. It’s a flaw that the author dropped so few clues that I couldn’t tell whether its universe is an SF one or not.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s Such & Such Said to So & So is an urban fantasy featuring cocktails come to life that wants to be hip and edgy but achieves excessively cute and nigh-unreadable instead. I had to struggle to finish it.

Robert Reed’s Grizzled Veterans of Many and Much is a hard look at the implications of a technology that can trade the last years of a fading life for a few days of turbocharged superintelligence. This really is edgy, and one of the better efforts in this collection.

Geoff Ryman’s Rosary and Goldenstar is an alternate-history romance in which Dr. John Dee and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conspire to turn William Shakespeare into an SF writer. Arcane historical references to the Renaissance ferment in astronomy add value for those equipped to decode them, with language-translation humor as a bonus. Alas, this never really rises above being a clever stunt.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s The Bees Her Heart, The Hive Her Belly is a tale of the strange turns familial love can take in a world of pervasive smart matter and mutable identities. It takes some work to keep up with what the author is doing, but the effort is rewarded. This goes beyond a read-once; in fact, it may take a second reading to absorb all the implications.

K. J. Parker’s The Dragonslayer of Merebarton does an interesting turn on the knight-vs.-dragon scenario of popular folklore by treating it absolutely straight as a problem in tactics and mechanics. Technology-of-magic without the magic…

Lavie Tidhar’s The Oracle is a well written narrative of the emergence of nonhuman intelligence, but has no real surprises in it if you understand genetic programming and have read other SF about fast-takeoff singularities.

E. Lily Yu’s Loss, with Chalk Diagrams is atmospheric but pointless. It wastes its SFnal premise (brains can be rewired to remove traumatic memories) on a mere character study. There’s no conceptual breakthrough here, just a rehash of tired pseudo-profundities we’ve seen far too many times in literary fiction.

C.S.E. Cooney’s Martyr’s Gem considers love, obsession, status, and revenge in the context of a society not quite like any that has ever been real, but imagined in lovely and convincing detail. This is fine worldbuilding even if none of the pieces are made of any technology but magic, and better SF in its way than several of the stories full of SF stage furniture elsewhere in this volume.

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s They Shall Salt The Earth With Seeds of Glass is another waste of a potentially interesting premise on a mere character study. If this were proper SF we would learn what motivates the glassmen and, perhaps, how they can be defeated.

Jedediah Berry’s A Window or a Small Box is trying to be surrealistic. I think. I found it pointless, unreadable garbage – so bad I found it too offensive to finish.

Carrie Vaughn’s Game of Chance argues that the ability to change history is best exercised in small, humble steps. Competently written, but there is nothing here one can’t see coming once the premise and characters have been introduced.

Erik Amundsen’s Live Arcade is another case of too much cleverness and wordage being expended on too slight a premise – characters in a video game are more than they appear. While reading, I wanted to like this story more than its big reveal turned out to deserve. Alas.

Madeline Ashby’s Social Services is creepy but less slight. In a world of ubiquitous surveillance and paternalistic social services, how dies a child stay off the grid? The creepiness is mainly in the ending; one gets the feeling the viewpoint character may be disposable.

Alex Dally McFarlane’s Found examines what might make life worth living in failing asteroid colonies – and what might end it. It makes its point – that being forced out of the only ecological niche for which one is actually adapted is a tragedy even when it’s required for survival – in a particularly haunting way.

Ken Liu’s A Brief History of the Transpacific Tunnel is an excellent examination of an alternate history better than our own, changed by a vast engineering work. It is also about guilt and remembrance and how crimes come to light. Thankfully, the author had the good judgment not to let the psychological elements crowd the SF story values offstage, avoiding a mistake all too common in this collection.

E. Lily Yu’s Ilse, Who Saw Clearly is a lovely allegorical fantasy about how quests can become larger than one intended. This one deserves to be remembered.

Harry Turtledove’s It’s the End Of The World As We Know It, and We Feel Fine looks as whimsical as its title, but there’s a serious SFnal point about the wages of (non)-domestication inside it. I think his future would actually be a nightmare of gentled humans being systematically abused by throwbacks, but – perhaps this is the world we already live in…

Krista Hoeppner Leany’s Killing Curses: A Caught-Heart Quest is not terrible, but by trying so hard to avert any recognizable fantasy tropes it becomes over-clever and unengaging.

Peter Watts’s Firebrand could be a lesson to all the authors of muddled, pointless, defective science fiction in this anthology about how to do it right. A disturbingly plausible premise about human spontaneous combustion is pursued with inexorable logic and dark humor.

Maureen McHugh’s The Memory Book is a dark, well-executed fantasy about Victorian voodoo. At best a read-once, alas.

Howard Waldrop’s The Dead Sea-bottom Scrolls is an entertaining but slight tale of windsailing on an alternate Mars that really had Martians. Aside from raising a mild chuckle I didn’t really see a point here.

Karin Tidbeck’s A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain is another dark fantasy about the collapse of the fourth wall around a very strange theatrical troupe. Another well-written read-once.

Linda Nagata’s Out in the Dark is much more substantial. It incorporates some speculative technologies we’ve seen before in SF for body modification and self-duplication with a suggestion that some of their more troubling implications might be treated as crimes against unitary personhood that need to be policed against. But that’s a model that could, under some circumstances, produce injustices – and what’s an honest cop to do?

Naim Kabir’s On the Origin of Song is a wildly inventive fantasy full of vivid, almost Vancian imagery. One could milk a novel, and a lesser writer might have milked several, out of this setting.

Tang Fei’s Call Girl is yet another over-clever cloud of nothing much. The only way the story makes any sense at all is if all the characters are embedded in a giant VR after the fashion of the Matrix movies, but if this is so no interesting consequences are ever drawn from it.

Christopher Barzak’s Paranormal Romance isn’t even clever. It tries to be cute, but you can see every plot twist coming a mile off. Yeah, of course the witch’s blind date is a werewolf, etc weary cetera. Yawn.

Yugimi Okawa’s Town’s End is a fantasy premised on creatures of Japanese mythology needing a dating service to find men. A transparent and sad allegory of Japan’s dire demographic situation, but lovely and a bit haunting nevertheless.

Ian R. MacLeod’s The Discovered Country looks like a political allegory of an angry man determined to destroy the virtual paradise of the post-mortal idle rich, but it has a sting in its tail: when reality is virtual you may not even be able to trust your own memories.

Alan DeNiro’s The Wildfires of Antarctica is a middling amount of sound and fury about nothing much. Sophont art turns on the dissipated patron that bought it…boring and obvious.

Eleanor Arnason’s Kormak the Lucky finishes the anthology strong with a steampunkish take on Norse and Irish mythology.

If I believed the title of this anthology, I’d have to think the SF field was in desperate shape and fantasy barely better off. There are maybe five of the SF stories that will be worth remembering in a decade, and at best a few more of the fantasies. The rest is like wallpaper – busy, clever, and flat – except for the few pieces that are actively bad.

I’d ask what the anthologist was thinking, but since I’ve seen the author list on one of his other anthologies I don’t have to guess. For truth in advertising, this should probably have been titled “Rich Horton Recruits Mainly From His Usual Pool of Writers There Are Good Reasons I’ve Never Heard Of”. And far too many of them are second-raters who, if they ever knew how to write a decent F/SF story, have given that up to perform bad imitations of literary fiction.

In SF all the writing skill in the world avails you naught unless you have an idea to wrap your plot and characters around. In fantasy you need to be able to reach in and back to the roots of folklore and myth. Without these qualities at the center an F/SF story is just a brittle, glossy surface over nothing. Way too many of these stories were superficial cleverness over vacuum.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Sunday, 13 Jul 2014 02:33

Yesterday’s Kin (Nancy Kress; Tachyon Publications) is a surprisingly pedestrian first-contact novel. Surprisingly because Nancy Kress has done groundbreaking SF in the past. While this novel is competently written, no new ground is being broken here.

Aliens land in New York City and announce that within a year Earth will encounter a sort of interstellar spore cloud that is likely to be infectiously lethal to humans. They ofter help with attempts to develop a cure.

Then it turns it that the aliens are human stock, transplanted to a distant K-type star 150,000 years ago. There are a handful of human with a rare haplotype that they recognize as kin. A few of these kin (including one of the major characters) attempt to assimilate themselves to the aliens’ culture.

Sadly, there isn’t as much story value as there could be here. Far too much of the novel is spent on the major characters’ rather tiresome family dramas. The resolution of the crisis is rather anticlimactic. SFnal goodness is mostly limited to clever re-use of some obscure facts about human paleontology.

On her past record, Nancy Kress might have some really thought-provoking novels in her yet. This isn’t one of them.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Tuesday, 08 Jul 2014 12:12

World of Fire (James Lovegrove; Solaris) is a a promising start to a new SF adventure series, in which a roving troubleshooter tackles problems on the frontier planets of an interstellar civilization.

Dev Harmer’s original body died in the Frontier War against the artificial intelligences of Polis+. Interstellar Security Solutions saved his mind and memories; now they download him into host bodies to run missions anywhere there are problems that have local law enforcement stumped. He dreams of the day the costs of his resurrection are paid off and he can retire into a reconstructed copy of his real body; until then, he’s here to take names and kick ass.

When this sort of thing is done poorly it’s just Mickey Spillane with rayguns. When it’s done well the SFnal setting is crucial to the story, and there’s a real puzzle (or a series of them) driving the plot.

In this case it’s done well. The expected quotas of action, fight scenes, hairbreadth escapes, and tough-guy banter are present. The prose and characterization are competent. The worldbuilding and puzzle elements are better than average. An ambitious pathbreaking work of SF it is not, but good value for your entertainment money it certainly is – good enough that I now want to investigate Lovegrove’s backlist.

I’ll look forward to the sequels.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Monday, 07 Jul 2014 13:56

As I write, the author of The Chaplain’s War (Brad Torgerson; Baen) has recently been one of the subjects of a three-minute hate by left-wingers in the SF community, following Larry Correia’s organization of a drive to get Torgerson and other politically incorrect writers on the Hugo ballot. This rather predisposed me to like his work sight unseen; I’m not a conservative myself, but I dislike the PC brigade enough to be kindly disposed to anyone who gives them apoplectic fits.

Alas, there’s not much value here. Much of it reads like a second-rate imitation of Starship Troopers, complete with lovingly detailed military-training scenes and hostile bugs as opponents. And the ersatz Heinlein is the good parts – the rest is poor worldbuilding, even when it’s not infected by religious sentiments I consider outright toxic.

Harrison Barlow is a chaplain’s assistant in an Earth military that is losing a war with mantis-like aliens bent on wiping out humanity. He and a remnant of the fleet are penned up on a Mantis-held planet, and the force-field walls are literally closing in. Then, the reason they were not instantly wiped out after losing their battle is revealed when Barlow is questioned by a Mantis anthropologist he comes to think of as the Professor.

The Mantes do not understand human religion. They have previously wiped out two other sophont species who engaged in religious practices. The Professor is of a faction among them now thinks this was over-hasty and that some effort should be made to understand “faith” before humanity is extinguished.

In the novel’s first major event, Barlow – with nothing to lose but his life – refuses to answer the Professor’s questions except on the condition that the Mantes call a truce. Much to his own astonishment, this actually happens; Barlow is repatriated and celebrated as humanity’s only successful negotiator with the Mantes.

The rest of the novel cross-cuts between (on the one hand) flashbacks to Barlow’s boot-camp experiences and the events leading up to his crucial meeting with the Professor, and (on the other) the events which follow on a Mantis decision to break the truce while Barlow and his superiors are negotiating with the Queen Mother who initiated the war.

What follows is deeply flawed as SF even if you’re not put off by Torgerson’s religious evangelism. The Mantes are too obviously authorial sock puppets; they (and the Queen Mother in particular) swing too readily and rapidly from being profoundly alien to seeming excessively human-like in psychology considering the given details of their biology and society.

By the time the Queen Mother begins having pangs of conscience over her previous behavior, believability has already essentially collapsed. The Mantes have become humans in funny-hat carapaces. Lost is any of the illusion, so necessary in fiction but especially in SF, that the author’s characters and his setting have any causal autonomy.

The ensuing redemption narrative is so obviously manipulative that it’s wince-inducing. It gets worse as it goes on, and the ending is positively mawkish. Even a religious person should squirm when an apologia is this clumsy.

Then we get to the essential anti-rationality of the author’s religion. There are several crucial beats in the plot at which the day is saved by what the author none-too-subtly hints is divine intervention; I think this is a direct crime against science fiction’s core promise that the universe is rationally knowable. But this book is a tepid mess even if you don’t see that as a problem.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Sunday, 06 Jul 2014 20:25

In the book reviews I’ve been writing recently I have been applying some very specific ideas about the nature and scope of science fiction, particularly in contrast to other genres such as fantasy, mystery, and horror. I have not hesitated to describe some works found in SF anthologies as defective SF, as non-SF, or even as anti-SF.

It is not fashionable these days to be so normative about any kind of artistic form, let alone SF. The insistence that we should embrace diversity is constant, even if it means giving up having any standards at all. In a genre like SF where the core traditions include neophilia and openness to possibility, the argument for exclusive definitions and hard boundaries seems especially problematic.

I think it is an argument very much worth making nevertheless. This essay is my stake in the ground, one I intend to refer readers back to when (as sometimes happens) I’m accused of being stuck on an outmoded and narrow conception of the genre. I will argue three propositions: that artistic genres are functionally important, that genre constraints are an aid to creativity and communication rather than a hindrance, and that science fiction has a particular mission which both justifies and requires its genre constraints.

(Some parts of this essay are excerpts from earlier related writing.)

First, I want to be clear on what I think a genre is. It’s two things: one is a set of expectations a reader has about the kind of experience an instance of the genre will deliver, the other is a set of genre-specific codes and expressive techniques that the genre writer uses in the expectation that readers will receive them as the author intended. Like all codes and languages, the purpose of genres is to make communication easier by allowing both parties to assume a repertoire of common referents. Genre art fails when the production of the writer fails to match the genre referents and constraints as known by the reader.

This analysis generalizes Samuel Delany’s observation that SF is not merely, or even mostly, a way of writing; it is a way of reading, too. The same is true of other genres, in different ways.

Genre is functional. I’ve already described how genre conventions help artists and audiences communicate. Another obvious way is that genre categories reduce search costs in the market for art by helping artists signal about their production and giving art consumers a language for requesting what they want. This is a benefit to both artists and the audience.

Genre has a more subtle function as well – it assists creativity. Meaning relies on context; the frame defines the picture. Usually, artists do their best work when grappling with and using the constraints of a genre or artistic medium rather than attempting to abolish them. “Back to zero” sounds brave, but tends to produce art that is flabby, self-indulgent, and vacuous.

A genre can be seen as a conversation among its authors and readers (what postmodernists call “shared discourse”). As in every long running conversation, a genre tends to develop internal themes, motives, and a shared history. Works that are disconnected from the main conversation may be seen by people in that conversation as outside of the genre even if they fulfill many of its thematic and structural requirements and seem like they ought to belong “in” to outsiders.

For historical and contingent reasons which would be worth an essay in themselves, the conversational aspect of the SF genre has been exceptionally important relative to other fiction genres. SF works are often written as implicit or explicit replies to other works. Authors and fans cultivate a detailed awareness of how works are situated in the conversation. This makes analytical and normative analysis of the SF genre both more fruitful and more contentious than it would be otherwise.

Now we will require the following definition of science fiction (due in its most developed form to Gregory Benford): that branch of fantastic literature which affirms the rational knowability of the universe, and has as its most particular reader experience the sense of conceptual breakthrough – of having understood the universe in a new and larger way.

Benford’s definition of SF implies that SF stories must have important structural features in common with murder mysteries, and a reason crossovers between these two genres are so often successful. In both forms the author is required to play by the rules of rational deduction. The writer wins the game if the reader reaches the big reveal without having anticipated it but with the realization that the solution is correct; the reader wins the game if he or she gets to the truth before the author’s reveal.

The author plays fair by leaving open the possibility that a sharp enough reader can win, the work is judged as much or more by how well and how audaciously the author plays the game more than by conventional literary criteria. Within discussion of the SF genre (though not to my knowledge among mystery fans) “the game” has the specific meaning of this dance between author and reader.

What distinguishes an SF story from a murder mystery isn’t the absence of murder but the presence of at least one premise in the story that is fantastic, e.g. counterfactual or even impossible. There’s a convention in SF called the “one-McGuffin rule”; you’re allowed one impossible premise per story, but FTL travel doesn’t count.

Larry Niven is famous for this prescription: “Make one change to the world as it is now, and then explore the ramifications of that change – but don’t mess with anything else.” Similar definitions go back to the beginnings of modern SF, as invented by John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein in the 1940s. They are not really adequate; good SF can change lots of things about its settings. The “don’t mess with anything else” should be read as “keep your secondary world rationally accessible to the reader” in Benford’s sense.

Note the absence in this analysis of any reference to the obvious stage furniture of genre SF – spaceships, robots, aliens, time travel, and the like. These things in themselves do not an SF story make; when the structure underneath them violates the core promise of rational knowability you get what is at best defective SF and at worst a sort of anti-SF which informed readers of the genre are likely to receive as willfully perverse.

One of SF’s central impulses is to extend the perimeter of the rationally knowable, sweeping in not merely unknown places and times and aliens accessible to science but also motifs and images that originated in myth and fantasy and horror. The evolution of SF can be charted as a steady widening of that perimeter – to other planets, beyond the solar system, to other times and alternate histories, then to technology-of-magic and possibilities even more estranged from the world of immediate experience.

Having advanced this definition of SF, I’m now going to make a temporary concession to people who consider it too narrow by relabeling what it covers “classical SF”, or cSF. Those with a little historical awareness of the field will recognize that the classical period began in 1939 with Robert Heinlein’s first publication under John W. Campbell, the then-new editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine.

Almost anyone with any exposure to SF will recognize that much but not all of what is popularly labeled SF is cSF. The question I will address in the remainder of this essay is: why should we consider cSF normative? What grounds do we have for regarding a work that claims to be SF but is not cSF to be defective SF, non-SF, or anti-SF?

One reason is historical. Previous attempts to abandon the deep norms of cSF while preserving its stage furniture and surface tropes have not aged well. The “New Wave” of the late 1960s and early 1970s was spent by the early 1980s. Later insurgencies within the field, notably the cyberpunks of the late 1980s and early 1990s, retained cSF’s assumption of rational knowability (and all that followed from it) even while trying to radically transform the genre in other ways.

The reason beneath that history is reader response. SF doesn’t exist in a vacuum; people who want fantasies or Westerns or romances know how to find them, and in general the kind of person who can be attracted by the way SF is packaged (spaceships and other high technology on covers, etc.) wants rational knowability and wants to play the kind of game with the author that is characteristic of cSF, even if he or she is not very introspective about that desire and not very good at the game yet.

This is why SF readers – even inexperienced ones – often experience violation of the deep norms of cSF as a kind of dishonesty or malicious subversion. They can tell they’re being cheated of something even if they don’t know quite what. Forty years ago this feeling was often articulated against the New Wave by complaining that its works were “depressing” – which was true, and remains true of a lot of defective SF and anti-SF today, but doesn’t get at the actual root of the problem.

Correspondingly, most of the demand for non-classic SF comes not from readers but from critics/authors/editors (people who think of themselves as tastemakers) who are bent on imposing the deep norms of other genres onto the SF field. Such people are especially apt to think SF would be improved by adopting the norms and technical apparatus of modern literary fiction, itself a genre which developed not long prior to modern SF in the early 20th century but which has preoccupations in many respects diametrically opposed to those of SF.

One reliable way to spot one of these literary improvers in action is unending complaints about the low standards of characterization that the majority of both SF readers and writers consider acceptable. If you scratch a person making this complaint you’ll generally find someone who doesn’t realize that, while characters may be required to give an SF story emotional life, the idea is the hero. SF readers treat emotional realism as optional because the experience they really crave is Benford’s rational knowability and conceptual breakthrough (though they may only dimly understand this themselves).

(How do I know this is what SF readers want? Why, I look at what sells and what lingers on best-of lists. Within SF – and only within SF – big-idea stories with flat characters both outsell and outlast character studies decorated with SF stage furniture. This was already true at the beginning of the classic period in 1939, it remained true even at the height of the New Wave in 1971 or so, and it continues to be true today.)

The more conscious variety of improver at least dimly understands the deep norms of cSF but thinks they should be subverted and deprived of their authority in favor of something “better”. In this view SF readers don’t really know what’s good art and need to be educated away from their primitive fondness for linear narratives, puzzle stories, competent characters, happy endings, and rational knowability. It’s not caricaturing much to say that the typical specimen of this type thinks the only good conceptual breakthrough is an unhappy one.

One reason to vigorously assert cSF as a norm to which anything labeled SF should aspire is simply to defend the genre conversation on behalf of the readers from the well-intentioned (or not so well-intentioned) meddling of the improvers. Thus, wherever SF is discussed among actual readers you tend to find exhortations like “Science fiction should get back in the gutter where it belongs!” When you hear that, you can be sure the speaker doesn’t think SF ought to become an apologetic imitation of literary fiction (or any other genre).

I think the reader-response theory of SF norms (confirmed by the historical record of what fans value and what they have rejected) would be a sufficient reason, even today (2014) to hold SF to the standards of cSF and consider failure to meet them a defect. But there’s a reason that I think tells even more strongly than that.

SF has a mission. There’s a valuable cultural function that SF, alone of all our arts, is good for. SF writers (and readers) are our forward scouts, the imaginative preparation for what might come next, the way we limber up our minds to cope with the unexpected future. SF is not just the literature of ideas, it’s a literature of thinking outside the box you’re in, one that entwines escapism with extrapolation in ways that are productive for both ends. At SF’s best it provides myths and role models for people who want to make the world a better place in a way no other art form can really match.

That, ultimately, is why we should assert the norms of classic SF – because they are an instrument tuned for and by SF’s futurological uses. What this does for the people who read SF is help them imagine and create better futures for all of us.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Science Fiction"
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Date: Sunday, 06 Jul 2014 09:19

There are so many interesting points being elicited in the responses to my previous post on why the deep norms of the SF genre matter that I think I may have passed a threshold. I think the material I have written on critical theory of science fiction is now substantial enough that I could actually expand it into a book. I am now contemplating whether this is a good idea – whether there’s a market in either the strict monetary or other senses.

I haven’t read a great deal of the critical literature on science fiction. Most of what I have seen I’m not very impressed with. Too much of it is dismissive and reductive. Even analyses that intend to take SF seriously often seem to want to talk about everything except what I think is important. Here, for example, is part of a synopsis I found when I googled for “anatomy of science fiction”:

This wide-ranging collection of essays re-opens the connection between science fiction and the increasingly science-fictional world. Kevin Alexander Boon reminds us of the degree to which the epistemology of science fiction infects modern political discourse. Károly Pintér explores the narrative structures of utopian estrangement, and Tamás Bényei and Brian Attebery take us deeper into the cultural exchanges between science fiction and the literary and political worlds. In the second half, Donald Morse, Nicholas Ruddick and Éva Federmayer look at the way in which science fiction has tackled major ethical issues, while Amy Novak and Kálmán Matolcsy consider memory and evolution as cultural batteries. The book ends with important discussions of East German and Hungarian science fiction by Usch Kiausch and Donald Morse respectively.

My response to this is best expressed by the words of the immortal P.J. O’Rourke: “What the fuck? I mean, what the fucking fuck?” I think you have to be carefully trained into a kind of elaborated insensibility to the actual subject before most of a book so described could possibly be interesting. I see nothing there about what I think are the really interesting questions. Like:

  • What are the defining constraints or generative rules of the SF form?
  • What are the canonical works that exemplify these rules?
  • What goes on the minds of readers of SF that is different from what goes on in the readers of other genres?
  • How do the answers to that question believed by SF writers affect their artistic choices?
  • The genre conversation in SF exhibits features not paralleled in other genres. Are these historically accidental or essential given the genre’s defining constraints?
  • Can we identify stages and transition points in the evolution of the rules?
  • What does the past of SF predict about its future?

This is a program for an inside-to-out analysis of the genre, rather than an outside-to-in one. Really informed readers will recognize the influence of Northrop Frye here; it is similar to what Frye called “rhetorical analysis” of literature. Also, as I’ve previously noted, I owe a huge debt to Samuel Delany for teaching me that the rules of the SF genre are discoverable through its reading protocols.

I’ve been chipping away at this program since the early 1990s, both directly in several essays and indirectly through my reviews. Maybe it’s time to pull that together into a book.

I have, therefore, two requests for my commenters.

First: what previous works about SF criticism can you suggest that would either assist or challenge this program, and why?

Second: Discuss the objectives. In particular, what other questions about the field are interesting from within the field? Stuff like “epistemology of science fiction infecting modern political discourse” is not very interesting to me even though the epistemology of SF itself is.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Science Fiction"
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Date: Saturday, 05 Jul 2014 13:31

Nobody will ever confuse Fortunes of the Imperium (Jody Lynne Nye; Baen) with great SF, but it’s a likeable, fluffy little confection of a book that had me thinking “Wodehouse…in…spaaace!”

Lord Thomas Kinago and his imperturbable aide Parsons ride again (this is a sequel to the earlier Views of the Imperium). Following a regrettable incident involving a skimmer race and an extremely ugly statue, the young lord’s formidable mother, acting in her capacity as as the First Space Lord, has (horrors!) saddled him with actual work, sending the duo on a diplomatic mission to the Autocracy of the Uctu.

Hostile aliens are bad enough, but Kinago is also saddled with his cousin Jil, a glittering beauty who believes she has reason to want to be far away from the Imperial capital for a while after having rebuffed an infatuated gangster. How’s a man to get anywhere with his real assignment – investigating arms smuggling to the Autocracy for the Imperium’s intelligence bureau – with a shopping-mad relative and her entourage making him so dashedly conspicuous? Worse yet, rumor has reached Kinago’s ears that two of the vivacious and undeniably attractive young ladies attending Jil have been qualified by his aunts as matrimonial prospects

Complications ensue in the form of an unexpected reapparence by the aforesaid gangster, a most curious and alimentary form of smuggling, and a dastardly plot against the lonely young Autocrat of the Uctu. Can Lord Thomas’s wits, luck, generosity, and genetically enhanced aristocratic charm carry the day? Will cousin Jil ever get enough shopping? Can the specter of matrimony be successfully evaded? And how will Lord Thomas cope when he discovers the ubiquitous and indispensable Parsons to be helplessly immured in an Uctu prison cell?

It’s all good silly fun that Nye obviously had a good time writing, only slightly marred by the fact that one of the central plot conceits doesn’t actually work. To reassemble a solid object from nanite dust you’d have to pay the energy cost of all the covalent bonds that would have been present to begin with if the object had been manufactured in bulk. For anything metal this is comparable to the cost required to melt it, and that energy has to come from somewhere at reassembly time.

Ah well. This sort of thing is why SF has the one-McGuffin-but-FTL-doesn’t-count rule. Enjoy; I did.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Friday, 04 Jul 2014 09:17

I had to buy a new UPS for my desktop machine yesterday after the old one succumbed to battery death, so Cathy and I made a run to the local MicroCenter.

UPS designers have been pissing me off since forever with designs that require you to throw away the entire device when the battery craps out, unless you’re willing to go to great length to avoid this – finding the exact right replacement battery from a specialty supplier, then taking the unit apart and reassembling it yourself.

This is never practical under time pressure, and I’ve never had the luxury of no time pressure when trying to cope with a dead UPS. Sure didn’t this time; my area was under a severe-thunderstorm watch.

Imagine my pleased surprise when I found a big stack of varied models branded APC that are not just significantly less expensive and with longer dwell times than when I was last UPS-shopping, but designed with removeable and replaceable batteries, too.

Progress does get made. Dunno whether this is a standard feature on all UPS brands yet, but doubtless it will be within a few years.

Some of you may find my UPS HOWTO of interest. I’ve shipped a 3.0 update with the glad news of replaceable batteries and a few other minor updates; it may be up by the time you read this.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 20:39

The new cat, Zola has been with us for about a month now. My wife and I observe an interesting convergence; as he feels increasingly secure around us, his behavior is coming to resemble Sugar’s more and more, to the point that it sometimes feels like having her back with us.

What makes this a surprising observation is that Sugar was not your behaviorally average cat. She was up against the right-hand end of the feline bell curve for sociability, gentleness, and good manners. Having Zola match that so exactly is a little startling even if we did improve our odds by keeping an eye out for a Maine Coon that liked us on sight. It still feels rather like having 00 come up twice in succession on a roulette wheel.

This is ethologically interesting; it suggests some things about how the personalities of cats – and even specific behavioral propensities – are generated. In the remainder of this post I will use detailed observations to explore this point.

First, some differences for perspective. Zola, as we expected from our first few minutes of contact with him, is a calmer creature than Sugar was – a bit more self-sufficient, a bit less easily startled. His kinesic repertoire is a bit different; he leg-strops routinely and often assumes the play-invitation posture of flopping over on his back (Sugar almost never did these things). She liked to express affection by climbing onto a human and licking hands or face, which Zola doesn’t. If Sugar were human she’d have been a wide-eyed ingenue; if Zola were human he’d be a mellow dude a la Jeff Bridges.

Still, the similarities greatly outweigh the differences, and have been increasing rather than decreasing. Both cheerful, sunny personalities; both extremely gentle, careful with their claws and teeth; both love(d) human attention and respond to it with a touching degree of trust. The trust is/was manifested, for example, by casually napping near humans and not startling when touched unexpectedly.

Zola is moving towards Sugar’s pattern of not wanting to ever be out of sight of a human for very long, and has recently developed the same tendency Sugar had to hang out at the one place in the hallway where he can keep an eye on both Cathy and myself at our work desks in different rooms. Also he’s started to greet us at the door when we come home from places. That almost hurt the first time it happened, it was so like Sugar.

We haven’t tried to directly train behaviors like keeping a eye on both of us and greeting us at the door, and wouldn’t know how to do it if we were trying. I’ve written previously about how you train a cat for companionability, but that’s a more general thing; that’s a matter of helping the cat feel secure and rewarding it for being affectionate, with the hope that behaviors you like will emerge naturally.

I can see how greeting us at the door could emerge naturally; on the other hand, I certainly don’t know how you’d go about training a cat to bond equally to both of the humans it lives with if it had the tendency to be a one-person pet that runs in some breeds. Kindness only goes so far; the cat has to have the personality to respond to it. Some cats very clearly don’t.

I think the natural theory to explain the observed facts is that personality in cats is very, very heritable – much more so than in humans. But I think we can be more specific than that; while any cat will become fearful if mistreated or stressed, the capacity to respond to kindness is what the example of Sugar and Zola suggests is genetically programmed.

I see a parallel with heritability of intelligence in humans, in which genes seem to control an upper limit of processing capacity which may never be reached if CNS growth is hindered by (say) poor early-childhood nutrition.

Comparing Zola and Sugar is also interesting because of the male/female difference. Cathy and I long assumed that Sugar’s affection behaviors were partly a recruitment of circuitry for nurturing kittens and partly related to mechanisms for bonding and social signaling between friendly peers. But while the nurturance-instinct explanation probably remains partly true for Sugar, tomcats are not nurturers.

Therefore, the fact that Zola duplicates so many of Sugar’s behaviors changes my estimate of relative weights. It makes peer bonding look more important, and nurturance look less so, as sources for the behaviors that cats use to relate to humans.

One datum we don’t have yet is how Zola will behave when one of her humans is ill or seriously distressed. Sugar got rather maternal at such times, sticking close and seemingly determined to be comforting. That’s how we read it, but if Zola exhibits similar comforting behaviors some re-interpretation will be in order.

Finally, Cathy has noted that whereas Sugar adopted us as her humans very quickly and completely back in 1994, in Zola it’s been a slower process with stages. That may have an environmental explanation; Sugar had found one of her humans dead that day, and was clearly in serious distress. It’s pretty natural in both feline and human terms that she went all any-port-in-a-storm on us.

Zola, on the other hand, had it reasonably good at the rescue center – probably not getting as much human contact as he wanted, but certainly not traumatized or frightened. He could afford to be friendly but a bit more reserved. It’s been kind of fun to watch that reserve melting, measured by the steadily decreasing percentage of time he chooses to spend out of sight.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General, Sugar, Zola"
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Date: Tuesday, 01 Jul 2014 03:04

Solaris Rising 3 (Ian Whates; Rebellion) is billed as an anthology showcasing the breadth of modern SF. It is that; unfortunately, it is also a demonstration that the editor and some of his authors have partly lost touch with what makes science fiction interesting and valuable.

As I’ve observed before, SF is not an anything-goes genre. You do not achieve SF merely by deploying SF furniture like space travel, nonhuman sophonts, or the Singularity. SF makes demands on both reader and writer that go beyond lazy fabulism; there’s an implied contract. The writer’s job is to present possibility in a sufficiently consistent and justified way that the reader might be able to reason out the story’s big reveal(s) before the author gets there; the reader’s job is to back-read the clues in the story intelligently and try to get ahead of the author, or catch mistakes in the extrapolation. As in murder mysteries, there can be much else going on besides this challenge and response, but if the challenge and the possibility of such a response is not there, you do not have SF.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice plays the game properly, with its depiction of a very odd and subtle kind of warfare, the ties of friendship, subtle betrayal, and a privilege that may follow naturally in a future with indefinite life extension. The sense of immersion in human cultures that have been coevolving with advanced technology for a very long time is well done.

Chris Beckett’s The Goblin Hunter is more questionable. The premise is very SFnal – aliens who, as a defense mechanism, reflect all of the darkness and self-doubt in humans back at them. But the author does nothing interesting with the premise; there’s no reveal to possibly get ahead of, we don’t leave the story feeling we understand anything more about human beings or the setting or anything else than we did walking in. Instead the ending deflects into a criticism of the meddling do-gooder which, while worthy in itself, feels disconnected from the rest of the story. It seems rather a waste of a good premise.

Homo Floriensis (Ken Liu) is more interesting, inviting the reader to think about the ethical problems of first contact with a hominid species on the fuzzy borderline of sophont status. What is the right thing to do when you are not sure what ethical kind you are dealing with, and know that eventually humans less careful than you will come charging in? The author may not have the answer but he has an answer – and a thought-provoking one.

Julie Czerneda’s A Taste For Murder is a snarky, funny exploration the possibility of easy body modification for humans – and what can happen when it gets a little too easy. The reveal and the conclusion follow with remorseless logic from the premises; thus this is proper SF.

Tony Ballantine’s Double Blind is properly SF too, though of a dark and nasty kind that I tend to dislike. It turns the risks of drug trials up to 11.

Sean Willams’s The Mashup apes one of the persistent themes of SF – technological transcendence – but there’s no logic and no reveal. It might as well be a story about meddling demons; there’s no rational knowability here, and the viewpoint character’s passivity and eventual surrender to a sea-change he doesn’t actually understand is thus more the stuff of horror than anything else. I call this sort of thing “anti-SF” because it doesn’t merely ignore the requirements of the form, it mocks and seeks to erode them.

Aliette de Bodard’s The Frost on Jade Buds is much better. The need to cope with grief and the aftermath of a shattering war is, alas, a recurring problem in human history; the author shows that when human being become sufficiently entangled with their technology it could take some novel turns.

Alex Dally McFarlane’s Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus could serve as exhibit A for why SF writers shouldn’t get too cute. There’s a reasonable SF short story here wrapped in an odd postmodern sort of narrative structure; the problem is that the narrative structure is a stunt that only demonstrates the author’s cleverness rather than adding any value to the story. This is poor practice in almost any kind of fiction-writing, but especially regrettable in a genre like SF or mysteries where the author’s cleverness ought to be directed outwards.

Gareth L. Powell’s Red Lights and Rain turns its cleverness to better use, mixing time travel and the question of why, in a rational universe, something like the legendary vampire might come to exist. It’s well and suspensefully written.

Laura Lam’s They Swim Through Sunset Seas is a meditation on the old maxim that in nature there are no rewards or punishments, only consequences. Humans who should have known better meddle with chillingly alien aliens. There’s an ambiguous ending, probably a tragedy, but the author plays fair throughout.

Ian Watson’s Faith Without Teeth is a satire on socialism set in a weird alternate East Berlin. It’s so surrealistically funny that you may have trouble noticing that the SFnal exposition is handled absolutely straight. Well done!

Adam Roberts’s Thing and Sick is a gem – an SF story founded on taking Kantian conceptualism seriously. This is exactly what SF ought to do; question your assumptions, construct a consistent otherness, and leave you with a feeling of understanding the universe in a way you didn’t before. The conceptual breakthrough here is rather more pointed and fundamental than we usually get…

George Zebrowski’s The Sullen Engines is the worst blotch on this anthology. The viewpoint character can make car engines vanish; except no, she vanishes a human at one point. For this to be a proper SF story it would have to develop or imply some explanation of the phenomenon less silly than “wishing can make it so”. But this story is anti-SF – it violates the core promise of SF by not affirming the rational knowability of anything. Instead we get a sort of inverted power fantasy – a muddy, self-indulgent puddle of angst and eco-piety with no redeeming virtues whatsoever. Makes me want to find Ian Whates, slap him upside the head and demand to know what he was thinking.

Cat Sparks’s Dark Harvest returns to SF, but doesn’t do it very convincingly. Yes, you could ritualize the use of exotic technology as though it were Tantric Buddhist magic, if you had constructed the interface that way – but we are never presented with a good reason for the insurgents to have actually done so. Seems like the author succumbed to the tendency to construct a thin rationalization around some cool imagery. The game can be played better than this, and should be.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s Fift and Shria, on the other hand, does an eerily convincing job on a very odd and entertaining premise; a human culture built around the assumption that individuals routinely occupy several bodies each. It reads rather like something James H. Schmitz might have written back in the day. The author put a lot of thought into this and assembling the clues to figure out everything that is going on takes work. It’s the SF game played at a very high level.

The Howl, by Ian R. MacLeod & Martin Sketchley, is another story that makes me wonder what it’s doing in this anthology. The characters’ unresolved personal issues just aren’t that interesting, and vague hints that some kind of many-worlds phenomenon might be behind the gaps in one’s memory do not lift this mood piece into the category of SF. For that the counterfactual would have to be used, would have to have logical consequences, rather than being some kind of pathetic-fallacy externalization of mere psychological confusion.

Nina Allan’s The Science of Chance is flawed but interesting. It seems to be exploring how human beings entering a superposed quantum state might present to other humans stuck with a temporal viewpoint – or perhaps I’m giving the author credit for too much subtlety. It would have been a better story without the secondary premise of a nuclear bombing that never happened in real history.

Rachel Swirsky’s Endless finishes strong with a consideration of what post-Singularity transcended humans might consider that they owe their ancestors, with a debt paid by remembering.

Much good material in this anthology, only one or two conspicuous duds. It’d be nice if the editor would be a bit more discriminating next time.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Monday, 30 Jun 2014 04:55

In Ark Royal (Christopher Nuttall; self-published) the ship of the same name is an obsolete heavy-armored fleet carrier in a future British space navy. The old girl and her alcoholic captain have been parked in a forgotten orbit for decades, a dumping ground for screwups who are not quite irredeemable enough to be cashiered out. Then, hostile aliens invade human space – and promptly trash the modern unarmored carriers set against them. It seems the Ark Royal’s designers wrought better than they knew. Earth’s best hope is to re-fit and re-staff her in a tearing hurry, then send her against the invasion to buy time while sister ships can be built. Adventure ensues.

This was very nearly a bad book. As it is, it persuades me that we need a term for the opposite of “hack writer”. A hack writer plays the keys of a certain emotional register so skillfully that the reader is drawn in despite the writer’s actually caring little for the genre and themes he works in, too little to try adding any breadth or depth to them. The opposite of a hack writer is a sort of naive enthusiast – clumsy and relatively unskilled, but so earnest and fascinated by the kind of story he is trying to tell that the result is lit up by an energy and an ingenuous charm that no hack can quite duplicate.

A lot of the self-published nu-space-opera I’ve been reviewing recently (Unexpected Alliances, A Sword Into Darkness, the Human Reach novels, etc.) has the mark of naive enthusiasm on it. The skill level of the enthusiast varies from the utterly execrable (Unexpected Alliances) to the pretty-good-for-pulp-space-opera (A Sword Into Darkness).

Ark Royal is yet another book of this kind, in the middle of the implied skill range. Christopher Nuttall clearly owes much to the tradition of Napoleonic-era naval-adventure fiction a la Forester, Pope, and O’Brien. But unlike David Weber, who is the very model of a skilled hack writer working this vein, Nuttall clearly cares a great deal about that tradition in itself, identifies with it, and wants to extend it.

The result is a book whose technical defects are redeemed by the author’s infectious determination to write a good yarn in a fine old style. The prose is a bit primitive; the technology and space-combat tactics could use a stiff dose of Atomic Rockets to up the SFnal plausibilty. But the plotting is good, the character interactions vivid, and the story carries the day.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Thursday, 26 Jun 2014 03:14

Patton’s Spaceship (John Barnes; Open Road Integrated Media) is a new e-book release of an effort from 1996.

Parts of the early action, in which the protagonist loses his family to a vicious terrorist group of unknown (and very exotic) origins, seem sadly dated in light of the even greater viciousness that terrorist groups of thoroughly well-known origins have since exhibited.

Nevertheless, much of this novel is an entertaining alternate-history adventure, presenting (among other things) the most grubby and creepily plausible portrait of a U.S. under Nazi domination I have seen.

Alas, I must report that Barnes tends to get a bit too cute in name-checking historical figures. In the most extreme instance of this he makes the poet Allen Ginsburg into an action hero. That move is perhaps best read as unintentional comedy; for some intentional comedy, see if you can spot Robert Heinlein’s cameo appearance.

Barnes has written better, before and since. But this isn’t bad.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Wednesday, 25 Jun 2014 18:21

The Steampunk Trilogy (Paul diFilippo; Open Road Integrated Media) is three short novels set in a now-familiar sort of alternate-Victorian timeline replete with weird science, Lovecraftian monsters, and baroquely ornamented technology described in baroquely ornamental prose.

What distinguishes this particular outing is that it’s hilarious. In the first chapter of the first book, a runaway young Queen Victoria is replaced by a newt. In the second chapter (a flashback) an experiment in powering a steam locomotive from the waste heat of masses of uranium comes to a tragic, mushroom-clouded end when an accident slams them together just a bit too hard.

The books proceed in a tumbling cascade of ribaldry, parody, slapstick, and sly historical references that sends up every target in sight. And just when you think it’s all farce…Walt Whitman delivers a compassionate and psychologically astute critique of her poetry to Emily Dickinson, it isn’t comedy at all, and it’s even plot-relevant! Along the way, Herman Melville tangles with the Deep Ones and the naturalist Henry Agassiz recognizes Dagon as an ichthyosaurus…

Even if you’re not equipped to parse all the historical and literary in-jokes, this is fun stuff. If you are…I enjoyed the hell out of it. You probably will too.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Tuesday, 24 Jun 2014 18:30

Jeff Covey has responded to the demise of freshmeat/freecode by reminiscing about his past at Freshmeat. He reports a rumor that VA bought Andover just because the CEO thought it would be cool to own Slashdot.

I set the record straight in a comment on the post. No, that’s not why it happened; Larry Augustin never would have made a business decision for a reason that flimsy. In fact, buying Slashdot was my idea, and I had a solid reason for proposing it. The rest of my comment explaining this follows.

I can supply a missing piece of the story. VA Linux’s purchase of Andover was my idea.

Here’s how it happened. It was just after the record-breaking IPO, and the U.S.’s crazy accounting rules more or less forced us to do an acquisition to maintain our valuation. There were four acquisition targets short-listed: Andover, SGI, SuSE, and a Linux service business I forget the name of that cratered spectacularly not long after. The other board members argued back and forth but were unable to reach a resolution

Up to that point I had been pretty quiet in the board meetings, keeping my mouth shut and my ears open. It was with considerable surprise that I realized that I remembered something basic that the other directors had forgotten – most mergers fail through cultural incompatibility between acquirer and acquiree. I’ve never been to business school, but I hear that anyone who does learns this early.

So I stood up and reminded everybody about the compatibility issue and made the case that our first acquisition needed to above all be an easy one. Then I said “At Linux conferences, think about which of these crews our people puppy-pile with on the beanbag chairs.” Light began to dawn on several faces. “The Slashdot guys. It has to be Andover, ” I said.

Silence. The king-shark VC on the board, Doug Leone, thought for a moment and said “There’s a lot of wisdom in that.” And so it was decided.

That is the only time I recall driving a major decision at VA, but it was enough to earn my stock options. Media businesses like Andover don’t deliver huge growth, but they’re reliable cash cows. Which turned out to be exactly what VA needed to survive the dot.com bust and eventually morph into GeekNet.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Tuesday, 24 Jun 2014 04:23

Some people with cats seem to regard them as a sort of mobile item of decor that occasionally deigns to be interacted with; they’re OK with aloofness. My wife and I, on the other hand, like to have cats who are genuinely companionable, follow us around when they’re not doing anything important like eating or sleeping, purr at the sight of us, and greet us at the door when we come home.

My wife and I had a cat like that for nearly twenty years. Sugar died in April, and we’ve been developing an understanding with a new cat for a bit over two weeks. We’re doing the same things to establish trust with Zola that we did with Sugar. They seem to be working; Zola gets a little more present and interactive and nicer to us every day.

Accordingly, here are our rules for training a cat to be companionable. You may find some of these obvious, but I suspect that the ‘obvious’ set is widely variable between people, so they’re all worth writing down.

A general point is that cats respond as well as people do to (a) being treated affectionately, and (b) having a clear sense of what people expect from them. Kindness and consistent signaling make for a friendly and well-mannered cat.

1. Choose a breed or genetic line that is predisposed to be people-friendly.

Maine Coons are a good bet for this. I’ve read that Sphinxes are too, but a lot of people find hairless cats sufficiently weird that the choice wouldn’t work for them. Siameses are in my experience a particularly bad bet. In general be wary of purebred cats other than Coons, as they are likely to have been selected for breed traits that don’t include sociability; thus, your second best genetic bet after a Coon or Coon mix is probably a mongrel.

UPDATE: A comment after I first posted this raised the possibility that older ‘natural’ breeds other than Maine Coons – Turkish Angoras are the example that came up – may be better bets than modern show breeds.

(Sugar we believed to be a shorthaired Coon mix. Zola is a purebred Coon or as near as makes no difference.)

2. Let the cat choose you

It helps a lot if the cat likes you on first sight and smell. My wife and I are strong believers in interviewing a lot of cats and paying close attention to which one is friendliest. A cat from a generally people-friendly breed that seems to like you right off is the best choice.

Note: if you’re so new with cats that you don’t know how to introduce yourself, offer it the back of your hand to sniff (moving slowly so as not to startle it). If it doesn’t back away after taking your scent, lightly stroke its head and back, paying close attention to how it reacts.

(Sugar chose us under unusual circumstances involving the death of her previous humans and the nasty stormy night we brought her home for what might have been a temporary stay. Zola chose us at the rescue center.)

3. Be kind from the beginning, and respect the new cat’s boundaries

If you chose a cat who is either generally twitchy and fearful or specifically nervous around you, you screwed up the previous steps and should start over. Otherwise, the cat should be OK with being gently touched and petted – but don’t try to love-bomb it right way. Let it get its bearings in your house and re-approach you. This will happen naturally at feeding times, if at no other.

Cats vary in the amount of time they take to orient themselves in a new environment and gain some confidence. Sugar was very extroverted and landed on her feet instantly once she got over being panicked by the bad circumstances under which we brought her home. Zola hid for about three hours before emerging to head-bump us. If it takes much longer than that you have the option of luring the cat out of hiding with food.

4. Know basic cat-speak.

Googling for “cat body language” will turn up good hits on basic cat kinesics. I’ll add here a couple of things I think are generally underemphasized.

One is that some human imitations of cat signals actually work pretty well. You can slow-blink at your cat to convey affection and reassurance. You can imitate a purring noise and the cat will interpret that correctly as a desire to be social with it. If your cat likes to rub its face on you to show affection and possessive feelings, you can rub your face on it right back to return the message. Sometimes you have to compensate for the differences in scale; I find, for example, that gently rubbing a cat’s forehead with the tip of my nose works well.

Cats are generally most receptive to being touched on the back and upper flanks, and on top of the head. Less so on the lower flanks and belly; it’s a sign of trust and relaxation when a belly touch doesn’t make them tense at least a little. Trust your intuition; the vulnerable zones on a cat are analogous to those on a human and should be treated with similar respect.

Cats like to be gently scratched around the sides and back of the neck, under the chin, and on the tops of their heads. These are the places they have trouble reaching when they groom themselves.

When moving your hand towards a cat to touch it, don’t rush. Slow and smooth is best. Stopping the approach motion for a moment just before contact is a way of asking permission that gives the cat a chance to politely decline, which will improve the quality of the interaction when you do make contact.

Even aloof cats often like to be touched if you negotiate with them properly. If you always give a cat the option to politely refuse contact, it will never have to do so emphatically with nipping or clawing. With Sugar and Zola I can count the number of times this has happened to me in twenty years on the fingers of one hand and still have fingers left over.

Mammalian body language for affection is very strongly conserved across phyletic lines, so trust your instincts.

5. Hand training.

Never, ever swat a cat with your hand; if you have to discipline it, yell at it loudly and immediately or spritz it with a squirt bottle. You want your cat to strongly associate human hands with petting and good things. If you do this, and always reward a cat for coming towards a waggling hand with gentle petting, you’ll be able to get it to follow you around with hand motions. If you get this really right, the cat will probably develop a habit of expressing affection by licking your hands.

Advanced hand training includes teaching the cat that when you repeatedly pat a chair or bedclothes it should jump up to where the hand is. Again, reward correct behavior with petting. Cats can catch on fast this way; Zola has already learned this response in only two weeks, though he’s not 100% reliable at it yet. That will come.

6. Positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement doesn’t work well on cats; they seem to have trouble connecting the aversive stimulus to the behavior you want them to avoid. This is why if you’re going to yell at your cat, or squirt-bottle it, you have to do that immediately – after even a second or two of delay they are unable to causally connect the punishment with the misbehavior.

Positive reinforcement works much better – and not just on housecats; people who train the big felines report the same thing. If you reward behaviors that you like, your cat will get the message. A cat that knows what you like and knows it can get positive attention reliably will be a secure and happy cat that holds its tail high; training by reward is good for its peace of mind as well as yours.

7. Do cats love?

Some people think cats are mercenary creatures who aren’t really capable of love but engage in affectionate behavior solely to get what they want from humans. I think that attitude is a sign of failure to notice that human “love” can be reductively analyzed that way with almost equal justice, but doing so is not helpful to being happy. So it is with cats.

You get into philosophical territory here: what is love, anyway? I think it is the condition in which some other being’s happiness becomes necessary to your own. Some cats behave as though the happiness of their humans is necessary to their own; Sugar was definitely one, and Zola shows clear signs of becoming another. Doubtless this is a recruitment of very old circuitry for pack bonding and rewarding parental investment that is common to all mammalian lineages.

I knew Sugar loved me, in whatever sense the verb is meaningful for either cats or humans, when she wrapped herself around my feet and rested her face on my instep while I programmed. Cats are less complicated than humans; if you treat them with kindness and can make them feel secure and happy, love generally follows.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Monday, 23 Jun 2014 21:04

Unexpected Alliances (M.R. LaScola; Two Harbors Press) is, alas, a horrible example of why the absence of editorial gatekeepers in indie publishing can be a bad thing.

Here’s a clue: if you see nothing wrong with a near-future first-contact scene in which the commander of an armada of 30,000 starships many light years from Earth introduces herself as Nancy Hartley from the planet Ultron, you shouldn’t be writing SF.

The relatively short portion of the book I managed to read before I gave up also featured talking dragons and 7-foot-tall nonhuman aliens who casually interbreed with humans. The prose reads like something a bright 9-year-old might write. It’s a sort of pile of glittery SF and fantasy fripperies quoted with absolutely no regard to whether they make any sense, or even any sense that they ought to make sense.

It’s a brave new world. Anyone can publish. Sometimes they shouldn’t.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Sunday, 22 Jun 2014 14:32

In Soulminder (Timothy Zahn; Open Road Integrated Media), an invented device called a “soul trap” can capture the personality and memories of a dying human in a form that can be restored into the person’s brain if the physical damage that killed them can be repaired. While the device is initially conceived as a device to save the lives of trauma patients and people undergoing dangerous surgery, the fun doesn’t really start until the discovery that under some circimstances the device can be used to body-swap.

While not one of the groundbreaking stars of SF, Timothy Zahn has produced solid and interesting work in the past. I quite enjoyed the four-book series that began with Night Train to Rigel. His earlier, related Blackcollar and Cobra sequences were not bad either. Zahn is intelligent and careful with his worldbuilding; though I don’t read Star Wars tie-ins, my impression from what I see on the shelves is that he’s writing the best of them these days.

This could have been a step up – a fine example of the kind of near-future extrapolative SF that changes just one thing and explores the consequences in a rigorous way. Alas, Soulminder reads like it was phoned in while the author was having a bad day. There are clever bits, but it’s a sour little grind of a book which illustrates the fact that, while characterization is not tremendously important in idea-as-hero SF, the author at least has to write characters you don’t actively dislike.

Everybody is brooding and angry and obsessive all the time, the protagonist’s backstory is purest melodrama, the one competent man is unpleasantly arrogant, and various mildly clashing idealisms seem curdled and unengaging. The resulting mess is not really redeemed by clever plotting, in part because it reads like a fixup collection of short-story-length episodes rather than an integrated novel.

I can’t recommend this book. There isn’t enough fun here.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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