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Date: Friday, 22 Aug 2014 17:48

Once Dead (Richard Phillips; Amazon Publishing) is a passable airport thriller with some SF elements.

Jack Gregory should have died in that alley in Calcutta. Assigned by the CIA to kill the renegade reponsible for his brother’s death, he was nearly succeeding – until local knifemen take a hand. Bleeding, stabbed and near death, he is offered a choice: die, or become host to Ananchu – an extradimensional being who has ridden the limbic systems of history’s greatest slayers.

It’s a grim bargain. Ananchu will give him certain abilities, notably the ability to sense life at a distance and read the intentions of his enemies. But the cost is a near-uncontrollable addiction to danger and death. Gregory will literally be in constant struggle with an inner demon – and when the human who dragged his body from the alley is found insane, mumbling of the return of Jack the Ripper, a dark legend is reborn.

Airport-thriller action ensues as Gregory, believed dead by the CIA, goes freelance but is drawn into opposing a plot to cripple the U.S. with an EMP attack. There are lots of bullets, big explosions, a heavy from the Russian Mafia, treachery from rogues inside the CIA, torture scenes, exotic international locations, some sex, weapon porn, and a climactic Special-Ops-style assault on Baikonur. There’s not much surprising here, and the SF elements tend to recede into the background as the plot develops. There are clear indication that the author intends a series.

It’s not brilliant or terribly original, but it’s competently done. The author is a former Army Ranger; the gunplay, hand-to-hand fighting, and combat ops are written as by someone who has seen how it’s done right, if not done it himself. Read it on an airplane.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Tuesday, 19 Aug 2014 06:09

Before you read any further, go look at the drawing accompanying the New Tork Times article on the autopsy of Michael Brown,

There’s a story in that picture. To read it, you have to be familiar with pistol shooting and the kind of pistol self-defense training that cops and amateur sheepdogs like me engage in.

In the remainder of this post I’m going to walk you through the process of extracting the story from the picture.

In case the link I’m using disappears behind a paywall, here are the most salient features of what I see:

  • The entry and exit wounds form a nearly linear arc from the crown of the head to the right hand.
  • There are no entry or exit wounds on the back.
  • On the head, there are two entry wounds at the crown and right eye, and a wound in the jaw which could be entry or exit (it’s unclear in the drawing).
  • There is one wound at the base of the neck on the right hand side, drawn to suggest an exit wound.
  • There is one wound in the upper right pectoral muscle, drawn like an exit.
  • There are three wounds on the right arm. The topmost one is very near the pectoral wound and drawn like an entry. The torn shape of the middle one, on the upper arm, suggests an exit wound (later update: turns out it’s a graze, and the only one that could have been inflicted from the rear). The bottom one, on the forearm, is clearly drawn as an entry wound.
  • The wound on the hand is drawn to suggest that the bullet entered there at a shallow angle (more tearing would be shown if it were an exit wound)

The first thing that jumps out at me is that this was not wild, amateurish shooting. Had it been, the distribution of bullet holes would have resembled an irregular blob. The near-linear arrangement suggests a relatively steady hand and a shooter who wasn’t panicked.

It also strongly hints that Brown was not moving sideways when the shots were fired. He was either stationary or moving directly forward or away from Officer Wilson.

We know Wilson is a cop and we know how cops are trained – to aim for the target’s center of mass (COM). But that’s not where the shots landed. What I see here looks like good aim at the COM compromised by a mild case of trigger jerk from a right-handed shooter, pulling the muzzle slightly left from the point of aim.

This is probably the single most common shooting fault there is. I do it myself when I’ve been out of practice; my first target, at 30 feet, is likely to feature a vertical line of holes a few inches left of the X-ring. It’s a very easy mistake to make under fatigue or stress.

The location and angle of the head wounds, and the absence of wounds on the rear surfaces of the body, is also telling. For starters, it tells us that Brown was not shot in the back as some accounts have claimed.

I think the only posture that could produce this wound pattern is for Brown to have been leaning well forward when he was first shot, with his right arm stretched forward (the pair of wounds around the right armpit and the shallow-entry wound in the hand are suggestive of the latter).

I originally thought the head wounds indicated that Officer Wilson was shooting Mozambique drill – double tap to the body followed by a head shot. This is how police trainers teach you to take out a charging assailant who might be high out of his mind. I drill this technique myself, as do most serious self-defense shooters.

Now I think it’s equally possible that Brown began to collapse forward when he took the first bullet or two and his head fell into the path of Wilson’s following shots.

One possibility we can rule out is that Brown was shot while prone on the ground after collapsing. There are no wounds at the right places and angles for this. If he had been shot prone at close range, the angle of the crown wound would be impossible; if he had been shot while prone at some distance the crown wound might just barely possible but we’d also see shallow-angle wounds on the back.

Everything I see here is consistent with the report from an unnamed friend of officer Wilson that Brown charged Wilson and Wilson shot him at very close range, probably while Brown was grabbing for Wilson or the pistol with his right hand.

UPDATE: I failed to make clear that the reason I’m sure Brown was moving is the extreme torso angle suggested by the lack of exit wounds on the back. A human trying to do that standing still would overbalance and fall, which is why I think he was running or lunging when he took the bullets.

UPDATE2: We now have have a bit more information on the report.

“Dr. Baden and I concluded that he was shot at least six times. We’ve got one to the very top of the head, the apex. We’ve got one that entered just above the right eyebrow. We’ve got one that entered the top part of the right arm. We’ve got a graze wound, a superficial graze wound, to the middle part of the right arm. We’ve got a wound that entered the medial aspect of the right arm, and we’ve got a deep graze wound that produced a laceration to the palm of the right hand,” Parcells said while pointing out the location of the wounds on a diagram.

Baden and Parcells concur that the head shots came last, and that the crown wound killed Brown. The middle wound on the arm was not, as I thought from the drawing, an exit; it was a graze. Their description of the hand wound as a graze causing a laceration confirms my reading that the bullet hit the hand at a very low angle – thus, Brown’s hands cannot have been up when he took the shot.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Firearms"
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Date: Friday, 15 Aug 2014 16:33

I join my voice to those of Rand Paul and other prominent libertarians who are reacting to the violence in Ferguson, Mo. by calling for the demilitarization of the U.S.’s police. Beyond question, the local civil police in the U.S. are too heavily armed and in many places have developed an adversarial attitude towards the civilians they serve, one that makes police overreactions and civil violence almost inevitable.

But I publish this blog in part because I think it is my duty to speak taboo and unspeakable truths. And there’s another injustice being done here: the specific assumption, common among civil libertarians, that police overreactions are being driven by institutional racism. I believe this is dangerously untrue and actually impedes effective thinking about how to prevent future outrages.

In the Kivila language of the Trobriand Islands there is a lovely word, “mokita”, which means “truth we all know but agree not to talk about”. I am about to speak some mokitas.

Let’s begin with some statistics. Wikipedia has this to say about race and homicide rates:

According to the US Department of Justice, blacks accounted for 52.5% of homicide offenders from 1980 to 2008, with whites 45.3% and Native Americans and Asians 2.2%. The offending rate for blacks was almost 8 times higher than whites, and the victim rate 6 times higher. Most murders were intraracial, with 84% of white homicide victims murdered by whites, and 93% of black victims murdered by blacks.

Moving forward from 2008 or back from 1980 would change these figures very little; I cite Wikipedia because it’s handy, but I already knew them within a couple of percentage points and they’ve been very similar since before I was born in the 1950s. And we can take homicide figures as representative of racial disparities in wider violent crime rates, because – observably – they are.

Now here are some more facts which taken together, change the implications of that 52.5% a lot. First: in any subpopulation, whether chosen by race or SES or any other criterion, almost all violent crime (up to statistical noise) is perpetrated by males between the ages of 15 and 25.

Second: The black population of the U.S., as of the 2010 census, is 12.61% of the total.

Third: Within that population, males 15-25 are approximately 8% of it (add up the 15-19 and 20-24 boxes in table 2 and divide by two to account for the fact that half of that percentage is female). Multiplying these, the percentage of black males 15-24 in the general population is about 1%. If you add “mixed”, which is reasonable in order to correspond to a policeman’s category of “nonwhite”, it goes to about 2%.

That 2% is responsible for almost all of 52% of U.S. homicides. Or, to put it differently, by these figures a young black or “mixed” male is roughly 26 times more likely to be a homicidal threat than a random person outside that category – older or younger blacks, whites, hispanics, females, whatever. If the young male is unambiguously black that figure goes up, about doubling.

26 times more likely. That’s a lot. It means that even given very forgiving assumptions about differential rates of conviction and other factors we probably still have a difference in propensity to homicide (and other violent crimes for which its rates are an index, including rape, armed robbery, and hot burglary) of around 20:1. That’s being very generous, assuming that cumulative errors have thrown my calculations are off by up to a factor of 6 in the direction unfavorable to my argument.

Now suppose you’re a cop. Your job rubs your nose in the reality behind crime statistics. What you’re going to see on the streets every day is that random black male youths are roughly 20 times more likely to be dangerous to you – and to other civilians – than anyone who isn’t a random black male youth.

Any cop who treated members of a group with a factor 20 greater threat level than population baseline “equally” would be crazy. He wouldn’t be doing his job; he’d be jeopardizing the civil peace by inaction.

Yeah, my all means let’s demilitarize the police. But let’s also stop screaming “racism” when, by the numbers, the bad shit that goes down with black male youths reflects a cop’s rational fear of that particular demographic – and not racism against blacks in general. Often the cops in these incidents are themselves black, a fact that media accounts tend to suppress.

What we can actually do about the implied problem is a larger question. (Decriminalizing drugs would be a good start.) But it’s one we can’t even begin to address rationally without seeing past the accusation of racism.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Politics, racism"
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Date: Friday, 15 Aug 2014 09:47

One of the reasons I like cats is because I find it enjoyable to try to model their thought processes by observing their behavior. They’re like furry aliens, just enough like us that a limited degree of communication (mostly emotional) is possible.

Just now I’m contemplating a recent change in the behavior of our new cat, Zola. Recent as in the last couple of days. Some kind of switch has flipped.

When last I reported on Zola, about six weeks ago, he was – very gradually – losing his initial reserve around us; behavior becoming more like Sugar’s was. Not all that surprising in retrospect – those Maine Coon genes are telling.

In the last couple of days Zola has become markedly more affectionate and attention-seeking. He’s even taken to sleeping part of the night on the waterbed coverlet, which was something Sugar did that we liked (before a few days ago, he’d occasionally jump up but then skedaddle after less than a minute). We find it very restful to have a cat curled up nearby when we’re dozing off or wake up in the middle of the night.

I think I understand the long-term, gradual increase in affectionate behavior; Zola has been testing us and learning that we’re safe. I wish I understood the sudden jump. It’s as though we’ve moved to a different category in his representation of the world. It doesn’t feel like he’s testing us anymore; now he just cheerfully assumes that we love him and loves us right back. He’s happier and more relaxed – he’s almost stopped disappearing during the day (but is still more nocturnal than Sugar was).

The reason I’m writing about this is to invite speculation – or, better yet, reports from ethological studies – on what social classifications cats have other than “stranger”, “packmate”, and “kin”. Also, whether there’s any evidence for domestic cats putting humans in a close-kin category, or something else distinguishable from and more trusted than “packmate”.

Now, if we can just teach him not to sprawl where he might get stepped on. Without actually stepping on him *wince*…

Author: "esr" Tags: "Science, Zola"
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Date: Tuesday, 12 Aug 2014 23:56

I shipped point releases of cvs-fast-export and reposurgeon today. Both of them are intended to fix some issues around the translation of ignore patterns in CVS and Subversion repositories. Both releases illustrate, I think, a general point about software engineering: sometimes, it’s better to punt tricky edge cases to a human than to write code that is doomed to be messy, over-complex, and a defect attractor.

For those of you new to version-control systems, an ignore pattern tells a VCS about things for the VCS to ignore when warning the user about untracked files. Such patterns often contain wildcards; for example, “*.o” is good for telling almost any VCS that it shouldn’t try to track Unix object files.

In most version control systems ignore patterns are kept in a per-directory dotfile. Thus CVS has .cvsignore, git has .gitignore, etc. Ignore patterns in Subversion are not kept in such a dotfile; instead they are the values of svn:ignore properties attached to directories.

Translating ignore patterns between version-control systems is messy that most conversion tools fluff it. My reposurgeon tool is an exception; it goes to considerable lengths to translate Subversion ignore properties into patterns in whatever kind of dotfile is required on the target system.

Unfortunately, this feature collides with git-svn. People using that tool to interact with a Subversion repository often create .gitignore files in the Subversion repository which are independent of any native svn:ignore properties it might have.

This becomes a problem when you try to convert the repo to git. In that case, .gitignore files created by git-svn users and .gitignore files generated from the native svn:ignore properties can step on each other in odd ways.

I’ve had a bug report about this in my inbox for a couple of months. Submitter innocently asked me to write logic that would automatically do the right thing, merging .gitignore patterns with svn:ignore patterns and throwing out duplicates. And somewhere in the back of my brain, a robot voice called out “WARNING, WILL ROBINSON! DANGER! DANGER!”

One of the senses you develop after writing complex software for a couple of decades is some ability to tell when a feature is going to be a defect attractor – a source of numerous hard-to-characterize bugs and a maintenance nightmare. That alarm rang very loudly on this one. But I was blocked for quite a while on the question of what, if any, simpler alternative to go for.

I resolved my problem when I realized that this challenge – merging the properties – will be both (a) uncommon, and (b) the sort of thing computers find difficult but humans find easy. Typically it would only have to be dealt with once in the aftermath of a repository conversion, rather than frequently as the repo is in use.

My conclusion was that the best behavior is to discard the hand-hacked SVN .gitignores, warning the user this is being done. It’s then up to the reposurgeon user to rescue any patterns that should be moved from the old hand-hacked .gitignores to the new generated ones.

Because, very often, the hand-hacked .gitignores are there just to duplicate way the native svn:ignore properties are doing, the user often won’t have to do any work at all. The unusual cases in which that is false are the same unusual cases that automated merge code could too easily get wrong.

The general point here is that engineering is tradeoffs. Sometimes chasing really recondite edge cases piles up a lot of technical debt for only tiny gains.

The more subtle point is that if you don’t have any way at all to punt weird cases to a human, your software system may be brittle and overengineered – doing sporadic exceptional cases at a high life-cycle cost that a human could do cheaply and at a cumulatively lower defect risk.

This bears emphasizing because hackers have such a horror of manularity, going to extreme lengths to automate instead. Sometimes, doing that gets the tradeoff wrong.

Reposurgeon creates the option get this right because it was designed from the beginning as a tool to amplify human judgment rather than trying to automate it entirely out of the picture. All other repository-conversion tools are indeed brittle in exactly the opposite way by comparison.

A similar issue arose with cvs-fast-export. I got a bug report that revealed a couple of issues in how it translates .cvsignore files to .gitignores in its output stream. Among other things, it writes a representation of CVS’s default ignore patterns into a synthetic .gitignore in the first commit. This is so users browsing the early history in the converted git repo won’t have untracked files jumping out out them that CVS would have kept quiet about.

With the report, I got a request for a switch to suppress this behavior. The right answer, I replied, was not to add that switch and some complexity to cvs-fast-export. Rather, I reminded the requester that he could easily delete that synthetic .gitignore from the history using reposurgeon. Then I added the command to do that to the list of examples on the reposurgeon man page.

The point, again, is that rushing in to code a feature would have been the wrong thing – programmer macho. Alternatively, we could view the cvs-fast-export/reposurgeon combination as an instance of the design pattern alternate hard and soft layers and draw a slightly different lesson; sometimes it’s better to manually exploit a soft layer than add an expensive feature to a hard one.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Software, reposurgeon"
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Date: Tuesday, 12 Aug 2014 23:53

Unexpected Stories (Octavia Butler; Open Road Integrated Media) is a slight but revealing work; a novelette and a short story, one set in an alien ecology among photophore-skinned not-quite humans, another set in a near future barely distinguishable from her own time. The second piece (Childfinder) was originally intended for publication in Harlan Ellison’s never-completed New Wave anthology The Last Dangerous Visions; this is its first appearance.

These stories do not show Butler at her best. They are fairly transparent allegories about race and revenge of the kind that causes writers to be much caressed by the people who like political message fiction more than science fiction. The first, A Necessary Being almost manages to rise above its allegorical content into being interesting SF; the second, Childfinder, is merely angry and trite.

The only real attraction here is the worldbuilding in A Necessary Being; Butler explores the possible social consequences of humanoids having genetic lines that differ dramatically in physical capabilities, mindset, and ability to express varying colors in the photophores that cover their skins. But having laid out the premise and some consequences, Butler never really gets to any moment of conceptual breakthrough; the resolution of the plot could have gone down the same way in any human tribal society with charismatic leaders. The counterfactual/SF premise is effectively discarded a half-step before it should have paid off in some kind of transformative insight that changes the condition of the world.

This illustrates one of the ways in which allegorical or political preoccupations can damage SF writers. A Necessary Being fails as SF because Butler was distracted by her allegorical agenda and forgot what she owed the reader. This is a particular shame because the story displays imagination and an ability to write.

Childfinder is not merely flawed, it is an actively nasty revenge fantasy. There’s very little here other than a thin attempt at justification for a black woman psychically crippling white children who might otherwise have become telepaths. The framing story is rudimentary and poorly written. It would probably be better for Butler’s reputation if this one had remained in the trunk.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Tuesday, 12 Aug 2014 07:18

The Gods of War (Graham Brown & Spencer J. Andrews; Stealth Books) is one of the better arguments for the traditional system of publishing-house gatekeepers I’ve seen recently. It is not merely bad, it is a stinkeroo that trumpets its awfulness from page one.

Straight up, a cabal of the shady super-rich in the year 2137 are told that the Earth’s ecology will collapse within about a year, and their maximum leader has a clever plan to evacuate them to…Mars. Which unspecified good guys have developed with a dream of turning it into (get this) an agricultural colony that can feed half the earth.

Nothing that calls itself SF but leads off with that much ignorance of the reality of Mars and the energy economics of space transport can possibly land anywhere good. Especially not when the prose is clumsy, the characters strictly cartoons, and the authors seem bent on writing a political allegory for which “hamfisted” and “stupid” will be among the mildest negative adjectives one could apply.

The only mercy in this book is that it is such an obvious waste of electrons that I was able to give up with a clear conscience on page twelve rather than forcing myself to slog through it all in hopes of finding some redeeming value. In brief: avoid.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Monday, 11 Aug 2014 03:44

I just got back from the 2014 World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, PA. This event is the “brain” half of the split vacation my wife Cathy and I generally take every year, the “brawn” half being summer weapons camp. WBC is a solid week of tournament tracks in strategy and war games of all kinds, with a huge open pickup gaming scene as well. People fly in from all over the planet to be here – takes less effort for us as the venue is about 90 minutes straight west of where we live.

Cathy and I aren’t – quite – steady world-championship-level players. I did make the Power Grid finals (top 5 players) two years ago, but have been unable to replicate that feat since. Usually we do make quarter-finals (top 64 to 125 players) or semi-finals (top 16 to 25) in a couple of our favorite games and then lose by the slimmest of margins to people just a hair better (or at least more obsessive) than we are. That’s pretty much what happened this year.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of my whole week, but rather try to hit the dramatic high spots in a way I hope will convey something of the flavor to people who aren’t deeply immersed in tournament gaming. I think the best way to do that is to organize by game rather than chronology. The section titles link to game descriptions.

Terra Mystica

I’ve been enjoying this one a lot lately and was very pleased to be able to fit a pickup game in on the first night. Three to six players, 2.5-3 hours, fantasy-themed – contending factions with magical powers trying for interlocking levels of area control on a multicolored hex grid.

This game is strategically deep and tricky to play – very “crunchy” in gamer slang. Suits me fine; I like my games super-crunchy, which is an elite taste even among strategy gamers. If Terra Mystica becomes a WBC tournament game (which I think is extremely likely to happen within two years) a trophy in it will earn more respect than one in a lighter, “fluffier” game.

Some of you may be entertained to know that my joke name for this one is “Eclipse: The Gathering”. For the rest of you, this hints at similarities to a game (Eclipse) I often play, and another (Magic: The Gathering) that I used to play.

The one flaw the game seems to have is one that’s common in games with asymmetrical player powers; the factions aren’t quite balanced, with some chronically stronger or weaker than average (this sort of thing can slip through even careful playtesting sometimes). The Darklings, for example, are often said to be about the winningest side; my one time playing them I did very well, pulling a strong second.

This was about my fifth play of Terra Mystica, maybe fourth. This time I drafted the Engineers – I’m trying to get to playing every one of the 14 factions. I cannot recommend them. I had to work hard to pull second even though all the other players were less experienced than me; the Engineers have real trouble getting enough workers to expand even though my first couple of actions were the expensive ones required to reduce my terraforming cost to 1 worker. Copping the bonus for most area controlled and maxing out the Air cult track helped a lot.

Commands & Colors: Ancients

I love ancient-period wargames. Phalanxes, peltasts, barbarians, war elephants – I actually prefer a straight historical to fantasy-themed stuff. I’d say my favorite single period is the wars of the Diadochi (lots and lots of war elephants, hurray!), but anything set from the late Bronze Age to the fall of the Western Roman Empire will easily catch my interest.

Commands & Colors: Ancients is, in my opinion, one of the best game systems ever devised for this span of time. While not as crunchy as some of the older simulationist games like the PRESTAGS system, you will get authentic results when you use period tactics. Knowing what historical generals did, and having some idea why, actually helps significantly. There are expansions and scenarios for hundreds of different historical battles.

Alas, the game is flawed for tournament play. The problem with it is that when two highly skilled players meet, they can counter each others’ tactics so well that the outcome comes down to who gets good breaks on the battle dice. I’m quite a good player, but I had skipped competing at WBC for the last few years because I found it too irritating to lose to the dice rather than my opponents.

This year, however, I had a hole in my WBC schedule where the C&C:A tournament was and decided to give it another try. The scenario was the battle of Bagradas, Carthaginians vs. Romans during the First Punic War. With elephants!

Three games later I had: 1 narrow loss to a player who afterwards shook his head and said “You played that very well, I just got better dice”; 1 solid win against a player not quite as good as me; and one heartbreaker of a loss to a player about my equal where we both knew it came down to one failed die roll on my attempted final kill – which, by the odds, I should have made.

That wasn’t good enough to get me to the second round. And it was just about what I expected from my previous experience; the tournament game is a crapshoot in which it’s not enough to be good, you also have to be lucky. I prefer games in which. if there’s a random element at all, luck is nevertheless relatively unimportant.

I’ll probably sit out C&C:A next year.

Ticket To Ride

TTR is a railroad game in which you build track and connect cities to make victory points. It’s relatively fluffy, a “family game”, but has enough strategy so that serious gamers will play it as a light diversion when circumstances aren’t right for something crunchier.

I am difficult to beat at the Europe variant, which I like better than the American map; the geography creates more tactical complexities. In my first heat I kerb-stomped the other three players, coming in 19 points ahead of 2nd and sweeping every scoring category and bonus.

The second heat looked like it was going to go the same way. I built both monster tunnels (St. Petersburg-Stockholm and Kyiv-Budapest) on succeeding turns for a 36-point power play, then successfully forced an early game end in order to leave the other players with unused trains (and thus unscored points). When we started endgame scoring everyone at the table thought I had the win locked in.

Sadly, in order to get rid of my own train tokens as fast as possible I had to give up on the longest-continuous-track bonus. Another player got it, and piled up just enough completed route bonuses to get past me by 1 solitary victory point. Hard to say which of us was more astonished.

My schedule was such that it wasn’t possible after that to make the second win that would get me to semifinals guaranteed. But I was a high alternate and might have made it in anyway; I was just checking in with the GM when my wife ran in to tell me I’d squeaked into the Puerto Rico semifinals running at the same time – and that’s a game I take more seriously.

Ah well, maybe next time. I think none of the WBC regulars in this tournament would be very surprised if I took gold some year, if I’m not preoccupied with more serious games.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was not quite the first of the genre now called “Eurogames”, but it was the first to hit big internationally back in 2002. The theme is colonization and economic development in the 16th-century Caribbean; you build cities, you run plantations, you trade, and you ship goods to Europe for victory points.

This game is to Eurogame as apple is to fruit, the one everyone thinks of first. It looks light on the surface but isn’t; it has a lot of subtlety and tremendous continuing replay value. It has outlasted dozens of newer, flashier games that had six months or a year of glory but now molder half-forgotten in closets.

My wife and I are both experienced and strong players. The WBC tournament referees and many of the past champion players know us, and we’ve beaten some of them in individual games. We seldom fail to make quarter-finals, and some years we make semi-finals. I think each of us can realistically hope for gold some year.

But maybe we’re not quite good enough yet. Cathy got two wins in the qualifying heats, good for a bye past the quarter-finals into semis. I scored one utterly crushing victory at the only three-place table in the second qualifying heat, playing my default factory/fast-buildout strategy. Then, only a close second – but that made me second alternate (one of the guys I beat in that game was last year’s champion) and I got in because a couple of qualified players dropped out to do other things (like play in the Ticket To Ride semis I passed on to play in these).

Cathy pulled third in her game; she says she was outplayed. Me, I got off to a roaring start. Play order in the initial round is known to be important from statistical analysis, so much so that in championship you bid competitively for it by agreeing to deduct victory points from your final score. I got fourth seat (generally considered second-best to third) relatively cheaply for -1.5.

Usually I plan to play corn shipper when in fourth seat. But, due to the only random element in the game (the order plantation tiles in the game come out) and some good money-accumulation moves, I managed to build and man a coffee roaster very early. That pointed me back at my default strategy, which aims at a fast city build-out with minimal shipping using Factory as a money generator – one coffee crop comes close to paying for the (expensive) Factory.

Damned if it didn’t work perfectly. I had the only coffee in production, which scared other players off of triggering production, particularly styming the bulk shippers. For most of the game it looked to everyone at the table like I was cruising to an easy win. There were admiring remarks about this.

The one drawback of this strategy, however, is that it has a slow ramp-up. You make most of your points quite near the end of the game through big buildings. If anyone can force game end before you’re expecting it, you take a bigger hit to your score than shippers who have been making points from the beginning.

That’s how I got whacked. There were these three or maybe four guys down from Quebec specifically for the Puerto Rico tournament; gossip said they weren’t playing anything else. One of them – Matthieu, I think his name was – was sitting to my left (after me in the turn order) and pulled a brilliant hack that shortened the game by at least two rounds, maybe more. Doing this deprived me of the last, crucial rounds of build-out time when I would have pulled down the biggest points.

Those of you who play the game know that one way to accelerate the end is to deliberately leave buildings unmanned so they suck colonists off the colony ship faster; when those run out, you’re done. There’s a recently discovered ambiguity in the rules that makes this tactic work much faster – turns out that someone playing Mayor is allowed, under a strict reading, to refuse to take his colonists, casting them into the void and leaving his building empty to pull more out of the boat on the next round.

The resulting vanishing-colonist play may be a bug produced by poorly crafted rules or a bad translation from the original German (wouldn’t be the first time that’s been a problem, either). The tournament referee is not happy with it, nor are the WBC regulars – it screws with the “book”, the known strategies, very badly. The ref intends to brace the game’s designer about this, and we may get a rules amendment disallowing the play next year.

In the meantime, nobody could argue that the guys from Quebec weren’t within their rights to exploit this hack ruthlessly. And they did. Three of them used it to finish at the finals table. Matthieu, the one that dry-gulched me, took the gold.

There was a lot of … I won’t say “angry”, but rather perturbed talk about this. I wasn’t the only person to feel somewhat blindsided and screwed (though we also admired their nerve and dedication). These guys were monomaniacs; unlike most top WBC gamers, who (like me) play up to a half-a-dozen games very well, the Quebeckers were laser focused on thus one game and studied it to the point where they found the hack that would break the standard book.

Sigh…and that’s why no trophy for me this year. (Everyone in the final four would have gotten one.) Cathy and I will try again. Nobody would be surprised at either of us making the finals, but it could take a few years’ more practice.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Games"
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Date: Wednesday, 06 Aug 2014 04:36

Nexus (Nicholas Wilson; Victory Editing) is the sort of thing that probably would have been unpublishable before e-books, and in this case I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad.

There’s a lot about this book that makes me unsure, beginning with whether it’s an intentional sex comedy or a work of naive self-projection by an author with a pre-adolescent’s sense of humor and a way, way overactive libido. Imagine Star Trek scripted as semi-pornographic farce with the alien-space-babes tropes turned up to 11 and you’ve about got this book.

It’s implausible verging on grotesque, but some of the dialog is pretty funny. If you dislike gross-out humor, avoid.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review, Science Fiction"
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Date: Tuesday, 05 Aug 2014 11:55

LSE is a wasting disease. It invades the brains of writers of SF and other genres, progressively damaging their ability to tell entertaining stories until all they can write is unpleasant gray goo fit only for consumption by lit majors. One of the principal sequelae of the disease is plunging sales.

If you are a writer or an aspiring writer, you owe it to yourself to learn the symptoms of LSE so you can seek treatment should you contract it. If you love a writer or aspiring writer, be alert for the signs; victims often fail to recognize their condition until the degeneration has passed the critical point beyond which no recovery is possible. You may have to stage an intervention.

Here are some clinical indicators of LSE:

1. Evinces desire to be considered “serious artist”.

2. Idea content is absent or limited to politicized social criticism.

3. Heroism does not occur except as anti-heroic mockery.

4. All major characters are psychologically damaged.

5. Wordage devoted to any character’s interior monologues exceeds wordage in same character’s dialog.

6. Repeated character torture, especially of the self-destructive variety.

7. Inability to write an unambiguously happy ending. In advanced cases, the ability to write any ending at all may be lost.

8. Stronger craving for a Nebula than a Hugo. (Outside SF: approval of fellow genre authors more valued than that of fans.)

9. Spelling name without capital letters.

10. Plot is smothered under an inchoate cloud of characterization.

11. Persistent commission of heavy-handed allegory.

12. All sense of humor or perspective vanishes from writing, replaced (if at all) by hip irony.

13. Characters do not experience joy, hope, or autonomy except as transient falsehoods to be mocked.

14. No moment of conceptual breakthrough in story. (Outside SF: lack of respect for genre aims and values.)

If you have three or more of these symptoms, step away from your keyboard before another innocent reader is harmed. Immerse yourself in retro space opera (or your non-SF genre’s equivalent) until you understand what it got right that you are doing wrong. And, get over yourself.

(Thread is open for more symptoms. Try to keep politics out of it; that would be a different “Warning signs of being a political tool” list.)

Author: "esr" Tags: "Science Fiction"
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Date: Monday, 04 Aug 2014 14:05

One of the minor frustrations of my life, up to now, is that though I can sell as much nonfiction as I care to write, fiction sales had eluded me. What made this particularly irksome is that I don’t have only the usual ego reasons for wanting to succeed. I love the science fiction genre and owe it much; I want to pay that forward by contributing back to it.

It therefore gives me great satisfaction to announce that I have made my first SF sale, a short (3.5kword) piece of military SF titled Sucker Punch set on a U.S. aircraft carrier during the Taiwan Straits Action of 2037. Some details follow.

The backstory begins with Castalia House, an e-book publisher based in Finland, noticing my recent spate of reviews and offering to send me some of their current releases – notably John C. Wright’s Awake In The Night Land, which I haven’t reviewed yet only because I feel I need to have read Willam Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land first and, brother, that is quite a slog.

During this conversation, the head guy at Castalia House (the infamous Vox Day, wearing another hat) informed me of an upcoming project: an anthology called Ride The Red Horse intended to reprise the format of Jerry Pournelle’s old There Will Be War compendia. That is, a mix of military SF and military futurology, written by a mix of SF authors and serving military personnel, with few technical experts added for flavor.

“Want to write a fiction piece for us?” said Mr. Castalia House. “I can’t write fiction for shit, or at least all my attempts to sell it have failed,” I replied.

“Well, what about non-fiction?” I couldn’t think of a premise; then, suddenly, I could. Which is how I wound up researching and writing a fact piece called Battlefield Lasers and the Death of Airpower. I turned in a partial first draft about four hours later, and swiftly learned that (a) the actual editor on the anthology is Tom Kratman, and (b) he loved the draft and absolutely wanted it in when it got finished.

A couple days later I got a full draft done and shipped it. (A&D regular Ken Burnside, who knows weapons physics inside and out, was significant help.) Delighted that-was-brilliant! email from Castalia House followed.

“Are you suuuure you don’t want to do a fiction piece?” Mr. Castalia House said, or words to that effect. He tossed a couple of premises at me which I didn’t particularly like; then it occurred to me that I might dramatically fictionalize one aspect of the futurology in Battlefield Lasers…

A long Sunday later I had Sucker Punch ready. Writing it was an odd experience. I knew the story concept was working as I pounded it out, but what it clearly wanted to be was a Tom-Clancy-style technothriller in miniature, which is not something I had ever imagined myself writing. But I went with it and shipped it.

Hours after I did so Mr. Castalia House got back to me and said “What caused you to imagine that you can’t write fiction? This story is better than mine!” He then went off on a tear about the incompetence of the gatekeepers who had turned down my previous efforts. Which, I suppose, is possible; or maybe they really sucked but I’ve learned some things since.

Anyway, that’s how I sold my first SF. I don’t have a publication date more specific than “this Fall” yet. I’ll announce it here. And I’ll try not to make this a one-off. I do have some advantages; I’m already a very skilled writer, just not so much at the “fiction” part.

My real dream, someday, is to write a major novel of hard SF at the level of (say) Greg Egan’s Disapora or Neal Stephenson’s Anathem. That’s a long way off from here. Baby steps…

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Sunday, 03 Aug 2014 18:35

Of Bone And Thunder (Chris Evans; Pocket Books) is an object lesson in why fiction writers should avoid political allegory. Yes, it’s a fantasy reflection of the Vietnam War; on the off-hand chance a reader wouldn’t have figured it out by about page 3, the publisher helpfully spells it out in the blurb.

There might even be something in the book besides allegory – the author is, at least, a reasonably competent wordsmith. The trouble is that the book’s message is hammered home with repetitive and unceasing dullness from the very beginning. By the time I was 10% in, all I wanted was to make it stop. Shortly after that point, I gave up.

Message fiction may not intrinsically be a bad thing, but it requires a lightness of touch that this author – like most others who try it – seems incapable of achieving.

Pro tip: learn to entertain, first. When you have mastered the art of writing fiction that people find engaging and want to read, then you can begin to include message elements. Carefully, quietly, minimally. Beware of over-egging; avoid a bleak, humorless, heavy-handed approach.

Otherwise, your work will fail both as fiction and as message. Which, I fear, is precisely what has occurred here.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review"
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Date: Sunday, 03 Aug 2014 14:55

Traitor’s Blade (Sebastian de Castell; Jo Fletcher books) is perhaps best tescribed as a noirish fantasy spin on Dumas’s Three Musketeers. But it’s better, and less derivative, than that sounds.

Five years ago, a revolt by powerful nobles led to the death of the king that Falcio val Mond served. Ever since, Falcio and his comrades Kest and Brasti have been struggling to reunite the Greatcoats, the order of swordsmen/justiciars the King founded to enforce the Law against even the mightiest.

But the Greatcloaks are in in popular disgrace, widely reviled as traitors for having failed to defend the King. The victorious nobles are enemies, having no desire for any counterweight against their absolute power in their domains. The remnant Greatcoats have survived only by not appearing to be a political threat.

When Falcio and his friends are framed for murder, they are forced to hire on as caravan guards to escape the scene of the crime. But their journey to the corrupt and blood-soaked city of Rijou is one out of the frying pan and into the fire. The King’s secrets – and Falcio’s own – are far from done with him.

This book is a satisfying swirl or derring-do, intrigue, treachery, and a soupcon of magic. But what really makes it work are the fight scenes. They are no vague swash and buckle but detailed descriptions of specific techniques and sequences – the “conversation of blades”. As a historical fencer and martial artist myself, I can certify that the author knows what he is writing about very well.

First of a sequence. I’ll want to read the sequels.

Author: "esr" Tags: "Review"
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Date: Saturday, 02 Aug 2014 14:44

Before you read the rest of this post, go look at these pictures of a Hobbit Pub and a Hobbit House. And recall the lovely Bag End sets from Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies.

I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.

To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.

Alexander’s ideas are not easy to summarize. He believes that there is a timeless set of generative ur-patterns which are continuously rediscovered in the world’s most beautiful buildings – patterns which derive from an interplay among mathematical harmonies, the psychological/social needs of human beings, and the properties of the materials we build in.

Alexander celebrates folk architecture adapted to local needs and materials. He loves organic forms and buildings that merge naturally with their surroundings. He respects architectural tradition, finding harmony and beauty even in its accidents.

When I look at these buildings, and the Tolkien sketches from which they derive, that’s what I see. The timelessness, the organic quality, the rootedness in place. When I look inside them, I see a kind of humane warmth that is all too rare in any building I actually visit. (Curiously, one of the few exceptions is a Wegmans supermarket near me which, for all that it’s a gigantic commercial hulk, makes clever use of stucco and Romanesque stonework to evoke a sense of balance, groundedness, and warmth.)

I want to live in a thing like the Hobbit House – a hummocky fieldstone pile with a red-tiled roof and a chimney, and white plaster and wainscoting and hardwood floors. I want it to look like it grew where it is, half-set in a hillside. I want the mullions and the butterfly windows and the massive roof-beams and the eyebrow gables. Want, want, want!

I don’t feel like this desire is nostalgia or a turn away from the modern; there’s room in my dream for central heating and Ethernet cable in the walls, not to mention electricity. I feel like it’s a turn towards truths from the past but for the future – that, in our busy cleverness, we have almost forgotten what kind of design makes a building not just physically adequate but psychologically nourishing. We need to rediscover that, and these buildings feel to me like clues.

I think it might be that Tolkien, an eccentric genius nostalgic for the English countryside of his pre-World-War-I youth, abstracted and distilled out of its vernacular architecture exactly those elements which are timeless in Christopher Alexander’s sense. There is a pattern language, a harmony, here. These buildings make sense as wholes. They are restful and welcoming.

They’re also rugged. You can tell by looking at the Hobbit House, or that inn in New Zealand, that you’d have to work pretty hard to do more than superficial damage to either. They’ll age well; scratches and scars will become patina. And a century from now or two, long after this year’s version of “modern” looks absurdly dated, they’ll still look like they belong exactly where they are.

One mathematical possibility I find plausible for explaining their appeal: these buildings exhibit something like fractal self-similarity. The rooflines resemble 1/f noise. Small details echo large ones; similar forms and proportions show up at multiple scales. These are features by which the human eye recognizes natural forms. Perhaps this is why they seem so restful.

I wish we could learn to build like this again – not as a movie set or a stunt, but as a living idiom. Factories and offices don’t need what these buildings have, but homes – the places where people actually live – do. I think we’d all be saner and happier for it.

Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 19:37

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.


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Author: "esr" Tags: "General"
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Date: Thursday, 31 Jul 2014 13:54

I’ve been aware for some time of a culture war simmering in the SF world. And trying to ignore it, as I believed it was largely irrelevant to any of my concerns and I have friends on both sides of the divide. Recently, for a number of reasons I may go into in a later post, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at it. And now I’m going to have to weigh in, because it seems to me that the side I might otherwise be most sympathetic to has made a rather basic error in its analysis. That error bears on something I do very much care about, which is the health of the SF genre as a whole.

Both sides in this war believe they’re fighting about politics. I consider this evaluation a serious mistake by at least one of the sides.

On the one hand, you have a faction that is broadly left-wing in its politics and believes it has a mission to purge SF of authors who are reactionary, racist, sexist et weary cetera. This faction now includes the editors at every major SF publishing imprint except Baen and all of the magazines except Analog and controls the Science Fiction Writers of America (as demonstrated by their recent political purging of Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day). This group is generally frightened of and hostile to indie publishing. Notable figures include Patrick & Theresa Nielsen Hayden and John Scalzi. I’ll call this faction the Rabbits, after Scalzi’s “Gamma Rabbit” T-shirt and Vox Day’s extended metaphor about rabbits and rabbit warrens.

On the other hand, you have a faction that is broadly conservative or libertarian in its politics. Its members deny, mostly truthfully, being the bad things the Rabbits accuse them of. It counteraccuses the Rabbits of being Gramscian-damaged cod-Marxists who are throwing away SF’s future by churning out politically-correct message fiction that, judging by Amazon rankings and other sales measures, fans don’t actually want to read. This group tends to either fort up around Baen Books or be gung-ho for indie- and self-publishing. Notable figures include Larry Correia, Sarah Hoyt, Tom Kratman, John C. Wright, and Vox Day. I’ll call this group the Evil League of Evil, because Correia suggested it and other leading figures have adopted the label with snarky glee.

A few other contrasts between the Rabbits and the Evil League are noticeable. One is that the Evil League’s broadsides are often very funny and it seems almost incapable of taking either itself or the Rabbits’ accusations seriously – I mean, Correia actually tags himself the “International Lord of Hate” in deliberate parody of what the Rabbits say about him. On the other hand, the Rabbits seem almost incapable of not taking themselves far too seriously. There’s a whiny, intense, adolescent, over-fixated quality about their propaganda that almost begs for mockery. Exhibit A is Alex Dally McFarlane’s call for an end to the default of binary gender in SF.

There’s another contrast that gets near what I think is the pre-political cause of this war. The Rabbits have the best stylists, while the Evil League has the best storytellers. Pick up a Rabbit property like Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2014 and you’ll read large numbers of exquisitely crafted little numbers about nothing much. The likes of Correia, on the other hand, churn out primitive prose, simplistic plotting, at best serviceable characterization – and vastly more ability to engage the average reader. (I would bet money, based on Amazon rankings, that Correia outsells every author in that collection combined.)

All this might sound like I’m inclined to sign up with the Evil League of Evil. The temptation is certainly present; it’s where the more outspoken libertarians in SF tend to have landed. Much more to the point, my sense of humor is such that I find it nearly impossible to resist the idea of posting something public requesting orders from the International Lord of Hate as to which minority group we are to crush beneath our racist, fascist, cismale, heteronormative jackboots this week. The screams of outrage from Rabbits dimwitted enough to take this sort of thing seriously would entertain me for months.

Alas, I cannot join the Evil League of Evil, for I believe they have made the same mistake as the Rabbits; they have mistaken accident for essence. The problem with the Rabbits is not that left-wing politics is dessicating and poisoning their fiction. While I have made the case elsewhere that SF is libertarian at its core, it nevertheless remains possible to write left-wing message SF that is readable, enjoyable, and of high quality – Iain Banks’s Culture novels leap to mind as recent examples, and we can refer back to vintage classics such as Pohl & Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants for confirmation. Nor, I think, is the failure of Rabbit fiction to engage most SF fans and potential fans mainly down to its politics; I think the Evil League is prone to overestimate the popular appeal of their particular positions here.

No, I judge that what is dessicating and poisoning the Rabbit version of SF is something distinct from left-wing political slant but co-morbid with it: colonization by English majors and the rise of literary status envy as a significant shaping force in the field.

This is a development that’s easy to mistake for a political one because of the accidental fact that most university humanities departments have, over the last sixty years or so, become extreme-left political monocultures. But, in the language of epidemiology, I believe the politics is a marker for the actual disease rather than the pathogen itself. And it’s no use to fight the marker organism rather than the actual pathogen.

Literary status envy is the condition of people who think that all genre fiction would be improved by adopting the devices and priorities of late 19th- and then 20th-century literary fiction. Such people prize the “novel of character” and stylistic sophistication above all else. They have almost no interest in ideas outside of esthetic theory and a very narrow range of socio-political criticism. They think competent characters and happy endings are jejune, unsophisticated, artistically uninteresting. They love them some angst.

People like this are toxic to SF, because the lit-fic agenda clashes badly with the deep norms of SF. Many honestly think they can fix science fiction by raising its standards of characterization and prose quality, but wind up doing tremendous iatrogenic damage because they don’t realize that fixating on those things (rather than the goals of affirming rational knowability and inducing a sense of conceptual breakthrough) produces not better SF but a bad imitation of literary fiction that is much worse SF.

Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.

The victims of literary status envy resent the likes of David Weber, and their perceived inferiority to the Thomas Pynchons of the world; they think the SF field is broken and need to be fixed. When they transpose this resentment into the key of politics in the way their university educations have taught then to do, they become the Rabbits.

The Evil League of Evil is fighting the wrong war in the wrong way. To truly crush the Rabbits, they should be talking less about politics and more about what has been best and most noble in the traditions of the SF genre itself. I think a lot of fans know there is something fatally gone missing in the Rabbit version of science fiction; what they lack is the language to describe and demand it.

That being said, in the long run, I don’t think the Evil League of Evil can lose. The Rabbits are both the beneficiaries and victims of preference falsification; their beliefs about where the fans want the field to go are falsified by their plummeting sales figures, but they can’t see past the closure induced by their control of the gatekeeper positions in traditional publishing. Meanwhile, the Evil League thrives in the rising medium of e-book sales, in indie- and self-publishing.

The Rabbits have a sort of herd-instinct sense that these new channels doom them to irrelevance, which is why so many of them line up to defend a system that ruthlessly exploits and cheats them. Contemplate SFWA’s stance in the Hachette-vs.-Amazon dispute. for example; it’s plain nuts if SFWA claims to be representing authors.

But it will be a faster, better, cleaner victory if the Evil League of Evil gets shut of political particularism (and I mean that, even about my politics) and recognizes the real problem. The real problem is that the SF genre’s traditional norms exist for very good reasons, and it’s time we all learned to give the flying heave-ho to people who fail to understand and appreciate that.

The right (counter)revolutionary slogan is therefore not “Drive out the social-justice warriors!”, it’s “Peddle your angsty crap elsewhere, lit-fic wannabes! Let’s get SF back in the gutter where it belongs!”

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