Science Fiction & Saturday Music

  • Humble Bundle Adventures in Science Fiction Books: Runs until Oct18, and everything in this that I’ve read (Anderson, Bear, Brunner, Ellison, Foster, Silverberg, Steele, Sterling, Swanwick) is excellent, and I’m enjoying Sergei Lukyanenko’s1 The Genome enormously. They’ve picked what looks like an all-good-stuff collection.

Saturday Music is a little spacey.

  1. I adore the Night Watch books; but because of what they say, or because they’re bound up in memories of rainy nights in Seattle reading at all-night cafés and public transit, very like the Moskva of the books? The first movie is great, but only about half the first book; the sequel movies are dire, some of the worst hatchet-jobs of adaptations I’ve ever seen. 

All Systems Red (Martha Wells)

Murderbot with no Asimov program just wants to watch TV, but is rudely interrupted by threats to its human clients and awkward social skills.

There’s not a lot more to say about this novella, very fast and fun, rather Heinleinian. Murderbot is adorable, a cyborg made from clonemeat with autism-spectrum social problems. The mystery/puzzle of the plot is deducible from evidence given, though the political rules aren’t, but they’re just there to drive Murderbot’s character study.

The science, where present, is inoffensive; some kind of expensive wormhole for FTL, otherwise plausible electronics, software, and cybernetics. Not much of the background is given, and I’d like more in this setting, perhaps a picaresque with a unit like Murderbot going star to star solving problems like the Incredible Hulk TV show.

“So, I’m awkward with actual humans. It’s not paranoia about my hacked governor module, and it’s not them; it’s me. I know I’m a horrifying murderbot, and they know it, and it makes both of us nervous, which makes me even more nervous.”

—Martha Wells, “All Systems Red”


Wednesday Music Loves ’80s Glam

And while you’re listening, why not reread Less Than Zero (don’t watch the shitty movie, they just took the title and some character names) and American Psycho (do watch the partially-shitty movie, if only for the Huey Lewis scene, which is how I will always remember Jared Leto).

Here in the post-apocalyptic shithole of the 2010s, nothing’s lit in neon, I can’t get music videos on MTV or cheap, pure cocaine from trustworthy Colombianos, and I blame the Republicans.

Dichronauts (Greg Egan)

Dichronauts is another of Greg Egan’s “what if {MATH}” stories, like Schild’s Ladder, Incandescance, and the Orthogonal trilogy. Often I describe him as the only Hard SF writer.

The world posited by having 2 space dimensions and 2 time-like leads to casual relativistic effects when you turn in a time-like direction, so it’s sort of like Edwin Abbott’s Flatland or AK Dewdney’s Planiverse, in this case beings waddling on a mostly-east/west line, up/down being the other usable space direction, with symbiotes who can “see” sideways into the lightless cone north/south with sonar. So, uh, read Egan’s paper explaining this and play with the simulation first.

While buildings are mentioned and the moving of one shown, I think not enough pages are given to the presumably vertical, thin architecture or how engineering or life would work.

Seth (Walker, wannabe hero) & Theo (his much smarter Sider symbiote) and others go off on a survey mission which finds some difficult terrain, a terrible cult-like town, and then a strange part of geography that could doom everyone.

The first two adventures are quite comprehensible (if you read the paper), and the physics don’t interfere much with the story. Then the third goes into a different space/time region. And here he mostly loses me. The geography of the new region is hard to understand, and Theo doesn’t spend the necessary “As you would know if you had paid attention, Seth” time to make it clear to me; I get the math on a flat plane but how it works in this region could use a diagram or two.

The drama in the first two parts of the survey would have made a better complete novella, I was engaged with the characters and cult plot. The last part winnows down the cast to one/two somewhat sad companions, and a communications barrier, which makes it even harder to care. The ending is abrupt and inconclusive. For a sequel, or just “done with this exercise, hit publish”?

“Do you really expect my counterfactual longings to be consistent with my merely hypothetical speculations?” —Theo


Data and Reality (William Kent)

A book that’s eternally useful to me in modelling data is William Kent’s Data and Reality. Written in what we might call the dark ages of computing, it’s not about specific technologies, but about unchanging but ever-changing reality, and strategies to represent it. Any time I get confused about how to model something or how to untangle someone else’s representation, I reread a relevant section.

The third ambiguity has to do with thing and symbol, and my new terms
didn’t help in this respect either. When I explore some definitions of
the target part of an attribute, I get the impression (which I can’t
verify from the definitions given!) that the authors are referring to
the representations, e.g., the actual four letter sequence “b-l-u-e”,
or to the specific character sequence “6 feet”. (Terms like “value”,
or “data item”, occur in these definitions, without adequate further
definition.) If I were to take that literally, then expressing my
height as “72 inches” would be to express a different attribute from
“six feet”, since the “value” (?) or “data item” (?) is different. And
a German describing my car as “blau”, or a Frenchman calling it
“bleu”, would be expressing a different attribute from “my car is
blue”. Maybe the authors don’t really mean that; maybe they really are
willing to think of my height as the space between two points, to
which many symbols might correspond as representations. But I can’t be
sure what they intend.
—Bill Kent

I originally read the 1978 edition in a library, eventually got the 1998 ebook, and as of 2012 there’s a posthumous 3rd edition which I haven’t seen; I would worry that “updated examples” would change the prose for the worse, and without Bill having the chance to stop an editor.

See also Bill Kent’s website for some of his photography and other papers.

This book projects a philosophy that life and reality are at bottom
amorphous, disordered, contradictory, inconsistent, non- rational, and
non-objective. Science and much of western philosophy have in the past
presented us with the illusion that things are otherwise. Rational views
of the universe are idealized models that only approximate reality. The
approximations are useful. The models are successful often enough in
predicting the behavior of things that they provide a useful foundation
for science and technology. But they are ultimately only approximations
of reality, and non-unique at that.

This bothers many of us. We don’t want to confront the unreality of
reality. It frightens, like the shifting ground in an earthquake. We are
abruptly left without reference points, without foundations, with
nothing to stand on but our imaginations, our ethereal self-awareness.

So we shrug it off, shake it away as nonsense, philosophy, fantasy. What
good is it? Maybe if we shut our eyes the notion will go away.
—Bill Kent


Divided States of Hysteria (Howard Chaykin)

And now for something a little darker than cute cartoons about vampires.

Howard Chaykin’s comic Divided States of Hysteria is out. Terrorism, death and destruction, political hacks looking to take advantage. Written in what now seems like a more innocent time, 2016.

First issue’s collecting a bunch of psychopaths. Not sure what they’ll be doing, but I trust Chaykin’s road trips to go somewhere interesting.

“So now that liberal-center-left narcissism, with a healthy dose of identity politics, has lost the game to right-wing ignorance and hypocrisy-driven rage, and I find myself anticipating a future spent in a live-action dystopia, the book seems almost naively cheerful and filled with hope. Go figure.”
—Howard Chaykin, Divided States of Hysteria #1 editorial

There’s been some controversy about a cover, apparently people think showing cruelty in art is the same as endorsing it? I don’t know. Anyone not familiar with Chaykin’s American Flagg! or Black Kiss will probably be appalled at the mix of explicit sex, explicit violence, and explicit politics; this book is for people who aren’t appalled.

Synchronicity: Just found this Howard Chaykin art for Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination

Revenger (Alastair Reynolds)

Revenger, by Alastair Reynolds

Just what I needed, a reasonably hard SF adventure story.

In the Eighteenth “Occupation” of the solar system, millions of years after the Sun & planets have gone boom, monkey-people more or less like us live in millions or billions of habitats, from Little Prince-style planetoids to big cylinders, and solar sail & ion drive ships cruise between them looking for ancient booty in booby-trapped worlds called baubles (not quite to be confused with Vernor Vinge’s Bobbles). It’d make a great RPG setting, and there’s at least 3 things I plan to steal^W liberate for my SF game.

Character expectations are subverted often: The protagonist Arafura Ness & her sister Adrana, seem like “nice” pseudo-Victorian girls until they run off to join a ship, the robot Paladin seems like a harmless nanny or tutor until it isn’t, the ship’s crew start out rough but soon you get some sense of who they are and why, and the specific jobs in bauble-hunting make sense. The villain’s a right bitch, but there’s a justification… But the title tells you how Arafura sees things. While the girls and Captain Rackamore in particular are sometimes fools, at no point do I lose interest in anyone or feel annoyed by them existing and taking up pages, like everyone in The Stars are Legion.

I have a slight complaint in that the bauble worlds, the mechanics of the traps & treasure troves, are barely touched on, and I want a detailed sourcebook with maps and diagrams, or at least an inside cover map of Fang like Treasure Island. The physics isn’t given in enough detail for me to check Reynolds’ math, but it’s not wildly implausible, just handwaved.

“Very well, Just Fura. I make no promises. You look like a barefoot street waif and you’ve got spite in your eyes. You’ve been on the glowy and that never sits well with me, especially if it gets in the grey. But if you’re half the Bone Reader you think you are, maybe you have something to offer.”
“I’ve plenty to offer,” I said. “Intelligence. Baubles. Fortune. Quoins.”
I spared him the bit about bloody retribution.


It’s Reynolds doing “YA”, more in the style of a Heinlein juvenile than the usual trash of that genre, but that also means it’s mainstream enough that children who can neither read or think have taken to posting meme-image “did not finish” “reviews”. Ignore them. Trust only in me.

Update: Reynolds wins the Locus award for best YA novel, and clarifies its YA-ness

The Stars are Legion (Kameron Hurley)

I’ve been trying and failing to read The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley (who I have liked in short stories) for weeks now, and I’m giving up 1/4 in. The characters are all idiots, I loathe most of them, and the story is repetitive. There’s bits of cool worldbuilding and then the author says “no, there will be no sensawunda here! Eat shit!”

★☆☆☆☆ for what I’ve read.