What I'm Reading: Shadow Captain, Bone Silence by Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain follows the other, less crazy sister, as she tries to revenge herself on pirate Bosa Sennen, then keep their ship supplied, and gain clues about what Bosa was up to. Very much middle-of-trilogy syndrome, nothing happens that's necessary to the overall plot, but it's adequately more of the first volume. We find out a new behavior of the Quoins. ★★★★☆

Bone Silence is split between the sisters POV, and wanders between some excellent lightsail ship combat, a bit of urban treachery, and then pursuit by the… not Navy, but thugs employed by the bankers, so essentially the East India Company, and like the pride of the English, they're honorless scum. All to the good, except midway thru they split the party, one ship goes to town and the other stays to fight the thugs. The author fails to remember the many Chekov's Guns hanging on their fireplaces, and so this is much more of a struggle than it ought to be.

And here the plot turns into a summary, dozens of characters are introduced who have no further purpose or interest, an insurrection takes place in the sewers of an O'Neill colony, and impossible machinery is turned on. An alien explains more about the Quoins, except this is couched in superstitious nonsense for the monkeys and I don't know I believe any of it except the behavior we see. This part's absolutely disposable, but clearly Reynolds was tired of the setting and couldn't wait to get to the last bit. Where a giant precursor starship is approached… the Baubles use stasis fields, but the ship doesn't, even tho it absolutely needs it. The nature of the emergency is made clear but not why they're in that emergency. Rather preachy finale, bad guy is sent off to… smash into the habitat windows? He should be spaced, to make the punishment work, but he's not.
★★★☆☆ at first, then ★★☆☆☆ by end

Possibly better to make up your own 3rd volume than read Bone Silence. I'd still dearly love an RPG sourcebook (preferably for Traveller/Cepheus Engine) covering the mechanics of ships and Baubles.

Computer Lib/Dream Machines

Someone has finally uploaded a (possibly legal?) copy of to archive:

Read it from either end, there's two coherent books written back-on-back like an Ace Double, happily you don't have to turn your monitor upside down.

The first personal computer book (before the Altair came out!), though the PCC Newsletters predates it (and he mentions them). Fascinating time capsule, political tract about use of computers to control you (CYBERCRUD as he puts it).

Any nitwit can understand computers, and many do.
Unfortunately, due to ridiculous historical circumstances,
computers have been made a mystery to most of the world. And
this situation does not seem to be improving. You hear more
and more about computers, but to most people it's just one big
blur. The people who know about computers often seem unwilling
to explain things or answer your questions. Stereotyped
notions develop about computers operating in fixed ways--and
so confusion increases. The chasm between laymen and computer
people widens fast and dangerously.

This book is a measure of desperation, so serious and abysmal
is the public sense of confusion and ignorance. Anything with
buttons or lights can be palmed off on the layman as a
computer. There are so many different things, and their
differences are so important; yet to the lay public they are
lumped together as "computer stuff," indistinct and beyond
understanding or criticism. It's as if people couldn't tell
apart camera from exposure meter or tripod, or car from truck
or tollbooth. This book is therefore devoted to the premise
that

EVERYBODY SHOULD UNDERSTAND COMPUTERS.

Computers are simply a necessary and enjoyable part of life,
like food and books. Computers are not everything, they are
just an aspect of everything, and not to know this is computer
illiteracy, a silly and dangerous ignorance.

In many ways as relevant as ever. Just because you have a computer or "smart" phone, doesn't mean you know anything about its operation, purpose, and purposes you can put it to. Most people just use them as glorified TV sets and newspapers, mass media delivering people.

Unredacted 1st ed, includes some very… Ted Nelson is a white male born in the 1930s, his language about race and sex are, uh… not acceptable sometimes. Be aware.

Also, cover price $7 in 1974 is $37.61 in 2021, not $120, as Ted currently charges for a photocopy on his website. But at least he managed to publish this, unlike Xanadu which took 50 years to ship nothing.

I have a much longer draft of notes about it, that I'll probably finish up at some point. Now that I can just point you at the original, that gets easier.

Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine on Archive

I was looking specifically for Philip K. Dick's "Cantata 140", also found Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" and look at that great wraparound cover! But also all of F&SF is in there, and it's pretty much all good, the best of the more literary end of SF, fantasy, weird tales. Unfortunately it hasn't all been neatly organized in a category on archive.org, but you can just page down in the pulp magazine rack.

Anyway, there's your reading stack for the next year sorted.

What I'm Reading: Network Effect, by Martha Wells

Finally the novel length treatment I've been asking for. Murderbot, calling itself just "SecUnit" in the company of friendly non-corporate Humans, does a perfectly adequate job protecting them from their poor decision-making, and becomes somewhat… not exactly social, but what passes for it.

“She grimaced. “Right, sorry.” Then she looked away and rubbed her eyes.

And I’d made her cry. Good job, Murderbot.

I knew I’d been an asshole and I owed Amena an apology. I’d attribute it
to the performance reliability drop, and the emotional breakdown which I
am provisionally conceding as ongoing rather than an isolated event that
I am totally over now, and being involuntarily shutdown and restarted,
but I can also be kind of an asshole. (“Kind of” = in the 70 percent–80
percent range.) I didn’t know what to say but I didn’t have time to do a
search for relevant apology examples. (And it’s not like I ever find any
relevant examples that I actually want to use.) I said, “I’m sorry for …
being an asshole.”
—Martha Wells, "Network Effect"

Then a rather familiar transport/gunboat shoots them up, and abducts them to another solar system, with some odd, hostile inhabitants, or "Targets" as Murderbot calls them.

Finally we get a little explanation of the wormhole transit system, much better detail on drone and network systems, and Corporation Rim colony setup. There's even a planetary surface described in… not great detail, but any detail? So that's different. Since reading this book I'm going back to reread the novellas with more background information.

There's as much internal chatter of Murderbot as ever, which is the thing that draws us weirdos to this, but also a lot of feed and voice chatter with others forcing some character development the novellas can't achieve.

It's organized almost along episodic A- B- plot beats, Murderbot kills everyone, there's a social/investigation sequence, backstory piece, repeat (four times? More or less).

The Targets and what's driving them takes a long time to be revealed, and how some of their software attacks are possible isn't clear until very late in the book.

And it's left set up for more stories, which is all Murderbot's after, too.

★★★★★ — inhaled it in a couple sittings.

Also, there was a prequel short story in Wired a couple years ago, which I just learned of:

Last Stand of the California Browncoats

Amusing that the start of the apocalypse is now in the past (the main books are set 20 years later), but I really want to point back at these, and in particular the prequel story, when people could have stayed home, avoided the plague, but instead wanted to go cosplay Firefly for a weekend.

Feed's a great epidemiology story, and a fairly good vlogging/social media (they say "blog" but only appear to do video) story, with zombies as almost a totally irrelevant side effect.

The main two caveats I have are technical: The blood testing system is basically what Theranos was pushing, and it probably can't be made to work, the sample sizes are too small. And later has a tiresomely impossible (at least with their tech) medical technology. There's a creepy personal thing, too, but you know, people gotta get their bone on with someone/thing.

I think I haven't read a bunch of the short stories, only the above and "How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea", which is a little silly because it's about Strines vs zombie kangaroos.

"Mira Grant" has a few other horror books, the Parasite series is very zombie-like as well; she's grim and serious but has just a little genre fanservice goofiness to lighten the mood. But the author under her real name, Seanan McGuire, also writes urban fantasy books, and they're dire. Easily some of the trashiest "I'm Wonder Woman and I wanna fuck a monster" books since Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake went off the rails straight into bondage-mutilation-porn-land.

What I'm Reading: Instantiation, by Greg Egan

Egan's always been best at short story length, writing an idea that cuts away your Human delusions of self-importance and self-awareness, and then terminates. His characters have maybe more depth now than they did 30 years ago, but it's focused on the task at hand. A number of these skip forward in time rapidly, sketching out a scene and then a # section break and it's months or years later; generally obvious from context, but I'd prefer timestamps.

I'll try to be vague but it's impossible to say even how a story worked for me, without some hint of what it is; you might want to read these cold. If so, you can probably skip Uncanny Valley or Break My Fall.

 

  • The Discrete Charm of the Turing Machine: The soft AI apocalypse, as they take our jobs but nobody can figure out how to stop it. Borderline positive view of Human adaptability, which we also got in Perihelion Summer, which is always a little surprising from Egan.
  • Zero For Conduct: Afghan girl in Iranian school cultural piece, see also Egan's novel Zendegi, with a bit of SF on the side; I don't believe the SF widget is plausibly that easy, or it would be found by someone other than the protagonist, but it's a cute enough story.
  • Uncanny Valley: Legal wrangling around a kind of immortality. I've previously read this online, and was bored out of my skull by it then; the character development/backstory would be interesting if the setup wasn't all for accountants and lawyers.
  • Seventh Sight: Not quite a Reasons to be Cheerful but improved sight doesn't make everything better. OK, sure. I would expect this to be commonly available as glasses or a shitty phone app long before it became available as implants, bicycles before rockets and all that. Feels like a Vernor Vinge short story, in the good idea/half-assed delivery way.
  • The Nearest: Excellent story about alienation and how fallible Human meat brains are. Almost exactly what I read Egan for (although there's no technical cause or solution, which he'd normally provide).
  • Shadow Flock: How do you defend against insect-sized drones? Almost every kind of security is just nonexistent. Egan barely touches on this; it's kind of a straightforward heist story with the inevitable twist (see also Rick & Morty S4E03 "One Crew"). I think I have some technical arguments against the sight & sound suite these things have, real insects don't have great senses because physics makes it difficult, but maybe it's solveable with enough software post-processing?
  • Bit Players: A woman calling herself Sagreda awakes in a world that makes no sense, immediately tests the physics and deduce the nature of the world, and exploits that, as life always does. So, this is 100% in my wheelhouse. But I question the peaceful nature of this world. Maybe it's just lucky that there's not psychotic adventurers running thru here, and the next world over is blood-soaked? James P. Hogan's Realtime Interrupt and Terry Bisson's In the Upper Room deal with this at length, and I'd like to see Egan address it beyond contempt for barrel-bottom shovelware and misuse of AI. Also the setting reminds me strongly of one of my favorite joke D&D adventures, There's No Place Like Up by Paul Jaquays, in WG7 Castle Greyhawk: "If the PCs wish, they can fall forever".
  • Break My Fall: I assume this is a fragment from a book in progress, or perhaps a fragment that didn't gel into a book; it seems of a similar setting to The Four Thousand, the Eight Hundred. An interesting if unlikely low-powered spaceflight solution, a disaster, and people doing their best to fix it… but it goes nowhere and the finale has no closure at all.
  • 3-adica: Sequel to Bit Players, Sagreda and Mathis move on to new worlds and try to find the way out. The world most of it is in, is the kind of shithole I would expect adventurers to like. The titular world is a bizarre mathematical premise, like Rudy Rucker's White Light, and I don't know how to visualize it; I get the trick of movement, but not how you'd even exist particle-by-particle within it. Very much the middle third of a novella.
  • The Slipway: A cosmic disaster story, the like of which Egan hasn't done since Distress or Diaspora. The Pane's an interesting Big Dumb Object, and reminds me of the Artifacts in Charles Sheffield's Summertide series, but I think either people would panic to the point of global disaster, or not care in the least, and the middle ground here is unstable. I'm not clear on how you get the long-distance view until old light has passed and new light reaches the Earth, a few years out. On the one hand, this is the safest possible place for Earth, on the other hand it's not great for long-term exploration, and on the gripping hand I would be surprised if there were any more Panes in their new location.
  • Instantiation: The finale of Bit Players and 3-adica, Sagreda spends much of this one following someone playing Kurt Gödel in a Vienna intellectuals killing Nazis game. I understand Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (mostly?), but every explanation of it in plainer English/German sound more insane than the last. A moderately clever heist/con game, and finally a conclusion to a story. Yes, for once Egan mostly wrapped up a story without an apocalypse or "well what do I do now?"

★★★★★ despite a couple clunkers

Old Futurism: Human Identity in the Urban Environment (1972)

Ran across this, and the Ralph Steadman cover art compelled me to read it. Well, mostly skim it looking for interesting takes or authors I knew. Most of the contents are pretty dry urban planning, theorizing about megacities as if anyone would ever plan or fix anything instead of muddling along as we have for the last 50+ years, and too many essays analyzing Tokyo as if it was a petri dish. I note slightly amused/perturbed that none of the essays on urban design bring up civil defense, which is the reason most old cities had walls compressing core urban areas, and jagged streets to prevent enemy armies from marching straight in.

There's a Christopher Alexander essay "A City is Not a Tree" on designing cities as a "semi-lattice" (what comp sci would call a connected graph), with a fair amount of art and design logic in it; maybe there's some use for this? He admits by the end he has no practical examples of these already existing, except accidentally.

Marshall McLuhan's essay is brief, enigmatic, and maybe still relevant:

humanidentity-mcluhan

What I'm Reading: Stargate (1976), by Stephen Robinett

The "Gate" could open the way to distant galaxies—
or destroy the whole Universe…!

Saw the cover in a tumblr SF feed, and the title and summary caught my eye.

Despite the year, it's a pretty current story of corporate engineering management. The engineer, Robert Collins (a newbie in way over his skill level), and the company "lawyer"/gun thug/investigator Scarlyn Smith (basically Mike from Breaking Bad), try to figure out why the former chief engineer Norton was vanished from his funeral and turns up in pieces throughout LA. Collins manages to spare time from playing detective to do his job and build the Gate…

Spoiler discussion hereafter.

So the "one fictional science idea" of this book is a matter transporter. Originally somewhat short-ranged, but it allows you to build: Instant teleports across the world, or up to orbit (how conservation of motion is handled is not addressed; jumping to a space station moving 100x faster than the surface should plaster your bits on the wall), or to make a drone ship move FTL by transporting itself forward over and over (apparently biology can't handle the slight deviations in many ports, but electrically-driven starships can).

The Gate is just a giant transporter, with a reach measured in thousands of light years. In its first operational test it targets Tau Ceti, 12 light years away, and rips an asteroid-sized chunk of matter from a planet, including plant life. There's a few sentences about Collins having moral qualms about this. The villain's plan is rather more ambitious, but insane.

Even with just the "normal" application, this is a horrific device. Interstellar war? Just tear the enemy's planet apart from the comfort of your own orbit. You can use it to instantly travel across the Galaxy, or… the plot has another application for it.

There's an adage from Larry Niven's Known Space series, the efficiency of a star drive is directly proportional to its value as a weapon; there meaning that fusion drives, laser sail launchers, and interstellar laser comms make weapons as good as any main cannon. But this is far beyond that. Instant travel means you can kill a planet or a solar system instantly.

Not a particularly well-written or interesting book as literature, but piecing together the dangers of this thing, especially from the crazy scientist who shouts about "the crab!", gives it more value.

★★★½☆