What I'm Reading: MagicNet

MagicNet, by John DeChancie (1993): What if there's magic in the modern world, but it needs a computer "network" to make it real?

Everything below is SPOILER, because I want to talk about ideas not explained until the end.

Skye King (he references the TV show, but not the Kris Kristofferson song ) hears his friend Grant get murdered during a phone call, and then receives a box of 3.5" floppies (the fancy kind) containing programs OUIJA and RAGNAROK. OUIJA allows him to type and soon speak directly to Grant's "ghost". RAGNAROK is a tool for revenge against Merlin; no, not that Merlin, just some guy named Lloyd Merlin Jones.

This is where things get weird and/or stupid. Witches and wizards are all over, using computers but no longer really needing modems to reach the "Magic Net". They can project hallucinations and in some cases "demons" all over, but maybe can't do anything real? It's suggested that non-magical people wouldn't perceive anything, and maybe non-magical explanations would be "true" in base reality.

Nobody in this says "Internet", despite being written 5+ years after most universities got Internet access and just before AOL & the September That Never Ended. From 1989-1993 I was spending most of my time on USENET and playing CircleMUD or LambdaMOO, which were essentially the magical world already. Once, a witch describes the magical reality as "cyberspace", but this is just buzzword-speak, not a meaningful comparison.

Far, far too much of the book is first-person narration of mundane activities like cooking, or a plane flight, as if the author had never done that before or wanted to pad out the page count. Characters are introduced and forgotten almost every chapter.

This is almost like one of Rudy Rucker's Transrealism books, but nowhere near as weird, trippy, or fast-paced, and it makes far less sense. But they even name-drop and visit a famous SF writer.

The final section finally does go full drug-trip and has a semi-coherent explanation of how the magical reality is created, and if you paid attention to mythology (in particular Zoroastrian) you'll recognize all the spirits/demons names.

Certainly this is a poorly-written book, and the premise has been handled better by better writers; in particular Vernor Vinge's "True Names" handles the computer/fantasy interface, and Victor Koman's "The Jehovah Contract" covers the myth/reality/sexy witches interface. But it's an interesting work despite the mediocrity.

★★½☆☆

Talking on the Internet

Or—more likely—a wide variety of nasty computer viruses. If Hiro reaches out and takes the hypercard, then the data it represents will be transferred from this guy’s system into Hiro’s computer. Hiro, naturally, wouldn’t touch it under any circumstances, any more than you would take a free syringe from a stranger in Times Square and jab it into your neck.
And it doesn’t make sense anyway. “That’s a hypercard. I thought you said Snow Crash was a drug,” Hiro says, now totally nonplussed.
“It is,” the guy says. “Try it.”
“Does it fuck up your brain?” Hiro says. “Or your computer?”
“Both. Neither. What’s the difference?”
Hiro finally realizes that he has just wasted sixty seconds of his life having a meaningless conversation with a paranoid schizophrenic. He turns around and goes into The Black Sun.
—Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, ch. 5

Not always, but sometimes.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

In a short story called “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Jorge Luis Borges describes the discovery of a strange book. Written in an arcane language, the book seems to be one vol­ume of an encyclopedia of another world, intriguingly unlike the world of everyday reality. The world of the volume rapidly becomes a universal obsession: scholarly journals were de­voted to it, people begin to dress and act in ways suggested by the volume. So compelling are the glimpses of the world revealed by the volume that its reality finally crowds out our own, and the world becomes the world of Tlon.
The volume you are holding in your hands is the volume Borges had in mind.
—Michael Swaine, preface to Dr Dobb's Journal Vol 09

Cyberpunks or Just Punks?

It's not that I don't like Neuromancer, it might be in my top 10 favorite books, but every time I see it mentioned as the "seminal cyberpunk epic", I roll my eyes, because I know these people have never read another cyberpunk book, there were others before Neuromancer and long after.

So educate yourself, make yourself less eye-rolling to me. Here's a little tiny reading list. When you're done with that, hit the KUOI archive on the right, find my Cyberpunk page, work through that. Or maybe I'll pull it out of archive and update it by then? There's a lot in the last 10-15 years since I touched the page.

First:

Then:

Eloquent Javascript

A free, up to date, possibly good book on JS programming? Flipping thru, a few things pop out at me.

This is a petty pet peeve, but I greatly dislike that he writes arrow functions without parens:

n => { return n * n; } instead of (n)=>{ return n * n; }

When they are required for multiple arguments: (x, y)=>{ return x * y; }

On first appearance, he dismisses arrow functions as just being shorter than function expressions, which is incorrect (arrows fix the 'this' reference which is never correct in function expressions). But then he consistently uses arrow functions (in his ugly parens-elided style), so crisis averted?

"Every now and then, usually between eight and ten in the evening, Jacques finds himself transforming into a small furry rodent with a bushy tail."

Which example then leads into a statistical analysis story, and the kind of data hackery that JS (and Python) are very good for.

The robot delivery example is another fairly detailed story with pathfinding, tho his algorithm is defective (it fails and/or consumes all memory forever on more complex graphs than the very simple one given).

I'll have a look at the rest of the book later.

None of the examples thus far actually build and run in a web page, or any sort of UI, except in the online document. You can copy-paste these examples into Safari's console and run them. I really don't think it's useful to learn a language outside the context of a running environment, so next post I'll give you one.

HP Lovecraft's Xenophobia

It occurs to me after a number of rereads (now up to "Dagon") that Ruthanna and Anne there live a callow, sunlit, happy existence, don't really know much of the world, and have never read a history book. "He was as wrong about humanity as it’s possible to be without actually believing that we’re all sessile pebbles"1: No, he was not.

World War I, which informed most of Lovecraft's despair at Human stupidity and imminent extinction, was then exceeded by World War II in every kind of atrocity, and that was exceeded by the Communist states during the Cold War and beyond. There is no depravity or horror to which Humans will not sink given power and the ability to "other" people. "Kindly, liberal, crippled, New Deal" FDR imprisoned and robbed 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment treated Black people as test animals. The KKK was still terrorizing and lynching in the South (still is, if smaller). It's still unsafe to walk or drive or stand around in Starbucks while Black in America. Immigrants and refugees are treated like unwanted vermin in every country. Humans murder each other over minor differences in skin color, birthplace, language, or what name to call some fairy tale god (or for saying it's a fairy tale). No joke, Humans blow up other Humans over cartoons of their prophet. Half of Americans voted for the Cheeto thing that squats and defecates in the White House.

Any notion that Howard's xenophobia is excessive for his time, or even now, is just delusional. He was an asshole about race, and perhaps about gender (very scant evidence, from a time when few male writers wrote women except as objects), but the distinction is that he was more literate and expressive of his bigotry, while the assholes next door just couldn't write about it coherently. If he'd been into politics, he'd have been the William Safire of his time. Somehow he found his way to the weird tale instead.

So when his narrators see the real owners of the Earth, and they're nothing like Humans, of course they flip out. What are Humans going to do when confronted with fish-frog-humanoid things, unspeaking but greater in intelligence, ancient and undying, worshipping gods (or godlike aliens) who provide true power? As in "Shadow over Innsmouth", bombing the Devil's Reef is a minimum possible freak-out. Somehow they pull back from provoking a full-out war with billions of living demigods, and the Deep Ones (being our moral superiors) are uninterested in great conquests of the land.

Howard does have characters who don't flip out at the alien, like the narrator and some other abductees in "Shadow Out of Time", but then when he's confronted with the truth of our imminent doom, he loses it.

I am extremely pessimistic about First Contact, and I expect that true AI will end very very badly for Humanity. Nobody's going to show up and say "You're totally ready to join the Federation of Nice Planets!"; we'll either meet Conquistadors, exterminators, or if we get to a lower-tech species first, victims. Ideally, alien contact would unify Humanity, but more likely every group will seek their own advantage and agenda.

As for the reread, I'm switching to publication order, then see if they or someone else has any commentary for a story. I've previously read some of ST Joshi's annotated books, but his apologies and delusions are just as annoying.