RIP Ben Bova

For me, Bova's main achievements were taking over Analog and turning it from a rag full of pseudoscience published by the most loathsome person in SF, into something like an Actual Science Fiction magazine.

And a long string of his hard SF novels, from Kinsman Saga, Colony, and Mars.

But my favorite thing Ben Bova ever wrote is a short, so good that I forgive its use of "telepathy" as a narrative device, "Stars, Won't You Hide Me", collected in:

The Final Battle had been lost.
On a million million planets across the galaxy-studded universe, mankind had been blasted into defeat and annihilation.
The Others had returned from across the edge of the observable world, just as man had always feared.
They had returned and ruthlessly exterminated the race from Earth.

I Think We're Property

Dangers of near approach -- nevertheless our own ships that dare not venture close onto a rocky shore can send rowboats ashore --
Why not diplomatic relations established between the United States and Cyclorea -- which, in our advanced astronomy, is the name of a remarkable wheel-shaped world or super-construction? Why not missionaries sent here openly to convert us from our barbarous prohibitions and other taboos, and to prepare the way for a good trade in ultra-bibles and super-whiskeys; fortunes made in [155/156] selling us cast-off super-fineries, which we'd take to like an African chief to some one's old silk hat from New York or London?
The answer that occurs to me is so simple that it seems immediately acceptable, if we accept that the obvious is the solution of all problems, or if most of our perplexities consist in laboriously and painfully conceiving of the unanswerable, and then looking for answers -- using such words as "obvious" and "solution" conventionally --
Or:
Would we, if we could, educate and sophisticate pigs, geese, cattle?
Would it be wise to establish diplomatic relation with the hen that now functions, satisfied with mere sense of achievement by way of compensation?

I think we're property.

I should say we belong to something:
That once upon a time, this earth was No-man's Land, that other worlds explored and colonized here, and fought among themselves for possession, but that now it's owned by something:
That something owns this earth -- all others warned off.
Nothing in our own times -- perhaps -- because I am thinking of certain notes I have -- has ever appeared upon this earth, from somewhere else, so openly as Columbus landed upon San Salvador, or as Hudson sailed up his river. But as to surreptitious visits to this earth, in recent times, or as to emissaries, perhaps, from other worlds, or voyagers who have shown every indication of intent to evade or avoid, we shall have data as convincing as our data of oil or coal-burning aerial super-constructions.
Book of the Damned (1919), ch. 12, by Charles Fort

Eerily repeated in a lot of science fiction. Ironically, H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" is nearly a "we're property" story, but Wells irrationally hated Charles Fort. Likes repel, I suppose.

A few obvious ones, but there are dozens more (put them in comments if you like; archive.org links preferred!):

What I'm Watching: Deathsport

Deathsport (1978) is a sequel, of sorts, to Death Race 2000 (1975).

It immediately starts with some funky electronic music (the whole soundtrack is excellent if you like beepy '70s electronic music), and the best voiceover ever, the setting of every science-fantasy RPG setting I've ever run:

A thousand years from tomorrow, after the Great Neutron Wars,
the world consists of desert wastes and isolated city states.
A few machines remain as a reminder of the past,
but only the city-dwelling Statemen use them.
Between the cities roam the dreaded cannibal mutants
and the Range Guides. Guides are legendary warriors
leading an independent nomadic life,
owing allegiance only to their code.

Carradine and another range guide chick (an extremely drunk/coked up Claudia Jennings a year before her death) have a few battles against silver lamé-clad Statemen, riding "death machines" which are dirtbikes with some plastic plates glued on. I'm quite enamored of the clear plastic swords and light-up tube "blasters", not even a pretense of any gear being usable.

There's a child abducted by the mutants, who becomes a later sidequest. Or mutant lunch.

Eventually they're captured and spend entirely too long in bad prison cells, making small talk through a teeny grill. Some light torture, girls forced to dance naked under swinging blinky-light cables, nothing too interesting. The Statemen leader (David McLean, his last role while he was dying from lung cancer) wears black and is going insane, his sidekick (Richard Lynch, the only competent actor besides Carradine) wears black and is a traitor Guide, very very obviously some Star Wars influences.

Finally the big event, they're thrown into an arena (a dirtbike rally pit) against the Statemen. Mostly terrible teenage bike riders, but a few good explosive and pyro effects set off more or less at random. They blow up the force field walls to roam the wastes, hunted by the sidekick and a nigh-endless supply of goons.

A little bit of a "dungeon" crawl with torches, marching order, rats, some boinking in a cell. A lot of dirtbike fights, with these savage guides knowing exactly how to use the "death machines" better than trained Statemen soldiers. A second dungeon crawl in a "cave" with mutants. A third on-bike dungeon crawl/DOOM level with explosive barrels. They know what I like to see: Tits and explosions.

I'm somewhat impressed by the bike-front camera shooting. Trivial with a GoPro™ today, but in 1978, strapping a film camera to a dirtbike and getting any usable footage is amazing. Had to be some kind of stabilized rig?

The truth needs no introduction.
When the Sun rises, there's no necessity to announce it.
Clearly we have lost.
—sidekick contradicting his own thesis.

At least one of the writers must have played D&D or Metamorphosis Alpha, there's too many obvious gaming bits. The writing is all over the place, parts are somewhat clever and deep, there's what looks like some real setting lore, the rest is mashed together clichés and other movies; there were 4 writers, and probably Roger Corman fiddled with it, too. Carradine got in fistfights with the director, and another director had to finish it. Everyone was on drugs.

Dumb, only half-competent, but far more amusing than I expected.

★★★½☆

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.

LibriVox Short Science Fiction

Tons of audiobook readings of mid-20th-century short SF. Ran across #11 on archive.org, and "Accidental Death" by Peter Baily amused me. "Control Group" by Roger Dee is very talky but amusing, too.

Very much in need of downloading and playing back at higher speed, though, the readers are painfully, deliberately sssslllloooowwww, tolerable at 1.5x to 2x.

What I'm Watching: 12 Monkeys (1995)

Haven't seen this since the theatre when it came out.

So, 1995. Bruce Willis was familiar from Moonlighting, and Die Hard, and his mediocre blues album The Return of Bruno, but hadn't become quite the caricature and one-note joke he is now. Brad Pitt had just come off True Romance and Se7en, whining and crying "What's in the box? What's in the box?!" Madeleine Stowe was the A-list femme fatale from China Moon, Revenge, and The Two Jakes. Plenty of smaller familiar actors, like Chris Meloni (most punchable face in the world) as the asshole cop, years before Law & Order: Formulaic Rape Is Bad Unit.

This film's a massively extended (too much so) Hollywoodization of the French experimental… it's not quite a movie, except in the way Ken Burns' documentaries are… sequence of moving pictures, La Jetée. Which in some ways is very effective, but it's dry as hell, lacks any characterization, it's an idea without implementation. Hollywooding it up was inevitable.

The style of the future, the police station, the mental institution, the shitty New York corner they keep going back to, just every set except the outdoors and the mansion, are basically Terry Gilliam going crazy with his brutalism and industrial post-war England anti-aesthetic. Visually impressive sometimes, but good grief, Terry, not everyplace looks like the concrete cell you were apparently raised and beaten in. The man needs a psychiatrist, not a director of photography.

The closed time loop of James Cole's life is pretty obvious from the first flashback, if you have any science fiction background; I'd well forgotten the details, and immediately realized it. The people of the future can't find anyone honest and sane who's tough enough to survive time travel, so they send a stir-crazy prisoner; but everyone seems to be a prisoner or a guard, there's no indication of normal life in the future. Cole's inability to calm down, act normal, like he remembers people being from childhood, is what causes all of his own problems.

The Army of the 12 Monkeys are well-cast, I've known a few people in extreme environmental causes and they're… not well-adjusted. When you're "the only people who know the truth!!!", you can either work sanely to raise awareness; or wait for it to be a giant mess so finally people act at the last minute, which is what normally happens, see global warming; or scream like a maniac and discredit everything you stand for, which is how these groups usually work. Pitt's a convincing lunatic, he's always had that twitchy look and when he gets screaming & whining & making weird hand gestures, nobody can stop him. Is there a film where Pitt doesn't flip out?

There's a nice tight 60-90 minute story trapped in a flabby, repetitive 2 hours 10 minutes of film. There's no reason for the second or third trips back, or the side-jaunt to the more distant past. A tighter version: Cole goes back, gets nabbed, stays in the asylum a few years, escapes, goes on a road trip with the shrink, the finale happens. Nobody else from the future ever needs to show up, the shrink picks up the last clue in the airport.

I so want this to be better than it is. The premise is great. It's better to watch than La Jetée. Madeleine Stowe is very nice. But I had to take a few breaks and got out my phone during the long repeat acts. The slo-mo death scene with swelling music at the end should've been cut, it shits on the tone of the rest of it.

★★★½☆

Science Fiction on the Archive.org

In light of asshole publishers attacking archive.org: Hachette Book Group, Inc., Harpercollins Publishers LLC, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., and Penguin Random House LLC.

Libraries are important, and we need to do everything to protect the biggest one in the world.

So here's some SF, mostly cyberpunk, mostly POC or marginalized protagonists, mostly collapsing urban environments. Plus Zeitgeist, which is an optimistic view from 1999-2000, remember when that was possible?

Snow Crash-Neal Stephenson

Synners-Pat Cadigan

Streetlethal-Steven Barnes-cover

Eclipse-John-Shirley

Cornelius Chronicles-Michael Moorcock

Zeitgeist-Bruce Sterling

True Names-Vernor Vinge

Hacker and the Ants-Rudy Rucker

Schismatrix Plus-Bruce Sterling

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:

What I'm Watching: Man From Earth

This is up on 'zon prime, and written by Jerome Bixby, who (very relevantly) wrote the Star Trek TOS episode Requiem for Methuselah.

An apparently 30-something history professor (David Lee Smith) is leaving his job and town, and a few colleagues and friends (hey, the asshole biker professor is William Katt! He looks like shit 30 years since I last saw him, but he's still alive!) show up for a going-away party. They notice some oddities in his furnishings, and he tells them a story, that he's a 14,000 year old caveman, and the things he's seen, people he's met. They react with incredulity, get a shrink in…

The entire thing is shot in and just outside a little cabin, with a fireplace. Mostly one-camera, calm, long shots, actors mostly in character and reacting appropriately. I could wish for them to all speak a little more Howard Hawks, New Yorker speed instead of slow and laconic, I don't buy that some of these people are professors, but you work with what you can get on indie flicks.

The writing's not fantastic; he does question & answer, with often terse answers, not technical or detailed, and often interrupted by snarky people. There's one or two, where he's recalling scenery or people, that get something like actual SF writing. What I would like is long monologues about his people, about life in Sumeria, or Rome, or Paris. There's a Poul Anderson book, The Boat of a Million Years which covers a similar character, which has much longer expositions of the nature of living forever.

He has a story of meeting another unnamed immortal, which he puts in the 17th Century. It might possibly be a reference to Le Comte de Saint Germain, a reputed immortal and courtier, though he did eventually die. This is the kind of detail that would've improved the story.

And then there's a religious argument, with a devout true believer, because apparently one random decade in the Mideast 2000 years ago is more important than the other 14,000 years. I think this argument scene is defective in a few ways. First, the believer thinks the King James Version is a "recent" and "accurate" Bible, when in reality it's 400 years out of date and a known shitty translation, most modern Protestants (the theist here is openly anti-Catholic, which is hilarious if you're screaming "blasphemy!" at someone; a "religion" that splits into reformations every couple years is obviously not divinely inspired) use the New International Version, New Living Translation, or New American Standard Bible (for hardcore Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek literalists). I mostly quote KJV because it's poetic and used in so much English literature of the last 400 years, but I'm absolutely not trying to receive "truth" from it.

And while the voices of reason in the room explain the places where Christianity is copied from prior less-shitty religions, the theist is only capable of denying and crying, can't make any rational arguments. SIGH. Look, I'm an aggressive, mocking atheist, but we should be better about presenting the opposition argument than the Christian God's Not Dead idiots.

But I do like his 100-word New New Testament better than anything Christians have ever written in the last 2000 years. They would all be massively improved by switching to this belief.

★★★½☆

There is a sequel, Man From Earth: Holocene, written by the director of the first with no input from Jerome Bixby who was by this time dead, and the comments are harsh: "I've just finished watching Man From Earth: Holocene and this is less a review than a warning." Well. Maybe if I'm angry at myself I'll watch that for punishment.

There's also a movie on Netflix, He Never Died, starring Henry Rollins(!!!), about another immortal, though it's more religious/magical, if played for… not comedy, but funny horror? ★★★★☆ for that.

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