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☆

Atheism Reading Assignment

The things that deconverted me as a child:

  • National Geographic Concise History of Religions: Either one of these is right, and it’s not yours, or none of them are right. I’m particularly fond of the Aztecs, since they believed at a depth no rational person can comprehend… and were just totally wrong. Huitzilopochtli didn’t end the world when the sacrifices stopped.
  • Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, book (most importantly) and TV series (often streaming online, or get the boxed set). Explains the scientific method, and how we have learned what we know. I don’t recommend Neil Degrasse Tyson’s version, which is much more pop-culture.
  • Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: Explains where the Bible came from and how it was written, and why.

Additional:

The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham

Excellent volume. Massively annotated, 1/3 sidebar is almost always full of red text. Mentioned people, places, and artworks are shown inline.

First volume covered mostly more popular stories (arbitrarily chosen as ones mentioning Arkham), but this has most of his Dream Quest, and “The Outsider”, one of my favorite of his stories.

It’s a big improvement over S.T. Joshi’s fandom-oriented books, which had some blurry photos half-assed shoved in the text, no index, in one volume no table of contents!

“Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal; that all things appear as they do only by virtue of the delicate individual physical and mental media through which we are made conscious of them”
—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Tomb” (1917)

The man himself was troubling, but he’s long dead and the shadow of his writing has happily darkened the entire 20th & 21st Centuries.

I don’t know why, but I’m really getting in the mood of endless Halloween this year, and a steady diet of horror helps.

Modern C 2.0

Fantastic book about C as actually used in modern code-bases. Interesting structure of levels 0-3, each of which covers a cross-section of topics at an understanding level. If you know everything in the summary already, you can just skip ahead to the parts you do want detail on.

Design Patterns

It is sometimes suggested by well-meaning language enthusiasts that “My language is complete and powerful, so design patterns don’t apply here!” Sadly, they are incorrect.

Design patterns happen in every language. The “Gang of Four” Design Patterns book just collected the ones observed in Smalltalk, and ported them to C++, later rewrites to Java, etc. These are not recipes to blindly follow, but examples meant to show you how to find and regularize the ones in your code.

It’s somewhat difficult to see them unless you’ve read Christopher Alexander’s books, and written a lot of programs in some language, and specifically looked for the places where you repeat a structure for livability’s sake. Just as it’s hard for an architect to make a path where people will want it, unless they first observe how people live and get around that space, and then convert the ad-hoc trails people follow into paths.

Smalltalk is an extremely expressive language (it failed in the market because every ST program is IDE-specific), it has closures, allows you to very trivially make new control structures; it doesn’t need a hack like macros because the entire language is that freeform. And this is where the GoF authors observed these paths being made by themselves and other developers, not just in limited BDSM languages like Java.

So, a little light reading: