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

What I'm Maybe Watching: Omniscient

Brazilian show about pervasive personal drone (annoying little robot bees that don't need to recharge?) surveillance and a murder that somehow isn't recorded, but the premises are so stupid it Black Mirrors itself:

  1. Surveillance footage is impossible for humans to watch and held by a trustworthy AI. What government would let that happen?
  2. AI is still somehow Human-programmed by 2 whole programmers & a couple interns. As opposed to the hundreds or thousands on less complex project teams IRL. That's convenient for the plot which has to obviously point at one of these programmers.

Girl protagonist (Carla Salle) is super cute, tho. Gidget/Amelie/Audrey Hepburn type.

So I may watch another to see if it sinks further into Black Mirror/The Scary Door territory.

What I'm Watching: Nightflyers

I'm much more a fan of George R.R. Martin's SF than his fantasy/"English history for C-average history students" aka "A Song of Ice and Fire". "Nightflyers" is a good novella, but it has maybe an hour or two of content, so the show at 10 hours is ridiculously expanded and bears only the slightest resemblance to the story.

Royd Eris in the book is enfeebled, a pasty white slug in an acceleration couch, has no immune system, has never touched a living Human, has no crew, and runs the ship by advanced automation. In the show, he becomes Roy, big black dude, and while he hides in his deck for a while, he's fit and strong and can totally come out and fuck the passengers when he wants. I had a theory about how they reconciled this, which was later revealed to be (mostly?) correct. I would have preferred the original cameras & holograms version.

In the show there's an angry mob of crew and a bald Picardian asshole XO so you can get reactions, and as victims.

The big reveal of the book was the force on the captain's side of the ship, and the horrible logic of how you survive it. In the show, that's introduced early and it doesn't have any of the original powers, personality, or origin. It's the least of your problems.

Telepathy and telekinesis are big drivers of the book, and while there's a telepath on the show, he's irrelevant, a walkie-talkie would be just as useful but they don't seem to have any. The second teep was changed in the show, probably so they could film more psychic sex scenes. Later they talk about "teke" as some kind of magical psychic powerup energy, not "telekinesis".

In the book, Humans have FTL and know (and have warred with) many alien races, thousands of years after leaving Earth, the volcryn are a legend of a slow-moving STL fleet in the void between the stars, where no FTL race goes; a mystery but not Humanity's one big chance. In the show, Humans have only recently reached space and have STL, and the volcryn are the only hope of getting FTL before using up the Solar System or some such nonsense.

So, as opposite as you can get.

First few episodes are setup and world-building, and here it's pretty good. It's Actual Science Fiction (that is, fiction about science, and not contradicting reality) in most parts. The ship looks pretty good, a big spinning ring with habitat pods on the ends, and the "ship" in the middle. Gravity is never really addressed; they have artificial gravity in the book, so I don't know why there's a ring here. We rarely see any pod interior except the "terraform" pod with a forest and bees, and a cargo pod full of crates and the telepath's shipping container.

Halfway thru, something goes very wrong with the writers.

S1E6, the show introduces a derelict ship, and this suddenly becomes a terrible episode of Space:1999. I'll just say this: Human cloning requires a food source. You can't make food from nothing by jerking guys off and cloning people; it's so fucking stupid. At least in Rick & Morty's Froopyland (S3E9, "The ABC's of Beth") there's an entire world of biological matter, and breeding hybrid babies just makes edible food out of them.

S1E7, the telepath wanders around being a plaything for the crew, who again shouldn't exist. The cyberneticist has her fantasy world of a 1950s diner shattered by a little black girl being there. Karl goes more crazy about his dead daughter.

S1E8 is the terrible Michael Crichton bio-horror ep with bad mushrooms. The show's really coming apart, no semblance of main story arc, just disconnected events.

S1E9 finally remembers the mission exists, the telepath makes contact with the volcryn in a way that greatly contradicts the book, the annoying xenobiologist goes crazy and there are deaths, but not the ones of the book.

S1E10 has everyone else go crazy, "Mom"/cyberneticist gets dumbass Picard to sabotage the drives which we know only genetic superwoman can fix, Karl goes out to meet the volcryn/hallucination of his dead daughter. Show comes to a confusing, incomplete end.

Happily this mess has been cancelled.

If they'd kept the tone of E1-E5 and just finished up the original volcryn story, "Mom" killing almost everyone, and genetic superwoman and what's left of Royd flying off forever, this could've been salvaged. I don't know what happened to the writers at S1E6, but that should never have happened.

★★★☆☆ at the start, ★☆☆☆☆ by the end.

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☆

What I'm Watching: Ad Vitam

A French 6-episode series on the 'flix.

Very brief warning at the start of the episode, that there's suicide themes and discretion etc., which vastly understates it: This is a meditation on death.

On the 137th birthday of the oldest person alive, long after emortality/regeneration is developed, a number of suicides/murders wash up on a beach, and a cop and a girl, a former suicidal cultist, investigate.

The show is French, and as I've previously noted they seem to be more casual about casting normal, even ugly people in their shows. The girl especially has the ugliest skull and bad hair I've ever seen in a character not meant to be a freak. The cop has a broken (or just naturally ugly?) nose and is a little worn down and sad looking for an emortal, but he has reasons to get less regeneration than he needs.

The blue jellyfish, which presumably (later in the show confirmed) provided the drug or gene which gave them regeneration, is all over as mascots, pets, color theming.

Oh, color theming. Like every damned thing from Hollywood, half the show is cyan/orange duochrome. They have other gels or color filters and use them in a few scenes, but don't use them for anything else. If you're not in Hollywood, you're free to use actual colors! You don't have to imitate their worst feature! But it does, often making it very hard to see people and details because it's all a muddy blue blur.

There's minimal effort made on sets and props. They filmed in industrial, brutalist, or Scandinavian spartan architecture, but the cars, shitty cell phones, and iPhones, iPads, & MacBooks are unmodified other than black tape on the Apple logo. Other than some people in tracksuits, who may just be Slavic, fashion is modern. Magazines are in print, instead of just being on their shitty phones. Dance scenes at parties with bad modern house music are spazzy fishstick wobbling, exactly like the present. You'd forget it's set in the future, until a wall-sized screen advertises at you, or some other visual prop like the "source gas" (stolen directly from Transmetropolitan) which is a nanotech camera/sound wire, or a "true mirror" which shows an actual-age image of everyone in the mirror, useful when surrounded by centuries-old people.

The oddest parts are when they try to be futuristic, with the grief counsellor and his glowing ball ("they used to use puppies"), or the half-wit intern who rides around on a beeping wheeled hoverboard, or the dumbest "weapon" in the history of dumb BDSM-inspired weapons.

"It must be comfortable. Having that attitude. Thinking everything is absurd and pointless." —Cop Darius
"So what we're doing has a point?" —Young punk Christa

Of course, everything is absurd and pointless. Darius is wrong but is so ingrained in his rut of life, 99 years as le flic, he can only see things as crimes or victims, not as transformations which may be necessary.

The scientist who invented regeneration says children are no longer necessary, and there's a breeding control bill supporting him. Christa isn't quite aware enough to be a nihilist yet, but she rides along passively thru most events, only taking initiative when her hallucinations push her forward.

The suicides turn out to be something more interesting. I'd been hoping for a Charles Sheffield's Proteus inspired plot, something really changing the way mortality and form shaped Humanity, but they half-assed the plot in the end, turns into a very pedestrian conspiracy, rich old people getting their kicks. All the hints of a new world, or of protecting youth to get new blood, totally dumped in E6.

★★★★☆ for initial premise and being actual Science Fiction, ★★☆☆☆ for execution and ending.

Tech Noir Saturday Music

Styx famously sang:

"The problem's plain to see
Too much technology
Machines to save our lives
Machines dehumanize"

But of course that wasn't the problem at all. People were the monsters all along. Machines only suck because people program them to suck.

The solution is clear.

What I'm Watching: Time Trap

Apparently this is the season of low-budget time travel movies, because I get another one. This was a much better ride.

An asshole archaeologist goes caving alone except for his dog, trying to find some hippies who went missing 40 years ago. He passes thru a weird wet invisible wall and never returns.

So then his two students go looking for him. They pick up a random girlfriend, younger sister, and "Furby" who is (as they point out) like Chunk from the Goonies but not as heroic or competent. They rappel down thru the wet invisible wall.

The cave areas are mostly classic Dr Who quality warehouse floors with dust and plaster stalagmites, but the centerpiece tower chamber looks OK.

SPOILERS ahoy

They get many clues that something's wrong with time, even if they can't read the title, but don't put it together for a long time. The wet field is of course condensation at the time barrier. The "Furby cut the rope!" hypothesis is kept up much longer than is plausible, but they do eventually figure out why ropes break.

It's great that they all have gopros, so we can see the same scenes multiple times on tiny phone screens (or a projector but with no silver screen in a cave) in lieu of anyone talking it over. The mythology is finally explained in some detail, but it's after much too long of everyone saying "what is happening?!"

Finally the random encounters start. The cavemen are ridiculous, scampering on all fours. There ought to be generation after generation of invaders, instead of just cavemen, conquistadors, lone gunslinger, hippies, archaeologists, and spacemen.

There's some unexamined bits. What do the cavemen eat? Where do they get wood for fires, leather for clothes? Cannibalism and healing in the spring? Where does the Fountain come from? Why is it able to do this? No idea.

[Update: I just realized. This is set in Texas. Where the hell did they get cavemen? Native Americans got here only 15-20KYA, and they're the same Homo sapiens as everyone else, not these sorta-Neanderthal/Homo habilis looking grimy monkey men. There have never been non-Sapiens hominids in North America, Bigfoot claims aside.]

The final scenes are a bit neat and tidy, and really could've used a freaky post-Human Martian coming in to say something, but it did fine for a limited cast.

Minor point against it: The dog is never seen again, even though he should've been hanging around the truck when the students arrived. Maybe he survived, but probably the coyotes got him. I want a happy ending for the dog, too.

This is an interesting time for indie films, because even cheap cameras look good, so if you have a decent script and the special effects are just Photoshop on a few frames, you can make a professional film on a shoestring budget.

★★★½☆

What I'm Watching: In the Shadow of the Moon

So, a perfectly fine premise, well-acted, somewhat wrecked by the writers not thinking things thru at all. First hour I was fully on board, then nothing added up, and by the end I was annoyed. As with so many films, the color has been shat on with the orange/cyan filter, except where day-for-night scenes are grey filtered.

SPOILER land

There are two hypotheses about time travel. A is that everything forward and back has already happened, and if you vanish in the future it's because you already appeared in the past; you may be the cause of events but they can't be changed. This is the only rational argument, really. We know time is just part of space-time; each tick moves things "ahead" in the next frame.

B is that time travel rewrites the future; you kill a fascist and fascism vanishes and everyone's singing Kumbaya. But then there's no need for a time machine and assassin, so the fascist isn't killed and fascism spreads. Now you need a time machine again. This is madness.

The movie seems to be doing hypothesis A, but then ends as if hypothesis B happened. But only after decades of the original timeline.

Second, somewhat worse, is that the method of killing is preposterously convoluted. Why does the assassin need to inject targets now so someone in the future can push a button? She could just shoot them or give them a drug OD and not provide weird clues to make a cop go all Zodiac case on it for decades. I am disappointed the cop doesn't have a clue & string board in his car.

Third, completely nonsensical stuff about the Super Moon being a bridge between worlds or some shit. Absolute astrology-class woo nonsense.

Fourth, the idea that some newsletter about "real Americans" and a flag with 5 badly-placed stars is going to incite the Second Civil War, completely fails to understand our first Civil War, and the nature of populist movements. You'd have to kill millions to stop it.

Fifth, the idea that you'd use this to stop some bombings, no worse than what dozens of countries endure every day, including several at the hands of the US armed forces; rather than going back to stop Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, or Pol Pot, or Nixon.

The writers previously worked together on Limitless, an equally vapid show about the "10% of your brain!" myth. I can't find their ages, but I'm pretty sure they're under 30, it has that earnest political certainty & lack of humor or irony. They've clearly never read a history book, especially none of the Presidential biographies they show.

★★☆☆☆ — definition of competent but unenjoyable.

What I'm Watching: The I-Land E4-7

Despite my contempt for the writing, I finished this off. I'm going straight to spoilers here; at least watch E1-3 cold.

So E4-E6 goes back to the I-Land, and there's a terribly-written argument of "you have to believe my incredible story!" "no you're a liar!" "waah, you bitch!" for half an hour or more; I barely exaggerate, it's a tale told by an idiot. Some light bondage but it's not very hot.

A couple claiming to be "Bonnie & Clyde" show up and deliver more preposterous threats and tell everyone remembering their past will make them sad. Then everyone splits up, has flashbacks, and yes they all suck IRL as well as on I-Land. The past is a land of crying people and shitty Instagram filters, and repeated scenes because they didn't film enough to pad the episode out. Now, serious SF moment here: I don't think any kind of memory suppression is plausible, the brain doesn't work like a database, something this targeted and reversible especially not, and it's completely contrary to the reformation attempt. So the main plot point technology is just nonsense fantasy.

Chase continues to be the only interesting character, so Cooper runs off after her to stay relevant and on-camera. We do eventually learn a whole sad backstory, except: It is implausible they would both be incarcerated together, both taken in the program, and hook up again despite memory wipe. It feels tacked on, or like Lost the soi-disant writers were just making up bullshit as they went along.

Taylor sails away to II-Land (second island, ha ha), which has the single dumbest plot element in the show; never drink free chicken soup! Bonnie & Clyde showing up to be shitty Rod Serlings is just salt in the wound. Said shitty plot element is never seen; is it another player or an NPC or just B&C?

Nothing at all is resolved, until KC and her bozo follower confront Chase & Cooper, violence ensues, B&C show up, and there's quite a good fight scene again. The fight choreography is quite good, someone competent was running that. But also here KC and her bozo just vanish when no longer relevant to the plot.

And finally in E7, back in "reality" more or less, Chase gets released because everyone believes a single thing Cooper says. Except we have to sit thru more of the Warden being an idiot, the doctor & academics being patronizing, everyone getting some kind of comeuppance which is very implausible; especially putting anyone new into the simulation.

The final twist about Chase isn't really shocking, since she didn't recognize any advanced tech in E3, it had to be some time ahead, but it's too far: A 50-year-old woman who's been in a sensory deprivation tank for 25 years cannot do the fighting we saw in E3.

The casual "Galveston is flooded" thing is cute, but a real post-Global Warming Galveston isn't going to be a temperature-habitable zone either.

They seem to think she's doomed, being discharged with pocket money & bus fare; that's stupid, she can go to any tabloid successor of Buzzfeed and make millions on the story, and any yellow rag journalist can write it better than these writers did.

The entire series is so terribly written it may as well have been improvised by the actors, except they did all the flashbacks, so it's actually scripted this badly. The same premise, if handled by a competent writer, director, and hiring more than one competent actor, and having more fight scenes, could've been much better.

★★½☆☆

What I'm Watching: The I-Land

10 very pretty people wake up with amnesia on a beach, on a deserted tropical island. As they wander, they find useful items for survival. If they go in the water… da-dum da-dum… They have some stupid interpersonal drama.

Then the very telegraphed "twist" happens; which given the staticky intro effect, and the unreal nature of many events, should be no surprise at all.

Up thru E2 it's a mediocre Lost with really terrible dialogue and deliberately no character development. Then E3 is the exposition ep, but the writing is even worse, with a fat moron not answering questions, then terrible caricatures of academics not answering questions. The only saving grace is one good action scene. But these supposed future police have no idea how to handle prisoners, they're like the idiot cops in Demolition Man trying to handle Wesley Snipes, but this isn't intended as dark comedy.

★★½☆☆ as of E3 out of 7 — If I hadn't seen Lost, The Cell, or Demolition Man, I'd think this was at least sort of creative. Probably some people will call out The Matrix, but that's a happier kind of prison.

The thing of casting only pretty people for the island and often ugly ones for outside is a shallow trick, and I find it kind of insulting.