embrodski

Aug 202021
 

OnlyFans will no longer host pornography, because major credit cards will no longer do business with adult content providers. This is the handy-work of the anti-sex-work lobby, which is spearheaded by disgusting evangelical theocrats and the liberals who love them. Our elected representative support them, because this will supposedly protect people from being “sex-trafficked.” It’s for the children, doncha know.

Specifically, the children of the rich and powerful, to allow their parents to immiserate an underclass for political advantage.

I.

Previously in my life, I had a very close friend that came from working class roots. She was sexually abused by her father. As soon as she was old enough, she “sex trafficked” herself safely on camgirl sites. This let her pull together a fair chunk of money fast, and she got the fuck out of there and moved to Colorado, where we met.

She picked up “legitimate” work here, but it was shitty and didn’t pay much, and her bosses were absolute assholes. So she took initiative and became an entrepreneur. She became her own boss, and “sex-trafficked” herself. Working her own hours, answering only to herself, and making better money. Her primary source of advertisement was Backpage.

A few years later Backpage was effectively destroyed by the government for “sex trafficking.” Its founders were thrown into jail as sex traffickers. Fortunately, through hard work, side hustles, and some very shrewd investment, by this time my friend had amassed a bit over $100,000. The “sex traffic” industry allowed her to escape from her abusive father, live independently, and save up what was some real money back in those years. Now that industry was being destroyed, forcing her into more dangerous conditions, with far less ability to screen her clients, and far greater costs in finding them. Alternately, she could go to work for someone else, once again having her future taken out of her control and receiving significantly less pay for the same work, and no choice in her clients.

While the people that created the tools she had used to take control of her life rotted in jail, those who threw them in jail and destroyed those tools continued to persecute my friend and those like her. People at the very bottom of the social respectability scale, who could be spit on and ground down to score political popularity. Led by Kamala Harris, they passed FOSTA/SESTA despite being fully aware of the damage it would do. My friend pulled up stakes and moved out of the country (last I heard).

II.

Back when I was a young’un, my parents sat me down and we watched John Stossel’s special arguing that Greed Is Good. I was pretty shocked, because my parents were very liberal, quasi-socialist really, but strongly agreed with much of this.

As I watched, I came to realize that Stossel didn’t mean Greed in the way we’re trained to think of Greed – destructive, money-grubbing, jealous, inhumanly cruel and unconcerned with anyone’s welfare. He was arguing economics 101. People are motivated to make their lives better. They will work for their betterment. In a society, the best way to better yourself is usually to provide things of value to other humans, and thus a community of humans working in their own self-interest will create a better society for everyone. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.

In the social milieu I was then immersed in, most economic activity had been labelled as “motivated by greed.” This is true in the econ 101 sense of working in one’s self-interest. Since the word “greed” was used, it was easy to conflate it with the traditional notions of Greed. It was very easy to flip that into a narrative that capitalism is destructive, money-grubbing, and inhumanly cruel. A simple trick, easy to execute.

One can fight against this by pointing out the differences between Greed and economic self-interest, and how one is destructive and awful, and the other is why our standard of living is no longer in the “shits in a pot in one corner of the house” phase. This requires quite a bit of time and effort. It is a complex defensive maneuver that is comprehensive, but cannot be easily deployed to deal with something as simple as “Capitalism runs on greed.”

So Stossel created a simple counter – reclaiming the word. Proclaiming that Greed Is Good. With, yes, an hour long special that basically does everything discussed above to back it up. But its a simple slogan. Whenever one is told “Capitalism is greedy” one can just counter “Greed is good.” Greed is the reason you have everything that you do have.

“Sex Trafficking” brings up images of Taken. In its traditional usage, it was supposed to be a polite way to say “Long-Term Kidnapping and Rape.” But no action taken by those in power for the past 20+ years in the name of fighting “Sex Trafficking” addresses Long-Term Kidnapping and Rape at all. Often times it makes the problem worse. What the powerful actually do is take opportunities away from those that most need them. They further grind the most vulnerable under their heels, for their political advantage. They strip young women of the ability to escape from their sexually abusive fathers.

III.

I don’t really blame MasterCard and others that are adopting anti-women policies for what they’re doing. They saw what happened to Backpage. No one wants to be called a child-rapist and thrown into federal prison. If I was threatened with federal prison, I’d probably stop doing business with OnlyFans too.

I have no doubt my friend would have ended up fine eventually. She is intelligent and driven. But being able to “Sex Traffic” herself gave her a rocket boost into a better life. Anti-Sex-Trafficking would have kept her in a bad place longer. And not everyone in bad situations is as intelligent and driven as her, not everyone can crawl out of arbitrarily deep holes; so the government shouldn’t keep making them deeper.

The way that Kamala Harris and others of her ilk use the term “Sex Trafficking” nowadays has nothing to do with the traditional meaning. “Sex Trafficking” now is female-driven entrepreneurship. It’s the disadvantaged and down-trodden making better lives for themselves. It’s creating value and self-sufficiency in the face of opposition. It’s doing well despite the ruling elite spitting in your face.

Long Term Kidnapping and Rape is horrendous. Repulsive. It should be stopped, and those responsible for making it worse (like Kamala Harris and the moral crusaders that give her more power) should face the fucking Wrath of God.

But “Sex Trafficking?” In the actual on-the-ground, female-driven-entrepreneurship and life-reclaiming sense? Sex Trafficking is Good.

Aug 162021
 

So Andrew Cuomo has been forced out of office. One might think this was because his Department of Health issued a directive to nursing homes instructing them to accept coronavirus-positive residents returning from hospitals in late March of 2020, and despite many alarms being raised and people begging for this to be reversed, Cuomo held the line on this requirement for a full month and a half. Resulting in well over 10,000 additional dead. Which he then tried to hide by altering records.

In fact, it’s because he sexually harassed at least 11 women* [EDIT – not true. He was accused of sexually harrasing at least 4 women, without much credibility. Fucking siiiiigh]. He [is accused of] subjecting women to unwanted kisses; groped their breasts or buttocks or otherwise touched them inappropriately; made insinuating remarks about their looks and their sex lives; and created a work environment “rife with fear and intimidation.”

First, I want it to be very clear that sexual harassment is unacceptable, and any politician guilty of such conduct SHOULD be thrown out of office. It’s good that he’s been removed and is disgraced. Fuck these pigs.

But I’m more than a bit distraught that if he hadn’t sexually harassed those women, it looks like he would still be in power, without any serious danger of being removed or held accountable for his gross negligence, incompetence, and evidence tampering. The deaths of over 10,000 people isn’t enough reason for the democratic coallition to risk losing a piece in the political game.

Which is fucking disgusting.

It bothers me immensely that it feels like I should be grateful that he sexually harassed women, so he can be removed from office. It worries me that this is one of a vanishingly small number of offenses that can be used to hold politicians accountable, and Multiple KiloDeaths isn’t on that list. It makes me think that maybe we should make sure all potential politicians have harassed women in the past, or worn black-face, or tweeted something TERF-y, just so there’s SOME WAY to get them out of office if they do end up killing tens of thousands of their own people.

Of course, I then immediately realized that I’d just recreated the villian’s gambit of The Traitor Baru Cormorant (a great novel by Seth Dickinson which you should read if you haven’t yet). And it’s probably a sign that my thinking is being warped if I’m reinventing one of the defining tactics of the freakin’ Cabal of Evil Villians in a novel.

It also creates some truely pervese incentives — anyone wanting to run for office would need to go sexually harass some people. We don’t want to incentivize that. Also, we couldn’t hold women accountable, which would mean either excluding women from politics, or having this same problem again with a new demographic. It all falls apart upon further inspection.

But shit. Maybe we should find a few more things to add to the “this gets you kicked the heck out of office” list that don’t require the electorate getting incredibly “lucky” about their rulers having one particular failure of humanity.

Aug 042021
 

Spoilers for all stories below. I’d encourage people to read all of them, they’re short, but if you’d like to know which ones I think are the best so you can read just those before getting spoilers, they are: “I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”, Isabel Fall; “A Guide for Working Breeds”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad; “Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer

Best Novelette Nominees

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, A.T. Greenblatt

This novelette committed one of the cardnial sins of fiction — it was boring. Sam Wells is an accountant with a lame super power, and most of the story consists of him moping about how he can’t be a real super hero, but he still gets discriminated against by anti-superhero-bigots. Then in the end he decides being an accountant is plenty cool, and he doesn’t care what anyone else says. If The Incredibles were written by an aggreived middle-aged English professor, it would be this story.

I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”, Isabel Fall

This story is notable outside of literary concerns because it was successfully censored by The Wokes. The title refers to an old line often used to dismiss trans concerns as unimportant or fake. The crazy part is that the story was censored specifically just for the title reference, because Attack Helicopter itself is a very thoughtful exploration of what gender is, how it shapes who we are, and uses the SF-angle of how the military would weaponize human gender-identity if they could. There’s nothing anti-trans about it, and it’s not like fiction doesn’t have a long history of name-dropping the thing it is criticizing in the title. But it was so cancelled that the Hugos won’t even refer to it by name, instead calling it “Helicopter Story” in all their media. You can google for the kerfuffle details if you’re interested, it actually made the general news in some places.

Within literary concerns, Attach Helicopter is notable for being a darned good story. It makes us aware both of how keyed-in humans are to sex/gender, and how this is a unique and powerful brain adaptation, by demonstrating the power that could be harnessed by rewiring that for other purposes. Things like target-acquisition, for example. It does so while narrating a high-speed escape from a hostile aircraft, interspersed with flashbacks, set in an American civil-war/uprising during which our protag is possibly on the Wrong Side. And all while their copilot is having a breakdown in the cockpit. This makes it sound a bit better than it is, because the execution is a little off… but overall it manages to pull off what it’s aiming for. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever read, but it is good, and IMO it is the best of the nominated novelettes this year. I’m really curious how the voting will turn out.

The Inaccessibility of Heaven”, Aliette de Bodard

This started out really good. It’s a gritty modern-noir focussed on fallen angels and the society they create for themselves in American cities. It’s got the grime of old school cyberpunk. It’s got the jaded supernaturalsim of The Crow, or The Prophecy. It is absolutely everything I adore in an aesthetic. I love this setting, and I could eat it up with a spoon for days.

The plot itself is simple, the characters are kinda meh. I get the impression that this is a short story de Bodard wrote to promote a full novel or series, meant to showcase the world rather than actually put forth a strong narrative. Which is fine, we all gotta make a living, and lord knows that publishers don’t advertise for crap nowadays, so you write promo stories like this to help your main work along. But I bet de Bodard was as surprised as anyone when it made the Hugo short list. Enthusiastic fans are a godsend. :) I was an outlier in our book club because I didn’t care that it was mediocre, I was happy just to read it for the fantastic aesthetic and setting… until I got to the end.

In the end all the fallen angels singe the praises of Jahweh and bemoan how stupid they were for ever going against his goodness and correctness, and reiterate their undying devotion to him and their desire to get back into Heaven. It was naked, unabashed Simping For Jahweh. Say what you want about John C Wright, at least he can write decent Christian Fic. For a gritty fallen angel story to turn into Fellating Our Lord almost made me vomit. It was like a youth pastor trying to convince me that Christian Rock is super cool! Hard Pass.

Monster”, Naomi Kritzer

This story was the opposite of Heaven, in that it started off really slow but got good at the end. And by “started off” I mean that when I was about 70% of the way through I was seriously beginning to question why this was nominated for an SF award. It was Lit Fic, and I was incensed that someone had snuck Lit Fic into my Sci Fi again! But then it took an SF twist, and my hackles dropped quickly.

It is well written. And it presents an interesting moral conundrum. I think the story is implying that the protagonist is the true monster, since she betrayed her truest friend so completely. Objectively, I disagree. I think if your friend is a murderer, it is important to turn them in, and anyone doing so is doing the right thing. But since this IS a well-written story, it really presents the case for “maybe this was a bad thing” very well, and it makes you ponder. I liked the ending quite a lot. My only complaint is that the story was so long and slow leading up to that point. Maybe that was necessary to build up to the betrayal at the end. I dunno, I think the “this feels like Lit Fic!” thing got to me, since I have prejudices on that front. A good story overall.

“The Pill”, Meg Elison — Not Available Online

Not Available Online, so we didn’t read it.

Two Truths and a Lie”, Sarah Pinsker

This was a really good creeping-horror story. A creepypasta, in today’s parlance. I adored it. The growing sense of disturbing, Twillight-Zone horror ratchets up at just the right pace. Then it kinda fell flat at the end. It wasn’t an insulting ending like Heaven’s, it’s just that the story was building toward something epic, and then when it got to the end it kinda fizzled. The ending could have been fine, if the story had felt it was building to a body-take-over sort of thing. It didn’t, though. Giving our protagonist the magician’s ending felt like an awkward substitution at the end, rather than something that had been hinted at along the way. Again, a good story, but just missed a beat at the end there, and due to the stupid Peak-End Rule, this has an outsized effect on the whole experience.

 

Best Short Story

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse”, Rae Carson

Ugh. I hate to start both sections with a negative review, but this was just bad. It relied on the same thing most zombie fiction relies on — it doesn’t work unless all the humans involved are absolutely brain-dead idiots. Before they get infected. Very little in the story makes any sense, nothing like this would remotely happen in a zombie apocalypse. The labor scene is stupid, and the ending is cliche. All of it is cliche, actually. I think that this is a story where people decided how they felt about it upon reading the title, and then didn’t bother reading the actual text. (Much like Attack Helicopter, in that regard.) Le Sigh.

A Guide for Working Breeds”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad

Oh. My. God. This story is absolutley PERFECT!!!!!! It’s told as a series of emails/DMs/whatever between two androids in a post-meatsuit future. The younger one is a Zoomer kid just entering the workforce and laboring through typical entry-level shit jobs, and the older one is a jaded Gen Xer assassin forced into compulsory mentoring. The Zoomer is pretty damn adorable, and they form a bond over time, despite the assassin’s stand-offish-ness. Gen Xer has a crunchy exterior, but a warm gooey core! Anyway, the Zoomer saves the assassin’s life, there is a gruding respect built, the Zoomer sorta has a coming-of-age leveling up, and then the Zoomer goes forth to become a mentor of her own to the next generation. The whole thing is incredibly fun to read, very heartwarming, fantastically written, often hilarious, and just the best thing ever. My pick for best Short Story of the bunch. Definitely read this one!

Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com)

A cute, short story about what you do when you have an accidental portal to another world that only accepts books and small trinkets. There’s not much to say about it besides that it’s very good. It’s by Kritzer, so of course it’s well written. The discovery process is fun, the escalating new revelations are intruiging, and the ending is bittersweet and very memorable. Another good read!

The Mermaid Astronaut”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020)

A lot of world-building concerning a mermaid society. They meet aliens, and one of the mermaids goes with them to tour the galaxy. Then she comes back. If you like a lot of world building, this is a great story for you. But there is only the thinest veneer of a plot, and not much in the way of characters. Some people love worldbuilding and will like this sort of story. I was bored. Soft pass.

Metal Like Blood in the Dark”, T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)

A sort of Innocents Lost story, where two extremely naive and likable robots are taken advantage of, until one of them discovers that lying is a thing that exists, and uses her new-found powers to predict the actions of an untrustworthy agent, and eventually lie to him in order to gain freedom. It’s written in a style that feels almost child-like and folktale-sy, which is very appropriate for the charecters. There’s some great moments in here (like when the protag is briefly terrified that she altered the universe by lying about it), and there’s nothing wrong with the story. It just isn’t really a thing that tickles my fancy. I first read it almost three months ago and couldn’t remember anything about it from seeing the title again, I had to go back and skim it to remind myself what happened. It would probably be great for others with different tastes. /shrug

Open House on Haunted Hill”, John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen)

Another heart-warming story. All the short stories this year were optimistic stories, which makes me think people really needed something to lighten their lives amidst all the COVID. It’s unusual for them all to be positive, usually award-nominated stories hit you in the Sads. Which, to be clear, is great, I love being hit in the Sads, and it’s one of the reasons I read short stories. :)

Anyway, Open House is about a young haunted house that’s doing it’s darnedest to be the best haunted house it can be! It is tempted to kill people for power, but it helps them instead, and the people are good-hearted folk that have hit hard times and really could use a break. And the house wants a family inside it, so they meet each others needs. It’s a wholesome story with some meloncholy moments that makes you happy you read it, so worth reading. Not “powerful” in the traditional sense, but ain’t nothing wrong with that. I prefer Guide For Working Breeds (above) because that one deals with relationships closer to what I’ve experienced, and the culture of the characters is closer to my own, and it’s damned funny in a lot of moments where Open House doesn’t really go for the laughs. But again, that’s a taste thing. Others will prefer Open House and that’s OK. :)

 

As always, I think it’s great to break up book clubs with a meeting dedicated just to short stories once a year, and I continue to recommend it. Regardless of how you choose what stories to read, it’s a refreshingly different experience, and great fun!

May 312021
 

Yeah, we all know the written work is almost always better than the adaptation. But today, I’m hear to say why this is the case for the Love, Death, And Robots called “PopSquad”

Paolo Bacigalupi wrote the original short story, it was first published in 2006, and can also be found in his anthology “Pump Six and Other Stories.” I strongly recommend it if you’re into grimdark SF. Every story there is fantastic, and he’s one of the best SF writers of the initial post-9/11 era.

But back to Pop Squad. The adaptation has a number of problems that read to me as a failure to grasp the themes of the short story.

Before we continue, just in case it needs to be said, this post will contain FULL SPOILERS for both the short story and the LD+R episode. Go read it and/or watch it first, though if you’re only going to do one, of course I suggest reading it

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First, you know how I absolutely adore Altered Carbon the book, but hated the Altered Carbon series? This is mainly because the series is extremely Deathist in the standard, brain-dead Hollywood manner.  The Pop Squad adaptation has a similar problem. Sure, the core story of PopSquad is actually the same. There aren’t enough resources to make new humans when immortality is unlocked, so breeding is made illegal and new humans are killed when found. But the LD+R version is so… simplistic. Bacigalupi is, above all else, a scracity-of-resources author. His focus is extreme climate change and the economic effects it can have, and how this will lead to a drastic reduction in quality of life for most people, and how many of those people are liable to react. His work focuses on genocides, starvation, war over fresh water sources, etc. The focus on Pop Squad is, as with most of his works, the problem of scarce resources. It’s made pretty clear in the story that the primary driver of this scarcity is drastic climate change, and the killing of new humans is just one more stop-gap measure to address that. The story doesn’t have a pro-Deathist message. Yes, one of the breeders within it speaks with strong Deathist attitudes, but of course she does, that’s what someone in her position would do. It’s a realistic portrayal of such a person.

The LD+R episode misses all this, and goes for the standard “Immortality is bad, and you can tell because immortal people are baby-killers!” It’s not particularly interesting or nuanced.

In service of this, the immortals are made to be as unlikable as possible. In particular, the protag’s SO is portrayed as shallow and vapid. She has to be, since she’s happy being immortal. In the written  story she was a talented, driven woman making something beautiful. LD+R mirrors the surface level narrative, but loses all the substance

Second, LD+R completely loses the emotional engine driving the story. The written work is following a man as he descends into madness. We watch him self-destructing from the inside as he’s trying to keep up outer appearances, and Bacigalupi executes this fantastically. LD+R doesn’t seem to know how to portray any of this. We see the protag look at blood spatters on his hand during the opera, but it doesn’t mean anything, and comes off as a cheap “blood on my hands” literalism. They show the dinosaur several times and try to imply it means something important, but none of the obsessive focus that the protag had in the story comes through. Crucially, when protag + SO have the joking interaction about her being impregnated, they flip who delivers the “impregnate the woman” line. I suspect this was to not make the protag look like a creep (which, c’mon, he’s a literal baby-murderer, I think that ship has sailed), but the scene loses all of its impact and most of its character-defining qualities this way. Not that I think those would have landed well even if they kept it as written, because the episode is poorly executed overall. But it’s a glaring symptom of the problem.

Third, they made a PG13 version of an R-rated horror story, which just doesn’t work. They cut out our protag blasting three children’s heads off in the openning scene. This is crucial to the story. It’s shocking to the audience, and puts us in the same headspace as the narrator. You cannot cut that out. It is the inciting incident that puts him in the nose-dive to complete mental breakdown, and it never happens in the show!

Third-and-a-half, because it’s closely related to #3, they completely miss the importance of the handgun. The police force was recently issued new guns designed to take down robot assassins and gangsters on some crazy PCP-style drug. It is MASSIVELY overpowered for the purposes of executing children. The fact that it is so grotesque, so gruesome, is why our protag is having his breakdown NOW, rather than however many years ago he started this job. He is forced to watch these tiny bodies blown apart in fountains of gore. He obsesses about how ridiculous this gun is on almost every single page of the story. He obsesses about it more than the stuffed dinosaur. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the unstoppable and indiscriminate power of the state. Maybe it’s just a metaphor for his own monstrosity that he can no longer hide from. Whatever the case, it is the gun & the gore that push him over, and neither of these are touched on in the episode.

Finally, the ending is all wrong. In the written story, at the end our protag saves himself by the skin of his teeth. He rejects the law, and the judgement of the state, in favor of his own. From what we know of the story, this isn’t sustainable, the scarcity of resources is a Hard Problem. Moreover, its stated she’ll likely be caught/killed soon enough anyway — the institutional knowledge and infrastructure needed to raise children literally doesn’t exist anymore, they are thoroughly fucked from the get-go. But he retains his sanity by rejecting the social order, and maybe he’ll be able to start changing things now, rather than accepting the fate of the world mindlessly enforcing executions. In the LD+R episode he, instead, gives his life to let her go free. It is, again, boring Hollywood simplicity. “I redeem myself through my death.” We don’t feel he’s really earned a redemption, and the whole thing is very pat and tidy. Sigh.

So, in summary, the short story is a fucked up dystopian setting, but you truely feel how beautiful and complex and valuable the lives of normal immortal people are. And how overwhelming the challenges are that brought them to this horrific policy. And how insane and gross the breeders are. But it also makes it clear that’s not entirely the breeder’s fault either, and we’re all at the mercy of society and biology, and when those two are in direct conflict, bad shit happens (hi catholic church). Maybe don’t pit the overwhelming and brutal force of the social order vs the irresistable biological needs instilled by millions of years of evolution! And it even makes the squalor of the breeders, of being enslaved to your biology, kinda glamorous, in its own way, for just a bit.

It’s really good, cuz Paolo is an amazing author. I’m sad the LD+R version failed to get any of that, and instead just went for the mass-market appeal of Deathist applause lights. It deserved better.

Also, while writing this I noticed that LD+R is a cheeky anagram of TLDR. Clever.

May 292021
 

I have a very soft spot in my heart for stories of people being forced to live lives that don’t matter. The classic case of this being Groundhog Day, and similar stories such as The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. Much of my life has been spent trying to matter. I think the majority of people in the Modern, Western world have similar hang-ups. I used to think this was due to the fact that we (as a species) had solved the primary challenge the world throws at us, and are now floundering to find a new one. I have recently been convinced that this was a terrible misunderstanding, and instead it’s because most of us have been dramatically traumatized early in adulthood.

Imagine if right now you were told nothing you do for the next five years will matter. You cannot do anything that has any value to the people you care about. You cannot better your own life. You won’t own any property, can’t work, and won’t be allowed to keep your wages if you do work. You can’t significantly harm your life either. You’ll be fed and clothed and housed, and there won’t be legal consequences for almost anything you do. You can’t harm your reputation, because no one will take anything you say seriously. Of course, this also means your opinion has no value to anyone as well. It’s a bit like being in Groundhog Day for 5 years. All you can do is wait.

Personally, I’d get pretty damn depressed. I probably wouldn’t care to do anything. I imagine a lot of people would turn to drugs or alcohol to help burn through the five years as quickly as possible. I’d expect all sorts of psychological damage from this.

This is what we do to every teenager (with a tiny fraction of exceptions) in the USA. It would be bad enough if I was forced to endure this at my current age. When humans are in their early teens, they have a burning biological drive to start their lives, start doing things and distinguishing themselves. At that age, every year is a near-eternity. And you don’t yet have the experience to realize things can/will get better. All you know is you are trapped in an imposed hell of meaninglessness.

I nearly killed myself when I was a teen. Dropping out of college to start doing something that actually mattered was the best decision I’d made in my life up to that point (and still ranks in the Top 5 of all my life decisions). Everyone I know feels lucky to have survived their teen years, even though statistically just about everyone makes it. Our society traumatizes everyone raised within it to a massive degree, and most of us are completely blind to this. We don’t just steal five years of life from every citizen of our nation. We create permanent damage that takes decades to overcome.

The next episode of The Bayesian Conspiracy, #138, will talk about Robert Epstein’s work on this topic. I’ll link it here when it’s done. I’ve dumped my highlights from his book Teen 2.0 here, but honestly, it’s a bit of a mess. Right now I’m just asserting that we’re fucking ourselves up, all of us, and we’re perpetuation this trauma over and over on the next generation in the typical cycle we’ve all come to know and hate. And it needs to stop.

May 252021
 

Mexican Gothic, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Synopsis: A young debutant in 50s Mexico visits her creepy in-laws in an attempt to rescue her cousin from their possibly-haunted house.

Book Review: This book positively drips with atmosphere. Moreno-Garcia does an amazing job of building a disquieting, gothic mood that permeates every sentence and page. I heard rumors that this may be made into a TV series, and I really hope they’re true, because the visuals you get while reading it are absolutely gorgeous. With a good director and skilled musician, this thing will be a joy to watch, and probably a classic in goth circles for decades.

The protagonist, Noemi, is also flat-out awesome (with caveats given below). She the epitome of the smart, self-assured woman that knows how to manevuer in and optimize her world in a society stuck in the 50s. She reminds me of the women Rosalind Russell usually portrayed. I could watch that sort of character for hours. When they’re doing something. Which is sort of the problem with Mexican Gothic.

Mexican Gothic starts out by building a spectacular setting, populating it with interesting charecters, showing us many hints of mysterious and creepy doings… and then keeps doing that, over and over, for most of the book. It’s really good at doing this, but it goes on for way, waaaaaay too long. For quite a while it feels like the author is just spinning her wheels, not quite sure where to go next. Noemi starts doing the same thing, spinning her wheels without accomplishing much, remaining coy and uncommited to any action long after the conflict should have started, and continuing for many chapters. After quite a while of this, we shift abruptly into the climax of the book. It’s an extended climax, so it goes on for a while, but it’s really good. The novel is fun and exciting again. However, once it’s all over, the whole thing feels kinda unearned. Like something is missing. We went right from teasing to banging without any buildup beforehand.

While I’m not a huge fan of the standard Three Act Structure, I think it’s a useful lens for analyzing Mexican Gothic. Because the problem with this book is that it doesn’t have an Act Two. There is no escalation of conflict, no wins and losses as stakes keep rising, no feeling of things accelerating into ever worse territory. These things don’t need to happen as physical conflicts, and with a protagonist like Noemi they probably shouldn’t. But we never really get to see our hero in action at all until the Act Three climax begins. Basically, Act One is extended through the entire duration of where Act Two should have been. It makes for kinda boring reading in the middle, and an overall unsatisfied feeling at the end.

So, while it does a lot of things very well, I think the book has too deep of a flaw at its core to recommend it. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: While we did have one person that really loved this, we lost a lot of readers around halfway through the book. Probably for the aforementioned reason. The turn-out was on the low side for our book club. There was some decent discussion about what went wrong, as well as praise for the skill in setting. There was a little bit of discussion about the roles of wealth and women in the 50s, but the novel didn’t give us much to work with there, since we only see the setting up of those conflicts at first, and then a no-holds-barred blow-out finale that doesn’t really involve social issues. Overall, not bad. I’m kinda on the fence here. There are some circles where this book is getting a fair bit of buzz, and if you’re in/near one of those, I would recommend it as background for those conversations. If you’re just looking for a book to talk about with friends without the wider SF world as a consideration, I would ultimately not recommend it.

May 212021
 
This link is the first one at this month’s ACX link post. Making Prophecy Great Again
Due to a flood of failed prophesy about Trump’s re-election and COVID, some big names in Pentecostalism are proposing prophesy reform, and in particular
“WE BELIEVE it is essential that all spiritual leaders, including prophetic leaders, have a presbytery of peers and seasoned spiritual leaders who can hold them accountable regarding their life and ministry.”
Pentecostals are like the Libertarians of Christianity in terms of hierarchy and organization — there is (almost) none. The majority of churches are independent small businesses (with, yes, some franchises now), that thrive or die based on how well they serve their customers. It was a great demonstration in the power of markets, seeing as it went from one guy in early 1900s to half a billion+ now, while going up against institutions with centuries of market dominance and sometimes literal state-granted monopolies.
Anyway, I find this to be huge news, because it’s proposing an oversight committee to push reforms on the broader community, and it has support from major players. This means bureaucracy and hierarchy. If this push succeeds, we could be first-hand witnesses to the formation of a new orthodoxy. I imagine this is how people felt when they first heard that the Council of Nicaea was gonna be a thing.
May 192021
 

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Synopsis: The universe is an infinite building full of marble statues, containing only two living people. A mysterious third person may be arriving soon…

Book Review: Yeah, that’s a crap synopsis, but I really have no idea how to give a synopsis of this book. I almost didn’t bother reading it, because it’s by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a book so very bad that I couldn’t imagine ever reading something by Clarke again. But Piranesi is only a couple hundred pages, and I was assured by a book club member I trust who read both of them that they are very different books. So I decided to read just the first chapter or two, to give it a try.

I was instantly in love.

Have you read The Library of Babel yet? If not, it’s worth it to go read right now, it’s only 7 pages, and it’s famous for a damned good reason. If you’re like me, when you got to the end you thought “Dammit, this is so freakin’ good! Why isn’t there more? I could read a whole novel based on this!!” Piranesi is that novel! It’s not literally based in the Library of Babel, but it does take place in an infinite building of repeating rooms that contain permutations of statues which can be interpreted as cryptic messages. The house has its own ecology and provides (bare) resources for those within it. The inhabitants don’t find anything unusual about this, and are focused on unlocking the secrets of the house. The whole thing is presented in a beautiful concreteness that belies it’s surreality, and it grips my imagination like a Sith Lord choking out an insubordinate henchman.

The protagonist, Piranesi, is also the best damn person you’ll ever meet. He’s guileless and innocent and full of trust and energy and enthusiasm. And incredibly analytical and meticulous, in the style of the old British Natural Philosophers. Anyone who doesn’t fall in love with him is a monster, and we probably shouldn’t be friends. There are so many times where I thought “Oh no… Piranesi, don’t do that, you’re too trusting and naive! But I love that about you! But this is gonna suck for you in the near future!”

The story itself is pretty darn good too, with an unraveling that feels like it mirrors a descent into dementia, except maybe in reverse? I don’t want to give things away, but it was a good time!

Finally, the brevity of the novel is a huge asset. I don’t know if that sounds like an insult, but it’s not meant as one. The novel knows exactly what it’s doing, and how long it will take to get there so that it stays fresh and exciting the entire way without wearing out its welcome. Once everything is explored and poked, it wraps things up with a touching, poingant, and somehow regretfully nostolgic chapter that feels more like poetry than prose.

What I’m saying is, I really really liked this. It’s weird, and kinda artsy, but without ever getting its head up its ass. I’m really glad I read it. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: Not everyone was quite as enthralled by this as I was. Some people found the bizarre world a bit too frustrating. But fortunately, it was still well-written, short, and Piranesi was very likable. This meant everyone finished the book, and no one hated it, and we had several things to discuss about style and fiction. Even for people who weren’t thrilled with it, it made for fast reading and good discussion. Recommended.

May 162021
 

COVID helped me to lose what trust I had remaining in government institutions. However, my faith in humanity actually grew on net, because of the outstanding success of private individuals and institutions. US Pharma created the COVID vaccine in just two days back in January of 2020! Production takes several months, but by the time it got rolling we were producing tens of millions of vaccines per month, and eventually tens of millions per week. Distribution has gone so well that basically every adult in the US that wants to be vaccinated will be by the end of May.

The US govt got in the way at every step. It wouldn’t allow challenge trials, and demanded unnecessarily long, large, and expensive trials. Pharma pays hundreds of millions per drug to gain FDA approval, when initial creation sometimes takes as little as TWO DAYS. The producers were barred from selling the vaccines at market price, instead forced to sell only directly to the govt.

And now Joe Biden wants to remove the vaccine patent protections.

Now, this won’t really change anything. The patents already aren’t being defended, and the primary production bottleneck is rare inputs, not IP restrictions. The Pharma companies are still making a nice profit. So in that respect, it’s a way for Biden to grab approval points without actually hurting the companies that saved us all.

On the other hand, it’s pure fucking treachary. These are the people and institutions that literally saved us from a world-wide pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen in living memory. In response, Biden is advancing the idea that Greedy Big Pharma is behind whatever delays and setbacks have prevented us from already being clear of this, and he’ll save us by revoking their IP protections. The protections that the government granted them in the first place to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars in costs they impose, and many months of delays that killed thousands of people. To take the heroes that brought us out of this and cast them as the villains because your base has a “Kill Capitalists” proganda message is so fucking disgusting to me I have a hard time putting it into words.

Also, it throws into doubt that certainty that future patents will be protected, which will change the calculus of every corporation that has to decide whether its worth spending the millions needed to create these drugs in the first place. It imperils our future salvation, to score a few political points. It’s almost criminally short-sighted. I don’t even know where to go from here, I just had to rant. This is why I don’t vote lizards anymore.

Apr 292021
 

And Lo, the time has once more descended upon us. We shall contemplate these stories and their meanings, and then share our contemplations with the wizened members of the Book Club.

Best Novelette

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super”, A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine, May/June 2020)

I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter”, Isabel Fall (Clarkesworld, January 2020)
(actually that link doesn’t work. Wayback Machine? Nope, it’s been excluded. Guess one has to sail the high seas. If you prefer a .pdf, there’s this option. Do Thought Crimes, kids!)

The Inaccessibility of Heaven”, Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny Magazine, July/August 2020)

Monster”, Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, January 2020)

“The Pill”, Meg Elison (from Big Girl, (PM Press))  — Not Available Online

Two Truths and a Lie”, Sarah Pinsker (Tor.com)

Best Short Story

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse”, Rae Carson (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2020)

A Guide for Working Breeds”, Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Made to Order: Robots and Revolution, ed. Jonathan Strahan (Solaris))

Little Free Library”, Naomi Kritzer (Tor.com)

The Mermaid Astronaut”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2020)

Metal Like Blood in the Dark”, T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine, September/October 2020)

Open House on Haunted Hill”, John Wiswell (Diabolical Plots – 2020, ed. David Steffen)