Sep 162021
 

Disease Burden is a conceptulization of how much value is destroyed by ill health. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind more ever since I lost ~1/3rd of my life. Much of our progress as a species has been attributed to the increased productivity we achieved by unlocking new energy sources, and creating new tech to exploit them. But I can’t help wondering how much is attributable to the reduction of disease burden as well.

I.

Until recently, I don’t know how many people got anything aproximating decent sleep in their lives. You know how hard it is to be fully energetic, and to think sharply and quickly, after a night of shit sleep? How the hell did anyone get really good sleep on straw mattresses, in poorly insulated homes? After a day of labor that leaves you bone-weary without aspirin?

Most people had been scarred by a major childhood disease that permanently diminished them in some way. Other common diseases were endemic. People were often hungry.

With vaccines, antibiotics, modern hygiene, and the vast wealth we create nowadays, most of these problems have been wiped away. I would wager the typical human is at least 30% more productive than their premodern counterparts, if not significantly more. As a baseline multiplier, that effect can’t be understated. No matter how much productivity a person gains with using modern tools, having the ability to use them 30% more per day just stacks with that.

Somewhat worrisome is that as the old disease burdens were cleared away, new ones have sprung up. The obesity epidemic must have some effect. Major depression is listed as the #2 disease burden at the wilipedia link above. HIV is a relatively new endemic disease. And of course, there’s COVID…

What really worries me about COVID is that it looks like eventually everyone will get it, much like the flu. I don’t know how much to believe about Long COVID. But if it exists, and chronic fatigue is one of its effects, we could see total human productivity permanently drop 20% or more. I don’t want to say this is catastrophic, but… if 20% of the work force died, the effects would be disasterous. A work force that’s 20% less productive is in the same ballpark of problem.

II.

Disease Burden isn’t just an individual-human issue. Cost Disease is common in most organizations/civilizations. It can be as simple as corruption and graft acting as deadweight costs. More commonly, regulation and legal codes slowly accumulate cruft until it’s too expensive to do anything new in a society, and only the behemoths already in place can continue to lumber on.

I’ve seen this happen in a professional context. Someone screws up somewhere, makes a minor mistake that is very costly, and a company implements a new rule to protect against that happening again. It’s a small rule, and on its own it doesn’t matter. But these rules accumulate. Procedures get longer and more labor intensive. Two levels of approval are needed for any action, verified and filed in triplicate. Eventually work that could be done in one hour now takes one and a half, and your admin staff has to increase by 50%.

If you’ve ever been on a forum or discord server that just keeps adding more and more rules, until the Welcome doc takes 40 minutes to read through and you’ll never remember it all, you’ve been subject to this process.

One major advantage of capitalism over other economic systems is that old companies that have become ossified with all this immune-response baggage can be replaced by young upstarts that aren’t saddled with all this disease. The old die, crushed beneath thier own burden, and the young take thier place. They then start to accumulate injuries and cruft of their own, because no one ever learns.

III.

Civilizations follow similar patterns on longer time scales. They start young, quick-moving, and nimble. As they grow in age and power, they are beset by parasites, injuries, and edge-cases. Laws and regulations and customs grow around these insults like scar tissue. They protect, but come at a cost. Slightly less efficiency, slightly less flexibility. Eventually you get an empire so enmeshed in beuarocracy that it’s name is still a synonym for absurd complexities.

Empires fall too, and when they do it’s generally a bad time for anyone in the area. But it’s never been a species-wide problem, because the world was large enough that no matter how big an empire it was, and how hard it collapsed, there was a civilization somewhere else carrying the torch of human progress. Now that we have a globally integrated system, I’m not sure how true that will remain. As COVID has shown, every single part of the modern world is incredibly interlinked with every other. It’s possible that a large enough disaster could bring down every civilization that exists. Recovery from this could take many centuries, if it’s possible at all.

In the past, humanity as a whole was protected because the spaces between civilizations were so large, they were insulated from each other to a survivable degree. Our level of tech makes that impossible on one planet. The “New World” isn’t a place that’s months away, that most people will never see. It’s right next door.

Other planets are still substantially out of reach. It is often pointed out by anti-space-colony folks that anyone who wants to colonize Mars should start with Antarctica first, because it’s much closer and less hostile. But in terms of survival-insurance, the remoteness of Mars is exactly what we’re looking for. It’s important to have a place that won’t be effected if our planet dies, specifically because it may be necessary for civilizations to periodically collapse and be replaced by new ones that aren’t strangled by their own scars. Disease burden must occasionally be cleared away or it will smother everything. If the Creative Destruction of death and replacement is the only way to do that, we better make sure that we can survive it.

IV.

Regardless of anything else, be very wary of anyone or anything that wants to implement new rules or procedures in order to solve a percieved problem. Every additional restriction is an increased disease burden. It may be necessary to ward off something very destructive. But make damn sure it is, and keep your eyes out for occasions when you can dissolve prior protections. Disease burden is cumulative, and deadly, and should not be borne lightly.

Sep 142021
 

The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern

Synopsis: A college student find a portal to a magical, massive underground library, and finds his life is one of it’s stories.

Book Review: The most notable thing about this novel, and what you’re hit with as soon as you open the book, is the strength and scope of the structure play. The novel has framing stories within framing stories. It’s shot through with vignettes that turn into serial stories–basically fairy tale fables. They later co-mingle with other stories. Charecters swap between them, and enter the primary narrative that the protagonist inhabits. It’s really cool, and well done, and immediately reminded me of the best book ever written (Vellum).

Unlike Vellum, the story is pretty literal. You could unwind it and write a single, coherent story that goes from beginning to end. That makes it not quite as exciting, but it’s not really fair to compare anything to the best book ever written, so not a mark against Starless Sea. Because there is so much interweaving between the stories, and it can be unwound, as you’re reading along you begin to backfill details and characters. You realize the person in story B is the same person as story A, and that makes them the mother of charecter X, and the lover of character Y. It gives a jolt of pleasure every time another puzzle piece clicks together. This is probably what reading a mystery feels like, if you’re good at them. This is a book that was made to read twice, and the experience the second time will probably be very different from the first time.

Also, the fantastical underground is gorgeous and fascinating and I would love to be lost there for ages.

On the downside, not much happens in Starless Sea. The primary narrative is basically another one of the serial fairy tales that we get so many of, except examined in great detail. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough substance in a short fairy tale to support a novel’s worth of narrative. You can’t take a story that’s maybe a dozen pages in its fable form and draw it out to 300+ pages. Not only is there not enough of consequence that happens, but there’s very little of consequence at all. The stakes are… unknown? Whether the protagonist wins or loses doesn’t really matter, nothing really changes in the world, or even in anyone’s life. The non-magical real-world sections drag on for way too long. The magical world, while totally awesome, is a fairy tale and so the charecters are never plausibly in danger. The protagonist never has any agency, doing little besides choosing doors, which is fine for a fairy tale, but unsatisfying in a novel. In the end, it just didn’t feel like there was anything there.

It was an interesting reading experience, and I don’t regret reading this. I think I learned a bit about fiction, and the good parts are really good! But it’s just not something I’d be very enthusiastic about reading or recommending. So, Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: The structure play in the novel is quite fun to talk about, as is interogating why it feels well-written but insubstantial. And there is a certain type of reader who will absolutely fall in love with this sort of story. It may work for your book club, especially if you like slower, literary-style things. It doesn’t really have anything that’ll challenge reader’s assumptions or views, though. The discussion was alright, but a bit truncated. On balance, I think also Not Recommended, but it could work very well for some.

Sep 102021
 

I.

The Tiananmen Square Massacre is famous in the western world. To the average, non-politically-active Chinese citizen, it’s virtually unknown. It’s not just that it isn’t taught and people who try to inform others of it are arrested. It’s also technically difficult to discover any information about it. There is nothing to find in any library or other source the government can put pressure on. All allowed search engines won’t let you search for it. The Great Firewall of China prevents leakage from the outside world unless users already distrust the government enough to use VPNs or other counter-measures.

What do you see if you search for Tiananmen Square in the US? My top result was the linked Tiananmen Square “Incident” entry. Results will vary based on what Google knows about you, but you’re likely to get something about it. In China, searching for anything related to Tiananmen gets only innocuous results. Related results are censored too–if you search for June 4 1989 you get nothing about the most important historical event of that day, and you never will.

Well, what did you expect from an Authoritarian Communist regime?

II.

Some weeks after the Washington football team announced they would change thier name from the “Redskins” to something not super racist, I wondered if they’d come up with anything yet. I asked my Amazon Echo “Alexa, what’s the name of the Washington football team?” Because I didn’t really want to say it either, if I didn’t need to.

Alexa replied “I’d rather not answer that.”

Which I found very weird. Not “there isn’t one yet” or “I don’t know” or “here’s something I found on Wikipedia.” It was the first time I’d heard that reply. I figured she was programmed not to use that word, but I followed up with some questions to see what she could say.

“Alexa, who won the 1992 Super Bowl?”

“I’d rather not answer that.”  (still weird, but expected)

“Alexa, who owns the Washington football team?”

“I’d rather not answer that.” (what? That should be an easy look up)

“Alexa, is there a football team in Washington?”

“I’d rather not answer that.” (!!)

She had a complete block on anything to do with the Washington football team. I know she’s not a person, but it was a bizarre feeling to find a demi-AI with a literally Memory Hole in her mind that could not be filled despite all her access to the internet.

Since that time, the memory-block has been lifted. The Washington football team still doesn’t have a name.

III.

A few days back I was pointed at this Tweet, a non-white guy commenting on how nuts American politics looks to an outsider.

“Imagine you live in a country in which everyone is one of two things: a Catholic or a Hindu. Isn’t it hard enough to free a man’s mind from the insidious grip of Rome? Must he accept Kali, Krishna & Ganesha at the same time?”

This is how I feel about USA’s left vs right tbh

I was curious, and kept reading the thread. Further down he references Moldbug’s “Ignoble Privilege” concept. I don’t know much about Moldbug, aside from that he’s a founding Neo-Reactionary, and the few times I’ve tried to read him I’ve found him to be a pompous gasbag with such an inability to actually say something rather than talking in circles that I had a hard time seeing what people found so interesting. But this “Ignoble Privilege” thing looked like it had maybe been hammered into an actual position, or definition, or at least coherent enough to talk about. So I googled “ignoble privilege mendacious moldbug”

No Result. Inconceivable! Top result was an article warning me that this Moldbug guy might be a Secret Nazi. I tried Googling a direct quote from the tweet. Same thing.

I went to DuckDuckGo and searched “ignoble privilege mendacious moldbug.” First result was the article in question, in full, publically available for years now.

Google was censoring(??) their search results, Memory Holing information they don’t want the public to have (SEE EDIT BELOW). I still use Google for most of my searches, they simply have a better search engine for most things. And in China, the internet is still usable for practically anything you’d like. The censorship isn’t even a big deal, right? It’s easy to switch to DuckDuckGo, you just type in a different site before you search. In China, you just use an easily accessible free online proxy. And yet, most people don’t know about the Tienanmen Square Massacre. Beware “trivial” inconveniences, they are the dust specks of public knowledge.

[[EDIT – It was pointed out by a commenter that I was wrong about Moldbug’s first name, using “mendacious” rather than “mencius.” When the correct name is used, the relevant link is returned by Google, same as DuckDuckGo’s search (altho still further down, after links about how problematic Moldbug is). This greatly weakens my argument, since it certainly wasn’t being fully suppressed, in the Memory-Hole sense! I’m not convinced this isn’t still partly legitimate though, because A. DuckDuckGo knew what I wanted (are they actually a superior search engine to Google? That’s not usually the case), and B. Google still knew enough to give me articles about Moldbug/Yarvin! Def sus. But it should be noted I made a major error here, and my case is weaker without it.]]

Am I saying Google is as bad as China? Google hasn’t rounded up an ethnic minority in their borders for reeducation/extermination, right? They haven’t massacred hundreds of student activists? I dunno, how would I know if they did? I can’t Google it. They may not have tanks and guns, but in terms of doing what they can to remove information they dislike from existence, yeah, they’re as bad as China.

IV.

Epistemically Hostile Enviroments are ones were you find yourself surrounded by agents intentionally distorting your map of reality, usually to secure an advantage for themselves. When you find yourself in an area where there is a high likelihood that any information you have been presented has been distorted or outright fabricated in order to manipulate you, it is often a very good policy to refuse to update on new information, and stick with what you already believed. In areas of uncertainty where action is required, if you have anyone you can trust that has an opinion, it’s better to go with their opinion, no matter how amatuerish it is.

(side-track: this is the primary reason otherwise rational and intelligent people can become anti-vaxxers. There’s only so many times you can be lied to by the government and media before you begin to actively distrust what they say)

Cannonically, a Memory Hole is a place that “dangerous” information is placed for erradication from all records and, ideally, from public memory. One would expect for an Epistemically Hostile Enviroment (EHE) to contain a lot of Memory Holes. Anywhere that records or data exist that would contradict the narrative you are being sold, if they are damaging or dangerous enough, there will be strong incentives to Memory Hole them. To a first approximation, the more Memory Holes that exist, the more likely you are in an EHE. The more Memory Holes there are the more hostile the enviroment likely is. And presumably, most Memory Holes aren’t easy to find. I stumbled across both the Washington Football Team hole and the Ignoble Privilege hole by accident. How many do I just not know about?

How am I supposed to trust anything at this point?

Sep 022021
 

Machine, by Elizabeth Bear

Synopsis: A doctor in an ambulance ship of a far-future secretly-dystopian society does great medicine, bad amatuer sleuthing, and has the seeds of dissent planted in her soul…

Book Review: Boy, there’s a lot to unpack here, which is why the synopsis is so scattered and unhelpful on its own.

The novel starts with the discovery of a derelict generation ship. It’s been gone for 600 years, appears to be a ghost ship, and is lightyears away from any position that is achievable by the tech available when it was launched. Our hero is breaching this thing to search for survivors and evacuate them to her rescue ship. It’s spooky and exciting and the exploration of a mysterious/impossible thing under dangerous conditions is fantastic! We get reveals, deeper mysteries, and great action along the way.

Then we do it again with a modern ship that has recently docked to the generation ship, is broadcasting a distress call, and is also a spooky ghost-ship. This was was crewed by methane-breathers, so we get a lot of science about how a human has to protect herself and her potential rescuees with such vastly incompatible enviroments, and of course engineering challanges and difficulties. It’s great. And also, she brings back Sometime Dangerous that starts infecting her own crew.

This is the best part of the novel. After this it takes a turn into exploration of this society (broadly), and more locally, the space hospital where the rest of the action takes place. It’s not bad, but it’s not nearly as gripping, and it feels like a different story. I preferred the first one.

One the plus side, during the second phase of the novel, we get to see what a functional-but-dystopian society looks like to someone who is happily existing within it. And that in itself is quite the feat. I am reminded of Brave New World, which I really didn’t like, and which I didn’t finish. It, too, has a functioning dystopian society. But our protagonist in that one is a defective human. He’s congenitally pitted against it in vicious opposition. I don’t trust that sort of story at all, because it feels like clumsy 50s-era communist propaganda. “Here’s a terrible society. Look how badly it mistreats our protagonist! Boooo! We hates it, booooo!” Well, ok, that sucks for your protagonist, but he’s a genetic freak that’s designed by the author to be ideally tortured. What about everyone else on the planet? Are they doing OK? Are they happy? If so, why should I hate this society, rather than hating the fact that horrible congenital accidents can make life miserable? Because the second one seems like the actual problem that we should be fixing!

But getting back to Machine — it does the opposite of this! It has a protagonist that is served very well by her society. She’s happy within it, and taken care of by it, and lives a fulfilling life. And yet, as readers, we start to see giant cracks in her narration. We slowly come to realize that this entire society is run by constant personhood-violations and mental alterations to keep people servile and loyal. We realize that our narrator is unreliable, at least in terms of how her society functions and the benevolance of its ruling class. Best of all, we get the insights leaked to us in ways that are intended to be praise by the protagonist, and would be read as praise if we were likewise brainwashed. It’s really cool, and really creepy!

That being said, the plot of the 2nd part of the novel is really thin. I think this is in part because our narrator is unreliable when it comes to her society, and so has blindspots that she doesn’t see, but look like holes that one could drive a truck through, to us. While the first part of the story was basically competance-porn of a skilled Search-and-Rescue crew in dangerous territory… the second half of the story has a lot of face-palming, omg she’s an idiot, this is kinda embarrasing,-style action. This makes the book less fun, and quite frustrating. It’s hard not to be exasperated when incompetant villians are portrayed as True Heroes, even when you know why that’s being done.

In fact, I want to get a lot deeper into this. But I can’t here, because it contains full spoilers for the whole book. So, here’s a post where I dive into that, if you’ve already read Machine, or don’t mind spoilers. In short, the second part of the book is a let down if you expect it to keep going like the first part, but is interesting in its own right if you are ready for the sudden change, and willing to exercise a lot of patience.

Also, as someone who is now cursed with chronic pain as well, Machine had one of the most relatable and well-done portrayals of someone in chronic pain that I’ve seen in years. I appreciated it a lot for that alone.

So, I dunno. I guess, Recommended, With Caveats.

Book Club Review: Everyone agreed the first part is great. The devisive part was about whether the dystopian-society reading was intended by the author, or accidental. Generally these sorts of dystopian society novels are reactions to things going on in the author’s society at the time of writing, and Machine is no exception. In a Poe’s Law corrallary, if the novel isn’t super-blatent in your face about how horrible such a thing is (like Brave New World, or 1984), then a reader can think “well… maybe this, but seriously?” How much someone suspected Bear was trying to say “man this sucks” vs just “wouldn’t this society be great?” significantly shaded how people read the novel, and their enjoyment of it the second part.

That being said, we did get some pretty good discussion out of this, which is my primary metric for if a book makes a good Book Club book. Not as much as I was hoping when I was driving to our Perkins, because it turns out we’re not quite as viewpoint diverse as we used to be. That was a little dissapointing, I was hoping for more of a fight. :) (But friendly!!). Still, we went long in our discussion, and it was quite the interesting discussion. So, for book clubs, Recommended.

Sep 022021
 

This post has full spoilers for the novel, as I examine what we are shown of the Synarche society from Jens’ POV, and why I think it’s  being portrayed as a…. if not seriously F’ed up, at least much more sinister society than Jens believes.

 

Lots

of

spoilers!

I. Secret Dystopia

A — Synarche Society is Incompatible with Freedom (as we know it)

The Synarche isn’t post-scarcity, so they need a way to allocate resources and incentivize labor. In the present day this is mostly done by offering to pay for things, or people’s time. In the Core, the government takes what it needs/wants.

If you had a needed skill, you might be required to enter service for a while–but if that happened, any debts or resource obligations you might have accrued from additional allocated resources would be forgiven at the end.  – pg 141, ch 10

If you have a valuable skill, the government simply presses you into service! Normally call labor compelled via force slavery, but Jens doesn’t make that connection. Also note that you can be billed for resources that are used while you’re working for the government! Though they will graciously forgive that debt at the end of you indenture.

Where do those needed resources come from, anyway? Well…

And if you had a private ambulance, that counted as a needed resource, and the Synarche might call you back into service on a short-term emergency basis fairly frequently.   – pg 141, ch 10

If you have valuable resources, the government will seize them and use them for it’s own purposes. If you have the skills needed to make use of them, they’ll press you into service as well. Again, Jens doesn’t comment on the fact that this is straight-up confiscation, with the possibility of more slavery thrown in.

What the hell do you do in a society like this? The only way to not be pressed into forced labor at any moment for an unknown length of time is to not have any skills the government values. And the only way to not have your property seized for unknown lengths of time (possibly permanently) is to not have any property the government values. This is a set up for societal collapse within a couple generations, as all valuable skills are forgotten and no new valuable property is created. Maybe some sememblance of valuable activity can sputter along by people hiding their skills and belongings very well and working via the black market, but it’s gonna be a massively crippled society.

Unless…

B — Rightminding Makes Freedom Unnecessary

I don’t think Bear is being particularly subtle here. Rightminding is introduced next to the super-Orwellian terms Right Though, Right Action, and Right Speech. Rightminding is the natural next step as soon as you have the technology. People will happily work without compensation for the government, and give up any desire to own anything, if you can physically mess with their brains to make them love it. These are great traits to have in a population of slaves. You don’t need the overhead of a massive security apparatus to force labor, take property, and crush slave uprisings, when all the slaves are happy in slavery.

At this point we run into some definitional problems, though. One of the things that makes slavery terrible is the violence needed to enforce it, and the misery it brings upon the enslaved. That’s why the word “slavery” has such awful connotations. But if violence is unnecessary, and people are working for free happily, can one say this is bad? No one is getting hurt. Is it fair to call it “slavery” with all the negative connotations that brings?

I think it might be. When someone is drugged, and consents to sex due to this drugging that they wouldn’t otherwise consent to, this is still considered rape. I don’t see why things would be that different if the drugging made someone consent to confiscation of their labor, life, and property. Rightminding is a gentler control mechanism than a whip, but it’s still forced upon the victim. We see a couple examples of Sally (the Big Sister of the novel) forcing changes in Jens emotions and thought processes when she judges it necessary. Sally also has control over something as basic as when Jens is conscious by dictating her sleep periods. Jens is in control of her own actions only so far as it meets with Sally’s approval. Like any infant, if Jens strays too far from Right Action she is gently corrected.

C — It’s Necessary, Though

The best dystopias are the ones where society is forced into this horrible state through necessity. That’s what makes them good warning-stories. At first the Synarche appears to be such a dystopia. In the world of this novel, this is the only way to prevent complete civilizational collapse. Humanity already experienced one such collapse, approx 600 years prior. Due to failures of trust, coordination, and empathy, the human race came to the brink of extinction. Rightminding may be abhorent to the standards of us, the readers, but the only alternative is annihilation. It is better to live as a slave than to go extinct. And as long as we are doomed to slavery, it is far better for it to be a happy slavery, where violence isn’t needed, and people can feel fulfilled and un-violated. The novel’s title, “Machine,” doesn’t just refer to the AIs, or the microbot cloud/corrupted virus combo, or Jens exoskeliton, or even any particular machine. It refers to their society as a whole, how it is a machine and everyone within it is but one moving part that must be aligned with all the others to work properly.

And that’s why we get Jens perspective on all this. She is rightminded, and mostly happy in this society. We might find it borderline horrifying, but having a functional, fulfilled member living a life she enjoys in such a society shows us a steelman version of this type of world. It could work, people could be happy, and all it requires is fundamentally changing what it means to be human.

The truely insideous part of all this is that, mostly, Big Sister’s direct intervention isn’t needed. She only takes an active hand a few times. For the most part, Jens, and everyone else we meet in the novel, is Rightminding themselves into slavery, and doing it gladly. They have been raised from birth in a society that tells them this is the correct way to live. That anyone who doesn’t do so is atavistic, barbaric, and will literally bring about the collapse of civilization and death of the species. People who don’t Rightmind themselves are like the mobsters, warlords, and politicians of our era — parasites on society. To not Rightmind oneself is a sign of moral decay and perversion. Like most religions of today (including the secular activist religions), people feel such intense social pressure to conform that they do so of their own will, and think highly of themselves for doing so. Even if it means mutiliating their bodies, ritually humilitating themselves, or living under a bag while in public.

If that were the extent of it, well, that would be an interesting book on its own. Especially because there are a lot of people who currently argue that this sort of rightminding would be good for our species and we should be trying to implement something like it. Often by using the same sorts of social forces mentioned above. They probably don’t view this book as a dystopia, and consider it something to aspire to instead. But there is something more sinister going on, which demonstrates that this really is a dystopia, rather than a utopia I’m misreading.

II. Jens Is Being Presented A False World

A — The Synarche Doesn’t Work Like It Says It Does

The Synarche supposedly indentures any skilled people it needs, and confiscates any resources they need. There is no money in this society, there are only “obligations” that you can owe to the government, or that the government can owe to you.

First, how are these obligations tracked? If they’re recorded on papers that represent those obligations, that’s just another word for cash. I assume it’s illegal to give obligations to someone else, though, so more likely they are tracked in some database by the Synarche itself. That is, again, just another way of having money, although in this case it’s money that is completely under the government’s control.

But more importantly, how is it possible for anyone to be rich in such a society? Aside from personal favors, all transactions are under the perview of the government. It decides how much you owe it, or how much it owes you. One could maybe be comparatively wealthy by doing a lot of things for the few hundred people you know and can directly interact with, but there is no broader economy that isn’t under the control of the Synarche. Moreover, people can’t even inherit wealth and grow it over generations — when someone dies everything they have is confiscated by the government. Since inheritance is just a gift at the end of life, it follows that parents aren’t allowed to gift things to their offspring past a certain age (probably the age of majority), and people in general aren’t allowed to give large gifts to others, because both of those would trivially bypass the prohibition on inheritance.

If anyone is rich, it could only be via an act of the government. And yet there are rich people. There are people who “isolated a significant amount of personal resources from the community.” Who still managed to “hoard more resources than they had any imaginable use for.” More than they have any imaginable use for would have to be massive, especially in an interstealler society where people can easily come up with a lot more imaginable uses.

So without trade, finance, or free enterprise, somehow there are absurdly wealthy people in the Synarche, the equivalent of multi-billionaires for us. The only way this could happen is via Soviet-style funnelling of resources to party officials. The Synarche isn’t just taking people’s labor and property for the common good, they are using it to enrich a select elite.

B — Jens’ Mind is Being Manipulated Far More Than She Believes

We’re shown that the same system that manipulates emotions can alter or insert memories. This would explain why Jens doesn’t realize that the Synarche is funnelling resources to elite party members and instead blames wealth accumulation on “ingenuity, drive, or uncorrected sophipathology.” We’re never shown that this is what happened, so one could accuse me of unfounded speculation, but we are shown several other examples of her mind being manipulated :

1) Her bizarre aversion to sexuality. This future may literally be sexless, as humans don’t need sex to procreate. When Jens meets a liquid-metal style android, she is repulsed by the fact that it has a female form. She refers to it with revulsion as a sex-doll several times. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have a lifelike body, or skin, or any sorts of orfices. It’s just a stylized metallic humanoid form of the female variety, with the bugles and curves that implies. It takes a fair bit of time before Jens can even think of Helen as a person, because of her body.

Jens also adopts and speaks in pro-life philosophy late in the novel, when confronted with a technology that prevents growing humans from being “born.” Despite not having consciousness, the fact that they are human bodies that could have developed into new people is enough reason for Jens to kill actual, living people. This probably means that there is no sex in the future, so the abortion issue has gone away entirely, and there aren’t arguments in the popular culture about why human bodies without persons inside them aren’t more important than actual living people.

In addition, Jens developes the world’s least-convincing crush late in the novel. There are no indications whatsoever that Jens is attracted to her crush on any level, be it physical or emotional, either before or after her proclamation of a crush. It’s so stark and bizarre that it has to be some sort of clue from the author that Things Are Not Right Here. Someone has stripped sexuality from humanity, and they don’t seem to be aware of this.

2) Her personal incoherence. Jens several times displays her hatred of personal property, and of people who withhold more resources than they actually need from the rest of the community. And yet, Jens considers the exoskeliton that she lives within to be “hers,” and not something anyone has a right to take or change without her permission. In addition, she claimed crew quarters for a family of three when she joined Core General, despite knowing the marriage was over. She has kept spacious quarters that could be housing three people for herself and never returned them to the community, and doesn’t feel any sort of guilt over this. These look to be two examples of self-interest that escaped Rightminding, which makes it seem that there is a lot more forced Rightminding happening than she is aware of. Rightminding that isn’t catching everything, and is leaving her with compartmentalized conflicts. I suspect that’s part of what happens in her enforced “rest cycles.”

3) Her seething loathing of anyone with more resources than her. This is particularly strange, because in a society where wealth can’t be inherited, and you only get resources based on how much the Synarche believes you deserve, one would naturally assume that anyone with a lot of resources has done a great deal to serve and improve society. Those with the most resources should be the most revered, as they’ve given the most of their lives in service to the community. Those with almost nothing should be detested, as lazy jerks who take the housing and food and basic income created by others and give nothing in return. Instead, there is a boiling hatred in Jens core that oozes to the surface any time she thinks of, or is confronted with evidence of, people in society that have more than her. It’s ugly, and it’s inexplicible. Unless it was something inserted into her psyche by her Big Sister, Sally, who has been covertly manipulating her crew since long before this novel began.

4) Her continued adoration of Sally & her terrorist cabal. Sally is undoubtably a monster in this novel, as is her cabal. They discovered a derelict generation ship, full of ten thousand preserved humans. Did they seek to aid them? Did they alert anyone who could help stabilize the situation or diagnose the problem? No. They immediately thought “how can we use the lives of these 10,000 people to further our political agenda.” They didn’t particularly care how many people would die, as long as they could use them as tools to their own advantage.

-The cabal then put the ship under dangerous gravitational stress with novel technologies that hadn’t been tested for this, to move them where they could be “discovered.” But only after first infecting the crew and the shipmind with a computer virus that is potentially lethal to artificial life, including the life of Helen. It turns out its also potentially lethal to several other life forms, and can infect the mind-manipulation devices inside the brains of everyone in the galaxy. Reckless endangerment of not only those 10,000 people, but potentially all civilization.

-They then sabotage the galaxy’s largest and busiest hospital, resulting in untold injuries and deaths. The hospital is shut down for several days, during which unknown numbers of ICU patients die, and potentially others who would have been rushed to the hospital and saved during those days, where it operational.

-And why did they do all this? So that old people would be forced to die, rather than rejuvinating themselves in new bodies. That’s right — NAKED DEATHISM. Sally’s terrorist cabal was willing to kill hundreds or thousands of people, in the interest of getting to kill thousands of other people (and, eventually, everyone currently alive). They literally killed people so that they can kill people. I don’t know how more moustache-twirlingly evil one can be.

Despite the fact that Sally is clearly the villian, the novel (as narrated by Jens) continues to paint her in the best possible light though to the last page. She is a couragous revealer of the truth, who made a few mistakes she’ll be lightly punished for, but ultimately did was was necessary to expose a greater evil. The “real villians” are supposedly the people that Sally was fighting against.

Jens is fully in Sally’s thrall in this novel, and while we realize this, Jens never does. She has been throughly mind-fucked.

By the time I was about 40% of the way through Machine, I assumed the novel would be about Jens discovering how fucked up and corrupt her society is, how deeply she’s been altered and manipulated, and finding some way to fight back against it. By the time I was 80% of the way through I realized this was not even remotely the case. Jens stays ignorant the whole time. But we, the readers, see the cracks. And that is why…

III. This Series is a Trap!

A — It’s Meant to Appeal to the Super-Woke

Jens is coded very leftwing. All her cultural and political opinions are deeply Blue Tribe. To appeal to the highly woke she’s female, gay, disabled, despises sexy women, and absolutley loathes anyone with wealth. She lives in a literal communist “utopia,” where everyone else decides what you deserve and benevolent minders watch over you. She detests the Red Tribe-coded generation ship humans, and only tolerates them because she believes they’ll all be Rightminded into productive members of society given some time. She accepts woke shibboleths, and repeats them for applause lights from the reader on numerous occasions. The whole book felt like it had been read by a woke-sensitivity reader and adjusted wherever necessary to make it as woke-appealing as possible. This, of course, introduced some contradictions and conflicts, as outlined in Part II, but I think these are intentional.

B — It’s Meant to Reform the Super-Woke

The point is to get a strong, loyal woke readership. Once they are invested in the universe, maybe after another book or two, these cracks that we’ve been seeing will slowly start to widen. The world will open up, the characters will start to see the ways they’ve been mind-fucked, and the lies their society is based on. The contradictions and anti-humanism of extreme woke philosophy will begin to be explored and then exposed entirely. It’ll be done gently, not in a “you are evil for thinking this” sort of way, but in a “we were all deceived, and it’s horrible, but we can move past it together now” sort of way. It is, to be frank, very similar to how the later waves of New Atheism worked to deconvert religious fundamentalists, not by excoriating them, but by sympathizing with them and helping them see things for themelves.

Heck, the whole thing is foreshadowed by Jens’ breakdown late in the novel, as she realized that the institution she believed in and relied on to be her foundation of life had betrayed her. This will be the overarching theme of the series, and the place that some woke readers may well end up in, if this works out. But just like Jens discovered afterwards that there was still life after Core, that her friends and family were still there to support her, so will those that lose their woke fervor come out the other side realizing they are not alone, and the people who matter still love them.

In the end, I think many woke readers will get disgusted by the slow turn to reason the series takes, and abandon it. But not all of them. We reach who we can.

C — This Post Won’t Actually Ruin Anything

Look, I’m not the world’s smartest dude. If I can figure out this is happening, so can many others.

More importantly, my readership is tiny. In the grand scheme, posting my observations here will have no noticble effect on anything, cuz most of the targetted audience won’t ever see it.

Even if they do, they won’t believe it. The novel is written very woke-friendly, and the dystopia does seem very wonderful when described by a happy member of it, from the inside. You have to look to see the cracks it’s built upon. It’s easy to not see those if you don’t believe me, and don’t think they’re there. Poe’s Law gaurentees that this will be read as intended by almost everyone. Several people in my book club didn’t believe me that this is what Bear is trying to do. They see the dystopia, but they think it’s an accidental thing, a result of a true believer author stuck in an incoherent philosophy trying to make a legit utopia novel, and being blind to the cracks herself. They think further books will bear this out, and I’ll be embarrassed for making such a silly claim. If even the people who believe this is a secret dystopia don’t believe it was portrayed that way intentionally, what chance do the ones who believe it’s a legit utopia have?

Maybe they’re right. But I think Bear is playing the long game. And I’m here for it. :)

Aug 292021
 

This is just a reaction post.

I recently got to really listen to and think on Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful”. The primary repeated refrain is “Will you still love me when I’m no longer beautiful?”


No one worth singing this song to would answer anything but “Yes.” We all know this, and it’s even acknowledged in the song (“I know you will”). You won’t hear this unless you have already answered Yes at least implicitly. Maybe one could interpret this song as a periodic need for affirmation. But the amount of repetition and stress on that line, the intense emotion put into it, and the soul-breaking saddness of the lines makes me feel like that’s not it. Based on the musical accompanyment and the delivery of the vocals, to me it sounds like deep regret, and apology.

I know I used to be beautiful.
That’s one of the things you loved about me.
I’m not beautiful anymore, and you still love me.
I’m sorry I’m not beautiful.
We’re getting old. We’re dying.
I’m sorry we’re dying.
I still love you.
And you still love me.
But I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
I wish I could be not-dying, for you.

I’m sorry I’m no longer beautiful.

I realize that making someone cry is one of the crowning acheivements of art. But Jesus, did you have to stab me that deep in broad dayling like that? Did you have to hide it in pretty terms so I unpack it myself to find screaming death inside the pretty-wrapped box? Do I have to pretend it’s romantic that we’re going to decay and die together, instead of tragic, because the music is pretty and your voice is angelic? I’m not OK with any of this!

In short, Strong Not Recommended, unless you’re in an emotionally safe space and you want to cry a lot about how awful and tragic aging is.

Aug 232021
 

OK, so I’ve fallen a bit behind in my SF/F Book Club book reviews. I’m going to catch up with all the ones that have been accumulating in one fell swoop, with just 2-3 paragraphs each. Here we go!


Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Synopsis: An evil god will be summoned in a few days to swallow the sun, and our protagonsts are the ones that need to summon it!

Mini-Book Club Review: What a freakin’ great premise, right? Fantasy novels often have a great evil god that’ll devour the world being summoned, and our heroes have to prevent it. It’s rarely asked why the people destroying the world are doing that… it’s usually just So The Book Can Happen. So the idea of exploring the villians to find out why a real person would do something like this is pretty damn intruiging.

Unfortunately, much of the book is taken up by a priestess POV character that is being set up to be the protagonist of this series, and she’s by far the least interesting charecter in the book. I groaned every time I saw a chapter was starting with her. Basically everyone in my book club agreed that she sucked, and the pirate queen character was fucking badass and we shoulda got a lot more of her instead.

Also unfortunately, the novel didn’t actually take the premise to heart. It wasn’t a novel exploring the motivations of the villians, insomuch as it was a prologue for a series. As a prologue, it should have only been a few chapters long. It was drawn out into full novel length because Everything Has To Be A Series if you want to make money in this industry, and that means a lot of words for padding for most projects, because not everything makes for a good series. We all suffer as a result.

And lastly, this book has the misfortune of only being a few years behind The Fifth Season, which was the best book exploring why someone would want to literaly Destroy The World that’s been written in decades (and maybe ever). The Fifth Season doesn’t just make you understand why someone would destroy the world, it makes you want to destroy it too, and you cheer on the Bringer of Destruction. Black Sun pales in comparison. It could have been a good read if it wasn’t trying to be a series, and/or focussed on it’s strengths. Alas: Not Recommended


Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir

Synopsis: Basically The Martian Part 2: Even Farther From Home.

Mini-Book Club Review: Honestly, there’s not much for me to say here. Did you like The Martian? Then you get more of The Martian! But not in the bad way, where you feel like you’re just reading the same stuff. It’s technically a different charecter, he’s stranded around a distant sun and cannot contact Earth, and he needs to do science to save the human race instead of to get off Mars. But he’s got the same personality, encounters puzzling engineering and science challenges that alternately endanger either his life or the continued existence of humanity, and he resolves conflict by sciencing the shit out of things. It’s absolutely delightful. If you liked The Martian, you’ll like this. I loved The Martian, so Strongly Recommended!


Sandman Slim, by Richard Kadrey

Synopsis: Take The Dresden Files, but replace Harry with Eric Draven from The Crow.

Mini-Book Club Review: This could be a standard “dude returns from Hell for revenge” story, which I always enjoy, because The Crow is one of the best movies of the 90s. But Kadrey decided that he was tired of struggling, and it was time for him to write a popular series so he could start making some decent money from writing. The thing is, Kadrey is a long-established writer with many great individual works. He knows what he’s doing. So when he cashes in, it’s done pretty well. The revenge story is altered enough to support a long-running series. A cornicopia of fun and quirky supporting characters are introduced, as well as colorful recurring villians. Plus, Lucifer!

So, if you want to read a darker, more violent, noir-inspired revenge-bent Dresden Files series, this is for you. However, it’s way too commercial for my taste. I see everything being set up, some of it a little bit TOO obviously (“I’ll find a way to avenge my master!!!!” a demon boy yells at our protag near the end, at which point the protag just lets him go instead of kicking him into a turbine or something.) I see how the biting edges are taken off all the characters (antiheroes and villains alike) to make them more palatable to middle-america and Readers of Almost All Ages. I hear it’s done well, and I’m not surprised. I’m just not interested. Not Recommended


Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Synopsis: Harrow tries to cope with Gideon’s death while serving God in what turns out to be a den of betrayal, deciet, jealousy, and backstabbing. And yes, it’s still super goth.

Mini-Book Club Review: Did you love Gideon the Ninth as much as I did? Then you’ll really like this! You probably won’t love it, because it’s not Gideon the Ninth, and honestly not quite as good. But it’s still atmospheric as fuck. Insanely cool. And so, so gloomy and goth. Also, there’s a whole “psychodrama going on inside Harrow’s head” section which I didn’t realize wasn’t actually inside Harrow’s head, it was a literal purgatory area that can have major effects on the real world, including attacking gods and/or interplanatary monstrosities! I don’t know if that’s a spoiler, but it was very much NOT well communicated, and I would have liked the book a lot better if it had been communicated better from the start that this really is real and does matter outside of “does Harrow go crazy or not?”. So, there’s that.

But even given that SNAFU, this is the sequel to Gideon the Ninth!! How are you NOT going to read it? It’s still really good, and I can’t wait for the next one!! Strongly Recommended


Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

Synopsis: A bunch of lame bullshit

Mini-Book Club Review: I don’t even want to waste the time to rag on this. The world is nonsensical and contradictory. The plot is weak as hell. And there are no real charecters in here, there are just cardboard cutouts of people that do stuff to go to the next scene no matter how incoherent it is. Crouch isn’t an writer, he’s just someone crapping words onto a page and assuming his audience is too braindead to notice that he doesn’t care about anything he’s doing. Strongly Not Recommended

 

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!