Captain 3D

Okay, guys. Admit it. This is really what being a superhero is all about…

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Final Offer

The story goes that the Dutch bought Manhattan Island from the occupying tribe for… what? $16 worth of beads and trinkets? Considering what the folks in that neck of the woods were using as currency back then, it was probably more generous than it sounds today, but the image is compelling enough that it’s become a recurring plot device in science fiction.

Among those stories using that plot device, my favorite is a short story originally published back in 1963 in Playboy. I first encountered the story in Judith Merril’s The Year’s Best S-F, the 9th annual edition. (I never read Playboy. I just looked at the pictures.) The story was “Bernie the Faust” by William Tenn (a pen name for the late Philip Klass). Told in first person, it bows in the direction of Damon Runyon, but Klass has his own voice. Check it out; it’s a good read even 55 years later.

My second favorite has become this short video by Mark Slutsky: “A down-on-his-luck lawyer awakes in a doorless room to find he’s been selected to negotiate on behalf of the human race.”

Oh yes, the old science fiction conundrum of how to portray aliens as something other than “humans in drag?” In this case, it’s turned on its head. Cute!

six months, three days, five others

a review by Bob Roman

six months, three days, five others by Charlie Jane Anders. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2017, 188 pages, $12.99.

This is a small anthology of science fiction / fantasy stories by a journalist and editor who already has a best-selling track record with fiction – though, of course, I’m so unhip that this is my first exposure to her fiction and I don’t remember her nonfiction. Anders has written for (or edited) a great many of the journals that I read on occasion, but generally I don’t retain names. My bad.

“Six Months, Three Days” is, as you might guess, the star of the collection, having won a Hugo award for best novelette in 2012, but the other five stories are almost as good. Anders is a good writer and an even better story-teller, so I was absolutely thrilled to read this book – to the point where I’m almost sorry to not own a copy as I can well imagine re-reading it.

“Six Months, Three Days” is about two lovers who both can see the future. There’s nothing particularly original in that, except that the woman “sees” the future as a range of possibilities dependent upon her choices, mostly, while the man “sees” only one fixed future. As you might surmise from the title, they both know how long the affair will last. They also know the arguments they are going to have, as well as the good times. Would you fall in love under those circumstances, also knowing that the love will end disastrously? And why? Anders does wonderful things with the premise.

It should be no surprise that NBC is working on its own version of the story. I hope Anders was paid very well for the rights even though I’m pretty certain video will turn it into garbage. For example, the protagonists do not actually “see” the future so much as they remember the future. Considering how chancy human memory is, this allows for delicious conflicted ambiguities in the narrative, but how do you make that visual? Worse yet, apparently NBC intends to turn the couple into bickering private-eyes…

“The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model” is seriously cute. The aforementioned “Fermi Paradox” is, FYI, the old question that, in a universe as old and as huge as it is, shouldn’t there be other technological species around? Where are they? There are various answering speculations posed by science fiction, including the possibility posed in this case: that technological civilizations tend to go extinct pretty quickly. But think of the salvage opportunities! Until you meet one that didn’t quite manage to do themselves in.

“As Good As New” seems to be your typical post-apocalypse story, until our surviving protagonist, formerly an aspiring playwright, finds a bottle with a genie… who was once a theatre critic. Careful what you wish for!

“Intestate” takes a trope out of mainstream fiction: a final family gathering around the family patriarch who is shortly to die. It includes some of the conflicts usual to such a set-up (who is going to get what, for example), except that not everyone at the gathering of the clan is exactly human…

“The Cartography of Sudden Death” is a time travel story, beginning in an extremely hierarchical society. Can a visiting time traveller liberate someone who has deeply internalized such values?

“Clover” is the runt of this very fine litter of stories, IMHO, but it’s about cats. And love. And redemption… or the lack thereof… some cats are good at grudges. It’s also an out-take from Anders’ novel, All the Birds in the Sky. NBC would have been better off buying the rights to this one.

While there were no passages of writing that frizzed my hair, gosh I’m happy to have read this!

Autonomous

a review by Bob Roman

Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2017. 301 pages $25.99

For months now, book reading has become an alienating experience. You might say that it’s my own fault. Go ahead. Blame the victim. After all, it’s mostly genre fiction that I’ve been reading. So we’re talking about a steady diet of variously, occasionally cleverly, modified remixes of clichés, tropes, plot devices, MacGuffins and characters – why, it may as well be a months-long diet of pizza. Even an occasional new topping would hardly be an inspiration for appetite. Once I looked forward to visiting the library. Now, walking into the Chicago Public Library threatens to become a visit to a temple of monotony.

(Don’t get me started on all the other things deficient at Chicago’s public libraries.)

And of course such a jaundiced attitude is going to color any reading experience. So when I picked up Annalee Newitz’ new first novel, my expectations were seriously low. Neal Stephenson’s cover blurb, “Autonomous is to biotech and AI what Neuromancer was to the internet,” did not help. I tend to avoid Stephenson’s work and don’t get me started on William Gibson and “cyberpunk.” I’m none to enthused about most treatments of Artificial Intelligence, either. Nonetheless, I borrowed the book.

It took a while, but I came to like this book very much.

The story overall could be characterized as an optimistic dystopia. It’s mid-22nd Century. Humanity has been through a catastrophe including climate change but civilization and scientific progress continues. The trade-off being that, in most parts of the world, property rights have become primary above all else. This includes a resurrection of slavery in the guise of “indentured servitude.” Since it’s done with “consent” and “contract” and is not hereditary, the slaves have some rights and judicial recourse – about as much as one might cynically expect. In this way, the institution of slavery more closely resembles that of the Roman Empire than that of the U.S. South, but it’s still pretty ugly. Likewise, intellectual property comes close behind in enforcement if not ahead. Sci-fi habitually deals with big issues, and for this novel, one of them is: “Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?”

Enter “Jack”, aka Judith Chen, an intellectual property pirate who reverse engineers proprietary new drugs so that the latest medicines can be available to all. Usually she does due diligence on her work, but she was in a hurry. It may have seemed harmless at the time, but cloning Zaxy’s new work aid (“productivity enhancer”) “Zacuity” without having done so turns out to have been a Really Bad Idea. The drug, used without supervision, turns out to be massively and disastrously addictive.

Enter International Property Coalition agent Eliasz and his nearly fresh-off-the-assembly-line robot partner Paladin, who are tasked with hunting down Jack as the most likely suspect responsible for turning loose a deadly new street drug.

And of course, from there it is a violent chase with excursions into side issues of gender and sexuality.

What do I like about this novel? Mostly its dystopic optimism, I think. There is a resistance to this property über alles civilization. The resistance does have an academic, hapless hipster vibe to it, thus its ineffective, nibbling at the edges quality is consequently very plausible. The link between resistance and criminality is also quite plausible. Newitz’ villains (the cops) are also given a degree of humanity that some authors might neglect. And finally, Newitz is a good, experienced writer – not brilliant as there were no passages that frizzed my hair, but the narration goes down smoothly.

What do I have to complain about? Well, first of all Eliasz and Paladin are extraordinarily ruthless and violent in pursuit of their duties. It’s not clear from the story just where they have the authority to be so, leaving it open for some to assume it’s just a lefty police stereotype or perhaps it is an artefact of the various “punk” genres where authority, be it corporate or state, can do as it pleases. That the beneficiary of said violence is a Big Corporation just rubs it in. The robots of the story are fairly conventional sci-fi props and therefore not especially credible to me though they do contribute to the discussion of “freedom”. And I do have one big quarrel with the plotting. At one point, Eliasz visits Las Vegas alone in pursuit of a lead, Las Vegas being where he got his start in law enforcement and where he (might) still have contacts among the “usual suspects” who might have that information. Among other things, this excursion allows Newitz to provide some background as to Eliasz’ motivations (humanity!), but Newitz stops Eliasz after precisely one interview. In detective fiction (and probably in reality), there would be several interviews, each allowing for a character sketch of the interviewee and for an education about the demimonde of that society, not to mention what touching base with some of Eliasz’ old police colleagues might have revealed: a missed opportunity though it may have had consequences for pacing.

And what about an answer to Newitz’ Big Question about freedom and property? There’s no straight answer. “Freedom” is a particularly slippery concept in any case, but regardless of what Newitz may have had in mind, each reader is going to bring their own baggage to the conversation. I speculate that Newitz might be okay with a highly qualified “yes” as an answer. At the end of the book, the resistance remains, after all. And Eliasz and Paladin end up emigrating to Mars. My own answer would depend on how one defines, in an operational sense, “freedom.” I’m not sure how much Autonomous contributes to what is a long ongoing conversation, but since I’m still thinking about it, that’s a good sign.

I may be more pleased with this book than I should be, but I’m not the only one. The Chicago Public Library has 15 hardcopies plus 6 electronic “copies” and while, as of July 12, 2018, there are 3 available hardcopies scattered about the city, there are 8 people waiting in line to read the book. You have my recommendation and theirs.

Post Script: for a good discussion about the politics of “cyberpunk” that speaks to many of my misgivings, see Cameron Kunzelman’s Where Are the Radical Politics of Cyberpunk?

Arlo Alone

I’m generally weary of dystopian fiction but… This follows a young woman, new to town, in a future wherein climate warming, commodification, urbanization and the web have taken “bowling alone” to an extreme. It’s possible I could survive there, but I don’t see how Arlo can, alone. And maybe she doesn’t.