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Sunday, January 31, 2016

"God Whisperer" by Daniel J. Davis

Appeared in David Farland's Writers of the Future.

Here's clever little pithy tale.

Jack has a miniature god living with him--not unlike a pet. It is awkward for him as the god, Zu'ar, leaves a trail of carnage: a pyramid bird skulls and such as trophies. Also, like a pet, he destroys the furniture. Jack has to do something... So he gets a god whisperer.

Writers of the Future works lean more toward entertainments. This one gets the mental gears turning. Basically, your god is something that needs to be tamed, under your control. While I'm not sure I buy the theme, Davis renders it with charm and some humor. I don't have to buy the politics to admire the story's aesthetics. If Davis can follow up this story, he should have an admirable career.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Deep Space Nine, abridged

I missed this series when it aired originally. When I caught tidbits, Quark, a Ferengi, was purposefully designed to annoy: large ears, pointy teeth, whiny voice, cowardice, attitude. Worse was the way other characters treated him. While I didn't care for his character, the behavior of others toward Quark was off-putting.

The last three months, I sat down to give the series a fair shake. The show survived an impressive seven seasons, not that it was overwhelmingly popular. According to Wikipedia:
Author Terry J. Erdmann commented: "DS9 was never as popular as its two predecessors, although it arguably was a more critically acclaimed series".
In fact, it struggled to get a third season. Fans successfully managed a letter-writing campaign to keep the show on. That seemed to be the kick in the pants it needed.

From the beginning, the plots tended to be engaging and strong. The attitude toward religion was largely positive, without needing to beat up characters for whatever belief system.

The actors didn't immediately take to their roles until the last episode of season two when it initiated a more cohesive plot thread uniting the show (possibly due to the threat of cancellation?).  From there, the actors occupied their roles in ways that made them feel like actual aliens, not going through the motions. Except for Miles O'Brien and Worf (characters from other shows who had already accustomed themselves to their characters), the actors must have gained a slow, intimate understanding of themselves in relation to the other characters.

In some ways, it may be best to start with the finale of season 2, "The Jem'Hadar", yet one does need context. The most character-driven episode also happens to be the season 1 pilot, "The Emissary", setting up the series. Commander Sisko has been put in charge of a space station out in the middle of nowhere. He wants out of the military, period, still suffering from the loss of his wife. But then a wormhole opens that changes everything.

One of the best episodes of the series, "Duet," guest-starring Harris Yulin should not be missed from season 1. Yulin plays a Cardassian who contracts that he could have only gotten from being part of--if not running--a Bajoran concentration camp. That's the mystery: Who is this humanoid really, and what role did he play? Yulin's acting is impressive, swinging wildly by turns, but always on point.

Minor episodes from season one might include "Dax" which deepens one's understanding and philosophical complexity of such a being. Popular season 2 episodes--"Necessary Evil " and "Whispers"--have good plots but don't really add to the series arc.

The most moving series episode is when Gul Dukat tries to persuade his daughter to leave Deep Space Nine space station in season 6's "The Sacrifice of Angels, part 2". 

Two-part episodes, season openings and finales, on the other hand, tend to develop the series plot, so they are essential if you want to give the series a shot. And it is worth it. Fair warning: you might give up if you try a complete series marathon in the proper order.

My main problem with DS9 is that the Ferengi were not well portrayed, which is the opposite of the Star Trek, usually--especially for a regular. The Ferengi are supposed to be great businessmen of the galaxy, but too few humanoids like them. Who can blame them? Conniving, shrieking, repelling.... They are not intended to be liked. Their evolution makes little sense. Supposedly, they believe in survival of the fittest, but always run. That's fine, but how did they become the intellectual, space-faring powers of their planet by running away? And how did they become salesmen when they are universally disliked? The deck was too stacked against them. The end of the series transforms Ferengis into American liberals without any transition.

The Ferengis need 1) an evolutionary past, 2) an ethos (it's present in the Rules of Acquisition, but this should spring from their evolution), 3) changes/interactions with others based on their ethos, and 4) acceptance in the same way Klingons are accepted in the series--however uneasily. We have seen nothing to lead a wholesale change in the Ferengi way of thinking. DS9 characters change in attitude to more acceptance of the Ferengi, but if they're going to be salesmen, they need to be better charmers and/or talkers.

That aside, I heartily recommend the series.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Chemistry textbooks

A recent headline reads, "Periodic table gets four new elements, making science textbooks around the world out of date."

If the teacher needs new textbooks, by all means, he should get new textbooks. Some school systems, though, are strapped. The primary teacher who would need new textbooks would be the chemistry teacher (maybe physical science) who likes to have students memorize the periodic chart.

Otherwise, we're looking for patterns. The new elements--rather, uncommon--will be unlikely to be used.

On the one hand, science is always "out of date." On the other, the basic processes will remain the same. Better is the [old or new] textbook that explains itself well than one with all the latest information. The teacher can fill in any necessary gaps.

On the other other hand, a retired teacher pointed out to me that we assumed that a school was better simply because it had the latest stuff. While getting the latest is irrelevant to a quality education, perceptions can have positive effects: e.g. the white coat effect, the placebo effect.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Ex Machina, a film review and discussion from three perspectives

A young programmer, Caleb Smith, wins a chance to not only visit a billionaire technology genius, Nathan Bateman, but also determine if Bateman has invented a machine, Ava, that passes the Turing test: Is it sentient? Ava enlists the Smith's aid in attempting to free it from its confines.

The film may not expand your thoughts on AI, but it may challenge your ethics. It's a simple film though that belies some of its complexity. Worth a watch to decide what you think. Avoid reading on if you don't like your movies spoiled.

Smith undermines Bateman's security system so Ava can get out. The electricity goes down, and Ava escapes. She has a conversation with another AI which may be to premediate murder. The Kyoko AI carries a knife. Ava attacks first. When Bateman gets the upper hand, breaking its arm., Kyoko stabs Bateman in the back. After he strikes off Kyoko's jaw, Ava stabs Bateman in the heart.

Ava tells Smith to wait for her. Since she has told him that she wanted to be with him, he waits. However, after she dresses in other machine's parts to make her look more human, she leaves Smith locked up and makes her escape without him or Kyoko or Bateman. 

Apparently, some critics love the movie as they deem it about feminism. This interpretation is problematic in at least three regards: 1) Ava is a machine. Most women would not choose to be considered machines. 2) Ava is a killer without conscience. Ava has doomed three beings to their deaths or imprisonment, without regard as to whether each deserves this fate: Smith, Bateman, and Kyoko. 3) Ava is created, rather than a creator.

A second interpretation is that Ava is successfully sentient and deserves freedom. We leave Ava on the street watching people as it has most desired. While it may be sentient, it has little or no regard for sentience other than its own. Plenty of sentient humans have chosen a similar path: "Destroy lives/careers of anyone in my path."

One might debate whether Bateman deserved death. Perhaps he was unaware of his machines' sentience. Yet he does have an ethos. He did not kill Smith or Ava or Kyoko. Rather, he disabled them. This may seem minor since he had destroyed earlier models. But what if they were problematic, such as AI models who lacked an ethical framework, unable to view other sentience as having as much right to exist as itself? In fact, Bateman's locking up and destroying his models seems to have some ethical backing, especially in light of Ava's behavior. Whether he ought to have destroyed their consciousnesses completely is one question, but maybe he did the world a favor. These AI were not ready for general circulation among humans.

This leads us to the third interpretation:  This is a horror story. What seems a kind and gentle AI is freed by a do-gooder. The only problem is that the machine lacks a conscience--something left out of Smith's equation. In fact, it smiles when Bateman has his back to Kyoko, perhaps anticipating a knife in the back with some relish. The story does not build up atmosphere like a horror story, but the implied doom of the world is there like any classic Lovecraftian fiction.

The movie title perhaps suggests the second interpretation: "Ex machina" (formerly a machine). It might refer to the Latin Deus ex machina as gods comes from machines although this possibility seems a little more remote as there is little discussion of gods. The British subtitle--"There is nothing more human than the will to survive"--points to the second interpretation, giving away the game entirely, if the director, Alex Garland, had a hand in writing or okaying this subtitle.

On the other hand, a great deal of time is spent on Ava's stripping old models of their human features to wear as its own. It seems unconcerned about stripping other models of their humanity (the third interpretation). Or possibly it is its moment to become human (second interpretation). But that begs the question of what it was before.

On the other other hand, the film's last moment seems to be a glorying in freedom, suggesting nothing in visuals or soundtrack that anything is awry, but maybe that is an intentional contrast. We do witness the world upside down, looking at shadows rather than human bodies. There is still a glass between the viewers and Ava... although no glass between itself and humans walking by. Perhaps we, too, are helpless to change events, trapped on the other side of the glass.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison

First published in Michael Moorcock's New Worlds. Nominated for the Hugo, it won the Nebula and was reprinted by Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, James Blish, Charles W. Sullivan, Michael Moorcock, Jim Wynorski, Arthur C. Clarke, Walter M. Miller, Martin H. Greenberg, Jack M. Dann, Gardner R. Dozois. The film starring Don Johnson won a Hugo, the Golden Scroll and was nominated for a Nebula.

In a post-apocalyptic world where two more world wars have been fought, Vic and his dog, Blood, attend a pornographic movie. The dogs here are telepathic, and the women rare--at least, above ground. Blood smells a woman in the theater, so the pair pursue her to a YMCA where he plans to rape her as he has other young women. But the woman, Quilla June Holmes, refuses to be anonymous--courageously demanding humanity against the face of inhumanity.

Her gambit works. Vic doesn't want to rape her but soon has company that does want to do just that. The gymnasium is surrounded by a roverpak, which try to take them. They are outnumbered without escape.
 Vic, Blood, and Quilla burn down the gym while they shelter in the basement furnace to convince the roverpak they're dead. Quilla and Vic get know one another in a Biblical sense that makes Blood jealous, afraid he'll lose Vic. Quilla questions whether Vic knows what love is and escapes, leaving her card so that Vic will find it and pursue her. Blood, injured, does not like Vic's plan to visit her in her underground shelter, but promises to wait a time for Vic.

Vic's visit is unpleasant. The enclave has stopped reproducing for lack of fertile men. They had used Quilla to lure him in to be domesticated and become a stud. However, Vic doesn't take to the domestication and brings Quilla back with him to the surface where Vic is dying for lack of food.

Vic realizes whom he loves and feeds Blood the only food at hand--presumably Quilla though it is never explicitly mentioned, grilled over a smokeless fire.

This story probably could not have been published without, in part, Ellison's own Dangerous Visions anthology, not to mention Moorcock's chance-taking at New Worlds. Yet as times and mores change, the story might be more of a dangerous vision now than when it was published.

Like  "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," women are scarce but requisite for men to have. Vic's attitude is also problematic. Rape is the key. You get in and out quickly. Women are not expected to enjoy the experience. But Quilla alters his perspective. Vic slowly falls in love but not enough--we learn at the end--to overcome Vic's love for his dog.

Still, Vic's continued violence and repugnance toward domestication should have telegraphed the ending. The scenario is not unlike Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" where in an impossible scenario, a young woman has to be sacrificed for the greater good. In this case, to save the life of one who has already proved himself and would help Vic survive in the current world.

On the one hand, the reader admires Vic's sacrifice: offering up his newly minted physical love for the survival of his long-time friend. On the other, one imagines the scenarios where Quilla could have lived. Perhaps they could have sneaked off while others slept, fed the dog back to health, and then made their merry way.

But Vic is established as a not-too-bright kid, for whom violence seems to be the first solution. His solution is certainly not typical Hollywood fodder, which is surprising since it was made into a movie.

The story may be a reaction to conservative societal forces of domesticity, where the desolation and dog-eat-dog scrabble for life (where YMCA, or Young Men's Christian Association is destroyed) is preferred over the steady agrarian life of polite society (where Holmes is home).  Or it may just be the tale of a wild, young man--a tarzan--who could not be tamed for a world we presently assume as the proper norm.

A third possibility is that it reacts against feminist utopias where men are absent from society because they represent violence and women are peaceful if not technologically progressive. However, this interpretation is problematic, providing evidence for said utopia.

A fourth possibility is the antithesis of the third. It recognizes the problematic aspects in the title by calling Vic a boy.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

"The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" by Harlan Ellison

First appeared in Harlan Ellison's collection The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. It won the Hugo award and was reprinted in few retrospectives by Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg.

In a place where time does not exist as we know it, a seven-headed dragon is drained from a man so that he becomes sane. Semph, one of two observers draining the insane creature-man, "interposed himself," presumably stopping or impeding the job. He is sentenced to die.
This has one of Ellison's titles that intrigues, conjures the story and its theme if obliquely. When I first read Ellison, I imagined the title both conjured the story and its artist: spreading ugly truths (through violence or whatever unpleasant reality) with verve and joy. I'd not venture to say that now though, especially with an opening where a man does something terrible to people and then turns around to say how he loves them.

What the story seems to suggest is that our insanity--albeit, a destructive force--is a part of us, a part of who we are. To lose it is to lose ourselves, our identity. This insanity is ineffable. When confronted by it, no one knows what to do with it (see ending where Semph's memorial, which is amazing and may or may not have started WWIV, is quickly forgotten, let alone not understood). In the "center... there is no madness."

There is a slight allusion to Pandora:
"Friedrich Drucker found the many-colored box. Maddened... the man tore at the lid of the box.... But Friedrich Drucker had little time to ponder the meaning of the purple smoke, for the next day, World War IV broke out."
So like Pandora, while Friedrich Drucker might have unleashed evil forces on the world, something good like hope might have also been unleashed (love? but if so, it's a bizarre kind of love).

Semph says that this insanity could be drained, "[b]ut what we'd have left wouldn't be worth having." Our insanity makes us human or who we are?

The tale could be a little more lucid. The writing is at times Ellison Wonderous--"Cyclones and dark, winged, faceless shapes that streaked away into the night, followed by a last wisp of purple smoke smelling strongly of decayed gardenias."--and at times forgettable:
"Linah spread his hands in futility. 'Survival.'
"Semph shook his head slowly with a weariness that was mirrored in his expression."
 An interesting work, nonetheless, if not one of Ellison's best.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman

First appeared in Frederik Pohl's Galaxy. It won the Hugo, Nebula and Prometheus awards. Reprinted in several major retrospectives by Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Terry Carr, Frederik Pohl, Dick Allen,  Willis E. McNelly, Leon E. Stover, Thomas E. Sanders, Isaac Asimov, Daniel Roselle, Bernard C. Hollister, Charles W. Sullivan, Leo P. Kelley, Martin H. Greenberg, Patricia S. Warrick, Bonnie L. Heintz, Frank Herbert, Donald A. Joos, Jane Agorn McGee, Rich Jones, Richard L. Roe, Leslie A. Fiedler, Arthur C. Clarke, Jerry E. Pournelle, John F. Carr, Ben Bova, Martin H. Greenberg, Applewhite Minyard, David Hartwell, Orson Scott Card, David G. Hartwell, Jack Dann, Gardner Dozois, Rob Latham, Veronica Hollinger, Joan Gordon, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr., Arthur B. Evans, Carol McGuirk, John Joseph Adams.

The Harlequin is disrupting a future dystopia ruled by time or, rather, the Ticktockman. He holds the cardioplates of its citizens and can end peoples' lives prematurely if they are late to work, etc. The Harlequin slows schedules with a $150,000 in jelly beans gumming up slidewalks, badgers shoppers not to be slaves to time, and eludes capture (getting would-be captors caught in their own web).

This has one of Ellison's patent-pending titles that simultaneously intrigues, conjures the story and its theme if obliquely. This tale provides an intriguing contrast to "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," which has a similarly loaded title.

The latter story, however, at first appearance seems simple enough but proves to be thematically elusive or at least complex. This story's theme, on first glance, feels elusive but turns out rather simple if compelling. It is spelled out immediately from Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience":

"The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines.... there is no free exercise whatever of the judgement...they put themselves on a level with wood and earth and stones."
Men choose to become machines--as they did in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," albeit to a different effect.

What surprised and disappointed as a lad yet empowers me as an adult--coming midway into the story--was that the Harlequin was an ordinary man, in love with an ordinary woman. They have a spat about his extracurricular activities and lateness (later, when he's told that his wife or girlfriend ratted him out, the exchange about whether she did or didn't takes on a different flavor).

Although the theme is somewhat clear, the ending is elusive. It involves at least three possibilities:
  1. Harlequin confesses, gets killed, yet somehow infects the Ticktockman with anti-clock mentality. This seems least probable since most in power would want to cling to that power.
  2. Harlequin somehow escapes, forces the Ticktockman to believe he is the Harlequin, gets the Ticktockman to confess as if he were the Harlequin and gets killed while the Harlequin becomes the Ticktockman. We aren't witnesses to this complicated event. While Harlequin might be trickster enough to pull this off, is the Ticktockman truly gullible enough to fall for an identity switch? Nothing in the story really leads us to this.
  3. Harlequin is the Ticktockman. Both mask their identities. The Ticktockman's irregularities at the end match the Harlequin's usual habits. We don't know if this is unusual for the Ticktockman, but being in charge, he could probably get away with it. 
Additional confirmation of the lattermost interpretation comes at the opening where to whom the narrator is referring--Harlequin or the Ticktockman--gets confused. We open with an unknown, unassigned "he" pronoun. In fact, even after the Ticktockman is introduced, most readers will assume the narrator is speaking of the Harlequin, yet the last "he" mentioned after the Ticktockman's mention is the Ticktockman. So grammar rules dictate that the Ticktockman should be the "he" referred to.

Finally, there is a temporary irony (or hypocrisy) that loses its meaning if Harlequin is the Ticktockman:
"[H]e was called the Ticktockman. But no one called him that to his mask.
"The cardioplate here in my right hand is also named, but whom named, merely what named."
We know what the Ticktockman is--the Master Timekeeper--but not who he is since he is masked.

The theme isn't much altered in the first two ending possibilities. But the third suggests that the revolutionary and the problematic cogwork-makers sprout from the same scarcely sane source. The theme alters considerably. It might be paraphrased by The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again":
"Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss."