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Friday, February 24, 2017

"Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Starlight 2. This won the Nebula, Seiun, and Sturgeon awards. It was up for the Hugo, Tiptree, Locus, and Homer awards and was reprinted by Gardner Dozois (twice), Robert Silverberg, David G. Hartwell, John Joseph Adams, Ann VanderMeer, and Jeff VanderMeer.

Aliens arrive and the military (via Colonel Weber) hire Louise Banks to do the translating. She succeeds.... perhaps too well.

Meanwhile, interspersed with the alien narrative is Banks addressing her child in the future tense discussing memories. The point of these sections is a spoiler.
Commentary with Spoilers:
When I first read Chiang, I read him wrong. I kept expecting something that he wasn't doing. Chiang is old-school SF. He squeezes all he can out of an idea.

Here the idea is language:  What if you could read a language, not sequentially, but wholly at once? The shape of the aliens--not bilateral like us, which caused us to read sequentially, Chiang's story hypothesizes--is radial symmetry (that is, the same all the way around). So their language absorbs all information from the past, present and future. This in turn shapes their thinking so that they actually perceive future and past simultaneously.

When Banks grasps this, her brain alters so that she can perceive the future and the future child it contains--a child who will die. This is emotionally poignant--one of Chiang's more powerful works.

Chiang's idea rests, in part, on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that states language shapes the mind. This notion was discredited, but has reemerged with new nuances. Here are one and two articles from Scientific American that suggest that words can at least sharpen our awareness to what can be observed. This is SF, after all. It's aim is to get you think, not necessarily describe the universe perfectly. Who knows? Maybe a language will get us to grasp the universe in completely different terms.

When Colonel Weber arrives, the narrative is uncannily familiar. It took a minute to recall that it rang of the opening to Samuel Delany's Babel-17. No doubt this is an homage to Delany's own investigation into Sapir-Whorf.

The original idea that inspired Chiang's story is Fermat's principle of least time. Normally, in physics, we say that light travels in a direction at the speed of light until it hits a new medium where it slows a changes direction. Fermat suggested that light (as if it had agency of its own) arrives at its destination because it is the fastest route to get there, not a straight line, because it can travel faster in the first medium than the second. The way this applies to your own life might be traveling on the interstate as far as you can before entering city streets. You might overshoot your destination if you didn't have drive as long on the slower city streets. To see how this applies to the story in question, see quote below.
"[T]he ray of light has to know where it will ultimately end up before it can choose the direction to begin moving in." 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Birdman--Review and Analysis

I finally saw Birdman, a screenplay about various plays and their players. Riggan, a washed-up action-movie actor, makes a last-ditch effort at a comeback... on the stage--a place to stake a claim for seriousness. He has written and directed a story by Raymond Carver. Some co-actors are less talented than they imagine while the talented ones imagine they can do as they please. Even though these personalities seem to threaten the production, the real threat comes from the opinion of a critic who could unravel them all.

I enjoyed it. This is one of those rare cases where I agreed with Rotten Tomatoes (91%) over IMDB (78%).
Interesting ambiguous ending. It convinces us of something at the beginning, erodes that, but brings it back. However, it does depend on one's perspective. Another caveat must be added to that last, but it cannot be done without spoiling the ending.

It has been quite awhile since I read everything of Raymond Carver's that I could get my hands on, so I cannot speak about how well "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" and Birdman align or riff, except tangentially. Carver described the workingman's life with style he popularized (through Gordon Lish's editing) later called "dirty realism." According the Wiki page linked above, Birdman "includes several aspects of the Carver story... but also includes other, more melodramatic storylines that are not part of the Carver story."
The movie also pays small homages to different movies/plays--through background details, images, and dialogue--e.g. Shakespeare, Phantom of the Opera.

It toys with the idea that it's all done in one shot, which is cool, although it's not truly one shot as the scenes do change (time/place). This makes it more interesting than a true one shot. The effect also shrinks and layers the world and time. We zoom in on this tiny artistic oasis. It's almost but not quite a one-room set.

Some viewers might find it vulgar. Below is my favorite quote. It discusses critics and labels, which might tell you whether you'll enjoy it or not.

"That's a label. That's all labels. You just label everything. That's so fuckin' lazy... You just... You're a lazy fucker. You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don't, You know why? Because you can't see this thing if you don't have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.... There's nothing here about technique! There's nothing in here about structure! There's nothing in here about intentions! It's just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons... You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what? None of this cost you fuckin' anything! The Fuck! You risk nothing! Nothing! Nothing! Nothing! I'm a fucking actor! This play cost me everything."
I like the speech not just for the accuracy but the frustrated awkwardness. He's struggling to find the words. So real. Hopefully, my own reviews get to the heart of the work.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Review: Red Planet Blues by Robert J. Sawyer

Red Planet Blues 
by Robert J. Sawyer
Alex Lomax, PI, investigates two mysteries. First, the disappearance of Joshua Wilkins (covered here in "Identity Theft") and those still after the transfer Pickover's Alpha deposit--a highly sought-after deposit of Martian fossils that Pickover wants to preserve for humanity while treasure-hunters want to exploit it for profit. The original deposit discoverer, supposed dead, turns up as does his diary, which many will kill for. Yet another mystery underlies these: The Bowman of the ship B. Traven unfroze and molested its passengers for months.

The tale is full of Analog escapades--thrust into difficult situations that require scientific or engineering ingenuity to resolve tricky scenarios.
Commentary with Spoiler Clues:
Sawyer expands the scope of the original novella admirably. The idea of identity, however, melts away--at least, to a degree no more than most mysteries.

What's left is the idea of fossils on Mars, which assumes life propagated to a degree big enough to have, presumably, something the size of trilobites on Mars. Maybe we could grant microbes, but fossils seem something of a leap--not just a multicellular organism, but one with specialized features that can fossilize. It would be a huge discovery though Sawyer doesn't fully explore this idea (it is, after all, a mystery and not a dig). Maybe in a sequel?

The novel is intense, and the frequent problem-solving creativity is amazing, astounding, Analog and, otherwise, impressive. Sawyer pulls several tricks from seemingly empty sleeves. One nit, though, is that climax does have a semi-deux-ex-machina although it does resolve well in other regards.

Another nit can be examined by comparing the ending of "Identity Theft" to the novel. First, let me talk about the first season of Monk, which I just finished. The show lasted an impressive eight seasons, with one show temporarily holding the record for most watched episode. The conceit, an OCD former homicide hetective turned consultant, is clever and holds one's attention... until familiarity breeds.... well, not contempt because we still like the guy. How about over-familiarity? He's like an old friend you like, but not enough to keep him living in your basement. He's got to maintain our interest. Usually, that involves change.

"Identity Theft" does involve change. We take a detective, Alex Lomax, who starts down on his luck and finally comes into some money. He helps out a guy who shouldn't exist and gives him a new identity. We like Alex. He has problematic habits but has a good soul. His past, though, is mostly veiled as it does not pertain much to the present at hand.

Meanwhile, the novel takes a character who was supposed to be dead, springs to life to resolve the plot, and Alex invites her to join his team. This might have been satisfying but come off as too pat. Sawyer rejected it. But nothing comes in to replace it. The novel's events don't appear to shape Alex. "It's a mystery," you might say. True, and because of that, this qualifies as a nit. Still, good mysteries allow for protagonist change, however slight. The novel might have garnered more attention had it done so.

It is worth reading, especially if you like mysteries and floundering in other worldly environments versus strange antagonists. Definitely read "Identity Theft." Be forewarned that if you do, you will likely read the novel as well, a delicious entree of wonders.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"Identity Theft" by Robert J. Sawyer

Printed and reprinted by Mike Resnick, it was up for the Hugo, Nebula, Aurora Awards, and won the UPC Award.

Alex Lomax is a hard-boiled detective on Mars. Cassandra Wilkins, jaw-dropping beauty and transfer, steps into his office and asks Alex to investigate the disappearance of her husband, Joshua, who's also a transfer. Due to confidentiality, an investigator can't simply log into people's brains and ID them. The police haven't been helpful, but that's kept him in business. Barely.

Alex finds Joshua rather simply, next to a suicide note and a jack hammer, but the mystery doesn't end there. It's just getting started.

Meanwhile, Lomax picks up a second client to do the job his first client wanted but for a different reason: He fears he's been bootlegged.


Reading Red Planet Blues, I thought it familiar. And, lo, the ebook image said it incorporated "Identity Theft" in it. I checked out the blog and missed putting up commentary here though I was certain I had.

The mystery is well constructed. Sawyer lays the groundwork from the start, so it's worth the reread just for that. It's a little gem worth excavating, but if you're going to read the novel, anyway, the differences are minute. It does work better as a story. Nonetheless, if you're interested in both, you may need to read them separately as the payoffs differ. Maybe you could get by with reading the opening and closing of the story.

The focus of the tale shifts from the novel. Identity is a central theme here: What is it? How are we shaped by it? Do we drop tells of our identity? Sawyer suggests, yes to the last question, or he wouldn't have had much of a story.

The idea of transfer is not completely exhausted here, and it is explored more in the novel. Even then, the idea has more life in it yet.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Review: Quantum Night by Robert J. Sawyer

Quantum Night 
by Robert J. Sawyer  
Berkley Publishing Group  

What makes a man a psychopath, a thinking man, or a philosopher zombie (that is, one of the sixty percent of society that follows the prevailing winds of society)? These are the questions Robert J. Sawyer explores in his latest novel, Quantum Night, just out in trade paper.

Professor James Marchuk has developed a test for psychopathy called "micro-saccades." If he can watch you uninterrupted for ten seconds, he can tell whether you are a psychopath more reliably than other tests. A lawyer hires Marchuk as an expert witness on behalf of a defendant who has had other psychological tests with mixed results. When Marchuk takes the witness stand, however, the prosecuting attorney rips apart Marchuk's testimony, calling into question his operating motives. Marchuk, the attorney says, is only trying defend his family. He has no idea what she is talking about. When he asks his sister about this, he learns he has lost six months of memories from this time--six months of which he can recall nothing.

As Marchuk slowly unravels this mystery--tied to a study he participated in as a student--the world falls apart: Streets erupt into riots; president psychopaths march nations toward war.

Everything hinges on a flash of insight when he helps a friend's brother recover from a twenty-year coma. He's not the man he used to be, just as Marchuk was briefly a different man. They come up with a bold idea to turn the world on its head.

This displays classic SF at its speculative best. Sawyer proposes not one crazy idea, but several--quantum consciousness, levels of (un)consciousness that can flip, new perspectives on psychopathy and empathy.

The challenge of this work lies in that Sawyer sets his speculative goals at Olympic levels. He expects you to keep up. Reading other readers’ responses, I found this proved difficult for some. I admit that while I understood the ideas, a few struck me as dubious, so I performed some background investigation, digging deeper into what psychopathy was, which may be more frightening than even this novel suggests. Quantum consciousness remains in the hypothetical stage. My suspicion is that consciousness mirrors other genetic traits: It sprawls across a spectrum.

None of this detracts from the story, which follows Freytag's staggered cliffs of drama. For some reason, we expect perfect prediction from speculative fiction (note that last term), as opposed to allowing it to stimulate our imagination and possibly inspire future researchers to think outside the established, prim-and-proper boundaries of science. Sawyer accomplishes all of this in a drama that thrills.