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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Division by Zero" by Ted Chiang

First appearing in Full Spectrum 3, edited by Lou Aronica, Amy Stout, Betsy Mitchell, it was up for the Locus award.
Mathematical genius, Renee has found a proof for formalism that shows that all numbers are equal to one another. The discovery drives her to depression and further while her husband Carl tries to deal with it.

The story is written in sections numbering one through nine, which detail some odd, historical aspects of mathematics. Each number has "A" and "B" subsections relating Renee and Carl's perspectives, respectively.
The key here is Chiang's own comment on the story:
"A proof that mathematics is inconsistent, and all its wondrous beauty was just an illusion, would, it seemed to me, be one of the worst things you could ever learn."
For those in the sciences, the sciences fall down a spectrum of scientific rigor--rather, the degree to which it is predictable and replicatable:

  1. Physics
  2. Chemistry
  3. Biology
  4. Psychology (not a science or a "pseudo-science" as some scientists consider it)
  5. Sociology (see psychology)
You can plot a course for the path of an orbit with a high degree of accuracy. Chemicals combine and repeat the same result. And then things get messy, in terms of science. Of course, this is an oversimplification. The physics of the electron and below get strange, and organic chemistry often produces mixed results at some ratio. Biology is the combination of multiple organic and inorganic chemicals (read: an exponential increase in variables), directed by non-sentient(?) cells, which complicates predictability. Groups of cells can organize into larger and more specialized behavior, which complicates predictability further (read: another exponential increase in variables).

Then we get into consciousness--a scientific map that remains largely uncharted--and how that affects human individuals  (read: yet another exponential increase in variables) and groups of individuals divided by genetics and culture interacting on large scales (read: the final exponential increase in variables). It doesn't help that a recent report stated that these human-based sciences have studies with about a fifty-percent chance of "replicability" (Some see this an issue of bias in the field). 

The degree to which an individual prefers order may affect the type of career one might choose.

Most scientists see mathematics as a tool for interpreting the science. Apparently, mathematicians can see their study as further purity, stripped bare of scientific study--the encumbrances of any kind of messy consideration. Mathematics could be considered the foundation that all other aspects of the universe are built upon. It, from the view of the pure mathematician, would lie at the top of the heap. This sheds light on Chiang's statement: What if there were no true tool of studying the universe?

Seeing mathematics as a study that strips away the extraneous brings new perspective to Chiang's work. One might call this Chiang's MO--modus operandi--at least of his early work. Characters are stripped to their essence so that the ideas can remain pure, unfiltered, unbiased. Renee is mathematics (at least, from a human perspective--the clear, unfettered idea) while Carl studies or is biology (life, messy). The characters provide perfect foils for one another.

When Carl was a graduate student, he attempted suicide. Therefore, when Renee attempts, Carl experiences deja vu, although this also mirrors the story idea that all numbers are equivalent. Presumably, that same story idea explains the nonlinear story time (if all numbers are equivalent) since it begins at the end (the psych ward after an attempted suicide).

Carl cannot understand Renee's dilemma because he is used to the messiness of his science. Renee, representing order, is supposed order herself. Since Carl is messy, it is unsurprising that he attempts suicide as a young man, but Renee's attempt surprises, coming after she uncovers the idea that even mathematics might have its own mess. This brings us to the title. Division by zero represents a mathematical equation that has no answers.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Arrival: Movie Review + Commentary/Analysis

This story, an adaptation of Ted Chiang's ("Story of Your Life" discussed here), follows the original fairly closely.
The movie opens with Louise Banks reminiscing on the life and death of her daughter. Then it cuts to her attempting to give a college lecture while most students are focused on the news of twelve space ships arriving. Col. Weber comes to recruit her. She demands to be taken to the aliens to interact with them. At first they refuse until they see she is the better candidate.

At first, they meet failure until she starts to communicate with written language and gets them to do the same. Twelve other countries initially do the same until they receive a message from the aliens that gears them up for war. Ms. Banks must learn the language and try to find a way around the inevitable showdown.

This movie is worth your time. The opening could have been slimmed down, and it is not an action film, but definitely worth your time. A moving piece that opens your head to new ways of thinking.

Commentary with Spoilers:
And lo, Banks sees answers to the questions she has in her future as bits of understanding finally fall into place. She sees herself lecture on the meaning of the terms and receives future private messages from the war instigator.

Chiang's written version has an immediate advantage over the film due to its verb tenses. The past is presented in past tense, future in future tense. This clarifies events from what is happening in time (although the scenes don't necessarily tip their hand until the last third or so). The movie does open with the reminiscence so that the clarity of flashbacks works there, but due to its form (and lack of verb tenses), the next flashback should have been pushed back to Banks's first interpretation of the language and surprise her with a flashforward. Otherwise, it was technically sound.

The movie's unusual feature is shots of ceilings. This clever shot prepares us for the reorientation we are about to feel--not just in the scene on the space ship where sideways becomes the new down--but overall, when time itself becomes reoriented into a continuum to be experienced at once. Banks also walks on clouds in a climactic scene with the aliens.

Clouds seem critical, as well, although I haven't yet pinpointed how they service the story. The cloudiness of time? of the future? They come upon the aliens through a fog bank (humans are in a fog? but no, the alien tank is full of clouds). Maybe its just the dwelling/acceptance of uncertainty. But if you know the future, surely it is no longer uncertain.

The quote below is not random. It fits into the film's theme. War is misinterpreted by one interpreter, and will be again later... although it could be said that "a desire for more cows" is the perfect incitement to war if cows are considered one's prime monetary system.

The movie may succeed over its predecessor in the degree of its involvement with the future child, to invest us in her welfare, so that her passing and life becomes more moving.

One thing the aliens and protagonist seemed to suggest was that the entire Earth would soon possess this sense of time once they grasped how to interpret the language. Banks's future husband, Ian, however, apparently does not possess the inevitability of time and the ability to relish the time that exists with family members as he divorces her once he learns of his child's inevitable demise. One might think that he would be one of the first to learn it. He does not, presumably.

Some of Chiang's ideas are lost from the original: notably, Fermat's Principle of Least Time (see link above). I'm not sure if the concept could have easily been displayed in a film format. And little seems to have been lost due to its disappearance (yes, it explains the primary reason for arriving at its conclusion, but we arrive, anyway). Unfortunately, the loss does erode Ian's role somewhat.

While "Story of Your Life" is clever in that it could apply to the baby or the reader, "Arrival" plays a nice double entendre: the arrival of aliens and the arrival of the baby.
Dr. Louise Banks: Colonel?
Colonel Weber: [Answering a previous question about the Sanskrit word for war and it's meaning] Gravisti.
Dr. Louise Banks: That's the word but what did he say it means?
Colonel Weber: He said it means an argument. What does it really mean?
Dr. Louise Banks: A desire for more cows.

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.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Classic Hundred Poems: All-Time Favorites, William Harmon (Editor)

This collection is nearing two decades old. It can register to fight in wars but cannot yet drink alcohol. Legally.

It's hard to debate a clinical selection of poems. The selection is based on the tastes of other anthologists, sampling a thousand, give or take, which is a good sample size. What better introduction to the genre than the best of the best retrospective?

The title could mislead readers who associate "classic" with Greek or Roman culture when a more contemporary sense of the term is intended as applied to the English language.

The reader will find not only the best poems, but also a sense of the changes in subject and taste. One can also sense patterns. Some poets tend to build a laundry list of observations, then lay the reader out with a line that brings the observations into new clarity or context. Others seem to take one path, only to veer off into a new direction--the friction between the two making the poem of interest.

You'll see a number of famous stories that allude to these poems: Andrew Marvell's "World enough and time" (Joe Haldeman, Dan Simmons), "vegetable love" (Pat Murphy), "vaster than empires and more slow" (Ursula LeGuin); William Butler Yeats's "Things fall apart" (Chinua Achebe), "slouching towards Bethlehem" (Joan Didion). So you may as well check up on what some of your favorite authors have been up to.

Most surprising are some of the poets left out: Geoffrey Chaucer, Alexander Pope, and Walt Whitman. Chaucer could perhaps be explained as his greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, is read separately and not short enough for inclusion. Pope can be explained as using humor and satire, which some have difficulty equating with seriousness.

Whitman, though, is a curious case. One might point to homophobia, which might be the case for a few although most of the homoerotic aspects are subdued. Emily Dickinson shied away from Whitman as "scandalous" for an unnamed reason, which may be about what I discuss below. Even when you zoom out to the top 500, you see mostly topical (Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War). Only one seems to hint at Whitman's style or métier, "I Hear America Singing", but even that might be chalked up to illustrating the patriotism of his era as opposed to capturing the poet.

Another reason anthologists left him out might be his lack of meter and looser lines, which make him seem a lesser poet to some anthologists, especially considering the era he springs from. After all, he doesn't have much impact until Allen Ginsberg, so you'd have to wait to see Ginsberg's impact before assigning one to Whitman. The major reason for his exclusion may simply be the title of his magnum opus: "The Song of Myself," which is not especially humble. Readers today still find this mildly shocking, perhaps less so with the advent of Facebook and the Internet.

The primary downfall of the collection is that the notes are so far from the poems in the appendix. One might suggest that the reader doesn't wish to be encumbered by notes, but surely academics who are already familiar with Old English would already be familiar with these poems and probably not interested in such a collection.

It is a valuable collection to fill gaps in or rebuild your literary education. William Harmon also collected a Top 500 Poems--with even fewer notes. If you need notes, maybe grab a Norton anthology.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: Yamada Monogatari: Emperor in Shadow by Richard Parks

Yamada Monogatari: 
The Emperor in Shadow 
by Richard Parks 
Diamond Book Distributors 
Prime Books

The Emperor is dying. Once again Lord Yamada is called with Kenji to ensure the next emperor is peacefully transitioned to the throne. An onibe directs Yamada to protect Princess Tagako (as she is told the same in dreams--or is she warned away from him?). There are multiple attempts on the life Princess, due to being promised in marriage to a mysterious suitor, and Yamada must find a way to protect her life and get to the bottom of these plots against her life.

This novel deserves brings the series to a satisfying close; however, it doesn't stand alone. It stands on the shoulders of its predecessors. The B story, or the secondary narrative, is strong, but the A story is difficult to tease out.

Yamada's mission isn't clear. He runs into characters from the early stories--the fox demon, his ghostly former lover--who hint and feint at his goal but it remains ever elusive ("I promise to enlighten you, but not just yet." and later, "Why? I haven't the faintest idea"). The narrator sometimes tips his hands to the missing A story in dialogue exchanges like "I'm bored." The narrative quickly shifts into action as the author seems to realize these words. This doesn't indicate a boring narrative, but one that merely escapes a definitive goal. It is understandable to hide major plot movements outside Yamada and his companions, but we do need characters who desire--as Kurt Vonnegut put it--"a glass of water."

The story's narrative arch doesn't get fully assembled until toward the last tenth of the novel, some of which the readers will have guessed since the primary story didn't distract us readers enough. Moreover, the master skills Yamada had in the first book seem to have eroded.

If you've read the first three, then definitely read this one. It completes the series and Yamada's journey--one he might not have realized he was on.