The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Sometimes you think a book is going to go one way, and then it goes another, and that turns out — perfectly fine, actually! Elizabeth Bear had a bit of that experience with her new novel Ancestral Night. Here she is to explain the zigs and zags.

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Ancestral Night had a hard time getting born.

It’s not the book’s fault. It’s possibly the author’s fault—or possibly the fault lies in the stars. The world kept changing radically on me while I was writing it, you see—personally, politically, and profoundly. And as I and everything around me underwent those changes, the book wound up changing too.

I had originally envisioned something much more along the lines of an epic space opera with multiple points of view and a lot of focus on the politics. The politics were the big idea around which the world was built, after all. The idea of a massive, multi-species, basically benevolent but imperfect post-scarcity bureaucracy devoted to maintaining peace and the well-being of its citizens, however imperfect it could sometimes be in implementation, was appealing in 2014. I feel like it’s even more appealing now, frankly: it would be nice to believe in functional governments again.

I was inspired by Iain Banks and his Culture novels, but I wanted more detail on how a post-scarcity society and a completely novel form of government might work. The best, most egalitarian, fairest systems of government we have now are based on structures that are millennia old at their core. Democracies and republics actually use a series of bronze-age technologies to approximate some of the better aspects of group decision-making protocols that science shows us are the most efficient known way of getting stuff done, but the technology exists to remove even more barrier to making those protocols work.

And we live in an era when nationalism and factionalism and classism and bigotry are the biggest barriers we have to addressing existential threats so vast that they require species-wide cooperation, which is a thing we can’t quite seem to get our teeth into. And in that case, possibly the fault likes not in our stars, but in ourselves.

So what if we could fix some of the shortsightedness evolution has given us, now that it’s become maladaptive? What if the greatest weapon we have for enduring our survival into the future is self-awareness and the ability to look at ourselves and decide to be better people? Not just on a person-by-person level, but as a species?

What if we could decide to grow up and deal with our problems, instead of ignoring them and assuming somebody else will handle the cleanup?

In the universe of Ancestral Night, humanity made these decisions long ago—after we nearly died out as a result of not making them for too long. Our species made it to the stars, but in the wake of a near extinction event that left us with no options except to die, or to change. We developed a system of government without professional politicians, where decision-making is handled through distributed systems, simulation games, and advanced forms of modeling. Where people are called to serve as executives for a limited time, and it’s as annoying as jury duty.

The way the book turned out, however, all of this receded into the background. I found that to tell the story I wanted to tell, I needed a narrative focused on adventures and the vast distances of space, where travel even at faster than the speed of light takes months and there’s no quick means of communication between remote points. I needed to show my protagonist racing to beat propagating information, and wrestling with massive ethical questions.

That was how, on my third or fourth attempt to write the thing, I wound up in the head of salvage operator Haimey Dz, getting her to tell her story herself.

It was an odd choice—I recognized that even as I was writing it—to tell this story about deep time and vast reaches of space and personal responsibility and dueling ideas of what it even means to be human through a single first-person narrator. But it’s also a story about the unreliability of personal experience and memory and what a pain in the ass our atavistic and uncooperative neurology can be when we’re just trying to get stuff done, and I think that was why diving deep into one character’s experience was the tack that finally worked.

The only thing I’m sad about is that it meant I got to spend less time than I planned with Mantis Cop. I hope you’ll forgive me, although I understand if you don’t. I acknowledge going in that Mantis Cop is totally the best, and the point of the whole novel, and all the pages that don’t involve Mantis Cop are wasted. WASTED.

But that one small point aside, I am pretty happy with the book I finally got, after years of wrestling.

I hope it works for you too.

—-

Ancestral Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

View From a Hotel Window, 3/19/19: New York City

It’s a very New York view, I have to say.

Also, yes, I was just here. Surprise! I’m back again. And the reason I’m back is that tonight I’m talking with V.E. Schwab about the re-release of her first novel, The Near Witch. I read it on the plane. It’s darn good. We’ll be at the Union Square Barnes & Noble at 7pm. Come on down!

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

In today’s Big Idea for her new novel The Light Brigade, author and Hugo winner Kameron Hurley explains how a bit of family history is the root of her story of soldiers in the far future.

KAMERON HURLEY:

I grew up around stories of war.

My grandparents met in liberated France in World War II. He was an American GI. She was a young French woman who had lived in Nazi-occupied France.  While he talked very little about the war –one of his jobs after the liberation was driving trucks of the dead out of concentration camps – she had many stories about encounters with Nazis and living under fascism. She would proudly display the scar on the side of her head where a bullet from a dog fight overhead between US and Nazi aircraft seared away her hair and flesh. The bullet lodged in the wall of a building behind her, and she had dug it out and proudly displayed it. Her literal brush with death.

She and her friends once found a Nazi boot along the river – with a foot still inside of it – and she told us about their terror about it being found, because for every Nazi killed in her town, ten French people would be rounded up and shot. She and her friends chucked the boot into the river, praying it was never found. Her father was part of the French resistance, and the SS came to her home often to harass him. When she married my grandfather, she thought she had won a great lottery. They spent the first seven or eight years of their marriage in France as the Americans helped rebuild after the war. Her disappointment on finally arriving to the United States, unable to speak English and faced with the terrible reality of enlisted military housing in the 1950s, was palpable in every story she told us about her earliest days here.

These stories had a profound effect on all of her children and grandchildren. Many joined the military, several became career soldiers. Others married soldiers or joined the reserves. I grew up understanding that sometimes there was a greater evil that we all must come together to fight. It would take me far longer to realize that in the vast majority of wars, who was good and who was evil was a lot more difficult to sort out. The far more common war is not one of external aggression, but of politics and resource hoarding and colonialism.

I went on to study the history of war, revolution, and propaganda. My Master’s thesis explored the African National Congress’s use of propaganda in the recruitment of women fighters in the struggle against Apartheid. This line of research opened horrifying and fascinating new doors for me into the role of propaganda, storytelling, training, and politics all play in creating, uplifting, solidifying, and destroying human systems of government.    

The initial spark for this story began with the idea of exploring a near-future stepping stone to instant teleportation – busting soldiers down into light. But what makes this a complex piece of work is the real world research that went into the politics and realities of war. The Light Brigade has a lot of big ideas: time travel, interplanetary war, dangerous tech, propaganda and psychological manipulation of civilians and soldiers. It also has a lot of ideas crawling beneath the surface, thoughts on how war changes us and our relationships, how conflict breaks us down, how hope for the future can keep us going long after a pessimist would have stopped.

Even knowing what I do about the horrors human beings have committed to themselves and one another, I still believe in the future. I believe in the future because I understand that the war machine is not some innate human compulsion. It is carefully nurtured and celebrated by those in power. The firing rates of soldiers in the first two World Wars were abysmal by modern standards. They threw all of these kids into battle and only 20% of them would actually fire at another human being out on that field. The rest shot without aiming at anything at all, or shot at the ground, or simply did not fire. The US military completely transformed how it trained soldiers after World War II, with an emphasis on teaching human beings how to murder each other without hesitation. Using advanced psychological tactics, the US military improved firing rates from 20% in World War II to 97% in Vietnam. And once it’s been taught, there is no program that’s been designed to reverse that training.

I have stories like these and so many others to share. I’ve used first-person accounts from soldiers – my friends, my family, and those I’ve collected through my research –to create the intimate, beautiful and horrifying world of The Light Brigade. In truth this book is less about predicting the future because so many aspects of this future are already here. Instead, it challenges us to rethink our present, and everything that comes after it. What is the future we want to build? How are we going to get there? Because everything is constructed. We can teach ourselves to create any type of future we want. But first we need to understand how much of the present is simply social conditioning.  

That’s what I love so much about writing in this genre. It challenges us all to rethink our assumptions and expectations. It’s a journey I hope you’ll all take with me.  

—-

The Light Brigade: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

New Books and ARCs, 3/18/19

I was on the high seas for a week and while I was away the books and ARCs piled up — here’s about half of what came in since I was away. Anything here you’d like to take on a long cruise with you? Tell us all in the comments!

Me and “Love, Death and Robots”

The Netflix animated-but-really-not-for-kids series Love, Death & Robots came out last Friday, and three of the eighteen episodes were based on short stories of mine: “When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots.” So naturally folks are wondering how I got involved with the series and how these particular stories were chosen, as well as my thoughts on the whole experience of seeing my stories turned into these animated shorts. I’m happy to report that in fact the entire process was quite pleasant, and honestly kind of a best-case scenario in how working with film and television folks can go.

The initial contact happened in January of 2017, when someone from Blur (the production company that made the series for Netflix, run by Tim Miller, who is best known as the director of Deadpool), got in touch with my film/TV agent about optioning two stories from my Miniatures collection, “Yogurt” and “Alternate Histories,” for a potential animated series. I was deeply amused by the possibility of “Yogurt” in particular being turned into an animated film — I had written the piece in about an hour a few years previous, mostly as a goofy thing for this very blog — and after some research into Blur and the usual back and forth with terms, we gave the company the option on the stories.

When that happened I did one of my patented “Well, this was a good day,” mysterious tweets, which lead to this DM exchange with one of my friends:

Friend (jokingly): Basically, everything you’ve ever written has been optioned for television? Except for the yogurt thing.

Me: Actually.

Friend: Asshole.

Me: No, seriously.

Friend: The yogurt thing has been optioned?

Me: (sends image of the opening graph of the Yogurt option)

Friend: Oh my fucking god.

Which of course I found entirely delightful.

Not long after I signed the option I was in Los Angeles on other business entirely and I stopped by Blur to meet Tim Miller. We got along famously, and some time later I sent him a short piece I had written for the Robots vs Fairies anthology, not to pitch it to him but just because I thought he’d enjoy it. He wanted it anyway, and that’s how “Three Robots” was bought for the series before it was even published.

Working with Tim and the Blur team has been a highly positive experience. They kept lines of communication open, and checked in with me during production. They also asked for my thoughts and notes, which I gave and which they took seriously, incorporating many into further iterations of the shorts they were developing from my stories. The screenwriters for my episodes (Philip Gelatt for “Three Robots” and “Alternate Histories,” and Janis Robertson for “Yogurt”) did a fine job in adapting my original story concepts to something that could work on screen; most of what I wrote in my stories made it to the scripts, but what was different and/or added made the stories better as animated shorts. I count those as good collaborations. Likewise with Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres, who co-directed all of my episodes. They got me and my work. Additionally, Blow Studios did the design and animation for “Three Robots” and “Yogurt” and Sun Creature Studio did the honors for “Alternate Histories.” Both studios did their work fabulously.

(Also, let me geek out for a moment about the voice acting on my episodes! Rebecca Reidy and Dieter Jansen are fabulous in “Alternate Histories” and Josh Brenner and Gary Anthony Williams make their two of the “Three Robots” come alive — plus it tickles me to have Chris Parnell cameo in that episode. And as a lover of both The Brain from Pinky and the Brain, and of Father from Kids Next Door, the fact that Maurice LaMarche narrates “When the Yogurt Took Over” fills my brain with unfathomable squee.)

The biggest problem, if you want to call it that, was simply keeping quiet about the series until the last couple of months. Obviously when one sells an option for one’s work, one wants to announce it, as loudly as possible, not only for ego gratification (although, come on, that’s a big part of it) but because it helps sell options for other work. But Netflix and Blur wanted to play this one close to the vest, as it were. They had done well by me in every other respect, so keeping quiet in public was something I was happy to do. In any event, now it’s out in the world, and I can talk about my participation in it.

All three of my episodes were part of the early preview that Netflix showed to pro reviewers, and I was happy and relieved to see that the reviews of those segments were almost uniformly positive. Reviewers seemed to enjoy the humor and bought into the ridiculousness of the episodes and their stories. These episodes are the first things of mine ever to make it to TV (although The Verge adapted and animated one of my short stories earlier this year on their Web site), so it’s nice to have the first things of mine that people watch in their living rooms be things that they really seem to like. The episodes are even already generating fan art, including one robot in particular:

So that’s nice. Folks have been saying to me that there should be a “Three Robots” TV series, which, well, sure. If Blur and Netflix want it, I’ll be happy to talk to them about it. In the meantime, I’m enjoying what we have now.

I’m also pleased that a number of my friends also had work adapted in LD&R, including Marko Kloos, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken Liu, Joe Lansdale and Alistair Reynolds among others, and that by and large the general response to the series has been good, both from reviewers and from people watching. There have been substantive criticisms as well, mostly about the series skewing heavily toward the male gaze, which I think is a fair assessment. It’s something for everyone involved in a series to consider for a season two, if there is a season two, which I hope there is, whether I’m involved or not (although to be clear I would be thrilled to be involved again. And no, I know nothing else about a potential second season other than what I have just now written).

For now, however, I am enjoying following the responses to the show by viewers on social media, most of which can see summed up as “Holy crap what did I just watch and how soon can I have more of it?!?” This is what you like to see as a creator. I’m glad people like Love, Death & Robots, and my contributions to it. And I’m glad that for me, at least, the path to its production was so painless and, in fact, genuinely enjoyable and fun. Thank you, Tim Miller, and Blur, and everyone else involved. I’ll happily work with you again, and that’s a very big compliment.

(PS: the eBook of Miniatures, the short story collection that features the stories “Yogurt” and “Alternate History” are based on, is on sale for the next couple of days for $2.99. You can get it from Subterranean Press directly, or from your favorite online retailer.)

Just to Be Clear: The Entire Site is Not Passworded

It was just the previous post. I put up some pictures that were meant to be seen only by a particular group of friends, and gave them a password to see them, that’s all. Also, the pictures were nothing salacious, just pictures. In any event you can access the rest of the site just fine. I note this due to some concerned emails and tweets.

The JoCo Cruise Concerts: The Photos

Aimee Mann, singing.

Over the last week I was on the JoCo Cruise, and once again I took pictures of some of the concerts that happened on the boat. If you were also on the JoCo Cruise and want to relive the experience, or weren’t but just would like to see some pictures of the concerts, there are two albums to peruse:

Here’s the link to the photo album of the opening concert, and here’s the link to the photo album for the closing concert.

And for those of you who don’t want to bother, here’s a few other photos from those sets.

(The photo above is of Aimee Mann, by the way.)

Jonathan Coulton, whose cruise it is.
John Flansburgh and Robin Goldwasser.
Jim Boggia.
Paul Sabourin plays a mean melodica.

Love, Death and Robots Now Streaming on Netflix

I’m still off on a cruise (which has been going swimmingly, thank you very much), but I would be remiss if I didn’t make you aware that Love, Death and Robots, David Fincher and Tim Miller’s brand-spanking-new animated series, is now up on Netflix for your streaming pleasure — and also, if you watch the segments “Three Robots,” “When the Yogurt Took Over,” and “Alternate Histories,” you may notice my name in the credits. Why? Because they’re based on short stories I’ve written, that’s why. I’m deeply pleased about this.

I’ll talk more about the segments and how I got involved with the series probably on Monday, when I’m back on land and caught up on everything, so for now let me just say I hope you enjoy Love, Death and Robots in a general sense and my segments in particular. Also, a reminder that the series as a whole is TV-MA (equivalent to a hard R for you film buffs), so you may want to wait until you are not at work to watch it (for my bits, “Yogurt” and “Robots” are PG-13ish, and “Alternate Histories” is a solid R). Hey! Animation for grown ups! Who knew it was a thing.

View From a Cruise Balcony, Oosterdam, 3/9/19

Bye! See you all in a week!

Smudge Blesses the Travel Shirts

“Oh, you’re going away? Here, let me make sure you have enough cat hair for the duration.” Such a giving kitten, Smudge is.

In other news, I’m off for another JoCo Cruise, so don’t expect to see too much here in the next week or so, since I don’t anticipate having a whole lot of Internet connectivity, and even less interest in knowing what’s going on in the outside world. Don’t worry about the cats, we have a full-time house sitter, who understands their primary role is to let cats in and out of the house.

If I don’t post again for a while, please enjoy your week (and change). I’ll be back soon enough with tales of the Caribbean, I’m sure.

The Big Idea: Mallory O’Meara

As a film producer, Mallory O’Meara knows that the amazing designs you see in movies don’t magically appear out of the thin air — they’re the work of dedicated creators and craftspeople. So when O’Meara set out to learn more about the mind behind the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she discovered a story that was every bit as interesting and compelling as the creature design itself. Here she is to tell her what she found, and what she’s sharing in her book The Lady From the Black Lagoon.

MALLORY O’MEARA:

My elevator pitch for The Lady from the Black Lagoon is that the book is Julie and Julia… but for monsters. It didn’t start out like that, though.

This book started out simply as a biography of Milicent Patrick, an influential artist whose legacy has been purposely obfuscated for decades. She was an illustrator, a concept artist, one of the first female animators at Disney and the designer of the iconic monster from the 1954 science fiction film CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The press and attention that Milicent got as the designer of the Creature was the pinnacle of her career. It also caused her downfall. Her boss at the time was so jealous of her being in the limelight with the Creature that he fired her. Milicent never worked behind the scenes in Hollywood again and no one knew what became of her.

While I was researching and investigating her life, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write about what happened to Milicent Patrick without writing about why it happened to her. It’s easy to hear a sad story about a woman dealing with sexism in the 1950s and think, “Man, what a bummer. That’s just how things were back then!”

But it wasn’t just how things were back then. What happened to Milicent Patrick is still happening. It’s happening right now.

I know this because it happens to me. My job as a genre film producer brings me face to face with the same obstacles that Milicent dealt with. Working in the industry that she did – nearly seventy years later – gives me a keen insight into her story. As I wrote and researched, I found parallels between my experiences and Milicent’s.

That’s when I realized that the best way to show the urgency and importance of her story was to include stories from my own life as a female horror fan and filmmaker. Milicent Patrick’s body of work created a legacy that has had an incredible amount of influence on the worlds of art and film. (THE SHAPE OF WATER anyone?)

But the events that led to her credit being stolen left their own influence on the world. This influence is felt by female filmmakers and artists and writers everywhere, every day.

I saw this in action as I worked to uncover Milicent’s life. The difficulties I had finding out what happened to her perfectly illustrate the devastating and systemic effect bias and sexism have on us. So, I decided to also include an account of my investigation and the book morphed into what it is now. Part biography, part memoir, part detective story. What I found out about her life was even more astonishing than I could have imagined.

It’s also a call to action. I hope that someday, what happened to Milicent Patrick will never happen again.

—-

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Visit Mallory’s website or follow her on Twitter.

View From a Hotel Balcony, 3/4/19: New York City

My hotel put me on the top floor, and my room has a balcony. The view is pretty nice.

I’m in town for the Audie Awards, for which Head On is nominated in the science fiction category. We’ll see how it does. But no matter what, I get this view, which I can be happy with.

New Books and ARCS, 3/1/19

Hey! It’s March! And to start off this month, here’s a super-sized stack of new books and ARCs to peruse. As always, if there’s something here you’re interested in, tell us about it in the comments. And welcome to the third month!

The Limits of My Knowledge, Professionally (and Otherwise)

Someone asked me about “impostor syndrome” today on Twitter, so I linked over to the piece I wrote about it a couple of years back. Not surprisingly, this being Twitter, some folks had criticisms of the piece; one of the most cogent came from Lindsay Ellis, who essayed it in a multitweet thread which begins here, and which I encourage everyone to read. Among other criticisms, Lindsay says the following:

Scalzi talking about why he thinks he’s never suffered from Impostor Syndrome is a separate issue from people overcoming their own. I’m sure he gets the question “how do I overcome impostor syndrome?” a lot – but here is the thing; if he’s never had it, he doesn’t know.

This is, in fact, entirely accurate. I can say that I believe people shouldn’t have it, because (in the case of writers) if you write, you’re a writer, and that’s a thing in itself. Hopefully that’s encouraging to some people. But as Lindsay and others noted, me saying that doesn’t actually essay the issue for lots of folks, or even come close to addressing the root issues of impostor syndrome for many people. It’s not something I’ve ever experienced, and the closest I’ve come to experiencing it manifested itself in a different way: not “They’re all going to figure out that I’m fraud” but rather “Look at me I’m totally getting away with this,” and even that in a mostly transitory way.

I don’t feel bad about this. I’m not going to pretend I’ve felt something that I haven’t, and by and large I’m pretty happy not have experienced impostor syndrome. It doesn’t seem like a good time, although Lindsay notes that one can harness it for one’s benefit. But inasmuch as I’ve not experienced it, I’m probably not the right person to give advice on how to avoid it, or how to deal with it when it happens to you. The best I can do is to explain why it’s never happened to me, which mostly boils down to privilege, encouragement and ego (the last of which substantially helped by the first two). These things are what allowed me, when confronted with naysayers, to say “Oh, yeah? Watch this,” rather than to wonder whether they were right.

The conversation on impostor syndrome also dovetails for me into a larger thought I’ve been having, about the overall usefulness of writing/publishing advice I might give people, particularly newer writers. I’ve been writing professionally for almost 30 years; I’ve been a published novelist for almost fifteen. There are certain things I feel comfortable talking about these days with regard to writing composition (I can tell you how to craft reasonably good sentences, paragraphs, chapters and stories), and I can give you a reasonable birds-eye view of the publishing world, because I’m high up enough in it that I see a whole lot of what’s going on, including the things that most people don’t see. And, I’m good about talking about all the fun ancillary things that could happen when a book takes off, like TV/movie deals and other such projects. There are things I know about all of these, and it’s contemporary information.

But — when I started off as a professional writer, newspapers were still a thing, and they were hiring journalists, not laying them off by the score. The Internet existed mostly as a communication system between universities and defense department outposts. When I got my start as a novelist, eBooks were barely a thing at all, and not even covered in contracts; audiobooks were mostly an afterthought. Amazon was still mostly about books. These days, my business is novels — I don’t do a whole lot of other writing for money because, bluntly, Tor pays me a shitload of money to keep my focus on books. Oh, and, also, I’m a millionaire now, which is a pretty good thing for me, but also means that I’m well-insulated from a lot of concerns and issues that affect other writers. And of course there’s the part where I’m straight, white, male and cis, so I get that complement of societal buffs for free.

So while there a lot of things I know about writing, and publishing, and creating and so on, there’s also quite a lot of stuff that I don’t have direct experience with anymore, because where I am in my career is sufficiently removed from those issues that they don’t affect me, and I don’t have to spend any great amount of time thinking about them. If you ask me about these issues, I will tell you what my experience was, and how I understand things work today, but do keep in mind that asking me about a lot of them is like asking your dad (or grandad! I’m technically old enough now to be one!) tips on the hottest upcoming bands. If you’re lucky you’ll get “Uh, I don’t know, that Imagine Dragons group?” before he throws up his hands (note: 40-to-60-year old men reading this, this is not your cue to drop the names of hip young bands in the comments to prove that you’re not out of touch). Likewise, while I do try to keep up with trends and events in my industry and community, there are now gaps in my knowledge. Things today are not like when I was coming up, and I’m not in the same place today that I was when I was coming up.

This is not a bad thing. It’s fine for creative people to go through stages in their career, where the knowledge useful to an earlier stage falls away and knowledge useful to their current stage takes its place. Time happens, whether we prefer it to or not. Experience likewise happens. My experience is valid, and the information I have can still be useful, but all of it exists in the context of this is who I am and where I am now in my professional life. Additionally, it should be viewed in the context of survivorship bias — which is to say, I have made it to a particular place in my career, and while I can offer you information based on my experience to tell you how I got here, it might be more useful to examine the careers of people who haven’t landed where I have, despite having similar starting points and early career arcs.

I think I’ve generally been pretty good at disclosing and disclaiming who I am and what my place is in the world, and I think I’ve likewise been pretty good at reminding people that one, what worked for me might not work for them, and two, that when I opine about things (including things relating to my profession), I might occasionally be pulling things out of my ass. And to be fair I think a lot of writers and creators near, at, and above my status do the same thing. Many if not most of us are happy to tell you that our experience is our own, and that you should take it with the same grain of salt that you should take any advice, opinion or claims of experience. Successful writers are no less full of shit than anyone else.

But in case you’ve forgotten this (or this is the first time you’re seeing it), well: Here it is. I can tell you what I know. But what I know isn’t always going to be on point for you. You have to make the determination of what value my words have for your experience. If they’re useful, great! I like being useful. But if not, I won’t be offended. I don’t know everything, and what I do know may be something you can’t use. It happens. It’ll happen to you, too, one day. If you’re lucky.

A Weight Loss Strategy I Can’t In Good Conscience Recommend

It’s called food poisoning! And if you look at the weight chart above, covering this week (I have one of those scales that records my weight every time I step on it), you can probably guess when I had it. I’m here to tell you it wasn’t pleasant.

Fortunately it seems to have run its course — sleeping most of the day yesterday helped — and today I’m better, if a little tired and hungry. I’ll mostly be sticking with simple foods and lots of liquids. Also, don’t be expecting mental miracles from me today, I’m still mostly in a lower gear. But it’s still nice to have the worst of it past me.

So that was my last couple of days. Hope yours were better.

Smudge Shot, Plus Internet Update

First, let’s get you all a kitten picture, stat:

Yes, he’s adorable. And an asshole! But also adorable. As most kittens his age are. And yes, he’s still a kitten until at least late April or early May, which would be our best guess for his birthday. Enjoy these last couple months of his kittenish glory.

Second: An update on my Internet, because I know you care. CenturyLink sent a truck over earlier in the day to work on the line and after an hour or so of fiddling, the Internets speeds are actually what I’m paying for — which is still a pathetic speed, to be sure (6Mbps, same as the last decade) but it’s there. Ironically it is 6Mbps to within .1Mbps; I suppose after all my complaining they really decided to make the effort there. The upload speeds are still awful — .2 to .5Mbps — but for the first time in months I could actually upload a photo larger than 5MB (the picture you see above) without the line crapping out. This is progress of a sort.

Whether the repair sticks is the question. Today was the second time they had someone come fix the line in the last week; the first time the line worked at half speed for a day before crapping out. So we’ll see how the line is tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. I’d like to be optimistic, but CenturyLink hasn’t exactly inspired confidence recently.

For this reason and for a few others I think I’ll be keeping my new Sprint hotspot. Having what’s essentially auxiliary Internet isn’t exactly cheap, but it will keep me from fuming angrily and impotently when/if the CenturyLink line breaks down, which is kind of its own reward, and in the meantime I can use its (depending on the time of day) two-to-five-times faster download speed (and ten times faster upload) speed for handing certain specific heavy loads. In a perfect world this wouldn’t be necessary, but I don’t live in a perfect world, I live in rural Ohio. I figure this will work well enough until 5G finally shows up here in a couple of years.

In any event: My Internet problems are solved! Sort of! Thank you for coming along on this horrible adventure with me. At least you got a cat picture out of it.

The Big Idea: Brett Frischmann

Author Brett Frischmann wrote a non-fiction book about the consequences of technology. But he wasn’t done with the topic yet, nor it with him — and that’s how his novel Shephard’s Drone came about. Here he is to explain what happened next.

BRETT FRISCHMANN:

Human beings have special powers. We can imagine things that don’t exist and communicate with each other in person, at a distance, and across time about imagined things. These powers allow us to develop shared culture, beliefs, laws, technologies, and others things essential to cooperation and modern civilization. What matters most is how we exercise these powers across generations to shape our world and ourselves.  This is how we engineer humanity.

Perhaps the most fundamental Big Idea we’ve engineered for ourselves over the past few centuries is the belief that despite the many environmental contingencies outside of our control that shape who we are and what’s possible, we can be authors of our own lives. We have some meaningful agency or degree of freedom. This freedom is not naturally given or inevitable. It is contingent. It can be taken. It can be lost. We can be drones.

In 2010, I began grappling with these ideas. I’m a professor who works at the intersection of multiple disciplines. So I was comfortable digging deeply into philosophy, artificial intelligence, and various branches of psychology, among others. What was new for me—and in hindsight, a bit insane—was deciding to write nonfiction and fiction books in parallel.

Last year, I published the nonfiction book, Re-Engineering Humanity, with philosopher Evan Selinger. We examine our digital networked world and the risks of outsourcing much of our lives to supposedly smart tech. Instead of worrying about the doomsday scenario of sentient AI enslaving humans, we focus on what we’re doing to ourselves. The more pressing concern, we argue, is techno-social engineering of humans who behave like dumb machines.

Throughout Re-Engineering Humanity, we use thought experiments to speculate about the near future. We tie ourselves to the mast of existing technologies and extrapolate carefully. For example, after discussing fitness tracking tech in my son’s elementary school (to be worn 24-7 mind you), we extend our analysis of techno-social engineering of children to hypothetical variations, including sensors that track mental attentiveness or mood. Our objective is simple: Help elucidate the path we are on so readers can determine whether they like where we’re headed and can consider paths to alternative futures.

Back in 2010, I sat in a bar with my friend Deven Desai. He’d written a short story and asked me to read it. It was excellent, and as Deven surely hoped, it got me thinking and after a drink that meant talking excitedly. I offered constructive criticism and suggested minor edits, but mostly I applauded his efforts. Then I told him, “You know what, Deven? I have a story you should write.”

I’d been reading a book about the ethics of genetic engineering after finishing a book about the philosophy of the extended mind. These books got me thinking about how people would choose between biotech enhancements (bio-mods) and digital tech enhancements (comp-mods). I imagined a near future world in which such a choice was necessary. Bio-mods on the East Coast, comp-mods on the West Coast, and unmodified humans in the Midwest. I began to see how such a world could come to be and what it would mean for the different societies. I explained all of this to Deven.

He listened patiently for a few minutes, but then he interrupted. “Dude, write your own book. It sounds cool. But I can’t write it. You have to.”

This seemed crazy to me. “I don’t write fiction,” I said. “You do, and well. You know how.”

Deven insisted. He gave me some pointers. I bought a bunch of books on fiction writing. I got up at 5am every morning and wrote for at least 2 hours. I did this for a few years. …

Initially, I thought Shephard’s Drone would be about the near-future world. In part it is, but not exactly in the way I anticipated. Writers and writing guides often say that stories have a life of their own, that things happen in stories that the author doesn’t plot or even intend. I always thought this was BS. But then I wrote a novel and realized I was wrong. Of course, I outlined, plotted, and planned intensely from the fine details to the macro themes. But as I wrote, some unintended things just happened. There was a push and pull between my control/freedom and that of the story and its characters. I was in the lead most of the time—at least, I think I was.

Shephard’s Drone is about Kate Genet and her struggles to understand her world and her place within it. Kate is a bio-mod geneticist, a superstar in her field. She’s always been in control and had a solid plan. That stable baseline changes in the first chapter when she witnesses the sudden death of an infant and knows something went horribly wrong, despite all evidence to the contrary. A tug-of-war between the rational and emotional parts of her mind ensues; it is both disorienting and liberating.

Kate is determined to figure out what happened. It’s a classic quest for truth, an adventure into the unknown, a road trip!

Kate’s journey leads to intriguing challenges and varied relationships in the different societies. It took a dozen or so rewrites to effectively describe her interactions with other bio-mods, comp-mods, and unmodifieds taking into account her own priors as a lens. This was probably the most difficult challenge for me in writing fiction. It is quite difficult to see, much less describe for others to see, how one’s prior experiences shape one’s perspective. This is especially true when it comes to the technological infrastructures and affordances we take for granted.

In Re-Engineering Humanity, Evan and I work hard to provide a nuanced framework to evaluate the relationships between technology and humanity. We deliberately avoid utopian and dystopian extremes. Often, we found that one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. (Consider, for example, polling your friends about the quality of life for humans in the motion picture, Wall-E.) What’s important but quite difficult to identify and evaluate is when the world we’re building for ourselves, each other, and future generations fits one person’s or one group’s utopian vision at the expense of another’s.

For better or worse, Shephard’s Drone leaves it to the reader to decide what is utopian or dystopian. Kate’s experiences in bio-mod, comp-mod, and unmodified human societies provide conflicting perspectives and an opportunity to reflect on the Big Idea permeating Re-Engineering Humanity and Shephard’s Drone, which is the contingent nature of freedom in worlds governed by technology.

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Shephard’s Drone: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Kobo

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Today’s Adventures In Internet Connectivity

After more than a month of dealing with substandard (even for me) internet connectivity through CenturyLink, in which my already-slow internet connectivity slowed by a two-thirds, and neither a “repair” nor a new modem did anything to fix it, I decided to try something else. Sprint, as it happens, has an “unlimited” plan that features 100GB at 4G speeds, after which the speed drops to 3G speeds, i.e., not any slower than what I’m currently getting out of CenturyLink. All of this is cheaper than what I’m currently paying CenturyLink, and cheaper (in setup and monthly costs) than what I would have to pay for satellite Internet, which would not be any faster and has similar data caps than Sprint, and also sucks, because satellite Internet is inherently laggy and drops out in a rainstorm.

So, hey, look, here’s the very cheap phone I got basically to act as a hotspot. The plan is to use it primarily for the television for streaming, and to see how that works, in terms of data usage and whatnot. If it works pretty well, then I’ll be ditching CenturyLink entirely, since I’ve become tired of giving them money for genuinely shitty service that has not improved in a decade. The only downside as far as I can see is that it means I’ll likely be done downloading video games for a while, as most AAA games these days are 15+GB downloads to start and their frequent updates are now multi-gigabyte affairs as well.

Now, in point of fact this is kind of a shitty way of having to do things. I should be able to have a decent wired Internet connection without data caps. But I live in rural America, and where I live CenturyLink doesn’t have any competition for providing wired Internet, so it hasn’t bothered to upgrade its services, ever, which is why I was already puttering along at 6Mbps at best before the connection went to hell. So here I am, testing a Sprint phone as a hotspot so I can maybe watch Netflix without it pausing to download every half minute or so. I’ll let you know how it goes.

New Books and ARCs, 2/22/19

Got a big stack of new books and ARCs this week for you to peruse and consider. What here looks like something you’d enjoy? Tell us all in the comments!