Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Plague Books: Mellow Yellow

The King in Yellow, stories by Robert W. Chambers, Third Place Press, 1895, Reprint edition 2015

Provenance: I picked this one up at Third Place Books in Ravenna, along with China Mieville's October (reviewed here). The text is a "rediscovery edition", which means it was in public domain, then dusted off, repackaged, and republished because it might see a sales spike. In this case, said spike was due to HBO's True Detective, which refers to the King in Yellow.

The book itself has been reformatted for its current size and has a new cover treatment. It has one of those covers that is slightly tacky to the touch which seems to be popular with publications these days. I don't care for it, but that may just indicate my advancing age.

The publisher, Third Place Press, by the way, has spun off from Third Place Books in 2018 and is now VerVolta Design + Press.

Review: Robert W. Chambers was a popular and now-forgotten author from the early part of the last century. In his day he was a well-known fixture in magazines and books, such that his old-school writing involving "shopgirl romances" was mocked by both H P Lovecraft and F Scott Fitzgerald. He was big in his day, but not critically acclaimed, similarly to Jacqueline Suzanne's potboilers or Tom Clancy's thrillers of later ages. His very name invoked a particular style of writing - old-fashioned, archaic, moralistic and fusty, but still more popular than some of the new stuff being cranked out.

Which is kinda sad, because he's a pretty good writer, but more about that in a moment.

Most people that DO know about Chambers in the modern day know about him because of his contribution to the Cthulhu mythos with the King in Yellow.  Chambers pulled some phrases and concepts from Ambrose Bierce in creating his King in Yellow stories and were in turn pulled by Lovecraft as namechecks for his own weird fiction, in particular "The Whisperer in Darkness". From there it moved out to become a major supporting pillar of the genre, with the King in Yellow, the Yellow Sign, Hastur, and Hali all getting their moment in the moonlight, analyzed and reconfigured repeatedly.

The King in Yellow, as presented by Chambers, is a play that drives people mad. There are a couple couplets presented throughout the text, but the exact nature of what it says (particularly in the 2nd act, where things go horribly bad and drives the reader insane). In Chambers, the play is "things best left unknown" incarnate. Someone reads the play and goes mad. When referred to in the text, it gets its own font. That's how alien it is.

And most fans will only read the first four stories, which is are the most mythos-y of the collection in that they name-check the King in Yellow. "The Repairer of Reputations" is the most weird of these weird tales, in that it portrays a futuristic New York (of thirty years after the story is written) with a heavily militarized America, a recent invasion of New Jersey by Germany, and suicide chambers in Washington Square. Yet all that is world-building background, in that the narrator is a sociopathic madman who believes himself to be heir of the Imperial Dynasty of America. It is actually a wonderfully strange story, and in a long section name-drops a lot of material used by later writers.

The remaining three, "The Mask", "The Court of the Dragon", and "The Yellow Sign" have similar arcs, filled with growing dread and strange happening resolving in someone encountering the accursed play with horrible results. "The Demoiselle D'Ys" is a fantasy that evokes the later Clark Ashton Smith. "The Prophet's Paradise" is a series of one-pagers. And the remaining four, his "Street" stories - "The Street of the Four Winds", "The Street of the First Shell", "The Street of Our Lady of the Fields", and "Rue Barree" are about art students and demimondes on the Left Bank of Paris (Chambers was an art student in Paris before he became a writer).

And in these stories, there is a bit of really fine writing, and you see why Chambers is an unappreciated genius. "First Shell", set during the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian war, captures the entire fog of war better than many modern novels. "Our Lady of the Fields" concludes with a practically orgasmic train trip, and "Rue Barree" has a section of the drunk protagonist that is amusing. Even up in "The Repairer of Reputations", with its long paragraph  of Mythos-friendly terms, is impressive. You can see where Chambers earned his reputation.

This collection, Chambers' first, did a lot to establish himself. He later settled into a more traditional, commercial success thereafter, and you can see the talent here. Yes, you should read past the first four stories.

More later,

Monday, April 27, 2020

Plague Books: La La Land

Be Cool by Elmore Leonard, William Morrow 1994

Provenance: I dunno. The book itself showed up on the bookshelf I reserve for paperbacks.  It has as a bookmark a receipt from the Tacoma Book Center, a mecca of used books in the shadow of the Tacoma Dome. It has a sticker on the back saying it was from Port Book & News in Port Angeles, but even that may be a remainder. In any event, it has been on my paperback shelf, which I have been looking at in my downstairs home office every day. And the trade paperback size and blue steel cover kept taunting me as I was working.

Yes, I judged a book by the cover. That's the point. That's why they have covers.

Review: Look. I'm going to be careful taking on Elmore Leonard. The guy was writing since the 50s, passed on only seven years ago, and a LOT of his books have been turned into movies. New York Times bestseller. So, successful. Lemme walk carefully because, spoilers, I didn't care much for the book.

Mind you, I didn't read the previous book, Get Shorty, nor have I seen either of the movies based on the books. So I walk in without knowing much about our protagonist, Chili Palmer, former sorta-mobster and loan shark who has gotten into movie production. His first movie was a success. His second was a bomb. So he's looking for a new idea. And he's doing lunch with another former sorta-mobster who is now in the record business, and the former sorta-mobster is shot down right before his eyes. And Chili's first thought is - hey, this is a great idea for a movie.

Like I said, I don't know Chili. This is the first time I've encountered him. But I don't particularly like him. This is one of the thing which impresses me about Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories (oh, wow, here he goes again about Nero Wolfe). Regardless of the story, you get an idea right up front of who Nero and Archie are, and what their relationship is. And you have a reason to root for Archie, our narrator. In other words, any Nero Wolfe story could be your first Nero Wolfe story. I don't get that break here, so Chili and I get off to a rough start.

To use an Hollywood reference, there's a book out called Save the Cat. It is a short book that for a while was (and maybe still is) gospel in screenwriting. One of the things that it stresses as a "must" is that, in the first few minutes of the movie, you have to give the reader some reason to root for your protagonist. He is kind to a little old lady, fixes someone's tire, or, yes, saves the cat. So Chili meets a former sorta-mobster turned record producer, heads for the men's room, and on his return sees the former sorta-mobster gunned down. And his first thought is how he can turn this into a movie.

As I said: Rough start.

Another bit in the book is the idea that everyone in LA wants to be in a movie about their lives. I am not a LA native. I go down every so often for recording sessions for computer games, which keeps me in the general vicinity of Burbank and the old Bob Hope airport. I don't hate LA or love it. I am more LA-Adjacent. But I haven't met anyone yet who does the whole "you should do a movie about my life" thing. But I like Leonard's LA. It feels relatively comfortable. So that's a good thing.

So Chili gets into the record business, and stuff just starts happening. He discovers a hot new talent. He becomes her manager. He gets her to put her old band from Texas back together. He comes home one night and finds a dead body sitting at his desk. He makes friends with a homicide detective who, surprise, wants to see a movie about his life. Homicide detective is now Chili's new best friend, despite the fact Chili is a witness/suspect in two murders. Chili encounters a gay Samoan bodyguard that sounds suspiciously like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and who is (surprise) played by Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson in the movie version. And then Aerosmith shows up.

You know, it sounds sillier than Leonard lays it out to be, but no sillier than most things that end up in LA's fictional universe. At the end of it all, Chili Palmer is a hustler, flying by the seat of his pants, making up lies on the spur of the moment and not getting called on it. He's got some tight situations but he never pays for his crimes, or realizes fully what he's done. He's not amazingly likeable, and remains an external force in LA, not really part of the entertainment world, but just an opportunist who sees it as he most recent grift.

Leonard is famous for saying, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." And while I agree with the idea that language should sound realistic and natural, clarity has to ultimately rule. There are chunks here that feel like they were written during the Great Punctuation Shortage of 1993, and I had to take a couple runs at a few sentences to determine who is talking about what.

Be Cool is OK fiction. Not great, just OK. Like Chili Palmer, the book is not likeable enough to really pull me onto its side, but entertaining and engaging enough to work. Leonard's writing ethos is akin to some other authors I know - "If you do something wrong long enough, it becomes a personal style". Like LA itself, I can't muster up the emotion to hate it or love it. So I guess I'm Be Cool adjacent.

And now I can take that book off my shelf, so its blue steel cover doesn't distract me anymore.

More later,

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Plague Books: The Zimmermanns

The Zimmermann Telegram by Thomas Boghardt, Naval Institute Press, 2012
The Zimmerman Telegram by Barbara W. Tuchman, Macmillan Publishing, 1958, 1966 Edition

As I've mentioned, I have been taking advantage of my sequestered lifestyle to catch up on my reading. I have accumulated a large number of books that I've eventually intended to consume, and now, without a commute and with them at easy hand, I find the time to do so. Have some reviews.

Provenance: Two different books with the same name. Both these books come from the local Half-Price Books down in the valley (I think). The Tuchman version was purchased and consumed years ago, and is truly a used book - it lacks any marking of previous ownership, but the spine opens easily and the flyleaf cover is slightly ripped at the corners. Someone read this book and sold it, with a bundle of others, to the store. The Boghardt version is an overprint - they ran a larger print-run than they sold, so it went in a box with eleven of its others to a warehouse, then another warehouse, and lastly to the local HPB. This volume was the most recent purchase of mine before everything shut down, along with a copy of The Lost City of Z, which I am currently abandoning (30 pages in and I have no less than THREE different expeditions lost in the Amazon jungle. I fear if I continue the entire state of Rhode Island will be lost there.).

Review: When I was in high school, I always thought that the sinking of the Lusitania was why US entered into WWI. Years later I realized that the timeline didn't match up, the Lusitania, a British passenger ship (now admitted to be carrying munitions) was torpedoed by a German U-boat in May of 1915, but the US didn't enter into the war properly until early 1917. Later I learned that it was the resumption of unrestricted naval warfare in the Atlantic (which meant attacking neutral ships, including US ones). And then I found out about the Zimmermann Telegram, where the German government contacted Mexico with an offer of support if they would attack the US in the event that the US entered the war on the British side, offering them the lost territories in the American Southwest.

Americans love their inciting moments. Pearl Harbor. 9/11. The Maine in Havana harbor. It is the rallying point that we can get behind to take on enemies. We don't do so well when we have to creep up on a war, make a rational decision to commit. Was the War of 1812 really about American seamen being impressed onto British ships? Or was it about expansion in the Northwest Territories as the western War Hawks wanted? Or just opportunism because England was dealing with Napoleon? The Gulf of Tonkin turns out to be suspiciously wonky as a casus belli. So it makes sense that we fixate on the earlier sinking of the Lusitania or the Zimmerman telegram as the spark that unleashes the flames of war.

Maybe, maybe not. And I found Tuchman's book to be very strong in making that argument when I first read it. Hers is a popular history, a well-organized tale well-told. She tracks the writing and the intercept of the telegram through spies in foreign lands, Swedish back-channels, and recovered codebooks. The telegram drops on America like a bombshell and rallies us to take on the Hun.

Boghardt disagrees, and has the benefit of forty years of additional research in the area. He had access to the files in the German Foreign Office in Willhelmstrassen that Tuchman did not, and the ability to dig down beneath the mildly disingenuous interviews with the British spymasters to produce a more nuanced version of the events.

Boghardt's description of the German Foreign Office at Wilhelmstrasse is like a Teutonic version of The Office. Everyone has their own pet projects, their own fears, their own promotional goals. The Zimmermann telegram doesn't belong so much to Zimmermann as to his assistant, von Kemnitz, who Tuchman excludes from her 1966 edition as a shadowy figure lurking at the margins. From internal documents, the whole alliance with Mexico was von Kemnitz's favorite. Boghardt shows that the plan was swept up in other matters as an afterthought, since Zimmermann and the rest were more concerned about the upcoming announcement that Germany was going to return to unrestricted submarine warfare. THAT was what the Foreign Office was sure to bring the US in on the English side, and offering to support Mexico in case of war was just a side offer.

How the Brits got the telegram is another point of discrepancy. Tuchman relied on the stories of Captain William Reginald Hall, the director of British naval intelligence, and passed along the official line of Swedish roundabouts and captured code books. On review of the play, however, the Germans sent the infamous coded telegram through (then-neutral) American channels, and asked the American to just pass the word along to the German Embassy there (without looking at it, or breaking the code). Hall and the Brits were intercepting and reading the US diplomatic posts and had already broken the German code. British Naval Intelligence then had to figure out how to tell the Americans about the plot without revealing that they had been spying on their hopeful allies. And after the war, they reinforced the cover story in order to not reveal that they were STILL reading the American's diplomatic mail.

The announcement of the Telegram (leaked to the American Press) was not an immediate hammerblow to neutrality but was a major jolt to the system. The US was not blase about the telegram (and the examples Boghardt uses to show that it was no big deal were not effective), but it did not immediately turn the US to a war footing. Isolationist, rpo-neutral and pro-German factions in the government (there were more Germans in Milwaukee than in Berlin at the time) concentrated not on the news of the plot, but rather on where it came from. Many suspected it was a British scheme to pull the US into the war (and it was, but like the best plots, had its roots in reality). Congress argued for days on the matter, until Wilson stepped in and asked for the declaration of war before Congress adjourned.

Ultimately, the Zimmermann telegram was the final straw for Wilson. Portrayed by Boghardt as the last proponent of peaceful resolution in his own administration, the effrontery and outrageousness of the German offer was enough to move him off the fence. While unrestricted naval warfare was the cause on-paper, the Zimmermann Telegram, and how it was spun, ultimately moved him to action sooner as opposed to later.

And Mexico as a German ally? I think it more possible than either Boghardt or Tuchman consider. We had grabbed those huge chunks of Mexican land in 1848. In 1916, we physically invaded Mexico with Pershing's Punitive Expedition, not to mention grabbing Vera Cruz, their major port for a while in 1914. So yeah, regardless of the Mexican government's attitude (they were in the midst of a three-way civil war at the time), it was worth considering.

And while the plan of the Zimmermann telegram seems far-fetched, it matched up with successes from the German Foreign Office. They encouraged subjugated populations for form second, third, and fifth fronts to stretch their opponents' resources thin. Yes, the Zimmermann telegram backfired. But the Easter Rising in Belfast was a success (from the German  side, who capitalized on the resistance being crushed by the Brits. For the Irish themselves, not so much),. And after the telegram, Zimmermann pulled off one of the coups of the war in organizing Lenin's sealed train, sending the Communist leader back into Russia at a critical point. Neither Tuchman nor Boghardt mention this, as both narratives create the impression that after the telegram, Zimmermann entered into twilight.

Ultimately, both books have value. Tuchman's gives the once standard view, supported by traditional sources, while Borhardt's deals with a lot more detail into the whys and wherefores. Neither comes right out and claims the Telegram was the primary reason we went into war, but make good cases for it to be a strong influence on America's decision.

More later,

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Plague Books: Lovecraft and Leiber

The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich by Fritz Leiber, TOR Books, 1997

So with the ongoing situation, I've been reading a lot. I have a sizable library in the basement, which includes a lot of books I have not read/ have been meaning to read, and this is the perfect opportunity. So these are my Plague Books, and what I have to say about them.

Provenance: This particular hardback volume was purchased at the Barnes & Noble in Rockford Illinois Saturday, April 19, 1997. It was read immediately and finished on April 20th (It is a short book). Then it had a second reading in 2015, and a third in 2017. I know all this because I got the book from John D. Rateliff, who has not only kept a log of every book he has ever read, but also notes in these books the dates he purchased and read them, and pertinent facts about where he purchased them and if his wife was there at the time. So the book has now been read a fourth time, in 2020 (and will be so noted for the next reader).

Review.This book has an history as roundabout as for this individual volume. Fritz Leiber was a master fantasist, and was creator of, among other things, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories. This is an early work, written in the 1930's, when the young man was in communication with H P Lovecraft, then in his twilight years. I don't have any reference for what Lovecraft thought of the story, or even if he saw it, but the manuscript itself was lost in the 50's, and resurfaced only in the 90's following Leiber's death. It is a slender tale, less of a novella than a short story, and for this edition was illustrated nicely by Jason Van Hollander.

If the title were not overwhelming the text it supports already, the full title is The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich: a Study of the Mass-Insanity at Smithville. And it poses itself as a description of some strange events in the small Californian town of Smithville, with an addenda.

Here's the gist of it: Our narrator, George Kramer, comes to Smithville to visit three old friends from college. John Ellis and Mary are married, and Mary was a native of this town, so they moved here. Kesserich settled there soon thereafter. When Kramer arrives, Mary is dead, and Ellis and Kesserich, thought by the rest of the town to be the resident mad scientist, are missing. While he is there, the town itself starts to wake up to the fact that Mary's death was not what it seemed, and Kesserich (and/or Ellis) may be responsible. Memories start to shift, mobs gather demanding justice, and result in a dramatic confrontation. A year later, our narrator meets with one of the principles and figures out what really happened.

And the story is a good example of a journeyman effort, with some good ideas nestled into some less good prose and odd pacing. The characters react strangely to their surroundings - the narrator sees a small rock he had not noticed before and wonders if he going mad (MAD!), then witnesses his mad scientist's friend's house blow up and takes it in stride. And after the house blows up, even though the narrator is the only one present, the police don't immediately come to conclusion he was responsible (a mention of it is made later, quickly dispensed with, even though the townspeople are turning into a mob). And the first dozen chapters are pretty much  a wind-up for the final pitch where All Is Revealed.

And to be honest, the All that is Revealed is pretty good. It is a different take on time travel and how it feels to be within a timeline where the past changes beneath your feet. It could be the basis for an interesting Call of Cthulhu RPG adventure. It could be an excellent story with a revision or three. With its pastoral Californian setting, it feels more like Bradbury than Lovecraft. But the shows the foundational talent of Leiber that glows in later tales. I can see why he didn't come back to it, and why it lay fallow for so many years before it disappeared entirely. Still, if you are a completest for his work, it is a worthy entry.

More later,

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Life, the Universe, and Everything

This is a  post about John Conway and Enrico Fermi.

John Conway passed on recently, of COVID-19. He is one of those people, who if you know his work, you feel a little sad, and if you don't, you still feel a little sad but in more disconnected way. John Conway did many things, but he also created the Game of Life.

No, I'm not talking about the Milton Bradley/Hasbro game where you start with a car, you must get married and you load up on kids and you make life decisions that will end up in the wealthy retirement home (Much more the American Dream than Monopoly). No, this is a mathematical game about growth and death, which I first discovered in high school in an issue of Scientific America. It is played on graph paper (at the time) and later in computers, and is an interesting simulation. You draw a pattern on the graph paper, and you evolve it through some simple rules:
1. Any filled-in space with fewer than adjacent two filled-in spaces becomes empty (dies).
2. Any filled-in space with two or three adjacent filled-in spaces continues to exist.
3. Any filled-in space with more than three adjacent filled-in spaces becomes empty (dies).
4. Any empty space with exactly three adjacent filled-in spaces is filled in.
With these four rules, you can take any pattern and see how it evolves over time. Computers made this even easier (and engineering students, though wealthy in graph paper, quickly adapted it to computers).  So you can sketch any pattern, and follow their evolution until they stabilize, go extinct, or move off the board entirely.

Some patterns and parts of patterns go extinct - they don't have enough adjacent squares to survive. Some stabilize into a solid pattern that will no longer evolve - a two-by-two square is the simplest. Some stabilize into patterns that lose parts and gain other evenly - the most basic of these oscillators are "blinkers", a line of three vertical squares that, the next turn, become three horizontal squares, which then become three vertical squares until the end of time. And the last group moves out over time in a stabilizing pattern - the simplest version of these is the "glider", which moves slowly forever, until it rules into something else like a map edge or a stable pattern or glider.

OK, let's move on to Enrico Fermi, who is ALSO famous for many things, but the thing we want to talk about is Fermi's Paradox. The basics of this is the question - If the universe is ancient, and extraterrestrial life has had the chance to rise, evolve, and spread out, where are they? Even given the titanic distances of space, why haven't we encountered them?

This was formalized in the Drake Equation, which looks at the following factors:
${\displaystyle N=R_{*}\cdot f_{\mathrm {p} }\cdot n_{\mathrm {e} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {l} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {i} }\cdot f_{\mathrm {c} }\cdot L}$
where:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
and
R = the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl = the fraction of planets that could support life that actually develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of planets with life that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
This is grist for many SF novels, with answers ranging from "they are already here" to "they are avoiding us" to "space is really, really big" to "something is out there eating civilizations" to "all these factors make N so small that we are effectively alone - did we mention that space is really, really big?".

We can argue the numbers, of which we really don't have a large enough sample size to even make a good guess, but, to quote the old joke - "Now we're just haggling." Another way of looking at this is through the lens of Conway's Life.

Some extraterrestrial life will not get to the point where it games sentience, or space travel, or communications, much the factors laid out in the Drake equation - they will die out. And some will reach a stable condition, either technologically or geographically, where they will enter a self-sustaining stasis - gaining a little, losing a little, but staying pretty much in the same location and tech level. And some will become gliders - leaving parts of their past behind them as they continue to evolve in a particular direction.

And these gliders would continue in a relatively stable state, until they hit something else - the edge of a map, another glider, or an existing stable system. And yet (if we are thinking in spacial terms), they are a straight line in a huge three-dimensional space - the chance of them hitting any particular point (like, say, our sun) is tiny. Yet in an infinite universe, or, just saying a extremely large sample size like our galaxy, it remains possible.

And I think that's where we are. I'm not sure if everything really connects here, or there are just similarities, and definitely don't have the maths to back any of this up (like I said "We're just haggling."). But it is an interesting thought experiment for the day, and unites Mr. Fermi and Mr. Conway.

More later,

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Life in the Time of Virus

It has been a little more than a month since I've gone into seclusion here on Grubb Street. In early March, my employer (the Big A) sent all of my team to work from home. I have since brought both my large DTR and my laptop home, set up in the lowest floor of the house, and continued on the job as Senior Narrative Designer of a soon-to-be-released game.

The Lovely Bride and I, given our ages and medical history, really should stay away from people for a while. But I put ourselves down as very fortunate. We have a house with a modest amount of land around it, and our immediate neighbors are retirees or land that will eventually become a new development but is now empty. Our noisiest neighbors is a a Buddhist temple down the street, and even they have been quiet.

The first couple weeks were pretty miserable, mostly because of the weather - rain and more than occasional hail. But in the past week the clouds have broken into that wondrous Seattle Spring. As a result I have been going on more walks. And a lot of people are walking in this neighborhood, just to get out of the house. The other day there was a flotilla of SUVs with kids in the back, festooned with balloons and supportive signs for teachers. Much honking and waving.

The grocery situation hasn't been horrible, either. Yes, there were empty shelves for toilet paper and bottled water, but most of what we needed, they had. Flour disappeared for a while as everyone and their siblings decided that this would be a great time bake bread. Bread we could find, but nor flour. Among the shoppers, masks have shown up recently.

The Lovely Bride is still going into work. She's a tax preparer (an enrolled agent, to be exact), and in Washington State that is considered essential because people still need to make payrolls and plan out for the coming year. But her tax firm is attached to an investment group, and all the investors are working from home, so she pretty much has her office to herself.

All the writers I see on Facebook are saying "This is OUR moment!", and that is true as far as it goes. Writers tend to be pretty self-directed, and writing is by its nature a lonely profession. But working with others on a large project is more like movie-making, so I and my colleagues have a LOT of meetings over our propriety video apps (No, we don't use Zoom). So that often interrupts the day.

I am set up in the lowest floor of our quad-level, on a hefty oak table we purchased years ago from Milt's Wood Shed back in Wisconsin (That Milt - he's a character). I have an office upstairs, but that is filled with distractions, and I am used to writing novels at a kitchen table. The company as been supportive of people buying monitors and chairs for the long haul, but I've salvaged enough from the other office to set up a nice, spartan setup. And being on the lowest floor, I can walk away from it at the end of the day without temptation to keep going (though I still keep going, sometimes, anyway). The downside is that this lowest floor is where I keep a lot of my games and books, and as a result, I am always tempted to pull something down from the shelf to read.

We have two adopted cats, who we are looking after while their owners are in Japan (Hi Anne! Hi Sig! (They are in Hokkaido and doing OK in all this)). Kevovar the Tank Cat has taken up a supervisory role, sitting on one of the other chairs and keeping an eye on me, just in case I decide to the suddenly and impulsively feed him. Kia the Ninja Kitty keeps to herself, mostly on the warmth of the waterbed, but has of late jumped into my lap and demanded petting. So they have adapted to the new regime.

I'm growing out my beard. It is still pretty scraggly.

Have been reading a bit more (reviews to follow) and have been binge-watching some stuff (right now its been The Thick of It, one of those British comedies about horrible people that make you appreciate your co-workers). Haven't been writing as much, but oddly have not been playing too much in games either, as we are doing a lot of playtests on our way to release. I have been playing boardgame ports on the iPad with friends, with us talking over Facebook Messenger. And my Tai Chi classes have resumed on Zoom, though my upstairs office is smaller than I would like when Repulsing the Monkey.

So we're fortunate. I've got the house to myself most days. Work is actually rewarding. Supplies are good. I've been mowing the lawn in bits and pieces over the past week as the weather has been good. Everyone is staying home, and while people mock the "Seattle Freeze" - we are nice, but not demonstrative, it looks like we are succeeding in blunting the worst of the infections. Note that we can flatten the curve, but there is still an area under the curve, so we remain cautious.

I worry for others. I have colleagues who have to take care of kids, or share a small office in their apartments with their spouses, or have older relatives staying with them. My mother is in a retirement village, and while they have been very careful (they deliver dinners to the door, then flee), the isolation has been rough. I have one niece in NYC, and another who is expecting her first child. Yet everyone seemed to be bearing up so far, and for that I am appreciative as well.

Things have changed. The theatres are closed. My friendly neighborhood comics shop is on hiatus. Farmer's markets are currently shut down. The newspapers, lacking advertising, have become wan things, and I notice the margins and the typography is getting larger. So the effects of all this are ratcheting through the economy.

Long term remain concerned about the strength of the infrastructure - if the Internet takes a major hit that would be an end of this long-distance telecommuting. Without Animal Crossing I am sure that riots would follow. Supply pipelines are another concern - yeah, everyone lost their minds on toilet paper but as the virus ravages many farms and processing plants upstream, we may see further shortages.

How long this will go? I have no idea. I've gone hull down and have pretty much adapted, like the cats, to this new sense of normal.  Hope you and yours are making it through all this well, and we will see you on the far side of the pandemic.

More later,

Friday, April 10, 2020

Books: Robot Redux

Network Effect by Martha Wells, 2020, Tor Books

Provenance: A while back, I was cleaning up the big stack of books at the end of my desk and reviewed four of the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells- nicely-sized novellas involving a particularly sarcastic  organic/mechanical construct called a Security Bot, or Secbot, but who refers to himself as Murderbot because he could murder all his human clients if he wanted. He can do this because the internal governor in him brain keeping him from killing his human clients has been uncoupled. But he doesn't want to kill at the humans so much as keep them from getting themselves killed because either situation would interfere with him watching soap operas that he's pirated onto his feed.

Anyway, in the wake of that review, I was contacted by someone at Tor, who asked if I was interested in getting an uncorrected proof (read, advance copy) of the book before its drop date in May. I said of course, and I got a box of about ten books, including Network Effect.

Anyway (again), the box arrived when I was in New York City for a recording session (before all the current craziness), and my lovely bride swooped in, opened the box, and had claimed the book before I got back (Fine. I was reading William Gibson's Agency, anyway, at the time). Once I had pried it from her fingers I had a chance to devour it.

Oh. And I promised myself I would read at least one of the others in the package, just in case the person who sent me the box is reading this and want to send more. Like when Ada Palmer's Terra Ignota series wraps up. Just mentioning it in passing.

Review: This book is a bit of a change-up, not in the least because the series graduates from its spritely novella category to a full-fledged, full-sized (and modestly hefty) novel. And this is an interesting change, in that the first four justified their size by moving quickly and firmly through from beginning to end. In these earlier volumes, our Murderbot is on stage for a perfect amount of time, lest his kvetching becomes whining (usually on the subjects of why humans are stupid, why humans should not be trusted with weapons, and why is he letting these humans be stupid and use weapons in the first place). Now the Murderbot must command a larger space, and the story and the stakes swell accordingly.

And Wells pulls it off, as our Murderbot has evolved into much more than just a variant on Marvin the Paranoid Android. We are used to his interior monologues but also have seen him grow from being the rather self-centered grumbler into being a deeper, more expressive figure (though still mostly self-centered and still a grumbler).

Our grumbler has an adoptive family at this point, who have an enlightened (though not perfect) perception of AI life and what the SecBot wants in the universe. For his part, the SecBot thinks of himself as a Race-Bannon sort of bodyguard (because corporate mercs are still trying to kill some of his people), but it is pretty obvious that he has a soft spot for them, though he teaches a masterclass at denying his feelings. He and few of his clients/family are kidnapped by ART (A-hole Research Transport), a sentient starship who the SecBot has dealt with before. The action travels to a colony world which may be influenced/corrupted by an ancient alien presence.

Wells' universe does not have aliens, except in the extinct variety, who have very alien tech that can destroy entire colonies if they are even touched and is the one thing the ruling corporations fear. So we (humans) have effectively created our own aliens - AIs, bots, enhanced humans, who think very differently than the rest of us.

SecBot is a Asimovian robot, if you replace the word "human" with the word "client" in the Three Laws. SecBot in the course of his duties will dispassionately maim and dispatch threats his clients, including human ones, but will never let his humans come to harm, especially from their own stupidity. Even with the governor circuit that controls him disabled, he still has an internal moral code that justifies helping others. However, the difference is the SecBot gets to decide who those others consist of. His own internal justifications and excuses aside, that's what makes him interesting.

In addition to no living aliens, this particular future galaxy lacks any strong centralizing force. There is no Federation or Empire here, just a collection of competing predatory corporations jostling each other for dominance and ruling over people with a brutal calculus that shames even the robot in its cold logic. All corporate stupidity is written large here, and seems to present the greatest dangers to humanity, and to the SecBot's humans.

All in all, SecBot graduates to a larger space and more involved stories. Wells keeps a number of balls and factions and characters in the air, and advances not only SecBot's development, but the greater universe around him. He has quickly become a favorite alien of mine, in that he doesn't WANT to become human, and only grudgingly wants to understand humans so far as it would allow him to do his job easier. And this feels like the first of a new, larger series starring the Murderbot. I recommend you hunt this down in May (or whenever it arrives at your recently-reopened bookstore) and give it a read. It is well worth it.

More later,