Strange Vistas


Book cover for Stories of your Life and Others

A lot of dystopian stories posit variations on a Mad Max world where marauders roam the wasteland. That’s a kind of change no one wants to see. I think those qualify as doom. What I mean by disruption is not the end of civilization, but the end of a particular way of life.

— Ted Chiang

You have got to squint to see Ted Chiang.

You could give me a random markdown file with a story, and I could tell if the writer was Peter Watts or Robert Heinlein or Vernor Vinge. As authors, they have distinct voices, styles, concerns that come through whether they are writing about the near-future or post-singularity, fantasy, or body horror. Most would take a few paragraphs – Iain M. Banks might take a chapter.

Not Chiang. The most impressive thing about Ted Chiang’s intricate collection of beautiful (and mostly) science fiction tales, Stories of Your Life and Others, is how muted Chiang himself is.

You can see the connecting tissue, mostly in the concerns, but Chiang is a writer who lets the characters and situations speak – you don’t hear him nearly as much.

It’s an eclectic collection of themes. Among them:

  • The Tower of Babylon, a scientific recounting of what it would be to attempt to pierce the heavens, see Yahweh;
  • 72 Letters, mixing magic with thermodynamics, using the Kabbalah as lexical genetics;
  • Hell is the absence of God, a smirking, chuckling story of speculative fiction (and the only one not science-bent) about what it would be like if Christian myth was literally, visibly real;
  • And of course Story of your Life, whose central conceit the movie Arrival has already spoiled, but which manages to convey its fascination with language and the shaping of reality.

They are filigreed little things, littered with minutia, much more solid than they first appear. Every story in this collection has a distinct voice – Chiang doesn’t have a single one. Nowhere is this more evident than on a “documentary transcript” about how we manipulate each other with beauty. Multiple talking heads bob in and out of the story, each one with their manner and concerns.

They all share a few traits, though. Mostly, the focus on getting back to science fiction roots, when the stories weren’t supposed to be about the gadget but about how the gadget changes us. It’s not just all business and sociology, though – Chiang manages to sneak in jokes about such varied things like histocompatibility genetics – but they are all about the social implications, how things changed because.

Plus, there is a brief afterword, with notes about where the stories came from. People always ask writers where do they get their ideas, but nobody wonders ever asks how for how long they had to work at getting them right. If the details on the stories themselves did not leave it clear, the afterword would cement the impression that Chiang takes a while to let things percolate and edit them so that they are just right. Or, more importantly, so that he is satisfied with them.

With this meticulous attention to detail, it is no surprise he has published only a handful of tales in the last 30 years. It was surprising, however, learning that even after Arrival he is still working as a technical writer. I shouldn't have, however, considering the respect for the craft his stories shows. While the rest of us expect the ideal gig and complain about how shitty our managers are, he just wants to produce something he is happy with, however long it takes. Even if it means holding up a day job.

#books #scifi #tedchiang #storyofyourlife #arrival

TV Shows have become more efficient. It used to take a whole 24 episodes for a series to ruin a promising concept or first season – now they can do it in only 8.

This will likely contain spoilers for both seasons of Altered Carbon. Nothing major from season 1, if you've read the book, but I won't hold back on the new material from season 2.

Joel Kinnaman as Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon, Season 1

The first season of Altered Carbon was an enjoyable and (mostly) faithful adaptation of Richard Morgan's original novel. It's the future, and humans are now able to download their consciousness to new bodies when their current one dies (or, if you're rich, whenever you want). Kovacs, a U.N. super-soldier turned mercenary, finds himself back in a new body after 200 years, at the behest of a tera-rich who wants Kovacs to solve a locked-room mystery.

It has a few interesting ideas in it, with the “sleeving” concept fully integrated into the world and used to power both its central mystery and the characters' solutions. It never connected with me, though. I remember the impression the book caused more than the specifics. Kovacs felt out of place in the wrong way: a Mary Sue mixture of hardboiled noir P.I. and killing machine, a bad-ass disconnected from the events. There was no particular reason for him to do anything, other than the gazillionaire who brought him back had a gun to his head.

The series switched a few things around. What the book called the Envoys are now the Protectorate. The U.N. is never mentioned, but the Protectorate rules the worlds with a kevlar-wrapped mag-rail-gripping fist. Kovacs is still an Envoy – and the last of them, at that, for people to repeat in awe – but they were instead a group of rebels fighting the Protectorate for a reason that the show doesn't initially specifies.

Same bad-ass, then, only turning the rogue factor up to 11.

One of its core changes, though, helped anchor Takeshi Kovacs in the new world. In taking a background character and making her Kovacs' sister, it added a complicating motivation for a protagonist who had none. It made some narrative paths more evident as a potential resolution, while also introducing questions about how Kovacs might act. It made him less transparent.

A minor tweak, probably there to give them an excuse to extend the series with a few background episodes, but one that worked.

Must have worked for audiences, too, because there is a new season built entirely on new material. It's two episodes shorter than the first season's ten, and just as well, as it has barely anything interesting to say.

Anthony Mackie as Takeshi Kovacs in Altered Carbon, Season 2

They still put a couple nice touches in the universe, using the sleeve concept to allow themselves some tricks with cast reuse. This acts both as a nice callback to the first season and to showcase things that the stack technology makes possible.

Overall, though? The writing got sloppy, fast.

Characters act (and rant!) about knowledge that viewers have, but that the same characters haven't acquired yet. Villains would twirl their mustache as they tie a girl's stack to the train tracks if they could – how they go about their plans is not only baroque but bordering on silly. And, in the usual science fiction sin, the series brings back Gods and their wrath as a way to justify some magical choices.

When it writes itself into a corner, the series shrugs and introduces new tech possibilities without a thought about how they affect the world at large (say, being able to wirelessly copy someone's stack without their knowing). Worse, it uses these tools to retroactively explain things that happened in the last season, meaning these aren't new developments but have been available for hundreds of years... yet only a few characters know how to use them, realize it when convenient, had never thought of doing it before, and are able to do it unbeknownst to anyone else.

Any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from a plot device.

Worse, these plot devices are used to cheapen several character choices and curtail more interesting narrative paths. Would Kovacs develop as the same person without Quell dying? What would he be without survivor's guilt? Who cares, when we can have our cake and eat it too?

Which is all an elaborate way of saying that the first season is entertaining, and its changes to the book's background preserve its code. In contrast, the second is not even a passable waste of time. If the writers were going to pull a deus ex machina, the very least they could do was not have it literally be a bloody god in the goddammed machine.

#tvseries #scifi #alteredcarbon #richardkmoran #joelkinnaman #anthonymackie

A spaceship looming over an alien structure

Peter Watts' Blindsight is one of the most pessimistic books I have read, and still I am fascinated by it. It's not just its conceptual density, where you can find more ideas in a chapter than you can find on entire other books. Or that setting, theme, and events are so intertwined you couldn't just pull one out and have the construction remain. Or that its topical range is so broad that it's the first novel I'm happy I read in a digital format, so I could easily look up concepts of biology and linguistics I wasn't familiar with.

What fascinates me about Blindsight is that it's a trojan horse of a book. Blindsight is neo-cyberpunk transhumanism disguised as a first contact novel.

It's not postcyberpunk. Postcyberpunk is characterized by an optimism, a willingness to find a middle ground between tech progress and how we handle it. It doesn't fear the mega-corps, expects that things will balance out.

That's not what Blindsight is. Blindsight is neo-cyberpunk as in neo-nazis.

Neither has any illusions about the original philosophy they are basing themselves on. They are aware of the nastiness. They embrace it, double-down on it, hone it. To them it's not a bug, it's a feature.

What else could you call a post-scarcity future where humanity lost? You have everything you could want, so the work that would have defined you has become obsolete. You have to mutilate and dehumanize yourself just to remain useful and relevant. You can't even fight the government anymore – they can make you believe you crave doing the things they want you to do. You end up becoming something other than a human. No, not “more”. It's not a power fantasy with cybernetic implants.

What you are is something else.

You are that other that the Luddites were so worried the bleeding edge would turn us into after we let it cut us up.

Yet you still have the personal disadvantages that characters in cyberpunk stories had. The unease with your new body. The social conflict from those that would rather things remain as they were. Overspecialization, knowing your specialty might soon become vestigial.

Meanwhile, most of the world has just traded a future of oppression by mega-corps for one of ennui, people reveling in their own irrelevance.

That's not even the book's point. That's just background scenery seen through the window as a few characters go on humanity's worst interplanetary road trip. Going to a place that will confirm the evolutionary cul-de-sac we've drunkenly walled ourselves into. To talk to something which will highlight that if at this point we want to get anywhere as a race, we better start grafting shit onto our brainstems.

Smart narrative choice, as it helps the characters retain some humanity. It stops them from turning into whining cybernetically-enhanced teenagers. They're not bitching about their lot in life – “woe is me, I can taste infrared”. They're showing you how they deal with it. Why they chose it.

Which doesn't stop the characters from being alien to each other. Watts doesn't need to come up with some new lingo for them to speak to make his future feel remote. These people are so strange, even humans back in their own time need Siri (the narrator) as a translator. Crew members all “subtitle” each other as they go to understand what the rest of the crew is talking about.

That they were expected to establish functional communication with the actual others they are sent to find is baffling, when they can barely talk amongst themselves.

And if it wasn't evident, it's also a transhumanist book. Not the “we'll live forever and be omnipotent by bringing nanotech to heel” masturbatory fiction we get so much of. It's transhumanism of the type we're likely to get: dirty, imperfect, full of ragged bits and things that don't quite fit together, but things we'll take anyway because maybe they'll make us more than what we were before. If nothing else, they'll make us different. When all around you humanity is collapsing into the uniform complacency of obsolescence, different is good.

(Image by Dan Ghiordanescu)

#scifi #peterwatts #books #blindsight #cyberpunk #transhumanism

It took Arrival to make me realize why I like Dennis Villeneuve, beyond his just putting out good stuff. His movies are smart, but unlike Christopher Nolan's work, they don't feel the need to rub your face on how clever they think they are. It's cerebral, without being boring. It's engaging. It neither expects the viewer to be a beer-can-forehead-crushing baseline nor thumbs its nose up at those who don't worship at the shrine of Iain M. Banks.

If you like science fiction movies and know that means more than fighter planes going pew-pew at aliens, watch it.

The trailer below is safe. Others I've seen give away too much of the movie's structure if you have an eye for those things.

Arrival is one of those rare layered movies. Normally that would be film-wonk-speak for “more to it than meet the eye.” Arrival does one better, and truly has several strata that you eat through and appreciate, either as a whole or independently.

You can savor the spongy cake of the human drama, with characters attempting to deal with a stressful, drawn-out situation while wrestling with their own problems.

Then there's the crunchy science-fiction base. I'm not going to go into it, to avoid spoiling the themes that will come up, other to say that it's the first time I've seen the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis show up in a mainstream movie.

You can crack them open and taste the thin political coating in the middle, so slight that you might miss it, where scientists attempt to cooperate while their governments decide to puff their chests and act like gorillas playing the prisoners' dilemma.

Or you can take a spoonful of all three. Each layer empowers the others. The themes on its science-fiction foundation are not delved into too deeply on the barely-two-hours they have, but (if I can mix my metaphors) they are the bones and tendons that animate the drama's body. Without the drama providing a human face to it, all you'd be left with is an unsightly calcium structure prancing around, reading Wikipedia pages to you out loud. And without politicians being politicians, events would have no reason to unfold the way they do.

Villeneuve has turned out to be what I expected Christopher Nolan would become. That's not a dig on Nolan – I've done that enough. It's just straight-up praise for Villeneuve.

Published initially on my old blog

#scifi #denisvilleneuve #arrival #tedchiang

Echopraxia book cover

The main problem with most trans-humanist fiction – see SOMA – is how little trans there is in it. Scratch the chrome a bit, and you find most supposedly beyond-human characters are just people whose voices have been put through a modulator to sound like an 80s digitizer.

Not so with Peter Watts. With him, even characters who are mostly human in appearance can be incomprehensible, never mind his aliens.

And still there's something in his writing that connects with me. Some thematic mental resonance, a neural backdoor through which he sneaks in.

Not always in a good way, mind you. I appreciate the world building and writing in Starfish, for example, and I can see where he's going, but he's making the trip damned unpleasant. It's like watching someone expertly and systematically break every bone in someone's body, giving the victim only enough time to stop screaming before moving on to the next one: you can appreciate the skill, but that doesn't make it enjoyable.

Or The Things, his Grendel to John Carpenter's movie, which narrates in first person the creature's perspective as it strives to survive and navigate the mess of relationships at the arctic base.

If writing is therapy, I don't want to know the issues he's dealing with.

The first one that I can say I straight up enjoyed – as opposed to using it to entertain one of the voices in my head as it watched the others squirm – was Blindsight. It's a first-contact story where a League of Extraordinarily Maladjusted Gentlemonsters are sent to the Kuiper belt to examine an alien signal. Strongly recommended for any hard science fiction fan: you won't find any light sabers or space magic here. His time is instead spent on neurology, linguistics, and the nature (and trade-offs) of consciousness. His characters can still barely pass for normal, mind you – the most human one has several voices in her head. Unlike in Starfish, Watts was now focused more on the themes at hand, instead of exploring his cast's fundamentally unpleasant nature and rapidly vanishing humanity.

From that point of view, the Blindsight follow-up Echopraxia feels sanitized. I wouldn't call it a crowd-pleaser but, at least in its narrator, readers might be able to find some remnant of normalcy that they can relate to.

It's not a direct sequel – the events from the first book are referenced, and propel some of what happens, but it won't be required reading. The story follows Daniel Brüks, stubbornly aging biologist, as he gets plucked from his Oregon desert retreat and shanghaied into a trip to the sun by a crew that's vintage Watts.

To say more would be spoilers.

It was a good read, and I was happy to get that Watts narrative scent from Blindsight lingering around again. He's still the man when it comes to hard science fiction topics. What he isn't as good at are the weak and confusing action sequences, a prose equivalent of the Bourne series' Blair-With-O-Vision fights, where the camera is so close to the flailing arms you have no idea who's punching who. Those could have used some serious editing – or being excised altogether – since there are key events that happen in the middle of the chaos, and might confuse readers.

One confused me, actually, and I was uncertain of why things had played exactly how they did. This drove me to do a quick search for Echopraxia, which lead to a IamA that Watts did on reddit around the time the book came out.

How Watts obliquely answers some questions cleared things up, but more importantly, provided a crystalline reminder of one of the problems with creative work: it's very easy to sink too much of your self-worth into your results.

There's an undercurrent of frustration on his replies coming from the book not doing better, just wandering through the mid-list, that is not hard to relate to. Watts has poured his heart and mind into making something out of nothing, into creating a baroque, layered trans-human Earth that would not have existed without his effort, and then it gets by and large ignored because more accessible books came out at about the same time.

It's not hard to see why that would make you want to throw your hands up in despair and sign whatever sell-out contract with a topical devil ends up giving you a wider audience. Craft be damned, you just want enough sales to not have to worry about how long the next one's going to take.

We're all together in this online soup, and as he says, it can be hard to draw the line between organism and environment. Now that you have direct access to your audience, you can no longer blame distribution or marketing or lack of reach and be satisfied it's not your fault. You are submerged in the same signal sea as everyone else, and you pick the bits you echo.

Imagine you are Peter Watts.

You can just swim out there, grab them by whatever lapels you can get a hand off, and ask them Why? Why isn't this doing better? I thought I did a good job. Fuck, a great one! Is there anyone out there that handled this theme better? Look at the reviews, for Christ's sake! What could I have done differently?

And then you realize it's not that the book isn't impeccable. Most of them don't give two fucks, and have not heard of you, and it doesn't matter if you had polished and perfected the confusing sequences, because they're too busy laughing at PewDiePie's antics and making his book of silly inspirational sayings a best-seller.

You'd despair of humanity if you had the snobbishness in you.

But if you cut deeper, bringing some of that clinical detachment with you, what you actually encounter is a deep sadness at the way your own brain is wired. You find easy to do things others find hard or impossible – just not massively profitable things. There are many out there who you know for a fact don't even care about their craft, merely bang out dreck or hang around a desk job, and they do better than you, because they can spot what people are willing to pay for. You rage at the mental proclivities that pushed you towards hard science fiction, when they could instead have made you want to spend the time jockeying for a chance to write the script for the next space-magic lightsaber movie.

What do you do?

Do you just stand there, all clenching fists and grinding teeth?

Or do you just collapse on the chair, shake your head, and hunker down for the next one?

#books #scifi #peterwatts #transhumanism