Jun 11

Review: Space Opera

Space Opera (Rich Horton, editor; Diamond Book Distributors) starts off with an introduction that gives a historical overview of the evolution of the term “space opera” from its disreputable beginnings in the 1940s to the self-conscious modern revival of the subgenre after 1985.

It’s a pretty good summary with a few odd lapses. Missing, for example, is the informative detail that the term was coined by analogy with “soap opera”, but in its original context probably owed more to the now near-extinct term “horse opera” for a formulaic Western. Also, given the editor’s cogent argument that space opera never really went away during the pre-revival years, it seems inexplicable that he fails to mention such obvious exemplars as The Mote In God’s Eye (1975) and Startide Rising (1983), among others.

But these are nearly quibbles, relatively speaking. The larger lapse is that the editor of this anthology never engages the question of what “space opera” actually is – that is, what traits define it relative to other subgenres of science fiction. The consequence of this lack is that the stories in this anthology, while sometimes quite brilliant individually, add up to rather less than the sum of their parts, and it can be difficult to discern why any particular story was selected.

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Jun 09

Review: Trial By Fire

Trial By Fire (Charles E. Gannon, Baen) is the sort of book that divides those who notice it into two parts. One group will sneer “Yard goods from Baen, yet another space opera full of stuff blowing up”; the other will nod and smile and say “Good clean fun, I’ll take it.”

I’m cheerfully in the second group, myself. But I do have standards. Done badly, this sort of thing is just boring and derivative button-pushing, a sort of male-targeted analog of formula romances. Done well, it’s a fun ride with enough elements of puzzle story and sense of wonder to make it respectable SF even if it doesn’t aspire to the heights of conceptual breakthrough found in the best of the genre.

This particular book is the second in a sequence that I would describe as enjoyable if unexceptional. Much of the furniture is familiar (one of the major alien species is perhaps too much like Alan Dean Foster’s Thranx, and another is fairly generic Proud Warrior Race Guys) but the author knows his way around the battles and action scenes, and some of the reveals in the puzzle side of the plot are genuinely interesting.

Overall, the author earns his money. You’ll want to read the first book, Fire With Fire, before this one. Expect sequels – but if you’re in the target market for this book, you already know you want them.

Jun 08

Review: The Worth of a Shell

M. C. A. Hogarth’s The Worth of a Shell (self-published) is a complex, serious, well-thought-out extrapolation of the consequences of alien sexual biology marred only by the fact that one of its central premises is not at all credible.

The Jokka are presented as a humanoid species with three sexes; males, females, and neuters. There’s a tragedy built into Jokka physiology; under stress, the females often have strokes that decrease their intelligence. Giving birth induces such stress so reliably that after multiple pregnancies they generally become mindless animals who have to be strapped into a mating harness.

This novel tells of a disgraced neuter who finds renewed meaning in his life by becoming the protector of a female who rejects breeding because she doesn’t want to lose her curiosity and self-awareness. They seek the Birthwell, the legendary origin-point of the Jokka, where she suspects there might be an answer to the Jokka tragedy.

Much of this is well executed. Hogarth has invented plausible specializations for each of the three Jokka sexes and worked out what the resulting dominant social pattern would be like in both logical and evocative detail. Her exploration of the character psychologies arising from these circumstances is equally thoughtful and convincing; she does a particularly good job on her neuter viewpoint character. It is really too bad that Hogarth has screwed up something so basic in her worldbuilding that the whole edifice collapses in a heap.

No, it isn’t the trisexuality, in itself. It is true that premise is almost certainly impossible for a species that isn’t eusocial, like ants or meerkats; the bioenergetics of this have been investigated in some detail. But we can let that slide under the One-McGuffin Rule (a work of SF is allowed one impossible or highly implausible premise as long as the consequences are worked out consistently, and FTL doesn’t count).

The real problem here is the second half – most females going non-sophont after a few births. It’s the “most” that’s the problem here. If this disadvantage were wired so deeply into the Jokka genome that there was effectively no differential across germlines it might be stable. But explicitly it is not; for a few prized females (no one can predict which) the decline is slowed or halted.

This difference is not stable under selection. Remaining sophont in order to care for and advance the interests of your offspring is such a huge reproductive advantage that the alleles preventing the stroke vulnerability should have been strongly selected for in the Jokkas’ evolutionary past, and birth-related strokes should never have had anywhere above about 1% incidence.

The author’s apparent failure to even realize this problem is a crash landing that makes this novel a sad failure as SF. Doubly unfortunate because I can think of a couple of different fixes for it that would have had minimal impact on what the author apparently wanted to do.

Note for those unfamiliar with genre forms: it is allowed for Ms. Hogarth to have an explanation in mind that she has not revealed, but respect for her readers’ ability to play the game requires that she drop a clue to the explanation, or at least signal that she knows it’s a continuity problem that has to be resolved.

Further warning: this is another one of those first-of-a-sequence books that is not so labeled and doesn’t warn you that it ends without resolution. Turns out this may only be true of the ARC; the Amazon listing describes it as first of a series.

Jun 07

Review: Echopraxia

Peter Watts writes complex, dark novels full of intellectual fireworks – disturbing tours-de-force that question our most cherished notions of consciousness, self, free will, and agency. I often disagree with his logic and conclusions, but he plays the game honestly and shows his work – usually with extensive citations to the published literature in half-a-dozen scientific fields.

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Jun 06

Hoping for the crazy

The biggest non-story that should be in the news right now, but isn’t, is the collapse of anthropogenic-global-warming “science” into rubble. Global average temperature has been flat for between 15 and 17 years, depending on how you interpret the 1997-1998 El Nino event. Recently GAT, perking along its merry level way, has fallen out of the bottom of the range of predictions made by the climate modelers at the IPCC. By the normal 95%-confidence standards of scientific confirmation, the IPCC’s disaster scenarios – the basis for, among other things, carbon taxes and the EPA’s coming shutdown-by-impossible-regulation of U.S. coal power – are now busted.

AGW alarmists have responded by actually hoping in public view that a strong El Niño event later this year will shove GAT back up into consistency with the IPCC models, rescuing their narrative.

This…this is hoping for the crazy. Let me count the ways:

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Jun 01

At long last, shipper 1.0

Here at Eric Conspiracy Secret Labs, we ship no code before its time. Even if that means letting it stay in beta for, er, nearly twelve years. But at long last I believe my shipper tool is ready for the world.

Since I’ve already described shipper in detail I won’t rehearse its features again. Suffice it to say that if you’re the kind of hacker who ships point releases more often than about once a week, and you’re tired of all the fiddly handwork that implies, you want this more badly than you know.

May 29

New cat soon to arrive here

Cathy and I signed papers to adopt a cat from a rescue network last night. It would be here already, but it’s being treated for a mild ear infection picked up at the pet store.

“It” is actually a he, a golden-eyed ginger-and-cream Maine Coon about two years old. The name is “Gorgonzola”, which we’ll probably shorten to “Zola”.

Why this cat? Because we’re of the school of thought that believes you should let a cat choose you rather than trying to choose a cat. Of all the ones we met, it seemed to take to Cathy the most strongly, and we viewed this as the more important compatibility check because we both know I have stronger cat-fu than she does. If a cat doesn’t take an active dislike to me (which is so unusual I can’t remember when it last happened) I will charm it eventually; this one likes me well enough to begin with that I’m sure we’ll do just fine.

It’s hard to avoid making comparisons with Sugar. First impression is that Zola is almost as human-friendly as Sugar was (which sounds like faint praise but is really like saying “almost as deep as the Pacific Ocean”) with a more placid, less active temperament. I’m not expecting him to be quite as outgoing with our houseguests, but I don’t think he’ll hide behind the furniture either. Likely he’ll just hang out nearby being mellow and making nice at anyone who approaches him. That’s typical behavior for Coon toms and he seems quite typical that way. He seems to be very gentle and un-clawful even by Coon standards, which is going some. I’d bet he’s great with small children.

We’re a little nervous, for all the obvious reasons. What if Zola has un-obvious behavior problems? Ill health? But it’s time. Our home feels a bit empty without a cat in it. Not for much longer!

May 27

Review: Elements of Mind

I’ve been friendly with Walter Hunt for some years, so when he told me that his new novel Elements of Mind (Spence City) involved Victorian mesmerists, I knew to expect an atmospheric and meticulously researched fantasy full of period language and detail, probably one dovetailing with real history as seamlessly as anything by Tim Powers.

That is indeed what we get. In Victorian England, a society of mesmerists – in effect, sorcerers who can use gestures and the power of animal magnetism to compel humans and others – is aware of various categories of dangerous spirits. There are elementals of earth, air, fire and water; greater entities of a kind a Victorian Christian could only categorize as demons or perhaps djinn; and still greater, half-awake entities who might be old gods.

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May 22

Review: Template

I learned from his previous novels Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice that Matthew Hughes seems to have chosen crafting really high-quality tributes to Jack Vance as his artistic mission (at least when writing SF). As a long-time Vance fan myself I consider this a worthy goal, and in Template (self-published) he does not disappoint.

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May 20

Review: Reach for Infinity

Reach for Infinity (Jonathan Strahan, ed., Rebellion Publishing) is an anthology of new hard SF. The authors and the editor are stretching themselves, taking chances; some of these stories are failures. In general, however, even the failures are interesting efforts that will push you to think about their premises and consider the ways in which SF is constantly claiming new imaginative territory.

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May 19

Review: Anthem’s Fall

S.L. Dunn’s Anthem’s Fall (Prospect Hill Press) wants to be a high-concept SF novel. What it actually achieves is more like a bad comic book. Without the pictures.

In New York City, scientist Kristen Jordan (brilliant and beautiful, and very young, of course) is growing increasingly worried about an übertechnology she helped create, as the secretive leader of her research team seems to be developing ever more grandiose objectives. In the parallel world of Anthem, warfare and political collapse are destabilizing an empire. The teaser copy promises us that contending super-entities from Anthem will erupt into our world, requiring Kristen to unleash a technology against them that may be more dangerous than the invaders. DUM DUM DUM! And dumb, dumb, dumb.

But I never got that far. By fifty pages in it was clear that this is one of those books that, as Dorothy Parker put it, should not be lightly tossed aside; rather, it should be hurled with great force. I made myself soldier on a bit after that to give the Anthem-centered part of the narrative a fair shake, but it was no improvement on the parts set in New York City – if anything the smell of bad comic-book got stronger.

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May 17

Managing compatibility issues in ubiquitous code

There’s a recent bug filed against giflib titled giflib has too many unnecessary API changes. For a service library as widely deployed as it is (basically, on everything with a screen and network access – computers, smartphones, game consoles, ATMs) this is a serious complaint. Even minor breaks in API compatibility imply a whole lot of code rebuilds. These are not just expensive (requiring programmer attention) they are places for bugs to creep in.

But “Never change an API” isn’t a good answer either. In this case, the small break that apparently triggered this report was motivated by a problem with writing wrappers for giflib in C# and other languages with automatic memory management. The last round of major changes before this was required to handle GIF animation blocks correctly and make the library thread-safe. Time marches on; service libraries have to change, and APIs with them, even when change is expensive.

How does one properly reconcile these pressures? I use a small set of practice rules I think are simple and effective, and which I think are well illustrated by the way I apply them to giflib. I’m writing about them in public because I think they generalize.

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May 16

Review: A Darkling Sea

While most life on Earth is powered by chemical energy captured from solar radiation, deep in our seas there are entire ecologies powered by volcanism – specifically the hot water issuing from hydrothermal vents. Hot mineral-rich water supports a food chain based on chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea; it extends upwards in complexity through giant tube worms, clams, limpets and shrimp. These animals live miles further down than sunlight ever reaches, in an extreme of pressure and frigid temperatures that would kill any surface life in short order.

In recent years planetary astronomers have come to believe that beneath the icy surfaces of some of our gas-giant moons there are dark oceans of liquid water. Tidal forces acting on the moons power volcanism; Europa, in particular (the smallest of the four “Galilean” moons of Jupiter) is suspected of having its own hydrothermal vents. Exobiologists think it is relatively likely that life has evolved around them.

James Cambias’s A Darkling Sea (Tor) transplants the Europa scenario to Iluvatar, a moon in a solar system roughly half way between future Earth and the homeworld of aliens called the Sholen who are attempting to limit human interstellar expansion. A peace treaty with the Sholen constrains human scientists living in a seafloor habitat beneath the ice. They chafe to make contact with the intelligent arthropods at the top of Iluvatar’s foor chain, but are forbidden from contaminating their culture.

After a human scientist attempting to spy on the Ilmatar is captured and dissected by Iluvatarans who do not realize he is a sophont like themselves, a Sholen mission shuts down the base and orders the humans to evacuate. Some humans, refusing, flee into the lightless ocean and must make allies of the Iluvatarans to survive. When the Sholen’s clumsy attempts at forcing the issue kill some of the mission crew, the survivors vow to strike back.

Cambias imagines a detailed and convincing ecology for Iluvatar. The natives have plausible psychologies given their evolutionary history (the way Cambias develops the operation and limits of the sonar that is the only distant sense of these eyeless beings is impressive). The gritty details of life in a cramped, smelly human dive habitat are also well handled. Even the villains of the piece are not mere cardboard; the Sholen have their own internal factional problems, and become dangerous not because the are strong but because they are divided, afraid, and dwindling.

Overall, this is a tense, well-constructed SF novel of first contact, done in the classic Campbellian style and lit up with the sense of discovery that such works ought to have. It could have been written by Hal Clement or Arthur C. Clarke if either were still alive. It works excellently on that level, even if you don’t notice that the author has embedded in it a sly parable.

I won’t spoil the fun by laying it all out for you. But the viewpoint character’s last name is “Freeman”, and the repressive eco-pietism of the Sholen echoes the attitudes of some humans in our present day. The second half of the book, without ever tub-thumping about it, delivers a satire of various human political delusions. Even the Sholen social pattern of achieving consensus by bonobo-like sexual bonding carries mordantly funny symbolic freight once you realize what it’s a comment on.

All in all, highly recommended. This is much the best first SF novel I’ve read in the last few years, and leads me to expect good craftsmanship from Cambias in the future.

May 15

Evaporative cooling and AGW

Earlier this evening an Instapundit reference reminded me of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s insightful essay Evaporative Cooling of Group Beliefs, in which he uses a clever physics analogy to explain why cult-like groups often respond to strong evidence against their core beliefs by becoming more fanatical.

Glen Reynolds used the reference to take a swipe at what political feminism has become, but a more interesting example occurred to me. I think AGW (anthropogenic global warming) alarmism is beginning to undergo some serious evaporative cooling. Let’s examine the evidence, how it might fit Yudkowsky’s model, and what predictions it implies.

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May 08

On being a gentleman

So I’m walking down a hallway at Penguicon 2014 and I notice one of the people who had tossed intelligent questions at me during my Ask Me Anything panel. He’s rather hard to miss; you don’t often see guys who fit the description “huge blond viking” so well, and when you do they are not apt to be wearing full drag, including a wig and earrings. Beside him is a rather pretty woman emitting wife-or-girlfriend cues that are not readily reconciled with the drag.

“Hey honey,” he says “that’s who I was telling you about.” Addressing me, he says “I’ve made The Art of Unix Programming required reading in my IT group.” OK, that’s worth stopping for, if only out of politeness. I say something agreeable.

“I started that”, says honey “but I only got two chapters in. I didn’t understand it.” Closer up she is quite attractive, slender and blue-eyed and fit. Also a bit tipsy, and if I’m any judge not quite as bright as viking-drag-guy even when sober – though this being an SF convention her IQ is probably comfortably above average anyway. This judgment informs my response.

I suggest she try reading The Cathedral and the Bazaar instead, as it’s more accessible to people without a programming background. Mostly anthropology and economics, I explain. Viking-drag-guy says “Huh. I guess that’s true.” I say a few relevant things about praxeology and Hayek. “I think I have a copy at home,” he says to her.

Honey is developing other ideas; there is now a bit of sexual edge in her gaze. “I want a picture with you.” Viking-drag-guy pulls out a smartphone and positions it. Nothing loth, I move next to her and she promptly pulls me into intimate range. I look at the smartphone lens and feel something damp on my cheek. Honey is licking me playfully. I make a startled noise. Viking-drag-guy looks amused. Then honey asks me to kiss her.

She is quite attractive and viking-drag-guy doesn’t look inclined to try to drop-kick me into the next county (an intention I’d have to take seriously from anyone that large, hand-to-hand training or no) so I comply. She kisses me most thoroughly, and while I don’t exactly escalate I do my best to make it an enjoyable experience for her.

To understand my reaction to what comes next, you need to know that various women in my life have insisted that I am quite good at this, and I think I know why; when I kiss a woman she gets my total undivided attention to that moment, contrasting with a lot of men who are distractedly thinking about, oh, I dunno what – their next move, probably. This is why I’m a little surprised when honey breaks the smooch and complains.

“You didn’t give me any tongue!” she says. Er…viking-drag-guy is still looking amused, and she’s still pretty, so I mentally shrug and go in for round two, though I am growing slightly uncomfortable with the situation.

Honey can tell this. “You’re too tense,” she says. “you need to loosen your lips. That’s what makes it passionate.” Uh oh. Now I must risk giving offense.

“I’m sorry,” I explained. “I am, actually, feeling a bit inhibited. I strongly prefer kissing women when they’re completely sober and responsible.”

Honey makes a visible effort to think about this. After a pause, she says “Isn’t that a bit unrealistic?” Those were her exact words.

Boing! A dry, Spock-like voice in my brain informs me that I have obviously encountered a woman who considers inebriation a normal part of the mating dance. I am just reflecting that, by report, this is statistically normal behavior which I can consider exceptional only because I choose my social contexts rather carefully, when viking-drag-guy interrupts my thought.

“He’s being a gentleman, honey,” he says. Whereupon I mumbled “I’m afraid I’m stuck with that,” and took my leave as gracefully as I could.