Category Archives: Science Fiction
YE BE WARNED.
Now: Lightspeed puts the word count in the header of each story. I like knowing how long of a story I’m getting into, but a mere word count does not tell all. What is Eve? is advertised as being 10,160 words but I’m having a hard time believing it because I read the thing so fast it felt like 3,000.
This story is a smooth read. Smooth like a bobsled chute. It’s straightforward but not overly predictable. It doesn’t present deep complexity with tons of subplot and twisty turns, but the twists and reveals that are there are effective at building the story, advancing it, and keeping it interesting.
It’s an alien story and a first contact story — old ground for sci-fi. Old ground we keep writing on, because it’s so rich. As usual with these stories, you’ll find some themes and tropes repeated. The value, now that the 1930s and 40s are behind us, is in the particulars of the story.
This story, trust me, has some good particulars. It carries the strong morals of “don’t be a dick,” “don’t be a cynical realpolitiker,” “maybe try treating others with respect,” and “bullshitters get cut, bitch.”
There’s a nice dose of “do what feels right” and “the authorities are probably full of shit,” which as I’m a moderate cynic and long-disillusioned idealist, strikes a chord in me.
The main characters are a twelve year old scion of, basically, The Man — a kid already maneuvering for a shot at a good college with parental encouragement, and, second, a ticking time bomb of some strange creature that Lightspeed’s artist represented with what I’m pretty sure is a red snapper face looming out of a purple dress.
And I can’t swear the image isn’t the right one given the story. Like many good alien creatures, the alien is more human than she (?) looks.
But then, aren’t we all more human than we look?
…anyway, give this one a read. You won’t regret it.
(This post was published on my Patreon a week before you saw it here. Y’all ought to become patrons. Not only could my kids and I use every spare penny possible given that we live below the poverty line, but you get to read stuff early and get free ebook copies of stuff I publish :))
Bank on it: we will set the door to let deliveries in. You think people order a lot of stuff online now? The trend is upward, the Gen-Xers and Boomers who didn’t grow up ordering stuff online and who are as likely to reject online shopping as to embrace it, are either croaking or following their Millennial and Gen Z and — what are the really little ones called? I’ve seen Gen Alpha, but… meh. Hope they think of a better name.
BUT back to the very short and direct point: more online shopping, free delivery will become the law of the land in that delivery charges will become the kiss of death (they’re headed that way anyway, I feel), and there will be ways to buy things we’re not as comfortable buying online.
I’m not comfortable buying shoes online unless they’re the one shoe I absolutely know how they fit me: Chucks.
But if you could project a true-to-life holo of the shoe over your foot and move aside the layers to see how much room your toes had, it might be a different story.
The next 20 years will be a rapid progression of business finding ways to make people ever more comfortable with buying online (assuming, of course, that we don’t find some way to destroy our own civilization).
I mentioned free delivery above. Delivered by flying, walking, and wallcrawling drones of all shapes and sizes, it will become feasible to make a zillion tiny deliveries. I need sugar — hey, SirTanaExa, order a four pound bag of sugar. Oh, this is the last of the vanilla. SirTanaExa, order a four ounce bottle of imitation vanilla. And so on. The vanilla will fly in on the back of a fat metal dragonfly and the sugar will crawl in locked in the basket atop a mechanical turtle.
And we’ll set the door to let it in, because who wants to open the door for drones 87 times per day?
And some burglars, but mostly mischievous kids who can nevertheless walk off with jewelry and drink up your beer, will wait for those drones and jam your front door for the crucial seconds it takes to dart inside…
Also, this review appeared on my Patreon page ten days before appearing here. Become a patron and you’ll not only help boost me and my POOR POOR SUFFERING CHILDREN toward the poverty line and, hopefully soonish, actually over it, but you’ll get to see a lot of posts way early, plus occasional exclusive posts, and you can even get free ebooks when I publish (and you get those a whole MONTH before the rest of the world! But now, the review:
Containment is an artificial intelligence in a Solar System wide civilization story. It’s also a know thyself story. And a coming of age story in a strange sort of way, and a finding your purpose in life story. Maybe a work-life balance story. And…
…there’s a lot to unpack in this one. The last paragraph makes it sound like the story is a massive chaotic mashup and it definitely is not.
It’s an elegant story. It progresses smoothly. It bears you along like an inevitable word-river. The imagery is not literary or flashy but in this story it should not be. The real beauty and intrigue is elsewhere and too much flash in the outside world would only be a distraction. In this story the author is too smart to distract you.
As I read, I felt echoes of the technological hard science fiction of the masters of the 1950s and 60s, yet it was undeniably modern and accessible. That impressed me and brought out happy memories of myself as a child in the ’70s and a teen in the ’80s immersed in 10 and 20 and 30 year old books and loving them.
There’s an element of mystery in this story, and the eventual revelation of the purpose of the little tower of rocks discovered in the beginning by the Mining Master of Thebe, one of Jupiter’s smaller moons, is natural and smoothly handled, as are the little hints along the way.
Much of the story takes place in the inner world and reasoning of the Mining Master, who is an artificial intelligence (and whose interchangeable purpose-made bodies are an interesting, useful, and story-vital feature). We spend a lot of time in their head before and after the stealthy and subversive upgrade the Master gives himself without permission from his superiors.
While internal impressions and monologue can be boring, it is not here. I found myself fascinated. The protagonist’s inner life is at turns logical and soulful, robotic and humanistic as they cycle from full sentience to blunted sentience to full sentience again and then to something more, something undeniably human.
It’s a what makes us human story, too. And a what could make AI human story. A type of story that has been done many, many times before, but in this incarnation made me stay up reading so late it became early and the birds singing in the dawn made it difficult to fall asleep. Damn your wily storytelling, Susan Kaye Quinn!
This is becoming something of a miniseries — you can see the post about the maidbot here, and there’s a link to the tinkerbot post at the end of that one.
This post appeared on my Patreon page ten days ago — become a patron and see them FIRST. Also you get a free ebook or an exclusive post sometimes!
But enough about those things. This is about gardenerbots and how I just might be willing to kill for one.
Though, maybe not yet because a ratty old trailer in a rundown old trailerpark doesn’t provide a lawn worth keeping up (barring acts of Murphy, we ought to be taking up residence in a little rental duplex or even a small house sometime in the next 1-3 months. Wish us luck!).
But it would almost be worth if just for my little urban garden that I grow in felt pots (which are awesome — plants don’t get rootbound, they grow well, and if you want to put them away for the winter they fold up pretty well). If a gardenerbot was really cheap, like maybe I found a used one on Craigslist that someone was letting go for a hundred bucks because one arm got smashed in a freak tree-trimming accident, I’d totally jump on it (assuming it was near the beginning of the month and my patronage had just hit my PayPal account — otherwise I tend to spend it on food or laundry soap or a while back I used some of it to replace a dead mouse, or contributing to the internet bill. You know, stuff that being able to afford makes this little trailer a more congenial place to live and write).
I could go for it because my gardening skills are only so-so. When I grow my veggies the yields are pretty inconsistent and I’m pretty sure I lose plants I shouldn’t. But a gardenerbot with halfway decent programming, I’m sure, wouldn’t have that problem. I just might kill for one.
It would be all the more enticing if I had a quarter-acre or so of backyard to gardenify. Even an eighth-acre. Or to mow. I’ve never been a fan of mowing lawns.
In fact, I bet within ten or twenty years of rollout a gardenerbot would be cheaper than a good lawn tractor. Then you wouldn’t have to buy a lawn tractor. Or a tiller. Or even a cheap, crappy version of either.
You could buy the absolute cheapest of each of those. An old-fashioned non-motorized push mower.
Instead of an expensive power tiller (or less-expensive but yearly tiller rental)? A couple of good shovels, a hoe, and a rake.
Because what’s the gardenerbot going to do? Get tired? Suffer heatstroke from overwork in the hot sun? Complain about the long hours during sowing and harvest?
Nope. Because it’s a machine. And in the future if self-aware AI is possible…
…it doesn’t take self-awareness to cut grass and plant bell peppers and fertilize the roses. So you don’t even have to worry about being gardened to death in the robot revolution.
It won’t forget to water the vegetables until the leaves get droopy like I’ve been known to do.
If the vegetables or grass or trees start looking unhealthy it will be able to identify the most likely nutrient deficiency or infestation and treat it. When I have to try to identify that kind of thing, I’m mostly guessing and it’s mostly luck when I’m successful.
If I had more room to garden and more lawn to take care of, it would be worth it and I’d totally kill for a gardenerbot then.
Another benefit I hinted at above: tree maintenance. Bush trimming (I mean shrubs, this isn’t a ’70s porn post — the other kind would be handled by a sexbot or a barberbot), stump pulling, digging where electrical or gas or water lines might be.
You know, the dangerous stuff. Not only would a bot not, you know, die if a tree dropped on it or it jammed a shovel blade into a live power line, but the gardenerbot would have access to online maps of these lines so it could avoid them way better than you trying to figure out exactly how the symbols on the map correspond to locations on your lawn (humans do not have GPS, but a bot would). Surely it could do a better job than you or I referencing multiple utility company maps and trying not to forget anything.
All that, and more fresh veggies and fruit than I can grow left to my own devices? Yep, I’d totally kill for a gardenerbot.
And then someone did invent the robot, and in the last threeish decades of the 20th century it was the biggest story (if underreported) again. People variously blame outsourcing and trade imbalances and minimum wage and unions and other things for the evaporation of middle-class-paying factory jobs, but the fact of the matter is that most of them have given way to automation.
Automation was a major driver in rising income inequality, in the shrinking of the middle class, in the erosion of inflation-adjusted wages, in the increase in part-time jobs and decrease in full-time employment, in the… you get the idea. The ramifications are much wider than we see. Or want to see. Political discourse is still hung up on trade imbalances (I have a HUGE trade imbalance with the grocery store but you don’t see ME crying about it) and tariffs and outsourcing. All those things matter, but not a tenth as much as jobs being replaced by robots that are more cost-effective, don’t call in sick, don’t make worker’s comp claims, don’t unionize, don’t complain about not making enough to pay the rent, eat, and pay for healthcare at the same time, don’t have bothersome events like weddings and funerals to attend, don’t have heart attacks at work which just shoots productivity for the day right down the damn toilet, and more.
Wow, human workers suck compared to workers.
But actually, there are a lot of jobs robots don’t do well. Robots aren’t very adaptable. Robots suck at human interaction. Robots aren’t creative. They just do a simple job or a few simple jobs quickly and well, over and over and over and over and over.
That’s changing. Much like computers that once took up a whole room to serve only as well as the calculator app on the phone in your pocket does today, robots are getting better at their jobs fast. They’re replacing ever more production jobs. They’re making inroads into white collar jobs. They’re heading toward being way more ubiquitous than anyone but a few technologists, futurists, and science fiction writers thought possible even twenty or thirty years ago.
They’re going to end up in places, ultimately, that they really shouldn’t be. And they’ll get there because they will have become way cheaper than now (think of how relatively cheap your smartphone is compared to the supercomputer of the 1990s, which it can outperform) and way more flexible. Adaptable.
People will be up in arms, of course, when robot nurses become common and drive out nearly all the human nurses. Or maybe not nearly, but actually all. Robots can’t show compassion, people will say. They can’t comfort the sick and dying like empathetic humans can. They can’t give the encouragement of conversation and a pat on the shoulder and the presence of another human being.
Consider, for a moment, the ATM (or, for redundancy enthusiasts, which are apparently nearly everyone, the “ATM machine”). Reaching back to 1993, I found an article in Wired that mentions what people did not like about them when they were becoming common. People didn’t like that they were machinelike. The programmed, stilted greetings and prompts. The lack of human interaction. Sometimes, the lack of security — a human presence other than one potential victim may dissuade some criminals from striking, or at least offer up the comfort of perceived safety, where a machine does not.
But they liked the convenience. Bankers liked that they could reduce teller jobs (though my understanding is they shifted employees to other positions like sales instead of reducing headcount — but that reflects human flexibility. Remember what I said up there about automation becoming more flexible? It will.).
And now the ATM is just an accepted part of life, and hardly anyone complains about them seriously as a thing. People complain about the slowness of individual ATMs just as they complained about the slowness of individual human tellers (and still do). People complain about the fees. But people do not complain about the fact that ATMs are the way we make nearly all of our cash withdrawals and a large number of deposits as well.
Automated nurses will be like that. A couple of decades after they’re introduced, people will stop complaining about them and accept them. It will become social convention that human interaction with patients is the job of family, friends, and whatever volunteers care to look in on those without many of those.
I think that will basically suck, but if the money says robot nurses, we will have robot nurses.
The same story, over the coming decades and perhaps into the 21st (robotic flexibility has a long way to go), will play out among firefighters and police officers and short order cooks and fast food staff and store clerks and warehouse workers and postal carriers and parcel deliverypeople and florists and paralegals and lawyers and EMTs and professional drivers of all stripes and and and…
In a hundred years, I think we’ll be talking about whether or not employment numbers are over five percent, not whether unemployment is over five percent.
It will be a strange world to people like me born in the 1970s. Assuming medical science advances fast enough to keep me alive into the 22nd, which I think is unlikely (DAMMIT).
(This first appeared on my Patreon page ten days ago. Become a patron and regardless of the size of your pledge you will see all of my best and beefiest blog posts at least a week before they appear here!)
Spoiler Warning: I try to avoid the worst spoilers, but as one of those weirdos who doesn’t care about spoilers I can easily miss them. Assume there are spoilers!
(Also, this appeared about a week ago on my Patreon page — become a patron and you’ll get to read my posts early, too — and sometimes get a free ebook in the bargain!)
And Then There Were (N-One) by Sarah Pinsker (you’ll find it in Uncanny Magazine’s March/April 2017 issue – it’s a public read at this writing) is an alternate worlds yarn. It’s not the standard “let’s see history if X battle were won instead of lost” or “what if dinosaurs evolved human-scale intelligence” alternate world story. It’s still a familiar take, and also a good read.
Standout features: There are some pretty excellent passages pertaining to regrets in life, satisfaction vs. dissatisfaction with your life (yes, yours. I know “universality” is a hotly debated point right now, but regrets are about as universal as you can get I think), as well as love and work-life balance and “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Impressions: As soon as it became apparent this was a multiple versions of one person story (and that is made obvious quickly), I had a moment of fear that it would be in some way a Citadel of Ricks ripoff. My next thought was that an editor for a prozine or semiprozine would almost certainly not buy a story like that. It isn’t at all such a story.
With the ‘coincidence’ of suthor name and character name(s) I wondered briefly how much author self-insert there was and where. And then I forgot to wonder and it didn’t matter at all. I was too busy reading.
The story maintains a blend of serious and light as it progresses to and through the central, darkish, murder mystery (is a murder ever not dark to some degree or another?). The mystery takes on an extra dimension given the premise. How much of our lives are shaped by self-harm, here being the kinds that don’t show in cuts and balding patches and so forth? What would we do or suffer to change our choices and their ramifications? Why do we spend so much time (well, I do, though I’m (no, really, I’m serious) trying to cut down) maundering over what could have been instead of looking to what tomorrow can be? This story makes you look at that perhaps more than is comfortable, as good stories tend to do with the issues they highlight.
There’s also, by the way, an amusingweird aside in which two Sarahs are clearly contemplating making out. Is that masturbation, incest, or a unique, um, phenomenon? You decide.
The writing isn’t strongly descriptive (which I’m fine with, by the way, even though I’m a description guy most of the time) and tends toward a lean narrative – except when we see the feelings of the main Sarah. Then we get soulful and evocative without the reader getting all covered with syrup or angst. Which was nice; as a Gen-Xer I’m steeped in angst from my foundation and a break from that is always welcome.
The action of the story is clear, though the multiple selves in a convention center aspect (one of those selves being the hotel manager was a touch that makes a lot of sense, and its cleverness should be appreciated, by the way) made me go back and reread a couple of paragraphs a couple of times to be sure I was understanding. I didn’t mind it at all. It seemed natural given all the Sarahs. The minor confusion also lent itself well to the mystery part of things, which resolved in a not unexpected way. I really didn’t care (I feel like I’m saying that too much, but here we are) that I had guessed the general shape of the mystery’s resolution. I was still engaged by the particulars of who exactly did what and why.
The wide range of Sarahs didn’t play a whole much with variability in world events as an influence in what might change a person’s life, though that aspect was there to a small degree and was integral to the resolution. It concentrated way more on reactions to events in one’s own life and how a very small change butterfly-effects a person into something radically different given a decade or two to diverge – we see musician Sarahs, and addicts and alcoholics and scientists and humble insurance investigators (our main Sarah), and equestrians and concentrations of similar types that reflect high likelihoods and foundational traits (the gay Sarahs – I wasn’t quite sure if any were straight, but then we don’t see the sexuality of every Sarah, and we mainly know because most have a girlfriend or wife but not present – the crowd is Sarahs only). Others are outliers, like apparently insurance investigator is not a popular career choice among Sarahs, and only a small handful were transgender.
I appreciated the choice to make the setting an isolated island cut off from outside contact by not only its remote nature but also a nasty weather system. This story had enough on its plate without dragging the wider world into things.
I’m happy to have read this story. It gave me a good plateful of food for thought, and those are my favorite kinds of stories in all their multiplicitous glory.
Food printing right now is limited to stuff like pasta and candy. Simple stuff with few ingredients.
But imagine a day when it’s quick and simple to print a burger or pizza or steak.
I don’t know that day will come — it’s difficult to imagine the incredible advances it would take to do such a thing.
But if it gets done it seems likely to proceed like computer tech, from bulky and expensive to cheap and ubiquitous in a generation or two.
Maybe by 2218 we’ll see something like that. It would knock the guts out of the restaurant industry. Make famine response easier. Probably make us all even fatter. It might kill the cooking professions, or make them boutique commodities for rich showoffs.
I would totally buy a food printer. I’d print a box of meringues right now.
This is the first time I’ve reviewed a short story here. I’m pretty sure, anyway. At the very least, it’s the first time I’ve done it with the intention of doing them as a regular feature of my blog-slash-authorpage. (Note: this first appeared on my Patreon page 8 days ago — become a patron and see blog posts a week-plus early, even if you pledge just ONE dollar.
So, before I begin, some notes.
I think I’ll always lead with a spoiler warning, just in case. Like this: there may be spoilers in here, because 99% of the time I just don’t care about spoilers.
And that’s true. I’m one of those weirdos who can have the ending and twists of a movie, book, or story revealed to me and fully enjoy the thing anyway. I’m kind of a fan of spoiling as a device in fiction, in fact. Stephen King loves to do that. He’ll tell you someone is going to die a hundred pages before they die, and the story of how they die is still delicious. More delicious, I think. The flavor is in the telling.
And I’m not going to give stars. Screw grades, especially when they’re nothing more than my opinion. I always feel awkward trying to give a numerical value to how much I like a thing. I’m also the person who says “well, I don’t really have a favorite, but I do like (names five things)” when asked what their favorite whatever is.
I don’t think less of you if you give stars to things, though. Or have favorites. You do you – and I’m not saying that in a sarcastic way.
Now, the actual review:
Elves of Antarctica by Paul McAuley, found in Drowned Worlds, editor Jonathan Strahan. It’s the kickoff story.
My experience: it was easy to read, but also easy to put down and finish tomorrow, which I did. Neither of those traits, speaking of “put down,” is a putdown. I didn’t find it highly impactful, but it was still worth my time.
Standout features: the worldbuilding was excellent and detailed, as was the backstory of the main character. The story is a fine tour through the state of ecological affairs in the next century, and I found it much in the tradition of Hugo Gernsback with his worldbuilding-heavy “look! It’s the future!” stories. McAuley, however, has not built Hugo’s cardboard cutout characters. While the other characters aren’t fleshed out any more than their cosmetic roles demand, protagonist Mike Torres is a deep and rich character – if the worldbuilding wasn’t so significant to current climate change events, I’d take it for an excuse to plumb the depths of his angst, hope, and his curious entanglement with the phenomenon of the elf stones scattered across the partially uniced landscape of coastal Antarctica (which are inscribed in “elvish,” though are we talking Tolkien’s elvish? How else would people recognize and read Elvish? Maybe I missed the mention of Tolkein – or maybe not. The estate is famously litigious. I was reading this part at three in the morning jotting notes sideways in bed, so who knows what I might have missed in a moment of fatigue.
The stones are mysterious, or not. It’s hard to be sure, and that’s a fine note of humanity in the story. They’re probably placed there by humans, but the “stoners” (distracting name for elf stone enthusiasts, by the way) are happy to muse about mystical origins anyhow. They’re kind of a stand-in for stories in that way – we all know Star Wars is fiction, but there’s a Jedi church anyway. Two of them. Maybe more.
I wasn’t terribly excited to discover that this was a “something happened” story. Don’t come for the wrapup or a hint of conclusion. It’s not there. Which is a thing in the short story world, and there’s still plenty to be had in the reading. I’m just one of those people who favors a more concludey conclusion, even a “let’s just hint at what happens next” ending.
The writing is pretty spare for the most part, definitely in the “just tell the story” tradition – except when it comes to describing the natural world. There, the descriptions become more literary (if maybe prone to cliché phrases like “snow-capped mountains”), a bit closer to poetry, definitely richer and more emotionally evocative. I appreciated it as a touch that created focus on the heart of the story without dragging the reader over and rubbing my nose in it.
Overall, I found it a good read and an excellent way to start an anthology as it takes the reader through a lot of potential developments that are likely to come with a changing climate.