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Short Story Review: Containment By Susan Kaye Quinn

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From Dark Beyond the Stars: A Space Opera Anthology edited by David Gatewood.Spoiler warning: there are spoilers in here. There kind of always are when I do these things because as one of those weirdos who doesn’t care about spoilers (99% of the time) I’m kind of spoiler-blind when I write.

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!

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The Triumph Of The Won’t

 

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We’re definitely seeing a farce of politics — but it’s not just Trump. It’s Trumpism and Trumpites, too.

In the best of Trump voters, there’s deep and intense dissatisfaction. A feeling that anything must be better than the politics of our memory, whether that memory is the few years of the 18 year old first time voter or the several decades of the elder Trump voter.

In many, I think, there’s an approach to politics that is identical to the approach to sport. You choose a team, and you root for them no matter what. Which is a foolish and dangerous approach to politics no matter who you’re voting for, and a core failure of civic education at school, in our communities, and in our homes.

But I’m not talking about the best of Trump voters here. I’m not talking about the rah-rah-go-team voters, or the reluctant ideologues who don’t like Trump but hate anyone outside the GOP more, or the impulse-shopper voters who went with whoever’s last sound bite they liked more, or the strategic ‘he’ll pick SCOTUS justices I’ll like’ voters or the on-the-fence voters who aren’t quite sure, somehow, who best represents their ideas and ethics.

I’m talking about the hard Trump core. The people who love the guy for all he represents. Not the Russian bots and foreign provocateurs, but the ones who sound like Russian bots despite being born and raised in the most corn-and-apple-pie-fed settings across the country.

Theirs is the triumph of the won’t.

They call themselves “alphas” and their perceived enemies (most of the citizenry of the United States of America) “betas” and “cucks”…

…and “feminized” (because being a woman is bad, or means you’re inferior, or means you’re genetically programmed to serve men because quite a few of the Trumpite hard core love them some 19th century pseudoscientific genetic determinism and its cousins eugenics and eugenic-style theories, and possibly phrenology and physiognomy and phlogiston and phlat earth ‘theory’ and who knows what else) and, well, whatever flaccid insults help them feel turgid and ready to lash out violently — because manliness, to them, is not showing humanity, but is found in behaving like a rage-blind distempered ape.

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Gif: BoingBoing — full video: YouTube

They imagine that by naming themselves dominant and aggressive, that makes them paragons of rock-jawed will.

They have little clue what it really reveals: it doesn’t reveal will. It reveals won’t. A humanity-paralyzing fear of tomorrow, of today, and of anything that doesn’t cater to their fussy, prissy, whiny control-freak demands of reality. A boy-tantrum “I WON’T” to the inevitability of time passing. They’re pissed off that reality itself won’t cut the crusts off their PB&J like mommy used to, but insists on being reality.

The “f–k your feelings” crowd runs on the feeling that they are offended that the universe will not treat them like the little princes and princesses they know they are.

That failure of adapting to the facts of life is their motive force, just as gasoline is the motive force of your car: there are a variety of other ingredients and factors, some important and others not, but without gasoline and failure Trumpism Car DOES. NOT. MOVE.

Of course, that’s not what they see in the mirror.

 

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Screencap from Scooby Doo and the Ghoul School via Scoobypedia

Trumpites, just like “God Emperor Trump” mostly cast themselves as alpha-male towers of will (or equivalent, or admirers of same, when women) — an army to proudly march back into the middle of the 20th century. Or maybe the 19th or 18th, depending on the Trumpite.

As if a past can ever be re-lived. As if the past was ever half as idyllic and perfect as many of them seem to believe — and an awful lot of them can remember the middle of the 20th century.

It is, after all, the land of their childhoods, the land of their childish dreams and childish ambitions. It is an age of shelter for many, even those whose childhoods were difficult or even abusive — what comes after, dealing with the adult consequences of childhood deprivation and/or abuse, often seems even harder than childhood, especially to the adult living it in the now.

And the remembrance of childhood is veiled in the ignorance of the child, and that is hazed by the passage of decades as well as the bitter demise of childhood dreams at the hands of reality — and both white male Boomers and GenX, key Trump demographics, had big dreams that died hard. Dreams of privilege expanding endlessly, dreams of unlimited world-altering success, dreams of the industry and union driven white middle class boom of the 1950s trending up, up, forever up, three chickens in every pot and three cars in every McMansion garage on a solid acre in the suburbs with a tall white privacy fence and a dog and a cat and 2.5 children educated at the highest standard in the world.

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The original McMansion production line: Levittown!

Only, the Boomers grew up to be Yuppies and ‘vulture capitalists’ and GenX grew up to build the dot-com boom and bust and found the ‘gig economy,’ and the ‘leaders’ of both have spent, collectively, the last 40 years gutting that goose that was laying the golden eggs, haven’t they?

There were a lot of rich guts in the American goose. Gutting it has taken a long time. But the work is almost done, now. What do you do with a fowl once you have it gutted?

You cut it into pieces and fry it, that’s what. It’s delicious.

Then you throw the bones away. Might take another 40 years to get there. And the process is part of the problem. The Boomer and Gen X gutters know they’ll almost certainly be dead and gone by the time they’ve gnawed this goose down to the greasy bones.

And here they are, writing and tweeting and bitching and Trump-voting away, flailing about wildly for someone else to blame. We (white male GenX, of which I am one) aren’t about to blame ourselves collectively. We’re all about ego and the importance of the individual, by which we mean ourselves, singular, not any other white male of our generations and certainly not any other individuals beyond that demographic. I, me, me, I. And if something is wrong you must be to blame and that’s why we have Trump yelling at his fans to ‘knock the shit out of’ people who dare voice dissent and why we have ideological zealots stabbing people for not agreeing with their politics (yes, enforcing the ‘correctness’ of their politics by killing those who disagree. Or, in milder form, by calling them rude names on Twitter.) and attacking people for having brown skin or the ‘wrong’ religious/spiritual/ideological/scientific/educated beliefs and knowledge.

Let’s go back, for a moment, to that perceived childhood idyll they’re so hot to “take our country back” to.

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An article from the Atlanta Black Star that has proven all too prescient. You should read it.

For me, childhood was the 1970s. In my memory, there’s sort of a glow around those years. That glow is the better side of my childhood. A glow of carefree play. What did I know or feel of the ugliness of the war in Vietnam or the national humiliation of Richard Nixon or the horror of Kent State?

 

Little or nothing, of course. I was a boy, a poor boy to be sure, but one who was wandering field and forest of rural Wisconsin with a faithful dog at my side. I was concerned with wading in creeks, gathering hickory nuts, snacking on wild apples and plums and berries, climbing trees, playing games with my friends, reading books, and so on. I wasn’t watching or comprehending much of the news.

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The author, sans dog but you get the idea.

The 1970s were no golden age, to be sure. But they look a bit gold to me when I remember them. Because I was a child, and the cares of adulthood were not yet upon me. The 1950s are no different. Or the 1930s, or 1990s. Wherever your childhood is.

Trumpism is no yearning for utopia, and it is no brave embrace of the hard work of making a better tomorrow. It is a fleeing in the hopeless direction of lost childhood. It is a cowering. For tomorrow is always uncertain, and doubly so for those who wish, uselessly, to live in the past.

The thuggish threats and violence and posturing with gun and fist are not strength. They are the bared teeth of the rat backed into a corner — only the Trumpite corner is built of fear-rhetoric and scaremongering taken to heart by the fearful. It’s not real. But more than imaginary, it is a huge corner packed full of a whole chaos of rats constantly telling each other how hellish and awful life and the United States and the world are. And no matter how much the rats tear into each other, no matter what other of their fellows they manage to bite, what they rage against is impossible to bite, because it is tomorrow itself, and the blood they taste is their own.

They’re raging against the only true constant in the universe: change itself. A constant that nothing can turn aside, delay, or even touch.

And, perhaps fittingly for the generations of Boomers and GenXers that are the meat of the ranks of Trumpism, their idea of a better world is an action B-movie. No actual leaders, just stars whose charisma is a scriptwritten Hollywood facade of strength, whose power is all spectacle and cheesy one-liners and costumery (Mike Pence and Scott Walker on Harleys, anyone?) whose will is the will of the moral and ethical and emotional weakling: the temper tantrum, the uncontrolled rage, the urge to mass murder with big guns and exciting stunts and technicolor explosions, and of course lots and lots of angry, violent intimidation.

Bully tools, but played out in real life instead of the theater.

Yearn for an angry, bloody version of childhood all you like, Trumpites. That way lies chaos and loss and disappointment. Adulthood can be quite a bit more boring, with its reason, and compromise, and sometimes painful ethical choices, and hard work, and compassion. But one way leads into a better future for our children, and one leads into Lord of the Flies for children of all ages, even the balding ones with deep crows’ feet.

 

I, Robot Is Old-School Apolitical And Socially Neutral Science Fiction — Um, Right?

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I and some fellow writers (and reviewers, some may pick nits, but isn’t reviewing also creative writing? Yes, it is.) are getting together at The Scary Reviews comment section on Wednesday the 16th at 7 pm to discuss I, Robot. The idea is we’re to review the book on our own sites to kick things off. If you’d like to read a proper review, Lilyn G. over at SciFi and Scary wrote one.

I, however, rarely review anything in the traditional sense. In fact, I have avoided reviewing anything by a living author for years after seeing some of the one-star brigading of indie and self-published authors over personal conflicts and butthurt over receiving critical reviews (I’m going to avoid linking to any accounts of these incidents, as I don’t want to wake up any ill-tempered sleeping dogs).

I’m still thinking the above over — should I say “screw it” and jump in anyhow? Am I being a wimp? Lilyn isn’t afraid to throw a one-star review along with a reasoned explanation of why it wasn’t more. Feel free to chime in with a comment on my possible cowardice. But, onward:

When I do review these days, it’s a dead author.

Well, Asimov is dead, you say. So what’s the problem?

There’s no problem. I enjoyed reading I, Robot in high school 25+ years ago oh crap I’m getting old who could have predicted this indignity and I enjoyed reading it short story by short story over the course of the end of last month and the beginning of this. Good stuff, if you’ve ever only seen the movie you should read the stories because the movie, as usual, missed and skewed A TON. In fact, more than usual. The stories were really just inspiration for the movie, not much more.

But reviews, as I suggested just a bit earlier, aren’t really my thing.

So I’m going to talk about old-school science fiction, what it isn’t, and what it is, using I, Robot as context.

Asimov wrote this collection in the spirit of Gernsback, a bedrock figure in the US science fiction scene. A scene that some of the right-wing Sad Rabid Puppies movement in current US science fiction hold up as a halcyon age where the genre was all about fun adventure reading that maintained neutrality in contemporary political and social movements.

But as I wrote in an earlier post about Gernsback and his work, that’s bullshit. Gernsback wrote about technocracy and world government — which, if you think about it, continue to be political and social movements across both political wings and anywhere between or beyond the wings today.

Gernsback was a pretty clumsy writer. He wrote the kind of stories that are rejected from slush piles today, because they were all about worldbuilding — describing potential technological advances and their potential ramifications — and had very little actual story in the story.

Asimov writes in much the same way, except he does it much better. He gives you a bit more humanity, and his writing, while equally lean and unflourished, is just plain better at drawing you into what is going on. He’s not very descriptive, but the little he describes sticks in your mind. His characters are sort of cardboard, but the drawing on the cardboard, at least, is interesting. The human story isn’t deep, but the technological story he tells is deep and engaging. The technology-driven story doesn’t hook on to the characters’ humanity — it hooks on to the reader’s humanity by speaking to elemental philosophical and social questions.

Asimov, in I, Robot and elsewhere, writes the epitome of old-school science fiction: technological, revolving around puzzles to solve and difficulties to overcome, basically hopeful of humanity, and inescapably linked to the social and political questions of the day.

A few examples from the collection:

Robbie speaks to the 1940s fear that advertising and television — technology — will warp and subvert the minds of our children as they are raised immersed in it. But Robbie the robot shows the reader that such needn’t be the case. Robbie risks his robotic life to save his young charge’s life and inspires the little girl to value love and loyalty — humanistic values encouraged  by using technology in constructive and mindful fashion.

Reason grasps the irrationality and logic-rejection of religion and the easy handle it presents for manipulating the faithful through the presentation of a robot prophet who organizes a robots-only cult (the profession of robot faith, uncomfortably, mirrors the Islamic profession of faith, giving the Christian reader an out to avoid applying the story personally — but the principles apply equally to any zealous subset within any religion who reject sound science and observation on the theory it must automatically be incompatible with faith). The story’s resolution leaves faith unconquered — but unquestionably wrong, wrong, WRONG.

The Evitable Conflict is utterly, totally politically charged. Place it in its proper context, the United States at the close of the 1940s, and the global political situation. The story revolves around the tendency for technology to rule humanity, in the familiar trope of artificial intelligence attempting to control human events — or dare I say, take over the world? But the story itself is critical of nationalism and Western powers dominating and controlling world affairs, suggesting what is practically political heresy now and was definitely heresy then, that the wheel of history may yet turn and political dominance may pass into hands that are not Western at all. The story suggests that the reader consider that deliberately managed peaceful globalism may be the solution to humanity’s most destructive problem, war, and that humans have never been so in control of affiars as politicians like to imagine, but instead at the mercy of economic and sociological forces.

How’s that for “good old fashioned apolitical science fiction”?

 

SciFi News Network: Arcology Designer Bootlegged

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This post first appeared on my Patreon page on 16 Jaunary 2016. If you’re a Patron, you get to see blog posts before anyone else — and when I publish a new short story, you get to read it at least 30 days before it appears elsewhere!

 

Arcology Designer Bootlegged

S.A. Barton

GENEVA (AP)

12 March 2094

United Nations Secretary for International Software Regulation Gianetta Fleur’s office released a statement in response to inquiries from agencies regulating human personality download in both the North and South America regulatory unions as well as the EU, alleging that illegal copies of famed arcology designer Santiago de las Casas have been made and distributed beginning as long as four years ago.

Santiago de las Casas died outside of Nairobi in September of 2088, of injuries sustained when his personal transport drone encountered one of the swarms of locusts that devastated Kenyan crops in 2088 and 2089. In accordance with international law regulating software-based human consciousness, de las Casas’s last personality backup of July 2088 was activated within the EU Virtuality, where he continued his six-decade long career as a master designer of arcology habitats for regions rendered unlivable by the advance of climate change. His most recent design, an inverted dome-on-stilts with upper decks devoted to agriculture and a green ‘roof’ planted with wind-resistant GM tuber-bearing supertropical reeds, opened last year to property-owning citizens of the Miami metro area whose primary landholding is tidally or permanently submerged or projected to become so in the next five years.

Regional officials became suspicious that de las Casas’s personality had been illegally copied and distributed following groundbreaking for arcologies in coastal southern India and northern Australia in 1990. Officials cited distinctive design characteristics as the basis of their suspicion; in 1990 the Vice President of Design for South Seas Major Construction corporation stated that any similarities were simply acknowledgement of and tribute to de las Casas’s industry-changing innovations. The press offices of SSMC did not respond to a request for a statement regarding this story.

Also not responding to requests for a statement were the offices of Transpacific Human Habitats, which broke ground for de las Casas-styled arcologies in Vancouver (2093) and upslope from Nagasaki (April of this year).

The statement from Gianetta Fleur’s office alleges evidence that both corporations are in possession of activated and running copies of de las Casas’s personality, and that agents of one or both knowingly participated in obtaining those copies.

Under international law, such actions fall under the definitions for human trafficking, slavery, violation of intellectual property rights, and software piracy. In a personal addendum to her office’s statement, Gianetta Fleur cautioned any individual, corporation, or government running de las Casas’s personality that once running, terminating or deleting the program could be considered an act of premeditated murder.

END

 

 

Thirteen Word Story: Savepoint

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Originally posted to my Patreon page on 1/14/2016. My patrons get to see my posts at least three days early — PLUS all the stories I publish as ebooks for free. Even if I charge for the ebook. So, you know, if you want to see everything before everyone else wink wink nudge nudge

 

SAVEPOINT

The virus was too strong: great-grandmother was gone.

Gravely, they restored from backup.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sooner or later, someone is going to try to map a human consciousness to run as software. It’s going to open many, many cans of worms, but it’s going to happen. There will be arguments about backing up files and what restoring them means. At some point, someone will end up running on two or more machines and someone else will have to figure out how to deal with that. Someone is going to edit a consciousness. That will probably happen first. “I want a copy of my granddad, but can you leave the racism out?” “One copy of my ex-wife, please. From twenty years ago, before we started arguing so much.”

 

Yeah. Lots of cans of worms. I hope we learn something from them.

 

Thirteen Word Story: They Walk Among Us

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Wearing the skins of the homeless, scouts for the alien invasion spied, invisible.

Today’s Writing Tip: Nobody Is All Anything

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Even the most evil villains still have a positive human dimension, a good side.

Even a paragon of goodness has a flaw, a bad side.

The most powerful people have weaknesses, and vice versa.

Do not write one-dimensional archetypes. Write credible beings with lives.