Books

Arrival, the Movie

Why “Arrival” is Bad Science Fiction

Based on the novella “The Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (available in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others) last year’s Arrival is a glossy and nearly-perfect film version of the story.

And therein lies the problem. It’s a near-future look at First Contact, with a linguist hero using her skills to communicate with aliens. The aura of applied science would lead anyone not a linguist or scientist to believe in the story’s central premise: that learning the alien language enables one to see the future. Chiang invokes the so-called Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which suggests that the language you use determines what you can think. In its weakest form the hypothesis is inarguable (“inability to express a concept easily in a language makes that concept harder to think about”) but in its stronger form is largely discredited. Chiang leaps from “sees many things easily as blue because there is a word for blue” to “can see the future because the language treats all events as happening at once.” This is nonsense supported by fake science, and suggests determinism and lack of free will make all efforts to change the future futile. Just lay back and let disaster strike! There’s really no point in trying to escape your fate. This clanging lie is mixed in with exposition of valid and interesting linguistic ideas, so the story is an object lesson in how even a well-meaning literary figure who researches a field can commit Junk Science in trying to create Art.

Charlie Stross is one of the best science fiction writers still active today (and another post would discuss why so many science fiction writers have taken to fantasy or why young academic scientists no longer write much science fiction.) He wrote a grumpy post (“Why I barely read SF these days”) about what’s wrong with science fiction today which got to the root of the issues:

The implicit construction of an artificial but plausible world is what distinguishes a work of science fiction from any other form of literature. It’s an alternative type of underpinning to actually-existing reality, which is generally more substantial (and less plausible—reality is under no compulsion to make sense). Note the emphasis on implicit, though. Worldbuilding is like underwear: it needs to be there, but it shouldn’t be on display, unless you’re performing burlesque. Worldbuilding is the scaffolding that supports the costume to which our attention is directed. Without worldbuilding, the galactic emperor has no underpants to wear with his new suit, and runs the risk of leaving skidmarks on his story.

Storytelling is about humanity and its endless introspective quest to understand its own existence and meaning. But humans are social animals. We exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context—otherwise, we’re looking at perspective-free cardboard cut-outs. And technology and environment inextricably dictate large parts of that context….

Simply put, plausible world-building in the twenty-first century is incredibly hard work. (One synonym for “plausible” in this sense is “internally consistent”.) A lot of authors seem to have responded to this by jettisoning consistency and abandoning any pretense at plausibility: it’s just too hard, and they want to focus on the characters or the exciting plot elements and get to the explosions without bothering to nerdishly wonder if the explosives are survivable by their protagonists at this particular range. To a generation raised on movie and TV special effects, plausible internal consistency is generally less of a priority than spectacle….

Next time you read a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future? Why is this side-effect of carbon energy economics clogging up my post-climate-change world? Where does the concept of a paid occupation whereby individuals auction some portion of their lifespan to third parties as labour in return for money come from historically? What is the social structure of a posthuman lifespan? What are the medical and demographic constraints upon what we do at different ages if our average life expectancy is 200? Why is gender? Where is the world of childhood?

Some of these things may feel like constants, but they’re really not. Humans are social organisms, our technologies are part of our cultures, and the way we live is largely determined by this stuff. Alienated labour as we know it today, distinct from identity, didn’t exist in its current form before the industrial revolution. Look back two centuries, to before the germ theory of disease brought vaccination and medical hygiene: about 50% of children died before reaching maturity and up to 10% of pregnancies ended in maternal death—childbearing killed a significant minority of women and consumed huge amounts of labour, just to maintain a stable population, at gigantic and horrible social cost. Energy economics depended on static power sources (windmills and water wheels: sails on boats), or on muscle power. To an English writer of the 18th century, these must have looked like inevitable constraints on the shape of any conceivable future—but they weren’t.

Much science fiction has always been pulpy — adventure stories with science and technology as plot devices and tarted-up futures with rayguns and powered armor but little attempt to describe new societies that would predictably result from such changes. In fact, most SF&F is now retro in that familiar feudal stereotypes of royalty, Chosen Ones, and quasi-military hierarchies are lazy backgrounds for stories that could just as well be told in medieval European or Chinese dynastic backgrounds. But the most challenging science fiction excelled in worldbuilding: in envisioning how societies, governments, and customs would change in response to new science and technology. And it was in making dramatically accessible and entertaining stories out of the effects of new knowledge and new worlds to explore that science fiction raised two generations of creative scientists and engineers that have changed the world for the better, lifting most of humanity out of extreme poverty.

Science is the practice of building a set of models of Nature and testing them continually. Natural laws are always seen as provisional, useful and valid until demonstrated to fail experimental test. The value of science to humanity: prediction via scientific knowledge leading to control via technology to modify Nature to enable human progress.

The value of science fiction: narratives predicting science and technology and effects on future society. Stories enabled by the new, that help readers grasp what is to come and where they might place themselves to affect the outcome of their own stories. These can be more or less inherently entertaining, but the fascination of young people (especially young men) for them is in dreaming of mastery: to understand and control Nature, to vanquish enemies and nurture their families through something other than brute force and violence (though a blend of both is often very popular!)

“Junk science” is those beliefs promoted to persuade or entertain that have either been shown to be false or are simply unsupported by empirical tests. The media world is flooded with it, with sober studies making one small data point on some topic oversimplified and promoted as a breakthrough, to get clicks or publicity for research funding. “Junk science fiction” is therefore a story that borrows the authority of science to make unsupported or frankly false claims as part of a narrative, which nonscientists will accept as plausible or possible. And Arrival is junk science fiction.

In Chiang’s collection, the story “Tower of Babylon” is more of a model of how to tell a literary story that is clearly fantasy but can make the same emotionally-resonant points without teaching the reader falsehoods. It’s set in an alternative universe where the ancient cosmology of a geocentric world surrounded by crystal spheres is true, and the tower builders reach the roof of the sky and punch through. It was his first published story and is very successful; if Arrival had been told as an alternative universe story, it would not have set off alarms.

Science fiction, like all fiction, is lies; junk science fiction is lies that are cloaked in pseudoscience. There is a huge difference between plausible and possible developments in future science like FTL (Faster Than Light) travel or wormhole gateways and “science” that violates laws of causality, which is really magic.

The value of a fictional world — whether fantasy or science fiction — depends on how entertaining and useful it is to the reader. Fantasy builds a world based on magic or clearly supernatural creatures and phenomena, and is not misleading because it’s clearly a fairy tale. Does this fantasy world work, on its own terms?

Is it a valid homomorphism, following rules of logic which allow story lessons from the fantasy world to apply to real life? Does the narrative map to the real world with some utility? Or does it mislead, leaving a pernicious idea with the reader that will cause failure if followed? Does it reinforce the will to live and build a better life for the reader and those around them?


Postscript: This post wasn’t intended to be widely circulated, but it got picked up as an item on File770 and sparked a lot of interesting discussion. As I rule I don’t comment there because of the hostility of some of the frequent commenters, but I did have further thoughts based on the better comments.

First, despite literally hating the anti-human aspect of the plot (“everything is predestined, you can’t save your child or avoid the pain of her death”), I would recommend both story and movie as beautiful and worth the effort. And I agree there was lots of interesting linguistics to be picked up along the way. My definition of “good fiction” is that it is not only entertaining, but enlightening — leaving the reader with greater understanding of the world and how it and societies within it work. Good science fiction imparts some extra scientific or technological knowledge, which if it includes novel science that might plausibly be discovered, at least is coherent with foundational principles and can be assigned some nonzero probability of actually being true. Young people thirsting for knowledge can almost painlessly pick a lot up by reading quality SF, and a child in the formative years who reads a lot of classic SF will gain a good background in the sciences, and more specifically why the sciences are important.

The “speculative” aspects writers introduce to allow, for example, star-spanning civilizations represent goals for science arising from goals for humanity. There is no purely rational basis to prefer a year 2500 where humanity is robustly diversifying to new worlds and spawning ever-more-interesting cultures — and the sentimental desire to restore voyages of exploration to a world where all corners have been explored and there are virtually no undiscovered wonders is a big reason why SF imagines those kinds of futures. The purely rational being, akin to the all-seeing aliens of “Arrival,” sees no reason to prefer that future over one of extinction, or its own death.

We invent plausible FTL, stargates, ansibles, witty AIs, and transhumans because we want them to be real to enable an expanded future and we love stories that let our imagination live there. And young readers who dream of them end up being the people who actually build them — we all have magic supercomputer slates now that connect us to all of the world’s knowledge, one of the many devices routinely seen in SF from decades before they became real. Similarly, we can expect direct neural interfaces not too far down the road, and the nightmare or dream of never being alone is already halfway here. Much of the attraction of SF lies in project planning for the future, to either instantiate or avoid futures brought about by new technology.

The aliens of “Arrival” could, through their language, see the future, so all of their knowledge was available to them early in their history. The complex system that is evolution provides the basic motivation for expansion and new life, and there would have been no reason to build complicated spaceships and visit other planets to impart wisdom other than it had already been written in the history they could see at a glance. Supposing the aliens developed normally until the point their language evolved to enable complete knowledge of the future — they might still retain the emotions and drives provided by evolution, but their actions from then on would be foreknown and inescapable.

I react against this because it is implausible in the extreme. Such a species would not have any motivation to continue, and even in a set deterministic world actions have to follow logically from a previous time. I object to the idea because it is demoralizing and weakens anyone who accepts it. It’s not like stories always have to cheerlead and can never be attractively nihilist, but this borrowing of many accepted elements of linguistics to justify a radically false extension of it, for the sake of an emotional response, can be harmful to people who would know not to take lessons from an openly alternative universe story.

2018 LTUE Report: Provo, Utah

View of Provo from Marriott

View of Provo from Marriott

This is my AAR (After Action report) on LTUE (Life, the Universe, and Everything) in Provo, a weekend starting February 15th, 2018.

LTUE is officially a “symposium,” not a con. The emphasis is on writers and prospective writers discussing all aspects of writing SF&F, so there is little cosplay or general game and comic book fandom material. The location at the Marriott conference center in Provo is a mile from BYU and at the center of the LDS-Mormon intellectual world, such as it is. I knew Provo was majority Mormon, but when I checked I discovered an astounding 88% of the city’s population is LDS-affiliated. But Mormons are disproportionately readers and writers of SF&F, as traditionally they are raised to value education and often encouraged to write journals.

Provo late afternoon

Provo late afternoon

In the photo above taken from our room, you can see the ‘Y’ on the mountainside overlooking BYU’s campus. The ‘Y’ is made of stone and a popular hiking destination.

LTUE conference room map

LTUE conference room map

Panels and presentations were scheduled from 9 AM to 6 PM Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I had registered last year, then applied to be a Guest. When they put me on three panels, I gave my registration to my husband Paul, who has just retired so is able to travel with me more often. Of course Registration had no record of that, but we straightened it out quickly.

LTUE: Registration

LTUE: Registration

LTUE hall

LTUE hall

The LibertyCon contingent was well-represented, with local writers Larry Correia and Brad Torgersen, and Sarah Hoyt in from Colorado. Baen did its roadshow and the infamous Lawdog attended. While I met Larry briefly at LibertyCon two years back, I saw a lot more of him and his charming wife Bridget this time. We had listened to the audiobook of “Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance Agent” (written by Larry, read by Adam Baldwin) on the drive up. As Larry’s media empire has grown and the movie options for some of his worlds are pending, it’s kind of a thrill that he now knows who I am and lets me hug him (his excuse being his arm was injured and couldn’t take too many handshakes.)

"Lawdog" and Larry Correia

“Lawdog” and Larry Correia

It’s also nice to hang out with Dorothy and Peter, though they were under the weather some (in Dorothy’s case, she had a touch of altitude sickness. Provo’s at 4400 feet, and I didn’t sleep well, either.)

Peter and Dorothy Grant

Peter and Dorothy Grant

LTUE: Marriott lobby

LTUE: Marriott lobby

LTUE: Art in the hall

LTUE: Art in the hall

And it was great to touch base with Sarah Hoyt (and Dan, who I’d never met!) Jonathan La Force was as usual a forceful presence on panels and at the BBQ, making much of the great food for the post-LTUE party on Saturday night.

Sarah Hoyt and Jonathan La Force

Sarah Hoyt and Jonathan La Force

There were relatively small vendor and game rooms. One of the few complaints we all had is that some of the conference rooms were way too hot. But on the whole everything went very smoothly and most attendees say they will return.

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Game room

LTUE: Vendor room

LTUE: Vendor room

LTUE: Xchyler book booth

LTUE: Xchyler book booth

Panels were wide-ranging and I didn’t get to go to enough of them. The schedule is here.

The first panel I was on was “Making Money.” We discussed all matters currency, though I never got to mention Charlie Stross’s “slow money.” Fellow panelists were: L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Roger Bourke White, Jr., Bob Defendi, and Alicia McIntire. This was my first encounter with L. E. Modesitt, an extremely impressive person who may actually know more than I do about many things. Roger Bourke White is a fellow MIT grad (a senior when I was a freshman), so we compared notes. We ended up spending more time emphasizing that credible worlds will have a worked-out economic system, whether it is AIs and replicators, conventional price systems and money as we know it now, or barter and ad-hoc tokens — the check was invented in ancient Sumeria as a clay token exchangeable for a certain quantity of grain!

The next day I was on the first LGBTQ panel ever for LTUE, moderated by local fantasy author Michael Jensen. With fellow panelists J. Scott Bronson and Scott R. Parkin, we went over some of the historical broadening of SF&F from cardboard characters whose conventional characteristics were secondary to adventure and technology stories to more cultural and psychological varieties of speculative fiction. Since I have been reading SF&F since the mid-1960s looking for stories about “odd” types, I spent some time reminding the younger people in the audience that since the mid-1950s at least, SF&F was one of the earliest genres to explore stories of unconventional gender roles and sexualities, at first among aliens, then as acceptance grew, among human societies. Today’s emphasis on representation of oppressed groups may be overdoing it a bit, and we discussed the importance of fully-rounded characters — it is no longer especially interesting or ground-breaking to have LGBTQ characters, and all characters need to have their many facets presented for involving storytelling. Many audience members were there to find out how they could write these characters when they had not directly experienced being LGBTQ; the answer (in the current climate of Twitter mobbing) would be “very carefully.” But we all agreed that using empathy and passing your work by a few beta readers more closely involved to check for errors of tone or language would probably work well, especially when the story is not centered on uniquely LGBTQ experiences but includes them as part of more realistic and complex characters.

We went off to lunch at the Indian buffet next door to continue the discussion.

Post-panel lunch

Post-panel lunch

Post-panel lunch

Post-panel lunch

My last panel was “Well-Developed Political Systems: Who Got It Right?” moderated by Gordon Frye and featuring M. A. Nichols, Luke Peterson, and L. E. Modesitt, Jr. I was late because I had misread my schedule since I didn’t have my reading glasses, so first went to the wrong room across the street. Again I was mostly echoing Modesitt. Luke Peterson is extremely knowledgeable and I practically squeed when he recommended Albion’s Seed by David Fischer, one of the great books on US political attitudes and culture — I had just written it into my latest book in a discussion of where Mormons came from (answer: they are a cut-off and isolated branch of New England Puritanism, evolving in a separate cultural bubble after the Exodus from the Midwest around 1847.)

The last day I attended the hot and crowded panel, “Writing Battle Scenes” with Kal Spriggs moderating, with Gordon Frye, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Larry Correia, and Brad R. Torgersen. This was a fun group, with two panelists confessing they don’t really love writing battles but Larry telling us he lives to write them. I’m in the “They’re necessary but I don’t dwell on it” camp myself, and if you don’t love them, you probably won’t do long ones well.

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Panel on writing battle scenes

LTUE: Cancellations board

LTUE: Cancellations board

The “symposium” wound down Saturday night. We had reservations for the banquet but chose to go to the informal afterparty at the AirBNB next door where many of our friends had stayed. It was a group effort, with attendees pitching in to get the BBQ and supplies brought by Jonathan La Force in and ready. The presence of many children and families, and locals who hadn’t been able to attend LTUE, made it a great party. It must have been very interesting for Paul, who’s heard a lot about my imaginary writer friends and finally met them en masse.

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty cooks

LTUE: Afterparty

LTUE: Afterparty

If you enjoyed this, you might like:

2016 Worldcon / MidAmericon II Report
2016 LibertyCon Report

On the way back to Palm Springs, we stopped to see some of the sights featured in my latest book, Nephilim:

First we tried to find the Dream (also known as Relief) Mine, on a mountain overlooking Salem. There were two possible approaches and the one we tried was blocked by a security gate and “no trespassing” sign. Even though we couldn’t get very close to it, it was interesting seeing the countryside I had already written into fiction.

Near Dream / Relief Mine

Near Dream / Relief Mine

Landcape Near Salem, UT

Near Salem, UT

Valley view near Salem

Valley view near Salem

Then we checked into a motel near Zion National Park. The weather forecast was for a storm starting early AM, so instead of the planned trip into the park the next day, we decided to make an afternoon visit so we could leave before the onset of the storm the next day. We only had a few hours in the park, but the afternoon sun and blue skies made for some great views, and it was uncrowded — which was good since the main access road was half torn up with alternating one-way traffic.

Zion NP "Less Than Three Hours" sign

Zion NP

River in Zion NP

River in Zion NP

Mule deer in Zion NP

Mule deer in Zion NP

Zion NP

Zion NP

Zion NP

Zion NP

Cactus in Zion NP

Cactus in Zion NP

Zion, late afternoon

Zion, late afternoon

Zion NP

Zion NP

We left the park near sunset and had dinner at a terrific little Thai restaurant just outside the gate. Our table had a gorgeous view of the cliffs at sunset and a closer view of the road work and workers!

Zion NP: Thai place just outside gate

Zion NP: Thai place just outside gate

The next day we made good time through Las Vegas, where some scenes of Nephilim take place — the spirit driving Sara, Lailah, selects the Luxor as her headquarters, offhandedly noting that it felt good to have a pyramid of her own again.

Las Vegas: Strip from I-15

Las Vegas: Luxor from I-15

Las Vegas: Luxor from I-15

There was an hour-long backup near the California border at Primm, so after suffering through that we noted a similar backup on I-15 before LA and decided to take the back route through the Mohave reserve to Yucca Valley and home since the GPS said it would save over an hour; normally we wouldn’t because of the risk of having no cell service or road assistance in most of the area. But it was lovely and quiet as he storm hit and snow began to fall amongst the cactus and Joshua trees.

Mohave Reserve, Joshua trees

Mohave Reserve, Joshua trees

So the launch of Nephilim at LTUE went fairly well. One scarily intense fundamentalist Mormon man was unhappy, dropping by at the mass signing to tell me the Church does not support the idea of demonic possession. I pity the scared little girl he had in tow… and I understand why LDS authors keep their fantasy and SF safely away from any discussion of church doctrine. There are always holier-than-thou sorts waiting to find fault.

He hadn’t read the book, so he was unaware that it specifically makes that point — the angels Jared encounters (which the reader can choose to believe in or not, since an alternative explanation is also in the text) tell him he is free to choose. It’s Sara who is actually possessed, again by a spirit pretending to be from her Jewish heritage — but which might be something else entirely.

Nephilim

Nephilim

“Nephilim” Print Version Available

Nephilim Print Cover by Augusta Scarlett, Copyright © 2018 Jeb Kinnison

Nephilim Print Cover by Augusta Scarlett

Nephilim is already available in easy-to-read trade paperback. The cover was designed with artist Augusta Scarlett who put up with my suggestions and came up with a cool rendering of the Zion Mine buildings and the romantic duo at the heart of the story, Jared and Sara. The Seal of Melchidezek glowing red at the center and the angel’s wings hinting at the angelic influences at play are also her creation. The cover is supposed to suggest the genre and elements of the book, and I think this does a good job. Much of the junk fiction in paranormal romance these days comes with slick photographic-based covers that are cranked out by cover mills. This is a special book to me and worthy of a more artistic effort.

The trade paperback is available at these online stores, or you can ask for your local library to order a copy.

6″x9″ Trade Paperback at Amazon
6″x9″ Trade Paperback at Barnes & Noble

You can also pre-order (until Feb 8th when it is released) the ebook at any of these links:

Amazon link
B&N Nook
Kobo
Apple iBook

“Nephilim” First Review: “Read It Without Stopping”

Nephilim eBook Cover

Nephilim eBook Cover

Nephilim goes live Thursday Feb 8th, but there’s already a review at Amazon because the trade paperback snuck out of the system early (so you can buy that now!) I handed out review copies only a few days ago, so fast work.

5.0 out of 5 stars
Role Reversals
By Donald W. Campbell on February 6, 2018

This is a young adult novel, but us old folks can read it too. The ‘heroes’ are a little reversed from normal; she is a jaded Jewish New York City girl; he is a small-town Bible-belt Mormon boy. Junior/Senior in high school. Both bring some angst from their past, and both overcome it and remain true to each other. Somewhat fantasy (there are Angels and Devils in the plot), nevertheless, the Physics used in the background explanation is plausible, even if improbable. It is set in the current time, mostly in a small town in Utah.

The first half of the book weaves some incredible background information, as most YA probably have limited experience in small town rural America. What is incredible is this information is presented as part of the plot line, so it flows logically and doesn’t bog down.

The second half is exciting read it without stopping action. (Disclaimer: I had to walk the dog.) Now that background information brings extra understanding to the events.

We end with learning to be true to ourselves, experience is what you make of it, and more, but telling would be a spoiler.

Read and enjoy.

(This review is based on a pre-release electronic copy)

You can pre-order at any of these links:

Amazon link
B&N Nook
Kobo
Apple iBook

6″x9″ Trade Paperback at Amazon
6″x9″ Trade Paperback at Barnes & Noble

“Nephilim” Release Feb. 8th

Nephilim eBook Cover

Nephilim eBook Cover

I’ve been working on a new book, and it’s finally ready: Nephilim, a romance between a Mormon boy and Jewish girl in small-town Utah. Lots of Mormon and historical background, kind of like YA Michener combined with Twilight. But a better romance than Twilight!

Mt. Hermon, Utah, is the ideal small town—until forces of darkness from deep beneath the mountain lead its people astray. Sara just moved to town with her divorced mother from a wealthy Long Island suburb; her Jewish roots don’t protect her when a relentless angel comes calling. Jared has lived there all his life, and his addiction to online games and porn has his grades tumbling and his Mormon family worried. Together, Jared and Sara fight the battle of their lives against spirits from the Underworld.

Amazon link
B&N Nook
Kobo
Apple iBook

6″x9″ Trade Paperback at Amazon
6″x9″ Trade Paperback at Barnes & Noble

“Nephilim” — Call for Beta Readers

Nephalim cover mockup

Nephalim cover mockup

Call for beta readers for “Nephilim,” a short (72K words), sophisticated-YA (some mild sex, high school setting) Mormon Gothic (culturally appropriates Mormon history, doctrine, and mythology), paranormal (demons and angels) romance and adventure. With a science fictional wrapper.

If you’d like to beta-read the book and can have comments back to me about a week from now, email me at jebkinnison@gmail.com specifying the format you prefer (Word, pdf, ePub, kindle) and I’ll send you the beta.

Blurb:

Mt. Hermon, Utah, is the ideal small town — until forces of darkness from deep beneath the mountain lead its people astray.

Sara is the new kid in town — moved with her divorced mother from a wealthy Long Island town, her Jewish roots are no help when a relentless angel comes calling.

Jared has lived there all his life, and his addiction to online games and porn has his grades tumbling and his Mormon family worried.

Together Jared and Sara fight the battle of their lives against spirits from the Underworld who are trying to return to rule the world.

Cellular Automaton: Life Animation in “Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1”

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

 

When I was 12 or so, I read about John Horton Conway’s cellular automaton Life in Scientific American. Back then (c. 1970) we had to painfully draw each generation on graph paper. The personal computer revolution made it possible for hobbyists and students to simulate large fields and thousands of generations easily, building self-replicating structures and Turing machines… Life could simulate life.

Later in my career, I wrote artificial life simulations similar to what is portrayed in Red Queen — these are an extension to simulation of creatures in a simulated environment. There is a progression as simulations get better and better — eventually the simulation of life in an environment can become as complex as the real world, which has led to current theories that the universe we live in may itself be some kind of simulation on an underlying substrate.

The video below is an amazing zoom from tiny gliders to glider guns to megastructures… and then to Life itself simulated by Life.


Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1.

Sarah Hoyt’s “Darkship Revenge”

Darkship Revenge by Sarah Hoyt - photo Baen Books

Darkship Revenge by Sarah Hoyt – photo Baen Books

I’ve had more time to read fiction since I gave up my subscription to The Economist, which has abandoned its tradition of support for free markets and classical liberalism. I’ll try to review the best of these….

Sarah Hoyt’s latest, Darkship Revenge, is set in the same Darkship setting as her last,
Through Fire. As in that book, a genengineered woman from the secret space colony Eden ends up embroiled in war between the Usaians and Good Men on Earth, but this time the stakes are higher: Athena and her husband Kit are on a run to collect power pods when Kit is kidnapped. Athena and her newborn baby have to make their way alone to Earth to try to find Kit.

It turns out the ship which left Earth carrying many of the genengineered “master race” on a mission of colonization has returned and sent its youngest clones down to Earth supposedly to negotiate peace and a territory for the returning colonists. But all is not as it appears, and soon Athena, Kit, and their baby are fighting for their lives against the forces of both the Good Men and the returned starship. The fate of the world’s human population hangs in the balance!

This story is beautifully told and Hoyt makes time for both a kind of family drama (since the clones feel like younger siblings or children to their older originals) and action-packed fight scenes. Family ties form between strangers who’ve grown up abused and disowned, and the loyalties strengthen as the odds — and the sacrifices — pile up. Luce and Nate from A Few Good Men show up to play secondary roles, but you don’t need to read any of the other Darkship series books to follow the story.

A good read which deepens the understanding of the Darkship setting and demonstrates real wisdom about parenthood and its emotions in the midst of a battle for survival.

Substrate Wars Omnibus: Now on iBooks, iTunes, Kobo, Nook, Scribd, 24Symbols, Page Foundry

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Red Queen: The Substrate Wars 1

Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3

Shrivers: The Substrate Wars 3

The Kindle versions of Substrate Wars books are still cheap — $0.99 for Red Queen, $2.99 for Nemo’s World, and $2.99 for the latest, Shrivers.

A new option: the Substrate Wars Omnibus, all three books in a single e-book, now available at many non-Amazon book sellers and subscription services:

Apple iBooks/iTunes, $7.99
Barnes and Noble Nook, $7.95
Kobo Books, $7.95
Page Foundry, $7.95
Scribd, Unlimited subscription reading.
24Symbols: Unlimited subscription reading.
Tolino, apparently using iTunes outside the US.

2016 Worldcon / MidAmericon II Report

l-r: KCPL building, Municipal Auditorium, Kaufmann Center, Convention center

r-l: KCPL building, Municipal Auditorium, Kaufmann Center, Convention center

I had planned to go to MidAmericon II in Kansas City, where I grew up, when my mother still lived there in assisted living north of the river. But we moved her to Tallahassee to be near my brother eight months ago — by then I was committed to participating in the unveiling of the Heinlein bust (which I had helped complete by my last-minute donation) destined for installation in the Hall of Famous Missourians in the capital building. Like 99% of science fiction readers, I had never attended a Worldcon (World Science Fiction Society convention) fully — I dropped in for one day at San Jose’s ConJose 2002 Worldcon when I lived in nearby Sunnyvale.

The above photo was taken from the fitness center on the 22nd floor of the Marriott, one of the convention hotels. The convention center is on the left, in the Power and Light District named after the 1930s Kansas City Power and Light building on the right. When I was young it was the tallest building in town and the lighted top changed colors to give the weather forecast. the area is now coming to life as a residential and entertainment center with cool restaurants and high-rise condos.

Our room was actually in the renovated Muehlebach tower next door, and we spent a lot of time walking back and forth across the skybridge between them.

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This is the view north, with the old in-town airport on the right and the suburb I grew up in, Gladstone, in the green hills above the river bottoms in the center. Kansas City was formed from several small settlements, one at the river landing in this shot, another at Westport a few miles south where wagon trains assembled for the trails west. Settlers arrived by riverboat and later train to make the overland trek west, and local merchants thrived outfitting them.

Downtown KC - City Hall in center

Downtown KC – City Hall in center

Kansas City had one of only two highrise city halls in the country, Los Angeles being the other. The city is known for its large and creative black community, with associated achievements in jazz and barbecue. Its science fictional associations come from Robert A. Heinlein’s childhood; he grew up in KC after being born in Butler, MO to the south. Like many families including mine, his family moved from a rural area to the city to pursue opportunity.

I brought my husband Paul along. He reads more science fiction than I get a chance to these days, tending to prefer the action-adventure-military variety more prominent at Libertycon. Because of his rotator cuff surgery a month earlier, he was still in some pain and wore a sling to prevent his healing shoulder from being injured. Which is why we didn’t take up the Heinlein Society’s invitation to join them for the official installation ceremonies in the state capital following the con.

The bust unveiling was one of the first events, and we had some trouble finding it in the vast exhibition hall. I was introduced and lots of nice people thanked me for stepping up to put the fund over the top.

Heinlein bust unveiling, with MO representative TJ Berry and Keith Kato

Heinlein bust unveiling, with MO representative TJ Berry and Keith Kato

The state rep, T. J. Berry, was present with the proclamation passed by the House. He made a short speech before the unveiling.

Sculptor E Spencer Schubert with Heinlein bust

Sculptor E Spencer Schubert with Heinlein bust

Heinlein bust: Missouri House resolution

Heinlein bust: Missouri House resolution

Heinlein unveiling

Heinlein unveiling

After the ceremony and pictures, the Heinlein Society had a cake and cookies reception in the con suite area:

Heinlein unveiling cake party

Heinlein unveiling cake party

Friday night, Keith Kato threw a chili party for the Society and guests at his hotel. We Ubered up there and enjoyed wine and chili, four different kinds — including “Silverberg recipe,” extremely spicy. Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven sat across from each other and I managed to talk to both of them briefly (achievement unlocked!) though both were pretty tired and out of it. We left fairly early as Greg Benford arrived, and thus missed out on Robert Silverberg, who normally attends. I therefore missed my chance to apologize for calling him on the phone when I was twelve, when (being quick) he recognized my book report excuse as transparently fabricated.

A typical KC thunderstorm was just starting up as we left the party, and our first Uber driver dropped us when rates suddenly went up, but we had another in a few minutes. This was the first time we relied on Uber to get around all weekend, and it went well generally, with $5 rides far easier and cheaper than renting a car and paying hotel parking rates.

Heinlein Society party

Heinlein Society party

Heinlein Society party

Heinlein Society party

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I had a long talk with the sculptor, E. Spencer Shubert, about his use of 3D cad cam techniques in his work. He had discovered this online after another artist hinted at it, and he’s now pioneering what is becoming important in sculpture. Which is another example of how internet access is aiding transmission of new technologies, something Heinlein didn’t think of first!

Artist E. Spencer Schubert and me at Heinlein Society party

Artist E. Spencer Schubert and me at Heinlein Society party

More pictures of the bust and the artist:

Artist E. Spencer Schubert and me with Heinlein bust

Artist E. Spencer Schubert and me with Heinlein bust

Heinlein bust

Heinlein bust

The Heinlein Society also had an exhibit area with personal momentos like his typewriter and ephemera of the day:

Heinlein Society

Heinlein Society

Have Russian spacesuit, will travel - Heinlein exhibits

Have Russian spacesuit, will travel – Heinlein exhibits

Heinlein exhibits

Heinlein exhibits

We did some panels — or at least I did, because Paul was tiring quickly and needed to rest back in the room. Mike Resnick and Eric Flint, who often collaborate, have apparently been doing panels together for a long time and have it down to an amusing art:

The Mike Resnick and Eric Flint show

The Mike Resnick and Eric Flint show

The Mike Resnick and Eric Flint show

The Mike Resnick and Eric Flint show

Later I went to a panel on future government, which was a little unimaginative but still worthwhile. Karl Schroeder and Matthew Johnson presented the aggressively Canadian perspective, while hot new novelist Ada Palmer (Too Like the Lightning) kept the niceness from being oppressive. Schroeder barely touched on radical notions like smart contracts and and DAOs. And the much more practical concept of liquid democracy and Google’s voting experiments weren’t mentioned at all.

Karl Schroeder, Matthew Johnson, and Ada Palmer on future politics panel

Karl Schroeder, Matthew Johnson, and Ada Palmer on future politics panel

I captured a bit of video to give you the favor of it. Note this was for *personal use* and not in violation of the con’s rules! (I am gently making fun of certain people now claiming no one can record a panel without getting permission from everyone involved.)

Earlier, people packed a tiny room for the highest-powered panel of all, moderated by Chuck Gannon and including many of the remaining warhorses of “science-y” science fiction: Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven, David Brin, Greg Bear, and Greg Benford. I came in a bit late and ended up sitting on the floor in the last available space near the AV stands, which explains the strange camera angle….

l-r Chuck Gannon, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, David Brin, Joe Haldeman (obscured), Greg Benford

l-r Chuck Gannon, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, David Brin, Joe Haldeman (obscured), Greg Benford

For the panel on hard science in science fiction, Ann Leckie (representing “soft”) sparred amusingly with Geoff Landis (representing “hard.”) While this was fun, I had to leave early.

Ann Leckie and Geoff Landis

Ann Leckie and Geoff Landis

Crowd awaits panel

Crowd awaits panel

“Masters of Science Fiction” had collectible cards made for them, which were presented. Connie Willis was as charming and fun as I’m told she normally is, bantering with Silverberg gamely.

James Gunn, Connie Willis

James Gunn, Connie Willis

Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven

Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven

The playing card guy hands out framed copies

The playing card guy hands out framed copies

Joe Haldeman accepts playing card

Joe Haldeman accepts playing card

I was impressed by Jim Davidson on the immortality panel — he sounds like me, which means he must be right! Greg Benford is involved in a biotech startup, thus his interest in the topic.

Jim Davidson, Greg Benford on immortality panel

Jim Davidson, Greg Benford on immortality panel

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The Retro Hugo Awards went to deserving works from 1940 (as I recall) which was before Hugos were presented. The competition was stiff and made current work seem a little shallow by comparison. Keith Kato of the Heinlein Society accepted for Heinlein’s two retro Hugo wins, and everyone was touched when A. E. van Vogt’s granddaughter stepped up to accept the retro Hugo for Slan. The 1940s touches included a swing band and dance, plus some well-done period announcing and costumes.

retro Hugos - Swing dance band

retro Hugos – Swing dance band

Retro Hugos - Swing dance

Retro Hugos – Swing dance

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Retro Hugos - Keith Kato accepts award for Heinlein

Retro Hugos – Keith Kato accepts award for Heinlein

Retro Hugos - Old-timey announcer

Retro Hugos – Old-timey announcer

Exterior of Convention Center

Exterior of Convention Center

Carnival games in the Midway

Carnival games in the Midway

Whimsical Room Names

Whimsical Room Names

Inflatable Spaceman

Inflatable Spaceman

Miniatures and Games

Miniatures and Games

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The River was full of Monsters

The River was full of Monsters

Vendor Area

Vendor Area

San Jose next year

San Jose next year

Con suite - just a big open area with tables

Con suite – just a big open area with tables

Display in lobby: KC likes sportsball!

Display in lobby: KC likes sportsball!

Barcon from on high

Barcon from on high

Paul meets a writer!

Paul meets a writer!

More Barcon crowd - Laughing Scalzi

More Barcon crowd – Laughing Scalzi

Barcon crowd

Barcon crowd

Paul needed a martini to cope with the pain after rotator cuff surgery

Paul needed a martini to cope with the pain after rotator cuff surgery

Barcon scene

Barcon scene

B Daniel Blatt shows off his eclectic outfit at Barcon

B Daniel Blatt shows off his eclectic outfit at Barcon

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Crowd awaits Hugo presentations

Crowd awaits Hugo presentations

Video of AE van Vogt's granddaughter accepting retro-Hugo

Picture from AE van Vogt’s granddaughter accepting retro-Hugo

Hugos broadcast booth

Hugos broadcast booth

Nominees file on for reserved seats

Nominees file on for reserved seats

Later that evening I ran into Dave Truesdale, who edited and published one of my essays over at Tangent Online. I missed the now-famous panel where his moderation resulted in loud disorder and got him expelled from the con, but I wrote what little I have to say about that affair here.

Controversial ejectee, Dave Truesdale

Controversial ejectee, Dave Truesdale

More travelogue: the city is a lot livelier than when I left 40-odd years ago, with a spiffy new convention center and lots of arts and entertainment to be had in town. I had remembered the oppressive heat and humidity and suffering while I mowed other people’s lawns, but I had forgotten that every few days a cold front sweeps through bringing cool, dry conditions, and we had two perfect days of it with highs in the 70s. I was actually cold at times since I had neglected to pack any nicer or warmer clothes.

We ventured downstairs to the old lobby of the formerly grand Muehlebach Hotel, now just used as an annex of the Marriott:

Old lobby Muehlebach, front desk

Old lobby Muehlebach, front desk

Lobby old Muehlebach, phone booths

Lobby old Muehlebach, phone booths

Plaque commemorating founding of Barbershop Quartet Society, 1938, Muehlebach Hotel

Plaque commemorating founding of Barbershop Quartet Society, 1938, Muehlebach Hotel

My cousins remaining in town took us to the Jack Stack barbecue nearby, which is apparently better than the famous old standbys like Gates and Arthur Bryant’s. After we were seated, Democratic VP candidate Tim Kaine was shown to the table next to us, which meant much of our dinner was accompanied by a jostling scrum of reporters and cameramen just a few feet away. The full retinue included Secret Service, even more staffers, and a dozen reporters and cameramen. Their cars parked outside blocked our cousin’s car in, since they had been allowed to pull up and park in front of the door.

Jack Stack BBQ - VP candidate Tim Kaine

Jack Stack BBQ – VP candidate Tim Kaine

Jack Stack BBQ - Secret Service guys eating

Jack Stack BBQ – Secret Service guys eating

The Marriott is a well-designed, mostly well-managed hotel, but the restaurant was inadequate to convention needs. They had the usual breakfast buffet and plenty of table space, but bottlenecked it by inadequate servers staffing — several mornings there were long waits to be seated when there was plenty of space and most people were just going to the buffet line anyway. Sunday we had to find a sandwich for breakfast when they told us the wait would be thirty minutes. For dinner, the food was uninspiring.

Marriott restaurant - meh

Marriott restaurant – meh

On the other hand, the entire 22nd floor was dedicated to a great fitness center and indoor pool, which not surprisingly was underused during the con.

Marriott gym, 22nd floor. Best hotel gym ever.

Marriott gym, 22nd floor. Best hotel gym ever.

We escaped to local restaurants on foot and via Uber. Lidia’s is a great Italian place run by the eponymous TV chef:

Dinner at the upscale Lidia's restaurant

Dinner at the upscale Lidia’s restaurant

And Monday we Ubered out to the airport and returned to real life:

KC International Airport on takeoff

KC International Airport on takeoff

Kansas City in the distance after takeoff

Kansas City in the distance after takeoff

I would have enjoyed being on a panel or two, but by the time it occurred to me to volunteer, it was too late (a month before the con).