Review: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ted Chiang’s collection of his stories published between 1990 and 2002 is now one of my favorite books ever, full of some of my favorite stories ever. There is not one story in this collection I did not enjoy, and all of them left me in awe. Yes, I’m going to be a little breathless with this review, but it’s how I’ve been feeling for days now ever since I started reading Stories of Your Life and Others.

These stories are about people who find themselves on sudden exponential journeys into the future. They soon discover that such journeys are both isolating and actualizing. Sometimes these are physical journeys, like Hillalum climbing the “Tower of Babylon” but more frequently these are mental or spiritual journeys, including Leon’s intelligence enhancement in “Understand” and Neil Fisk’s love of God in “Hell Is the Absence of God.” Always these are stories about the pursuit of knowledge, no matter where that knowledge leads. Each story moves forward with increasing momentum and speed, resulting in my heart racing, my eyes widening, and my jaw dropping (I told you this would be a breathless review.)

I purchased this collection for “Story of Your Life”, soon to be a major motion picture. That story alone is worth the price of the book. It brings together the very personal with the sudden arrival to Earth of aliens, and its journey is through both linguistics and physics, leading to a tremendous and unexpected ending. I have no idea how the sheer brilliance of this complex literary masterpiece can be dramatized on the big screen, but with early reviews suggesting a cinematic masterpiece, perhaps the filmmakers have succeeded.

While reading “Tower of Babylon”, I realized I had read it before in a recent magazine issue. It is even better the second time around. Every step of the journey is invigorating. “Understand” explores topics and themes I’m particularly excited about and I sped through the pages at what felt like supercomputer speed. “Seventy-Two Letters” is so well-researched and expertly crafted that I wanted to cry with joy and appreciation, long before the genius, inevitable, but still unexpected ending left my jaw on the floor. “Liking What You See: A Documentary” is an oral history about a specific future technology; there are many perspectives about that technology collected in the story but there is also a through-story that focuses on one woman and her own insights about the technology. It’s incredible.

Chiang’s gift is that he seems to select a single compelling idea and then pursues that idea wherever it leads him, in a completely rational and logical manner that still leads to very surprising and shocking revelations. He grasps an idea in his hand and rotates it to find, I think, every possible beautiful and horrifying facet. He also selects the perfect characters to tell personal stories related to the idea, and he’s not afraid to suddenly expand into social, cultural, even cosmic dimensions, before returning to the personal.

Here’s where I get even more breathless: he includes “Story Notes” with a brief summary for what inspired him to write each story! After reading all the great stories, those notes were like an extra special bonus, just a little more information about their genesis to make me even more appreciative. For example, “Division by Zero” is another great story in the collection and he explains how he was amazed by a particular famous mathematics equation and began to wonder what it would be like if someone discovered that the “wondrous beauty” of mathematics “was just an illusion.” From such a story spark to a heartbreaking exploration of a relationship.

I cannot recommend this collection of stories enough. I’m still reeling. This is what I want from science fiction: stories that captivate me from the opening words, surprise and delight me along the way, that stay with me after the end, and that feel like they are actively changing me. I feel changed as a reader, a writer, and, well, a person! I feel like I might be on my own sudden exponential journey into the future and it is exhilarating and horrifying. I cannot wait to read more of Chiang’s exceptional work. Yes, I’m out of breath. Ted Chiang is now one of my absolute favorite authors, right up there with Ursula K. Le Guin, Nancy Kress, and Vernor Vinge.

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Book Review: The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig

The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your AudienceThe Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig includes over 30 lists of 25 tips about various subjects like writing, rewriting, craft, and publishing. The tips are really helpful and comprehensive. Some of the tips are repeated, but I found that extremely useful; this is a good way to cement in my brain tips that might be especially helpful to me in the future. While I read the book from beginning to end, I think I’m going to enjoy it most by coming back to specific lists when I need inspiration at those particular steps in my writing.

Here’s the thing, though: this book isn’t going to be for everyone. If you follow Chuck Wendig on his website and social media, then you know he’s kind of a rascal, someone who uses a great deal of profanity and scatalogical references in his everyday writing. I happen to think he’s really funny, but even I became a little impatient while reading through these lists of tips; Wendig has a strong voice and the book probably would have been half as long without it. Keep in mind, I read the book in just a few days, so the humor was bound to get repetitive and a little annoying. After a certain point, though, the humor is really a part of Wendig’s charm. A dry list of writing tips would not have been any better. By the end of the book I was thankful to have added it to my collection of books on writing. Reading one of these lists occasionally as I need it is going to be a great help to me.

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Magazine Review: Analog September 2016

Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 2016Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 2016 by Trevor Quachri

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

First time subscriber, first issue of Analog I’ve read, and I loved everything in it!

Fiction

“Progress Report” by Ragnar Vajra follows the protagonist on an alien planet from their first conscience thoughts to increasing awareness and intelligence, as the mystery about how they came to be there and what they are meant to do unfolds. The technology involved in the protagonist’s rapid development is so interesting and it also serves as a unique tool for the writer to fill in backstory and build the world. The characters’ diction is a lot of fun and the diary-like telling over a span of several days is captivating.

“Detroit Hammersmith, Zero-Gravity Toilet Repairman (Retired)” by Suzanne Palmer brings the protagonist out of retirement to investigate failing toilets on a space station. What he finds leads to even bigger mysteries, and a role he wasn’t expecting to play in diplomatic talks being held on the station. This is a really fun story with great characters and aliens and a nice twist that amusingly bugs the hell out of Hammersmith.

“Deep Waters Call Out to What is Deeper Still” by Sarah Frost presents a different mystery: what goes on in the mind of a squid? The protagonist is a scientist and animal mind-whisperer at a facility that hooks up animal like swordfish to their own virtual heavens. The history and ethics of such a zoo aren’t really explored in this story, but the protagonist is a caring soul who goes out of zir way to make the transition for the animals as painless and fruitful as possible. The latest addition to the facility knows something is missing, and the protagonist must find out why the squid is so unhappy. There’s a parallel plot of friendship, perhaps more, that leads to an emotional mind-melding moment.

I see some other reviewers struggled with the pronouns in this piece. I particularly liked how the story is not about the protagonist’s gender identity, and that they simply refer to themselves with their preferred pronouns. I’m looking forward to more gender fluidity in my reading, without gender necessarily being the thrust of the plot. It’s just nice to see people from a variety of backgrounds with various identities participating in thought-provoking science fiction stories.

“Silhouettes” by Dave Creek includes the personal notes and science reports of an 87 year old exoplanet explorer who for reasons to be revealed didn’t bother to participate in rejuvenation technologies back on Earth. He’s alone and studying the reproductive cycles of aliens on planet Keleni, a planet of short days and fierce winds. As details about the exoplanet and its aliens are revealed, so are those about his past. Another great story in an issue full of wonderful world-building.

“Adventures in Family Bonding” by W. Michael Beachy has a breezy title and writing style that belie the really dark places and dystopian future this story eventually reveals. It starts out simple enough: grandma gets a call from her son, wondering if she can babysit her grandson for a week or two. Something’s not quite right about the relationship between mother and son, and things only get worse from there. The last image is terrifying, or maybe gratifying, depending on the reader.

“Dreams of the Rocket Men” by C. Stuart Hardwick recounts the youth of a boy caught up in his elderly neighbor’s interest in rockets, and though the science fiction is light and comes nearer to the end, the fiction leading there is wonderful and heart-breaking in turn. A very heartfelt story.

“Nesting Dolls” by Jacob A. Boyd feels very alien and strange as it follows two boys onboard a generational vessel making its way across the void between the Milky Way and another galaxy. The vessel and its layers are inventive, as are the layers of storytelling. This is a gripping tale, one that is also quite dark and even cruel.

Finally, I almost missed the short poem on page 74, “Paint It Black” by Bruce Boston. In fact, I didn’t miss it, but I didn’t know what it was until I reread the table of contents just now. It’s a very short poem. I would love to learn more about it.

Nonfiction

Trevor Quachri’s opening editorial “Captain America’s Bathroom” merges a little memoir with a survey of comic book superheroes and his maturing understanding of them, especially Captain America. There’s a nice parallel drawn between discrimination against transgender people and Captain America’s origins. Definitely a must-read.

Edward M. Lerner provides a quick primer in the first part of “A Mind of Its Own” about artificial intelligence. This is a good review of concepts we’ve been hearing a lot about in the field lately, and I was thankful for the summary. Looking forward to the second part!

My favorite essay in the issue is “Pluto’s Perplexing Polygons” by Richard A. Lovett. Lots of great details and speculation about processes in Sputnik Planum on Pluto determined from the first close-up images taken by New Horizons last year. There’s a quick summary of the mission, but the bulk of the essay is about models of the processes that form the polygons in Sputnik Planum, and what these models say about the youthfulness of this region. Pluto turned out to be beyond anyone’s expectations, and this essay does a great job capturing that wonder and making me impatient for a Pluto-Charon orbiter!

Don Sakers has a nice list of books to check out in “The Reference Library,” and spends some time surveying how science fiction and religion come together over time in various novels and short stories. It was fun reading about the first novel by Madeline Ashby titled Company Town because I was surprised to realize I knew the plot from a short story by her I read and enjoyed what seems like a long time ago. I’m going to have to check this one out.

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Writing a StoryADay in September

Back in May, I spent all month writing a story a day, inspired by Julie Duffy’s annual StoryADay writing event. She’s decided to run it a second time this year, so I’ll be spending all of September trying to accomplish the same goal. In May, I published everything I wrote here on my blog. I thought several of them turned out pretty good, but because I self-published them online, I cannot now send them out to potential short story markets. It’s possible that if I significantly rewrite these stories,  then I could send them out, but instead of dealing with that this time, I’m not going to post any of my StoryADay September stories online.

One of my goals for 2017 is to send out stories to potential markets frequently enough that I will end up with at least 100 rejections by the end of the year. I like the idea of these month-long writing events for coming up with and finishing first drafts. Holding them close to my chest will let me revisit and rewrite them later. Making sure I have a large pool of stories to rewrite from and start sending out will go a long way toward reaching my goal.

Are you participating in StoryADay September? If you’re on Twitter, you can follow along and post your own updates using the #storyaday tag. For more information about how to participate, head on over to the StoryADay website. Good luck and keep writing!

Book Review: The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson

The Art of Being NormalThe Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lisa Williamson’s wonderful “The Art of Being Normal” explores the complicated and emotional coming-of-age of two English teenagers. David Piper wants to be a girl. Leo Denton has secrets of his own. The novel switches back and forth between the two characters’ points of view. Both characters are vulnerable and matter-of-fact in tone and diction and their voices capture the weight of their teenage worlds, but David is the more cheerful of the two while Leo is much more emotionally withdrawn and angry. Their family lives are very different: Leo is from a lower class and fights with his irresponsible mother while missing his father who left when he was a baby, and David is from a higher class with two doting, loving parents who think they know what’s going on with him, but have the details all wrong. Leo has two sisters who adore him, while David’s younger sister can’t quite figure him out. I found these family dynamics to be one of the highlights of the book.

They meet when Leo starts attending David’s school. School is rough, and David and Leo spend much of the book dealing with bullies; the unfairness of teachers, administrators, and parents; and their own emotional landscapes. These scenes are often tense and upsetting, but there is also a lot of humor and young romance, including Leo’s blossoming relationship with Alicia Baker, a girl who sees right through his apathy. A climatic road trip contains some of the best scenes between David and Leo, and also some of the most emotional moments. Starting about half way through the book I was in almost constant tears as revelations and obstacles escalate and the two characters try to overcome them. While I’m a little cynical about how their story arcs conclude, these are still very satisfying and soaring conclusions.

Williamson uses a matter-of-fact tone, straight-forward structure, and limited lyricism to prevent the often very emotional content from becoming melodramatic or sentimental. The style is very naturalist and frequently emotionally raw. David and Leo are not characters given to overwrought language, and this helps suggest how they are prepared to deal with what life throws at them. My heart often broke for David and Leo, and I could not help rooting for them to find happiness and acceptance.

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Book Review: The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace

The Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalismThe Economic Singularity: Artificial intelligence and the death of capitalism by Calum Chace

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Much of The Economic Singularity by Calum Chace is devoted to supporting the argument that machines will take over many and eventually most jobs from humans. In fact, the first 60% of the book steps through this argument, providing definitions, facts, anecdotes, and other carefully footnoted details. After this, the few remaining chapters describe possible consequences of an economic singularity in which the impact of this technological unemployment occurs rapidly and without clear outcomes we can predict right now. Chace writes for an audience of readers likely new to these ideas, and they will likely welcome the clear laying out of his argument that makes up so much of this book. I personally would have preferred the book spend more time on the economic singularity itself, examining scenarios and possible challenges and solutions, but I make certain assumptions about the future that most other readers may not at this stage.

I did learn new things in the first part of the book, including the term “centaurs”, and it was a good refresher about the history of work, jobs, machines, and automation. I enjoyed chapters 4 and 5 the most, however, because they explored possible scenarios and solutions that were frequently new to me. For example, chapter 5.2 explored universal basic income, a topic I only recently started following. Chapter 6 summarizes potential scenarios of an economics singularity.

Like other books on this topic, the possible solutions in chapter 7 are brief and not particularly satisfying. Acknowledging that it’s hard to predict the future, these solutions tend toward measures like monitoring and preparing, in anticipation of great change. I think this suggests that we really cannot do much until we see for sure that there is a problem, and that for now the best we can do is be as educated as possible before we are in a position to do anything. In fact, while I’m not certain this is intentional, the last bit of advice in the book is to the youngest generations, suggesting this is going to be their job to solve any problems: “they have the task of navigating us through the economic singularity of mass unemployment, and then the technological singularity of super-intelligence.” I would have preferred a more forceful admonishment to all living generations. The economic singularity is our possible future collectively, and I for one don’t want to wait around for “The Millennials and Generation Z” to deal with it.

That is all to say that maybe I’m getting a little frustrated with books about emerging technologies that spend a lot of time arguing that these technologies will emerge with potentially negative consequences, and spend relatively little time exploring that future and its challenges. Writers in this genre cannot be blamed for this state of affairs, of course; so few people even think about these issues, and therefore writers must take on the arduous task of educating the readers they anticipate are new to these topics. I’ve immersed myself in related topics for a couple decades now, so I don’t personally need to be convinced. What I’m ready for are solutions and proactive steps we can take right now.

Another thing I would like to see in books of this type (and this is a general critique of the genre, not this book in particular) is participation from people other than white men and a few men of color in academia and industry. Using this book as an example, there are very few references to any female experts on related topics, and no mentions of any women in the acknowledgement page other than the writer’s partner. Again, this is not a critique of this particular book or this particular author, but of this entire genre of technology books, where women and people of color are still far too rare. Some have suggested that this is because experts, writers, and readers of these topics tend to be white males. Even if that is the case, one proactive step we can take now is making emerging technologies, transhumanism, singularitarianism, and related topics more inclusive. This isn’t on Chace to do himself; it’s on all of us to seek out various experts and open up these various topics to people from diverse backgrounds. For example, I’m curious to hear how African nations and experts are confronting the same challenges. When it comes to Universal Basic Income, what are women and people of color saying, especially those the left and right feel will benefit the most? Do they find UBI paternalistic in any way? What solutions do they offer? As for female experts, researchers like Amber Case are well-versed in topics related to technology, design, globalization, and the advent of new media like VR and AR; what does her writing and research suggest about the path toward a possible economic singularity? I hope in coming years to see much more exploratory and prescriptive works about topics like the economic singularity from writers of diverse backgrounds featuring experts from diverse backgrounds.

As for Chace’s book, I think it works well as background, summary and starting point about a fascinating and frightening potential future. His passion for these topics is obvious and it has been great to listen to him speak about them on various recent podcasts. He’s reaching a wide audience and that can only be for the best.

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Book Review: Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

Caliban's War (Expanse, #2)Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I like most about The Expanse series of books by James S.A. Corey so far are the characters. They are interesting, relatively complex, often very funny, and come from many different backgrounds (including fictional backgrounds like “Belters” – the population of humans who were born and for the most part live their entire lives in the Asteroid Belt, far from Earth and its gravity, resulting in fascinating physiological, cultural, and language differences.) In the second book, Caliban’s War, a few new characters are introduced, including my new favorite, Bobbie Draper, a Martian Marine. Her story is one of two frames, beginning right after the prologue that introduces the mystery, and takes a particularly satisfying story arc from a PTSD-inducing attack to recovery and justice of sorts.

Along the way, other fantastic new characters are given space, including Chrisjen Avasarala, the United Nations Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration, and Praxidike Meng, a botanist on Ganymede. As the plot unfolds, the characters are moved around like chess pieces to solve the larger mystery and confront the larger threat. At times, I felt the positioning and meeting of characters was a little too predictable and obvious; the characters became plot devices that need to be placed in particular spots for the plot to progress. This sometimes took me momentarily out of the story. What follows their placement, however, generally captivated me. The plot is very exciting, often very suspenseful, and I read through much of the book very quickly.

Some of my favorite characters from the previous book, including the amazing crew of the Rocinante, return. Set about 18 months after the events of Leviathan Wakes, Caliban’s War finds captain Jim Holden a changed man suffering from psychological trauma related to what happened on Eros. I felt this character arc became a little melodramatic but it was also very satisfying, because you cannot help but root for him and Naomi Nagata, and also Amos Burton and Alex Kamal, as the crew reconsiders their mission.

I loved the settings throughout the solar system as well as the descriptions of the hardware. The alien protomolecules are absolutely horrifying and lead to our heroes finding themselves in some incredibly tense and frightening situations. Some of these are similar to those in the previous book and felt to me slightly repetitive. I hope the later books in the series go in new directions. They were really exciting and well-written, however, and the overall plot of the series is definitely moved forward.

The book ends with a whopper of a cliffhanger that manages to be both surprising and frightening. I cannot wait to jump into the next book!

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