Recommended: Flashed by Peer Glen

Wattpad is a huge honking site and it’s got stuff all over the map – I’m thinking of it as a sort of Los Angeles of amateur writing. It’s got a good spirit and as a big fan of indie writing I’m enjoying my sortee through its wilderness. Today I was very pleased to come across an excellent collection of speculative/sci-fi short stories called Flashed, by Peer Glen, which includes some sparse but evocative tales containing a great deal of originality and unexpected depth. I have several favorites, and several favorite moments within them. Highly recommended!

“Rift or Die” has a unique take on the practical side of life extension, where even those who theoretically can live forever are still stalked and haunted by death, which has all the time in the world at its disposal.

“Free Fall” has an all-too-believable twist on virtual reality (hosted by The Environment ™)

“User Security” takes monopoly capital to a logical and desolate conclusion.

“Blackout” brings to life the kind of “internet of things” nightmare that my own current place of employment spends most of its time worrying about.

“Mesoplanet Triumphant” is a well-told tale of a friendly alien encounter – you wonder why there aren’t more like this in the annals of science fiction.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Political Disorders

Someone should put together a Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Political Disorders, organized along the lines of the one for Mental Disorders. I’m sure we’d all find ourselves somewhere on THAT spectrum! It would be a full circle, where the extremes at the ends always meet, either at full-on selfishness on one side (call it anarchy or libertarianism depending on which route you take to get there) or full-on selflessness at the opposite pole (big government, socialism, communism, welfare state, safety net, whatever you want to call it). The reason I call them “disorders” is that there is, as of yet, no achievable balance. The tensions between the poles always exists, and no one point on the circle is the “right” one. The circle is a perpetual motion machine, there is constant unrest of varying degrees. Many have tried to find the perfect fulcrum, all have failed, and many attempts have been terribly disastrous. Who has the right formula? No one, not the religious states, not the secular states, not the ancient states nor the medieval states nor the tribal states nor the colonial states. In the modern world, all states are “too big to succeed”. Do you have a politics? Then you have a political disorder. Myself included of course.

Cyclizer – An Invention

The Cyclizer would be a tool/app/wearable/website/whatever that generates biorhythmic-like graphs of our regular physical and psychological cycles, beginning with heart-beat, breath-rate, eating and drinking habits, excretion habits, sex-life rhythms, waking and sleeping, ovulation cycles (for females), miscellaneous “addiction” rhythms (cigarettes, coffee, diet soda, alcohol, pot, fitness workouts, book writing, whatever it is that you are addicted to – all addictions seem to have a cyclical component and why not? we are animal creatures of a planet that rotates and revolves) – the output could serve to generate tones as well as images, serving as both biofeedback and soundtrack. Delays in cycles correlate to anxieties and stress, behavioral and mood changes which could also be charted. Are we not creatures of many habits? (I know I am). The idea here is to stuff them all together in one place and get a graphical representation of our measly body-driven lives. Let the brain chortle over its wonderfulness then as it can see all at once just how bound and chained it really is.

This is Why I Can’t Have Literary Things

Disclaimer: This is just me being snobby and annoying.

Call it Cormac McCarthy Syndrome or something, but there are some literary bags of tricks that drive me up a freaking wall and stop me dead in the middle of a read and make me want to see just how far I can throw a damn book. I once threw a copy of Gore Vidal’s “Creation” across four entire back yards in San Francisco one fine day. Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook” was somewhat heavier and didn’t quite make it that far (although it did cause the neighbor’s German Shepherd – Pamela was her name – to go on a record-setting barking spree). Cormac McCarthy’s The Road met a similar fate when I got to a sentence where his characters found themselves wandering through “the nameless dark”. Nameless dark? I think that actually does have a name. Where I’m from they call it “night”.

So I blundered into another one yesterday in a Kindle sample of “I Am Radar” by Reif Larsen. I had been led to it through an article the author wrote discussing the art of ambiguity in Josepg Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – an interesting essay which extols the virtue of pure story-telling (He writes “it returns literature to its essence, which is a story being told” and “I try to think of myself as a storyteller, rather than a ‘writer.'”). So I thought I’d check out his novel. I’m not a big fan of “writerly” writing, but I love good story-telling. So what do I find? In the first few pages, we discover that as a small child, the protagonist’s family is fleeing the war in Europe, wherein his mother is (sort of accidentally) murdered by a border guard when she resists his sexual advances. Next page we have this: “Years later, even after he had fled Europe, Kermin’s limited sexual adventures – in a Meadowlands parking lot [and a few more places] – these moments of carnal urgency were still inflected with the lingering sense of crossing a hostile border”.

Stopped. In. Tracks.

Seriously?

inflected with the what?

a sense of what?

crossing a what?

This gets me on a few levels. One, the tragic childhood shtick. Sacrifice a parent for later so-called “character development”. Some crap psychology. Some formative experience. Novelists so often seem to be in the business of constructing cutely flawed personalities out of random bullshit. Play with your puppets as you will but can you at least not pretend to be Sigmund Freaking Freud? Event A never “explains” Person B. It’s never that simple, and no, I don’t believe those moments of carnal urgency were so inflected.

We had a game when I was a kid called “I Doubt It” (I think some people call it “Bullshit”).

I get to stuff like this in a novel and I’m looking around for targets to fling at.

— discontinue pointless rant and return to work now –

Robots, Jobs and Handbaskets

There is no shortage of handbaskets in which the world can go to hell, and certainly robots qualify as one. It’s something to think about, as technology more and more ‘disrupts’ one industry after another. What will be the impact of automation devices in the short- and long-term future? An interesting take on this is provided by the novel Robonomics, by S.A. Wilson, available on Wattpad. In this book teachers are the focus as the target of a general takeover by robot instructors. Told in the first-person by schoolteacher Andrea Anderson, society at large undergoes great shifts as more and more workers are replaced by automatons, unions are busted, protests are infiltrated and co-opted, the underclass grows and the world goes to hell. Wilson is a polished writer who covers a lot of bases in telling the story, and moves the tale forward mainly by dialog and critical events. I would have been interested to see more of the micro-experience, more of the inside-the-classroom-with-the-robot and perhaps a bit less of the macro-society stuff, but that’s just my personal preference. The story reminded me in some ways of a very different ‘handbasket’ story, Blue Tent by Carla Herrera, which is an intensely focused and more visceral evocation of a similar dark future.

There is no doubt that occupations face challenges from future automation. We already have more and more automated factories and warehouses, mechanical jobs that require minimal human interaction. A higher level disruption, such as teachers and doctors, is probably a considerable way off. It would begin, I think, with more low-hanging fruit, such as cashiers. There are now self-checkout lines in more stores, and jobs are certainly lost by that.  ATM machines are another case in point. There are definite limitations with this approach. These, like Facebook, turn the customer into the worker, and that doesn’t fly so well with the higher income levels, whose clear preference is for personal service. Rich people want to be served by poorer people, not by machines, and certainly not machines that make them do any actual work. It’s one thing for Home Depot to have self-checkout lines – that’s a store for do-it-yourselfers who are happy to do it themselves, but I doubt we’ll ever see such things in upscale environments.

Speaking of scale, that’s another reason why I don’t see actual physical robots replacing people in professions such as teaching. Instead, and we are already seeing this, online classes are far more likely to deprecate and deplete that profession. Sites like Khan Academy, and the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses, are based in the cloud which makes them not only much cheaper but also much more efficient and effective. These classes can iterate rapidly, weeding out the unproductive from the more productive, and self-improve at a rapid rate. In the classroom, teachers will likely – as in Robonomics- become more like monitors, shepherding students’ interactions with their laptop software, and possibly supplementing and guiding one-on-one a little where necessary.

Another reason not to be in such dread of ‘everyone losing their jobs to robots’ is the cost, especially relative to small businesses, which are still, and likely to remain, a large source of job creation. Small business with few employees are also less likely to automate with robots because of the customer service aspect. Kiosks work at airports for self check-in, but can you visualize your local liquor store being manned by a robot? Or the gift shop? Or any small shop in a touristy or trendy neighborhood? I don’t see it. Crappy jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, while some professional jobs may suffer from skills deprecation. We have automated stock trading, but we still have stock brokers. We have ATMs but we still have tellers, if not as many. There will probably be some self-driving cars replacing some taxis at some point and maybe fairly soon, just as there already are fully automated train shuttles at airports, but I think it’s still a way off before no human ever drives a car. The technological challenges are also stiff; human interaction requires deep awareness of context, and applications like Siri show that we have a long way to go before a true AI is achieved.

The future will be made by people, though, and novelists are among the people who create the visions and the expectations, as well as the warnings and the guidance which define that future, and novels like Robonomics are worthy contributions to that project.

Revisory 101

After letting the first draft sit for a week, and sending myself dozens of emails with ideas for revisions, i sat down to take a pass at the work in progress today. I was surprised to find that chapter two makes a better chapter one than the original chapter one did. Rewriting doesn’t always have the same joy as writing does. There’s something more workmanlike about it, but it was good to get all the new ideas in there somewhere and smooth out some of the rougher edges. There were also some paragraphs that fell to the sword. Now to let it sit and fester some more.

Unfortunate Slang

The title of my forthcoming short novel is “How My Brain Ended Up Inside This Box”. I had a cover image in mind, which included, among other things, a photo of a pretty girl. People seem to like pretty girls on covers, and this particular photo resonated with my idea of the main character, who is a sort of uncertain-gendered – but pretty – artificial creature. In some ways she reminded me of a guy I used to know who was one of the prettiest women I ever saw – a trans female who never lived to make the full trans due to heroin and a certain abusive boyfriend. Jake (not his real name) was also probably the worst employee I ever had to manage. He was absolutely unable to do any sort of useful task whatever, but required such constant handholding that he might as well not even have been there. I had to fire him, which was not fun, but necessary. And I digress. The problem with putting the photo of the pretty girl on the cover is the unfortunate slang use of the word “box”, and especially the context of “inside this box”. She deserves better, so she won’t be seen on the cover. Instead, we have this final candidate, which I like even better anyway:

HowMyBrain_Cover1