Whose Dystopia Is It Anyway?

26 May 2018

From Slate:

Dystopia is everywhere. No longer just a narrative form in the vein of 1984 or Soylent Green, the very word is seeping into our daily news and culture, invoked as readily in the pubs of London as the checkpoints of Gaza. Far from “an imagined … society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic,” dystopia is now used to describe Facebook, Brexit, biometric data, militancy, antibiotic resistance, and HQ Trivia.

. . . .

Of course, the Western political and economic upheavals of the past few years are about as dystopian as a party balloon next to the reality of life in, say, North Korea, whose government sums up the rights of its citizens with a simple phrase—“One for all and all for one”—better known in the West for a book that is probably not discussed much in Pyongyang. Like Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany before it, the totalitarian oppression of the DPRK feels so remote that it becomes almost pantomime. The hysterical weeping of party officials at the death of Kim Jong-il and the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s defector brother, with the killers allegedly told it was part of a “prank” show, feel closer to fiction than fact—stories to be marvelled at, rather than profound human truths. Propaganda and history collide, blurring the lines between fiction and reality; as these lines move, so does our cultural understanding of dystopia.

Perhaps the sci-fi anthology show Black Mirror has been a catalyst for shifting the definition of dystopia away from Mad Max–esque cannibals and dehydration to a new conversation of insecurity, intrusiveness, horror, and internalized, personal calamity. Here, dystopia becomes an everyday experience in which the promises of freedom, equality, and basic human rights are corrupted by the very structures we have built to empower us. Your digital assistant is a torture device; your aspirations to be a good parent destroy lives; your cartoonish satire is the tyranny of tomorrow.

Yet historically speaking, we’ve never had it so good. We beat smallpox and polio is on the verge of eradication, solar power grows in leaps and bounds, and humans have never been richer or lived longer. As for the internet! The advent of mobile data gives us more knowledge and power in our hand than the crew of the Enterprise could have dreamed of. The world is awesome.

. . . .

Animal Farm is one of the few novels that explores how the final tyranny of its world is created, from the subversion of a utopian ideal into a dystopia that favors the select few. Black Mirror picks up on this theme and asks, What if through our utopian ideas and technologies we are creating the very opposite?

In his book Ordinary Men, the historian Christopher Browning examined how men from across 1930s Germany were transformed from harmless next-door neighbors into the Einsatzgruppen, working behind Nazi lines to murder approximately 2 million people. The conclusion he reached was depressing in its universality. These were not special men with violent tendencies. They were told that Jews were less than human, other, but more importantly, they were commanded by authority figures and pressured by the camaraderie of the unit, to kill. Our moral compass collapses with devastating speed, and it is easy to obey, and to walk into darkness.

Link to the rest at Slate

The Opening of Detroit: Become Human

24 May 2018

From i09:

The concerns at the heart of Detroit: Become Human are readily apparent almost from the very start: the existential crisis faced by androids that look and behave like people but are treated like things. But its lofty ambitions get hamstrung at the very start by some incredibly heavy-handed moments of shlock.

. . . .

The studio tends to put the player in control of small, everyday interactions, the idea being that you more fully inhabit a character and invest in the drama as a result.

. . . .

Detroit starts out with a series of vignettes that cycle through three main android characters, opening with high-stakes drama first. Players first meet Connor (Bryan Dechart), a special police operative tasked with tracking down deviants, androids who go off protocol and pose a danger to humans. The first sequence is a hostage negotiation where a distraught android threatens to kill a little girl he once took care of. It’s a good primer for the gameplay that follows because it’s heavy-handed to a fault and borrows heavily from familiar tropes in cop-drama movies and TV shows.

From there, we meet Markus (Jesse Williams), who starts off as the assistant to an ailing artist but then becomes a leader in the android resistance movement. Finally, there’s Kara (Valorie Curry), who works as a housekeeper/babysitter but breaks her programming to go on the run with her young charge.

We’re supposed to care for these almost-humans but we meet them as overly familiar symbols first. Connor is the android hunting down his own kind, with an initial hostage crisis that leave another android dead. What’s supposed to feel like moral ambiguity instead comes across as cold and unfeeling pragmatism.

Markus gets yelled at by a preacher, only to be then beaten by a crowd of anti-android protestors. If that wasn’t enough, when he gets on public transit to go back home, he has to sit on the back of the bus, in a segregated android compartment.

. . . .

Real-world tech-ethics controversies get copy-pasted into Detroit’s fiction in eye-rollingly facile ways, like sponsored content that says hetero men prefer sex with androids, news reports on exodus from flooding coastal cities, and articles that report androids may be listening into owners’ conversations and harvesting data for advertisers. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like most people in the world of Detroit actually cares about these matters. They’re just there for the player to find so the game’s creators can check off a box on a ‘Deep Commentary’ checklist.

. . . .

Detroit mostly stumbles through an odd dance of performative philosophizing and none of the characters feel lived in enough for you to care about what happens to them next. They’re cypher vessels made to hold trite observations about human nature.

Link to the rest at i09

Harry Potter and Tom Kerridge fuel Bloomsbury’s record revenue

22 May 2018

From The Guardian:

The evergreen Harry Potter franchise and the popularity of TV chef Tom Kerridge’s Lose Weight for Good has driven book publisher Bloomsbury’s revenue to the highest level in its 32-year history.

Bloomsbury Publishing reported a 13% surge in revenues to £161.5m in the year to the end of February, its best performance since it was founded in 1986.

. . . .

Sales of the Harry Potter series grew 31% year-on-year, helped by special editions of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

The continued popularity of the franchise helped drive sales at Bloomsbury’s children’s division by 24% to £69m, with the publisher’s biggest-selling book of the year a new illustrated edition of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Nigel Newton, the chief executive and co-founder of Bloomsbury, said the popularity of the boy wizard showed no sign of fading.

“You could almost say that the Harry Potter series is increasing in popularity,” he said. “If you put aside the years that the first books were being put out – those sales will never be rivalled – sales have never been higher.

“The enduring appeal of JK Rowling’s writing as new generations of children come along to take up their parents’ favourite book is continuing to make Harry Potter more widely read than ever.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Fantasy for Romance Readers

19 May 2018

From All About Romance:

I love romance for the same reasons I love other genres: intriguing characters with problems, who need others’ help to find solutions.  In romance, the main romantic couple are generally the intriguing characters, and they help each other to solve the problem, whether it’s loneliness or something more complex, like thwarting that evil old uncle who’s trying to divert your inheritance to his unsavory pals.  In fantasy, there may be a couple of main characters, or there may be a larger group with more complex interrelationships.

This post is meant to provide a beginner’s guide for romance readers who’ve wanted to try fantasy but were feeling daunted by all that’s available; hopefully, those who are fantasy readers already might find something new, though I’m focusing on older, ‘classic’ books that one might not come across in casual browsing.

If you’re in search of epic fantasy, Kate Elliott has a couple of series that should appeal. Beginning with Cold Magic [2010], she created a world in which Carthage never fell, with consequent huge differences for Europe and North and South America; there’s an “opposites attract” romance as well, though not until the second volume.

. . . .

Many romance readers already love the addictive work of Lois McMaster Bujold, either her long-running and devourable Vorkosiganscience fiction series, or her more recent fantasy series, Chalion [2001] and The Sharing Knife [2006]. Bujold is known for her large casts of likeable characters who face seemingly unsurmountable challenges…until they conquer those challenges in ways you would not expect. Her series are especially fun because they reward re-reading.

Link to the rest at All About Romance

Why ‘Fahrenheit 451’ Is the Book for Our Social Media Age

12 May 2018

From The New York Times:

No books were harmed in the making of this motion picture. There will be no such disclaimer at the end of my new film, because we burned a lot of books. We designed powerful, kerosene-spitting flamethrowers and torched books — en masse. This was not easy for me to do. I was taught at a very young age to read and respect books. Even setting a teacup on a book was considered a sin. In my parents’ household, Hafez’s book of Persian poetry, “The Divan,” was revered like a religious text.

But now I was making a film adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” which presents a future America where books are outlawed and firemen burn them. The protagonist, a fireman named Guy Montag, begins to doubt his actions and turns against his mentor, Captain Beatty. When I set out to adapt the novel early in 2016, I was faced with a big question: Do people still care about physical books?

I asked an 82-year-old friend for advice. “Go ahead and burn books,” he said. “They mean nothing to me. I can read anything on my tablet, from the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ to Jo Nesbo, and I can read them in bed, on a plane or next to the ocean, because it’s all in the cloud, safe from your firemen’s torches.”

If he felt this way, what would teenagers think? Bradbury’s novel is a classic taught in high schools across America. But the more I thought about it, the more relevant the novel seemed. For Bradbury, books were repositories of knowledge and ideas. He feared a future in which those things would be endangered, and now that future was here: The internet and new social-media platforms — and their potential threat to serious thought — would be at the heart of my adaptation.

. . . .

Bradbury’s key inspiration was the invasion of seven-inch black-and-white televisions into people’s homes. Bradbury was no Luddite. He wrote screenplays, including one for an adaptation of “Moby-Dick.” He also wrote 65 episodes of a television series, “The Ray Bradbury Theater.” But in “Fahrenheit 451” Bradbury was warning us about the threat of mass media to reading, about the bombardment of digital sensations that could substitute for critical thinking.

In the novel, he imagined a world where people are entertained day and night by staring at giant wall screens in their homes. They interact with their “friends” through these screens, listening to them via “Seashells” — Bradbury’s version of Apple’s wireless AirPods — inserted in their ears. In this world, people would be crammed “full of noncombustible data” — words to popular songs, the names of state capitals, the amount of “corn Iowa grew last year.” They will “feel they’re thinking,” Bradbury wrote, “and they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”

Bradbury was worried about the advent of Reader’s Digest. Today we have Wikipedia and tweets. He worried that people would read only headlines. Today it seems that half the words online have been replaced with emojis. The more we erode language, the more we erode complex thought and the easier we are to control.

Link to the rest at The New York Times

Intelligent Machines Will Teach Us—Not Replace Us

7 May 2018

Not exactly about books (except for scifi), but, for PG, an interesting topic.

From The Wall Street Journal:

Over the centuries, humans have created countless technologies to save ourselves from backbreaking physical labor and mindless routine. AI continues that progress by taking over many rote cognitive tasks that don’t require human judgment, strategic planning or creativity. Whether it’s browsing millions of legal documents or scrutinizing CT scans, machines can now do much expert work faster and more precisely than their human creators. New forms of artificial intelligence will surpass us in new and surprising ways, thanks to machine-learning techniques that generate their own knowledge—and even their own code. Humans, meanwhile, will continue up the ladder to management.

We’re not being replaced by AI. We’re being promoted.

. . . .

Our outdated vocabulary stokes our fears. “Artificial intelligence” sounds like an unnatural rival of our own, as an artificial sweetener is to sugar. We should instead think of AI as “augmented intelligence.” Our increasingly intelligent machines are making us smarter, just as our past technology—from pulleys to hydraulics, and sailing ships to rocket ships—made us stronger and faster. For the first time, machines aren’t just giving us answers more quickly and accurately. They are generating new knowledge that helps us better understand the world.

. . . .

In December, Demis Hassabis at DeepMind, an artificial-intelligence unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc., unveiled his latest chess program, the first of its kind. The project, called AlphaZero, is a generic machine-learning algorithm with no chess knowledge beyond the rules. After playing against itself for several hours, AlphaZero crushed one of the world’s strongest traditional programs, which, like every other successful chess program in history, had been programmed with existing human knowledge of how best to play the game.

AlphaZero’s domination was produced with no opening library of moves, no human input about the relative value of the pieces—nothing at all. This unique creation generated its own knowledge to become the strongest chess-playing entity in history; human experience would have held it back. For decades, better programming and processors led to incremental improvements in AI. AlphaZero was a sudden leap—the sort we should expect to see more of as machine-learning models move into disciplines like cancer screenings, asset management, law enforcement and education, to name a few. With only minor exaggeration, in four hours AlphaZero taught itself all the chess knowledge—and more—that computer science had long assumed would come from human masters.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Perpetual License for Derivative Rights

6 May 2018

From Writer Beware:

SFWA’s Contracts Committee has recently been seeing a proliferation of contracts from small magazines, and a very few established markets, that license all derivative rights in perpetuity.

This is a red flag for a number of reasons, even if these rights are licensed non-exclusively. A derivative work is defined by copyright law as “a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted.” This sort of rights grab is by no means normal; magazines generally only take very limited first publication and archival rights for a limited time. Licensing the right to create derivative works can and mostly likely will interfere with the author’s right to exploit their right to create or license derivative works to others.

The risks of signing such contracts can be serious. To give examples of some of the negative impact of these rights grabs.

1) Dramatic rights are compromised, limiting the author’s ability to sell works for TV and film use because the author can no longer offer exclusive rights to the story, which means movie or TV producers who want exclusive dramatic rights are not likely to be interested in the work. The best case scenario is that the author may end up having to give the publisher of the magazine a cut of any income.

2) Marketing rights are compromised, in that any marketing deal could be undercut by the publisher, who would also have the ability to market those rights.

3) The ability of the author to publish sequels is compromised. The Publisher could commission sequels to the work from another writer, in competition with the author. Even if the Publisher were required pay a fee to the author for a sequel written by another writer, the existence of such competitive sequels would likely seriously hurt the author’s own sequels.

4) The author would have a de facto business partner for the rest of the author’s life and beyond for the life of copyright. Whether or not a clueless publisher would even realize what they’ve acquired or have any idea how to exploit it, the specter would hover over the author’s further use of any elements in the original story. In addition, if the publisher files for bankruptcy, any rights the publisher held would likely become part of its assets sold during the bankruptcy process. The author would then end up with a completely unknown business partner.

5) Even with a perfectly drafted contract, which seems unlikely with a publisher who would propose such a contract in the first place, it could easily take years of legal action to unscramble the competing rights.

Link to the rest at Writer Beware

China is now monitoring employees’ brainwaves and emotions

1 May 2018

Not the sort of writing prompt PG necessarily enjoys.

From The South China Morning Post:

Government-backed surveillance projects are deploying brain-reading technology to detect changes in emotional states in employees on the production line, the military and at the helm of high-speed trains

On the surface, the production lines at Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric look like any other.

Workers outfitted in uniforms staff lines producing sophisticated equipment for telecommunication and other industrial sectors.

But there’s one big difference – the workers wear caps to monitor their brainwaves, data that management then uses to adjust the pace of production and redesign workflows, according to the company.

The company said it could increase the overall efficiency of the workers by manipulating the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress.

Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is just one example of the large-scale application of brain surveillance devices to monitor people’s emotions and other mental activities in the workplace, according to scientists and companies involved in the government-backed projects.

Concealed in regular safety helmets or uniform hats, these lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

. . . .

The technology is also in use at in Hangzhou at State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power, where it has boosted company profits by about 2 billion yuan (US$315 million) since it was rolled out in 2014, according to Cheng Jingzhou, an official overseeing the company’s emotional surveillance programme.

“There is no doubt about its effect,” Cheng said.

. . . .

One of the main centres of the research in China is Neuro Cap, a central government-funded brain surveillance project at Ningbo University.

The programme has been implemented in more than a dozen factories and businesses.

Jin Jia, associate professor of brain science and cognitive psychology at Ningbo University’s business school, said a highly emotional employee in a key post could affect an entire production line, jeopardising his or her own safety as well as that of others.

“When the system issues a warning, the manager asks the worker to take a day off or move to a less critical post. Some jobs require high concentration. There is no room for a mistake,” she said.

Jin said workers initially reacted with fear and suspicion to the devices.

“They thought we could read their mind. This caused some discomfort and resistance in the beginning,” she said.

“After a while they got used to the device. It looked and felt just like a safety helmet. They wore it all day at work.”

Jin said that at present China’s brain-reading technology was on a par with that in the West but China was the only country where there had been reports of massive use of the technology in the workplace.

. . . .

The research team confirmed the device and technology had been used in China’s military operations but declined to provide more information.

The technology is also being used in medicine.

Ma Huajuan, a doctor at the Changhai Hospital in Shanghai, said the facility was working with Fudan University to develop a more sophisticated version of the technology to monitor a patient’s emotions and prevent violent incidents.

In additional to the cap, a special camera captures a patient’s facial expression and body temperature. There is also an array of pressure sensors planted under the bed to monitor shifts in body movement.

“Together this different information can give a more precise estimate of the patient’s mental status,” she said.

Ma said the hospital welcomed the technology and hoped it could warn medical staff of a potential violent outburst from a patient.

. . . .

Zheng Xingwu, a professor of management at the Civil Aviation University of China, said China could be the first country in the world to introduce the brain surveillance device into cockpits.

Most airline accidents were caused by human factors and a pilot in a disturbed emotional state could put an entire plane at risk, he said.

Putting the cap on before take-off would give airlines more information to determine whether a pilot was fit to fly, Zheng said.

“The influence of the government on airlines and pilots in China is probably larger than in many other countries. If the authorities make up their mind to bring the device into the cockpit, I don’t think they can be stopped,” he said.

“That means the pilots may need to sacrifice some of their privacy for the sake of public safety.”

. . . .

“There is no law or regulation to limit the use of this kind of equipment in China. The employer may have a strong incentive to use the technology for higher profit, and the employees are usually in too weak a position to say no,” he said.

“The selling of Facebook data is bad enough. Brain surveillance can take privacy abuse to a whole new level.”

Link to the rest at The South China Morning Post

James Cameron Is Worried About Our Relationship With Reality

30 April 2018

From Fast Company:

Imagine, if you will, being tasked with categorizing and connecting 200 years of science fiction literature, art, television, and films–and condensing it into six hour-long episodes.

Such was the Dantesque labor of love James Cameron tackled for his new AMC series.

. . . .

The series–the second installment of the cable network’s franchise of artist-curated histories of their respective genres–explores science fiction’s roots, how they’ve informed subsequent generations of storytellers and scientists, and ultimately spawned a multibillion-dollar industry. To anchor each episode, Cameron interviews Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Guillermo del Toro, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

. . . .

They’re supplemented by observations from another 100 actors, scientists, astronauts, academics, and artists.

. . . .

Cameron’s narrative connects thematic dots from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through H.G. Wells, 1930s pulp era, the Golden Age of sci-fi literature in the ’40s and ’50s, spawning authors like Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick, the ’60s and ’70s new wave, cyberpunk in the ’80s, to the present day. It also offers historical context for these periods: the fear of communism intimated in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the threat of nuclear war prompting post-apocalyptic stories like Planet of the Apes and Mad Max, hopeful equality and coexistence in Star Trek, concerns about runaway artificial intelligence in  2001: A Space OdysseyBlade Runner, The Matrix, and Ex Machina, and humanity-decimating epidemics in I Am Legend and The Walking Dead.

. . . .

“What was important to me on this series was to trace back to the DNA of the ideas,” Cameron adds. “So if you have a time travel story, who first thought of that? Who did the first space story and how did that enter popular culture? And how did science fiction struggle as a genre to popularize these complex ideas?”

. . . .

“A lot of the AI scientists remind me of the atomic scientists of the late ’30s, who saw nothing but upsides to nuclear fission,” he adds. “They looked at it as the power supply of the future and, of course, the very first thing we did with it was build an atomic bomb. Historically, it’s easier to see how the dystopian or dark interpretation of the future could win out. But this is the conversation that humans have to have with ourselves, and science fiction is a great way to do it. I actually think it’s more relevant now than it ever was.”

Link to the rest at Fast Company


Wattpad Novel

29 April 2018

From Publishing Perspectives:

With more than 905,000 reads at Wattpad to date, the first installment of author Kara Barbieri’s ‘Permafrost’ trilogy has a January release date, potentially the next platform-born YA bestseller.

. . . .

In the latest platform-to-Big-Five cover reveal for a title that began life on Wattpad, Macmillan’s Wednesday Books has announced January 8 as the publication date for Kara Barbieri’s White Stag.

. . . .

The YA series then was described as having been “pitched as Twilight Meets Game of Thrones, featuring a 17-year-old girl who was captured from her village to live in the brutally beautiful Permafrost, where she finds herself becoming more monster than human and must uncover secrets to find the truth about who she is and the world that has become her home.”

In a prepared statement provided to Publishing Perspectives, Gardner is quoted, saying, “Kara’s story exploded among readers shortly after she started writing, finding a home in the Wattpad community.

“It’s a story we knew would connect with audiences of Wattpad. People couldn’t put this story down, enthralled by its mix of fantasy and action combined with themes of female empowerment.

“White Stag is a perfect example of how Wattpad creates opportunities for authors. We can’t wait to see this story take the world by storm as a book next year.”

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

PG had to double-check the dates in the OP.

In an article dated April 27, 2018, Macmillan is publicizing a novel that it acquired in 2016 that will be released in January 2019.

Does it really take three years for a major publisher to release a book that (by virtue of nearly a million reads on Wattpad, seems to be attractive to readers) is already quite good?

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