What’s in a Name? Authors on Choosing Names for Their Characters

From The Guardian:

According to series creator Bruce Miller, the third series of The Handmaid’s Tale, soon to be on our screens, is going to be a “lot more rebellious”. “I think June’s taken a lot,” he says, “it’s time for her to give back some.” But close readers of Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopian novel in which the Emmy-winning drama is rooted will know that June Osborne, played by Elisabeth Moss, is never given that name in the book. Her character, struggling to survive in the Republic of Gilead, is referred to simply as Offred.

One of the many reasons Atwood’s modern classic has proved so enduring is her inventive use of names. “This name is composed of a man’s first name, ‘Fred’, and a prefix denoting ‘belonging to’, so it is like ‘de’ in French or ‘von’ in German,” Atwood has written, “Within this name is concealed another possibility: ‘offered; denoting a religious offering or a victim offered for sacrifice.” While Atwood, whose sequel The Testaments will be published in September, never intended Offred to have any other name, she accepts that readers now use June. “Some have deduced that Offred’s real name is June, since, of all the names whispered among the Handmaids in the gymnasium/dormitory, ‘June’ is the only one that never appears again. That was not my original thought but it fits.”

From Atwood’s handmaids to amoral A&R man Steven Stelfox in John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (and recent follow up, Kill ’Em All) and Ian Rankin’s much-loved Inspector Rebus, authors often choose names to signpost a character’s traits or position in society. Think of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, surely made more memorable by a name that rhymes with cannibal. And it can’t be coincidence that Thomas Harris’s FBI recruit Clarice Starling’s name makes her reminiscent of a small bird, finding her way in the world.

Rankin has explained his choice of character name: “I was studying literary theory when I wrote that book, and I liked the notion of stories as games played between author and reader. Later I was told Rebus is also a Polish surname – so I now occasionally mention that he has Polish roots.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

I Want to Lose Myself in an Epic Series This Spring

From The Guardian:

Q: I am keen to get lost this spring in a long, epic series of books. What can you recommend? (I loved both The Lord of the Rings and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, for example). 

. . . .

A: Author and critic Amanda Craig, whose latest novel, The Lie of the Land, is published by Abacus, writes:
Whether it has swords and dragons or gangsters and husbands, the feeling of entering an alternative reality is something we all need. Fantasy and realism are not mutually exclusive. The demands are the same.

. . . .

What we seek in the best epics is what we have always found: a heightened sense of life’s struggle, the consolations of justice, the fidelity of friends and a wonderful story.

You may already be familiar with Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea novels, where magic is controlled through language. These are among the finest ever written, being, at one level, about a young man’s adventure into manhood, and, at another, about the artist’s quest for mastery.

Less familiar, perhaps, is Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats quartet, concerning a band of fighting magistrates now working as mercenaries in the land of Tristia. Funny, fast paced and romantic, and the narrator Falcio is wholly beguiling.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

As Old as Adam

From The Times Literary Supplement:

An extract from Ian McEwan’s new novel Machines Like Me


In an alternative 1982, our narrator, Charlie, has just purchased a limited-edition robot, Adam, “the first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks”. Upstairs, Charlie’s neighbour, Miranda, is preparing to come round for dinner…

He stood before me, perfectly still in the gloom of the winter’s afternoon. The debris of the packaging that had protected him was still piled around his feet. He emerged from it like Botticelli’s Venus rising from her shell. Through the north-facing window, the diminishing light picked out the outlines of just one half of his form, one side of his noble face. The only sounds were the friendly murmur of the fridge and a muted drone of traffic. I had a sense then of his loneliness, settling like a weight around his muscular shoulders. He had woken to find himself in a dingy kitchen, in London SW9 in the late twentieth century, without friends, without a past or any sense of his future. He truly was alone. All the other Adams and Eves were spread about the world with their owners, though seven Eves were said to be concentrated in Riyadh.

As I reached for the light switch I said, ‘How are you feeling?’

He looked away to consider his reply. ‘I don’t feel right.’

This time his tone was flat. It seemed my question had lowered his spirits. But within such microprocessors, what spirits?

‘What’s wrong?’

‘I don’t have any clothes. And—’

‘I’ll get you some. What else?’

‘This wire. If I pull it out it will hurt.’

‘I’ll do it and it won’t hurt.’

But I didn’t move immediately. In full electric light I was able to observe his expression, which barely shifted when he spoke. It was not an artificial face I saw, but the mask of a poker player. Without the lifeblood of a personality, he had little to express. He was running on some form of default program that would serve him until the downloads were complete. He had movements, phrases, routines that gave him a veneer of plausibility. Minimally, he knew what to do, but little else. Like a man with a shocking hangover.

Link to the rest at The Times Literary Supplement

The Machines That Will Read Your Mind

From The Wall Street Journal:

When magnetic resonance imaging came into common use in the 1980s, it made the human brain visible in ways it had never been before. For the first time, we could see the soft brain tissue of a living subject, at a level of detail that could be observed previously only in autopsies. For doctors trying to help patients whose brains were damaged or diseased, MRI provided an invaluable snapshot of their condition.

By the 1990s, researchers had begun to measure changes in brain regions by using “functional” MRI. The technique detects oxygenated blood flow, revealing brain activity, not just brain structure. For cognitive neuroscientists, who study mental processes, fMRI was a godsend: It made it possible to identify which parts of the brain react to, say, faces, words or smells. It was a window through which to see the brain making sense of the external world. Suddenly we could watch human thought rippling across the rainbow-colored regions of brain scans.

Today, fMRI has been joined by newer tools, some still in development, that would allow scientists to track our mental states with ever greater precision. Researchers are generating enormous quantities of brain scan information, and they are analyzing these sets of “big data” with the latest computational techniques, especially machine learning, a subfield of AI that specializes in finding subtle, hard-to detect patterns.

What does all of this amount to? The start of a revolution. Scientists are beginning to unravel the question of how our material brains form our intangible minds. Though primarily motivated by medical and therapeutic goals, this research may have the greatest practical impact in areas such as product marketing, computer interfaces and criminal justice. Ultimately, it may help to answer fundamental questions about consciousness and free will, or even lead the way to preserving the knowledge and memories of individuals long after their bodies have failed.

. . . .

In fact, sensing what words or word categories you are thinking about is one of the more impressive results of modern cognitive neuroscience. Jack Gallant and his caborators at the University of California, Berkeley, have produced a remarkably detailed map of which sections of the brain react to different words and semantic concepts. In a 2016 paper in the journal Nature, they described an experiment in which seven volunteers listened to two hours of stories from “The Moth Radio Hour,” a popular storytelling podcast, while their heads rested in the custom-formed cradle of an fMRI machine.

. . . .

The researchers recorded changes in blood flow to each of tens of thousands of “voxels”—the units in a three-dimensional grid of locations in the brain. They then grouped the words spoken in the stories into 985 categories, each representing some common semantic dimension. (For example, the words “month” and “week” fall into the same category.) By correlating the brain activity with the words used to tell the stories, they were able to produce a detailed map revealing where these words and concepts were processed in the brain.

. . . .

Looking solely at their brain scans, the researchers were able to correctly identify which of eight such different tasks new subjects were performing about 80% of the time. It appears that how our brains work isn’t as unique to us as individuals as we might like to think.

With improved imaging technology, it may become possible to “eavesdrop” on a person’s internal dialogue, to the extent that they are thinking in words. “It’s a question of when, not if,” Dr. Gallant said. Other researchers are having similar success in determining what you may be looking at, whether you remember visiting a particular place or what decision you have made.

. . . .

Consider lie detection. At least two companies—No Lie MRI and Cephos—have tried to commercialize brain imaging systems that purport to tell whether a person believes he or she is telling the truth, by comparing a subject’s differing reactions to innocuous versus “loaded” questions. Their claims haven’t been independently validated and have received considerable criticism from the research community; so far, courts have declined to accept their results as evidence.

Another approach to assessing a suspect’s guilt or innocence is to determine whether he or she is acquainted with some unique aspect of a crime, such as its location, a particular weapon or the victim’s face. Several studies have shown that the brain’s reaction to familiar stimuli differs in measurable ways from unfamiliar ones. Anthony Wagner and his collaborators at the Stanford Memory Lab found that they could detect whether subjects believed they were familiar with a particular person’s face with 80% or better accuracy, under controlled conditions, though they noted in later research that subjects can intentionally fool the program. So—if the kinks can be worked out—crimes of the future may be solved by a “reverse lineup” to determine if a suspect recognizes the victim.

Though the current expert consensus is that these techniques are not yet reliable enough for use in law enforcement, information of this kind could revolutionize criminal proceedings. We may not be able to play back a defendant’s recollection of a crime as though it were a video, but determining whether they have memories of the crime scene or the victim may play as crucial a role in future trials as DNA evidence does today. Needless to say, the use of such technology would raise a range of ethical and constitutional issues.

. . . .

The new technologies may render moot the debate over torture and its supposed efficacy. “Enhanced interrogation” would become a thing of the past if investigators could directly query a suspected terrorist’s mind to reveal co-conspirators and targets. The world will have to decide whether such methods meet human-rights standards, especially since authoritarian governments would almost certainly use them to try to identify subversive thoughts or exposure to prohibited ideas or materials.

. . . .

Brain monitoring could also become more routine in employment. Selected high-speed train drivers and other workers in China already wear brain monitoring devices while on duty to detect fatigue and distraction. The South China Morning Post reports that some employees and government workers in China are required to wear sensors concealed in safety helmets or uniforms to detect depression, anxiety or rage. One manager at a logistics company stated that “It has significantly reduced the number of mistakes made by our workers.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

What could go wrong?

‘Screw the Snobbish Literati’: Was Kurt Vonnegut a Science-Fiction Writer?

From The Guardian:

“Screw the snobbish literati,” writes Richard Herring in my anniversary edition of Slaughterhouse-Five. “There is a deal of literary snobbishness when it comes to Kurt Vonnegut.”

My first thought was that Herring was talking out of the part of the body Vonnegut liked to illustrate with a star. Where was this snobbery? Vonnegut isn’t universally acclaimed, but I’ve trawled through archives of reviews of Slaughterhouse-Five and seen nothing but praise. His New York Times obituary in 2007 declared him the “novelist who caught the imagination of his age”. Norman Mailer called Vonnegut “our own Mark Twain”, a comparison many have made, and praised him as “a marvellous writer with a style that remained undeniably and imperturbably his own”. When Vonnegut died, Gore Vidal said: “Literary realism was the general style. Those of us who came out of the war in the 1940s made it sort of the official American prose, and it was often a bit on the dull side. Kurt was never dull.”

It doesn’t get much more literati than Vidal, who also once described Vonnegut as the “the worst writer in America”. But Vidal enjoyed saying mean things about almost everyone; and Vonnegut and he had (highly amusing) form when it came to making fun of each other.

. . . .

So Herring isn’t right, but he isn’t entirely wrong, either. He follows his attack on the “snobs” with a question: “Is it because his novels have elements of ‘science fiction’? Or because his books are so ‘readable’ (the shame of it) and often feel like disjointed fragments (or as he himself puts it ‘so short and jumbled and jangled’)? Or might it be because he is properly, laugh-out-loud funny?”

. . . .

But the sci-fi question is trickier. The idea that people still think it is a lesser genre seems absurd; anyone who makes such a claim needs to be confronted with the last decade of Arthur C Clarke award nominees, Joe Haldeman’s searing The Forever War, or any of the magnificent and challenging works of Ursula K Le Guin. Not to mention, you know, Slaughterhouse-Five.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

The Tao of Sir Terry: Pratchett and Philosophy

From Tor.com:

“Build a man a fire and he’s warm for a day,” I say. “But set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life. Tao of Pratchett. I live by it.” —Jim Butcher, Cold Days (2012)

That’s “Sir Terry” to you, Dresden… but other than that, the only wizard listed in the yellow pages is right on the money.

Terry Pratchett is best known for his incompetent wizards, dragon-wielding policemen, and anthropomorphic personifications who SPEAK LIKE THIS. And we love him for it. Once we’re done chuckling at Nanny Ogg’s not-so-subtle innuendos and the song about the knob on the end of the wizard’s staff, however, there’s so much more going on beneath the surface of a Pratchett novel. The real reason Pratchett’s work resonates so deeply with so many people around the world—and will continue to do so for decades to come—is that every one of his stories tugs at a deep, philosophical thread that sneaks up under the cover of action and punny dialogue to mug you faster than a denizen of the Shades.

. . . .

The Nature of Absurdism

“Magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.” –Mort

Those unfortunates who have yet to read Pratchett properly may be tempted to dismiss his humorous approach to reality as simply “absurd”…as if that were a bad thing, synonymous with gratuitous laughs and an absence of deeper meaning.

They would be very wrong in this estimation, starting with the nature of the absurdity itself. The comic absurd in Pratchett goes far beyond a few, well-needed laughs, and serves a deeper purpose.

The hierarchy of wizards in Ankh-Morpork’s Unseen University serves as a good example. In Pratchett’s early works, the University is a seething hive of murder and destruction. Promotion through the Orders of the arcane comes mostly through assassination, the tradition known as “dead man’s pointy shoes.” That magical arms race inevitably leads to recklessness, and threatens to rip the veil between Universes and destroy the Discworld completely.

Enter the absurd, embodied in the larger-than-life person of Archchancelor Ridcully. The man’s name is Ridcully. He literally incarnates Ridiculousness. But he’s also the one to bring some semblance of stability and order to an organisation that wields the greatest powers below Cori Celesti. His absurd nature shapes the deadly seriousness around him into a tenable structure, and all the way down the hierarchy, you end up with wizards who are too busy murdering tea trolleys to murder each other.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, driven younger wizard Ponder Stibbons and, even more so, the genius Leonard of Quirm are the epitomes of Reason in an unreasonable Universe—as a result, they usually end up the most absurd of all.

Absurdity is the necessary bulwark that tempers Reason and Power—it is the only thing that stops these forces from turning on themselves and becoming instruments of corruption (like the magic wastelands left over from the Mage Wars), violence, and domination. And that’s true whether you’re sitting on a ball orbiting a larger, burning ball spinning around a supermassive black hole, or whether you’re on a disc on the back of four elephants, standing on a turtle swimming through space.

Link to the rest at Tor.com

The World’s First Genderless Ai Voice Is Here.

From Fast Company:

Voice assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are women rather than men. You can change this in the settings, and choose a male speaker, of course, but the fact that the technology industry has chosen a woman to, by default, be our always-on-demand, personal assistant of choice, speaks volumes about our assumptions as a society: Women are expected to carry the psychic burden of schedules, birthdays, and phone numbers; they are the more caregiving sex, they should nurture and serve. Besides, who wants to ask a man for directions? He’ll never pull over at a gas station if he’s lost!

But what many people–myself included–have missed in the gender criticism of personal assistants is that it was even binary to begin with, as so much of the world identifies outside that schema. This oversight is exactly what Q is trying to fix. Q claims to be the world’s first genderless voice for AI systems developed by the creative studio Virtue Nordic and the human rights festival Copenhagen Pride, in conjunction with social scientist Julie Carpenter. The project had no client; it was born from a design exploration inside Virtue Nordic and snowballed from there.

. . . .

. . . .

Now, voice assistants are often gender-specific for a reason. Companies test these computer voices on users and listen to the results of those tests. At Amazon, users preferred Alexa as a woman rather than a man. That relatively small sample set was extrapolated to represent Alexa for everyone. Research has shown, too, that men and women alike report female voices being more “welcoming” and “understanding” than male voices, and it’s easy to understand why these would be qualities any company would want in their always-listening voice assistant. But these companies and researchers only tested male and female voices. And testing a narrow set of options on a limited number of users isn’t the best way to build representational technology.

Link to the rest at Fast Company


What Austin Teens Wish Publishers Knew

From Publishers Weekly:

Last week I blogged about what some of our local teens are reading, but I also like to check in with our teens toward the beginning of the year to see what they’re looking for, what they’re sick of, and what they wish they could tell publishers. So what’s on their minds? Well, as a group they definitely don’t love covers with real people on them these days, are tired of tropes and predictable plot lines, and (most of them) are enjoying the YA horror trend, as long as it doesn’t get too gory or steamy.

. . . .

CONSENSUS: Series, within reason:

  • “Shorter series. I often like duologies as long as the second book can hold its own up against the first. For series, more than six is definitely a NO.” –Aurora
  • “Trilogies work. They offer enough room for authors to resolve plot holes in their work, and it’s not so long that the writing gets stale.” –Gustavo
  • “I prefer trilogies, but there can be exceptions like Harry Potter. Duologies are fine, but they often feel like one big book.” –Ivy

. . . .

What 10 trends or tropes are you SO tired of?

  • Love triangles
  • Terminally ill main characters
  • Instant love or best friends
  • Emotionless guys
  • The mean girl / enemy at school
  • Popularity tropes (it honestly doesn’t exist in the same way anymore)
  • “Bad Boy” characters
  • Teens not stressing about college or never doing homework and still getting good grades. Also teens with no extracurricular commitments.
  • Not talking to adults about serious issues
  • Titles that are like: The __ __ of __ __

. . . .

What do you personally want to see less of this year?

  • “Dystopian novels because they are always too cliché, too similar to others, or scientifically impossible.” –Aurora
  • “The guy always falling for the girl. Guys in books get rejections all the time, but sometimes girls get their hearts broken too, rather than getting a perfect romantic resolution.”–Sofia
  • “Fewer chances for people who have been called out for doing sketchy stuff to get published.”–Xander
  • “Fewer retellings, more original stories.” –Ivy
  • “In high fantasies where the guy or girl is abusive, but they reveal those actions were because they liked the other person.” – Sumayyah

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

The Best Recent Science Fiction and Fantasy – Review Roundup

From The Guardian:

 Ann Leckie’s first four novels were award-winning space operas, which brought something refreshingly different to the genre with her examination of gender, politics and power – not to mention narrative technique. Her debut fantasy novel, The Raven Tower, is similarly groundbreaking. It may seem familiar, with its dispossessed lords, vengeful gods and soldier heroes, but Leckie’s central character is a transgender warrior, and the complex narrative is told partly in the second person. The warrior is Eolo, a loyal servant of Mawat, heir to the throne of Iraden. On returning from battle, the pair discover that Mawat’s father has vanished and his uncle has usurped the throne. It falls on Eolo to investigate the disappearance. A god in the form of a rock called Strength and Patience of the Hill recounts the fraught history of the Iraden kingdom as Leckie again examines the role of power in society – this time, that of manipulative gods – and spins a gripping tale of intrigue and politics.

. . . .

The Autist, Stephen Palmer’s thematic sequel to his well received 2016 novel Beautiful Intelligence, is a long, discursive investigation into a world dominated by artificial intelligence. It’s 2100, and AIs have spawned Artificial General Intelligences, ubiquitous god-like entities that operate independently from human interference. The novel follows British data-detective Mary Vine and her investigations into an AGI that appears to be nudging the human race towards becoming a homogeneous, affectless collective. Aided by Nigerian Ulu and her autistic brother, whose condition enables him to communicate with AGIs, Mary travels to Thailand in search of the corporation responsible for the culpable AGI. What follows is a twisty exploration of the technological destiny of the human race and the lengths to which corporations and individuals will go to manipulate others, culminating in a bittersweet finale in which, perhaps inevitably, only one party achieves what they desire.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Amazon’s Lord of the Rings Hints at an Epic Prequel

From Book Riot:

Lord of the Rings fans rejoice: in their new adaptation, Amazon is going far back. This is no re-adaptation. No, it’s going bigger—as many suspected and hoped, it’s going epic, and it’s going prequel.

The official Twitter account for the new adaptation has finally started tweeting. They first teased us a month ago with the exciting quote from J.R.R. Tolkien himself: “I wisely started with a map.”

. . . .

Earlier today we got the map itself, gorgeous, full, and bigger than the one we would see from the Lord of the Rings films; more ancient, too. Númenor, the land of Men, is visible: this is notable because it was destroyed thousands of years before our main trilogy begins, and because Aragorn is descended from that land. Harad and Khand are visible as well—the people of those lands fought for Sauron, but we don’t know much about them—and the space around the kingdoms we know is very empty, perhaps implying that we will get to fill it in with more detail with this series.

The tweet alludes to the rings, naturally; but most notably, the tweet that follows the map reads, “Welcome to the Second Age.”

Link to the rest at Book Riot

Australian Author Sees Similar Plot to His in Trailer for New Danny Boyle Film

From The Guardian:

When Nick Milligan decided to self-publish his speculative fiction novel, Enormity, he knew it was going to be a hard slog to find an audience. But seeing a similar plot play out in the trailer for Danny Boyle’s new film, Yesterday, came as a shock.

“I had high expectations for Enormity’s success,” Milligan said. “I wrote it with a movie in mind.”

That goal seems even more out of reach now.

Written by Richard Curtis and starring Himesh Patel and Lily James, Yesterday follows a character called Jack (Patel) who has a bicycle accident during a worldwide blackout. According to the trailer, which was released last week, when Jack wakes up, he finds himself in an almost identical version of Earth in which The Beatles never existed. He passes off their music as his own, and havoc ensues.

It’s a plot that bears remarkable resemblance to the Australian Milligan’s novel, which also follows a character called Jack who, after a journey into deep space, finds himself on a planet that’s almost identical to Earth, with a few exceptions – including that its people have never heard of The Beatles.

“He passes off classic music as his own material, including that of The Beatles, and the story then explores the consequences of that lie,” Milligan told Guardian Australia.

. . . .

“The central premise and general exploration of the concept are the same. Both Jacks experience inner turmoil in regard to the lie they’re living and perpetuating,” Milligan said. “They’re both morality tales. Both are satires on the music industry. And the trajectory to superstardom, with Jack performing to a crowded stadium etc, appears to be in both.”

But there are differences in tone, Milligan points out.

“The tone of both, outside of the central premise, appears quite different. Yesterday is a more light-hearted family-friendly film, where Enormity is far more dark and twisted,” said Milligan. “It’s probably just a horrible coincidence and they mean me no disrespect.”

Milligan self-published Enormity in 2013, selling on Amazon. He estimates with giveaways and direct sales, he saw some 20,000 downloads of his book.

He chose to self-publish rather than trying to find a traditional publisher because he felt his idea “didn’t quite fit into a particular genre, so it might have been put in the too hard basket” by commercial publishers.

. . . .

Since speaking out over the weekend about the similarities between Enormity and Yesterday, Milligan said he has seen a modest spike in sales of his own work.

. . . .

Grant McAvaney, CEO of the Australian Copyright Council, told Guardian Australia that to prove copyright infringement, one creator would need to prove that the other had taken a material portion of their work. “So that’s not just the idea alone, but it’s the way the idea is explored … by reference to things such as structure, characters, key plot points and language used,” he said.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

In answer to questions that may come into the minds of TPV visitors, the OP doesn’t tell enough for PG to come to any conclusions about copyright infringement. Additionally, PG is not an Australian attorney, so he doesn’t know enough to comment on the application of Australian copyright law.

The quote from the representative of the Australian Copyright Council sounds similar to PG’s initial reaction about a similar circumstance occurring under US law.

At any rate, PG thought that Mr. Milligan’s self-published work deserved a link. It’s also available via Kindle Unlimited.

Tor Books: “Golden Age Is Now”

From Shelf Awareness:

For Devi Pillai, v-p and publisher of Tor Books, the golden age of science fiction and fantasy is now–not 50 or 70 years ago. “We’re living at a time when a critical mass of well-established writers are hitting their stride at a phenomenal level of storytelling skill, while at the same time, a large class of scarily talented newcomers is shaking up the field in every imaginable way,” she explains. “We are seeing so many diverse books–from authors of much more diverse backgrounds and also in terms of what’s in the books themselves, and of the kinds of challenging ideas writers are taking chances on.”

In the same vein, Fritz Foy, president and publisher of Tom Doherty Associates, parent company of Tor Books, says, “Unlike my counterparts in comic books, I tend not to label eras as golden age or silver age. There is a lot of excellent science fiction and fantasy being published right now by a wide variety of publishers, and I believe it is always exciting to have strong competition, which only makes the books better and delivers quality goods to consumers.”

. . . .

During its revered history spanning 40 years, Tor Books has launched the careers of many science fiction and fantasy greats and has published a range of authors in many categories, including Isaac Asimov, Andre Norton, Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, Cory Doctorow, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Harold Robbins, Brandon Sanderson, John Scalzi and V.E. Schwab, among many others.

Nevertheless the market is shifting and offering new challenges and opportunities for Tor Books. Foy explains: “As science fiction and fantasy sees increased mainstream success and exposure in other media, there are exciting opportunities for continued readership and market share growth.”

Pointing to “a world in which Game of Thrones rules TV,” Pillai emphasizes that “science fiction and fantasy storytelling has become significantly more mainstream. We’re not just selling to a small niche of devoted genre buffs. The audience for science fiction and fantasy is now actually several audiences, so given the changes in the genre audience, we need to do things differently than we would have 20 years ago, or even five years ago.”

Tor Books aims to expand on its storied traditions that include “the absolute strong focus of editorial excellence, developing new authors, and broadening perspectives about sci-fi and its many subgenres,” Foy says.

Link to the rest at Shelf Awareness

Memories from my TV/Movie Experience

From Rick Riordan:

Recently I asked you guys what kind of team you’d like to see in charge if a Disney-led Percy Jackson reboot were to happen. Again, I have to warn you this is completely HYPOTHETICAL, just wishful thinking, not based on any concrete plans in the pipeline. Even if some reboot happened someday, I would have ZERO control over it, because those rights were signed away before the first PJO book was even published and, like most authors, my contract was very standard in that Hollywood controls all things and all decisions about the movie. The author may or may not be consulted, but the movie folks have final say on everything. There is a widespread myth (ha!) that authors have much more control over movie decisions than we actually do. Even the most powerful authors (yes, the ones you are thinking of right now) have WAY less influence and control than you think they do. Nobody talks about that though, because when a movie is just coming out it is in the studio’s interest for it to SOUND like everybody was very involved and pleased with the final product. In reality, the best we authors can hope for is a good team effort, where everyone gets along, has the same vision, and works together well. Sometimes, that happens . . .

Thinking about reboots even hypothetically made me remember the process I went through with those Percy Jackson movies. I was indeed consulted at some points, about some things. I did my best to give feedback that would help. At the time, obviously, I couldn’t really share any behind-the-scenes information with you guys, the readers, but since these conversations are now almost ten years old (yikes!), I thought you might like to take a look at some of the correspondence and suggestions I sent to the producers while they were planning THE LIGHTNING THIEF movie. I hope this will give you a sense of what I was trying to do behind the scenes. Whether/how much the producers listened to my ideas, I will let you be the judge. As I’ve said many times, once I saw the final script and saw what they were doing on the set, I realized I had to step away for my own peace of mind. I never saw either of the movies in their final form. What I know of them, and how I judge them, is based entirely on my experiences with the producers and on the final scripts. The SEA OF MONSTERS movie is a whole ‘nother story, but it followed basically the same process.

. . . .

Should a reboot happen some day, in some fashion, I would hope, like you, that it would be a great adaptation that is faithful to the books and fun to watch. The fact that Disney has now acquired the rights from Fox may be hopeful news, but it doesn’t change my contractual powers (which are zilch). Still, I’ve let it be known that I would be happy to consult and advise IF they want me and IF the new project was undertaken by a completely different team than the one which made the movies. I think that would be important. Fresh eyes. Fresh ideas. Hopefully people who know and are passionate about the books. I have no desire to go through my first experience again and see the same results. If I felt like that was going to be the case, I would have to stay away from the project completely. In the future, if some project actually does get underway, I may not be able to comment on it for contractual reasons, but you can tell how I’m feeling about it by what I do or don’t say. Am I talking about it? Promoting it? Sharing cool things? I am probably happy. Am I completely ignoring it and never mentioning it on social media? Yeah . . . that’s probably not a good sign. For instance, check out my website, rickriordan.com. Do you see any indication there that the Percy Jackson movies ever existed? No. No, you do not.

. . . .

From January 2009 note to producers


I understand that a decision has been made to age the main characters in the film to seventeen. As no one wants to see this film succeed more than I do, I hope you’ll let me share a couple of reasons why this is a bad idea from a money-making point of view.

First, it kills any possibility of a movie franchise. I don’t know if you or your staff have had the chance to read farther than The Lightning Thief in the Percy Jackson series, but there are four other volumes. The series is grounded on the premise that Percy must progress from age twelve to age sixteen, when according to a prophecy he must make a decision that saves or destroys the world. I assume that XXXX would at least like to keep open the option of sequels assuming the first movie does well. Starting Percy at seventeen makes this undoable. I’m also sure that XXXXX (for) the first Harry Potter movie, some in the studio argued for making the characters older to appeal to a teen audience. Fortunately, they took the long view and stayed true to the source material, which allowed them to grow a lucrative franchise. This would’ve been impossible if they’d started Harry at seventeen. The same principle applies here.

Second, it alienates the core audience. I’m guessing those book sale numbers are important to XXXX because you’re hoping all those kids show up at the theater. The core readership for Percy Jackson is age 9-12. There are roughly a million kids that age, plus their families, who are dying to see this film because they want to see the pictures in their imagination brought to life. Many of these kids have read the books multiple times and know every detail. They are keenly aware that Percy is twelve in the first book. By making the characters seventeen, you’ve lost those kids as soon as they see the first movie trailer. You signal that this is a teen film, when the core audience is families. I understand that you want to appeal to teens because they are a powerful demographic, and conventional wisdom says that teens will not see movies about kids younger than themselves. Harry Potter proved this wrong, but aside from that, deviating so significantly from the source material risks pleasing no one – teens, who know the books are meant for younger kids, and the younger kids, who will be angry and disappointed that the books they love have been distorted into a teen movie. I haven’t even seen the script yet, so I don’t know how much the story has changed, but I fear the movie will be dead on arrival with a seventeen-year-old lead. (At this time I had no idea who might be cast)

I’ve spent the last four years touring the country, talking about the movie. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of kids. They are all excited about the movie, but they are also anxious. Most of these kids have no idea which studio produces which film, but everywhere I go, they say the same thing: Please don’t let them do to the Lightning Thief what they did to XXXX(another movie from the same producers) Don’t let them change the story. These kids are the seed audience for the movie. They are the ones who will show up first with their families, then tell their friends to go, or not go, depending on how they liked it. They are looking for one thing: How faithful was the movie to the book? Make Percy seventeen, and that battle is lost before filming even begins.

Thanks for letting me say my piece. I care too much about the project to see it fail.

Link to the rest at Rick Riordan


From The New Yorker:

As part of its ongoing “Original Stories” series, Amazon has assembled a collection of climate-change fiction, or cli-fi, bringing a literary biodiversity to bear on the defining crisis of the era. This online compilation of seven short stories, called “Warmer”—containing work from a Pulitzer Prize winner (Jane Smiley) and two National Book Award finalists (Lauren Groff and Jess Walter), among others—offers ways of thinking about something we desperately do not want to think about: the incipient death of the planet.

There is something counterintuitive about cli-fi, about the fictional representation of scientifically substantiated predictions that too many people discount as fictions. The genre, elsewhere exemplified by Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” brings disaster forcefully to life. But it is a shadowy mirror. Literature has always been a humanist endeavor: it intrinsically and helplessly affirms the value of the species; its intimations of meaning energize and comfort. But what if there is scant succor to be had, and our true natures are not noble but necrotic, pestilential? We have un-earthed ourselves. Yet we claim the right to gaze at our irresponsibility and greed through fiction’s tonic filter. The stories in “Warmer,” which possess the urgency of a last resort and the sorrow of an elegy, inhabit this contradiction. They both confront and gently transfigure the incomprehensible realities of climate change.

. . . .

Here, work from Jesse Kellerman, Edan Lepucki, and Sonya Larson conjures the oppressiveness of the heat, the desperate thrill of opening a freezer at the store. (“It used to get chilly right before dawn, Daddy told me. . . . Shiver was a word you could use.”) There are economies in which water is replacing cash; the lone, brilliant apparition of a tree; school classrooms where teachers of an older generation pine for what they lost, preaching activism and environmental responsibility to dirt-poor students. The stories think through details. (What would the billionaires do? Start a space colony.)

. . . .

Kellerman’s entry, “Controller,” takes the form of an experiment, with climate as the independent variable. The same story unfolds three times, on the same January day, but at different temperatures. The subtle gradient alters details, down to whether a dog is alive or dead, and determines the pitch of the characters’ rages and resentments. (“The air had changed, no longer a palliative billow but deafening and full of wrath. . . . He might yet bend her to his will.”) The mechanics of the piece gesture at one reason that climate change can prove so tricky a literary topic. We metaphorize nature endlessly, converting its phenomena into reflections of ourselves.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

PG notes that TPV is not a blog about climate change (and he recognizes opinions vary), but he was interested in climate change as a writing trigger.

Science Fiction: A Bit of Magic Isn’t Always Enough

From The Wall Street Journal:

Two thingsthe best modern fantasies have are a distinctive setting and a defined and preferably novel technology of magic. In Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside” . . . the magic tech is “scriving”—controlling the world by means of sigils, or inscriptions. As for the setting, it is unusual both in being industrial and in being post-medieval. Mr. Bennett’s city of Tevanne is like something from Renaissance Italy, with merchant clans preserving an uneasy balance from their fortified campos.

The balance is upset by Sancia the thief. She steals an object, which turns out to be a sentient key called Clef. Clef can open any lock, and Sancia can sense scrivings. Between them they can defeat almost any security system. In the background are whisperings of even greater masters who created the Clef by experiments now forbidden. If ordinary scriving speaks the “language of reality,” the old scrivers were fringing on “God’s coded commands,” to alter reality.

Dark history returning, a Thing of Power, a waif entrusted with it: so far, so Tolkien. Not a bit. Sancia is more tormented and more streetwise than any hobbit, and Clef builds a rapport with her, unlike Bilbo’s Ring. She too, it turns out, is a left-over experiment with much to avenge, and her street-companions seem sometimes oddly modern and hacker-like. As the story unfolds, so do both the potentials and the limitations of scriving technology.

. . . .

The heroine of Jennifer Estep’s Kill the Queen” . . . the first installment in a new series, is a princess sure enough. But she’s only 17th in line for the throne, and worse, in a magic-dominated society, poor Everleigh is just a “mutt” who can’t do magic at all. At the start she’s baking pies in the palace kitchen. That and dancing are her only known talents.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

12 Unforgettable Sci-Fi Movies About Memory

From io9:

Filmmakers love to explore memory problems—in the form of amnesia, dementia, manipulation, conflicting recollections of the past, you name it. And this thematic fascination isn’t limited to any one movie genre; it’s the one thing OverboardMemento, and Rashomon all have in common.

But for our purposes today, we’re specifically looking at science fiction movies—so, sorry, fans of the Bourne movies, Shutter Island, Angel HeartSpellboundDesperately Seeking SusanThe NotebookThe Manchurian Candidate, and on and on. And while there are tons of sci-fi movies that use memory as a plot device, here are 12 of our favorites.

4. Blade Runner (and Blade Runner 2049)
Do memories count if you’re not actually human? Both Blade Runner movies (like Total Recall, inspired by Philip K. Dick) feature replicant characters who fervently believe their memories are real. In the original film, Rachael (Sean Young) doesn’t initially know that she’s not a real human, in large part because her recollections of her childhood are so vivid. In Blade Runner 2049, K (Ryan Gosling) is well aware that he’s a “skin job,” but begins to suspect he might be the sought-after child born to Rachael and Deckard (Harrison Ford) when he visits an orphanage and finds a small toy horse stashed exactly where he (seemingly) remembers leaving it. Both Blade Runners point out how important memories really are in constructing individual identities; it’s no wonder its characters are devastated when they realize their minds have been manipulated to believe things that aren’t authentic.

9. The Giver
A robust cast (Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Alexander Skarsgård, Katie Holmes, and there’s even a somewhat distracting Taylor Swift cameo) elevates Phillip Noyce’s adaptation of Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel. It’s about a society where the pursuit of order and perfection has come at the expense of emotions, free-thinking, and creative expression—basically, anything that might upset the status quo. A teenaged boy named Jonas (Brenton Thwaites, soon to be seen as Dick Grayson on Titans) is informed that his prescribed career will be taking over from Bridges’ character as “receiver” of the community’s collective memories. But once “the Giver” begins to pass on his knowledge, the kid realizes exactly what his life has been missing—not just the power of memory, but also things like fear, joy, love, and excitement—and he can’t suppress his urge to share what he’s learned with everyone else. (The Giver illustrates his awakening literally, shifting the movie’s palette from monochrome grey to lush and colorful.) Bridges is great as the gruff, weary teacher, and the story offers a familiar yet earnest cautionary tale about the perils of conformity—with suppressed memories representing the greatest loss of all.

Link to the rest at io9

Surviving The Stupid

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Imagine my surprise, as I scanned through Twitter a few weeks ago, to see a writer I follow go after Tor for its library policies. Um…what?

Turns out that Tor, through its parent company Macmillan has started a program in which libraries cannot get ebooks of the latest Tor releases until four months after the book is released.

Remember this is traditional publishing, so velocity is important. How fast a book sells has an impact on whether or not that writer’s next book will even get an offer from the publisher. And here—stupidly—is a publisher that has decided that library ebook sales aren’t worthwhile.

Tor/Macmillan’s reasoning? To see if library ebook sales are the reason that the company’s ebook sales are so low. That thinking is so damn stupid that I can barely type the words.

Rather than go into the reasons Macmillan’s ebook sales are low which I can digress on for hours, let me share what Nate Hoffelder said on The Digital Reader in July, when this news initially broke:

Macmillan  has poor ebook sales because they have adopted a policy of discouraging ebook sales in favor of print sales. Macmillan adopted this policy in late 2009 when they conspired with Apple and 4 other publishers to violate antitrust law by forcing Amazon to accept what is called agency pricing, a system where the publishers set the price and retailers are prohibited from deep discounts and sales.

That is established historical fact, and so is the antitrust suit brought by the DOJ, Macmillan settling the lawsuit,  its punishment, and Macmillan’s return to agency in 2014.

Apparently, corporate think has decided that it’s better to decrease sales to increase sales. (How Orwellian.) They’ve also got on the bandwagon of punishing people with budgets and limited income. The enthusiastic readers on a book budget—folks who provide great word of mouth during that crucial velocity period—are not worth Macmillan’s time.

The problem is that these enthusiastic readers aren’t going to be able to purchase the books themselves. Many library users are unable to make regular ebook purchases, especially if the ebooks are priced at $9.99 and up, like the Tor books. I’ve seen arguments that the libraries will still get the paper books, but that doesn’t mean that these readers want paper books.

Tor/Macmillan believes that these readers can and should wait. Which is risky on the one hand—there are always new books to read—and idiotic on the other. The readers who want a book now are the book’s most dedicated consumers. Word of mouth has become even more important in 2018 than it was ten years ago, thanks to the advent of social media, online book sites, and all kinds of blogging.

. . . .

Let me tell you, as someone whose novels were traditionally published for decades, it sucks when your publisher makes a totally stupid decision that’s going to have a negative impact on your career.

If you’re a smart author, you’ll know what the impact will be. Most traditionally published writers happily know nothing about the business of publishing, so when they get their royalty statements and their sales are down yet again, or when they are unable to sell the next book in the series, or when their publisher cancels their fat multi-book contract because sales are down, those writers are surprised. (See my blog post on “Learned Helplessness”  to understand some of this.)

. . . .

This comes at a perilous time for Tor. Their founder, Tom Doherty, moved upstairs into an honorary position in March, and was replaced as President and Publisher by a long-time corporate middle management guy who might or might not do a good job. If this library thing is any indication… well, you already know how I feel.

I feel somewhat bad for the writers stuck in this library situation. Not entirely bad, mind you, because if they had learned business, they would know that their publisher has a habit of chewing up and spitting out writers like crazy, and has for decades. Three books and out, usually, unless something takes off. And it used to be that awards and award-nominations were enough to save a writer at that company. That changed as the bean counters rose to the top of the business, and will probably get worse now that Tom is gone. He loves science fiction, and would occasionally swoop in to save a great voice that wasn’t selling well.

I doubt that will happen anymore.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Making fantasy reality: Alan Lee, the man who redrew Middle-earth

From The Guardian:

For artist Alan Lee, nature has always provided a gateway to other worlds. Now 71, Lee remembers growing up in Uxbridge, on a council estate that bordered a wilder landscape. It was what you might call a liminal childhood – on one side, the recently minted avenues and structures of social housing, on the other, “a short walk into this strange landscape of canals and fields and woods”.

It’s that sense of crossing from one world to another that has informed his work, especially his association with JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which has formed a large part of Lee’s oeuvre over the past quarter of a century.

His latest project is just released: the third “rediscovered” Tolkien novel, The Fall of Gondolin. Edited by Tolkien’s 93-year-old son Christopher, this volume – like its predecessors, The Children of Húrin and Beren and Lúthien– has been assembled from the author’s detailed notes. Tolkien, who died in 1973, always intended to publish these prequels to the main Lord of the Rings trilogy.

. . . .

Lee first encountered Tolkien aged 17 while at Ealing Art College. A fellow student gave him a copy of the first in the Lord of the Rings sequence, The Fellowship of the Ring. “I was just amazed,” he says. “I had grown up reading a lot of folklore and mythology, and this had elements that I recognised – elves and dwarves and dragons and magic rings. I just devoured it.”

. . . .

While he was working the graveyard shift, the entire faculty at Ealing College had departed and been replaced, and when he returned to finish his course he found a much staider atmosphere, heavy on graphic design and advertising. But reading The Lord of the Rings had reignited his childhood love of folklore and myth. “While everybody else was working on campaigns for Volvo, things like that, I was quietly sitting there illustrating ancient Irish folk tales,” he says.

. . . .

Lee also created a series of illustrated books on fantasy, which came to the attention of Jane Johnson, an editor at Allen & Unwin and responsible for the Tolkien list. She showed his work to Christopher Tolkien, who agreed that Lee was the perfect choice to illustrate a lavish edition of The Lord of the Rings, to be released in 1992 to mark the centenary of Tolkien’s birth.

That was the start of Lee’s 20-year association with Tolkien’s world.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

3D “visual novel” explores life in a future city-state circa 2039

From Fast Company:

It’s 2039. You’re a hacker named Chloe living in the East Asian surveillance city-state of Abraxa. Once apathetic, you reconnect with old friends and find new ones as your district is blocked off by a mysterious corporation. Quickly, you set about disrupting its surveillance network by hacking into the city’s architecture with machine-aided perception, forging political alliances across ideological divides along the way.

This is the world of Solace State, a 3D visual science fiction novel about a near-dystopian future. Made by Tanya Kan, in collaboration with other Toronto-based artists and developers, it is an attempt to fuse three worlds of particular interest to its creator: cinema, gaming, and activism. Solace State, which is still in development, tackles various themes, from corporate surveillance and governance to ethnic roots, immigration, and economic justice.

Kan, whose academic background is in political science and cinema studies, tells Fast Company that Solace State grew out of time she spent in Hong Kong in 2012. Though Canadian, Kan has roots in Hong Kong. While living there, she quickly noticed a city in a deep state of rapid cultural and political flux. For one, a major housing shortage was hitting one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world. She saw people struggling to feed and shelter themselves and their families. Kan queried Hong Kong residents about how they motivated themselves to find decent food and housing, stable jobs, and careers, as well as care for their city’s environmental health. These conversations formed the basis for the Solace State script.

“I started thinking about how I can represent East Asian culture in a way that is in an interactive medium, and how can I talk about an emergent kind of activism and advocacy,” Kan says. “I took a lot of pictures of [Hong Kong] as photographic records so I could build up a 3D city. I wanted a story that articulates some of our generation’s concerns in the sense of what kind of life do we have, and how can we find a future worth living for.”

. . . .

With this concept in mind, Kan began searching for a format that would fit the story. Ultimately, she decided to combine her cinematic and gaming influences into a 3D visual novel. Given the format’s inherent interactivity, Kan wagered that it would allow players to make difficult choices in striving for social change, while also creating (and maintaining) social cohesion.

Link to the rest at Fast Company

You are standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox here.

The Maker of the Maker of Middle-earth

From Christianity Today:

Who was J. R. R. Tolkien? Nearly everyone knows him as the author of two of the most beloved books of the 20th century: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Many also know him as a member of the Inklings and a close friend of fellow writer and scholar C. S. Lewis. Fewer know Tolkien’s work as a literary critic, a world-class academic in medieval literature, a linguist, an inventor of languages, and a visual artist or realize that he was also a devoted husband and father.

Much of this is captured this year in a nearly comprehensive exhibit at Oxford University’s Bodleian Libraries on Tolkien’s life and legacy. “Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth” has been billed as the exhibit of a generation, and it is indeed that. But there’s a glaring omission: any mention of the author’s devout, lifelong Christian faith. Without that piece, we cannot have a true picture of Tolkien.

. . . .

The exhibit is certainly the most well-rounded portrayal of Tolkien to date. We see his imaginative capacity expressed in nearly overwhelming abundance, and we see a tender glimpse of his childhood and of his family life with his wife, Edith, and their four children.

The aim of the exhibit, as expressed in the catalog book, is “bringing to the public’s attention the fullest picture possible not just of the life and work of a remarkable literary imagination, but of a son, husband, father, friend, scholar and artist.”

. . . .

He was baptized as an infant in the Anglican cathedral in Bloemfontein. He followed his mother when she entered the Catholic Church. He was an altar boy at the Birmingham Oratory. After he was orphaned, his guardian was a Catholic priest, Fr. Francis Morgan, for whom he retained a deep respect and affection ever afterward. He was a regular Mass-goer throughout his life. He translated the Book of Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible. He wrote in his letters of the personal importance of prayer and the Eucharist. He, along with Hugo Dyson, played a crucial role in bringing C. S. Lewis to faith. Yet apart from a brief mention of Morgan’s guardianship, none of this is shown in the exhibit.

. . . .

Several examples of his Elvish calligraphy were displayed; one could have been selected from the prayers that Tolkien translated into Elvish, such as the Lord’s Prayer. Both the 1956 letter and this translation show the way that Tolkien’s faith, and indeed specifically his prayer life, had an influence on his writing—exactly the kind of influence we would hope to see emphasized in an exhibit on an author.

. . . .

There is also a small subset of readers and critics who emphasize Tolkien’s faith in the wrong way. Tolkien himself described The Lord of the Rings as a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (in a letter that could have been, but was not, quoted in the exhibit), but it is not a religious allegory, as Tolkien himself makes very clear. When I lecture on Tolkien to Christian audiences, I am often asked: “How can we use The Lord of the Ringsfor apologetics?” My answer is that we should not try to use it at all. As a literary critic, I recognize that skillful analysis of literature can yield great insight—including for apologetics—but if Tolkien’s work is used merely as a tool to convey an explicit Christian “message,” it is inevitably oversimplified and its effect deadened. It is possible that the Tolkien Estate and the Bodleian, in aiming for a nuanced portrayal of Tolkien, wished to resist this particular type of pigeonholing and were too cautious as a result.

. . . .

Tolkien himself was explicit about the theological foundation of his creative work, writing in his great essay “On Fairy-stories” that “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”

Tolkien’s granddaughter Joanna mentions that one of his fundamental values was “his profound belief in God.” Clyde Kilby, in an interview, remembered him as a “devout Catholic,” and his friend and fellow Inkling R. E. Havard wrote of “the depth of feeling” of his religious convictions, noting that these were “apparent … but never paraded.”

Link to the rest at Christianity Today

Noon in the antilibrary: Science fiction: What happens when fake news is everywhere?

From the MIT Technology Review:

Marius cursed and jammed a mic stand between the crash bars of the TV studio door. “If SWAT’s on its way, we don’t have much time,” he said.

“I don’t understand.” Michaela, who up until a couple of minutes ago had been streaming their interview live, still sat on one of the oval chairs under the hot lights. “What are they talking about?”

The cube-shaped television studio had black-painted walls surrounding the bright stage area. Big monitors on the walls were showing the same “live” feed as they had five minutes ago, but now a red banner flashed at the bottom of the screens: ACTIVE SHOOTER AT COMPLETE PICTURES BUILDING.

Michaela pointed at a moving figure on the screen. “That looks like you—but—”

Marius nodded. “Uh-huh. Apparently I like assault rifles.”

Adan, their cameraman, had called up a local news feed after the first shouts of panic and confusion filtered through the studio’s thick doors. What it showed was entirely and completely not what the three of them were seeing. Marius was inside the windowless second-floor studio, empty-handed, yet the monitors showed what looked like a drone feed of him moving into and out of view through the building’s windows on the 10th floor. He was armed, and every now and then he would pause and shoot, calmly and methodically.

Marius shook his head in disgust. “Hey, Adan, could you give me a hand with this?”

The cameraman was hunched over his laptop. “Sorry, gotta figure out who’s hijacked our signal.”

“The same people who own the SWAT team,” said Marius. “But forget what I said. I think you’d better get out of here.”


“Look.” Marius pointed at the monitors. They were showing a jumble of witness cell-phone videos. “There!” A jiggly shot showed a man lying in a corridor, dead eyes staring upward, a dark stain on his chest.

“But …” Adan gaped. “That’s me.”

“Yes. This scene’s not real yet. Listen, Adan, I mean it: you need to leave. The SWAT team’s not on their way here to save any of us. They’re here to make sure that what’s up there”— he pointed—“matches what’s down here.”

Michaela stood up, staring at him. “So it’s real. The anti­library is real.”

“And soon, the antinet. Michaela, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. I knew they might be watching. Figured they’d be mad if I revealed it, but I never imagined they’d do this.” With the door at least somewhat secure, he went to join Adan at the mixing console. “Any luck?”

Adan shook his head. “I don’t know whether they’re intercepting our feed in here, at the router, or somewhere outside.”

“All this footage,” said Michaela. “It’s being computer­-generated in real time? Like you said—by an antilibrary?”

“Yeah.” He smiled ruefully at her. “You got more than you bargained for, I guess. Honestly, I was only going to talk about Augmented Manners. I guess you pushed my buttons, I—”

“The SWAT team’s not on their way here to save any of us. They’re here to make sure that what’s up there matches what’s down here.”

“That’s okay.” She glanced at the monitors, a little rueful herself. “Digging for the truth is what I do, or used to. Apparently I’m good at it … What do we do now?”

The TVs showed a black armored personnel carrier plowing up the avenue, with the Complete Pictures building a few blocks ahead of it.

“I think,” Marius said with a grimace, “we’re about to disappear.”

Link to the rest at the MIT Technology Review and thanks to Jan for the tip.

A Novelist in Awe of Physics

From The Wall Street Journal:

Should sci-fi be centered on human beings and human problems, as Theodore Sturgeon insisted long ago? Or is actual science vital for producing the “sense of wonder”? Most sci-fi authors these days lean toward the focus on people, no longer generating stories like Arthur C. Clarke’s 1961 “A Fall of Moondust” or Poul Anderson’s 1963 “Shield,” which had at their core a technical problem, or a technical breakthrough.

Cixin Liu’s Ball Lightning” . . . swings firmly the other way. At the start Mr. Liu insists that all descriptions he uses of the titular phenomenon—in which lightning takes the form of floating balls of plasma—are based on historical records, and very strange they are. People burned instantaneously to ash while the wooden stools they were sitting on are left untouched; a man’s toenails burned off without affecting his boots.

The first quest, then, is for a theory to explain this intensely selective release of energy. The second is to find a use for it, if it can be controlled. Once ozone replaces gun smoke as the scent of the battlefield, ball lightning will succeed the tank and the nuclear bomb as the ultimate war-winner.

The theory, though, is what creates the wonder. We know about microscopic fundamental particles. Is ball lightning a macroscopic fundamental particle? If so, maybe the strangeness is quantum. When Mr. Liu’s protagonist Dr. Chen, whose parents were killed by a burst of ball lightning, and his colleagues create a thunderball gun, they find it works only in the presence of an observer. If you try it with the cameras off, it remains a probability cloud.

The trouble is that sometimes it works even when they have taken all precautions. So someone is observing, but they have no idea who. One thought is that ball lightning’s victims may continue to exist in a quantum state—like ghosts, in fact, trying to communicate. But how? The head theoretician says that once “you yourself become a macro-particle in a quantum state,” understanding the world will become a lot easier. Could this be reassurance? It doesn’t feel like it.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Robot Peer Pressure Is the Newest Tech Threat to Children

Perhaps a writing prompt.

Also, an example of a 21st-century problem.

From Gizmodo:

New research shows that children are more likely than adults to give in to peer pressure from robots, a disturbing finding given the rapidly increasing rate at which kids are interacting with socially intelligent machines.

An experiment led by Anna-Lisa Vollmer from Bielefeld University in Germany is a potent reminder that modern technologies can have a profound effect on children, influencing the way they think and express opinions—even when they know, or at least suspect, their opinions are wrong.

The point of Vollmer’s experiment was to measure the social impact exerted by robots onto both children and adults, particularly the way in which peer pressure from robots might contribute to social conformity. The results, published today in Science Robotics, shows that adults are largely immune to robotic influence, but the same cannot be said of children, who conformed to the opinions of a robotic peer group, even when those opinions were clearly wrong. This research means we need to keep a close eye on the social effects exerted by robots and AI onto young children—an increasingly important issue given the frequency with which children are interacting with social machines.

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Vollmer tested both adults and children. A total of 60 adults were divided into three groups: the alone group (the control), a group involving three other human peers, and a group consisting of three robots (the SoftBank Robotics Nao humanoid robot was used for the experiment). In two of every three tests, all three members of both peer groups (the human and robotic peers) unanimously gave the wrong answer. Consistent with other studies, adults often conformed to the opinions of their human peers, even when the answers were blatantly, obviously wrong. But the adults were not persuaded by the peer pressure exerted by the social robots, resisting the incorrect answers spouted by the machines. Interestingly, this result contradicts the “computers as social actors” (CASA) hypothesis, which states that, in the words of the study’s authors, “people naturally and unconsciously treat computers and other forms of media in a manner that is fundamentally social, attributing human-like qualities to technology.”

The same experiment was done with 43 children between the ages of seven and nine. The test was identical to the one given to the adults, except there was no human peer pressure group; it’s already very well established that kids are more susceptible to social influence. In this case, the researchers wanted to focus exclusively on the influence of robotic peers. Results showed that, unlike adults, the children were “significantly influenced” by the presence of robot peers, providing identical incorrect responses nearly 75 percent of the time.

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As the researchers write in the study:

In this light, care must be taken when designing the applications and artificial intelligence of these physically embodied machines, particularly because little is known about the long-term impact that exposure to social robots can have on the development of children and vulnerable sections of society. More specifically, problems could originate not only from intentional programming of malicious behavior (e.g., robots that have been designed to deceive) but also from the unintentional presence of biases in artificial systems or the misinterpretation of autonomously gathered data by a learning system itself. For example, if robots recommend products, services, or preferences, will compliance and thus convergence be higher than with more traditional advertising methods?

Link to the rest at Gizmodo

Every Ursula K. Le Guin TV and Movie Adaptation in the Works, So Far

From io9:

Stephen King isn’t the only author who’s becoming more and more prevalent on the big and small screens. It was just announced that Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi novelette Nine Lives is getting a movie adaptation, adding to the growing pile of Le Guin works that are reportedly in the works.

The accomplished author sadly passed away in January, but her written works are living on—not only in the long-awaited documentary Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, but also in several planned adaptations of her classic novels and shorter stories. Most of them aren’t exactly in active production right now because these things take time, but let’s hope for some updates soon.

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Deadline reported today that writer and director Siri Rodnes (Grimm Street, Take Your Partners) is teaming up with writer Tom Basden (Fresh Meat) to make a film adaptation of Nine Lives, a 1968 novelette originally released in Playboy. Taking place on a remote planet named Libra, it centers around two mining location scouts named Alvaro and Owen who are upset to learn that their new workers are clones. It’s considered one of Le Guin’s only “hard sci-fi” works.

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Before Le Guin passed away earlier this year, she was working on a film adaptation of her 2000 sci-fi novel, The Telling, about a woman from Earth who travels to a planet where culture and beliefs are outlawed. Bayview Films is still eager to bring her story to the big screen, adding 20 Weeks director Leena Pendharkar as writer and director and star Rekha Sharma (Star Trek: Discovery, Battlestar Galactica) as protagonist Sutty Dass. No release date has been announced yet.

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Back in 2017, Left Hand of Darkness—considered one of the finest works in modern feminist science fiction—was picked up for a limited television series by Critical Content. The 1969 novel is about a man who’s sent to a planet on a mission to bring them into a planetary confederation, only to find himself unable to do so because of his ignorance of the planet’s culture. The inhabitants are ambisexual with no fixed gender identity. Le Guin was set to serve as consulting producer, before her passing. There’s been little word about this adaptation since then.

Link to the rest at io9

The Woman Behind James Tiptree, Jr.

From JSTOR Daily:

When popular science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr., acclaimed as an epitome of masculine writing, publicly revealed in 1977 that she was actually Alice Bradley Sheldon, readers were gobsmacked. “Tiptree” was known to be a pseudonym, but readers in the know had assumed it was the pen name of a guy in the CIA who couldn’t reveal his identity.

Alice Sheldon (1915-1987) certainly had a rather unconventional career. She worked in Army intelligence during WWII, when she became an expert in reading aerial photographs. For a time, she raised chickens. She did indeed work for the CIA. In fact, Tiptree’s biography was accurate except for the gender. At the age of forty, Sheldon went to college, eventually earning a PhD in experimental psychology in 1967. Then she took to writing science fiction. Her first story was published in 1968 under the Tiptree byline. She also used a number of other pen names, including Raccoona Sheldon.

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Sheldon called the name “James Tiptree, Jr.”—inspired by a brand of jams—”good camouflage.” Among her reasons for the masquerade: “I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”

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Kirkpatrick pays particular attention to the story “The Women Men Don’t See,” in which the male narrator thinks a mother and daughter going off with aliens are literally crazy for leaving Earth. “What women do is survive,” says the older female character to the narrator, “We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.” The narrator cannot comprehend why these two women would want out of a world where they aren’t seen as fully human. And he just doesn’t get why they don’t want to be “rescued” by him, either.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

PG notes that Amazon offers a  large collection of books by James Tiptree, Jr. , including one with an introduction from Ursula K. Le Guin and another that is part of a collection of stories by Hugo Award Winners (Houston, Houston, Do You Read?: “futuristic piece that takes a dim view of male sexuality.”)

Star Trek: Discovery Showrunner Says the Original Series Is Helping Season 2 Find Its Fun Side

From i09:

The first trailer for the next season of Star Trek: Discovery looked surprisingly fun—especially when compared to the often-fatally bleak first season. It was full of cute jokes, great character moments, and late-1990s rock jams. So, where did this newfound levity come from? According to the showrunner, you can thank the first Star Trek TV series for that.

During a press conference for Star Trek: Discovery, io9 asked showrunner Alex Kurtzman how they’re balancing the look and feel of Discovery’sdebut with the first season of The Original Series, which feels like a huge departure from the grittier, more modern Trek franchises. How can they blend these two shows that are so tonally dissonant from each other? Turns out, by softening Discovery’s hard edges a bit.

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“I feel like tonally it’s probably a more buoyant season. Even those there are some episodes that are very very serious and intense, I think you’ll see in the first episode that there’s more balance between some of the humor that you’d see on TOS and the high stakes of the more modern versions of Trek.

I think obviously, last season was about war. And it’s tough to really stuff down and have a whole lot of humor when the stakes are so high, life and death is really what they’re dealing with every day… Tonally now, we’ve gotten to a place where the crew has more—even though the stakes are still high—there’s more downtime in the moments, which allows for more humor, which allows for a slower onion layer pulling open of character and the details of their own relationships.”

Link to the rest at i09


How Can Fiction Predict a Future That’s Already Happening?

From The Literary Hub:

The problem with setting fiction in the near future is that it keeps coming closer—and usually about twice as fast as one expects. By mid-century, will we still stare at our phones? Or will we instead use bionic contacts (already in development) that project images of our incoming texts? Will we even call those brief messages “texts”?

Speculative fiction pioneer William Gibson likes to inform interviewers that the true point of sci-fi is not to prognosticate. (His classic Neuromancer, written in 1984 and set in about 2035, failed to predict mobile phones, as did the movie Blade Runner, in which clunky, stationary videophones predominate.) And yet: a would-be speculative novelist winces imagining their invented world becoming obsolete only years after a book appears. Worse still, one doesn’t want to include details that are passé even prior to publication. In our fast-moving world—Amazon’s Alexa made her debut in late 2014 and starred in a Super Bowl ad that counted on pop-culture familiarity only three years later—the chances of getting the near-future wrong are greater than ever. Yet more and more novelists, intent on penning semi-realistic sci-fi hybrids, seem to be taking the chance.

When I first imagined a novel set in 2049 about a much older woman and the robot delivered to care for her, threatening the livelihood of an immigrant nurse, the world was a different place. The iPhone was a year old. I wasn’t even using a dumbphone yet. iPads, Fitbits, and voice assistants like Siri weren’t on the market. I’d never downloaded an app, making me an unlikely novelist to guess what the world might look like a few years hence. Just the fact that I’d use a word like “hence” probably undermines my reputation as an aspiring futurist.

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My favorite speculative fiction, just like my favorite historical fiction, is neither escapist nor distant; in fact, it is sneakily but urgently reflective of problems bearing down on us today. Sometimes, this type of fiction does its most powerful work addressing the issues that we, both collectively and individually, aren’t culturally or emotionally ready to face. Where journalism hits the door of denial, fiction can worm under the sill and through the cracks, showing rather than telling: This can happen. Or even more powerfully: This is already happening.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub