Cyberpunk Edgerunners

It’s weird for me to watch and review a TV show that’s on now, but it’s on Netflix, so here we are.

I had pretty mixed feelings about the game Cyberpunk 2077; the anime by contrast is pretty good. In fact I feel like this would have been a much better direction for the game itself.

Lucy and David not being hyper-violent, for the moment

I’m not going to be entirely rapturous, but mostly because I’m not 17 anymore. If you are 17 and read my blog for some reason, no disrepect, this series was made for you and you may find it absolutely cool. It’s basically a heavy metal ballad: live fast, aim high, fuck the bastards and die in glory.

If you’ve been living in a cave or something, here’s the basics: the series is 10 episodes of half an hour each, focusing on David Martinez, a smart but poor boy living in Night City in 2076, studying to be a corpo. Ep 1 gives you a heady brew of cyberpunk: it starts with a braindance of a guy going cyberpsycho, killing a bunch of cops; we meet David’s hard-working mother, see David’s morose everyday life; he also knows a ripperdoc for some reason; the rich kids at school are bullying him; then life gets even worse. Everything costs money in Night City and when you have none, no one cares. You may play the game and want to live in Night City. Watching the anime, not so much. Kids, only you can prevent libertarianism.

Things pick up in Ep 2 when he meets Lucy, a girl way cooler than him who is nonetheless wasting time stealing chips from corpos on the el. David has recently acquired his first chrome, which allows him (among other things) to move superhumanly fast; it turns out he also has an unusual ability to integrate cyberware with his wetware (his big floppy meat brain). Lucy introduces him to a rising gang of mercs, who don’t like him much at first.

Now, C77 has a sequence of Movin’ Up with Jackie, where you rise from total noob to minor gangster in a five-minute montage. And that’s pretty much what eps 1 to 6 amount to…. and it just underlines the huge wasted opportunity in C77. The game doesn’t really get going until you’re already well established, with your own apartment. It skips what Edgerunners revels in: how easy is to fall out of the grid in Night City, the hopelessness of having nothing and no prospects, the slow climb up the crime ladder because that’s the only exit; slowly acquiring and getting to know your new crew, a la Saints Row.

In short, I would have watched twice as much David & Lucy on the rise (the interval between Eps 6 and 7, basically), and I would have played the hell out of that as a video game. Instead C77 gives you fucking Keanu.

At the same time, I’ve been watching Cowboy Bebop for the first time– both versions. They’re very similar: cyberpunk dystopia, lots of violence, heists gone bad, a simmering feud with a vicious enemy, a crew of loveable fuckups. More on this later, but a lot of the comparisons go Bebop‘s way. The characters in Bebop are more likeable, the stories and themes show far more range, and there’s a lot more actual sf going on. I understand that Edgerunners is just focused on doing one thing, and it does that pretty well. But Bebop is the more ambitious show, and it did all this 24 years ago.

The one thing Edgerunners has going for it is the animation. It’s not perfect– yeah, Studio Trigger, I can tell when you’re saving money– but it’s better, very stylish, and often innovative. (E.g. David’s superspeed is represented by multiple still images… that can’t be what it would actually look like, but it’s a perfect use of the medium.) So, Studio Trigger, please just re-animate Cowboy Bebop, leaving the soundtrack as is, mmkay?

Both game and anime are all about the ultraviolence. I’m guessing that that’s how the RPG plays too. It still disappoints me a bit because I want the cyber stuff: hacking, detecting, stealth, inscrutable graphics representing the inside of the Net. Otherwise it’s just a gang story where the guns are just, you know, surgically installed in your arm.

Now, while you’re watching, almost everything is cool and exciting– you can just let it all wash over you. But very little of it makes much sense on analysis. The TV Tropes name for this is fridge logic: stuff that you accept until half an hour later when you go to the fridge for snacks. The characters intelligence and skill level varies widely, according to plot needs. Enemy capabilities very even more widely: same. Character chooses to lie or clam up or reveal secrets: same. You can never tell who’s going to have a badass movement and who’s going to fuck up. (Bebop has this problem too.)

Now, some of this is probably intentional: it’s a tragedy, after all: people have to make mistakes and miscommunicate; they’re all damaged people; it’s a biz that encourages a certain reckless bravado. On the other hand, I think it kind of ruins the last two episodes, admittedly a point where they have to cram in a huge amount of plot. Specifically (mouse over to read):

Lucy is cool and calculating except when she needs to get captured. David’s new suit can blast through an entire military battalion, but he’s overcome by one guy in a mecha suit. Rebecca can blow up everything until she can’t. Kiwi does a heel turn, then a reverse heel turn, then gets played as a sucker. Arasaka has spent a fortune on this new cyberskeleton instead of just building more Adam Smashers. There is never a shortage of ammo and implants, but you can easily run out of immunosuppressants.

I’m going to show another scene which is a bit of a spoiler but reveals a lot about the show’s attitudes, positive and negative:

This is David in ep 7, a big gang leader now in several senses, though still pretty morose. Note the nice digs: he’s made it as far as a gangster can go. He’s also augmented himself into a metal monster.

David is obviously a male power fantasy here, to the point of absurdity. And that’s OK, that’s the story they wanted to tell, and it’s told with a certain self-criticism, or typical Slavic pessimism: this is not a path that leads to a long happy life. It’s lampshaded early on: cyberpunk is about how you die.

Lucy is also part of the male fantasy. She is and remains cooler than David– on the whole Edgerunners is pretty good about making its female characters badasses– but she falls for him anyway. Also for some reason female hackers get naked while hacking. And while hanging out at home, apparently. (David does too. Saves on laundry bills, I guess.)

Now, I’m not criticizing Lucy, or the romance– quite the opposite, it’s the one element of sweetness in the story, and a very welcome one. But I do want to ask: why didn’t the writers consider telling Lucy’s story instead? It’s arguably way more interesting. They tell some of it: she started out poor as well, and got trained and nearly killed by Arasaka. Yet she became a very successful hacker, chill and smart and kind and never subject to cyberpsychosis, and she never felt the need for David’s gorilla-grade bulk. It’s the Ginger Rogers thing: she did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels.

If you want to see that idea taken through its paces– try Arcane, the animated show based very loosely on League of Legends. I’m not sure I’ll do a full review, but it also covers a lot of this ground, though with more a steampunk than a cyberpunk vibe. But it makes the smart decision to focus on the female badasses rather than the male wannabes they inexplicably fall in love with.

Sandman TV

In a departure from my usual unhipness, I’ve been streaming TV shows like a normal human being. I picked up Netflix in order to watch Sandman. It’s only $15 a month!

Quick verdict: it’s great; I’m really hoping now for Season Two. It does justice to the comics. And best of all, my wife likes it, and she is not a big fantasy fan. We just finished the last, bonus episode last night.

To make something like this work, both the casting and the writing have to hit. They scored big with all the ones they really had to: Dream (Tom Sturridge), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), John Dee (David Thewlis), and the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook). I heard part of the audiobook adaptation and couldn’t buy Dream and Death there, so this is big.

Dream is the most challenging of these: he’s perfectly suited for the comics page, where we only have to see his gothic splendor. But most of the comics images (e.g. those starry non-eyes, or the over-flowing robes) would look campy on-screen. Plus– his whole thing is that he’s uptight and a bit of an asshole. Sturridge is just right for all this (once you get used to his prettiness). I was worried at first that he was under-emoting, but I think he does a lot very subtly.

Gaiman, and the directors, take the point of view that enormously powerful entities (Sandman, Lucifer, Corinthian) can be calm and elaborately polite. The shouting madman as villain is real, but always conceals an underlying fear, a fear that he will not be taken seriously. The truly powerful person can be quiet because they know their orders will be fulfilled. Sturridge is the positive side of this: a guy where you should worry if he furrows his brow. Holbrook is the evil version, underlining his menace with Southern charm.

Death is Gaiman’s most perfect, most iconic character, and Howell-Baptiste nails her. She is warm and caring and yet catpures that older-sister ability to make Dream think.

The set design is good. I like touches like Matthew flying into the ceiling of Dream’s throne room, the painting turning into a 3-D scene; then ending up in Earth’s sky. It’s a nice use of the new medium: comics can show us amazing spaces, but it’s not good at transitions.

The usual trolls have complained about changes in race and sex. As Gaiman has gleefully pointed out, these folks entirely missed the point of the comics, where it was shown many times that the Endless are shown as they appear to the being observing them, be it human, cat, or alien sentient flower. Even Abel and Cain note that they are not actually human. But the comics, progressive for their time, feel a bit dated in their whiteness, and I’m glad they’ve been updated. The only one that I feel doesn’t quite work is Lucifer. Gwendoline Christie gets the surface suavity and politeness, but not the menace. And there’s something oddly stiff about her bearing, as if she’s being held up by her gowns.

I looked at a few reviews and found them quite weird– I suspect the reviewers a) see too much TV, and b) lack an affinity for the material. I haven’t seen much TV in years, and that probably improves the experience for me. The show isn’t lost in a sea of other fantasy/sf adaptations for me; I’m not bored by the tropes or the actors. E.g. one reviewer thought some episodes were “padded”, which is a weird thing to say when they’re rushing through like 15 comics in 10 hours. Another said Kyo Ra wasn’t that great; I disagree, though my wife didn’t.

Some things hit harder in a live-action version. The horrific abuse of Jed, for instance. It’s almost all taken straight from the comics, but it’s a lot more visceral when you see an actual human being as evil as Barnaby.

I’m going to talk about specific scenes and changes now, so I suggest you put this aside if you’re afraid of spoilers.

A lot of reviews seem to think this was a very tight adaptation. Parts of it are (especially the “cereal convention” bits), but there are quite a few little changes. E.g.:

  • The nods to DC heroes are gone.
  • Poor Gregory!
  • Lyta is now just a friend of Rose’s, not a resident of the Dream Dome. She’s also a sweet helper rather than merely depressive.
  • Ethel doesn’t run away with Ruthven Sykes.
  • Matthew appears earlier, and his predecessor Jessamy appears in ep 1; it’s rather a shock that Alex kills her.
  • Alex was relatively trusted in the comics; here he is abused and disdained.
  • The Corinthian’s role is greatly beefed up. He instructs Burgess on how to keep Dream safe, and rescues Jed from his horrible foster parents. He interacts with Rose, giving her more options (why not take over the Dreaming?!).
  • Johanna Constantine gets a whole subplot to show off her powers; and another one to make her relationship to Rachel far more poignant. (Also, wow, she looks better in a trenchcoat than John ever did.)
  • John Dee is quite changed. Rather than simply being a power-mad psychotic, he has a whole theme: an abhorrence of lies, due to the constant lying of his mother. His driver is blessed instead of murdered.
  • Brute and Glob are gone, replaced by Gault, whose motivations are positive rather than negative.
  • Hell is no longer a triumvirate.
  • Death gives more of an explanation of why she is happy to do her job.
  • Both Rose and Hob get to show off some self-defense skills.
  • There is way less female nudity: in the comics, Calliope was kept naked, Rose is half-nude in her final confrontation with Dream, and Despair wears no clothes. Ironically the only nudity is male: Dream in ep 1, and Ken in his dreams.

Almost always these changes are for the better, and feel more in line with Gaiman’s work overall. In the first volume of the comics, he was still feeling out his way, and tried too hard to be gross or shocking. Most of the changes create more continuity (e.g. more use of the Corinthian and Matthew), or strengthen the characters, or humanize the villains, or underline Dream’s need to learn empathy.

The diner episode is more watchable than I feared, probably because it didn’t feel like gratuitous violence… Dee is not just exerting power, but exposing lies… which turns out to be a really bad idea. I couldn’t watch the murder-suicides though. On the other hand the second half of this episode seems rushed: it should should take longer for Dee to believe he’s triumphed and then suddenly realize he hasn’t.

A few things I wasn’t so sure about:

  • Burgess having to learn from the Corinthian who he’d captured. I’m also not so sure about Burgess dying due to violence rather than just bitter old age.
  • Chantal and Zelda seem way too Addams Family. But the original comic kind of misfires here too: the residents of the house are kind of pointlessly weird. (I loved Hal though.)
  • I didn’t like Choronzon’s challenge passing to Lucifer. The whole idea was that this petty demon was predictable; it makes less sense that Lucifer was stumped.
  • I missed Death’s casual remark that she could “patter Romany”. But I’m a language geek.
  • I kind of miss the gate guardians. But they probably had a limited CGI budget.
  • Ep 10 has too many endings. I’d have left out the whole Hell scene.

The bonus episodes are not my favorites, but I expect I’m in the minority here. “Cats” is a neat idea wrapped up in a shallow joke. Well animated though. “Calliope” is very 90s: damsel in distress, with her rapist condemned, but humanized more than his victim. They’ve updated it– Calliope is a tad feister, isn’t blonde, and doesn’t have to be naked. The story is strangely anti-writer; it may be Gaiman’s version of the sad boner professor.

Re-reading my own review of the comics, I note that my major complaint was the art. I think that holds up: a lot of the volumes would have worked much better if an artist like J.H. Williams (Sandman Overture) or John Cassaday (Planetary) had drawn them. Maybe the best thing about the TV series is that it corrects that problem– it’s always gorgeous.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

I often review books I don’t expect other people to read, but this one might take the cake: an anthology of French science fiction, dated 1971. The editor is Alain Dorémieux. I need to read more French, and it looked good at the library.

First, you might ask, what is ailleurs? Has anyone ever seen or held an ailleur? Is there a female form, the ailleuse? It can be translated “elsewhere”, and Larousse tells us that it comes from *alior, comparative of alius ‘other’. The –s was thrown on by analogy with other adverbs.

One book is hardly enough to judge all of French science fiction by; but fortunately I’ve read three. My general impression is that the idea, the sf germ that motivates the story, is often weak, but the storytelling and the writing are very good. In classic American sf– this is probably John Campbell’s fault– the Idea was everything, and the writing was workmanlike, the characters barely above the stereotype level. Of course, a few writers, like Alfred Bester and R.A. Lafferty, stood out for their writing style; and in the ’60s the dominance of the Idea waned. Many of the stories here (not all) excel in vividness and actually have characters.

There’s also maybe a certain proneness to structural or narrative problems– many of the authors seem like they’re feeling out how to tell the story, and have an absolute horror of rewriting. Curiously this was a problem also in one of the French sf novels I’ve read, Le Naguen. If you’re curious, the other one was La planète des singes (The Planet of the Apes).

(I’ve read quite a bit more of French sf comics, which are a different beast altogether, and generally are very well done.)

And now– why not?– a mini-review of each story.

Voyages dans l’ailleurs

Yves Dermèze, “Demain, les chats”

An alien invasion where humans are treated exactly as humans treat pets. A simple horror idea but well imagined.

Nathalie Henneberg, “Le Retour des dieux”

It turns out the Sumerian gods are actually from Arcturus. Pretty well done, but too many errors about Babylonia for me, and this sort of sf/myth mashup gets on my nerves.

Jean-Pierre Andrevon, “Un petit saut dans le passé”

A man is the subject of a time travel experiment, and creates his first time paradox. It’s getting to be a pattern by now: the idea is not deep or new, but it’s very well written and told.

Claude F. Cheinisse, “Conflit de lois”

A direct tribute to Asimov: a robot is placed in a situation where it must permit harm to a human in order to save a life. Well executed, but kind of an idiot plot: even if you accept Asimov’s laws, this particular situation should have been anticipated.

Georges Gheorghiu, “Au fil d’Ariane”

Really a Borgesian fable, a reworking of the myth of Theseus with minimal sf trappings (a few references to computers). This sort of thing depends on the payoff at the end; I understand the twist ending but the final plot mechanics eluded me.

Philippe Curval, “L’Oeuf ovipare”

A bizarre little fable about an egg which cracks, revealing another egg– only, each time, the surroundings (including the narrator) get smaller. Entertainingly told (the bit where the now small narrator can’t get a store to accept his money is pretty funny), but I don’t think the author knew how to end it.

Christine Renard, “Transistoires”

In a world with access to parallel timelines, a woman buys a trip to see a more successful self. One of the best stories, not least because it uses the idea as an excuse to explore questions of ambition, regret, and free will.

Francis Bessière, “La Barbe du ministre”

Another time travel story. It has some interesting ideas about how, in effect, the timeline could protect itself against ‘too much’ modification. I think the author wasn’t sure how to tell the story: too many tonal shifts, no real characters.

Daniel Walther, “Assassinat de l’oiseau bleu”

A soldier, sole survivor of a massacre, is forced to relive the catastrophe until his superiors can see what happened. This one reminded me strongly of Alfred Bester, from the hallucinatory prose to the tragic ending to the anti-authoritarian sentiment.

Yves Olivier-Martin, “La Tourelle de Ngôl”

A space opera in 30 pages, featuring an eternal conflict between Arcturus and Ngôl, told in hallucinatory prose. Here (as in “la Barbe du ministre”) I think the author saw several ways to tell the story, and tried to used them all. At first it’s a quiet story about the discovery of interstellar agents in Paris; like Lovecraft, it takes forever to slowly reveal what we’ve already guessed the story is about. Briefly the narrator seems to take sides, find a love interest, get captured. Then the story leaps 3000 years ahead, narrating a strange voyage to Ngôl. Unfortunately none of this really works: the author just piles on strangeness without pursuing any plot threads, or making us care about either side.

Guy Scovel, “La Forêt de Perdagne”

This is mostly swords-n-sorcery, with an sf denouement. The main idea (a portal between worlds) seems too promising to waste on just one story, and indeed Scovel seems to have written several novels based on it.

Interesting linguistic bit: the main character is a noble, and when he comes to some two-horse town he uses tu for the locals, who use vous for him. He’s also pretty arrogant, but it’s a real weaponization of the T/V phenomenon.

Pierre Versins, “L’Homme”

A little fable which, contrary to the first story in the volume, pictures Humans as near gods, told in the form of an encounter between a people created by Humans, and another which believes that it created Humans. Maybe not so compelling in an epoch where Humans seem intent on being monumentally stupid.

Francis Carsac, “Dans les montagnes du Destin”

The longest story in the book, and one of the better ones. It’s essentially a space Western: lone superhero adventurer, mining town, corrupt director, local bully, downtrodden natives. It takes its time, with plenty of character interaction and intrigue before the final sf mystery is explored. For once the payoff is real, and actually explains everything that’s gone on. It also has a book-length sequel.

A Desolation Called Peace

So, Arkady Martine wrote a sequel to A Memory Called Empire. Might as well use the same graphic, though. I won’t avoid spoilers here for the first book, so go read it first.

We’re back in Teixcalaan, which is addressing the alien threat that arrived in the first book, just a few months later. The war is not going well: the aliens are hard to find, and have a way of showing up out of nowhere and causing destruction. A yaotlek or admiral, Nine Hibiscus, sends for someone in the Information Ministry to see if it’s possible to talk to the aliens. The message reaches Three Seagrass, who pounces on the idea and swoops by Lsel Station to pick up Mahit Dzmare. If you like the first book, it will be comfortable and fun to get back into this world and see how everyone is doing. 

Though it’s about first contact, it’s mostly a novel of intrigue. The plot takes place in several venues– Lsel Station; Nine Hibiscus’s flagship; a desert planet recently attacked by the aliens; the imperial capital– and each of them is provided with multiple actors who hate each other’s guts. And I have to admire how good Martine is at intrigue. It’s all too easy, in political stories, to make the antagonists idiots, or to make them just act out of pure malice. (Think about Darth Vader, who’s wicked stylish, but has absolutely no believable motivation.) That’s averted here: each character, for good or ill, has reasons for what they do and who they despise.

Amid all the drama, Mahit and Three Seagrass take up their romance, though only after having a huge fight. 

I liked the book, but not quite as much as the first one. That may just be author fatigue– it might have been better to wait a year or two. What I think doesn’t work quite as well:

  • Mahit, though smart and competent in the first contact situation, and enjoyable as a romance partner, seems to be a complete idiot this time in the intrigue department– including in her own home station. It wasn’t very clear why she came home after Book One, and all she does when she gets there is get into more trouble. For unknown reasons she never bothers to debrief her own government.
  • The intrigue is maybe too neatly plotted? One of the pleasures of Memory was its unpredictability– we were discovering this huge weird empire, we are as confused as Mahit, and whenever things threaten to become too stable the author throws in some violence. The alien situation should provide opportunities for similar surprises, but it never really does.
  • (To avoid spoilers, I’ve put these in white text.) The nature of the aliens is not at all mind-boggling– it has its own TV Tropes page, dammit.
  • The ending: again, Mahit, alone of all the characters, just doesn’t seem to make sense. I know she’s had a hard time, but it doesn’t seem fair to Three Seagrass, now does it?

But again, it’s fun to be in this universe again, and it does do what a sequel should do: present a new kind of problem rather than rehashing the last one.

Bester: Virtual Unrealities

Alfred Bester is my favorite classical sf writer– see my review of The Demolished Man here. Mostly this is because he’s a great storyteller and an energetic worldbuilder… his novels are some of the few which don’t contain monocultures, which show off the same sort of diversity and weirdness we find in the real world. This book collects some of his best short fiction.

It’s also because, to be frank, a lot of classical sf was distorted and deadened by a reactionary streak… mostly due, it appears, to John Campbell, editor of Astounding. Robert Silverberg, in his introduction, describes how Bester ran into this. After a break from sf, Bester returned in 1950, sold one story to Campbell, and no more. Campbell, as Silverberg says, was then “obsessed with Dianetics”, the precursor to Scientology, and Bester hated this. But really, once you’re aware of it, it’s hard not to see that reactionary streak. Mostly it’s expressed as a belief that an educated technocratic class, or maybe supersmart mutants, should control the world: Heinlein’s superscientists, Asimov’s Foundation and robots, Poul Anderson’s time police, Van Vogt’s Weapons Shops and Slans. Bester is one of the few to resist the idea. The Stars My Destination is explicitly populist, while Demolished Man is simply too chaotic a world for anyone to control.

However, this collection highlights another side to Bester– a darker side. Many of the stories are more horror than sf, and end unhappily. Two are about the end of the world; quite a few are about some superhuman ability that causes more trouble than it’s worth.

Bester decorated his works with the usual high-tech spaceships and such, but it’s clear that technology as such doesn’t interest him. The science he’s most interested in is psychology. (Which fits in with the novels: Stars is about teleportation, Demolished Man about telepathy. And both are particularly interested in how society should handle disturbed individuals.)

A glance over some of the stories:

  • “Disappearing Act”: a pretty sharp satire of 1950s conformity and the Cold War. The particular sf idea is cute but not deep, but it allows Bester to show how a society can lose the very things it claims it values.
  • “5,271,009”: An extremely surreal story, told with Bester’s characteristic stylistic gusto. In brief: Bester warns about indulging one’s childish fantasies– such as being a superhero or the last man at the apocalypse. The moral gets a little more bite if you imagine it aimed at his fellow sf writers.
  • “Fondly Fahrenheit”: the story of a murderous android. This one has been widely anthologized, but it’s rather typical of the short stories, which often take their idea inexorably to a horrible conclusion.
  • “Time is the Traitor”: here the idea is that one man, named Strapp, is a Decider. Things in his multistellar world are too complex for individuals or even AIs to figure out; but a man with abnormal intuition can decide things anyway. A neat idea presented with satirical verve (the rituals of Decision, and the nature of Strapp’s entourage, are lovingly described). As usual, things end badly.
  • “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed”: also widely anthologized. Bester uses time travel in several stories– mostly as a way to parody human foolishness and the cussedness of the universe.
  • “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used to”: one of the end-of-the-world stories. Probably more interesting for its slice-of-post-apocalyptic-life portion than for its final revelations.
  • “The Flowered Thundermug”: I always like a heist story, and this one features two very accomplished heisters. The satirical world– it’s another post-apocalypse– doesn’t really connect.
  • “Galatea Galante”: About the creation of an artificial, perfect woman. Bester realizes and underlines how creepy the idea is, but still can’t really get past a very 1950s-male idea of femininity.
  • “The Devil Without Glasses”: another very surreal story– the basic idea is that two opposing forces from dreams are affecting reality, one pushing for human liberation, one opposing it. This might have made an interesting novel, but in short story form all Bester can do is turn it into another pessimistic fable.

I’m probably not selling the book well. I enjoyed it a lot while reading it. Bester can write, and he can be scintillating without losing the thread of the story. And if you like dark fables, he’s got plenty of them, and they’re a bracing corrective to the techno-optimism of some of his peers.

Still, the novels are masterful; the stories are merely fun. If there’s a common flaw, it may be that Bester gets too caught up in the surface details: the dialogs, the little swerves of plot. So some (not all) of the stories feel like they go on longer than they have to, or take a little too long to make their point.

Another biographical detail: Bester took another long break from sf in the late 1950s– instead writing for a travel magazine, Holiday. It must have paid better than sf, since he stuck with it for years. Also, before he got into sf he wrote for comic books… I’d love to see an anthology of his comics work!

Why do food replicators suck?

If you like mega-nerdy discussions about impossible things, this Tumblr and Metafilter discussion delivers. I found myself convinced by entirely opposite conclusions several times. The basic question: is Star Trek replicator food as good as real food?

The originator of the discussion, Beatrice-Otter, thinks it obviously is:

In Star Trek, replicator technology is part of the same tech tree as transporters. Replicated food would be identical to the food it was based on, down to the subatomic level.

The discussion makes many good points.

  • Working from a fixed recipe makes every instance of a dish taste the same. That could get boring fast.
  • If you’re a foodie, the number of options for a dish just explodes. Precise ingredients, multitudes of obscure varieties for each one, their terroir, different cooking methods, seasonal changes, the taste imparted by the pan you use. Maybe even which microorganisms live in the local tap water…
  • Maybe the replicator is good with pizza, but does it do Ethiopian food well? To say nothing of all the hundreds of planets and dozens of species the Federation has run into. You can have a database that’s huge, yet really only works for a subset of people, probably the developers.
  • Everyone has their own individual associations and preferences. You could store the ratatouille recipe that brings Anton Ego back to his childhood— but visiting Anton Ego’s childhood isn’t the same for you and for him.
  • The ship’s replicators are military grade and just don’t have the options the crew had back home.
  • Humans are humans, and will find a way to complain even in a post-capitalist utopia.
  • Our senses are affected by ambience. Anton Ego’s ratatouille might be spectacular in a restaurant in Paris, bland and disappointing in a cold starship galley.
  • In ST canon, replicators can’t produce live animals. What about that Klingon dish that includes live ingredients? But you don’t have to invent other species to get this problem: I once saw a video about a Mexican street dish that included live insects. For that matter, yogurt is supposed to have live bacteria cultures…

Someone pointed out that once replication tech exists, people would deliberately mess with it— e.g. make a steak where some of the proteins are replaced by raspberry syrup. Or you deliberately play with glitches that would be impossible in any other cooking method. (E.g. imagine layering hot and cold levels within a pastry— each 0.01 inch wide.) Or a similar layering effect with chocolate and fruit.

To me, the killer consideration is data space. How much physical space does a recipe take up? We’re used to thinking of data as weightless: an e-book takes up way, way less space than a book. Thus we can easily imagine a replicator filled to bursting with variations on the pizza recipe.

But an e-book is negligible because printed letters are enormously huge at the molecular level. It really doesn’t take much to fool the eye. The stomach is another matter. You have to replicate the food way below the cellular level. E.g. you’re making a steak: you have to make all the proteins correctly down to the molecular level— if you make the proteins wrong, the food isn’t even nutritious!

A pound of steak contains on the order of 1025 atoms. We need to store the location and velocity of each one.

  • Yes, Heisenberg would have something to say about that; take it up with Star Trek.
  • Velocity? If you think “but the atoms aren’t moving much,” I remind you that electrons moving is what we normally call “temperature”.
  • Just in case you have some bright idea about storing info about multiple atoms in one atom using floating point numbers… atoms are quantized. E.g. the state of any electron can be given by two integers (spin and energy level). And these are not numeric registers: if you set an electron to a high energy state, it won’t stay that way, it’ll send off the energy as a photon.)

Anyway: to store the state of each atom, we have nothing smaller than an atom. The recording of the state of 1025 atoms will itself be 1025 atoms— a pound of computronium. Maybe more, since any data format has some overhead; plus of course you need the mechanisms to actually read the data. Now, do you still think that the replicator can store thousands of recipes, and thousands of variants for each one? The ship will end up being made of recipe blocks.

Fine, you say: we’ll compress the data. And I’ll say: there is no lossless compression. Every method you use will have some effect— and could change the taste. Make enough compromises and yeah, replicator food sucks.

Now, I’m happy to grant that compression can be done. But a lot of thinking about this will be due to analogies that don’t apply here— namely, our experience compressing visual and auditory data. It’s pretty easy to fool the eye and the ear with low-res data. How much of that applies to taste and smell is another matter. (A lot of biological processes, including these, depend on recognizing large molecules; you can’t depend on macro-level fakery. That’s one reason making fake meat is so hard.) And again, satisfying the digestive system is even harder.

Edit: Compression can be lossless if the data is strongly patterned. E.g. an entry in the Library of Babel that consists entirely of the letter “e” can be precisely described in a few words (I just did it). But complex biological material (a.k.a. “food”) isn’t strongly patterned in that way.

Suppose you can compress the recipe a thousandfold: you can store the recipe for a pound of beef in 1022 atoms. Great! Now you can store a thousand variants of the recipe in a pound of computronium, a thousand recipes still weigh half a ton. How many replicators did you want in your starship, by the way…?

OK, we compress it a millionfold! Just 1018 atoms per recipe. That’s just a pound of computronium for a thousand dishes with a thousand variants each. Good enough for government work! Only… come on. You can’t just say you’ll keep 1 bit in 1,000,000 and claim that the loss is undetectable. Some people will insist on this, but I call this an instance of engineer’s disease: a certain type of nerd thinks that their tech solution cannot fail, an optimism belied by fifty years of engineering experience.

(Also, please don’t quibble over the portion size. You could store 1 cm3 of beef instead and save a couple of orders of magnitude. Only, one, building food out of 1 cm3 cubes will definitely be noticeable. And two, I could easily increase thousand recipes by several orders of magnitude too— that was just a simplification for ease of calculation. The Joy of Cooking contains 4500 recipes, and it’s hardly the last word on food. And Star Trek ships include people not only from every human culture, but from other biospheres and other species.)

All this shed some light, I think, on why Star Trek transporters can’t be used to store multiple backups per person, create endless clones, etc. A person takes 1027 atoms to store— the same weight as a person. (You want that data compressed? And then you’re gonna cheerfully step into that machine?) This would explain why (as one Metafilter user points out) during one ST transporter malfunction, storing all the person-data completely overwhelmed the ship’s computers. Transportation cannot be a matter of reading the data, storing it in some mega-compressed form, beaming it somewhere, and 3D-printing it. The best way of storing those 1027 atoms is to use those very atoms. They’re transformed into plasma beams or whatever tech-gobbledygook you want, but they continue to be 1027 atoms, and they’re physically moved to the destination.

Oh, one more thought experiment for you. You go into the transporter carrying a portable food replicator— whose core is a pound of computronium. As we’ve established, every atom in a recipe is important: this data has been compressed as far as it can be. Does the replicator still work after you’ve been transported? Does it work well? Analogies based on JPGs won’t help you here!

Finally: this is all speculative and no answer, including mine, is the last word. But there is a conworlding lesson here, and that’s that though you can rescue a magical sf idea with more magic, you shouldn’t. A certain type of nerd just wants those replicating machines to work perfectly and keeps adding more impossibilities to keep the idea pure. But to get an interesting sf idea, you want limitations and tradeoffs and possible flaws.

Piranesi

Since I’m still awake, I’ll write another review, this one of something I liked: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

If you know nothing about it, it’s a fable, something of an urban fantasy. The title character lives in another world, which he calls the House– because it’s all one house or mansion. It extends for thousands of rooms in all directions, and despite years of exploration Piranesi has never found an end to it. The lower floors are filled with oceans; the upper floors with clouds. He lives off fish, shellfish, and seaweed he finds in the ocean, and he keeps an obsessive journal– the novel purports to be its 10th volume.

For company there are a few skeletons, and a mysterious man he calls the Other– the only living human he knows. The Other shows up twice a week for meetings. The Other is pursuing what he calls Great and Secret Knowledge which he thinks is hidden in the House; he does not search for it himself, but encourages Piranesi to explore. (He provides him with notebooks and pens.)

The first part of the book explores the House, the strange narrator, and his strange friend. Piranesi, oddly enough, is completely happy with his life. He has excellent recall of everything he’s seen in the House, and he’s satisfied with his daily routines and occasional longer journeys. Every room is full of statues, and he knows them all. He talks to the birds which fly through the halls, and leaves offerings to the skeletons. He regards the Other as a friend, though he is skeptical about the Great and Secret Knowledge.

This idyll is threatened by new knowledge– starting with a visit from another living person, who Piranesi calls the Prophet. The Prophet tells him things that put in question what he knows about the House, and the Other, and himself. He begins to explore these clues…

I won’t say here what he finds, except for what the book jacket reveals– that there is another world besides the House. And magic is involved.

The obvious comparison is to Borges’s Library of Babel– though the House is more a catalogue of the visual than the literary arts, and was more densely populated. It’s also reminiscent of Schuiten & Peeters’ brilliant and gorgeous French graphic novel La Tour (The Tower), which also depicts a near-infinite architectural monstrosity with few human residents and a mysterious origin.

Reviews usually mention C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, probably because it contains a few explicit references to it, and because the House also recalls the huge palace of Charn. But the comparison is not very illuminating. Piranesi’s House is not Charn: it’s not lifeless, it’s not the sinister end of an evil civilization, and there are no traces of Aslan or the Witch here. There is some human evil, but the House itself is– at least as Piranesi experiences it– a peaceful and even joyful place.

What it’s not much like is Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I liked that one, but it takes a long time to get going, while Piranesi is just 245 pages. One thing they do share is that in both novels, Clarke commits to the bit, as comedians say. Strange is written in the form and diction of long 19th century novels, while Piranesi showcases the oddness of its main character, who learns all sorts of things during his adventures but never becomes what we’d call normal.

I liked the book a lot, and finished it in one long binge. Most everything gets explained eventually, at least one of the bad guys is dealt with satisfactorily, and Piranesi manages to adapt to his new knowledge without entirely losing the calm he found in the House.

It doesn’t explore its magic very thoroughly. I don’t think that’s a flaw, but it’s good to set expectations: if you like your sf ideas teased out in all their complications, this isn’t that.

I do think that– as with The Tower— the first half of the book works the best, when we are most exposed to the awesome and strange world of the House and don’t understand it yet. Schuiten & Peeters couldn’t really make the mystery pay off. I think Clarke does better at that, but some of the magic does leak out. One disappointment, perhaps (in white to avoid spoilers)… the Great and Secret Knowledge turns out to be a dud. Which is realistic, but it might have been more interesting if the Other’s project was more of an actual threat.

The Psychology of Time Travel

I found this book, by Kate Mascarenhas, more or less by chance. It was on the next shelf from where Arkady Martine’s next book should have been, and it was about time travel– I’m a sucker for anything about time travel. And in fact it’s really good! Once I was into it I had to keep going till I was done. And now I’m out of books.

The basic setup: four women– Margaret, Barbara, Grace, and Lucille– invent time travel, in 1967. One of them, Barbara, is overstressed and has a sort of breakdown in front of the media, and she’s kicked out of the group. The rest form an organization to manage time travel, the Conclave.

In July 2017 Barbara receives a cryptic note which turns out to be the report of a death six months in the future, and discusses it with her granddaughter Ruby. In January 2018, a girl named Odette finds a corpse in a locked boiler room… locked from the inside.

So, it’s a mystery, and an sf story, and true to its title it really is about the psychology of time travel: how it might mess with your head. What happens if you know the day you die? Or the day your loved one dies? More strangely yet… how do you grieve, or do you grieve, if after they die you can, whenever you want, take a trip into the past to see them again?

Fitting the subject, the structure of the book is all over the chronological map. Most of it centers on the murder and its aftermath in 2017-18, but chapters are set in the previous or following decades. There are quite a few characters, though the chief ones are named above.

Mascarenhas’s version of time travel is deterministic, and also future-oriented: time travel requires a receptive apparatus, so you can’t travel back before the device was invented. (You also can’t travel more than 300 years in the future. It’s hinted that the 24th century is pretty nasty, and perhaps all the machines are destroyed.)

Most of the focus is on the Conclave itself. Its structure is a baffling, because time travel sort of collapses its 300-year timespan. Any given agent may be given an assignment at a future or past time; people get intimately familiar with their past and future selves; you can even make a phone call to any Conclave employee at any time. There’s an extensive Conclave slang, which never changes since it’s shared over that entire time period. There are objects called “genies” which are acausal: a future you hands it to a younger you, so it exists uncreated in a years-long time loop.

A major subplot is a romance between Ruby and one of the pioneers, which has the brain-busting peculiarity that the lifespans of the two characters barely overlap. Romance is weird for time travelers: if they end up with a partner, they know who it is, often before they’ve met. Also, is it infidelity if, while you’re partnered, you also hook up with yourself?

The Conclave also turns out to be kind of a nasty thing. It’s located in London, but it’s outside the jurisdiction of British law, since the agents present at any one moment in time may be from anywhen, and it’s not clear what set of laws should apply. And it reflects the heavy hand of Margaret, at the top, and her determination that psychological problems like Barbara’s never recur. Naturally, worrying so hard about one problem leads into a set of opposite problems.

The book must have been hell to plot. It’s a lot of fun to explore all these concepts, and almost all of the characters are interesting to be with. (All the viewpoint characters are female; from an interview, it seems that the author tried male characters, and found that readers took the male characters as more important. So she just made everyone important be female.)

Mascarenhas works out lots of weird side-effects of time travel as the Conclave practices it, though I’m not sure they’re worked out enough. To try to explain without spoilers: information about future events is a phone call away. Sometimes the characters use this information; and to make the plot work, some of the characters (Barbara, Ruby, Odette) spend much of the book outside the Conclave and thus have to plod through normal time like regular humans. But some events proceed as if the Conclave weren’t using its own mechanisms. (Though, the timeline being unchangeable, perhaps the ultimate argument is “things happened that way because they did.”)

An example with spoilers: Odette joins the Conclave to dig up info. Because she had therapy, she is ineligible per Margaret’s rules, and she hides this for a time. When it’s revealed, she’s kicked out. There’s a testing process for entry, lovingly detailed; why isn’t part of it calling the future to see if she’s still employed in a month? There may be answers in this particular case– e.g. Odette is hired as a sort of internal detective, and perhaps policy is to not to mess with them. But the same issue comes up with larger plot points. E.g. after 2018 everyone knows that Margaret is a bit of a nutter. How could this be kept a secret before then, when travelers are constantly going back into her tenure? I don’t think these are flaws, it just worries me a bit.)

The Collapsing Empire

This, by John Scalzi, was another of the books recommended by NPR, but it turns out to be very similar in theme to A Memory Called Empire. It’s also a space opera about (spoiler) a collapsing empire, and even explores the same idea of a sentient brainscan. What I learned: it’s best not to read two space operas in a row about collapsing empires.

It’s not bad, mind you. The basic setup: humanity lives in the Interdependency, a network of colonies dominated by guilds (basically megacorps with monopolies), linked by a para-space called the Flow that provides FTL travel. The problem is that the Flow is disappearing, which will be particularly bad because human society has been designed to be interdependent– so the colonies will probably die off on their own. Only one colony is an actual planet, called End.

There’s a number of viewpoint characters: Kiva, a roguish and foul-mouthed Owner’s Representative on a trading ship at End; Cardenia, the new and unprepared Emperox of the Interdependency; Marce, a scholar from End who has the best insight into how the Flow is failing.

Let’s start with the positive: the prelude, which sets the tone and the theme. It details an attempted mutiny on yet another spaceship. It’s fun and showcases what Scalzi seems to do best: tough asshole characters, tense but witty confrontations, quick reversals, and a good helping of comedy. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like the book. And the series; it’s a trilogy.

The overall situation is good too, though maybe it hits a little close to our little problem, the looming climate change apocalypse. The Interdependency feels like a bunch of overgrown Renaissance city-states, everyone trying to screw each other over without quite violating social norms. Throwing an existential threat at these people is an excellent way to see what they’re made of.

So, I like a lot of it but I also find it tiring. The comparison to Arkady Martine does not help it. I think the things that rub me the wrong way are these:

  • The characters are divided into good assholes and nasty assholes. (Not everyone, but close enough.) I actually like Kiva a lot– she’s lively and inventive. But, I dunno, there’s a reason Star Wars didn’t consist only of Han Solo and Boba Fett. It’s nice to have some actually likeable people in there somewhere.
  • The multiple viewpoint characters are a good fit for space opera, but I miss the focus provided by a single protagonist.
  • The Interdependency as Scalzi portrays it is hard to like– Martine is far better at explaining why an empire could be both dangerous and attractive. But the deeper problem is that the systemic problems are sidelined in favor of building up one particular clan as the archvillains. That is, Scalzi understands that the Interdependency is hopelessly corrupt, but still writes a story where shooting three people would pretty much fix everything.
  • Come on, Scalzi, you literally give your exposition of the Flow in the form of a lecture for schoolchildren?
  • The structure is weirdly digressive and repetitive. E.g. something like a third of the book is devoted on getting Marce from Point A to Point B. He’s threatened at home, then kidnaped, then they send assassins after him, then pirates. It’s competent thriller-plot, but did we need all four of these inconveniences, especially when the bad guy is the same one each time and we learn nothing new about him? The Chandler plot, careening from one danger to another, doesn’t work merely because it puts the hero in danger, but because it deepens the plot and provides surprises.
  • One more unfortunate comparison: Martine is far better at showing how it feels to be involved in apocalyptic events. It’s fun when a resourceful character like Kiva keeps sidestepping the enemy, but it’s more affecting when a character sometimes feels overwhelmed and panicky.

I’m afraid this sounds more negative than I meant it to. When something feels off about a book or game, I want to analyze that until I feel I understand it. But if I’d read this book first, or been in a slightly different mood, I’d probably have liked it more.

FWIW, re-reading my review of Scalzi’s Redshirts, I note that I had a very similar reaction: great idea, weird structure, and a certain difficulty in raising the emotional temperature.

A Memory Called Empire

There was a great post on NPR on the best sf/fantasy of the last decade, and I’m trying to read some of them. The first one I found at the library is this one, by Arkady Martine.

The book is dedicated to “anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own”, and that pretty much sums up the theme of the book. It’s about the devastation and the allure of empire.

The setup is simple enough. The viewpoint character is Mahit Dzmare, newly appointed ambassador from a border space station to the Empire of Teixcalaan. As soon as she arrives at the capital city-planet, she learns that her predecessor is dead, probably murdered. She has an imago of him– a sentient brainscan– but it malfunctions, leaving her alone, unless she can trust any of the Teixcalaanli. At least she has a hypercompetent liaison officer / shadow, Three Seagrass. (This is a great standard way to explore a conworld, by the way: use an outsider, so as they learn about the culture we can too, in a natural way.)

The structure of the book is interesting. A lot of sf is emotionless problem-solving– think Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Stross. Empire is most reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler novel. As in a Marlowe novel, Mahit follows leads, has fraught conversations, gets into new predicaments, and when the author wants to shake things up, there’s a new assassination attempt. With one important difference: Mahit is the opposite of a native, and has no allies to start with– the one she should have, her imago, is gone.

As a consequence, the plot feels chaotic for about half the book. She doesn’t even meet the Emperor till page 229. A contrast is with N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the outsider heroine meets all the major players in a few chapters, and is even assured that there’s no one else who matters.

The names– plus a certain cultural fascination with blood sacrifice– come from the Aztecs, but much more comes from Martine’s academic specialty: the Byzantine empire. In interviews, she also mentions Rome and the US, but curiously doesn’t mention the closest parallel: the Chinese empire, which could be both a military juggernaut and a machine for cultural assimilation. Teixcalaan is portrayed as robustly exporting novels, films, and poetry, and even has an examination system like the Chinese. Mahit herself is a devotee of Teixcalaanli literature, though she realizes that to the imperials she’ll never be more than a barbarian.

(That may be true of her Byzantine models, but I think it’s not true of most empires, which are usually quite open to outsiders. I recently discussed Lucian of Samosata, who was Syrian but became a highly popular Greek writer; think also of Italian composers in Austria, Central Asian traders in Xi’an, Greek generals in Xerxes’ army.)

The para-Nahuatl names are cool but a bit misleading, I think: they suggest a more direct modeling of the Aztec empire than Martine is actually doing. A little actual conlanging would have been in order here.

Everything has a space opera sheen, but really the one sf element that’s carefully explored is the imago– a technology that Mahit’s Lsel Station has, but the Empire doesn’t. Here the plot gets in the way a bit: as Mahit’s imago malfunctions, we spend most of the book not seeing how the things work. Still, the idea eventually pays off.

A nice bit about the book is that character gender seems to be random or nearly so. Both Lsel and Teixcalaan have both women and men in positions of power, and no one makes a big deal of gender at all. (It’s fine if a sf writer wants to confront gender essentialism, but it’s nice to take a holiday from it sometimes. It’s not like either society lacks for other problems to explore.)

I don’t like everything about the ending– to be precise, the plot is wrapped up, but truncating the lesbian romance and sending Mahit back home are dissatisfying. But I see that there’s a sequel (A Desolation Called Peace), which seems to address those issues.

If it’s not clear, I liked the book a lot, and I’m eager to read the sequel. Mahit and Three Seagrass are both great characters, the mystery structure is fun, and Martine succeeds in her primary aim, showing how an empire can be both frightening and compelling.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that Lsel never becomes quite as real as the Empire. We learn a lot about it, but by the end of the book we care far more about Teixcalaanli politics. At the same time, and despite a cast large enough that Martine has to provide a glossary of names, it’s never quite explained how a station of 30,000 souls can be quite so important to the Empire and the Emperor. (I mean, plot-wise, it is explained; it’s just a weak bit of conworlding. And it could have been easily fixed: make the Stationers two or three orders of magnitude bigger. 3 million Stationers would still be tiny compared to the Empire, but more credible as a little outpost of high technology.)