I want to make clear before I go into the actual review that I was unaware that Benjanun Sriduangkaew, the author of the book, was the notorious blogger “Requires Hate.” I saw the book on a stand at a library, decided it was worth reading, and bought it at Barnes & Noble; it was cheap enough at four dollars USD.

And Shall Machines Surrender follows physician and cybersurgeon Orfea Leung as she visits the AI-mediated Dyson Sphere Shenzen, where humans lucky enough to be chosen by the AIs that run the place live in utter luxury, and where a small superclass of humans get to merge with the AIs over time.

After she gets a temporary residents’ permit and a job as a doctor, she is witness to an impossible suicide, followed immediately by her being paired up with her old girlfriend, Krisanna, from the years when she was a military medic working for the largest mercenary group in known space, and her job is to solve the mystery of why those chosen to merge with the AIs, a choice they all eagerly sought, would likewise choose to commit suicide before the merger was complete. There had been hundreds of these mergers, and on one day three ended themselves, something which had never happened before.

There’s a lot of praise for the book but… I can’t really mirror them. The good stuff is simple: the book is unapologetically queer, which I appreciated a lot. No one even talks about it. Multiple sexes, various roles, all manner of personal peccadilloes, everything is acceptable as long as it’s consensual. There are three sex scenes, and they’re all quite brilliant, although all of them are interrupted as a way of moving the plot forward. For most writers, sex scenes are frequently used to illustrate character, and Ms. Sriduangkaew writes as if, once that goal has been met, the scene needed to end without any satisfaction to the characters or her reader. Her descriptive and vocabulary powers are quite remarkable, although one “big word” moment was also used in a complex metaphor that interrupted the flow of the story. Having to press “define” is easier and quicker on a Nook or Kindle than it is dragging out a dictionary, but that felt like a bit of a show-off.

On the other hand, the book fails in two major ways. The first is that, in a battle between human beings and AIs with large caches of resources, the human beings still have any chance at all. Yes, both Orfea and Krisanna are ex-military badasses with enhanced capabilities, but the idea that their meat could hold its own against metal assassins vast, cool, and unsympathetic came off as a bit unbelievable. The ending is very punchy, as if inflected with one too many watchings of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The second is that the AIs themselves come across as confused and incompetent. There is a trope at work here, that of an AI forging a “unification” such that all other AIs want to join it, leaving the humans without AIs. I’ve used this trope in my own work, so I’ve thought a lot about it, and what bothers me most is the notion that the AIs, having found this capability… don’t use it. No research is being done into further states of uplift, no questions are raised about the possibility of a singularity or rampancy, and no handwaving is done to explain why either hasn’t happened yet.

There are other details at work here that I found off-putting. There aren’t many men in the story, and when they are present they’re depicted as unpleasant, unintellectual, and less capable of a healthy polymorphic perversity than the women. Turnabout is always fair play, I suppose, but it cheapens the effect. One of the “great galactic governments” is the Pax Americana, a full-on rendering of The Handmaid’s Tale “Gilead… in Space!” that somehow has survived after several generations without collapsing from the internal contradictions such arrangements have inevitably produced in the past.

This is Sriduangkaew’s first full-length novel. It’s complete and self-contained and it shows promise. There is the occasional axe being ground, however, although for much of the book that sound is dim and in the distance. Still, you should go into the work knowing that you’ll be hearing it.

Matt Singer’s article Why ‘The Last Jedi’ Pissed Off Star Wars Fans has been sticking with me for a long time. Singer argues that The Last Jedi is different from other Star Wars films in that it doesn’t wallow in nostalgia. I know that I need to not wallow in it either.

Star Wars, the original film, was literally nothing but nostalgia: it sold a space story to youngsters, but to the older generation it was every cowboy movie (Han), every samurai film (the Jedi), and every World War 2 dogfight (the Rebels) all rolled up into a sci-fi flavored confection. Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens both continued this tradition, mandating sword fights, gun battles, and space battles, while wallowing in Star Wars’ own traditions. The Force Awakens literally “brought the whole gang back together.”

The Last Jedi, in contrast, literally burns the past. Yoda and Luke destroy the Library of the Jedi. A new generation, with new needs and new problems, has to rise to take on an exhausted and confused monster, a rump junta of the Empire, that is still for all its exhaustion dangerously powerful. The Last Jedi is an argument that we should thank Luke and Leia for their service, but we shouldn’t emulate them; it’s time to change the way the world worked. The Jedi/Sith dynamic had become a problem.

The Journal Entries, unfortunately, fit more than a little of the nostalgia mode. It’s set in an science-fantasy universe that owes everything to the humanist vision of James White’s Hospital Station series, the oversexed pleasures of Andrew J. Offut’s Spaceways series, the 90s-era feminist sensibilities of a lot of romance novels, and my own hearkening back to my various “comings out” over the years. The stories always presented a hopeful, futuristic look at the universe, but one in which people still played in the dirt, literally; the sex was always sweaty and fluid, and a lot of my characters love getting outside and among nature. The sterility of spending a lifetime indoors isn’t for them.

In 2019, with climate change, surveillance capitalism, emergent fascism, and a new, highly disruptive and dangerous variant of “the great game” seeming to press in on every side, it’s hard to find hope. Most SF series these days seem to be about the downsides of technology. Star Trek keeps going further back in time– Discovery is set somewhere between the original series and Next Generation– and this seems to imply that hopeful, optimistic, utopian futures are now beyond the imaginings of most science fiction writers.

I wrote a hopeful novel in 2018 and released it in 2019. Honest Impulses imagines a future where human beings are still hopeful. They imagine a kind of dignified utopia, and they’re optimistic they’ll get closer to it every day. I didn’t write much in 2019; I was focused a bit on my academic studies, and then on getting a new job. The new job comes with a commute, so there’s writing time on the clock again.

Hope and optimism don’t seem to be selling well right now, but I’m not that interested in selling. I’m interested in inspiring. Here’s to 2020, and the hope that hope is still worth writing about.

The other day I got a glimpse of what it feels like to be Tony Stark.

If you want to learn what it feels like to be a superhero, go buy yourself an electric bicycle. Or just rent one. Not one of the cheap ones cluttering up the streets of our major cities, but a decent, actual electric bicycle from a rental shop. It’ll probably run you about $100, but the experience of riding one will absolutely educate you.

I bought one. It’s a Radcycle Commuter 2019 with a battery pack made by Tesla and a massive rare-earths motor in the rear wheel hub. It weights about 39 pounds without the battery, 63 with. It has three modes: off, pedal assist, and throttle override. Off, it’s just a particularly heavy bicycle. In throttle override mode, you twist the throttle and it zooms off like a small motorcycle, and in pedal assist, it amplifies the effort you put into riding.

Bicycling is the most efficient form of transportation known to humankind. For every kilocalorie of energy expended, you go farther, faster on a bicycle than you do walking, driving, or any other mode of transport. Learning to ride a bicycle involves learning how to manage the energy you put into pedaling into forward motion. An e-bike upsets that muscle memory; suddenly, you go farther, faster than ever before.

I’ve been riding this bike to and from work for three weeks now, and it’s been glorious. I leave it in Level 1 or 2 most of the time, “economy modes,” where I still have to put in a lot of pedaling to get anywhere, but I leave the throttle override active so that if I hit a hill I can go up with all 750 watts helping, which means that I can get up that hill without stressing out my bum knee. Which is great on straightaways.

However, you and I still have purely human reflexes.

Monday morning I was riding to work. My commute takes me around the south side of the local airport, and as I was driving through an intersection that interfaces the town south of me with the freeway system that feeds into Seattle, a panel truck roared through the corner and, basically, just didn’t see me.

I twisted the throttle hard and pushed down on the pedals to get out of his way! The bike leaped forward, reaching for 20 miles per hour (the motor’s legally governed maximum) in the time it took me to cross the intersection, and then back up onto the bike path. But I was still throttling in my panic, and my reflexes were not used to my hitting that intersection while accelerating to 20mph. I managed to avoid the far curb and did not, thankfully, go hurtling over it into the brambles and fences surrounding the airport.

It was a scary moment. The bike was just at the edge of my control.

I realized this is what it’s like to be Tony Stark: just like his fictional suit, the bicycle amplifies my human capabilities without also compensating for my human reflexes. Analogized to a full-body amplification of strength and speed, it’s a frightening proposition: we have to re-learn how to control ourselves or we are a danger to ourselves and everyone around us.

So if you’re gonna write superheroes, ride an e-bike to see what it’s like. Appreciate what it feels like to have your natural abilities amplified. And understand what it means when your senses and your reflexes… aren’t.

Following on my last post about the practice of writing versus practicing writing, I recently came across a Cal Newport article entitled Flow is the Opiate of the Mediocre, in which he talks about the difference between practice and performance.

Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which he described as “a highly focused state conducive to productivity.” We’ve all experienced flow, that time when we’re writing or drawing or even writing code and the world seems to fall away as the glittering reality of what we’re working on comes into focus and we start really producing.

As Newport points out, the problem with flow in general is that it relies completely on skills you’ve already mastered. The moment you hit a snag in your work, a conceptual problem where there’s no existing solution stored away in your brain, flow breaks. You have to leave the zone of performance and drop down to the zone of improvement. You have to do something new.

Flow isn’t a state in which anything new happens. It’s an incredibly pleasurable state, of course; I know I enjoy it. I especially enjoy it when I’m writing stories, when I’m down in the muck and churning out dialogue and scene and plot, but the fact is that when I do so I’m riding on a lifetime of writing, repeating what I’ve already done. To get to the next level of writing, I have to drop out of writing and start planning instead.

That’s one of the problems with being a writer, though. A lot of writing involves “performance” in the sense that you’re not trying to improve your writing skills or style. And that may be a problem if writing doesn’t come naturally to you, but you want to do it anyway. I’m not entirely sure what to do with this conundrum other than to say that writing a story should involve a lot of Flow and opportunities to improve should happen elsetime.

James Koppel has a pretty interesting post about programming entitled Practicing is not Performing: Why Project-Based Learning Fails, about why trying to learn something about programming by doing a project is not the way to learn. I don’t agree with everything he says, but the gist of his comments really does get to me.

Last year, wearing my nerd hat, I set out to write a programming language parser using an obscure algorithm, working in two different programing languages that I didn’t know. I figured I could learn everything I needed along the way, as I’ve always done. It all took much, much longer than I’d expected: the languages were very different from what I’d ever known before, the algorithms involved much deeper math than I’d ever expected.

James’s advice is the fundamentals of learning:

  1. Break down a skill into the smallest components.
  2. Drill on those components rapidly and with feedback.
  3. Incorporate those pieces into larger assemblies, then drill on those.

Everything in my project tells me that I could have gone much faster if I’d followed James’s advice. On the other hand, learning how to write old-school proofs is something that just takes a lot of time, and working my way through The Theory of Computation is one of those things.

But this is my writing blog, and so the question is: how do you do this sort of thing with writing? Theoretically, you can. The classic MFA textbook on writing is Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, of which I naturally have two copies (I bought a second digital copy so I wouldn’t have to lug the physical book with me to re-read it), although you can frequently find it in used bookstores, where disillusioned writers drop it off after taking a summer community college course and realize writing isn’t really for them.

I once took that summer community college course on writing prose fiction, and the teacher and I disliked one another a great deal, although we had a lot of respect for one another, one of the few times I’ve encountered that dynamic. I learned a lot from him. He absolutely loathed genre writing. Other students rarely did the homework; I brought in 2000 words each week every week to be critiqued and discussed. He had to swallow his dislike of science fiction and romance to read through and analyze my use of character, presentation, plot, structure, and setting, as it was often the only material he had from students, and that was part of the class’s appeal.

Burroway has writing assignments, and I guess you could do them for each of the chapters in her book. I did some of them, what we could cover in an eight-week course, but I always worked with an eye toward incorporating the material into something that was already written. (For the record, minus the sex scenes, a lot of that classwork became a part of Travellogue: Reunion.)

Can you have “practice” stories, that never get shown the light of day? I suppose you can. But unlike code, a writers should keep everything in a trunk, where someday while you’re writing, it may call to you and say, “Hey, that think you wrote twenty years ago? Some variant of it would go perfect right…. there.”

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