Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous is a razor-sharp look at the future

In 2009, I got a phone call for what turned out to be an internship at a new website about science fiction and science fact called io9. At the other end of the line was Annalee Newitz, the site’s editor, and we chatted about academics, science fiction, and what I wanted to write about. That was the start to a really wild ride, and ultimately has brought me to the place where I am today: writing about science fiction and science fact.

So, I’ll get it out of the way that I owe Annalee big time, but as with any book I crack open, I attempted to get into it objectively. Either way, I really adored Autonomous, her debut novel. It’s a book that crackles with a really intriguing, nuanced vision the future of work, drugs, technology, and ownership that’s both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. If you want a review that’s not mine, I wholeheartedly agree with my colleague Adi Robertson’s take over on The Verge. (I did get to take the picture for the review!)

Set about a century in the future, Autonomous follows a pharma pirate named Jack who reverse-engineers drugs to give out to those in need. This future is ruled over by powerful governmental organizations that rigorously enforce property rights and ownership laws, where people and robots can be legally contracted out for work (really, a form of slavery), if they don’t purchase an enfranchisement (citizenship) in any given territory.

When Jack reverse-engineers a drug called Zacuity, a work enhancement drug that gives its user a high while they go about their jobs. It turns out that it’s highly addictive and leads to some bad outcomes: addicts become so addicted to their work that they don’t do anything else, and they end up crashing trains or flooding cities, or just die from forgetting to take a break to drink water. Jack unleashes this drug on the open market, and has to turn around and figure out how to reverse-engineer a cure.

Meanwhile, this outbreak of addicts attracts the attention of the International Property Coalition, an organization that enforces intellectual property rights — with armed androids and soldiers. It sends a duo, Eliaz and Paladin, to track her down and take care of the problem.

Annalee plays with a lot of things in this book, and if you read io9 under her tenure, some of this will be familiar. The book plays out a sympathetic argument about intellectual property rights — how things like copyright and patents hamper innovation and contribute to the feedback loop that is capitalism. Jack and her academic compatriots are revolutionaries who work to try and break that system, opening free labs and pirating drugs.

On the other side of things, she explores some interesting thoughts on what the nature of work might be, for robots and humans. With the rise of intelligent robots, a system of contracts comes about: robots can offset the cost of their creation by going into a contract with their ’employers,’ and people are brought in under the same system. It’s essentially dressed-up slavery, and Annalee plays out these arguments between the Eliaz and Paladin’s relationship.

The two dynamics tie into one another, but they are a bit uneven: this feels almost like two books smashed together, but they complement one another decently enough, essentially coming down to citizenship acting as another form of property.

As someone who wrote for io9, I really appreciate the sheer vibrancy of this book. It’s packed with ideas and visuals and weird technologies. It’s like walking through a crowded bazaar somewhere: there’s too much to look and take in, and the book is a sensory overload in paper form. It’s buzzing with huge ideas that warrant their own stories, but Annalee buzzes past them as the main narrative thunders along.

Ultimately, it’s a fantastic, brilliant debut novel. I can’t wait for her next one.

Advertisements

Iron Fist… Meh

I finally finished slogging through Netflix’s Iron Fist. I really enjoyed watching Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, and I was interested to see how this one would turn out. It’s… definitely at the bottom of the  list when it comes to MCU entries.

The show gained a considerable amount of controversy for its approach to race, which I’m not really going to get into, other than to say that it felt kind of oblivious when it came to that particular topic. My colleague, Kwame Opam, wrote about it better than I could over on The Verge, and I generally agree with his review.  As I noted in my thoughts on Ghost in the Shell, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out a bit more broadly.

One thing that stuck out for me with Iron Fist was just how boring it is. Daredevil did some really spectacular fight scenes, but this should have put that to shame: it’s a show about martial arts! The action was just… lackluster. A good example is this scene, where there’s 56 cuts in 35 seconds, which made the whole thing jittery.

Above all, however, the story was a bit of a mess. It meanders, characters do a ton of really dumb and contradictory things, and Danny Rand’s whole character journey just… doesn’t seem to exist.

It feels as though Marvel didn’t really think the story through, and really break the season into a coherent arc. What would have felt better to me is if Rand was still in training to become the Iron Fist, rather than coming back and seemingly went back to square one, which seems to negate everything he had been before. It feels as though it’s an origin story set after the origin story, if that makes sense.

Hopefully, Defenders will be better when it hits later this summer.

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures

This is a cool book I picked up recently: The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures, written by the Library of Congress. It’s a cool blend of history and visuals, and if you’re nostalgic at all for the days of the card catalog or even libraries, it’s well worth picking up.

The book alternates between two sections: images of the Library of Congress’s collection, showing off books and their card counterpart, and history.

The history is the most appealing thing for me. It takes the reader through the history of the card catalog, with a broad view of how the library system itself came into being. From the very first Library of Congress to the present, it talks about something that people don’t think about much when it comes to libraries: how an organization … organizes itself, and how that helps steer the mission and purpose of the institution from thereon out. The actual cards are interesting, but it’s the way in which they’re used that’s most fascinating. Now that computers have largely taken over the task of locating books in a library’s collection, understanding that organizational mindset is pretty important. What I found most interesting is that the LoC actually still has their catalog in place, and the cards are still incredibly useful for researchers and librarians.

Ghost in the Shell … meh.

I finally caught Ghost in the Shell at our local theater. It’s *shrug*. It’s got an amazingly pretty design and visuals — the props and world is stunning, which pleased me, because I was pretty much prepared to enjoy this film as eye candy. The story was run of the mill action / betrayal thriller. Scarlett Johansson was fine.
I’ve never seen the original anime, so I don’t have a baseline to compare the story against. It’s basic. Heroine is enhanced to carry out mission, discovers that she’s been snatched away due to nefarious super-corporation, turns on them and gets revenge. No surprises there. It’s an accessible film that I enjoyed for the most part.
The two things that bothered me about this, though. The film felt like it should have been so much more interesting, visually. Not the design, but the actual camera work. Anime has had a really neat influence on film: just look at what The Matrix did. Animation can do so much more than live action because of its medium, and extensive CGI now frees up live action film to do so much more.  I was hoping that the film would do more than just dramatic slow motions, and that the action scenes would be a bit more dramatic or interesting to watch. That it was sort of dull to watch is a crime in and of itself. I guess that’s what you get when you put the guy who directed Snow White and the Huntsman behind the camera.
Secondly, the whitewashing thing? I think that if they hadn’t explicitly made it a plot point, it probably would have been okay. It would still be a problem — hiring a caucasian actress for the role should have been thought out a bit more. That it was a point integrated into the story itself made it feel as though they realized it would be a problem, and didn’t actually do the one thing they could have done to fix it. Given how the movie has been bombing, it’s pretty clear they overestimated Johansson’s star power and underestimated the negative press they got. At least they have an easy out if this ever gets a sequel: just recast Johansson by saying that she gets a new body.
It’s interesting to see just how this has been playing out, especially so soon after Marvel’s Netflix show Iron Fist rightly earned wide-spread criticism for exactly the same reasons. They underestimated the flurry of negativity that the show earned, but also put together an incredibly dull show. For a story about martial arts, it should have outdone Daredevil by a country mile.
Hopefully, studios will actually pay a bit more attention to this sort of thing moving forward. At least they’re owning up to the problems this time.

Vick’s Vultures, by Scott Warren

I’m a sucker for durable space opera novels. I like crews on space ships flying around doing things in the vastness of space, and one of the books that I came across earlier this fall was Scott Warren’s new novel Vick’s Vultures.

The premise of the novel is pretty straightforward: humanity has entered a larger diaspora of galactic civilizations, and has been keeping its head down, for the most part. We realize we’re outgunned, and have been salvaging tech from other aliens to catch up. Vick’s crew on board the U.E. Condor have been doing just that, and rescue First Prince Tavram, heir to a massive empire. Another empire is after him, and they flee through space to get him home.

It’s a straightforward tale, and a nice diversion from some of the headier genre books out there. (The audio edition is also quite good). It’s fast and engaging, and it’s the type of book that falls neatly in line with the likes of John Scalzi or Marko Kloos. It’s not straight-up military science fiction, but there’s plenty of action and combat to keep you entertained.

 

Nightshades, by Melissa F. Olson


Nightshades was a book that I had placed on Gizmodo’s ‘Must Read’ list this summer, and it’s been one that I’ve had lingering on my to-read list since it’s come out. I picked it up between books, and it’s a fun vampire story that’s a solid, quick read.

This is a YAVN: Yet Another Vampire Novel, although it’s a short one. Vampires are out and about in Chicago, killing a whole bunch of people, which gets the FBI involved. One of the new agents is Alex McKenna, and he is placed in charge of the Bureau of Paranormal Investigations in the city after several fellow agents are killed.

This is the type of book that is quite a bit of fun, even as just about every element is made of recycled materials. It’s like a fun cross of Underworld, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and maybe a bit of True Blood. That’s okay: it’s a book that’s a perfect sort of beach read, or a quick book to pick up if you’re traveling or reading on the go.

This is one of Tor.com’s latest offerings, and the short size is a neat feature for most of the books that they’re putting out. There’s some bugs along with this feature, though: the short stories sort of rely on the idea that the author has a much bigger world going on behind the scenes, and that these stories are discrete episodes that pop up. (Fran Wilde’s Jewel and her Lapidary has the same issue). Nightshades moves at a fast pace, and as a result, there’s a whole bunch of character things that happen far too quickly: one character locates a shade (Vampire) rather quickly, and convinces her to help out just as fast. There’s some other things like this that happen, and the ending of the book definitely makes this feel as though it’s designed around a pilot episode of a television show, with no word on whether or not it’ll be picked up.

That’s okay by me. It’ll be interesting to see just how Tor.com works with these authors and shorter works: I’m guessing that we’ll see hugely successful ones get picked up for new installments, which could make the publisher a fairly unique offering when it comes to storytelling: longer-form stories, but not quite serials.

Even if it’s not the most original novel out there, Nightshades is entertaining. Olson sinks nicely into her world with a fun story. Hopefully, there’ll be more to come before too much longer.

Review: Pitbull: The Battle over an American Icon by Bronwen Dickey

I have to admit, I hesitated a bit when my wife first showed me a picture of Tiki on her computer screen. We had just gotten married, and were in the final stages of getting a house. A dog was something that we had talked about for quite a while, and we had gone through the ups and downs of searching through countless pictures of pets from the local shelters. I had my heart set on finding a black lab, a type of dog that I’ve always seen as loyal and family-friendly.

The description said ‘Lab Mix’, one of the more generic labels that a shelter can put on a dog. I hesitated because Megan pointed out that he was probably part pit bull.

I had only met a pit bull once, and it was a good experience. A friend of Megan’s owns a sweet dog named Peaches, who had broken every stereotype of the dog. Regardless, we went up to meet Tiki, and fell in love instantly. He’s currently sulking down in our living room because he was subjected to a bath.  He is, as my dad described him, a ‘dog’s dog’, the base unit of dog. Snout, tail, ears, friendly attitude, etc.

I came across Bronwen Dickey’s book after reading an article about the negative response to her debut book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon. After the book’s release earlier this spring, she’s had to get extra security and endure a relentless bout of harassment from anti-Pit activists who have condemned her as a sort of propagandist for the animals.

The book is a fascinating history of the type of dog – not a breed – but more importantly, it’s an in-depth look at how ideas get embedded in society, and how these ideas are slowly changed. I didn’t expect it, but it’s probably one of the best self-examinations of media sensationalism and good journalistic practice. It’s also a great book about dogs and how their role as human companions has changed with time.

The Pit Bull, Dickey argues, is a type of dog that has been maligned recently – in the early 20th Century and earlier, it was viewed as the best sort of dog – good with families, good companions, and so on. Dickey looks as the dog’s legacy as a fighter, which was eventually rolled into coverage whenever a dog bit or killed someone. The shorthand article of a dog whose history includes fighting kills someone only reinforces the idea that the bite or death was inevitable.

Pit Bulls have bitten people, and a they have killed people. It’s impossible to get away from that point. However, she notes, all other types of dogs are responsible for the same actions: there are golden retrievers and labs that have bitten and killed as well. Part of the general impression of these dogs stems from the type of coverage that they receive, which is disproportionately angled against these particular animals. They also aren’t the first – they’re just the latest in a long string of movements where they’re at the wrong end of public opinion.

Furthermore, there’s a deeply embedded level of racism that’s associated with these dogs.

Furthermore, there’s a deeply embedded level of racism that’s associated with these dogs. During the 1970s and 1980s, the dogs became synonymous with rising crime levels and as guard dogs for – predominantly inner-city (read: black) – residents. This further solidified the general impression that these animals had no purpose other than violence. Dickey points to the rise of breed-specific legislation as a means of not only quelling white, suburban homeowner fears about ‘killer dogs’, but also as a good way to discourage minorities – who prominently owned the dogs – from moving in.

The combined series of events and circumstances have really tainted the reputation of the dog, which is unfortunate, given that there’s absolutely no indication that there’s a ‘killer gene’ that makes these particular dogs inherently dangerous. Numerous studies and data show that there’s no breed more dangerous than any others.

What makes dogs dangerous? It’s likely living conditions and abnormal stresses from owners who want dogs but are ill equipped to deal with them, and that doesn’t extend to just pits. Dickey closes out the book with efforts that groups are putting together to help dog owners, whether it’s providing fencing, training, neutering, food or basic healthcare for those who might not ordinarily be able to afford it. Similarly, breed-specific legislations are beginning to fall across the United States, an incredibly positive step.

Stress also has its impact. Tiki is an incredibly friendly, happy member of the family, but he has his buttons that we sometimes inadvertently push. I got a bite on the hand once when I tried to get him out of the car – he had hopped in expecting a ride, but got nervous as I tried to grab him by the collar to pull him out. I hadn’t recognized how anxious he was, and how afraid he when I raised my voice. I now know how to recognize the signs when he’s upset, and haven’t had an issue since. When he hopped into the car the other day expecting a ride (seriously, saying the words ‘Car Ride’ gets him excited), I just hooked a leash to his collar and was able to get him out of the car without a fuss.

I’ve met more Pit Bulls or Pit-type dogs since we’ve adopted Tiki: some are sweet and adorable animals who are bursting with energy and ready to play and receive attention. Others encounters haven’t gone well: while walking Tiki one day, we came across a female Pit that grew really angry as we walked past: she slipped out of the tennis court that she was in with her owners, closed the distance between us and attacked Tiki, biting him in the neck. (His wounds were superficial), but the inattention of the owners (hers and myself – we should have turned around and walked the other way) led to the encounter. It appears to have been an isolated incident. Tiki was already a slightly stressed and anxious dog, and the encounter has certainly made an impact, one that we’ve worked on with training and reinforcement.

If you like Pit Bulls or really dislike them, Dickey’s book is one that’s really well worth picking up and giving an honest read. This is a book that’s evenly balanced, and cuts through hearsay and the accumulated bullshit that had become truth to so many people. (Another author to check out in the same vein is Maureen Ogle, with her book In Meat We Trust, a spectacular history of meat and the United States). Dickey’s book has had the unexpected impact of making me a better journalist and pet owner, all while providing a really interesting history of dogs and how we interact with them. I hope that it will help improve things for the dogs.

Acer Chromebook, Initial Impressions

Earlier today, I got a new computer in the mail: an Acer Chromebook. For most of my freelancing / working life, I’ve used a work computer in my off hours to write up just about everything. When it became clear last year that I’d be leaving Norwich, I ended up buying a used iMac at a good price, which has been an absolute joy to use. It’s reliable, user friendly, and didn’t require too much effort to get used to.

The problem with a desktop is that it’s really chained to one area, whereas before I have a sort of freedom of movement with the laptop, and while I don’t travel all that often, when I do, it requires some extra finagling, such as carting along an iPad with its keyboard.

I like that setup, but my iPad 1 is getting up in age, and it’s hard to do anything but watch Netflix or read the occasional book on the various book apps that are available for it. Last month, one of my fellow Gizmodo writers wrote an interesting post about how he picked up a Chromebook, rather than a new Macbook.

What hooked me here was the price that he got his at: $173. That’s a staggeringly low price for a computer, especially if you do some light writing and surfing, which is pretty much what I do day to day, especially if I’m on the road.

So, I picked up this little Acer Chromebook for $140. I’ve been playing with it for a bit, and it plays Netflix nicely and seems to work decently as a writing device.

The main main thing that I need to get used to is the fact that there’s no default Capslock button. I’ve trained myself to use that button instead of shifting (for some random reason that I can’t fathom), so I have to get used to using SHIFT properly. There’s a search button that’s in the place of the Capslock that has me opening up a window every couple of minutes. Going into Settings allowed me to move that button to Capslock, which is nice, and makes things easier.

A couple of other buttons are in weird places – Control and Alt, but that’s not bad. The keyboard isn’t all that different from the Mac, and it’s about as responsive, so that’s a plus. It’s a bit smaller, so that’ll take some getting used to.

I’ll have to see if I can get a small wireless mouse for it – my Apple mouse doesn’t seem to want to connect.

I’ll take this out with me when I go away from the house. It’s simple and small enough to toss into my bag and cart along with me, provided I have an internet connecting where I’m going.

The initial impressions that I’ve got? For $140, it’s stupidly simple and cheap, and it’ll fill the role that my iPad just wasn’t filling. Hopefully, once I get on the road later this month, I’ll be able to try it out.

Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier

I’ve always been more of a Marvel and Dark Horse Comics fan: I picked up a ton of Hellboy, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Spider-Man and Iron Man comics over the years, but only the occasional DC comic: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen currently sit on my shelves. Superman, Green Arrow and most of the others really haven’t interested me over the years, until I came across Darwyn Cooke’s artwork.

Cooke died the other week, and the outpouring of grief populated my Twitter and Facebook feeds with excerpts of his artwork. I was hooked immediately, and ordered a copy of his book, DC: The New Frontier.

It was a lot bigger than I expected, and it was a read that I sank into with glee. I loved his artwork: bold, simple art deco that feels both nostalgic and futuristic at the same time, the perfect epitome of the 1950s/1960s.

The story for this comic was fantastic, but what I really appreciated was that this comic was fun. It wasn’t a grim, dark story that deconstructed the nature of superheroes. It was an adventure, exactly everything a comic book story should be.

It’s a shame that Cooke passed away, but I’m looking forward to discovering more of his work.

Can We Talk About Serial’s Second Season?

Like many people, I got hooked on Serial about halfway through the first season when I had heard a bunch of ads for it on NPR, and diligently listened to the rest of the season as Sarah Koenig, worked her way through the story.

I just finished listening to Serial‘s second season, and I’m surprised that there hasn’t been the same level of cultural obsession with it. It seems like everyone was talking and buzzing about how Season 1 would end; this time, it feels like it’s been overlooked.

I really like long-form journalism: stories that really require you to sit down and read through, not because they’re in depth or well researched (although that helps), but because it helps me think better. When done right, they explore something that I probably would never think about on a normal day, but find that they have ramifications that impact how I see things.

I was let down by Serial’s first season, to be honest. The story reached an abrupt halt, with Koenig stumbling over whether she believed his story or not. It was a fun ride, but it ran into the limitations of covering something that’s unresolved: you get to catch everyone up, but when you hit the present, you can’t really report too much more on it.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that Serial was set up as this sort of narrative storytelling experiment that felt as though it had a beginning middle and end: it didn’t, although they’re now updating Adnan Syed’s case bit by bit as new developments happen.

I think that’s why I didn’t pick up on Serial’s second season until it was over. The focus this time around was on a surprisingly high-profile case:Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who walked away from his OP on June 30th. I listened to the first episode, found it interesting, but didn’t really look into it again until recently.

I went to a military school (as a civilian), and studied military history, and since then, I’ve become friends with a number of people who work in and around the military. Bergdahl’s case has been a source of discussion across most of them, and I remember the initial news of his recovery and the backlash against him – many weren’t happy about it.

I listened through Season 2 in the last couple of weeks, and what’s struck me is the podcast’s (and how longform journalism) can really take the time to tease out the story: that’s exactly what’s done here. This is journalism at its best: taking the time to really cover a story, from the initial impact of the soldiers sent out on patrol to the larger geo-political problems that his capture caused in the general war effort. When all is said and done, it’s an incredible story, one that clarified and at points, reinforced some of my thoughts on the matter, all the while providing some context. I had fallen in the ‘He’s suffered enough’ camp before listening, and now, I’m not sure that I believe that.

I think the subject matter here worked quite a bit more than Syed’s story: Bergdahl’s story wasn’t so much about whether or not he should be prosecuted: it was more to understand why and what happened. Unlike Syed’s case, there’s a good resolution to it, with his current legal situation an additional chapter.

Along they way, they explore some interesting, and important topics, none of which are easy: what is the value of human life in war? It’s an easy thing to abstractly think about, but listening to the various people talk about the decisions that they made during the entire story, it’s clear that this is a complicated situation, and the Serial team did a good job pulling it together. Already, I’m really eager to see what they’ll talk about for their next season, which will apparently be launching sometime this spring.

On a personal level, the podcast has become this really aspirational thing for me, as a journalist. I like researching and writing in depth articles – the Expanse and Star Wars ones from last year were certainly influenced by the type of reporting done there, and there’s other topics that I’ve been seeing with new eyes after listening to this (and seeking out and reading other stories as well), and motivated to write and research accordingly.