Join my newsletter and receive the first three chapters of Provenance!

Archive for the ‘Misc’ Category

Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate

So, there’s this band. They’re called Hats Off Gentlemen It’s Adequate. They’re a London rock band, and they’ve got science fictiony sensibilities–like, check out their 2016 album When The Kill Code Fails.

So, their newest release is Out of Mind, and one of the tracks is called “When I Was A Ship” and yes, they do mean that ship.

This song was inspired by Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series. The main character had once been a warship, whose artificial mind had been distributed within the ship, and also within many ancillaries – prisoners who have had their minds wiped. The ship itself and all of the other ancillaries was destroyed, leaving just one fragment of the mind left in one body.

So, like, that’s a thing that happened.

You can hear “When I Was A Ship” on Spotify. You can also purchase it at Bandcamp, along with When The Kill Code Fails and their other albums. I’ve been listening to WtKCF for the past few days and really enjoying it.

On Liking Stuff (or not)

So, back when Ancillary Justice was essentially sweeping that year’s SF awards, there was some talk from certain quarters about it not really being all that, people only claimed to like it because Politics and SJWs and PC points and Affirmative Action and nobody was really reading the book and if they were they didn’t really enjoy it, they just claimed they did so they could seem cool and woke.

My feelings were so hurt that I wept bitter, miserable tears every time I drove to the bank with my royalty checks. I mean, those people must be right, it’s totally typical for non-fans who don’t actually like a book to write fanfic or draw fan art, totally boringly normal for students to choose to write papers about a book that just isn’t really very good or interesting, and for professors to use that boringly not-very-good book in their courses, and for that book to continue to sell steadily five years after it came out. I totally did not laugh out loud whenever I came across such assertions, because they were absolutely not ridiculous Sour Grape Vineyards tended by folks who, for the most part, hadn’t even read the book.

Now I am sorry–but not surprised–to see some folks making similar assertions about N.K. Jemisin’s historic (and entirely deserved) Hugo Threepeat. Most of them haven’t read the books in question.

But some of them have. Some of them have indeed read the books and not understood why so many people are so excited by them.

Now, Nora doesn’t need me to defend her, and she doesn’t need lessons from me about the best way to dry a tear-soaked award-dusting cloth, or the best brands of chocolate ice cream to fortify yourself for that arduous trip to the bank. Actually, she could probably give me some pointers.

But I have some thoughts about the idea that, because you (generic you) didn’t like a work, that must mean folks who say they did like it are Lying Liars Who Lie to Look Cool.

So, in order to believe this, one has to believe that A) one’s own taste is infallible and objective and thus universally shared and B) people who openly don’t share your taste are characterless sheep who will do anything to seem cool.

But the fact is, one doesn’t like or dislike things without context. We are all of us judging things from our own point of view, not some disembodied perfectly objective nowhere. It’s really easy to assume that our context is The Context–to not even see that there’s a context at all, it’s just How Things Are. But you are always seeing things from the perspective of your experiences, your biases, your expectations of how things work. Those may not match other people’s.

Of course, if you’re in a certain category–if you’re a guy, if you’re White, if you’re straight, if you’re cis–our society is set up to make that invisible, to encourage you in the assumption that the way you see things is objective and right, and not just a product of that very society. Nearly all of the readily available entertainment is catering to you, nearly all of it accepts and reinforces the status quo. If you’ve never questioned that, it can seem utterly baffling that people can claim to enjoy things that you see no value in. You’ll maybe think it makes sense to assume that such people are only pretending to like those things, or only like them for reasons you consider unworthy. It might not ever occur to you that some folks are just reading from a different context–sometimes slightly different, sometimes radically different, but even a small difference can be enough to make a work seem strange or bafflingly flat.

Now, I’m sure that there are people somewhere at some time who have in fact claimed to like a thing they didn’t, just for cool points. People will on occasion do all kinds of ill-advised or bananapants things. But enough of them to show up on every SF award shortlist that year? Enough to vote for a historic, record-breaking three Hugos in a row? Really?

Stop and think about what you’re saying when you say this. Stop and think about who you’re not saying it about.

You might not have the context to see what a writer is doing. When you don’t have the context, so much is invisible. You can only see patterns that match what you already know.*

Of course, you’re not a helpless victim of your context–you can change it, by reading other things and listening to various conversations. Maybe you don’t want to do that work, which, ok? But maybe a lot of other folks have indeed been doing that, and their context, the position they’re reading stories from, has shifted over the last several years. It’s a thing that can happen.

Stop and think–you’ve gotten as far as “everyone must be kind of like me” and stepped over into “therefore they can’t really like what they say they like because I don’t like those things.” Try on “therefore they must really mean it when they say they like something, because I mean it when I say it.” It’s funny, isn’t it, that so many folks step into the one and not the other. Maybe ask yourself why that is.

This also applies to “pretentious” writing. “That writer is only trying to look smart! Readers who say they like it are only trying to look smarter that me, a genuine,honest person, who only likes down-to-earth plain solid storytelling.” Friend, your claims to be a better and more honest person because of your distaste for “pretentious” writing is pretension itself, and says far more about you than the work you criticize this way. You are exactly the sort of snob you decry, and you have just announced this to the world.

Like or don’t like. No worries. It’s not a contest, there’s no moral value attached to liking or not liking a thing. Hell, there are highly-regarded things I dislike, or don’t see the appeal of! There are things I love that lots of other folks don’t like at all. That’s life.

And sure, if you want to, talk about why you do or don’t like a thing. That’s super interesting, and thoughtful criticism is good for art.

But think twice before you sneer at what other folks like, think three times before you declare that no one could really like a thing so it must be political correctness, or pretension, or whatever. Consider the possibility that whatever it is is just not your thing. Consider the possibility that it might be all right if not everything is aimed at you. Consider that you might not actually be the center of the universe, and your opinions and tastes might not be the product of your utterly rational objective view of the world. Consider the possibility that a given work might not have been written just for you, but for a bunch of other people who’ve been waiting for it, maybe for a long time, and that might just possibly be okay.

____
*Kind of like the way some folks insist my Ancillary trilogy is obviously strongly influenced by Iain Banks (who I’d read very little of, and that after AJ was already under way) and very few critics bring up the influence of C.J. Cherryh (definitely there, deliberate, and there are several explicit hat tips to her work in the text). Those folks have read Banks, but they haven’t read Cherryh. They see something that isn’t there, and don’t see what is there, because they don’t have the same reading history I do. It’s interesting to me how many folks assume I must have the same reading history as they do. It’s interesting to me how sure they are of their conclusions.

How Best to Buy Provenance

Posted on: 4 Comments

Hey, Provenance is officially out and for sale less than two weeks from now! I don’t know about you, but I’m excited!

And I’m starting to get folks asking me how they can buy the book in a way that will be of most benefit to me. And just like last time, when Ancillary Mercy came out, the answer is “whatever way works best for you.” Seriously. It’s all good, as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll be posting details of my various tour stops soon–I’m looking forward to seeing everyone!

Kontur

So, I went to Uppsala for Kontur! Which was also Swecon! It was fabulous.

I did stop by SF Bokhandeln in Stockholm to chat with folks and sign some books, which was a great time. (Seriously, if you’re ever in Stockholm, SF Bokhandeln is a great bookstore.) They probably still have some signed copies of the Ancillary trilogy, btw, so if that’s something you’re looking for, you can find it there!

You can also find signed copies at The English Bookshop in Uppsala, where Kameron Hurley, Katherine Arden, and I all signed books, and we all had a great time meeting the folks who came by. Earlier in the day Kameron, Siri Pettersen, and I got to see Gamla Uppsala and a few sights in Uppsala with an excellent guide (thanks, Anna-Pia!). So often you don’t get much of a chance to do touristy things or see stuff, so that was wonderful.

The convention itself was great. Everything ran so very well, and the panels were fun, and folks seemed to enjoy them. A highlight was Friday night’s “How to Write Male Characters” which was me and Kameron talking very seriously about this very serious subject.

The audience was just as serious and had some great questions that I firmly believe gave the whole thing that extra special pizzazz.

At any rate, the convention went swimmingly, Sweden is lovely, and I had a fabulous time. Oh, and I got gifts! The convention gave me an amazing cup and some tea:

Well, The English Bookshop gave me the English Bookshop blend tea, which is delicious, and the convention gave me the Uppsala blend, which is also delicious!

I also was given a few other gifts–namely some salt licorice fish, and of course, some fish sauce!

I’m glad to say I’ll be coming back to Uppsala in August for Reception Histories of the Future, which is an academic conference kind of thing, and is free and open to the public though you do need to register. There’ll be a lot of awesome people there and it’s the weekend before Worldcon, and it’s pretty easy to get from there to Helsinki so maybe that’s something that interests you!

Thanks so much to Anna and Nahal and Johan and Linn and I know there are other folks whose names I am forgetting. You all did a wonderful job with the convention and I had a great time.

On Performance and Sincerity

So, this is basically more or less random musings triggered by this post by John Scalzi about doing readings.

Now, I completely agree with him on the value of being prepared, and knowing that at a reading (or on a panel, or some other sort of public appearance), you’re performing. I have also noticed the overlap between writers whose readings are lively and enjoyable and writers who have even some small amount of performance experience.

My own preparations for readings are a good deal less elaborate than John’s, but then I suspect I write very, very much more slowly than he does and I haven’t practiced my ukulele in quite a while. But basically, I pick a thing to read, trying to make sure it’s not too long (y’all at WorldCon got solid read-aloud, sorry, but then again not too sorry since folks seemed to enjoy it), and then spend any remaining time taking questions. I probably ought to think if there’s something I can add to switch things up for this fall.

Now as it happens, I have a tiny bit of theater experience, along with that music degree, so I’m actually pretty comfortable onstage. But you know what else I think has helped me–years of waiting tables. I am a serious introvert, but working at waiting tables gave me practice interacting with lots of strangers for hours at a time, keeping my demeanor pleasant and mostly cheerful. It’s practice that has stood me in good stead for a lot of my non-writing-related life, actually. In a lot of ways waiting tables can be a really miserable job, but that aspect of it, learning how to be “on” very pleasantly and confidently, has been super valuable to me.

So, a while ago, I think it might have been on Tumblr, I saw someone reblog a post where someone was saying that they wished there was some way to politely tell a waiter that it was all right, the waiter didn’t have to be fake cheery with them, the poster cringed at the idea of a waiter having to do that and it was okay to just drop the act.

This bugged me, but it took me a while to figure out why. Finally I decided that there were two things about it that bothered me.

First, the assumption that a waiter’s cheerfulness was fake and therefore bad. It’s true that the cheerfulness is a performance. No question. But “performance” and “fake” are…I mean, they’re related? I could perform a fake attitude, yeah. But I could also decide that a conscious performance is the best way to convey my actual attitude. And I know that, when I was waiting tables, one of the things I enjoyed was being able to put on the persona of someone who was cheerful and extraverted, comfortable with talking to strangers, and happy to help. Yeah, I enjoyed it less when I was working with a table full of assholes, sure, but there’s value in practicing one’s “I am a person who is unfailingly polite” persona under adverse conditions.

I could go off on a tangent here about the way the culture I grew up in and am surrounded by values “sincerity” over “performance” and defines sincerity in a way that doesn’t just mean “honest” but also unscripted and spontaneous. And confessional–to be sincere is to bare your soul, to show the intimate you. In fact, bets are you associate “honest” with unscripted and spontaneous and confessional.

But a lot of things that we consider to be spontaneous and heartfelt are, in fact, scripted gestures. They kind of have to be, you have to speak in terms another person will understand, if you want to communicate with them. If you look closely you can see the underpinning of social expectation and convention that mostly goes ignored.

The clearest example of what I’m talking about is a religious one. I grew up Catholic, and that meant I spent a good deal of my childhood memorizing prayers. The Mass, its variations throughout the liturgical year notwithstanding, is essentially the same carefully scripted ritual over and over and over again. I could recite much of it in my sleep. Or, I could have before they re-did the approved English translation.

It’s commonly assumed that the recitation of these prayers is nothing but empty ritual. That there’s no way they can be real engagement with the spiritual, no way they can truly express any kind of profound emotion. I am here to tell you that the common assumption is one hundred percent fucking wrong. In fact, the pervasive presence of those prayers lends a depth and eloquence to them that I don’t think I can convey to anyone who hasn’t had that experience.* From the outside it looks like droning meaningless syllables. From the inside it’s very different.

In opposition to the Catholic style prayers we have the supposedly spontaneous prayers of some Protestant churches. A true sincere and unscripted upwelling of praise and prayer! Except not. Listen to enough, and you realize they’re built out of pre-fabricated phrases, strung together at length, with various techniques for vamping until the next thought is organized, the next unit chosen. I assume that the folks who pray this way find it a deeply emotional experience, and consider themselves to be praying very sincerely. I don’t hear spontaneity though, it’s just as formulaic as the supposedly nothing but rote Catholic prayer I grew up with, just handled a different way.

My point isn’t that there’s a right or a wrong way to pray. My point is that both these practices are equally sincere, and calling the second sort spontaneous isn’t actually terribly accurate. It’s really a performance of something that purports to be spontaneity.

My point is that “sincere” and “spontaneous” are not the same thing.

Nor is “sincere” and “intimate.” Which was my next problem with the idea that it would be kind and generous to tell a waiter they could let the act drop, and be honest with the poster who wished to ask for this.

They weren’t, as they appeared to think, offering a chance to relax. No, the poster was, in a sense, wanting to demand an intimacy with the waiter that they just hadn’t earned. A waiter does not owe you any glimpses of their private self. That’s maybe for friends and family, right? We all behave differently with intimates and strangers. Strangers generally get a more formal, more distant face. You don’t tell someone to show you that part of themselves. Well, unless there’s a big enough power differential that you don’t even notice that’s what you’re doing.

It’s not generous. It’s insulting.

Anyway. I think it’s worth taking a second or third thought when we value actions as sincere or insincere based on whether or not we think they’re spontaneous or scripted or conventional. Are they really any of those things? Why does a conventional action that gets called spontaneous but really isn’t, why does that get valued so much more highly than an action that’s just as conventional, but more obviously so? Just something to ponder.

Anyway. That’s my random musings, from reading John’s blog post and connecting it with some stuff I’d been thinking about not long ago.

Like John, my “on” demeanor is me. It’s not fake. But it is a performance, in a lot of ways. It’s a public me. I enjoy the heck out of that performance, partly because it helps me be comfortable meeting lots of awesome people. It’s exhausting, but I’m glad to have the opportunity to do it.

___
*I occasionally wonder just how Fredo’s death in the second Godfather movie must seem to someone who doesn’t feel the end of the Hail Mary hanging there unsaid, a background echo to the shot. Does the scene have the same emotional weight? I suspect it doesn’t, quite.

**In case anyone worries, or feels I need reassurance, no one to my knowledge has accused me of being fake in public. And I’m not particularly worried that anyone might think that. It’s just that the question of what’s sincere, what’s spontaneous, and how those get valued by the people around me, is one I chew on sometimes, and I figured I’d share some of those thoughts.

On Tea

Hey, there’s some stressful and depressing shit going down lately. Let’s talk about something pleasant and stress-reducing!

Well, okay, so being super picky about making tea may be stress-INducing for some. If so, no worries. I have one, firm position on how to make the best cup of tea: the best cup of tea is one you enjoyed making (or making it didn’t annoy you too much) and tastes good to you. I will not budge from that position.

That said. There are some ways in which attempts to make that cup of tea are susceptible to various predictable failures. And so I figured I would share the things that work for me to prevent those failures. And also maybe provide opportunities for folks who might actively enjoy the fiddly tea making process if they tried it to have a bit more fun with it and nerd out even more than they already might. (Those of you who are already nerding out probably already do or have most of these things.)

So! The first, most common pitfall in making tea: You heat the water, throw the bag (or the infuser full of leaves) into the cup, pour the water, set it on the desk beside you and…promptly forget about it as you dive into your work. Hours later you remember that tea, now cold– and bitter enough to strip paint.

Friends, there is a simple solution to this, provided you remember to implement it: a timer. This could be a voice assistant on your computer or your phone, an app made purposely for timing the steeping of tea, or a dollar store kitchen timer shaped like a strawberry. Really, it doesn’t matter, but this is a tea-hack that can cost very little and vastly improve your tea-drinking experiences.

For the style of brewing that’s the default in the US (the sort most of you reading this likely think of as just “making tea”), you’ll probably like black tea best at 3-5 minutes, green tea 1-3 minutes (if you’ve got a really nice sencha you might even want to go 30-45 seconds), oolong 3-5 minutes, and white tea 2-5 minutes depending on the actual tea. Those are just guidelines, adjust as needed for your taste. If you want to be super nerdy you can note down what times work best for you for each tea. I don’t do that. I just do black & oolong at 3 minutes, most Chinese greens at 2-3, and sencha at 1 minute. When I’m making them in a cup with an infuser, anyway. If I’m doing the “lots of leaves, many short steeps” method (in a gaiwan, say) I won’t go much longer than a minute, but that’s something to play with if you find you enjoy that kind of thing, and that’s not a brewing method that’s suitable for the “get some caffeine in me so I can get to work this morning” thing.

If you’ve moved to loose leaf brewing, you’ve probably found that measuring out teaspoons of leaves doesn’t quite work. It might work for stuff with very small leaves, or that’s been cut into very small pieces, but it’s useless for large-leaved teas–different teas take up space very differently and some just won’t go into a spoon, no not even that cute little “perfect cup of tea” spoon so many places sell. This makes it difficult to get the amount of leaves just right, let alone consistent from cup to cup (or pot to pot).

So. Doing loos leaf? Want maybe another level of nerdery/tea improvement? Consider a scale. You can get a nice little pocket scale for about ten bucks. The one at that link is the one I have. I set my infuser on it–I use these bad boys–turn it on, and then add however much tea I’m going to use. Rule of thumb for most teas (Western default style brewing) is about 3g per 8oz of water. That’s only a rule of thumb–some need more and some might be fine with less.

You might want to find out how many fluid oz your favorite mugs hold, by the way, so that when you stagger into the kitchen you’ve already done the math and know that you need 5g of tea or whatever.

Once you’ve got this down, you can play with other styles of brewing, btw. For instance, I’m not much of a white tea fan–but I do enjoy it a fair amount when I use the high-volume-of-leaves/low-steeping-time/many-steeps method. Poke around for information on using a gaiwan–though you could totally do something similar in a cup with an infuser, which honestly I recommend because as awesome as gaiwans are I always burn the everliving fuck out of my fingers when I try to use one, and the Manual Tea Maker No 1, which I love and which solves that problem for me, is kind of pricey.

If you really want to get nerdy, you can fiddle with water temperature. There’s an expensive way to do this, and a cheap one. The expensive one involves buying a variable temperature kettle. Which is super fun, but, yeah, costs.

However, if you have a food thermometer–and if you cook it really is a good idea to have one–you can heat your water to whatever temp you like on a stove or with your regular kettle. Either heat to boiling and test the temp till it drops to where you want it, or test it as it heats till it gets to the right place. I’ll be honest, that sounds like a drag to me, but lots of folks do it and enjoy it. Google around for some recommended temperature ranges, try some things out and see what you like best.

For keeping pots of tea (or sufficiently large and stable cups) warm, check out the various glass, ceramic, or cast iron tea warmers. I use this one, but there are others out there. You put a candle in them–a tea light, right? Yeah, that’s why they’re called that!–and set the pot or cup on top. These work really well, but remember not to just leave the candle burning if you walk away for more than a few minutes. I’ve never actually had a problem, but when it comes to candles you’re better safe than sorry. There are also electric tea warmers out there, just the right size for a cup or a mug to sit on. Once again, don’t forget they’re plugged in and switched on.

Oh, and hey! Almost forgot this one. Matcha has been kind of trendy, and you can get a cool matcha set with a bamboo whisk and learn to froth it, and if that’s something that you’ll enjoy then I salute you! But me, I use a very large mug (which I only fill about three quarters full of water) and a little $3 battery-powered milk frother. No, it’s not meditative or anything. But I like it.

So there you go, a few ways to maybe increase your tea nerdery and also give you a more consistently excellent cup of tea, none of which cost much. If you try only one of them, try the timer. It’s a ridiculously simple tea-hack, honestly, that’s made my life so much nicer.

Vericon 2016 GoH Speech

Last year I was GoH at Vericon. It was a fabulous time! And while I was there, I gave a GoH speech. It’s the only one I’ve given so far, because usually organizers say something like “you can give a speech, or someone can interview you” and I go “INTERVIEW yes please interview me.”

But for Vericon I gave a speech. I wrote it out very carefully, and printed it out and then marked it all up on the plane, and then I didn’t actually read it, that felt weird, I just kind of talked using the printed speech as an outline. So the text below isn’t exactly what I said that day. But it’s close. And I’m rearranging and reorganizing my office and filing tons of things that need to be filed, and this is one of them, and I’d been meaning to post it, so. Here you go.

There’s a thing that happens when someone criticizes a story or a movie–or a game–in public. You can almost set your watch by it. Somebody is going to turn up to tell you that it’s just a story. You’re overthinking things, it’s just entertainment!

So, maybe I’ve got a stake in saying this–well, definitely I’ve got a stake in saying this, because at this point in my life I make my living telling stories. But stories are important. Stories are how we make sense out of the incredibly noisy and complicated world around us, and how we make sense of what the people around us do. How we make sense of ourselves. I’m convinced that narrative is a basic mode of human thought, and all the stories we hear and read become templates that we can use to understand our lives.

This can be a very positive thing. We can tell ourselves a story about what might happen, if certain other things have already happened, a story that lets us see patterns and predict how those patterns might play out in the future. It lets us anticipate and prepare for things that otherwise might take us by surprise. It helps us create new things. That’s an amazing tool to have. And narratives often hook right into our emotions, emotions that are, I am convinced, a crucial part of our decision-making process. Some decisions are actually very difficult to make without emotions, and in a crisis you don’t want to waste valuable time doing a careful, logical comparison. You want to act fast. Emotions–and the stories that elicit them–are a way to help you do that. So maybe you’ve never met an angry bear. But maybe you know a lot of stories about the tragic and frightening things that happen when people meet angry bears and so when you do meet one you know without having to stop and think it through that you’re in danger. Those stories might not even all be about bears, specifically, but there’s enough similarity between angry bears and angry lions and angry targs that when you actually meet that bear you can make a super quick assessment of the situation.

But there’s a negative side, too. We mostly don’t think of ourselves as reacting to the world based on stories. It mostly just feels like we’re seeing things as they really are. But those narratives aren’t just organizing what we’re seeing, they’re shaping and filtering it, organizing what we experience so that what we experience fits into the narrative frame we’re using. Sometimes this isn’t a big deal, but sometimes the choice of narrative frame can make the difference between life and death.

So, let’s talk robots and artificial intelligence. There’s been a fair amount of comment recently on the potential dangers of AI. Elon Musk thinks maybe a superintelligent spam filter might set out to kill all humans because that’s the most efficient way to eliminate spam. Stephen Hawking thinks there’s a real danger superintelligent AIs might out-evolve us, which might lead to our extinction. They’re both hoary old science fiction tropes, and Dr Hawking you’re fabulous at physics but, dude, that’s not even how evolution works.

Plus, we’re maybe kind of jumping the gun a little. AI is way more impressive than it was even a few years ago, and it’s getting better all the time, but–our new World Go champion notwithstanding–we’re a ways from even basic intelligence, let alone the super kind. It’s cool that OK Google can tell me the weather–usually, there was that time I’d been in Oslo a nearly a week and asked Google what was the temperature outside and it told me how warm it was in St Louis–and maybe list some restaurants, or sometimes pull up a relevant Wikipedia article. But it can’t do much more than that. It certainly can’t think for itself. Google’s not alone in that–I don’t see Siri and Cortana teaming up to wipe humanity from the Earth any time soon. And if Alexa tries taking over we can just turn on our radios and let NPR tell her what to do.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Skynet has a dastardly plan to enslave humanity by beating us at Go and/or repeatedly saying “I’m sorry, I can’t help you with that” over and over. But I think it’s going to be quite a while before we see self aware AIs smart enough to plot the end of Humanity. And honestly I wouldn’t bet on that being something super smart AIs would want.

But we tend to think that if they’re smart, they’ll think like we do. So our ideas about the dangers of AI are inescapably ideas about the dangers of other people. And when it comes to AI, it’s a particular sort of people we’re using as a model.

The very first robot story–the first ever use of the word “robot” in fact–is a robot uprising story. But when Karel Čapek wrote RUR he wasn’t worried about artificial intelligence. The robots of his story aren’t mechanical, they’re made of some sort of synthetic biological material. And the word “robot” which Čapek famously coined, comes from a Czech word for “slave.” It’s a story about the revolt of people made on an assembly line (the first actual assembly line had debuted just ten years earlier). It’s a story about the rebellion of people who were built to be the cheapest, most efficient workers possible, workers you didn’t have to pay, or feed anything in particular, or take any notice or care of. In other words, slaves.

And Čapek ‘s story hit a nerve. It didn’t just give us the word for robot, it is the ultimate model for nearly all the robot uprising stories since. So that model–robots as slaves, with all the assumed dangers attendant on enslaving people who outnumber you–is the model we’re using when we think about super smart machines. This has not been lost on any number of science fiction writers, who have used robot and AI stories to comment explicitly on oppression and racism. But just personally–well, I won’t go into my problems with the whole “slaves in my allegory are machines and the masters are human beings” bit, though that’s kind of icky when you think about it, but on top of that I think it’s a dangerous model to use as a basis for actual, serious real world predictions about artificial intelligence.

It’s demonstrably a dangerous model to use for interactions with humans. If you’re white, you probably know what it’s like to go into a majority non-white neighborhood. Possibly you shorthand that as a “bad” neighborhood, or a “dangerous” one. You probably feel intimidated, even threatened. The hostility of the people living there is assumed.

So what’s dangerous about that, besides the danger a white person is in? Well, it’s not the white person who’s in danger. This is not an abstract question for me, I know very precisely what happens when a young white woman on her own is stranded in the middle of the night in a poor, majority black neighborhood: The people there help her. They offer to change her flat tire (I didn’t have a spare), and when she walks half a mile down the road to an all-night gas station they let her into the locked cashier’s cubicle so she can call Triple A (cell phones weren’t really a thing at the time). And while she waits for the tow truck, the people who stop for gas ask, “Miss, are you all right? Do you need some help?” And she says no, and they say “All right, I just wanted to be sure you were okay.” And they buy their gas and go.

And when the tow truck driver comes he says something like “Wow, this is a really dangerous neighborhood, and it’s the middle of the night! You must have been scared. You’re lucky nothing happened to you.” And she says, “Actually, everyone I ran into was pretty helpful.”

Because people generally are. Why should anyone expect differently? And I will admit to you, while I was sitting there outside that gas station, I expected differently, and I was surprised at what actually happened. When really I shouldn’t have been. So why was I?

Because of the narrative. The one about oppressed people who’ll rise up if given half a chance and do us the way we’ve done them.

So, one result of this narrative is that often white people who find themselves in majority non-white neighborhoods are needlessly afraid of the people around them.

Another result? When, say, a young Black woman knocks on a door in the middle of the night looking for help, the White homeowner will assume she’s a threat and shoot her to death. When Black men confront police–or, let’s be entirely frank, sometimes when the police are faced with Black children–the police assume they’re threats and shoot them. This narrative is not harmless. People have died because of it. Lots of people.

And it’s this same model so many people are using to seriously predict the effect of AI on our future. It doesn’t even work right now, for dealing with other people. But that fact is invisible to a lot of people, because we don’t think much about the narratives we use to make sense out of the world. And narratives, they’re sticky. In her Hugo-winning essay “We Have Always Fought” Kameron Hurley gives the made up example of the things everyone knows about llamas–they’re scaly, right? And carnivorous? Everyone knows that, it’s common knowledge. And sure, sometimes you run into a llama that’s fuzzy and eats grass–maybe the only llamas you’ve ever met have a distaste for meat and a distinct lack of scales, but those are exceptions! They have to be, because everyone knows what llamas are like.

That’s how unexamined narratives work. Exception after exception won’t change our assuming the truth of the narrative. Nothing will change that, except our recognizing it as a narrative–not reality itself, but a frame that forces reality into a pattern we’re familiar with.

So all the high profile alarm about the dangers of AI isn’t a problem just because the predictions people are seriously making might be inaccurate. It’s that when I hear people make these predictions, it’s not only really obvious that they’re using that narrative for a framework, but more importantly, that they’re unaware of it, and so almost certainly unaware of the way it’s applied to actual, existing human beings. This doesn’t make Elon Musk, or Bill Gates, or Stephen Hawking or anyone else racists, or terrible people–we are all, to some extent, unable to escape the narratives that surround us, and that we frame our lives with. But it does mean that the narrative gets reinforced, by people who command lots of respect and large audiences.


And I’m not at all saying that writers who use that narrative, or readers who enjoy reading it, are bad people or necessarily doing anything wrong. I’m not into telling writers what they should write, or readers what they should read–I’m actively opposed to that, in fact. Writers should write the stories they want to write, the way they want to write them. Readers should read the stories they want to read. But I do think it’s important for writers and readers both to be aware of the narratives they’re drawing on, and how those narratives might distort our view of the world, and influence our attitudes and choices. Like technology itself, narrative can be applied in ways that are beneficial, or in ways that are not.

And like technology itself, knowing what the potential effects are is crucial to avoiding negative outcomes. And it’s the thing you don’t see, that you don’t realize exists, that will trip you up. Knowing the narrative is there, you can work with it or work around it, maybe consciously choose a better one for whatever situation you’re in. If you don’t recognize or acknowledge its existence, you will have no choice in the matter. An angry bear right out in the open, that you know is angry, is far less dangerous than the angry bear behind some underbrush in a woods that everyone knows is entirely safe and bear-free. Your hike, wherever it takes you, will be the better for your having an actual, accurate idea of where the bears are.

Now, I do think it’s important to consider the possible effects of creating actual AIs. Very few new technologies have been unambiguously good, or implemented as well as they might be, and it’s wise to think ahead and avoid what dangers we can. But let’s take some time to separate things we’re assuming are true because they’re part of a familiar story that feels realistic to us, and things that are actually true. And let’s maybe consider how the things we fear about AI are literally fears about other people, and the way that addressing those fears directly might actually move us toward some solutions to real problems, and allow us to see real dangers ahead much more clearly.

Thank you.

So, then I took questions, and a person in the audience who was, in fact, an expert with relevant degrees, pointed out that there are already problems with AIs that have nothing to do with the Robot Uprising and everything to do with the fact that the data all these neural nets are taking in is not, in fact, completely neutral and objective but comes loaded with a host of prejudices and assumptions. We assume that if a computer gives us the result it’s perfectly objective and without any kind of flaw, but even if AI logic is completely objective (not an assumption I think we should make, but let’s do that for the sake of argument), its conclusions won’t be objective if the data it’s working with isn’t. This can have seemingly small effects–Netflix steers certain people to watch certain things, making parts of its inventory effectively invisible to certain groups of viewers–to situations where people don’t even get to see job listings because they don’t fit a certain set of demographic characteristics, or completely law abiding citizens end up on lists of people likely to commit violent crime, because of course the algorithm is using historical data and we’re going to ignore the way that historically black citizens have been–and are–disproportionately arrested and convicted for particular crimes, crimes that are also committed by plenty of white citizens but they don’t get the same reaction from the justice system.

In these cases, the supposed perfect objectivity of the AI is just reinforcing existing cultural assumptions. But that’s a big ‘just’ and it’s one that has very real, life altering and life threatening consequences for quite a few people. So, you know, when you’re worrying about the danger of super-intelligent AIs, maybe add that to your list.

On Mourning

I was going to make this a twitter thread, but while threads are a thing that works (more or less) on Twitter, making them can be kind of awkward. So I figured I’d blog this and link to it on Twitter.

So, I’ve been seeing some tweets and comments around that imply that someone(s) out there has been complaining that publicly mourning celebrities is somehow improper, or insincere, or just, you know, merely performative. I seem to have muted or blocked anyone in my own feeds likely to say something like this, so I’m not taking issue with any particular comment. I’m just thinking about the idea that “performative” mourning is insincere somehow, or only about getting the mourner social brownie points or whatever.

The way I see it, though, all mourning is performative. Not all grieving, right? The way you feel when you lose someone important to you, that’s private. But all the other things. Going to your relative’s funeral? Performative. Going to the funeral home to tell your friend or neighbor you’re sorry for their loss? One hundred percent performative. Hell, holding a funeral at all is entirely performance.

Funerals aren’t for the dead. They are social activities, and they fulfill particular social functions–ones that are really, really important to us, as demonstrated by the very strong urge to have at least some small scrap of a funeral for someone who dies in circumstances that make whatever one’s standard funerary practices are impossible.

Mourning practices do a number of things–they provide some kind of closure, sure. An official “now that’s done” so people can move forward. But they also affirm (and re-affirm) communities. They affirm the deceased’s membership in one or more communities, and in the process also affirm the continued existence of those communities. Mourners declare their relationship to the deceased, and incidentally their relationships to each other.

Mourning publicly also allows people to offer support to the bereaved–those co-workers or friends who show up at the funeral home to say an awkward “I’m so sorry” do help, I can tell you from personal experience. And I know it’s one hundred percent performative–this person doesn’t know my grandma or my mom or my uncle or whoever, they’re turning up to tell me they know what I’m going through, and they care. And the other folks who come–the friends and business associates and acquaintances of the deceased, who the family may never have met, they are also performing. They come to tell the bereaved that the deceased was important to them, that they honor them, that they’ll miss them.

It’s all performance. Every bit of it. It’s nearly all public performance. There are customs and rituals associated with it, so that when the time comes, you know (mostly) what to do, to activate that support, to let people know that you need that comfort now.

It gets weird, with public figures. These are people that might be very, very important to us, might have formed our childhoods, given us inspiration, been constant companions in one way or another, and yet we’ve never met them, and they never had any idea that we existed. It’s not the same as a close loved one dying. But it’s not nothing. And what do you do, when someone not exactly family dies, but you had some sort of relationship with them? Well, if you were in the same town you’d put on nice clothes and comb your hair and go to the funeral parlor and tell the family how sorry you were, how important the deceased was to you, maybe tell them about some time they really helped you out. And then you move aside for the next person, maybe talk with some folks, and go home. Maybe you send flowers, that will sit there in the funeral home and in the church as a conspicuously visible token of your tie to the deceased, or their family, or a particular member of that family.

We aren’t any of us going to Carrie Fisher’s wake. Her family doesn’t want to slog through thousands of cards or letters, and there’s no mortuary large enough to hold the flowers we might all send. But we can blog or tweet. And yes, it’s performative. Like all funeral customs and public mourning it’s performative. It’s meant to send a message. “I am a member of this community, and this person was important to us. This community recognizes their loss. This community wants the deceased’s family to know how important this person was to us, and how sorry we are to hear they’ve left us.” And maybe her family doesn’t see most of it, but they likely know it’s there. I suspect that, like “I’m sorry” at the funeral home, it helps.

And it’s not just for the family, of course. It’s for that other, maybe intersecting community (friends, co-workers, fans, whatever). No, losing George Michael or David Bowie or Prince or Carrie Fisher probably isn’t even remotely like losing your aunt or your sister or your daughter. But it’s not nothing.

It’s all performative. It’s all for show. Hell, any time you get dressed and walk out the door it’s performative, it’s for show. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily insincere or bad or somehow wrong and shallow. It means you can’t communicate without doing a thing that others will understand–and during a time of stress we have a series of more or less ritual acts to make, more or less formulaic lines to speak, wearing more or less conventional clothes, to get us through, together. It’s all for show.

Some of the people publicly mourning may be insincere, sure, but that’s not really the point, is it? Mostly they’re not. No, the problem isn’t that tweets about Bowie or Michael or Prince or Fisher aren’t sincere, it’s that the critic doesn’t think they have standing to mourn, or thinks those tweets are somehow improper. But, you know, nobody gets to decide that for you, do they.

No. They do not.

Utopiales

So, I just got back from France! I spent about five days in Nantes, at Utopiales. Which I hadn’t heard of before I was invited. But hey, I’d never been to France before, and the festival sounded fun, so off I went.

It was a fabulous time. Utopiales is very well-run. Everything went so smoothly, and the fact that I speak about a dozen words of useful French (and while I can read more, it’s mostly words connected to food and cooking) didn’t cause me much difficulty at all. I got to meet my French editor–or probably more accurately, the editor of my French translator. And I got to meet my translator, the wonderful Patrick Marcel. I’m afraid translating Ancillary Justice is kind of a challenge for most of the translators who’ve worked on it, but on the plus side it’s really fun to talk about the various things that don’t work the same in other languages, and the ways that a translator might achieve some effect that’s at least similar to what I did in English.

I also got to meet a lot of readers, which I always love. I got wonderful tea! I met many French writers, and had lots of really interesting conversations that make me regret that I can’t read their work, because of the whole not-knowing-French thing. And I got to meet Paolo Bacigalupi, who it turns out is delightful company and great fun to talk and hang out with.

Nantes is a very nice city, with a castle (which formerly belonged to Anne of Brittany) and a lovely cathedral.

Once the festival was over (and, seriously, if you have a chance, if you’re anywhere near Nantes next year about this time, check it out) both Paolo and I went on to Paris, where we talked to more readers and signed books at La Dimension Fantastique.

I did some very touristy things–the day I had to myself in Paris, the weather was clear and just chilly enough for a good walk, and the map told me the Louvre was only a few kilometers from my hotel, so I figured I’d go on foot. It was a nice walk! And the Louvre is just as full of looted antiquities as ever. Every now and then I’d see a familiar object–oh, hello Etruscan couple I’ve seen photos of you all over the place! Oh, that round hat looks familiar, could it be Gudea, King of Lagash? Why, yes, it is! The Dendera Zodiac I didn’t stumble across, though, I was actually looking for it. (And found it.)

I didn’t bother with the Mona Lisa. No doubt she was surrounded the way the Venus de Milo was. I found that kind of fascinating–there were dozens of other wonderful statues in the room, but everyone was just looking at her, taking pictures, and selfies.

I walked over to Notre Dame, then, and around a bit, and then realized that I had been walking for literally hours and it was a good three kilometers back to my hotel. But, hey, the weather was still perfect and you get to see a lot more when you’re walking. Once I was back in the room and sitting down, I checked my phone, which told me I’d walked a good eight miles or so. Which it turns out is an awful lot and I’m still a bit achy from it.

Oh, and while I was in France I tried a pastry called kouign-amann, which I gather the one I tried wasn’t even the best example of and it was delicious and I am now on a mission to find some here in the US if I can.

Eventually, though, it was time to go home. I got back to St Louis just in time to be jetlagged during the time change, so I can cross that off my list of achievements. On the one hand it’s nice to be home, but I’m hoping I can visit France again some time soonish.

My thanks to everyone involved–the folks at J’ai Lu, the marvelous staff and volunteers at Utopiales, and most especially to the readers who I met and spoke with. It was wonderful to see all of you and talk with you.

On Pretentious Writing

A while ago, I ran across someone talking about a book that, the speaker asserted, you could tell just by reading it that the author expected to get some serious award action out of. The writer obviously was out there trying hard to write super fancy prose and showing off. Where, on the other hand, this other book had Just Plain writing but the story was gripping, and that was so much better.*

I’ve been chewing on that. It struck me because one of the really interesting things about having a lot of people talk about my work these days is that I see quite a few folks say very straightforwardly that I obviously intended such and so an effect, or obviously intended to convey one or another moral or lesson, that it was plain and obvious that I was referring to this that or the other previous work, or to some historical or current event or entity. And often I come away from such assertions wondering if maybe they’re talking about a different book by a different author, that just happen to have the same names.

I’ve also seen quite different assessments of my sentence-level writing, which I find super interesting just on its own. It’s elegant! It’s beautiful. It’s muscular. It’s serviceable. It’s clunky. It’s amateur. Even more interestingly, it’s transparent, or else it’s emphatically not going to please the crowd that valorizes transparent writing. That’s super interesting to me.

So when I see these statements–that obviously a writer set out to make their writing super poetic and fancy in an attempt to gain accolades or prestige, and also the assertion that poetic or fancy writing gets in the way of what’s really important, namely the story, I can’t help but stop and go, Hmm. Very interesting. And to be fair, part of why I find this so interesting is that I, myself, sometimes have these very strong, certain reactions to a book or story. Obviously this writer means X. Obviously they’re reacting to Y. Obviously. And yet, my knowledge of my own intentions, paired with the intentions I’m often credited with (because they’re obviously right there in the text!) along with the often contradictory nature of those obvious intentions, is making me rethink my own reactions along those lines, when I read other writers’ work.

The truth is, while a writer’s intentions and influences are probably discernable in a text, in a lot of cases you kind of need to see the entire context of that writer’s life and thoughts in order to reach an even halfway accurate conclusion about what they obviously intended or were thinking when they wrote it. The more context you have, the better your assessment is going to be–if you’re missing crucial information, your conclusion may seem obvious to you but actually won’t make sense once you put those missing pieces in. And seriously, entire academic careers have been built on assembling such contexts and then using that information to support a particular argument about what some writer meant or intended. We’re talking years of research. None of us is all that likely to have completely understood a writer’s thought process just from having cast our eyes down some pages of their novel, not if they aren’t a writer we already know, or someone whose social context we’re already very familiar with. And most readers aren’t all that familiar with writers’ social context. Why should they be? They have their own to worry about. But not realizing that can lead folks to very sure, very solidly certain immediate conclusions. Conclusions that are also ridiculously off the mark. I’m not meaning to deride, here–as I said, I do it myself. I’m just more aware of it, now my context has changed.

Now, SFF writing is a small world, and I happen to have a casual acquaintance with the writer who was allegedly trying so hard to impress with fancy poetic prose. And you know what, I’ve never, ever heard that writer say any such thing about their intentions. I would, in fact, be very very shocked to hear them say such a thing. It would seem grossly unlike what I know of them, but also, while I can assemble a quick list of writers who have said, in public or private, that they expect award recognition for their work, or that they write in particular ways because they expect (or even hope) that will get them award noms, it’s actually a very short list. And most of those you could guess just by having followed the events of the last few years.

So, where does that come from, the idea that dense, fancy, poetic prose is a bid for award attention? That if you, as a reader, find the prose difficult to process, then that must be because the writer is showing off? Pretentious, even?

I have some thoughts as to where it comes from. But they’re difficult to articulate, so instead I want to ask, what makes prose “transparent”?

Right, transparent prose goes down smooth and easy and doesn’t draw attention to itself. So that way the story can shine through, right?

So, I have two more questions for you to ponder. First, is there something inherent to transparent prose that makes it fade into the background, convey meaning without drawing attention to itself? Or–second question–does the ability of prose to be transparent and easy to read depend on the reader’s experience of it?

It’s kind of obvious that there’s nothing inherent in prose that conveys meaning. I mean, try this:

Wait, maybe you just can’t read that kind of writing. Try this:

e-nu-ma e-liš la na-bu-ú šá-ma-mu
šap-liš am-ma-tum šu-ma la zak-rat
ZU.AB-ma reš-tu-ú za-ru-šu-un
mu-um-mu ti-amat mu-al-li-da-at gim-ri-šú-un
A.MEŠ-šú-nu iš-te-niš i-ḫi-qu-ú-ma
gi-pa-ra la ki-is-su-ru su-sa-a la she-‘u-ú
e-nu-ma dingir dingir la šu-pu-u ma-na-ma

Wait, you still can’t read that? Oh, right, you’d need to know how to read Old Babylonian first. And even if you did know Old Babylonian, you’d likely experience some amount of effort in the reading. The context–linguistic, historical, social–that would have made Old Babylonian like water to a fish to a native speaker of it, is alien to us and we have to assemble the bits and pieces that give this text meaning very carefully and consciously. Even if this was “transparent” poetry in Babylon, it will never ever be to us.

This is a particularly flagrant example of what I’m talking about, but it operates on a smaller scale even within one’s own native language. We learned to read so early, we often forget that things we seem to just absorb at a glance were incredibly difficult feats of reading when we were in Kindergarden. And as science fiction readers, we’ve learned just by reading a lot of SF and F how to read it. Other, perfectly skilled readers can often be baffled by a SF text, and attempts to read non-SF as though it was can lead to some really odd results and misunderstandings.

And SFF is full of subgenres, it’s written by a huge variety of people with maybe some reading history in common but not all, and all of those subgenres have their own conventions and internal expectations, and if you come up against them not knowing about them they’re going to seem weird or clunky to you.

So when you find prose “fading into the background” and other prose requiring more effort, more attention to the sentences themselves, is that inherent in the writing itself, or is that a matter of your reading history coming up against a work written by (or for) someone with a very different reading history?

Why, when that happens, is it because the writer is “pretentious” or trying to show how smart they are?

I’m also kind of side-eyeing the idea that first off, plot can somehow manifest in a written work in any other way than the actual words on the page. I mean, no words, no story. Arrange the words differently, and the story is changed. There’s no separation there, words and story are the same thing. A story told plainly and a story told in dense, elaborate, poetic prose are very different experiences. There is not some Platonic form of the story that elaborate prose is concealing, that exists beyond the sentences, that if only we could free it we would have the Pure Essence of Story stunning us with its perfection. The sentences are the story.

And there’s no objective standard for “easy to read.” Sure there are readability indexes but they’re pretty much useless, especially for fiction. And my “easy to read” is likely not your “easy to read.” Not because one of us is smarter or a better reader, but because we have different reading histories and different preferences. Different contexts.

And you know what? Enjoying dense elaborate prose, enjoying poetic writing that draws attention to the fact that, yes, these words are building the story, or writing that prompts you to stop and admire this or that construction, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to enjoy in fiction. Lots of people enjoy it. I do myself sometimes. Not because I’m smarter than folks who don’t, but because that’s a thing I like. Some folks really love watching sportsball and admiring the fabulous moves of the players. It’s all invisible to me, I know when the puck goes into the goal and that’s about it, right? Okay, I’m better with baseball, I’ve watched way more baseball in my lifetime and I can enjoy the nuances of that more than other games. But none of that is because I’m stupid, or hate sports. It’s because I spent my free time doing other things. So I tend to enjoy baseball more than other sports. Same with different kinds of writing.

So why, when it happens in fiction, when a reader runs across dense poetic prose that they aren’t processing effortlessly, do some folks assume that it’s happening because the writer wants to show everyone how smart they are? Why assume arrogance or pretension? And why assume there’s only one kind of good writing, and that’s the kind you yourself can easily read and like? It’s worth thinking about, especially the next time you read a thing with fancy sentences and immediately assume the writer is just showing off.

Or, really, the next time you’re tempted to assert that obviously some writer was trying to say or do a particular thing.

____
*In case you are tempted to assume that I am writing this in reaction to someone criticizing my own prose as too poetic and award-baity, I will give you a bit more context–the novel being praised as transparently written so that it’s wonderful story could shine through was, in fact, Ancillary Justice.