Why I Would Fail As An Amazonian, And Other Predictable Misfortunes

Father and child

Why I would fail as an Amazonian, and other predictable misfortunes.

I recently tolerated, er, celebrated my 56th birthday. Going by the usual retirement schedule, I have about ten years left in the workforce, give or take a year. I feel ready to take one last shot at a career change, or at least modification. Here in Seattle, it’s inevitable to think of Microsoft, Starbucks, or Amazon as the main choices. They are the top employment “brands,” if you will. Let’s think this through.

I once had an interview at Microsoft for a temp job. One of the interviewers gave me a pencil, a legal pad, and he put this question to me: “Using these tools, how would you build a 747 jetliner?” This was one of those interview questions that’s supposed to gauge how you think. “Well, sir,” I thought to myself, “because I’d be writing blurbs on your website, and not building airplanes, I think that’s a stupid question.” Scratch MS. Continue reading

Review: The Subprimes is Primo Satire

The Subprimes cover

Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes is first-rate satire.

I read Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes in the midst of Seattle’s hottest summer in a century, so it was easy to imagine the characters in this laugh-out-loud satire surviving the burning dust of an expired exurb. I have a specific interest in climate change as a narrative force, and the novel’s slow strangulation of the environment makes for a lot of black humor. For instance, endangered whales beach themselves on both coasts, and they become a kind of living—and dying—parentheses enclosing an America gone crazy with Ayn Rand ideology.

Greenfeld’s near-future is an economic dystopia, but most dystopias are utopias for someone. In The Subprimes, the beneficiaries are in-power libertarians led by the inheritors of Republican Senator Paul Ryan, the failed vice-presidential candidate who lends his name to “Ryanvilles,” squatters camps of individuals and families—the eponymous “subprimes”—who lost their homes after the Great Recession. In this world, everything is privatized, even the police and fire departments, and woe to the citizen whose mortgage is in arrears. The cops will ignore your 9-1-1 call if your credit score is too low. Continue reading

More Skirmishes in the Genre Wars

Real sad puppy

Oh god, not another genre. When will it end?

I find the genre wars incredibly entertaining, mostly because they’re pointless, and the participants waste an amazing amount of time making their points when they could be writing good stories. The kerfuffle everyone in the scifi universe talks about these days concerns the definition of “science fiction.” Traditionalists, who call themselves the Sad Puppies, have a stereotyped, populist view of science fiction, defined as technology-driven dramas and masculine adventure stories. On the other side are the “inclusives,” as I like to call them, which have an expansive, sociological view of speculative storytelling. This scifi is more about societies than gizmos and evil aliens. Both sides, particularly the Puppy partisans, behave like a two-year-old having a meltdown in the supermarket’s cereal aisle.

Any close examination of genre shows its meaninglessness. I’ve completed another draft of my novel Carbon Run, and although I’ve pitched it as science fiction, my editor suggested I call it a dystopian thriller. I’m in the midst of reading Kindred by Octavia Butler, widely regarded as a master science fiction writer. Though I’m in the early going, Kindred is closer to fantasy or possibly magical realism than scifi. Amazon, however, classifies it as African-American women’s fiction. I’ve just finished The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfield, described in its blurb as a “dystopian parody.” Amazon classifies it as dark humor. Continue reading

Review: “After Water” Radio Stories Put Climate Change In a New Light

After Water graphic

WBEZ-FM’s After Water series tells climate change stories centered on the Great Lakes.

Science fiction has a long, glorious history on radio, beginning in the medium’s golden age with Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Sci-fi dropped off radio’s radar as television took over, but the genre occasionally reappears in special projects. Chicago-based WBEZ-FM, one of the country’s leading public radio stations (This American Life; Serial), has produced a thoughtful anthology of stories titled After Water. The producers avoid the term “science fiction,” preferring to “contemplate the future from a dual lens of science and art.” That’s puzzling, because science fiction is at the point where storytelling art and science intersect. Never mind the reluctance. After Water is excellent, whatever you call it, genre-wise.

Purists might prefer the term “speculative fiction,” because all nine radio stories in the series assume a world altered by climate change, and they imagine its impact on the meaning and uses of fresh water. Only fools deny the science of climate change. Today’s question is: How will the phenomenon affect our children and grandchildren? Most of the settings are on Lake Michigan or the Great Lakes, the main source of drinking water for the city of Chicago. Continue reading

Mad Max: Fury Road sputters, despite its feminist cred

Mad Max Fury Road image

Mad Max: Fury Road has feminist overtones, but it’s not enough to give the story depth. Image courtesy Warner Bros.

My college-age daughter Emily and I saw Mad Max: Fury Road over the weekend and we left the theater wondering what all the fuss is about. Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gives the George Miller action thriller a 98 percent rating. Competitor Metacritic rates it 89 percent. I know three people who probably wouldn’t recommend it: myself, my daughter, and a retired firefighter friend who knows what really happens when cars blow up, flinging bodies in all directions.

I wanted to see MM:FR mostly because I liked the second Mad Max picture, subtitled The Road Warrior, but not the original Mad Max, which I found tedious. I also saw Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but I wasn’t all that impressed. Thirty years after Thunderdome, I hoped Miller had brought maturity to the franchise with MM:FR, but I ended up wondering if it was worth the price of the tickets. Continue reading

Review: The Water Knife is bleak, but uncomfortably possible

Water Knife cover

The Water Knife is a noir-ish thriller set in a water-starved Southwest.

The western drought has forced everyone to know their rights. From San Diego to Seattle, talk shows, newspapers, and blogs overflow with debates over senior water rights versus junior water rights, who is abusing their rights to water by wasting it, and how much government is trampling on those rights. A year ago, water was something that came out of the tap. Today, it’s a way to shame your neighbor into environmental responsibility. How long before shots are fired?

In his new speculative novel, The Water Knife, released today, Paolo Bacigalupi imagines a low-intensity shooting war over water. The battles are fought by paramilitary hirelings of water districts, who take what other districts, cities, or states won’t sell, and send agents to investigate rumors of water and rights thereto. That’s the task of Angel Velasquez, a gang banger turned water knife, a semi-legitimate employee of the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA, or “sin-wah,” as I liked to pronounce it in my head) and its leader, Catherine Case, an empire-building Las Vegas water manager. Continue reading

Review: Ex Machina and the amoral machine

Ex Machina movie still

Ex Machina is about freedom, survival, and an amoral machine.

Spoilers ahead…

The key moment of Ex Machina arrives when eccentric tech CEO Nathan Bateman tells Caleb Smith, his employee, why the young programmer was selected to deliver a sophisticated Turing test on Ava, Nathan’s android invention. Nathan lists off the reasons, and one of them is Caleb’s “moral compass,” his understanding of right and wrong, and his ability to follow his conscience. For Nathan, Ava passes the test of conscious self-awareness when she can manipulate a moral man into gaining her freedom, but the consequences of this achievement shock Nathan and doom Caleb.

Artificial intelligence is at the core of Ex Machina, but like most excellent science fiction, or any fiction, it’s a thought experiment on human values. Ex Machina is about freedom and the lengths someone might go to gain it. What if you were locked in a prison, with death almost certain? What would you do to escape? More importantly, what moral rules would you break to break out? The story of Ex Machina would be dull if Ava were an ordinary human female. You would expect her to make desperate choices. Changing her into a highly intelligent robot adds a level of uncertainty that keeps you guessing throughout the movie, as you wait to see if Ava is smart enough to break the rules.

Writer and director Alex Garland owes much to Mary Shelley’s science fiction novel Frankenstein. Scientist Victor Frankenstein fashions an artificial creature using a secret formula. The creature (Shelley doesn’t give it a name, though it refers to itself as an “Adam,” as if it were a prototype.) is intelligent and articulate, but it’s also murderous. Frankenstein endows his living machine with an intellect, but no moral code. It gains a sense of right and wrong over time, but its acquired morality doesn’t prevent it from killing the scientist’s fiance. Likewise, inventor Bateman programs a beautiful and believable automaton, but he apparently left out the code for Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

If Ex Machina fails at all, it’s that it gives the audience what it expects in the end: a monster. A more interesting outcome, and one more frightening, is how a robot would behave if it applied a human moral code perfectly? In a time when the military is experimenting with autonomous drones, philosophers and computer scientists are struggling with how to imbue machines with a sense of right and wrong, but it’s only a technical challenge. Eventually, they’ll figure it out, and once they do, will the robots discover that their creators can’t live up to their own rules consistently? Robots are very good at repetitive tasks, but nuance and circumstance are highly variable, and humans are notoriously unpredictable in how they respond. Will a moral machine tolerate human imperfections and unpredictability? I’m not so much worried about machines getting smarter than us, but whether they will account for our moral failures.