A Dark Sci-Fi Tale That Unhinges Its Characters and Readers

Spoilers neatly quarantined in their own section.

Evie, Mas and Don. What a trio.

The free short story “Skinner Box” is complex, holding more emotional resonance and depth than some novels. It shows the nature of human relationships when in isolation (apt timing during COVID-19) and such layered levels of deception that the reader must pay keen attention, unravel the different meanings, and contemplate the implications.

In short, it’s damn good. I read it twice to appreciate the nuances and the agendas of the characters, all thinking they know the true mission they have been sent on in this interplanetary trip through the solar system.

This story is filled with trauma, of the abuses, physical and emotional, we visit upon our closest loved ones. The abuse is essential to the story. It’s not just senseless violence (this story is rated M), and it plays out in ways critical to understanding what the crew is attempting. The aha moment at the end forces the reader to view the violence in an entirely new light.

Everything ties neatly with the technology experiments taking place on board the ship (the reward and punishment in the skinner box trials, conditioning the nanites) and the desires of the people on board. It’s nothing short of brilliant how the story can be read completely differently the second time. It’s dark sci-fi at its best and Carole Johnstone is one of my new must-read authors. This tale would also fit nicely in an animated short-story anthology like Netflix’s LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS.

What perhaps is the story’s crowning achievement in my mind is the acceptance each character has of his or her fate and embraces it despite the risks, understanding that freedom is just an illusion.

SPOILERS:

Don’t do it, don’t read the excerpt that follows. It gives it all away. Come back after you read the story.

>>>>>
>>>>
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I am an unsupervised machine learning model with a continuously learning AI program.
I am bio-evolution.
I am one-shot learning.
I am the singularity.
“I’m transhuman.”

This was an extraordinary reveal. It was all about Evie. She was the test subject, she was the potential answer to solve space travel for one evil corporation. I don’t know what the literary mechanic is called when a character’s whole reality comes undone, but I could feel Evie’s anxiety as the understanding of her existence dawned on her.

So the mission was to figure out how to make interplanetary travel possible with long periods of isolation. Human-to-human didn’t work and robot-to-human didn’t work. What would? Perhaps an AI that thinks it’s human AND can resist the stimuli (whether it’s abuse, or other harsh conditions) and maintain its ‘programming’. Evie thinks that the ‘other man’ – Boris the cyborg on a previous mission, or her human lover Mas on this mission – is the test subject. She’s trying to see if they’ll do her bidding in killing her husband for her. Why? Don is beating and raping her, but thinking it out logically, doesn’t that make the abuse a part of the test conditions to make the cyborg sympathetic and the lover angry? It’s one giant twisted and perverse scientific experiment to make long-haul space travel a reality.

But Evie is really the one being tested. First with the cyborg Boris, who agrees to murder, but then self-terminates as his programming dictated; then with a man she develops feelings for and wants to protect by committing the murder herself (so Mas doesn’t have to).

It’s an unsettling look into the human soul and how we can deceive one another. Not to mention our ambitions at playing God. In the end, it’s not just the nanites in a skinner box, but the crew as well in their dysfunctional ship.

5 of 5 stars.

– Josh

The National Emergency Library is a Good Thing, Even With All Its Technical Flaws

A Quick Tech Guide to Getting Your Free Ebook Loans

The National Emergency Library (NEL), made available by the Internet Archive, is providing a worldwide service during the COVID-19 pandemic (yes, anyone on the planet can sign up). Libraries across the nation have shuttered, but now through June you have at your fingertips a massive free digital library. There are over 1.3 million book selections. Good luck picking your ten. In addition to a wide selection of books, there are no waitlists for a digital copy. That’s the big selling point.

The NEL isn’t without controversy. Publishers and some authors say it’s piracy since the books aren’t licensed. Yet they don’t acknowledge that NEL places limits on book checkouts (10 at a time for 14 days per book) and the digital files are locked down completely, to the point downloads are only possible through Adobe’s Digital Editions app (a double-edged sword, which I’ll get to).

 

Ebook loans without a wait list are available during the pandemic at the National Emergency Library.

Ebook loans without a wait list are available during the pandemic at the National Emergency Library.

 

Publishers simply want their money. Are they wrong? Maybe not, but they don’t have much of an argument from where I stand. Two big reasons: First, people who do choose to buy ebooks don’t actually own them, but rather only have limited licenses to ebooks. That fact is buried in Terms of Service agreements and makes me even less inclined to buy ebooks.

Second, I can get most of the books I want at my library, so this is a legitimate alternative to help me and my kids (if they can get off Netflix) read during this period. Before the pandemic, I was three books shy of figuring out if the Baudelaire orphans could really defeat Count Olaf in the 13-book series, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” Now I can tear through these books in short order. I’m not paying $30 when I could normally get them at my library.

But this article is not about all the money grubbing and finger pointing. It’s about the technical part of getting your free ebook loans, which is a bit frustrating. I’m fairly tech savvy, and it still took me four days of sporadic testing to figure this thing out. So now, in short order, here’s how I navigated this arcane process to book bliss.

Reading in the Web Browser (a.k.a. The path of least resistance):

  • Go to https://archive.org/ and sign up for a free account. Click on the book icon. Search for a book. Read in your web browser. Done.
  • If you don’t want to carry around your laptop to read, you can read on a mobile web browser, but you’ll strain your eye-sight squinting at the baby-sized font. (The book pages are scanned images, not actual text, so they don’t resize well.)
  • Brush up on your search query skills when book hunting. There are a ton of results. Get specific. For example, if you’re looking for a book in a series, put in the exact title of the entry to find it rather than the series’ name.
  • Good luck getting your kids to read in the web browser. They might laugh at you.

Reading an ebook offline:

  • Download the Adobe Digital Editions app to your device. Unfortunately, you have no other choice.
  • Connect to your Adobe account or create one.
  • Look in the book description for download links to the ePub and PDF files.
  • Download the ePub version (HIGHLY recommended).
  • Open in Adobe Digital Editions. You’ll be prompted to login to your Adobe account if you aren’t already in order to authenticate the device you’re reading on.

DESKTOP:

  • If you’re reading on a laptop (really?) using Adobe Digital Editions, either file type will work. But sometimes two thumbnails of the book appear randomly. The interface is bare bones too. I didn’t do much here because I’m not reading on my laptop…

 

ADE

Adobe Digital Editions is its own kind of horror story, one you can’t even avoid if you want to download ebooks from the National Emergency Library.

MOBILE DOWNLOAD:

  • The only way you’re going to even have a remotely painless ebook experience on mobile – from download to reading – is the following route.
  • On a mobile browser, login to your Internet Archive account, borrow your book and download the ePub file. (The PDF of the “scanned book” will cause you to pull your hair out. I warn you – the file is big, pages bleed off-screen, it doesn’t work half the time if downloading on desktop and syncing to mobile, and it won’t work at all if trying to download directly on mobile.)
  • On my iPhone, the download prompt asked me which app I wanted to open the file in. Open in Adobe Digital Editions, which I can now officially say is the most jarringly bad ebook app experience on mobile (an indie developer could do better). The download with start automatically.
  • If the device isn’t already authenticated with Adobe credentials, you can do that in the settings.
  • Don’t let your mobile screen go to sleep during download, and don’t check your texts or other apps. The download will stop every time if you navigate away from the screen.
  • Downloads on LTE sometimes took a minute, sometimes upwards of 20 minutes. These are small ePub files so it’s a problem I would suspect with the software.
  • There’s a standard disclaimer that the ePub files have errors, so I first went with the PDF, which turned out to be a far inferior and more frustrating file to even download and get working. I swapped back to the ePub with ‘errors’ after wrestling endlessly with the PDF.

MOBILE READING EXPERIENCE:

  • It’s passable, but not pretty.
  • The ePub book text is pulled from scanned pages, so there are lots of weird characters (a.k.a. ‘errors’) that are obvious, but not deal breakers.
  • If you choose to do the PDF “scanned book”, the font is an eye-strainer, and when trying to download on mobile to read, I couldn’t. I had to do it on a laptop first and sync to mobile. So, that’s not an option anymore in my book (pun!)
  • You’ll probably want to increase the text size with the touchscreen pinch-and-zoom gesture. If zooming pushes text off the screen, rotate the screen to landscape and rotate back to normal to fix (on iPhone at least).
  • The controls are not consistent from ePub to PDF. I recommend only ePub on mobile, but if you have both files, the screen options for the book change depending on the file type. Really poor experience that keeps you guessing.
  • Of the basic screen options (you can count them on one hand), highlighting and notes exist, but you can’t download them from the mobile app. So what’s the point?
  • Actually trying to highlight often advances the page instead. Or it highlights huge blocks of text you don’t want and modifying the highlight is frustrating. Saying the function is worthless is not too harsh.
  • Don’t try to advance the pages while the screen is loading; you’ll jump several pages ahead.

Learning about all these issues was a four-day trial. The NEL is a service that I hope continues, but the technology that it uses for mobile downloads and reading is below even basic standards for mobile ebook readers. The majority of these issues are Adobe’s to solve. If users are forced into Adobe Digital Editions, it needs to simply work. The company’s ebook app is far from intuitive or easy, surprising for a company that pours millions or more into development for its Creative Cloud apps. Consumers also need more obvious prompts that make it clear ePub files are what should be used for small screens.

Without more guidance, readers likely will suffer a lot of heartache through the summer, if they even attempt to struggle through downloading and reading on a mobile screen using Adobe’s app. The Amazon “Buy Now with 1-Click” Button never looked so enticing. But remember, that’s a deception too, since you’re only licensing ebooks.

I hope the NEL can reach its full potential. The books are there (at least until authors request their work be pulled), but the technology is not. As the Baudelaire orphans might say, maybe Abode is the real VFD, Very Fickle Developers. That might make for a good entry in that series. Now back to fighting Count Olaf instead of bad technology.

Happy reading through these hard times!

Josh

 

Dune. Get it Done.

Dune-Frank Herbert (1965) First edition.jpg

Dune (1st edition cover) Source: Wikipedia

I properly experienced Dune a few years ago (Goodreads tells me it was exactly seven years ago this month) by reading Frank Herbert’s masterpiece. It might’ve been on audio or an ebook, so maybe it wasn’t a ‘proper’ reading. (Here’s my back-of-the-book review if you’re interested.)

But before that, Dune existed to me only as David Lynch’s 1984 movie (awesome if you’re a 10yo kid watching on cable in the ’80s) and the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries (which I revisited on DVD and immediately put in the junk pile. Baron Harkonnen spews his dialogue in rhymes. It’s painful to watch.)

At this point in my life, I demand good stories and Dune fits that bill. And that’s why I’m going back and finishing the first three core books (how’s that for a new year’s resolution!). I’m somewhat glad that Dune hasn’t been adapted repeatedly (exhibit A and B above) and remains fertile ground for the reader to imagine his or her own Arrakis (aka the planet Dune). But the story is being adapted again, this time by one of the most visionary movie directors living – Denis Villeneuve (aka the man behind the Blade Runner sequel.) I have high hopes he’ll get it right. He has made me believe again in the power of film.

But before his vision of Dune comes to the big screen, now is the time to read the book. I’ll admit that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (just finished rewatching it on Netflix) prompted me to read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings, and I loved the experience. Jackson brought that world to life on the screen, and I was moved by the books, especially Sam and Frodo’s relationship as they struggled through Mordor, with the experience enhanced by imagining the actors from the film.

But honestly, how often do people go back and read a book after watching the movie version? Maybe it’s more than I think, but personally I use the film or TV versions as an excuse not to read the book (exhibit C: The Witcher).

So. Dune. Get It Done. I read this absolutely fascinating commentary about the book on Tor.com. It motivated me down this path. Skip paragraphs 5 and 6 if you don’t want spoilers and happy reading! – Josh

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

-Paul Atreides

 

Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy finishes unevenly but with some of the best action the galaxy has to offer

There was much to like about the idea of seeing where the Star Wars saga would go in this new line of official books picking up shortly after the destruction of the second Death Star. Chuck Wendig’s trilogy touches on issues throughout the larger galaxy as it adjusts to the crumbling Empire and the opportunities and challenges that result.

The trilogy succeeds in giving us some satisfying developments in the birth of a New Republic and what that might look like. There are great interludes to show different parts of the galaxy, my favorite of which is the fight against slave trafficking on Tatooine with some Wild West action involving Sandpeople for the win!

The conclusion to the trilogy, though strong with some of Star Wars’ best action and fun new characters, turns out to be the weakest link in the story. It often feels like a slog, with little or no movement in the narrative as we approach the climax. We’re teased with a big buildup to the Empire’s so-called contingency plan that Emperor Palpatine himself supposedly orchestrated before his death as a failsafe should the unthinkable happen at Endor. There are even creepy robots with Palpatine’s face on them that are supposed to evoke the long end-game the emperor had thought up.

But it serves more as a quick bookend to a story that doesn’t really know how it wants to end.

Wendig is strongest when he’s placing the ensemble cast in the middle of the fight and focusing on the core cast. “Look after mom Bones!” was her son Temmin’s last command to his trusty hacked battle droid when Nora made a daring gambit to plummet toward the Empire’s last stronghold in an escape pod right before her son’s ship takes off into hyperspace. I actually get a lump in my throat thinking of this family’s courage to run headfirst into the fray at the cost of losing the last people in the galaxy they care about.

Spoiler-light observations:

Later, I love when Nora Wexley zooms toward the enemy line in a stolen Empire command ship in the final battle with Bones by her side. There’s an irony to the scene because Temmin is piloting an X-wing and tries to take down the “enemy” ship. He almost shoots his mom down, but Mr. Bones comes to the rescue again. (There’s so much to say about Bones, from his self-repair magic trick to his final scene in an AT-ST.)

Jaz doesn’t disappoint either with her painful escape from some fellow bounty hunters and her confrontation with an old friend that shows what a complex character she is. Loved it.

Other characters that stand out are a republic ship captain taking on the super star destroyer and showing some amazing military strategy. This scene not only checks the block in giving us a memorable space fight, there’s also real emotional weight that shows the cost of war. And no Star Wars book would be complete without a Hutt. Nema is a mean and crafty snakelike Hutt, nearly unkillable and has an entourage of scary knife-wielding servants. I’d love to see her on the silver screen.

Ultimately the story suffers from trying to tie up too many loose ends. It feels saddle bagged by the weight of having to bridge the story to the Force Awakens and in doing so scenes rush by blindingly fast, doing a great disservice to this story in an attempt to service the next one, which we’ve already seen. All the major build-up between Sloan, Nora, and Rax literally fizzles out. It’s a strange truncated ending.

We rush to  get obligatory status updates on every character (minor and major) and I end up forgetting who is doing what at the end. But by and large, I enjoyed this journey, and we are left with a sense that there are many brave men and women who will continue to fight for what is right and just in this galaxy far, far away.

3 of 5 stars

A Crazy Weekend of Celebs, Cosplay and Creativity

Dragon Con 2015, the annual mecca for scifi and fantasy lovers, transformed Atlanta for a weekend and filled downtown with unbridled energy.

This was the year of Mad Max. With so few Mad Max panels, I thought maybe my fellow war boys and wives might be in short supply. But they came in droves, emptying the Citadel and showing up in spectacular cosplay.

My friend went as Dead Pool, and our mission of making a Dead Pool album made for an entertaining weekend. I was officially indoctrinated into the crazy world of this juvenile, obnoxious (anti)hero.

I also got to photograph cosplay star Monika Lee for a story being published by Georgia Tech (where she attends). But Monika already has some amazing photography. What’s a photgrapher to do? I settled for capturing her in the city to set the atmosphere for the con. I can’t share those photos yet, but I did get one fan pic with her that I included here.

More updates later this week on the authors at DC and other memorable moments.

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Coming Up – Conan: The Original Survivor-Warrior-Reaver

Conan of Cimmeria lived in a time of brutal savagery where only the strong survived. In the lands of ancient Hyboria, his conquests of empires and battles with mythical monsters are unparalleled.

We’ll tear through these adventures with the barbarian:

The Hyborian Age (aka Intro to Conan’s World)
The Phoenix on the Sword
The Scarlet Citadel
The Tower of the Elephant

Conan-promo

Hyperion, Meet Farscape

Hyperion – you are a time-tripping, world-destroying, farcaster-building, ouster-ousting, shrike-shattering epic. Here is my video tribute to you, another sci-fi masterpiece that throws time to the wind. Zany Farscape Time Scene (even zanier if you have no idea what you’re watching):

Sci-Fi 19th Century-Style

hgwells_coverTune in this weekend for some turn-of-the-century sci-fi. We’re going back to the classics with a few selections from H.G. Wells. Jonathan Kiel picked out some good ones: “In the Abyss” and “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid.”

It’s impressive how Wells takes the ordinary things that surround us and turns them into tense terrifying mysteries. The tales are strange unwinding oddities filled with fantastic creatures and wondrous places. It takes me back to the roots of good ol’ campfire storytelling.