Adult Onset Atheist

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

SNARL: A Single Samurai

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the fifth of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of "A Single Samurai" by Steven Diamond





This is the recollection of a Samurai’s adventure battling a (怪獣) kaijū by climbing into its skull and then committing ritual suicide.

You can read the above synopsis twice and it will still say the same thing. This Samurai actually climbs up into the giant monster’s skull and then kills himself to kill the giant monster. The really unfortunate thing is that the Samurai must get so close to the giant monster’s brain in order to cause the kaijū to die by killing himself. It would have been much simpler if the Samurai could have destroyed the kaijū by offing himself as soon as he first glimpsed the kaijū; it would have made this entire story delightfully unnecessary.

This story ends with two different issues vigorously competing for the title of “Most annoying thing about this story”. In one corner is the question of how shoving a sword into his own belly helps the Samurai kill the giant Godzilla-like monster. In the other is the question of how the Samurai is recollecting the story to me if he is dead before it ends. Unfortunately it does not matter which wins as the reader is the only real loser.

I also think the proper Japanese term should have been (大怪獣) daikaijū which is the giant monster made famous by the likes of Godzilla and Mothra.

At this point –dear readers- I should point out that writing my own reviews allows me to capriciously score the stories that are reviewed. For this story I am going to award a couple of points. I will give this story one star just for having a daikaijū  in it because I dig daikaijū. I will also give it another star for having a Samurai in it because I like the films of Akira Kurosawa.

The Samurai is obsessed with his weapons, and they are magic. The Samurai’s obsession with the weapons even constitutes some of the proof that they are magic.

“A unique bond is formed between the samurai and his weapons. Should the blade break—which is rare in the extreme—a samurai’s soul breaks with it, and dies. Likewise—and far more common—when a samurai dies, his sword crumbles to dust. “


Somehow that crumbling to dust is the very magic power the Samurai calls upon to kill the giant monster. When the Samurai finally reaches the glowing green room with the suspended green brain in the center of it he realizes that he could hack away at it “for days” without killing the kaijū. So instead he plunges his katana into the house sized kaijū brain with his right hand, and then plunges his wakizashi into his own belly with his left. Somehow the magical connection combined with the crumbling to dust kills kaijū more effectively.

"I had mere moments left, but I knew that when I died, the connection of my life to the kaiju’s would remain. When I died, it would die."


The author wants to create a two-dimensional (at best) Samurai character. The Samurai is not given a name. He imbues it with testosterone-laden machismo ethos: Pain is nothing, Honor is more important than life…. This imbuing is not a subtle process.  The author underlines these attributes in metaphorical crayon.

“Pain is nothing. It is simply a feeling, like hunger, or worry. It can be tolerated and banished with proper discipline. There are demons that live off that pain, that thrive off their victims succumbing to it. So I feel no pain. I do not just ignore it, for that implies a recognition that it was there to begin with. “


Later in the story the author changes his mind about how the Samurai interacts with pain. I get the feeling the author was simply interpreting what he saw on some poorly rendered Japanese-language monster-Samurai anime. The character just did not appear to flow from any understanding of who the character was.

“The ground pitched beneath me and I tumbled, striking my wounded leg. The pain was the worst I had ever felt previously. It was a pain that, even as a samurai, I was unable to ignore.”


I don’t know if it would have made for a better story if the author was able to maintain the Samurai attributes he obviously wanted the Samurai to have. I don’t know if continuity could have saved this character. It probably would have made for a better story if the author decided on who the Samurai was before writing a story starring him.

There is probably a lot implied in this story that I may have missed. That is ironic because I generally feel the author could have implied the entire story instead of going to the trouble of writing it.







Tuesday, May 19, 2015

SNARL: Turncoat

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the fourth of what will be five actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.

This is a review of "Turncoat" by Steve Rzasa.



For a story where there is so much happening there is very little going on.

There is a lot of space-battle-porn going on in this story. Lots, and lots, and lots of explosions, and torpepoes, and cannons, and lasers, and BOOM-KABAM-ZZZZIIIITTT-ARRRGHHH-TAKETHAT-BOOOM-PEWPEWPEW. In fact, that is a fairly good summary of the story. I did warn you there would be spoilers in this review. I think I will give it two stars just for the space-battle-porn.


The author does try and inject a little philosophy.  Very little.  I should say the author drops an unattributed bible quote (it is Isaiah 29:16)  into an interlude where I suppose we are to see the protagonist as searching for answers to moral questions, but the AI is never developed to the point where it has a convincing set of morals, so we just see the AI randomly searching databases of philosophy. 

One, however, resonated with me. I find myself running and re-running a single selection from it again and again, fruitlessly seeking to understand it.
 Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing should say of him, “He did not make me,” or the thing formed say of him who formed it, “He has no understanding?”


The story starts with a bit of space-battle-porn where the protagonist AI uses kamikaze nanobots to carefully dismantle an opposing ship’s control systems so a few choice control orders can be slipped in, and the story ends with the protagonist AI simply beaming its entire self over to an opponent ship so he can become the control system for the ship, and end the story. I’m left wondering why simple orders require a nanobot ballet, but huge-bandwidth data dumps with integration boot-up just requires wanting it to happen.

The ending may have been predictable, but I had given up predicting it by the time I got close to it; I was looking forward to the place where the words ended entirely.

One of the things that irked me was the prevailing sense that the author wanted to write science fiction, but disliked science.

I’ve never liked it when authors throw numbers and units around in the futile hope that it creates context. Numbers demand context; they do not intrinsically create it.

I am also nonplussed by awkward units. The author of this story uses decaseconds and kiloseconds as if they speak to the audience. He also uses random bits of precision to make the story sound more “machiney”. The resulting Dunning–Kruger ambiance is annoying at best.

“Thank you, Alpha 7 Alpha. The enemy patrols are more frequent. This is the third such incursion in 584 kiloseconds.”


Why not make it an even 604.8 kiloseconds, and call it a week?

“The explosion is so near, and so intense, it overwhelms my visual and scanner feeds to starboard for nine point eight seconds.”


So all the scanners come online at once in a thousandth of a second? Do some come on at 9.75, and then some at 9.85? Why not call it “about a decasecond” and provide a little acknowledgment that events take time rather than being instantaneous. Also, you’ve already forced your readers to look up decasecond (who uses decasecond? Wiktionary: “Decasecond is not in official scientific usage and is rarely found outside dictionaries and word lists.”) , why not reward them with using it one of the few times when using it makes sense?

“The declaration came forty-seven point six days ago. Any human who resists Integration is now considered outmoded, pre-evolved, unnecessary.”


Is that forty-seven point six days when you started writing the sentence, or when you were done? OK, point one days is a lot longer than it takes to write a sentence. In fact it is impossible to resolve the time it takes to write a sentence using huge units like point one days. Anyone should know the level of precision communicated, and not confuse it for a more significantly-defined time span... Anyone that is except the author, who goes on to make that very same mistake:

“Our preparations take eight point six standard days. That is fifty-seven seconds longer than it takes for our six ships to arrive at Shandari Prime.”


Fifty-seven seconds is actually 0.000659722 days, which is much too small to be communicated with a measurement resolved to only tenths (0.1) of days. Fifty-seven seconds is also a rather awkward number to convert to fractional numbers of days; you need a large amount of precision to effectively denote 57 seconds. If you truncate the fractional day equivalent to 0.0006 days you are only talking about 51.84 seconds, and if you round it up to 0.0007 days you are actually talking about almost a minute and a half. So in order to effectively communicate a number of days that could be resolved to present a fifty-seven second time difference the author would have to say something like “Eight point six zero zero six five nine seven two two standard days”. I know why the author did not do this; it sounds stupid. Of course “eight point six standard days” sounds stupid, and pretending that you can resolve fifty seven seconds in such a number is just ignorant.

I will end this review in six point nine zero four seconds, which is –now-. Unless you are reading really fast, which would make it –now-. Of course you could be an ultra-speed reader, which would allow you to read this last paragraph over twice, and only then realize that the place this review really ended was –now-.







Thursday, May 14, 2015

SNARL: The Parliament of Beasts and Birds

There has been a big kerfluffle about the Hugo awards in Science Fiction this year, and most of it has been about the political and cultural implications of the works and the award process. At this point we have a set of nominees. I will be voting in August for which author will take home the coveted rocket-shaped Hugo trophy(s). I have read and reviewed the five nominees for Best Novella.  This is the third of several actual reviews by me of the nominated "short-story" works of fiction. All of these reviews may (will) contain spoilers.


This is a review of “The Parliament of Beasts and Birds” by John C. Wright



This is the second Hugo-nominated story from John C. Wright’s book called “The Book of Feasts and Seasons” that I have read. I am more convinced after having read this second story that this book is not a collection of stories meant to be in the science fiction or fantasy (SF/F) genre. I suppose they were written for some religious genre that somewhat resembles SF/F, but I can’t help lumping them into the “life is too short to waste it reading this crap” genre.

So this story gets zero stars, but these are zero “Hugo Nominated Story” stars. I suppose there is an alternate point of view or alternate universe where the number of stars this story received was multiplied a million times or more, but not here in this mundane world of personal Hugo idealism.

I picked up this book expecting SF/F, and I was disappointed. Imagine someone going to the store and buying a box of “Best NUTTY NUGGETS Ever” because they love “NUTTY NUGGETS”, only to find that they were so awful they might not even be “NUTTY NUGGETS”, and were quite inedible. Then imagine them going back to the store and buying another box of “Best NUTTY NUGGETS Ever” only to find out that they were similarly not even edible “NUTTY NUGGETS”. I’m sure they would be Sad, and maybe even Mad; some people might do things that were Bad.

“SAD, MAD, BAD” sounds like a children’s book, and so does this story. It has talking animals that start to walk upright because … God.

I had a hard time reading this story. I would run into something like this every half-dozen sentences:

Lion said, “How dare you raise your voice to me, Worm? You have neither stature, nor eyes, nor legs.”

And I could not stop my mind from wondering why Lion did not say something like

“How do you have a voice, Worm? You have neither lungs, nor lips, nor tongue.”

Worm probably has fewer neurons than letters in that quote.

And then my pesky brain reminds me that the parasite load of wild animals is sometimes shockingly huge. Do Lion’s intestinal parasites get a voice? What about the proglottids stuck to Lion’s fur? Do the dozens of tiny wormlets that each proglottid gives rise to each get a voice? Is that voice high and squeaky like a prepubescent child? Do they sing together like the Vienna boy’s choir until they go through adolescence and their voices change? What is adolescence for a worm? What songs would the prepubescent intestinal parasite choir sing?

Later Worm becomes a dragon because god liked Worm. That would be a much bigger problem for Lion than his singing poop.

At one point they all go and see Cat who has been to the city of Man to find out what has happened. Cat becomes ashamed of only being covered in fur. Cat tells them of being “led by an unseen hand”:

“to a street of tailors where I was given a robe exceeding white, whiter than any fuller could white it, ablaze with a purple hem, and bound with a golden girdle. And on my feet, which had never been shod before, were sandals.”

Cat is licking its fur and “admiring her own sangfroid” while telling this.

None of the animals asks:

“So what did you do with this fancy frock?”
Or
“Sandals with furry socks, how gross!”
Or
“Purest celestial white before memorial day? Really Gurlfren?”
Or
“White with purple trim?… puuullleeeze!”
Or
“If you are going to wear a golden girdle without earrings you might as well be naked!”

It is good that I purchased this on the Kindle. If I had borrowed a paper copy from the library I would have been tempted to scribble in my own immature ending.

“Rabbit and Beaver had been missing for several hours; ever since everyone became aware of their own nakedness.”

Instead prudish old Mr. Owl delivers the story’s punch line:

Owl said, “It is the first Sabbath after the Paschal moon following the Equinox of Spring! Not only Man, but all nature is redeemed! Rejoice!”

And that is why old Mr. Owl does not get invited to the really good parties. Well,… that and the fact that he pukes up pellets of fur and bones after a big meal.