Tuesday, 10 May 2022

"Left Hand of Darkness" by Ursula K. Le Guin - A Tepid Review

I picked up this novel because Ursula K Le Guin is often cited as an underappreciated sci-fi master and I've not read anything of hers. I started with Left Hand of Darkness because it was one of the top recommended, e.g. on the printSF Reddit.

I skipped over the two(!) additional introductions by contemporary authors, for fear of major spoilers I’ve had in the past. In her intro, she states: "Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive." Which is always somewhat true; dressing up contemporary issues in strange clothes to better understand them. 

Just as much a fantasy writer, apparently, this perspective makes sense. But not entirely so, to me. No prediction at all, would fly in the face of what I like most about my go-to fiction genre: exploring possible effects of future technological change.

She also seemed to say there was an unreliable narrator, telling some of this story..? But, even primed, I spotted no contradictory versions of events. [Edit: I don't know where I got this idea from, after re-reading her (1976) foreword. Kindle UK version.]

For a book published in 1969, it has largely dodged feeling entirely dated, courtesy of mostly avoiding high technology. The plot is grounded entirely on a somewhat backwards world (or at least, one that’s in no hurry to fully modernise). So the setting is very vaguely reminiscent, for me, of say "Inversions" by Iain M Banks.

Non-plot spoilers - In the rare appearance of a spaceship, it does sound like a stereotypically antiquated shiny silver rocket. While their FTL communications are basically a pager. Which, I guess, is still ahead of her time…? They have universally electric vehicles too. (I guess that transition is long overdue, for us.)

Sunday, 8 May 2022

"Raised by Wolves" Seasons 1 & 2 Reviewed

Season 1 [Adapted from these Tweets- was more watchable than expected, knowing very little before hand, other than people thinking it a bit odd. I felt it was a decent, slow-burn sci-fi. It definitely has Ridley Scott flavours: grey-blue colour pallet of Prometheus [2012]; various visual details, from android blood down to hats; the horror-spun theme of birthing/raising children, intersecting with brooding alien mysteries.

Raised by Wolves was not at all as sci-fi silly/tacky as some of its initial appearances.

There really are some seriously dark themes (trigger warning). Including a teenage girl coming to terms with being coerced into carrying a pregnancy following rape (while unconscious). Then dealing with meeting the perpetrator (whose made theatrically monstrous). Attempted suicide. The grief of loosing several children (pictured right) and self blame for that. Mass murder. Loss of bodily autonomy. Orphan child soldiers. Child abduction, etc. But I guess its all softened the surrealness of a sci-fi setting. Anyway...

Much is lost...

The season had enough time to develop its main characters, particularly heroine/antagonist android "Mother". She took an opposed arc to Travis Fimmel, who was apparently reprising his King Ragnar roll (from Vikings). Military genius, usurps power, undergoes religious conversion, hobbles about injured with a staff, etc. 

Saturday, 7 May 2022

"Kaiju Preservation Society" by John Scalzi - Review

An impulse buy, for me, when needing a new book to read on my Kindle. Kaiju Preservation Society is a quick, easy to read sci-fi novel by John Scalzi. I'd agree with his post-script, that it's the literary equivalent of a pop song.

It currently feels extra relevant, kicking off at the start of the Covid pandemic, in New York. Our protagonist's working for an UberEats competitor, seeing an uptick in demand. And there's an explicit reference to the opening of the genre cult classic "Snow Crash". Which comes up again as a bit of a running joke. So too, a couple more pop sci-fi references.

The story soon escapes miserable reality. I thought, at first, that we were going to taken on an interesting deconstruction of monster movie tropes. Focusing on more realist management banalities and such. But it only goes half way…

On one hand: the crew studying (and aiming to protect) the giant monsters are, realistically, almost all scientists with a complementary array of doctorates. They run through why such massive animals are physically impossible. Then proffer some bio-eco-physio-logical embellishments that might help realise this trope.

Friday, 6 May 2022

Why "Matrix Resurrections" is so terrible...

This new Matrix film is less a resurrection, more intellectual property necrophilia. It doesn't just break the fourth wall, it bursts through the screen and slaps you around the face with franchise merchandise! While a boardroom montage gibbers about how mind blowing a 4th instalment would need to be...

I'm gonna stop you right there; don't watch this!
My expectations were very low; movie sequels selling out is par for course, and Revolutions was already a disappointment. But this new piece had failed to recapture any of the magic.

A major reason the first film seemed so creative is the Wachowski's cobbled it together from a lot of pieces of other great sci-fi works, which most views won't have known: anime, e.g. Ghost in the Shell (1995) lent much cyberpunk look and feel, with small sequences recreated shot-for-shot.

A shocking amount of concepts, plot arc and specific terms (e.g. "Matrix" and "Squidies") came from Dan Simmon's 1989 novel "Hyperion" and its sequel "Fall of Hyperion". Which I read recently and think still stands up OK today. Recommended, for historical genre significance.

But in Resurrections, they seem to be feeding, ouroboros-like, exclusively on their *own* works. Thematically, the result is mediocre fan fiction, vomiting up clips of the original's more memorable (and more inspired) bits.

Monday, 7 March 2022

Deathloop - Full PC Game Critical Review

In Summary: I’d give Deathloop a “maybe” recommendation; I finished it and don't hate it. It’s a laudably innovative game, with mostly great elements: unique fictional setting and aesthetic, great voice acting, polish, interesting combat build variations, etc… But! I REALLY struggled with a couple of core game mechanics, which I’ll explain in more detail further down.

As someone with ADHD (and slow information processing) these issues prevented me from enjoying the good aspects; Deathloop is far less approachable than either Dishonoured (1, 2, 3, reviews on Steam) or Prey (which I loved). All made by Arkane. Deathloop was hard work to get into, with an overwhelming number of UI screens, clues, loadout settings, etc, to read tutorial notes for and then navigate. Totally breaking the flow, immersion and addictiveness, for me.

Then the unexpected multiplayer element was brave, but in practice just meant getting randomly griefed, as a new player. Unwelcome during an otherwise single player chill-out game. Together, these issues, and other smaller design choices, made it tough to explore different loadout customisations for fun. Or to find much freedom or escapism.

(1) Less accessible: 

The previous Arkane games quickly launch into the action and almost immediately begin to flow. While Deathloop felt like being taught an overly complex board game for hours on end.

Sunday, 13 February 2022

"The Relentless Moon" by Mary Robinette Kowal (Lady Astronaut Universe Book 3)

Like books one and two, which I reviewed here, Kowal has very well written characters, with good narrative structure and pace. So "The Relentless Moon" is an easy reading page turner. Even though it's not my typical cup of tea: it is rigorously well researched hard sci-fi, but relatively low concept, big picture wise. 

Set in an alternative 1960s where severe climates change, caused by a large asteroid a decade hence, is spurring a much more ambitious manned (and womanned!) space exploration and colonisation program. To escape the inevitable runaway greenhouse effect.


We ride inside the mind of Nicole Wargin, while our previous protagonist, Elmer York, is on her way to Mars; this is a spin-off plot, running in parallel to the second half of book 2. We met Wargin before: one of the first batch of (lady) astronauts. The wife of a senator, who is now angling to run for president of the US.

Saturday, 12 February 2022

"Y: The Last Man" Season 1 Review [Mild Spoilers]

The show blasts through the virus apocalypse part implausibly fast: a single day in the first episode. But that's fine, to quickly establish the show's axiomatic question: what if all the men in the world suddenly die?! 

... Except for one privileged slacker and his capuchin monkey. Which is perhaps a link to "Outbreak" [1995] which also featured a capuchin. "12 Monkeys" [1995] depicted a post viral apocalypse, but doesn't really feature any particular monkey, ironically.

[My collage] Y: The Last Man promo material also echoes some visual themes from virus movies.

Anyway, more specifically, it's everyone with a Y chromosome who dies. So, refreshingly, we see plenty of trans men, including a central character. There's a recurring theme around the flip in how male-presenting individuals are perceived, but new issues for them. Having an overwhelmingly female cast is also fantastic, interesting and pretty much unique. Perhaps on par with "Orange is the New Black"?

It excels in doing what I loved "The Walking Dead" for: exploring fundamental social psychology, once social niceties and norms get stripped away. But with a focus on varied and opposed female perspectives, feminism and what that can mean to different women. Such ideals get subverted, in one of the scenarios, with anger against men stoked and exploited to control a group. Showing how the fiercest anti-man agenda can be as manipulative and damaging as any patriarchal hegemony.

Monday, 27 December 2021

"The Wheel of Time" Season 1 Short Review

 I wanted to mention a few more points that wouldn't fit into my micro-review tweet...

Screenshots from the Amazon Prime TV show for illustration of this review (fair use).

Fantasy is not my cup of tea, so I started watching with fairly low expectations. Friends who'd read the books were enthusiastic, so I checked it out, just in case it's the new Game of Thrones (GoT). It was alright - sufficiently well made to be watchable. Somewhat interesting, if more for it's cultural links.

It seems like Amazon would certainly like it to be the new GoT. The show logo has a similar feel and the dialogue explicitly talks about a human "dragon" who will "break the wheel". But the character building and human intrigue is more simplistic. 

It is probably better likened to Lord of the Rings (LotR): the magic and monsters have significant visual similarities and are unleashed right from the first episode. So, without the huge budget of those movies, this looks only OK. There's some stilted acting amongst the core cast, coupled with very awkward production in one instance, at least. So, overall, suspension of disbelief is greatly reduced compared with GoT. It's show about magic stuff in a pretty medieval setting.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Covid-19 (Part 7) - The Battle Over Child Vaccinations and Long Covid (England/UK)

[Written on 2021-08-25 but unable to to finish due to increased ME/CFS impairment. Publishing 2021-09-16 just to have what's done out there, despite still missing most content on some topics.]

Previous Covid blog posts
: Wave 1 - March/April 2020: Part 1Part 2Part 3; Wave 2 - Jan 2021: Part 4; Wave 3 - July/August 2021: Part 5, Part 6.

[Fig.1 data.gov.uk] Current (2021-08-25) UK state of Covid dashboard. (We have heave among the best health information reporting in the world!) Cases and hospitalisations continue to climb at a high level, respectively 25x and 11x the numbers of this time last year [Prof Pagel Twitter]. Despite it being mid-summer, usually the easiest time for our health service. 1st dose percentage recently took a small step backwards, with new eligibility of 16-18s (but little provision yet available, I believe).

As I worried in my Covid Part 4 "2021-02-11 point (2)", UK government's pandemic mitigation measures are being stripped away, now that our death rate is greatly diminished by vaccinations. Thankfully, these largely stayed a month or too longer than I expected. So the upsurge has been gradual, since Stage 3 lifting in May, with no further uptick on "Freedom Day" itself (19th July). I analysed the lack of uptick at the end of my part 5 post in sections (I) and (J).

Monday, 9 August 2021

Covid-19 (Part 6) - Calculating UK's Population Immunity to Delta...

This post follows on from my Part 5 Covid blog, which enumerated the problems with, and causes of, UK's apparently reckless re-opening. In the last section (I), I'd been examining the apparent downturn in cases, around the time of our "freedom day". It now looks clear that we were really seeing the end of the football peak (with a big pinch of school-kid case isolation, then finishing for summer) - a bonus peak on top of an overall continuing (slow) upwards trend in cases. Which has plateaued for now, probably (until football gatherings and school start up again, within the month!):

[Fig.1 - GovUK] Official stats show cases steady at ~25k/day, hospital admissions ~700/day.

The official R number, for rate of Covid spread, today is 0.8 to 1.1. I think this is averaged over a time period including some of the brief case drop. So, it looks like R = 1 would be a better approximation of our momentary trajectory. Which is pretty bad, given the high incidence of disease. But fairly ideal for us to take a look and see how far we are from herd immunity (section J, directly below). We're definitely a good way off, because we're at an effective R of ~1, while the population is still being relatively cautious, still a lot of mask use, summer holidays and no football, etc. So we should be able to work out how much of a reduction is coming from these NPIs (non-pharmacological interventions, i.e. stuff other than vaccines).

Actual calculations and results in point (6).

Update 2021-08-14: Summary of the APPG conference call that triggered "herd immunity mythical" headlines, catching the general public up roughly, to what I've concluded here. See (B) below.

Update 2021-08-19: new and clarified information on vaccine effectiveness, section (C).

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Covid-19 (Part 5) - UK Government's Reckless Re-opening During Delta

Here we are again. In the alarming but familiar situation where the UK (or rather England's) covid-19 cases are soaring while government fails to act appropriately. The situation that kicked off my first posts, before the March 2020 peak: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Then for the even worst autumn/winter wave: Part 4... 


... Except that this time, the death rate has been greatly diminished by vaccination: case-fatality rate down roughly 12-fold, from ~2% to 0.16% [Twitter]. For the older, vaccinated portion of society, at least. And as expected, it looks like high deaths really were the only thing holding our government back from pushing through herd immunity by full infection, with a reckless abandon that I feel is a crime against humanity.

Here's a somewhat concise list of reasons why their particular interpretation of "living with Covid" is so dangerous and unnecessary, how it's been enabled (A to D) and a possible upside (E). Followed by a brief overall look at the current pandemic situation in other parts of the world (F) and personal anecdotes (G). Finally, some nice graphs further down (H) that explorer some of the topics in more detail. {Update 2021-07-30: why did cases suddenly start to fall, just before re-opening (I) & (J)?}.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

"Permutation City" by Greg Egan - Review & Discussion

Egan is famous for his very high concept hard sci-fi fiction that leverages his academic background in mathematics plus deep knowledge of quantum physics and computer science. Permutation City is no exception, exploring an even broader scope of fascinating concepts than Schild's Ladder, which I'd read years ago.

It's one in a set of 3 novels, by him, grouped together as "subjective cosmology". But they're not linked in any way besides this categorisation of theme.

It pushes far beyond hand waving philosophy, weaving in some solid technical references, as it explores concepts of: continuity of identity, simulation of consciousness, extreme transhumanist mind modification, subjective reality, artificial life within deterministic systems, computability, parasitic computation and "dust theory". Many ideas I consider important to at least be vaguely aware of.

His characters are adequately believable and his writing style reasonably sophisticated. Although my attention/motivation struggles a little, these days, with this kind of classic novel structure: alternating chapters between several characters, telling a story largely in parallel.