The Alchemist of Souls

The Alchemist of Souls by Anne Lyle is another book I found via Scalzi’s Big Idea. If any author’s are wondering if writing up a Big Idea piece and getting it on Whatever is a good idea, I would have to say yes–I’ve picked up a number of books that caught my attention there.
In The Alchemist of Souls, Lyle’s main stage is Elizabethan England, but with a couple twists. The big twist is that when the America’s were discovered, the European’s found a more advanced non-human species (called Skraylings) on the east as well as human native Americans. The non-humans serve as an effective buffer to colonization and provide the rest of the twists in the world. Since history is different from the point of contact, differences in history start to make their appearance. For example, Queen Elizabeth was married and has several children. The Skraylings seem to have some abilities that seem like magic to the Europeans. The English need allies against the Spanish and French and so downplay any hints at “deviltry” at work.
With those background details, the main thrust of the book concerns the arrival of the first Skrayling ambassador to England and the appointment of Mal Catlyn as his bodyguard. Mal, Ned (his friend) and Coby (a girl hiding out as a boy in a London theater company) provide the POV characters and are done quite nicely, I thought. Lyle does a good job at showing the motivations and background for these characters. She has a real feel for making the characters authentic.
I enjoyed reading this book and I look forward to the next volume.

The Dain Curse

The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett was Hammett’s second novel featuring the Continental Op. This book is basically three short stories tied together with common characters and the unfortunate happenings to the “Dain” family. I read this back on my flight from Rome. It worked OK in that role as it was short and fast.
So far, Hammett isn’t growing on me as quickly or as well as Chandler did when I read through his novels. Out on the internets I see lots of people extolling Hammett’s prose and plotting, but I’m not really seeing it so far. The Op isn’t particularly likeable. The end story in this one was supposed to tie things together, but the result was one of those invented endings where it looks like Hammett wanted to tie things together and just fit the ending to make things work out. There wasn’t anything really leading to that ending. The dialogue speaks very much like many movies from the forties. You can hear the inflected accents as the actors try to be earnest. I’m not sure that’s a really good thing.

The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City

For my first new Hugo review I will point out The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City by John Scalzi. This short story appeared on April 1 of 2011 for the very good reason that it was an April Fool’s prank. Scalzi talks about the genesis of the story here. Basically, Tor had wrapped up their “Best Books of the Decade” voting and had done some statistics on the frequency of words in the titles here. In that post, they suggested that a trilogy with the titles:

  • The Shadow War of the Night Dragon, Book One: The Dead City
  • The Shadow War of the Night Dragon, Book Two: Dark Blood Magic
  • The Shadow War of the Night Dragon, Book Three: Dream World of the Fire Wolf

would be the most generically titled (and frighteningly possible) set of titles that could be arrived at.
With that list in hand, Patrick Nielsen Hayden called Scalzi up and asked him if he would be willing to write the prologue of the first volume for their April 1st funness. Scalzi (cackling with maniacal glee I can only imagine) accepted.
The story itself is a wild bit of fun. It has humor–high, low and meta. And, hey, it’s got evil badgers with spoons of darkness–how can you not like that?

Addendum:Here is a link to a hilarious reaction video of Mark Orshiro reading the first portion of “Shadow War”. It is made extra amusing by Mark being unaware that the story began its life as an April Fools prank.

Hugo Awards 2012 Short Lists

The nominations for the 2012 Hugo Awards were announced on Saturday. Minicon happened to be one of the sites doing a live feed of the nomination list, so I got to hear these live and in person. I was fairly pleased as a number of the works I nominated made it to the final ballot. Here are the lists with links to reviews I’ve already done:

Best Novel

  • Among Others, Jo Walton (Tor)
  • A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin (Bantam Spectra) This one presents me with a problem as I haven’t gotten that far in the series. I think I will have to pass on reviewing this.
  • Deadline, Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • Embassytown, China Miéville (Macmillan / Del Rey)
  • Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey (Orbit)

Best Novella

  • Countdown, Mira Grant (Orbit)
  • “The Ice Owl”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction)
  • Kiss Me Twice”, Mary Robinette Kowal (Asimov’s)
  • “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, Kij Johnson (Asimov’s)
  • “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary”, Ken Liu (Panverse 3)
  • Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente (WSFA)

Best Novelette

  • “The Copenhagen Interpretation”, Paul Cornell (Asimov’s)
  • “Fields of Gold”, Rachel Swirsky (Eclipse Four)
  • “Ray of Light”, Brad R. Torgersen (Analog)
  • “Six Months, Three Days”, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com)
  • “What We Found”, Geoff Ryman (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Best Short Story

Best Related Work

  • The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Third Edition, edited by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, and Graham Sleight (Gollancz)
  • Jar Jar Binks Must Die…and other Observations about Science Fiction Movies, Daniel M. Kimmel (Fantastic Books)
  • The Steampunk Bible: An Illustrated Guide to the World of Imaginary Airships, Corsets and Goggles, Mad Scientists, and Strange Literature, Jeff VanderMeer and S. J. Chambers (Abrams Image)
  • Wicked Girls (CD), Seanan McGuire
  • Writing Excuses, Season 6 (podcast series), Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Jordan Sanderson

Best Graphic Story

  • Digger, by Ursula Vernon (Sofawolf Press)
  • Fables Vol 15: Rose Red, by Bill Willingham and Mark Buckingham (Vertigo)
  • Locke & Key Volume 4: Keys To The Kingdom, written by Joe Hill, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez (IDW)
  • Schlock Mercenary: Force Multiplication, written and illustrated by Howard Tayler, colors by Travis Walton (The Tayler Corporation)
  • The Unwritten (Volume 4): Leviathan, created by Mike Carey and Peter Gross, written by Mike Carey, illustrated by Peter Gross (Vertigo)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form

  • Captain America: The First Avenger, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephan McFeely; directed by Joe Johnston (Marvel)
  • Game of Thrones (Season 1), created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss;
    written by David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, Bryan Cogman, Jane Espenson, and George R. R. Martin; directed by Brian Kirk, Daniel Minahan, Tim van Patten, and Alan Taylor (HBO)
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, screenplay by Steve Kloves; directed by David Yates (Warner Bros.)
  • Hugo, screenplay by John Logan; directed by Martin Scorsese (Paramount)
  • Source Code, screenplay by Ben Ripley; directed by Duncan Jones (Vendome Pictures)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form

  • Doctor Who, ”The Doctor’s Wife”, written by Neil Gaiman; directed by Richard Clark (BBC Wales)
  • “The Drink Tank’s Hugo Acceptance Speech”, Christopher J Garcia and James Bacon (Renovation)
  • Doctor Who, ”The Girl Who Waited”, written by Tom MacRae; directed by Nick Hurran (BBC Wales)
  • Doctor Who, ”A Good Man Goes to War”, written by Steven Moffat; directed by Peter Hoar (BBC Wales)
  • Community, ”Remedial Chaos Theory”, written by Dan Harmon and Chris McKenna; directed by Jeff Melman (NBC)

Best Semiprozine

  • Apex Magazine, edited by Catherynne M. Valente, Lynne M. Thomas, and Jason Sizemore
  • Interzone, edited by Andy Cox
  • Lightspeed, edited by John Joseph Adams
  • Locus, edited by Liza Groen Trombi, Kirsten Gong-Wong, et al.
  • New York Review of Science Fiction, edited by David G. Hartwell, Kevin J. Maroney, Kris Dikeman, and Avram Grumer

Best Fanzine

  • Banana Wings, edited by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer
  • The Drink Tank, edited by James Bacon and Christopher J Garcia
  • File 770, edited by Mike Glyer
  • Journey Planet, edited by James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, et al.
  • SF Signal, edited by John DeNardo

Best Fancast

  • The Coode Street Podcast, Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe
  • Galactic Suburbia Podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts (presenters) and Andrew Finch (producer)
  • SF Signal Podcast, John DeNardo and JP Frantz (presenters), Patrick Hester (producer)
  • SF Squeecast, Lynne M. Thomas, Seanan McGuire, Paul Cornell, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne M. Valente
  • StarShipSofa, Tony C. Smith

Best Editor, Long Form

  • Lou Anders
  • Liz Gorinsky
  • Anne Lesley Groell
  • Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • Betsy Wollheim

Best Editor, Short Form

  • John Joseph Adams
  • Neil Clarke
  • Stanley Schmidt
  • Jonathan Strahan
  • Sheila Williams

Best Professional Artist

  • Dan dos Santos
  • Bob Eggleton
  • Michael Komarck
  • Stephan Martiniere
  • John Picacio

Best Fan Artist

  • Brad W. Foster
  • Randall Munroe
  • Spring Schoenhuth
  • Maurine Starkey
  • Steve Stiles
  • Taral Wayne

Best Fan Writer

  • James Bacon
  • Claire Brialey
  • Christopher J. Garcia
  • Jim C. Hines
  • Steven H Silver

The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer

  • Mur Lafferty
  • Stina Leicht
  • Karen Lord
  • Brad R. Torgersen
  • E. Lily Yu

Minicon 47 recap

Last weekend was Minicon 47 and it was another interesting weekend spent among SF fans and authors. This year I was on two panels. The first panel I was on was on Friday night and was “Failing the Turing Test.” Co-panelists were: Ted Chiang, Aaron Vander Giessen (M), Andy Exley, Howard L. Davidson and Jason Wittman. Ted Chiang (in case you don’t know) was the writer Guest of Honor. I enjoyed being on this panel quite a bit. We had a lively discussion on whether the Turing test was still useful (yes) and if it had been passed yet (no — chatbots really don’t count as the human involved isn’t usually aware they are being tested.) I mentioned some ideas about the ethics of AI — if you have an entity you acknowledge as intelligent, what sort of rights should it have. Ted mentioned that voting is problematic — “What if it replicated itself 10 million times?”

The second panel I was on was Saturday night and was “What is Intelligence?.” The co-panelists were: Ted Chiang, Jason Wittman, Marissa Lingen(M) and Martin Summerton.Ted talked a bit about ideas of intelligence taking different forms and I mentioned Blindsight by Peter Watts as a good example of a book dealing with different kinds of intelligence. (Ted agreed.) Ted brought up Transcranial direct-current stimulation tDcs as an interesting example of mental augmentation that is going on. At the very end, Ted mentioned that he wished we had been able to talk more about ethical implications of super-intelligence. He mentioned that we don’t expect dogs to have many ethics, children to have a few more, adults many more, … So would we expect a super-intelligent entity to have more ethics? (With great power comes great responsibility.) After the panel I had a chance to chat with Ted for a bit (he’s a really nice guy.) I thought the idea was quite interesting and seemed reasonable. While we might expect higher ethics, it is, of course, no guarantee that any given entity will have them Just as adult humans vary wildly in their grasp of ethics. Also, there is the problem that an AI could hold a very different type of ethics. Like “mine iron!” might be its idea of the highest ethical goal.

In a later panel, Ted gave an interesting definition of SF vs. Fantasy. If the basis of the story operates via the scientific method–is reproducible without special circumstances then the story is SF even if it may appear to be fantasy. For example, Ted’s story “Seventy-two Letters” has golems animated by slips of paper with names in Hebrew written upon them. This might appear to be fantasy, but the difference is that anyone can write out the names and animate the golem. Thus (in that universe) it is a verifiable and reproducible result. No special status of “wizard” is needed. I thought this was an interesting definition.

Minicon 47

Minicon 47 is this weekend. The Guests of Honor this year are: Ted Chiang (author), Christopher J Garcia (fanzine), and Frank Wu (artist).
I will be on two panels this year:

  • FRI — 8:30PM Failing the Turing Test
    In 1950, Alan Turing asked the question “Can machines think?” Since then, the test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour has sparked new questions. Is this test useful? Is it significant that some people are fooled by chatbots? What’s the relationship between intelligence and personhood? In what ways are computers smarter than us? How have AI surpassed us, and what do we do when humans don’t pass? Ted Chiang, Aaron Vander Giessen (M), Andy Exley, Howard L. Davidson, Jason Wittman, Steven Halter
  • SAT — 7:00PM What is Intelligence?
    Ted Chiang’s “Understand” asks and then attempts to very thoroughly answer the question of what it would really be like to be super-intelligent. Along the way, it delves into the definition of intelligence, and whether greater intelligence necessarily means greater morality. What’s our current definition of intelligent? What is intelligence? Is our definition something that could evolve? Could we achieve super-intelligence with performance enhancing drugs? What would it mean to be super-intelligent? Ted Chiang, Jason Wittman, Marissa Lingen(M), Martin Summerton, Steven Halter

A couple of nice light panels for evening discussion. 🙂