Month: April 2015

Quick Review: Countdown to Zero Day by Kim Zetter

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An advanced virus, Iran nuclear weapons, and espionage, Countdown to Zero Day has a lot of story going on. It’s one of the more interesting modern day hacking tales. The real-life creation of the Stuxnet virus and its infiltration and discovery in Iran, along with the heightened suspicions of the Iranian nuclear weapons program are interesting subject matter.

I only wish that the story didn’t read like a technical report.

My background is, by and large, in social science and academia. I love everything about international relations and Middle East politics. So, I was intrigued by the story offered in Zetter’s book. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t read as a compelling narrative. Instead, it’s got the slow drag that tends to haunt academic reports.

That being said, the story is extremely well researched with helpful footnotes and clearly the intended audience is supposed to be well-informed, but not experts. It’s not overly technical, but just technical enough to make the reading drag.

2.5/5

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Review: Hannu Rajaniemi’s Collected Fiction

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Hannu Rajaniemi’s new short story collection, Hannu Rajaniemi: Collected Fiction, is one of the books you ought to be looking out for this year. Rajaniemi’s novels are known for their complex storylines, interesting characters, and vastly detailed worlds.

It’s really difficult to explain all of the great things that occur in Hannu Rajaniemi’s stories. Instead, I’m going to highlight a few specific stories I really enjoyed and then tell you what I wish had happened.

The Server and the Dragon

This was one of the first stories in the collection that really grabbed me. It’s reminiscent of Rajaniemi’s novels. It follows a computer server made to comply with other’s wishes. The server is lonely and develops a world, only to meet a (seemingly) companionable dragon. The dragon convinces the server to go along with it’s plans and, then, reveals a darker side.

This story is part scifi part fairytale in space. It’s elegant and does a great job of humanizing a computer. The story is great at packing a punch in a fairly small space. Like with lots of Rajaniemi’s other works, the broader universe isn’t really expanded upon. Though this can be confusing, it’s also a bit refreshing. You can tell it’s well thought out and internally consistent, and that Rajaniemi knows you’ll follow without hand-holding.

Tyche and the Ants

A young girl was sent away for her own protection. She’s being cared for by a computer that sees to all of her needs, has a fairly constant idea of where she is, and possesses a bit of a domineering streak. Tyche, the girl, only really gets respite in the mysterious creatures that live outside her home. Whether they are benevolent or malicious, you can’t really say. It’s a story of trust, parenting, and self-determination.

Elegy for a Young Elk

This was one of the stories I really wish there had been a full novel for. It captures a lot of the charming and intriguing character building that Rajaniemi is fantastic at. Elegy  talks about the relationship between lovers, parents, and self. It deals with depression and substance abuse, all in a fantastic speculative setting.

In addition to the great stories, the collection features a number of recurring themes like individualism, parenting, and the relationship between man and computer. I only wish there had been a theme unifying the stories together.

Overall, 4/5

2015 Hugo Awards and the Sad Puppies Slate

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It’s hard to explain how I’m feeling about the Hugos this year. The Sad Puppies slate (read more here)  has undercut a lot of the discussion about the nominees in favor of talking about the nomination process itself. I do think a lot of that discussion is productive, but it’s disheartening that we can’t really talk about the works.

For those of you who are not familiar, the Hugo award nominees are chosen by fans (who have paid membership fees) is a large balloting process. Fans can nominate the works they think best exemplify SFF and the total nominations are tallied up, with the top six or so works being put on the ballot again, this time for the title of “Best [insert category here].”

The Sad Puppy slate has been present in the last three Hugo cycles. In an ideal world, the candidates in each category are chosen by each fan based on who they think did the best job. The Sad Puppy slate is a more politicized version of the process whereby a small group of people (largely associated with MRA groups and gamergate) advocated a pre-chosen list of works based, in part, on what they believe is most politically friendly to their viewpoints. The Sad Puppy Slate’s preferred works received a large portion of the nominations in this year’s Hugo cycle.

I’m going to talk about this in two portions because I think there are two different issues at hand: (1) the use of slates in the Hugo awards process, and (2) the actions and beliefs of the Sad Puppy group towards other fans and creators.

The use of slates in the Hugo Awards

It’s not against the Hugo voting rules to use slates.

It would be nearly impossible for the institution to identify slates, and the penalties for their use, considering that authors may or may not know they’ve been placed on a slate, would be hard to determine. Instead, the failsafe that the Hugos has in place for a large fan upset is a “No Award” option on every ballot.

What the problem with slates is, is the way that their use undercuts the ideals of the award.

The Hugos aim at a deliberative selection process, whereby voting acts as a simulated discussion (Granted real discussion happens, too). Each person tosses the best they can think of into the ring and voters then decide from among those which truly is the most deserving of an award intended to designate the work most meritorious and exemplary of the genre. The nearly four months between voting rounds allows the fans the opportunity to read the nominees they are unfamiliar with so that the truly best work can win.

Politicking has always gone on at the awards, to some degree or another. We’re not so naïve as to be unaware of that. Authors and publishing houses have always campaigned for works to be chosen. After all, the Hugos does provide a sales boost.

However, the dominance of a slate that advocates the blind nomination of works based on political ideology is fairly unprecedented.

Because the voting population for the Hugos is fairly small, approximately 2,000 voters for the most popular category and much fewer in less popular categories, it’s easy to skew the results of the nomination process. And, of course, when it’s derailed and by a large, but distinct minority of voters, the rest of the community is going to be upset.

Slates themselves are problematic. They reduce the number of potentially nominated works, undercut the deliberations that go into the nomination process, and potentially flood the awards with non-vetted works (read: works that have not actually been read). This means that the stories we are awarding may be extremely obscure, non-representative of the genre and its advances, or non-representative of the stories readers want to consume.

It should also be noted that slates are distinct from suggested nomination lists. Plenty of people put up lists of works they think work well in categories and suggest their readers, friends, fellow SFF lovers read the list when considering who to nominate. To me, this is a distinctly deliberative act. It allows for people to read and decide on their own without suggesting or advocating blind voting (to me the biggest problem with slates).  They are often include far more lists of works than the voter can nominate and act as a substitute longlist for readers. This is especially important for readers who want to sample and become more involved in categories like short fiction which have a much smaller readership.

The creation of a slate for political reasons is objectionable. What I will say here, is that the use of politics in this case is a limiting factor and detracts from the inclusive and representative goals we have for the Hugo. Again, they are within their rights to limit based on this factor, but I think that it suffers from a lack of consideration for new types of stories, and increasingly popular stories in the genre.

We all have limitations in our reading. Time, length, interest are all factors we have to balance. I think it is inkeeping with the spirit of the award, however, to push ourselves to read what we may otherwise ignore or not prioritize. As readers, we should always be pushing ourselves to empathize and expose ourselves to stories that are not familiar to us or that show a part of humanity we may not often see.

Sad Puppies as a group

There’s a lot to be said about the Sad Puppy group’s attitudes towards women, people of color, and the LGBT community. The Sad Puppy leaders have been willingly, and proud to be, associated with gamergate, a fiasco hallmarked by the sending of threats of rape, murder, and physical harm to those who disagree with them.

I’m really dismayed and saddened to see that type of hostility being introduced to our community.

So what do we do now?

I’m going to be reading all of the novel and short fiction nominees. I don’t want to penalize authors who may not have chosen the Sad Puppy slate as their champion. And, for all I know, some of the work they nominated may be genuinely good.

For those who are turned off by the Sad Puppy slate, particularly those who have the option to vote, I’d suggest using the “No Award” option.

On a more positive note, I think we can use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate what we look for in the Hugos, how we want to interact as a community, and where we’re going in the future (other than the stars).

Review: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

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If you didn’t know, I’m basically in love with Nnedi Okorafor. I want her to tuck me in and tell me stories at night and to be my best friend. You should probably know that before continuing on.

Front Cover

Akata Witch, while featuring Okorafor’s fantastic creativity and wit, is not an adult book. It aims well at the 12-14 range.

The story follows Sunny, a twelve year old living in Nigeria after having spent her first nine years in America. Sunny is often left alone or made fun of because she has albinism, a condition in which the skin lacks melanin, thus appearing white. This has set her apart from her classmates who call her akata, a derogatory word for people from the bush or to mark someone as an outsider unworthy or untrustable.

Sunny’s family is very normal. Highly educated, they spend much of their time teaching their children to behave and ensuring that they’re educated. They are more severe with Sunny who is the only daughter.

But, Sunny is different. Aside from her skin, her friends reveal that she is a Leopard Person, someone with magical powers and the ability to go between the regular and the magical world. Sunny then has to learn what this means, how to be a Leopard Person when the rest of her family was normal, and who she really is. All the while, a serial killer is on the loose.

There’s a lot that this book has to offer. From complex, but approachable and genuine characters to an entertaining and detailed plot, I really thought Okorafor knocked this one out of the park.

I know I like it, but the question is, will a younger reader (the intended audience) like it? I think the answer is yes. Okorafor creates a world that young readers will identify with: a kid who is fairly normal, if on the outside, who is thrust into an adventure that will change the world. Okorafor delves into west African and Nigerian folk-lore without assuming a great amount of knowledge or over explaining. She provides just the right amount of context for a reader, in particular a young reader, without leaving them feeling talked down to. I cannot speak of this highly enough. It leaves you with a sense of understanding and discovery.

What’s great about Akata Witch is that it also offers a wide cast of characters and problems. Okorafor’s story features characters whose lives are different. They have distinct problems, dyslexia, albinism, an estranged family, narcissism. They are different genders and races. They succeed, but not without their own insecurities and challenges to test them. But all of the characters feel complete and their interactions and personalities grow with the story.

Basically, this was a good read. It has it’s cheezy moments, but is a fun adventure with a lot to offer.