Friday, October 31, 2014

Tapson on Tales and Totalitarianism

Over at Acculturated, Mark Tapson discusses how American pop media helped one North Korean teenager survive totalitarianism. Excerpts:
Park Yeon-mi was nine years old when she and the rest of her school were forced to attend the execution of a classmate’s mother. The poor woman’s capital crime was that she had lent a smuggled South Korean movie to a friend.

Under the brutally repressive regime of the insane Kim Jong-Il (now succeeded by his son, the insane Kim Jong-Un), “there were different levels of punishment” for such a crime, says Park. “If you were caught with a Bollywood or Russian movie you were sent to prison for three years but if it was South Korean or American you were executed.” ...

As a teenager, it was Hollywood love stories that opened Park’s eyes to the literal and spiritual impoverishment of her native country, she told The Guardian. Among her favorite movies were Titanic and Pretty Woman. “Everything in North Korea was about the leader, all the books, music and TV,” she said. “So what was shocking to me about Titanic was that the guy gave his life for the woman and not for his country -- I just couldn’t understand that mindset ...

“All the foreign movies we saw about love affected me and my generation,” said Park. “Now we no longer want to die for the regime, we want to die for love.”
Read the whole thing. I grew up in a household where pop culture was, if not exactly a problem per se, hardly the best way to spend one's time. And you know what? I completely understand that sentiment in an age where ballads about butt size and blendings of gospel music with one-night stands manage to top the charts. Still, still, still, even the shallowest songs, movies, and music can't escape a salient fact: All communication is charged with propositions, with truth claims about what is good or ugly, right or wrong, worthy of praise or ridicule. Such propositions -- however trite they may seem -- inspired Park Yeon-mi to resist tyranny. In the end, I'm not sure there's such a thing as utterly inconsequential art.

(Picture: CC 2007 by (stephan))

Monday, October 27, 2014

"Talebones"

Note: The following story is part of ISLF friend Eric Douglas' annual Halloween short-fiction roundup. It also represents something of a departure for me, having been composed within 48 hours and subject to minimal editing. Be kind, enjoy, and have yourself a very spooky All Saints' Eve.

Bones spoke to Jenny.

She discovered the gift -- if gift it was -- at the age of five. Her brother, Samuel, had been excavating in the backyard with a red-bladed Ames True Temper shovel. A foot down, he accidentally disturbed the grave of one Fluffymump, a former favorite feline. Some surreptitious digging, a quick bend and snatch, and he whirled, shouting, "Hey, Germy, catch."

Fluffymump's sepia skull landed in Jenny's outstretched hands.

Naturally, she screamed and ran upstairs to her room. Naturally, Jenny's father bent Samuel over his knee and given him three sharp whacks. Naturally, Jenny's mother followed close after to offer consolation and chocolate chip cookies only just taken from the oven. But that was where expectation ended. Jenny's mother couldn't get in her room, because the five-year-old had somehow wedged her dresser against the door. When Jenny's father finally managed to shove it open (toppling the dresser, which gouged a fist-size hole in the drywall), he found her curled in the corner, rocking. She was inconsolable, screaming when anyone touched her, whimpering when they didn't. They'd whispered about doctors, but within half an hour or so she asked for a glass of milk, told Samuel she'd forgiven him. Her parents were relieved. A disturbing reaction, but understandable given the thoughtless prank and a little girl's sensitivity.

Of course, they got it entirely wrong.

Stop and imagine the scene. Jenny's hands coming up instinctively. The feel of a strange, hard smoothness smacking skin. Then the sour-sweet stench of decay, the thing thought to be a ball rearranging itself into a terrible orb of fur-flecked bone. Your own experience can probably carry you that far. What it can't impart is the sound of shrieking brakes, the feel of your spine shattering under an impossibly huge and heavy blow, the salted-iron scent of your life's blood spreading across tarry blacktop. Jenny experienced all of it in an instant and suddenly knew Fluffymump didn't die in her sleep as her parents had said. Sensitive? Hardly. Only her innate girlish grit kept her sanity from snapping right then and there.

Not that the experience left her untouched. Within weeks, she became an uncompromising vegetarian who shuddered over baby-back ribs and fish fillets, although not for the reasons which others imagined. On a field trip to the science museum, she gagged and clutched at her throat after playing with the sealed sensory box, writhing on the floor until the EMTs arrived. (She soon recovered, and an investigation of the box revealed it contained only jacks, dried beans, a twist of burlap, and a chicken femur polished shiny by countless small hands.) She passed high school biology with a C-, owed entirely to her unwillingness to participate in any dissections. She refused to attend her grandfather burial, unable to convince herself that the faint murmurings she heard while walking a stone-stippled graveyard were entirely in her imagination.

College proved better. College offered more in the way of options. Jenny went out of state. She stayed far away from the physical sciences and majored in accounting. She roomed with a pair of vegans in the town's historic district, dwelling in an old row house with red-brick walls, three tiny floors, and a basement so old the concrete had begun to crumble. Linebacker-large Lana and pixie-petite Maryanne wouldn't think of questioning her choice of diet. They were older and activists. They wore hemp and unbleached cotton. They argued passionately for global implementation of China's one-child policy and the outlawing of all forms of animal testing. They were political in a way Jenny had never experienced.

"Look, I know it's a cliche," Lana said more than once over meals of tofu or edamame or spaghetti squash. "But think about it. Personhood is defined by the ability to enjoy your existence, to prefer to continue your life. Why restrict that definition to just humans? Can it be for any reason other than speciesism?" Her first thundered against the table. "Meat really is murder. Maybe our society needs a taste of it to understand."

"Don't mind her," Maryanne always said. "She's all talk."

Jenny didn't mind. Her choice, though, owed less to ideology than psychic survival. She acknowledged the benefits of easily available protein and loved a juicy hamburger. But any fleck of marrow secreted in ground chuck might bring the stunning thunk of a slaughterhouse bolt gun to her forehead. Not that she wanted to explain. Such a cross wind of opinion would surely whip stormy Lana in a full-fledged tempest and (she suspected) agitate even serene Maryanne.

So she said little and listened much. She attended to her studies. And in her junior year, she met a boy.

Dr. Soumitra Ghosh had a reputation amongst accounting majors for being tough but fair -- but mostly tough. Still, Jenny wanted to graduate early, and it fit into her schedule, a once-a-week night class. "I do not hand out A's," Dr. Ghosh said during the very first class. Jenny skimmed the syllabus. Deferred compensation, depletion, gross income exclusions -- everything she'd studied before, simply in more detail. She glanced at the other students scattered around the room, only a dozen, a bad sign for a professor's popularity. Her gaze lingered on the square-shouldered young man sitting to her right. His curling hair was the color of coal, his high cheekbones cut as if with a chisel, his eyes slate gray. While she watched, his pen beat a staccato tattoo on the desk and his shoulders clenched, relaxed, clenched again. Nervous.

While Jenny was packing, she heard a throat being conspicuously cleared.

"Uh," said the young man. "Hi. Um, look, I'm embarrassed to ask this, but you seemed to know what's going on."

Jenny raised an eyebrow. "It's just tax accounting."

He grimaced. "I know, right? But that example on property dispositions had me completely confused."

"Didn't you take ACG 6730?"

"It wasn't listed as a prerequisite."

"Everyone in the department knows you need it if you're going to take anything with Dr. Ghosh."

He sighed. "Great. See, I'm not from the department. I'm on the entrepreneurship track, but I was hoping to graduate this semester. It's the only class that fit."

Jenny found a smile teasing the corner of her mouth at the utter dejection on his face. "Looks like you're going to need a tutor."

"Guess so. Maybe the registrar has a list or something."

Jenny swallowed, her heart suddenly stuck six inches above her sternum. "Or I could ... help you out with the basics. It's not too hard once you get the hang of it."

He beamed like a cloudless sunrise. "You are awesome. Got time now? I'm starving, and there's a KFC on campus. My treat."

Jenny hedged. "How about coffee?"

His name was Marc. His mother was British, his father Iranian, and he'd shocked them both by deciding to go to school in the states. He'd shocked them more when he said that the U.K. was an economic train wreck waiting to happen, had miserable weather and worse food (unless you counted fish and chips, and you couldn't eat that for two meals a day each and every week), and he only planned to return on holidays. He'd already sketched out a plan to open a Culver's franchise in every state on the eastern seaboard within a decade.

"I have a bit of an aggressive personality," he explained. "So, we can do this again? And, by the way, you know you have beautiful eyes, right?"

They accomplished very little in the way of studying.

Marc insisted on walking her home, and tried kiss her. Jenny waved him off, laughing. After their third rendezvous, she let him. After the sixth, the thing that broke their lip lock was Maryanne whipping open the front door.

"Cute guy," said Maryanne once they were both inside. "You going to marry him? Have a bunch of kids?" Her small shoulders shivered with ill-controlled rage.

"I don't know. I just met him a few weeks ago. What's the matter with you anyway?"

"The matter with me? Haven't you been listening to what we've been saying? The reproductive drive lies at the root of anthropocentrism, the nexus of all the major problems this planet is facing. And there you are, living with us, listening to us, and then acting like a breeder behind our backs --"

"Maryanne, stop, please," Jenny interrupted. "You're starting to scare me. Where's Lana?"

Maryanne turned away, placed her hands on a side table bearing a jumble of keys, a heavy pewter candlestick, a bowl of stevia-sweetened mints. "At one of her meetings."

"Do you know when she'll get back? Because I think we should talk about this. I respect you both and your ideas, but I need to live my life."

Maryanne chuckled, a sad sound. "Talk. It always comes down to that. Lana likes it, talking about small steps and incremental change. She's all talk. I told you so."

"Incremental change doesn't sound so bad."

"Exponential is better. Pull out the weed by the root. I'm not all talk."

And her hand closed around the candlestick, whipped around, and struck Jenny on the head.

Jenny awoke in the dark with a blood-red pulse hammering behind her eyes. She knew her hands and legs were bound. She knew she was in the basement. She knew Maryanne, with her normally quiet demeanor, was stone crazy in a way that went beyond politics. She knew she would soon come down the steps with a box cutter.

She knew all this because the bed of bones upon which she was pillowed told her so.

Five women all approximately her own age. Five drawn by the allure of cheap rent in the historic part of town. Five women either supportive of, indifferent to, or repulsed by their roommates' beliefs. Five women whom Maryanne had found were in romantic relationships. Five women who, for the sake on an idea, were secreted away in quicklime in a crude ossuary cut into the basement's concrete floor and covered by boards and gravel until another was ready to join them.

Their bones spoke to Jenny. They poured out anger and outrage, horror and hurt. And Jenny, teetering on the brink of madness, did something she'd never done before: She talked back. She explained the rope around her wrists and the gag in her mouth. She told them about Marc and her studies. She described her parents and Samuel and Fluffymump as she'd been when she was alive. When words failed, she began to cry. And when the tears ceased, she realized that even the bones had grown silent.

She felt something move underneath her. She heard a sound of clicking, as if of the mandibles of some enormous chitinous creature. She saw a rectangle of light appear around the door at the top of the stair, saw it widen as it opened, Maryanne's silhouette framed within it.

Then things began to happened.

Later, the police officer tasked with the unenviable task of writing up the report would concoct a theory about a group of mysterious assailants who had broken in to the bungalow, although their motivations remained a mystery. It had to have been a "they," because position of the victim's body -- if victim you could call her -- showed she'd been flayed alive with her own X-Acto knife. (The officer so surmised, because forensics could find only her prints on it.) Reconstructions of the scene indicated at least a half-dozen assailants and that the death had been ... prolonged. The strangest part, though, were the bones that had been scattered about her, a jumble of remains from the murders of missing college coeds over the past three years. Their appearance had the authorities baffled. The sole survivor, one Jennifer Hartswick, could shed no light on the matter, claiming to have been unconscious throughout the whole thing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Isaacson on a New Paradigm for Artificial Intelligence

In the September 27-28, 2014, edition of The Wall Street Journal, Walter Isaacson (The Innovators) talks about code cracker Alan Turing, thinking machines, and a new paradigm for artificial intelligence. Excerpts:
These questions [about free will] came together in a paper, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," that Turing published in 1950. With a schoolboy's sense of fun, he invented a game -- one that is still being played and debated -- to give meaning to the question, "Can machines think?" He proposed a purely empirical definition of artificial intelligence: If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, then we have no meaningful reason to insist that the machine isn't "thinking." ...

At Applied Minds near Los Angeles, you can get an exciting look at how a robot is being programmed to maneuver, but it soon becomes apparent that it has trouble navigating an unfamiliar room, picking up a crayon and writing its name. A visit to Nuance Communications near Boston shows the wondrous advances in speech-recognition technologies that underpin Siri and other systems, but it is also apparent to anyone using Siri that you still can't have a truly meaningful conversation with a computer, except in a fantasy movie. A visit to the New York City police command system in Manhattan reveals how computers scan thousands of feeds from surveillance cameras as part of a Domain Awareness System, but the system still cannot reliably identify your mother's face in a crowd.

All of these tasks have one thing in common: Even a 4-year-old can do them.

Perhaps the latest round of reports about neural-network breakthroughs does in fact mean that, in 20 years, there will be machines that think like humans. But there is another possibility, the one that Ada Lovelace envisioned: that the combined talents of humans and computers, when working together in partnership and symbiosis, will indefinitely be more creative than any computer working alone.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). For years, the idea of the sentient computer has permeated science fiction. (Think William Gibson's Wintermute or Arthur C. Clarke's Hal 9000.) In fact, I'd argue that it's moved from trope to cliché. What's more, few genre writers have ever stopped to critically consider the concomitant concepts of such a view, such as how the increasing physical complexity of the material brain can ever result in an immaterial mind or why focused thought sometimes seems to reshape gray matter. Here's to hoping Isaacson's paradigm of computer/human partnership gains popularity not only for creativity's sake, but so that more people can start considering big questions.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Saad Faruque)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Small Sorrows and Everyday Joys Roil Ocean

The danger for a novelist in finding repeated success lies in the increased probability that readers will eventually get wise to his formula. The more distinctive the style, the greater the danger, and few modern fantasists are as distinctive as Neil Gaiman. His mystical stories often feature young protagonists traipsing into faerie (Stardust), being raised by dead people (The Graveyard Book), and finding their mothers replaced by an unnamable horrors bent on their destruction (Coraline). I've generally enjoyed Gaiman, but I have to admit that descriptions of his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, made it seem somewhat lacking: A boy living in the British countryside discovers that his mysterious neighbors, the Hempstock women, have access to a world beneath the world. Okay, nothing new so far. But Gaiman keeps things fresh in an unexpected way: For the first third or so of the book, his trademark fantasy barely gets a nod.

How to explain the way in which The Ocean at the End of the Lane unfolds? Frankly, it reads a lot like Ray Bradbury. Gaiman spends a ton of time on the texture of the unnamed narrator's childhood, a narrator one suspects has quite a lot in common with Gaiman himself. You know how Bradbury liked to go on and on about apple pie and carnivals and the delights of Midwestern summers? Well, Gaiman does much the same here, but instead of zeroing in on youthful joys, the book focuses on its small sorrows. The death of a favorite cat. A father's inability to make toast without burning it. Never quite fitting in and fearing you never will. The narrator's only constant comfort seems to be books. "I liked myths," he says. "They weren't adult stories, and they weren't children's stories. They were better than that. They just were. Adult stories never made sense. They were so slow to start. They made me feel like there were secrets, Masonic, mythic secrets, to adulthood. Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?" The effect isn't a straight draught of sadness, but a subtle, permeating melancholic tincture.

Well, at least until a housekeeper named Ursula Monkton -- who is not at all what she appears to be -- shows up. Then it becomes an adult version of Gaiman's own Coraline, a version tinged with cosmic horror. You'll notice that I haven't described much of the plot, because a lot of the joy of reading Ocean comes from discovery. Suffice it to say that Lovecraft's peculiar blend of science fiction and terror pops up more than once, with creatures from the beyond the veil of space and time shredding the thin barrier that separates our plane of existence from theirs. But those aren't the scariest parts. No, Gaiman reserves the real horror for the misunderstood clutch of adult bodies spied through parted drapes, for the strength of a father's hands that reach out in anger rather than love. Amongst the cosmos-spanning revelations, the book keeps drawing us back to little pains and tiny joys, the stuff of universal human experience. It's a masterstroke to meld the miraculous with the mundane, and for that The Ocean at the End of the Lane deserves attention.

(Picture: CC 2014 by Graham Richardson)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Music To Write By: Flyleaf's "City Kids"

Why Listen? For a collaborative use of form that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts; an example of the importance of contrast.



Bands have a hard time replacing charismatic frontmen -- or, in the case of hard-rock quintet Flyleaf, frontwomen. While helmed by manic pixie screamo grrrl Lacey Mosley, the band managed to crack the Billboard charts, propelled in no small amount by her ability to sound entranced, ecstatic, fragile, and downright aggressive all within the space of a three-and-a-half minutes. So how does a group compensate when a singer with such range suddenly chooses family life over the rigors of the road? You pick the best replacement you can (in the case of Flyleaf, Vedera's Kristen May) and alter the form of your art to adapt to your new competencies.

Though hardcore fans of Flyleaf have kvetched over the switch, the song "City Kids" shows the effectiveness of the band's sonic strategy. A coming-of-age anthem penned by guitarist Sameer Bhattacharya, it muses over lost love and the transmuting power of time, buoyed by delicate chords, pulsing percussion, and May's pure tones:
Walking through the city we grew up in.
Everything has changed again.
I remember fighting to believe in
Truth and how the good will win.

But we were young, almost in love,
Too scared to reach out for what was.
The sweet, steady sound, though, gives way at the end of the chorus when the amplifiers kick into overdrive and bassist Pat Seals looses a raging hardcore scream that slowly fades into a tortured wail. A jarring contrast? You bet. But it also fits both the disenchanted subject matter and the sound the band's former siren helped foment. It's an instructive approach. Few writers can tackle all areas of the crafts in every way they want to. Perhaps Flyleaf's creative use of form could serve as a model.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Atrocity Compounds Something All Its Own

Pop quiz, dear readers: What's the difference between a mixture and a compound? Yeah, I know, you came here for books not basic chemistry, but stick with me. That logophile's authority Merriam-Webster calls a mixture "a combination of different kinds of things," while it dubs a compound "a distinct substance formed by chemical union of two or more ingredients in definite proportion by weight." Remember the difference? In a mixture, the various ingredients retain their properties and can be relatively easily separated; in a compound, the components bond together to make something entirely new that can only be split apart by its destruction. Think of raisin bran, trail mix, and Earth's atmosphere as examples of the former. And for the latter, consider water, salt -- and Charles Stross' wonderful melding of horror, spy thriller, and Lovecraftian horror called The Atrocity Archives.

The question, of course, is why would one call call an ultra-secret U.K. agency (an agency dedicated to warding off eldritch destruction from beyond the bounds of our very universe) the Laundry? I mean, the Americans get to call their analogous organization the Black Chamber, which is ever so much more menacing. Alas, the Laundry owes its moniker to the fact that its original offices once perched over a Chinese laundry. That's bureaucracy for you, and the Crown's most clandestine organization isn't above auditing the number of paperclips in your desk drawer. That drives Laundry computer geek Bob Howard nuts. He knows that all it takes to draw a squamous evil into our plane of existence is the right arithmetic formulae, some arcane geometry, and a little shed blood to collapse the quantum wave. (Seems that magic and math have quite a lot in common.) Any fool with an advanced degree can do it, which is why so many of them get drafted by the Laundry -- including Bob. Well, thanks to some quick thinking in applying a fire extinguisher to the cranium of a possessed coworker, Bob's about to get drafted again, this time into field service. And that field service will involve everything from Middle Eastern occult terrorists to a CCTV network rewired to act as a modern Medusa.

Any speculative fiction author worth his salt can come up with a cornucopia of ideas from the genre's grab bag, and Stross has certainly seized more than his fair share. The first line of The Atrocity Archives is "Green sky at night; hackers delight," and an allusion to the most recognizable line in William Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" rounds out the collection. (The book contains a short novel and a novella.) But among the technobabble appears skull-and-dagger spycraft worth of John le Carré and a special forces operation that recalls Tom Clancy. Those tough military types, though, aren't hunting run-of-the mill terrorists; they're after sanity-shredding horrors from beyond the veil of space and time. Throw in some super-advanced math and gadgets reminiscent of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki, and you've an idea of how The Atrocity Archives reads. Only not really, because it's difficult to convey how smoothly the book unfolds. You'd expect lumps and pacing problems in a title with such diverse influences, but it feels entirely natural when Bob steps through a transdimensional portal in an Amsterdam hotel and lands in an airless alternative earth where Nazi holdouts have carved a portrait of Hitler on the moon. Making that work takes writing chops, and Stross certainly has them. With The Atrocity Archives, he's compounded something all his own.

(Picture: CC 2013 by Ares Nguyen)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Pinker on When Being Too Bright Ruins Writing

In the September 27-28 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Steven Pinker discusses why a surfeit of smarts can destroy an author's writing. Excerpts:
I once attended a lecture on biology addressed to a large general audience at a conference on technology, entertainment and design. The lecture was also being filmed for distribution over the Internet to millions of other laypeople. The speaker was an eminent biologist who had been invited to explain his recent breakthrough in the structure of DNA. He launched into a jargon-packed technical presentation that was geared to his fellow molecular biologists, and it was immediately apparent to everyone in the room that none of them understood a word and he was wasting their time. ...

Call it the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know. The term was invented by economists to help explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they possess information that their opposite number does not. Psychologists sometimes call it mindblindness. ...

The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation of why good people write bad prose. It simply doesn't occur to the writer that her readers don't know what she knows—that they haven't mastered the argot of her guild, can't divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention, have no way to visualize a scene that to her is as clear as day. And so the writer doesn't bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the necessary detail.
Read the whole thing (and if the Journal's Web site wants you to subscribe, remember that Google is your friend). At the beginning of his piece, Pinker addresses the oft-repeated claim that Ivory Tower types and various other elites pen opaque prose because of an innate sense of superiority. Goodness knows I've implied as much about the literary set. But Pinker wisely draws attention to a little maxim known as Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." Perhaps one ought to add the clause "or to lack of empathy," because that's what Pinker really addresses here. Rarified types aren't necessarily mean or stuck up or smitten by superciliousness. They simply haven't placed themselves in the audience's shoes. Perhaps this explains why literary fiction and hard SF alike both struggle to acquire new readers. They've forgotten that sterling style and technically proficient predictions don't necessarily draw everyone's delight.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Chris Goldberg)