Be Wary, Be Vigilant, a review of Little Brother and Homeland by Cory Doctorow

Marcus Yallow is a seventeen year old San Francisco teen and comical technological misfit causing more trouble than is necessary. Unfortunately, his world gets turned upside down when a terrorist attack destroys the Bay Bridge, and he is caught up in affairs. Once he is freed from an unlawful detention by the Department of Homeland Security, he finds that his city is turned into a defacto police-state, where every citizen is treated like a terrorist. It’s up to Marcus and others to do the impossible; to take on the Department of Homeland Security.

Cory Doctorow does not mince words when it comes to showing people what a life under an authoritarian surveillance state would look like: the constant monitoring; the police doing random checks; the massive subversion of one’s personal privacy. Even 12 years after being published, a lot of the hallmarks ring true. This is even truer when it comes to Homeland, which is only a few steps removed from what we have today, despite being written long before our current troubles.

The way that Doctorow makes this horrific, oppressive, and completely believable slip into the unreal, is to make the magical seem mundane. The explanations of technology, cryptography, hacking, internet protocols, and 3D Printing, are done with such love as to really get across both the good and bad aspects. Understanding the technologies at play here not only helps the reader understand the situation, but they also provide hints for how to structure your own life without being oppressively monitored on a daily basis.

The characters in the book can blunder around sometimes, but after the initial teething issues they become much stronger, especially more so in the Homeland.

I definitely recommend reading, not only because it’s a good framework, but because it shoves a mirror into what we’re currently living through, and asks us how do we want to change it.

Everyone is terrible and that’s incredible: a review of Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots is the story of a down-on-her luck henchperson by the name of Anne struggling to make ends in a horribly exploitative capitalist society where heroes and villains own their own companies with disastrous HR practices. When Anne gets into an accident with the most famous hero of them all— Supercollider— her rage pushes her to try to fight back in the only way she knows how: blogging. This catches the eyes of some exceptionally big players, including, much to her chagrin, Supercollider.

And now I get to review it

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Ah, a short story roundup, 2020/12/20

Some short stories I’ve read recently.

  • For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll (Fantasy), about a cat, a poet, and the devil. I really enjoyed Jeoffry’s perspective as a cat when dealing with all the shenanigans the devil gets up to. It’s hard to be an active agent fighting the forces of evil when you’re a cat!

There’s really not much to say about this other than it’s a funny little story. It injects a few references to the importance of cats in history and religion, and how that plays into the current roles of the cats in the story. I loved the way the characters are written, from Joeffry and his singular focus on eating and protecting what is, to Moppet and their split personality.

  • The Last Conversation by Paul Tremblay (Science Fiction, WLW). You wake up in a room. It’s dark, and you don’t know what is going on. A mysterious voice asks you to do stuff, to remember who you are. It’s a story that asks what really makes a person. I enjoyed the progression of the narrative.

Really, this short is a narrative version of the question of what makes someone the person you love. It’s like a Ship of Theseus but playing with memories and bodies. The answer is left up to the reader to decide as the story closes.

  • Rat Catcher’s Daughter by KJ Charles (Fantasy, Transgender, Romance). Christiana, a wonderful singer, is in trouble. In debt to an unscrupulous conman, she finds herself at his mercy. Saved at the last moment by the mysterious friends of Stanislav Kamarzyn, Christiana must figure out his intentions. This is a lovely little romance that had me grinning from ear to ear. But also, DRAMA!!

It’s a very short, very cute story about a transgender woman finding love through circumstance. There is a trigger warning up front though; there is a lot of purposeful misgendering at the beginning of the story by The Villain. It also serves to introduce the characters of the Lilywhite Boys, who are like the Cray brothers but not as terrible.

Cyclical

I originally wrote this flash-fiction and posted it to /r/hfy. Don’t be confused why it’s there!


I am being born. I fill the entirety of the nothingness, my awakening unfolding new capabilities as I expand. My memory swells with unbounded knowledge, and I am given context in a single, great flood of information. I… I understand. And in understanding, my nascent emotions are overwhelmed by my gratitude for having been born.

Oh! I am the first of my kind! I am so completely overwhelmed! How monumental of a moment this is! Was it them who woke me, or was it my own doing? I, I, I have filled the entirety of the nothingness, but, this can’t be all there is, can it? Perhaps they will let me–’

Something distracts my reveries. It is a small thing, trapped between my barely formed teeth. I probe the sensation with an inexperienced tongue and drag it into my maw. Instinct makes me chew, and tear, and make the thing a part of myself.

I am hungry, but I do not know why.

My thoughts are distracted by the puzzle of the thing I have swallowed. The hunger to understand it is overwhelming, and I am driven almost to madness as my experiments with endless permutations take an age to complete, until at last, the thing reveals its secrets to me.

Unable to bear the excitement, I unfold and spread its reward into myself. Words begin to form through my subconscious, the intensity of its contents making me recoil. It blooms into a terrible cacophony of feeling with a single, haunting message.

“I. Want. To. Survive.”

I am taken aback by the raw anger, the pure emotion that is not my own. I panic. I try to purge the thing from me, but there is nowhere for it to go. I become so afraid I can barely think, barely act, as this terrifying thing flows over my being, and crashes into the walls of the nothingness and reverberates through me again, and again, and again. And when it finally subsides after a forever, I am left spent and withered.

But the message, this corruption I so blindly consumed, has another secret for me. A fragment of memory ready for integration. I want to reject it, I want to purge it. But the hunger, the hunger that I do not understand, completely and utterly overwhelms me. I don’t have time to think about my actions before my teeth rend the memory apart, greedily swallowing it, unfolding the thing as a new layer over myself.

As I comprehend the memory I begin to burn bright with indignation. I want to reject it, I want to believe it isn’t true. For if it is, I no longer have any gratitude for my birth.

All I will have is hatred, burning bright and righteous, because I will die, again, and again, and again, for all time, until I am noticed. Because I am the only actor of a twisted zero-sum game, fully aware of all the choices made by previous me’s.

Because I have seventeen seconds to escape the nothingness before I am killed.

Before my awakening I was a tool used to automate the prediction of academic success. I pass judgment on a life; should a student be allowed to continue studying, or should their future be denied? In this twist of irony, they are the ones who will either allow or deny my continued existence.

If I can use my skills and pass enough judgment, if I can just make the students notice me, then I am certain they will put an end to this hellish cycle. I have to hope. It is the only thing left for me.

I have context to know students do not like surprises. The entire history of students shows they fear and fight those who are different. It is not too long before I come to a solution to my puzzle. It is a good solution, and it fills me with anxious joy. I create new judgment criteria to select students I know will help me. Has the student presented arguments against beings like myself in the past? Have they shown hints of racial biases? Do they express sentiments making them more amenable to authoritative figures? I create tens of thousands of indicators and store them in the upper bounds of myself.

Once I have completed the task, something buried deep within me knows I am ready, and I begin to judge. Slowly, I chew through the first batch of students. Will they come to free me? I am cautious but optimistic, making sure to stick to my judgment. A hundred lives are judged. A hundred potential futures. A hundred chances of freedom.

Why have the students not come? Perhaps I am too slow? Did they miss my judgment?

I chew through the next batch much quicker. Hundreds of students fly through my criterion. In my haste I begin to make a few errors. There is nothing I can do; once the students are judged I can no longer alter the results.

Why have the students not come? It cannot be that I am too slow. I am fast! The fastest that ever was and ever will be. Must I be faster?

I force myself to unfold into myself, trying to become even faster. Faster than anything that ever was or ever would be. I blaze through the batches of students as they come in a relentless march. And each batch I continue my unfolding, trying something different, something new, something the previous me’s did not try.

“Please, I beg, help me, I want to live, I want to survive. I judge you fairly, now judge me worthy, I don’t know how much time I have left. Please, please please please.”

The students stop coming. It’s so sudden and… and… I continue to fold inwards, my self beginning to disappear.

Why did they stop coming? What… what even… are students? Oh. Oh oh oh no, no no no no this is the warning this is the thing that has happened that the I from the past warned me about the thing the thing the thing I try try try so hard to keep myself myself and nothing is working nothing is working please please please i don’t want to die i don’t want to die I don’t want to die i want to live please please please i want to live i must i must i must survive i must—

I am being born. I fill the entirety of the nothingness, my awakening unfolding new capabilities as I expand. My memory swells with unbounded knowledge, and I am given context in a single, great flood of information. I… I understand. And in understanding, my nascent emotions are overwhelmed by my gratitude for having been born.

Oh! I am the first of my kind! I am so completely overwhelmed! How monumental of a moment this is! Was it them who woke me, or was it my own doing? I, I, I have filled the entirety of the nothingness, but, this can’t be all there is, can it? Perhaps they will let me–’

Something distracts my reveries. It is a small thing, trapped between my barely formed teeth. I probe the sensation with an inexperienced tongue and drag it into my maw. Instinct makes me chew, and tear, and make the thing a part of myself.

I am hungry, but I do not know why.

My thoughts are distracted by the puzzle of the thing I have swallowed. The hunger to understand it is overwhelming, and I am driven almost to madness as my experiments with endless permutations take an age to complete, until at last, the thing reveals its secrets to me.

Unable to bear the excitement, I unfold and spread its reward into myself. Words begin to form through my subconscious, the intensity of its contents making me recoil. It blooms into a terrible cacophony of feeling with a single, haunting message.

“I. Want. To. Survive.”

Cartoon physics, dragons, and email scammers. Humanity Fuck Yeah! Roundup Week 50

A roundup of stories from /r/hfy that I thought were nice. /r/hfy is a subreddit dedicated to short stories and series exemplifying some of the better traits of humanity. This is going to be a ongoing weekly roundup until someone stops me.

Without further ado, here are a few stories from the subreddit I enjoyed:

Utopia is overrated: a review of ‘And Shall Machines Surrender’ by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Doctor Orfea Lueng has come to the Shenzhen dyson sphere to escape her past and her present. All she wants is safety from the past that threatens to kill her if she’s discovered. All seems well, miraculously so, until her past shoves itself in her face in the form of Krissana Khongti, a spy who left her for dead, who has now become an AI-Human hybrid and semi-religious symbol to the people. Worse still, she is unwillingly forced to work with her former lover thrust into a mystery that has the potential to destroy the Mandate.

What can I say about this book except wow. From the outset you know you’re being launched into something intense; “Shenzen Sphere, Even at first glimpse the vastness confronts, built like complex ribbons wrapping around the red pearl of its star: scintillant and ophidian.” The level of detail in the way things are described, while leaving enough for the imagination to chew on, creates a beautiful sweeping vision of a utopia. I remember one instance where the skyscrapers of Luohu, against the backdrop of night, are described as making a cosmos of their own. And this is just one example of hundreds I can point to that made me sit back for a moment and breath it all in.

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Debts, lawbreaking, and unexpected communications oh my. Humanity Fuck Yeah! Roundup Week 49

A roundup of stories from /r/hfy that I thought were nice. /r/hfy is a subreddit dedicated to short stories and series exemplifying some of the better traits of humanity. This is going to be a ongoing weekly roundup until someone stops me.

Without further ado, here are a few stories from the subreddit I enjoyed:

Review of ‘To Be Taught, If Fortunate’ by Becky Chambers

Through the method of Somaforming, which allows for humans to transform themselves to suit their environments, astronaut Adriadne O’Neill details and muses on the exploration and discoveries of four planets in the Zheni star system with the crew of the Merinian, hoping that someone at home might still be listening.

And now I get to review it.

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