Friday Favorites: “Blindsight” by Peter Watts

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m reposting a review of Peter Watts’ “Blindsight” (free to read online) that I wrote years ago, with a few updates. Wow, I used to write longer reviews back in the day …

“Blindsight” is a first contact story in a technologically advanced future, where humans have finally gone where they aren’t biologically meant to go, which is to say, they are generating and discovering more data than their brains and meat can handle. Cybernetically augmented people act as the conduit between the technology and the people. One of these augments is the protagonist, Siri Keeton, who had half his brain removed as a child, resulting in losing much of his capacity for emotions and empathy. As an adult, Siri specializes in interpreting incredibly high orders of data and patterns, thereby acting as a middleman between humankind’s incomprehensible technology and humankind itself.

Sidenote 1: this book was written in 2006, predating Apple’s Siri, but you could take it as an accidental prophecy.

Sidenote 2: I’m not super on board with how Watts talks about autism in this story. It’s not my place to talk about it, so I’ll point you to Ada Hoffman’s commentary.

One day in 2082, Earth is visited by a group of projectiles that flash over Earth and then vanish, leaving no clue behind. Siri is sent with a similarly enhanced five-man team towards the unknown, in order to investigate. The crew is incredibly complicated and interesting, all manifestations of the author (a professional marine biologist) exploring a number of neurology, biology, and cognitive science theories such as manufactured multiple personalities, sensory augmentation, and even resurrected vampires.

The first contact is a harrowing one, and as incredible discoveries about the aliens come to light, we find ourselves asking along with the protagonists the big question of the book: what good is consciousness? It’s a risky proposition for an audience that is only able to process the story through consciousness. The titular real-life condition of blindsight–in which a person with blindness resulting from brain damage to their visual processing center, can nevertheless respond to visual stimuli, such as catching an object that they are unable to see–is used to convey to us how it “feels” to be a creature with intelligence but no sentience. Uncoupling “intelligent responses” from “sentience” is an interesting move, because that is one enormous question of AI: at what point could humans make a sentient machine? Can we ever tell if it is a sentient machine, due to the fact that we can never see from the machine’s “mind”? “Blindsight” makes the argument that it doesn’t matter. “Blindsight” says: we don’t really know what thinking is, or what a soul is, or what it really means to be a sentient thing. Therefore the only logical response is to use the only measure we have of intelligence, which is that the entity is capable of learning, of pattern recognition, of improved performance, at which point this begins to sound very familiar to computer science folks.

Many people act as if the be-all end-all of machine learning, of making a “thinking machine”, necessarily ends in sentience. The hypothesis posed by “Blindsight” is that such a statement is being human-centric, perhaps even sentience-centric. Rather, it is entirely possible, and perhaps evolutionarily favorable, to become extremely intelligent without developing sentience. Such organisms would not so much think as calculate, sifting and gathering through patterns and then reacting. Living in the void of space as they have for ages, crunching the pure hard data of natural physics and mathematics, they have perfected themselves. But human data is infinitely messier, often purposeless, stuffed with what entertains a sentient mind but is meaningless to a data processor.

So–who’s going to win?

In the book, the reader is invited to “pretend you are Siri Keeton” and if you do so successfully, then you might end up rooting for the aliens made of pure data. And I actually did briefly, which is perhaps the highest praise a book like this can receive, and which is why I put this down as a favorite. I wouldn’t say it was a fantastic emotional experience reading this book, but as a conceptual exercise I found it incredibly well executed.

We never actually find out who ultimately wins–Siri isn’t there to see it–although he closes the story with a hypothesis … which I will not spoil, but which I disagree with.

The book (or Siri) posits pretty hard that humans are cognitively weaker than aliens made out of pure data, because we have the useless middleman of a consciousness slowing things down. Last I checked, humans have built some pretty spiffy machines that can crunch data at incredible speed, and in Blindsight it’s advanced beyond what we can imagine today. So I truly see no reason that humans are inherently disadvantaged.

I feel like the battle of the races in Siri’s mind is a metaphorical one, and ends the way that he–nearly an alien himself–finds the most comforting.

Then again, perhaps I’m doing the same thing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Friday Favorites: “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep

For today’s Friday Favorite, I’m going talk about “Ribbons” by Laurence Yep, a YA book. It’s not SFF, but it is ballet, so we’re still #onbrand!

“Ribbons” follows Robin, an eleven-year-old Chinese-American girl who is a promising and passionate ballet student. But, she has to give up those lessons so that her parents can afford to bring her aging grandmother to the US, which permanently alters the family dynamics as well as economics.

Once her grandmother arrives, Robin wants nothing more than to go back to her beloved ballet lessons, but when her grandmother sees her tying on a pair of pointe shoes with satin ribbons, all hell breaks loose for reasons that nobody will explain to Robin, who is feeling more and more pushed out of the family circle. Resentment, jealousy, and pain build until Robin and her grandmother accidentally come to a better understanding of each other’s inner world and the hurts they both hold.

Reader, this book was the first time that I really and truly saw myself in a story. I remember the utter shock of it: someone wrote a book–for me?

I desperately wanted ballet lessons as a child. I had my first ballet lesson when I was over 30. I did not have a cranky grandmother living with my Chinese-American immigrant family in the US, but I knew that the reason for my deprivation was in part because my parents were desperately saving all the money they could for my future and my younger brother’s future. (I say in part because they eventually did scrape up some money for entirely unwanted piano lessons.)

In hindsight of course I am sure there are many, many Chinese immigrant girls who wanted ballet lessons. But I didn’t know at the time because I didn’t live next to or talk with any of them, because my parents chose to bring us to white suburbia. That had its benefits for sure. Diversity was not one of them. I consumed and even enjoyed volumes upon volumes of white ballet girl books (I love Noel Streatfeild’s “Ballet Shoes” to pieces, so please don’t take this post to be a slam on those stories) but I knew those books weren’t for or about me. The same was broadly true of my reading, whether it was in literature or SFF. I did occasionally land on a book about being a Chinese immigrant, which was inevitably about Pain and Suffering and Abusive Family Dynamics. Thank you, publishers, for reducing my existence to those dimensions!

So it was incredible to read “Ribbons,” which seemed like it had been written just for me. If you looked at the readership of the extremely white town where I lived, from whose library shelves I plucked the volume, that might even have been true.

Although the book is not SFF, it was a fantasy for me: an AsAm girl immigrant who cannot have the ballet lessons that she so desperately wants–and even though she’s talented to boot. (I’m not talented. I did say this was a fantasy.) And as a child who thought she would never get the chance to dance, I made my peace with that and let Robin dance for me. I was a dramatic child, okay.

And then at age 30something, I hauled myself into a ballet studio and paid for my first lesson. I’ll never stop wishing I’d been able to dance as a child, but I am slowly learning that it is just as valid and beautiful to pick it up now as it would have been 25 years ago. Thanks for inspiring me, Laurence Yep.

(On a less self-centered note, I find it extremely regrettable that whole piles of talent and passion and drive in this world are lost. By the end of the book, Robin gets her chance. Many people never do, which is the part where the fantasy breaks down. This is why I donate to my dance studio.)

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to write fanfiction where Robin goes away to SAB and becomes an NYCB soloist.

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Friday Favorites: Jorge Luis Borges

This week’s Friday Favorite is the various fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which kicked off a period in my own writing where I wanted desperately to sound like him. I am especially sorry to anyone who was around for the Peak Borgesian period of my fanfiction career. (There were one or two successes–mostly when I wrote straight-up Borges fusions–but let’s be real, I was being a terrible tryhard for the most part. In fact, I just checked the depths of my google drive and there is totally an outline for a BBC Sherlock fanfic that is 75% intended as a riff on “Death and the Compass.” No, I never wrote a word of it, but you are free to imagine it, which is the most Borgesian way possible of reading it in any case.)

In addition to Borges’ various Cool And/Or Mindblowing Ideas, which he is justly famous for, I would also say that one of his great skills was cramming his writing full of faux-throwaway references and digressions and sly asides to everything under the sun: literature, history, his contemporary writers, and of course the occasional false references, few of which exist in my mental index. Yet those stories and their digressions were still strangely, compulsively readable. It reminds me of scholarly works, only of course these are imaginary histories. On brand. (It’s probably also why attempts to emulate him are best made by those who are extremely well read and educated, i.e. not myself.)

Borges’ influence on me was not so much in his ideas, although I do share some of his obsession with trying to explore infinite possibilities within our finite lives. Rather, more than any other writer, Borges made me say “you can do THAT?” And the next thing I said was, “I have to try it myself!”

For the record, though, my favorite of his stories is “The Secret Miracle.”

Many times, when an author is the first to exemplify a genre or a concept or at least to bring it to mass attention*, their work looks like flat clichés if you come to, or revisit, them after exploring more of the rest of the genre. Borgesian stories, by contrast, has never lost their particular magic for me. I think it is because of how absolutely grounded his fantasies in the time and space that he occupied, and in the immense library inside his head. Like his story, “The Book of Sand,” Borges’ work continually and infinitely yields newness to me.

* I maintain that Borges invented the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” You can read it in translation, along with other stories including “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” in this pdf.

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Friday Favorites: “After Life” by Koreeda Hirokazu

Screen capture from the opening of “After Life”. Image from Mubi.

This week’s Friday Favorite is the reason that I write reviews in the first place: “After Life,” a film by Koreeda Hirokazu. As a note, the original Japanese title was ワンダフルライフ, “Wonderful Life.”

The premise of the film: a group of people walk into something like an abandoned schoolhouse somewhere in Japan. A counselor greets each of them to explain: you are dead. This is the afterlife. And there is no heaven or hell. There is, instead, a film crew.

This is a makeshift movie studio. You have a week to pick your favorite memory from your entire lifetime (and if you need your memory jogged, you can watch your entire life on tape, one for each year). Once you decide, we will do our very best to portray that moment on film. You will then spend the rest of eternity watching that film, forever and ever …

The dead are ordinary people running a gamut of ages and life experiences: a teenager, a call girl, a salaryman, a grandmother. Some know what they want to remember. Some change their minds after self-reflection. Some lost their memories in life. Some feel they have nothing worth remembering. (What happens if you don’t or can’t choose? That’s answered in the film, too.) And as the crew shepherds their charges through the week with more or less art therapy, old memories awaken–and collide.

This is a beautiful and quiet and devastating but above all, life-affirming movie, even though it is about the dead. It’s about love, how we touch people without knowing it, how we live our lives, how memories change as we change, and how in the end, yes, all we have are memories … but that’s not nothing. That’s everything.

This movie changed my life, and I don’t remember who told me about it.

I didn’t used to be the kind of person who seeks out reviews. So I don’t even know how I stumbled on someone’s blurb describing the premise of the movie. I can’t even guarantee that it was a recommendation. I just remember a one-line précis that made me think “huh, that could be actually interesting” and then I ordered it from Netflix, and it broke my heart wide open.

If I am ever able to write something that touches someone else, it will have been in part because someone took the time to jot down a few words about this movie that barely grossed anything at the box office.

So here I am, jotting down my own little reviews in a similar hope that I will help someone. Probably not as much as the anonymous reviewer helped me–but a bit, I hope.

But back to the point, because this is a recommendation post: this is an amazing movie and I hope you will give it a chance.

If my review hasn’t convinced you, maybe that of the late, great Roger Ebert will.

(And I hope that he is there now, in that schoolhouse, watching everyone’s memories on film, forever and ever.)

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Friday Favorites: “Hokkaido Green” by Aidan Doyle

This week’s Friday Favorite (yes, I’m back!) is a short (1600-ish words) story that stabbed me through the heart when I first read it year ago: Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

Like everyone, I have my Things, my Tropes, my Narrative Kinks, my Stabs In The Heart. One of the topics nearest and dearest to my soul is asking the question: what are memories worth? What do they matter? And what is worth more: the thing itself or your memories, your feelings, your sentiments, about the thing?

There is, of course, no definitive answer to that question, and Hokkaido Green doesn’t pretend to give you one. It just lays out the story for you, like a photograph that you come back to over and over again.

The language is spare and quiet and a little sad, like Hitoshi, the worn-down salaryman at the center of the story. He’s lost his family. All he has of them are photos and memories. His father, who ran a restaurant, had been hoping to pass a certain recipe on to Hitoshi before he died.

After his brother dies at the start of the story, Hitoshi takes a trip to Hokkaido, a place that his father had spoken of. There, he gets a chance to make a trade … and has to gather and sift and weigh and measure one set of memories against another, with quietly devastating consequences.

In the end, I’m not really sure that I am able to explain exactly why this story makes me smile and cry and then stare off into the distance, thinking about what memories weigh inside my heart. But that is okay, because the story is all about the ineffable:

“Colors are like dreams,” his father replied. “If you try and reproduce them, you’ll only be disappointed.”

Fortunately, in this case, we are able to dream the same dream—read the same story—and find out for ourselves, should you wish to do so.

Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

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Friday Favorites: “Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang

Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang, published in Gignotosaurus.

Plot: Isabel Chang is a kitchen witch who runs a Pâtisserie in Montreal. One day, she is asked to help Elias, a young man with an immortality curse of Chinese origin, break his curse.

“Hungry Demigods” is a delightful story about family and food. (Against every stereotype, I don’t seek to read about these topics. Ever. A good friend linked me the story. Thanks, Tari!) But what was more, I deeply resonated with the Chinese magic elements and how they were used in this story–I don’t want to spoil them for you, because coming upon those elements so unexpectedly left me shrieking a little with joy! I feel it is the lit equivalent of amazing fusion cuisine (if you will), using and updating some of my very favorite concepts from Chinese folklore/mythology.

This story … I felt a bit like Elias biting into one of Isabel’s buns: “I’d forgotten how food could taste, after you haven’t eaten in ages. It’s like color returning to the world.”

Don’t get me wrong–I fully understand that not everything is for everyone. But when I do manage to stumble upon a story for me … there’s nothing like it.

You may notice I haven’t recced a whole lot of Chinese/East Asian diaspora stories. That’s because when I click on a story and realize that it’s about my ethnicity/culture, sometimes I will back-button. Even if the author’s name suggests they are writing from their lived experience as a part of said ethnicity/culture. Sometimes I run away ever faster—because 1) at least if someone is writing from a place of ignorance, it’s easier to shrug off if I don’t like it. 2) I feel like a traitor if I end up disliking something by a fellow Chinese/East Asian diaspora writer … and I have felt like a traitor many times. I know that’s irrational, but you try reasoning with feelings. Then one day I realized that my fear came from “the danger of a single story” (TED talk by Novelist Chimamanda Adichie). I had personally been burned by the prevalence of certain pieces of Chinese-American literature in the popular consciousness that I felt did not speak to my experience, but that due to the single-story effect, became what others thought of me*. Of course that was and is not the fault of the author or the literature, it’s the fault of the publishing environment. But it still hurt. I’m not going to apologize for protecting myself. But I do find that lately, I am able to explore more. To see what my fellow people are doing. Even to dip my own toe into telling my stories, which I had not really felt like doing in the past. That’s a story for another post. In any case, I’ve been grateful for the slow yet steady increase in Chinese/East Asian diaspora writers being published, along with stories about their cultures (not that they have to be, obviously, I’d be a hypocrite if I said so).

As usual, a review says more about the reader than the story! Which you should read. “Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang!

* Chinese stories from China, translated into English, do not meet my mental barriers in this regard. The original intended audience is different, so it doesn’t trip my wires.

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Friday Favorites: “Saga” by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The first Friday Favorite of 2018 is Saga (Book One), by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. A shoutout to E for gifting me volume one for Christmas. I mainlined it in one day and it made me squee and laugh and cry. The worldbuilding is incredibly vast, the characters are all so real even if they only appear for a panel, and I’m just in such awe of the authors’ imagination.

And of course, it’s all about parenthood.

I had always thought that becoming a parent wouldn’t change my tastes in reading or writing. For instance, an unflattering confession: I loathed kidfic before I gave birth. Well, I was wrong … I loathe it even more now. Before it was merely insipid. Now it’s insipid and inaccurate. And don’t get me started on pregnancy fic. (And both these experiences are life-endingly fraught enough that I can’t just let it go when things are inaccurate, the way I can let LOLTASTAIC SCIENCE go.)

But Saga is the real deal done so right that I was thrown back to week three, living on three cans of coca-cola and three hours of sleep a day while quietly wishing for death. Those days were frankly dark but I’m remembering this in the best way, I swear. And let me just say that I, too, would have accepted a disemboweled ghost as a night nurse during week four AKA The First Fucking Growth Spurt.

And that’s how it is for the mom, too, when she is running through a very large and exciting universe with her family by her side!

Before having a kid, I would probably have rolled my eyes a little.

Now … now, reading this, I want to try to make the world a better place for my child. My world has no wings or horns or intergalactic travel, but we fight the same battles. I can do this. Hey, I’m no longer breastfeeding, what excuses have I got?

P.S. I just bought Book Two!

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Friday Favorites: “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Today’s Friday Favorite is one that probably everyone has read: The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I’m way late to reading this, I know. But maybe someone else is too …

The threads of love and fragility and hope and exploration are all masterfully interwoven in this story. I disbelieve most love stories in SFF, and I’m guilty of it too–it’s easy to skimp on that when I just want to get to the time travel or whatever. Not so here. The love is deep and rich and real and kicked me in the feels with astronaut boots.

On top of that, I made my own connection with this story is as a former academic married to an academic. There was a time before I realized how much traveling is involved in the jobs that we both chose, and what sacrifices you have to make when you chase your career and/or tenure across the country and sometimes the world. And even after you have it, your career still depends on your willingness to give talks and attend conferences and on and on and on. It takes a toll, especially if you have any special circumstances. I should know—one of our joint decisions resulted in some rough months of solo parenting a tiny child. It’s not the same, but I know. I know what it’s like to make those choices. (We got a happy ending though! Those months passed and we are now happily together, both working jobs that we love.)

This story brought it home to me, thread for thread, exactly how it feels to want the best for someone while knowing exactly what you are bringing upon yourself. Anticipating what lies ahead and still saying yes, dear, we need to do what is best for you.

Anyway. Read The Lady Astronaut of Mars! And if you don’t want to cry, may I suggest read it in space like an astronaut. Because there is no crying in space.

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Friday Favorites: “A GUIDE FOR YOUNG LADIES ENTERING THE SERVICE OF THE FAIRIES” by Rosamund Hodge

Today’s Friday Favorite is A GUIDE FOR YOUNG LADIES ENTERING THE SERVICE OF THE FAIRIES, by Rosamund Hodge.

This is the lie they will use to break you: no one else has ever loved this way before.

I love stories about ordinary people. Chosen One narratives do nothing for me. The funny thing is that sometimes in real life I do still struggle with flashes of ambition. Of wanting to be–important. I have been told for all my life, by people as well as stories, that if you are not Important then you are nothing at all, that your life is a waste, you’re a waste.

That’s why I really, really, really love this piece. It emphasizes both that you are ordinary, and that you are still worthy simply because you are yourself, that you can still take on the universe (or fairyland) and win. You do not have to be better than the rest. You only have to exist, and persist.

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Friday Favorites: “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma

This week’s Friday Favorite is “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma. This is a short and delightful piece (I would call it satire, but it does far more than just make jokes) that is incredibly dense with allusions and asides and asks genuine questions in there too. It reminds me of nothing so much as Borges.

But it has a delicious modern sensibility—and isn’t afraid to take a sly swipe or two at politicians on top of the writing & publishing scene. I am not qualified to comment on the political satire so I will comment on the writing. My favorite passages:

With regard to your question about how I perceive myself as an “Other,” let me make it clear that I am as fantastic to myself as rice. I do not waste time sitting around brooding about my mythic status and why the notion that I have lived for five hundred years ought to send me into a paroxysm of metaphysical Angst for the benefit of self-indulgent, overprivileged, cultural hegemonists who fancy themselves writers.

… I think that being an aswang is a category of social difference—imposed by an external utilitarian authority—like sexuality and income bracket. Nobody conceives of being gay just as a literary trope. Do they?

Well. Let me introduce you to a few websites. They are not respectable proletariat reading at all but you do need to learn about your enemies—right?

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