Why You Should Hate Chatbots: A Measured Response
If you go back and read guys like Asimov, the general belief among a lot of mid-20th century futurists and golden-age scifi authors was that the advent of robotics and artificial intelligence would result in a paradise for human beings. Finally freed from the need to perform back-breaking, soul-draining labor, humanity would be able to pursue the truly enriching parts of life: art, culture, literature, leisure, and community.
Boy, were they ever wrong.
Robotics – automation – has been with us a long while now. Robots began to replace assembly line workers in the 60s; automated tellers began to replace bank personnel in the 80s; automated check-out is replacing retail workers now. They even got a robot patrolling the aisles at my local grocery store. None of these things – none of them – have substantively improved humanity. Incrementally, yes: cars are made faster, nobody waits in line at the bank, etc.. But mostly, these automation practices have primarily served to enrich the wealthy at the expense of the workforce.
Now, fortunately it has proven (thus far) that there are always other jobs to be had in different places. Nobody really loved working in a factory their whole life, I guess, not when they could get a job elsewhere with less noise that was more interesting and fulfilling. But, see, I’m not that convinced of this argument (which is the standard line taken to suggest automation isn’t that bad). To take the auto industry for one thing, job satisfaction among auto workers in the 1960s was high – wages were good, the job was stable, and the union was looking out for its members. Now? Things are less rosy.
Robotics and AI have been consistently sold to consumers as making their lives more convenient and they have done so. But this has been at the cost of workers, almost universally, as good jobs have been replaced or reduced. The era of machine-assisted leisure has never come to pass and it will not come to pass. We live in a world that is aggressively capitalist and work is essential to sustain our lives. The people who own and develop these machines cut the throats of poorer, less-well-connected workers and call it progress when what it actually should be called is a kind of class violence. Bigger yachts for them, two or three part-time jobs for you.
This brings me to “AI,” or, what it should more accurately be called, chatbots.
To dispense with the perfunctory up-front: Chat GPT is not intelligent by any measure of the word. It is a text compiler, a kind of advanced auto-complete. Ted Chiang describes it in The New Yorker thusly:
Think of ChatGPT as a blurry JPEG of all the text on the Web. It retains much of the information on the Web, in the same way that a JPEG retains much of the information of a higher-resolution image, but, if you’re looking for an exact sequence of bits, you won’t find it; all you will ever get is an approximation. But, because the approximation is presented in the form of grammatical text, which ChatGPT excels at creating, it’s usually acceptable. You’re still looking at a blurry JPEG, but the blurriness occurs in a way that doesn’t make the picture as a whole look less sharp.
ChatGPT is basically a search engine attached to an advanced autocomplete algorithm. It creates seemingly meaningful text by using good syntax to express stuff you can find by any series of semi-competent web searches. It doesn’t “think,” it doesn’t “know.” It’s a photocopier.
In an ideal world I might find this really cool. We do not live in that world, however, and this device will not be used in terribly positive ways. This is mostly because it seems to do something that most people don’t particularly like to do, which is think. People will (and people are) confusing what ChatGPT does with thinking, which is only accurate insofar as you believe that all thinking represents is the ability to make a degree of sense when talking to others. There is no grounding in truth, no underlying rationale that can be interrogated, there is no intentionality, and therefore no thought involved whatsoever.
When a new technology comes around, I like to consider the end-case scenarios for this technology. When this technology reaches its perfected state (a theoretical thing, to be sure), what purpose will it serve? For something like ChatGPT, I feel like this is some variation of the following:
- Chatbots are the source for all knowledge and research information.
- Chatbots are used to instruct people on skills and behaviors in lieu of teachers.
- Chatbots are used to create cheap and readily available entertainment products for the masses.
All three of these end-stage use cases I find catastrophically bad for humanity and, moreover, entirely unnecessary. To take them one at a time:
Chatbots are the source of all knowledge and research information
In this futuristic scenario, chatbots replace search engines and libraries and means of acquiring information. If you want to know something, you ask the bot, which is probably on your watch or your phone or even your wearable device of some other kind. Seems great, right?
But here’s the thing: you have no idea where this information is coming from. You, in fact, can’t know, because the bot doesn’t even know itself. As a writing professor for the past fifteen years or so, a significant portion of my time in my freshmen writing seminars has been source evaluation – how can you tell whether or not a source you find on the internet (or even in the library) is reliable or even useful and relevant? This is a skill and a very important one in a world as awash in information as ours is. Chatbots completely evade all of those skills.
In this world, you need to utterly trust the chatbot. But can you? Chatbots, like everything else, are programmed and created by humans and humans have agendas, biases, and blind spots. These will inevitably become part of the chatbot and, as a result, what its users will do is trust whatever the individual, company, or organization tells them reality is. Does Fox News and its incessant lies upset you? Does Elon Musks’s temper tantrums over not getting enough retweets give you the creeps? Well, it’s about to get irrevocably worse. Shit like this could legitimately destroy the internet itself.
Chatbots are used to instruct people on skills and behaviors in lieu of teachers
Chatbots seem like a great way to save money for schools and universities. It knows everything (it doesn’t) and it can write perfectly good papers (it can’t), so why bother paying skilled professionals when you can just stick the kids in front of a computer screen and get it to tell you what to do?
The thing is, though, that these tools cannot and will not ever be able to replace an actual teacher. You might be saying “yeah, duh! Of course!” but listen to me: The second, and I mean the exact second some administrator thinks they can lay off a portion of their faculty and replace their utility with chatbots, they will do it. They will be replaced with a vastly inferior product, but they absolutely will not care so long as the tuition money keeps flowing in.
You hear people saying “well, how is this tool any different than a calculator” and I believe every single one of these people is making a category error. The calculator is much more analogous to spell-check: a tool that saves labor in pedestrian things, like arithmetic and spelling, to enable better critical engagement in higher level thinking tasks. What people are going to try to get chatbots to do is replace the higher level thinking tasks. No more needing to decide how or why to make an argument or evaluate evidence or clarify your thinking! You can just rely on the robot to do this!
And it will be bad at it! Spectacularly bad at it! I’m already seeing this garbage float up to the surface in my classes this semester (Spring 2023) and it’s all pretty worthless. Even if, in the future, we fix the accuracy issues and address the incoherencies that come from poor prompting, this part will still remain: an object that does not think cannot replace actual thinking done by actual humans. It should not. It must not.
I am aware of the argument that states “we just need to reimagine how to teach,” and I find that this is largely wanting as an argument in any other way than the practical and short-term one. Yes, writing is going to become an unreliable tool to teach critical thinking because students will believe they can easily evade doing so by using these tools. This means a return to in-class writing (hello blue books!) which has a variety of accessibility issues and maybe even a return to oral examinations (which would necessitate smaller class sizes from a practical standpoint) and in both cases we are looking at reduced wages, a poorer working environment, and worse outcomes. Why? Because teachers are expensive and already mistreated and undervalued, and literally nothing about this makes anything better.
And they will try to replace us, especially at less wealthy institutions, especially at the adjunct level. If you’re rich, you still get a bespoke educational experience and all the critical thinking skills that go along with it. For everyone else? You’re out of luck.
Chatbots are used to create cheap and readily available entertainment products to the masses
No, really, why? What is even the point of doing this? Why would I want to hear a machine tell me a story that is, in reality, a pastiche of every other story told without passion, without creativity, without nuance? Who actually wants this shit?
No one, really. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, of course. Fools will buy anything, and expect to see chatbot mills turning out pablum for short money and expect them to make a killing while they strangle the actual artists out there trying to make a living (already a poor one, mind you).
Remember those techno-utopians from the mid-20th century? Remember what they hoped AI would bring us? The whole fucking point of being alive is to communicate with each other, to engage in art and culture and literature. To find truth and beauty. The idea that somebody out there is going to make a machine that does that for us is abhorrent to me. Utterly, gobsmackingly abhorrent.
And, not for nothing, but it can’t do this either! Like, it can produce soulless, functional crap – equivalent, of course, to soulless functional crap created by actual humans – but that’s hardly worth the cost it will have on society, on the world, on real human beings. The idea that “all quality will float to the top” is fucking bullshit, of course. Anybody who says that isn’t engaging their critical thinking skills too well – who will be excluded (the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized)? How will anybody be able to pursue art when the possibility of making money is functionally deleted (the rich, the comfortable, the privileged)?
See? Can’t you all see?
Now, there’s nothing much I (or anyone else) can individually do about this horror show. It’s happening and, barring some kind of legal action (fat chance), it will continue to get worse. As a teacher and a writer, it will disrupt my life badly, harm people I care about, and might even force me out of my profession(s). I’m sorry, but I have a hard time taking indulgence in these tools as anything other than a personal slight – the belief that what I am is worthless and replaceable.
I wish we lived in the world Asimov and Clarke imagined. We don’t.
Chatbots like ChatGPT are a threat. Treat them as such.
Read “Proof of Concept,” my scifi novelette on Locus’s Recommended List!
So, big-time exciting news (and somewhat belated, as it happened a couple weeks back), but one of the novelettes I published in 2022, “Proof of Concept,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List! For those of you who don’t know, Locus is the SFF trade publication of record, and each year around the time when people are nominating for various
awards (the Hugos, the Nebulas, etc.), they list off what they think was the best stuff from that year to give people a guide for what to read and (potentially) nominate. AND I MADE THE LIST! Yay me!
Now, this doesn’t actually mean I’m going to get nominated for something. In fact, I highly doubt it – I’m not particularly well known and the field is extremely competitive, but it is really nice to know that some people out there who know their stuff think I deserve some attention.
Additionally, the magazine that published “Proof of Concept,” Analog Science Fiction and Fact, has elected to make the story free to read (for a limited time, I imagine). You can download it HERE, so check it out! It’s a story about weird aliens, memory holes, exploitation, and literal self-discovery. Another way of putting it is that it is a scifi survival horror story from the point of view of the monster. This story is part of a linked series of stories I’ve been publishing with Analog for the last year or two, with the fourth in that series due out sometime later this year. So check it out!
And thanks to everyone – reviewers, fans, and friends – who gave this story some love and got me on that list. Here’s hoping I can place one there next year, too!
It’s Award Season! (aka “Here’s What I Published This Year!”)
Greetings friends, bots, and errant Twitter exiles!
As is tradition in the SF/F writing world, when the nominations for the Nebula awards open, we list off the stuff we wrote this year on the odd chance somebody with some kind of clout or pull notices us, remembers that story we wrote, and BANG, we make the ballot. This is very similar to buying raffle tickets at your local rotary club function, albeit with much lower chances of success and vastly fewer opportunities to score basketball tickets.
That said, I had a pretty good year for short fiction, and I’d like to advertise my work a bit, so listen up:
First up (and most recent) is my short story “Tithe the Bones, Sell the Blood” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #368
This one has the distinction of being able to be read online for free, so go and check it out right now if you haven’t. I am a big fan of BCS and have been trying to score a sale there for years – very pleased with this dark fantasy tale.
Then, back in August, my short story “Like Manna from Heaven Dark” in Zombies Need Brains’ Brave New Worlds anthology.
This is my second story to appear in ZNB anthologies and it has been a great experience both times. This particular one is a very dark tale of the future of space colonization, involving space pirates and a debate about a very particular kind of cannibalism.
In July was my most recent Faceless short story in the July/August issue of Analog: “Punctuated Equilibrium”
It seems I’m writing a series of linked short stories over on Analog, all involving a shape-shifting assassin “named” Faceless and its various adventures. I am loving these tales and I hope you are too!
In May, another Faceless story in the May/June Analog: “Proof of Concept”
This one has Faceless with a ravaged memory on a space ship full of violent aliens and no answers! Wheeee! These were my 4th and 5th appearances in this magazine, and I’m super excited every time I make its pages!
Finally, in January I published my story “Prison Colony Optimization Protocols” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
I’m particularly proud of this one – about a rogue AI who is sentenced to administer and prison colony – and it was my 3rd appearance in F&SF. January is a long time back, though, so I hope people haven’t forgotten it! I even made the cover!
Anyway, that’s about it for this year! 5 stories, all in pro markets–go me! I’m very proud of all of them and hope you will give them some consideration!Thanks and good luck to all my fellow writers out there!
Look Who’s on the Cover of F&SF! (Spoiler: ME!)
I have let this blog lie fallow these last months. This has been a rough year for me and the traffic this place draws isn’t substantial, so I’ve not devoted much time to it. Moving forward, this is probably going to be a space where I primarily announce my upcoming or current publications before I (eventually) launch some kind of newsletter. That’s me, folks – getting in on Substack a full calendar year after it was cool.
Anyway, check this shit out:
I had a subscription to this magazine in high school. I read a ton of it (though I don’t think I ever managed to finish a single issue, alas) and it has always been the gold standard for my short fiction publication goals. The story in this issue is my third appearance in its esteemed pages, and my first time making the cover. I am super, super thrilled – this is the best writing news I’ve had in a while.
The story, “Prison Colony Optimization Protocols,” is about an AI convicted of a crime and sent to administer a prison colony on a terraforming planet on a distant frontier as punishment. Just your average fish-out-of-water story, you know? People who love Murderbot (like ME! I love Murderbot! Read Murderbot!) will like this one, I hope.
To get a subscription or buy individual issues of this issue, go here. Honestly, you should subscribe to this magazine even if you have no interest in reading my specific story–it’s great, and the new editor, Sheree Renee Thomas, is doing great work. Check it out!
Catch next time I’ve got something big coming!
BRAVE NEW WORLDS Kickstarter Launched!
I’m here to announce something I’ve sort of already announced, but here it is again: I will be a featured author in another Zombies Need Brains short story anthology! The Kickstarter to fund the project (and two others!) has just launched – go check it out!
Here’s a teaser for the anthology I’ll be in, titled BRAVE NEW WORLDS:
Humans have dreamed of traveling to the stars for generations. Their hope? To discover verdant new planets where they can build new societies or escape past persecutions. BRAVE NEW WORLDS will feature fourteen stellar stories set anywhere along our prospective settlers’ uncertain paths—from the heart-wrenching departure from Earth, through the unknown dangers of the long flight through the cold vastness of space, to the immigrants’ final arrival on an alien world. Will they be confronted by the ethical issue of an entirely new ecosystem, or the pure engineering challenges of terraforming a previously lifeless planet? Join us in BRAVE NEW WORLDS as we explore humanity’s race for the stars!
Edited by S.C. Butler & Joshua Palmatier, BRAVE NEW WORLDS will contain approximately fourteen stories with an average length of 6,000 words each. Anchor authors include:
- Jacey Bedford,
- Chaz Brenchley,
- Eric Choi,
- Auston Habershaw,
- Juliet Kemp,
- Gini Koch,
- Stephen Leigh, and
- Ian Tregillis
Cool, right? Also, if they fully fund, they’ll be taking submissions, too – and not just for this anthology, but for this on, NOIR, and SHATTERING THE GLASS SLIPPER, too! It all sounds super cool and you all should check it out!
In Other Writing News:
Weird Little World’s monster anthology, HUMANS ARE THE PROBLEM, is inching very close to release! My bio is posted up there with the other authors (exciting!). I can’t wait to read it! Go and check it out!
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE – Available Now (and other writing news)
I realize it’s been a while since I’ve posted here, but it’s been a challenging few months, to say the least (and maybe more on that later). I’m here now to do a little bit of plugging and give a few writing updates:
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, available now!
First things first, my short story “The Malevolent Liberation of Pret” is part of the wonderful new anthology from Zombies Need Brains titled WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE. That story is my take on a member of a post-singularity collectivist society realizing their interest/attraction to more individualized existence. I’m halfway through reading the anthology now and I’ve really enjoyed the stories – I’m in very good company and I heartily recommend checking out the whole thing. You can buy it here.
I’ve also sold four (yes, four) other stories to pro markets recently, which is great given my lull in sales for the past year. They are to the following venues:
- “Planned Obsolescence” to Galaxy’s Edge
- “Proof of Concept” to Analog Science Fiction and Fact
- “Prison Colony Optimization Protocols” to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
- “Epic Troll” to Humans Are the Problem, an anthology of monster tales from Weird Little Worlds
Now, I’m not sure when these various stories are coming out, per se – I’ll let you know when I know – but it’s exciting, to say the least.
I’ve got a number of irons in the fire right now. I’ve got a time travel caper novel on submission (think Loki, but with 70s Boston gangsters), another novel getting ready to go on submission (a space opera featuring a shape-shifting assassin), a bunch of stories still out there working their way through slush piles, and another invitation to write a story for a Zombies Need Brains anthology next year (I’ll let you all know when the kickstarter goes live!). I’m also writing another novel right now, still in its early drafting stages (it’s a humorous contemporary fantasy novel).
In other words, I hope to give all of you a lot more things to read, and soon. For now, keep an eye out for me in your favorite scifi mags and buy WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE now!
The Problem With Standardized Tests: The Kobyashi Maru Theorem
This is going to be an education rant in the guise of a science fiction rant, or maybe a science fiction rant in the guise of an education rant – your choice, really. My day job is as an educator and one of my former education-related jobs was working for a test prep company, teaching students how to take the SAT. I have a lot of opinions about tests, not all of them bad, but I will say this: standardized tests, in order to function as designed, need completely unrealistic infrastructure and, for that reason, they should be universally abolished or completely changed.
By way of demonstrating what I’m talking about, let’s talk about that iconic science fiction test, the Kobyashi Maru of Starfleet Academy.
For those of you not in the know, the Kobyashi Maru is a bridge crew simulation that Starfleet runs for its cadets, placing them in an impossible, unwinnable situation for the purpose of seeing how the cadets will react under such pressures. On the surface, this is a wholly reasonable and even intelligently designed test, very much in the vein of what a standardized test aspires to be: a test that can be applied equally to everyone that will generate completely unbiased results that allow you to evaluate all students who take the test equally. It’s also the purest of test-design fiction – it literally cannot exist as displayed and actually work.
The reason for this is very simple: as soon as students learn how the test works (and they inevitably will, since students always talk to other students about tests), the test will cease to be an accurate measure of the cadet’s capabilities because they will know it’s a no-win scenario going in. This necessarily will change their behavior towards said test and will, therefore, throw off the results. So, sure, for the first few years (if we’re being generous) the Kobyashi Maru will be a perfectly reasonable test because no one will actually know it is no-win, but before long somebody will find out. Once they find out, it is in their interest that the test (1) not change and (2) they guide their friends in how to take the test. Furthermore, instructors – whose capabilities will likewise be judged by how their students perform on the test – will inevitably skew their instruction (even surreptitiously) to reflect the qualities the test aims for.
Before long, certainly long before the events of The Wrath of Khan, the test would be bracketed by
all manner of pedagogical apparatuses that serve to help students perform well on the test, and that wouldn’t even count the cheaters, such as Kirk (who would doubtlessly be more numerous).
The solution, of course, is for Starfleet to change the test somehow, but even if they change that test, if it is designed to test the same thing (a no-win scenario), it will inevitably be vulnerable to the same kind of gaming as it was before. Test gamesters will just have to modulate their strategies somewhat, and the Academy will be right back where it started.
This is exactly the problem real world standardized testing faces. There is nothing inherently wrong with a standardized test. A standardized test is attempting to create an assessment tool that will tell you (with some degree of accuracy) the aptitude of any student in some specific set of skills, regardless of who they are or when they take the test. All SAT results, in other words, are supposed to be comparable with all other SAT results. This is a useful tool! Given that everyone comes from different school systems and are taught by different teachers and that, no matter how hard anyone tries, GPA is not and just cannot be a completely even or universally measurable kind of assessment (some people’s schools are easier/harder than others! Some schools “don’t believe” in GPA! Etc, etc.). Having some kind of universal yardstick by which to assess everybody is great!
But it can’t work! And here’s why:
1: It only works if nobody knows HOW it works
Here’s the thing: multiple choice standardized tests are a game. They are a game because they are (and sort of have to be) graded by machines and they have to assess all the exact same skills in the exact same proportions. Once you “solve” how the game works, the test becomes monumentally easier. Like the Kobyashi Maru, it is inevitable that people will figure out how the game works and, once they do that, they throw off all the results, since the results are designed to compare your performance against everyone else’s performance. So, unless you can keep the content of your test some kind of state secret (and good luck with that!), any given standardized test is only good for as long as it takes for the test takers to figure out the rules.
2: The people who know how it works will inevitably be the best connected/wealthiest people
Okay, fine – so suppose your test has been cracked by somebody. The damage, at least, would be somewhat mitigated if everyone had access to the tools needed to crack the test themselves. That’s never the case, though! The people who will be taught to crack the test will inevitable be the ones who can afford the tutors or who happen to have the connections or live in the kinds of privileged communities that get these kinds of advantages. This is NOT everyone, and this inequality automatically invalidates the test results, since some people are actually taking the test (the regular folks) and others are simply cracking the game behind the test (the test preppers). You can’t have an accurate standardized test that is testing two different cohorts of people in two different ways for two different things. Want to know something funny? The students that routinely did the worst on SAT math were almost always the best at math in all other environments. Why? They didn’t see the game. The best way to do well on SAT math is to do as little math as possible. Don’t believe me? Well, this lazy math student scored in the 95% percentile on SAT math by doing just that. And I did it several times over.
3: The test cannot be fundamentally changed without invalidating its own existence.
“Just change the test” sounds like a great plan, but if you fundamentally change how the test works, you automatically invalidate all the preceding test scores. In other words, if part of the purpose of a test like the SAT (or MCAS or TOEFL or LSAT or MCAT or whatever) is to produce scores that can be compared (and this is their purpose), then changing how the test works means your test has lost the very thing that makes it useful.
4: Testing warps instruction!
Because these tests are so important and because they are also so crackable, this means that teachers have a vested interest in teaching students to crack the test, knowing (as I point out in #2) that not all of their students will have the resources to crack it on their own. So, instead of actually learning things, they learn how to take a test. Pretty much everybody knows about this problem at this point – it’s cliche to even point it out – but it is also 100% true. Students that are taught to take tests have less knowledge, fewer skills, and impaired critical thinking when placed against previous generations who were not saddled with these things. I know this because I’ve been teaching at the collegiate level for 15 years and have watched both the amount of testing rise and the quality of incoming students drop simultaneously. Granted, that’s anecdotal – maybe I’m wrong (I hope I am!) – but I somewhat doubt it.
5: A perfect test doesn’t exist in the first place!
And all of this is just assuming the test is actually able to test the thing it claims it does! Sure, a well-designed standardized test might give us accurate picture of the average, neurotypical student, but this hardly covers everyone! Furthermore, I sort of doubt there’s any reliable way you could get a standardized test to apply equally to everybody – people, and how they think or approach test taking, are just too different.
So, if Starfleet Academy is still giving the Kobyashi Maru after however many years it takes for Kirk to go from being a cadet to being on the verge of retirement, it’s safe to assume that it is no longer performing the function it once did. It should be abolished and replaced with something new. Furthermore, we should reassess the need to compare students to other students in these kind of universal, simplistic ways. When looking to the future, we should try to imagine something more nuanced, more accurate, and fairer. You know, the sort of thing the Federation might cook up.
When Worlds Collide: Coming this Summer!
Good news! If finally figured out how to get back to the classic editor on WordPress, which means I’ll probably get back to posting more regularly than once a month or so (I really really hate this site’s “block editor”).
More (relevant) good news! I’ve got a story in an anthology releasing this summer! It’s called When Worlds Collide, published by Zombies Need Brains. Here’s the description:
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE:
What could possibly happen when two cultures meet for the first time?
In WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, anything.
WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE presents fourteen original stories where two different societies intersect and deal with the aftermath of that meeting. Will the conflicting cultures merge and adapt and find peace? Or will they clash, unable to either accept their differences or acknowledge their commonalities? Who will survive when the last of the Fae battle a world-killing AI? What happens when a being who is part of a vast collective-consciousness is forced to face their own individuality? Can a werewolf ever break free of the unholy pact its fae creator has made with humanity? Will Earth really manage to commit the biggest and most egregious faux pas in history when it’s on the cusp of joining the Galactic Union? And why is it that two very different kinds of elves are angrily facing off at a simple dinner party?
Whether your taste runs to humor, horror, science fiction, or fantasy, the stories collected in this latest anthology from Zombies Need Brains and written by some of today’s hottest SF&F authors will delight, thrill, and terrify you. Join Christopher Leapock, Howard Andrew Jones, Gary Kloster, Louis Evans, Peter S. Drang, Esther Friesner, S.C. Butler, Nancy Holzner, Auston Habershaw, Violette Malan, Stephen Leigh, Alan Smale, Steven Harper, and Jordan Chase-Young as they delve into what may happen…WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE.
“The Erratics” by Christopher Leapock
“Brother of Swords” by Howard Andrew Jones
“Walls of Teeth and Iron” by Gary Kloster
“Faux Pas” by Louis Evans
“Darithian Life Cycle” by Peter S. Drang
“Seelie With a Kiss” by Esther Friesner
“What and Why” by S.C. Butler
“Melusina” by Nancy Holzner
“Malevolent Liberation of Pret” by Auston Habershaw
“Mercenary Code” by Violette Malan
“Deep Heart Inside” by Stephen Leigh
“Dogs of Babylon” by Alan Smale
“Eight Mile City” by Steven Harper
“How the Fae of Savernake Forest Fought the AI that Ate the World” by Jordan Chase-Young
So, there I am, cheek-and-jowl with some fine authors in a really cool themed anthology. It’s releasing sometime this summer, but you can pre-order it by going to Zombies Need Brains’ site.
Go and check it out!
The Thin Skin of Worlds
Writing has been difficult of late. Stuck at home, the world aflame, so very many distractions. And yet I have much to do. Novel edits, for one thing. Story edits, for another. New stories desperate for revision, for creation. Many in new worlds, as yet fully formed.
It takes effort to remain inside a story. What I mean by inside is this: to write a strange world, you must inhabit that world. You have to take up its sights and sounds and smells and flavors as your own. You must push away the real and dwell wholly in the imaginary. No doubt there are authors – better, more disciplined authors than myself – who can sink into their world more easily than I can, but for me, it takes time. It takes silence and solitude and a mind relatively at peace. If my concentration slips, the whole world I’m building pops, like a bubble, and then where am I? In my office at home, with children downstairs needing attention, a democracy that is crumbling to ruin, a day job that is now wholly contained within my laptop and bleating for attention, regardless of the hour or day of the week. I’ve got a video game console right downstairs, I’ve books to read at my fingertips.
I remember a time this was easier, staying inside this bubble and living there. I remember daydreaming more often, letting my mind drift. I spend hours each day alone, on the train or in my office at work or in the silence of a lunch break by myself. COVID has blown all of that away. I have to re-adapt.
There is little more frustrating than wanting to write and being unable to do so. I’ve got a dark planet full of spiders and cities of spun silk that needs attention, but I just don’t have the time to find my way back there just now. Too much clamors for my attention; every bubble I blow bursts before I’ve time to find my reflection there.
I miss the calm of my former life. I miss the bustle that let the calm exist. Now, instead, there is just a dull roar – the gusting of a steady wind, blowing away dreams half-formed. Picture me, then, running down the road after them, trying to remember what they look like as they sail up and up, out of view.
The Coolness:Reality Ratio
It’s been two months since I posted here last. A lot’s been going on in my life, in the world, etc.. But I’m still around and for the first time in a while I have something I want to talk about.
Like a lot of people, I have been watching The Mandalorian. Unlike most of you, I’ve been…underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the first season! But this season has taken what I felt was something new and different in Star Wars and reduced to pretty much the same thing as all the other Star Wars stuff, and it’s just not for me.
I’m not here to complain about The Mandalorian, though. Trying not to rain on other people’s parades, etc, etc.. What watching this last season has shown me, though, is just how important audience buy-in is for something like Star Wars to work. And when I say “something like Star Wars,” I mean “tent-pole franchises that rely on an established fan base.” Because, let’s face it, if Star Wars didn’t have an established fanbase or a sizeable footprint in the scifi/fantasy zeitgeist, a lot of it just doesn’t stand up to even minor scrutiny.
It’s a truism at this point that Star Wars defiantly refuses to make sense at any point. Honestly, it doesn’t have to! Nobody cares that the Death Star makes no goddamned sense. The fact that there are no railings anywhere is a running joke, not an actual criticism. Stormtroopers are inexplicably punched in the helmet and for some reason this renders them unconscious and all people talk about is how cool the puncher is.
Why don’t they care? Well, because Star Wars as a franchise has already, somewhere along the line, done the work of earning the audience’s enthusiasm. For an awful lot of us, that enthusiasm was earned long, long ago when we were kids and our critical reasoning was less robust. For others of us, we stumbled across those scattered gemstones in the Star Wars canon that are honestly, legitimately good stories. And once we’re in, it can hold onto us for a goddamned LONG time.
The Mandalorian is an operative example of this phenomenon. As someone who had no interest in The Clone Wars series, the inclusion of Bo Katan was both perplexing and supremely uninteresting. Who is this person showing up Mando on his own show? Why should I give a crap about her problems? Well, if you were a pre-existing fan, then it’s great! If you weren’t? Well, tough luck, because the show is presenting you with no actual reasons to like or care about this character besides her cool outfit. If you don’t accept her coolness right off the bat, the rest of it won’t work, either.
Proving this is the inclusion of Luke Skywalker in the season 2 finale. Despite his appearance being completely random, his use as deus ex machina largely unearned, and the dialogue given to him wooden and stilted, I was still really excited to see Luke again. But that’s a cheap trick, though – it’s driven by nostalgia for how cool Luke was/might have been/is, not by anything actually present. If I didn’t know who Luke Skywalker is (somehow) and watched that episode, my reaction would probably be confusion and possibly even incredulity as he saws his way down that corridor and the Dark Troopers just sort of let it happen to them. “Why didn’t Mando just do that with the Dark Saber, then?” is one basic question one might ask. It is the purpose of a show like this to keep you from asking that question, because you are just too breathless from all the fun.
In cases like that, the “coolness” of the show exceeds the burden of realism. Star Wars is not alone here. Doctor Who does this (should have been shot by a Dalek long, long ago), every James Bond movie does this (remember in Golden Eye when Bond falls faster than the plane), Harry Potter does this (does Harry ever learn geometry?), Marvel does this (Cap’s shield makes no sense) – it’s a feature, not a bug. It’s just rare for me to experience both sides of that equation inside the same exact show or even the same episode.
Now, whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, a thing to aspire to or a thing to avoid – this I leave to you. But let me tell you, once The Mandalorian lost me, I couldn’t stop seeing all the holes in, well, everything. Even knowing what I know about Star Wars, I’d hoped for something more tangible.