Friday 19 February 2021

Logging Back In To CatNet

One of the concerns we have about the creation of the Lodestar Award is that its existence could prevent deserving books from earning a spot on the ballot for the Best Novel Hugo Award. That is, books written for a certain age group might all be sequestered into the Lodestar by default, when they might also be strong candidates for a Hugo award.

Fans of “adult” science fiction should not ignore Chaos On CatNet.
Chaos on CatNet is
the sequel to Naomi
Kritzer's award-winning
Catfishing on CatNet.

Set in the very-near future, the CatNet novels centre on a high-school-age girl Steph, who is befriended by a friendly web-based artificial intelligence that goes by the handle Cheshire Cat. The previous works in the series (the Hugo-winning short story “Cat Pictures Please,” and the Lodestar-winning novel Catfishing on CatNet) focused on the good that a highly intelligent AI with access to big data could do, and on battles over control of data. In Chaos on Catnet, Kritzer starts to look at the other side of the same coin.

Picking up within weeks of where Catfishing on CatNet left off, this latest novel introduces a second artificial intelligence — one whose goals and motivations are murkier than a simple appreciation of domestic felines. This major plot-line explores just how creepy and ugly AI-directed behavioural change algorithms can get; both in terms of beguiling people into destructive fantasy-based worldviews, and in terms of turning people against each other. The fact that Kritzer ties these algorithms both to destructive religion and to tribalist Q-Anon style groups is telling, and insightful.

This book is set in the very, very near future. There are self-driving taxi cabs, the General Dynamics quadruped robots are now consumer-ready, but there are no technological advances that are overly fantastical. In many ways, Kritzer is in conversation with several other authors who have been playing in similar sandboxes: people like Karl Schroeder and Cory Doctorow. It is interesting to compare Kritzer’s approach to the future of policing with that of Doctorow’s approach in his novel Attack Surface. Kritzer’s thoughtful, hopeful blueprint for a better system of policing in Minneapolis is a highlight of the book.

One aspect of the novel that helps elevate Chaos On CatNet above the preceding CatNet works is the
Minneapolis - a city rich with
labour history and for many years
the heart of the flour industry
is a terrific setting for this novel.
(Image via

use of space and place. Kritzer’s near-future Minneapolis is recognizable to those who have spent time in the city, but also offers a constructive and thoughtful framework for how a city might respond to the riots of last summer. Those riots — which she briefly writes about in a terrific afterword — took place as she was in the process of revising and editing her draft. She decided to “write the Minneapolis you want to see.”

In many ways the present is already catching up to a novel whose first draft was probably written just over a year ago: the chaos caused by the AI antagonist has clear parallels to the ways in which social media algorithms helped fuel the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Late in the novel, there are some plot elements that seem to vanish mid-stream (What happened to the big scary robot army? We don’t know!), and the ending is a little too nice and convenient. But despite these quibbles, the novel holds together remarkably well.

Chaos On Catnet should be seriously considered for the Hugo Award for best novel alongside other more “adult” works.

Monday 15 February 2021

The Humanity Of Machinehood

Several short works by S.B. Divya have been among our favourites in the past five years or so.
Cover of Machinehood
Image via Simon
& Schuster

“Contingency Plans for the Apocalypse,” “Loss of Signal,” and the Nebula-shortlisted novella “Runtime,” demonstrate that she is a writer who delivers interesting ideas wrapped in approachable and stylish prose. We therefore had high hopes for her debut novel Machinehood — and were not disappointed.

The novel is clever, brimming with engaging ideas, and provides important commentary on current political trends. Set a century down the line, Machinehood delves into the erosion of human rights, the perils of capital-driven pharmaceutical development, and the evolving understandings of privacy.

Machinehood centres on Welga, a security contractor who ends up investigating a series of terrorist attacks thought to be orchestrated by the world’s first truly sentient artificial intelligence. Although the story initially feels like an adventure novel, it’s soon apparent that the story centers on Welga’s quest to create stability, the precariousness of her work situation, and her sister-in-law’s medical investigation into seizures that Welga begins experiencing.

Divya uses these narrative threads to explore how capitalist-driven competition can lead to negative outcomes for society. In particular, the use of performance-enhancing drugs has been normalized in this future, leading to workers whose employment is contingent on their willingness to punish their bodies and nervous systems beyond their natural limits. While this is a bleak (and unfortunately believable) aspect to the world Divya has crafted, it is not entirely dystopian.

While the novel depicts various forms of body modification having detrimental effects, and the gig economy making working relationships more tenuous, other advances such as automatic kitchens, the ease of global travel, and medical printers have created higher standards of living in other ways. This is a nuanced future that avoids monocausal explanations for society’s changes.
Escape Pod co-host
S.B. Divya's engineering
background is evident.
Image via Analog

One of the recurring themes explored in the book — and one of the reasons it should be considered for the Prometheus Award — is the relationship between government services, the private sector, and do-it-yourself culture. As an example, those wanting to go to space do so through the participation of voluntary hobbyist rocket-ship clubs, while health care is allocated through a system of micro-auctions. Pharmaceuticals are often printed at home with some government oversight, but pill designs come from both giant corporations and from hobbyists. None of these details are delivered by way of polemic, but rather flow naturally within the story.

In such a setting, the most powerful actors seem to be religions, in part because of the unassailable sway they have over their followers. Without giving too much away, there are philosophical aspects to a religion of Neo-Budhism that provide incredible motivations to some of the religion’s adherents. Religion thus is shown to be a tool to navigate and instigate change.

One of the greatest strengths of the novel is that as it progresses, the conflict becomes less and less black-and-white. The antagonist is compelling in large part because it’s easy to see their side of the issues, even though their tactics aren’t acceptable. Has the terrorism perpetrated by the Machinehood improved the lives of humanity? Divya has the courage to leave that question unanswered.

Every few years, it starts to seem like science fiction is running out of ideas. Thankfully, authors like Divya remind us that the future has an almost infinite array of possibilities. Machinehood is the type of novel that gives us faith in science fiction as a genre.

Saturday 6 February 2021

New Books In Science Fiction

The podcast New Books In Science Fiction, hosted by Rob Wolf, is possibly ineligible for a Hugo Award
Podcaster Rob Wolf interviews
authors about their new books.
(Image supplied)

for best fancast. And that’s a shame because it is one of the podcasts that consistently guide listeners to find deeper understanding and appreciation of genre works.

Every two or three weeks, Wolf sits down with an author who has a new novel (either upcoming or released in the past six months) and has an in-depth one-on-one chat with them about the book and their influences, about their career, and about the intellectual effort that went into the book.

Often, the result is revelatory.

An expert interviewer, Wolf approaches each author with an earnest enthusiasm that is frankly endearing. He asks thoughtful, succinct questions that drive at the heart of the matter, and gives his guests the time to respond fully and completely.

In the seven years he’s been hosting the podcast, Wolf has interviewed an all-star roster of science fiction authors such as Andy Weir, Tochi Onyebuchi, Rebecca Roanhorse, Kameron Hurley, Ken Liu, Megan O'Keefe, Malka Older, and many, many more. Many of his earlier episodes from 2014–2015 may seem a little choppier, but what amazes us is how much enduring value older episodes in the series have. And, to be fair, most podcasts were choppier five years ago.

By any measure, 2020 was an extraordinary year for New Books in Science Fiction. With Stealing Worlds author Karl Schroeder, Wolf interrogates the book’s politics. In an episode about Ring Shout, P. Djèlí Clark provides insights about historicity and the creation of authentic, believable historical fantasy. At the beginning of the pandemic, Beneath The Rising author Premee Mohamed’s episode examined the difficulty of launching a book during lockdown. There was not a bad episode this year.

All of the novels listed above were ones that we enjoyed. But Wolf’s strength is that his podcast is worth listening to even when you either haven’t read — or didn’t enjoy — the book he’s featuring. He brings intellectual grist and empathy to everything he works on.

For us, the real highlight of 2020 was an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, who was speaking about his recent novel The Ministry For The Future. Wolf’s interview provided insight and context that helped members of our book club to appreciate the artfulness of a book that they had previously found pedantic and boring. A librarian in the book club says this makes him an honorary readers’ advisory librarian.

Although Wolf himself produces the podcast entirely on a volunteer basis, it is part of a larger “New Books Network” that has exactly one full-time professional employee who deals with a few technical matters such as hosting. This does raise questions about the Hugo eligibility of this podcast, despite the fact that everything that makes New Books In Science Fiction great is fannish, and fan-run.

Whether or not New Books In Science Fiction is Hugo-eligible, Rob Wolf’s work deserves to be celebrated. It’s a fancast that will be on our Hugo nominating ballots, just in case it makes a difference.