Monday, 19 June 2017

Bivalent Logic, by Cliff Hays - 4 Stars

I had this wonderful idea for an app that would use bivalent logic to evaluate and flag fake news.

Although bivalent or “missing middle” logic was invented by Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) in Organon (see the square of oppositions) and can be thought of as the basis for the microchip, where an electrical impulse can follow a circuit through different paths such as AND, IF (if and only if), OR or NOT gates (since replaced by the concept of negation as failure and yet to be replaced by quantum superposition), the main attraction for this purpose, the evaluation of text, is that it converts directly to binary code. Wa-hey! Low hanging fruit. Digital evaluation can produce a quantified output, which can then generate a probability of (for example) bias, hoax or even a fake review, without being clouded by the interpretation of the observer.

This is how bias can be revealed in text:
Fake claims can be identified by frequency of first tier unproven statements and instances of the reinforcement of first tier claims citing second tier unproven statements as factual. A fake review can be identified by an over-use of superlatives and low proportion of negative criticism.

Something either is or it isn’t; 0 or 1, so every statement has one of two possible truth values, true (1) or the negative of truth (0). Almost nothing non-mathematical can be proven to be true so the benchmark for this has to be what the accepted literature takes as “proven” to the current extent of our knowledge at this time. UFOs, for example, are proven – anything positioned in the air that you can’t quite identify. Aliens are not, so claiming a UFO = 1 but claiming it is therefore alien = 0. It cannot be both true and false, so that’s a bad mark for the trustworthiness of the text (unless it becomes the accepted reality later, when the literature catches up).

Statement: We build. Non-statement: Should we build? Opinion: We should not build. Command: Build! The truth value is assigned based on whether it happened or not, i.e. did we build (1) or not(0)? The assessment of whether something is a statement or a non-statement is important.

(With non-contradiction) that leaves seven sets of binary truth values shown as digits:
A (it is) = T, T, F, F = 1100
B = T, F, T, F = 1010
¬A (it is not) = F, F, T, T – 0111
¬B = F, T, F, T = 0101
A¬A = T, T, T, T = 0000
AV¬A (it is or it is not) = T, T, T, T = 1111
AB – T, F, F, F = 1000

To give you an idea without the numbers, lots of praise in a review and hardly any destructive questioning would leave a tally like 19 x F, 1 x T = 95% chance it has been written by a friend of the author. A high proportion of unfactual or unsubstantiated statements in an article would leave a similar trail, question mark count, for a fake or biased news report. A significant count of rubbishing the alternative would also flag as propaganda. This would initially need a human assessor until we can connect a database or encyclopaedia to match claims against. Results for tabloid newspaper editorials or scores for the reliability of individual journalists would be very revealing.

The app could be expanded to spot ideological leanings or favouritism being expressed by the writer for one nation or race over another. To clarify, using a particular word would not generate a result, e.g. “the foundation studied communism/fascism/racism for years”, but when the subject has been frequently referred to in conjunction with words such as “like”, “love” or saying the subject is “the best system” or “obviously correct” those would be identified, as would denigrating or stigmatising words against the subject’s diametric opposition. The only way a propaganda writer could avoid having their article flagged as propaganda and themselves as biased would be to take out the favouritism and stick to selective recounting of the facts, which would be a big improvement.

How should I rate this book? In mathematics, the result is either perfectly correct or it isn’t and in bivalence it is or it is not, so this book is either correct or it isn’t and I could give it 5 stars but that would be a world gone topsy turvy when there’s an unnecessary “of” in the Descartes section toward the end and also I’m a subjective human reviewer rather than a robot, so I’ve unilaterally deducted a star from this book because it gave me a headache. Clearly, I’m not bivalent. Byte me.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Understanding the Stars, by Xela Culletto - 4 Stars

Understanding the Stars is to science fiction what Twilight is to horror. What I mean by that is you take a genre, any genre, describe a normal female student protagonist who would have had an ordinary life (this one delivers pizzas), then introduce a fantasy boyfriend figure who is fully immersed in a reality hidden from our own. The next stage is obvious, as boy draws girl in, her awareness increases, they get chased a lot and he demonstrates his protective qualities, he’s hunky but sensitive, then admits his undying love and proves it by sacrificing his future, or life, for hers. It’s a dream, fantasy dating, but this might be the first time I’ve seen this transferrable outline in a sci-fi setting. Generally, you have to admit that it is a very successful angle, with a huge potential audience of teenagers who’d queue up to date a bf with alien tech. It’s fun, it’s fantasy and, uh, then the girl lands kicking on the vivisection table.

Don’t worry, there are a lot of last minute escapes, nothing horrific or off-putting within and only one human gets turned inside out. It’s hard to feel sorry for all of the aliens who get zapped by the CIA but it would be a mistake to presume the CIA are the heroes either, as humans and aliens are all fairly flawed and compromised in this story. Generally, there are three races and two kids are getting bounced around between them.

In fiction, you’ve got to have a scary plot element for the characters to run from (and ultimately defeat), otherwise you’d never see your heroes panting, ripping their clothes and showing their full potential. The test of fitness is all. However, there are obvious cultural influences in the history of reports of contact with aliens, particularly surrounding abduction. People who have reported being snatched by aliens and operated on, dissected etc, are almost exclusively all from the USA. Other nationals report abduction but without this element. The British report polite manners and conversation, while Brazilians report abduction followed by inter-species copulation and the French report aliens who demand to worship French culture. Therefore, I’d see going under the scalpel as a signal that these themes are set not by supra-geographic extra terrestrial life but by ordinary terrestrial suggestion. If the aliens had wanted to do something else, something completely original for a change, that would have been more impressive.

The reason why the girl is important to the aliens, the author weaving the fantasy into her body, is that she’s been tagged some years previously and that is not only evidence but rival aliens are interested in acquiring it too. This gives rise to the kidnap and dissection scenario, which suddenly becomes essential to the plot, and the scenario also has a voyeuristic thing going on where the boy can spy on the girl’s life by seeing everything she sees; imagine a camera on an eagle, except this one mostly zooms in on pizzas. Yum.

What isn’t essential and I don’t think ever works well is the baddies persuading a victim by laying out their point of view and then asking for approval to do something nasty, which they’re going to do anyway, then saying things which rile the victim and force them to fight back, which is surely counter-productive? If they are an advanced sentient species, why would they not take the most clean and direct route, i.e. laughing gas, pop the human down and get out the tool kit? Winding them up is just stupid. Then again, perhaps that’s how the author demonstrates which species has morality on their side. Still, that jarred a little, although I can see the writer wanted to make the reader sympathetic to them and then go for the big reveal. Still, why go to all the trouble of A if you’re just going to reverse all the good work with B and the listener will be dead in five minutes anyway so it’s pointless?

Did I like the story? Yes, it was a good yarn and bubbled along in an easy going kind of way. It feels like the introduction to a series, presumably also in the young adult style. Older readers won’t get as much from it if they’re not into the first kiss stuff as it could benefit from a big idea or two, maybe a funny situation, insightful lines or a unforeseen surprise of some kind. I know it is dissimilar but War of the Worlds, for example, had humans outclassed all of the way through and then bacteria defeat the aliens, which I bet no one saw coming. In this case, the aliens gather knowledge seemingly for knowledge’s sake. So, what’s the real reason for that? They withhold knowledge. Why? This, to me, also suggests more books in the series to build the opera. That’s it really – this book is like two or three instruments playing and establishing a catchy motif but you can see a fuller orchestra waiting patiently for their turn behind them. When the steady theme has been set by this book, not over-reaching, presumably the more complicated development follows in book two? Xela Culletto has constructed space in this opening adventure and now needs to ignite a few stars.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Retroactivist, by Nate Ragolia - 4 Stars

A science fiction futurist book to make you think about an impending problem we haven’t faced yet, that’s what this is. An intellectual lunch at a conference that needs to happen. The author might have revealed too much in the synopsis but here’s the distillation:

The story describes the future we are currently working towards, where there’s no famine, all work is carried out by automation and people are free to pursue their leisure interests, which are usually to “drink and dance and screw because there’s nothing else to do” (Jarvis Cocker). One of these sheep citizens learns about an alternative, the ruthless meritocracy of the twentieth century. Although the risks are great, like coming out at the bottom of the social pile, there are occasional benefits that humanity in the future has all but forgotten: job satisfaction, self-worth, physical fitness, competitive challenge, feeling part of something greater than oneself; all the missing mental candies of happiness. To get them back into human lives, the protagonist chooses to become an activist revolutionary. Go retro!

This existential issue has stepped beyond the old nineteenth century ideologies that were set up in response to the industrial revolution, socialism and capitalism. It has become, truly, a question for science fiction because a world where we only have to do the jobs we want to do is within sight of the next generation of humankind. This sounds great but it takes a writer like this to explore the negative side of this third industrial philosophy.

There’s a big question underlying all of this: Can humans be truly happy if their sense of purpose has been removed? Secondary questions include: Will we continue to evolve if there is no competitive niche to select between probabilities of survival? (with artificial help, all flawed genes will survive and the standard of our species’ DNA can only regress). Should we strive to make our lives easier and easier, longer and longer, to suspend incentive to try (all being looked after anyway), until humans become the pets of their servant robots? Is it good to lose free will to make choices between right and wrong, to strive or be lazy, if by compliance with a system we only represent the matter being processed through it? Is it right to fear the efficiency-driven robots might conclude the human component is unnecessary luggage? Is everything we want the same as everything we need? If we find the human species has changed unrecognisably, could this change ever be reversed or would we have lost the skills to survive without the feeding tube?

“Beyond your social life you don’t have any fears. If you want to get Chinese, we go to China. If there’s a movie that doesn’t exist, we can make it together.”

I can think of one simile, that of antibiotic use. In developed countries, our immune system hasn’t had to fight hard for three generations because we use antibiotics. These are becoming gradually less effective as the various hazards which survive these medicines are selecting in favour of their most resistant strains. When antibiotics become useless, we will have artificially interfered in the system with the result that stronger (than otherwise background normal) strains can fight our weakened (than we would have had without decades of antibiotics) immune systems. In short, we make life easier for ourselves for fifty to one hundred years and then pay for it later, many times over, because we’re so limp without artificial support.

The protagonist’s answer is meritocratic capitalism, but that has imperfections too: “Nobody agrees with your ideas, Reid. That’s why they changed. That’s why sixty years ago, people changed them. Your ideas were killing everyone, slowly.”

Hawking and Musk cautioned that we have reached a crossroads in artificial intelligence development where we can choose between allowing or preventing a potential threat to our assumed position as the dominant decision-making species. Please note the difference – they were not suggesting the machines would harm us physically but they were suggesting we would be passing the baton over and following behind them, trusting in the generosity and compassion of metal. Do we want that to happen? If we continue on our current trajectory and choose that version of the future, to make our lives more comfortable, after a few generations will we still be entirely human? We might need Shakespeare, or his sister, to bring that point to the world’s attention. The experience, the struggle and perhaps even the sadness is part of the human experience, so without it don’t we just become useless lumps, bored and reliant on an external source of handouts for survival?

I love the idea that an artificial intelligence can be brought down by presenting it with an abstract statement it can’t process, such as: “A man is a giraffe under an iron sun.” Well done.

“Every question he has possessed about himself wilts and dies on the vine, dropping to the ground and fertilizing his growth.”

There’s a sharp sting in the tail end pages of this story, which will make you sit upright too. The empire strikes back - and not in the fashion you’re expecting.

Principles of Literary Criticism would claim that “effective critical work requires a closer aesthetic interpretation of the literary text as an object”. By that rule, this book frames an important social question and that question needs to be asked more often or we will be walking ahead without seeing where our foot is landing. Therefore, this isn’t just a competent science fiction adventure, it has implications and worth. We are moving toward this without a debate on whether a cosseted future is in our best interests. It might be or it might not but The Retroactivist is a prompt to think and choose before we become reliant for survival on something external to our species.

I recommend that the author send copies of this book to the major national science fiction archives, as when this philosophical question for humanity becomes a hot topic, its early portrayal in this fictional story should be acknowledged and considered in the literature.

Friday, 9 June 2017

At the End of Time, by Gary C Reynolds - 3 Stars

This is an example of a relatively good time travel story spoiled by poor readability, especially early on before readers have become used to the pattern. Specifically, the book has been written in the present tense but the characters’ speech is sometimes in the past tense. In other words, and this isn’t a quote, sentences are phrased like a theatre stage direction: “Daniel is walking towards the curtain and is opening it. The sunlight is coming through and Daniel is thinking.” I read the whole book and was pleased to see the story is alright underneath the surface problem but my advice to the author would be to unpublish the e-book and re-write it in the third person past tense, then republish it. That would also give the opportunity to fix the awkward repetition of the word “box” on page 16, “ball” on page 17 and around 4 spelling typos. After that, the book would be ship-shape, enjoyable and I think better understood.

Anyone can say they prefer this tense or that but we should also consider the context because this is a time travel story. Speaking about an event in the future using the past tense is a tricky proposition because, theoretically, changing something in the present could generate a different future (or time line), causing the same event you remember in both your past and future to cease to exist. The pedantic amongst us might prefer to create the future conditional probable clausative tense to solve this inconsistency once and for all (depending which time line we select), although that sort of thinker would ultimately write something sensationally unreadable, win the Booker Prize and deserve to be spanked.

The story itself builds slowly but improves when the author finds his voice and frees the imagination. The protagonist zips between a pirate ship in the days of yore to the 1930s, then a future conflict that changed history, a rebellion in the last human city against its controlling dictator and at then to check out the far end of this book’s non-linear time line on a space station. There’s a hero, a love interest, henchmen and lots of lovely airships, all complicated by a time-controlling goddess figure with human frailties. The identity of the dictator figure was supposed to be a surprise but that was an incy wincy bit guessable by anyone over the age of fifteen, I have to say.

The story was alright, I should emphasize that, but any independent-minded reader will surely agree with me that selecting the present tense wasn’t the best way to go. Another reviewer gave this two stars but I’ll give it three because I am confident it can be fixed – and then you’ll like it.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Coping with Death and Destruction, by Arrison Kirby - 3 Stars

There are aspects of this book that I do like but I also feel the high points are dragged down a bit by themes I personally don’t find informative or enjoyable. That’s subjective but I’m trying to be objective in the review. I said “I review science fiction” and got asked to review it anyway, so perhaps someone who regularly reads darker topics would have been more friendly to this? I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that many readers might like to hear about: dead end families, tragic loss, the pointlessness of existence, stupidity sensu Darwin Awards, web-troll ignorance, grinding jealousy, glass getting spiked into a neck to display the cheapness of street life, despair, extra judicial pistol-whipping murder and the horror of a body left in the park as a series of creatures collect to peck out its eyes. I don’t want to only hear about sweeties, joy and fluffy pillows but equally I don’t want to read only themes of despair, so if books and life itself are a balancing act, this one is the flight of the lopsided.

There’s a common current along the lines of confronting human death and not much else to bind the individual explorations into a whole as the 12 parts don’t seem influenced by calendar months or the zodiac, unless I missed something. It’s mostly an American journey but the characters do get to travel to Asia and Africa at times. “What is death?” is a fair enough question as the answer would help us with the question “What is life?”, which for me is a more exciting one. If you watch the documentary called Babies (dvd), which is about new life and social conditioning, that film is the twin opposite of this written compilation. I know I shake my head at both of them but at least someone is considering subjects that us mainstreamers try not to think about.

Okay, I’ve covered the fun bits, the magical Disney glades of death, so let’s look at the rest.

The afterlife party culture is an interesting idea. In the hypothetical and completely un-evidenced scenario that there is an afterlife, I can imagine it would be correct that all the things that we thought were so important in our Earthly lives would be unimportant and hold almost no significance there. Also, the ideas that the new situation would be informed by our post-death belief cultures which made a mental impression in our previous existences could make sense, e.g. Muslims get their 40 partners and Catholics get whipped (whatever turns you on). In case the author has got it right, I’m going to make a list of luxury comforts and entertainments to build into my belief system and funeral rites in preparation.

I also liked the North Koreans in Africa and their rocket fiasco, perhaps the most expensive, drawn out and elaborate suicide attempt in the history of fiction. This short story includes the best line in the book, with a minion reported to have been “fatally reprimanded”. I can’t see him doing it again. This tale was too cheesy to be possible but if you need a slice of cheese in your life and if you suspend disbelief and go with the entertainment, that was inventive, imaginative and had only a trace of the disturbing. A few times I asked “Where are you going with this?” but it got there in the end. Tying the whole space flight and widespread toxic catastrophe down to the fate of a small dog in Tennessee on Kim Jong Un’s and David Bowie’s shared birthday I suppose allows me to categorise it as a genuinely surreal space oddity.

Passage between our accepted reality to dream consciousness is a transition theme covered several times in this collection, where the outcomes weren’t supposed to match across stories consistently. The author describes the scene, then lets the reader discover if the person is dreaming or a ghost etc, following the show not tell rule. In the short story format though, it’s hard to connect to characters and care what happens to them, especially if you know you’re in a 12 story framework with death circling every one of them. If there’s a diseased patient lying on a bed, clearly doomed, do you feel comfortable getting to know them and making small talk? It’s a similar problem to the John Lennon pacifist film about the Second World War where every time one of the soldiers died they would still be walking around in the platoon but they had changed to a bright colour and stopped saying anything. If it wasn’t Lennon, it was someone with a distinctive scouse accent. If you find out what it was though, don’t see it because it’s too depressing.

The final good point I can tell you about was back at the beginning (I’d better not criticise anyone else’s sentence structure after writing that). After a major change, a kind of apocalypse without casualties, new religions form on the stories that parents tell their children. This is a mirror of the spoken history of a tribe or culture being passed down before people could read and write. The new religions are formed around comic book and film characters, heroes if you like, which leads to inter-religion rivalry, fighting and schisms. For example, the followers of one religion may split and have a branch worshipping the dark side. People die stupidly and become holy martyrs as well, so it’s a fully formed and workable metaphor for our own Bronze Age, Arabic, Socialist religions having roots in verbal folklore (Christians, Muslims, Judaism) and then being codified, although in this story the religions are of course very different to those in our reality because the childish ones in this book take it all much too seriously, get stupid with it and start persecuting each other. Can you imagine?

This little punt across the River Styx was okay but was not my preferred subject matter. I think there might as well be a book about everything, at least one project to explore a detail of our existence from as many angles as a writer can come up with, so this fulfils that purpose. If you do read it and put it in your top ten list of favourite books of all time, that’s good, good for you, but it didn’t leave me quite as cheerful and positive about it as that. I’d like to move on before I get sucked in.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Nomad, by J.L. Bryan - 4.5 Stars

Nomad is as a time travel story with a kick-ass, thinks on her feet protagonist following the theme of going back in history to remove the key individual who made it all go wrong. This is dream fulfilment really. If you said to a friend “What would you do if you could travel back in time”, the usual answers would be about lottery numbers or stopping Hitler. However, the things that don’t seem threatening to us now, like the insidious Pringles Corporation, might grow into mind-death behemoth sicko megalomaniac control-o-freak-o-monsters a decade or two from now (you heard it here first) and only people from the future would know it was going to happen (and me). They even admit it in their tag line: “When you pop, you can’t stop.” See? Why can’t either of us stop? Where’s it all leading? Am I the only one who’s even a little bit concerned at the suggestion there are other things you can use the tube for? I don’t think Haribo are totally trustworthy either because gelatine comes from boiling bones and where do they get that many bones? Well? I’m waiting for an answer to my NUMEROUS letters. Anyway…

…and I’m back in the room. Okay, if anyone’s still reading this (I’ve been awake for over 30 hours, by the way. You can probably tell from the sound of my eye-lids dipping against the keys), I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that this is a really thumpingly exciting book and you should read it – an action flick blast of entertainment from beginning to end which I’m happy to recommend. I noted consistently readable writing, a strong plot, flowing momentum and it has some useful concept solving behind it (like how the Universe copes with a time travel paradox). Although it starts with guns as the solution, the heroine soon realises that option won’t work (she’s in a repetition loop) and tries to solve it in a more considered, feminine way, stalking a guy on a college campus. It’s interesting to see a soldier figure try to influence an outcome by talking to people and using charm instead of reaching for the usual blast grenade (I have a small, hard and knobbly, probably also clothy and tasteless pineapple in my room at the moment, which could be the most offensive piece of fruit in Hampshire today and it made me think of that).

I’m still thinking. Why are several people only giving this three stars when it’s a great example of its kind? Hint: It might be the suggestive cover.

I normally review the story, not the cover art, but I mean, did the publisher really ask someone to dress up like that? Where did they find her? The platform shoes look dangerously unstable, especially if she’s going to spend a lot of time in that position, and she also looks so lithe and thin, which is amazing really when you think of all the calories in cum. Seriously though, there’s a saying that you shouldn’t pass opinions until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. If I tried to walk a mile in her shoes, I’d fall on my bum quite smartly. She’s described in the book as being covered in scars and bruises (it’s the shoes, I’m telling you. Really, the whole thing could be avoided). Enough then, sarcastic honour has been satisfied.

Laying aside my odd mood today, it’s only fair to say that I didn’t just like the book, I really enjoyed it. The chase scenes, cool technology, funny friendships, rock climbing, anti-social social cliques, dictatorial stuff, hiding in cupboards, cutting lasers, exploding cupboards, evil uncles, super-heated hydrogen pellets and all the rest really punched the adrenal gland and got my attention. If I’d written this I’d be proud of myself for a month. Usually I don’t review books billed as YA because they’re too simplistic but I think this has been mistakenly described as YA because it entertains beyond that limited age range; higher as well I mean, not younger. If you are a prude who has somehow purchased this without seeing the cover, it does have a few sexy moments described within but the author knows when to stop. As do I.