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A story about evolution and life finding a way. Animals with very strange adaptations that seem unconnected to any clear evolutionary lineage have been popping up in southeast Asia, and biologists are baffled. The book is kind of slow to get moving, and I think it might have been better as a short story or novella, but it has some interesting ideas in it.

Like a lot of Egan's fiction, the story is really about humanity and what it means to be human. A lot of Egan's other works are set in the far future and deal with the theme of people altering their own human nature through technology; this one -- set in the very near future -- is more about how we cope with our human nature when we can't change it. In particular, it's about the fact that human beings are products of evolution, and what that means to us. If all our most cherished desires, emotions and values only arose by accident, for no other reason than because having those impulses helped us to survive and reproduce, does that render them meaningless? Is it possible for a human being to "escape evolution" or "transcend evolution", and what would that even mean?

The protagonist, who is gay, feels that gay sexuality is "more meaningful" than hetero sex because it's "against evolution" -- i.e., because it exists purely for the sake of pleasure and happiness instead of being driven by a need to reproduce. He and his boyfriend have a friendly debate over whether the existence of gay people actually serves any evolutionary purpose or not, and whether that matters.

Read more... )
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I just reread Diaspora by Greg Egan, one of my all-time favorite SF novels. It’s set in the distant future, when the human species has splintered into a variety of biological and artificial descendants. The story is told entirely from the perspective of the posthuman AIs who live in their own virtual communities, many of which have almost completely lost touch with the outside world (it’s kind of hard to have any meaningful contact with biological humans when your own mental processes run about a million times faster than theirs).

The virtual humans are forced to confront the external world, however, when an unanticipated collision between two neutron stars sends out a wave of energy that threatens to destroy all life on Earth. This existential threat ultimately sends them on a quest for knowledge – of other intelligent beings, of the world of subatomic physics and of the fundamental nature of the universe.

No, I can’t follow every single detail of Egan’s complicated speculative physics. I’m still not entirely sure just where the real science leaves off and the fiction begins – but that’s what makes it so impressive as a work of hard SF. What really draws me into the book though is the imaginativeness of Egan’s invented universe, and the mind-expanding perspectives he asks the reader to take on. What would it actually be like to be a piece of conscious software, able to edit your own thoughts, feelings, memories and personality at will? How would it feel to inhabit a universe with five spatial dimensions instead of three? The ideas this story encompasses are dizzying in the best possible way.
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I enjoy Egan's hardest-of-hard SF a lot, even though a lot of the really technical sciencey shit goes over my head. This is one of his earlier novels, though, and as Egan books go it's on the "softer" end. The story is set in 2055 and deals with intrigue surrounding several competing physicists and their attempts to develop a successful Theory of Everything.

The stuff I have to say about the SF premise is all spoilery, so I'm going to talk about the setting first. Egan has written other books set in postgender futures; the 2055 society of Distress hasn't gotten that far yet, but the traditional two gender categories have splintered into seven: en-male and en-fem ("natural" males and females); umale and ufem (genders which exaggerate the traditional masculine and feminine qualities); imale and ifem (which move the other way, toward androgyny); and asex (total androgyny). The asex pronoun is ve/vis/ver/verself, which Egan also used in his later book Diaspora; out of the various gender-neutral pronoun sets I'm familiar with, I find this to be one of the less awkward examples.

The people who've adopted these new gender identities are known as "gender migrants", and it's explained that, unlike transsexuals, most of them are motivated by a purely social feeling of discomfort with their assigned gender role and not any kind of physical dysphoria.

"The whole point of being umale is to distance yourself from the perceived weaknesses of contemporary natural males. To declare that their 'consensual identity' -- stop laughing -- is so much less masculine than your own that you effectively belong to another sex entirely. [...] But... that is the commonest reason people cite for gender migration: they're sick of self-appointed gender-political figureheads and pretentious Mystical Renaissance gurus claiming to represent them. And sick of being libeled for real and imagined gender crimes. If all men are violent, selfish, dominating, hierarchical... what can you do except slit your wrists, or migrate from male to imale, or asex? If all woman are weak, passive, irrational victims -- [...]

But the point is... gender migration is ninety percent politics. Some coverage still treats it as a kind of decadent, gratuitous, fashionable mimicry of gender reassignment for transsexuals -- but most gender migrants go no further than superficial asex. They don't cross right over; they have no reason to. It's a protest action, like resigning from a political party, or renouncing your citizenship... or deserting a battlefield... but whether it will stabilize at some low level, and shake up attitudes enough to remove the whole reason for migration, or whether the population will end up evenly divided between all seven genders in a couple of generations, I have no idea."

Gina grimaced. "Seven genders -- and all of them perceived as monolithic. Everyone stereotyped at a glance. Seven pigeon-holes instead of two isn't progress."

"No. But maybe in the long run there'll only be asex, umale and ufem. Those who want to be pigeon-holed will be -- and those who don't will remain mysterious."

"No, no -- in the long run we'll have nothing but VR bodies, and we'll all be mysterious or revelatory in turns, as the mood takes us."

"I can't wait."

(The distant future where everyone has VR bodies and most people just don't bother with gender anymore is the actual setting of Diaspora.)

The idea of being able to just opt out of being gendered is hugely appealing to me, and I wish that were a viable option in real life.

In the book, just as people may have various (political or social) motivations for gender migration, the process itself is highly individualized and can be purely a matter of a change in outward gender presentation or involve various forms of body modification. One major character is an asex person who's chosen to become physically neuter and (through some kind of brain chemistry alteration) asexual, and the (en-male) protagonist experiences some angst when he finds himself becoming attracted to ver despite knowing that his feelings can never be reciprocated or consummated.

Spoilers start here. )
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Just watched a STTOS episode (“Tomorrow Is Yesterday”). TOS was my primary fandom as a teenager, but I haven’t rewatched any of it in years. It’s weird having different reactions to it now than I did then. Like I know people talk about the incredible levels of K/S subtext, but really… is it just me, or does Kirk come across like he’s flirting with pretty much everyone, all the time? It’s just something about Shatner’s weird facial expressions, IDK.

Also weird: back when I was seriously into TOS fandom Spock was absolutely my favorite character, and kind of became the template for the type of character I would end up obsessing over in many of my later fandoms. But watching the show now… I think I kind of like McCoy better?? Like I guess at some point I started preferring characters who are funny over ones who are stoic (not that Spock can’t be funny too, but McCoy is typically funnier). I still like emotionally-repressed characters, but most of my other faves are not quite as deadpan as Spock but are more overtly sarcastic, or just weirder and quirkier.

The Spock-McCoy “we act like we hate each other even though we maybe secretly kind of like each other” dynamic is still great, though, and it’s the main thing I miss about the show/fandom. The only other characters I’ve found who’ve really had a similar kind of relationship are Rose and Dave from Homestuck (whom I also love). I thought Amethyst and Pearl from Steven Universe (which I’m watching right now) might have a similar kind of thing going on, but so far they don’t seem to genuinely like each other enough under the hostility – they just sort of grudgingly tolerate each other for the sake of the team. Whereas with the pairings I like – Spock & McCoy and Dave & Rose – sometimes they have genuine disagreements and get pissed at each other, but a lot of the time it’s clear they’re really just teasing each other or riling each other up for the fun of it. And that’s the kind of thing I really like.
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This is a book about the hackers and phreakers of the early 1990's and the first serious attempts by US law enforcement to put them in check (and the conflicts over computer-related civil liberties issues that arose as a result). I've already read a few different books about hackers, but this book taught me a lot more about the government agencies opposed to them -- particularly the US Secret Service, and the history of its involvement with computer crime. Apparently the Secret Service was originally a department of the US Treasury created to combat counterfeiting, and its responsibility for handling financial crimes ended up giving it partial jurisdiction over cases of computer fraud, which led to kind of a turf war with the FBI.

Anyway this book is an interesting snapshot of an era when most people including law enforcement didn't understand computers very well but still had to deal with them, sometimes kind of cluelessly. Not unlike today!
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Really long historical novel about events surrounding Theoderic the Great's conquest of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century, told from the POV of an original character who rises from obscurity to become one of Theoderic's most trusted marshalls.

From the perspective of someone who knew basically nothing about this historical period before reading the book, most of it comes across as a meticulously-researched -- or at least, a very detailed and convincing -- depiction of what life must have been like in that era. The generally realistic tone is disrupted, though, by a few jarring moments of obviously-ahistorical ridiculousness. One plot point involves a class of slave girls who are born and bred to be WEAPONS OF ASSASSINATION -- by being FED POISON FROM BIRTH, which has made them immune to it, and also made their bodies, like... permanently filled with poison? Or something?? So that ANYONE WHO HAS SEX WITH THEM WILL DIE PAINFULLY. Because that's obviously a much more practical and efficient way to kill somebody than just, like, stabbing them or poisoning their food or something.

Read more... )
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For the sake of posting some more stuff, I'm going to try writing a few comments on every book I read.

The Dream is an early work of science fiction from the 1600's. The big astronomical controversy of the day was over Copernicanism, which many rejected just because it was so unintuitive -- obviously the Earth doesn't go around the sun, all you have to do is look up in the sky to see that the sun and moon and stars are all moving around the Earth! So Kepler wrote this story about people traveling to the moon and studying astronomy there to demonstrate that it's all relative: if we were on the moon, obviously we'd think the moon was the center of the universe and everything was revolving around it.

Amusingly, Kepler has to resort to the idea of humans being carried to the moon by demons, since he apparently couldn't imagine any technological means of accomplishing such a feat. I think the most interesting parts of the book though are the ones where he speculates about what the Lunar lifeforms might be like (because he did believe there was intelligent life on the moon -- some of its geographical features looked manmade to him).

My dad gave me this book for Christmas; he always gets me the coolest presents.
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I think the moment is fast approaching when I'm going to have to tell my parents I'm not a Christian anymore.

I am not looking forward to this conversation.

angst angst angst )
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Not particularly spoilery thoughts:

It recycled too much stuff from the original trilogy (which was also a problem in Abrams' Trek movies). But! I liked all the new characters, it had some good action scenes, and overall it was a fun movie and I'm looking forward to the next one.
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When you see this post, feel encouraged to post something in your journal. Short or long, trivial or profound, it doesn't matter, just something. And if you like, you can pass on the token by copying this notice at the bottom of your post.

Um, hmm. Okay.

I've decided to try getting into Steven Universe, partly because it's where all the Homestucks have gone but mostly because I keep hearing spoilers that sound interesting. I've watched the first 8 episodes now, so here are some initial impressions.

I like Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl, but I find Steven himself kind of irritating.

The episode with the kitten fingers squicked me out badly enough that I couldn't finish it. If there's a lot more of that kind of body horror in the series, I might have to nope out.

Overall I'm pretty "eh" on it but I'll keep watching and see what happens. The episodes are short so it's not like it's an enormous timesink or anything.
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I haven't been posting anything here lately I guess mostly because I'm currently into Homestuck fandom and I think only like one person I know on LJ/DW is into HS. I have been posting some HS stuff here on Tumblr instead.

I wanted to rec this fanfic... ish... thing, though, because it's amazing and you don't really have to be familiar with Homestuck to enjoy it.

Detective Pony by sonnetstuck

Basically, at one point in Homestuck the comic we are shown a couple pages of a copy of the children's book Pony Pals: Detective Pony (a real book that actually exists) which the character Dirk Strider has vandalized extensively with humorous commentary.

This HS fan actually obtained the book in question and created a complete version of Dirk's "edited" copy. This thing is amazing; it is seriously one of the best, funniest and cleverest fanworks I've ever read. It also captures Dirk's voice and personality really well; but again, you don't really have to know anything about Dirk or Homestuck to read it.

Basically if you enjoy metafictional stuff, you'll probably like this, is what I'm saying.
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Hi, I haven't posted in forever. Here are some driveby recs of things I've been enjoying lately:

Ghost in the Wires by Kevin D. Mitnick -- a memoir of one of the more notorious hackers of the 80's and 90's. It's pretty fascinating. Mitnick was a compulsive hacker who constantly broke the law and risked arrest for no reason other than "having fun". He's highly technically skilled, of course, but what's surprising is how many of his hacking exploits were achieved mainly through "social engineering" -- essentially, manipulating people into giving away confidential information. It's amazing how much you can get people to tell you just by bluffing confidently and sounding authoritative. This is a riveting read -- definitely the best book I've read so far this year.

Death Note -- I've never watched much anime before, I tried this one on my brother's recommendation. By the end of the second episode I was hooked, and I devoured the whole series in a week. The writing is amazingly clever -- a battle of wits between geniuses that, for the most part, actually convinces me that they're exactly as smart as they're made out to be. There is, unfortunately, a plot twist 2/3 of the way through that I strongly dislike, and because of it the rest of the series isn't quite as good as the first part, though it's still enjoyable. The first 2/3, though, are fantastic.

And fanvids:

TGIF by Estalita11 -- A pretty hilarious STTOS vid.

It's Still Science Fiction to Me by azurish -- A great tribute to lots of SF shows & movies.
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I read 81 books this year, mostly science fiction. A few of my favorites (with no significant spoilers):

Permutation City and Diaspora by Greg Egan )

Cluster and Chaining the Lady by Piers Anthony )

To Be or Not To Be: That Is the Adventure by Ryan North )

The Hobbit

Dec. 29th, 2013 03:01 pm
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Well, it was better than the last one.

Spoilers )
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That was… a lot better than I expected. In fact, my only real complaint is that it was too abridged. I realize the abridging really couldn’t be helped; but it was only a two-hour movie. They could have made it a little longer!

What there was of the story, though, was great. And it’s rare for me to say this, because I usually have a million complaints about film adaptations of books I like. But this was so perfectly faithful to the book — and, admittedly, it’s possible that my love for the book is affecting my judgment here, and that I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much if weren't able to fill in the gaps in the story with my knowledge of the book.

Not really that spoilery, but cutting anyway. )

tl;dr: Enjoyed it. Would watch again.
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This year's Jack-o'-Lantern: clearly I'm running out of ideas.


Sep. 29th, 2013 09:39 pm
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I'm trying to branch out a little and read more nonfiction; here are some quick comments about a couple space-related books I read recently.

How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown

A memoir by the guy whose discovery of a Pluto-sized object caused the demotion of Pluto from planetary status. A fun read that taught me a lot about the solar system and the world of astronomy. Definitely recommended.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Entertaining book about the more "practical" side of sending human beings into space. It made me wonder how many of Mars One's 200,000 applicants would have signed up if they had any idea what it's actually like to live in space -- because Roach makes the whole experience sound pretty miserable! Crappy food, substandard hygiene, cramped environment, space sickness, plus the unanticipated psychological strain of living in a completely artificial environment for days or weeks at a time. She makes it sound doubtful that it would even be possible for a human being to reach Mars without going completely nuts -- much less live there permanently.

It might offer a grim view of an astronaut's life, but the book is not a grim read at all -- it's full of humor. I'm impressed at the dedication Roach shows in chasing down all the seedy secrets that NASA tries to keep away from its public image -- although occasionally she goes a little too far into things I'd rather not know (if you've ever wondered about poop, vomit and B.O. in space, this is the book for you).

Also recommended.
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Opened my library book, and a photo fell out. I guess someone was using it as a bookmark. It's a small Asian child in a pink jacket. There's no identifying information on the photo. The library would know who checked out this book before me, but probably there's no point in trying to track them down just to give them the photo back. They can't have cared that much about it if they were using it as a bookmark, right?
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