Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

You can read my review of Robin Hobb’s new Fitz/Farseer novel over on Notes from the Dark Net.


Spoliers:  It could have been better.

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Posted by on August 7, 2014 in atsiko, Authors, Books, Fantasy, Reviews


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Now with Book Reviews! Sort of…

A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog.  It’s mostly just for fun.  But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try.  Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.

I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney.  I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much.  If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.


Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.

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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews


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Boys Don’t Read: The Making of the Myth

Something I’ve always been interested in is what makes someone a reader.  In general.  But something much more personal to me is the issue of reading and boys and why boys don’t read.  That’s the conventional wisdom.  But I only started hearing it after I was already a rabid reader myself.

(A quick note: I’m a guy.)

And I found it incredibly frustrating, because it didn’t match up with my personal experience.  More than that, it didn’t match up with what I saw of my friends, either.  And I think that’s an issue that has to be addressed.

I’m writing this post after having stumbled across a book blog called Stacked.  Specifically, a series of posts they had about boys reading.  As I read this series of posts, written primarily by adult women, and often citing Michael Sullivan, I became increasingly frustrated.  The posts were full of claims that boys don’t read, boys do read, but they read thus, boys’ brains work like this which is why they read this.  Not a single one of these claims matched my experiences as a young reader.  And I admit, I may have been an outlier.  (It’s useful for understanding my comments here to actually spend the ten or twenty minutes to read those posts first.)

But I have no reason to believe it’s anymore likely that I was the outlier and Sullivan the average male reader than the other way around.  It’s a common problem in scientific research to take your personal opinions and experiences as the norm.  Anyone who’s taken a serious class on research or statistics will have heard about anecdotal evidence–essentially, here’s how it was for me, that must be representative of the wider reality.  I have been guilty of relying on anecdotal evidence myself many times.  But in this case, I don’t believe I am the only one.

One of the primary claims made in the posts is that boys have a “rules and tools” thought process.  The common cliche about asking for directions gets cited.  And much is made of this being an inherent cognitive attribute of men vs. women.  Personally, I think it’s more of a cultural imposition.  We tell boys what the proper male behavior is, and punish them for not modeling it, and then we claim it’s an inherent biological trait.  It’s not.  What really bothered me about these posts was that they spoke as if all boys ever followed these specific in-built patterns.  That’s a pile of crap.  I have no doubt that these are trends among large cross-sections of the men and boys in Western society–whatever their supposed basis.  But they are not the only trends, and I’m not even convinced they’re the most common trends.  But they offer a simple way to view the differences between girls and boys in terms of behavior and educational performance, and so people desperate for an explanation glom onto them.

And I want to suggest that for that reason, they may be doing more harm than good.  If you tell boys this is how they are, full stop, then anyone who hasn’t yet been inculcated with these patterns is forced t re-evaluate themselves.  Are they doing something wrong?  Are they weird?  Should they be acting differently?  And that more than anything, pushes more and more boys and men into these patterns of thinking.  It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The short version here is that people need to learn to acknowledge that the world is complicated and cannot be reduced to simple binary patterns.  It sucks, and it’s frustrating, but it’s true.  And trying to force the world into those patterns, especially as concerns cultural, societal, or any human sphere can lead to exactly the harm you hope to counteract.



As a result of these issues, I don’t often share my reading with my friends and family offline, because I’ve been told that that’s not proper behavior.  And if boys tend to engage in reading in isolation, then it’s only these false dichotomies we have to blame, and nothing inherent in their make-up.

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Posted by on July 16, 2014 in atsiko, Gender Issues


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Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.


So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?


The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?


I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.


1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.


And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.


In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building


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Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent 2: The Difference Between Good Books and Books You Like

It’s becoming less of a strange concept these days: Just because you like a book, it doesn’t mean it’s good; just because you hate a book, it doesn’t mean it’s bad.  People often talk about this concept under the guise of “guilty pleasures”.

That’s the reader interpretation side of the issue.  On the authorial intent side, we have goals vs. execution.  An author might have sophisticated thematic goals, deep understanding of their characters, or brilliant and edge-of-your-seat plotting ability.  But that doesn’t mean they can put all of it on the page so the reader can see it.  I’ve heard many writers discuss the goals of their book, their plans for the characters, etc.  And quite often I’m dying to read that book.  But when I finally get my hands on a draft, or even a published book, it’s awful, or I hate where they went with it, or both.  Casual readers might be more familiar with this issue from reading back cover blurbs.  They’re written to sell the book, often by someone who is not the author, and they make it sound like the most fascinating book in the world.  But then you read it and it’s trite, or boring, or predictable.

In order to visualize this, think of a three-dimensional graph using Cartesian coordinates: x, y, z.  x is the goals of the author.  Are they unique?  Interesting?  Well-constructed?  Then they get a high x-value.  Look at the execution.  Is it elegant?  Is it good?  Does it get across what the author wanted to get across?  High y-value.  Finally, and this is arguable, but the most important issue to some people: Did you like the book?  Were the characters interesting?  Did the plot twist blow your mind?  Did everyone get what they deserved–or not?  High z-value.

To give you a better idea of how this graph works, high scores on all three axes mean the point on the graph representing a given book is in the back right corner.  The further away on the y-axis, which should pierce your belly-button, the better the craft behind the book.  The farther to the right on the x-axis, the loftier the goals of the story.  Finally, the higher up on the z-axis, which should be running parallel to your spine, the more you enjoyed the story.

As an example of a book to be plotted, let’s take The Scarlet Letter.  This was a brilliantly crafted book, with lofty thematic goals.  And I sort of liked it.  So it would sit somewhere to the bottom of my sternum, well past my right middle finger-tip, about five feet in front of me.

Nova Ren Suma’s Imaginary Girls, which was a fantastic example of magical realism, had lovely prose and interesting characters, and which I thoroughly enjoyed, would be fairly close to the upper right, back corner of my book box.

And then there are the tons of mediocre books that I might not read again, but don’t regret reading the first time.  And then we have Haruki Murakami, who is no doubt a great author, but whose penile adventures I have exactly zero interest in.  If we stuck the z-axis right down through the top of my head, he’d be about at knee-level and to the northeast of me.


I think “guilty pleasure” does a decent job of describing the phenomenon of knowing something is not particularly good and still liking it.  Kind of like McDonald’s.  I love McDonald’s even though I know it’s horribly unhealthy, and try not to think about the process of making it while I’m eating–or ever.

More bro-type folks then I might find Natty Light to be a better metaphor.  It’s an atrocious beer, tastes like watered-down camel-piss, but at least it gets you drunk.

And now I’m going to go feel ashamed of myself for suggesting that anyone compare natty light to literature.  Even Twilight-level literature.

ETA: If I were a good writer, I probably would have opened with that Twi-light/Natty-light line…

(This is not hating on Twilight.  I don’t like it, and it’s horribly written.  But plenty of people I know have said it’s their guilty pleasure.  Other readers may feel differently.)

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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews


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Reader Interpretation and Authorial Intent: A Review of Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma

Before we get going, I should explain that if I’m trying to find a book to read by online reviews, I look almost entirely at the negative ones.  Most books have only a few 1- and 2-star reviews, so usually I read all of them, and some of the more popular 3-star reviews.  Maybe a couple 4-stars.  (I mean on Amazon and GoodReads.)  That’s because the majority of five-star reviews in my experience are mostly gushing, don’t discuss the reasons why the reviewer felt that way except in terms so abstract as to be useless, etc.  Sure, some low-star reviews are like that.  But a lot of them take the time to point out every little itch and then about half are in between.   And I find it more sueful to hear what people hated about a book when deciding if I want to buy it.  Although unless a book has almost nothing over 2 stars, I don’t actually pay much attention to reviews for decision-making anyway.  I just enjoy reading them for their own sake.

You might be wondering what all this has to do with Imaginary Girls.  I don’t usually post reviews on this blog, partially because my taste is so weird, and partially because I don’t want people to get the wrong idea of what this blog is about.  I primarily enjoy writing about the theoretical aspects for speculative fiction, and as with this reviews, occasionally about YA.  There are plenty of awesome review blogs out there, and I’m not interested in competing with them.  I’m not capable of competing with them; my goals in writing a review are different than theirs.  The reason I’m writing this review, besides that fact that Nova Ren Suma is an awesome writer and I loved this book, is because after I finished I was surfing reviews on Goodreads, and I saw a review, not surprising, but quite illustrating of a topic that’s been percolating and/or fermenting in my mind for awhile.

As the title says, it’s the tension between reader interpretation and authorial intent.  By reader interpretation, I means the feelings and insights and the rewarded or frustrated expectations that a reader takes away from a story.  And there’s a unique interpretation for each reader.  I won’t debate the issue of validity here.  It’s much too heated and ambiguous a discussion for me to get side-tracked on here.

So, instead, let’s begin with my review.  The review I mention earlier had a different reader interpretation of Ruby than I did.  She hated her.  So did I.  But whereas the other review saw this as a flaw, I saw it as the point.  I don’t know Nove Ren Suma enough to make a firm claim to her intent.  To an extent, it doesn’t matter.  half the point of the novel seems to be to provide ambiguity.  I admit that I am going to go a bit into spoilers.  That’s where my goals in a review differ slightly from traditional reviews.  Ruby is not a nice person.  She’s not a mean person either.  She’s more just amoral.  What matters to her is what she wants, not what’s right or wrong.  And the book does a great job of taking that, and still making her not a complete monster.  When people have always done everything you wanted, it’s not that strange to take it for granted.  Ruby holds the whole town under her spell.  Her character isn’t cruel, just a bit purposefully oblivious.

And that’s part of what makes the book as good as it is.  Ruby’s complete narcissism plays so beautifully into the magical realist elements of the story.  It’s Chloe’s complete belief in her sister that allows all the fantastic events in the story to seem believable.  London’s revival is perhaps the most unambiguous magical element.  But for the rest of it, when you finally have a break from the consensus reality that Ruby holds over the town, when Chloe and London and their friends pass the boundary line and start to say all sorts of awful things about Ruby, there’s a moment where you realize that maybe Chloe isn’t the most reliable of narrators.  Is she so under Ruby’s spell that she never saw these cracks?  That’s one interpretation.  Or there’s the idea of the boundary of Ruby’s power.  There’s enough wiggle room to take either route.  Or perhaps even the boundary is real, in the sense that Ruby doesn’t have enough energy to control things outside of town for mundane reasons involving time and physical stamina.  The moments near the end of the second third of the book, where Chloe sees Ruby for once tired, not perfect suggest that this too is a possibility.  This tension between various possibilities is part of what makes magical realism, real-world superstition, and a magician’s tricks so bittersweet.

Chloe has a few other moments of cognitive dissonance, as well.  And in general she takes the route of doubling down on her faith in Ruby.  Totally believable, to me.  All fiction requires suspension of disbelief.  Even the real world does.  And Ruby has, evidenced by little hints throughout the story, taken a great deal of time to set up her perfect little world, or at least the image of it in Chloe’s eyes.  When you have the scene at the beginning of the book, at the reservoir, and everyone seems under Ruby’s spell, there’s another interpretation to consider:  perhaps many people are under Ruby’s spell–temporarily, or patchily, or entirely–but there’s also an aspect of rubber-necking and denial that could be in play.  Some people absolutely see through manipulation and tricks.  But they still love to see the master work.  Or they want to be part of the legend, even though they know the legend is a fraud.  It’s easy to forget that with humans, sometimes appearances can be more important than reality.  You see it in rich-people take-down stories all the time.  The cracks being exposed, the polite but purposeful ignorance.  The winks that say “I saw saw that” or “we all know the truth but it’s more useful for us to pretend we don’t”.

But it’s common theme that the people most capable of casting these sorts of spells are also not the nicest of people.  They understand manipulation.  They know how to play groups off against each other, how to get someone to overlook the many little problems in the face of the one big wonder.  And they learned those things for a reason.  We don’t really get to learn Ruby’s reason. They had family troubles, and their mom was not the most perfect.  Perhaps some things happened in the past we didn’t get told about.  But I know people like Ruby, I’ve seen how they construct their worlds, paper over the cracks, and the portrayal of that in Imaginary Girls is very well done.  It wouldn’t be the book it is if Ruby wasn’t so selfish and controlling.  The tragedy of the book, the great and terrible beauty of it, is that even if the magic is real, even if Ruby did what she did, and Chloe and then London were brought back from the dead, even if she truly loved her sister in her own way, Chloe is still, for the foreseeable future lost in the spell of someone who’s dead and gone.  (Or is she?!)  It doesn’t even matter if things were really how Chloe saw them, because Ruby has screwed her up just the same.


Nova Ren Suma has done a beautiful job encapsulating what it’s like being a teenager, looking up to someone–loving someone, even–looking past their flaws.  Even though I’ve never lived by a reservoir, or had the family situation Ruby and Chloe had, or whatever, this book definitely resonates with me, and reminds me of things that happened when I was younger, and most of all it created a great mystery that was fun to investigate, even if it was impossible to figure out the right answer.  And she did it with brilliant prose and fascinating characters.  And it’s hard to ask more from a book.

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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Books, Reviews


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The Translation Problem: People vs. Computers

In my last post, I introduced the topic of natural language processing and discussed the issue of how the context of a piece of language has an enormous impact on its translation into another language.  In this post, I want to address issue with translation.  Specifically, I want to talk how language is really an integrated function of the way the human brain models the world, and why this might make it difficult to create a machine translator isolated from the rest of an artificial intelligence.

When a human uses language they are expressing things that are based upon an integrated model of the universe in which they live.  There is a linguistic model in their brain that divides up their concept of the world into ideas representable by words.  For example, let’s look at the word “pit bull”.  (It’s written with two words, but as a compound word, it functions as a single noun.)  Pit bull is a generic term for a group of terrier dog breeds.  Terriers are dogs.  Dogs are mammals.  Mammals are animals.  This relationship is called a hypernym/hyponym relationship.  All content words(nouns/verbs/adjectives) are part of a hierarchical tree of hypo-/hyper-nym relationships.

So when you talk about a pit bull, you’re invoking the tree to which it belongs, and anything you say about a pit bull will trigger the conversational participants’ knowledge and feelings about not only pit bulls, but all the other members of the tree to which it belongs.  It would be fairly trivial programming-wise, although possibly quite tedious data-entry-wise to create a hypo-/hyper-nym tree for the couple-hundred-thousand or so words that make up the core vocabulary of English.  But to codify the various associations to all those words would be a lot more difficult.  Such a tree would be a step towards creating both a world-model and knowledge-base, aspects of artificial intelligence not explicitly related to the problem of machine translation.  That’s because humans use their whole brain when they use language, and so by default, they use more than just a bare set of grammar rules when parsing language and translating between one language and another.

One use of such a tree and its associations would be to distinguish between homographs or homonyms.  For example, if the computer sees a word it knows is associated with animals, it could work through the hypernym tree to see if “animal” is a hypernym or association with say, the word horse.  Or, if it sees the word “grain”, it could run through the trees of other words to see if they are farming/crop related or wood-related.  Or, perhaps, crossing language boundaries, if a language has one word that covers all senses of “ride”, and the other language distinguishes between riding in a car, or riding a horse, the program could use the trees to search for horse- or car-related words that might let it make a best guess one which verb is appropriate in a given context.

The long and short of the case I intend to make is that a true and accurate translation program cannot be written without taking enormous steps down the path of artificial intelligence.  A purely rule-based system, no matter how many epicycles are added to it, cannot be entirely accurate, because even a human being with native fluency in both languages and extensive knowledge and experience of translating cannot be entirely accurate.  Language is too malleable and allows too many equivalent forms to always allow for a single definitive translation of anything reasonably complex, and this is why it is necessary to make value judgements based on extra-linguistic data, which can only be comprehensively modeled by using techniques beyond pure grammatical rules.


In the next post, I’ll talk about statistical methods of machine translation, and hopefully I’ll be following that up with a critique and analysis of the spec fic concept of a universal translator.


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