Book Review: Autonomous by Annalee Newitz



Note the cream bedsheets; yes, I read it with class. Not pictured: infuser with sexy lavender oil.

I haven’t sat down and read an entire novel, in one sitting, in a really, really long time. I’m thinking since Peter Watts’s Starfish, back in 2005.

Autonomous took that prize.

I’ll give a non-spoiler version, and then after the read more tag, I’ll go quite a bit more in-depth with what I loved about this book. Also a few spoilers. BECAUSE HOLY SHIT. #professional

Quick overview: Autonomous takes place roughly 150 years from now, and centers on two groups of people: a drug pirate named Jack and her associates Threezed, Krish, Med, and those at Free Lab, and the IPC (Intellectual Property Commission? I think) duo of Eliasz and Paladin–an indentured robot–along with their support infrastructure.

A Big Pharma company creates a work efficiency drug that is intended to be marketed only to the wealthy. Jack reverse engineers it to be sold to the less fortunate, finds out it is highly addictive and damaging, and the pharma company wants to keep it under wraps. In turn, it sends its personal police to hunt down the terrorist (Jack) and keep the information secret/safe/profitable.

Overclocked with tech evolution, smart characters and smarter digital communications, and relationships that melded into the complexity of the story with clarity and power, Autonomous was just as interesting to read for the story as it was for the insight and depth of understanding for tech.

It covers themes of humanity, personhood, gender relations, technology relations, the complex nature of AI, patent law, Big Pharma, lawful vs. moral vs. ethical, security, and community (along with, I’m certain, lots I overlooked in the meantime).

I could be wrong, but I know of nobody else writing like this. And it is beautiful. If I had to give number score out of ten, I’d give it 9/10. It’s really, really, really that good. If you’re a tech nerd, if you’re a gamer, if you’re a digital humanities person, if you love science fiction, if you want a great read, get this book. It is a harmony of stories.

I’m getting a second copy just to share with a friend.  Continue reading


Jupiter Ascending is Twilight on Steroids


I’ll start this post by saying I had a whole entry written up about being spoon-fed stories, and how tired I am of baby-stepped storytelling. I figured I *expletive deleted* too much, so I slept on it and decided to ruminate on the subject.

I found the best way for me to distill and digest my thoughts would be to read (or watch) something that doesn’t spoon-feed me a story. So I turned to a movie I’ve wanted to see for a long time: Jupiter Ascending. Given the Wachowskis don’t play by the rules when it comes to telling a story, I figured I couldn’t los anything by watching. 

It galvanized my thought process on the matter, and allowed me to step into a place to properly compare and dissect. The movie also got so little attention once released, and I heard so little about it, I figured it’d be a great, beautiful, luscious movie. I wasn’t wrong.

Spoilers contained within. Do not read if you want to watch and enjoy it as new. Continue reading

What is the Bechdel Test (and Other Tests), as it Pertains to Writing?

Mako Mori, via Pacific Rim.

Mako Mori, via Pacific Rim.

I was doing research over at Red Sofa Literary, and under one of the literary agent’s (Laura Zats) scifi/fantasy reading requirements, I read “must pass either the Mako Mori or Bechdel tests.” I know who Mako Mori is, given I have an anime/manga obsessed friend who absolutely loved Pacific Rim (she’s one of two protagonists in the film), but I didn’t know she had a test to go along with her character. I’ve never heard of Bechdel, so I decided to dig deeper.

Research on Wikipedia (I know! Super-high tech research engine) shows they are “feminist” tests in movies. What does this mean?

Continue reading

Who is in My Back Pocket?

In an effort to organize the craziness that is my writing/reading/professional editing career, I tried to stack my unfinished books in a pile to figure out how to get through them. My current reading list is As Follows:

Silentium by Greg Bear (Yes. It is a Halo book. It is the first fluff novel I’ve read in a long while. Don’t Judge!!! haha)
*Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore
*The Long War by Baxter and Pratchett
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
*Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
*Wise Man’s Fear by Rothfuss
Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons
*Ilium by Dan Simmons
*Olympos by Dan Simmons
The Terror by Dan Simmons
*The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
Legend of Sleepy Hollow and other Short Stories by Washington Irving
*The Reincarnationist (Maybe)
Liber Novus by Carl Jung
along with several re-reads of books like
The Angel of Darkness
Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
Lovecraft stories (I’ll never stop re-reading them, I think)

(* Denotes I haven’t started reading yet)

While I find most of this of high literary value (with a few, um, exceptions), I’ve spent a lot of time recognizing my interest, and love, of reading scifi/fantasy. Which is good, and important, given my love for writing it. My favorite cyberpunk novel is Starfish by Peter Watts. My favorite Scifi is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (even though I’ve read none of the subsequent novels written in the same universe). My favorite novel of all time is Drood by Simmons.


It gets such a bad rap. Disinterest, perhaps, given this day of Science and Realism. Yet some of the biggest movies are scifi and fantasy, with superheroes thrown in to mix the two together. I’ve been in enough homes to know how important the murder/mystery genre is, how important the horror genre is. How important the romance genre is. But I also recognized how much of it is simply fluff. Something to do in the free time. A hobby to fill the space with silence.

I don’t know where my tangent is going, but everything I do goes back to my writing, what I pursue, how I pursue it. People like Simmons are so few and far between. People like Card, as well. I’m torn between reading and writing, mostly because reading takes up so much time. Writing takes up three times as much. Or, it should.

The single piece of advice I hear from other writers is to read read read. It doesn’t help me. Real life stuff, people being people interacting with each other, works a little. Dreaming at night, surprisingly (or not), alters everything about the day after. Living like this blooms my writing to great heights. When I was younger? High school to younger? I read everything I could get my hands on. But now? Most of what I read? I know I can do much better.

Except for that damn Simmons. So good.


17650 words. I know. I wrote David and His Shade faster than this. I guess this is the difference between when a man wakes from a particularly inspiring dream, and when a man wakes with nothing more than THIS MONTH I GOTTA WRITE. Something to think about.

I’ll only write about the project as I go, and not about my plans for said project. The biggest piece of writing advice I ever recieved came from a wonderful poet/professor (poetfessor?) who lives on the East Coast (and flies into Springfield, IL twice a month to teach). She said only talk about what you’ve written, and never what you’re going to write. In telling the story, you’ve already told it, and your inspiration has died.

I took it to heart. She knew so much about writing, I found her class one of the few true gems in a courseload of mediocrity. And to top it off, it was a critique roundtable where everyone tossed their work into the middle and everyone else talked about it. Whoda thought.

It’s steampunky, kinda. 30 pages in and I’ve still not revealed the steampunk of the thing. It’s time-travelly: a witch by the name of Lotus from the 1300’s, a “stolen goods acquierer,” Mr. Ward from the 1850’s, and some anachronistic survival tour guide, Michael, from the 2012’s come together to save the world from blowing up by a particularly devious man. The novel begins in 2014, where the man ignites Yosemite National Park’s Old Faithful, creating a two-mile-wide volcanic explosion.

Aggressive, I know. It destroys the world and the secret police of Alexandria must hastily recruit a new Jackdaw (Crow) for the job, since the other 5 blew up in the death of the world. Fun. Said earth-ender knows magic no living person understands but historically existed, and Lotus was the last practitioner of said magic. Mr. Ward was the last known owner of said book of magic practices. Which ties everything together.

Lotus’ personality is a detached loner style. She’s tied to the arcane in her own time, let alone the 1800’s, where she knows nothing and cares little for it. She’s all spines and danger and power, especially since the world she now walks is so foreign. She can kill a man with a look and the proper concentration, she’s a true multi-tasker (one hand draws a picture while the other holds a gun), and hates men. Or, their place in society. In general.

Mr. Ward is a low-key guy used to working through the underbelly of Boston. He’s a determined guy who doesn’t give a damn about much of anything, and spends most of his time hiding his scars, so to speak. He has a chivalrous heart, beneath it all, and wholly believes in his cause. Given he’s an artifact, and sometimes reliqual, collector, he’s developed a tough skin. Since they are forced to work in his time period, he is kind of the focus. He’s never relied on anyone before and isn’t about to start now. He feels more a babysitter to Michael than anything else.

Michael understands how important everything is, but knows nothing about magic. He’s a stumbling ex-surfer who prefers hiking and camping and proper diet to anything so active as saving the world. He’s adrift and is charged with learning as much as he can from the other two Jackdaws before they (the three of them) return to the present, 1 year before the slow, suffocating end of humanity. He turns out to be a scrappy guy, more interested in helping those he trusts than the Greater Good. He’s kinda MacGuyver-ish with his knowledge of basic physics, chemistry, anatomy, and mechanical engineering. He’s the everyman that doesn’t want to die as his prime motivator. He also loves ladies.

Anywho, I just finished writing a scene where Lotus tattoos Michael in a dream, all over his body, for protection. He’s tied to a torture device. I enjoy the idea that magic isn’t just an out-there idea, but a very real part of her world. Lotus is as fleshed as I can make her. It’s poor Mr. Ward I’m having trouble with.

So! I return to reading Angel of Darkness, a historian’s wet dream but casual reader’s nightmare. It is currently my Moby Dick. If he talks one more time about the sprawling cityscape of New York circa 1897, I’m going to scream. Yes, we know you knew where every church, yellow bumper, and mancover was. No, it’s not integral to the story.

Write on, friends.

Why Most Writers Get Zombies Wrong

Aw snap. I said it. They get it WRONG, yo! Like, stickin’ shells in a pistol!

ZombieMyth is all the rage right now, with The Walking Dead on AMC, countless zombipocalypse movies/TV shows playing (Joss Whedon, anyone?), and of course the video game scene. People Love the Zombies. From the writing angle, though, few writers do it justice. I wrote a chapter on a zombie project a few years back, and I stopped because I felt I didn’t understand the concept well enough to do it justice.

So, years later, I realized most writers don’t take the concept back to its roots to figure out why, exactly, this theme exists in the first place. Most writers use it as a plot device, or a Big Thing in some scifi-esque apocalypse–which is great for visual media. Writing?

Max Brooks (son of director Mel Brooks. Awesome) wrote a bunch of zombipocalypse books (World War Z as the most defining of these) where he came closest to understanding the basics of the zombie theme, though he focused much more on survival and the sociopolitical than anything else.

So where did this zombie idea come from? As with most supernatural, it came from many, many stories from the Bible (Jesus rising from the dead, Lazarus?) and Hindu stories (heck, any major religion is rife with zombie lore), fairy tales/old wives’ tales, lead poisoning from lead-lined steins that nearly stopped the heart, Vampirism, and the list goes on and on.

But I’m not talking about mystical, magical, religious, or vaguely backcountry-ignorant zombie lore. I’m talking about the world dying, leaving only the few surviving people and all the masses of animalistic undead.

Revelation talks about the death of the masses. But I still feel something much more important happened–actually happened–to fuel this interest.

Bubonic plague. Literally reanimated corpses, no, but the walking dead? Heck yeah. A great equalizer, an unseen killer, a mutagen that makes boils erupt on the skin and destroy motor function, creates a high fever and the psychological desolation of an entire society unable to assist. The fact is, this happened. It happened three times in historical memory. It desolated society. It’s the only act in the history of the world that is similar to zombipocalypse.

Nobody talks about it–although I don’t spend much time in zombie theory chatrooms–and every zombie book I’ve ever read focuses on it as a plot device, or a social commentary, or a force to move the story forward. Except, maybe, Brooks. Writers dive into “it’s happening,” and, “survival,” while ignoring where it came from.

Now, I’m going to take this a step further and say it’s a racial memory: history has an impact on us, and if you study the historical “chaos theory” patterns, you will find it’s time for population control. In the past, it’s been accomplished through war, food shortage, and, of course, plague. There’s a reason the four horsemen are called what they are: they are the great cullers of society.

Zombification is the closest embodiment of the bubonic plague, of culling, that we have. It’s fantasy, of course. Of course. Except, you know, this “zombie” stuff has happened before. Three times.

We writers can do better than that: we can write a thousand vampy fluff romance urban fantasies, but we can’t write five good zombie novels? Different undead, different genre, different… whatever. But I call BS. Zombies are to writing as hard rock is to music. Media’s catching on. It isn’t like writing martial arts novels: this theme is made to be written.

Let’s do it right. I’m in. Any other takers?

Starfish by Peter Watts

I read this book a while ago, when it first came out. This book was the novelist’s first foray into fiction writing, and he exploded my imagination. Unfortunately my brother owned the original copy, and the book has since gone out of print.

I had the good fortune of getting it as a birthday present this past weekend. Every moment of downtime I get, I read this sucker. It’s scifi, cyberpunk (though not as cyber as the sequal, Maelstrom), and plays heavily on “pre-adaptation” of mentally unstable/twisted people to handle extreme pressure; literally, tending to hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor and figuratively with the cramped quarters, and high tension.

I have no idea why this wasn’t a bestseller. It’s brilliantly written. Violent, complex, and very easy to understand. From a psychological perspective, the characters are very paper-cut out: emotional damage to all the “unstables” is generally one-dimensional and caused from a single incident, psychiatrists that look at patients and say, “I get lots of people coming in here saying what you say, but I think you’re the first one who actually believes what’s coming out of your mouth,” (I know a lot of mentally unstable people… Of course they believe what they’re doing is right…) and a plot that’s as simplistic as saying, “Lord of the Flies.”

But it’s the periphery that gets me. The details. With the environment being so simple (bottom of the ocean, submarine-like living quarters, etc), and the plot being nothing more than six people fighting to keep a lid on their emotions while fixing portions of the power plant, the details of this world permeate everything.

I think that’s why I enjoy it so much: the writer does something I’m not used to writers doing. Those things that are usually frontrunner in a reader’s head–plot, environment–are actually in the background while periphery is key. It’s oddly subtle, and quite near fantasy if you look at it close enough:

Phytophyllic skinned rich people, adults that can revert to a childlike state by taking the right pills, and the way the government/private corporations run everything is eerily efficient.

The antagonist and main character, Lenie, is a woman that had been sexually abused earlier in her life. The prologue pits her in the colony with just one other person–a normal, oddly cheerful woman. The other woman snaps, eventually, the mental tension of living such a life becoming too much. Lenie snaps, too, in a strange way: she finds empowerment in the depths. She’s in control, there, and she’s in charge (Again, a little bit cardboard: someone who spent her life holding onto such a damaging memory won’t simply resolve it when she absolutely has to. In fact, fixing such a damaging memory usually takes a rewiring of self, and a long period of habit-forming positive reinforcement).

She gets strong, and sets precedent for the rest of the book. Book two (part of why I love this series so much) has her on a rampage through the United States, and Starfish feels like just a precursor to prepare the reader for what he needs to know. It’s complex. It’s awesome. I can’t put it down.