Writing, reviews, and building bland worlds through meaningless numbers

Photo by Jordan Crawford / Unsplash

It's been a while since I've done a regular roundup edition, so here you go. For those of you newcomers, this is something I try and do weekly at the end of the week: a roundup of various news things that've been taking place in the SF/F world, along with a slightly longer thing about something that's been on my mind in this space.

A couple of housekeeping things first:

  • I've dropped the price of a Transfer Orbit supporting membership by 50%! You can sign up to support the newsletter (which helps with hosting and all sorts of other things) here. Signing up gets you into a vibrant Slack channel, which has been a delight, and a good replacement for social media. If you're someone with a lapsed subscription, I'd love to invite you back, and if you're new to the newsletter, your support is greatly appreciated.
  • Speaking of social media, Twitter's imploded. I'm not posting there as much (and it's really only links to new Transfer Orbit posts and book pictures). I've joined the requisite other social media channels and I'm sort of seeing what plays out as the place for the SF/F community. Thus far? I'm enjoying Bluesky, (you can find me there @andrewliptak.bsky.social), which has the same vibes as early Twitter. You can also find me on Mastodon, Threads, and Substack.
  • I've got an upcoming event! I'll be at Trekonderoga again at the Star Trek Original Series Tours in Fort Ticonderoga to talk about the history of cosplay. That'll be on August 19th at 1:00PM. It'll be a bit of an informal chat, but I'll bring some slides and some hands-on items. Later in the afternoon, I'll be one of the judges for the cosplay contest at 4:00pm. You can find details about the event here.  


The larger writing world found itself up in arms over the last week over the existence of a literature analytics product called Prosecraft. The product came from a computer scientist named Benji Smith, who founded Shaxpir in 2015, and Prosecraft in 2017 as a tool to help writers with their writing by comparing them to other writers. It used some analytics to figure out the general word count of thousands of stories, and analyzed them for things like vividness and passive voice.

It doesn't look like the site did anything to actually display the books for the general public, but the outcry began on Monday when an author, Zach Rosenberg, found his book on the platform and demanded its removal. It was a pebble that started a landslide: the tweet went viral as authors went and searched for their own books, and found them listed there. To his credit (I've seen too many tech folks double down and try and bluster their way out), Benji listened, apologized, and took the site down the next day, and says that he's removed the data associated with it in the latest Shaxpir release.

The larger writing community has been rubbed raw with the onslaught and threat that generative artificial intelligence (as someone I saw in passing described it: applied statistics) poses to the humanities: products like ChatGPT, Dall-E, Midjourney have plenty of people worried about their livelihoods and how it can winnow down an already precarious calling. It feels like we're at a tipping point: a major writer's strike has crossed its 100th day and I've heard anecdotally about book contracts held up over publisher demands for rights related to AI, all on top of a community that's been held at the whims of tech giants like Amazon (which has its own issues with AI).

There's little wonder in my mind that authors and readers would collectively explode at a product that's designed to take their words and boil them down into quantifiable nuggets.

I think folks are perfectly justified to be angry. Prosecraft strikes me as something that's incredibly useful in an academic sense (Smith even cites the work that the University of Vermont's Computational Story Lab, where a friend of mine has been using these types of big-data analytics to measure happiness and emotional resonance in fiction and the basic framework of stories that we tell. As a commercial product from a company, I'm having a little more trouble squaring the "fair use" that Smith claims his borrowing of books falls under, and the tech mentality of just hoovering up words for their projects. I think there's some amount of nuance and well-minded intentions that are lost in the outcry. I don't think it'll be the last time we see something similar take place.

I'm less interested in the nuts and bolts of the arguments that have taken place over the last week, but something that's been on my mind for a while now: our tendency to boil things down into quantifiable chunks.

Here's an example: I went to see Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny the other week, and had a good time. It didn't quite feel like the past films that I've enjoyed, but that's nostalgia for you. The film didn't do terribly well at the box office, and it's been accompanied by a narrative that (largely from bad-faith trolls and traffic-focused websites, as well as bigger, legitimate entertainment sites from what I can see) Disney is in serious trouble. Indeed, CEO Bob Iger's noted that they're going to course-correct a bit.

“Qanon for nerds”: Fandom isn’t immune to online radicalization
Conspiracy theories and online fandom

This isn't just an Indiana Jones thing: a quick look around on Twitter will find people debating the merits of things like Marvel's Secret Invasion, She-Hulk, and Ant-Man 3 or DC's Black Adam and The Flash. Bad-faith trolls looking for any reason to hate Lucasfilm gleefully pointed out that Andor's ratings was proof-positive that the company hated its own flagship product and its fans.

There are structural things embedded in this mindset: the requirements of a publicly-funded company to turn regular (large) profits, and a shrinking away of any sort of idea of any sort of longevity that a series might enjoy over a long period of time. Given that streaming services have been quick to pull shows (like Pantheon, Willow or Star Trek Prodigy) and movies (like Batgirl or Crater) off their platforms only adds to the anxiety and pressure for everything to be a hit off the bat.

The consequences are dire for creators: the pressure for those works to not just succeed, but wildly succeed with a massive box office hit means that studios and publishers are going to be less likely to buy or distribute new stories. It means more resources for big-name franchises like Star Wars and Marvel and DC, and fewer on more innovative, interesting, and original works. I'm very eager to see Gareth Edwards' upcoming film The Creator, because it's one of those films that looks fantastic, and has a promising story and cast. But it's also one of those films that feels like the headlines are already being written about a lackluster box office draw and how it has a story that doesn't immediately upend genre and convention.

Too often, the success or failure on films, comics, TV shows, or novels are boiled down to mere metrics, as though the power of a story has anything to do with the lifetime box office haul, the number of awards or nominations something receives, its overall star rating on Goodreads or Amazon. Numbers are tangible instruments. They're easy to use as a shorthand to convey something about the story as a product: how popular it is, how many copies its sold, and even measuring how emotional or passive it is.

Metrics like this can be useful, but only if they're used in specific ways. The larger, cultural way we've reduced our enjoyment to quantification, how we treat the stories we read and watch as mere consumable content doesn't strike me as a healthy way forward for the arts as a whole.

I think there are reasons for how we've gotten this way: the lack of focus and emphasis on the social sciences and arts, the general online environment and for what passes for arts criticism, and even our biological inability to parse nuance, ambiguity.

That's why a project like Prosecraft, and the generative-AI platforms – and why the entire argument for their use and existence feels so hollow to me. Art, whether it's the written word, a painting, a television series, is contingent on the decisions that we make that come out of our own experiences or emotions. It's not content for the sake of more things to watch, but an effort to struggle toward some sort of understanding of the world around us. Distilling that human experience into bits and blocks runs counter to that impulse. The tech bros who proclaim they're unlocking the secret to becoming an author or creator miss the point: they key to a good story isn't about the average length of books or how many times you use the word "was": it's about the journey itself, the deeply personal understanding that we have with a work.

(That's not to say that we don't make compromises to bring those stories to market when it comes to things like word count or genre, but I strongly think that those criteria should never be the starting point.)  

This is what frustrates me about the endless stream of star ratings (and why I don't issue a rating anytime I review a book) or the technical arguments about a box office haul or critics average rating pulled out of the cloud by random Twitter users or YouTubers. It's a meaningless argument that often ignores the substance of the story, either through critical ignorance or because it's inconvenient. We rely on these hard numbers or repeat the same rote critical statements ("Ghostbusters had a good cast, but it just wasn't funny" comes to mind) because they're something tangible to hold onto that we can repeat over and over until we've created a bland, tasteless world where no enjoyment can be found, aided and abetted by platforms that spit out words shaped like stories at us.

Image: Andrew Liptak 

Currently reading

I've finished a couple of books recently: S.L. Coney's Wild Spaces, which was an intriguing horror story set along the Carolina coast. (Here's my review.) Before that, I read and finished Arkady Martine's Rose/House, a very interesting book about artificial intelligence and architecture. (Review) Most recently, I finished S.A. Cosby's All the Sinners Bleed, which was fantastic. (Expect a short review of that at some point in the next week or so.)

I'm slowly climbing out of the rut that I've felt like I've been stuck in for a while.

Currently on the to-read list:

Also on the longer list of things that I've been reading? Adam Rowe's excellent book about 1970s scifi art, Worlds Beyond Time and the first couple of issues of The Expanse comic Dragon Tooth.

Further reading

It's been a moment since I've done a roundup post, but there are a whole bunch of interesting pieces that I've had bookmarked that are worth checking out. Plus, stuff you might have missed.

Book Merch. Something I've long held important for book publishing: it's important for publishers to do more than just publish a book. They should also be thinking about how to foster communities and fandom around books and authors. (See my piece about Brandon Sanderson's recent project). Esquire's Madeline Diamond looks some of those efforts are that publishers are undertaking.

C'mon Barbie let's go cosplay. I spoke with Raechal Shewfelt of Yahoo Entertainment about the trend of folks dressing up to watch the Barbie movie, and a bit about why we dress up in the first place.

Disparities in flood plains. I wrote a bit about the flooding that we experienced here, but this piece from Seven Days' Colin Flanders is essential, heartbreaking reading, especially this bit:

"A few miles away in flood-struck downtown Montpelier, volunteers were grilling food, handing out water bottles and pitching in on cleanups. And here the couple were, in one of the area's poorer neighborhoods, and not a helping hand in sight?
Andrews thought he knew why: "Nobody gives a fuck about a trailer park."

Dragon Award Finalists

Dragon Con is coming up, and with it, this year's Dragon Awards. Here's the list of finalists, and it's a pretty good one:

The 2023 Dragon Award Finalists
A snapshot of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror of 2023

Horror's new Golden Age. Equire's Neil McRobert published a cool report about some of the horror genre's new, diverse voices, like Gemma Amor, Paula D. Ashe, V. Castro, Cassandra Khaw, Eric LaRocca, Alison Rumfitt, Hailey Piper, and Ally Wilkes.  

Hugo Awards

The Hugo Awards are coming up later this fall, and after some bumps and bruises, we've got our list of finalists.

Here are the 2023 Hugo Award Finalists
Award ballots are generally a good barometer for the state of a community

Lando's back! One of the projects that I think just about everyone's given up on was Disney's Solo spinoff, Lando. Lucasfilm announced the series back in 2020, but it's sort of fallen off the radar (along with a whole bunch of other projects) since. Now, it looks like it's back on, and written by none other than Lando himself, Donald Glover. I'm enthused for this: Glover was pitch-perfect casting for the character, and he's an excellent writer – just watch his series Atlanta. Hopefully this'll continue to move forward.

More books to add to your TBR. Here's the book list for July, and here's the first one for August. I'll have another one out next week.

New Nnedi Okorafor for 2025. This book sounds very, very good: Okorafor sold The Africanfuturist, a story about an SF/F author and the cost of the success that she finds. It's described as "a multi-threaded meta drama examining the relationship between a story and its teller, the labyrinth of African diasporic identity, family, and what makes us human.”

OpenAI Lawsuit. A couple of author – Paul Tremblay amongst them – have filed lawsuits against OpenAI, alleging that the company has been using their books without permission.

Pokémon and Local History

I write a newsletter for the Vermont Historical Society, and to break up the doom and gloom about the recent floods, I wanted to look at something a little more fun. Specifically, how Pokémon GO is a great way to discover local history in your community.  

Hidden gems
Discovering your local history with some help from some tiny pocket monsters

Sandwich Shop Capitalism

Subway announced that it'll give away free food to a lucky (?) individual who changes their first name to Subway. It reminded me of an excellent novel, Max Barry's Jennifer Government.

Sandwich shop captialism
Max Barry’s Jennifer Government holds up exceptionally two decades after its release

Scary AI. Noted cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling has an oped in Newsweek about the threat that AI poses: "Gold rushes always finish ugly, and this AI rush is another one of those. It will resemble that glamorous Atomic Age transition from "energy too cheap to meter" to "garbage too expensive to bury."

Shirley Jackson Winners

At ReaderCon last month, the Shirley Jackson Awards announced the winner of this year's prize.

Here are the winners of the 2022 Shirley Jackson Awards
This year’s excellence in dark fiction from last year

Trailers! All the trailers! San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone, so we're at the point in the year where we're hitting the publicity point for a whole bunch of upcoming projects. We've had new ones for Ahsoka, Blue Beatle, The Changeling, The Creator, Dune, Loki season 2, The Marvels, and a whole bunch of others.