A lived-in world

A look at S.B. Divya's Machinehood and thoughts on writing and payoff

A lived-in world
Image: Andrew Liptak
Image: Norwich University

A brief event announcement: I'll be taking part in this week's Military Writer's Symposium at Norwich University. This is an excellent event that I've attended for years: an in-depth symposium dedicated to a single topic, which brings writers and students together to really dig into it. This year's topic? "Robots Rising: Arming Artificial Intelligence", and I'll be moderating a panel with my friend August Cole (co-author of Ghost Fleet and Burn-In), and maybe another thing or two.

Also at the event is Martha Wells, author of the fantastic Murderbot stories. I don't think she'll be there in person (according to my wife, who's organizing the event), but she'll be zooming in for a session. You can find details here. If you're in the area, you should attend! I'll also try and do some sort of write-up after the fact.

My panel is "Sci-fi AI and the Future of Armed Conflict." It'll take place in Norwich's Mack Hall Auditorium at 10am ET, and will be streamed online. It'll also feature a reading by a student, Rodion Pedyuk. (Martha's talk will be at 1PM, and is titled "Storytelling & Invention: Writing & Imagining New Technologies". Check in on Norwich's Twitter (or mine): they'll have the links for all of this stuff.

A lived-in world

I finally finished a book that I've had lingering on my TBR for a while now: Machinehood by S.B. Divya. I'd started it when I got my copy, but set it aside for a while when other things came up. When I had a gap in my audiobook queue open up, I figured it was a good time to keep going with it.

I generally liked the book: Divya put together a whole bunch of interesting characters, gave the world some real depth, and set up a plot that was exciting and interesting. There were lots of excellent ideas about post-humanism, robotics, labor, military contractors, and how these various technological advances have the potential to upend how we live as a civilization.

But despite those things, I found the book to be a bit of a slow read, one that I had to drag myself over the finish line. I've been mulling over why that is, because ordinarily, this is a title that has all the right elements. It never quite geled for me, I think, and while mulling over why that is, I think what I came to is that while all of those parts feel right, it's the connective tissue of balancing the demands of the story with some heady concepts that didn't quite work for me.

The best way that I've been able to describe it to myself is a level of realism for the characters: we're following an armed contractor named Welga Ramirez, who's pulled into a plot against a terror group known as the Machinehood, which has been advocating for post-humanism and better rights for robots and artificial intelligences. In going up against this group, Welga feels wholly... under-equipped to deal with it, and while we spend much of the novel working against them, it's not until the end of the story (last quarter or so?) that it feels like she's really exposed to their ideas and ideology.

Obviously, intelligence bubbles exist: look no further than how the US military found itself fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with little understanding of the cultures that surrounded them. But it feels like in this world, Welga and her allies would be a little better equipped or have the tools to understand their adversaries, while the Machinehood and all of its technological resources would have the ability to disseminate their messaging to the wider public far before they'd resort to terrorism. That's not to say that you can't have deliberate gaps in understanding, but I think what ultimately didn't work for me here is how that information is doled out: it felt constrained, and as a result, the story really didn't pick up for me until the very end.

This has gotten me thinking a little about how authors hand out that information to their readers, by way of their characters. Think back to your life and beliefs now: how do you get your information, and how do you see organizations and people disseminating information to the wider world?

Maybe it's the case that Welga just wasn't interested, or was too much in a self-reinforcing bubble of her own, or someone so intent on their goal that they had blinders on. But an obsessed character doesn't feel quite as authentic to me, and as a result, when we get to some of the opposing viewpoints, they payoff just doesn't feel like it hits as hard as it could.

I've been musing a bit lately about stories and payoff, and something I'm drawn to is how authors work to build the stories to their end, not only to the final pages of action, but the payoff of the characters' decisions that bring them to that point. There's a tendency in science fiction to spend a lot of time describing the world, setting the stage for those characters to operate in, but in a way that feels separated their actions. There was space mystery that I read a couple of years ago that comes to mind: its author spent an extraordinary amount of time setting up a detailed world, but in such a way that the worldbuilding felt like it was there only to service the plot (if memory serves, it was a complicated backstory between humans and robots and why AI was the way it was), and in a lot of ways, it felt too forced, like it was there to justify what the author wanted to say in the story. Ultimately, I put it aside.

That's not to say that Machinehood isn't a good book: it's definitely worth picking up for the ideas and world that Divya's created, things that are enormously relevant in 2022 and presumably for the years that are barreling down the pipeline at us. I just wish that things came together a little more, because that would have heightened the stakes and given Welga and her allies a little more nuance and depth.

A stack of blue and red books: Fight Magic, Items, Stephen King’s On Writing, J.T. Greathouse’s The Hand of the Sun King, Phasers on Stun by Ryan Britt, Secret Identity by Alex Segura, and Shadow of the Sith by Adam Christopher
Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

My reading list has lately been full of books that I've been reading for a while now, and I'm hoping to clear out the stack a little in order to get to some of the others that I've been eyeing.

  • Phasers on Stun! How the Making (and Remaking) of Star Trek Changed the World by Ryan Britt. I've been picking away at this little by little (especially after watching an episode of one of the latest shows), and I've been learning quite a bit about the franchise and how it came together.
  • Star Wars: Shadow of the Sith by Adam Christopher. Been enjoying this one, although I think I'm at the point where I need to sit down and read it all at once, because I'll start missing things otherwise. It's doing a lot of interesting work to help prop up Rise of Skywalker and some of the other shakier elements of the sequel trilogy.
  • The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse. After finishing Machinehood, I was casting around for a new audiobook to listen / read: I'd started Hand of the Sun King a while ago and will really get into it while reading it, and I think that's the next one to plow through.
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I've had this on my to-read list for ages, both as someone who likes to write, and as someone who doesn't know a whole lot about King. I like how accessible this book is, and I've been underlining and highlighting some passages that have stuck with me as I work my way through.
  • Fight Magic, Items: The History of Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, and the Rise of Japanese RPJs in the West by Aidan Moher. I've just started this, but like Britt's book, this is something that I've already begun to learn a lot about, as I never really played JPRGs as a kid or teenager. Stay tuned for more about this: Aidan and I have tentative plans for an interview at some point in the near future.
  • The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler. This has been on my highly-anticipated list, and I ended up picking up the audiobook when it dropped this week. (As previously mentioned, it's narrated by Eunice Wong, who narrated my own book!). I've burned through a couple of chapters already, and I'm absolutely hooked. The characters and world are excellent here.
  • Secret Identity by Alex Segura. And finally, Alex Segura's Secret Identity, a novel about a woman working in the comics industry. This is another that I've been sinking into whenver I sit down with it, and I just need to sit and read.

Other books on the to-read list? Too man to count.

Further Reading

  • Curating a personal library. Psyche ha san interesting essay from Freya Howarth about the purpose of one's personal library: why keep piles of books around? Pleasure, research, memories, etc.
  • Forging your own path. Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes about her career in the Los Angeles Times, putting an emphasis on the need to eschew the advice that was coming her way, and ended up finding success because she listened to what she knew she was good at.
  • Fundraiser for Lynne and Michael Thomas. The Thomas family are the editors of Uncanny Magazine, and if you've been to a con or followed them on Twitter, you'll know about their daughter, Caitlin. She's lived with Aicardi syndrome for her entire life, and after a recent hospitalization, it's become clear that they're approaching the end of her life. It's a heartbreaking loss for the family, and Jim C. Hines has organized a fundraiser to help with their end-of-life arrangements for her.
  • Middle-earth rock & roll. This came out a while ago, but I've finally gotten to reading it: GQ's Gabriella Paiella takes a look at why some of the biggest names in rock music were captivated by the Lord of the Rings.
  • Secret History of Empty Lots. I'm a huge fan of Christopher Brown's Field Notes newsletter, (you should subscribe), and I was thrilled to see news that he's going to be focusing on that topic – this weird intersection between human habitation and the natural world for his next book: The Secret History of Empty Lots. It should be out in 2024. [Related]
  • Transformation of the Tuskens. I figure on this day of all days, it's worth resurfacing this piece that I published back in January: The Book of Boba Fett and The Mandalorian added depth to the Tusken Raiders, but complications remain.
  • Writing is a tool for ideas. My bud Eliot Peper write a neat piece for Every that muses about the value of writing and idea generation. He's also got a fascinating story up on Vice' Motherboard, Human Capital, which is well worth reading.
  • VanderWild. In a similar vein, Audubon Magazine dedicated a feature to Jeff VanderMeer about the efforts that he's undertaken to rewild the land around his home. If you've followed him on Twitter, you'll likely be familiar with his efforts (and pictures) there, and this paints a really intruging look at this project. [Related]

That's all for today. Have a good rest of the week,