Friday, November 27, 2015

Machine Learning, by Nancy Kress

Published in Future Visions:Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft, edited by Elizabeth Bear, Melchior Media, November 2015

Ethan's a computer scientist, working on artificial intelligence and machine learning. He doesn't love his work, but he's grateful for it. He needs it. He's also the survivor of a terrible personal tragedy: His daughter Allyson was born infected with Moser's Syndrome, a new and devastating virus, and died when she was only five. His wife Tina, Allyson's mother, first left him after Allyson's death, and then killed herself.

The project he and his research partner, Jamie, are working on involves a machine-assisted instruction program--MAIP--in which the program guides children in their learning in one-on-one sessions, with the research goal of the program learning to recognize and understand human social and emotional cues. They've had progress--MAIP is recognizing and adjusting for frustration, anger, and pleasure in the children, but also setbacks--MAIP isn't recognizing either lying or social pretense.

Meanwhile, Ethan is so closed down and withdrawn that the children, and even sometimes Jamie, call him "Dr. Stone Man."

On the one hand, there's the purely professional conflict over the project between optimistic Jamie and pessimistic Ethan. On the other hand, there's Ethan's emotional shutdown and his coworkers' efforts to break through and reach him--much to his own annoyance. Kress skillfully orchestrates the separate but not unrelated conflicts to one absorbing and painful climax.


This book was available free on Amazon when I downloaded it.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3), by Ann Leckie (author), Adjoa Andoh (narrator)

Hachette Audio, October 2015

Breq is still juggling events on Athoek Station, and while all is not sweetness and light, there is progress being made on the repair of the Undergarden. Then the station's head priest of Amaat starts a work stoppage; she won't cast the omens, or register births, marriages, or deaths, until work on the Undergarden is stopped so there can be a "review" of how housing in the Undergarden should be assigned after repairs.

The wealthy and privileged are staging a counter-protest against the priests' work stoppage by forming physical lines at the station administrator's office. The formerly illicit residents of the Undergarden, whom Breq intends should be approved as permanent residents, stage their own clever counter-action: bringing food and drink to the people in the line. And while tensions are rising around this situation, four ships, almost certainly from the other Anaander Mianaai, gate into the system--far enough out that they clearly hoped to be unnoticed until ready to move.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Skin in the Game, by Elizabeth Bear

Published in Future Visions:Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft, edited by Elizabeth Bear, Melchior Media, November 2015

Neon is a singer and musician, with a stunningly successful career, and a current tour that is almost successful enough. Her manager comes to her with a new bit of tech he insists will push her back up to the very top, and she has the chance to be the first to use it. She'll be at the cutting edge again, not a performer starting to pass from the very top to the start of decline.

It records emotions and shares them with the audience. It will be a new type of concert experience, and a new type of recording available afterwards.

Neon has her doubts. She has serious doubts. She doesn't particularly like or trust her manager, Peter, and has been thinking she should have dumped him before the start of the tour. And how thoroughly does she want to merchandise herself?

But she knows she needs something new, something different. And this Clownfish app could be that edge.

She tries it, it works, it's a wildly successful night. And she comes off the stage and back to her dressing room to discover how far Peter was willing to go to guarantee the best possible results from this new app and her use of it.

Bear plays out the emotions with skill and heart, and Neon is smart, tough, and creative.


This book was available free on Amazon when I downloaded it.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Machine Starts, by Greg Bear

Published in Future Visions:Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft, edited by Elizabeth Bear, Melchior Media, November 2015

Bose is a member of a team working on a quantum computer, and so far, they haven't had the breakthrough they need. Now the team leader, Tiklin, has come up with a new idea that may be the breakthrough they need. Despite misgivings from several members of the group, they go ahead with it.

Or rather, Tiklen and the chief programmer, Dieter, had already gone ahead with it three weeks earlier. And they had given the computer, called 8 Ball, several major mathematical problems to work on.

It's successful. It's the major breakthrough they need, and surely they are headed for Nobel Prizes.

But strange things have started to happen. The soda machines often being empty could be maintenance staff being lazy. That's not a likely explanation for the note Bose finds, apparently from himself, instructing him, "Don't try to find me."

As more and more of the team encounter anomalies, and start to compare notes, they start to realize that something very strange and alarming is happening--and it's not a fixable problem. It's an integral part of how quantum computing works.

Another good story from this collection.

This book was available free from Amazon when I downloaded it.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Random House, ISBN 9780812987577, November 2015

Bennet Omalu grew up in Nigeria, cherished as one of the family's two "geniuses," and as the family's "angel," born when his father was nearly killed but somehow survived. Bennet thought, though, that his reputation for genius came from the fact that he used books and study to escape a world that was too loud and boisterous for him. When at sixteen he finally has to attend school away from home, without any of his siblings, he develops a crushing depression that he struggles with for many years. Despite this, he keeps going, gets his medical degree, and goes to America, in large part to escape the chaos and corruption of Nigeria.

In America, after some unlikely twists and turns, he winds up in Pittsburgh, working in the coroner's office, and doing the autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hello, Hello, by Seanan McGuire

Published in Future Visions:Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft, edited by Elizabeth Bear, Melchior Media, November 2015

The narrator's sister Tasha is deaf, and the narrator is a computational linguistics expert working on translation software. Tasha is also a conservation expert, specializing in birds, and her home is an aviary for birds she is rehabilitating. She receives visits from bird experts from all over the world, and only some of them speak American Sign Language or British Sign Language.

It's very, very convenient for both Tasha and her sister for Tasha's home to be the testing ground for the latest improvements and upgrades to the translation software the narrator is working on.

The narrator and her wife, Angie, have two young children, Billie and Greg. When Billie and Greg start talking to a stranger using a generic avatar, calling from Tasha's home, she's very, very puzzled and concerned. Comparing notes with Tasha reveals that most of the calls have come when Tasha didn't even have any guests in the house to be making those calls.

What's going on? Is it a glitch in the software? Is someone hacking in to Tasha's system? Why is this person calling Tasha's niece and nephew? Why is the translator having difficulty translating whatever language the caller is speaking?

This is a nice little puzzle story, with a delightful surprise awaiting the reader. Recommended.

This book was free on Amazon.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

First Do No Harm, by Jonathan Edelstein

(c) 2015 Stephen Hamilton "Do No Harm"
Strange Horizons, November 2015

In a far-future world, where there is interstellar travel and trade, but much knowledge has been lost, Mutende is a medical student. He's not of the usual background for a medical student; he did his fosterage as a mechanic--which however refers to a much techie field than what we would today call a "mechanic." He's poor compared to his fellow students, who are mostly minor aristocrats. Mutende rents rooms from an older woman who is a distant member of his own Hornbill clan, and he's also using his growing medical knowledge to treat her in her terminal illness. She has a slow but ultimately fatal disease, ichiawafu fever, that her late husband brought back from the stars. He passed it on to her before dying of it himself.

The problem is that the known treatments have never been a cure, and now are getting less and less effective even in relieving the symptoms.

And Mutende is being a difficult student. He's asking questions, asking if it really makes sense to do no original research while they are working to recover all the lost and buried knowledge from the more advanced civilization that fell many thousands of years ago.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Dragon in Exile (Liaden Universe #18) (Arc of the Covenants #1), Sharon Lee (author), Steve Miller (author), Kevin T. Collins (narrator)

Audible Studios, June 2015

Clan Korval, banished from Liad, has relocated to Surebleak, and it has meant big changes for both Surebleak and Korval. Pat Rin, now known to locals as Boss Conrad, has started the transformation of Surebleak's gang-driven anarchy to a workable, more or less civilized society. Val Con and Miri, jointly Delm Korval, are also jointly the Road Boss, under contract to keep the Port Road open. There are no more "insurance sales," no more "examples" being made of those who don't pay up, and there are street patrols and schools for the children. Improved law and order also has more business coming to the Port, to everyone's benefit.

But some people aren't happy. They found the old system very profitable, and they're determined to bring down the new Council of Bosses and Clan Korval (known locally mostly as just "the Dragon.") Korval's offworld enemies aren't gone quiet, either.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Christmas at the Vicarage, by Rebecca Boxall

Lake Union Publishing, ISBN 9781503948402, November 2015

When publishers specify a font size in ebooks, so that the reader can't adjust it, it makes the book harder to read for many of their intended readers. Being able to adjust the font size is a significant reason to pick ebooks rather than print for many of us, and it's foolish for publishers to pointlessly make the book less readable.

I'm instituting a new policy of mentioning at the start of a review when a publisher, such as Lake Union in this case, does this, and pointlessly makes it harder for me to enjoy their books.

Rosamunde Pemberton, after fifteen years of travel abroad, returns home to Potter's Cove, the English coastal village where she grew up, in time for Christmas. Her father is still the vicar, Mrs. Garfield is still his housekeeper, and Rosamunde id finally ready to return to a more settled and home-oriented life.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Martian (The Movie), by Ridley Scott (director), Drew Goddard (screenplay), Andy Weir (book)

Matt Damon (Mark Watney), Jessica Chastain (Melissa Lewis), Kristen Wiig (Annie Montrose), Jeff Daniels (Teddy Sanders), Michael Peña (Rick Martinez), Sean Bean (Mitch Henderson), Kate Mara (Beth Johanssen), Sebastian Stan (Chris Beck), Axel Hennie (Alex Vogel), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Vincent Kapoor), Benedict Won (Bruce Ng), Mackenzie Davis (Mindy Park), Donald Glover (Rich Purnell)

October 2015

This is the movie adaptation of Andy Weir's book, The Martian. The Mars expedition Ares III is going about its research business on Mars when a storm descends on them, both earlier and more powerful than originally predicted. In the scramble to get people and essential equipment into the MAV for liftoff and return to Hermes, an antenna is broken up and part of it driven at high speed into Mark Watney. He doesn't return to the MAV, and telemetry from his suit stops abruptly. He's been killed. With great reluctance, pushing everything to the last minute, Commander Lewis finally gives the order to lift without him.

But Mark isn't dead.

When he regains consciousness, withs the storm over, he realizes what's happened, that everyone believes he's dead, and he's stuck on Mars. As he repairs his equipment and treats his wound, he faces the fact that he has equipment intended to sustain six people for a month, and he's got about four years before the next manned mission from Earth arrives on Mars. And when it does arrive, even if he were still alive, it would be landing thousands of kilometers away from him. After assessing his supplies and resources, and the challenge he faces, he sums things up thus: "I have to science the shit out of this."

And he does. With determination, humor, ingenuity. He works out how long the available rations will last. He takes the potatoes intended to be part of a "home-cooked" Martian Thanksgiving dinner, and starts serious farming, creating soil out of Martian dirt, human waste, and water that he manages to manufacture without actually blowing himself up. He uses everyone else's entertainment files to keep himself sane--even though there's way too much disco music and seventies tv. He salvages Pathfinder.

It's over a month before the ongoing satellite study of Mars picks up the evidence that Mark Watney isn't dead. It takes longer to work out a means of communication.

The entire country, and then the whole world, starts pulling for a rescue of Mark Watney.

This is wonderful sf adventure, a competent person morality tale of the kind science fiction has loved since at least the 1930s, and in the end, it's a positive, hopeful view of humanity. It's well-written, well-acted, and as faithful to Weir's excellent novel as is possible in the space allowed by a commercially viable movie. There are no fantasy perfect human beings here, but no cheap villains, either. Imperfect people of good will do their best, as far as they can figure out what that is, and they won't quit doing it.

A completely satisfying, enjoyable movie. Highly recommended.