Monday, May 22, 2017

Mini-Reading Binge

I don't normally read nearly as many books as I'd like. A part of me wonders if it's just that I've gotten more critical as I've become a writer, or it's just that it's harder for me to sit down since there are so many ways to spend my time.

But, I did finish three books so far this month, which is unusual for me, and I'm in the middle of two others (one is an anthology, so it's very easy to pause in the middle for another novel).

I particularly like the two novels I finished. One is The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo, which hits all my southern Chinese buttons. I might have told the author over Twitter that reading the dialogue with its older style of romanizing Chinese words made me think of my grandmother and great aunt, because my family never learned to use pinyin. It just wasn't a thing with the Hoisan who came over to the US early in the 20th century, and given the book's late 1800s setting (though in Malaysia), it makes sense.

There's a lot to like about The Ghost Bride. Though the details sometime feel a little much for someone who grew up with similar traditions, they should be enough to bring non-Chinese up to speed, and I really liked the details about Malaysia, which I'm largely unfamiliar with.

The other novel I finished is Iron Cast by Destiny Soria, which is set in 1919 Boston, just before Prohibition. It starts a little slow, though I was pretty hooked by the second half. I liked the diverse cast, and the author doesn't let the reader forget that main character Ava is a second class citizen in her own city by virtue of the color of her skin. I also liked the addition of Gabriel, a Russian immigrant who Americanized his name because though he is white by our modern day standards, he would not have been back then.

I'm a complete sucker for something involving magic and period gangsters, but I have to admit I was surprised this ended up being a YA book. I didn't pick this up in the store so I don't know where they shelve it and unlike most contemporary YA it's not written in first person, so I was a bit thrown off when my brain had to age everyone down by about ten years.

The third book I finished is the second Spice and Wolf short story volume, Volume 11 in the series overall. Usually the stories are told from Lawrence's point of view, more rarely Holo's, but Volume 11 has a real gem in the novella "The Black Wolf's Cradle," which is a prequel telling the origin of Eve Bolan. If you've watched the second season of the anime, you may remember Eve as the backstabbing merchant in the second half.

"The Black Wolf's Cradle" gives us an early version of Eve, when she has recently become a young widow of a destitute noble family. It's painful watching her fumble her way through her first transactions, because she needs a trade in order to earn money, but she is so trusting that even when things begin to look promising for her, we're waiting for the sword to fall. When it does, we see how she becomes the person that we know in the main series. This is easily the best of Isuna Hasekura's shorts in this series, and better than a few of the novels.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Writing “Between Earth and Exile”

When I was fifteen, I rented an animated movie that for the first time made me wonder "What would I do?" if I was in that situation, and not in a good way. Vengeance of the Space Pirate was the censored and dubbed version of the 1981 anime movie Arcadia of My Youth, and it was not a heroic adventure. Though I hadn't realized it at the time, about half of the most objectionable scenes (usually of people getting shot/killed, or scenes of dead people) were removed or shortened, but the dialogue was left surprisingly intact.

For the first time I experienced a story where the good guys didn't save the world. The movie starts out with humanity having been subjugated by an alien race, and that doesn't change by the end. Harlock, the lead character, finds his own freedom, but he's not a freedom fighter. He doesn't try to save or inspire a people who have essentially given up.

At the end of the movie he is declared an enemy of Earth and told to leave the planet. He agrees to do so, but before he goes, he asks if anyone would go with him, knowing that they could never return.

I had never been challenged with a future this bleak in anything I’d seen or read up until this point, and as I watched Harlock leave with the people who would follow him, I couldn’t help wondering, "Would I have the guts to go? Could I have left my family? Could I leave knowing that my life on Earth would amount to nothing, but only hardship and exile would lie with Harlock?"

"Between Earth and Exile" is about a young woman who made the choice to follow her captain into exile, but after six years of fighting and scrabbling to get by, proposes a way to return to Earth and rescue her family.

This story spent years on the drawing board and went through a number of titles, from "Exile's Sorrow" to "Adolescence in Exile" to the final "Between Earth and Exile" which I think is the strongest. It was originally a much shorter story, the second half as it currently exists was not in the original draft, and I wasn't happy with the ending. I changed it twice before the final version. Alexa was always intended to lose in order to draw a parallel between her and Captain Mercer, but the circumstances of the loss changed over time.

The first ending had her in one of the Bloodborne's shuttles (the frigate didn't even exist) with three other people rather than a crew. They flew all the way to Earth to rendezvous with the transport and Alexa actually used her piloting skills during the skirmish against some Alcaltan fighters to try to save her family. But Alcaltan reinforcements arrived, including a cruiser, so our space pirates were forced to pull back back from a battle they wouldn't be able to survive.

I didn't like this ending because Alexa speny a lot of it an emotional wreck and in denial. She had to be convinced to withdraw rather than making the call on her own. This was also the only ending where Mercer offered to let her know what happened to her family after they were apprehended. Alexa refused, because if she doesn't hear they're dead she still has hope. Mercer's line "I would not have wasted the schematics on a fool’s errand" existed even back then, but because of the way things played out, it came off like he was chewing her out rather than expressing support for her initiative.

It didn't help that the fight scene was pretty limp and not well thought out. I knew I didn't want Alexa to go by herself, but there was no clear chain of command and fighting came down to "Everybody do stuff!"

The second draft is really where the story took shape. This introduced the death of Kellen, gravity technology, and the capture of the frigate that would be used what was now the second half of the story. Substituting in the frigate battle over the one with the shuttle almost doubled the length of the story, but it was worth it.

Now the battle took place in the outer edges of the solar system and used larger ships instead of smaller fighter craft. There was a chain of command and everyone on board (or at least on the bridge) had a clear role.

But… but… there was a problem when they turned around to withdraw. They were heavily damaged, being chased by a lone corvette, as they are in the final version, and I needed some way to save them. And at the time I thought, well, if I want Alexa to really feel like she isn't cut out for leadership, the worst thing would be to have Mercer show up and save her. Because then it would look like he never had confidence in her at all.

I admit I'm a little sad that I had to take out the Space Battleship Yamato-inspired Implosion Cannon, but having the Bloodborne show up to pull the frigate's butt out of the fire and annihilate the corvette didn't feel very satisfying. Even though I wanted Alexa to feel less competent than she actually is, I also wanted her to escape on her own.

Still, I sat on that ending for two years before I landed on the missile pod orbiting around Varuna idea, which is a tactic I cribbed from Arpeggio of Blue Steel, a futuristic submarine series. I had to make some changes due to being in space rather than underwater, but I liked the idea of a separate launch platform that an enemy would not expect, and this allows Alexa to make her final attack and save her crew while they're on their last legs.

There were other nips and tucks along the way. Alexa's engineer, Caleb, had a larger role at one point as her surrogate big brother, but most of the changes were along the lines of her interactions with Mercer, who I had to write a fine line around. Since the story is told in first person, we see him through Alexa's hero-worshipping eyes, so bringing out his humanity and the fact he is fallible as well, was harder. If I ever write another story set in this universe I'll probably choose a different POV character.

Between Earth and Exile can be read on Kindle in the April 2017 issue of Deep Magic.

Music listened to while writing: Soundtracks from Arcadia of My Youth and Skies of Arcadia (the latter not related) and "Ichiban no Takaramono (Yui version)" sung by LiSA. "Ichiban no Takaramono" (Most Precious Treasure) was not an entirely appropriate choice, because the lyrics don’t match the situation of the story, but the vocalist does such a great job of portraying the pain expressed in the lyrics that I couldn’t help but think of Alexa.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Fantastic Stories' People of Color Anthology is Out

I received a little tip that the Fantastic Stories of the Imagination People of Color Flash Anthology is now out!

You can pick it up at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. It's available both as an ebook and in paperback.

This project was successfully Kickstarted back in December/early January and contains my flash story "The White Snake" in its first anthology appearance.

"The White Snake" is a take on the old Chinese story about a snake who falls in love with a human, but this time it is in modern day and the human does not care for Chinese myth at all.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Psycho-Pass 2 vs. Mandatory Happiness

I watched the second season of the Psycho-Pass anime last week and while it had its moments, it didn't hit the height of the first series, and I was trying to figure out why. Though Gen Urobuchi was no longer the writer in the second season, I had enjoyed the Mandatory Happiness visual novel, which was not written by him either, so I knew it was possible for someone else to write an engaging, fulfilling story in the Psycho-Pass setting who is not Urobuchi.

The funny thing is that Mandatory Happiness and Psycho-Pass 2 actually do a lot of the same things, and I don't think it's because I'm aware of the same tricks that I enjoyed Psycho-Pass 2 less. I think they were just better done, and I'm not sure if that's because the visual novel came later or that the writers (of which there were several) were just more conscious of the implications.

Spoilers for both the anime series and the visual novel follow!

The key ground that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness want to avoid is having the same type of villain as the original Psycho-Pass. Makishima was unusual because his Crime Coefficient reading was always incredibly low, even in the middle of committing a criminal act. This created complications because the Dominator weapon used by the police only unlocks when a target is psychologically deemed criminal enough (even if latently so) to be enforced. How do you take down a criminal when the system you rely doesn't recognize him as such?

After the original series, the existence of criminally asymptomatic people is no longer a surprise, so both the spin-off and the sequel can't entertain the audience by introducing yet another character with the same ability to foil the Sybil System. But the series is always about the flaws in Sybil, so each new villain needs to have a way to challenge it.

Mandatory Happiness chooses to handle this with an AI. When a genuinely sentient AI goes rogue and behaves according to its own definition of happiness it is unsurprising that Sybil is unable to get a psychological read on it. This allows for the same drama where an inspector or enforcer character is pointing their Dominator weapon at Alpha's android body and is unable to fire. Somehow, the protagonists need to take out Alpha before any additional people are hurt or killed, but Sybil is not set up to protect people from this kind of situation. It's fascinating stuff.

Psycho-Pass 2 similarly offers a villain that cannot be read at all by Sybil. I suppose that's the natural next step up from Makishima, going from a villain who is incorrectly read to one who isn't read at all, but the reason for that doesn't make much sense. Kamui is essentially Frankenstein's monster. For some reason that is never explained, he is the subject of an experiment where the broken body of a young plane crash survivor was repaired using parts of 184 of his deceased classmates. Kamui is now regarded as a "collective" of all 185 people and that is the reason he cannot be read by Sibyl.

This breaks so much science that my brain hurts. Even allowing for the fact that somehow all 185 children were biologically compatible for transplant purposes, why would someone even do this? We know who did it, but not why, and without a why, there's no reason for Kamui's existence except for the express purpose of being a collective that cannot be identified by Sybil.

And even then, Kamui makes it clear that after his operation Sybil recognized him for a while before he faded off the grid. He originally had only one mind and what he currently experiences could possible be a case of dissociative identity disorder and not truly a collective hive mind. After all, it's unlikely that he got 184 bits of brain matter from his classmates.

The original Psycho-Pass and Mandatory Happiness test the Sybil System in unexpected, but realistic ways. It is unsurprising that there are people who cannot be correctly read, because in the real world there are always outliers. Similarly, the rise of AI is something likely to happen in our future, and dealing with a criminally negligent AI is a fascinating topic.

But a Frankenstein collective human being challenging the judgment of the Sybil System isn't that compelling or very likely. It feels like the only reason Kamui exists the way he does, is to hold up a mirror to Sybil, since we know that Sybil is a hive mind composed of criminally asymptomatic people. In order to be able to judge Kamui, Sybil would need to be able to judge itself.

Psycho-Pass 2 wants to pose the question of the omnipotence paradox to Sybil, which I disagree with on account of the fact that Sybil is known to be a flawed system, at least by those who know it best. That is the reason Sybil keeps taking in any criminally asymptomatic people it finds, because it seeks to improve itself. It is understandable that Kamui, being an outsider to the system, would ask this question, but it doesn't do anything for the audience, who is already informed of Sibyl's true state. (And oddly enough, Kamui doesn't seem to bat an eye when he learns that Sibyl isn't just a computer system, but a computer system augmented by human brains.)

That Kamui and Sybil eventually identify a few criminally asymptomatic brains in the collective is not surprising, because over time Sybil's processing has been refined. It is unexpected that some of the early brains that could not be properly read at the time of their integration would become readable later on. Kamui doesn't feel that Sybil passes the test, but Sybil was never in a position where it could, because the system is built on constantly improving itself, which it does when it throws out the criminally read brains.

The other thing that both Psycho-Pass 2 and Mandatory Happiness do is disguise a person's Criminal Coefficient through drug use. And I suspect that Mandatory Happiness, having come later, took some lessons from the execution in Psycho-Pass 2.

Psycho-Pass 2 has followers of Kamui who cannot be read by the Dominators, but it does not appear to be their natural state as they cannot maintain their low Criminal Coefficients without drug use. This is not too much different from the helmets used to disguise Criminal Coefficients in the first series, but has the added advantage in that the user does not need to be disguised. However, Psycho-Pass 2 doesn't dwell much on the existence of these drugs, which is a little odd since one would think the police would take a high amount of interest in figuring out what is enabling these people.

Mandatory Happiness similarly has a drug workaround, but we see the work that goes into creating this drug cocktail and how it's synthesized through commercially available products so anyone can get a hold of it if they know what they're doing. There are also side effects with heavy users eventually succumbing to Eustress Syndrome (which was introduced in a passing reference in Psycho-Pass 2). The Division 1 team puts a priority on figuring out how the drugs work, and it makes their existence more believable than being a handy plot device.

I think that's why Psycho-Pass 2 didn't work as well for me as the original and the spin-off visual novel. It's not that there isn't room to tell new stories in the Psycho-Pass universe so much as it doesn't feel like it was well thought out. There other parts of Psycho-Pass 2 that didn't make sense to me, but comparing the similarities in execution between that and Mandatory Happiness make it clearer where Psycho-Pass 2 came up short.