I’ll be at WorldCon 76 in San Jose

While I’ve been remiss in blogging (as usual), worth mentioning: I’m going to be at the San Jose (California) WorldCon, the World Science Fiction Convention, this weekend. While I’m not doing any programming, I’ll be in and out of the dealers’ room, as my publisher, Argyll Productions, has a table there (and my previous publisher, Sofawolf Press, also will have a table there).

If you’re interested in catching me somewhere, the best way to ping me is on Micro.blog or Twitter. I’ll be there Thursday evening through Sunday, with possible spot appearances at other times—I’m not only a local to the con this time, I actually work just a couple blocks north of the convention center.

My purpose in blogging

That title sounds like I’m going to try and share something insightful with you, but the truth is that I haven’t the faintest idea what my purpose in blogging is anymore.

I feel like I’ve hit a breaking point with Twitter, but I’ve felt that off and on for over a year, so I won’t make any promises to swear it off. Even so, it’s absolutely been a distraction, and sometimes much worse—call it a depression amplifier, perhaps. Part of me wants to talk about politics, but part of me suspects it’ll just make me sad and angry. (And tie me up in knots.)

Obviously I haven’t been feeling the tech blogging call for a while, either. I still have thoughts; I’m still an Apple user. I like the iPad more after iOS 11, and I travel with it more than my laptop now—I’m writing on it at this very moment. I also still think that there are a myriad of little ways that it’s not as good for writing as a MacBook is, and that in the long run, if Apple wants to truly move the iPad from computing appliance to general-purpose computing platform they’ll have to open it up like, well, a general-purpose computing platform.

But so far I haven’t wanted to get into that, either.

I’m trying to force myself to “de-Twitter” for a while; it’s not easy. I thought maybe joining Micro.blog would encourage me to…well, what, exactly? People don’t use it quite the way they do Twitter, which is probably for the best. In some ways it feels more like an adult version of LiveJournal, albeit without all the wonderful granular access controls. It’s possible that if I stop checking my phone quite so obsessively for tweets, though—and my computer and my iPad and and and—I’ll start finding more to say that’s longer form again.

The unbearable glibness of tweeting

I still love Twitter. A lot of us still love Twitter. But it’s past time to admit it’s an abusive relationship. (“Yes, he hits me sometimes, but it’s only for the retweets.”)

The common wisdom is that the Big Blue Bird’s problem is their lack of moderation, that the service is Exhibit A in the case against Silicon Valley’s belief that you can solve everything with algorithms. I think that’s some of it, but I don’t think it’s all of it. When your software becomes global community infrastructure, the choices reflected in your design have profound effects on behavior. It’s a choice, for instance, to offer no privacy controls other than “protecting” your account. That one choice alone is a large part of why Twitter is so hospitable to harassers: your only option for controlling who engages with you is flipping your entire feed between open and locked down, and—given that anyone you follow can inject anything into your timeline via retweet—aggressively curating not just who you follow, but who you allow retweets from.

Here are some other choices Twitter’s made. “Favorites” are public accolades, not private bookmarks. Mechanisms for retweets and quote tweets are baked in. Official clients stream notifications about not just who favorited and retweeted you, but who favorited and retweeted your retweets. And let’s not even get into who gets verified and what verification offers. None of these choices are necessarily wrong in either a technical or moral sense. But they’ve created a culture that rewards painting everything in the starkest, loudest terms possible.

There’s a metric crapton of political tweets across the partisan spectrum that I could point to, but as I was writing this piece, a bag of “Lady Doritos” dropped into my lap.

PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi gave an interview to the Freakonomics podcast in which she observed that women ate Doritos differently than men did (“they don’t like to crunch too loudly in public”) and said the company was getting ready to launch “snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently.” The Sun, a UK tabloid, reported this as “Doritos to launch crisps for WOMEN because they don’t like crunching loudly or licking their fingers, boss reveals.” This led to a veritable tortillanado of hot take tweets about snack food sexism.

But wait! Then came the New York Times reporting “Not a Real Thing, Company New Says,” which quoted PepsiCo’s gently acerbic retort, “We already have Doritos for women. They’re called Doritos.” Snap! Fake news! Well, yes and no. The quotes from Ms. Nooyi in the last paragraph are true; Frito-Lay is working on “snacks for women,” whatever the hell that may mean. The fake news part—in the sense that the Sun came up with it, not Nooyi—was the existence of “Lady Doritos.” Gosh, what an outrage-inducing, easily hashtaggable name they invented! Surely that couldn’t have been their intent. Ha. Ha ha. As of this writing, we’re 48 hours into Chipghazi, and the Twitter trends are just starting to ebb.

And this is a problem inherent in Twitter’s design that may not be solvable. Even if Twitter engineers could just go into the database and type DELETE FROM users WHERE is_nazi = 1, the software’s literally designed to reward superficial hot takes. It’s optimized for tweets that make you go “yeah, get those fuckers!” rather than tweets that make you go “hmm.”

When was the last time you scrolled through your Twitter timeline and felt smarter, happier, and generally more at peace with the world?

Mastodon and Micro.blog both propose that the solution to Twitter’s ills is decentralization. Mastodon has multiple “instances,” like Twitter servers, that each have their own rules and community guidelines. Because all the instances can interact with one another, you can follow any Mastodon user, not just the ones on your instance. Micro.blog is, if anything, more radical: a set of open standards that let good old fashioned weblogs interact with one another in Twitter-esque fashion. You can use it just like Twitter, but under the hood it’s using an RSS-like system to build your timeline. They can host your own (paid) micro.blog, which is a full-featured Jekyll install under the hood, but you could host your own blog wherever and on whatever software you want.

So far, these solutions are working, but I’m worried that—particularly in Mastodon’s case—it’s not because they’ve chosen a more resilient design, it’s simply because the community is so much smaller. There’s less social reward for turning the volume on everything up to 11 when the audience is tiny. But Mastodon makes many of the same choices Twitter has, including favorites, quotes (“embeds”), and retweets (“boosts”), then stirs in the questionable belief that moderation issues are effectively moot under their federated server model.

Micro.blog deliberately has no retweet mechanism. Favorites are just private bookmarks. As far as I can tell you can’t even get a list of followers. Unlike Mastodon, Micro.blog shows replies people make to people you aren’t following, the way Twitter did in its first couple of years. All this adds up to a surprisingly friendly, conversational timeline. (Also, Micro.blog’s first hire has been a community manager, which says a lot about their philosophy here.) But as I alluded above, if you want to use it just like Twitter—i.e., no work on your part—you need to pay them to host your blog. They’re looking at it as a turnkey blog hosting service, but if it’s perceived as “like Twitter but with less features for $5 a month,” that’s a problem.

Yet both Micro.blog and Mastodon are just…nicer. I think Micro.blog is the better of the two, in no small part for the UX choices they’ve made that are explicitly the opposite of both Twitter and Mastodon, but Mastodon’s free nature gives it the potential to grow further. Either way, though, both of them have one huge advantage: they’ve seen the shitshow that’s turned Twitter into a Dead Bird Walking, and they can say, “You know what? Let’s not do that.”

Feed housekeeping

I finally remembered that I’d been using FeedPress for, er, feed stuff (remember RSS?) on the original Coyote Tracks, and I’ve updated it to pick up the feed from the new site instead. So if you were one of the couple hundred people who’d been reading posts that way, hi!

Since the new blog merges what was Coyote Tracks and my rarely-updated writing blog, Coyote Prints, you may get more than what you want here. If you only want tech posts, you can subscribe to the tech category feed. If you only want writing posts, you can subscribe to the writing category feed. (You can get a feed for any of the categories by going to the category page itself, if you really insist.)

And, if you’re following this as a link from Goodreads (hi?), note that the Goodreads blog is only pulling from the writing category.

Last but not least, if you’re subscribed to the Tumblr feed directly somehow (tracks.ranea.org/rss), you’re going to get what’s cross-posted to Tumblr, which is going to be mostly tech but probably kind of random.

Kismet

My first full-length novel, Kismet, was published by Argyll Productions in January 2017. Here’s the back cover blurb:

The River: a hodgepodge of arcologies and platforms in a band around Ceres full of dreamers, utopians, corporatists—and transformed humans, from those with simple biomods to the exotic alien xenos and the totemics, remade with animal aspects. Gail Simmons, an itinerant salvor living aboard her ship Kismet, has docked everywhere totemics like her are welcome…and a few places they’re not.

But when she’s accused of stealing a databox from a mysterious wreck, Gail lands in the crosshairs of corporations, governments and anti-totemic terrorists. Finding the real thieves is the easy part. To get her life back, Gail will have to confront a past she’s desperate not to face—and what’s at stake may be more than just her future.

Kismet takes place about ten years after the short story “Tow” and shares the same protagonist. While I aimed for a hard science fiction feel, it’s a character-driven story about identity, transhumanism and what defines home. It came out of the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop, a residential workshop at the University of Kansas led by Kij Johnson, so it has a pretty good pedigree. I could tell you that if you like Kim Stanley Robinson’s work or Jennifer Foehner Wells’ Fluency, you’ll probably like Kismet. I could also tell you that its high concept is “The Expanse meets Zootopia,” which is not entirely wrong.

You can get previews of the ebook from most of those links, but you can also get a four-chapter preview PDF on my “buy my books” page.

The fantastic cover art and design is by Teagan Gavet. (The featured art here is a clip from the book’s alternate cover.)

A digression on cyberpunk

I was listening to Fangs and Fonts‘ most recent podcast on cyberpunk, and—

Okay, let me back up. “Fangs and Fonts” is a podcast about writing, hosted by four writers in (and out of) furry fandom: Roland Ferret, Yannarra, Tarl “Voice” Hoch and Ocean. So far the episodes have mostly come across as structure-free conversations about a given topic. There’s a lot of spontaneity and liveliness to it, although I suspect they’d benefit from spending an hour or so before recording making a list of Things To Cover.

Anyway. While it was fun listening in on the conversation, my impression was that none of the four hosts had read much of the genre past the Wikipedia entry. They’d seen movies with cyberpunk tropes to varying degrees, but… well. There’s no way to say this without an implied tsk tsk, but you guys, it’s a writing podcast!

So let me back up more. Specificially, to the early ’80s.

It’s pretty easy to discern the cyber of cyberpunk: ubiquitous networking that lets us always be “jacked in” to a sprawling virtual reality while also letting corporations and governments, which all too often seem to be one and the same, track us for a variety of purposes both nefarious and benign. But what about the punk? Well, it meant… punk. An anti-authoritarian, alienated and disaffected counterculture that neither fits in with the dominant culture nor has much interest in doing so. Heroes in cyberpunk weren’t necessarily punks—or necessarily heroic—but they tended to have a very edge-of-society vibe.

The problem with focusing almost exclusively on the cinematic aspect of cyberpunk is that you miss that the “punk” element wasn’t just in the relationship of the fictional characters to their settings. It was in the relationship of the writers to mainstream science fiction. William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Rudy Rucker—they were very deliberately responding to the more utopian, and by then rather dated, science fiction of the 1950s and before, the Heinleins and Clarkes and Asimovs.

Thematically, cyberpunk had little in common with the “New Wave” of science fiction of the late 1960s and early 70s, the works of Michael Moorcock and Thomas Disch and J. G. Ballard—but stylistically, it’s a closer relative. As Moorcock wrote rather snippishly, science fiction lacked “passion, subtlety, irony, original characterization, original and good style, a sense of involvement in human affairs.”

When we think about cyberpunk today, we mostly think about the visual trappings, the stuff that does look good on film—but those weren’t at all the point. A lot of these stories and novels were, in oft-bitter and backhanded fashion, deeply socially conscious. They had shit to say, and what’s more, they wanted to say it beautifully. The opening sentence of Neuromancer has become one of the most famous in science fiction:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Of course, the New Wave of science fiction doesn’t seem much less dated now than what it railed against, and the same is true of cyberpunk. (Bruce Sterling declared it dead as long ago as 1985.) Its aesthetics were assimilated into the mainstream long ago, and the very act of mainstreaming guts any legitimate claims to counterculture, rather like buying a Dead Kennedys tee at Hot Topic. But its treatment of technology, of dystopia, of the contentious relationship between individual freedom, corporate power and state control had a tremendous and lasting influence on science fiction. Yes, cyberpunk might have said “put on this black overcoat and these sunglasses and you’ll look awesome, trust me,” but it also said “science fiction is relevant not just as meditations on our possible long-term futures, but as a mirror to show us things about our here and now.”

And that’s stuff that—mostly—didn’t come along for the ride when the glasses and overcoats went to Hollywood.

If you’re interested in reading more seminal cyberpunk stuff, here’s a few things to potentially investigate:

  • Cyberpunk: Stories of Hardware, Software, Wetware, Evolution, and Revolution, an anthology that includes work by Sterling, Gibson, Cadigan, and others. Since Sterling’s original anthology Mirrorshades is long out of print, this is pretty much the collection to get for a broad overview of the important writers.
  • Neuromancer, William Gibson. Poetic and bleak, with memorable characters and a striking take on artificial intelligence, this was the first novel to win the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick Awards, and has been cited as one of the most important novels—not just science fiction novels, but novels, period—of the twentieth century’s latter half.
  • Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson. The main character is Hiro Protagonist, who delivers pizza for the Mafia in an armored supercar as his day job and is a warrior in the Metaverse by night. Either you already want to read it or I can’t help you. (The Metaverse as depicted here was a pretty direct influence on Second Life.)

For movies/TV, there are some interesting ones the Fangs & Fonts Folks touched on—especially Ghost in the Shell, The Matrix (the first one) and, of course, Blade Runner—but I’d also suggest the underrated Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), and—if you can find it—the short-lived cult TV series “Max Headroom.”

Why a raccoon? Who cares?

I’ve been watching and silently judging another flareup of a very old debate in anthropomorphic fandom, this time happening on Twitter and in the comments on Flayrah’s review of Roar #4. Does there need to be a justification for having characters in a story be animal people?

We can illustrate the divide with two comments. First, from “Crossaffliction,” in his usual diplomatic style:

For the record, the entire premise of “let’s make talking animals the main characters and leave that completely unexplained in [a] way that offers nothing to the story” is a flawed premise, and also makes people wonder why you’d do that (we suspect the writer has some sort of freaky weird animal people fetish, and, you know what, we’d probably [be] right in this case).

Then “Sparf”:

I agree with some of the most prolific writers in our fandom when I say that we have moved on past that need. This is furry fiction as a meta genre unto itself. Every story does not need an explanation of where furries came from or why they exist. If it is germane to the story being told, sure, it can be revealed in the narrative, but usually it is trite or feels wedged in.

While I can quibble with both (if a genre is “meta” it definitionally doesn’t exist “unto itself,” and at times Crossie has an unhealthy hangup about the fandom’s unhealthy hangups), three observations.

  1. These actually aren’t two sides of the same argument. One position is that it’s a flaw in a story to use anthropomorphic animals for no reason more profound than “I like them, neener neener.” The other position is that there’s no need to explain why a story has anthropomorphic animals. These positions aren’t mutually exclusive.
  2. In fact, they’re probably both right.
  3. The most prolific writers in our fandom have moved past the need to keep rehashing this argument. Christ on a pogo stick.

My own old story “A Gift of Fire, a Gift of Blood” features a vampire bat; the story would be substantively different were she a vampire in the Dracula sense. Yet there’s no real explanation for why the Empire of Ranea (the world that story and others of mine are set in) has fox, wolf and cat people instead of dwarves, elves and hobbits. Effin’ hobbits, how do they work? Tolkien has a lot of unexplained hobbits running around, yet as impossible as this may be to believe, the story seems to work anyway!

When we say that a furry story is better when it’s not “humans in fursuits,” what does that actually mean? Take Kyell Gold’s Out of Position. Few if any aspects of Dev and Lee’s story require them to be tiger and fox. Their world is our world, just with animal people. This is about as “because furries” as one can get. Yet we’re shown a myriad of subtle ways in which their animal nature changes things: ergonomics, body language, stereotypes, laws, social mores. You could tell an equivalent story with an all-human cast, but it would be a different story.

“Why is she a raccoon?” That’s not an interesting question. “How do you show how her being a raccoon matters?” That’s an interesting question.