Ancillary SYN-ACK

Ancillary Justice is a cyborg soldiers and AI spaceships novel (with complications) in a space opera setting, built around a soldier called Breq. Think Iain M Banks but with the Roman Empire instead of plush toy communism. The complications are both cool and fundamental to the characters, and I won’t spoil the slow reveal of the first book here, even though it’s all over the web.

The trilogy is completed with Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. After the galaxy-spanning wandering of the first book, racing towards the capital, the second and third books focus back on a particular system. Breq muscles in as a fleet captain of a capital ship. Aliens, ships and stations join the cast of characters. Interpersonal and gunboat diplomacy ensue.

The heavy Space Roman Empire vibe of the first volume evolves into something a bit more Space Girls Boarding School Naval Academy in the later books. Though both have their virtues, I always tend to favour first books, and the thick vertigo of new ideas is denser in Ancillary Justice than the other two volumes. I still devoured all three at speed and with pleasure.

The Ancillary trilogy is, at some level, network space opera, about synchronization, replication, latency and packet corruption. The empire exists because it successfully replicates itself over distance and time. And then it stops: packet loss and fragmentation.

Pogromon Go

It’s not fair to blame it on Pokémon, really. They weren’t the worst of it by far, though the limited edition Pikajew did echo the unfortunate spirit of the times.

The Pure Tribe had their own apps, monsters and backends. Variations. Innovations. Memes and games catch on and evolve. The whole time they were annotating and mapping. Highlighting targets in bold colours: signs, shrines, grandmothers, foxes. Sharing high scores on the day. Trading in parts. People and drones had got in plenty of practice beforehand. “Gotta catch ‘em all!”

Fads come and go.

The Consensus Reality Based Community


1. There’s a concept from science fiction criticism which has become a favourite of mine. Indeed it seems fundamental to this 21st century glocal postmodernity of ours, the concept of consensus reality.
1.1 It is worth remembering that this consensus often refers to the beliefs of the society in the work under criticism, in which marmalade may be money, spaceships may fly faster than light, and handheld communicators with vid screens may be ubiquitous.

2. The idea of consensus reality neatly captures several insights.
2.1 Reality proper, what Kant called the unsynthesized manifold, is unavoidably mediated by our senses and brain.
2.2 Our model of the world is socially constructed by a group we live in.
2.3 Powerful institutions of mainstream thought – like large newspapers – work within certain parameters of perception.
2.3.1 The first page of search engine results are representative. They are consensus reality engines. Common sense engines, in Bruce Sterling’s words.
2.4 Something in the consensus is inevitably and always wrong.
2.4.1 The consensus contains arguments with known for and against positions. The argument itself can be wrong, irrelevant, meaningless side effect, not resolvable as either pro or con, etc.
2.5 Broad consensus realities often have enduring correlations with events.
2.6 Consensus is reinforced by breadth.

3. Kuhn’s concept of a scientific paradigm resembles a consensus reality, but is far more systematic.
3.1 Consensus reality includes cultural convention and everyday discussion including obvious internal logical contradictions.
3.2 Consensus reality is intuitive.
3.3 Consensus reality may be surprising – chance events – but not unanticipated ones.
3.3.1 “Black swans” are demonstrations of consensus reality.
3.3.2 Commuting to work is also demonstrative.

4. A reality based community responds to empirical sense-data.
4.1 Measures.
4.2 Adjusts in response to changes in data.
4.3 Follows technique.
4.3.1 Technique may be systematic. It may have a model. The model may be tested empirically and systematically. One might use a randomised controlled trial, or survey, or historical data source, or blind peer review.
4.4 Reality based communities survive by adaptation.
4.5 Strongly reality based communities would necessarily be scientific communities.
4.5.1 No serious political community today is also a scientific community. Establishing professional pools of expertise for these processes is necessary but not sufficient. Any such group analysing a public problem is inherently political. This is technocracy.

5. The consensus reality based community is always broad, often well-established and always vulnerable to disruption of its reality.
5.1 This is the nature of Karl Rove’s insult.
5.1.1 By always anchoring themselves in well established consensus reality, Rove’s opponents fail to react to events initiated by his faction which change the broad understanding of reality.
5.1.2 Rove’s faction has since, with amusing consistency, repeatedly showed themselves to not be reality based. This faction acts as an alternative consensus reality based community.
5.1.3 In rejecting the dominant consensus reality, and its rhetoric of objective evaluation, they went straight on and also rejected a reality base for their community. This is not a survival technique. On the day of the 2012 US Presidential election, both major parties expected to win.
5.2 The consensus reality based community may even tacitly acknowledge it is not reality based.
5.2.1 This is a society in which the consensus ritual detaches from its social meaning.
5.2.2 Incongruence between political consensus reality and reality manifests in scandal. Fin de siècle Vienna. Late Ming China.
5.2.3 Incongruence between social consensus reality and geophysics and biology manifests in natural disaster. The Aral Sea.
5.2.4 Incongruence between financial consensus reality and economic and psychological reality manifests in financial crisis. CDOs and CDSs. South Sea Bubble. Louisiana. Tulips.

6. The siblings of consensus reality are the consensus future and the consensus past.
6.1 Revision is the change of the consensus past.
6.2 Changes to the consensus future feel like betrayal or relief.

Five-Sevenths A Saviour

Here in the World, however, silence was incorrectly parsed as null and would not do. — The Pains

The Pains, John Sundman’s third novel, continues an experimental jag started with Cheap Complex Devices. There is an experimentation with media – it’s illustrated by Cheeseburger Brown. There is an experimentation with setting – a monastic SF alternate history sequel to 1984 not being obvious to most. This is rarely a bad thing in SF, though, and a protaganist both electrical engineer and monk does seem a particularly Sundmanite choice. That given, the choice of a fairly straight narrative was probably wise; there is not so much of the stylistic trickiness of CCD here, at least on the surface. It’s a successful experiment, for the most part. Part of the excitement of experiments is their potential for failure (and contradicting a hypothesis is itself an important result), but this book is very much an “aha, neat” rather than “seemed like a good idea” or “where are my eyebrows”.

The Pains has a real Philip K. Dick-ian quality, an intoxicating blend of readability and the everyday weirdness of an unstable reality. It’s a short book, and to me it felt too short. It does feel short the way many good books feel too short – you wish you could spend more time with them. But it also feels amputated, specifically at the end. Abbreviated by force. Spoilers follow.

Sundman is not averse to formal structures even in seemingly digestible narratives. He’s commented in other forums that in Acts of the Apostles, on the surface a Tom Clancy-style thriller, a key scene between the Nick Aubrey and Monty Meekman quite strictly follows the form of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. I wonder if there is another formal device being used in The Pains. Given the parallel Christian, indeed Catholic, elements, I was reminded of the Stations of the Cross. Consider, in part:

  • 1. Norman Lux first experiences the pains, and has a disturbing audience with the abbott. Jesus is condemned to death.
  • 2. Xristi is given her letter of reassignment. Jesus is given his cross.
  • 3. Norman first meets the Eagle. Jesus falls the first time.
  • 6. Xristi Friedman meets and helps Norman Lux. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
  • 7. Norman’s second meeting with the Eagle. Jesus falls the second time.

The Pains has ten chapters. There are fourteen stations of the cross.

I know it’s easy to OD on analysis, the whole Baconian thing. Perhaps it wasn’t a deliberate strategy, or there was a different model, especially given screen time is mostly split between Norman and Xristi, rather than focused intently on one of them. Norman has time for redemption; the stations of the cross end in Jesus’ tomb.

On the other hand, the Christian mythos is potent stuff, with extensively documented and long lasting effects. Combining it with Dick Cheney’s frozen head should produce a highly reactive sublimate. These intertwinings might just be another side effect of Sundman’s experimental theology.

“I have made a machine for exploring chaos. An analogue computer. To study strange attractors and fractal geometries of the soul.”