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[No comments] June Film Roundup: In June, the theme was "wacky comedies." I am pushing for the theme for July to also be "wacky comedies," but running into some resistance. We may end up splitting the month, Solomon-style.

May Film Roundup: After nearly ten years, it finally happened: we watched a movie on the last day of the month solely so I'd have something to put in Film Roundup. A busy month, I guess, with our viewing time spent on Better Call Saul (chilling!) and Strange New Worlds (excellent!).

April Film Roundup:

March Film Roundup: A real big month for movies that each parody a lot of other movies. But a real small Roundup of such movies, only two:

Two Spacesuits: My story "Two Spacesuits" is published in the April 2022 issue of Clarkesworld! I wrote "Two Spacesuits" in 2017, and over time the subject matter—your normcore parents join a self-medicating Internet cult—has only become more and more relevant. I made a few minor edits in late 2021 to set the story during the pandemic, instead of the sprawling 21st-century untime you see in a lot of these stories, but everything apart from the obvious "curbside pickup" type stuff was there originally. Thanks to Neil Clarke for picking up the story.

"Two Spacesuits" has a heavy focus on one of my big writer themes: cognitive dissonance and the defense mechanisms we deploy to deal with it.

“You’re still doing it! Oh my God! You make up these stories to explain your behavior to yourselves. When one story falls apart you just switch to another one.”

As a writer I hope I don't come off solely as an observer of human frailty, but this is one of my favorite kinds of human frailty to observe. There's a bit of this in Constellation Games when Ariel and Dana are talking about Curic's ambivalence:

“We'd pick an option at random and create post hoc rationalizations,” said Dana. “Humans do it, too.”

In Situation Normal, Evidence causes this behavior as a side effect (this is why Evidence is called that!), and this is most clear in "We, the Unwilling," the SN bonus story, where Evidence pushes the POV character into ever more extreme states of cognitive dissonance:

“You ask the Internet about Captain Jim Kirk,” said Nor firmly, “and then we can do business based on a shared understanding of the facts.”

“I don’t want to,” said Kenta. There was nothing else to say. The only possible next step towards completing the mission was to avoid certain pieces of information.

Can readers expect a respite from further explorations of this concept in The Constellation Speedrun? My sources say no.

February Film Roundup:

[Comments] (1) January Film Roundup:

[Comments] (2) The Crummy.com Review of Things 2021: Still alive and healthy, though that seems less of an accomplishment than last year. Looking through photos from 2021 shows some outings, some visits with friends and family, but thinking back on it it just seems like an annoying haze. At least we have Things, and the Review thereof, to keep us company:

Books

The crummy.com Books of the Year are: Endless Frontier by G. Pascal Zachary, Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, and Becoming Trader Joe by Joe Coulombe and Patty Civalleri. All good stuff.

Film

As is traditional, Film Roundup Roundup has been updated. I had no problem coming up with a top ten for you, thanks in large part to '80s Month, which brought in a lot of classics I'd never seen:

Games

The Crummy.com Game of the Year is the fairly obscure Uurnog Uurnlimited, which sets up a traditional platforming challenge and lets you break it however you want. Runners-up: Slipways and Dicey Dungeons, as well as good old Spelling Bee and Wordle, which Sumana and I like to play collaboratively.

I spent less time in 2021 than in 2020 playing games, and more of that time on the best games of other years, especially Noita. My Noita fun ended with a bang, when I ended up in an incredible seed (470656790 -- try it out!) which basically let me legitimately see everything in the game I wanted to see.

My Accomplishments

My story "Mandatory Arbitration" came out in Analog, and I sold both of my non-bad 2020 stories: "Stress Response" and "When there is Sugar", to appear this year. (I actually just sold another story, but that happened in 2022, so more on that later.)

The Constellation Speedrun is still proceeding forward in a very un-speedrun-like manner. I wrote three stories in 2021: "The Coffeeshop AU" plus two Ravy Uvana stories, "The Letter of the Law" and "The Scent of the Governed."

December Film Roundup:

Situation Normal Author Commentary #8: "We, the Unwilling": Have a Situation Normal bonus story! And now, have a commentary essay on that story!

This is probably my very final Situation Normal author commentary, and I'm going to spoil, spoil, spoil this story and the novel and everything related.

I'm not foolish enough to say there's no other Thanksgiving-themed SF stories, given that both Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) and SF (my favorite literary genre) are one easy conceptual jump away from colonialism, but... there's not many. There's one more now. But since this is the Situation Normal-verse, this story isn't about the actual experience of Thanksgiving, positive or negative. It's about the stories we tell ourselves about Thanksgiving, and what we'll do to make a story feel true.

"We, the Unwilling" has no causal connection to Situation Normal; it doesn't even take place when you think it does. This lets me do two things I couldn't do in the novel. The first is to put a "Lower Decks" type focus on the Outreach Navy's grunts. As my wording of the previous sentence implies, the second is to explicitly talk about Star Trek, the single biggest influence on Situation Normal.

We,

Like Situation Normal, the title of the story comes from a saying popular in the American military. SNAFUs started in World War II, and this saying became popular during the Vietnam War. It's is a pretty long saying with a lot of variations, which makes me think it was translated from another language. The most reasonable attribution I've seen is to nineteenth-century historian Konstantin Josef Jireček. I mean, if it's not him, why him? Did you just pick a guy?

I tried some search-engine tricks to confirm this attribution, hoping this commentary could clear up the confusion once and for all, but nothing doing. Anyway, here's the most common version of the quote:

We, the unwilling, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, for so long, with so little, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.

This perfectly describes Spaceman Imura's through-line, as he's forced into a Kobayashi Maru situation which he unwittingly solves by wrecking the experiment which was the real point of the test.

The rules of Situation Normal are that everyone gets thrown into an unexpected genre of story and ends up rewarded or punished based on their ability to roll with the punches. Imura gets put into a highly psychological story about his own failings as a spaceman, and ends up getting exactly what he wanted (honorable discharge), because the treatment he got to deal with those failings makes him way too good at rolling with the punches.

The unwilling

In Situation Normal, the person who gets the most "Lower Decks" treatment is Churryhoof, who despite being a pretty high-ranking officer is yanked around like an enlisted for most of the book: by Mrs. Chen, by Jaketown, by Styrqot and Vec, and finally by Captain Rebtet and Thrux. In Chapter 13 of Situation Normal, as Mrs. Chen is breaking Churryhoof down, there's a paragraph which sets the same tone as "We, the Unwilling":

Mrs. Chen, so experienced in psychological warfare, was manipulating Churryhoof in the most obvious way possible. This was how brands spoke to spacemen. It worked because there was no need to create complicated new consumer desires that only a brand could fulfill. Spacemen needed what soldiers have always needed: alcohol, better gear, sex, a good night’s sleep. A way to pretend the horrible thing wasn’t happening, or wouldn’t happen to you. It was working.

Of course, Churryhoof isn't "the unwilling"; she volunteered for the Navy whereas Imura was pressured into it. But Imura technically volunteered too, and Churryhoof was pressured to join by economic necessity. Here she is in chapter 26:

Churryhoof was terrible at talking to brands. That was why she’d joined the Navy: it was a good career that didn’t involve working for a brand. Military service was the only way off of a boondocks colony like Fallback, unless you had no pride and were willing to end up like [Jaketown].

Here's an enlisted being, Specialist Tellpesh, in chapter 38, talking about her upbringing in a boondocks colony:

The whole planet was segregated. Men in the northern hemisphere, women in the south. The equator was like a fucking demilitarized zone. I wanted up, so I went into a recruitment office and I lied about knowing computers.

The difference is that once Churryhoof and Tellpesh join the Navy, they become willing as they find their own competences. Whereas Imura—who has the same drone-pilot job Churryhoof started with—is bad at his job and can't even succeed at washing out.

Churryhoof begins the book with the attitude that has to be inculcated in Imura: "if [she] completed the assignment, step by step, it would cancel out everything [she’d] done to get from one step to the next." Tellpesh grumbles a lot ("Why do I let people talk me into this shit?") but at the end, after everything that's happened to her, she goes AWOL searching for the badass adventure she knows is out there for her. Even after being turned into a hyper-competent problem-solving machine, Imura just doesn't want to be here.

Star Trek: Door Repair Guy

In Constellation Games Ariel's mother calls him when he's on the moon, and you overhear a Bob Newhart type routine as Ariel tries to explain how he got there. "They don't use money, it's like Star Trek. Not the reboot, I'm talking like Next Generation."

Situation Normal also takes place in a world where people know about Star Trek as a TV show ("Do you also have Mene and Jean-Luc Picard on board?"), but more than that, it's my attempt to provide a revisionist view of Star Trek as, effectively, Federation propaganda.

My absolute favorite bits of Star Trek are the arc-sized villains I call the "anti-Federations"—collective organizations that critique the Federation while mirroring its multi-species structure. Off the top of my head we've got the Terran Empire (evil imperial Federation), the Borg (Federation as cultural homogenizer), the Maquis (breakaways betrayed by the Federation), the Dominion (evil genetic-enslavement Federation), the Xindi (blood-and-soil Federation), and the Emerald Chain (mostly-evil capitalist Federation).

Both civilizations in Situation Normal are anti-Federations of this sort. I mentioned in an earlier commentary that "the Fist of Joy is how Star Trek's Federation sees itself, and the Outreach is the Federation we actually see on screen most of the time." The Terran Outreach is uptight, militaristic, human-dominated, paying lip service to scientific exploration but not delivering much. The Fist of Joy is diverse, decadent, inefficient, ungovernable, superficially friendly but full of hidden pockets that are willing to fight very dirty.

There's a bit in "We, the Unwilling" that looks like a throwaway joke but is actually a reference: Spaceman Imura's declaration that on Enterprise "even the door repair guys were top of their class." The reference is to Douglas A. McLeod's 1990s fanfic "Star Trek: Door Repair Guy", a parody series that debuted prior to the "Lower Decks" ST:TNG episode.

To get a feel for the times, heed this warning from McLeod as he prepares to repost the saga to alt.startrek.creative: "Each episode is about 25k in length, so if you want to save it to disc bear in mind that it's well over a megabyte all together." I reread some of ST:DRG while writing this and 1) the early episodes aren't terrific, but by the time Door Repair Guy gets reassigned to DS9 it's really solid, 2) although not written in screenplay format, each episode is structured like an episode of Star Trek, with commercial breaks that are themselves clever works of science fiction.

ST:DRG did something I've never forgotten, something that has influenced all of my fiction: it focused on the absolute lowest-ranking person in the service. Star Trek has shown the people who get the crappy assignments (source: Lower Decks) and some people who really shouldn't have joined Starfleet (source: some Voyager episode I can't find because Voyager episodes all have super generic names), but they're all officers. All the lower-deckers in the "Lower Decks" episode are officers. I can think of three non-officer Starfleet characters in all of Star Trek: Chief O'Brien, Yeoman Rand, and Crewman Daniels (who, spoiler, is not really in Starfleet!).

Here's me complaining about this a year ago, so you've heard this from me before. Things improved dramatically after I completed Situation Normal, with the debut of Lower Decks, which does a good job of showing people in Starfleet who are effectively enlisted beings, even if they all went to Starfleet Academy for some reason. Situation Normal shows something more like a real-world military, with officers commanding crews full of petty officers and enlisteds, but the enlisted POV isn't represented in the novel.

What you don't see in Star Trek or Situation Normal is Starfleet officers/Outreach spacemen who don't want to or really shouldn't be here. This is entirely fitting since Starfleet is (Leonard's headcanon, but not only Leonard's headcanon) an escape valve for people who just can't even with the post-scarcity Federation—sort of like the Constellation contact missions. And Situation Normal gets so dangerous so quickly that any such character would, like the apparently competent Spaceman Heiss, be killed a third of the way through the book.

Put it all together: "We, the Unwilling" features a grunt who doesn't want to be in the Outreach Navy and really shouldn't be there. This is prior to the war, so his unfitness won't immediately lead to his death. He's given a fantasy memetic framework to justify his service and act as a scaffolding for building real competence. And the fantasy is... Star Trek. Not Next Generation, the reboot. An Abrams-like telling of Captain Kirk's exploits that treats Starfleet as a big adventure and doesn't offer any substantive critique of the society Starfleet protects or the society that created Star Trek. The same Star Trek watched by the people who chose the logo for the United States Space Force.

Star Trek is so big and old and sprawling that you can't just have one critique of it. I can think of two SF novels that get by just parodying the "redshirt" trope. My main fascination is with the friction between the Federation's professed ideals and what we see onscreen. Situation Normal played that out on the large-scale political level, and "We, the Unwilling" plays it out on the much smaller level of family drama and thankless work assignments.

I don't generally offer to do work-for-hire, but I'd love to write a Lower Decks tie-in novel. I think I could pull off something like this while staying within the series bible.

[Comments] (1) Replacements for Muji recycled-yarn socks: For many years Muji sold socks made of recycled yarn. These were, by far, the most comfortable socks I've ever worn. I wore them continuously for about fifteen years, but around 2019 they discontinued the product line. I still have a couple pairs that aren't worn out, but it's only a matter of time; it seems like every time I run them through the wash one of my remaining socks develops a hole. So, one of my low-key hobbies has been looking for a replacement. This blog post presents my findings so far in a way SEO-optimized for people like me.

I believe the appeal of these socks for me is the fabric mix: 70% polyester, 28% cotton, 2% Spandex. Last year Sumana kindly posted an Ask Metafilter question about similar socks, which helped me understand why it's so hard to find socks like these. My sock preferences—smooth and cooling rather than fuzzy and warm—seem to be in the minority.

The closest thing I've found to a replacement is the All In Motion no show socks, available at Target. These are 59% recycled polyester, 34% cotton. They're quite comfortable but, as the name implies, they don't go above my ankles. (Muji also sold recycled-yarn socks in this shorter size, so if those were the ones you liked, this is your sock.) The main difference is that the All In Motion socks are noticeably thicker than the Muji yarn socks. This definitely improves their durability, but also makes them a bit warm. Increased durability seems a Faustian bargain, since I find the experience of wearing the socks less pleasant.

I also asked a Muji employee who remembered the old socks to help me find the closest match. We decided on the right angle pile short socks. These have a mix of 78% cotton, 21% polyester, 1% Spandex. They're not bad (I'm wearing some right now) but like the All In Motion socks, they're noticeably thicker (thus warmer) than the old socks and—I feel ridiculous typing this but details are important here—the elastic at the top of the sock is a little pinchy.

The quest continues. I've got plenty of socks right now so I'm not looking to buy more, but I'll update this post if I find something better.

November Film Roundup:

[Comments] (1) Mandatory Arbitration: I'm writing about this a little late, but it's never too late for good science fiction! My SF legal thriller "Mandatory Arbitration" was published in the July/August 2021 issue of Analog—my first sale to a print magazine! The text is not online, but you can hear me read the story on the Analog podcast.

I have relentfully made fun of Analog in this blog over the past 15 years, but one thing I really like about the magazine is its tendency to publish clever humorous SF. My main regret is that Analog doesn't do those super-generic story blurbs anymore, so "Mandatory Arbitration" didn't get one. No problem, I'll just reuse an old blurb, let's see here. Yes, the blurb from Carl Frederick's "The Long Way Around" in 2010 will do nicely: "The ways a tool was designed to be used are not the only ways it can be used...." It seems the same is true of blurbs!

Now's also a good time to mention that I've sold a second story featuring Ravy Uvana, the space-bureaucrat heroine of "Mandatory Arbitration". I hope/assume "Stress Response" will appear in print next year. The character's really fun and I keep coming back to her. I've got a formula set up, sort of like Columbo. In fact, if I ever write an out-and-out Ravy Uvana murder mystery, it'll be from the murderer's POV and structured like a Columbo episode. That's a non-binding promise!

October Film Roundup:

September Film Roundup: Just one film this month, so I'll shake things up by starting with the Television Spotlight. Sumana started watching the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and when the second season turned out to take place at a 1960s Catskills summer resort, I was interested enough to tag along. Something about that old-timey #resortlife appeals to me in a way that makes it obvious I've never actually experienced anything similar, because I'd probably get bored in fifteen minutes. I enjoyed watching a few hours of it, though.

Season three got a little incoherent with pieces being yanked back and forth across the board, but the character of Susie kept me coming back. My sister's name is Susie and there aren't a lot of Susies in media these days, and it was good to see some Susie representation. I don't think my sister would approve of Susie Myerson, but I don't think much of Leonard from The Big Bang Theory, so whatevs.

And now, our feature presentation:

August Film Roundup: Sumana was unavailable for a lot of this month, so I spent a lot of time watching films she doesn't want to watch. Yes, we're "going stag" to this month's Film Roundup. Lots of violence and dudes doing dudely things.

July Film Roundup:

[Comments] (2) June Film Roundup: It's been a heist-filled month, and not just because of our continuing leef-peeping drive through the Fast & Furious series. Why, just look behind you—I've stolen your priceless Blue Period Picasso! Heist-tastic!

[Comments] (2) May Film Roundup:

April Film Roundup: '80s Month: The Revenge: The TV is still busted, but in April we triumphantly made it through the 1980s thanks to the Film Roundup Auxilliary Portable Screening Room (my laptop). Technology comes through again!

March Film Roundup: '80s Mo......nth?: The promised '80s Month came to a crashing halt almost immediately when the Film Roundup Screening Room (our television) stopped working. I guess this means the golden age of blockbusters continues!

[Comments] (1) February Film Roundup: '90s Month!: After we saw Speed in January, Sumana discovered that she really liked being able to talk to people our age about movies that the other person might have seen or heard about. We decided that over the course of February, we would watch some big films from the 1990s, one for each year of the decade. These are movies that don't often get programmed nowadays, and we chose ones I hadn't seen back when they were in theaters, since Sumana's more interested in rewatching films than I am.

Preparing for this project was a ton of fun, and we now have a pretty big list of interesting-sounding '90s films for future Roundups. In the end, "big" usually meant "big box office", but for a couple of the years we made a decision based on lasting cultural impact or cult status. I didn't want to watch a bunch of Disney animated features, folks.

This was a fun experience and in fact we're keeping it going: we've already deemed March to be '80s Month and watched a fun film from 1980. It does look like I've seen most of the big '80s movies that are still remembered by people my age, so this month is likely to be more of a "forgotten gem" thing. Still fun though!

The Crummy.com Review of Things 2020: A little late, but I don't want to let the year go by unremarked.

My accomplishments: The big one: I'm still alive and healthy. Second, Situation Normal was published! You may have heard of that.

What you haven't heard, because I'm just mentioning now, is that In 2020 I sold a story to Analog! I've cashed the check and done the copyedit and it's coming out sometime this year. This is my first print magazine sale, and very exciting. The story is "Mandatory Arbitrarion", a legal thriller I wrote in 2019. It's my first published story to feature Ravy Uvana, the space lawyer/circuit judge/general bureaucrat who I think has the potential to be a memorable recurring character.

In 2020 I assembled a NaNoGenMo novel, Brutus and Cassius, at the close of the scene After a rough start I also wrote two non-terrible stories: "Stress Response" and "When There Is Sugar".

Books: I recorded my 2020 reading in a couple of earlier blog posts, so I'll say that the Crummy.com Book of the Year is A Suitable Boy, a book I started a really long time ago and finally finished last year. Highly recommended for those who like big encyclopedic books like Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest.

Leonard's Excursions: n/a

Film: Not a lot to choose from from 2020, given that we spent most of our quarantime with non-live theater and TV; even early in the year, many of our museum visits were films I'd already seen. But I've updated Film Roundup Roundup with the 2020 crop, and I do have some special recommendations:

Honorable non-film mention to the National Theatre productions of This House and One Man, Two Guvnors.

Games: 2020 was a year when Sumana and I played Switch games together: notably Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Ring Fit Adventure, and the one you didn't expect, Crystal Crisis. Yes, the Capcom arcade classic Puzzle Fighter finally has a clone on modern systems, featuring such well-known gaming characters as... Quote and Curly Brace from Cave Story? A guy who appeared only in Turbografx-16 print ads? I guess the Darkstalkers crew weren't exactly the A-team either.

On the Linux platform, the Crummy.com Game of the Year is Noita, a roguelike that relies on just enough programming logic to be interesting, not so much that it feels like work. Other great games I played this year: Demoncrawl (roguelike Minesweeper), Jupiter Hell a.k.a. DoomRL, Shortest Trip to Earth (not as good as FTL but excellent for those who want more of the same feeling or just want it to be much more complicated), and Spelunky 2.

Podcasts: Generally speaking my podcast time took a big hit when I stopped riding the subway every day. However, as part of a research project tangentially related to the Constellation Games sequel, I went around looking for some podcasts where families play fantasy RPGs together. As it happens there's a very famous, extremely funny podcast where a family plays fantasy RPGs together, but that podcast doesn't feature women or children, two types of people frequently found in families. So, here are some other family RPG podcasts I enjoyed in 2020:

I think that's it for now. I'll see you in 2021! Wait, I just did. I guess I can check that one off my to-do list.

Pandemic Reading Roundup #2: As I prepare the Crummy.com Review of Things 2020 I've been looking back at the stack of books I bought off my wishlist and read over the past few months. That's right, it's time for a second edition of Pandemic Reading Roundup. I'm not in a mood for detailed reviews so I'll just recommend my favorites of this batch:

I also have an anti-honorable mention: Len Deighton's 1964 spy novel Funeral in Berlin. It occupies a space halfway between Ian Fleming and John le Carré, a space that in retrospect doesn't really need occupation. I mention this not-great book in this post when I let many decent books pass without notice only because there's a reason why my wishlist included two Len Deighton novels. Deighton wrote a really good novel in 1978, SS-GB, an alt-history about the impossibility of selective collaboration with evil, which I read many years ago. Big recommendation for that one. It doesn't seem like his other work is similar, though.

[Comments] (2) Twistor!: During my Situation Normal author commentary I mentioned a book I read as a kid which was a big influence on the worldbuilding of my own novel. Shortly thereafter, chance reunited me with the correct metadata for the book: Twistor, by John Cramer, published 1989. I bought a copy and went through it, looking to nail down the influences.

My original plan was just to skim the book, and the first part is very skimmable; but pretty soon I was reading the book for real, because not only does it get really interesting after the setup is complete, it turns out the influences on my work were not limited to Situation Normal. This isn't too surprising because, looking back, there's a good chance Twistor was the first science fiction for grownups I read. So, big thanks to John Cramer. Here's what I found:

First, I misremembered the goal of the scientists when I wrote my author commentary. They're not trying to create a teleportation device; they're doing Ph.D-level research on a combination of real physics and technobabble. The closest we come to a practical application has to do with a new medium for data storage. This would presumably replace the retro-future "laser disks" we see the characters using. I guess technically CDs are "laser disks"; we should have called them that but I understand why we didn't.

However, I was more or less right about the plot device that comes out of these experiments: a phenomenon that can be exploited to swap matter among the six parallel universes that inhabit the same space as our universe. This phenomenon is at the core of the children-in-peril subplot, a couple of pre-Jurassic Park siblings who are caught up in an improbable case of skip overlap (to use Situation Normal terminology), very similar to what happens in Chapter 8 of Situation Normal. There's a subplot about sighting the stars on the other side of the skip bubble, similar to how the cops in Situation Normal will track you when you skip. Nothing comes of it, though, since in Twistor those are completely different stars that formed in the parallel universe.

That skip-overlap incident also slices off a goon's hand at the wrist; and, in the book's goriest scene, the twistor phenomenon is used to dig a spherical chunk right out of another goon's brain. This is a form of murder that the Seattle police are surprisingly cool with. I get it, I wouldn't want to write about that investigation either. Characters in Situation Normal joke and speculate about injuries from skip overlap, but it doesn't happen onscreen.

As far back as I can remember I've imagined forests of giant trees as being a standard science fiction trope—that's Alien Ring in Constellation Games. But apart from Twistor, all the examples I can think of are a) fantasy and b) a single world-spanning Yggdrasil-like tree, not a forest of trees that are just really big. I suspect I got that idea from this one formative book, whose shadow universe features a forest of very memorable giant trees.

Those giant trees have a scent like cedar. That may be why I named the planet in Situation Normal Cedar Commons, but that's a big stretch IMO. I wouldn't have remembered that detail.

Similarly, there's a fantasy story-within-the-story, analogous to the "Princess Denweld" adventure in Situation Normal, but I didn't remember that from my initial reading, and it's such a common technique that I can't imagine I got it from here; especially since I was consciously parodying a different book when I wrote "Princess Denweld".

A totally random thing I did remember: at one point a character sings a Pynchon-esque song and I remembered music that I made up for that song! I know it's my music because a) there's no record of this song existing outside Twistor and b) when I came up with the music, I dropped a word from the lyrics and got the meter wrong. No influence on anything, but a fun example of all the weird stuff we have buried deep in our memories.

Twistor contains a fair amount of realistic 1980s password-cracking and 1337 skullduggery—man-in-the-middle attacks, false-front BBSes, etc. Most of this skulduggery is carried out on "HyperVAX" systems, and exploits real features of VMS. As a kid I lapped this up—I think it was my first glimpse of the cool things grownups could do with computers. I was way more interested in concepts like email and BBSes—within five years I'd be running my own BBS—than in any of the hax0r stuff.

This is one of those sci-fi books where the climax involves spreading the forbidden knowledge to all and sundry. I agree that's probably the best move in the situation the book sets up, but I can't say I share the narrator's optimism. I feel like the jerk at the wedding saying "I give this planet six months." Anyway, the method by which our heroes spread the forbidden knowledge is... mailing list spam! They evade the watchful eye of the FBI by sending out their preprints through a BITNET distribution list, rather than making an easily-stopped trip to the FedEx store.

In a very useful afterword, Cramer does his own author commentary, separating physics fact from speculation and explaining that the hax0r techniques described are "all known techniques which have been used to penetrate protected computer systems", but that they're all now being defended against and you should not use them for real. That's a little disingenous IMO. Many of these techniques are alive and well today—installing a trojan keylogger on someone's computer to capture their passwords—even though VMS itself is dead.

Finally, I'm going to reproduce the last two paragraphs of the afterword verbatim, because it's a great piece of computer history:

BitNet is an actual worldwide computer network that is already in very active use by the physics community. However, at present it is used primarily for "mail" messages between users and for the transmission of data files and programs. It is not in general use for the transmission of scientific papers and preprints because these usually include a number of figures; for example, line drawings of equipment or data plots. Although CompuServe's GIF standard, Adobe's Post Script, and several others are looming on the horizon, there is presently no universal graphics standard that would permit the routine inclusion of figures in scientific papers, and so they are still distributed by conventional mail.

It is a good bet that this will soon change. The scientific journals published by the American Institute of Physics, e.g., Physical Review, already accept manuscripts submitted on computer media. It is very likely that within a decade physics papers for journal publication complete with drawings and figures will be submitted and preprints of such papers will be routinely circulated by BitNet or its successor. One can only hope that publishers of works of fiction (like the present novel) will also eventually emerge from the nineteenth century and adopt similar technology.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Tuesday, December 08 2020, 19:23:12 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Sunday, July 03 2022, 21:35:02 Nowhere Standard Time.

Crummy is © 1996-2022 Leonard Richardson. Unless otherwise noted, all text licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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