Speculative fiction, science, and technology for June, 2018.
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Welcome to the Reader's Room for June, 2018.

The Benefit Of Experience

In 1853, Commodore Perry’s Black Ships sailed into Tokyo Bay, opened their gunports, and asked if Japan might want to trade with the United States. Japan signed a trade agreement, then immediately started filling Tokyo Bay with fortresses so they wouldn’t have to deal with guys like that again.

They ultimately built six fortresses on artificial islands. But in Tokyo, land is always at a premium, and as the country changed, so did the fortresses. Today, most of what remains is the name, Odaiba, after the long gone gun batteries. At this point, it's pretty much a leisure island. It has malls, amusement parks, beaches, an artificial hot spring, pretty much everything you need if you have a date you want to impress, or paycheck to spend, or both. One of the most popular places on Odiaba is Palette Town, a vaguely Renaissance-themed area which has several major attractions. The most confusingly named is Mega Web, a Toyota-branded theme park. It's a blatant attempt to sell cars, but it’s also home to a reasonably credible design museum. The exhibits are vaguely related to transportation, and change as car technology (and marketing) evolves. The last time I visited, it focused on serving Japan’s aging population with self balancing scooters, exoskeletons, and robotic companions. But they also had an interactive gallery of chairs. Not futuristic or famous chairs, just ordinary chairs like you see every day.

But each one hid a secret. Visitors were invited to sit in them and discover the secret for themselves: Everyone was a functional disaster. What looked like an ordinary armchair had the arm rests in a very unrestful position. A tall stool tilted forward, making me fight to stay on. A club chair was apparently stuffed with bowling balls. An office chair put the back support in the wrong place and tried to bend my spine the wrong way. One put me on edge because the seat wasn’t deep enough, another was too deep giving me the choice of slouching or sitting with my feet in the air.

The next area looked like what happens when an art college pukes up a hardware store. In the center was an open book, made of foam, the size of a kiddie pool. Next to it was a tangle of steel pipe, and beyond that a piece of plywood somehow folded like origami. There was a jumble of colorful balls and something that looked like a medieval torture device. Visitors were invited to sit on all of this too. It took some convincing. Nothing there should have even been seen, much less sat upon.

And yet, each of them was super comfortable. They were balanced and offered support where it was needed. They were ridiculous but restful. The exhibit’s main message was that even simple, common things like chairs are full of design challenges. But it also taught that we have a hard time predicting experience from appearance, and experience is more important.

Or, more simply, it showed that you can’t tell a book by its cover.


The same year Commodore Perry was out harassing Japan, back in America Ralph Waldo Emerson sent a congratulatory letter to Walt Whitman on the publishing of Leaves of Grass. The second edition of the book pulled a complimentary quote from this letter, embossed it on the spine in gold leaf, and gave birth to the book blurb.

It wasn’t actually called a blurb until fifty years later when humorist Gelett Burgess published a satire with a picture of “Miss Melinda Blurb” on the cover, “In the act of blurbing”. In other words, yelling the book’s praise to anyone who cared to listen—and even those who’d rather not. Already in 1907, the copy used to sell books was risible.

Yet book blurbs are considered necessary. A picture and a title isn't much to go on, and books without them look suspicious. But taking up space is about the best thing that they do. Even when they’re accurate, they don’t tell you anything useful. They‘ll tell you that the book is a post-apocalyptic tale of ninjas, zombies, and mimes, or that it’s a coming of age tale aboard a clockwork spaceship trapped on the cusp of a black hole. But like the chair exhibit, it doesn’t give you any useful hint about the experience. Will you ravenously devour it in a night and still think about it a year later, or will you put it down halfway through and completely forget to pick it up again? Will you settle into it, comfortable and balanced, or will it bend you the wrong way and dump you on the floor?

Sure, blurbs can (and do) say they'll change your world and blow your mind, but they’re just trying to sell books.

I've avoided Nick Harkaway’s The Gone Away World for years because of the blurb. It’s filed under post-apocalyptic and also zombies, both of which have become so cliché that I avoid them out of habit. Ninjas and mimes are mentioned prominently which, frankly, makes it sound like a hastily assembled mess created to cash in on popular trends. The only thing it was missing was a fight between a fidget spinner and a vape.

The blurbs lie. There are no zombies, nor would I file it with post-apocalypse tales. It's more about how we reach the tipping point of a world altering event, how selfish interests can push us one way, and selflessness can pull us back. It’s about personal choices and about the struggle between making the right decisions versus making the easy ones. The Gone Away World is a decade old, but the themes feel very timely.

It does indeed have ninjas and mimes. The former are terrifying and the latter are sad. The blurb says its hilarious and it is. But it doesn’t say it’s also thoughtful—even the ninjas and mimes are heartfelt. It doesn’t say it can be goofy and gonzo while casually tossing in words like sobriquet and deliquescent—not to show off, but because those words were the precisely correct ones to use. The blurb doesn’t say that at first it might seem like a meandering six hundred pages, full of fun digressions (like joining anarchists to impress a girl, or the bachelor party with the mime troupe) but in the end everything connects. The last half is like pulling the zipper on a windbreaker, taking something that was flapping in the wind and neatly turning it into the exact opposite.

I still don't know what to do about blurbs. They can't be trusted and have led me to regret more often that celebration. And yet, despite the blurb, The Gone Away World is exactly the kind of book that makes me want to find a comfortable chair and settle in for a long read.
Oliver Pron has produced concept art and matte campaigns for a number of major Hollywood films. His personal work features bright, striking landscapes and human explorers. Portfolio Link.
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The Conversation has an article on the science of why we enjoy plots twists, and how spoilers can enhance the experience of reading.

In a story that flips the tables on most techno-dystopian news, cops in India got access to facial recognition software and immediately used it to track down 3000 missing kids stuck in New Dehli orphanages.

Scientists are staring to get some insight into memory. Researchers at UCLA have transferred a type of memory between sea slugs, having them react to events that they hadn’t experienced themselves. (Link goes to the only article I’ve seen that doesn’t misidentify the subjects as snails.) (Link to the actual paper for sciencey folks)

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I know I’m in a final round of edits if the manuscript is getting shorter. Picking more precise words and removing redundant language will shrink the word count by up to ten percent. But the fourth Embassy book is still getting longer. I’m trying to be cool with it, but the process of writing this book is behaving differently from the previous ones and its frustrating.

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