“As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure.” “All Systems Red,” book 1 of the Murderbot Diaries, by Martha Wells

Everybody who has read this series loves it … except me. I tried this book once before two years ago, and bounced off it. This time I liked it. I guess I was in the right mood for it this time around. I’ll read the next book in the series, but it probably won’t be the next book I read.

The main character of this series, Murderbot, is a security robot, built with machine and organic components, that has hacked its own governor module and could mass-murder everybody if it wanted to, but would rather just do its job protecting humans, and watch entertainment feeds. “As a heartless killing machine, I was a terrible failure,” Murderbot explains.

Murderbot’s job is to protect a team of a half-dozen researchers exploring a new planet. It’s a pretty easy gig at first, leaving plenty of time for entertainment feeds. But the job gets serious when the team is threatened by a murderous entity, and Murderbot has to reluctantly get to work.

I liked Murderbot’s voice, their dry wit and laid-back attitude. They find interaction with conventional humans to be excruciating, and far prefer to spend their time with fictional people on the entertainment feeds.

The book’s strengths were enough—this time around—to carry me through things I didn’t like about it. There were only a half dozen characters, and they were hard to tell apart, other than Murderbot herself and the mission leader, Dr. Mensah. Most of the activity takes place either inside a base or in a small vehicle. So even though there was an entire planet to play on, the story seems claustrophobic, like one of those Doctor Who episodes where they drop in on a remote research base or stranded spaceship that’s in danger. Those sorts of episodes seem to be popular with the fans, because the show does so many of them, but they have never been my favorites.

At the end of this book, which is the first in the series, there is an indication that Murderbot is about to explore the wider universe. I hope that’s the way it goes.

A philosopher explores the nature of reality using “The Matrix” and other science fiction as thought experiments

The universe of “The Matrix” is an illusion constructed by malevolent godlike AIs. Nothing in the Matrix is real. But we might also think of objects in a simulation as real, but digital rather than physical.

On Ars Technica, Jennifer Ouellette interviews NYU philosopher David Chalmers, author of the new book, “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy.”

Exploring mind-bending questions about reality and virtual worlds via The Matrix

Chalmers:

I partly got into this about 15 years ago through watching my five-year-old nephew play with SimCity. He built up the city and the environment and all the people. Then he said, “Now, here’s the fun part,” and he just set fire to it all, sent in earthquakes and tidal waves. I thought, “OK, now I understand the Old Testament God.”

Even if we’re living in a simulation, if I stub my toe, the pain is real.

My personal connection to Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon

I have a weird personal connection to Spider Robinson, a popular Canadian science fiction writer who I’ve never met.

Robinson wrote a series of stories and novels that were popular among science fiction fans, set in a bar named Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, where extraterrestrials and time travelers frequently drop in. The bar itself sometimes travels in time and space, but its home base is Route 25A on Long Island, New York — specifically Northport or Huntington; I can’t recall which.

My connection is that I grew up a few miles from Callahan’s. I grew up in East Northport, and I used to drive down that particular stretch of road several times a month.

One night I thought I saw a sign for Callahan’s, and I turned the car around to look more closely. I can’t remember now whether I thought at the time that I might find a real bar that the fictional Callahan’s was based on, or whether I might actually find Callahan’s time-traveling saloon. I didn’t find either — the sign was gone. Probably it was never there.

25A is an interesting and beautiful road. It starts nearly at the edge of Manhattan, at the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, runs through the gritty city streets of Queens, to the posh retail outlets of Nassau County’s Miracle Mile and Great Neck, where Jazz Age millionaires kept their mansions, and out to the bucolic countryside, vineyards, and fishing villages of eastern Suffolk County. One day when visiting my Dad, I decided to drive the whole length. That was a very nice trip.

Alan Brown at Tor.com: Joy and Pun-ishment: Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson

Spider Robinson on Wikipedia.

New York State Route 25A on Wikipedia

“Pulp is the dark matter of fiction….“

The Pop Culture Archivist at Tumblr talks about the history of pulp fiction, and why it’s important.

“Pulp” is a kind of storytelling that originated in ”cheap all-fiction American magazines from the 1900s to the 1950s,” they say.

The pulp magazine began in 1896, when Frank Munsey’s Argosy magazine, in order to cut costs, dropped the non-fiction articles and photographs and switched from glossy paper to the much less expensive wood pulp paper, hence the name. The pulp magazines would mainly take off as a distinct market and format in 1904, when Street & Smith learned that Popular Magazine, despite being marketed towards boys, was being consumed by men of all ages, so they increased page count and started putting popular authors on the issues.

It was specifically the 1905 reprint of H.Rider Haggard’s Ayesha that not only put Street & Smith on the map as rivals to Argosy, but also inspired other companies to start publishing in the pulp format. Pulps encompassed literally everything that the authors felt like publishing. Westerns, romance, horror, sci-fi, railroad stories, war stories, war aviation stories. Zeppelins had a short-lived subgenre. Celebrities got their own magazines, it was really any genre or format they could pull off, anything they could get away with.

Pulps became most well-known for“‘hero pulps’, characters like The Shadow and Doc Savage that are viewed as a formative influence on comic book superheroes.”

The pulp magazines in America lasted until the 1950s, when cumulative factors such as paper shortages, diminishing audience returns and the closing of its biggest publishers led to it dying off, although in the decades since there have always been publishers calling their magazines “pulp.” That’s the American pulp history.

In America, before the pulps, you had dime novels. And the phenomenon was worldwide: England had penny dreadfuls and story papers. France and Russia in the 19th Century had coulporters, chapbooks, and feuilletons. Pulps or something like them also thrived in Japan, China, Brazil, Italy, India, Persia, Ethiopia, Canada, Australia, and more.

Look anywhere in the world and you’ll find examples of “pulp” happening again and again, under different circumstances and time periods.

And most of it was transitory. 38% of American pulps no longer exist. 14% survive in fewer than five copies. They’re not in many libraries or publicly accessible collections, and many are tied up in copyright complications.

Gone, dead, wasted, destroyed. They can’t be found in barbershops or warehouse or bookstores, not even in antique stores. Hundreds, thousands of characters, stories and creators, gone.

But they keep coming back.

Pulp is the dark matter of fiction, the uncatalogued depths of the ocean, the darkest recesses of space. It’s the box of your grandfather’s belongings, the treasure you find in an attic, a body part sticking out from an old playground. It’s the things that don’t work, don’t succeed, the things that don’t fit, that are out of place. That shouldn’t live and succeed, and did so anyway.

Arguably all of today’s American popular movies, TV, and fiction came from the pulp tradition: Science fiction, fantasy, mysteries, stories about doctors, lawyers, police, and detectives. Military and spy adventures. Techno-thrillers.

This year, Apple TV will debut a big-budget prestige TV show based on Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy — stories first published in the pulp science fiction magazine “Astounding Stories” 1942-50.

I was discussing pulp fiction with a a colleague the other day. I was a science fiction fan as a boy, and I still am as a man. Science fiction is rooted in the pulp tradition. And pulps were always something that had to compel readers’ attention. Nobody was ever reading pulp to advance their career, or win prestige or status in other people’s eyes. Indeed, pulp always carried a stigma — so much of it was bad, with lurid covers, that an adult caught reading it risked being seen as having something wrong with them.

So the writers and editors of pulps could never count on readers’ attention, the creators always had to grab it. And I’ve tried to carry that thinking with me in my own career.