Science Fiction’s New Reality

The Hugo Awards have been science fiction’s equivalent of the Oscars for more than sixty years. Past winners of the Best Novel category include Stephen King, Octavia Butler, Michael Chabon, Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman.

But this year’s ceremony was a little different than usual.

For the first time in its history, women swept all of the Hugo’s major awards.

Rebecca Roanhorse took Best Short Story for “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience.” Martha Wells won best novella for “All Systems Red.” Nnedi Okorafor won the “Lodestar” Young Adult award for “Akata Warrior.” And N.K. Jemisin took Best Novel for a third year in a row, making her the Hugo’s first-ever threepeat winner.

In a genre that was once written-off as the domain of burly men in velour spacesuits defending scantily-clad women from aliens… the tides seem to have shifted. But the road to change hasn’t been easy. Most of these writers have had to hold off online trolls, skeptical agents, dismissive publishers, and worse.

Both Okorafor and Jemisin dealt with blowback by a faction of self-described “Sad” and “Rabid Puppies” — two groups of rightwing and conservative science-fiction and fantasy fans and authors who attempted to nominate authors they felt weren’t “overtly” liberal. In 2015 and 2016, “No award” was given in multiple categories, in order to avoid rewarding the Puppies’ nominees.

This pushback isn’t limited to the world of novels. The fans behind this year’s “Comicsgate” have launched a coordinated effort to blacklist “left-leaning” comics writers – nearly all of whom are women or people of color. The directors and actors behind the latest Star Wars films have received a torrent of abuse, some of which was vitriolic enough to force actresses Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran off of social media. There was even an uproar over the character design in Netflix’s upcoming reboot of “She-Ra: Princess of Power” (specifically, the complaint that She-Ra isn’t sexy enough).

Science fiction calls on readers to explore new worlds, new futures, and new questions for humanity.

So how is it that even some sci-fi fans have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this 21st century?

And if even the most futuristic thinkers need to be prodded to broaden their minds… what does that say about the rest of us?

By Paige Osburn, September 10, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

2020 BUDGET PROPOSAL THREATENS TO DEFUND LIBRARIES

On March 11, the White House released President Trump’s proposed fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget, titled “A Budget for a Better America”. Coming in at $4.75 trillion, it’s the largest budget ever proposed, calling for sharp cuts to domestic and social programs and increases in military spending.

library feature

For the third straight year, the Trump budget proposes permanent elimination of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), an independent federal agency that provides library and museum grants, policy development, and research. Defunding the IMLS would effectively end all federal funding of public libraries. The proposal would also cut funding to the Department of Education by 10%, including support for the Innovative Approaches to Literacy program.

Although Trump promised protections for social programs throughout his presidential campaign, the FY2020 budget includes steep cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Despite these cuts, a $34 billion increase in Department of Defense spending (including $8.6 billion for a border wall) makes Trump’s proposed budget the highest of all time. For comparison, FY2019 federal library and IMLS funding totaled $233 million.

While the Trump administration has continuously pushed for an end to federal funding of libraries, Congress has shown bipartisan support for the IMLS during the past two years’ budget debates. In a statementfrom the American Library Association (ALA), president Loida Garcia-Febo said that Congressional support provides reason for hope. “Elected decision-makers, including appropriators in both the House and Senate, agree that funding IMLS programs such as the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) is a sound investment and that to cut funding for libraries is to undercut opportunity for their constituents.”

Thanks to ALA and library community advocacy, library funding has remained level or increased slightly over the past two years. Garcia-Febo has promised that the ALA will continue their fight to protect libraries against Trump’s proposed budget cuts. “ALA members will continue to highlight the value of libraries to our elected leaders in every U.S. congressional district. We are confident that the 116th Congress will support the federal programs that invest in our communities.”

Learn more about the ALA’s #FundLibraries campaign or contact your members of Congress here.

By , March 

A program series for all us

The story of our ancestors, our country and us.

Becoming American Slide

No registrations is required to attend any of the programs in this Quad Cities-wide film and discussion program series.

Becoming American: A Documentary Film and Discussion Series on Our Immigration Experience is a project of City Lore in collaboration with the Immigration and Ethnic History Society and the International Coalition of the Sites of Conscience.  The project has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: “Exploring the Human Endeavor.”

Learn Your Library Resources (and Services) – Voter Registration

Image result for voter registration

That’s right. The Moline Public Library provides voter registration during most hours of operation. Since our voter registrars are sometimes busy with other library duties it isn’t a bad idea to call ahead at 524-2450 to inquire whether a registrar will be available.

What Do You Need to Register?
You may register to vote at the Moline Public Library under the following guidelines:

  1. You must live in Rock Island County
  2. You must be able to show 2 (two) forms of identification, 1 (one) indicating your current address
  3. You must be a resident at your current address at least 28 days before any election

Not sure if you’re registered?  You can find out by performing a Registration Lookup through the Illinois State Board of Elections web site.

When You Can Register?
Voter registration closes 28 days before an election and opens 3 days after an election.

And now, new residents/citizens/legal adults and the friends and family members of said individuals, you know where to go (or where to send them) if you (they) would like to register to vote in the next round of elections!

On a related note, the library is also a frequent location for early voting, so once you’re registered be on the lookout for an opportunity to beat the lines on election day by coming to the library to vote early!

 

 

H.P. Lovecraft And The Shadow Over Horror

Scary tentacles

Hello Lovely/Getty Images/Blend Images

H.P. Lovecraft’s stories are among the foundations of modern horror. He has an entire subgenre named after him (Lovecraftian horror, also called cosmic horror). His stories can still wring shivers from the modern reader; his gods and monsters are cloned, adapted and mutated by new authors every year (I’m one of them). I don’t actually know how many anthologies include either his name or his iconic creation Cthulhu in their titles — though a sample make up a largish shelf among my books, and then there are the movies, songs, role-playing games and plush abominations (another shelf). During the 2016 election, a Washington Post op-ed claimed Cthulhu’s endorsement for Donald Trump.

But Lovecraft was a bigot. He was a bigot by the standards of our time and his. He hated and feared African-Americans, Jews, poor people and anyone who had the temerity to speak languages other than English in his presence. He once wrote a poem called “On the Creation of [N-words]” and a story in which the horrific punchline was that the femme fatale with monstrous, man-strangling hair was “a negress.” Though sometimes less overt, his terror of humans who were not upper-class Anglo-Saxons pervades his stories. One celebrated classic […] ends by recognizing a strange and alien race as “men” like the reader — men whose civilization collapsed because of a revolt by their monstrous slaves. Those slaves, the shoggoths, appear as boogeymen throughout Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

What to do about the darkness gnawing at horror’s roots? Perhaps Lovecraft’s own metaphors are best: Can this ancestral taint be denied, or does it warp its descendants even today? Could we destroy it, even if we wanted to? If we did, what would remain of our modern branches? Could we instead transform it? Horror excels at making thought-provoking beauty and terror out of the most vile seeds. Can we work such metamorphoses with our own foundations?

Every time someone raises this topic, traditionalists accuse them of forced amnesia. “You’re trying to bury Lovecraft’s memory. You want us to forget him.” Yet modern horror has repeatedly chosen transformation over suppression. Victor LaValle, Caitlin R. Kiernan, N.K Jemisin and Matt Ruff are only a few of those now penning Lovecraftian stories in which bigotry itself is the horror.

Pervasive in cosmic horror is the conflict between attraction and repulsion. Lovecraft’s narrators stumble into terror because they can’t look away: The only thing worse than knowing things man wasn’t meant to know is putting down the book. I feel the same way about Lovecraft. “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” begins with the town’s amphibious inhabitants being forced into internment camps; my first novel resulted from yelling at the story until I had to put my fury down on paper. Yet “Shadow” also contains moments of strange sympathy for its monsters and a protagonist who ultimately discovers himself to be one of them, and transforms to “dwell amidst wonder and glory” beneath the waves of the Atlantic.

Lovecraft, too, was conflicted — though in his short life he never found the courage to let his attraction to difference overcome his repulsion. Perhaps we keep building on his creations in the hope that we can finally complete that half-hinted transformation.

Lovecraft’s repellent assumptions still make their way into modern work; even beloved modern authors sometimes show hints of that taint. If we know that a story or author [we’re discussing] is problematic, we’ll tell you — and no shame on anyone who doesn’t care to dip their hands into that particular variety of putrescent pool. There are a few I won’t touch myself. But for those who can’t turn away from what glints at the heart of the slime — or who seek imperfect materials to sculpt into strange new forms — we’ll do our best to map the abyss.

By RUTHANNA EMRYS, August 16, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

Editor’s Note:

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series and co-writes Tor.com’s Lovecraft Reread. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. with her wife and their large, strange family. You can find her on Twitter as @r_emrys.

 

Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World

Why read horror when the world is already so creepy?
Maree Searle/Getty Images/EyeEm

Tom Lehrer famously said that satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet here we are, still struggling to exaggerate the follies of power until power can’t get around us. Horror has much the same resilience. As terrifying as the world becomes, we still turn to imagined terrors to try and make sense of it. To quote another favorite entertainer, Neil Gaiman, “Fairy tales are more than true: Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Horror, descended from those tales, tells us about more monsters — and more strategies for beating them.

The banal evils of the world — children shot, neighbors exiled, selves reframed in an instant as inhuman threats — these are horrible, but they aren’t horror. Horror promises that the plot arc will fall after it rises. Horror spins everyday evil to show its fantastical face, literalizing its corroded heart into something more dramatic, something easier to imagine facing down. Horror helps us name the original sins out of which horrible things are born.

Some of my favorite horror stories are those in which real-world terrors grow gradually into something stranger. Mariana Enriquez, recently translated into English in Things We Lost in the Fire, writes a Buenos Aires in which poverty and pollution inevitably swell into risen corpses and sacrificial cults. Stephen King’s Carrie only destroys her town because abuse and bullying feed her frustrated teenage telekinesis. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” starts from the simple psychological claustrophobia of well-meaning relations and deep-rooted sexism.

All of which gives horror the opportunity to be radically empowering, and to condemn these evils in the starkest of terms. But it doesn’t always do so. In too many stories the Thing That Should Not Happen is simply someone violating the status quo, or outsiders existing visibly. H. P. Lovecraft is a prototypical example — his world-shattering deities are worshipped primarily by those without other means to power: immigrants, rural folk, dark-skinned people trying to summon dreadful entities. His monsters are closely entwined with mental illness and “miscegenation.” His works insist, again and again, that civilization depends on keeping such creatures out of both sight and mind. Nor is Lovecraft (conveniently dead and ostensibly “of his time”) the only one. How much modern horror still draws frissons of fear from disabled villains, or the threat of “madness,” or whatever Other happens to be convenient? How many can only imagine threats as violations of white-picket-fence comfort, overcome when the monster’s defeat allows a return to that comfort for those who had it in the first place?

While it’s tempting to write horror from the perspective of those most easily shocked — those in a position to believe the universe dispenses comfort evenly to all — the best modern work depicts terrors fit for those already intimate with fear. Mira Grant (a.k.a. Seanan McGuire) is brilliant at this. Her Newsflesh trilogy amplifies the perils of political journalism, mindful that authorities’ response to disaster can make the difference between zombie apocalypse and zombie inconvenience. Victor Lavalle, another favorite, finds ways to faze protagonists who already face segregation, police violence, and the cosmic indifference of everyday prejudice.

Horror as a genre is built around one truth: that the world is full of fearful things. But the best horror tells us more. It tells us how to live with being afraid. It tells us how to distinguish real evil from harmless shadows. It tells us how to fight back. It tells us that we can fight the worst evils, whether or not we all survive them — and how to be worthy of having our tales told afterward.

 

Editor’s Note:
Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series and co-writes Tor.com’s Lovecraft Reread. She lives in a mysterious manor house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. with her wife and their large, strange family. You can find her on Twitter as @r_emrys.

By RUTHANNA EMRYS, August 5, 2018, first appearing on Books : NPR

How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually.

Photo: Artwork by Ayatgali Tuleubek

In late November, the Justice Department unsealed indictments against eight people accused of fleecing advertisers of $36 million in two of the largest digital ad-fraud operations ever uncovered. Digital advertisers tend to want two things: people to look at their ads and “premium” websites — i.e., established and legitimate publications — on which to host them.

The two schemes at issue in the case, dubbed Methbot and 3ve by the security researchers who found them, faked both. Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist. Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.” Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.

The metrics are fake.

Take something as seemingly simple as how we measure web traffic. Metrics should be the most real thing on the internet: They are countable, trackable, and verifiable, and their existence undergirds the advertising business that drives our biggest social and search platforms. Yet not even Facebook, the world’s greatest data–gathering organization, seems able to produce genuine figures. In October, small advertisers filed suit against the social-media giant, accusing it of covering up, for a year, its significant overstatements of the time users spent watching videos on the platform (by 60 to 80 percent, Facebook says; by 150 to 900 percent, the plaintiffs say). According to an exhaustive list at MarketingLand, over the past two years Facebook has admitted to misreporting the reach of posts on Facebook Pages (in two different ways), the rate at which viewers complete ad videos, the average time spent reading its “Instant Articles,” the amount of referral traffic from Facebook to external websites, the number of views that videos received via Facebook’s mobile site, and the number of video views in Instant Articles.

Can we still trust the metrics? After the Inversion, what’s the point? Even when we put our faith in their accuracy, there’s something not quite real about them: My favorite statistic this year was Facebook’s claim that 75 million people watched at least a minute of Facebook Watch videos every day — though, as Facebook admitted, the 60 seconds in that one minute didn’t need to be watched consecutively. Real videos, real people, fake minutes.

The people are fake.

And maybe we shouldn’t even assume that the people are real. Over at YouTube, the business of buying and selling video views is “flourishing,” as the Times reminded readers with a lengthy investigation in August. The company says only “a tiny fraction” of its traffic is fake, but fake subscribers are enough of a problem that the site undertook a purge of “spam accounts” in mid-December. These days, the Times found, you can buy 5,000 YouTube views — 30 seconds of a video counts as a view — for as low as $15; oftentimes, customers are led to believe that the views they purchase come from real people. More likely, they come from bots. On some platforms, video views and app downloads can be forged in lucrative industrial counterfeiting operations. If you want a picture of what the Inversion looks like, find a video of a “click farm”: hundreds of individual smartphones, arranged in rows on shelves or racks in professional-looking offices, each watching the same video or downloading the same app.This is obviously not real human traffic. But what would real human traffic look like? The Inversion gives rise to some odd philosophical quandaries: If a Russian troll using a Brazilian man’s photograph to masquerade as an American Trump supporter watches a video on Facebook, is that view “real”? Not only do we have bots masquerading as humans and humans masquerading as other humans, but also sometimes humans masquerading as bots, pretending to be “artificial-intelligence personal assistants,” like Facebook’s “M,” in order to help tech companies appear to possess cutting-edge AI. We even have whatever CGI Instagram influencer Lil Miquela is: a fake human with a real body, a fake face, and real influence. Even humans who aren’t masquerading can contort themselves through layers of diminishing reality: The Atlantic reports that non-CGI human influencers are posting fake sponsored content — that is, content meant to look like content that is meant to look authentic, for free — to attract attention from brand reps, who, they hope, will pay them real money.

click farm

The businesses are fake.

The money is usually real. Not always — ask someone who enthusiastically got into cryptocurrency this time last year — but often enough to be an engine of the Inversion. If the money is real, why does anything else need to be? Earlier this year, the writer and artist Jenny Odell began to look into an Amazon reseller that had bought goods from other Amazon resellers and resold them, again on Amazon, at higher prices. Odell discovered an elaborate network of fake price-gouging and copyright-stealing businesses connected to the cultlike Evangelical church whose followers resurrected Newsweek in 2013 as a zombie search-engine-optimized spam farm. She visited a strange bookstore operated by the resellers in San Francisco and found a stunted concrete reproduction of the dazzlingly phony storefronts she’d encountered on Amazon, arranged haphazardly with best-selling books, plastic tchotchkes, and beauty products apparently bought from wholesalers. “At some point I began to feel like I was in a dream,” she wrote. “Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.”

The content is fake.

The only site that gives me that dizzying sensation of unreality as often as Amazon does is YouTube, which plays host to weeks’ worth of inverted, inhuman content. TV episodes that have been mirror-flipped to avoid copyright takedowns air next to huckster vloggers flogging merch who air next to anonymously produced videos that are ostensibly for children. An animated video of Spider-Man and Elsa from Frozen riding tractors is not, you know, not real: Some poor soul animated it and gave voice to its actors, and I have no doubt that some number (dozens? Hundreds? Millions? Sure, why not?) of kids have sat and watched it and found some mystifying, occult enjoyment in it. But it’s certainly not “official,” and it’s hard, watching it onscreen as an adult, to understand where it came from and what it means that the view count beneath it is continually ticking up.

These, at least, are mostly bootleg videos of popular fictional characters, i.e., counterfeit unreality. Counterfeit reality is still more difficult to find—for now. In January 2018, an anonymous Redditor created a relatively easy-to-use desktop-app implementation of “deepfakes,” the now-infamous technology that uses artificial-intelligence image processing to replace one face in a video with another — putting, say, a politician’s over a porn star’s. A recent academic paper from researchers at the graphics-card company Nvidia demonstrates a similar technique used to create images of computer-generated “human” faces that look shockingly like photographs of real people. (Next time Russians want to puppeteer a group of invented Americans on Facebook, they won’t even need to steal photos of real people.) Contrary to what you might expect, a world suffused with deepfakes and other artificially generated photographic images won’t be one in which “fake” images are routinely believed to be real, but one in which “real” images are routinely believed to be fake — simply because, in the wake of the Inversion, who’ll be able to tell the difference?

Our politics are fake.

Such a loss of any anchoring “reality” only makes us pine for it more. Our politics have been inverted along with everything else, suffused with a Gnostic sense that we’re being scammed and defrauded and lied to but that a “real truth” still lurks somewhere. Adolescents are deeply engaged by YouTube videos that promise to show the hard reality beneath the “scams” of feminism and diversity — a process they call “red-pilling” after the scene in The Matrix when the computer simulation falls away and reality appears. Political arguments now involve trading accusations of “virtue signaling” — the idea that liberals are faking their politics for social reward — against charges of being Russian bots. The only thing anyone can agree on is that everyone online is lying and fake.

We ourselves are fake.

Which, well. Everywhere I went online this year, I was asked to prove I’m a human. Can you retype this distorted word? Can you transcribe this house number? Can you select the images that contain a motorcycle? I found myself prostrate daily at the feet of robot bouncers, frantically showing off my highly developed pattern-matching skills — does a Vespa count as a motorcycle, even? — so I could get into nightclubs I’m not even sure I want to enter. Once inside, I was directed by dopamine-feedback loops to scroll well past any healthy point, manipulated by emotionally charged headlines and posts to click on things I didn’t care about, and harried and hectored and sweet-talked into arguments and purchases and relationships so algorithmically determined it was hard to describe them as real.

Where does that leave us? I’m not sure the solution is to seek out some pre-Inversion authenticity — to red-pill ourselves back to “reality.” What’s gone from the internet, after all, isn’t “truth,” but trust: the sense that the people and things we encounter are what they represent themselves to be. Years of metrics-driven growth, lucrative manipulative systems, and unregulated platform marketplaces, have created an environment where it makes more sense to be fake online — to be disingenuous and cynical, to lie and cheat, to misrepresent and distort — than it does to be real. Fixing that would require cultural and political reform in Silicon Valley and around the world, but it’s our only choice. Otherwise we’ll all end up on the bot internet of fake people, fake clicks, fake sites, and fake computers, where the only real thing is the ads.

 

By , December 26, 2018, first appearing on New York Magazine: Intelligencer