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Here's a quick overview of "documentaries" to watch before, during and after a pandemic:
The Andromeda Strain film: An early Michael Crichton adaptation which came before the Westworld film and series and the Jurassic Park film series. Like many Michael Crichton stories, factual science is extended with credible speculation. In this case, a prion-like infection has killed almost everyone in a village and the survivors are seemingly unrelated. The film is best known for its cartoonish but very photogenic indoor set which serves as the backdrop of a Level 4 Biolab. Such eloborate sets were common in the era. (Other examples include Rollerball and disaster parody/Airplane predecessor, The Big Bus.) The film features concurrent action which was a common experimental film technique in the 1960s but, nowadays, is most commonly associated with Kiefer Sutherland in the 24 series. There is also a lesser-known mini-series.
Outbreak: A rather dull film which nevertheless provides a graphic portrayal of uncontained pandemic and towns being quarantined. It would be marginally improved if the antagonists were re-cast. Possible source material for DeepFaking.
The Resident Evil film series: These films considerably advanced the tropes of amoral corporation, rogue artificial intelligence as antagonist, reality within reality, experimentation without informed consent and the horror of a medicalized vampire/zombie rabies virus. The Red Queen versus White Queen subplot dovetails with Alice in Wonderland, prey versus predator evolution and Umbrella Corp's red and white logo which - in a case of life mirroring art - was copied by Wuhan's Level 4 Biolab. Many people prefer the competent and detailed Resident Evil series of computer games which are arguably better than the Half Life series or the SCP game.
28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, 28 Months Later: Gritty films which borrow liberally from Resident Evil and a rich seam of British, Cold War, post-apocalyptic drama, such as Survivors. The most iconic scenes of the film - Central London without people - weren't composited or closed for filming. They were merely shot at dawn, on a Sunday morning, around the summer solstice. The first film may have influenced Black Mirror episodes: The National Anthem and White Bear.
World War Z: If Dan Brown wrote zombie stories, they'd be like World War Z. Brad Pitt's character dashes to a number of exotic locations and is swept up by events such as panic buying and stampedes from an unspecified infection which has an incubation period of about 20 seconds. (A duration which appears to have been chosen to maximize tension while staying within the one minute beat sheet of the Hero's Journey monomyth.) It builds upon the zombie mythology of Resident Evil and 28 Day Later. However, it is undermined by cheap grading, cheap compositing and reliance on flocking software.
Contagion: I haven't seen this one. It may or may not involve Gwyneth Paltrow, Harvey Weinstein, an Oscars acceptance speech, Seth MacFarlane and a vaginal steamer. Well, it probably relieves the itching of genital herpes.
Cloverfield 1, 2, 3 and 4: Found footage genre which is heavily influenced by the Blair Witch Project (obviously), Godzilla films, The Day the Earth Stood Still, any B-movie with a military Jeep and medicalized zombie films. The first film has fantastic compositing which may be of particular interest to anyone working on an augmented reality horror game.
Bad Taste: Peter Jackson's first commercial film. It was almost unfinished due to the ridiculous ending which blatently copies from a film which - to prevent spoiler - I won't mention. A particularly low budget effect was used for gun flash. Specifically, the original 16mm footage was poked with a pin. Regardless, if you've seen the carnage of Peter Jackson's orc battles then you may be curious to see the carnage of Peter Jackson's zombie fights. Additionally, Bad Taste works particularly well as a drinking game.
George A. Romero and John A. Russo films: These classics brought zombies out of a largely undifferentiated mess of vampire/mummy/voodoo/swamp monster B-movies. Unfortunately, they have been overshadowed by escalating gore and violence. This leave each classic looking more like an extended episode of the A-Team.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Anything is more exciting with zombies and Jane Austen's dull novel certainly benefits. This wilfully inaccurate historical drama, a genre shared with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Snow White and the Seven Samurai, features square dancing and blunderbuss zombie carnage.
Any better suggestions out there?
Physicist and Linux geek Igor Ljubuncic has posted a detailed game review for Euro Truck Simulator 2. He includes lots of screen shots and descriptions of game dynamics.
I have to admit, when I first heard about a game that is essentially a truck simulator, my first reaction was, what the hell? Why would anyone bother developing - let alone playing - a game where you lug heavy workloads across Europe at moderate speeds, snail-pace acceleration, and with long, boring slogs of roads between your source and destination? Ah, little did I know how crazy and addictive this idea was.
[...] Euro Truck Simulator 2 is a fantastic game. I'm so happy to have found it - and decided to play, as I had it in my arsenal for a year or two. It's got everything - a need for speed, a need for skill, drama, tension, you actually care, and the devilishly simple premise turns out to be full of twists and turns - literally.
This title blends strategy and simulation in a unique fashion. Some games manage to pull this off, but most either focus too much on one or the other. Yet, somehow, the seemingly most boring concept that could be has been designed into a thrilling, captivating game. Really splendid. I hear there's also American Truck Simulator. Well, you know what that means. A real convoy!
He does not cover acquiring and installing the game which happens via Steam, with the advantages and disadvantages that brings.
Discuss Fiasco by Stanisław Lem in the comments below. If you have any book suggestions for the upcoming poll, feel free to add those.
Dennis E. Taylor is a Canadian novelist and former computer programmer known for his large scale hard science fiction stories exploring the interaction between artificial intelligence and the human condition.
While working at his day job as a computer programmer, Taylor self published his first novel and began working with an agent to try and publish his second novel We Are Legion. However Taylor still had difficultly getting any publishing house to take on his work, eventually publishing it through his agent's in-house publishing arm. An audiobook rights deal with Audible was also reached and once recorded, We Are Legion became one of the most popular audiobooks on the service and was awarded Best Science Fiction Audiobook of the year.
[...] In October 2018 Taylor was added to the X-Prize Foundation Science Fiction Advisory Council as a "Visionary Storyteller". This group of accomplished science fiction authors help advise the X-Prize team on envisioning the future.
March: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse #1) by Dennis Taylor
Discuss The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein in the comments below.
Fiasco was translated into English in 1988 by Michael Kandel:
Fiasco (Polish: Fiasko) is a science fiction novel by Polish author Stanisław Lem, first published in a German translation in 1986. The book, published in Poland the following year, is a further elaboration of Lem's skepticism: in Lem's opinion, the difficulty in communication with alien civilizations is cultural disparity rather than spatial distance. The failure to communicate with an alien civilization is the main theme of the book.
February: Fiasco by Stanisław Lem
March: We Are Legion (We Are Bob) (Bobiverse #1) by Dennis Taylor
Discuss Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson in the comments below.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein was published in 1966:
The book popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL ("There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch"), and helped popularize the constructed language Loglan, which is used in the story for precise human-computer interaction. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations credits this novel with the first printed appearance of the phrase "There's no free lunch", although the phrase and its abbreviation considerably predate the novel.
The virtual assistant Mycroft is named after a computer system from the novel.
December: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
The next poll will pick two books. I'd like to do it that way to keep a strong second place contender from being overlooked, and so I don't have to update the poll so often.
Discuss The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin in the comments below.
Snow Crash was written by Neal Stephenson in 1992. The novel features a bit of a Calexit scenario, and is known for popularizing the term "avatar" (paving the way for James Cameron's true magnum opus). These days, Neal moonlights as Magic Leap's "Chief Futurist". Seems appropriate.
Disclaimer: This post does not reflect the views or policies of SoylentNews Public Benefit Corporation (SN PBC), its staff, or my role as president. The opinions and statements within are my own, Michael Casadevall, and neither I nor SN PBC were financially compensated for this post.
There are times in life where you simply don't know where you will end up. For me, a chance encounter in Puerto Rico lead to a rather interesting series of events. I have spent the previous week (October 20th-26th) attending the ICANN 63rd International Public Meeting. For those who aren't familiar with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), it is essentially the not-for-profit organization that administrates the Internet root zone which forms the linchpin of the modern internet, and allows domain names such as soylentnews.org to exist.
As a fellow, I have been working to help advance policy from the perspective of Internet end-users, as well as improving access to the Internet in the form of Internationalized Domain Names. For those less familiar with the technical underpinnings of the Internet, I'll also talk a bit about DNS, and more of the work I am currently in the process of handling at ICANN.
In This Issue
Read more past the fold ...
DNS - What is it?
Before we can talk about ICANN in any fashion, we need to talk a bit about the Domain Name System, or DNS. Every computer on the internet is assigned one or more numbers known as IP addresses. IP addresses take the form of 184.108.40.206 or 2600:3c00::f03c:91ff:fe98:90b, and are used as ways of uniquely identifying every device. Every site and service has an IP address, as does your phone and computer to allow two way communication; they can be best thought of telephone numbers for computers.
Just like phone numbers, there needs to be a method to look up information based on name. In the days of old, we would use the Yellow Pages for this type of information. For computers, our version of the yellow pages is DNS, specifically what we call A and AAAA records. For example, here are two types of lookup requests for SoylentNews:
$ nslookup > server 220.127.116.11 Default server: 18.104.22.168 Address: 22.214.171.124#53 > soylentnews.org Server: 126.96.36.199 Address: 188.8.131.52#53 Non-authoritative answer: Name: soylentnews.org Address: 184.108.40.206 Name: soylentnews.org Address: 2600:3c00::f03c:91ff:fe98:90b
Besides basic name lookup information, DNS often contains information such as mail routing in the form of MX records, or even user authentication data in the form of Hesiod TXT records. It would be fair to call DNS the worlds largest distributed dynamic database. At its core, DNS is comprised of a network of worldwide servers that provide name lookup services from the internet, starting from the root of a tree.
The Internet Root Zone, Top Level Domains, and Second Level Domains
When I said root of a tree, I wasn't being very metaphorical. Let's look a little closer at an actual domain name, and break it down into its component parts, in this case, our development site at dev.soylentnews.org. For the purposes of demonstration, we'll walk the domain from the top down. Each section of a domain name is divided into levels separated by a period. So dev is a third level domain, soylentnews is a second level domain, and org is a top level domain.
Likewise, each of these levels points to the one higher than it. Let's ask the soylentnews domain about dev; our hosting provider (and DNS servers) are hosted by Linode so we'll query them directly.
$ nslookup > server ns1.linode.com Default server: ns1.linode.com Address: 2400:cb00:2049:1::a29f:1a63#53 Default server: ns1.linode.com Address: 220.127.116.11#53 > dev.soylentnews.org Server: ns1.linode.com Address: 2400:cb00:2049:1::a29f:1a63#53 Name: dev.soylentnews.org Address: 18.104.22.168 Name: dev.soylentnews.org Address: 2600:3c00::f03c:91ff:fe6e:d0a3
Notice that the "Non-authoritative answer" is missing. This is because soylentnews.org directly controls the level above it. We can see the same effect if we query the .org nameservers for SoylentNews; note that we need to ask for the NS record type which acts as a pointer to the next level of domain.
$ nslookup > server a0.org.afilias-nst.info. [...] > set type=ns > soylentnews.org [...] Authoritative answers can be found from: soylentnews.org nameserver = ns1.linode.com. soylentnews.org nameserver = ns3.linode.com. soylentnews.org nameserver = ns2.linode.com. soylentnews.org nameserver = ns4.linode.com. soylentnews.org nameserver = ns5.linode.com.
Cool! We can see the five nameservers that have authoritative data for soylentnews.org. But how did I find the nameserver for .org? Well, I queried the internet root zone for it.
nslookup > server a.root-servers.net Default server: a.root-servers.net Address: 2001:503:ba3e::2:30#53 Default server: a.root-servers.net Address: 22.214.171.124#53 > set type=ns > org Server: a.root-servers.net Address: 2001:503:ba3e::2:30#53 Non-authoritative answer: *** Can't find org: No answer Authoritative answers can be found from: org nameserver = a0.org.afilias-nst.info. org nameserver = a2.org.afilias-nst.info. org nameserver = b0.org.afilias-nst.org. org nameserver = b2.org.afilias-nst.org. org nameserver = c0.org.afilias-nst.info. org nameserver = d0.org.afilias-nst.org. a0.org.afilias-nst.info internet address = 126.96.36.199 a2.org.afilias-nst.info internet address = 188.8.131.52 b0.org.afilias-nst.org internet address = 184.108.40.206 b2.org.afilias-nst.org internet address = 220.127.116.11 c0.org.afilias-nst.info internet address = 18.104.22.168 d0.org.afilias-nst.org internet address = 22.214.171.124 a0.org.afilias-nst.info has AAAA address 2001:500:e::1 a2.org.afilias-nst.info has AAAA address 2001:500:40::1 b0.org.afilias-nst.org has AAAA address 2001:500:c::1 b2.org.afilias-nst.org has AAAA address 2001:500:48::1 c0.org.afilias-nst.info has AAAA address 2001:500:b::1 d0.org.afilias-nst.org has AAAA address 2001:500:f::1
The root zone contains all information on all the top level domains, as well as the special KSK (Key Signing Keys) keys that underpin the DNSSEC system. In domain names, the root zone is represented as a final '.' at the end of the domain which is typically implied although there are rare technical reasons where it has to be referred to directly. Now that we've discussed and slightly explored the root zone, let's talk about the organization that administrates it, and the policy and rules related to the root, and the top-level domains referenced within.
What is ICANN?
The full history of ICANN is too long to recap here, but in short, ICANN is a multi-stakeholder community that represents various stakeholder groups and their interests and needs. In no specific order, these groups are as follows:
That's a LOT of acronyms, groups, and organizations, and this isn't even a complete list. Each of these groups (known as stakeholders) are essentially cross-sections of all internet users and work to drive policy that meet the goals of their interests and charters. Other groups primarily act in an advisory role such as SSAC in evaluating impact of policy changes to the ICANN board. ICANN stakeholder groups create working groups (many of which are open to the public) to accomplish goals and draft policy, respond to public policy comments, and create a final report. These are then followed by implementation.
As you can plainly see, ICANN is a massive multi-headed hydra that at first is not the most user-friendly beast to approach. At least from my perspective, getting involved was rather difficult. For this purpose, ICANN offers two programs to help get people involved: a fellowship program to bring both those with diversity or unique skills in and the NextGen program. I can't speak on NextGen, but I can speak to the fellowship program, and my personal story in how I both got involved and the topics and work I was involved in at ICANN63.
ICANN Fellowship Program
To talk about my experience as a fellow, we need to go back to February 2018 when I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico, visiting with a friend. While I was there, I saw large banners with the ICANN name and logo and some sort of conference. While I did not know the specifics at the time, what I was seeing was the ICANN61 General Policy Forum. As such, I walked in off the street, registered for a badge, and sat down at a high level meeting regarding an issue known as name collision hosted by the SSAC. This, and a few other meetings convinced me that becoming involved with ICANN was something I was personally interested in.
Unfortunately, getting your foot in the door with ICANN from the outside is something of a tall order. To help solve this problem, ICANN offers a fellowship program to help bring both diversity and talent within the community. As such, I was selected to attend ICANN63 on the basis of my position as an independent freelancer combined with strong technical skills. The fellowship program, currently managed by Siranush Vardanyan, is meant to help bring people into the ICANN community and guide them into position and niches where their skillsets can help. Many within ICANN bring technical, legal, policy, and activism talents to the table, and it is an extremely inclusive community to say the least. As was oft-repeated, 'Once a fellow, always a fellow'. Through the fellowship program, I was assigned a coach, Alfredo Calderon who helped me get involved with the gTLD working groups, and help decode the maze that I described above.
The intent of the fellowship is to prepare those to attend a face-to-face meeting (in this case, ICANN63), and help the fellow become active within the ICANN community. In my case, I managed to hit the ground running as in the intervening months between ICANN61 and 63, I had gotten involved with the Internet Society, and several working groups within the IETF (albeit it on a semi-active basis). That combined with closely following the news allowed me to be productive from the start. What follows are issues that I was primarily involved with — it doesn't cover some of the larger discussions such as the GDPR/WHOIS policy development sessions.
New Generic Top Level Domains (gTLD)
Generic top level domains are generally the most common type of TLD most people encounter, comprising .com, .net, .org, etc. compared to the two letter country code TLDs (ccTLDs) such as .us or .io. Back in 2005, ICANN began developing policies to allow for the creation of new gTLDs, and in 2013, these new gTLDs began being added to the root zone as part of the New gTLD Program. Since the initial land rush and additions, ICANN has been developing new rules relating to this process in the form of the New gTLD Subsequent Procedures PDP (Policy Development Process) working group (known as the SubPro), which I'm a member of. I've primarily worked to ensure that not for profit and smaller communities can't be outbid or driven out of the process of obtaining their own gTLDs.
Expansion of the generic TLDs help relieve strain on the already crowded .com/.org/.net registries and pave the way for full internationalization of the internet (a topic I'll cover below). While there have those who've felt that expanding gTLDs was a mistake, the ability to have domains such as .nyc for sites relating to New York City has shown that the new gTLD program has real world benefits that we're already experiencing today. However, creating and expanding gTLDs also has opened a paradox's box of sorts which involves the SubPro, specifically in the the realm of string contention and name collisions.
String Contention and Name Collisions
In a perfect world, everyone would have one unique name and registering a new gTLD would be an easy and straightforward process. Unfortunately, we don't live in that sort of world; we live in a world where the Government of Brazil, and Amazon both want the .amazon TLD. This is what's known as a string contention; when multiple parties want the same domain string, and part of my work within the SubPro is building and designing mechanisms for handling contentions, as well as a last resort process which is fair for all parties. In the last round of gTLD additions, many string contentions were solved either by private party, or through a last resort auction process. At the direction of the ICANN board, the SubPro has been reviewing the results of this last round, ensuring that all actors, especially smaller community-based ones have an equal chance of being given a gTLD, and making sure no one can be strong-armed out of the process. I (and others within the SubPro) have been working on creating and streamlining the new gTLD process, and making sure that no single party can monopolize a string by simply outspending everyone. Of course, social issues aren't the only hangup when creating a new top-level domain; you can have a name collision.
Name collisions are a closely related problem dealing with the technical issues of what happens when you add a name to the root zone that's already in use in other contexts. For example, the Tor network could be entirely shafted if .onion was added to the root zone as it's used as a pseudo-TLD. Unfortunately, because of literally decades of bad practice, poor device coding, and similar historical artifacts, it means that the root zones get thousands of requests per second for bogus top level domains. As part of adding any new TLD, a review is done to determine the technical impact — research by SSAC into the name collision issue as a whole is ongoing. While I'm not personally involved in this work as of yet, I am interested in joining it in the near future
Internationalized Domain Names (IDN)
Last, but not least, the final major activity I worked on was discussions related to the internationalization of domain names, and email address internationalization (EAI) with the goal of making ensuring the web is available for everyone. Due to the fact that DNS was designed in 1987, it was never designed with internationalization in mind and has required some arcane hacks to make it work. Let's take the string тест which is Russian for test; it displays properly because we support UTF-8. However, DNS was never designed to work with 8-bit characters. Instead, a system was created known as punycode. This system represents unicode in ASCII in a method that DNS can handle; so the domain тест.example becomes xn--e1aybc.example which can be handled by existing tools.
This however creates a disconnect between the displayed name (known as the U-label) and the ASCII representation (A-label) of a domain name, which is known to break software that either renders domain names, or in the cases of email, must amend information to its log files. It also leads to issues with SSL certificates, and other confusion within the ecosystem due to poor support. While IDNs have been around for awhile, new codepoints including right-to-left ones are being added that require more testing and development. I've started one of two projects to help study and test IDNs, and an active participant of the Universal Acceptance mailing lists on the subject.
dnscatcher and idn-root-zone
As part of the meetings and other work, I've started work on two projects to help raise awareness and study ongoing problems with the world of DNS by creating tools to help monitor the health of the ecosystem as a whole. The first of these is a project that I'm tentatively calling DNS Catcher, and its intent is to study the perspective of the domain name system from the viewpoint of the end user.
As we know from study from data related to authoritative name servers, and the root zone, a lot of recursive revolvers and end-user devices send bogus data, such as catching all missing domains with a wildcard, or sending bogus requests to the root. DNS Catcher is an attempt to quantify the problem from the last mile and understand what data devices are sending out. While it's still in very early proof of concept, the catcher's end goal is to compare known good authorize zone data to data collected from various locations such as public access points and more so as to identify bad actors within the DNS community. It's still in the early pre-alpha stage, but my initial coding efforts have left me optimistic I may have an alpha version ready to go by the end of the year which will be subject to its own blog post.
The other is what I'm calling tentatively calling Root Zone in a Box, a series of shell scripts, instructions and docker containers to automatically recreate a simulation of the DNS root zone, and other core internet functionality to allow testing of potential changes to DNS, as well as help study and debug various issues related to Internationalized Domain Names. Compared to dnscatacher, I've gotten further on this project as it's somewhat higher priority. While likely not of interest to most as of yet, RZiaB is basically designed to help validate and ensure that internationalized domain names and email address internationalization works smoothly and that issues can be quickly identified and fixed using an easy-to-host environment that can be quickly set up.
I'll likely talk more of these projects in separate posts at later dates, but I invite people to comment and review my work.
Other Odds and Ends
As with any conference, there was various interesting conversations, discussions, and round tables that you really don't experience in a purely electronic environment. One of these (which was the direct inspiration for DNS catcher) was discussing why some devices send bogus data (in the form of random hex strings) to the internet root zone. I postulated that the answer was it was the one more-or-less sure fire way to know if you have anyone tampering with your DNS data such as captive portals, restrictive firewalls, or ISPs who don't like to return NXDomain.
Another big part are social dinners and gatherings. One personal highlight is I also had a fairly decent conversation with the appointed representative to the GAC from the Holy See, dealing with domain name issues relating to the Vatican. We primarily talked about working at the Vatican, the papacy's interest in ICANN, and life within the city. As far as unique individuals go, this easily makes a spot on my top ten list!
Although my time in Barcelona has come to an end, my involvement within ICANN is higher than ever. We're doing strong work to try and keep the internet open and accessible to all, and we're always looking for anyone with an interest to get involved. The Fellowship experience helped me connect with individuals that let me reach my personal goals of working on the SubPro, as well as connected me to the IDN working group folks in a way that I hope to pave a new cornerstone of the internet for non-English speaking individuals. There's a lot of work ahead, but I can say with certainty that my work with ICANN will continue, and I look forward to what the future will hold. If you're interested in my projects, comment below, or follow me on Twitter: @fossfirefighter where I post about my work on DNS catcher, RZiaB, and other things that don't make SoylentNews... like a retroBBS hacking project.
If You Want To Get Involved
If what you've read interests you, and you want to get involved in ICANN yourself, a good starting place is the alac-announce mailing list which posts which working groups are in progress, have meetings, and other good information, as well as joining your regional At-Large community. Most working groups (WGs) don't require membership in a stakeholder group, so you can just dive in; you're simply expected to familiarize yourself with the WG's previous history up to that point for the most part. There is also a set of learning resources at learn.icann.org, and I'm happy to take questions here or on Twitter.
Before signing off, I want to personally thank several individuals who helped me get here. First, Alfredo Calderon, my ICANN coach and Siranush Vardanyan, manager of the fellowship program. Both were very understanding and helpful with some personal difficulties I ran into during the fellowship program and both of them contributed greatly to a successful face-to-face meeting. Next, I'd like to thank Martin Pablo Silva, who continuously encouraged me to apply for the Fellowship, and helped make sure my application was in tip-top shape, and last, but not least, Dina Solveig Jalkanen (who prefers to go by Thomas), who introduced me to ICANN and is a close personal friend and who is was instrumental in making this possible.
Until the next time ...
73 de NCommander
November: The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin.
December: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
A poll for the January 2019 book will be around the 15th, unless you want it sooner (not sooner than the U.S. midterms).
Discuss Foundation by Isaac Asimov in the comments below.
As for Liu Cixin's best known novel:
"Wildly imaginative, really interesting." ―President Barack Obama on The Three-Body Problem trilogy
The English translation for The Three-Body Problem was published in 2014 by Ken Liu under Tor Books.
Consider using <spoiler>text</spoiler> wherever you feel the need to do so.
Imagine that in the future you can rent time machines just as easily as you can rent a car. Paradoxes are nicely sidestepped, and you even get the handy pamphlet "1001 Fun Ways to kill Hitler". Sounds great, right? Suppose that time machine breaks down. Turns out it's easier to re-invent civilization than it is to fix said machine, and that's what this book purports to do.
This book is chock full of tidbits, like this on buttons. People wore buttons for thousands of years as ornaments. It was only fairly recently someone realized they could hold clothes closed. This is disgraceful and embarrassing. You can do better.
Scalzi's page describes this book much better than I can. Need to know which animals to domesticate? Covered. Foods to cultivate? Covered. Crop rotation? Compass? Non-sucky numbers? Forge? Birth Control? Logic? Chemistry? Steel? check, check, check, check, ...., check.
This is not a textbook, there is no math, and minimal theory on why things work. It's focused on why and how, not "how does it work?".
I got my copy from the library and, after an hour or two, ordered my own copy from Amazon. I'm sure my fellow Soylenters will also love this book.
What if Earth was an unusually volcanic and hostile planet? What if an unusually bright sun and unusually high gravity made humans unusually compact and strong? What if religion kept humans sane and striving in such a hostile environment? What if apex predators were the exception rather than the norm? What if 30,000 alien abductees had been taken for medical research and the Interspecies Dominion had no qualms with indigenous flora and fauna (and especially meat-eating fauna) being taken in this manner? These are not new ideas but rarely have they been expounded so thoroughly.
The Jenkinsverse begins with Kevin Jenkins caught in a bureaucratic trap. The Canadian barman with a prominent crucifix tattoo was abducted by Alien Grays, forcibly given an experimental translator implant and dumped at an interstellar trading post. He is unable to assert citizenship, get a job or go home. Where is Earth, anyhow? Many bureaucratic systems refuse to register sentient life from a planet similar to Earth and some bureaucrats think he's a liar. After being pushed around for six months, he saves numerous lives when marauding cannibal spiders attack a space-station. He becomes famous throughout the galaxy - although he is deemed insane after he mentions religion.
The warrior cannibals are not pleased with defeat. An advance party attacks Earth. They foolishly decide to attack a televised ice hockey game in Vancouver. They are quickly beaten to pulp with ice hockey sticks. Many humans think that the event was a hoax to gain television ratings. The alien technology recovered from the attack leads to the formation of SCERF [Scotch Creek Extra-terrestrial Research Facility] in Canada. A Private Investigator, Kevin Jenkins and a bunch of other abductees descend on the facility (much like Close Encounters Of The 22nd Kind). They arrive with a sketched catalog of alien species and it is promptly leaked on the Internet. Despite this, Kevin Jenkins gets a job running SCERF's café and bar where his input to casual conversations is pivotal. The Private Investigator encounters misfortune - and so does the police officer investigating the Private Investigator.
The police officer wants a fresh start and this allows the reader to follow one of humanity's first colonies. The police officer is assigned a small hut in a small settlement. He sees the first school, the first church, the first park, the first restaurant, the first gymnasium, and eventually the settlement develops into multiple cities with major agricultural exports to the galaxy. This may be quite enjoyable for anyone who likes computer games such as Settlers, Civilization or SimCity. Due to a personality quirk of a minor character, the main city is called Folctha - which is Irish Gaelic for bath-tub.
A clever device is used to keep the story in the immediate future. Specifically, all dates are given as years, months and days AV [After Vancouver]. So, for example, a scene may be set 1y2m3d AV and some are set in Folctha, Planet Cimbrean, The Far Reaches. The story is written in chapters from 2,000 to 180,000 words (sometimes split into five or more pieces), is heavy with dialog and often switches focus at pivotal moments. It is normally in a style similar to a soap opera but often makes interesting observations, such as the difference between investigative journalism and clickbait churnalism. However, the story may also follow one character for 50,000 words or describe a battle in detail.
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This space opera has a large cast. Each region of the galaxy has a loose federation of species. Each major species has multiple planets. Each planet is held by a differing mix of species and political factions. (Given that herd species are common, interplanetary politics often resembles a stampede.) Each political faction has one or more representative characters. For humans, the factions are a mix private consortia and military alliances. (Ceres is run by an asteroid mining consortium. Folctha is nominally British but the local garrison is staffed by AEC [Allied Extra-solar Command], presumably based upon AAC, ALC and AMC.) The sorta dog/bear/raccoon ambush predators are feudal. The unified Clan Of Females mostly live in communes and mostly maintain a selective breeding program. There is also Clan StoneBack (logistics and civil engineering), Clan WhiteCrest (officers), Clan FireFang (fighter pilots), Clan LongEar (tele-communications), Clan StraightShield (justice), Clan GoldPaw (merchants), Clan StarMind (priests) and numerous other clans and clanless who live in communes.
The Alien Grays sometimes appear as comic relief, sometimes as antagonists and sometimes advance the plot with a MacGuffin. While the Grays are motivated by fame, fortune and flashy research with a quick pay-off, the plodding sorta mammoth species of the Guvnuragnaguvendrugun Confederacy spends decades or centuries working through the details. As expected from fiction which is similar to Babylon5 or StarWars, there are numerous species and individuals with dubious motives. However, the characters are excellent.
There is Jennifer Delaney (formerly IT support in Dublin, currently self-styled space-babe pirate queen), Adrian Saunders (former Australian soldier, currently "The Human Disaster"), Kevin Jenkins (barman and bagman), Drew Cavendish and Drew Martin (spacesuit designers), Moses Byron (billionaire rocketeer), Adam Arès, Legsy and Owen Powell (commanding officers of the space marines and their oft forgotten technicians), Admiral Knight, Captain Bathini (wears turban, drinks tea), Ava Ríos (Mary Sue, chaos monkey and occasional journalist), Julian Etsicitty (part Native American wilderness expert shamelessly modelled on The Mighty Buzzard), Allison Buehler (Mormon runaway), Xìu Chang (Chinese-Canadian linguistic expert, martial artist, dancer and aspiring actress), Wei Chang (3D printing expert), Amir (pilot and devout Muslim who has difficulty facing Mecca to pray until he gets a Mecca-detector), Lewis (geek), Zane (megalomaniac), Krrkktnkk A'ktnnzzik'tk and Vedregnegnug (alien bureaucrats with names that will trip any text-to-speech system), Daar (big oaf from Clan StoneBack), Ragaari (Clan WhiteCrest), Gyotin (Clan StarMind), Mark Tisdale and Hayley Tisdale (hippy scientists), Vemik ("Cavemonkey scientist"), Yan (tribal chief), the Alpha Of Alphas (warlord), the Alpha Of The Brood That Builds (geek) and at least as many more.
The serialized story is currently 1.5 million words (excluding the non-canon fan fiction) and is currently increasing by more than 30,000 words per month. Installments are published monthly or slightly more frequently. This fiction has been ongoing for about five years and the plot has advanced by more than 15 years. Therefore, senior characters retire, junior characters get promotion, children become adults and new characters are born. Despite the wide cast, the sheer volume of words creates an emotional investment and it can hit hard when a character is suddenly killed. This can realistically happen to any character at any time. One of the funerals has made me cry on at least four occasions. It was more emotional than StarTrek 2: The Wrath Of Khan or StarTrek Continues, Episode 1: Pilgrim Of Eternity. However, within 500 words, I had cause to openly laugh. Indeed, the story is such that it is common to cry then laugh.
Although it is not strictly a military saga, more than 20% of the writing depicts the space marines and some of the action is quite intense. This includes Operation Nova Hound, Operation Empty Bell, Dark Eye and multiple reconnaissance and extraction operations. For anyone who plays GURPS table-top rôle playing, Hello Kitty 40K or similar, there is plenty of source material for a campaign. It is also gratifying to see the technology advance over the 15 years (so far) of the story. As much as possible, a 900,000kg salvaged vessel is stripped of untrusted "alien space magic", fitted with keel and hatches to space navy standards, fitted with triple redundant 0.5GW fusion reactors (don't dare imitate Doc Brown and say "One point twenty one jigawatts!!!"), bus-bars to super-capacitors (reverse engineered by SCERF) and 90% efficient solid state inertial drives. In a burst, it can accelerate to 3g while dumping 3GW of heat. On a smaller scale, an EM rifle with 90 DU rounds per clip has a RS-485 bus on the Picatinny rail integrated with the suit HUD. There's also an RFG which is not to be confused with a VLM or a BFG.
A quirk of the Jenkinsverse is that the primary author was initially unaware of its success. Therefore, multiple story-lines gained considerably more chapters before characters were brought wholesale into the main spine of the story. Additionally, the primary author has written a prequel, looped off repeatedly and maintains a secondary story-line. Contemporary serialized fiction is decidedly collaborative and non-linear.
The final three chapters of the eight chapter prequel are quite amusing. The five chapter fan fiction, Wounded Rabbit, is particularly good and made me cry. Similar fan fiction covers the daily life of a human adopted by aliens. In addition to difficulty with language and cuisine, attempts to teach self defence are hindered by differing proportions.
I ignored the recommended reading order and read through the main spine of the story skipping parts required for continuity with fan fiction. This works very well with the exception that a batch of additional characters are introduced in Chapter 19. It is otherwise the most effective method to see improvements in writing quality. This is notably more flowing and candid every 10 chapters or so. From Chapter 20 or so, adult themes are covered. Swearing occurs from Chapter Zero and gets significantly more prolific from Chapter 12. Military characters swear like troopers but this is typically with British regional accents. "Well, fook me" is a typical example.
Adjusting for inflation, the primary author, Hambone3110, earns less money per word than a 1950s science fiction author. However, the author does not write to length and is certainly not restricted by it. Donations (per chapter) are almost US$3,600 and this is likely to grow considerably. Multiple levels of sponsorship are available up to and including product placement and naming characters.
DeathWorlders has a mix of gung-ho abandon, peril and consequences which is preferable to much commercial output. The major downside is the time required to read 1.5 million words. (It took me three months to get to Chapter 48 while doing graphic design.) A reader may incur increased swearing and a general feeling of invincibility which could be dangerous in some circumstances. However, before DeathWorlders obtained its own website, much of the work was placed in a section of Reddit.Com called Humans, F*ck Yeah which is an invigorating mix of factual and fictional accounts of people overcoming adversity. DeathWorlders will similarly raise spirits.