These were meant to be my end-of-November updates, but either life happened, or I procrastinated; I am increasingly unsure if there is a difference. It seems that every meaningful activity takes time that could be used by some other meaningful activity; this does not negate its meaning. Life is, by and large, going well. As my mental health and personal life slowly and painfully improve, as my ability to get things done at school slowly improves, as my private writing life also improves, my ability to be present and available in my writer persona on social media has deteriorated. I do not know why.

Anyway, my poem “Octopi Viewing a Submersible” has garnered some positive attention. Charles Payseur at Quick Sip Reviews had some flattering things to say about it. Diane Severson Mori at Amazing Stories also gave the poem a nod in her “Women Destroy Hard SF Poetry” post (which is not affiliated with Lightspeed Magazine’s “X destroy Y” series).

Charlotte Ashley has also posted an interview with me to help promote the Friends of the Merril Short Story Contest. In this interview, I discuss my story “The Mother of All Squid Builds a Library“, which won the contest in 2013, and went on to be published in Strange Horizons. I also say a little about what is going on in my writing life now.

Autism News: 2015/11/17

Some book news to start us off this news cycle!

The CDC recently revised its estimates of autism prevalence to 1 in 45, which is a higher prevalence than the previous estimate after a long period of prevalence estimates continuing to rise.

An ABA therapist published an article on a site called Autism Daily Newscast about “perks kids with autism get from bullying”. The article, rightfully, got a lot of critical responses from autistic people who had experienced bullying as children. Here are some good ones:

Here’s some pan-disability stuff:


Autistic Book Party, Episode 20: The Children Star

The Book: “The Children Star” by Joan Slonczewski

The Plot: A religious colony on an inhospitable world – and the mysterious intelligent life that might exist on that world – are threatened by corporate machinations.

Autistic Character(s): ‘jum, a young orphan who is brought into the colony at the age of six.

“The Children Star” is an environmentalist plot with a large cast, similar to Slonczewski’s slightly better-known book, “A Door Into Ocean”. (In fact, it occurs hundreds/thousands of years later in the same universe, though knowledge of the previous book is not necessary.) ‘jum, despite appearing in the book’s very first scene, is only a secondary character; the main protagonist is Rod, a grown-up monk who helps manage the colony.

What can we say about ‘jum? Not too much. She’s methodical, curious, and has a savant mathematical ability. She’s also deeply traumatized (she was impoverished, a child laborer, and a target of street violence to begin with, and then the entire rest of her family died of a prion plague). She’s suspicious of other people, and makes a habit of carrying rocks in her pocket to throw in self-defense. That’s about the sum of what we know about her for most of the book. She gets screen time (even as a POV character), learns/discovers things, gains skills, forms allegiances, and seems to have plenty to do. I’m having trouble explaining why, despite this, I feel like something big is missing for ‘jum.

Maybe, in order to talk about what’s missing for ‘jum, I need to talk about what’s missing for Rod. Rod feels great love and protectiveness towards children, and is always trying to save just one more (which is how ‘jum gets in despite being over the recommended age). As soon as we touch down in Rod’s colony, though, we start to see problems with how he puts those feelings of care into action.

Two of the boys were running out, ten-year-old Chae and four-year-old T’kun… Then little Gaea dragged herself through the dust on her arms, her paralyzed legs trailing behind her. Gaea had spina bifida–Brother Geode had thrown up his woolly arms when Rod picked that one, but so it was. The colony would have enough to fix her, someday.

So. Uh. Yeah. Accomodations? What are those? Apparently this colony’s way of dealing with disability is to take disabled children in, cross your fingers hoping you can cure them at some vague point in the future, and until then, they can just LITERALLY CRAWL ON THE GROUND, no big deal. That’s what everyone does when they’re low on resources, right?

The colony’s attitude towards ‘jum is not much better. Of course they love her! She is one of the family! But when it comes to understanding or accommodating ‘jum’s autism, very little actually happens.

‘jum has problems adjusting to her new surroundings, as any traumatized child would. The biggest problems come from her interactions with the other children. ‘jum either warily avoids them, or crosses her eyes when they approach in order to study her own perception. In response, the other children laugh at her, taunt her, even physically shove her. Which results in her throwing rocks. It’s not a very good interaction.

So what is Rod’s response to this interaction? Not much. The other children’s behaviour gets shrugged off without correction or discipline. ‘jum herself is basically told to try harder and stop avoiding the other children. In Rod’s opinion, it is ‘jum’s social withdrawal that is the root of the problem, not the actual bullying.

As a strategy for fixing a bullying situation, this works about as well as it’s ever worked in real life. Which is to say, not at all:

“‘jum still keeps to herself too much,” Geode went on. “She won’t look at another child without crossing her eyes. Of course the others make fun of her. And then-” Geode shook his head.
“She hit Pomu’s leg this time,” said Haemum. “He needed three stitches. I’m sorry–I’ll watch her better.”

None of which actually convinces Rod that maybe he should enact some sort of actual anti-bullying policy, or help the children to mutually resolve their differences and understand each other, or anything like that. Instead, he comes out with this gem:

Suddenly, Rod wished he had left her to die on Scarecrow Hill. She was half-dead then; a day or two more would have ended her misery, and never brought the colony the burden of this traumatized child. The depth of his own feeling surprised and shocked him. Whatever good he might do was all useless in the end, if he could feel such hardness toward one suffering human being.
But the girl was alive, here; and somehow she had to be dealt with along with the tumbleround and the defunct lightcraft. A voice from long ago welled up within Rod, the voice of his old Academy Master. He held ‘jum by the wrists and made her face him. “Listen. You are one of us, and you will live by our rules. Do you understand?”

Look. Just.

If you are writing a book about a person caring for an autistic child, and your caretaking character is supposed to be sympathetic, DO NOT DO THIS. Do not show your character wishing their child was dead. It is not okay. Why not? Because when people believe that wishing autistic children dead is normal and reasonable and something any sufficiently stressed-out character would do under the circumstances, they end up actually murdering their autistic children. Okay? Just… don’t do this, even rhetorically. Don’t. Please.

(Also, do not physically grab autistic children and push them around so you can yell in their face, and do not use yelling in their face as a solution to an ongoing problem which basically consists of them being bullied and trying to defend themselves. But by this point in the review, I think those are givens.)

In case you are worried, things do end up getting better for ‘jum. Mainly because she ends up no longer living with stupid Rod and instead doing interesting scientific research with a lady who is not part of the colony. The same lady also manages to cure Gaea’s spina bifida with magic plants, so, yay.

It’s an ensemble cast, and I don’t think it was the author’s intent for us to think that Rod is always right about everything. He’s a flawed protagonist who tries hard, suffers a fair bit, gets in his own way, and is sometimes (very gently) called on his bullshit by other characters. He is critical of himself, in these cases, and takes the correction. However, no one – even the lady who ends up adopting ‘jum – ever ends up calling him, even a little, on the way he treats ‘jum. Nor is ‘jum shown having any particularly interesting internal thoughts about the matter. Of course I can’t read Joan Slonczewski’s mind, but one ends up with the strong impression that, rather than being an intentional depiction of an ableist society, these parts of the book are simply an authorial blind spot.

‘jum herself is okay, I guess, but readers who have any experience of autism should probably pass this one over.

The Verdict: Not Recommended

For a list of past/future/possible Autistic Book Party books, or to recommend a new one, click here.

Short Story Spotlight: “Geometries of Belonging”

The Story: Rose Lemberg, “Geometries of Belonging” (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, October 1, 2015)

A year and a half ago, when I reviewed “Twelve Seconds” by Tina Gower, I commented on how the story surprised me by subverting the cure decision narrative when I didn’t think that was possible. “Geometries of Belonging” subverts it in yet another way – or, perhaps more accurately, averts it.

In “Geometries”, Healer Parét, the protagonist, is a mind-healer who can magically cure people of all sorts of mental ailments. But Parét’s cures are imperfect, and impermanent, and often have to be repeated – and, most importantly, Parét never heals without the patient’s consent.

This gets Parét into trouble when he meets a genderqueer autistic teenager named Dedéi – a patient whose parents and grandparents want a cure (both for their gender and for their neurotype), but who desperately and emphatically does not want to be cured, and is capable of saying so, loudly and repeatedly.

Approximately zero story time is spent on the decision of whether to perform or not perform a cure. It is obvious to Dedéi that they do not want to be cured, and it is obvious to Parét that he will not perform mind-healing on a patient like Dedéi who does not want it. The conflict in the story comes, not from agonizing over what it would be appropriate to do with Dedéi, but from the fallout and social consequences of Dedéi and Parét both sticking to their principles. Dedéi’s grandfather is powerful, and the suggested cure is actually a proxy for political machinations which turn out to be quite complex, devious, and sinister indeed.

Aside from the bones of the plot, it’s worth studying the way Parét talks about Dedéi, as a narrator who sees much more about minds and the brokennesses of minds than most people, and who accurately assesses Dedéi’s abilities and differences, yet remains respectful in his descriptions:

She is not calm—her hands shake a bit on the vine, but she is strong, and she maintains her grip. Her speech is mostly flat, but there is intonation. She speaks clearest when she is uninterrupted, and says the most about a topic she loves. She repeats, yes—it seems easier for her to repeat than to make new sentences—but it is not nonsensical. We are having a conversation. She attends to my words and responds in turn.

I see nothing in Dedéi that would merit shame and secrecy and threats of remaking. And just how isolated has she been?

(Note on out of context pronouns: Parét refers to Dedéi as “she” because the language in which Dedéi and their family speak lacks gender-neutral pronouns; later in the story, this decision is reversed, and Dedéi is referred to more properly as “they”.)

Parét himself is not exactly neurotypical (probably allistic, but deeply depressed, reluctant to heal himself, and in need of prompting from his romantic partner in order to take initiative in most matters). His thoughts on minds, magic, and brokenness in general are very interesting. This is a good story on its own merits; but it’s especially worthwhile reading for anyone who is playing with magic systems and wants to understand how mind-healing magic and acceptance of neurodiversity could respectfully coexist.

The Verdict: Recommended

Can*Con 2015 notes!

A big hello to everyone I met at Can*Con 2015 in Ottawa these past 3 days – both the people I met for the first time, and those who recognized me from elsewhere. (Sorry I couldn’t stay for the Sunday programming – I’m literally typing this on the train back home because I live quite a ways from Ottawa these days and have some work obligations on Monday.)

I promised book/story recommendations to everyone at the autism panel, and then we ran out of time for me to list more than a few – so, for the benefit of Derek Newman-Stille and everyone else who was interested, here’s a quick list of Stories With Well Written Autistic Characters Who Do Things Besides Being Autistic. (I think it’s very important, in addition to saying “here’s what we want more of,” to point out the people who have already been doing it.)

First, I will start with a few mainstream SF novels. Fitz Wahram in “2312” by Kim Stanley Robinson is an autistic person who does lots of cool things like being a future politician, solving a mystery, and having a romance with another (not autistic, but not neurotpical) character. Similarly, Kio Masada from “This Alien Shore” by C.S. Friedman is an autistic computer expert who comes from a planet where everyone is non-neurotypical in some way, and where their entire culture is structured around this. Both of these authors (IMO) write their characters very well.

Rose Lemberg has several short stories out this year, in her Birdverse setting, with well-realized autistic characters. “Grandmother nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” contains a minimally verbal autistic child who is treated with respect by their family, while a major plot point in “Geometries of Belonging” involves an autistic teenager who successfully resists a family that wants to force them to be cured. Both of these were published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Meda Kahn writes very hard-hitting short stories about autistic adults dealing with prejudice and institutionalization. Her stories “Difference of Opinion” and “That’s Entertainment” were both published in Strange Horizons.

Erika Hammerschmidt’s book, “Kea’s Flight”, centers around a group of autistic and otherwise non-neurotypical children being raised together on a spaceship.

Luna Lindsey’s short stories “Touch of Tides” and “Meltdown in Freezer Three” both have well-written protagonists in various places on the autism spectrum who do interesting jobs and have adventures.

Tina Gower’s short story “Twelve Seconds” is an interesting subversion of cure stories, starring an autistic man who works at a police department and who both benefits and suffers from the treatments and accomodations available to him.

Except for this last one and the two big books in the first paragraph, all of these were written by authors who are openly autistic themselves.

If you want more than this, the full list of books and stories I have reviewed – both positive and negative – is available here. If you want EVEN MORE, you might want to have a look at my Autistic Book List.

Octopi Viewing a Submersible

I have a new poem up in Strange Horizons, “Octopi Viewing a Submersible“. I also recorded an audio version of the poem, which can be listened to on the Strange Horizons October podcast.

This poem was an experiment in Germanic alliterative verse. I didn’t expect much to come of it, and am thrilled that it’s found such a good home with such good company.

My Can*Con 2015 Schedule

Yep, I’ll be at Can*Con 2015 in Ottawa this coming weekend. I sadly won’t be able to stay to the end of the weekend due to work obligations, but you should be able to catch me Friday night or most of the time Saturday. I’ll be around.

Saturday, 10:00 AM: Amazing Short Fiction You Really Ought To Be Reading. The internet has given short fiction a real shot in the arm, and forms up to novella are making a big come-back. Panelists discuss remarkable works you’re missing out on. Nathan Burgoine, Ada Hoffmann, Amy Sisson, Amal El-Mohtar (m)

Saturday, 12:00 PM: Computational Creativity. Ada Lovelace said that a computer can’t create anything new. Today’s AI researchers are challenging that assumption by creating computer systems that can paint pictures, write poetry, compose music, and more. Are these computers creative, or does the creativity belong to their programmers? What would a computer have to do to be “really” creative? In this talk, we will see paintings made by robots, hear music improvised by them, and other cool things that challenge our notions of both art and intelligence. Ada Hoffmann

Saturday, 1:00 PM: Autism and its Portrayal in Fiction, TV, and Movies. What is autism and how accurately or inaccurately is it portrayed in the various fictional media. Ada Hoffmann, Leo Valiquette, Derek Newman-Stille (m), Robin Riopelle, Jennifer Carole Lewis

Creative AI, part 4: Games

Game design is a very complex field, incorporating a huge number of both artistic and technical specialties. Could a computer design its own games? The answer, surprisingly, is yes – or a qualified yes.

Technically, computers already create many parts of the video games that you enjoy. It’s called procedural content generation. Computers can fill in certain parts of a game on their own, based on certain rules, to avoid making the programmer do everything by hand.

Most procedural content generation is pretty formulaic. For example, a computer might procedurally generate textures. Or a Roguelike game, given some rules about the size of rooms and what monsters might spawn in them, might randomly generate rooms and randomly place monsters. (Minecraft and many other games randomly generate terrain, too.) Computers can use fractals and other computer graphics rules to make settings full of trees, mountains, and other natural forms which all look detailed and different from each other, instead of making a human artist manually paint absolutely everything.

Procedural generation can be more complex than this go. For example, there’s the Director AI in Left 4 Dead which not only creates levels but adjusts their difficulty, based on the players’ current state, to keep the pace of the game exciting. And difficulty/pace is only one of many variables that a computer could use to guide its decisions, making them, arguably, artistic decisions, rather than random/meaningless ones.

So much for generating parts of games, but could a computer design a whole game? Arguably, yes. One big project in this vein is Michael Cook’s ANGELINA, which handles everything from level design to a game’s aesthetics and graphics to generating new game mechanics to make playable games. Whether or not people want to play these games is another question – but it should be noted that ANGELINA has taken part in game design competitions with humans, and was not the worst in the bunch.

Video games are very much not my thing, but if you want to know more about computers that design their own games, you can start with Michael Cook’s blog; a lot of other relevant researchers in that field are linked to from there.

Creative AI, part 3: Stories

How do you teach a computer to write a story? At first, the task seems impossible – to understand everything about the world that could be represented in a story, the computer would have to know as much as you or me. However, several research groups are up to the challenge.

Early groups worked by creating story templates that could be selected between, modified slightly, or filled in with words or concepts from a list. (You or I can also do this sort of thing, if we have a free afternoon, with some simple string manipulation functions. It’s not hard, and is a lot like a very carefully crafted Mad Lib.) However, the more interesting task in computational creativity is to make a system that can understand the characters involved in a story, figure out what they would do, and fit that into a storylike structure without a predefined instruction about how the story should go.

Systems that write stories – TALESPIN, MINSTREL, and MEXICA among them – typically take a single topic, like talking animals or Aztec warriors, and are programmed with a large knowledge base about objects, social reasoning, the actions that can be taken by an agent in this setting, etc.

Unfortunately (based on my not very thorough current searching) it’s much easier to find computer scientists talking about the details of these systems and exactly what knowledge they encode (details which are probably beyond the scope of these posts) than to find examples of the stories they make. The programs that exist today are quite interesting, able to calculate relatively advanced concepts like why people take specific actions, what basic actions are available or unavailable to a specific person, and what might be the consequence of that action. But the examples I can find are all a bit disappointing in a specific way:

The jaguar knight went hunting with the tlatoani. The fisherman hated the tlatoani. The fisherman attacked the tlatoani. The tlatoani attacked the fisherman. The jaguar knight made prisoner the fisherman. (from MEXICA by Iván Román and Rafael Pérez y Pérez)

It seems that, while current computers can represent a logical sequence of events for a story, describing the story in evocative, interesting, emotionally deep, or immersive ways is still a long way off.

This is no problem for certain applications, though. The storytelling advances made by these programs are useful for certain commercial applications in sports, finance, or elsewhere. Programs analyzing data in these fields can automatically generate stories based on their data, which make the most pertinent points easily comprehensible to humans:

Store 9, your sales of Item 6 are far below the other stores in your region. If you are able to up your sales of this product by only 5 units a day, you will be able to increase your profits next month by $1,123. The sales of this product for other stores in your region seem to indicate that this is completely achievable. (example from Narrative Science‘s website)

Computer programs can also automatically generate usable news stories about sports, finance, and other formulaic topics. Not exciting, perhaps; but also not terrible for a practice that grew out of Mad Libs.

Creative AI, part 2: Music

Although I love music and have some musical training, computer-generated music is very much NOT my area of research, so this will be brief. Don’t confused “brief” with a lack of material, though; computer music researchers are doing AWESOME things.

One very well-established computer musician is named Emmy. Programmed by David Cope (and short for Experiments in Musical Intelligence), Emmy can analyze music by humans and then generate new music designed to sound similar. Continue reading “Creative AI, part 2: Music”