Small Thoughts: The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi by E.Lily Yu, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May/June 2019

E. Lily Yu is a special type of author. She commonly transcends genres, breaks contemporary fictional forms, and brings a fairytale-eskness to her fiction that creates a sense of wonderment. The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi is not different.

While this newest story by Yu is quite firmly based in a technologically advanced future, it addresses a common and relevant issue of today (which all serious science fiction should do): What would people do if they were simply given enough to live?

I read this story on the heels of reading an interview with U.S. presidential hopeful, Andrew Yang. Yang has been making waves (maybe more like ripples) in the crowded Democratic field with his main issue platform: the “Freedom Dividend.” It sounds farcical to my ears, but the Freedom Dividend is a UBI, universal basic income. $1000 per month for every American is Yang’s platform. Why? Because of the GDP (gross domestic product) is not, Yang thinks, a fair reflection of a countries prosperity due to the fact that more and more products are made not by workers, but by machines.

ASF_MayJune2019_400x570Back to Yu’s story. In The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi there are two types of people: Doers and Don’ts. Doers do something Don’ts. . . don’t. But it’s more complicated than that. Doers are educated at a college level. They are skilled at. . . something. They produce something (in the case of this story, virtual reality design, art, and games). Don’ts on the other hand only play games. They apply themselves to things that are ALREADY created, like playing video games, watching movies, reading, etc. Jacob E. Mwangi is a Don’t. He gets his UBI from the Nairobi government and he spends it on rent, food, and playing VR games with his guild.

Everyone says Jacob has amazing potential. He’s intelligent, he could go to college–his sister even offers to send him someplace like China for his education. But being a Don’t is a source of pride for Jacob, and he’s not the only one. His game friends feel the same way. Doers are desperate, lame, and worse, self-important. What could they create that other people should be so excited about?

But when Jacob discovers a new indie game made by three women, he becomes inspired. He sees what they do well in terms of UX, but also what he might be able to improve on in the game. He thinks he could be an artist–but for that, he needs to go to school, get a portfolio together. Learn something.

The whole point of this story, I think, isn’t about VR or video games. It’s about UBI. It’s about how some people will, for a time, want nothing more than to play games, sit around, do nothing except enjoying themselves. But given time, people will begin to think, have ideas, want to act, create, produce. What will they produce? Who knows. But it’s going to be something that wasn’t produced beforehand because beforehand they didn’t have the time for such a passion project.

While Yu’s story paints a seemingly futuristic picture, it is a much more hopeful one than common science fiction. Similarly, Yang’s vision of a “Freedom Dividend” is also a hopeful concept that would let people devote more time and energy to their big ideas. While Yang is unlikely to win any nominations, he is polling at a high enough rate to conceivably be included in the first round of debates.

With hopeful stories like The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi, it is likely the idea of a UBI will become more commonplace in the years to come.

(Not sold on the Freedom Dividend? Find out how Yang expects to pay for this, by clicking here.


Small Thoughts: Unfinished Business by Bill Johnson, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, May/June 2019

It’s been a long time since I reviewed a short story here. Like most people, my interests ebb and flow with time. I have been diligently working on (and reading many) comics, but took time this, and last, week to read a short story out of the latest Asimov’s issue.

Unfinished Business by Bill Johnson was unfortunately not an inspired reading choice–not for me anyway. This story takes place in the same literary/genre world Johnson has created in his series of novels, and so context may serve some readers better and worse. Unfortunately for me, I was on the worse side of this contextualized issue. As far as I can tell, this story takes places on a future Earth that also has a large and multi-leveled spaceship hovering above it (?). This spaceship is so large it houses different levels that all act as a separate continent for different (sentient) alien life forms.

The plot revolves around the recreation of a mating ritual that transpired millions of years ago but was somehow interrupted. Some species on the ship want this recreation to be carried out, others don’t, but everything must be exactly the same as was hypothesized in accordance with a series of fossils that apparently tell the story.

For me, this is a flimsy premise, but perhaps if I were more familiar with Johnson’s Ship Series, I would find it more intriguing.

The main characters are a human couple who help in the recreation of this mating ritual timeline. They are clearing suppose to be quaker and charming, but to me just come off rather bland. Neither feels real nor important to the outcome of the story.

My last grievance with this piece is the way alien life portrayed. All the aliens in this piece seem startlingly human, or at least have human-esk motivations, sensibilities, and reason. Though they may look like, “a giant cockroach,” this isn’t enough to make them feel like an alien. It just feels *shrug* and makes me wonder why the author didn’t tell without the genre aspect mixed in, as it doesn’t seem to add much to the plot.

My last last grievance (I just thought of another one) is that of tension. I never really had a sense of the consequences in this piece. The two main characters seem, by and large, inconsequential to most of the events, and what they do contribute at the end, could easily have been pretty much anyone, not only them (which is what is needed in fiction, i.e. how is the main character(s) specifically and uniquely suited to impact events).

Maybe readers of Johnson’s novel series would enjoy this, but as a newcomer to his writing, I’d pass on this one if I could.

Small Thoughts: Ephemera by Ian R. MacLeod

Ephemera is the title story of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, July/August 2018 issue. It takes place in a near(ish) future world in which humans have created a database “cloud” that is kept in outer space that is somehow protected from cosmic rays and the like. To monitor and care for this database, which is named the “Argo,” for the Argonauts, a sentient robot is made who can live in space for thousands of years if needed. They call this robot KAT, which See the source imageis an acronym for Kinetic Autonomous Thought.

Plot: The central plot of this piece revolves around the inevitable destruction of humanity as KAT watches from the safety of her Argo spaceship/database center. She is to preserve all the data in the Argo and teach the humans who survive this nuclear war once they emerge from underground after the ensuing ice age is over.

While upon the Argo, KAT busies herself with learning all about humanity. She (yes, KAT identifies as a gender), reads classics like Jane Austen, watches classic films, and observes the great works of art. She is able to enter digital versions of museums that once were and experiences all the masterworks of every age. She waits millennia for humans to re-emerge. They never do. Then, out of nowhere Mr. Darcy comes to have a conversation with KAT. It turns out somehow a consciousness has been created by humans that can move between networks and worlds. This consciousness has gone on across the universe doing whatever a high consciousness does. It asks KAT to come with it.

How Things Feel Tried: Much of this story, for me, felt tried. The idea of a high consciousness appearing to a lower one as “something you’d find familiar,” is straight out of the book and movie Contact. The idea of a nuclear war that wipes out humanity, tried. A robot watching as humanity destroys itself, tried. A robot finding humanity so fascinating it’s willing to stay in solitude, in exile, simply to visit and revisit the digital recreations of human creations reeks of exceptionalism and the belief that somehow there is some intrinsic worth to anything humans do. On all these accounts I’m confused why I kept reading.

But I Kept Reading: Despite all these grievances I kept reading. This is a short story, but it’s not THAT short. It’s a novelette and I’m not a fast reader, so it took me a bit of time to get through this. One aspect I enjoyed about this piece was the fact that, despite the self-aggrandizement of the human race, the author also acknowledged the fact that everything we strive for in art may ultimately be found through a technological consciousness greater than our own.

Conclusion: While I feel like this piece is tried, I also think it may be an interesting access point for many people who aren’t necessarily as steeped in the SF genre as myself. It packs a lot of ideas into a relatively small space, albeit ideas I’ve seen before. I think the thing that really kept me reading was the narration–it was clever and new enough in tone that despite the tropes, I found myself interested.