"Semiosis" has its own site

If you’re here because I wrote the novels Semiosis and Interference, welcome!

You might also enjoy the website devoted entirely to the novels with scenes and information that didn’t make it into the book, associated fiction and essays, the full Constitution, and a blog.

You can find it here:

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What god believes in you?

You may sometimes be asked about your religious faith — that is: What god do you believe in? That’s a good question, but I’d like to propose a different one: What god believes in you?

It may be that the gods get a choice, too. Your choice and divine choice may or may not coincide. Whether you want it or not, Allah may be showering you with mercy and compassion. Jesus may have saved your soul. A variety of other gods may be trying hard to show you truth and enlightenment.

Or you might have attracted the attention of lesser-known gods.

The Roman god Fascinus represented the divine phallus and can protect you from the evil eye and other forms of malicious enchantment. The Roman Empire fell, but gods are eternal, so Fascinus may be hovering around you, facing potential bad luck and nullifying it before it can do you harm. (Don’t ask how.)

The Maya gods of the underworld try to bring you death. Ahalpuh, for example, will cause infection and pus. However, the Maya underworld gods are lesser gods. They were defeated, and their powers were curtailed. They may come for you, but you have the power to thwart their plans.

Other gods can bring you fertility, war, safe travel, victory, greed, earthquakes, or even tempt you to suicide. If you feel that presence, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. This is another lesser god that you can successfully defy.

Our world has a lot of gods. Which one(s) would be attracted to you, whether you would welcome their attention or not — and why? This question may be not just about their belief in you, but in your own beliefs about yourself.

Goodreads review: "The Last Human" by Zack Jordan

The Last HumanThe Last Human by Zack Jordan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy from the publisher to see if I’d like to write a blurb for the cover. It sounded like a fun book, and it was, so here’s my blurb: “Brimming with sly humor, intelligence, and big ideas.”

Let me say a bit more about the novel. You can read the summary at Goodreads or elsewhere, and it’s accurate. A young human finds out why she’s the last of her kind, which leads her on a long, strange adventure to learn what she can do about it.

I especially enjoyed the way this book treats “intelligence” and the relationship between different levels of intelligence. Our young human has an AI assistant who isn’t as smart as she is, and she must also deal with beings, machines, and AIs who are infinitely smarter than she is. Every one of them wants something: perhaps to be as helpful as possible, perhaps to solve its own problems, perhaps to outsmart and control the lesser beings around it, or perhaps just to keep things working properly.

This is a new take on the technological singularity proposed by Vernor Vinge and others about what will happen when artificial super-intelligence advances beyond human understanding and control. In this book, it’s not the end of civilization, which Elon Musk has feared. Instead, it takes a turn that Zack Jordan makes logical, terrifying, and comforting at the same time. And he tells it in a way that from time to time might make you laugh.

View all my reviews
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Reading at Tangelo on January 9

TangeloI’ll be participating in the Tangelo reading series, held from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, January 9, at The Martin performance space, 2515 W. North Ave., in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago.

I plan to read from Semiosis and share a short essay — about what? I haven’t decided yet.

The event, the 23rd of the Tangelo series, will also feature:
Emma Casey, a writer and performer and maker from Chicago.
Levi Todd, a queer poet and lifelong Chicagoan, working as a healthy relationships educator with youth.
Jitesh Jaggi, a recent immigrant from India who uses storytelling, poetry, dance, and writing to share his narratives.

More information is at the Facebook event page and on Twitter. Free, but reserve your admission. A $5 donation is accepted at the door. Cash bar.
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Spanish language’s Word of the Year: “emoji”

emojis_smallEnglish has made its choices for the most important word of the year for 2019: “they” by Merriam-Webster, “existential” by, and “climate emergency” by Oxford. These words, according to an opinion piece at CNN, show that “it’s Generation Z’s world now.” (As a Boomer, I resent that a little. I’m more than willing to keep up with a changing world, although I admit that some of my age cohorts are petrified and proud of it.)

In Spain, the Fundéu BBVA, which tracks and recommends word usage in the media, has chosen its word for 2019: “emoji." (As a Spanish-speaker and translator, I need to keep track of new and trending words in Castilian, and I’m eager to see their choice each year.)

Why “emoji”? Because it — and emoticons in all their variety — “now form part of our daily communications and keep moving into territory beyond private conversations in chats and messages, where they started. Their undeniable impact on our daily life, their interesting relationships with other elements of communication (such as words, phrases, and punctuation signs) and the perspective they open to the future, have given the Fundéu reason to award emoticons and emojis the distinction of word of the year.”

They won’t replace words, the Fundéu says, but “in a world marked by speed, emoticons provide agility and concision. And in an environment where a good part of what we write, especially in chats and messages, is oral communication put into words, these elements allow us to add nuanced intention and gestures that would otherwise be lost.”

The Fundéu’s runner-up candidates for the word on the 2019 year in Spanish are:

Electromovilidad: Electromobility or e-mobility, the use of electric rather than gasoline motors for transportation.

Desglobalización: Deglobalization, the reverse of the process of globalization.

Neonegacionismo: Neo-negationism, such as the denial of climate change or other generally accepted historic or scientific concepts.

Exhumación: Exhumation, specifically the exhumation of the remains of the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco from the Valley of the Fallen monument in October.

DANA: Depresión aislada en niveles altos or “high-level isolated depression,” a weather phenomenon in Spain that brings big storms, often with flash floods.

Huachicolero: A Mexican word for criminals who steal gasoline from pipelines.

Seriéfilo: A new word referring to people who love television and movie series.

Influente: Influencer, someone who knows how to use social media to make their opinions influence other people.

Albañila: The female form of “bricklayer.” Women are moving into professions previously reserved to men.

Cúbit: Qubit. In quantum computing, a qubit or quantum bit is the basic unit of quantum information.

Superdesempate: Super tie-break, a term used in tennis.

Meanwhile, the Real Academia Española has chosen its fourteen words that best define 2019: progreso (progress), deporte (sports), feminizar (feminize), constitución (constitution), confianza (confidence — in political institutions), acogida (welcome — for immigrants and refugees), estado del bienestar (welfare state), elecciones (elections), inteligencia artificial (artificial intelligence), escuela (schools — education’s successes and failures), clima (climate), euroescéptico (Euroskeptic), autodeterminación (self-determination — in Catalonia), and triunfo (triumph — in a variety of fields). More about why, in Spanish, is reported by El Pais newspaper.

The Fundéu’s previous words of the year were escrache (a kind of protest) en el 2013, selfi in 2014, refugiado (refugee) in 2015, populismo (populism) in 2016, aporofobia (fear of poor people) in 2017, and microplástico (microplastics) en 2018.
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Good King Wencelas

Today, December 26, is the Feast of Stephen. You may have heard the Christmas carol:

“Good King Wenceslas looked out / On the Feast of Stephen / When the snow lay round about / Deep and crisp and even. / Brightly shone the moon that night /Though the frost was cruel / When a poor man came in sight / Gathering winter fuel.…”

Wenceslas existed. He was actually the duke of Bohemia (he got a posthumous promotion by Holy Roman Emperor Otto I), and he was renowned for his piety and generosity to the poor. In fact, he was made a saint and is now the patron saint of the Czech Republic.

Sadly, he died in September 935 when a group of nobles led by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, murdered him in Prague. He fled from his assassins to a church for sanctuary — according to legend, he was holding the church door handle when he was struck down.

That handle is preserved at the entrance to the St. Wenceslas Chapel in Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral.

The carol concludes, fittingly for a generous saint:

“Therefore, Christian men, be sure / Wealth or rank possessing / Ye who now will bless the poor / Shall yourselves find blessing.”

The ‘Dying Earths’ anthology – exploring a big idea

DyingEarthsI always enjoy destroying the Earth.

Actually, I feel kind of bad about doing that. We have a nice planet. What I really enjoy are big ideas, so when I was asked to contribute to SSFWorld’s anthology Dying Earths, I thought, “What fun!”

Specifically, I was asked by the editors, Andrew Leon Hudson and N. E. White, for an ecological apocalypse — and I could interpret that theme broadly.

I had a head start thinking about that, given our own real-life ecological apocalypse. I also knew the Earth had gone through an ecological apocalypse — not by human hands — at the end of the Carboniferous Period. That led to some “what if” ideas, and soon I had a new, future apocalypse as a means to wreak destruction.

Dying Earths is out now as an ebook from Amazon for only $2.99, but it will also be available as a print-on-demand paperback early in the new year.

Stories from sixteen authors from around the globe are included: P.J. Richards, Daniel Ausema, Jez Patterson, Jeremy Megargee, N.E. White, Matthew Hughes, Andrew Leon Hudson, James Maxstadt, Lena Ng, George Bradley, Shana Scott, Christopher Stanley, Jude Reid, Scott J. Couturier, Kat Pekin, and myself.

You can read an interview of me and Matthew Hughes here.
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‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ review (no spoilers)

I saw Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker yesterday, and it was the movie I expected — and I expected good things. The worst I could say was that it was formulaic, but it’s a guaranteed successful formula, so that’s not all bad. There were also a lot of fast plot twists and little surprises and jokes, even Ewoks and whatever those red-eyed sand critters were from the start of the first movie. Loose ends got tied up, and a few things were added just for nostalgia. Good fun.

As I said, it met expectations. Samuel R. Delaney had something to say about that in Shorter Views (page 121):

“Fiction exists as an extraordinary complex of expectations. Texts that fulfill all these expectations register as moderately good or mediocre fiction: the sort that one reads, more or less enjoys, but forgets immediately. What strikes us as extraordinary, excellent, or superb fiction must fulfill some of those expectations and at the same time violate others. It’s a very fancy dance of fulfillment and violation that produces the “Wow!” of wonder that greets a truly fine piece of writing — a truly wonderful story.”

The series from the beginning never sought to violate any story-telling expectations. It tried to recreate Buck Rogers-style movies, just with better production values. In a sense, those high values — revolutionarily high for their time — were the violation. Movie-goers could easily believe they were seeing strange alien worlds and beings, and watching amazing futuristic technology. Since then, every movie strives for top-quality special effects, although there’s a certain imaginative flair that Star Wars consistently delivers about its big, beautiful, believable galaxy, long ago and far away....

Perhaps Star Wars’ violation is that it brings viewers into the craft of creation even as it delivers a high-quality finished product. It consistently shows that much more exists in its galaxy, little details that add nothing except to create a richer-than-necessary setting. There’s more to explore than what falls within the confines of the story, and viewers can explore that in their own imaginations.

Is that exuberant and excessive world-building enough to vault it into the category of Wow!? Maybe. Critics complain, rightly, about problems with plots and characters, and the movie had its share, but I came away thinking about that glorious galaxy I had just visited.
Sierra Nevada

The best, and last, Christmas tree ever

My sister, Beth, died in January 2014 of cancer. Her last Christmas was one of her happiest.

In December, Beth’s son and his wife came to visit, and they set up and decorated the tree. Beth had inherited the Christmas tree ornaments from my parents and grandparents, and although she was too ill to do more than watch them work, she was entranced. It was, my sister said, the best tree ever.

(The photo of us four Burke kids on Christmas Eve was captured from one of our grandfather’s home movies. Beth is the blonde. I’m wearing green. Lou is the baby. Mike is in back.)

She described it to me over the phone (I had a long visit at Thanksgiving), and I could see it as she spoke because I knew so many of the ornaments.

My mother had made a canvas-work embroidery angel for the top of the tree. In keeping with family tradition, a little electric candle had been placed in her hands.

Some old, fancy glass ornaments had been my grandparents’, lovingly cared for by my parents and then by Beth. They were fragile and worn but exceptionally ornate. One had gold stripes edged with glitter and little holiday scenes hand-painted between the stripes.

My sister especially loved the ornament her son had made in grade school, a white paper bird with a long tinsel tail. There was also my ornament from kindergarten, green and red metallic disks glued together around a length of yarn. Other children’s artwork was hung up, too, chronicling a family that grew larger, and boys and girls who grew up. Some ornaments were gifts or careful purchases — each color, each sparkle, each light a story.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “I can stare at it for hours.”

It held happy memories from her whole life, as merry as a Christmas tree could be —  the best gift, the best tree ever.
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Trees of Knowledge

Slate artI have an article in Slate Magazine today: “Trees are smarter than we give them credit for, but they may not be smart enough for we’ve got coming next.”

Trees — and plants in general — can adapt to changes in amazing ways, but the weather might be changing too fast.

Read the article here.