Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading: August 2021


Fugitive Telemetry (Wells, 2021) - This is the 6th installment in Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries series. Each book is a novella centered on the life of a sentient combat, security android. I've been along for the ride through the first 5 books, and they are fast reads, so I gave Fugitive Telemetry a try. 

One aspect that endears these books and this character to readers is the unique main character, the Murderbot. It's sarcastic, pessimistic, and often humorous and the story is told first-person by Murderbot, complete with its internal monologue. Readers see the world through the character's view in each book, and we're privy to its thoughts alone. 

What it is not is a robotic, cold and calculating machine. The character is more like the cartoon cat Garfield. Its default attitude is that no matter what situation comes its way, it would rather just assume not be bothered. 

Sometimes this same unique and funny aspect can start to wear me out, and for this, I think the story is better kept at a shorter length, a novella as Wells does. To be longer, I think we'd need a break from Murderbot's mind. 

Ok, so that said, what about this story? Through the previous five books, Wells has slowly been piecing us out a back story for Murderbot, which we are aware involves corporate espionage and cover-ups. We're led to believe Murderbot may even have done something, such as murdering innocent humans, that makes it worthy of the fear the people around it have. But Murderbot doesn't remember. This is a fascinating overarching plot, but we basically abandon it in this installment for some reason. 

Murderbot has reached the safest, most stable place it's ever been, and it catches the case of a human murder to solve. The case is compelling enough. What we learn as the mystery is solved teaches us more about the world the story takes place in, including social problems in the far reaches of space. However, for Murderbot, we don't see any new information. 

Before, since we are in Murderbots mind, whenever new details of its past are exposed, we learn them right along with the character. We see the character react, change, develop as it learns about itself. Thus, the lack of advancing this external plot also means we don't get any character development in this book. As a result, Murderbot doesn't finish the story much differently off than where it began. That was a bit of a disappointment. 

It was still a cool word, it's a decent mystery, and the book's funny in many places. I'll give the series the benefit of the doubt that this might tie into the next installment and end up meaning more to the character than it appears now.


What I've been Listening to: August 2021


Level 6  (Ledbetter, 2020) - This text is only available as an audiobook. It's a sequel to Level 5, which similarly was only in audio format in what is now listed as the Killday series. I met the author, William Ledbetter, during a convention in Houston a couple of years ago. We were both panelists for writing discussions. One thing I love about Ledbetter's work is the science fidelity at play. Of course, the stories are fiction, but the technology that defines the world he puts readers in feels like it is only a short leap away. In Ledbetter's vision of the future, AI has proliferated, as have the use of nanobots, both of which turn out to be to the detriment of mankind.

Level 6 takes place roughly fifteen years after the first installment and follows the path of a college-age woman we met briefly in the first book as a little girl. She is the daughter of a prominent character from the first who (spoiler) died at the end of the first book. So this woman, Abby, has been an orphan. 

I really enjoyed this story. I already loved the world and the technology affecting it. Ledbetter has flushed it out very well so that readers understand how it came to be, and we can relate to how humans have become so reliant on it. In Level 6, we get to see the fallout from the first book's events and how humanity tries to put itself back together after a catastrophe. We get a love story subplot that takes some turns I didn't expect. Like the first, we get to see a political struggle for power that turns deadly. However, the thing I like most about this one is where the story takes its namesake. 

The AIs in this world are categorized at levels, with level 1 being the most basic, perhaps like what we really have today, and so on. The Level 5 AIs are sentient, free-thinking, and mostly self-directing. The exciting aspect is that some of these Level 5 AI's want to produce a Level 6, they want to create an offspring or an evolution, so to speak, that is better than themselves. I think that makes them even closer to humans. People, at least those who have children, tend to think of making life better for their offspring. We want to give children opportunities we didn't have. Much in this sense, so do the AIs in the story.

There's plenty to find fascinating, like rouge nanobots building eavesdropping devices right into a person's body, and if need be, building an execution device right inside your body as well. Just cool possibilities to think about, but the humanity Ledbetter endeavors to explore is even better. Why we would build these AI, why we'd rely on them so much, why some people would fear them, why some would treat them like gods, and how they would evolve to be like us. All these themes are deliciously on the table. 


What I've Been Watching: August 2021



The Fear Street Trilogy (Netflix, 2021) - Is there such a thing as "feel-good horror?" If so, I think this trio of Fear Street movies is exactly that.

I have to admit, I've never read the source R.L. Stine series. 

Each of the three movies in this trilogy feels like something you've seen before; at least they start out that way. In the first, a masked teen serial killer stalks other teens, not unlike the Scream movies. In the second, a killer stalks teens around a summer camp, not unlike Friday the 13th; in fact, summer camp horror could be considered its own sub-genre. Finally, the third goes way back into an early US settlement village where religious fanatics turn mob over alleged witchcraft. This is not unlike The Witch or other films that look to the Salem Witch Trials for inspiration. 

But again, this is the starting point. Each feels like you're sitting down to a popcorn sort of horror and feels even a bit nostalgic for long-time horror viewers. Then things change. Within the first half-hour of the first movie, we learn about a supposed curse, that the teen murder we saw was not an anomaly but a pattern of tragedies that repeatedly happen in this town. The curse seems like superstition, but the evidence and the history suggest otherwise. We proceed to learn that there is more going on than one mere slasher killer, much more. 

The three stories turn out to be braided together, with connecting characters even though they take place across three time periods, all centered on this curse. It turns out to be a fun, engaging layer added on top of what might otherwise have been three popcorn-type horrors. 

One step further, there is even an element of social justice and equality at play. I wouldn't go as far as to put these films in a category with Get Out, or the horror series Lovecraft Country in terms of social justice being a backbone to the plot, but it still adds an element that makes the themes a bit deeper, a bit more consequential than a mere scary story, or series. 

It's also worth mentioning that the films being released virtually all at once was a great decision. I think the braiding between films, the connections would have faded for viewers and been harder to follow and enjoy if we'd had to wait six months or a year between the installments. I watched all three films within one week, and I recommend others do the same if they can.

Ultimately these were just really fun movies. Since R.L. Stines book series has something like a hundred installments, I'm hopeful we'll see another set in the next year or two.

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