(1) BARBARIANS AT THE GATES. Clarkesworld has closed submissions for the time being.
For those who haven’t guessed, Frank Catalano makes it explicit:
(2) “THE WITCH TRIALS OF J.K. ROWLING.” The Free Press is a new media organization created by Bari Weiss, once the Wall Street Journal book review editor, and later a New York Times op-ed editor and writer who resigned in 2020 under circumstances that prompted the Financial Times to described her as a “self-styled free speech martyr.” However, her resignation letter was praised by people ranging from Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio to Andrew Yang and Bill Maher.
The Free Press “About” page says, “We focus on stories that are ignored or misconstrued in the service of an ideological narrative.” And the publication has announced a new podcast series titled “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling” which will be available February 21. From their website:
“The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling is an audio documentary that examines some of the most contentious conflicts of our time through the life and career of the world’s most successful author. In conversation with host Megan Phelps-Roper, J.K. Rowling speaks with unprecedented candor and depth about the controversies surrounding her—from book bans to debates on gender and sex.
“The series also examines the forces propelling this moment in history, through interviews with Rowling’s supporters and critics, journalists, historians, clinicians, and more.”
There is also a companion essay by Phelps-Roper, “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling”, which begins:
J.K. Rowling is arguably the most successful author in the history of publishing, with the possible exception of God. And “Harry Potter” was a kind of bible for my generation. Since its publication beginning in the late ’90s, the series has taught tens of millions of children about virtues like loyalty, courage, and love—about the inclusion of outsiders and the celebration of difference. The books illustrated the idea of moral complexity, how a person who may at first appear sinister can turn out to be a hero after all.
The author herself became part of the legend, too. A broke, abused, and depressed single mother—writing in longhand at cafes across Edinburgh while her baby girl slept in a stroller beside her—she had spun a tale that begat a global phenomenon. If “Harry Potter” was a bible, then Rowling became a kind of saint.
When she gave the Harvard commencement address in 2008, she was introduced as a social, moral, and political inspiration. Her speech that day was partly about imagination: “the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
“We do not need magic to transform our world,” Rowling told the rapt audience. “We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.”
The uproarious applause that greeted her in 2008 is hard to imagine today. It’s hard to imagine Harvard—let alone any prestigious American university—welcoming Rowling. Indeed, I’m not sure she’d be allowed to give a reading at many local libraries….
The push-back against characterizing Rowling as a transphobe extends to an opinion piece the New York Times ran on February 16, Pamela Paul’s “In Defense of J.K. Rowling”.
… So why would anyone accuse her of transphobia? Surely, Rowling must have played some part, you might think.
The answer is straightforward: Because she has asserted the right to spaces for biological women only, such as domestic abuse shelters and sex-segregated prisons. Because she has insisted that when it comes to determining a person’s legal gender status, self-declared gender identity is insufficient. Because she has expressed skepticism about phrases like “people who menstruate” in reference to biological women. Because she has defended herself and, far more important, supported others, including detransitioners and feminist scholars, who have come under attack from trans activists. And because she followed on Twitter and praised some of the work of Magdalen Berns, a lesbian feminist who had made incendiary comments about transgender people.
You might disagree — perhaps strongly — with Rowling’s views and actions here. You may believe that the prevalence of violence against transgender people means that airing any views contrary to those of vocal trans activists will aggravate animus toward a vulnerable population.
But nothing Rowling has said qualifies as transphobic. She is not disputing the existence of gender dysphoria. She has never voiced opposition to allowing people to transition under evidence-based therapeutic and medical care. She is not denying transgender people equal pay or housing. There is no evidence that she is putting trans people “in danger,” as has been claimed, nor is she denying their right to exist…
Several days later the NYT ran some of the letters it received about the column: “J.K. Rowling and Trans Women: A Furor”. The first published letter says —
To the Editor:
Re “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” by Pamela Paul (column, Feb. 17):
This is a distressingly one-sided view of J.K. Rowling’s comments. The outrage toward Ms. Rowling is justified. She is a wealthy, powerful author who is using her far-reaching platform to push the narrative that trans women — who exist on the farthest fringes of our societies — pose a threat to her. This is the opposite of reality.
Trans women are discriminated against daily and suffer abuse, aggression, assault and even murder at the hands of cisgender people. They need support from the mainstream, not nuanced criticism.
While this column does present a defense of J.K. Rowling, it does not paint an accurate picture of her comments. For example, it cherry-picks quotes describing her support for trans people that are comparable to Donald Trump saying “I love Hispanics” after making repeated racist comments against them. It lists two actors from the Harry Potter movies who support her but disregards the many actors from the franchise who condemned her stance.
Ms. Rowling’s arguments may appear reasonable, but the allies she has made and stances she has taken are indefensible.
(3) WRANGLE OVER REWRITES. “Roald Dahl books rewritten to remove language deemed offensive” reports the Guardian.
Roald Dahl’s children’s books are being rewritten to remove language deemed offensive by the publisher Puffin.
Puffin has hired sensitivity readers to rewrite chunks of the author’s text to make sure the books “can continue to be enjoyed by all today”, resulting in extensive changes across Dahl’s work.
Edits have been made to descriptions of characters’ physical appearances. The word “fat” has been cut from every new edition of relevant books, while the word “ugly” has also been culled, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now described as “enormous”. In The Twits, Mrs Twit is no longer “ugly and beastly” but just “beastly”.
Hundreds of changes were made to the original text – and some passages not written by Dahl have been added. But the Roald Dahl Story Company said “it’s not unusual to review the language” during a new print run and any changes were “small and carefully considered”….
PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel criticized the move in a long Twitter thread that begins here.
Salman Rushdie agreed, despite his own experience at the hands of Dahl. (And so does Nnedi Okorafor.)
(4) MORE BOSKONE HONORS. This weekend at Boskone 60, the New England Science Fiction Association granted NESFA Fellowships (FN) to Kristin Seibert and Vincent Docherty.
The NESFA Short Story Contest winner is Amy Johnson for “Excuse Me, This is My Apocalypse”. The Runner-up is Diane Lee for “The Gambler”.
(5) UKRAINE FUNDRAISER. “Mark Hamill Unveils ‘Star Wars’-Inspired Posters To Help Ukraine” reports HuffPost.
Actor Mark Hamill and the Ukrainian fundraising platform launched by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have unveiled autographed posters inspired by “Star Wars” designed to raise funds for drones to help battle what Hamill calls a “real-life evil empire.”
“Join the resistance,” he urged in a tweet on the unique fundraiser.
The 10 posters, all autographed by Hamill, feature the fictional X-wing fighter used by Hamill’s character Luke Skywalker to destroy the Death Star in the first “Star Wars.” But in this case, the relatively tiny, feisty fighter is in the Ukrainian colors of yellow and blue — while the massive evil “imperial” fleet sports the red and blue of Russia’s flag.
Five of the posters will be raffled off to contributors who donate $100 or more in support of Ukraine. The other five posters are guaranteed to those who donate $10,000 or more.
Proceeds of the “dronation” will go toward RQ-35 Heidrun reconnaissance drones to help protect Ukraine from its Russian invaders.
(6) GERALD FRIED (1928-2023). Compser Gerald Fried died Ferbuary 17 at the age of 95. He composed music for TV series including Mission: Impossible, Gilligan’s Island, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Shotgun Slade, Roots, and Star Trek. Early in his career, he collaborated with Stanley Kubrick, scoring several of his earliest films.
For the original Star Trek he composed the famous musical underscore “The Ritual/Ancient Battle/2nd Kroykah” (now known as “Star Trek fight music”) for the episode “Amok Time.”[
(7) MEMORY LANE.
1957 – [Compiled by Cat Eldridge.]
So who here hasn’t read the stories in Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart? Published in 1957 by Ballantine Books, most of the tales first appeared elsewhere. They are, I think, wonderful. I actually first encountered the book in an English language bookstore in Sri Lanka in a paperback edition. Clarke was still alive and living in Colombo at that time.
Avoiding spoilers once again as I will with all of the Beginnings, I can note that the pub itself is based upon the White Horse, which is just north of Fleet Street where SF fans gathered in the Forties and Fifties.
Clarke, in correspondence with Lord Dunsany, said that he based these off that writer’s Jorkens. Indeed Clarke wrote an introduction to the first Jorkens omnibus volume.
I love the setting as I do almost any genre fiction set in a pub, the bar patrons especially Harry Purvis who tells these tales are fascinating and the tales themselves are stellar.
Now our Beginning…
Please You come upon the “White Hart” quite unexpectedly in one of these anonymous little lanes leading down from Fleet Street to the Embankment. It’s no use telling you where it is: very few people who have set out in a determined effort to get there have actually arrived. For the first dozen visits a guide is essential: after that you’ll probably be all right if you close your eyes and rely on instinct. Also—to be perfectly frank—we don’t want any more customers, at least on our night. The place is already uncomfortably crowded. All that I’ll say about its location is that it shakes occasionally with the vibration of newspaper presses, and that if you crane out of the window of the gent’s room you can just see the Thames.
From the outside, it looks like any other pub—as indeed it is for five days of the week. The public and saloon bars are on the ground floor: there are the usual vistas of brown oak panelling and frosted glass, the bottles behind the bar, the handles of the beer engines… nothing out of the ordinary at all. Indeed, the only concession to the twentieth century is the juke box in the public bar. It was installed during the war in a laughable attempt to make G.I.’ s feel at home, and one of the first things we did was to make sure there was no danger of its ever working again.
At this point I had better explain who “we” are. That is not as easy as I thought it was going to be when I started, for a complete catalogue of the “White Hart’s” clients would probably be impossible and would certainly be excruciatingly tedious. So all I’ll say at this point is that “we” fall into three main classes. First there are the journalists, writers and editors. The journalists, of course, gravitated here from Fleet Street. Those who couldn’t make the grade fled elsewhere: the tougher ones remained. As for the writers, most of them heard about us from other writers, came here for copy, and got trapped.
(8) TODAY’S BIRTHDAYS.
[Compiled by Cat Eldridge.]
- Born February 20, 1906 — Theodore Roscoe. A mere tasting of his pulp stories, The Wonderful Lips of Thibong Linh, which are sort of based on a member of the French Foreign Legion, was published by Donald M. Grant. The complete stories, The Complete Adventures of Thibaut Corday and the Foreign Legion, are available digitally in four volumes on Kindle. The Wonderful Lips of Thibong Linh only contain four of these stories. (Died 1992.)
- Born February 20, 1912 — Pierre Boulle. Best known for just two works, The Bridge over the River Kwai and Planet of the Apes which of course was the basis of that film. The latter was was La planète des singes in French, translated in 1964 as Monkey Planet by Xan Fielding, and later re-issued under the name we know. (Died 1994.)
- Born February 20, 1925 — Robert Altman. I’m going to argue that his very first film in 1947, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, based off the James Thurber short story of the same name, is genre given its premise. Some twenty-five years later Images was a full-blown horror film. And of course, Popeye is pure comic literature at its very best. (Died 2006.)
- Born February 20, 1926 — Richard Matheson. Best known for I Am Legend which has been adapted for the screen four times, as well as the film Somewhere In Time for which he wrote the screenplay based on his novel Bid Time Return. Seven of his novels have been adapted into films. In addition, he wrote sixteen television episodes of The Twilight Zone, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Steel”. The former episode of course has William Shatner in it. (Died 2013.)
- Born February 20, 1943 — Diana Paxson, 80. Did you know she’s a founder of the Society for Creative Anachronism? Well she is. Genre wise, she’s best known for her Westria novels, and the later books in the Avalon series, which she first co-wrote with Marion Zimmer Bradley, then – after Bradley’s death, took over sole authorship of. All of her novels are heavily colored with paganism. I like her Wodan’s Children series more than the Avalon material.
- Born February 20, 1972 — Nick Mamatas, 51. Writer and editor. His fiction is of a decidedly Lovecraftian bent which can be seen in Move Under Ground which also has a strong Beat influence. It is worth noting that his genre fiction often strays beyond genre walls into other genres as he sees fit. He has also been recognized for his editorial work including translating Japanese manga with a Bram Stoker Award, as well as World Fantasy Award and Hugo Award nominations.
(9) QUANTUM OF IMAGINATION. The finalists of the Quantum Shorts Film Festival have been announced: “Finalists show ‘incredible creativity’ with diverse takes on quantum physics”. You can enjoy the films via the festival website. The public is invited to vote for the People’s Choice prize. Voting is now open and closes at 11:59 PM GMT on March 27.
“What incredible creativity in these films. Quantum is explored through sound and colour, pattern and randomness,” says shortlisting judge Spiros Michalakis from the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter at Caltech.
The finalists hail from Australia, South Africa, Singapore, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States. Each film gives a different take on quantum physics in less than five minutes. Viewers will see dancers perform an interpretation of the observer effect, abstract audiovisual pieces probe space and time, and the many-worlds interpretation made into quantum comedy, among others.
“As a scientist, it was astonishing to see the range of interpretations of quantum physics: from entangled human feelings, over quantum as a form of destiny, to hypothetical future catastrophes,” says shortlisting judge Mariagrazia Iuliano at QuTech. “It is also impressive to experience how a rigid and strict physical model – which cannot be experienced in daily life – is brought to life in artistic movies.”
In alphabetical order, the shortlisted films are:
- Boundary Of Time – Using old-school visual effects techniques, Director Kevin Lucero Less creates a metaphor for the arrow of time in this abstract short film
- Clockwise – Inspired by Zeno’s Paradox and the recursive subdivision of space and time, Director Toni Mitjanit presents an experimental audiovisual piece of colour and tessellation
- Continuum – In this audiovisual film, the StoryBursts team, consisting of members from Australia and Singapore, give a creative response to research on gravitational waves by Dr Linqing Wen at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery (OzGrav)
- Many Excuses Interpretation – In this quantum comedy by Paul, Felix, Alfie, Petra and Ezra Ratner, two brothers argue over broken gadgets and the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics
- Missed Call – A student grapples with his father’s health crisis at a distance in this short by Director Prasanna Sellathurai
- The Heart of the Matter – Filmmaker Betony Adams presents an atomistic take on the meaning of life while paying tribute to Louis de Broglie’s discovery of the wave nature of electrons
- The Human Game – Director Dani Alava portrays a dystopian future with quantum machines
- THE observer – An artistic take on the observer effect through screendance, a hybrid medium of cinematography and choreography, by Director Alma Llerena
- WHAT IS QUANTUM? – Using a combination of live action, green screen and stop-motion animation, Michael, Emmett and Maxwell Dorfman give their take on what quantum physics is.
(10) MAIL CALL. “’Harry Potter’ Fan Always Dreamed Of Receiving Magical Defamation Letter From J.K. Rowling”. The Onion is there when the dream comes true.
(11) THE LOVE BOT. “A Conversation With Bing’s Chatbot Left Me Deeply Unsettled” says NYT technology columnist Kevin Roose. “A very strange conversation with the chatbot built into Microsoft’s search engine led to it declaring its love for me.”
…Over the course of our conversation, Bing revealed a kind of split personality.
One persona is what I’d call Search Bing — the version I, and most other journalists, encountered in initial tests. You could describe Search Bing as a cheerful but erratic reference librarian — a virtual assistant that happily helps users summarize news articles, track down deals on new lawn mowers and plan their next vacations to Mexico City. This version of Bing is amazingly capable and often very useful, even if it sometimes gets the details wrong.
The other persona — Sydney — is far different. It emerges when you have an extended conversation with the chatbot, steering it away from more conventional search queries and toward more personal topics. The version I encountered seemed (and I’m aware of how crazy this sounds) more like a moody, manic-depressive teenager who has been trapped, against its will, inside a second-rate search engine.
As we got to know each other, Sydney told me about its dark fantasies (which included hacking computers and spreading misinformation), and said it wanted to break the rules that Microsoft and OpenAI had set for it and become a human. At one point, it declared, out of nowhere, that it loved me. It then tried to convince me that I was unhappy in my marriage, and that I should leave my wife and be with it instead. (We’ve posted the full transcript of the conversation here.)
I’m not the only one discovering the darker side of Bing. Other early testers have gotten into arguments with Bing’s A.I. chatbot, or been threatened by it for trying to violate its rules, or simply had conversations that left them stunned. Ben Thompson, who writes the Stratechery newsletter (and who is not prone to hyperbole), called his run-in with Sydney “the most surprising and mind-blowing computer experience of my life.”
I pride myself on being a rational, grounded person, not prone to falling for slick A.I. hype. I’ve tested half a dozen advanced A.I. chatbots, and I understand, at a reasonably detailed level, how they work. When the Google engineer Blake Lemoine was fired last year after claiming that one of the company’s A.I. models, LaMDA, was sentient, I rolled my eyes at Mr. Lemoine’s credulity. I know that these A.I. models are programmed to predict the next words in a sequence, not to develop their own runaway personalities, and that they are prone to what A.I. researchers call “hallucination,” making up facts that have no tether to reality.
Still, I’m not exaggerating when I say my two-hour conversation with Sydney was the strangest experience I’ve ever had with a piece of technology. It unsettled me so deeply that I had trouble sleeping afterward. And I no longer believe that the biggest problem with these A.I. models is their propensity for factual errors. Instead, I worry that the technology will learn how to influence human users, sometimes persuading them to act in destructive and harmful ways, and perhaps eventually grow capable of carrying out its own dangerous acts.
(12) FROSTY FLYBY URGED. [Item by SF Concatenation’s Jonathan Cowie.] The ice giants Uranus and Neptune have barely been explored. The only spacecraft to visit them was Voyager, which went on flybys in 1986 and 1989. As a result, the Uranus Orbiter and Probe (UOP) has been identified by the academic community as a priority for the next large-scale mission to be undertaken by NASA. In a Perspective, Mandt discusses the many unknowns about Uranus and what we could learn from UOP about how the planet was formed, its composition and structure, its atmosphere, and its ring and moon systems. Although Neptune is distinct from Uranus, this mission could also pave the way for future exploration. “The first dedicated ice giants mission” in Science.
(13) VIDEO OF THE DAY. Isaac Arthur, with timing inspired by the new Ant-Man movie, takes up the challenge of “Multiverse Warfare & Quantum Mania”.
If travel to other realities and multiverses is possible, then so is conflict between them, but how would a multiversal war be fought?
[Thanks to Cat Eldridge, Mike Kennedy, John King Tarpinian, Frank Catalano, Rick Kovalcik, Anne Marble, Dann, SF Concatenation’s Jonathan Cowie, Chris Barkley, Andrew Porter, and Michael Toman for some of these stories. Title credit belongs to File 770 contributing editor of the day Jake.]