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Review of "The Digital Coyote" and brief digression on the Coyotl Awards by MLR

So I just finished reading The Digital Coyote, by Kris Schnee. Up front I will say I'd never heard of this book or the series it was part of prior to picking it up. I bought it solely because it won Best Novel in the 2016 Coyotl Awards:

You guys already know I'm very hard to please.

Big sigh. I don't want to trash talk so much this time. But this book is loaded with serious problems, like so many others I've read recently. I actually took extensive notes while I was reading it, though, so I shan't allow my labors to go to waste. Here are the major problems I discovered, in agonizing list format.

1.) I knew something was wrong almost immediately. This is despite going into the book assuming it would be good, considering it won 'best novel'. But right away, things were moving so fast I could barely keep up. The book is about a man named Pete who, not being satisfied with himself or where his life has gone, uploads his brain to a digital video game world and asks the overlord AI that runs it to start messing with his digital brain to alter and fix his personality.
The problem here is that this is how the book starts, and immediately changes are being made to his personality. We spend only a page or two (I mean this literally) with Pete before these changes are made. Is this because the book is the third of a series? I thought this at first, but in reading the blurbs on the previous entries I see no mention of Pete in any of them, so I believe this is the first time we're meeting him. If I'm wrong about this, someone correct me. If I'm right, though, what an egregious oversight. We get details of what he was like strewn about later in the book, but it's all hearsay -- textbook example of a place in which telling is inferior to showing. So right off the bat one of the more interesting themes of the book is more or less completely botched.

2.) The plot progression is also very slipshod, to the point that I got the strong impression the author was actually making it up as he went along. This is fine only if one then proceeds to go back, do some editing, and clean up the narrative and organize things so that one thing sets up another. This was not done. There were roughly a dozen instances I wrote down in which I was asking myself, 'was this established earlier?'. For example:

  • pg. 32, on the purpose of the magic system being for people to have meaningful experiences.
  • pg. 47, a griffin character suddenly is described as having a parrot voice.
  • pg. 142, someone named 'Atari' is introduced via an off-hand reference ("I most favor Castorus the Upward Spiral. You take somewhat more after Atari, the Root of the Tree."), and on pg. 143 we hard cut to a scene with her.

including several such instances that turned out to be important plot threads -- a giant space station called The Hundredfold Wonder, a strange character who just goes by John and dresses like a wizard. The ending of the book. Alfred Hitchcock once gave a great example illustrating his approach to tension -- you show the audience the bomb, and you show that the characters are unaware of the bomb until the time is right for them to take action. In this book, neither the audience nor the characters seem to know there's a bomb until it explodes.
While I recognize this is a part of a series, I tend toward thinking these instances were more the result of poor planning. This is because a great portion of the book is made up of scenes that ultimately serve no purpose. I suppose the most egregious example is near the beginning, in which Pete is transported to a feudal Japan world, fights a ninja, and then is taken back out--the characters in the book explicitly tell us that yes, that whole event was completely pointless. Around the page 50 mark, we spend two pages explaining how to play the game (the fictional game, that we as readers can't play). On page 57 there's a several-page long description of a robot battle that leads nowhere. There's a subplot introduced around page 80 about using prisoners as pawns to help push legislation through making digital brain uploading easier in the US, but by the end of the book this is never resolved (also this subplot concerns another problem, but we will get to that). After a wacky scene in which Pete the coyote has to use Acme products to catch a road runner, a man threatens suicide because he doesn't have the money to upload his brain, and then one of the onlookers shoots in the head in front of children; this also leads nowhere, other than making Pete depressed for a short time.
I could go on, of course, but the point is that with all of these dropped plot threads, I had a very hard time focusing and retaining things. The Hundredfold Wonder scene, for example, is given great gravity and ends up dealing with one of the book's more important themes (about the benefits of working to attain one's goals, which... well, geez, Pete paid his way in and then had all his personality flaws digitally edited out). But as I started reading this passage, I couldn't recall whether or not this Hundredfold Wonder ship had even been introduced to us beforehand. I had set the book aside for a few days, you see, and all memory of it completely left my brain, shoved out by too much clutter. Only the last ~30% of the book felt cohesive; in this part, the main character has a goal, and sets out to achieve it. This should have been the book. But up until that point I suppose his goal is only 'to have fun', as this is reiterated many times in dialogue. So take from that what you will.

4.) Related but separate from point 3.), because the book takes place in a video game world, there is no tension from physical things. If characters die, they respawn at their last save point. And yet we spend pages and pages on descriptions of battles. They get very boring very quickly.

5.) The themes in the book are treated in a very strange and sometimes disturbing manner. I think this might be a consequence of the aforementioned slipshod construction, which also leads to the author briefly touching the surface of a myriad of different scientific and philosophical topics, almost like the whole book was researched on Wikipedia. But when this is applied to themes that are dwelt on, it leaves some pretty interesting holes.
First example: the prisoner plan I mentioned previously. So Pete is trying to come up with ways of getting court precedent for the legalization of brain uploading in the United States. Fine. He decides a good way to do this is through the state-sponsored uploading of prisoners, because prison populations are exploding and soaking up taxpayer dollars. Fine...? Well, we're already getting into shaky territory. Then he proposes that, because prisoners might cause havoc in the game world, they instead be uploaded to isolated digital holding cells on private servers run by the prisons, where they are taken care of like Tamagotchi pets (this is the metaphor used) until their sentences are up/they've been deemed rehabilitated.
Okay. It has previously been established that in this digital world, the thoughts and feelings of digital brains can be manipulated, and the flow of time can be altered. So the plan is to destroy the physical bodies of their prisoners, and upload their minds into this easily manipulated environment from which there is quite literally no escape--not even suicide--and no accountability. Perhaps this says something about me, but my brain immediately started thinking of how this was going to be abused (physical and mental torture, sensory deprivation, and time slowed to a crawl so that every experience is heightened and... you get the picture). But nobody in the book brings this up. Instead we get this:

"But damn it -- sorry -- they got themselves convicted. They probably deserved it, and it's not our job to rescue the exceptions."

If you've read this book and feel I'm taking this out of context, please correct me. In the meantime, I will be horrified by the tone-deafness with which this issue is treated here, considering especially the politics surrounding it in the US today.
EDIT: see comments below for a correction on my interpretation of this.

Second example. Again, to help push through legislation, Pete decides to try getting the minds of terminally ill children uploaded into the game.
Grumble, grumble.

Okay, perhaps I don't need to explain the problems with this one. But they go through with it (apparently their parents' consented, although to my recollection no one even mentions the wills of the parents). Then Pete decides, hey, we just tore the souls from these dying children and separated them from their parents and uploaded them as digital beings into a fantasy realm. I'm sure they're taking it fine, so how about we have their first act be to fight their way through actual Hell, in front of an audience of hundreds or maybe thousands.
Interestingly, this is commented on:

"Having your brain ripped apart and waking up to cry about your lost humanity is nothing to be shared in public!"

My thoughts exactly (on that one aspect of it, at least), but this is the response:

"You see anybody crying down there?"

Which is meant to justify the whole thing. Because indeed, the children aren't crying down there. This is treated as a stroke of genius on Pete's part, and not as a strange and off-putting lack of human understanding on the part of the author, as perhaps it should have been.

This is getting long and I'm starting to sound grumpy. Look at me edging on making ad hominem attacks on someone who in all likelihood is quick and smart and a joy to be around (even if I find he's not much of a writer). And I genuinely mean that, as there are in fact many very interesting ideas brought up (if never fully explored) in this one novel, and there are many novels.

I did not enjoy this book. Even the tone of it annoyed me (almost the entire thing is written in a very snarky clever-clever way, with loads of modern-day pop-culture references despite it taking place in the 2040s), but since that's a personal opinion I chose not to dwell on it. So I am now very curious: why, exactly, did this book win Best Novel in the Coyotl Awards?

I'm curious mostly who is voting in them. I do not, which I suppose makes me a part of the problem. My reasoning is, I don't have the time to give every nominee a fair shake in order to make a fair comparison. But if, for example, one assumes that others feel the same way, yet vote regardless just to support their friends and colleagues, one might wonder if a terribly, terribly flawed book like The Digital Coyote could end up winning Best Novel. In which case, one might ponder whether or not the Coyotls are actually a fair representation of quality anthropomorphic fiction, or whether they suffer from the same kind of "popularity contest" problem the Ursa Major Awards have been judged to suffer from.

Review of "The Digital Coyote" and brief digression on the Coyotl Awards


15 March 2018 at 12:31:01 MDT

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    I thought the Digital Coyote was one of Schnee's best and I was glad that it won an award, although I wasn't following the nominations and don't know what the competitors were.
    You're right. The book is a mess. It does feature some well-thought out virtual worldbuilding, it's readable, and has some interesting characters, and that puts it way ahead of the other anthro-related fiction I've seen. I think it probably won for legitimate reasons. Schnee is not any sort of fandom celebrity, and in fact a lot of his audience seems to be from sci-fi and RPG literature fans rather than the furry fandom.
    I also found the treatment of the moral dilemmas bizarre and I don't know much to attribute that to the author's idiosyncrasies or the fact that we're dealing with characters that are not or never were human.
    Incidentally, the incredibly creepy prison episode you mentioned was not quite as twisted as you remembered it. The plan was to give the prison bureaucrats non-sentient "Tier II" AI simulations of the prisoners to torment while keeping the real prisoners' minds on Ludo's servers, to either rehabilitate or contain in bubble worlds. That didn't work out and the whole plan seemed to get dropped for being too morally weird. I agree that the author handled it in a confusing way. Both that and the children's hospital episode also lampshaded the ruling AI's creepy pokemon-collector attitude towards human beings. (Whether the author thinks it's creepy is less clear)

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      "I think it probably won for legitimate reasons."

      Well, I have actually read one of the other nominees and happened to think it was far superior (Dog Country). I'm also curious to give Kyell Gold's nominated book a shot, because though I've only ever read one of his books I am aware he's a very skillful writer. (Of course, that one is also part of a series that I haven't read....)

      "I also found the treatment of the moral dilemmas bizarre and I don't know much to attribute that to the author's idiosyncrasies or the fact that we're dealing with characters that are not or never were human."

      I suspect a lot of this stems from them being introduced but never very carefully considered, because that's a theme in the whole rest of the book too. Topics that are potentially interested are constantly being brought up, barely touched upon, and then forgotten. I imagine this would go much better if the author picked one or two things to focus on for a whole book. In fact I know this is true because that last plot thread about FAE actually did work as a story, even if it was a bit rushed and lacked proper set-up for the final payoff. I would have been way more into this book if that last plot thread was the entire book.

      "The plan was to give the prison bureaucrats non-sentient "Tier II" AI simulations of the prisoners to torment while keeping the real prisoners' minds on Ludo's servers, to either rehabilitate or contain in bubble worlds. That didn't work out and the whole plan seemed to get dropped for being too morally weird."

      Ah, okay. Now that you mention it, I remember this. I'll edit the original post to point down here for the correction.
      Regardless, the whole plot thread is completely dropped, so I question why it was ever brought up in the first place. It strengthens my impression that very little editing was done after the fact to clean up the narrative, which is something I find very frustrating. I suppose if you've been following along with this series the whole time and are engrossed in the world for some reason it would come across less so, but it still can't be argued that it's sloppy, like reading someone's RP session.