Sunday, May 9, 2010

Non-Zero Probabilities

Short Story by N.K. Jemisin
Podcast read by Kate Baker

I'm still not terribly impressed with Ms. Jemisin. It baffles me that this got both a Nebula and Hugo nomination.

It was an okay story; probability in New York City changes so that things on either end of the good-bad bell curve are more likely than things in the middle. So unlikely good and bad occurrences become the norm. There is some mention that human thought is altering probability, which explains to some extent the linking of these things to good luck charms/bad luck omens. Because of this concept, millions of people are going to get together and pray the situation out of existence with sheer force-of-belief. Our heroine gets a boyfriend, and the story ends before anything is resolved (for the better I think).

The probability changes seem off to me in a couple of ways. As a math person, I just can't cope with how Jemisin thinks of probability and it breaks the story for me. Based on the use of probability alone, I'd give the story 1 out of 5 in anger, but I'm trying to reign that impulse in.

The Principle of Indifference is completely ignored, to the point where rolling snake eyes is seriously treated as being more unlikely than a pair of twos or a one and a six. This sort of thing drives me crazy, and is at the heart of all the changes to probability. There is also a shade of Gambler's Fallacy here. I suppose you could explain these away with the idea that the changes are being caused by people's beliefs and people tend to be full of bad reasoning. But that seems like a stretch and isn't really how things are portrayed here. It mentions scientists think this, but that isn't how any of the characters treat things, and it doesn't seem plausible that people's beliefs would cause probability to act this way (given that probability is changed by people's beliefs). I think the author just has issues with how probability works.

So the concept of what was and was not unlikely in this world drove me completely nuts, but the writing was good. Sadly, the plot wasn't, but it could have been worse. It's has all world-building and nothing happens. Maybe we are supposed to think Adele has changed in her ability to cope with the world, but she seems the same at the start and end of the story. The big external event never actually happens in the story, but that is probably for the better, because I can't see how believing things won't be the way the are will fix things, since the instant people were able to change things with their thoughts, there was no reason they would expect change to happen, yet it did.

1.5 out of 5, this one is an outlier on the "crap" end of the bell curve.

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