Monthly Archives: July 2009

Clarke’s billion-year-old city shows his talents and his weaknesses

They had lived in the same city, had walked the same miraculously unchanging streets, while more than a billion years had worn away.

Title: The City and the Stars
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Year: 1953
Rating: 3/5 stars

citystarsA city that has stood for a billion years, protecting its population on a future Earth long since abandoned and turned barren. Matter-manipulating technology capable of sustaining that city in perfect condition, and providing anything the inhabitants need or desire. Memory banks that hold each person’s pattern, allowing them to reincarnate over and over again, providing them with a new body each time. A humanity that has long ago lost much of its heritage and knowledge of its past, and now lives a safe but limited existence, frightened of the outside world and their innate human curiosity. And one unique individual who embraces his curiosity, setting forth on a quest for answers that will change his world. Such are the concepts that make up The City and the Stars, one of Arthur C. Clarke’s earliest novels (actually a rewrite of his first novel, Against the Fall of Night, with which he was dissatisfied).

The late Mr. Clarke was often capable of coming up with bold, exciting ideas, but alas, his writing style often couldn’t match them. That’s certainly the case here. The book is full of grand ideas designed to give one’s sense of wonder a vigorous workout. I probably would have adored this book if I’d read it back in the 50′s when it was fresh and new, or perhaps if I’d read it at a much younger age. Unfortunately, the storytelling here has a really amateur, pulp-era feel to it, which I can’t quite get over. Some of the situations are pretty silly, and the plot wildly zings along without much in the way of smooth transition. This is much more apparent in the second half of the book, in which Alvin can be seen firmly on Earth on one page, and hurtling through space on a suddenly discovered starship by the next page (as one example).

So the book is long on substance, but rather short on form. I suppose those two traits average out to a somewhat mediocre story overall. Other than that, I’m just not inspired to say much more about this book. It was worth reading, but I’ll take Childhood’s End over this one any day.

Lady of Mazes is a concept-heavy exploration of different realities

Each technology equated to some human value or set of values, she saw. She’d known that. But on Earth, in the Archipelago, and everywhere else, technologies came first, and values changed to accomodate them. Under the locks, values were the keys to access or shut away technologies.

Title: Lady of Mazes
Author: Karl Schroeder
Year: 2005
Rating: 4/5 stars

ladymazesAt the most basic level, Lady of Mazes explores an age-old question: what is the best way to live life? More specifically, it’s about the role of technology in our lives and the ways in which it affects us, constrains us, or frees us. Should technology influence our values, or should it be the other way around? Another of the book’s big questions: when you can live your life in a virtual world that suits your own lifestyle and beliefs, is that preferable to the “real world,” or is it running away from reality? Set in a post-scarcity future of abundant energy and programmable matter, the book also asks: “How does humanity govern itself when each person can have anything they want?” Schroeder comes up with some intriguing possible answers to these questions, in a book that provides the reader with plenty to think about.

Events begin on a coronal (a ringworld) called Teven, which has been isolated from the rest of humanity for centuries. The inhabitants of Teven grow up living their whole lives in sophisticated virtual realities called manifolds. Each manifold is its own world with its own unique society, customs, and values; the whole virtual reality system is known as inscape and works via neural implants. And through devices called tech locks, each manifold allows only certain kinds of technology, consistent with the values of that society. For instance, if you lived in a low-tech manifold like Raven, with a civilization something like that of early Native Americans, then you’d never see aircraft in your world. If you wanted to see aircraft, inscape would read this through your implants, and you’d see the world fade around you, to be replaced by a manifold that contained that technology. Not many people on Teven travel in this way, but there are a few cultures that are interested in exploring other manifolds. The main character, Livia Kodaly, is from just such a culture, and this along with other experiences have prepared her well for the adventures ahead.

Those adventures start when Teven is invaded by an unknown adversary known simply as 3340. This invader quickly takes over by manipulating inscape and blurring the lines between manifolds, allowing attacks with advanced weapons on people with no defenses. With Teven quickly falling into chaos, Livia and a few friends manage to escape, making their way into the wider human civilization called the Archipelago, a vast conglomerate of coronals and other artificial habitats, as well as planets and moons, spanning the solar system. Here they will seek help for Teven and information on 3340, but they have to be careful, since they find themselves in a dangerous and alien situation they don’t understand. For one thing, the Archipelago uses inscape, but there are no tech locks; the people there live unstructured lives of wild fantasy where anything is possible and all kinds of realities are mixed together. And there are various political and ideological factions to navigate: the versos, who favor a return to hard reality; post-humans with near-godlike powers; and the anecliptics, the even more powerful beings who control the solar system and dole out the power of the Sun.

One interesting feature of the Archipelago is its system of automated government. Through the implants everyone receives as a child, whenever enough people share a common interest — no matter what it is — a “vote” is generated. A vote is an AI being representing its constituents in matters of policy. And the votes as a whole group also generate a single AI averaging all interests, known as the Government. Fascinating idea, I think.

The book’s primary focus seems to be the pros and cons of simulated reality, and different views on it. Is it a way to take control of one’s life? Is it a kind of imprisonment? Is it mere escapism? Two contrasting views can be seen, one from Livia:

Kale’s words had been clear: he believed the people of Teven were using inscape to hide from the real world. But Livia had lived outside inscape; she had seen nothing there that she didn’t see within it. It was the emphasis that changed when you changed the technologies mediating between you and the world. Before the accident, her angels, implants, and augmented senses had skewed reality one way; afterward, her clothes, hands and feet, and biological senses had skewed it another. Part of reality had been turned up, other parts turned down or shut off. But neither showed the total picture; one was not true and the other false.

And the other from Morss, someone sympathetic to the versos:

… humanity’s turning into a race of fucking sleepwalkers. Those of us who believe in the existence of a real world are in a shrinking minority. Most people think inscape is all there is. They’re more and more out of touch with reality….

There are other features I won’t delve into here: the Societies, animas, angels, faeries, the eschatus machine. Suffice it to say Schroeder does a pretty good job at building a world of some complexity that engages the reader’s mind in trying to figure it out. That’s not to say Lady of Mazes shines in every way. The characterization and overall plot are average, and Schroeder definitely has some room to grow there. I feel the book sits right on the border between three and four stars; I kicked it up to four for the sheer density of concepts and its ability to make you think — which is, after all, one of the primary goals of science fiction.

Deepness proves Vinge a master of quality space opera

The Qeng Ho fleet was the first to arrive at the OnOff star. That might not matter. For the last fifty years of their voyage, they had watched the torch-plumes of the Emergent fleet as it decelerated toward the same destination.
This was a situation where treachery might be rewarded, and both sides knew it.

Title: A Deepness in the Sky
Author: Vernor Vinge
Year: 1999
Rating: 5/5 stars

deepnessThis novel is set in the same universe (the “Zones of Thought”) as Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep, and although it’s not necessary to have read that previous novel in order to appreciate this one, that is still the easiest angle of approach, so that’s where I’ll start (and hey, you should read them both anyway, since they’re both fantastic). In Fire we meet the character of Pham Nuwen, who is actually a sophisticated recreation of the original Pham Nuwen, constructed by one of the super-advanced Powers from the Beyond. This artificial being has the personality and memories of the actual living Nuwen, and throughout the book we get tantalizing glimpses into his long-ago life as part of the Qeng Ho trading culture in the Slow Zone. A Deepness in the Sky takes us back to that time, some twenty thousand years earlier, and lets us share some of the exploits of the real Pham Nuwen. And once again, Vinge scores a hit, delivering a modern space opera classic.

As the story opens, Nuwen is in hiding after being betrayed and toppled from his position of power many years ago, just when he was on the brink of achieving his greatest dream — the dream of a network capable of holding humanity together throughout the galaxy without the periodic dark ages it has been accustomed to. Now, after a long and massive search, one of his former captains has tracked him down, and convinces him to join an expedition that offers unique and unprecedented opportunities for profit. Astronomers had long known of the OnOff star, a mysterious stellar object that goes dark for 215 out of every 250 years, but no one had ever investigated up close. But it has suddenly become urgent, since radio signals have been picked up from a planet orbiting OnOff — signals suggesting the world is home to the first alien species ever discovered by humanity.

But the Qeng Ho are not the only ones to recognize the opportunities of the situation. Another of humanity’s countless long-separated branches happens to dwell near enough to send an expedition. The Emergents, as they call themselves, see OnOff and the alien civilization there differently than the Qeng Ho — as a resource to be ruthlessly exploited, rather than as a potential trading partner. The rigidly authoritarian and dictatorial Emergent culture is the antithesis of the libertarian, free-market-loving Qeng Ho, and as the two race toward their common destination, a clash of civilizations is inevitable. But the Emergents have a secret weapon to use in that clash: a certain virus found on their homeworld, tamed over centuries, that has profound effects on the human brain. In a weaponized form called “mindrot” it is a crippling disease that shuts down higher mental functions. In a different form called “Focus,” it’s a tool for turning a human being into a living computer. The Focused are like idiot savants, concentrating their entire mental life on their one specialty (navigation, translation, physics, or whatever) with nothing left over for anything else, even simple human interaction. These genius zombies are loyal to their creators (without enough individual will to resist), and are the backbone of Emergent power. And even as the Qeng Ho face the most ruthless adversaries they’ve ever met, Nuwen faces a temptation: is Focus the answer to his long-held dream of a unified human galaxy?

But there’s more going on here. Just as its companion novel does, A Deepness in the Sky tells half of its story from the perspective of an alien species. The Spiders (so called by the Qeng Ho for their general arachnid appearance) have a unique culture shaped by the unusual circumstances of their environment. On a planet that only gets significant sunlight for 35 out of every 250 years, survival through the Long Dark is paramount. While the world goes cold and the atmosphere itself freezes and snows to the ground, the Spiders hibernate in their deepnesses (caverns dug in the ground) awaiting the next cycle of light and warmth, when their society will flourish again. Or, I should say, societies; for the Spiders are split into different nations and factions with a range of social and political beliefs, and a willingness to wage war for them. Just as the humans in space above battle over their various ideals, so it goes for the Spiders below. Those two arenas of conflict, and their interactions and resolutions, are what this novel is all about.

The book is full of familiar human issues (freedom vs. authoritarianism, liberalism vs. conservatism, Big Brother-style surveillance, the costs and benefits of progress) played out in another part of the galaxy, and played out very well. From the machinations of the Emergents, to the history of Nuwen and the Qeng Ho, to the mystery of the OnOff star itself, every part of this book makes for an intensely satisfying read. Vinge is one of the best at this sort of novel, and I really hope he writes more in this universe, since the ending left me eager for more.

Read science fiction, and go, and sin no more!

Here we have stories which, in the science fiction mode, exemplify and illustrate each of the Seven Deadly Sins, and give each a dimension perhaps not thought of by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Title: The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fiction
Editors: Isaac Asimov, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg
Year: 1980
Rating: 2/5 stars

7deadlysinsWhen I read an anthology, I like it to have a fairly solid unifying theme, something all the stories have in common to justify their inclusion together within the pages of a single book. I mean something a little more specific and meaningful than the numerous “best of” or “treasury of” volumes floating around out there (I can’t ever see any reason why one should be picked over another). So Asimov, Waugh, and Greenberg had the right idea when they put together this group of stories to illustrate the Seven Deadly Sins; it’s an interesting enough concept to serve as a focus point. After all, there’s gotta be some juicy stuff going on in a bunch of stories about sin, right?

On the other hand, this volume suffers from a weakness inherent in many anthologies: the fact that the stories were not written specifically for this volume, but were already-published stories chosen after-the-fact to fit the editors’ needs. Consequently, the match between the stories and the stated theme is not always as close as you might wish for, and is sometimes downright tenuous. For instance, we have “Sail 25″ by Jack Vance, representing Sloth; “Peeping Tom” by Judith Merril, representing Lust; “The Invisible Man Murder Case” by Henry Slesar, representing Envy; and Isaac Asimov’s “Galley Slave” representing Pride. While these stories did indeed contain some characters engaging in sloth, lust, envy, and pride, this behavior felt almost incidental. These stories didn’t seem to be centrally about sloth, lust, envy, or pride. No, it seems to me that the editors simply chose whatever stories they could think of that sorta kinda vaguely fit the theme, rather than making an effort to find more relevant examples.

Then again, some of the stories were closer to the mark. Zelazny’s “Divine Madness” was my favorite of the group. It’s a compelling and stylish tale of the consequences that follow from one single moment of thoughtless Anger. Gluttony, fittingly enough, is the only of the Seven Sins to get not one but two stories devoted to it: “The Midas Plague” and “The Man Who Ate the World,” both by Frederick Pohl. I found the first of those to be much superior to the latter, but both are powerful satires about our modern gluttonous, consumer-driven society, and Pohl envisions some rather extreme consequences. Poul Anderson’s “Margin of Profit” demonstrates the sin of Avarice; it’s an interesting story, but oddly, and unlike the other stories, this one shows the sinner benefiting from the sin, rather than suffering the consequences.

One last story was “The Hook, the Eye and the Whip,” by Michael G. Coney, representing Covetousness. (The mathematically inclined will note this makes eight, not seven, deadly sins; the editors note that different versions alternate between Avarice and Covetousness, and so they chose to include both.) To tell the truth, this story was so mind-numbingly boring I didn’t even finish it, so I can’t even say if it aptly demonstrates its chosen sin or not.

But leaving aside the question of whether or not these stories met the criteria of the anthology, and taking them strictly on their own terms, there were few that I liked very much. The pieces by Zelazny and Pohl were the standouts here, but none of the other stories did much for me.

So….. this was an intriguing concept for an anthology, but the bottom line is that it really needed better stories to pull it off.