Category Archives: engineering

Books about or featuring the theme of engineering.

Review 134: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station by China Miéville

The last time I read this, I wrote: “While this book is remarkably huge, it’s a swift read – well-paced, interesting, creative and clever, which are all good things to have in a book.” At the time, that was true, but this time? Not so much.

I don’t know what changed in the intervening years. The first time I read this book, it gripped me and wouldn’t let me go. I fell into it, into the vast and horrible city of New Crobozon and all the madness that was built into it, and when I came out I was filled with wonder, surprise, and regret that I hadn’t spent a lifetime perfecting my skills at fantasy art.

I would love to read this book, but these naps aren't going to take themselves....

This time was different, and I knew it pretty quickly. I found myself spending more time listening to podcasts while on the train, or playing games on my phone. I ate lunch at my desk and checked my RSS feeds instead of bringing my book up to the cafeteria with me. I actively avoided reading this book and I really wish I hadn’t because it deserves better.

It is the job of every fantasy writer to bring to life not only characters but an entire world. Whether you’re Jim Butcher, creating an alternate Chicago, or Robert Jordan, creating an entire planet, the writer has to know the world inside and out. Every country, every type of people, every custom and culture, climate and weather – everything.

This is because the characters that populate the tale will inevitably be shaped by their environment and its history. Would Tolkien’s fellowship have come together if it were not for the millennia of tensions that existed from having such diverse people living in such a small piece of the world? Probably not. Would the warring princes of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight books fight so hard if it were not for the terrifying storms and the power they bring? I doubt it.

Whether the world is built before the story is made or during the process of telling the tale, the author is responsible for it. In the case of Miéville’s New Crobuzon, you know from page one that he has put more time into thinking about his city than almost anything else.

Steampunk. For when you really love brown. (art by gordillo on DeviantArt)

There is almost a palpable feeling of dereliction and disrepair that comes off the page when he describes the city. It’s a dirty place, a wet place, a place that has seen better days. It’s mayor is a tyrant, who uses a secret militia to keep the populace under control and horrifying thaumaturgical techniques to punish those who break the law. It is a great, sprawling metropolis at the confluence of two rivers – the Tar and the Canker – which should tell you a bit about the city they run through. In the tradition of modern urban fantasy, it’s a place of magic and technology, ruined by political greed and social apathy. There are desperate poets and mad scientists, gang bosses and petty criminals, whores and saints and madmen for every occasion.

Independent scientist Isaac der Grimnebulin is looking for the thaumo-physiological secret to flight in order to help a disgraced bird-man regain his wings, and to prove his theory of “crisis energy” that may well change the world. In the process, he accidentally unleashes an unstoppable horror that threatens to slowly destroy the city and everyone in it. He also manages to make enemies of both the city militia and the leader of organized crime in New Crobuzon. He and his friends have only days before the city is overrun, or they are killed, and if they hope to survive they must somehow get the help of two of the most powerful entities the city has ever known.

Miéville has created a new flavor of fantasy here – a kind of steampunk world of brass and wood and gears, analog computers and over-designed firearms that really appeals to all the reader’s senses. He describes the city in unrelenting detail, and if pressed he could probably give you a tour from memory. You get the feeling that New Crobuzon has been sitting in his head for a long time, and all he’s done is finally put it to paper.

For a change of pace, grayish-brown. (art by Trabbold on DeviantArt)

For me, that might have been what changed. The first time I read this, I was swept up by the city, but this time… this time I kept thinking, “Yes, yes, the city is a cesspit, I get it. What about the giant moths?” I wanted the story more than I wanted the setting, and my impatience (combined with a whole lot of backed-up Radiolab episodes) kept me from really settling down, slogging through the descriptions of decaying brickwork, overgrown rooftops and beggars wrapped in filthy rags who crawled through the pestilential streets. In a way, it was kind of like Tolkien, but slightly more restrained.

But perhaps, like Tolkien, that was the point. For all that we’re reading an adventure now about a scientist and the horrors he has unleashed upon the world, about a strange patchwork crime lord, a tyrannical mayor, a sentient clockwork intelligence, a dimension-hopping super-spider and moths that will swallow your soul, this book really isn’t about them. This is just one event in the long and bizarre history of New Crobuzon and the vast and strange world it inhabits, and we’re granted a glimpse into it. When you get to the end of it, whatever else you think of the story, you’ll be stunned by what Miéville has been able to come up with.

I know that a lot of the cognoscenti of science fiction and fantasy just adore Miéville, and I can certainly see why. He’s creative, he’s imaginative, and he’s built a wonderful world for the imagination to play in, populated with some of the most bizarre races and people you could think of. He’s grabbed the trend of Steampunk retro-futurism and made it his own in a way that few other writers can do. He deserves all the credit he can get.

For me, though… Perhaps it was the right book, but not the right time.

—————
“New Corbuzon was a city unconvinced by gravity. Aerostats oozed from cloud to cloud above it like slugs on cabbages. Militia-pods streaked through the heart of the city to its outlands, the cables that held them twanging and vibrating like guitar strings hundreds of feet in the air…”
– China Miéville, Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station on Wikipedia
China Miéville on Wikipedia
China Miéville’s blog
Perdido Street Station on Amazon

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Filed under adventure, China Miéville, dystopia, engineering, fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, totalitarianism

Review 92: The Door Into Summer


The Door into Summer by Robert Heinlein

Oh, 1950s science fiction – is there nothing you can’t do?

One of the downsides to our modern information age is that we have so much information available to us. If I see a reference on a blog or in a book that I don’t know, it’s a quick hop over to Google or Wikipedia to find out what it is, and if it’s really interesting I can find myself learning about something I never knew before. And so, if I want to know more about cold sleep, robotics or time travel, there’s a whole host of ways that I can not only learn about it, but learn why it’s just so hard to do. I mean, think about robotics – we’ve been looking forward to the perfect household robot for decades now. One that can cook and clean and do all those tiresome chores that we would rather not spend our time doing. The problem is that those tiresome chores are actually marvelously complex tasks, involving not only precise physical movements, but some very complicated judgment calls. Every time we figure out how to get a robot to do one of those things, we then have a hundred other things that need to be done to get it even close to human-like competence.

I know this because the internet knows this.

But back in 1957, this stuff was all new and fresh and unknown, so if Robert Heinlein wanted his main character to cobble together the perfect household robot with some off-the-shelf parts and a little bit of magic tech (the Thorsen Memory Tubes), then why not? Assuming we had the technology, what couldn’t we build?

Thus is the set-up for The Door into Summer, an adventure in engineering, patent law, and economics, with a little bit of time travel thrown into spice it up. Our hero, Daniel Boone Davis, is an engineer of the purest sort – he got into engineering to solve problems, and that’s what he does. He doesn’t want to be just one guy working on one cog for a huge corporation; he wants to make things himself that he knows will benefit everyone. He’s a real Populist Engineer, too – his creations are made with replaceable parts, specifically so that the owner can quickly deal with any mechanical problems themselves, rather than have to wait for a repair shop to do the work. The parts are all off-the-shelf, too, which not only makes the machines easier to produce, but makes the production cost lower. In other words, he’s making machines that will benefit as many people as possible, and the first one is the somewhat misogynistically-named Hired Girl.

This machine (which is a very close approximation of the Roomba, by the way) becomes an instant success, and the company that Dan forms to take care of it is looking to become fantastically wealthy. Unfortunately for Dan, his business partners – Miles and Belle – are far more interested in becoming filthy rich than helping mankind. So when it looks like Dan’s newest creation, an all-purpose household robot named Flexible Frank, is going to be a wild success, they manage to freeze him out of the company. Literally. They steal his inventions out from under him and force him to take the Long Sleep – to be frozen cryogenically for thirty years. He wakes up in the year 2000, without money, without a job or prospects, and without his beloved cat, Pete.

A word about the cat angle to this story – if you’re a cat person, like me, then the relationship between Dan and Pete will really resonate with you. Its clear that Heinlein himself was a cat person, as he shows a wonderful understanding of the human-cat relationship, including the absolute uncertainty as to which one is in charge at any given time. While the cat is not absolutely necessary to the plot, it’s a nice addition to the story. If you’re not a cat person, well… you should be.

Anyway, in the wild future of 2000, Dan discovers that something very strange was going on around the time he got frozen, and the more he uncovers, the more it looks like there can be only one explanation – time travel!

This is really classic science fiction at its best. The narrator is a brilliant man who never meets a problem he cannot solve, at least not eventually. He’s a certified genius, and were it not for his blind spot for pretty women and his trust in his business partner, he would have had a fantastic life as an inventor. But his love of making stuff gets in the way of how the real world works, and sets him up for a series of thefts and betrayals. But you never really worry about him, because he is a man with no uncertainties. He doesn’t wallow in self-loathing and moral dismay when he encounters a problem like being thirty years in the future with no means of supporting himself. No! When he sees a problem, his first thought is, “How do I solve this?”

In other words, he’s an engineer.

It’s a remarkably optimistic book, too. While the future of 2000 isn’t perfect, it’s still a whole lot better than 1970. And while 1970 certainly isn’t perfect, it’s a whole lot better than 1957. The book rests on that wonderful mid-century assumption that while human innovation can’t solve every problem (and indeed often succeeds in creating more problems), it is, in the long run, a force for good. For the modern reader this may seem terribly naive, but I found it refreshing.

So while the story is really pretty predictable, it’s a fun ride. Even the time travel element isn’t quite as risky as Heinlein tries to make it out to be, since the reason Dan opts for time travel is that he’s found evidence that he’s already done it. Therefore no matter how dangerous it might be, he knows for a fact that he’ll be successful. He doesn’t mention this, or even seem to notice it, but the sharp-eyed reader should pick it up pretty quickly.

While most of the driving force of the book is what I would normally consider pretty boring – patent law and engineering – there is one element to it that is distinctly Heinlein: the universality of love. Dan is done in by his belief that he loves Belle, who turns out to be a gold-digger of the lowest order. But in the end, Dan knows who he truly loves. The only problem is that she’s an eleven year-old girl. Whether in the publication year of 1957, the year Dan starts in, 1970, or the far-flung future of 2000, a grown man marrying a pre-teen is something that is generally frowned upon. They’re able to settle this problem with a little time travel/cryogenic jiggery-pokery, but when you stop to think about it, the situation can be somewhat… unconventional. If you stop to really think about their relationship, there’s some strange moral ambiguity going on there. Fortunately, the characters don’t really care and the book ends without going into the ramifications of what they’ve done.

The book isn’t about moral complexity, though. It’s about solving problems and finding happiness, no matter what you have to do to get it. It’s about overcoming adversity, betrayal and even time itself to get the life that you know you deserve. It’s about finding that door into summer, when all the other doors lead you only into the winter. While we may not be able to solve our problems quite as neatly as Dan Davis did, we can still follow his example.

Except, perhaps, with the romancing eleven year-olds. That’s still not cool.

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“Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands… with tools… with horse sense and science and engineering.”
Daniel Boone Davis, The Door into Summer

The Door Into Summer on Wikipedia
Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
The Door Into Summer on Amazon.com
The Heinlein Society

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Filed under engineering, Robert Heinlein, science fiction, time travel