Category Archives: science fiction

Books in the science fiction genre.

Review 211: The Diamond Age

LL 211 - Diamond AgeThe Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson

I sometimes get the feeling that Neal Stephenson’s writing process goes something like this:

Hey, I found a really cool idea here! I wonder what I can do with it…?

He then writes about 200 pages of really awesome, meticulous world-building, with innovative ideas about, in the case of this book, the possible uses of nanotechnology and its eventual social, political, and economic ramifications, and then thinks, Oh, crap, I’m writing a story here, and high-tails it to the end of the book, leaving the reader a little wind-blown and confused. It happened in Snow Crash, where he was playing with the origins of language and the fundamental functioning of the human mind. It happened in Cryptonomicon, where he dove into the murky waters of cryptography and World War 2 treasure and brought up all kinds of gems, and it happened here, too.

First, tiny guitars - then the WORLD!!

First, tiny guitars – then the WORLD!!

The Diamond Age is, fundamentally, about what would happen – or what might happen – if we really got nanotechnology working properly. How would society adapt if, suddenly, government and commerce as we know them became obsolete? With the Feed and Matter Compilers able to create anything out of nothing, the entire economic and political underpinnings of the planet would come undone, and in the case of the world that Stephenson has made, this led people to reorganize their social loyalties. Rather than band together into geographically or historically determined nation-states, they came together in phyles – places where like-minded individuals could come together and bond with each other through shared values and morality, united only by a commonly upheld treaty. This treaty of phyles, in turn, supported the new economy that nanotechnology allowed.

Within one of these phyles, the Neo-Victorians, one of the more highly-placed Lords realized what was wrong with the world in which he lived. The problem wasn’t the corruption of values of which the old always accuse the young. Indeed, it was that those values were passed on too well. Children did not elect to join their phyles, becoming members of their own free will, but they were indoctrinated into them from birth. This, in turn, made them… well, boring, and it was making the community stagnant.

You'd think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

You’d think martial arts would be a challenge in those skirts.

And so Lord Finkle-McGraw commissioned a great work – The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer – to guide his granddaughter into a more interesting life. And had that been all that happened, the story would have been rather short. Two other copies of the Primer were made, however. One for the daughter of the book’s designer, and another that fell into the hands of Nell, a young girl born into poverty and otherwise destined to lead a life of misery and sorrow.

The Primer is a smart book, of course, fully interactive, able to teach reading, science, history, and martial arts, among many other things. What it teaches Nell, whom we follow more than most, is how to be great. In a world ruled by this amazing science and yet rigidly stratified by an ancient Victorian code of social stratification, Nell generates turbulence wherever she goes, and the book helps her do it.

All of this is quite awesome – there’s a great hunt for the Primer, plans within plans, and all that. And then, suddenly, for no reason that I can recall, a new plot about a technology to supplant the Feed and some kind of Chinese revolution and the whole book runs off the rails.

I know a lot of people who love Neal Stephenson, and I can understand why. He’s an incomparably imaginative writer, able to find ways to express ideas that some of us couldn’t even imagine. He’s an heir to the world that William Gibson and his contemporaries pioneered. He creates captivating and detailed worlds with living characters who have complex problems without simple solutions. Hell, even Stephen King gave him a direct shoutout in his book Cell, which was had some thematic similarities with Snow Crash.

I'm not saying it IS a train wreck, but still...

I’m not saying it IS a train wreck, but still…

For all that, though, he just can’t seem to stick the endings, and that more than anything else has kept me away from his newer books. Seriously, it’s like a whole new story kicks in around page 250. If he can kick this problem, he’ll be a writer for the ages.

——–
The difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But that has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people–and this is true whether or not they are well-educated–is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations–in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.
-Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

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Filed under coming of age, culture, nanotechnology, Neal Stephenson, science fiction, society

Review 208: A Canticle for Liebowitz

LL 208 - A Canticle for LiebowitzA Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

This has probably been noted by many better thinkers than I, but the way I see it is this: history takes a long time to happen.

I know, I know. Mind: blown.

We are lucky in this day and age that we have so much information available to us about history. Go to any of your better museums and you’ll see artifacts of a bygone age, books and clothes and various objects carefully displayed under glass. Through the meticulous work of historians and scholars throughout the ages, we have created an unbroken chain of knowledge through the centuries that is so thorough and so strong that we feel like the days of Shakespeare, of Charlemagne, of Pericles all happened just the other day.

But what if that chain were broken? What if something so big, so terrible were to happen that we had to rebuild history from scratch, using oral tradition and whatever pathetic scraps of memorabilia we could find? Whom could we trust to keep it and put it all together, and then what should we do with it in the end?

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

Believe it or not, there is a Patron Saint of Technology, and we honor him by getting ridiculously drunk. Go figure.

These are the questions that humanity is forced to confront after the Flame Deluge – a nuclear inferno that claimed the great nations of the world near the end of the twentieth century. All would have been lost if not for the work of Isaac Liebowitz, an engineer-turned-monk who dedicated his life and the lives of his brothers to the preservation of knowledge. Over the centuries, his part of the Albertan order would become the caretakers of a bygone age, guardians of history itself, and would play a key role in the future of humanity, for good or for ill.

A Canticle for Liebowitz is a novel in three parts, spanning over a thousand years of future history. It begins in the 26th century, where the inhabitants of what was once the United States are bound into roving tribes and insular city-states. There, the young monk Francis makes a startling discovery from the life of his patron, the soon-to-be-sainted Liebowitz, a discovery which changes his life and the lives of everyone in his order. Through chance, or perhaps divine intervention, Francis finds an underground bunker, a shelter from the Fallout demons of old. He rummages around the cluttered remains of whomever had sealed themselves inside, and happens upon a strongbox, within which are handwritten pieces of paper, including a blueprint for an electrical circuit designed by Leibowitz himself. Suddenly, Francis’ vocation was clear. Or at least clearer than it had been before.

Then the story jumps forward to the 29th century, an age of discovery and renaissance. The learned both inside and outside the Church are beginning to rediscover science, and apply it to rebuilding some of the technology that was thought to be lost so long ago. At the same time, local leaders are vying for power, and trying to ensnare the monks of St. Liebowitz in their plots. The world is changing, progressing, and not everyone is comfortable with this change.

36th Century - so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

36th Century – so far in the future that these guys would be the subjects of Renfaires.

The third part of the story propels us into the 36th century, an age undreamed-of by even those who lived before the world was cleansed by fire. Humanity is traveling between the stars and giving life to their machines, making full use of knowledge both new and old. Unfortunately, mankind may succumb to the same pride, the same flaws that nearly destroyed it a thousand years before. On the eve of self-annihilation, a desperate group of pilgrims is sent out to the stars to try and keep some spark of humanity alive in the cosmos, despite humanity’s nearly unstoppable urge to destroy itself. And at the center of all of this is the Order of Leibowitz, holding on to old works and memorabilia, waiting for either the right hands or the wrong ones.

The book sounds depressing in its nature, but it isn’t. Yes, mankind makes the same stupid mistakes over and over again, not remembering the horror that befell them the last time. But despite that, there are still good people and there is still hope. You turn the last page knowing that the world, and humanity, will go on in one form or another. Even with our propensity for self-destruction, we are equally capable of brilliance and discovery.

In a larger sense, too, this book is one long journey into philosophy, bringing up some questions that are truly fundamental to who we are as a species. For example, the book addresses the topic of euthanasia in one section, with the Abbot of the order violently opposed to the Mercy Camps that the government is building. Is it better to make the sick and injured live in their sickness, or should we give them a way out? Is suicide – assisted or otherwise – ever permissible? The characters that debate this topic each have a clear and rational reason for thinking the way they do, and yet they come to no agreement. The characters, for the short time we get to see them, are fascinating. You feel sorry for them, hopeful for them, and afraid for them, because Miller has written them as human beings. We don’t have Interchangeable Scientist A and Interchangeable Scientist B arguing opposite points. We instead have scholars and religious, each desperately trying to protect his point of view.

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Is the world truly ready for a better way to drink soda? The potential is unthinkable!

Or what about the nature of technology itself? The monks are charged with being the memory of mankind, yet when people start trying to recover the lost sciences, the abbot feels uncomfortable with the whole idea. After all, their predecessors in civilization followed the path of science, and look where it got them. Might it not be better to just let things stay as they are? Hard, yes, and certainly not a perfect world, but when you don’t even have electricity, blowing up the world is hard to do.

What I also found interesting was how Miller placed the Catholic Church at the center of this story. In the world after the Deluge, the Church is the only organization left, and it fills the power vacuum nicely. Through its system of priesthoods and orders, it remains the last island of civilization in a world that’s turned to chaos. I’m not a big fan of the Catholic Church for many reasons, but he really made it into an establishment that I could appreciate. It represented continuity and caution, as well as taking up the guardianship of human history. For all its faults, if the Church could keep humanity from failing utterly, I would be grateful for it.

It’s intellectual science fiction at its best, really, exploring the kind of big ideas that science fiction is meant to do. Miller has sung a song – a canticle – not just for the fictional Liebowitz, but for humanity as a whole, and asks his readers to sing along with him.

——————-
“If you try to save wisdom until the world is wise, Father, the world will never have it.”
– Thon Taddeo, A Canticle for Liebowitz

Walter M. Miller, Jr. on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz on Wikipedia
A Canticle for Liebowitz at Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, history, religion, science fiction, technology, war

Review 205: Year Zero

LL 205 - Year ZeroYear Zero by Rob Reid

I’ll bet you never thought you would see an intergalactic alien thriller that all centered on the intricacies of copyright law, did you? Well, if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, then this is the book you want to read.

The universe, as it turns out, is well-populated with other civilizations. Some of them are nearly human in appearance, others are so radically unlike us that they’re hard to imagine, much less talk to. Giant snails, two-dimensional beings, foul-mouthed parrots and bio-machine intelligences – all of these and more make up the Refined League, the greatest political entity in the universe. In order to become part of the League, your civilization has to first prove that it can overcome the violent urges that lead so many intelligent cultures to self-extinction. Once it has done that, the League provides it with technology so advanced that it may as well be magic, allowing the new members to completely solve their technological problems and instead focus their energies on creative and cultural works.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

Even their reality shows make ours look, well, childish.

And that is where the League shines brightly. Their artistic sense is so far beyond ours that were we to see it in its full flower our brains would likely shut down from the beauty. Their art and architecture, cinema and drama, fashion, food – hell, their calligraphy and paper-making are works of art that make our great masters look like toddlers drawing stick figures in the mud. In nearly all respects, the Refined League outclasses humanity.

Except, as it turns out, for music.

Thanks to some twist in our evolution, we are the only civilization capable of creating truly great music. Indeed, the first music heard by an alien culture – the closing credits song to “Welcome Back, Kotter” – was so amazing and so powerful that countless individuals died from ecstasy overload. As the universe turned its ears towards Earth, they discovered what they had been missing all along, and were soon tapping into our radio and TV broadcasts to get copies of the greatest music ever made. The discovery of Earth’s music was so pivotal to the cultural history of the universe, that the League reset their calendars to reflect it, thus making October 13, 1977 the beginning of Year Zero.

For decades, Earth music was recorded and copied and passed along. And while it did still occasionally kill people with its beauty and glory, those who survived cherished the gift we were unknowingly giving to them. While we were not yet prepared to join the League, we were the center of the universe.

Until the law got involved.

The central governing principle of the League is that indigenous laws must be respected, no matter what. It wasn’t until our songs had been copied over hundreds of millions of times that the League discovered the incredibly draconian and torturous copyright laws that govern music on our planet, and the heavy fines that are imposed for piracy. Under U.S. copyright law alone, it turns out, the universe owes us money.

This doesn't even come close...

This doesn’t even come close…

All the money.

Two of the universe’s biggest stars break through the barrier that’s supposed to protect our planet and approach Nick Carter – not a Backstreet Boy, but a young attorney specializing in copyright law – to try and find a way to fix this little problem. But they’re not the only ones looking to find a way out of the mess the League has gotten itself into. Members of an entertainer’s union – now pretty much defunct since Earth music took everything over – would rather see us gone entirely, so they’re prepared to make sure we find a way to destroy ourselves before any kind of arrangement can be reached. Nick, along with the universally-admired celebrities Carly and Frampton, are in a race against a violent alien parrot and an angry vacuum cleaner to save the Earth and the Refined League both, along with keeping the music coming.

It’s a very fast read – I went through it in a day – and is built on a very entertaining premise, one which undermines a lot of what we’ve come to expect from first contact stories. The author’s experience in the online music industry no doubt gave him a lot of material to work from, and he made it into a fun race against the clock. Part of the reason I bought the book was its premise – we’re all so used to seeing stories about how wonderful aliens are compared to ourselves, and it’s nice to see it subverted in a clever and interesting way.

WHO'S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

WHO’S a good Senator? Yes you ARE! Yes you ARE!

It was also a clear and repeated stab at the way we handle creative property rights in the United States – indeed in most countries around the world. The law firm for which Carter works is so entrenched in the business of protecting copyright that they practically wrote some of the most egregious laws against piracy. They even have their own pet Senator, a thinly-veiled version of Orrin Hatch who is nicknamed “Fido,” who does their bidding in Washington. They’re not concerned with making sure the artists are compensated, or that their music is treated fairly. They’re interested in getting as much money as possible from as many people as possible, and have no qualms about doing what’s necessary. What’s more, most of the legal plot points settle around real U.S. law – the Copyright Damages Improvement Act of 1999, which mandates fines of up to $150,000 per song.

As a comparison, in the state of Connecticut, for example, the fine for a class A felony (murder) is up to $20,000. So if you were thinking of downloading that new Bieber single, you may as well just kill seven people and pocket the extra ten grand. Admittedly, the CDIA doesn’t allow for prison sentences (I think), but a person effectively bankrupted by legal action will probably end up in prison one way or another.

In its way, though, the book does suffer from a common problem that I’ve been seeing a lot recently: the cardboard villain. In this book, the pro-copyright forces are just plain Wrong, and will clearly not win the day. Now I have no problem vilifying law firms and giant corporations – hell, that’s practically a hobby of mine – but I would like to have seen a bit more humanity from them, rather than a giant monolithic force of legal evil. Even the main human avatar of that monolith, Carter’s boss, pretty much abandons her position as soon as she realizes the threat that the Earth is under. We know that these laws are wrong, but how they got so wrong is something that could have added to the story.

Of course, that itself could be a book of great and ponderous length, so I can understand why Reid might have glossed over it.

By Grabthar's Hammer...

By Grabthar’s Hammer…

The other criticism that I have of this book is that it will one day be horribly, terribly dated. There are pop culture references everywhere in the story. Some are subtle, some are not, and it was kind of fun being able to pick them out. Everything from GalaxyQuest to Monty Python to Breaking Bad – if you’ve been paying attention to popular culture for the last twenty years or so, you’ll find these little nuggets buried in the story. And they’re great, as long as you’re reading the book in proximity to those cultural references. I don’t know how well it will hold up for a reader twenty or thirty years down the road, but that may not have been Reid’s intention.

This is a book written for a specific time and reason, in an intellectual climate that the author understands far too well. Perhaps he just wanted to write a book for this moment, and never meant it to last much longer. Whatever his motivations, I hope he continues to explore this kind of writing, and gives us bigger and better in the future.

——————————–
“Our legal scholars have researched [the Copyright Damages Improvement Act] thoroughly. And they unanimously agree that it is the most cynical, predatory, lopsided, and shamelessly money-grubbing copyright law written by any society, anywhere in the universe since the dawn of time itself.”
– Carly

Rob Reid on Wikipedia
Year Zero on Amazon.com

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Filed under aliens, copyright, corporations, first contact, humor, Rob Reid, science fiction

Review 204: Blackout & All Clear

LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 1LL 204 - Blackout-All Clear 2Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis

Reading one of Connie Willis’ time travel novels is like watching a master paper-folder perform a particularly difficult feat of origami. It seems simple at first, but then there are a few folds and twists, edges are forced together and bent apart, there’s a few points where you can’t even see exactly what her hands are doing, but when she’s finished, you have the pleasure of seeing something intricate and beautiful come into being right before your eyes.

The basic premise of her time travel works is pretty simple: in the future, we have time travel (but not cell phones, as you may recall from The Doomsday Book). The exact means by which it works is not revealed to us, which makes sense – the books aren’t about the mechanics of time travel but rather the results. On the other hand, the rules of time travel are vividly clear:

  1. You can only go to the past.
  2. You can’t bring back any souvenirs.
  3. You can’t change anything.

You just can't keep a good cathedral down...

No, you can’t bring back cathedrals either.

That last part is really important, and it is held as gospel by the historians who use the mechanism to go visit various eras in history. The space-time continuum will do its damnedest to keep a traveler from altering the natural flow of events. For example, in order to even get the machine to work, you have to be able to blend in – that means proper clothes and appearance, no hidden wristwatches or things like that. If you’re carrying a disease that the locals might not be prepared for, if you don’t know the language – hell, maybe if you’re just the wrong skin color, the system won’t open up and let you through.

Once you’re ready to go and fit in, there’s still the matter of being able to change events. Now it is true that simply by existing you have already changed things. You move air molecules that were moved differently before. You’re pouring heat into the environment that wasn’t there before. You’re making contact with the surfaces around you, shedding skin cells, making noises – and that’s before you even meet anyone. Once you’re out on the street (or country lane or agora or whatever), you’re interacting with people no matter what you do. They see you, you register in their consciousness to one degree or another – you’re changing things just by your very existence.

The continuum, it seems, is only concerned about big changes. You can’t get anywhere near Hitler, for example, or Kennedy on the day of his assassination. No matter how hard you try or how precisely you set the controls, you will end up displaced either in time or in space or both, unable to do a damned thing. The continuum protects itself, and historians can be assured that their actions in the past have no real consequence.

Or do they?

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I've milk to deliver.

Dangerous? Nonsense. Now out of my way, I’ve milk to deliver.

Three British historians have gone back in time to one of the most dramatic and dangerous eras in recent history – the Blitz of World War 2. This was a period of about eight months between 1940 and 1941 when German bombers tried to reduce England to a smoking pile of rubble. They dropped a hundred tons of bombs, cause immeasurable property damage, and killed thousands of people. Life in this time was dangerous, terrifying, and uncertain, and anyone who lived through it was aware that they could die on any one of the raids.

Despite this, the English showed a solidarity and a steadfastness that won the respect of the world (or at least the parts of the world that weren’t trying to bomb it). Everyone – soldiers and civilians – were encouraged to do their part during the war, and every action you took had to be considered in the greater scheme of keeping people safe and keeping London alive. A popular sentiment about the time is that there really were no civilians. Everyone played a hand in getting England through the Blitz, from the Prime Minister to the milkman. If you were an historian looking to see how ordinary people coped in extraordinary times, the Blitz would be the perfect scenario to observe.

Polly Sebastian is in the thick of it. She has traveled to London, September 1940, with the intention of getting a job in a department store in the middle of town. She arrives during a bombing raid and is ushered into a shelter full of people who will change her life.

Mike Davis wanted to see some true citizen-heroes, so he posed as an American reporter in order to witness the Dunkirk Rescue in May of 1940. He ends up far from Dunkirk, however, and his efforts to get there end up in him becoming part of the action.

"Oy dinn't do nuffin'"

“Oy dinn’t do nuffin'”

Eileen O’Reilly has gone to witness the children’s evacuation of 1939-1940. She poses as a maid in a manor house in the country, there to watch over children who had been sent from London to keep them safe from the war. Eileen has to not only contend with dozens of city children, an outbreak of the measles, and learning to drive an ancient Bentley, but she also has two of the most terrible children in England under her care – Alf and Binnie Hodbin.

All of these assignments would be a major task for any historian, but these three soon discover that they are not in an ordinary situation. It becomes clear to them that their actions are having consequences – Mike saves a soldier who in turn helps hundreds more. Polly says a few words that changes a young woman’s life. Eileen gives medicine to a young girl that no one living at that time would have given, thus keeping her alive. The unbreakable rule about historians not being able to affect the continuum seems to be bending.

What’s worse, none of them are able to access their “drop points” to return to 2060. They’re stuck in a strange and dangerous time, and are now just as at risk as any contemporary person is.

This was originally meant to be only one book – All Clear – but it kept growing and expanding so much that Willis split it into two volumes. This allowed her to not only show off what must have been an immeasurable amount of research over the eight years it took to write the novels, but gave us more time to become immersed and invested in a story that is both funny and heart-wrenching in turns. Our time-travelers are in very real danger, of more than one sort, and you really do feel their desperation and hope for their success.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what's going on up there.

There, there now. Train tracks are much safer than what’s going on up there.

It would be so hard to sum up this book, except to say that it reminds us that everything – and everyone – is significant. The fate of the future rests on the backs of not only generals and prime ministers, but on shopkeepers and children. Words can change the world just as much as bombs, and every action you take contributes to the vast, infinitely complex unfolding of history. As our characters learn, there is no such thing as a passive observer. We are all part of the history, the society, and the world around us, whether we like it or not.

We may not know how it’s all going to unfold in the end, for good or ill, and that’s unfortunate. So all we can do when faced with an uncertain future is what the British did when oblivion came flying over the Channel to their shores. Stand firm and do your bit, and let history take care of itself.

—————————————-
“TO ALL THE
ambulance drivers
firewatchers
air-raid wardens
nurses
canteen workers
airplane spotters
rescue workers
mathematicians
vicars
vergers
shopgirls
chorus girls
librarians
debutantes
spinsters
fishermen
retired sailors
servants
evacuees
Shakespearean actors
and mystery novelists
WHO WON THE WAR.”
― Connie Willis, All Clear – dedication

Connie Willis on Wikipedia
Blackout and All Clear on Wikipedia
Blackout and All Clear on Amazon.com
The Connie Willis Blog

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Filed under Connie Willis, England, history, science fiction, time travel, war

Review 202: Time Traveler

Time Traveler by Ronald Mallett, with Bruce Henderson

There are a lot of reasons to want to build a time machine. To learn the truth about historical places and events, to see creatures that have been extinct for millions of years, to kill Hitler – always a favorite. You could go to the Library of Alexandria and save the works of great scientists and philosophers that have been lost to history. You could document the Crucifixion or watch the fall of Rome first-hand. You could see Jimi or Elvis or Janice or Kurt in their heyday, watch the original performances of Shakespeare’s plays, or talk engineering with DaVinci. With a time machine, the whole of history is open to you, and your options are just about limitless.

All Ron Mallett wanted to do with his time machine was see his dad.

Mastering time travel is easier if you have several lifetimes.

This book is not just about how one man went about figuring out how to travel through time. That in itself would be interesting, since time travel has been a dream of mankind ever since we figured out that time was a thing. There’s a lot of complicated science that goes into not just manipulating time, but figuring out that it can be manipulated, and it takes half a lifetime to master. A lot of popular science books focus on the science, unsurprisingly, and talk about how certain things were discovered and what can be done with them in the future.

That’s all well and good, but this book adds an extra element that’s often missing from other popular science texts. It talks about why.

When Ron Mallett was ten years old, his father died of a heart attack brought about by a combination of smoking, poor dietary choices, and a genetic inclination towards heart problems. Overnight, the man that young Ron loved and idolized was gone, leaving him directionless at an age when having a father can be so very important. With the loss of a beloved parent, it’s entirely possible that Ron could have seen his life crippled from that day onward.

It might have been, if not for H.G. Wells and his famous book, The Time Machine.

After he read this book, the notion that time could be navigated became the center of his life. His first attempt at a time machine – built of pipes and wires in his basement – was unsuccessful, of course. But he was undeterred, and realized that if he was going to make this dream come true, he would have to buckle down and start learning some science. Just the idea that he might one day build a machine to travel through time was enough to give him direction and purpose, and it set him on a course that would go on to define his life.

If he manages to make this work, the UCONN Velociraptors will be unstoppable!

The book is a memoir of his own travels through the world of physics and relativity, moving from one point to another as new ideas and discoveries signposted his route towards a theory of time travel. Initially guided by Einstein, Mallett went from being a young academic to programming computers for the Air Force, to becoming a full-fledged academic at the University of Connecticut. He makes sure that the reader can not only follow all the steps that he took, but that we can also see why he took them. What chance encounters and lucky finds pushed him forward, or what unfortunate incidents slowed him down. He reminds us all throughout the book of why he has chosen to do science, and never lets us forget this motivation.

At the same time, he is sure to tell us about two rather significant obstacles to his progress. The first, of course, was that he felt he couldn’t be honest about why he was studying what he was studying – relativity, black holes, lasers, that kind of thing. For fear that he would be labeled a crackpot and denied the opportunities he would need, he revealed his ambition to build a time machine only to those he felt he could absolutely trust. As far as anyone else was concerned, of course, he was just another theoretical physicist trying to figure out how the universe worked.

The other challenge he faced was that he was African-American in a field that was very, very white at the time. He had to deal with racism in both its overt and covert forms, and work even harder to prove himself to those who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see past his skin color. He doesn’t dwell on it in this book, since that’s not what this book is about. But I’m sure if he wanted to write about what it was like trying to break into physics academia as an African-American in the 60s and 70s, he probably could.

Ladies and gentlemen, the father of time travel.

What’s most important, though, is that he continually reminds us of why he’s doing what he’s doing. He talks about his father, and the memories he had of him. He keeps his non-academic life in view, letting us in on his personal triumphs and failures, his struggles with depression and his joys at advancing towards his goal. The end result is a book that is not only about science, but about a person. The emotional thread that runs through this book is strong, and even if you can’t quite follow the science, you can still follow the passion that Ron Mallett has for this project.

The book, while fascinating, is technically unfinished. He has yet to build his time machine, and there’s no proof that the ideas he’s come forward with will actually work, even if the math says they should. As the book finishes, he has a plan, and he lays out the way he thinks his machine should work, but we’ll have to wait to see how that works out. Whether he succeeds or fails, though, he has built up a lifetime of research that has expanded our understanding of space and time in such a way that Einstein – and Ron Mallett’s father – would no doubt be proud of.

——————
“Time stopped for me in the middle of the night on May 22, 1955.”
– Ron Mallett, “Time Traveler”
——————

Ron Mallett on Wikipedia
Time Traveler on Amazon.com
Ron Mallett’s UCONN homepage

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Filed under autobiography, nonfiction, physics, quest, Ron Mallett, school, time travel

Review 197: The Long Earth

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

It is said that the population of the whole world, if packed together into a city of the same density as New York City, would fit into the current boundaries of Texas. This Texan mega-city wouldn’t be a pleasant place to live, and there’s the challenge of infrastructure and living space and waste management, but the point is clear: there’s a lot more space on Earth than we think there is.

True, a lot of it is unfriendly to us – ocean, desert, ice, mountains, New Jersey – but still, despite our habit of packing ourselves into tightly-bound metropoli, there’s a lot of room on this earth to spread out.

Now imagine there was another Earth just a step away. A simple exertion of will, perhaps aided by a small device that anyone could make at home with a potato and some spare parts, and you’re in a new world, untouched by human hands. You’d be standing in the same place you left from, but on another Earth. And if you don’t like that one, well, there’s another Earth just a step away. And another. And another. An infinity of Earths, each one so very slightly different from the one you left, each with its own story to tell.

I’ll take the fifth Earth on the left. It’ll go well with my living room.

With the potential for an entire planet per person, what would that do to the world? Who would go and who would stay? What would happen to the “original” Earth, or Datum Earth as it’s called in this book? The ramifications of the Long Earth are far-reaching and unsettling indeed, as is the quest to map it.

Of the people on Datum Earth, most are able to step with the aid of a Stepper, a small box that they can build from freely available parts using plans that were posted to the internet by a mysterious engineer named Willis Linsay. As long as you follow the instructions properly and to the letter, you should be able to step from Earth to Earth with ease and only a minimum of discomfort.

The first wave of devices were built by kids, prompting an initial missing-children panic as kids popped out of this universe with hastily-built Steppers, completely unprepared for what they were getting into. Soon, though, more and more people were stepping out, eager to explore these strange new worlds.

At the forefront of this wave of colonization were the rare few who could step from world to world without a Stepper. One of these is Joshua Valienté, who was propelled to fame when he rescued children from their first journeys on Step Day. Joshua is hired by the Black Corporation to explore the Long Earth. With the support of Lobsang – formerly of Tibet and now an artificial intelligence – Joshua is going to step as far as he can go and see what there is to see at the distant ends of the Long Earth.

And for every one of you, there is another one with a goatee.

This is a genus of book that I really enjoy – one that takes a simple, straightforward idea and tries to find all the angles of it. To that end, Pratchett and Baxter look at how the people, governments, and businesses of Datum Earth adjust to this new reality. And some of the questions are decidedly thorny. Is America still America on all Earths? If someone commits a crime in an alternate New York, could they be prosecuted by the NYPD? What happens to the value of commodities such as wood or gold when you have a nigh-infinite supply of it? And what happens to a nation when its people start stepping out en masse?

There is a sub-plot in the book, following police Lieutenant Monica Jansson, who becomes the law’s expert on stepping, with all the challenges that come with it. For example, what can you do to stop someone from stepping one world over, taking a few steps to where a bank vault should be, and then stepping back? How do you make a space step-proof against intruders? And what do you do with the increasingly disgruntled percent of people who can’t step at all? That’s to say nothing of the scam artists, the escapees, and the people who just abandon their lives to walk the Long Earth. It’s a concept rife with possibilities.

Each Earth is slightly different, representing an Earth that could have been. Some are steaming jungle, others arid wasteland and still others are lush and perfect for agriculture. There are animals that claim descent from the megafauna of North America, from our own ape-like ancestors, and from dinosaurs, and others still that are unlike anything on the Earth we know. On none of them, however, are there humans – only the Datum Earth has those.

You can have my gun when you pry it from Anton Checkhov’s cold, dead hands!

As great as the concept is, though, I found myself disappointed by the end of it. It seemed like Pratchett and Baxter missed a lot of good opportunities for the story, failed to fire at least one of Chekhov’s guns, and let the Datum Earth plot line with Monica Jansson go woefully under-explored. Furthermore, while the Big Bad at the end was certainly big, it wasn’t that bad, and it was dealt with in a rather perfunctory and, in my opinion, unfulfilling manner. The ending was flat, with a bunch of loose ends that really should have been tied up, and there was even one question that came to mind that seemed so painfully obvious that I was shocked none of the characters thought of it: the Stepper boxes refer to the alternate Earths as being “west” or “east” of Datum Earth, and are built with a three-point toggle switch.

If there’s a west and an east, how about a north and south? What if you had four choices from any given Earth instead of two? I can understand leaving that option out for reasons of narrative simplicity, but it seems like such an obvious question that I’m surprised it wasn’t even raised.

Overall, I think the book fell under the same curse as so many of Neal Stephenson’s works: an amazing idea, done really well until the authors had to figure out how to end the book. There’s no real climax to it, no sense of fulfillment and achievement. Just a feeling like they had to stop somewhere, so they did.

That said, if they’re clever, they’ll make this a shared world project. I would love to see lots of different authors take a crack at some Tales of the Long Earth, precisely because it’s such a useful idea. There are so many stories that can be told, including the ones that got short shrift in this novel. Let’s hope we get to see that.

———-
[Jansson] opined, ‘Oh.’ This response seemed inadequate in itself. After some consideration, she added, ‘My.’ And she concluded, although in the process she was denying a lifelong belief system of agnosticism shading to outright atheism, ‘God.’
– from The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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Filed under adventure, alternate earth, colonization, quest, revolution, science fiction, Stephen Baxter, Terry Pratchett, travel, world-crossing

Review 196: And Another Thing

And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer

If you pay close attention, Colfer tells you exactly what you can expect from this book right at the beginning, using a well-chosen quote from Douglas Adams: “The storm had now definitely abated, and what thunder there was now grumbled over more distant hills, like a man saying ‘And another thing…’ twenty minutes after admitting he’d lost the argument.” (So Long and Thanks for All the Fish)

As Adams well knew, the phrase “And another thing…” is superfluous. It is said by the person who just can’t let things go. It’s a sullen, resentful phrase that doesn’t add anything to the discussion that came before. In other words, Colfer is telling us, this book didn’t need to happen and you probably don’t need to read it. Which is very kind of him, I think, warning us in advance that way. But still, after a long time where I refused to give in, I finally, well, gave in and read the book.

Vogon Sociology is considered a fallback major in most schools.

It’s not as bad as I expected it to be, certainly, but it lives up to its title. If you haven’t read it, you don’t really need to. It doesn’t add very much to the overall mythos of the Hitchhiker’s Guide universe, or to its characters, and while it has some entertaining moments in it, a few places where I genuinely laughed out loud, and some interesting explorations of Vogon sociology, if you give it a miss then you’re probably not missing a whole lot.

If you’ll recall, at the end of Mostly Harmless, the fifth book in the trilogy, the Earth – all of the Earths – were destroyed by the Vogons once and for all. The galactic conspiracy of psychiatrists had won, with the omnipresent Guide Mark Two as their weapon of choice, and the whole business about the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything was finally at an end. With the exception of Zaphod Beeblebrox, all of the main characters were vaporized, much to Arthur Dent’s own relief. If ever there was a conclusive ending to a series, that would be it, although allegedly Adams had a couple of ways in his back pocket to bring everyone back, should he need to do so.

Alas, Adams left us far too soon. In 2008, however, it was announced that there would indeed be a sixth book, penned by Eoin Colfer, of the hugely popular Artemis Fowl books. Fans across the world were both excited and apprehensive to see what would be done with the characters we had grown to love over so many years.

To his credit, Colfer wrote a very funny book. I was laughing by the first page, and he really did a fine job of capturing the tone and cadence of the Guide entries and the way that Adams would narrate the story. His depictions of some characters – especially Zaphod and Random – were spot-on, and you could see a lot of elements in the book that were nods to some of Adams’ favorite themes.

If this is how your book begins, you really need to live up to it…

In essence, what happens is this: Our Heroes are introduced to us in a stasis hallucination, held between ticks of the clock by the Guide Mark Two as the planet-destroying beams of the Grebulons descend towards Earth. They are rescued by the Heart of Gold and Zaphod Beeblebrox, who has detached his left head and is using it as the ship’s computer. Unfortunately, Ford causes Left Brain to freeze up, so they need to be rescued again – this time by one of the most popular bit players in the series, Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, an immortal being who has decided to spend eternity insulting everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. Wowbagger reluctantly takes them aboard, and in doing so insults Zaphod to the point where Zaphod promises to find a way to kill him, a proposition that Wowbagger has no problem with. Zaphod’s weapon of choice? A down-on-his-luck thunder god who’s been slumming it around Asgard.

Meanwhile, there is a planet of human refugees that is undergoing some rather entertaining class warfare, and the solution to this is, apparently, to find just the right kind of god to run the place. And even more meanwhile, a young Vogon is having second thoughts about his Vogonity and whether or not it’s okay to destroy inhabited planets just because there is a work order on hand that says they should.

I want to criticize the book for being directionless and unfocused, but let’s be fair – that describes the first book as well. Given its genesis as a radio drama, Adams never really had a grand plan for what would happen in the beginning of the series, and wrote in an episodic fashion that had (as far as I could tell) no real end point in mind. The difference, however, is that while those books had no real direction to them, they were charged with a kind of chaotic energy that made you want to keep reading just to find out what happens next. Arthur Dent, our avatar in this universe, never got a chance to rest or even change out of his dressing-gown, and so we were dragged along with him. It was exciting and confusing and weird in all the right ways, and we didn’t mind not knowing where we were going because the trip to get there really was just that much fun.

To be fair, though, Arthur NEVER wanted to be involved…

In this book, however, Arthur really doesn’t want to be involved. He’s had an imaginary lifetime of living in peace and quiet, and seems to have outgrown the antics of Ford and Zaphod. He’s the reasonable adult in this book, and not all that much fun anymore. As I read, I was disappointed that Colfer didn’t seem to have captured Arthur’s character very well, but perhaps I was wrong – Arthur didn’t belong in this story, and he wanted nothing more than to not be in it anymore. And it showed.

Another telling moment comes near the end of the book. The narrative takes a moment to remind us that, “There is no such thing as a happy ending.” And a few lines later, it quotes a certain pole-sitting philosopher who says, “There is no such thing as an ending, or a beginning, for that matter, everything is middle.” That certainly is true of life, and you can imagine it being true of the lives of fictional characters. Louis and Rick will walk off the tarmac in Casablanca and go on to do other things, perhaps help the resistance fight the Nazis. The lives of Luke and Han and Leia have been extended far beyond their original showing on film, thanks to the Extended Universe of Star Wars. Scout Finch and her brother Jem will grow up and have children of their own; the rabbits at Watership Down will live and breed and die; Guy Montag will help rebuild the intellectual society that he was originally trying to destroy…

We know that these worlds have lives beyond the last page, no matter how thoroughly they’re destroyed at the end. There’s always going to be some thread hanging loose that can be picked up and used to continue the story beyond where it left off.

But that doesn’t mean that we should.

I applaud Colfer for taking on the project, knowing that it is better for the series to be continued by someone who knew it and loved it and who was influenced by it, rather than by someone who couldn’t show it all the love it deserves. As I said, I laughed while I read this book, a lot more than I expected to. But as the title implies, this feels like an attempt to continue a story that has been finished for a long time. Rather than breathe new life into the Hitchhiker’s franchise, it simply reminds us all the more sharply of what we once had and will never have again.

——————————–
“I do not hate myself. In many ways, I am not altogether too bad.”
– Constant Mown (Vogon)

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Filed under adventure, aliens, Douglas Adams, Eoin Colfer, gods, humor, robots, science fiction, UFOs, war