Category Archives: technology

Books about technology.

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.

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“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 169: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

One of the prettiest books I have on my shelves right now is Theodore Gray’s The Elements, a visual collection of all the elements that make up the physical universe. “Everything you can drop on your foot,” as he says. In it, he provides wonderful pictures and descriptions of the elements that we know, arranged as they would be in the periodic table. It’s a gorgeous book, one that everyone should have – especially if you have children. If you want your kids to become interested in science and investigating the world around them, you could do far worse than to have this book on your shelves.

Eventually, though, they’ll be old enough and canny enough to ask, “Well, how do we know all this? Where did we find these things, and how? And why are they in this order?” That’s the point where you hand them The Disappearing Spoon, sit back, and let Sam Kean take over.

Ytterby. By all accounts, a lovely place. Photo by Bertil Nelson on Flickr.

The story of the elements, and our understanding of them, is governed just as much by personality as by p-shells, as much by competition as by charge, as much by ego as by electrons. While the elements themselves don’t pay any attention to human affairs, the quest to understand the building blocks of matter have sent us to the hearts of stars, the depths of the earth and, for various reasons, Ytterby, Sweden. [1]

Kean starts with how he got into the elements, with a story that would horrify modern-day parents: mercury. When he was a kid, his mother would collect the mercury from broken thermometers and keep it in a little bottle on a high shelf. If they were lucky, she would let her children play with it for a while, swirling it around and watching while this shiny liquid metal split apart and fused back together perfectly, never leaving a bit of itself behind. It was a metal that flowed like water, and it was fascinating. If he had known at that age that ancient alchemists thought there were spirits living in mercury, he would not have been surprised.

Oh, mercury, How can anything so pretty be so dangerous? Photo by Len Gatey on Flickr.

Keeping an eye out for mercury, he learned that modern scientists are able to follow the expedition of Lewis and Clark using mercury. The explorers carried with them a good quantity of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s Bilious Pills, a “cure” for any illness that mainly contained mercury chloride. It was vile stuff, poisoning everyone who took it, but without an FDA around to stop this kind of nonsense, Rush made plenty of money. It probably didn’t hurt his credibility that he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In any case, he gave samples to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and their latrine sites can still be found today by the unusually high levels of mercury that were deposited there as the men’s bodies tried to get rid of the heavy metal as quickly as possible.

Mercury also taught Kean about mythology – the Roman god of communication, modeled on the Greek message-bearer. It taught him etymology – the chemical symbol for mercury is Hg, which is derived from the Latin hydragyrum, which means “silver water.” It informed him on literature, especially the Mad Hatter of Alice in Wonderland, who was based on the poor crazies who used to breathe in the fumes of mercury while setting felt for their hats.

This one weird, eerie element was a door into so many other topics that he figured there must be others. And so he started work on this book, a collection of histories and tales, gossip and hearsay, all centered around the 118 physical elements that make up our universe. “As we know,” he writes, “90 percent of particles in the universe are hydrogen, and the other 10 percent are helium. Everything else, including six million billion billion kilos of earth, is a cosmic rounding error.” Within that rounding error, though, some amazing things have been found.

One look from this bearded madman and the elements fell into place right quick.

In the 19th century, the Russian Dimitri Mendeleev examined the common properties of different elements and was able to sort the elements in such a way that took advantage of their similarities. The violent alkalies along the far left, which will explode if given half a chance, and their cousins, the halogens on the far right, some of the most reactive elements in nature. Separating them are the noble gasses, which don’t react with anything unless pushed to extremes. Without knowing about electron shells and the weird quantum things that happen on the atomic level, Mendeleev managed to put together a table so good that he was able to leave gaps in it that corresponded to elements that hadn’t yet been found. And by telling the world that these gaps existed, the race to isolate and discover the elements was on.

Kean’s book is a great look at the way science works on a human level. How the search for high-quality porcelain led to the discovery of an entire class of elements, how Marie Curie would get into trouble by dragging her (male) colleagues into dark closets to show them how radium glowed, how nitrogen kills with kindness and lithium quiets an unsettled mind. The competition to not only find these elements but to name them and find uses for them has driven science forward in all fields, from geology to neurology, for the last two hundred years. Those 118 squares on the periodic table have driven men to travel the world, to create economic and political empires, to love, to hate, and to murder.

If this kind of thing were taught in high school chemistry class, there would probably be a lot more kids interested in science as a career.

A quantum jump is exactly like this, except in that it's nothing like this. Not even remotely. But otherwise, yes.

The book is very readable, even if it does drift from time to time into more technical areas. One of my colleagues, who doesn’t have an extensive background in science, said she was a little slowed down by talk of electron shells and quantum jumps, which I guess were not aided by Kean’s elevator similes. But it did get her asking the right questions – how do we know atoms exist if we can’t see them? How can we be sure that what is in this book is true?

Those are the questions that Kean tries to answer in the book, but it’s also the kind of book that may bring up more questions. It’s “gateway science,” one of those books that pulls away the cold, rational veneer of the scientist and his or her endeavors, and shows what an exciting, weird, messy and dramatic place science can be. What’s more, it shows how science is deeply ingrained not only into our technology, but our language, history and politics. An understanding of science, even at an amateur level, is a wonderful way to open your eyes to the great, complex and bizarre world in which we live.

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“We eat and breathe the periodic table; people bet and lose huge sums on it; philosophers use it to probe the meaning of science; it poisons people; it spawns wars. Between hydrogen at the top left and the man-made impossibilities lurking along the bottom, you can find bubbles, bombs, money, alchemy, petty politics, history, poison, crime, and love. Even some science.”
– Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon
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[1] The town has the distinct honor of having four elements named after it: yttrium (Y), ytterbium (Yb), terbium (Tb), and erbium (Er). What has your hometown got?

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Filed under chemistry, history, nonfiction, Sam Kean, science, technology

Review 155: Otherland 4 – Sea of Silver Light

Otherland 4: Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams

At last we have come to the end of our journey, when all will be explained and all will be resolved.

As the book opens, the Other – the operating system for the Grail Brotherhood’s mysterious plan for immortality – has been defeated, overcome and overpowered by the truly evil assassin Dread. With his mutant ability to manipulate electronics, Dread has taught the Other how to feel true pain, and now has nearly complete control over the Otherland network. With a nearly limitless number of worlds to choose from, Dread allows his sadistic madness to run wild. But no matter how many worlds he rapes and plunders, there are still those he truly wants to destroy – the Otherland explorers sent by the mysterious half-human Sellars.

While they are successful, none of them look this cool.

But those explorers themselves face greater dangers than Dread. Half of them have been thrust back into the twisted realms of Otherland, where the horrors and dangers that had been built into it have mutated into unrecognizable terrors. The other half… they ended up in the heart of the Other’s secret dreams. There they must face the eventual death of the network and survive it, if they can.

Offline, Sellars has brought all of his players into position. Lawyers, children and old women are his army, and together they will uncover the horrible and heartbreaking truth about the nature of the Other and the evil that has been done to it.

I really love this series. As it moves towards its ending, which does involve a lot more explaining than most other books do, it’s easy to get swept up in the sheer scale of the narrative. There’s a lot to take in by the end of the series, a lot of loose ends to tie up, but it all wraps up rather nicely. More or less. There is a rather major revelation that comes near the end that just kind of… gets written off. I have a sneaking suspicion that Williams might have been able to stretch this series into a fifth book, but it probably would have suffered from Rowling Syndrome – a lot of unnecessary padding in between the important bits.

The important thing is that, by the end of the book you really do feel invested in the world that Williams has created. You care about the characters, and you want everything to turn out all right for them. For the good ones, at least. For the bad ones, you want them to get their just desserts, to see them suffer as they have made others suffer. You even find yourself feeling for the Other, which we – and the protagonists – have always believed to be the main villain of the story. It is not, as we find out, and the scope of the villainy that has been done to it is truly astonishing.

Good news, honey! The new Tad Williams book is out!

In his forward to the second book, Williams apologized to his readers about the cliffhanger ending to the first. This isn’t really four books, he said – it’s one giant book that had to, for various reason, be split into four. The main reason, of course, being that no one would print or buy a 3,500 page hardcover, even if the fine folks at DAW Books were willing to try it. He is right, though – it is one very long story, and thus you can extract a great many things from it, if you want to.

There’s no one thing that I can say this book is about. In one sense, it is an exploration of the future of the digital world and what it might mean to people. The virtual net of this story would be as alien to us as the internet would be to our grandparents. It has become the sea in which our characters swim, and their main way of interacting with the world. It is only when their ability to go offline is taken away from them that they truly begin to value the world and the identity they’ve left behind. What’s more, it explores how we connect with each other – looking at both the relationships we build in virtual space and the ones we build in the real world, and finding complete validity in them both.

There are issues of identity, best shown by Orlando, whose towering Thargor the Barbarian character hides a young teenager with a crippling illness that will kill him long before he’s old enough to vote. His best friend has a slightly less unfortunate secret to share – that behind those big, muscular sim bodies, Sam Fredericks is actually a girl.

The story explores issues of family – how Renie deals with her father, Long Joseph Sulaweyo, or how little Christabel Sorenson’s family react when they find out that their young daughter has been drawn deep into Sellars’ conspiracy. And the bonds between mother and child that can never truly be broken.

Not only am I still human - I'm SEXY.

And there are even issues of the very definition of the word “life.” If your mind is perfectly copied into a computer, with all its memories and personality intact, is it still you? Are you still human? Are you even alive, in any real sense? The Grail Brotherhood certainly believed so, or they would never have started this project in the first place. But in a system as broad and complicated as the Otherland network, who knows what else might arise to test our definition?

The story is about heroism and history, about love and hate, about the unshakable bonds of friendship and the tenuous reliance on people you despise. It’s about the lengths to which fear will drive you and the extremes you will encounter when you test that fear. It’s about science and faith and looking at the world in ways you never imagined. It’s about good, it’s about evil.

It’s about life, really, and what it is about life that makes us want more of it.

Now I’m just waxing philosophical. To sum up: this is probably one of my favorite stories in my library. I highly recommend you pick it up, set some time aside, and enjoy it.

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Christabel was beginning to learn a scary thing about grown-ups. Sometimes they said things would be all right, but they didn’t know they’d be all right. They just said it. Bad things could happen, even to little kids. Especially to little kids.
– From Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
Sea of Silver Light on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Filed under adventure, apocalypse, existentialism, family, fantasy, friendship, internet, philosophy, quest, science fiction, Tad Williams, technology, transhumanism, virtual reality

Review 152: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

What would you do if you had access to the greatest supercomputer ever built? A computer so complex and intricate that it finally gains full consciousness – and only you knew about it? Would you use it for your own nefarious purposes and hack your way to riches? Would you try to teach it how to be human? Would you tell it jokes? Or would you use it to start a revolution that frees your people in the Lunar Colonies from the yoke of Terran oppression?

Manuel Garcia O’Kelly Davis never really meant for that last one to happen. One of Luna’s best computer technicians, Mannie’s philosophy was “Keep mouth shut” when it came to matters political, and never considered the political fate of the Moon to be something he needed to worry about. When he attends a meeting of Lunar dissidents, people protesting against the rule of the Earth-based Lunar Authority, he goes more out of curiosity than cause. An attack by Authority troops drives him together with lifelong revolutionary Wyoming Knott and anarchist professor Bernardo de la Paz, and together they hatch a plan to take down the Lunar Authority and make Luna into a sovereign nation above Earth.

Would he have been as scary if he'd been named Mike? Probably.

To do so, they’ll need the help of Mike, the world’s first – and only – sentient computer. He knows the odds, he can run the scenarios – with Mike on their side, the people of Luna can gain their independence and create a new nation in the grand tradition of old.

A friend of mine said that this was the best political science textbook that she’d ever read, and in many respects she’s right. This book packs a lot of social philosophy into three hundred pages, and Heinlein requires you to be pretty quick on the uptake. From Manny’s clipped way of narrating the story to all the new lingo and concepts that are necessary for Lunar life, the reader needs to pay close attention in order to get the full impact of what’s going on in the book.

In a way, this book is Heinlein asking the question, “How do new nations begin?” Historically, there are two ways: top-down and bottom-up. In the first case, a person or people of strength brings a group of citizens to become a political entity. In the second, the people themselves rise up to overthrow their former masters. Most revolutions are a mix of the two, really, and Luna’s is no exception. The very charismatic Adam Selene (Mike in disguise) and the brilliant Professor manage to bring the people of Luna together in order to rid themselves of the Lunar Authority.

What makes it very interesting is that the book is pretty much a how-to book on insurgency and revolution. They work out an improvement on the traditional cell system of a conspiracy, and how to make it as stable and secret as possible, while still maintaining reliable communications. They figure out how to involve people in the revolution indirectly, harnessing the energies of everyone from children to old people. Working against a better-armed and more powerful enemy, Luna’s revolution is a textbook model of how to overthrow your oppressors and gain your freedom.

Of course, once you have your freedom, then what do you do with it? How do you run your new country, and how do you make sure that your freedom can be maintained? How do you build a government and write a constitution and establish trade and do all the other little things that have to happen if you want a country all your own?

What’s more, Heinlein puts forth a new society that is radically different from the ones we know now, and by necessity. With drastically different demographics and gravity, life on Luna cannot follow the same rules as life on Earth. This new life includes a near reverence for women, marriages that span not only multiple partners but multiple generations, and a spirit of individualism that would make the most grizzled pioneer proud. Life on the moon, as the title implies, is not easy. Many of those who come to Luna do not survive. Those who do, however, become the backbone of a new nation that will one day be the crossroads of the solar system.

It’s a dense read, but fun, once you get used to the narrator’s mode of speech. Manny often leaves off pronouns and articles, making him sound very choppy and direct. And a lot of it is done in speeches and Socratic dialogs between the Prof and whomever is unlucky enough to get in his way. I’d say that the greater part of this book is discussion of how to have a revolution from the point of view of the moon, and a look at how Heinlein thinks a society should be ordered.

Other than being very narrative-heavy, which modern readers might find somewhat tiring, there is one point about the book that didn’t sit right with me. It didn’t ruin the book, necessarily, but it put a big asterisk next to everything that Heinlein was trying to say. That asterisk is Mike.

Mike is a truly marvelous AI. He is not only self-aware and blessed with a rather rudimentary sense of humor, but he is tied into all of Luna’s main systems. His processing speed and memory are exceptional, and while he doesn’t really care one way or the other about rebelling against his owners, he does think that organizing a rebellion might be an entertaining diversion. He’s a good character, really, but he is entirely too powerful.

RTR-9000 would have liberated the Earth while he was at it, just because it was in his way. (via Cracked.com)

All of the problems that traditionally plague conspiracies, undergrounds and rebellions are solved by Mike. He knows the probabilities of success and can run thousands of scenarios in a moment. He is able to set up a moon-wide communications system that is completely secure. He can tap into the Lunar Authority’s database while at the same time keeping the Rebellion’s data secret. What’s more, he can be trusted to know everything about everyone in the group – he cannot be bribed or drugged or forced to name names under interrogation. He can organize the bombardment of Earth with pinpoint accuracy, bring down attacking ships and organize attacks all over the moon.

With Mike at their side, the rebels couldn’t help but win, and I found that a kind of hollow victory, in a narrative sense. I kept waiting for Mike to be compromised – his power disconnected or his actual intelligence uncovered – or for him to change his mind about helping the rebels. One way or another, I wanted the rebels to win Luna without the help of their omniscient computer conspirator. As it is, Mike pretty much delivers the Moon to its people, and then vanishes without a trace. That’s not to say that the human element isn’t necessary – even Mike couldn’t have won independence without them – I would rather have seen a wholly human revolution.

The flag of Luna. Seriously.

Other than that, though, it was a very good read, and it’s a book that ties into a lot of Heinlein’s other works. Many concepts that are key to Heinlein’s vision of the world are in this book – the freedom of the individual to direct his or her own life, the benefits of polygamy over monogamy, and of course the notion of TANSTAAFL – “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch” – which is arguably one of the governing principles of the universe. In this book, Heinlein asks the reader to do more than just enjoy a good story – he demands that the reader think about the message as well. And that’s what makes Heinlein one of the greats.

If you’re looking for some essential science fiction and you like your politics rough-and-tumble, check this book out.

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“At one time kings were anointed by Deity, so the problem was to see to it that Deity chose the right candidate. In this age the myth is ‘the will of the people’ … but the problem changes only superficially.”
– Professor Bernardo de la Paz, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
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Filed under colonization, economics, futurism, politics, revolution, Robert Heinlein, science fiction, society, space travel, technology

Review 146: Otherland 2 – River of Blue Fire

Otherland 2: River of Blue Fire by Tad Williams

When last we left Our Heroes, they were caught in the Otherland – an immense virtual reality program built by people with more money than God – with no idea where to go and no idea what to do. They were lost, confused and had no way out.

Oh yes – back before Neo got his clock punched by Agent Smith, Renie, !Xabbu, Orlando, Fredericks and all the other Otherland explorers discover that they are in more danger than they realize – if they die on the network, then they’ll die in real life. And, almost right out of the gate, people start dying. Whether they’re tiny biologists living among the ants or a lifetime gamer warring against the different factions of a twisted Oz, they die in unpleasant and, ultimately real ways. And it’s up to our heroes to not only avoid death themselves, but also to figure out what the hell they’re supposed to be doing in there.

It's just like this, only different.

One of the things I like about this series is that Tad Williams openly admits to stealing – er, paying homage to the great writers of the past. At the end of book one, when all the main characters have been gathered together and are being told about the great dangers they will face, and how they are part of a plan to defeat the Grail Brotherhood and their Nefarious Scheme, most of the people there want nothing to do with it. It’s up to Orlando Gardiner, our young barbarian warrior-slash-progeriac teenager to say, “Hey, this the the Council of Elrond! We have a mission here!”

Unfortunately, while the Fellowship of the Ring gets a clear mission before leaving Rivendell, the Otherland explorers are scattered before they know what to do, and their main goal is to run for their lives. As this book progresses, they start to learn more about the vast Otherland network, what its nature is and why it was made. They also learn that it is unstable, and possibly a living thing in its own right.

Almost immediately, the group gets split up. That is, as all ensemble writers know, the best way to really build a meaty story, and it works really well here. Unfortunately, while there are three groups, the strongest and most interesting characters get put into two of them. Orlando and Fredericks get sent off into a world more bizarre than any online gaming ever prepared them for; Renie and !Xabbu end up in a horribly twisted version of The Wizard of OZ, if Oz had invaded Kansas, taken over, and started a three-way fight between the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man.

No adorable wisecracking robot, though. Can't imagine why.

This leaves us with the third and largest group being somewhat less interesting than the others. Not completely, of course – we have a blind woman who can sense the information flow of the simulation, a teenage net-freak who only speaks in online slang, a campy death-clown named Sweet William, a Chinese grandmother and an abrasive German woman. They’re not bad characters by any means, and each one is special in his or her own right. It’s just that most of them were introduced later in the first book, and so we’ve had less time to get to know them. Putting a more familiar character in that group might have made them more interesting, or it might have overshadowed them. Who knows? The good news is that they do become more interesting and engaging, so there’s really nothing lost by their being new to us.

One thing that the third group has, however, is a secret – one of them is not who he or she appears to be. One of them has been co-opted by the sociopathic assassin, Dread. The only one with the freedom to go on and offline at will, he has nearly godlike power at his fingertips. And he intends to use it.

I can imagine that Tad Williams had a great deal of fun working out these novels, mainly because he created a concept that allowed for incredible freedom in world-building. After all, on a super-powerful VR platform, any conceivable simulation can be created. So whether it is the mythical land of Xanadu, a cartoon kitchen where the groceries come to life at night, a world where people fly like birds, or the legendary land of Ithaca, the settings in these books are only limited to what Williams can think up and work with.

It's like, I'm in the story and I'm reading the story... Woah. Dude.

What’s really interesting is that he seems to take great pleasure in reminding us that we are, in fact, reading a story – he goes so far as to have one character reflect on exactly what kind of character he is. People are reminding themselves that they’re not in a story, even though they are, and at the same time recognizing that the entire structure of their virtual universe is patterned on the rules of fiction. It’s a strange type of meta-fiction that rewards the careful reader.

So, as the book comes to a close, we have some new threads to follow. The Otherland explorers begin to find their purpose and learn about their situation. We’ve met a strange type of character which exists in many worlds at once – the beautiful, birdlike woman who tries to help Paul Jonas and Orlando Gardiner find their way; the horrible Twins, whose only job is to pursue Paul Jonas wherever he may go. These people can be found around any corner, and the outcome of meeting them is always uncertain.

Slightly less complicated than this, but not for lack of trying.

Offline, real-world investigations into the mysterious comas that afflict children begin to bear fruit – a young lawyer named Catur Ramsey is trying to help the parents of Orlando and Fredericks find out what happened to their children, and the search leads him to a strange woman, Olga Pirofski, who may have a vital clue. Renie’s father involves himself with some very dangerous people indeed. The police in Sydney find themselves working on a five year-old murder case that will eventually lead them to the malicious assassin/hacker Dread. A mysterious group called The Circle makes itself known to a select few, and reveals its mission – to oppose the Lords of the Otherland and their relentless pursuit of immortality. All through this, those Lords of the Otherland struggle amongst themselves to see who will ultimately control it.

The tale becomes stranger with the telling, but I can guarantee – you’ll be good and ready to jump right into book three….

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“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shores of the Nonastic Ocean. I watched magic blunderbusses flash and glitter in the dark near Glinda’s Palace. All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time… to die.”
– The Scarecrow, Otherland: River of Blue Fire
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Tad Williams on Wikipedia
Otherland on Wikipedia
City of Golden Shadow on Amazon.com
Tad Williams’ Website

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Lost in the Stacks 7: Paper vs Electronic – THE SHOWDOWN!

Welcome to the 21st century, all. Electronic books, whether you love them or hate them, are here to stay, and as with any change in medium this drastic, we have to figure out which one is better. In the immortal words of… an immortal, “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!

This inconsistency in format bothers me more than you will ever know....

Well, no, not really. But readers still have to figure out what our relationship is with these newfangled electronic things. What are their benefits? What are their drawbacks? How can I relate to them? What do they tell the world about me, and what do they tell me about myself? There’s a lot more involved in this discussion than simple cost-benefit analysis. There are feelings and memories and senses, which can cause us to make decisions about the medium that aren’t necessarily rational.

Today we’re going to pick it apart, look at the two sides and come to a conclusion. Or my conclusion, at least. Your mileage may vary.

How do you feel about the issue? Are you a dead-tree traditionalist, or are you a post-modern experimenter? How do you make your decisions on which format to buy? Leave your opinion in the comments, and let’s continue the discussion!

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Review 114: The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi

The book that preceded this one was Old Man’s War. It was Scalzi’s first novel and I loved it. It had everything – high-end science fiction, philosophy, cool battle scenes and a protagonist whose sense of humor reminded me a lot of many of my friends. The book’s premise was very simple – why do we use young people to fight in wars? Because they have the bodies that work best for the task – strong, fast and generally resilient. But young people can also be rash, impulsive and generally ignorant of a whole lot of life’s complexity. If their physical capabilities were not an issue, then who would we want? Why, old people, of course. They have the life experience, the patience and the perspective to be better soldiers.

No.

So, it’s The Future. Mankind has spread out among the stars, and the Colonial Union is the political organization that keeps them together. Any government needs a military, so the Colonial forces make sure they have the best recruits, all brought from Earth. With some pretty high-tech jiggery-pokery, the senior citizens from Earth’s richer nations are made into lean, green fighting machines, capable of performing in ways that make the Marines of our day look like palsey victims. Their minds are transferred from their old, decrepit bodies and put into new ones, grown from their own DNA, but altered to make them better soldiers. It’s all very exciting and cool, but at some point, I suppose Scalzi asked himself a question: what happens when someone signs up at age 65, but doesn’t make it to age 75 when they’re supposed to start their service?

NO!

Well, we have all this DNA just sitting there, right? We can’t let it go to waste, can we?

That brings us to the Ghost Brigades, the rather morbid nickname for the Colonial Union’s Special Forces. Their bodies are grown from DNA whose previous owners have expired, and are modded in more extreme ways than the regular defense force soldiers. Then, when the body is ready, they’re woken up. An amazing piece of biotechnology called, rather whimsically, a BrainPal prepares their brains for consciousness, acting as a kind of bootstrap for the emergent personality. It tells them what they’re supposed to know, so they don’t have to go through the tedious process of learning it all. And, of course, much more. The Special Forces do what the regular Defense Forces can’t, and act in ways that their more “ordinary” soldiers couldn’t understand. In Old Man’s War the Special Forces only came in at the end. In this book, as you might have guessed, they play a much more central role.

I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!!!

Charles Boutin is a traitor to humanity. For reasons known only to him, he has sold out the Colonial Union to its enemies, a troika of alien species that would be more than willing to wipe us off the map. The Defense Forces would love to find him, of course, but he’s hidden himself among the enemy. So they got the next best thing: a copy of his own mind that Boutin had made while researching the BrainPal.

In theory, it should work: put this mental backup copy into a “clean slate,” a body that has no mind of its own. A Special Forces body.

And so, Jared Dirac was born. Decanted. Whatever. It was hoped that when he opened his eyes, he would be Charles Boutin in a new body, and could promptly be interrogated. But it isn’t that easy. Jared Dirac is a normal Special Forces soldier, a blank slate who is ready to do the job he was, literally, born to do: keep humanity safe.

Art by Vincent Chong

He’s sent off to training, with the expectation that he would be just another Special Forces soldier. But he is, of course, much more than that. As his brain matures, the memories and personality of Charles Boutin come with them, and Dirac starts to understand more of what made the man turn traitor to his own species. This information could lead the Defense Forces to their ultimate goal, or to their destruction….

It’s a great book. Tons of fun, although the exposition is a bit heavy-handed in the beginning. There’s a whole lot of reminding about what you learned in Old Man’s War, and I didn’t really need it. That’s the thing about recap, though: if you avoid it altogether, you can confuse people who haven’t picked up the previous book in a while. Slather it on and you bore the people who have good enough memories.

Once you get past that, though, it’s straight on fun, with some pretty serious questions folded into it. One of the major questions raised in this book is that of identity – who is Jared Dirac? How can a being who is brought to full consciousness by an implanted computer be properly called “human?” It’s clear that he is, but a fuller look at the Special Forces – especially the squad known as the Gamerans – really does push the definition of “human” to its limits.

The Japanese cover to Ghost Brigades

It’s a very thoughtful book in many places, exploring the grey areas of not only humanity and “human-ness,” but also of the role of humanity among the stars. Explaining his reason for turning traitor, Boutin asks us to consider the entire purpose of government itself – how it operates, how much power it has and how much it should trust its citizenry. He fundamentally disagrees with how the Colonial Union goes about its business, and will do whatever he has to in order to set it on what he believes is the right path. And in the middle of all this is Jared Dirac, who has to actually start making choices in his life – something that Special Forces soldiers were never bred to do.

As with Old Man’s War, this is a great book to read, and I look forward to the other books set in that universe. You should too.

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“We don’t mind when the other guy brings a gun to a knife fight. It just makes it easier for us to cut out his heart. Or whatever it is that he uses to pump blood.”
Lieutenant Jane Sagan, The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades on Wikipedia
John Scalzi on Wikipedia
The Ghost Brigades on Amazon.com
John Scalzi’s Blog

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