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Review 38: Transmetropolitan


Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

There are times I look around me and think, “I love living in the future.” I mean think about all that we have – even the simplest phones can call anywhere in the world, and the higher end ones are basically backup brains. Surgery that used to require horrible invasion can now be done with a fraction of the time and the pain. We can cure diseases that a century ago would have been thought of as afflictions by God. Our transportation networks have grown to a point where there is practically nowhere on Earth that cannot be reached in twenty-four hours, and advances in communication have provided us with more information than our ancestors could have hoped to see in their (briefer) lifetimes.

We live in an age of wonders, when you really think about it.

Leave it to Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, then, to show us what living in the future really means.

Transmetropolitan is set in the far, far future – so far ahead that even they don’t know what year it is. It’s set a in future that can do anything – cure any disease, bring people back from the dead, synthesize consumer goods from blocks of inert matter…. You can turn yourself into a dolphin for a day or into a sentient dust cloud for the rest of eternity. It’s a future that defies imagination.

And yet, it is very similar to now. The same problems, the same mistakes and the same short-sightedness that plague us will be around in the future, no matter how good the technology is. Despite being able to have anything you want, there is still greed. Despite being able to reassemble matter on an atomic level, there is still hunger and homelessness. Despite the human form becoming malleable in a thousand different ways, there is still discrimination. This perfect future has a flaw, and like so many perfect things, its flaw is its people.

Our guide to this future is Spider Jerusalem, a celebrated journalist whose love of the truth eclipses his hate of the world he lives in, and he’s determined to set the City straight, even if it kills him. He’s an analogue of Hunter S. Thompson, with a little H.L. Mencken thrown in for balance, and he’s the most awesome character to grace comics in a long time.

Spider is angry because he has to come back to The City, the nameless hypertropolis that both sustains him and drives him mad. He looks around and sees the ugliness under the shiny plastic shell of society and is instantly furious that no one has done anything about it yet. What’s more, it’s time to vote for President again, and this time it looks like it’s a race between an incumbent so horrible that he was nicknamed The Beast and an utterly amoral snake called The Smiler, who wants to be President just because that’s what he wants. Spider Jerusalem, whether he wants it or not, holds the keys to power for both of these men, and even his high moral sense isn’t able to tell him which of the two villains should get it.

Keen observers of 20th century history will see a lot reflected in this series, deliberately and clearly, and Spider is Ellis’ avatar His word is beyond dispute and his decisions are beyond question, which is why Warren Ellis is a kind of internet cult figure these days. He created a character that was a brash loudmouth who could scream the things that we’re all thinking, but someone with whom we feel an almost immediate and unshakable sympathy. He’s enough to make me want to be a journalist.

The future of Transmetropolitan is a place where Ellis was able to tell us everything that had been bugging him, from the hyper-escalation of technology to corrupt government to social apathy. The first few issues, before the real meat of the story kicks in, are “soapbox” issues, where Ellis rails against everything that’s going wrong in our time by making it so much worse in the future. My favorite of these, of course, is the religion issue (#6, God Riding Shotgun) where Spider crashes – and trashes – a convention for new religions. Alien Love Gardeners, the Church of Cobain, and the Church of Release, where trepanation can be practiced as an act of evangelism are excellent examples.

Eventually the story settles down with the arrival of the Presidential Election and Spider’s determination to bring down The Smiler no matter what it costs him.

The writing in this story is fantastic, of course, as we would expect nothing less from Warren Ellis. Spider is utterly, completely foul-mouthed, so don’t let your children read it unless you want them to shock sailors. But there are touching moments and angry tirades and passionate speeches that dig right into your heart, and whether you love Spider or hate him, you know he’s speaking from the core of his soul.

The art, too, is outstanding. It takes great skill to make such ugliness look beautiful, but Darick Robertson certainly has it. The City is a living, breathing place, and it has all of the beauty and horror of a living organism, if you look closely enough. Robertson can render gleaming cityscapes alongside the hollow eyes of child prostitutes with equal care and detail. While you read, be sure to look, because every panel is worth looking at.

Transmetropolitan is a story about truth, really. Or if we want to be specific, The Truth. Spider believes in The Truth, no matter who it hurts, and his mission as a journalist is to discover and promulgate the truth. Whether it’s the truth about the alien-human hybrid prostitutes delivered to the presidential suite or the truth about a level of poverty in the City that would shame a third-world nation, Spider’s aim is to show people what their world looks like and force them to take action. Unfortunately, he’s fighting an uphill battle.

You see, much like in our world, people don’t actually like truth. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, especially because there’s a very good chance that the truth could implicate us in some pretty horrible situations. What’s worse, there are countless situations where you can have contradictory situations and explanations, and yet both can be considered “true.” That’s the unfortunate difference between fiction and real life.

Still, I would appreciate Spider Jerusalem today. In this world of instant news, where something that’s an hour old is “old news” and where opinion is put side-by-side with fact as if there were some kind of controversy, we need someone to stand for the truth. Someone who doesn’t care about what people think of him or the consequences of her quest for herself. Someone fearless enough to push as far as he can and then push farther. Someone to stand up and say, “This is what is true.”

We may not listen to this person. In fact, given the way things are going right now, we may even come to hate the one who tells us how we are responsible for the world in which we live. But we need him nonetheless, and if Spider Jerusalem can inspire even a few of us to look at our societies and ourselves with a critical, unblinking, bloodshot eye, then perhaps his spirit lives, even if he doesn’t.

—————————————–
These are the new streets of this city. Where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt. Television and teddy bears. But all we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.
– Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan
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Transmetropolitan on Wikipedia
Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Darick Robertson on Wikipedia
Warren Ellis’ homepage
Darick Robertson’s homepage
Transmetropolitan on Wikiquote
Transmetropolitan on Amazon.com

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Filed under Darick Robertson, DC Comics, futurism, graphic novel, humor, media, politics, science fiction, technology, totalitarianism, Warren Ellis

Review 36: Little Brother


Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Probably the biggest hurdle to overcome when reading young adult fiction is the fact that I’m not a young adult. As most adults know, things look very different from this part of the timeline, and it’s often very difficult to remember not only how you thought when you were younger, but why you thought the way you did. And it’s not a matter of just denying the feelings and emotions of youth – it’s that we literally cannot reset our minds to that state. We know too much, we’ve experienced too much. The best we can do is an approximation of how we think we remember how things were when we were still young enough not to know better.

It was with this in mind that I started to read Little Brother, and while I thought the book was a lot of fun to read, it probably wasn’t nearly as cool as it would have been if I were fourteen years old.

Young Marcus Yallow, AKA w1n5t0n, AKA m1k3y, is a senior at Cesar Chavez high school in San Francisco, and he’s what we used to call a “computer whiz” back when I was a kid. Marcus has an excellent grasp of how systems work, and finds great pleasure and thrill in either strengthening or outwitting those systems. Thus, he is able to fool the various security measures in place in his school building so that he can do the things his teachers don’t want him to do – send IMs in class, sneak out whenever he wants, steal library books, that kind of thing. He’s a hacker supreme, a trickster, and a very big fish in his little pond. He’s so confident and cocky, in fact, that within twenty pages I wanted nothing more than to see him get his comeuppance.

Which is pretty much what happens. A series of bombs go off, destroying the Bay Bridge and killing thousands of people in an attack that dwarfs 9/11. In the chaos that ensues, Marcus and his friends get picked up by Homeland Security, taken to an undisclosed location (which turns out to be Treasure Island) and interrogated within an inch of their lives. They quickly break Marcus’ smug self-confidence and assure him that there is no way he can win against them if they decide he’s a threat to national security. When he is sufficiently cowed, Marcus is released back into the city, which has become a zone of hyper-security.

In this post-attack San Francisco, the police and Homeland Security have unprecedented powers to search and seize, access to every trace of electronic records of citizens’ movements and transactions. In other words, everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise, and DHS is confident that the security they provide is worth the loss of liberty.

Malcolm, of course, disagrees. His natural tendency to buck authority meets his desire to get back at DHS for what they did to him and his friends, and comes together in a plan to not only subvert the Department of Homeland Security, but to actively drive them out of his city. To that end, he creates a youth movement, powered by a secret internet known as the XNet and kept safe by means of complex cryptography. The youth of the city come together to cause chaos, to show Homeland Security that they are not all-powerful and that if anyone is terrifying American citizens, it’s not al-Qaeda.

In the end, of course, the good guys win, though not without some losses and some disappointment. Freedom triumphs over security, but how long that triumph will last is unknown. All we do know is that the right of the citizens to tell their government what to do – as enumerated in the Declaration of Independence – is maintained. So in that sense, all is well.

It’s a fun book to read, and I’ll admit, there were times where I could feel anger building and my heart racing as the story moved along. Perhaps that’s because, like Marcus, I have a solid distrust of authority. I don’t automatically assume that governments act in their citizens’ best interests, so in that sense, this book is targeted at people just like me. Or, if it’s a younger reader, at creating more people like me. The narration is well done, a believable 17-year-old voice, and it’s a pleasure to read. Moreover, it all holds together very well.

In some ways, this book reminded me a lot of Neal Stephenson. Doctorow has clearly done a lot of research on security, both electronic and otherwise, cryptography, politics and history, and found a lot of cool stuff that he’s incorporated into the novel. Unlike Stephenson, however, Doctorow makes sure the story is more important than the trivia. All the cool stuff serves to support the plot, rather than having a plot built up around all the cool stuff the author’s found, which is what Stephenson seems to do a lot. So there are some asides where Malcolm takes a few pages to explain, say, how to fool gait-recognition software or how public and private keys work in electronic cryptography, but he does it in an interesting way and you can be sure that what he’s telling you will feed into the story sooner or later.

With a couple of caveats, and a pretty major plot hole, I’d be glad to hand this off to a nearby teenager and say, “Read this.” But the caveats are kind of big. So let’s get to them.

First, the plot hole, which bugged me from the moment I saw it. And as with all plot holes, I may have missed something, so let me know if I did.

After the bombing of the Bay Bridge, Malcolm and his friends are picked up by DHS and given the Full Guantanamo Treatment. While it looks like they were picked up randomly, the Homeland Security agent who puts them through the wringer implies that they were specifically looking for Malcolm and his buddies, seeing them as a very real and imminent threat to national security. My question is: Why? It’s never explained why DHS picks them up, nor why they treat them as severely as they do. If DHS knew something about Malcolm’s activities as a hacker, why weren’t we told what they knew? It looked like DHS was just picking up random citizens and trying to scare the piss out of them. Which, given the characterization problem that I will discuss later, is entirely possible.

Before that, though – this is a book of its time, and is ultimately less about Malcolm than it is about the time in which Malcolm lives, i.e. about ten minutes in our future. It was published in 2008, which means it was being written during a period in American history where the debate over privacy versus security hit its peak. After September 11th, after the creation of Homeland Security and the Iraq War, Americans had to answer a lot of questions about how safe they wanted to be. It was possible, they said, to be very safe, but only if we sacrificed some of our freedoms. Thus the no-fly list, warrantless wiretaps, and waterboarding. It’s a dilemma that mankind has faced since we started organizing into societies, and it seemed, in the opening years of the 21st century, that America was willing to give up a good deal of its personal liberty in exchange for not having thousands of citizens die.

Doctorow believes this is a very bad exchange to make, and has been publicly vocal in saying so. On Boing Boing, a webzine that is decidedly in favor of intellectual and informational freedom, Doctorow has repeatedly railed against ever-intrusive technology measures by both governments and corporations. He, and the other editors of Boing Boing, champion the personal liberty of people, both as citizens and consumers, and I tend to agree with them.

But that makes Little Brother less a book about the issues that affect young people than a book about what it’s like to live in a hyper-security culture. And that’s not a bad thing, mind you – like I said, it makes for a very exciting book. I just don’t know how long it will last once we stop having the liberty/security argument as vocally as we are now.

Which brings me to my other caveat, and one that bothers me more than the book being period fiction – bad characterization. Malcolm is great, as are his close friends and his eventual girlfriend, Ange. They’re real, they’re complex and they’re interesting. In fact, most of the “good guys” in this book are well-drawn. Depending on your definition of “good,” of course – after all, Malcolm is technically a terrorist, so long as you define “terrorist” as “someone who actively operates to subvert, disturb or otherwise challenge the government by illegal means.”

If Malcolm and his subversive friends are the good guys, then that makes the Government the bad guys, and this is where Doctorow falls flat on his face. The characters who operate in support of security culture, whether they’re agents of Homeland Security or just in favor of the new security measures (Malcolm’s father being a prime example), are cardboard cut-outs that just have “Insert Bad Guy Here” written on them in crayon. There is no depth to their conviction, no complexity to their decisions. Doctorow makes it clear that anyone who collaborates with DHS is either a willful idiot or outright malevolent, without considering any other options. He gives a little in the case of Malcolm’s father, but not enough to make me do more than roll my eyes when he came out with the hackneyed, “Innocent people have nothing to fear” line.

Any character who acts against Malcolm in this book (and, it is implied, disagrees with Doctorow) is a straw man, a villain or a collaborator straight from central casting with all the depth of a sheet of tinfoil. They are all easy to hate and make Malcolm look all the better, even though he’s acting as, let’s face it, an agent of chaos.

While this may make the story easier to tell (and, from my readings of Boing Boing, turning those who disagree with you into objects of ridicule is a popular method of dealing with criticism – see disemvowleing), it cheapens it. As much as I – and Doctorow – may hate the idea of security infringing on liberty, as much as we hate the reversals in personal freedoms that we’ve seen over the last eight years, and as much as we may want Malcolm to come out on top, it has to be acknowledged that sometimes people who want to restrain liberty aren’t doing it out of malice.

There are those whose desire to see a safe, orderly nation is so strong and so honest that they’re able to make the decision to curtail those liberties that make order harder to attain. And they’re not doing it because they hate young people, or because they’re some cinema villain out for power or just to see people suffer. They’re doing it because they truly, honestly believe it is the right thing to do. To write them off as “Bad Guys,” as this book does, is to ignore the reality of the situation and boil it down to an “Us vs Them” scenario, which is not how the world works.

Now it could be argued that this was a reasonable artistic decision – after all, Malcolm is the narrator of this tale, therefore we’re seeing things through his eyes and his perceptions. But that doesn’t wash. Malcolm is obviously an intelligent person who understands complexity, and if Doctorow had given him the opportunity to see shades of gray, he could have been able to handle it. More importantly, though, that argument is a cheat. A book like this is meant to open eyes and minds, and that can’t be done by reducing the issue to us versus them. Doctorow does his readers a disservice by not allowing them the opportunity to question their own attitudes towards the issue.

I really think the book would have been better, and had a deeper meaning, if Doctorow had made an honest attempt to show the other side in a more honest light. I still would have rooted for Malcolm, and hated the DHS, but his ultimate victory would have been more meaningful if it had been a fairer fight.

Of course, I say this as an adult, who understands things in a different light than a teenager. Perhaps if I had had this book when I was thirteen it would have changed my life. And despite my misgivings about the characters and the universality of the story, I still think it’s a great book and well worth reading – probably one of those books that will be a model of early 21st century fiction. Indeed, the core lesson of Little Brother – that citizens have the responsibility to police their government – is a lesson whose time has come. The G20 protests in London this year are a great example – many incidents of police abuse were clearly and unambiguously recorded by citizens armed with cell phones. The ability for information to be quickly and reliably distributed is the modern countermeasure against government abuse, though I doubt it’ll end as cleanly as it did in this book. Reading this book in the context of the last ten years or so gave me some hope for the power of the populace.

But it also served to remind me that I’m not that young anymore. The rallying cry of the youth in this book is “Don’t trust anyone over 25,” and I’m well past that stage in my temporal existence. The rebels of the day are young. They’re tech-savvy and unafraid, with nothing to lose but their lives. In this age of rapidly evolving technology, in a time where youth is everything, is there a place in the revolution for people who have advanced in age to their *shudder* mid-thirties?

Other people pull muscles trying to play sports like they did in high school, I have existential dilemmas reading young adult fiction. I never claimed to be normal.

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“They’d taken everything from me. First my privacy, then my dignity. I’d been ready to sign anything. I would have signed a confession that said I’d assassinated Abraham Lincoln.”
– Malcolm, Little Brother
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Little Brother on Wikipedia
Cory Doctorow on Wikipedia
BoingBoing
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Filed under children, Cory Doctorow, ethics, fiction, internet, politics, security, society, technology, young adult

Review 24: Death from the Skies!


Death From The Skies! by Phil Plait

I’ve always found the end of the world fascinating. So many cultures have put together their own ideas of how the world will end, from the Norse Ragnarök to the Christian apocalypse to the Hindu cycle of creation and destruction. We live in a world that was, for a long time, unpredictable to us and on many occasions seemed to be outwardly hostile. Our ancestors faced floods and earthquakes and disease, with no idea of where these things came from, why they happened or how to stop them. And so they made myths and stories to explain the dangerous world in which they lived. From that, they extrapolated – if the world is this dangerous now, how dangerous could it be if it really tried? And so came our myths of a world that not only succeeds in hurting us, but in wiping us out altogether.

Even in the modern age we have our myths. Books, television, and movies all use the end of the world (or end of a world) to tell stories – usually about the resilience of mankind and our ability to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and rebuild human society, hopefully for the better. As good as this is for fiction, there are two problems when we try to apply these myths and stories to the real world: the world will end, one way or another, and no amount of heroics, cleverness or pluck will save us. Not in the long term, anyway.

Science has accomplished what religion and fiction could not – it has seen the future and can make fairly accurate prophecies about how this world, and our civilization upon it, will die. Renowned astronomer Phil Plait is your prophet for this trip into all the ways the world will end….

In this book, Plait looks at nine possibilities for the end of the world as we know it. In order, they are:

Death by Impact
Death from the Sun
Death by Supernova
Death by Gamma Ray Burst
Death by Black Hole
Death by Aliens
Death of the Sun
Death by Galactic Collision
Death of the Universe

In each chapter, Plait outlines the ways in which that specific event could injure or kill us, with as much science as he can comfortably put in. He explains, for example, why we can’t just send Bruce Willis up to hit an incoming meteor with a nuke (it probably won’t work) and why any black holes produced by the LHC won’t do us any harm. He looks at how a supernova happens, what it is about a black hole that turns it into one of the deadliest weapons in the universe, and tries – very, very hard – to make the reader understand exactly how long “forever” is. (Hint: it’s a lot longer than you think. Longer than that, even. Nope, keep going….)

Each chapter outlines the processes by which we could experience the destruction of our civilization or, in a few cases, the planet itself. He looks at the scientific foundations of these events, explaining in detail what it is about the sun, for example, that makes it a cauldron of chaos and torment, or why we really, really don’t want to get even a smallish black hole anywhere near the planet. And I have to say, of all the unlikely ways we could be toasted, gamma ray bursts are my favorite – a deadly beam of energy from thousands of light-years away, cooking the planet all the way down through the crust and utterly devastating the planet’s ecosystem so as to kill off anyone who was lucky enough to be on the other side of the world. I mean, wow. And there’d be no warning, either. By the time we knew what was happening, it’d be too late. So that chapter (with a line paying homage to Douglas Adams, even) is just mind-boggling.

Probably my favorite chapter, though, is the one about supernovas, mainly because his careful, step-by-step description of exactly how a supernova occurs made me think, “What I wouldn’t give to see that in person,” disregarding the fact that a) the best parts would happen way too fast for me to observe and b) it would vaporize me. Still, it’s a beautiful and terrifying chain reaction, which Plait describes in fantastic detail. The other chapter that evoked the same reaction was the one on the end of the universe. Despite timelines for which the word “vast” is terribly inadequate, Plait tells us what science knows about how the universe will end – the ever-increasing expansion of spacetime, the eventual death of the stars, evaporation of galaxies, the reign of the black holes and the slow, careful deaths which even they face. It all ends in darkness, all matter gone into a few stubborn subatomic particles and the eventual collapse of the very fabric of space and time.

And as bleak and miserable is the future looks, I still thought, “I really want to see that.” So if I can figure out how to live one googol years (that’d be a one with one hundred zeros after it [1]) and not have my very atoms decay into nothingness, then I’ll be able to… um… be really, really bored, probably. Since after that, there’s absolutely – literally – nothing to do. Until the universe experiences vacuum collapse, or a brane collision, possibly hitting the reset button on the cosmos and we get to do it all over again….

Most of what’s in the book isn’t new to me, but that’s probably because I grew up reading Cosmos, and I follow countless science TV shows, podcasts and blogs (including Plait’s own Bad Astronomy blog, which is well worth keeping up with, as well as his regular appearances on SETI’s podcast, Are We Alone? and occasional guest appearances on The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe – both of which make for excellent listening). For people new to astronomy, though, this will be a rather dense learning experience – and reading it will be time well spent.

In addition to its user-friendly style, I really like the way it’s arranged – from small-scale (relatively) to large, with “Things that are absolutely certain to happen” at the beginning and end, and with “things that probably won’t happen” in the middle. And my favorite aspect of this book is that each chapter begins with a short vignette describing that particular end of the world, from the perspective of someone watching it happen. It’s not something you often see in books of this nature, and I’m really glad that Plait decided to put it in there. It makes it a little less academic and abstract and more real.

For all its death and destruction, the book isn’t really a downer. For one thing, while things like asteroid impacts and the death of the sun are inevitable, they don’t have to be fatal, and Plait describes a few ways in which – in theory – we (or our distant, distant descendants) might be able to avert or at least mitigate these catastrophes. It’s not easy, of course, but saving the world never is.

It’s mainly a marvel at the forces that surround us in the universe. It’s easy to forget, looking up at the sky from our brief, limited scale, that the universe isn’t just some pretty lights drifting about in empty blackness. Things are exploding and dying, burning and freezing, moving quickly and slowly – the cosmos is replete with activity and danger. Most of the universe isn’t just uninhabitable, it’s actively hostile to life as we know it. And yet, without the black holes, the supernovas and the galactic collisions, without massive meteor impacts and breakaway comets, solar flares and deadly radiation – without all that, life probably wouldn’t exist at all. So read this book, and take a moment to appreciate how lucky we are to be here at all, all things considered….

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“They say that even the brightest star won’t shine forever. But in fact, the brightest star would live the shortest amount of time. Feel free to extract whatever life lesson you want from that.”
– Phil Plait, Death from the Skies!
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[1] 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy blog
Death from the Skies! on Wikipedia
Death from the Skies! on Amazon.com

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Filed under apocalypse, astronomy, astrophysics, death, nonfiction, Phil Plait, science, survival, technology