All 5 entries tagged SF

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June 24, 2006

Charles Stross – The Atrocity Archives

3 out of 5 stars

At the more scientific end of the "new wierd" spectrum, Charles Stross's first novel is a blend of Len Deighton and H. P. Lovecraft, with maybe a hint of Neal Stephenson. It's great fun, but ultimately lacks the spark of Stross's Accelerando.

In a bizare parallel world, a combination of ancient lore and modern cryptography has enabled a branch of the security services to gain mastery over what is effectively magic. Not that they use it for their own good, mind you, but to combat the possible invasion of earth by various extra–dimensional demons. Bob Howard is drawn into a tale of equal parts horrific encounters with demonic entities and office politics.

Once again, I've not got the book to hand to provide quotes, but Stross's prose is as entertaining as ever, if perhaps not quite as perspicacious as in his later books. Unfortunately, the plot fails to measure up. The book's divided into two stories, and the first, The Atrocity Archive is gripping enough in a lighthearted way, but the same humourous tone defeats any real sense of menace. The second shorter tale The Concrete Jungle centres on an idea that's interesting enough (and vital to the plot, so I won't reveal it here), but fails to generate much of a story from it.

This book is ultimately a superior sort of brain candy, comparable to a £3.79 pack of marshmallows I bought from curiosity the other day from Selfridges. A superior product by far than most of what's on the market, but when all's said and done, not something you can derive sustenance from.

June 16, 2006

Charles Stross – Accelerando

5 out of 5 stars

This book is perhaps the best science fiction novel I have ever read.

It fulfils the Three Criteria of SF: it takes current science, it extrapolates it into the realms of the maybe, and it weaves it into an effective story. Actually, I've just made those three criteria up (or subconsciously stolen them from someone else), but they seem to me to be an effective description.

Accelerando is a chronicle of three generations of humans, and later post–humans, who live through interesting times: beginnning in the near future, the rate of technological change runs faster than a transhumanist's wet dream. Manfred Manx watches technological trends and uses genetic algorithms to predict future inventions. Then he patents them, not for money, but for "virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a sympton of poverty , after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything". His daughter Amber, sells herself into legal slavery to a company owned by a trust held in her name, to escape her mother; and her son, well, by the time he's born childhood isn't quite the same.

I lived from two to seventeen several hundred times over before my eighteenth birthday. It was that reset switch you know. I don't think Mother realised my primary stream of consiousness was journaling everything… There was the default option with Mother and Father arguing constantly… Then there were my other lives, forked and reintergrated, running in parallel. I was a young goatheard in the days of the Middle Kingdom in Egypt, I remember that; and I was an all–American kid growing up in Iowa in the 1950s, and another me got to live through the return of the hidden imam…

Even in itself, the science in the book is fascinating, but it's considered not just as an abstract idea, but as having real social and philosophical implications. Consider first the concept of uploading intelligences into computers. The first example in book is that of a AI generated from a group of uploaded lobsters. Initially I thought this was just a wacky idea plucked from thin air, but a brief check revealed that some scientists have actually worked for 5 years replicating the state of lobster neurons electronically. (Their neural structure is nice and simple, apparently.) So it is with every concept in the book, it can be tracked back to real–world research, and is tracked forward to consider potential implications.

'Cats,'says Pamela. 'He was hoping to trade their uploads to the Pentagon as a new smart bomb guidance system in lieu of income tax payments. Something about remapping enemy targets to look like mice or birds or something before feeding it to their sensorium. The old kitten and laser pointer trick.'
bq. 'What about those poor kittens? Don't they deserve minimal rights? How about you? How would you like to wake up a thousand times inside a smart bomb, fooled into thinking that some Cheyenne Mountain battle computer's target of the hour is your heart's desire? How would you like to wake up a thousand times, only to die again?'
A religious college in Cairo is considering issues of nanotechnology: if replicators are used to prepare a copy of a strip of bacon, right down to the molecular level, but without it ever being part of a pig, how is it to be treated? If the mind of one of the faithful is copied into a computing machine's memory by mapping and simulating all its synapses, is the computer now a Muslim? If not, why not? If so, what are its rights and duties? Riots in Borneo underline the urgencty of the theotechnological inquiry.

Running deeper are issues of human obselescence. If we can be kept alive by anti–aging treatment, will our children still want us around? If we create artifical intelligences more intelligent than us, what will they do with us? If we can split our consciousness and duplicate ourselves at different points, what will happen?

I just woke up one morning to find I'd been resurected by my older self. He said he valued my youthful energy and optimistic outlook, then offered me a minority stake with stock options that would take five years to vest. The bastard.

Stross is nothing if not ambitious: his final vision for the fate of the solar system and the ultimate evolution of intelligence are the most grandiose I've ever encountered. This is a book that makes you think, and think big. Absolutely required reading for anyone who reads SF, and reccommended to anyone who doesn't, but who's read this far and is prepared to consider technological concepts. Five stars.

(The only flaw, and I really hesitate to mention it, is the obligatory reference to September 11th. Why? Why, for God's sake? What possible purpose does it serve, other than to jar the reader out of the flow of the narrative? But it's half a page from 430 pages of otherwise unadulterated excellence.)

June 08, 2006

Fifty Degrees Below

4 out of 5 stars

This is nothing at all like The Day After Tomorrow. I say this right from the start because the cover picture (the Capitol covered in snow and ice) and blurb give the impression that this is another disaster thriller, with Frank Vanderwal, the main character "living a paleolithic lifestyle in a tree house in the capital's Rock Creek Park, as winter closes in, the worst on record, fifty degrees below [that's farenheit, by the way] … and for some reason, the black–black world of Homeland Security has developed an interest in him."

This is entirely accurate, and yet entirely misses the point of the novel. In fact, the blurb is quite possibly the worst I've ever read, as it neglects even to mention that this book is the second in a trilogy, the first being Forty Signs of Rain. This book is not a high–tension thriller: in fact the suspense level barely rises above that of wondering what's for tea tomorrow. What this is is a Serious Look at the science involved in climate change. The plot is really not that important, and could be covered in a couple of sentences, but for the sake of those who haven't read the book, I'll keep quiet.

Robinson uses this book, like all his others, as a platform for alternative political voices. Not tree–hugging leftist rants, mind you, but Serious, Mature, Intelligent analysis. Or more or less, anyway, depending on how much you agree with his points of view. Here's an example:

Anna and Diane shared a look, anticipating a rant, but Frank saw it and said, 'Well, but why? Why why why? We should have a scientist candidate for president, some emeritus biggie who can talk, explaining what the scientific approach would be, and why. A candidate using ecological theory, systems theory, what–have–you, in–out throughputs, some actual economics…'

A little unrealistic in our world, but if the gulf stream were suddenly to shut down? That's what happens and that's how Frank and co. manage to make progress against the Washington establishment. Of course, it also provides Frank with his personal challenge mentioned in the blurb. But Frank isn't fazed by having to live in a treehouse, in fact, Robinson makes it sound quite attractive. Frank demonstrates that it's not humankind that won't survive an ice age, but human civilization, or more acurately our current form of civilization.

He would not move indoors. He did not want to, and he would not have to…. Clothing and shelter. At work Frank could see that civilized people did not really think about these things, they took them for granted. Most wore clothing suited to 'room temperature' all the year round, tus sweltering in the summer and shivering in the winter anytime they stepped out of their room – which however they rarely did. So they thought they were temperature tough–guys, but really they were just indoors all the time. They used their buildings as clothing, in effect, and heated or cooled these spaces to imitate what clothing did, no matter how crazy this was in energy terms. But they did it without thinking of it like that, without making that calculation. In the summer they wore blue jeans in imitation of what people three generations before had seen in Malboro ads. Blue jeans were the SUVs of pants, part of a fantasy outdoor life…. Now as it got colder people still wore blue jeans, which were as useless in the cold as they were in the heat. Frank meanwhile shifted piece by piece into his mountaineering gear.

Not until two thirds of th way into the book, in fact, does Frank actually become uncomfortable with the weather. What fills in the book in place of a plot, are meditations and musings, not just about climate change and human civilization, but also reason and feelings, science in general, choices in life, and just about anything else Robinson might feel like talking about. As I found him a pretty interesting guy, who's obviously thought deeply about this sort of stuff, I enjoyed the book: it gave me a hell of a lot to think about. I have to say though, this trilogy would be better off as a more tightly edited single volume, something comparable to his truly superb The Years of Rice and Salt, which I'd reccommend over this. But this is still streets ahead of any other fictional approach to climate change. Four stars.

June 05, 2006

Charles Stross – Singularity Sky

3 out of 5 stars

My expectations were raised by the review quotes on the back cover, describing it as "a hyperkenetic (sic), exuberantly organised clash of ideologies", "fast, funny, busily inventive", and, perhaps most ambitiously "undoubtedly one of the finest first novels of our new century". Thank you Starburst for condemning the next 93 years of new authors' literary output to mediocrity. Sci-fi rhetoric aside, Singularity Sky is a pretty impressive start by Stross.

The first paragraph begs to be quoted:

The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd. Some of them had half melted in the heat of re–entry; others pinged and ticked, cooling rapidly in the postdawn chill…. The Festival had come to Rochard's World.

This is the setting for the novel, a semi–feudal colony world encounters a Singularity event personified. A singularity is, for the non SF–initiated, is "a historical cusp at whiuch the rate of change goes exponential, rapidly tending toward infinity [it] ripped up social systems and economies and ways of thought like an artillery barrage." To a certain extent, Stross is therefore free to write anything he wants: beyond a singularity, almost by definition, anything we can imagine goes.

What he does write is a novel in two strands, one describing the chaos brought by the Festival, the other detailing the imperial fleet sent to repel the invasion, and the exploits of two outsiders to convince the fleet rulers of the nature of the Festival. Not until about three quarters of the way through the book does the fleet actually reach Rochard's World, what with all the lengthy technical diversions and lovingly described battle scenes. In parts the book reads like a marvel comics version of a physics textbook:

Rachel nodded to herself. Remembering lectures on the basics of relativistic physics, strategy in the post–Einsteinian universe, and the implications of a light cone expanding across an evenly spread grid of points. Any moment now the fossil light from the next shell of inteceptors should reach us...
'Holy Father!' shouted Radar Three. 'I have beam spillover on all sides! We're boxed!'

Stoss's descriptions of the depredations of the Festival are more convincing:

Everywhere he looked, crops rotted in the fields. Once–sober peasants upped stakes and took to the skies in mile high puffball spheres of spun–sugar glass and diamond. Wisewomen aged backward and grew much wiser, unnaturally so – wise until their wisdom leaked out into the neighbourhood, animating the objects around them with their force of will.

Stross manages to weave an acceptable plot from all these shenanigans, and although one or two strands are tied up suspiciously neatly, I was happy with the ending. The only significant defect, apart from the questionable technobabble in the space battle scenes, was a barely disguised rant on the need for free information, too long to quote, but reminiscent of the "infodump" scenes in Golden Age science fiction. If it was meant to be ironic, it was too subtle for me – with a caricatured straw–man argument for the opposition:

People might give exactly the same consideration to blasphemous pornography that they pay to the Bible! They could plot against the state, or each other, without the police being able to listen in and stop them!

This drops a four star book to three stars, but Stross is an author to watch. I've already picked up a second hand copy of his next book Accelerando.

May 29, 2006

Neal Asher – Gridlinked

1 out of 5 stars

I picked up a copy of this book at Waterstones in Birmingham, for just 99p. Frankly, if I'd have spent any more, I'd be seriously disappointed.

It's not that book is bad, or that Asher is inherently a bad writer, just that this book is a bog–standard sub–standard soft SF thriller. It takes off–the–shelf concepts and characters and churns out an absolutely unremarkable novel.

We have a 500+ page account of an agent for the AI–controlled earth government (unfortunately the political implications of this government are not explored), sent to investigate a strange explosion and the possible involvement of an unknown alien entity. To provide a bit of action, he is pursued by a neo–gangster wanting revenge, together with his superficially–evil–but–really–a–heart–of–gold sidekick. Oh and to give a bit of emotional depth to the main character (who's so forgettable that after 3 days I can't actually remember his name), he's just broken his 30 year link into a computer network – used to having instant access to information, he now has to learn to talk to people again.

Unfortunately, this has all been done before, and Asher adds nothing new. The book reads like a cross between Peter F. Hamilton and Richard Morgan, without the ideas of the former or the writing ability of the latter. Failure to make a literary contribution perhaps wouldn't be as important were this not Science Fiction, a genre that prides itself on exploring new ideas. This is, in fact, the sort of pulp Sci–fi that is rightly dismissed by the literati for being dull and derivative, and helps to give SF as a whole a bad name. One star.

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