June 23, 2005

Do Philip K. Dick Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?


WIRED Magazine's NextFest at the Navy Pier in Chicago, IL (Jun 24-26) will feature a Philip K. Dick android.

The robot will portray Dick in both form and intellect through an artificial-intelligence-driven personality. The hardware will manipulate Hanson's proprietary lifelike skin material to affect extremely realistic expressions with very low power. Cameras in the eyes will allow the robot to perceive people's identity and behavior through advanced machine vision and biometric-identification software. The robot will track faces, perceive facial expressions, and recognize people from the crowd (family, friends, celebrities, etc). The visual data will be fused with some of the best speech recognition software, advanced natural language processing, and speech synthesis in the world. All of this will run in sync with Hanson Robotics' highly expressive robot face to emulate a full human-conversational system.

According to the Hanson Robotics web page above, the speech recognition and advanced NLP promised above is licensed from Multimodal Technologies and the text to speech system is licensed from Acapela. Multimodal is a company which seems to have strong ties with the CMU NLP research groups (Alex Waibel is on the Board of Directors). I wonder if the Philip K. Dick android has a GLR parser in there somewhere.

Linked from Boing Boing.

Posted by anoop at 01:02 PM

June 21, 2005

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

This is the second book in the Culture series (after "Consider Phlebas"). The Culture is Iain M. Banks' vision of an anarchist utopia with unlimited resources and administered by (mostly) benign sentient machines. The machines are often managers of teratonne starships each carrying about 28 million citizens of the Culture on no particular trajectory. There is no economy, no money and people can while away their considerable lifetimes doing what could have been done better and faster by their machines.

The huge ship was an enchanted ocean in which you could never drown, and he threw himself into it to try to understand if not it, then the people who had built it.

He walked for days, stopping at bars and restaurants whenever he felt thirsty, hungry or tired; mostly they were automatic and he was served by little floating trays, though a few were staffed by real people. They seemed less like servants and more like customers who'd taken a notion to help out for a while.

`Of course I don't have to do this,' one middle-aged man said, carefully cleaning the table with a damp cloth. He put the cloth in a little pouch, sat down beside him. `But look; this table's clean.'

He agreed that the table was clean.

`Usually,' the man said. `I work on alien -- no offence -- alien religions; Directional Emphasis In Religious Observance; that's my specialty ... like when temples or graves or prayers always have to face in a certain direction; that sort of thing? Well, I catalogue, evaluate, compare; I come up with theories and argue with colleagues, here and elsewhere. But ... the job's never finished; always new examples, and even the old ones get re-evaluated, and new people come along with new ideas about what you thought was settled ... but,' he slapped the table, `when you clean a table you clean a table. You feel you've done something. It's an achievement.'

`But in the end, it's still cleaning a table.'

`And therefore does not really signify on the cosmic scale of events?' the man suggested.

He smiled in response to the man's grin, `Well, yes.'

`But then what does signify? My other work? Is that really important, either? I could try composing wonderful musical works, or day-long entertainment epics, but what would that do? Give people pleasure? My wiping this table gives me pleasure. And people come to this table, which gives them pleasure.' ...

`And,' the man said with a smile, `it's a good way of meeting people. So; where are you from anyway?'

While most of the Culture lives in this peaceable way, some spend their life fighting amongst more primitive civilizations. People like Cheradenine Zakalwe. He is a soldier (actually: A Good Soldier). Recruited by Diziet Sma and the drone Skaffen-Amtiskaw into Special Circumstances -- a division that exists because even the Culture is not above tinkering with the outcome of history. And often this requires violence. Violence makes the Culture queasy, hence the use of recruits like Zakalwe.

He was still roaring when the knife missile flicked past him, field outstretched.

It separated his neck from his shoulders. The roar turned to a sound like the wind, bubbling thickly through the exposed wind-pipe as his body crashed to the dust.

The book is not about a plot, rather it is about Zakalwe. The book is about his life, and the plot as it unfolds includes within it several chapters about his previous exploits. Like most good fiction, we enter his thought processes. He is driven by his childhood experiences with his half-brother Elethiomel and his sisters, Darckense and Livueta. His past, as constructed by Banks during the course of the novel, is the most compelling reason to read this book.

Banks is aware that he is within the space opera genre and exploits the usual expectations to subvert the mind of the reader. You might expect a big space battle at some point, and Banks will set it up only to ultimately resolve it in a completely novel way. Good stuff.

He saw a chair, and a ship that was not a ship; he saw a man with two shadows, and he saw that which cannot be seen; a concept; the adaptive, self-seeking urge to survive, to bend everything that can be reached to that end, and to remove and to add and to smash and to create so that one particular collection of cells can go on, can move onwards and decide, and keeping moving, and keeping deciding, knowing that -- if nothing else -- at least it lives.

And it had two shadows, it was two things; it was the need and it was the method. The need was obvious; to defeat what opposed its life. The method was that taking and bending of materials and people to one purpose, the outlook that everything could be used in the fight; that nothing could be excluded, that everything was a weapon, and the ability to handle those weapons, to find them and choose which one to aim and fire; that talent, that ability, that use of weapons.

Posted by anoop at 11:46 AM

June 20, 2005

This Alien Shore by C. S. Friedman


Masada turned to him. Just that: no words, no clear expression, just a look that Hsing could not read, a sentence that was never voiced, and the clear impression -- gleaned from nowhere -- that the professor's estimate of Hsing's intelligence was not all that high right now.

The first age of human colonization of space started with the Hausman drive. Millions of humans left Earth to establish colonies in deep space. Unfortunately, there was a gradual realization that the Hausman drive caused irreparable genetic damage to every human that traveled using it. As a response to widespread rioting on Earth, the colonies were abandoned, millions of genetically transformed humans left to their fate. The story begins in the 28th century, where addition of computational devices into the brain is commonplace, even guaranteed by law for those who are too poor to afford one.

One of the mutated colonies, Guera, has developed the technology that uses a wormhole analogue called the `anniq' for faster than light travel that is safe and in the process have created a new common civilization that includes all the colonies and even Earth has been accepted back into the community of Hausman colonies. The Guerans are benevolent dictators of this federation and keep this technology a secret. They provide the sole outpilots for superluminal travel. There is a common perception that the mutations of the Guerans are crucial for such travel to be attempted. Non-Guerans who try to use the anniq almost always end up dead at the other end.

As a result of computational enhancements into the brain, a virus that sneaks into a person's brain can be lethal. Computer security is a vital endeavor in everyday life. The most famous computer security expert is a Gueran computer scientist, Dr. Kio Masada. He is called in to investigate a new virus that seems to be killing Gueran outpilots during their superluminal travel threatening the isolation of all the post-human colonies all over again.

These events are all backstory for the escape of the protagonist, Jamisia Shido, from the Shido corporation satellite in Earth orbit. She is being pursued by corporate raiders for a brain-mod that she carries in her head. She has problems of her own without people trying to capture her alive: she seems to have a serious case of multiple personality disorder.

A space opera that is played out in a carefully constructed imaginative universe; I suspect all sf readers have a weakness for such stories. The hard-sf enthusiasts might be disappointed that some central ideas to the story were not broached beyond metaphorical references. These ideas relate to an as-yet-unknown superluminal method of travel, and the terms used are taken from Inuit words for traveling long distances using natural holes in the ice pack (How many words do the Eskimos have for travelling faster than the speed of light?).

The murder mystery involving Masada and the fugitive storyline of Jamisia is eventually only a front to explore a truly colorful and multi-cultural universe where various human clades have to face up to each other on each other's terms.

The acknowledgements refer to the author's debt to Cordwainer Smith. having read only a few of his short stories, I was ill-prepared to determine the contribution to this novel, but the honesty right up front was quite disarming. The debt to Frank Herbert was quite obvious: the Guild of genetically endowed pilots for superluminal travel is a good idea lifted from "Dune", with some differences of course.

%T This Alien Shore
%A C. S. Friedman
%I Daw Books, Inc.
%D 1998
%G ISBN: 0886777992 (pb)
%P 564
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/01/24

Posted by anoop at 12:10 PM

Murphy's Gambit by Syne Mitchell

Surprisingly enjoyable fare which succeeds perhaps because it is targeted towards younger readers. It fits squarely in the military-sf tradition, and while it has its share of genre cliches reading it is still a pleasure, although perhaps a guilty one.

The story revolves around a teenager, Thiadora Murphy. Murphy was born in zero-g space, a member of the `floater' society who live outside the gravity wells of planets or space stations and are ostracized and almost enslaved by the large Earth corporate empires. Thiadora rebels against her floater past and goes to the military academy to join law enforcement, knowing that the law was often enforced upon renegade floaters. A large monopolistic corporation offers her a choice, leave the military academy and test fly their prototype ship called the Gambit, a ship known to kill its pilots, or be expelled and enslaved for the rest of her life. What follows is hardly unpredictable, but quite entertaining nonetheless.

Space opera novels usually take a very liberal view about sticking to hard science for their speculations. Syne Mitchell follows the less travelled path of make the science (more or less) realistic. Some of the hard-sf ideas used are quite interesting: like datachips that are launched at relativistic speeds which punch through widely cast nets transmitting their data at the moment of impact.

On the negative side, the author's voice is too chatty and the dialogue is overly melodramatic. Some details of the scenery are repeated throughout the book as if presented anew. This may get annoying for some, but for some reason it did not get to me. There is also a disappointing use of the often abused time-travel deus ex machina to save the plot.

A note on the tacky packaging of this book: the cover of the book includes a hearty recommendation by Eric Nylund, a science-fiction author. A quick visit to the author's web site reveals that Syne Mitchell is married to a Eric Nylund. The web site also revealed that Mitchell works for a certain large software company (at least, at the time that this review was written). It is curious that her novel is full of monopolistic corporations that routinely commit immoral acts and treat their employees as slaves. Coincidence?

%T Murphy's Gambit
%A Syne Mitchell
%I Roc Books: Penguin Putnam
%D 2000
%G ISBN: 0451458095 (pb)
%P 377
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/01/23

Posted by anoop at 12:08 PM

June 19, 2005

Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges

This book is the transcription of seven lectures delivered by Borges at the Teatro Coliseo between June and August 1977. As the introduction by Alistair Reid points out, in the first Spanish edition of the book the epilogue by Roy Bartholomew tells of how these lectures were widely taped, appeared as pirated records, and were printed in a cut and mangled form, in the literary supplement of a Buenos Aires newspaper.

Lecture #1 is about `The Divine Comedy' by Dante Alighieri. Like many of the other lectures it is a very personal essay, full of glimpses into Borges' childhood and his discovery of literary works like the Commedia. He indulges in his fixation with a verse from this work:

dolce color d'oriental zaffiro
che s'accoglieva nel sereno aspetto
del mezzo puro infino al primo giro

The second lecture, `Nightmares' is less than compelling apart from a reference to `An Experiment with Time' by J. W. Dunne (is there a prize for craziest cognitive scientist of all time? Dunne should be nominated). `An Experiment with Time' is also the name of one of my favorite Borges short stories, it is a good example of the kind of honest satire of obscure ideas that only Borges can pull off.

The third lecture concentrates on Borges' fascination with `The Thousand and One Nights'. This is a beautifully written essay about this incredibly complicated series of stories. In addition, Borges adds bibliographical details about the publication of these tales in the West. According to Borges (not an essayist whose propositions should be taken too literally) the story of Aladdin and the magic lamp is not to be found in any original Arabic or Persian text and was `invented' and inserted as an original story into the collection by one of the first translators of the 1001 nights, Antoine Galland.

The fourth and fifth lectures are on `Buddhism' and `Poetry'. These chapters were the least compelling for me. Borges has said these things before in his short stories and they were said much better then.

Lecture #6 is about `The Kabbalah', a topic that appears several times in the short stories written by Borges. Of course, the reality of whatever is said here has to be tempered by Borges' incredible imagination, but it nevertheless make fascinating reading.

The final lecture is the most personal and the most compelling part of this book, especially for anyone who has read Borges before. It is entitled simply `Blindness' and in a style common to Borges, he takes the reader on a literary journey about blindness in authors across time, and also touches on his own personal experience with it. Any Borges fan should read this book for this essay alone.

The themes from each lecture are intertwined in this book almost consciously as if building a hypertext. For example, the chapter `The Divine Comedy' refers to `The Thousand and One Nights', while the chapter on `Nightmares' and of course the chapter on `Poetry' refers back to Dante.

This book should not be the first Borges you read. First read some of his short story collections, especially `Ficciones' or `The Aleph'; or his essays like `Other Inquisitions' before reading this book.

%T Seven Nights
%A Jorge Luis Borges
%A :translated into English by Eliot Weinberger
%I New Directions Book
%D 1980
%G ISBN: 0811209059 (pb)
%P 121
%K literature, religion

Review written: 2001/01/11

Posted by anoop at 11:10 AM

Banana Fish by Akimi Yoshida

It's in a story by J. D. Salinger. When you meet the `banana-fish' you want to die. It's the fish of death.

The manga Banana Fish originally ran in serialized form in Japan between 1985 and 1994. This is a collection of this series translated into English as part of the Pulp line from Viz Communications.

Women authors of manga comics, like Akimi Yoshida, are generally pigeonholed into the shoujo genre of romantic stories geared for female audiences. But occasionally, the genre produces manga series like this one which cannot be easily characterized into a single genre or marketed to a single demographic. Surprisingly, it manages to be appealing across genres even though it remains firmly within the sensibility of the shoujo genre. This manga gives us a rarely expressed feminist dual of the traditional `exploitation' plot.

The story begins in Vietnam, during the war in the early 70s. An American soldier goes beserk and guns down his friends under the influence of a drug. The soldier, Griffin Callenreese, is shot and crippled by Max Lobo, a journalist with the unit. Griffin appears to be in a coma as a result of the drug. All he can say are the words, `Banana Fish'. After this setup, the story then moves to New York City in 1985. There are series of unexplained suicides being investigated by the police. A pair of reporters, Ibe and Eiji, arrive from Japan to interview some kids who are active in street gangs. One of these kids happens to be Ash, Griffin's younger brother. Ash runs his gang under the shadow of the Corsican mafioso Dino Colzine. The rest of the story follows Ash as he tries to stay alive and find out exactly what `Banana Fish' means.

The New York City setting is, intentionally or otherwise, entirely unrealistic. It seemed constructed from TV shows rather than the real thing. America is construed here as the land of sex and violence, while there are many references made to the fact that Japan is a safe and peaceful place. This seems like a particularly naive proposal to make, and one which is not needed by the main plot. To find out about the reality of gang life of the type depicted in this comic book, you can find a study of the youth gang culture in the New York City of the 1940s and 1950s in "Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings : Youth Gangs in Postwar New York" by Eric C. Schneider.

While the story engrosses, unfortunately the artwork is functional at best. It is not the highlight of this series. Many of the characters seemed to my eye were drawn to look almost identical. In most cases this was benign, but in some panels, this ambiguity causes some confusion.

%S Banana Fish
%A Akimi Yoshida
%D 1985
%I Viz Communications (Pulp Graphic Novel)
%T Banana Fish Vol. 1
%G ISBN: 1569313202 (pb)
%P 191
%T Banana Fish Vol. 2
%G ISBN: 1569313695 (pb)
%P 188
%T Banana Fish Vol. 3
%G ISBN: 1569314381 (pb)
%P 189
%T Banana Fish Vol. 4
%G ISBN: 1569315442 (pb)
%P 188
%K graphic-novel

Review written: 2001/02/14

Posted by anoop at 10:49 AM

June 18, 2005

Creation by Gore Vidal

If a historical novel could place itself anywhere, the 5th century B.C. would be the most ambitious. It was a time when Socrates, Pericles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Herodotus, Anaxagoras were alive in Greece. In Persia, Zarathustra (Zoroaster, to the Greeks) had only recently passed away, Darius I ruled at the height of the Persian Empire initiating the Greek Wars and after Darius it was Xerxes who continued the war. In China, Lao Tzu had perhaps only recently died and Master K'ung or Confucius was at still teaching wherever he could. In India, the Buddha had attained enlightenment and was teaching his first congregation, while elsewhere many different kingdoms were forming along the River Ganga and the beginnings of the caste system were being established. And this book is that ambitious. All of these historical figures and events appear in its pages.

The stories of ancient Greece, Persia, India and China are told through the life of a remarkable man made up by Gore Vidal just for this purpose. Cyrus Spitama, 75 years old, is the Persian ambassador to Athens. He is irked by a particularly embellished reading by Herodotus and recites his life to his nephew and 18-year old protege, Democritus. The same Democritus who later in life advanced the atomist theory of Leucippus and who seems to be one of the earliest philosophers of science. The arc of the story follows Cyrus Spitama from his childhood and teaching in the Persian court, to his mission of opening trade with the various kingdoms in India, and a subsequent mission to China to open a Silk Road to Persia. The story of this life ends with Cyrus Spitama's impressions, at the end of his life, of Athens in the time of Pericles.

Cyrus Spitama is half-Persian and half-Greek. He is a Median and the grandson of the Persian prophet Zoroaster. At an early age, he is a witness to the death of Zoroaster and hears Zoroaster's final revelation. This gives him access to the court of Darius I as a child, and he is taught with Xerxes, the likely successor to Darius.

Due to various intrigues at the Persian court, Cyrus Spitama as an adult travels to India and in a subsequent trip to China. His travels lead him to meet all the great thinkers of his time. The descriptions are muted however, probably because Gore Vidal is reluctant at times to embellish beyond known historical details. Many visceral details are left to the reader's imagination. Despite such omissions, the novel weighs in at almost 600 pages.

In the part set in China, rather than concentrating on dialogues with Daoist thinkers and conversations with Confucius, Gore Vidal spends more time than necessary on the violent struggles between the various provincial warlords in a politically fractured China. This was the only part of the book where I felt I was being forced to take a detour.

Gore Vidal also hides behind the ambiguity of opinions that are forwarded through Cyrus Spitama. For example, when Cyrus states that he thinks Confucius is an atheist it is entirely unclear whether this comment comes from the ancient perspective of a devout Zoroastrian or whether this is a statement by the author.

In order to make the premise of the story workable, Gore Vidal takes full advantages of the lack of knowledge currently possessed about when many of these historical figures were actually alive. The death of Zoroaster in placed in this book early in the 5th century B.C., but Zoroaster could have been alive at any time since 1000 B.C. (a more likely date given the linguistic analysis of the Old Avestan documents presumably composed by Zoroaster). There are other such permissible liberties taken with the dates, but concentrating on this point would miss the reason for reading this book.

This book is a work of counter-history rather than a historical novel. It seems to be reacting against the conventional attitudes of intellectuals at least those raised in the Western tradition. Gore Vidal makes it a point to make his protagonist be a person who would ridicule the Greeks, but still point out the merits of living in Athens in the fifth century B.C. I think this is why there is no prominent rabbi talking about Judaism or a Gentile talking about pagan philosophy in this book.

When Gore Vidal picked his favorite books published after the Second World War (Gore Vidal at salon.com), he picked "Creation" as one of them. It is clearly an enjoyable read although a bit excessive in scope (Paul Theroux's review of Creation in the New York Times calls it a great book).

For further reading into the history behind this novel, here are some sources: "From Aristotle to Zoroaster: An A-To-Z Companion to the Classical World" by Arthur Cotterell. "The Oxford Classical Dictionary" by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth (Eds.).

%T Creation
%A Gore Vidal
%I Ballantine Books
%D 1981
%G ISBN: 0345340205 (pb)
%P 593
%K historical fiction, religion

Review written: 2000/12/31

Posted by anoop at 09:55 AM

Quarantine by Greg Egan

`Watch out for that collapsing wave function!'

Apart from the hard-to-find "An Unusual Angle", this is the earliest Greg Egan novel that is widely available.

The plot uses the common sf device of a detective story, a mystery involving people embedded within a larger mystery involving the universe. Nick Stavrianos is an ex-cop and a hard-boiled private eye, rendered very post-human (or even super-human) thanks to a host of prosthetic software in his brain. He has been hired to find Laura Andrews, a catatonic patient in a medical institute who seems to have vanished from inside a locked room. This locked room mystery takes place in the context of a larger mystery which happened 33 years before Laura Andrews' disappearance, in 2034, when the entire solar system was encased in an impenetrable Bubble, blocking out all the extrasolar light: no more stars. The solar system was encased in a volume eight trillion times the volume of the Earth centered at the Sun. Of course, at the start of the novel you know that eventually the two mysteries will be related.

Greg Egan provides a convincing view of the future of a technology built on neuroscience where any aspect of mental activity can be suppressed, upgraded, modified or simply augmented by prosthetic software.

Quantum mechanics forms the backbone of the hard-sf details of the main plot. Egan provides some of the clearest descriptions of the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics (for a popular science description of the theory, a good book to read is "QED" by Richard P. Feynman). You will clearly hear more than you ever wanted to know about wave functions and eigenstates in the course of this book. When the sf backbone is being laid out in the novel, Greg Egan has a tendency to `possess' any convenient character to lay out the details of the science and the speculations based on the science. Who would've thought that an ex-cop would be so informed about quantum mechanics.

His later novel "Distress" re-treads many of the same ideas, but also explores in detail the anthropic principle, but is in many ways less successful than this novel. Egan's later novel "Diaspora" (a much better book than the other two) is the last novel in his `Subjective Cosmology' trilogy.

From looking at his web site, Greg Egan has impeccable credentials to speculate in this novel without being inconsistent with the interpretation of quantum mechanics that he chooses. Despite this, the events towards the end are so fantastic are contrary to explanations of exponential growth early in the novel that it seems to me that Greg Egan was playing fast and loose with the facts to keep the plot moving. But it will take someone more informed than me to confirm this suspicion.

Other Greg Egan books reviewed in Special Circumstances

%T Quarantine
%A Greg Egan
%I London: Millenium
%D 1992
%G ISBN: 1857985907 (pb)
%P 248
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/12/06

Posted by anoop at 09:38 AM

Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling

Mia Ziemann lives in a world where aging is obsolete. Various techniques exist to extend life, almost indefinitely. But extending life is not the same as being youthful. On the way back from the euthanasia of her college sweetheart, Martin Warshaw, Mia has a chance encounter with a young couple who are having a fight over whether they should take a penniless adventure in Europe. This youthful vigor pushes Mia to apply the most experimental anti-aging treatment available: Neo-Telomeric Dissipative Cellular Detoxification (NTDCD). In exchange, she has to be part of the research behind the technique and be under constant observation. NTDCD makes her young again, but it also makes her an altogether different person. She escapes medical supervision and arrives penniless at Frankfurt. This begins her adventure. She is literally reborn.

This novel is the traditional science-fiction exercise in prescience and building a probable future society from whole cloth based on scientific extrapolations. The technology in this case is the application of biotechnology in the battle against human aging. A society where death and disease is no longer a barrier to careers means that the resources of the entire society is held by the elderly. The youth have no chance in this economy. As Sterling puts it, it is a society governed by nice old grannies always looking out for the best for everybody and holding all the purse strings. The novel starts out as being about the frustration of the youth in such a society. It changes its theme to a general manifesto about how art would be endangered in such a society and artistic behaviour in general in the face of science. A shorter, more focused book might have been better suited to the material, but there are so many ideas, scientific and otherwise, filled in this book that even the jerky plot structure does not undermine it.

The talking dogs seem to be lifted almost directly from "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson. The theme of regenerating a human body from scratch is explored in "Queen of Angels" and "Slant" by Greg Bear although less successfully, in my opinion.

%T Holy Fire
%A Bruce Sterling
%I Bantam Books
%D 1996
%G ISBN: 0553099582 (hc)
%P 326
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/11/24

Posted by anoop at 09:31 AM

Starfarers by Poul Anderson

Pointlike sources of X-rays with radio tails are discovered in a narrow region of the sky. Parallax measurements show them to be five thousand light years distant and these objects seem to be traveling at nearly the speed of light. It becomes gradually clear that they are alien spacecraft. From observations, scientists understand how such near-lightspeed travel is accomplished, and humanity is finally able to cross the vast interstellar distances.

The novel follows the journey of a small group of people who leave our solar system to make contact with these newly discovered aliens. Not only do they face first contact with several new species, but due to relativistic time-dilation they can return only after ten millenia have passed on Earth.

This is a very entertaining book to read, however it suffers from many shortcomings. Despite being published in 1998, the latest offering by veteran sf author Poul Anderson remains firmly in the `old-school' tradition of hard-sf writing. In this novel, when humanity explores the stars there is no delicate balance between manned and unmanned missions. All the exploration is structured in the grand tradition of the Apollo moon missions. There is a captain and a crew and all the other trappings of the more vulgar brand of sf.

Poul Anderson clearly wants to explore the various problems that a band of space travelers would face in their social isolation and the psychological effects of time dilation, however he doesn't present any radical new views on this topic here. Also, in my view the aliens are not interesting enough until the penultimate act of the story where the aliens become much more interesting but at the same time there is silly speculation about mind-body duality and a tacky subplot injected to increase the amount of `action' in the story. The problem of the language barrier is addressed but it isn't tackled in a compelling way. However, despite all its shortcomings, in the final act the novel does contain several interesting speculations and has a satisfying conclusion.

It is instructive to take a look at other hard-sf published around the same time as this novel that take the speed of light seriously in their descriptions of space travel and examine social relations in space travelers in more radical terms, e.g. "Vast" by Linda Nagata and also "Diaspora" by Greg Egan.

%T Starfarers
%A Poul Anderson
%I Tor Books
%D 1998
%G ISBN: 0812545990 (pb)
%G ISBN: 0312860374 (hc)
%P 495
%K science-fiction

Review written: 1999/11/08

Posted by anoop at 09:26 AM

June 17, 2005

Teranesia by Greg Egan

Greg Egan is one of the few contemporary hard-sf authors to write about science passionately. He argues for scientific thinking with a clear voice. This novel is a valiant effort in that direction. It doesn't all fit together in the end, but it remains successful despite this failing.

This novel marks a change in style for Greg Egan. This offering is quite different from his previous novel: "Diaspora". The style here is similar to his recent short story "Oceanic" (highly recommended). At some places, where the old Greg Egan would have talked at length about quantum gravity, in this novel he inserts long comments about his protagonist's mental states. The novel itself is quite short, a bit longer than novella length, but contains its ideas well.

In previous novels, Greg Egan used speculative physics and ideas about artificial life, while in this novel he explores ideas in entomology, genetics and evolutionary theory. Nine year old Prabir Suresh lives on an otherwise uninhabited island in a remote part of Indonesia with his parents and a younger sister. The island is named Teranesia by Prabir, and he spends his time exploring it while his parents study the mysterious morphological aberrations in the local butterfly population.

The novel follows an emotional arc for Prabir, which contains but never actually intersects in any meaningful way to the scientific speculations. The speculations are what we have come to expect from Greg Egan: informed about the science, interesting and non-trivial. The crux of the story relies on contemporary ideas from computing. But in this novel, more so than his other recent stories, there were some clearly unsettling parts of the story which remained unexplained.

While the people involved in the story get a larger role and some individuating personalities, sometimes the old Greg Egan resurfaces and possesses a character if a scientific explanation is warranted at some stage in the plot.

Greg Egan seems to have taken what happened in The Sokal Hoax very personally. He launches a vicious attack in several parts of this book on postmodern literary criticism and feminist theory. While I was cheering him on, Egan's efforts are sometimes funny, more often they sound mean-spirited and righteous.

Other Greg Egan books reviewed in Special Circumstances

%T Teranesia
%A Greg Egan
%I Victor Gollancz
%D 1999
%G ISBN: 0575068558 (pb)
%P 249
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/11/24

Posted by anoop at 01:54 AM

The Silk Code by Paul Levinson

It is a common observation that a detective story is a natural setting for a hard-sf story, because of the notional parallels with the scientific method. But it is rarely the case in science that the problem posed is much more interesting than the solution. The scientific and historical speculations dominate the earlier part of the book, but the book ends with a lacklustre detective story.

Paul Levinson starts with an interesting idea of moving away from technological sf towards hard-sf without much futuristic technology. This is risky business, because if the hard-sf details fail to be impressive then you are stuck with nothing, not even cool gadgets -- and this is what happens here. One is stuck between the absurdity of pinning all of the speculative science in this book on dubious things like cold fusion and the use of blowpipes which would be exciting perhaps in a Sherlock Holmes story.

The initial half of the book was so promising that the disappointing end was agonizing. Three dead bodies turn up, in New York, Canada and London, each of them have the physical characteristics of Neanderthals, are carbon dated to thirty thousand years but who have clearly died within the last 48 hours. Phil D' Amato, a forensic detective in the NYPD, has to figure out how this could occur. To make matters more stereotypical, investigators related to this event are being killed off mysteriously.

The first part of the book prefigures to a large extent the conclusion of the book in which genetic scientists are linked together throughout the millenia, from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania where the Amish live to the origin of homo sapiens sapiens. The speculative science, unfortunately, makes no effort to reconcile itself with all the evolutionary and fossil evidence of human origin that has been collected. It was as if the author was ignorant of these facts, or considered scientific fact unimportant to the speculations created.

The historical speculations are much more creative, elaborate and conform to the known facts in the area. The wonderful second part of the book opens in the Tarim Basin circa 750 A.D. in a settlement of Tocharians. This is the strongest part of the book. The fact that the real history of the `procurement' of Tocharian documents by Aurel Stein from Central Asia forms an important clue in the detective story was a nice touch. For more about the history behind the Tocharians, read "The Tarim Mummies" by J. P. Mallory and Victor Mair. For more about the exploits of Aurel Stein, read "Tournament of Shadows" by K. E. Meyer and S. B. Brysac.

Another intriguing idea, which was not fleshed out in the detail it deserved was the idea that the capacity for human-like language evolved only once: in the dance-like language of bees and moths. The Neanderthal species using various eugenic experiments managed to breed this capability into themselves, causing a new species to emerge which had the modern human capacity for language. This new species more adaptive than the Neanderthals, proceeded to eliminate their progenitors from the map.

The same kind of ideas and themes pursued in this book was also explored in "The Calcutta Chromosome" by Amitav Ghosh. That book was less obvious in construction and (to its detriment) more opaque as well.

Some interesting books mentioned in this novel were: "Partner of Nature" by Luther Burbank, and a book about the Silk Route called "To the Ends of the Earth" which was mentioned without authorship. I could not determine exactly which book this might be based on although I only did a quick library search.

%T The Silk Code
%A Paul Levinson
%I Tom Doherty Associates
%D 1999
%G ISBN: 0312868235 (hc)
%P 319
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/11/21

Posted by anoop at 01:48 AM

Evil Water and other stories by Ian Watson

This collection of short stories starts off with an exploration of superstition and rational thought in `Cold Light'. At a time when faith seems to have deserted the Church of England, John Ingolby, the Bishop of Porchester, has published his life's work: Religion and the History of Lighting in which he compares the changes in theological thinking over the ages with the improvements in lighting technology. An excellent premise with a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion.

`When the Timegate Failed' is an interesting time-travel story with deviant alien sex as an added bonus. In `The Great Atlantic Swimming Race' Ian Watson tries his hand at satire but fails, in my opinion.

`The Wire Around the War' and `When Idaho Dived' are examples of manically bad writing inspired by the general malaise of the Cold War. `On the Dream Channel Panel' is an engaging tale of time-travel which begins with advertisements for products from the far future being beamed into the dreams of a few people. `The People on the Precipice' is a strange spoof (or is it satire) of the novel "Flatland" by Edwin A. Abbot. `Skin Day, and After' presents a weird and unlikely future; characters wear leopard-skin pillbox hats in this one (too much Dylan on the old hi-fi?).

`Windows' is a real gem; an interesting take on the mysterious alien artifact story. The last story `Evil Water' is a weak horror/fantasy story which is surprisingly used as the title of the book when there are stronger stories that exist in this collection.

Except for `Cold Light', `When the Timegate Failed', `On the Dream Channel Panel', `Windows' and `Evil Water' the stories have dated considerably since their original publication.

%T Evil Water
%T :and other stories
%A Ian Watson
%I Grafton Books
%D 1987
%G ISBN: 05860201939 (pb)
%P 222
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/11/02

Posted by anoop at 01:41 AM

June 15, 2005

The Embedding by Ian Watson

A true classic, published in the 1970s, the writing is still fresh and the plot has not dated at all. This is a remarkable first novel in the long and distinguished career of Ian Watson.

This is one of a handful of sf novels that bases its speculations on the scientific study of human language, and it well might be the best of the bunch. Ian Watson takes the assumption that the internal structures of human languages reflects the human ability to observe and explain the physical universe while at the same time he is sensitive to the notion of an specific computational mechanism in the brain that guides first language acquisition. The "Embedding" of the title is a reference to a particular aspect of this computational mechanism.

The protagonist of "The Embedding", Chris Sole, works in a British linguistics research facility where they conduct experiments (which would be illegal in a contemporary setting) on young children, altering their reality by isolating them in strange environments and altering their brains with drugs, evaluating the change in the linguistic structures they produce. Another thread of this novel follows the French anthropologist Pierre Darriand who lives with a tribe deep in the Amazonian forest called the Xemahoa, who distort their reality with ritual drug-taking and who produce, in a way similar to the children in the lab, highly embedded linguistic structures. There is a third thread about aliens who arrive on Earth hoping to trade some of their advanced knowledge for the knowledge collected by Earth linguists: a great premise although somewhat less compelling in execution.

The "Embedding" is a property of recursive rule systems used by linguists to describe certain aspects of natural language. Take, for example, the following noun phrase:

the shares that the broker recommended which were bought

Let's denote the noun phrase the broker by the abstract symbol N1 and the associated verb phrase for it recommended gets the symbol V1. Similarly, the shares is called N2 and were bought is called V2:

N2 N1 V1 V2

We assume that we have to keep track of N2 (that is, we cannot discard it) until we see the verb associated with it, V2. This is called an embedding of size 2.

Convince yourself that in the following example, the embedding is of size 2 and not 3:

the mutual fund that had a 4-year term and the shares that the broker recommended which were bought
N3 V3 N2 N1 V1 V2

So can we make the embedding more complex? Here is another example where the embedding is of size 3:

the mutual fund containing the shares that the broker recommended which were bought that had a 4-year term
N3 N2 N1 V1 V2 V3

Can you construct or imagine accepting an example (in the language of your choice) with embedding of 4? How about 5? It is clear that humans have a definite limit on the number of center embeddings they can accept or produce. Ian Watson imagines a method that can modify brain structures to accept embeddings of increasing sizes that normal humans cannot process. Why is this interesting? Computationally a deeper embedding has implications for how certain kinds of recursive patterns can be processed, although going from there to the transcendence of human linguistic ability, including the perception of multiple spatial dimensions, is quite a stretch, and this is what Ian Watson speculates about in this novel.

The use of the Xemahoa's awareness of time is probably an allusion to the famous linguistic/anthropological "discoveries" about the tense system of Hopi. Another possible insider joke is the abduction of an Eskimo Innuit speaker as part of the plot towards the end of the novel (see "The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax" by Geoffrey Pullum).

Unlike previous attempts in science-fiction to deal with the connections between language, thought and perception (see, for example, "The Languages of Pao" by Jack Vance), Ian Watson plays with the various linguistic hypotheses on this topic in his fictional framework by introducing artificial means for changing the brain itself while simultaneously changing the reality experienced by a language learner.

However, the the overwhelming cynicism that pervades the book can get oppressive. This does not detract from the book and perhaps it is function of the time when this book was written. The constant berating of the Americans is one-sided and repetitive, imho. The new face of English Socialism in science-fiction, e.g. the output of authors like Ken MacLeod seem much gentler in comparison.

For a different take on this novel, read Pamela Sargent's Introduction to "The Embedding". Some other examples of linguistic speculations in sf novels are: "Native Tongue" by Suzette Haden Elgin' "The Languages of Pao" by Jack Vance and a critical survey of such sf novels in "Aliens and Linguists: Language Study and Science Fiction" by Walter M. Meyers.

Update : Mark Liberman has instituted the Trent Reznor Prize for Tricky Embedding, thanks to the following quote by Reznor from an interview:

"When I look at people that I would like to feel have been a mentor or an inspiring kind of archetype of what I'd love to see my career eventually be mentioned as a footnote for in the same paragraph, it would be, like, Bowie."

Here is a brief unraveling/analysis of the Reznor embedding:

When I look at people (with some characteristics) it would be Bowie (who fits those characteristics)
>> [NP people [RC1 that I feel have been a [NP mentor NP] or [NP archetype of [NP what I would love to see my career mentioned as a footnote for (archetype) or in the same paragraph as (archetype) NP] NP] RC1] NP] <<

NP = noun phrase
RCn = relative clause of embedding n
A1 = the argument of mentioned

%T The Embedding
%A Ian Watson
%I New York: Carroll and Graf Publishing Inc.
%D 1973
%G ISBN: 088184554X (pb)
%P 217
%K science-fiction

Posted by anoop at 02:31 PM

Aggressor Six by Wil McCarthy

The concept of first contact with an alien species leading to military conflict is now a hackneyed theme in sf. Each sub-genre from military space operatic sf to hard sf have tackled this issue and it is rare that anything new can be said about this topic.

This book does however manage to say something new about the topic. The only certainty about first contact with some intelligent alien species is that they will be absolutely incomprehensible. Wil McCarthy tries to convey such a notion of absolute misunderstanding between two entirely separately evolved intelligent species.

The plot is about the first contact of humans with the Waisters, so named because they are presumed to come from a star in the waist of Orion. The Waisters have been destroying human colonies in stars like Lalande near the Solar System, and are predicted to reach the Sol system in six months. As one last ditch attempt at strategy, the humans organize six people with varying backgrounds into a think tank called Aggressor Six. In order to predict what the Waisters will do, these six humans are to change themselves, talking in the Waister language, organizing themselves in their social structure, in effect to become Waisters themselves.

The alien biology is worked out and at times is interesting but overall remains predictably hive-like. The alien language is more disappointing, only simple clauses are used and no interesting linguistic tricks were exploited.

The book is a quick enjoyable read. The plot and the description of the space battles combined military space opera with a hard sf backbone pretty effectively.

%T Aggressor Six
%A Wil McCarthy
%I Roc, Penguin Books
%D 1994
%G ISBN: 0451454057 (pb)
%P 248
%K science-fiction

Review written: 2000/10/15

Posted by anoop at 01:34 PM