August 16, 2005

Arslan by M. J. Engh

But driving west on Illinois 460, he had received the answer. Nizam had caught up with him, bringing the confirmation that he could accept from no one else: Moscow was docile, Washington was well in hand; those generals who had shown themselves uncooperative had been rendered harmless. For the first time (perhaps the last), Muzaffer Arslan Khan knew himself to be the master of the world. The place where he found himself became the universe's center.

The premise is this: Arslan is a young general, half-Uighur and half-Uzbek, the leader of his country (Turkistan: a fictional creation of Engh's based on the existing ethic groups in Central Asia). By sheer strategic brilliance, Arslan manages to conquer the entire world (a world that is not too different from the one that existed in 1976).

As the novel begins, Arlsan sets up his headquarters in a small town called Kraftsville in Illinois. The takeover of the town is efficient and without much resistance. There are atrocities, however, conducted by Arslan personally. Surely he must be a monster to casually perform public acts of rape and pederasty. This is the question that Franklin Bond asks himself. He is the principal of the local school and the only authority figure in Kraftsville recognized as such by Arslan. The blurb on the book excerpted from the New York Times review of the book summarizes the reader's emotions on reading this book: `Engh creates a truly shocking situation, introduces a monstrous character, and then refuses to satisfy any of the emotions he has aroused ... Engh's performance is as perversely flawless as Arslan's.'

The first act of the novel is narrated by Franklin Bond which lays out the cruel efficiency of Arslan's command. There are very subtle allusions to all the major perpetrators of war crimes: Chinggis Khan (an obvious one given Arslan's ethnicity) but also Alexander of Macedon, Napoleon and Hitler.

The narration then shifts to the voice of Hunt Morgan. Hunt is introduced early as a young boy, kept by Arslan as a catamite. He grows into the role of his lover, and then simply a consort. As a consort, he narrates his emotions and his experiences with Arslan as he journeys away from Kraftsville. The voice of Hunt is one so earnestly literate, as one who has learnt everything vicariously through reading, even though his own experiences rival anything in those books.

A science-fiction novel that hasn't dated in 25 years is one that deserves an automatic recommendation. But, even without that, there is much to admire in this masterful work in an otherwise barren genre of military/political SF.

There is a distinct philosophy that pervades this book. While it is difficult to articulate (that's why it needs a novel) it seems to me to be at times overwhelmingly nihilistic while at others it is profoundly humanistic. Whatever you might think of these contradictory philosophical attitudes, the viewpoints are so unique and presented with such command over the prose itself that it is a treat to ponder the motivations behind the actions of the men in this book (despite being written by a woman, there are no major characters in this novel who are women).

Kudos credits to M. Dras for recommending and lending me his copy of this novel.

%T Arslan %A M. J. Engh %I Tom Doherty Associates %D 1976 %D :reprint edition 2001 %G ISBN: 0312879105 (pb) %P 296 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/07/15

Posted by anoop at 10:40 PM

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the- atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

Therefore, there was mystery about him.

Hail Zelazny. Binder of genres, both fantasy and hard-sf, and Lord of unsentimental fantastic prose.

This novel is an sf classic in every sense. It was published in 1967 and reading it now (I read it again in 2001) it has not dated at all. An rare feat for a science-fiction novel. It is also a very rare case of the use of Eastern religious thought that is used appropriately (to my taste) and to great effect in a fantastic novel. If possible, before reading this book, you should read a popular retelling of the "Mahabharata", like for example, the one written by R. K. Narayan.

The story is set in a far future, in a colony world far from Earth, and where Earth and all in it is all but forgotten by the colony's inhabitants. They live in a medieval state, and any sign of technological progress is quickly squashed by a pantheon of living gods. The gods themselves were human once. They were some of the first colonists to this world, and after the use of many technological advancements on their bodies have attained godhood. They have taken upon themselves the attributes of the Hindu pantheon to rule over the world. This tyranny has continued for centuries, until one of the First takes up a quest to destroy their power. Taking his cues from Earth's long lost history, he takes on the attributes of the Buddha, and begins a revolution against the Gods.

As the novel begins, Yama, the death god and a famous inventor, has managed to bring back Sam from his eternal exile. Sam, or as he was called: Maitreya, the Lord of Light, was defeated by the Gods and condemned to eternal purgatory. Now he can try once again to break the hold of the Gods on the future of the planet.

This novel is truly a remarkable achievement. The writing is fluid and is not enslaved to the style of any sub-genre of science fiction. Despite the fact that most of the novel takes place in a flashback to earlier episodes, there are still many surprises lurking in the plot. Zelazny also has a curious style of writing about furious action scenes, as if they are being played for you in slow motion in a blur.

Vishnu Vishnu Vishnu regarded regarded regarded Brahma Brahma Brahma...

They sat in the hall of mirrors...

Brahma held forth upon the Eightfold Path and the glory that is Nirvana.

After a space of three cigarettes, Vishnu cleared his throat.

``Yes, Lord?'' asked Brahma.

``Why, may I inquire, this Buddhist tract?''

`Do you not find it fascinating?''

``Not particularly.''

``That is indeed hypocritical of you.''

%T Lord of Light %A Roger Zelazny %I Avon Books %D 1967 %D :reprint edition 2000 %G ISBN: 0380014033 (pb) %P 279 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/07/01

Posted by anoop at 10:24 PM

August 12, 2005

Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers by Harry Harrison

``That's it!'' Jerry exulted, smashing his fist into his palm and wincing. ``That's it! Don't you see what that means? For the very first time in the eons-old history of the universe the civilized, intelligent races are banding together against evil, to combat it wherever it is found. A band of brothers, fighting together, dedicated to the pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity.''

``I wouldn't exactly phrase it that way,'' Lord Prrsi commented. ``I would rather say we are fighting for the maintenance of the class system and the continuancy of special privileges for the few.''

Harry Harrison is well known for his sf parodies like the Stainless Steel Rat series and Bill the Galactic Hero. In this book, he manages to provide a concise and comprehensive send-up of all the space opera tropes with particular attention to the military sf sub-genre.

The two heroes of this novel are `tall, dark haired, broad shouldered Jerry Courteney, handsome as a Greek god', a rugged frontiersman and `topnotch engineer' and his friend Chuck van Chider, `a blond giant of a man with arms as thick a strong man's legs', a mathematical genius, financial wizard and a great football player. Sally Goodfellow is the object of their often distracted attentions, a blonde bombshell and all-around American girl. While experimenting with their home-made particle accelerator in their shed, Chuck and Jerry discover the secret of instantaneous travel to anywhere in the universe. The only catch is that they cannot control where they end up. They scour the universe in the hope of getting back to Earth.

After dealing with a Russian spy, bloodsucking Titanians and the flesh-devouring Garnishee they team up with Lord Prssi and the mighty Slug-Togath of Proxima Centauri to form an alliance against the invisible Lortonoi who cannot be dissuaded from their evil plan to subjugate the entire galaxy. Now the intrepid team, calling themselves the Galaxy Rangers, search for the ultimate weapon ever known to exist: Krakar!

To its credit, since writing a parody is quite a task, the novel is short and contains some of the most trenchant satire about space operas ever written. Other writers of sf parody like Roger Zelazny and Douglas Adams are far more good-humored about the genre than this book. If you have ever despaired at the unending list of military sf in your local bookstore, this is the book that extracts your revenge for you.

%T Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers %A Harry Harrison %I Ace Science Fiction %D 1973 %G ISBN: 0441783619 (pb) %P 190 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/06/20

Posted by anoop at 02:27 AM

The Advent of the Algorithm by David Berlinski

Just in front of the lacy white arboretum the roadway acquires an aneurysm to accomodate a variety of side streets bent ultimately on obliterating themselves by anastomosis.

This is a real quote from this book taken from one of the numerous fictional interludes that are littered throughout this book usually with the author as the protagonist. An idea no doubt borne from the boredom of his editor or his agent (both of whom appear in one of these stories). A review written by Martin Davis succintly describes the experience of reading through this book:

``Overheard in the Park'': A review of The Advent of the Algorithm

This review is presented in the form of an imaginary conversation among three contemporaries of Galileo. Over the course of the conversation, the reviewer's (mostly unfavorable) opinions about the book are revealed. For example, one of the three speakers says: ``Although there is much of great interest in this book, not everyone will be attracted by the interspersed, apparently irrelevant fictions, and I personally was upset by carelessness with the history.''

Martin Davis, American Scientist, July/August 2000, pages 366-367

There is one particular set of ideas that is presented particularly well in this book. The thread that connects Cantor's diagonal argument to Gödel's incompleteness theorem and Turing's recursive unsolvability is presented in a way that those who were not familiar with these concepts before are likely to grasp these difficult concepts and their relation to each other. The related concepts of Hilbert's ambitious program and Frege's logical foundations based on set theory and the subsequent paradox discovered by Russell are covered in respectable detail but might not be as accessible to the novice reader. It isn't clear why most of this discussion, along with a discussion of Peano's axioms and the writings of Leibniz even belongs in this book.

As you try and finish this book you realize that it is a cleverly disguised rant against several positions posing as a popular science book. One would think the notion of recursive functions that arose in logic combined with Turing's work on computability and their relationship to computing machinery itself would be of interest, but not for Berlinski who says, ``this story is itself rather dull'' and moves on inexplicably to describe the differential calculus.

If you feel obliged to read this book because there is little else out there on this topic, stop reading after Chapter 11 -- there are a few glimmers of information beyond this point pasted together incoherently, notably about simulations, Shannon's information theory, neural networks and sticker-based DNA computing, but you will have to wade through paragraphs of rants about big questions with little or no relevance to algorithms. You will learn nothing except that fruity prose can raise your blood pressure.

Berlinski keeps harping on the fact that implementations of Turing machines have access only to finite resources, while humans can deal with infinite representations. Of all the arguments against the strong AI position this is the most ludicrous -- computers are routinely programmed with infinite lists and context-free grammars which deal with infinity just fine. Berlinski, of course, mentions other arguments such as the Penrose `proof' and the anthropic principle as well to bolster his position against the use of the algorithm (or all of physics for that matter) to explain anything.

He also manages to squeeze into one of his many rants later in the book the famous argument of intelligent design by William Paley. You might at this point ask yourself, `Why am I reading about the so-called fallacies of the theories of natural selection in a book that advertises itself to be about algorithms?' Ignoring your pleas, Berlinski rants on, obliterating himself by anastomosis ...

There are many things to hate about this book, but by far the worst is the feeling of intense irritation that an author of this calibre would keep quoting Borges to serve his ends. At one point in this book, the author pointlessly takes a jibe at "Gödel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hofstader. That book might have been more fluffy than this one but at least it hung together and made some sense. Two things I cannot claim about this book.

%T The Advent of the Algorithm %T :The 300 Year Journey from an Idea to the Computer %A David Berlinski %I Harcourt, Inc. %D 2000 %G ISBN: 0156013916 (pb) %P 345 %K science, math, computer-science

Review written: 2001/06/14

Posted by anoop at 02:23 AM

August 07, 2005

Inversions by Iain M. Banks

The only sin is selfishness. So said the good Doctor. When she first expressed this opinion I was young enough initially to be puzzled and then to be impressed at what I took to be her profundity.

It was only later, in my middle age, when she was long gone from us, that I began to suspect that the opposite is just as true.

Iain M. Banks' latest return to the Culture series is one for the initiates. After you've read through the other books about the Culture, you can enjoy this one as a quiet, thoughtful rejoinder to the themes that Banks has explored in his earlier books. As can be seen from the quote above, it is filled with overt philosophy in places quite unlike Banks' usual style.

The writing style and the play on form, where the narrators cannot be trusted to provide the truth, is a strong reminder of the style developed by Gene Wolfe. The notion that this novel is even set in the same universe as the other Culture series is gradually revealed to the reader, of course, only if that reader has read the other Culture books and remembers their tropes.

The plot of the novel is told in two threads, one where the protagonist is a Doctor in the service of a King and the other where the hero is a bodyguard to a regicidal Protector General. The planet is never named, because it might as well be the whole universe in this book. These two kingdoms exist among other small kingdoms, republics and protectorates all of which were created when the great Empire collapsed because of catastrophic asteroid impacts on the planet. The setting is medieval as is befitting space opera, but there is not a single spaceship in the entire novel, except perhaps in the mind of the knowledgeable reader.

These two stories subtly interact and the characters have a history which is revealed in a gradual manner. Although I suspect a second reading of the book might procure some additional insights into the themes behind the plot.

This book is definitely not for someone looking for a good old space opera fix.

%T Inversions %A Iain M. Banks %I Orbit %D 1998 %G ISBN: 1857236262 (pb) %P 345 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/06/02

Posted by anoop at 09:37 PM

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge

The Qeng Ho are a group of traders and investors -- humans in the far future -- larger than any civilization they are a decentralized commercial entity that operates in a vast region of space near the galaxy rim. They trade with several civilizations (or as they call them: Customers). The human colonies established in the deep past, have each had cycles of technological progress, with an eventual regression into medieval societies. Sometimes such colonies bounce back and create new technologies. And the Qeng Ho usually reappear to trade with them.

One such recovering human colony is the Emergency. The Emergents have recovered from their regression and bounced back to form a strong space-faring empire. They seem to be efficient beyond their technological reach, and are secretive about their powers.

Now, from a planet orbiting the mysterious OnOff star in the Emergent neighbourhood, there is a transmission from a civilization that has just disovered radio waves. It is the first contact with a non-human sentience. Both the Qeng Ho and the Emergents dispatch a fleet of spaceships to make contact -- and to establish a monopoly on the trading of new technologies, biological or otherwise from this planet. While both sides try to reach the OnOff system first, there is another complication: the OnOff star has a strange cycle where it is completely dark for 250 years followed by a lighting and Sun-like brightness for the next 60 or so years. During the dark unlit period, all life on the planet has evolved to hiberate deep within the crust of the planet. Each species has its own form of deepness. The Qeng Ho and the Emergents settle into orbit around the OnOff star during its off period, awaiting the next cycle of light, when they can establish contact with the aliens.

The aliens are morphologically similar to spiders, they have a carapace but have six legs instead of a spidery eight. While the Qeng Ho and the Emergents maneuver around each other waiting out the 250 years of the dark, they consistently underestimate about how alien the `Spiders' actually are. They have nation states and leaders, science and technology, but they are still not human -- and in the end, that was makes every plan any of the humans make effectively obsolete.

Early incidents in the novel cause the the Emergents and the Qeng Ho to be thrown together. Tomas Nau, Ritser Brughel and Anne Reynolt of the Emergents have to deal with the Qeng Ho including Pham Trinli, the Programmer-At-Arms, Ezr Vinh, a manager, Qiwi Lisolet, the engineer and Trixia Bonsol, the linguist. In parallel, the story of the `Spiders' unfolds. Sherkaner Underhill is the main character of these stories. He is an eager scientist and inventor and manages to convince his colleagues like Victory Smith and Hrunkner Unnerby to join him in his plans to conquer the darkness of the Sun.

Vinge shows us the aliens through the sympathetic human eyes of Trixia Bonsol through most of the novel (she is responsible for the names given to each `Spider' character), but strips away the anthropomorphic descriptions towards the end of the novel. In terms of world building, the classics are books like "Mission of Gravity" by Hal Clement, "Dune" by Frank Herbert, "Neutron Star" and "The Integral Trees" by Larry Niven and "Flux" by Stephen Baxter. "A Deepness in the Sky" can easily hold its own in this illustrious company.

Science fiction, and space opera in particular, has always been about the vast sweep of space, time and future history. The genre is often about great technological and social changes that occur over immense lengths of time and the detailed construction of a truly alien world. Vernor Vinge captures this notion perfectly in this novel. The length of this novel helps in this regard, but to Vernor Vinge's credit, I cannot point to a single chapter in this novel and claim that it was superfluous. The novel has the rare distinction of being no shorter than it had to be, while being 800 pages long.

It is a novel of first contact, but it is also about the scientific method and how it can lead to and triumph over technological superiority. Along with "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks, this book is one of the best space opera novels from the 1990s that I've read. Vinge brings to the genre a particular hard-sf sensibility that is unique and quite difficult to pull off -- space opera without superluminal travel has been done before but usually unsuccessfully. Vinge manages to retain the medieval trappings of space opera while remaining loyal to the hard-sf tradition.

"A Deepness in the Sky" is a prequel of sorts to Vernor Vinge's earlier book "A Fire Upon the Deep". Set 10,000 years in the past from the events in the earlier book, there is nothing about the plot that is shared between the books. The notion of `deep' is not even the same. But, we do get to see at first hand the exploits of Pham Nuwen and the Qeng Ho.

Both books feature Pham Nuwen but those familiar with "A Fire Upon the Deep" will know that during the events in that book, Pham Nuwen was reconstructed by a sentient virus of sorts and there was some doubt about his authenticity. This novel contains his real story. A story that occurs in the twilight of his career -- but one which contains the defining moment of his character.

Vinge has a weakness for the unredeemable villain. In his earlier "A Fire Upon the Deep" as well as in this novel, he has a character who is, regardless of whether you believe in a particular philosophy, absolutely evil. As such, this is one aspect of the space opera genre that Vinge retains faithfully in his novels. Unlike Iain M. Banks, Vinge does not analyze the source of the evil. But, on the other hand, the swashbuckling hero character of the space opera genre does not remain in the traditional form. In this novel, there are many heroes, both male and female, one is young and heroic, one is a wild-eyed inventor, one is a weary prisoner-of-war and one is a very old hacker with a Napoleon complex. Some of these heroes are not even human.

Vernor Vinge does have a day job as a professor of computer science. As a result he pays careful attention to the details of the computing machinery of the various civilizations in this novel. While many sf authors use nanotechnology as a magical device, Vinge uses it as a powerful distributed network and computing device. He also invents a novel method of maintaining and composing software that is used by the Emergents (because in the future, there is so much code that all the effort is in putting them together and fixing bugs, rather than writing new code). The Emergents software development process can be thought of as a perversion of the common free software sentiment: "a thousand eyes make all bugs shallow".

Perhaps for reasons of continuity with "A Fire Upon the Deep", Vinge still has Bussard-style ramjets in this novel. There is some skepticism that they can ever be technically feasible (see "Entering Space" by Robert Zubrin) although a detailed technical discussion is probably beside the point here.

%T A Deepness in the Sky %A Vernor Vinge %I Tor Books %D 1999 %G ISBN: 0812536355 (pb) %P 774 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/05/30

Posted by anoop at 09:32 PM

Distraction by Bruce Sterling

It's 2044, an election year, and Oscar Valparaiso is the campaign manager who has just gotten his candidate for the Senate, Alcott Bambakias, elected from his Boston constituency. America has become Balkanized -- Louisiana is almost an independent country and some states have burned to the ground and the northeast is mostly flooded. There is roughly 50% unemployment, but everybody is much happier and contented than you would think because you don't need a job to eat anymore due to cheap biotech.

Oscar's next task is to conduct an impromptu review of a large national research lab in Buna, Texas specializing in biotech and neuroscience. Oscar doesn't sleep a lot (because of his `condition') and plots all day and night to create the next big social hack which will engage him and his constantly changing krewe. Along with his new partner, Dr. Greta Penninger, who is a Nobel prize winning neuroscientist and cognitive scientist, Oscar will try and take over this research lab. He risks everything in this maneuver because the Governor of Louisiana thinks of the Buna lab as his own (federally funded) private investment into cognitive technology -- and he is just getting some returns on his investment.

Bruce Sterling does his research. He carefully picks out trendy scientific tidbits and fills his novels with so many ideas that regardless of the overarching plot structure, it is always an interesting read. For me, the details and the atmosphere in a Bruce Sterling book are always far more compelling than the overall experience of the plot. A good example from this novel is the description of a May 1 riot which takes the form of a raid on a bank in Worcester, MA. The `riot' is planned in a completely distributed fashion by people who have never met each other, coordinated by a mysterious computational network of mutual assent by the players.

One of the protagonists, Greta Penninger, uses her neuroscience skills to fashion a watch made out of the circadian neural cells from a rat -- a watch which needs to be fed occasionally and which defecates trace amounts of liquid. The main protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso is a human clone created using massive genetic manipulation which removed most of the introns in his genes, and is constantly treated as a Frankensteinian freak.

High tech weapons, self-organizing architecture which builds houses using unskilled humans, unmanned drones, cute French submarines and viral software populates this book. The coastlines have risen considerably because of global warming and America is in it's second Cold War, this time with Holland. Only Bruce Sterling can take the famous bumper sticker: "Wouldn't it be great if schools had all the money they need, and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale for a new bomber" and make it a reality in his book. It's all pretty cool.

Unfortunately, for someone who tries so hard to say ahead of the curve, in one area Bruce Sterling is clearly behind the times: he is obsessed with countries as objects beyond their actual role in any imagined future (or present for that matter). Bruce Sterling's statements in this book are almost exclusively about nation states like America, Holland or France and their internal structures. Nowhere in the book does Bruce Sterling acknowledge that a high tech research lab (even now, and presumably even more so in his future) are extremely international in their nature. Research labs are filled with people who are citizens from many countries and collaboration in research occurs across national boundaries all the time. Despite Bruce Sterling's professed goal to capture the inner working of a national research lab he never touches on this basic point. The characters in the lab and the Washington bureaucrats are all Bruce Sterling with differing skin color -- clearly American. Bruce Sterling tries and fails to create the authentic atmosphere in a big national research lab.

Also completely implausible is the scenario that the Chinese could completely wreck the American economy by simply giving away all American software for free on the internet. Economies and war machines are too closely tied together for that to happen in a non-violent fashion which is how Bruce Sterling depicts it.

It's a far cry from his Schismatrix series and his excellent short stories -- the details of Bruce Sterling's future have gotten much more detailed, but the characters have shed a dimension or two. Still on balance "Distraction" remains a rewarding read.

%T Distraction %A Bruce Sterling %I Bantam Books %D 1998 %G ISBN: 0553576399 (pb) %P 532 %K science-fiction

Review written: 2001/05/30

Posted by anoop at 09:23 PM

August 02, 2005

Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson

DysonWeb.jpg
© Image from http://www.sns.ias.edu/~dyson.

This book is a revised version of the Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland by Freeman Dyson in April-November 1985. The original title of the lectures was `In Praise of Diversity'. Dyson changed the title for this book to a vague description of the content. The content itself ranges in nature so greatly from chapter to chapter that no succinct description seems possible. Some of lectures that were actually delivered by Dyson do not appear in this book. Those lectures were published separately as a book called "The Origin of Life".

The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be about `Natural Theology'. Usually, when famous scientists lecture about religion they turn into babbling idiots. Dyson avoids this fate by not saying much about religion at all. He offers his view of scientific humanism which is a plea for civility rather than an offer to mediate between the issues usually raised between the firmly religious and the firmly scientific. There is a lot of nonsense that goes on at this frontier and Dyson does not say much to address this. He is clearly not interested in spending a whole lecture series on this topic.

He quickly departs on an episodic guide to the scientific answers to cosmology and the origin of life. It is interesting that this kind of science has chipped away at the authority with which religious thinking usually answers such questions. Dyson spends some time discussing the invention of DNA (invented by whom? RNA, it turns out according to the generally accepted theories). He talks of the theories of Alexander Oparin ('The Origin of Life on Earth', 1924) and Manfred Eigen ('Steps Towards Life : A Perspective on Evolution'). Dyson also spends time talking about his own particular theory of the dual origin of life. All of this is pretty much outdated since the publication of this book and if you wish to follow up on this topic there are several new books that might be better to read (e.g. R. F. Gesteland and J. F. Atkins (eds) (1993). The RNA World. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, New York.) Dyson also gives Schrödinger a lot of unwarranted credit for the idea of DNA and the theories of the origin of life. Read "Genome" by Matt Ridley for a different picture of the history behind Schrödinger's involvement in the discovery of DNA.

Dyson tries to do many things in this book. One of them is to try and predict the future. He predicts the rise of biotechnology, space science and artificial intelligence. I guess one out of three isn't bad. This notion of predicting the future also intersects with the uncertainty at the time caused by the Cold War. Many chapters are devoted to the burning issues of the day. With the fall of the Soviet Union, these concerns have vanished even though nuclear weapons remain with us in greater numbers than in the 80s. Dyson hopes that nuclear weapons might become the target of planned obsolescence just as carts were replaced by camel caravans in the Middle East and guns by swords in feudal Japan. No such future has occured. He does not dwell on the disturbing question of what could nuclear weapons obsolete?

Dyson also spends a lot of time on the notion of technology and offers several `green' ways of producing power, for example, which would fit right in with modern green power movements which emphasize clean self-sufficient power for small communities over large and dirty power grids.

Every avid reader of science fiction must read this book. In the course of his view of the future based on science, Dyson picks out the speculative writing of many famous scientists especially from late in the 19th and early in the 20th century. Their ideas seem shockingly contemporary when compared to several current sf ideas. Notable mentions are:

  • Excerpts from "Dreams of Earth and Sky" by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky which feature animal-plants that inhabit a zero-gravity and zero-pressure environment with specialized adaptations including chemical solar panels that are span several thousand square meters.
  • Dyson's own space science program that he calls AstroChicken. A speculative vision of planetary science conducted by a small 1 kg `caterpillar' probe that is launched cheaply from the Earth which exploits ideas from biotechnology to grow into a large `butterfly' with solar sails for wings. Biotechnology also permits the butterfly to `eat' resources from various sources to produce chemical rocket propulsion inspired by the Bombardier beetle. It would also be artificially intelligent and would be able to get itself by using planetary gravity in slingshot maneuvers to the outer Solar Sytem.
  • Excerpts from the book "Daedalus" by J. B. S. Haldane written in 1924 which predict the rise of genetic engineering in the 1940s. Changes wrought by this technology actually changing the face of the planet Earth ('the sea assumed the intense purple colour that seems so natural to us').

Dyson uses these examples and others to compare and contrast the use of `big' science as epitomized by the Space Shuttle and small, cheap and often repeated science such as the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) which is controlled by one console at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. For more passionate arguments against 'big' science in space, see "Entering Space" by Robert Zubrin.

In the final chapter, Dyson realizes that he hasn't said much about science and religion and proceeds to give an admirably short summary of the main philosophical problems in this area and proceeds to quickly impugn himself by calling the Anthropic principle 'illuminating' (for another point of view, see "The Night is Large" by Martin Gardner) and then further sullying himself by calling free will a manifestation of quantum mechanics (sharing this rickety stage with Penrose, Dyson does not even acknowledge the many critics of this position).

In these lectures, Dyson manages to talk about the many things that he has spent time thinking about. The end result is more interesting than coherent. The balance in this equation is where it should be.

%T Infinite in All Directions %T :Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland (April-November 1985) %A Freeman Dyson %I New York: Harper and Row %D 1988 %G ISBN: 0060390816 (pb) %P 319 %K science, politics, religion

Review written: 2001/04/11

Posted by anoop at 02:57 PM